Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. George Bernard Shaw is credited with this quote. Creating your life takes courage, honesty, and hard work. Some do it quietly, with no one to applaud their journey. Others, by choice or a higher design, attract cheerleaders. Either way, life is about creating yourself. I think of it as an inside-out process of embracing a destination you are committed to and knowing without reservation your life’s energy is being well spent as you struggle with it. That targeted journey and envisioned destination for me was and is cultural proficiency.
My journey in creating myself didn’t start with even knowing the term cultural proficiency, so when I encountered it through the Cultural Proficiency publications, it was like shedding a beacon of light on a destination I had been trying to reach but didn’t have the vocabulary or framework – the tools – to define the parameters. Concepts fell into place around the four tools of the cultural proficiency framework. I found the continuum a tangible sliding scale that I could relate to. I discovered I had forms of discrimination lodged much deeper into my foundational belief system than I was even willing to admit before. The creating had to be recreating those deep culturally seated voices into a counter-narrative that read a lot differently than ignoring or blaming or confronting entrenched old patterns. Deep dialogs had to be wrestled with and recreated. That doubting, nagging, internal child voice telling me I should just quit had to be over-written: I am able; I can do this; I will do this; I am afraid and it’s okay if I fail.
I learned early there wasn’t automaticity to being a privileged white person; my mixed race kept that impossibility in the dominant culture’s mind’s eye. Only certain people held that entitled status. Eventually it was the micro-aggressions that sank into my psyche – those subtle, and many times – unconscious behaviors that let me know I wasn’t “as privileged” as my white counterparts. A culmination of being and witnessing started a fire burning down deep in my soul – anger at first, followed by a purposeful commitment to “doing something about it”.
Being born in Alaska in 1952, half Athabaskan Indian and half white, pitted me against racists attitudes and behaviors that were open and prevalent. Structural racialization kept most Alaska Native people in “their place” as resources were allotted elsewhere. I was led to believe I lacked the intellectual capacity to “make it” in higher education beyond high school. It wasn’t until I was a mother of three and almost thirty years old that I really started analyzing the life my children would inherit if I did nothing. That thought motivated me to make a positive difference for my children and others. So, I went to college, got a teaching degree, and taught twenty-five years in elementary education. Twenty of those years were in Title I schools. Along the way I lived through the death of a husband, raised our children, got remarried, earned a Master’s Degree, started the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School (ANCCS) in Anchorage, and have never stopped learning and working for equity: we are here; we do matter; we do have a valid voice; we are brilliant! A great Alaskan leader, Elmer Rasmussen, said, “One of Alaska’s most untapped resources is its Native people.” I believe it.
The impetus for me starting ANCCS was to create a place where Alaska Native students would feel alive. I wanted them to have a place where they were comfortable to laugh, play, learn, and grow. Some place I would’ve wanted to be as a kid. For eighteen years I watched the Native students in Anchorage public schools stay silent during discussions, to make a beeline for the exits when instruction ended, only to end up on the bottom strata of state testing results. I knew the system wasn’t seeing them; they were just passing through with disproportionate numbers being referred for special education and/or behavior problems. It took three years to get the ANCCS school up and operating, but it was well worth it. Today, one can hear different Native languages being spoken, students are chatty, laughter is heard, and students of many colors and faiths attend. The Muslim girls stated early on they love the school because their bukas don’t get pulled off. There’s no perfect place, but ANCCS is a good starting place, an example of being grown and developed with confidence, love, and possibility.
In my journey of recreating myself, I retired from teaching when I was approached by Southeast Regional Resource Center (SERRC) to work on the Alaska Cultural Standards. The state had adopted five standards, four of which teachers were to be evaluated on. However, there weren’t any indicators or descriptors for them, and I felt it was imperative that the cultural values and norms were incorporated in educational systems. Sometimes, mandating something is the only way it gets paid attention to! I spent the next three years working with a team of educators to develop, field test, and publish complete descriptions, indicators, and example evidences of teacher and student behaviors for each of the five cultural standards. Culture in the Classroom is the final published work and is gaining widespread use throughout the state of Alaska. It is rewarding and encouraging working with educators who truly do want to “meet the students where they are”, to learn culturally responsive practices, and to do the hard work around cultural proficiency. I believe the framework allows each person to find a place to identify their current status and to aspire to the principles and the standards of being culturally proficient.
The Tools of Cultural Proficiency have allowed me to gain perspective with actionable goals. I can present these to others, noting nothing but awareness can come from the first dabbles. Time, persistence and honesty can make a difference in a world screaming for tolerance, equity, and possibility. So what is inside-out work? How do you start a revival? With me! With you! So, don’t try to find yourself – recreate or create the self you would like to be. We can change the world one person at a time, starting with self. It’s possible and the framework lends itself to just that!