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← Language as the ultimate currency | Ashley Davis | TEDxBostonCollege

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Showing Revision 17 created 06/26/2019 by Rhonda Jacobs.

  1. Since elementary school,
    words have always turned me on -
  2. the affectionate sound of
  3. "move one more again,
    and I'm gonna pop you,"

  4. while getting my hair braided;
  5. the sultry way
    that "ladies love cool jams"
  6. rolls off the tongue when his music
    is introduced on the radio;
  7. the inspirational lessons detailing
    the literary devices of onomatopoeia
  8. and synecdoche in high school.
  9. For 29 years, words
    have been my very best friend.
  10. Since elementary school,
    words have always ostracized me -
  11. the envious eyes of my non-black friends
    as my black friends and I used jeers
  12. and culturally insensitive slurs
    to express our love for one another;
  13. the covert corners I found a home in
  14. as I chose poetry writing
    over lunch room gossip
  15. for most of my educational career;
  16. the demanding obligation I felt
    to withhold my feelings and questions
  17. out of fear that my white colleagues
    and white teachers
  18. would misinterpret my intention;
  19. the inevitable nature
    of hearing the "N" word
  20. in almost every single space
    I've ever encountered,
  21. regardless of the race of its occupants.
  22. For 29 years, words have
    been my most archenemy.
  23. The problem is clear.
  24. As a society, we take
    language for granted.
  25. The reason why this problem
    persists is even more crystal.
  26. People are really stupid.
  27. (Laughter)
  28. We assume, naively, that wealth
    is best measured by bills and coins,
  29. also assuming that any other form
    of currency is inferior,
  30. and thus, secondary.
  31. Kofi Annan, a great Guinean diplomat,
  32. once said that education is the
    great equalizer of our time.
  33. Now, again, Kofi is brilliant.
  34. He's amazing, so no shade to him.
  35. But with this one, Kofi was wrong.
  36. Words are more of a lever
    than education will ever be.
  37. We just don't give words a chance
    to do their thing often enough.
  38. Travel with me on a three-anecdote
    journey through my adulthood,
  39. and you'll soon agree.
  40. I've been discovering, rediscovering,
  41. and re-rediscovering myself
    for as long as I can possibly remember.
  42. One of the most powerful moments
    on my journey to self discovery
  43. dates back to 2016 when I was forced
    to reconnect with language.
  44. I remember the first half of my 20s
  45. being characterized
    by a very fast-paced lifestyle.
  46. I had just recently moved to Boston
    from my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
  47. And I was very proud of the way
  48. that I fearlessly and brazenly
    navigated the world,
  49. until I found out
    I was two months pregnant.
  50. Life had a very funny way
    of telling me to slow down.
  51. I was distraught.
  52. I remember announcing my pregnancy
    to everybody I cared about
  53. with a text message
    that said, "I have bad news."
  54. And that was that.
  55. My ex-boyfriend at the time,
    my child's father,
  56. responded very graciously.
  57. He was very supportive.
  58. So my bad news turned into just news.
  59. And then when my grandma
    offered some positive words,
  60. I was like, OK, now, we have good news.
  61. So I was excited.
  62. I now had good news.
  63. It was a good thing
    that I was having a baby.
  64. I remember when we found out
    the birth of Amir, my son -
  65. I'm sorry, the gender of Amir, my son,
  66. and we were so excited
    that we immediately went shopping.
  67. We sifted through so many
    sale and clearance racks,
  68. as many as the green line
    could take us to.
  69. At six months, Amir stopped kicking.
  70. He didn't live beyond
    his six months in my womb.
  71. I cried.
  72. For days, I cried.
  73. For days that turned into weeks, I cried.
  74. For weeks that turned
    into months, I cried.
  75. For months that have now
    turned into three years,
  76. I still find myself crying sometimes.
  77. Of course, all of the very
    loving people in my life
  78. use their words to try
    to dry my tears and soothe me.
  79. So I got a lot of "I'm so sorry, Ashley,"
  80. and some well-meaning,
    "He's in a better place now, Ashley."
  81. You know, the kind of words
    we use to soothe people
  82. because we don't know what else to say,
  83. even though we know that our words
    probably aren't working.
  84. It wasn't until I met my therapist
    that recovery actually felt possible.
  85. My therapist said, "It's OK to cry.
  86. It's OK to grieve.
  87. It's even OK to criticize the way
  88. that other people give you permission
    to do those things."
  89. And so within weeks,
    I suddenly stopped crying.
  90. I don't know why.
  91. Fast forward to 2017.
  92. So as was stated, I'm an educator,
    something I'm very proud of.
  93. And I started my educational
    identity, if you will,
  94. with the Charlie Sposato
    Graduate School of Education,
  95. which is a teacher residency program
  96. that's housed through Match,
    a charter network.
  97. Specifically, I worked at Match
    High School in Brighton for five years.
  98. I often give back to the graduate program
  99. because I feel like
    they did so much for me.
  100. And one notable way that I give back
    is by speaking on their panels every year.
  101. At my most recent talk, I remember
    being asked a question
  102. about the way that my identity
    informs my practice as an educator.
  103. Now, anybody who knows me
  104. knows that I was very excited
    about that question
  105. because anything related to race,
    identity, affirmation, culture,
  106. that's my jam.
  107. That's my topic.
  108. So my excitement came clear in my answers.
  109. I started by reflecting on the tension
  110. that I often feel as a black woman
    educating black kids.
  111. Ironic, right?
  112. I talked about how I'm often conflicted
  113. because even though I share the identity
    with a lot of my students,
  114. I work in a space - or at that time,
    especially, I worked in a space -
  115. that was very white-dominated.
  116. So I felt like I had to
    constrict who I really was.
  117. I talked about how my hoop
    earrings are a statement.
  118. I talked about how my then-much more
    intricate nail designs are a statement.
  119. And I even talked about the fact
    that people's typical reaction
  120. to my tattooed aesthetic
    is a statement too,
  121. just of a different kind.
  122. I talked about a lot.
  123. And I culminated my talking
    by saying something like,
  124. "It's a black woman thing, though,"
    with a sort of dismissive pride.
  125. In response, an eager white
    resident raised her hand.
  126. And she said, "It's actually
    not just a black girl thing.
  127. I've experienced that too."
  128. And she proceeded to project
    her privilege and her story
  129. onto my narrative.
  130. Now, although I didn't appreciate that,
  131. I responded in a way
    that I don't think was rude.
  132. And I said, "So sure, yes.
  133. Womanhood in patriarchal
    America is one thing, indeed.
  134. However, black womanhood
    in white patriarchal America
  135. is an entirely different thing."
  136. And it's something that, namely,
    she had no right to speak on.
  137. In response to the words
    that I offered to the white woman's words,
  138. I got a lot of praise from people.
  139. My most favorite praise
    was from one of my students
  140. who accompanied me on the panel.
  141. Let's call her Maya.
  142. And Maya said, "Yes, Davis,"
    and she hugged me, very tightly.
  143. Maya hugged me tighter
    than anybody had ever hugged me before.
  144. I still don't fully understand why.
  145. Fast forward to October 2018.
  146. So I am a principle fellow this year,
  147. which is fancy verbiage for saying
  148. that I'm an underpaid assistant principal
    studying to be a principal.
  149. I work at a beautifully
    intimate elementary school.
  150. It's a kindergarten through third grade
    school, the Shaw, in Mattapan.
  151. And we serve a school
    full of beautiful students of color.
  152. 30% of our student body,
    about, identifies as Latinx.
  153. Notice that I chose to use the word
    Latinx as opposed to Hispanic.
  154. One of the things that
    I'm most proud of about my school
  155. and about Boston alike,
  156. and one of the things
  157. that is actually convincing me
    to continue to endure the cold,
  158. is the fact that Boston
    is so linguistically diverse.
  159. Many of my students
    speak English, of course,
  160. but they don't speak English
    as their primary language.
  161. And they're multilingual
    in ways that I wish that I were.
  162. So that's something
    that I am incredibly proud of.
  163. However, on the day
    that this story revolves around,
  164. I was very unproud.
  165. So one of my students,
    who identifies as Latinx, a girl -
  166. let's call her Taj - is a second grader.
  167. And she's amazing.
  168. Now, all of my students are amazing;
    I don't have any favorites.
  169. But the thing that makes Taj most amazing
  170. is that no matter
    who's around, she's the same.
  171. And she's in second grade.
  172. So I wanted to share that with her mother.
  173. And I sort of practiced
    in my head what I was going to say
  174. because as you guys know,
    I really like words.
  175. So I would say something like,
    in class, Taj answers questions like this.
  176. And then when we're in cheerleading,
    Taj shows leadership like this.
  177. And when she thinks
    nobody's watching and she's by herself,
  178. Taj does this -
  179. because I really wanted to capture
    for Ms. Garcia, Taj's mother,
  180. the full beauty of Taj's personality.
  181. So when my rehearsing
    in my head sort of ended,
  182. I went on to playground dismissal duty.
  183. Of course, I was
    paying attention to everybody
  184. and making sure that everybody
    went home with the right person.
  185. But I was really just looking
    for Ms. Garcia, Taj's mom.
  186. When I saw her approaching,
    I waved very frantically,
  187. like a kid in a candy store almost.
  188. And I sort of rushed over to her.
  189. I just started talking.
  190. We didn't even greet each other,
    I just started talking.
  191. And then in the middle of my talking,
  192. she interrupted me,
    and said, "Hola, Ms. Davis."
  193. And I froze.
  194. It wasn't until then that I realized
  195. that my "perfectly rehearsed"
    English speech
  196. wouldn't resonate with Taj's mom.
  197. I was embarrassed.
  198. Taj, in her brilliant innocence,
    jumped in and began translating.
  199. She would turn to me
    and ask me a question in English,
  200. and then she'd resort back to her mother
    and answer that question in Spanish
  201. with grace and immediacy.
  202. Ms. Garcia, Taj's mom, said,
    "Gracias, Miss Davis," and began crying.
  203. And all I could do was smile.
  204. In reflection, I realized
    that another thing that makes Taj special
  205. is not the fact that she speaks English.
  206. It's also not the fact
    that she speaks Spanish.
  207. But it's that, in that moment,
    she knew very astutely
  208. which language she needed
    to unite us all - the language of love.
  209. I now understand why.
  210. I chose these three stories
  211. because each of them highlights
    the theme that semantics matter.
  212. The way you say things,
    the why behind your saying of things,
  213. and the impact of those
    said things carry weight.
  214. You are your you-est you
    because of the words you choose
  215. and because of the words you don't.
  216. Your words are your power
    and your words make you resilient.
  217. The question, then, is not about
    whether or not you have access
  218. to the resiliency of words.
  219. The question instead should be
    about your relationship with words.
  220. Are you like the members of team Amir,
  221. simply repeating words
    and phrases over and over,
  222. because you don't know what else to say
    regardless of how they make people feel,
  223. just because somebody
    repeated them to you?
  224. Or are you like the naive resident,
  225. negating the words in other people's words
  226. out of a selfish desire
    to project your own words onto them?
  227. Or perhaps, maybe you're like Taj,
  228. affirming the word currency in others
  229. regardless of race,
    status, bias, or creed?
  230. Since birth, our words
    have defined and fed us:
  231. the shady way we say "Good morning!"
  232. with more cheer to our boss
    in promotion meetings
  233. than we do to the people
  234. who serve us coffee
    at Dunkin' Donuts every morning;
  235. the flirtatious way we lead
    a new friend into our lives
  236. by detailing certain traits
    about ourself and omitting others
  237. because it's only the first date;
  238. the fact that, as a child,
    I read a dictionary religiously -
  239. I studied it;
  240. and the fact that now, as an adult,
  241. I have a protected list of words
  242. that I'm collecting
    in the back of my planner;
  243. the fact that most people of color
    have to rehearse and rewrite
  244. what they want to say
    in their head at least three times
  245. before raising their hand
    to offer those words aloud
  246. in a setting that white America
    would consider "professional."
  247. Our entire lives, words have equalized us
    and made us resilient.
  248. Words matter.
  249. Let them.
  250. If you take nothing else
    away from this talk,
  251. I urge you to reflect -
  252. word work is deeply personal.
  253. It's very private.
  254. So find a way to ask yourself:
    What is my relationship like with words?
  255. Use that answer to coach
    yourself into improvement
  256. and ultimately into resilience.
  257. You got this.
  258. And if you don't,
    you'll always have words.
  259. Thank you.
  260. (Applause)