Forgiveness: When anger from pain and bitterness feels too strong to consider it

Prior to resettling in New Hampshire, my day-to-day survival had taken precedence over reflecting on how past experiences impacted me. As a result, I suppressed a lot of pain and anger. But here, in New Hampshire, I was becoming more grounded and more in touch with my emotions.

From 1997 to 2002, I transitioned to a different state of mind. I started acknowledging that I was in a safer environment and that the Congolese government could no longer harm my family. I now had a great church community alongside me. My faith had always played an important part in my life. So it was natural for me to be plugged into a local church. Among other activities, I participated in a summer program called Joshua Generation (JG), which was part of Youth With A Mission Pittsburg (YWAM). The program was a community outreach for middle schoolers and high schoolers from all over the country. It was based in Pittsburgh, PA.

The timing was perfect. I was at my peak. My emotions were taking over. But I was still frustrated. Two years in New Hampshire and I still could not take full advantage of the freedom moving to the US afforded me. I was depressed, angry, paranoid, even suicidal. Fortunately, I had a great mentor from church—Joanne Trombley. I called her crying. I told here about all the emotions I was feeling. She was very consoling. She encouraged me.

When the Joshua Generation program came along, Joanne thought it would be good for me. So she urged my mother to let me go. There was only one problem—but it was kind of a big one. I was not old enough to participate. But again, good luck smiled at me. Because I was big for my age, I looked a lot older. And since Joanne had such a good relationship with the program directors, they said I could go. My mother eventually did too. I was excited to be away for a few weeks in the summer.

Deo at JG 2002

Deo at JG 2002

First year at JG

I was excited to leave New Hampshire and participate in JG. I was one of the youngest participants. There were teens from all over the country. The program had drama, dance and worship teams. I did all three. I learned my first choreography there. I thought it was very cool to learn dance and perform in dramas. I had played the conga and bongo drums at my church. So it was natural for me to play for JG. I enjoyed playing the drums and being part of the workshop team. My experience at JG was a welcome distraction from all the things that were going on with me emotionally. There were intimate reflection/prayer times during the first week, which triggered some of my internal emotions, but I was able to suppress the deeper ones.

We got to travel. My team went the East Coast of New England—from Pittsburgh all the way up to Laconia, NH. We stopped along the way in some very impoverished neighborhoods to do community evangelism through performing arts and community services. This was my introduction to inner city America outside of New Hampshire. Prior to this, my American experience had been limited to New Hampshire. I was grateful to live in New Hampshire but it did not have much diversity. In 2002, New Hampshire was probably 97% white. What little diversity there was in the state was concentrated in the towns where I lived—Manchester, Concord, and Nashua. Of the non-whites, fewer were blacks and African immigrants. Through JG, I was able to see other communities in America with rich cultural ethnicity.

My JG leaders thought it would be good for me to share my story of how my family made it out of the Congo and how my family’s faith protected us and kept us together. I was up for it. I was a fearless, albeit amateur, presenter. And my story proved impactful. As for my fearlessness, that came from my life experiences. I was not scared to be in any neighborhood in America. I thought America was paradise. It even had water fountains in local parks. So even when people told us that the neighborhoods we visited were the worst and most dangerous in their communities, I had no fear because the situation I came from in the Congo was worse. It was very hard for me to understand why people in those communities felt hopeless and why they were not grateful for what they had. When I was given an opportunity to present my story, I included a comparison between my Congo environment and the communities I was visiting. That seemed to resonate with people. Some people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for sharing my perspective about my struggles, fears, dangers, and survival.

Disconnect between relationship building and mission

It was cool to see people impacted by my comparison. But I was naïve. All I saw were the opportunities and privileges these poor communities had in comparison to my experiences as a refugee of war. I lacked the ability to see how the institutionalized disadvantages of these communities prevented them from moving forward—educationally and economically. I could blame that on JG organizers because they focused so much on the mission. They forgot to build relationships with the communities we were serving and ministering to. So how could we fully understand the needs and disparities these areas faced?

I was the only black guy in most the teams I was a member of. Cultural competencies were clearly lacking with JG organizers during earlier trips. This lack of knowledge influenced how I viewed the impoverished communities I visited and served, especially the black communities. Still, I do not blame JG organizers for skewing my point of view regarding impoverished black communities. Often the kids in neighborhoods I visited said I talked funny. Some said I talked white. But it never bothered me. It was paradoxical to black folks in these communities that many blacks outside their area spoke differently from them. Mostly I heard these comments from teenagers and younger kids.

JG kept me busy. It gave added meaning to my faith and I found a new gift in presenting and speaking to diverse audiences. I became good friends with some of the JG leaders. When I returned home after my first JG trip, I felt confident. All the cool stuff I did at JG suppressed my anger and pain. I was very sad the day my trip ended. I did not want to go home. But JG was only in the summer. So I had no choice. The moment I returned I felt the burden of my pain. The relationship with my mother was rotten. She was in a different relationship and had just given birth to my younger brother in May. She felt as if I were against her relationship because I did not want her to be with someone other than my father. But that was not the case.

Relationship shift with my mother

Deo and his mother Bernadette

Deo and his mother Bernadette

I had always been close to my mother. We went through a lot together. She kept our family together. Because of everything we experienced, and the trust and openness we had, I felt disconnected when she kept her new relationship separate from me. True, she had no responsibility to tell me anything. She was my mother and I was her son. But because I was the man of the house, I sometimes felt as if I were her equal. So I was very hurt about the way I found out she was pregnant. I think she might not have known how to tell me. We spent a lot of time going to Boston to visit her boyfriend. One night we went to a party with her boyfriend’s friends and someone asked to me if I was excited to have a younger brother. That was how I found out she was pregnant. I was devastated. Ever since then, I have not been able to trust what my mother told me and my siblings about her relationship with my baby brother’s dad. I did not know how I was going to move forward.

When I lived in the Congo, I experienced many painful hardships that filled me with anger. When I came to the US, I thought I would leave hardship and anger behind. I was wrong. My mother’s new relationship and the birth of my brother whose father was not my father tested me. The pain ate me up inside. I would stay up all night, thinking about my father and the little time I shared with him. I was angry!!!!!! And my anger ran deep. The pain felt like thorns piercing my heart, making it bleed. The bleeding itself did not hurt, but the thorns did. Their poking struck nerves. I felt very agitated. At times the thorns felt more like red-hot needles. They came so frequently I could not heal. I felt hopeless. And that was the worst. I could not shed the pain of my emotions. I was overcome. I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled. I gasped for air. But then I submerged again. This repeated over and over. I thought about suicide, giving up and how it would be so much better if I were no longer here. I thought my mother would realize the mistake she made by lying to me and moving forward with a guy I thought was not honest and was going to destroy what we were building. Somehow I found some strength to keep going. My church community was always there for me and now the JG organizers had become my friends, too.

Distraction from pain

Summer of 2002 finally ended. For seventh grade, I transferred to Saint Joseph Middle School in Manchester, NH. Sister Irene, a local nun who helped my family a lot, was able to get me in. I made new friends at Saint Joseph and it was one of the best opportunities I had at the time to be welcomed into a very supportive community. I was involved with soccer, dance, and the band. I was able to utilize some of the skills I developed through my JG experience. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait for the school year to end so I could return to JG the following summer.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

2002 was a challenging year. My relationship with my mother was on again, off again. She worked very hard to provide for us. She bought a bigger van after my younger brother was born to transport us around. She financed the Van, a 2002 Ford Windstar. My mother always paid everything on time. Her boyfriend decided to take on paying for the car insurance and I was happy he was stepping up and helping. Not everything about him was bad. There was some stuff about him that I admired. He was very smart and well educated. I loved talking politics and diplomacy with him. He was a huge soccer fan, a sport I enjoyed very much growing up. I respected him to a certain extent. After all, I still needed a father figure in my life. He had some attributes similar to my father, especially regarding education. I wanted things to work out between him and my mother, even though he had certain qualities I was not crazy about. I wanted my mother to be happy and have someone besides me to take care of her.

But just when things were getting better they got worse. My mother’s boyfriend was supposed to pay for the car insurance monthly. We found out the hard way that he was not paying it. My mother got into a car accident in a winter storm. Her car needed to be towed and we called the insurance company. They informed us she was not covered because she did not pay her insurance for the last three months. I was devastated and angry. My mother’s boyfriend was supposed to pay for the insurance monthly because he took on that responsibility. Now my mother’s van had $2500 worth of damage, which she needed to pay for out for her pocket. My mother’s boyfriend had excuses of why the payments did not go through. But his excuses did not help the situation. My mother needed to save money to pay for the repair. And the car could not be driven in the meantime. For a month and a half we were without a vehicle. I felt like we went back to zero. We worked hard to have a vehicle and we were progressing. My mother’s boyfriend’s negligence set us back. My mother had to pay for a taxi to pick up my brothers and drop them at daycare. We lost our vehicle from mid-February to the end of April. We went back to pushing shopping carts home after grocery shopping. I was furious! And not simply at my mother’s boyfriend. My anger towards my father’s side of the family intensified, too. I thought about the time after my father’s assassination when his family gave my mother an ultimatum. They suggested she leave the kids with them and restart her life alone, to go find someone else to take care of her. When my mother said no, my father’s family washed their hands of her and gave us to my mother as a gift.

I kept wondering, how could they do that and give my mother such alternative? Why couldn’t they just accept all of us? Why did we kids have to be separated from my mother or separated from our uncles and aunts? To be fair, they thought they were doing the best thing for us. When my father was assassinated, it was done secretly and other government officials were assassinated and suddenly disappearing at the same time. And their families disappeared too. Our friends and families were afraid to associate with us. They didn’t know what was going to happen to us and what it would mean for them if they were caught trying to help us. My father’s family thought it would decrease the risk of the government coming back for us if we were separated. They also knew that asking questions about what happened to my father was risky. My brothers and I were young. I was only six and a half when my father was assassinated and the rest of my brothers were a lot younger. We would keep our mouths shut. But my mom went around asking people what happened to my father. The government was hush-hush. They would not say much about what happened. My mother was looking for answers. My father’s family thought her behavior was putting my brothers and me in danger.

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But despite these realizations, it still hurt that they wanted to break up our family. I felt bitterness and anger towards them. And as my mother struggled to make money to have our car fixed, I resented my father’s family for abandoning us. I was hurting badly. Even the Bissonette family, who spent the first two years helping us, had distanced themselves from us when my mother’s boyfriend came into the picture. I felt lonely. No family members would come to our rescue. It was just us.

Cutting my knee ruined everything

I continued to press through. I was looking forward to attending JG in the summer of 2003.  I started fundraising by working different jobs for people at my church. One was an electrician who ran his own company. I worked for him often. I enjoyed the work, but one there was a mishap. While opening a box of lights with a brand new knife, I accidentally missed the box and cut the left side of my knee. It was a nice cut, which required a couple butterfly bandages to close. When I went home, I did not tell my mother what happened. But after a few days, she noticed I was limping. She asked me what was wrong with my knee.

Eventually I caved and confessed. My mother was very upset. She brought me to the hospital and they stitched me. She told me that because of this I was not going to JG. I was devastated. She took away the only thing I was looking forward to and had been working so hard to afford. But her decision was final. I did not go to JG that summer. Instead I played a lot of soccer and prepared for my eighth-grade season. Playing sports was good therapy for me.

I went back to school in the fall and worked very hard my eighth year. I had a great community around me at Saint Joseph. I made an agreement with my mother that to celebrate my eighth-grade graduation I was going to go to JG the summer of 2004. I also planned to find a way to move in with some of the JG leaders at their base after JG ended. Some of the staff lived at the base full time. They facilitated other programs throughout the year. Towards the end of eighth grade, I told most of my close friends I was going to move to Pennsylvania to live with the JG leaders. I was convinced I was going to find a way to live with them.

Internal confrontation

I raised enough money to return to JG in the summer of 2004. I went to Pittsburgh for a one-week training camp to learn the dances and dramas before doing outreach. That year, my team was going to East Chicago to work with a local community center called Agape. I was excited to be going to Chicago. This time around I was little more mature and I knew what to anticipate at JG. I was also a better dancer. I was able to suppress most of my negative feelings because I was away from home and enjoying myself.

Deo and his friend Ben at JG 

Deo and his friend Ben at JG 

One night, we had an evening service where a speaker talked about forgiveness. I was ignoring most of the stuff the speaker was saying because I felt like I was all set and I did not need to forgive anyone. I tried to remember whom I had anger and hatred towards, but I could not identify anyone. But the more the speaker spoke, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. It was like standing in front of the audience and suddenly thinking my zipper might be open. I attempted to ignore the feelings. Then suddenly I felt like someone grabbed me by the back and lifted me out of my seat. I attempted to fight back, but I wasn’t strong enough. I found myself standing. I kept saying to myself, “I am fine, I do not need to forgive anyone.” I felt sadness in my heart and anger arose from my inner soul. I said to myself, “This is not happening to me right now. I’m imagining it.”

Before I could send my emotions back from where they came from, I felt like someone opened the wound in my heart by pulling the stitches apart. I started bleeding and I did not know how to stop the blood from flowing. When I realized I could not stitch the wound back together, I started to scream. “God, I need you to come into my heart and take away the pain, anger, and bitterness!” I felt heavy. Like my prayers were bouncing back to me, buffeted back by mesh walls that prevented my sound from escaping. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Images of different events that occurred in my life started playing back in my head like a movie.

I saw scenes of people being burned alive. I was brought to my father’s secret funeral. I was taken back to the night when my mother was arguing with my father’s family. I saw the hopelessness on my mother’s face. I saw my brother Destin, sick as a dog, at the hospital and a doctor telling my mother that she needed to sacrifice buying us food to buy my brother meat, which he needed to get healthy. I saw another scene of my family in the refugee camp when we ran out of food and my mother was using corn powder to make oatmeal for us. We ate oatmeal for a few days until the UN gave us our monthly food. I saw my mother come home crying, saying she was being treated horribly at work because she did not speak English. It was her first job in America and she had only started two weeks prior. I was taken to a scene of my mother handing me the phone, a few months after we resettled in New Hampshire, to talk to my father’s brothers. I did not say a word because I hated them. I was taken to a scene when my brother and I found out my mother was pregnant. Then I saw myself translating for my mother, telling her that the insurance company had cancelled the coverage on our car because her boyfriend never paid the monthly bills.

The “Aha” Moment!

I realized at that moment that I had been carrying all of this pain and anger. I heard a voice saying to me that I needed to let go. I argued with myself and said, “But I’m not supposed to let go. My experiences justify my feelings.” The voice was insistent. “Let go!” it shouted. I started screaming from the top of my lungs—in French, Lingala, Swahili and English, “Okay, okay. I forgive! I forgive! I forgive!” The more I screamed, the more the walls that held back my voice crumbled. The power of my voice pushed through. The sound punctured my skin and burst through. Liquid, pus, and blood flowed out the puncture. I continued to scream. I started to feel lighter and empty inside. And my scream of pain and anger turned to hope.

It was then that I realized my scream had been a declaration of freedom and that I was being spiritually transformed from the inside out. I was sweating and had lost my voice from screaming. But I wasn’t done. I had declared my freedom from the bondage of pain, depression, and bitterness. I asked God to take it away—not just the spiritual reality of it, but the physical reality as well. I needed to move forward. Trusting in my faith and confronting my emotional captivity allowed me to accept letting go of my pain and anger. I had been holding on to the past and the past was eating me from the inside out. By taking the action to forgive, I was able to trust in being free and vulnerable—enough to let go. Spiritually, my faith in God has never forsaken me. It provided me with a different perspective to tackle my physical reality. My spiritual walk has always brought me to a place of humility. For the longest time, I never allowed that humanity in my heart. When I surrendered and trusted in the process of letting go and healing, I was able to shift the chemical imbalance that had made me afraid and, at the same time, had tricked me into feeling that holding onto my anger and bitterness gave me control when, in fact, the opposite was true.

When I opened my eyes, only a few people were left in the room where the presentation took place. I walked up to one of the staff and I asked if I could use their phone. I ran outside to call my mother in New Hampshire. As I talked, I started crying. I told her I was sorry and I just wanted her to be happy. I thanked her for everything she had done for me. I thanked her over and over and over and over I said I was sorry. My mother said, “It’s okay, Deo. It’s okay. I know, I know, I know.” I told her I was a new person and I felt light and I forgave everyone. My mother told me she was happy and I did not need to carry the burden anymore. “Be free, my son.” And I felt free. I was a new person. I had peace in my heart. I had no longer felt hatred or bitterness toward my mother, my mother’s boyfriend, my father’s family, or even the Congolese government who assassinated my father. But, most importantly, I needed to forgive myself, and to no longer allow all the images and memories I carried from Congo’s civil war and living in the refugee camp to control my life. I spent a lot of time sharing my story of restoration and freedom from anger and bitterness to people I connected with through JG in Chicago. After JG was over, I decided to return home. And I did so as a new person. Forgiving changed my trajectory for the better. If I never took ownership to forgive, I would not have been able to move forward with my life.

Deo and his brothers in the spring of 2004

Deo and his brothers in the spring of 2004

What does it mean for you

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful human tools. Our emotions play an important part in who we are. The anger or pain we carry keeps us from moving forward. If we are not careful, it becomes part of us. It influences our behaviors in how we love ourselves and others. Forgiving is an act that happens within us. It is the freeing of ourselves from pain, anger and bondage. The anger, bitterness and pain caused by not forgiving is very deceiving. It tricks us into protecting those feelings because it is the only way we feel like we have control of our reactions to the painful experiences we go through every day.

You have the power and free will to confront your emotions. It is important to acknowledge the impact that withholding forgiveness has on you. It is also critical to acknowledge the emotions behind this refusal to forgive. Most people are in denial about such emotions and suppress them like I did. The chemicals you release internally, due to these negative emotions, often result in toxic behavior externally and no one likes that version of you. My freedom came from my faith in God and trust in the process of surrendering. I acknowledged that I had anger and bitterness. I realized I needed to let go. I trusted in myself that things were going to be okay when I did let go. I trusted in God that He was going to transform me. I trusted that better and positive emotions would replace the toxic ones once I decided to let go.

If you are not a person of faith, you will need to find something else you can hold onto to help you find the courage and strength to substitute positive feelings for toxic ones. Get involved with something that uplifts your spirit as you enter the forgiveness phase. Find people you trust who can walk alongside your process of reconciliation.

Remember, forgiveness is all on you. Nothing others do will change how you feel. You need to name your negative emotions. Take ownership of them. Confront them internally. Control them. Replace them with positive emotions. Forgive.

 

My passion of learning indicated I was an A student but my report card said I was a C,D,F student. A second chance to redeem myself changed my education path.

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When I was growing up, education was always important to me. On paper, I was not the best student in Middle school and High school but I always loved learning. I developed great relationships with my teachers even when I did not have the best test scores.

I was an analytic and process learner. I had to place the context of the subject in real life in order to retain the material. Building alliances with my teachers was always the starting point. I wanted them to know that I cared about learning and not to count me out.

Middle School Learning Experience

In middle school, I attended a private Catholic school in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had Mrs. Martineau as my 8th-grade social studies teacher. She challenged me and other students. She did not mess around. Most students either loved or hated her. I had her for homeroom and class. I knew Mrs. Martineau in 7th grade because I was part of the talent show team. Mrs. Martineau was in charge of coordinating the show. When I found out I had her for homeroom and for social studies, I was scared. The first day of class, I wanted her to know that I was a hard worker and that I respected her. I struggled at times in class but always put my best effort forward. I always participated to show her I knew the materials. Her quizzes and tests required a lot of memorization. For American history, dates and timelines were important. But memorization without contextualization was very difficult for me. When she assigned projects and essays, I made sure I submitted the work on time and covered all the requirements.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

One time I was assigned a project on the Civil War and had to come to school wearing a costume of a doctor. So I used my mother’s sewing machine and fabrics and created a suit jacket made of corduroy materials. Then I learned everything I could about the character. I spent a lot of time researching the role of a doctor during the Civil War. This learning method worked effectively to demonstrate my knowledge. Mrs. Martineau was a confidence builder. I ended up getting a C for her class but I developed a great relationship with her. The experience taught me that, even if a teacher is hard and the class is rigorous, it’s important to build strong alliance with them to show you’re a harder worker and want to succeed in their class. I also learned the importance of showing respect. Respect was earned both ways. As a result of my efforts, Mrs. Martineau included me in many extracurricular activities.

Freshman year High School

In high school, social studies and history were my strong suits. I knew by my freshman year I was going to study political science in college. One of my best experiences in high school was being in Mrs. Monahan's social studies class my freshman year. I was initially placed in a level 2 social studies class. Within the first three weeks, she took me aside and asked me if I wanted to switch to move up to her level 3 class. I accepted the challenge and was very grateful for her encouragement. I excelled in the class and ended up averaging a B. I never had Mrs. Monahan for any other classes—she soon transferred to another school—but I maintained a great relationship with her during her time at my high school. Mrs. Monahan was a great motivator. Every time she saw me in the hallway she would call my name and sing the “Day-o! Day-o!” song.She always checked on me to see how things were going. Her challenging and encouraging me made me feel like I belonged. She, and other teachers whose teaching methods were similar, became my allies for success in high school. A sense of belonging is very important for students to feel welcomed and to be motivated to engage. I’m grateful for what Mrs. Monahan and some of my other teachers did for me during my freshman year.

When I got to high school, I wanted to prove I was a good dancer and was up to challenge anybody, anytime. With hard work and perseverance, I became one of the top dancers at school. At the time my school had about 2200 students. I befriended a teacher named Mrs. Thomas. I asked her if she was interested in being the sponsoring faculty advisor for the dance team. She said yes and invited another teacher to join who was a student teacher at the time. My friend Laura Pula, who was an upperclassman, and I put together promotions for the tryout. More than one hundred students showed up. Mrs. Thomas helped out with logistics. I had great respect from everyone who tried out because Mrs. Thomas was there to encourage me and make sure everything ran smoothly. We ran the dance team for a year and performed at school dances and assemblies. Mrs. Thomas was always there for practice and moral support. It felt good to have a teacher invested in my extracurricular passions. I ended up having her as a teacher for biology sophomore year. I got a B.

The Struggle in Chemistry

Not everything in high school was smooth sailing. I struggled with some science and math classes. My junior year was especially tough. My grades dropped tremendously. I had a chemistry and geometry teachers who were horrible and did not fit my learning styles. I failed half a semester in geometry and failed the entire year for chemistry by two points every semester. Chemistry was not my strong suit. I did not spend the proper amount of time to memorize all the rules and terms in order to pass quizzes and tests. Most of the quizzes and tests were memorization. I should have changed my approach in order to do better. I was too stubborn and continued to use the same methodologies of studying I had success with in the past, but here they did not work for me. I even tried recording some of the terms and playing them back over and over in an attempt to remember them for the tests. It did not work! I was very frustrated and spoke to the chemistry teacher numerous times, saying that I was studying but my quizzes and tests were not showing it. I remember one time I asked to look into why I kept failing her class within two points every quarter. She told me to study harder and that it was my tests and quizzes that were keeping me down. She did not give me anything tangible I could try differently in order to do better. She probably did not believe I was putting the time to study for class.

College Dream Was Crushed

There was a time in class when we were talking about college. I remember saying to my classmates, I was planning to attend  Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU, a local 4-year college at the time) for two years and transfer later to a school in Boston or in Washington DC to study political science and diplomacy. She interrupted the conversation and said, “Well Deo, you might have to think about a community college, considering the grades you’re getting in my class. SNHU is very tough to get into.”  I was crushed. I knew my grades in her class were bad and had dropped junior year. But to rule out a 4-year college right after high school was very disappointing in myself. Still, she was probably right making that guess, given my performance in her class. What bothered me though was that she was able to dismiss my dream based purely on the reality of my grades in her class, rather than supporting me when I told her I was studying and putting in the effort. I was definitely in the wrong class with the wrong teacher. And, unfortunately, she made me fearful of science.

 

I was a very atypical student. Also during my junior year, I took an AP history class, with mostly seniors, with a teacher named Mr. Paige. I loved the class. It was a self-driven course. He did not babysit us. He treated us like humans. I felt empowered knowing I could keep up with AP level material and knowing the course had mostly seniors and I was only a junior. I tried transitioning the skills that were making me successful in history to chemistry and math but it did not translate. In history and politics courses, I retained a lot of my information through discussions and listening. In chemistry, I had to find a way to visualize the lesson and relate memorization of the content to certain touch points. But that did not happen. By second semester I already had learning gremlins were destroying my confidence. The gremlins kept telling me I couldn’t do it, to drop a level, or try the same methods and expect a different result. Needless to say, at the end of my junior my overall GPA dropped substantially. My passion for education did not align with my report card. I knew I did not want to stop putting in the effort. I had no choice. School was the only pathway I had for a better future.

Going from a class of 500 to a class of 16

The summer after my junior year I received an amazing opportunity to transfer to Mount Zion Christian School. The school only had 70 high school students at the time, 17 of whom were seniors. Every student had a laptop. I thought that here I could redeem myself. My classmates, on the other hand, took the school for granted. Most of them felt like the teachers were not teaching them anything. A good portion of them went through Christian schools for their education, so Mount Zion was a familiar environment. Their learning experience provided them with the proper foundation to be good students even if they thought they were not learning much. At first, I found Mount Zion School very difficult to adjust to. Students had a lot of accountability. The syllabuses for the classes required more work as a learning deliverable than what I was used to. I stayed focused and worked very hard.

Senior Class at Mount Zion School

Senior Class at Mount Zion School

Mrs. Scoggan, my English teacher senior year, was similar to my 8th-grade teacher Mrs. Martineau. Mrs. Scoggan did not play around. Some students hated her and some students loved her. I happened to like her. But since I had just transferred to Mount Zion, I didn’t have a history with her. Regardless, I needed to do well in her class to get into college. Mrs. Scoggan liked to bundle assignments. So we were always reading three books at the time. I learned a lot about dissecting text and analyzing the content from her. We always had rich conversations about the content in class, even when some of my classmates were just BS-ing because they had read the summary from SparkNotes the period before class. I made sure I read everything and was ready to discuss the material in class. I averaged a B/C+ for her class my senior year.

I also had the opportunity to connect further with Mrs. Scoggan through Mount Zion mission trips. I was privileged to be team leader for these trips. We did several outreaches locally and one to Philadelphia where I already had some connections. I had a true alliance with Mrs. Scoggan. I made sure she knew I was a hard worker and wanted to succeed in her class.

Spirit Week at Mount Zion School

Spirit Week at Mount Zion School

Redemption, A Dream Came True

My grades increased substantially at Mount Zion, although I still struggled with some classes. Most of my classmates were college bound. Mrs. Scoggan helped me put together my college letter. I applied to several colleges. My first acceptance was from a school in Wisconsin. I was very excited and proud! My second acceptance was from SNHU, the same school my junior year chemistry teacher at Memorial told me was impossible for me to get into. I was super happy when I saw I was accepted there. I felt encouraged and energized.

Graduation at Mount Zion School

Graduation at Mount Zion School

I had come a long way. By taking full ownership of my academics, I made my actions reflect my intentions. I knew if I wanted to get accepted to college, I had to work hard for fair consideration. And I did that by focusing first on what I needed to do to improve my grades. Transferring to Mount Zion Christian School was one of the best decisions of my life. I am sure if I stayed at Memorial, my learning gremlins would have taken over since I did not have support and encouragement from the teachers whose courses I was failing.

A Different Student In College

In College, I was a different student. I went from getting Cs and Bs—and sometimes Ds and Fs in Middle School and High School to becoming an Honor and higher Honors student in College. The passion I had for learning was ignited in college. The work ethic I developed my senior year at Mount Zion proved to me I could do what was required and then some. Time management was very important for my learning success. I spent a lot of time reading and dissecting the materials outside of class. I was always participating in class. I ended up going to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire—the only school in New Hampshire that offered International Relations as a major.

I had great professors with whom I developed great relationships. My freshman year, I had a very difficult English writing teacher named Andrew Morgan. All the freshman had to take two semesters of English writing courses. Professor Morgan did not play around. He was a little harsh for a college professor. His attendance and tardy policy was no joke. I worked very hard in his class. He did not care about memorization and summarizing texts. He cared about analyzing and the writer's voice. It was similar to the analyses my senior year English teacher introduced me to, only deeper. We needed to submit a portfolio by the end of the semester. It was worth half of your grade. I worked very hard on mine and thought I was going to get an A. I ended getting a B- for the portfolio and the class. I was very disappointed. I saw other students who barely put in the effort but got better grades than I did. Over the duration of the class, I developed a relationship with Professor Morgan. It seemed like, at first, he was sizing me up, figuring out what I was all about. I participated in class and showed him respect. I asked questions every time he handed me back my graded work to learn how I could do better.

Deo's Study Spot at New England College's Library Freshman Year

Deo's Study Spot at New England College's Library Freshman Year

During spring class selection, I decided I wanted him as my English teacher again. I liked how he challenged me and what I learned from him. In part two of the required English class, I worked super hard. It was good to know we already had an established relationship. I would talk to him after class about the approach I was taking with my writing and he provided me with great feedback. I ended up completing his course with an A-.

During my senior thesis, I selected three faculty members to be part of my advisory board. Strategically, I selected a history teacher, political science teacher and professor Morgan as my English teacher. He was delighted I selected him. He helped me a great deal to contextualize my argument. My thesis counted toward both my International Relations major and my Modern European History major. Collaborating with professor Morgan for my senior thesis brought my college experience full circle. If someone told me on the first day of English class my freshman year that I was going to select him for my second English class, and that one day I would ask him to be part of thesis advisory group, I would have told them they were crazy!!

Deo at New England College Graduation 

Deo at New England College Graduation 

Take Aways And Reflection

Learning is an art form driven by many movements. The power is in ownership of the process. I came a long way from middle school to high school and to college. Even now I still have certain things I continue to work on every day to improve as a learner. In the beginning, the education system almost took my passion away because the results did not reflect my commitment and work ethic. I was fortunate to change my path during my senior year in high school. This provided me with a chance to redeem and prove myself.

Learning is about taking ownership and developing/having foundation skills. Ownership is one of many non-cognitive skills. Some like to call them soft skills, self-efficacies. Foundation skills are critical thinking, reading, writing and understanding basic math. Some students have developed foundations skills through reinforcement by their family, community, and the schools they attended during their early learning stage. Those foundation skills are instilled through repetitions. I had a dream and goal of one day going to college and had some learning strengths and weaknesses. Some of my foundation and ownership skills were weak. During the second half of my sophomore year, I allowed distractions and my environment pull me away from developing the proper skills I needed to make my dream of attending college a reality. I did not have the kind of reinforcement I needed from some of the teachers of my difficult classes. I did not have the proper structure for seeking help at home. My mother worked two jobs at times and was still struggling with her English. She was there for moral support and enforcing discipline but could not help me with the content of my studies. I also had to spend a lot of my time after school working several jobs to provide for myself. I am thankful that, at the end of my junior year, I recognized the need to take ownership and change my environment in order to have a chance at academic success. I am grateful to Mount Zion School, board chair Nick Dager and headmaster Bob Carter for giving me the second chance I needed to prove to myself that I could get the job done. I am also very grateful for the opportunity to attend New England College and for the relationships I developed there.

Today, we need teachers to motivate and ignite learning, teachers who will guide students through difficulties and never give up on them. We need teachers to help students find different outlets, which allow them to engage and demonstrate their learning in modalities that support their learning style—without compromising foundational skills. When teachers do this, academic redemption is not only possible; it’s probable. And I’m living proof of that.

 

 

What is the right way to protest?

Photo by Vinny Mwano

Photo by Vinny Mwano

The arguments about how to protest cannot be understood without first examining the different factors that contribute to them. To begin with, moral judgment influences the arguments. It is important to dissect how personal morals and values shape everyday life. Look beyond the emotional impact of the situation.  Other factors, not usually in the forefront, come into play when people discuss effective protesting methods. I personally don't take a side in this argument. I do not support violent or disruptive protesting that causes harm. But I also do not feel it is my responsibility to decide the right or wrong way for someone else to protest. Especially, if it is personal and meaningful to them.

Photo by Vinny Mwano

Photo by Vinny Mwano

I host a community discussion on Race and Inclusivity focused on a “We Are All Human" theme. The goal of the community is to help people learn and interact with others. We have to find common ground that decreases our conflicts and strengthens our unity.

Photo by Vinny Mwano at We Are All Human event at SNHU Sandbox

Photo by Vinny Mwano at We Are All Human event at SNHU Sandbox

Protesting is always a hot topic. In the last community forum, we had a passionate disagreement regarding the right way to protest. I argued that only the person who is protesting can legitimately weigh in on the issue. The protester is deeply invested in the outcome of the conflict because he or she has both the most to lose and the most to gain. Protest itself is an acknowledgment of having less power than the people, company or institution the person is protesting against. And it’s often the people with the most to lose or gain who will go to any extreme to attract attention and amplify their advocacy.

Photo by Vinny Mwano at a protest in Boston

Photo by Vinny Mwano at a protest in Boston

On the receiving end, people distinguish the different types of protesting methods they tolerate. What I often hear from the receiving side reflects personal morals and values. But that doesn’t entitle them to tell protesters the right or wrong way to protest. Even in the context of effective protesting, that determination lies with the protester. Protesters set their goals. The outcome and impact measure the effectiveness. The methods the protester uses depends on how far they are willing to go. The actions taken by the protester takes to advocate and amplify their cause is a risk. The methods used are where the conflict lies most of the time. Outsiders, who disagree with the cause or the method of protesting, tend to assess the conflict according to their own personal morals and values.

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at a protest rally in Boston.

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at a protest rally in Boston.

Webster defines the word protest as a complaint or objection against an idea, an act, or way of doing things. An event in which people gather to show disapproval of something.

I often hear people invoke Morals and Values as a way to compare Right and Wrong. This would be valid if we all shared and lived by the same morals and values. And if they were translated into our everyday actions. The reality is we do not. Everyone has his or her own morals and values that they strive to live by. This makes it hard to establish a universal truth to right and wrong in the context of how we behave and act within our moral/values. I am not saying everything is relative. Each case is different. Those who believe in some sort of absolute truth still fall short in using such truth as a guide for their everyday actions.

Google’s definition of Moral is “holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.”

Google’s definition of Value is “a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.”

Right and Wrong is very subjective in how it plays out through actions. I am arguing we should consider Right and Wrong in terms of our everyday actions, not our intentions. If you separate yourselves from your actions and identify more with your mindsets and intentions, then you are truly not living your core values. Is the best version of yourself influenced by how you act out your core values?

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We all struggle to be the best version of ourselves. The best version of yourself is influenced by many things: religion, social system, family, environment, and education. The best version of yourself changes constantly. While we aspire to be the best version of ourselves, we face challenges every day to be that person. Most of us are generous to ourselves regarding the failure of our actions to consistently align with our Core Values and Morals.

The disconnect between how you view yourself based on values changes when reflected on others. Some place themselves on a pedestal when comparing personal values to others. But it is our actions alone that reflect your values—not how you measure them in a vacuum or in comparison to others. If you agree that values influence what you consider Right and Wrong, then it is important to evaluate how this plays out in your actions. If you also agree that Right and Wrong is subjective, then that understanding should be a major factor in your expectations and how you treat others. Especially regarding issues about which you don't agree. Empathy and tolerance should not be limited to your own positions or to those you align with. It should extend to those you disagree with and have a moral conflict with.

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at We Are All Human event

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at We Are All Human event

We naturally judge and become defensive when someone challenges our values. It is normal, but we forget we compromise our morals and values frequently. We let our morals and values down every day, by the hour and minute. We are very quick to persecute those who challenge us. We become condescending and defensive. We overlook the reason for the conflict and take offense at others’ beliefs.

Differences in morals and values create conflict. Is it possible we can find a solution by connecting our own personal battles and compromises with how we handle others?

We spend most of our time protecting our feelings and never create the space to better understand the protesters’ intentions. It becomes a them vs. us battle. We use anything we can to sabotage those protesting. We put up walls and never let the other side in, even when we know deep inside we acknowledge certain ideas. We dismiss the reasons for the protest and spend all of our time condemning their methods. We are disappointed the protesters did not consult with us. And their actions offend us.

Instead of disagreeing with the protesters’ methods or what they are advocating, invest time to fully understand the reasons why and how it connects back to their intentions. I leave you with some questions to consider:

Is it possible for you to look beyond your feelings of being offended and try to find tolerance and respect for those you oppose?

Put yourself in their shoes. If you were advocating for something that was important to you, and your last course of action was to expose yourself and protest, how would you want others to receive your cry and treat you?

How do you reach collaboration and negotiation as a common goal to overcome your differences and find tolerance? 

 

Loss of ownership: Take it back! Are black NFL players up to something?

Image taken from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-louis-armstrong-to-the-nfl-ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity

Image taken from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-louis-armstrong-to-the-nfl-ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity

Take back what is yours. Invest in your community. Help your people move forward and earn equal bargaining power as other ethnicities in America have done.

How can a culture be so creative, authentic, original, and resourceful but lack the ability to shine beyond other cultures? When I say shine beyond other cultures, I am referring to self-sustainability and bargaining power. Black culture in America relies too much on white power and control.  Black culture lacks the ability to sustain itself because black leaders are too eager to preserve and value individual uniqueness instead of what binds us together. Community unity and community investment are lacking tremendously. This has negative consequences because when individuals in a community feel disconnected from one another—for any reason—they can easily be tempted by self-gain. On the other hand, if they see themselves as integral parts of their communities, tempting them with self-gain would be virtually impossible.

Deo speaking to students in Minneapolis. 

Deo speaking to students in Minneapolis. 

Invest vs. instant gratification?

Instant gratification. The black community is programmed to indulge. Not to preserve benefits for future members of our ethnicity.  These statements are very general and the focus is to highlight the impact of what is missing. (It is fair to state that not all black people behave this way.)

Slavery, oppression and marginalization programmed us. Slave masters favored certain blacks and provided them with more privileges. Those blacks indulged in the opportunity of better living conditions. Survival of the fittest was the prevailing law and these “privileged” blacks were trained to protect what they gained and hate whomever the master did not favor.  We were taught to hate each other and not form alliances. We were afraid to advocate for the rights of others because we did not have any rights ourselves. We did not want to anger the master by disobeying him. The repetition of these conditions destroyed our concept of unity. Our minds were programmed to always work towards favoritism from white leaders or those in power.  

Image taken from:https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/12/18/how-slaves-built-american-capitalism/

Image taken from:https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/12/18/how-slaves-built-american-capitalism/

Programming a dysfunctional culture

As the black community started to fight for their rights and gained some momentum, the focus shifted from slavery to dependency.  We were given just enough freedom to make us grateful but not free. White leaders always remained a step ahead of us, creating rules and regulations on how to continue exploiting and benefiting from our talents and creations. Their strategies held us captive to circumstances that translated to financial gain for them.

Image taken from:http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/beginnings-black

Image taken from:http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/beginnings-black

Education was restricted. White leaders feared the more we learned and discovered knowledge, the more power and insight we had to advocate for ourselves. They did not want us to overcome the bondage of slavery, oppression, and captivity. In a continued effort to deflate our power, they did not allow us to design a mainstream education system or process things our way. They required us to operate from a disadvantaged position so they could always remain one step ahead of us. Conditions remained harsh to ensure that.

Black leaders who stood up for our rights and challenged the status quo were marginalized and persecuted, even during the civil war with the North advocating to end slavery. In fact, most American politicians held beliefs that did not fully recognize black equality and freedom. In the 1900s blacks fought to preserve the originality and ethnic sovereignty that black leaders first fought for in the 1800s. White leaders who watched “non-rule abiding” black leaders rise to power were scared by the agenda of a unified black culture. Countless black leaders were persecuted. Many were assassinated. Black ideologies, which embraced self-sustainability and dared to promote educational access and equality, drove these assassinations.

Image taken from: http://www.businessinsider.com/inspiring-martin-luther-king-jr-quotes-2017-1

Image taken from: http://www.businessinsider.com/inspiring-martin-luther-king-jr-quotes-2017-1

Black leaders never quit advocating for the idea of self-sustainability. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are two of the most memorable and influential leaders of the turbulent 1960s. Both lives ended in horrible assassinations. Poverty forced some blacks to create other methods to share their stories and to assert their freedoms in areas more receptive than politics. They embraced expression through sports, music, and dance. In each of these methods, they found great success. Those who took the sports path demonstrated physical abilities that surpassed many white athletes. In the mid to late 1900s, black music and dance was authentic, original, and disruptive. They provided a medium of expression to communicate pain, joy, happiness, and frustrations.  

Image take from:https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/02/16/black-history-malcolm-x/23533051/

Image take from:https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/02/16/black-history-malcolm-x/23533051/

We prevailed through centuries of persecutions and oppressions. During these treacherous time periods, we never stopped creating. We took ownership of our creations in the 1900s when arts, music, education, innovation, and entrepreneurship finally hit Main Street. Amidst all the segregation and oppression, we found our identity. Mainstream white culture adopted and monetized it. We were cornered by our own creations. Some blacks, seeing no good way at the time to break into the white mainstream world, quickly gave up ownership for a small gain instead of preserving and sustaining art within the black culture.

Image taken from:https://americansongwriter.com/2008/12/concord-music-group-to-reissue-ray-charles-post-1960-catalog/

Image taken from:https://americansongwriter.com/2008/12/concord-music-group-to-reissue-ray-charles-post-1960-catalog/

Today most black leaders are sellouts. They spend more time focused on their own gain than investing substantially into our culture. The black community contributes tremendously to the US GDP. Sports and entertainment are leading cash cows. These two categories hold a great number of successful black contributors. (This may be too controversial for you to learn or understand what I am suggesting.) Black athletes and entertainers need to put pressure on the top executives to increase black leadership representation. If that’s not possible, they should pull out, take a pay cut, and run their own entity that benefits black culture. If we do not advocate for ourselves, then no one else will. Others may try, many may even have the best of intentions, but they do not fully represent who we are. So their “solutions” will inevitably lack the relevance that only we can provide.

Disruptive recommendation

My recommendation is simple. Embrace the community model. Tune out noises and other cultural influences and focus on your own culture. Leverage the power you have and invest money to create self-sustaining infrastructures. Self-sustaining infrastructures require unity, ownership, sacrifice, resourcefulness, and collaboration. Focus on the basic needs first; health insurance, nutrition, safe homes, better education, and monetary assistance. Before you can help others get where they want to be, you first need to meet them where they are.  

Deo presenting to a neighborhood in Queens NYC.

Deo presenting to a neighborhood in Queens NYC.

Black leaders must learn to sacrifice short-term financial gains in order to maintain ownership. By sustaining our communities, black leaders will create sustainable preservation methods. These methods will lead to a mindset shift that will influence other black people, giving them the tools they need to preserve their ownership power in their own environment. The more this is amplified, the more you will see the black culture in America begin to change. Over time, more blacks will identify with black leaders who pave the way, and who also invest back into their communities to push them forward.

Deo speaking to students in Pittsburgh, PA.

Deo speaking to students in Pittsburgh, PA.

Ownership does not mean separating yourself from other cultures and making yourself exclusive to your culture alone. It’s about prioritizing and urging black people to think of their bigger contribution. A contribution that improves society and moves the black community forward. This assertive model gives black people in America the power to put value in the things they created and contributed to this country. Value that many people benefit from but tend to take for granted. It is time we take the credit we have earned. This approach will increase our bargaining power. And it reminds other cultures of the importance of black people in America, what we contribute, and why we deserve fair treatment.

 

 

Temporary Freedom to Paradise Lake

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Refugee Camp, Moving to Benin

My family and I found ourselves living in a refugee camp in Benin. We moved to Benin after living in a secret refugee camp in Kinshasa, capital of Republic Democratic of Congo, for a few months. Benin represented hope, freedom and a chance for a new life. The refugee camp was located in the village of kpomasse, an hour drive from civilization and bigger cities. In general, Benin was a beautiful place. In the rural villages, fruits and vegetables grew everywhere. Benin was also a very mystical place. Voodoo is practiced there. In fact, Benin is the birthplace of voodoo.

The refugee camp was state of the art, with tin roofs and brick walls. For refugees, it was pure luxury, living the high life. The camp was divided into three parts. About 2,000 people lived there at the time. There was the Ogoni tribe from Nigeria (longest) and Togolese from Togo. There were also freshly-resettled Congolese, mostly Rwandans and Burundians refugees, who went to Congo after the genocide and were then being massacred by Congolese people because of the civil war. In the Congolese side of the camp, most people knew and looked out for each other. I started school with other kids in the camp attending a local elementary school with Native Beninese. At school, I learned about a secret paradise lake nearby. My friends and I plotted a plan to go see the lake and swim in it. For weeks and weeks, we discussed our plans. I was eight years old at the time. It sounded like the perfect trip to take outside of the camp. The day came when I and five of my friends decided we were going to find the secret lake. It was Sunday around 11:30 am. I told my mother I was going to play with my friends. My mother said that was fine. I was excited! I met up with my friends near the main camp gate and then ventured out.

Deo at the refuge camp with some of his friends

Deo at the refuge camp with some of his friends

On the Road to Paradise Lake

It was a hot day. We started our journey on a red dirt road heading east. Sometimes we stopped to eat. We didn’t bring any food with us, but the forest offered an abundance of things to eat—oranges, bananas and apples. After walking for about an hour, we reached the end of the dirt road and headed through the bushes. Our excitement about finding Paradise Lake kept us filled with energy. We were singing, dancing and telling stories about some of our favorite actors—Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Dame and Jackie Chan. Sometimes one of us would start demonstrating the fighting moves from one of their movies. The voodoo practices of Benin were visible once we started walking through the bushes. Claimed territory was marked and the first mark I saw scared me. One of my friends was climbing an orange tree to grab us some snacks. While I waited, I leaned back on another tree. Suddenly, another friend screamed and cried, “Deo! Move away from the tree!” Skulls hung from the branches. On another branch was a basket containing rotten mangoes, oranges and bananas. I thought it was either a territory mark or some kind offering. Either way, I didn’t like it.

Immediately, we helped our friend get off the orange tree. We started running. We ran so fast our hearts pounded and our chests hurt. We stopped to catch our breaths. Then we heard some loud cheering. The closer and closer we got to the noises, the more openings there were in the bushes. It sounded like chanting and drums. When we walked out of the bushes, we found ourselves in middle of a local soccer game. Music played loudly on the radio and people played drums and chanted for their team. The natives knew we were from the refugee camp. They were very friendly. We asked one gentleman if he knew where the lake was. The man pointed.

Reaching Paradise Lake

Paradise lake in Benin over seeing Togo.

Paradise lake in Benin over seeing Togo.

We had been walking for two hours. As the noise of the soccer game faded, we found ourselves walking on the property of local villagers. People would stop and look at us and smile. Benin folks were very friendly. We passed more voodoo displays. But now we were less afraid of them.

We came to a small town with cars and local market. People were selling fish and smoked meat. And then we saw it. On the right was the beautiful lake—Paradise Lake! I looked at with excitement and smiled. But before I could say anything, my friends ran towards the water, taking their clothes off on the way. Once in the water, we cheered, screamed and splashing each other. “Woohoo!” I shouted. “I knew we’d find it. This is awesome.” We sang, danced and messed around. I was very happy. At that beautiful moment, I had no worries. All my problems were washed away. The water was calm and clear. Being away from the refugee camp, I felt free.

One of my friends sat on the rock watching us play. He screamed out, “Hey guys, do you think anyone will be looking for us?” We had left the camp without telling anyone. My other friends told him to chill, that everything would be fine. We played for another thirty minutes. Then we headed back through the bushes.

Heading back to the camp

On our way back, we told jokes and sang and danced. Time passed quickly. Luckily, we make it back to the camp just before the sundown. I don’t know about you, but I was not going to be walking around the bushes of Benin with all the voodoo stuff around in the middle of the night. When we reached the front gate of the camp, we said goodbye and parted ways. Alone now, it suddenly hit me. I had been away from home for seven hours. And I didn’t tell my mom or my brothers where I was going. And my mother was not a type of woman to play around with.

Confronting my mother

My mother is in the front wearing the blue jeans. This picture was taken at the refugee camp.

My mother is in the front wearing the blue jeans. This picture was taken at the refugee camp.

My heart beat fast. I was sweating heavily. I thought maybe I should lie and say that I was at my friend’s side of the camp playing and I lost track of time. I arrived home still wondering how I could explain my seven-hour absence. But I could say something, my brother Vinny said, “Mom Deo a ye.” Mama Deo is here.

My mom said, “Deo!”

“Mama nazo ya, nazo ko kende kosokola,” I said. Mom, I’m coming. I’m going to wash first. Our shower was outside.

My mom said, “Yaka awa.” Come here.

I took a big breath and swallowed. I walked in the room and my mother shut the door behind me. She asked me, “Okendaki Wapi?” Where did you go?

I just looked at my mother. Again she asked, “Okendaki Wapi?” And when she added that I was not going to disrespect her, I knew the beat down was about to happen.

I looked around for something she might hit me with. If there was something, I thought that maybe I could distract her from picking it up. She said “Yaka awa” Come here. I prayed under my breath, Lord please help me. I took one and half steps towards my mother and anticipated a slap. But then there was a knock on the door and someone said, “Bernadette, kosimba yete.” Don’t touch him. Bring him outside. I opened the door and saw a group of people, including my friends, standing in a common area in front of my home. My head was down. I walked towards my friends. Some were crying. Others were just watching. I joined my friend in the center.

One of the elders said “ponpage,” which meant pushup position. We got down in pushup position. Some of our other friends, who had not gone to paradise lake, watched and laughed. It was very embarrassing. But this wasn’t the worst of it. Someone next to the elder held six belts. He handed one to the elder. Then it began. We all received fourteen lashes. For every lash, the elder gave a speech. One, I still remember. He said, “We did not make it out of Congo for you guys to die here in the village of Benin.” The lashes hurt. After mine, I heard my mother’s voice. She screamed in front of everyone, “Nasa na bmeli, kuta ye.”  I have a knife, let's cut him for disobeying. I was like, Oh hell no!!!!! Everyone screamed back, “No, no, no, Bernadette! He has learned his lesson. My mother retreated. As the crowd dispersed, I got up slowly from the pushup position. I walked away with my head down. My back hurt terribly. But the worst pain was the pain of shame and feeling I let my mother down.

Conclusion and Reflection

Perspective changes when you have your own children. This is a photo of my kids.

Perspective changes when you have your own children. This is a photo of my kids.

Looking back at this event as an adult, it means much more to me than when it occurred. I was one of the lucky ones, having spent only two and half years in a refugee camp. Most refugees today spend 10 to 15 years. It is important to understand that this took place in a different continent with different cultural practices. It is easy to be judgmental about these practices. In order to fully understand it, you must separate it from the context of your own life—the rules, regulations, moral standards and disciplinary practices you live by.

At the time, being eight years old for me felt like I was 18 years old in the US. I would say the same for some of my friends. We went through so much that forced us to grow up fast. We had a lot of responsibility given to us from our parents. At that age, I was taking care of my brothers and was the father figure of my house when my mother was not around. I washed my bothers, fed them, changed their diapers and protected them.

The discipline we received might rub you the wrong way if you view it in relation to your standards and your preference. Physical discipline was part of my upbringing when I was a child. It is not a right or wrong argument. It was part of my culture. It was how my parents and some elders instill respect, discipline and obedience. But sometimes when I was disciplined, it went overboard. I remember when I was in third grade, and I forgot my homework. A teacher hit me several times with a ruler on the tip of my fingers. This was normal in the society I grew up in. I would also say that it informed a lot of my behaviors as I was developing as a young child. I associated bad consequences with physical discipline. I am not a supporter of physical discipline, as a father of three today living in the most utopian nation in the world. I find the most effective way to discipline my kids is to take away things they really enjoy playing with. But the physical discipline worked for me as I was growing up. I feared the punishment.

The elders, who disciplined us, cared and wanted the best for us. And they actually lessened the intensity of the discipline we would have received from our parents. They wanted us to be safe and not risk our lives by leaving the camp on our own. We were all strangers brought together in this refugee camp by life and death situations with the hope of receiving a second chance to start over. We looked out for each other. We built relationships with each other and supported each other. If another parent saw you misbehaving and your mom or dad was not around, they would stop and confront you. This is very different than the US, people tend to mind their own business and keep moving. There are fewer shared community values for moving children forward collectively in their neighborhoods and schools. It is very isolated.

My mother is on the right with white shirt and hair down. She is standing with some of the elders and friends she made at the camp.

My mother is on the right with white shirt and hair down. She is standing with some of the elders and friends she made at the camp.

The discipline hurt and it was humiliating, but it was needed in order to instill character and discipline in us. When my mother screamed “cut him,” it was out of frustration. She was not going to really cut me with a knife. She was a single mother in her twenties with four children doing a hell of job trying to protect and provide for us. At times when we rebelled, it was overwhelming for her. I am not justifying my mother's emotional reaction. But it is important to keep in mind the context of this story: different culture, different environment and a lot of uncertainties.

How would you handle being in this situation?  

If you ask me today, “Would you still have gone to paradise lake if you knew what the consequences be?” what would my answer be? I’d say, “Heck, yeah. I still would have gone!” As an eight-year-old going on 18, living in that camp, I was fully aware of our situation as refugees. I did not have much time to reflect on the impact of what was going on. I focused on the responsibilities that were given to me, but I also pursued any opportunity for me to be a child. Venturing out to discover paradise lake was exciting and freeing. For a few hours, I did not feel like I was confined to a refugee in a camp in the middle of nowhere. I was free forever—at least for those few hours.

 

Confronting fear to stop hate

Video blog on the biracial boy who was strangled by his friends in New Hampshire. Our social system has failed to teach us how to confront our biases.

Confront your Fear to Stop Hate. We fear what we do not know because it is not what we are used to. The problem with fear is that sometimes it creates hate. In order to confront your fear, you need to confront biases and spend time learning from those who are different from you.

What I learned from coaching adult learners.

The importance of relationship building when coaching adult learners. What I learned from coaching adult learners.

Students who take control of their learning end up succeeding. Working with adult learners from all over the country in an Online Competency Based Education taught me this. I was very fortunate to be selected as part of a team of six educators to help design the coaching model for a new competency-based education program for a nationally recognized university. I never thought I’d be working for a University in that stage of my life. At the time, I had just completed graduate school and I was on a path to land a job with the Department of State. 

At the university, I was fortunate enough to work with innovative people who were very passionate about the learning model they were creating. Early on, I felt we were building something special, even though I did not know how it was going to play out. I was excited about the potential of building a student-centric learning model that empowered students to take learning ownership. I was intrigued by the different ways students engaged with their learning and how coaching helped them to modify their behaviors and boosted their ability to facilitate learning success.

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When my colleagues and I started to design the coaching model, we relied heavily on the student experience. When we launched our largest pilot in 2013, we scrapped 75% of what we put in place before the pilot. The students in the pilot behaved very differently from what we expected. We realized then that our students were unique with circumstances unlike traditional online students. Most had not considered traditional online universities before coming to our program. They were nontraditional adult learners for whom, at the time, the online learning model did not work. Credit-hours models did not fit their work schedule and commitments. Being in virtual or physical classes for certain amounts of time—without personalization and flexibility—was not sufficient or obtainable. Plus, the cost for online courses was too high to risk, given that they might be unable to finish. But with our program, they had nothing to lose. The first nine months of the pilot was free and, after that, most of our employer partners paid student tuition for an entire year. Tuition for a year in our entire program equaled the cost of two classes in a traditional online program.

When we were designing our coaching model, we thought offering our pilot program for free would keep students engaged. We were wrong. What attracted students and what kept them coming back were entirely different. Our program curriculum didn’t depend on teachers delivering content. This made the program super flexible for students to access and do their work. The courses were pre-designed. Each course had clear objectives and desired outcomes in a competency format that included all the course content and resources. The program provided opportunities for students to work on the learning deliverable anytime, anywhere, as long as they had access to a computer, tablet, smartphone and Internet access. The curriculum was project-based with subject matter experts who assessed student work. It placed students in real life scenarios. They had to come up with innovative ways to solve problems. Most of my students preferred this type of learning model. The program was solely competency-based with progress evaluation and binary grading scale—“Not Yet or Mastered.” The assessment relied on the rubric criteria of each competency to measure how well students demonstrated knowledge. Students had to master 120 competencies to earn an associate degree and an additional 120 competencies to earn a bachelor degree. The competencies were divided into 6-month terms. Each competency had a goal (equivalent to a course). Even though the program was self-paced, some structure was required to keep the students on a path for success and to promote graduation in a timely, cost efficient-manner.

In the first pilot, I learned quickly how the traditional, credit-hour based learning model prevented learners from fully taking ownership of their learning engagement. With the traditional system, students must work within predetermined structures to earn the credits they need to advance. What’s more, there are rigid timelines for taking exams and submitting learning materials. The competency model is flexible, allowing students to demonstrate learning at a personalized pace. Students could also choose from an all-you-can-learn buffet to earn as many competencies as they want within a term. Based on student academic satisfaction and financial aid, we did have to place minimum competency mastery requirements to keep students eligible. But most students—because of their prior work experiences as adults—had knowledge they could tap into for each project. Still, they needed to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise within the context of our program through our project-based learning model. In each 6-month term, students could decide when to submit assignments and projects related to their goal competencies.

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I soon realized that what our program provided was unprecedented. Most of the students I coached were not used to their new power and autonomy. It was overwhelming for some. I spent a lot of my time learning from students how they approached learning. My colleagues did the same and, through this practice, we were able to develop our coaching model. As a result, our coaching model was not simply academic; it was holistic. We realized that our students’ life responsibilities and personal perceptions of their learning abilities impacted their success in our program. We were very bold to take this approach—working with the entire person, not just their academic pursuits. To work independently in an online competency-based education requires a lot of discipline. Our goal was to meet all students where they were and to use their unique experiences with our ongoing support and coaching through the program. We started the pilot with 250 students. By the end of it, we were working with close to 900. The more people we guided through the pilot, the confident we became in our coaching model.

Coaching is popular in education today. It is very different than advising. It is also hard to scale without identifying the metrics with which you are coaching and measuring student success. You need coaching metrics unique to your program to streamline coaching implementation without losing quality. The goals of the coaching model—how it will help students become self-sufficient and take ownership of behaviors leading to their success—must be clearly defined. The better you understand the motivations for students’ success in your program, the more you can establish behavior personas to align with your coaching practices. These personas are used to label the students’ behaviors, not the student. And coaching adapts to those behaviors. In a personalized model, student behaviors change often. You have to keep abreast of current behaviors and not label the students based on the behaviors with which they begin the program. Your team has to identify the skills you want your students to acquire during the coaching sessions. Putting a structure like this in place is important to running an effective coaching model. I have often seen a support system, which is supposed to help students, becomes a barrier that keeps them from developing the skills they need to progress in their learning. And when students do not put in the time to the development of certain skills, they end up relying on tutoring services at their schools to cover the gaps. Under such circumstances, students get lazy. They choose not to carefully proofread their papers or to make sure their grammar is correct because they know the tutoring service will correct their mistakes. Such students never gain the ownership to improve their skills. In our coaching model we wanted to make sure that the students themselves were coming up with next steps and that the skills they needed were obtainable. In a sense, we wanted students to become mad scientists behind their learning by helping them better understand what contributes to their learning success and learning challenges.

The coaching model I helped developed was influenced by many different behavior practices. We took some best practices from academic advising, social work, therapy and executive coaching and fused them. I learned early that the success of our learning model relied on students being committed and resourceful, and embracing challenges. All the things I mentioned were intrinsic behaviors and non-cognitive behaviors that were hard to measure. Over and over in my experience coaching hundreds of students, I found dissecting behaviors to be the key identifier of learning success and challenges. First, students needed to believe that they can do it and be successful in the program. Second, students needed to reserve and protect time to give themselves a chance to engage with the learning. Third, students needed to identify learning strengths and learning challenges within the context of the project. Fourth, students needed to come up with a plan or tactic of how they were going to approach the resources and construction of the deliverable. Finally, students needed to be resourceful and identify a network of support to reach out to when they were stuck, or need to celebrate learning success. We wanted learning to be social even though the program was online and self-paced. We wanted students to invite people in their circle into their learning journey.   

I coached my students to be resilient learners. Many led complex lives, which made it difficult to commit substantial time to the program. I spent a lot of time coaching them how to create the discipline to honor the time they put aside for their schoolwork. I had to learn their most productive spaces— physical or mental. To validate it required real learning touch points from the projects they were working on. Whenever a student completed a project and submitted their work, I would ask them, “What was your approach in this project?” “What led you to complete the project?” “What space did you work in?” “Who was around you to help keep you engaged in your project?” The answers gave me everything I needed to better understand what environment my students worked best in. Then I made sure to validate those spaces whenever new milestones were reached. Of course, in personalized learning, things change very fast. What worked for the last project might not work for the next. Changes at home or work might prevent a student from doing new work around the arranged place and time that worked before.

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A positive relationship with a student is the foundation for a good coaching experience. Such a relationship is necessary to get to the root of the learning success and meet challenges. My students needed to know I was on their team and not there to judge them. They needed to know that I believed they could achieve their goal of obtaining a college degree. They also needed to know I viewed them as creative, resourceful and whole.

The secret to building strong relationship with adult learners is being a good listener, being credible and accountable, and respectful to them and their time. It also requires earning a student’s trust. Some of my students had their own gremlins. Often they had negative experiences with school. I needed to help them approach the learning journey as a new start. I did some research around the importance a “New Start” has on people. I felt it was important for students who joined the program to actualize and embrace that this experience was going to be different from their past experiences. This created a great expectation for them. After becoming more familiar with the various personas, behaviors and experiences of adult learners, I felt I had the tools to coach students effectively—provided they were open to discuss their experience.

By the second year of the program, our coaching department grew. The program had 2500 students. We had to train other coaches in our model. Modularizing coaching practices was challenging. The effectiveness of coaching relied a lot on a coach’s mindset. A coach needed to be accountable and be willing to work to earn the trust respect of the students. We had to simplify our process in order to train other coaches to have the same mindset and approach in their coaching practice. We had many educators nationally wanting to be part of our team. We recruited part-time coaches who worked remotely from all over the country. By year three the program had 4500 students and over 130 coaches. The coaching team worked very hard to help scale the model.

I worked closely with my colleagues to dissect the different challenges our students experienced. I was able to categorize the challenges as academic, personal, time management and accountability. Within each bucket I identified an effective approach, based on my student experience, which led to success. Based on patterns of my other students’ behaviors, I was also able to demonstrate to students ineffective approaches that might keep them from succeeding. I created preventive ingredients to my coaching approach relating to the categories. I found normalizing the experience ahead of time—with general examples and how other students experienced them—helped put some student at ease. When they eventually experienced the challenges, it made it much easier to coach the students through them. Sometimes the students would refer back to the examples I provided when they were naming the challenges they faced. That gave me the tools I needed to coach them through the process effectively. I started to see areas students were taking ownerships. With two other coaches I helped run Reboot pilot, which focused on working with students who had a slow pace and were not as engaged. It was a great opportunity to dig deeper and dissect all of the different moving parts that held students back. It was not about the intentions of the students. Instead we focused on how we could move students from intention to motivation to action. I spent six months running this pilot and, at the end, the team I worked with developed new coaching tools that revisited our regular coaching model. This helped equip coaches to better work with their students.

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Some educators feel coaching is only for students who are struggling. I disagree with that. Coaching is for all students. The relationship is there to elevate the learner to take ownership of their learning success. Part of taking ownership is also celebrating learning success. For students who experience more success than challenges, it is a great opportunity to help them dissect the cause of their learning success. Often some students do not know what contributes to their success. It is important to help them name the process they take to digest new content and identify what helps them retain and demonstrate new knowledge. This is a great step to take to help your students become aware of those success factors. I used to do this a lot with my students once they mastered or completed a project. I would have them reflect on each step they took to complete their project. If they used this approach several times with different projects and assignments, I attached the approach to their method of learning. When I coached them to use their approach to resource content, I brought up what I learned about their approach to see if it was validated. I had a student who used to read first, highlight second, and then go talk to someone about what she learned. Afterwards, she went back to what she originally highlighted before starting putting her learning deliverables together. If she missed a step in the process, I would know. During our coaching call she would bring it up how she was struggling with the content in the resource. I would walk her through her process and identify what threw her off in her process. Once we identify the problem, she had to go back and complete the step. After that, she was ready to move forward most of the time. She loved talking about what she acquired in the readings. I would ask her to explain to me what was interested to her.

There are many moving parts in learning. I learned from coaching adult learners that every movement counts. You have to always meet the students where they are. Let them drive the conversation first. Use your listening skills to prompt the discussion in order to have them reflect on the experience. Once they do that, you will have everything you need to drive the conversation and help them take ownership and identify the different touch points that are impacting their learning. You then have to explore ways they can take ownership of the process and help them become resourceful in addressing the gaps and encourage them to help others in the areas where they excel.

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Coaching hundreds of adult learners and helping design our model over three and half years taught me the value of relationship building and normalizing learning challenges. I was as much of a student in the process and as a coach. I learned that educators take the process of acquiring knowledge for granted. We focus more on outcomes through measurement of knowledge than the process it takes to learn. Learning affects student holistically and vice versa, our human holistics affect how we learn. I believe resiliency and self-efficacy are things you can teach and help others develop. The more breakthroughs I experienced with my students, the more I saw them activate the non-cognitive skills they learned to overcome from previous learning challenges. It was very cool to see them experience new revelations about themselves.

You cannot run an effective coaching model without making the intention/mission of your coaching model visible and alive. Our model valued building strong relationships with our students by treating them with respect and viewing them as creative, resourceful and whole. How we viewed our students dictated how we treated them. More specifically, it guided us when helping them become resilient and self-sufficient learners.

I am forever grateful for the opportunities that allowed me to be in a such an innovative learning environment where I could help people reach their dreams through education.

Identity and Self-Worth

Deo and his childhood friend Komot Gabriel 

Deo and his childhood friend Komot Gabriel 

How I identify myself greatly influences how I accept myself. Much of the influence my parents exerted on me as a child took on a life of its own and eventually grew into my own identity. In our modern society, our identity is often challenged by how others accept us and by the level of privilege we have based on our ethnicity or the color of skin.

Society creates an artificial social norm of expectations. It places people in categories that determines who they should be and influences how and when they are accepted. Race and ethnicity play a big role in this classification, especially in regard to the skin color. This is not just an American issue. It happens all over the world. I experienced this struggle growing up in the Congo and also after resettling in the USA. Ironically, in America, the progressive mentality seems to hide the reality of self-worth of minorities and the poor.

In this article, I will discuss the roots of my identity and self-worth—from living in the Congo through my early experiences in America —and how they influence me today.

Deo in the Congo

Deo in the Congo

Growing up in the Congo, my identity was heavily influenced by my father and mother. My father was a very determined and confident. He instilled those values and principles in my family. His approach focused more on the external presentation. He believed character building needed to be enforced by discipline and obedience to have meaning. Good character was not real unless it was displayed through action. My mother, on the other hand, focused on self-empowerment. To her, a belief of self-worth and perseverance were essential. My mother’s relationship with my father faced many difficulties, largely because she was considered an outsider by her family and, therefore, not accepted. But regardless of the difficulties they had, I was the beneficiary of the strong values they each possessed and displayed. And these values, injected in me in a very young age, influenced my perception of identity and self-worth.

Deo's father, Beauxdoin Mwano

Deo's father, Beauxdoin Mwano

My father’s military background influenced the expectations he had for my family and me. He cared a lot about how we showed up and presented ourselves. In this regard, he was particularly strict with me. I was fine with that. I admired his discipline and how so many respected him and trusted his opinion. He was our family’s patriarch and decision-maker for any situation. And we all benefited greatly from his influence long after he was gone. His legacy provided security for us because people trusted him and valued his character.

After my father’s assassination and turbulence erupted in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, people turned on each other to get by. But thanks to all the good deeds my father did for others, we were secure. No one ever ratted my family out. Seeing the impact my father’s strong character had after he was gone made a huge impression on me. My father did not compromise his personal identity, values or self-worth. He was authoritative but caring, and always had a sense of vision. He knew how to direct and to lead others. And he knew how to delegate. I admired those characteristics and because of the consistency with which he exhibited them, I later adopted them as part of my identity. Of course, consistently displayed values need not come from a parent to be adopted by others. People you are close in your community can have the same impact on you through consistent behavior. In that sense, your community and its consistent influences have a lot to do with your self-worth. As a young child, the complex environment in which I lived had a significant influence on my belief in myself.

Deo and his brother in the Congo

Deo and his brother in the Congo

After my father was assassinated, my mother stepped in as head of the family. It was a difficult time because my family was tested in every way. And the challenges we experienced determined our level of self worth and identity.  My mother is half Burundian and half Congolese. My father’s family did not approve. And it became easier for them to resent my mother after my father was no longer around.  At that time Burundians and Rwandans in the Congo were being massacred by the Congolese in a civil war that resulted from long standing ethnic divisions. In order for us to survive, my mother needed to rebuke her nationality and affiliation to my father. However, claiming her Burundian status kept my family together and helped get us out of the Congo.

Deo, his brother Vinny and mother Bernadette 

Deo, his brother Vinny and mother Bernadette 

When I arrived in the states, I was a 10-year-old boy trying to find my way. The American pace was very different. They were a lot of expectations I put on myself. My mother also had a lot of expectations for my family. Those were the only expectations that really mattered. My mother was still in her twenties at the time with four children and no relatives in the area. It was not unusual for others to view such a young woman with four children and no husband in a strange new country as being helpless. They meant well. They were just looking out for us. But the more people we welcomed into our life, the more pressure we felt by their expectations. Many of the other people we met when we settled in New Hampshire were other immigrants. They thought it was appropriate to impose their values on us. To their credit, most of their advice was aimed to ensure my family had the best chance to succeed. They were trying to help us fit in and play by the rules. The last thing you want to be as a new immigrant in a predominantly white community is unapproachable and to offend others by the way you present yourself. We were advised, among other things, never say no, or to disagree; to avoid being confrontational. All that sounds fine but when you look closer, you start to see how those other immigrants diminished their self-worth and character in order to gain favor with the native white community which then might be more inclined to help them. Not too long, we decided we were not going to take this approach. We were always appreciated what was given to us and grateful to those who wanted to help us, but we made sure we were honest about our feelings in order to maintain our dignity and self-worth.

I am not proud to share the next story because I do not support violence but in this case, it was needed in order to earn some respect.

I attended a local elementary school. I was in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class all day with other students who were new to the states as well. My clothes were probably not the hippest. At the time skinny jeans were not popular. Most of the donation pants I had were all skinny pants. Being so obviously different from other students, I was an easy target for them. There was this boy in the school who was a knucklehead. He used to call ESL students names and make fun of them. The kid was close to my height.  I was not scared of him. One day I was walking home with my brother. The kid and his friend were also walking home. He decided to start making fun of my brother and me.  I still remember this story as if it happened yesterday. I looked at my brother Vinny and told him to hold the dollar store sunglasses I was proudly wearing. I turned around and gave the kid a Jean-Claude Van Damme kick on the face and followed with a Bruce Lee punch to his chest. The boy was knocked out. Someone stopped their car and ended the fight. The next day at school the boy saw me. He said hello to me. Ever since that incident he never bothered my brother and I or anyone else that was in my class when I was around. Confronting prejudice and racism was nothing knew for me. I saw my mother do it multiple times in the Congo and in the U.S. She taught me to stand up for myself, be proud and not let anyone talk down to me.

Elementary School photo, this picture was taken a few weeks after Deo started school in the US.

Elementary School photo, this picture was taken a few weeks after Deo started school in the US.

It was very hard for my family to keep people close. Some African families that came into our lives wanted to take control and dictate how my mother disciplined my brothers and I. My mother was already very strict. She did not mess around. Since I was the oldest of four children, she often made an example of me to get my siblings to tow in line. Some of the families would tell my mother, please do this and do that, watch out for this and watch out for that. There were false expectations they wanted my mother to impose on us kids. These false expectations were the same ones they imposed on their own children. It was hard being a minority in a new country. You try to do whatever you can to make sure your family has an advantage or not experience the prejudice and racism you have. I get where they were coming from. But false expectations only make things worse because self-worth and identity suffers. False expectations would separate us from Black American lifestyle characteristics.

These “helpful” people were afraid that adopting these “negative” characteristics would minimize our chances of being accepted by the masses. They were the “Go Along to Get Along” people. The ones who thought it best to bend to the pressure of expectations. But it was hard for me to disassociate myself from Black American culture or minority groups. Black American culture was part of me. I loved rap music, dance, art and the lingo. Oh man, the grief my mother got when she started braiding my hair when I was in middle school! Shocked people would say, “What were you thinking braiding Deo’s hair?” Clearly, they thought my mother decreased my chance of being considered a good polite and respectful black male. My family lost a lot of friends as result of us taking ownership of our identity and self-worth. She told them to step aside and stop telling her how to raise her kids.

Mwano family time, Deo hanging out with his mother and his brothers

Mwano family time, Deo hanging out with his mother and his brothers

It did not affect us knowing we had to dissociate with some people in order to protect our identity and self-worth. My mother and I had several conversations during this time about the pressure she was getting from others. She knew it was not about how we looked and what we wore on our head or on body. What does a braided head or a Phat Farm, South Pole baggy shirt means about someone’s character? I saw so many families focus so much on the external that they forgot about the internal development. Some immigrant family’s children ended up going down the wrong path. They got caught up in street life, drugs and making quick money. But I would not blame the influence that lead to these failures solely on the parents of those kids. I would blame the immigration system that provides minimum funding to those resettling new immigrants. As it is, the system forces the resettlement agency to place new immigrants in low-income housing, which is often located in high crime neighborhoods. If you do not have enough self-discipline and if you are not exposed to examples of what success looks like for immigrants like you in a new territory, it is easier to accept the harsher way of life lived by those who share your skin color or income level. To confront combat the reality of an external environment, you need to have an internal power cultivated through positive self-identity and self-worth.

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I grew my hair super long in middle school and in high school. I wore baggy clothes and was heavily influenced by the hip-hop culture. My character never drifted totally away from how I identified myself. I was influenced by others but always knew when to steer back to whom I was. The foundation of who I was drove my ambitious to dream big and not allow my income constraints to hold me back. I operated in a way that maximized how I positively viewed myself. I was respectful to others, inclusive and always gave everyone a fair chance. My faith also played an important role in reinforcing my identity.

Deo with long braided hair

Deo with long braided hair

The two self-identifications that took over everything for me were pride in myself and never being envious. My mother instilled in me to never be envious of others. When we were younger, if someone gave her food, she would never share it with us. She wanted to make sure we did not develop an expectation of having other stuff handed to us. We would get punished if we cried about something that belonged to someone else. If we were playing with other kids and they did not want to share their toys and we complained about it, we would get punished. It got so I would not even play with someone’s toys even if they were offered it to me. That became the norm. The feeling of envy was non-existent growing up. That was an important desire not to have. And that helped me a lot.  I went to a private middle school. I had a full scholarship. I was very grateful. I needed to bring my own lunch everyday. Most of my friends bought the hot meal at school. I was completely content bringing my own lunch. I was proud of the food I brought. I never complained to my mother or asked her to give me money to buy lunch. I knew the reality and our limitations. I never pushed it too far. I rationalized everything based on the opportunity that was provided and not by what I did not have. I have noticed that in much of the work I do with different people, envy is always a big factor in what influences people to do certain things. They want to be viewed a certain way so they do whatever they can to depict that image so they can have the approval or acceptance of others. But once you compromised who you are in order to do that, you have left your true self behind.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Today as a father, husband and leader, I find what guides and keeps me focused, regardless of the challenges I face every day, is how I view myself. Access and privilege confronts me lot. I live in one of the richest countries in the world with basic amenities that 75% of the world does not have. This perspective along helps me to acknowledge my privilege and access. I also live in a community where I am connected by so many people who are ready to collaborate and support me on different things. I have trust and respect, which is something I cannot take for granted. Many minorities in America do not have the trust and respect of other cultures. Most maintain a respectful distance and do not want to cross-pollinate because of the preconceived notion of minority groups.

Deo, his wife and children

Deo, his wife and children

I identify challenges by those who accept and include me. Today the lifestyle of my personal environment, community and broader circle confronts my identity and definition of self worth. I tend to stay in the lane that represents me. Sometimes I take some detour. The reality of life for me today is very different than it was growing up. Today I have a little more access to become a little lenient in how I allow my identity to be defined. I am not saying the narrative has changed, although I admit that influences on me definitely change at times. But I am not concerned about that. What I am concerned about is not having the discipline in place to identify when I stray from my narrative.

Deo preparing his pitch as a top finalists 

Deo preparing his pitch as a top finalists 

I view wealth and access as a necessity but not necessarily the main focus. You can still make a big impact without being a millionaire. I find it that the more wealth you have, the more selfish you become. This selfishness comes from the obsession to possess more material things in order to gain a certain status and lifestyle. It is not for me to judge those who pursue that. Security is important. The problem I see is that the drive for material things becomes the main objective and people forget to live. The way you live your life should be an indicator of your identity and self worth. If you have to explain your intention more and more, perhaps people are not seeing the way you see yourself inside.

You have to find opportunities to make your identity come out and then live by it. You have to fight to have ownership of your identity and self worth. Evaluate yourself and identify areas where you can improve. Look for opportunities to uplift others and to help them find their inner selves and take ownership of their identities. Spend more time listening to yourself and take advantage of opportunities to change your behaviors if you see they do not represent you.  To encourage others, you must first make time to listen to them. Listen without judgment. When you identify areas where you can encourage someone to take control, seize the opportunity. Be courageous and tell them. You can always start that conversation by saying: “Here is what I am hearing. I could be wrong. Please let me know if I am.” And then tell them what you are seeing that does not align with how they identify themselves.

For communities that are different from yours, spend time getting to know them before you offer assistance. Your help is only meaningful if it meets the needs of the people you are trying to serve. And, finally, do not be judgmental. Once you are, you lose the opportunity to be helpful. Judgment, prejudice and racism only prevent you from seeing another’s true self.

 

The Artificial Reward of Social Media!

We all get sucked into the gamification of “likes” that is influenced by the algorithm designed for us based on the data we feed it. We forget that certain experiences we see do not accurately reflect the reality of people we admire, love, hate and envy on Facebook and Instagram. Our desire for acceptance and approval gets magnified by the emptiness of our reality.

Dad turns into a hip-hop Zombie

Happy Father's day!

Deo has been working as a coach for the E3 Teen Father program through the New Hampshire Department of Education. The program focuses on helping the teen father graduate from school, gain employment and learn fatherhood competencies through individual personalize success plans. Deo helped design the implementation portion of the program through a partnership with the National Center of Competency Based Learning. Below are the outcomes of this program:

Improved co-parental relationship with the mother of their child and the improved ability to co-parenting
Increased satisfaction with their co-parent and an awareness of their own parenting philosophy;
Increased parenting and co-parenting skills;
Increased their involvement with their child;
Earned their high school diploma and the capacity to apply to an institute of higher education if desired;

Gained the experience to obtain a ‘living wage” position.

    • Effectively reach their goals by learning how to set goals;
    • Plan and follow through on self-determined tasks;
    • Understand their unique learning approach;
    • Be capable of utilizing their knowledge to successfully meet their educational goals;
    • Discover how their efforts and values connect to their goals and learning approach; and,
    • Identify resources in their network and tap into these resources to achieve their goals.