Aya Academy of Excellence

Angela Davis: My Alter Ego

“I think that has to do with my awareness that in a sense we all have a certain measure of responsibility to those who have made it possible for us to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Angela Davis
Angela Davis. A moniker I wore like a shingle announcing my presence to all who were in my sphere was one that was given to me by my fellow peer educators.  I wore it proudly.  Like Angela Davis, I am both a fighter and a lover.  I fight for children because of my adoration for who they are, the pureness of their spirit and the energizing hope they give as a gift to anyone who engages in conversation with them. I fight for them because I love who they are and who, when allowed to evolve into their best selves, they are poised to become. It is my greatest achievement to spend my life’s work dedicated to the upliftment of community.  It is my belief that to uplift community it is necessary to do so through youth development and family supports.  And although the school system is an excellent to avenue to bring about these changes, too often communities with lower socioeconomic thresholds are encumbered by politics and the hegemonic values of external communities.  It is my life’s purpose to provide youth development to uplift communities so that children and families can define who they are on their own terms and work collaboratively to establish healthy family structures.

As a young child, my earliest recollection of my life was being splayed on my family’s living room floor amidst my wooden abacus, chalkboard and collection of golden books.  I wanted to be a teacher before I entered school.   My first pupils, my dolls and teddy bears, were taught how to count, read and alphabet before I was in kindergarten.  For me, school was play and play was always synonymous with school.  I credit my mother with inculcating in me the dream to educate others with authenticity. 

My mother, a MSN, attained her bachelor’s degree when I was in elementary school.  I do not remember her pouring over textbooks, although I am sure she did.  Nor can I recall her typing papers, although she assuredly did this as well.  But I do vividly recollect my mother, along with her cohort, clustered in a circle surrounding the carcass of a black feline.  Her group was engaged in collaborative inquiry and hands-on learning.  When I became an educator, fifteen years later, these experiences were incorporated in my instruction and brought life to the lessons I taught.  But more so, the experience of watching my mother learn brought an understanding of the importance of education.  Watching my mother learn showed in a real tangible sense that she valued the education process. This learning experience was the catalyst for my seeking to bridge the educational experience with community-based initiatives.

I am a first generation American.  My parents, who both hail from the balmy Caribbean island of Barbados, immigrated to this country nearly fifty years ago.  My father, a retired printer, initially worked in the northeast on a Connecticut farm.  Later, he migrated to New York City, a magnet for West Indian immigrants, where he met my mother.  Their connection ran deep; his brother married my mother’s cousin and together the two couples spent weeknights and weekends together.  This tie allowed for the establishment of deep family roots.  Fading pictures of this moment in time display warmth, festivity and cricket.  My father, who played cricket for sport, had a brother who was the best in his nation and who eventually became the president of an international cricket society shortly before his death in the 1990’s. These harmonious family images were snapshots of a very brief marriage which ended just when I began taking my first steps.  This loss prompted the desire for me to establish an everlasting bond for my own children and I promised myself to never allow the bonds of my own marriage to be broken.  I am a divorced single parent.

With age, maturity, if allowed, develops.  My framework for what family is and can be has been shaped over time with personal experience.  I have become not only self-aware but more prone to awareness outside myself.  I now know that how I have chosen to define my life cannot bind the perception of how others think and act.  What family means to me is not, nor should be, what family means to others.  The structure of family is sacred and part of the sanctity of that relationship is the right for each family to comprise for itself what family should look like.  My hope is that each family is afforded a fighting chance to develop healthy interpersonal relationships, which leads to each member becoming a valued member of their community.  This deep-seated belief has led to my personal cognition of the critical link between self-perception and self-actualization and between intrinsic motivation and parental modeling.

My outreach organization, Aya Academy of Excellence is a conglomeration of my family experiences and the needs that are apparent within the Black community.  Its creed, which I developed a few years ago in response to defining the benchmark character goals the youth are to strive towards, is one that can also be used for their family members and community stakeholders.  It reads:

I will endure and not yield to failure.

I will develop a network of peers to work effectively in teams toward a goal.

I will gratefully provide service to my community.  This is my duty and privilege.

I will be responsible for both myself and others and my choices show it.

My integrity is demonstrated by my actions and reactions.

As a leader and citizen, I will consistently choose to make wise choices.

We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

I am excellent.

Each of the character traits the creed details is a pit stop along the journey of self-actualization.  Looking beyond myself, I have been touched by the children I have encountered while serving as a teacher.  More often than not, I have felt that I could have done more to aid my students and their families.  I have felt the feeling of being handicapped – at times ill-prepared and at times under-resourced.  One student, Anthony Robinson, has served me well in remembering that the adage of ‘location, location, location’ rings true.  Anthony, a boy slight in stature was eager to learn.  He raised his hands consistently in language arts and social studies all the while ignoring the ignorance and apathy exhibited by some of his peers. He was undeterred by their lack of desire to pose and respond to inquiry questions.  His peers certainly wanted to learn too but Anthony openly wanted to learn.  His classmates picked at him and this broke my heart.  I remember that one day, in a fit of frustration and holding back tears; I shared with Anthony my own middle school experience.  In sixth grade, my mother moved us out of our nearly twenty-story apartment building and into a two-story brick-façade post WWII home in a college town suburb.  I recounted to Anthony my first day at my new school.  I was in awe at the gleaming walls and floors and the airy expanse of the corridors.  The teachers and staff members greeted us cheerfully and I was amazed at the remarkable differences between where we had come and where we now were. I told Anthony that I wished I could do the same for him.  I wanted to pluck him out of his neighborhood and move him into the suburbs where the distractions were fewer and the opportunities were greater.

Over fifteen years have transpired since I spoke to Anthony.  Now, this once scrawny sixth grader who read on the third grade level is approaching his thirties.  Undoubtedly he has grown up physically and emotionally.  I too have changed.  I have shifted my position on the location conundrum.  As a parent, I mimicked my mother’s actions and moved my daughters’ out of a failing school cluster into a cluster which boasts the highest SAT scores in the state.  Although I do not regret that action, I can say that they and I lost something in the transition.  The opportunity costs for parents seeking a superior education for their children should never be a loss of cultural identity.  The trade-off is too great.  I do know that families within socio-economically depressed neighborhoods should not have to forfeit living amongst family and friends with similar cultural roots to ensure that they receive an enriched educational experience.  Aya, through tutoring, mentoring and workshops will bridge not only an achievement gap for school aged children but also a gap that exists amongst fragmented families.  Parents will have a safe space to learn with their children, families will have a resource to address social and economic barriers.  Barriers are not impediments but stepping stones.  The process of pushing through, around and above barriers calls for endurance. In West Africa, the Adinkra symbol for endurance is Aya. Its physical representation is a stylized fern plant, which is known for its hardiness and ability to survive even within the harshest conditions. The higher the barriers are, the higher the elevation that is reached.  The pinnacle of reaching a goal is excellence. Aya’s creed calls for us to first endure through difficulties and travel through life striving toward personal excellence.

It is my hope that one day in the future a young woman with tenacity, hope, passion and commitment for community will be called nothing more than the name either her parents have given her or the name she has given herself.  But if anyone is so bold as to call her out of her name, than with these qualities, I would be honored if they uttered Stephanie Hunte as a moniker to hang like a shingle announcing her presence in the lives of others.


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