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October 23, 2021

By Yeabsera Semere Mengistu

This past month I found myself constantly conflicted between my mind and my heart. Stepping into my work place, filled with colleagues – specifically educators –  and students ranging from grades 6 through 12, I found myself lost frequently. I would overhear conversations between my students and coworkers, about the stress that they consistently endured. Most of it coming from my fellow Women of the Black diaspora, who seemed to struggle to keep themselves afloat. While trying to persevere in the systematically oppressive white dominated field of education and higher learning, we would always find ourselves sinking to the bottom. Whether it be external problems that distract us – such as personal and familial responsibilities – or internal conflicts that affect us more directly at our place of work and learning; almost all of us were on the same boat, and we were drowning.

“How do you do it?” One of my students asked while we reflected on our shared experiences of being the only child in our home. My student, Jelissa, a rising senior, found herself constantly worrying about the image she was portraying to others, whether it be her classmates, teachers, or family members. I always find myself responding almost immediately with a firm “ I don’t know”. Because truthfully, I do not know. I do not know how I can work, and play, and much less live when I am constantly trying to heal.

My conversations with Jelissa, I often would describe, are always hidden gems. I learn so much from her as she reminds me of who I am trying to be. She is a carefree, Haitain-American Woman, who often finds herself limited by others because of her identity. One thing that linked us was our dire need to fully express ourselves. 

“When I come into school Miss” she would start to say, “I feel like I have to switch into a persona, to forget about the issues I am dealing with at home or else I’ll think about it all day”. I would nod in agreement, thinking about the same persona I would have to turn on myself, as I walked into my place of work.

“It’s a temporary fix though, is that healthy?” She would ask.

“I don’t know,” I simply replied.

But I do know. I know that what Jelissa and I do everyday when we walk into our school building is that we disassociate from our issues. We neglect our internal and external crises, and disassociate from them. And in turn we turn on a persona in order for us to make it through our day. It isn’t exactly unhealthy, but it isn’t healthy either. It is how we have decided to cope.  

Coming from a single child household, Jelissa and I would constantly find ourselves under the microscope from our teachers, peers, and families. Because our families are so protective of us, they cross boundaries and oftentimes limit us from being able to be ourselves.

We would be constantly critiqued — from the way we chose to dress, the words we chose to say, and the way we decided to carry ourselves. Another pivotal point for us, is that we share a bond in how we heal our trauma – by pretending it isn’t there. 

It goes without saying that Jelissa and I aren’t the only ones in my community who decided to heal this way. I say this as I reflect back to so many conversations with my coworkers that go the same way. Specifically my dear friend Shaniqua Choice, who has been a Black Woman Educator for over five years  She explained that as an educator all she can do is be an ally for her students, expressing that her students see her as “one of them, so they can trust me. They can trust my classroom” (Choice 2020). Choice should be applauded for the way that she opens up the conversation of healing in her classroom. Primarily because until recently classrooms in the United States haven’t been the safest place for BIPOC students for decades.

I think back to some of my research in undergrad, where I reflected on how the education system in the United States wasn’t meant to provide a safe healing space for BIPOC Women and Girls specifically.  I think back to some of my past research on this subject, and offered up the discussion of the “Let Her Learn” campaign. This campaign was popularized by the National Women’s Law Center after numerous cases were filed against primary and secondary schools for over disciplining young Black Girls in the classroom. With classrooms all around the world being asked to reflect on their treatment of BIPOC Women and Girls, I can only imagine how many more people are having conversations similar to mine and Jelissa’s.

Everytime I find myself circling back to this topic with Jelissa, we would find ourselves at a standstill, trying to understand and essentially negotiate with our trauma.

“I think my anxiety comes from my relationship with my mother. ” I shared with her one day, “No, not I think, I know that my anxiety comes from my relationship with my mother”.

“How are you sure Miss?” She asked.

“I don’t know,” I shared, speaking from my heart. My heart at times finds itself divided from its duty to love and protect my family, as well as heal and nurture itself. This leaves my heart at constant crossroads, because it is unsure of when it is receiving love and when it is receiving pain. This same heart holds itself to such a high standard, primarily because it mirrors the same standard my mother holds me to. My mother, who was unable to finish her undergraduate degree to focus her attention on raising me, would constantly remind me that every decision I made had to be approved by her. Because of this, for 22 years of my life, I would constantly be critiquing myself in her voice. She would berate me for trying to deviate from the norm. 

My mother would remind me that, as a Chirstian Orthodox Ethiopian American Woman, I had standards to uphold, and in turn “a face to save”. She would remind me that I had to put a focus on my image and give me constant critiques about my appearance. From my 4a kinky curly hair, to the way my hips were widely shaped, my mom reminded me that I had to fix myself. She also pressured me to make social decisions that only she approved of. From cutting off friends who didn’t meet her standards, to having to relocate in order to be in her household, my mother wanted to be able to control me and my decisions. She did this, out of love of course, because she did not want to see me being unsuccessful with pursuing education like she did. However under her gaze, my heart would constantly be crushed because I could no longer live up to her expectations. My heart then would become divided, between loving her and fearing her.

My mind however, does know. My mind has recognized this type of artificial healing I have created for myself. By choosing to disassociate myself as a means to cope, my mind has consciously and subconsciously protected me from directly fighting back against this issue. My mind has created its own personal safe space, whether it be at work, at home, or on the go. My mind allows me to pull away from these issues so that I can carry on with my day. 

Which is why I find myself responding to Jelissa and saying “My relationship with my mother causes me anxiety because I have to constantly think about what she would want, over my own personal feelings, regardless of the circumstance”.

“So how are you able to manage that anxiety?”  Jelissa asked.

And I found myself pausing before answering truthfully, “By pretending it isn’t there.”




Jelissa Francois, student, CCSC 2022. Interviewed May 2021.

National Women’s Law Center. Let Her Learn:A toolkit to stop school pushout for girls of color. https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/final_nwlc_NOVO2016Toolkit.pdf

Shaniqua Choice, Faculty, Community Charter School of Cambridge. Interviewed December 2020. 

Yeabsera Semere Mengistu, Researcher & Staff Member, Community Charter School of Cambridge. 

 Yeabsera Semere Mengistu. To My Younger Self; A conversation about Black Women and Girls and the Crib-To-Prison Pipeline. American University Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology. 2020.

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Images credits:

Photography and art direction: Kitso Kgori
Styling and make-up: Cleo Le Flos
Masterpieces: Lafalaise Dion
Muse: Lafalaise Dion
Location: Cape Town

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