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  • Kimberley Guillemet

"To thine own powers appeal."

Nannie Helen Burroughs

I often hear well-meaning people intimating that people of certain socioeconomic positions, ethnic/racial groups and/or those who have not attained certain levels of education should not be expected to persevere, achieve or overcome. The words may not be spelled out that plainly, but that is the crux of the sentiment.

I think people believe that we do others a favor when we lower society’s expectations for them as a whole. We do not.

Nannie Helen Burroughs knew that. At a time when African Americans were not permitted to freely and openly access education in this country, Ms. Burroughs not only dedicated her life to educating African Americans, she specifically focused on educating African-American women--perhaps the most marginalized, disenfranchised and underserved group in the country at the time.

However, Ms. Burroughs didn’t educate these women from a place of sympathy, pity or lowered expectations. She was quite clear in her expectation that all of her students would achieve. The school’s motto read: “Work. Support thyself. To thine own powers appeal.” Ms. Burroughs believed that her students did not need to wait to be saved or to be helped by those better situated. She taught them that they were organically and naturally capable.

We can learn a lot from Ms. Nannie Burroughs. Women, particularly women of color, still face hurdles in professional and educational environments that others do not. However, we know that we cannot be defined by what others think about us. We cannot be limited by what they say, do, or believe. We should not look for or expect external validation. Nannie Burroughs never got mainstream validation and yet she persevered. And had she not, generations of Black women would not have received an education.

Notwithstanding what anyone thinks about who you are, or what you can achieve, know that you descend from greatness. You can do anything you put your mind to. You do not need the help or validation of others.

Power is in your DNA.

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