by Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy, LLC
I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit our client Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), in the Kibera slum in Kenya last month, and while this NGO focuses upon three levers which empower communities to transform urban poverty to urban promise, I was most blown away by the girls school, and notably the intelligence, focus and ferocity of the 6th grade class, ages 11 – 13. My 13-year old daughter Sophie (aka Kitty) joined in the life-changing visit and afterwards I asked her “Are you intimated or inspired?” “Both!” I replied, “Me too!” To do with inspired part, I was moved to write a letter to the class to offer guidance from the perspective of someone who is on the other side of a great deal of hard work and dedication, who is leading a purpose-driven life, and to shine a light upon things that I wish I had known when I was their age. Published with the permission of Kennedy Odede, Founder of SHOFCO. Read on!
Letter to the Sixth Grade Class of SHOFCO
Thank you for welcoming my daughter Sophie and me to your classroom.
You had such poignant and pointed questions for my 13 year old daughter about how to stay motivated, achieve success, and more. The questions got us thinking, and I would like to attempt to answer them from the perspective of someone who is on the other side of hard work and dedication, and who is leading a purpose-driven life. This is also the perspective from someone who grew up in American poverty (does not compare at all to Kibera as you know) and was not expected to live a life of impact (understatement).
When I received messages that I was worth less because I was a girl and on food stamps, free lunches, and other government assistance, instead of believing those messages, I had an “I’ll show you” ferocity that drove me to work hard and be successful.
But I also made terrible mistakes because some of those messages did creep in, and I did not own my true worth until many, many years later. So I would like to share with you what I wish I knew when I was your age to help provide a future perspective as your futures unfold.
1. I wish I knew that God had much bigger plans for me than I had for myself. I would have treated myself differently – with more reverence and respect.
2. I wish I knew to take the chip off my shoulder about poverty a lot sooner. When I was with people of privilege, even as a woman who eventually had significant resources myself, I would race to let them know “I’m not like you.” “I’m not one of you.” It was almost a challenge. If they passed this subconscious test by continuing to befriend me, then I would eventually let them in; many have become some of my most beloved friends. But what was really going on was I assumed they would reject me so I rejected them first. It’s reverse prejudice but it’s still prejudice – I was pre-judging them. What a loss.
3. Instead of seeing myself as a victim of inequality and injustice, and for years playing within a system that was set up for me to fail, I wish I had adopted a “Not on my watch” warriorship a lot sooner. In time I leveraged my role as a corporate executive to break barriers for myself and for the women who would follow me, but had I been bolder sooner I could have brought about even more change.
I love how awake and empowered you are, and how you are leveraging your intelligence and opportunities through SHOFCO to live great lives. And one of the things I noticed about what you wanted to be when you grew up was that service was at the core of a lot of the professions that were talked about.
I think this is because our deepest passions often spring from our deepest wounds. In my case I recognize that:
1. I could not do the work I do in the world without my level of ferocity if I had not experienced my particular “soul curriculum”.
2. Without great suffering, I wouldn’t have my capacity for empathy, and the heart that I do to tackle social justice issues.
3. Without the drive to prove myself, I wouldn’t have learned how to run businesses and nonprofits.
4. Without feeling marginalized in my family and in my culture for being born a girl, I wouldn’t be a warrior in my work and life empowering women and girls.
And it matters. It matters very much to a great many people that I do the work that I do. It matters very much that I show up in all of my brilliance, and grit, and leadership. And it matters very much how you show up every day in school and in your community: With dedication, focus, curiosity, wonder, gratitude, and your very best selves.
On some level I was driven to alleviate the suffering of others as a pathway to alleviating some of my own. In fact, I’ve noticed that many of us who have experienced unusual amounts of pain in our early lives are drawn to the “helping professions” like the social sector because we cannot bear to witness the suffering of others and not do something about it.
In short, I was expected to grow up to be bad news. I’m the good news. And I have even more good news. You are the good news. You are the young women who are already playing vital roles in your community and at school as beacons and as leaders.
And you are getting the education and the tools here to be strategic and effective so that your very necessary and unique voices are heard, and breakthroughs that began with the founding of SHOFCO, and other organizations that are empowering women and girls, can continue on your watch.
As context, let me just tell you that we living in the most important time in the history of humanity. Never have we had so many viable solutions to suffering and poverty and discrimination in our hands. Never have we had so many passionate people ready to take direct action towards a thriving planet in which everyone can live with dignity.
My core belief is that the future hinges upon a more just and gender balanced world. So it is vital that you to take your full space in the world as the strong, spirited, dedicated leaders that you are becoming. I am grateful you are on this path to greatness alongside Kennedy Odede, Jessica Posner Odede, and others who are working so hard enable you to shine brightly in the world, and bring about change for yourself and future generations.
With great respect,
Natalie Rekstad Founder & CEO
Black Fox Philanthropy, LLC, B Corp
Learn more about the transformative work of SHOFCO at shofco.org