My Why, by Brianna Welch
Throughout the last 15 years of my life I have been deciphering the webs of should's and should not's, the conventional definitions of success versus the less traveled path. I have begun to mold my internal foundation, separating out my authentic self and values from the expectations and norms I've been fed all my life. It hasn't always been easy. I have often felt lost -- or that I just don't "fit". Fortunately, I have come to realize that I am not alone. Each individual has so much to give -- to learn, to grow, to build, to share --- and it is my hope that I can devote my time, my energy and my life to supporting people in getting there.
We all grow up being fed a particular narrative about who we are, what we are and why we are, our whole identity wrapped up into one line: “he’s a top athlete, doesn’t quiet have the brains, but definitely should get a full ride”, “she’s the most intelligent in her class; ivy league potential”, “her parents didn’t go to college so I don’t know why she even tries”, “I don’t know why anyone would give him a chance, he’s so feminine and spends all his time focusing on choir”. Is there ever a time when we are given the chance to define our story for ourselves, to envision the possibilities, to be curious and creative? How often are we encouraged by adults, our peers, or our teachers to look deeper and ask the question, who do I want to be? What is important to me? And how can I get there? Not very often. These encounters are few and far between.
This culture of suppressing, labeling and fitting people into a particular mold, and of silencing our internal voice, is one that is pervasive throughout all of our institutions, including our education systems, and robs us of discovering our true self before we even have a chance. For me, my mom was the one who felt the pressure from the outside to silence and control the true Brianna.
“You should take her to see a specialist, she pushes back in the classroom and none of the teachers can handle her.”
These were the messages that were fed to my mom very early on when I was in pre-school. It took less than five years for our society to realize, “she doesn’t fit, she’s questioning and pushing back too much, there must be something wrong with her”. My mom knew I was tough, and to this day she said that as a one-year-old it was apparent that I had a strong-willed, do it myself attitude. However, she did end up bringing me to a child psychologist just to see what the fuss was about.
I am so grateful for the experience that I had with the psychologist and I fear what would have happened, and who I would have become, if it had gone differently. Thankfully, she did not agree with my teachers but rather, she told my mother one thing that I hold with me to this day,
“There is nothing wrong with Brianna, she’s just marching to the beat of her own drum.”
This pattern of doing things “my way” as a young child and throughout adolescence evolved into a teenager who was able to figure out her passions and have the motivation to pursue a dream. It translated into a vocal and action-oriented college student who pushed to transform the current culture, and an assertive and values driven adult that has learned (and continues to learn) the importance of being the author of ones own story and clarifying what it means to live life fully. However, this progression – this journey – was not, and is not, without feelings of isolation and loneliness, of "I don't knows", fear and doubt.
My story is strongly shaped by two identity markers: 1. A strong-willed, fiery, do-it-yourself attitude and 2. My identity as a runner. The work that I do today, and the passion that drives me to empower others to discover and live their most authentic life, is a direct result of these experiences over the last 20+ years of my life. I started running at 5 years old but even at that young age it didn't take very long for me to jump into the competitive scene. I had always trained at a high level and by 8-years-old I was traveling into New York City 6 weeks out of the winter to race at the Colgate Women's Games. My clearest memories of that time were of me and my mom going into our den, putting the treadmill on a 7% hill and doing intervals until I got lactic and dizzy. But to be honest, I loved it. It was pushing myself to my limits, achieving new heights, and accomplishing my goals that drew me to the sport. Most importantly, I enjoyed having something that I could call my own. By 7th grade my identity was marked by a singular unit, an independent individual setting high goals and dedicating herself to a lifelong dream. This manifested itself as being the only girl on the high school varsity cross country team at age 12. Training on my own, breaking state records, and achieving All-American accomplishments naturally set me apart. I was living a very different life than most other 7th graders and for the most part, naïve to any negative chatter.
I'm grateful for my early experience with running as it taught me the importance of having the support and space to truly engage in something that you care about but also the necessity of discovering your own voice, and developing the courage to follow your own path. However, as I grew up through high school and college, I began to see that being yourself, understanding and seeing value in your unique abilities, and pursuing something that may differ from the norm is not the dominant narrative in our society and all of the messages, institutions and people surrounding us make it that much harder to live a life that is truly ours. In fact, the whole process of navigating our cultural norms and being able to stay true to yourself can be very isolating. The messages pervasive throughout our culture are the opposite. We are disempowered. We are not encouraged to ask questions, to challenge the conventional way but rather listen to authority figures, to the external world, and take their word as truth.
The story we tell ourselves and each other needs to change to one that inspires individuals to discover their own passions, to see possibility and potential and to be encouraged to take action on finding meaning and purpose in our lives.
In a similar sense, our society uses identity markers – our race, gender, economic status, sexuality, ability – to place limits on what we can and should do, putting us into a box of “not enough” simply based on the traits that make us who we are. In more ways than not, these markers are used to outcast and shun, demean and degrade, oppress and restrain, because our society has one concept of success, one concept of what is right, one idea of what we “should” do and be. The oppression of specific individuals based on their race and ethnicity and the institutionalized racism that we still witness in this country are not the same thing as the pressure and anxiety that a creative writing student feels from their parents to go to law school. However, they are all are rooted in a common force, a culture of silence, an epidemic that becomes engrained in us and robs us all. It is built on and perpetuated by both the oppression and suppression of bodies and voices. It takes the form of those in positions of authority using their power unjustly, as well as more subconscious forces pervasive throughout the media and our institutions. However, the end goal is the same – to command and control. To prevent us from knowing what it is to truly live, to feel joy, to express and share, to be and to connect. Paulo Freire succinctly depicts our struggle with freeing ourselves in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
They discover that without freedom they can not live authentically. Yet, although they desire an authentic existence, they fear it. The conflict lies in being wholly themselves or divided, between human solidarity or alienation, between being spectators or actors...castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world."
While each and every one of us has the courage within to transform our situation rather than passively watch and accept it, we can only get to that point by developing a critical consciousness of our current reality and see the possibility of a new one As an educator and coach my role is to deconstruct the static view of consciousness and empower others through problem-posing and reflection, through dialogue and co-construction. Engaging in a process of introspection and meaning-making I hope to unlock individuals' creativity and reveal the transformation they are truly capable of.
In my own life and work, whether it is in the sports, education or one-on-one setting my mission is consistent across the board:
Through one-on-one coaching, identity development and culture transforming initiatives, my mission is to empower individuals to tap into their "why" to reach their potential and to re-define our communities so that they are built on positive values and norms of authenticity, diversity and inclusion, agency and self-authorship. We are all interconnected and interdependent; our purposes intertwined, our actions and words shaping each other. Therefore, it is up to each of us to use our individual strengths and creativity to foster a society in which each person is encouraged to write their own story, express their voice, their truth and are surrounded by those who have a genuine investment in ensuring that they thrive. I hope that one day vulnerability, sharing our stories of triumphs and challenges, strengths and pitfalls and building deep and authentic relationships is the norm rather than taboo. A time when our communities are built on values of human connection, compassion, understanding and courage.