By Lisa Pryor
My name is Lisa Pryor. I cannot express how wonderful it is to share space with you in this way. I hope more connections are made, more conversations are had, and more perspective is gained.
I wonder: What has you interested in this work? What brings you to this space?
For me, this work is about creating the spaces and places where people can feel known, seen, understood, and loved. To me, this work is about expanding belonging to everyone, or expanding our everyone. I remember being a child in elementary school and never truly feeling like I belonged. Have you ever felt that way? I could never put my finger on what it was that made me feel this way until I started to engage in this work as an educator. Unknowingly, I started to become the very person I needed when I was a child, in more ways than one. And I know this is why I continue to engage in this work.
I sometimes wonder if people see DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work only as a box to check. I can totally understand how it may come across this way, especially since the death of George Floyd and the rise of “doing” DEI work. However, I see DEI as my entire life. It is embedded in the fabric of who I am. I am from a small city in eastern Ohio called Zanesville. Zanesville, according to Wikipedia, is known for two things: 1) It is one of two places in the world with a Y bridge (like, you can drive to the middle of the bridge and turn left or right . . . there is even a light!); and 2) It has a high population of light-skinned Black people. (Wait, what?)
I was in the high population of light-skinned Black people. I didn’t understand that as a child, but as an adult I can look back and pinpoint exactly when certain individuals were probably viewing me as belonging in certain categories—black, female, child—and because of this I was made invisible, my points invalid. This helped me create a narrative in my mind that I was, somehow, not good enough. I also grew up in a religious family . . . and I am gay. Oh, dear. I spent many years wondering why in the world I was even born, given what I was hearing about myself from individuals who claimed to love me but didn’t truly know me. Would they still love me if I shared the innermost details about who I was? I decided not to risk it and, instead, became a really great liar, or withholder of information, to stay safe. During college, I spent a lot of time explaining myself to people, over and over. “What are you?” “Oh, you’re Mulatto?” “Which one of your parents is white?” “There must be a white person somewhere, right?” “Are you married yet?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” It was nerve-wracking and disheartening. It was also extremely annoying. It wasn’t just the questions that had me feel this way. It was the fact that I actually had no idea who I was or how to answer them.
I guess DEI work is important to me because it helped me become comfortable with me. At 24 years old, I went to my first conference as an educator. This conference was more than anything, unexplainable; it was like finally finding where I belonged. It was the first time I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone, I just got to BE myself. I had the ability to just be and I watched so many others have the freedom to do the same; miraculously, I finally started to get curious about myself. Why am I so light? What do I think/feel about my sexuality? What are my religious beliefs? Am I worthy even if I have been told for so long, inadvertently, that I am not?
As I explored myself more, I wanted to create the same space for as many people as possible. It started with myself and quickly filtered down to my students. I wonder if you are wondering what that looked like? Good question! It literally looked like affirming each person for who they were, not what they did. Seeing them for all the beautiful qualities they each possessed, not cutting them down because they didn’t show up exactly like everyone else. It also looked a lot like asking questions like “Who are you?” and challenging them to “Know thyself.”
Let’s keep it real: Sometimes this process is easier than other times. There are people who just haven’t allowed themselves to see outside of what they currently believe. There are people who, for whatever reason, don’t believe that all people are worthy of being. It’s why I stay involved in this work—because I was subjected to that kind of environment for so long, for far too long. Maybe, just maybe, I can help someone see something different and they can make life better in the process. I know for sure that many of those students who sat in those classrooms with me feel the impact years later. My hope is that you will, too.
This work is an invitation to expand your everyone, to expand the levels of belonging in your small spheres of influence. What is possible when everyone knows they are seen, known, understood, and loved? I’m not 100% sure, but I am betting it is more love and empathy, and that is the world I want to live in.
I hope to include each of you in my everyone and vice versa.