Recently I watched the movie “Hidden Figures” for the second time, and was again impressed by the achievements of the extraordinary African- American women featured in the film. Through a combination of brilliance and determination, these women overcame seemingly insurmountable odds and enabled the success of the NASA space program. Being reminded about the contributions of these women, I wondered about the many other unrecognized men and women who might have also faced difficult circumstances and yet forged ahead, making lasting contributions in different spheres of life. I also wondered about the impact that the lack of recognition of such individuals might have on children growing up today. What is it like for boys and girls to grow up without the benefit of such role models? What if we all started researching and highlighting these individuals so that future generations of children can have real life examples of people who realized their full potential against all odds? Who are the unsung heroes within our own communities and in our personal journeys who fought for the opportunities we take for granted today and paved the path for us to fulfill our dreams? Pondering these questions, I was compelled to share my thoughts.
In my life, I have had the great fortune and privilege of being inspired by many women. My most influential unsung hero was my mother, Zeritu Chernet. Having raised her family in Ethiopia, my mother did not face the kind of racial discrimination that women of color in this country face. However, she did have to endure many other challenges as a woman raising ten kids and, with the birth of her fifth child, having to sacrifice her career ambitions in order to be a full-time mom. I can vividly recall my mother struggling with her desire to be the best mom she could possibly be while at the same time wanting to do more with her life. As a resolution to this internal conflict, my mother sought to impart as much wisdom and strength into her children as possible; she inspired all of us to strive for excellence and encouraged us to be self-sufficient and educated. Thanks to her unwavering determination, all four of her daughters exemplify the independence, success, and self-worth that she instilled within us. She also raised her sons to be sensitive to the plight of women and to respect and honor the women in their lives. It was as a result of her guidance that all of my siblings and I are able to dream big and sincerely believe that we can achieve anything we set our minds to.
When I was growing up, I believed that my mom could accomplish anything. I used to ask her to pray for me for this or that, fully believing her prayers were the answer to all my trivial life issues. I remember that I once asked her to pray that I find an educated husband someday. She looked at me and said, “Do you know the guy you will marry is still maybe in middle school as you are?” She then asked me a question that I will never forget. She asked: “Why then would I pray for another kid to be educated, when you are right here in front of me? I will pray instead that you get highly educated yourself and find what you seek inside of you, and not in another person.” This and many other lessons have been my guiding light and source of strength throughout my life.
Historically and today, many individuals face and overcome unbelievable discrimination and inhumane treatment in order to create opportunities for those who follow. Whether these individuals are people about whom we have yet to learn or close family members, we cannot forget that we stand on the shoulders of many brave women and men and reap the benefits of their struggles. It is critical that we have gratitude for and remember all that they have endured on our behalf. Today more than ever, we need to look for and highlight the amazing contributions made in all walks of life by these triumphant individuals.
As we celebrate Black History Month in February and prepare to celebrate Women’s History Month in March, I wanted to recognize the unsung hero in my life. Who are your unsung heroes?