What's in YOUR Backpack?
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
What’s in Your Backpack?
When I was working on my dissertation I unearthed a wonderful quote from Dr. Ruth Adams, dean of my undergraduate college. She said:
“It takes courage to be responsible for one’s own words and deeds and their consequences. We carry history like a pack on our backs, our own personal history, as well as that of our culture and country. What lies behind us, we have with us; and we must be prepared to live with the results of anything we have said or done. It takes courage to carry that pack of our own making.”
I often think about my own backpack particularly as I think about “culture and country” and wondered what living would be like if there wasn’t any social injustices in the world? No wars because one race is more superior than the other, no misunderstandings based upon one’s religious beliefs, and no rape or murders because of your gender or sexual orientation. Life simply would really be simpler…not so horribly complex and unjust.
My parents gave me wonderful gifts to help me fill my backpack. The most valuable has been exposing my bother and me to culture. Our lives were filled with travel, the arts, culture, and intellectual thought. My dad’s work literally took him around the world.
As a result many of his friends and acquaintances came from around the world. We went to their homes, they came to ours. And when I was supposed to be in bed, I used to sit at the top of the stairs listening to their conversations mostly about their travels and what they learned about their experiences. Dad was a wonderful photographer so he often took photos and turned them into slides so he could narrate his experiences for family night (yes this was definitely a precursor to family Netfl
ix night!). One of the best parts about dad coming home from a trip was that he bought me a doll from each country he visited. I have many beautiful dolls. I lived vicariously through his travels and the stories he brought back.
My mom, on the other hand, gave us the gift of the arts. A gifted musician herself, she made sure that we understood music from Wagner to The Temptations, Picasso to Jacobs, and the Schomberg to the Jewish Museum. As small children we went to see Leonard Bernstein host and conduct the Young People’s Concert at the New York Philharmonic’s Carnegie Hall. In our home, every Saturday I had an “imagined front row seat” listening to the featured opera presented by the Metropolitan Opera with Milton Cross as the host. Most times I had one of my mom’s librettos in front of me to help me keep up with the music and the story. My all-time favorite opera is Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. While I don’t speak Italian, I understand enough to know what’s going on in most Italian operas. Growing up outside of New York City in New Jersey, we had access to so many museums and other cultural activities. We went to the cultural events such as the Puerto Rican festival, classical concerts in Central Park, and encountered the lights on Broadway ("Purlie Victorious!" was my first) numerous times.
I also grew up in a town that has the distinction of being the first town in the United States to desegregate its school system. Yes, in May 1964 - Teaneck became the first town in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools. A part of the plan was to create a centralized 6th grade where children were bussed from all over town. While everything wasn’t perfect it did provide an opportunity to meet other kids and come together across racial lines and experience different cultures. And that is exactly what happened.
Why am I telling you this? I’m sharing this because what my parents provided my brother and me was the ability to see difference as a part of who we were. We were not thinking about “difference” at the time. We just lived. We thought it was normal.
It wasn’t until I went to college when I realized how different my peers’ lives were. Many had not left their county, let alone New Jersey, nor travel out of the country. It was shocking to me that my peers believed that in Africa people ran around in loin cloths and bare-breasted as they do in Tarzan. Yes, I heard this many times… in the classroom. I’m just sayin’ -- this was stunning!! Unfortunately, these folks had backpacks that were not filled with the richness and diversity our world has to offer. But how do you ensure that the knowledge gained and lessons learned are beneficial not only to them but to those around them? How do we become better human beings?
One way is to check our own stereotypes that can be one answer as it creates barriers that prevent us from valuing difference. Avoiding people and traditions from different groups deny us a valuable part of our backpack. So consider how to connect and build bridges between yourself and others. At the end of the day learning is not about ‘hey, meet me over the bridge and come learn.’ It’s about, ‘hey, let me cross over the bridge and walk over with you so we can both learn together.’
Ultimately, understanding and becoming culturally diverse is a fundamental component in our backpacks. We must have an increased awareness and understanding of others because it helps us to be better humans. So how does one enrich your backpack? First, get rid of your assumptions and stereotypes about others based upon race, class, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Be willing to admit to your own stereotypes, prejudices, and even bigotry towards others. Are the stereotypes we have about others there because of the person’s actions or because of the stereotype we have given them because we learned them while growing up? The purpose of having these assumptions can only serve as a hindrance to your ability to be truly successful in life.
Second, challenge yourself about your own fears. What do you really have to be afraid of besides your own ignorance? Fear will ultimately prevent you from practicing and modeling good leadership skills. Our country loses a lot of money because of fear. Did you know that our country could be $16 trillion richer if it were not for the inequities between white and black Americans over the past 20 years as reported by a Citigroup study? Just google it!
Last, learn the values and traditions of others and learn to be respectful. Take the first step by reading something you would not normally pick up. There’s so much on the internet so again, Google “top ten books that help me learn about_______.” Lately, I’ve been diggin’ our podcast 3 a.m. What’s Keeping You Up at Night. Be woke!
People thought we were wealthy as I was growing up and we were but not because of money but because of the gifts my parents gave me for my backpack. So, thanks to Mom and Dad for raising me to have the natural inclination to seek those and include those who’s lives are different than mine. Today, I want to be able to tell anyone who’ll listen to stuff as much as you can into your backpack called life. It will make you a better human because of the courage it takes to step out of your comfort zone.
So…what’s in your backpack?
Dr. Jocelyn Briddell is our anchor blogger who continues to guide this ongoing conversation about civic leadership.