So when I was a little girl, a book sat on the coffee table in our living room, just steps from our front door. And the living room is a first impression. Ours had white carpet and a curio of my mother's most treasured collectibles. That room represented the sacrifices of generations gone by who, by poverty or by policy, couldn't afford a curio of collectibles let alone a middle class house to put them in. That room had to stay perfect. But I would risk messing up that perfect room every day just to see that book. On the cover sat a woman named Septima Clark. She sat in perfect profile with her face raised to the sky. She had perfect salt-and-pepper cornrows platted down the sides of her head, and pride and wisdom just emanated from her dark skin.
Septima Clark was an activist and an educator, a woman after whom I'd eventually model my own career. But more than all the words she ever spoke, that single portrait of Septima Clark, it defined confidence for me before I ever even knew the word.
It may sound simple, but confidence is something that we underestimate the importance of. We treat it like a nice-to-have instead of a must-have. We place value on knowledge and resources above what we deem to be the soft skill of confidence. But by most measures, we have more knowledge and more resources now than at any other point in history, and still injustice abounds and challenges persist. If knowledge and resources were all that we needed, we wouldn't still be here. And I believe that confidence is one of the main things missing from the equation.
I'm completely obsessed with confidence. It's been the most important journey of my life, a journey that, to be honest, I'm still on. Confidence is the necessary spark before everything that follows. Confidence is the difference between being inspired and actually getting started, between trying and doing until it's done. Confidence helps us keep going even when we failed. The name of the book on that coffee table was "I Dream A World," and today I dream a world where revolutionary confidence helps bring about our most ambitious dreams into reality.
That's exactly the kind of world that I wanted to create in my classroom when I was a teacher, like a Willy Wonka world of pure imagination, but make it scholarly. All of my students were black or brown. All of them were growing up in a low-income circumstance. Some of them were immigrants, some of them were disabled, but all of them were the very last people this world invites to be confident. That's why it was so important that my classroom be a place where my students could build the muscle of confidence, where they could learn to face each day with the confidence you need to redesign the world in the image of your own dreams. After all, what are academic skills without the confidence to use those skills to go out and change the world.
Now is when I should tell you about two of my students, Jamal and Regina. Now, I've changed their names, but their stories remain the same. Jamal was brilliant, but unfocused. He would squirm in his chair during independent work, and he would never stay still for more than three or four minutes. Students like Jamal can perplex brand new teachers because they're not quite sure how to support young people like him. I took a direct approach. I negotiated with Jamal. If he could give me focused work, then he could do it from anywhere in the classroom, from our classroom rug, from behind my desk, from inside his classroom locker, which turned out to be his favorite place. Jamal's least favorite subject was writing, and he never wanted to read what he had written out loud in class, but we were still making progress. One day, I decided to host a mock 2008 presidential election in my classroom. My third graders had to research and write a stump speech for their chosen candidate: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain. The heavy favorites were obvious, but one student chose John McCain. It was Jamal. Jamal finally decided to read something that he had written out loud in class, and sure enough, Jamal stunned all of us with his brilliance. Just like Jamal's dad, John McCain was a veteran, and just like Jamal's dad protected him, Jamal believed that John McCain would protect the entire country. And he wasn't my candidate of choice, but it didn't matter, because the entire class erupted into applause, a standing ovation for our brave friend Jamal who finally showed up as his most confident self for the first time that year.
And then there was Regina. Regina was equally as brilliant, but active. She'd inevitably finish her work early, and then she'd get on about the business of distracting other students.
Walking, talking, passing those notes that teachers hate but kids love. You look like you passed a lot of them.
Despite my high ideals for our classroom, I would too often default to my baser instincts, and I would choose compliance over confidence. Regina was a glitch in my intended system. A good teacher can correct misbehavior but still remain a student's champion. But on one day in particular, I just plain old chose control. I snapped, and my approach didn't communicate to Regina that she was being a distraction. My approach communicated to Regina that she herself was a distraction. I watched the light go out from her eyes, and that light sparked joy in our classroom. I had just extinguished it. The entire class became irritable, and we didn't recover for the rest of the day.
I think about the day often, and I have literally prayed that I did not do irreparable harm, because as a woman who used to be a little girl just like Regina, I know that I could have started the process of killing her confidence forever.
A lack of confidence pulls us down from the bottom and weighs us down from the top, crushing us between a flurry of can'ts, won'ts and impossibles. Without confidence, we get stuck, and when we get stuck, we can't even get started. Instead of getting mired in what can get in our way, confidence invites us to perform with certainty. We all operate a little differently when we're sure we can win versus if we just hope we will. Now, this can be a helpful check. If you don't have enough confidence, it could be because you need to readjust your goal. If you have too much confidence, it could be because you're not rooted in something real. Not everyone lacks confidence. We make it easier in this society for some people to gain confidence because they fit our preferred archetype of leadership. We reward confidence in some people and we punish confidence in others, and all the while far too many people are walking around every single day without it. For some of us, confidence is a revolutionary choice, and it would be our greatest shame to see our best ideas go unrealized and our brightest dreams go unreached all because we lacked the engine of confidence. That's not a risk I'm willing to take.
So how do we crack the code on confidence? In my estimation, it takes at least three things: permission, community and curiosity. Permission births confidence, community nurtures it and curiosity affirms it. In education, we've got a saying, that you can't be what you can't see. When I was a little girl, I couldn't show confidence until someone showed me.
My family used to do everything together, including the mundane things, like buying a new car, and every time we did this, I'd watch my parents put on the exact same performance. We'd enter the dealership, and my dad would sit while my mom shopped. When my mom found a car that she liked, they'd go in and meet with the dealer, and inevitably, every time the dealer would turn his attention and his body to my dad, assuming that he controlled the purse strings and therefore this negotiation. "Rev. Packnett," they'd say, "how do we get you into this car today?" My dad would inevitably respond the same way. He'd slowly and silently gesture toward my mother and then put his hands right back in his lap. It might have been the complete shock of negotiating finances with a black woman in the '80s, but whatever it was, I'd watch my mother work these car dealers over until they were basically giving the car away for free.
She would never crack a smile. She would never be afraid to walk away. I know my mom just thought she was getting a good deal on a minivan, but what she was actually doing was giving me permission to defy expectations and to show up confidently in my skill no matter who doubts me.
Confidence needs permission to exist and community is the safest place to try confidence on.
I traveled to Kenya this year to learn about women's empowerment among Maasai women. There I met a group of young women called Team Lioness, among Kenya's first all-female community ranger groups. These eight brave young women were making history in just their teenage years, and I asked Purity, the most verbose young ranger among them, "Do you ever get scared?" I swear to you, I want to tattoo her response all over my entire body. She said, "Of course I do, but I call on my sisters. They remind me that we will be better than these men and that we will not fail." Purity's confidence to chase down lions and catch poachers, it didn't come from her athletic ability or even just her faith. Her confidence was propped up by sisterhood, by community. What she was basically saying was that if I am ever in doubt, I need you to be there to restore my hope and to rebuild my certainty.
In community, I can find my confidence and your curiosity can affirm it. Early in my career, I led a large-scale event that did not go exactly as planned. I'm lying to you. It was terrible. And when I debriefed the event with my manager, I just knew that she was going to run down the list of every mistake I had ever made, probably from birth. But instead, she opened with a question: What was your intention? I was surprised but relieved. She knew that I was already beating myself up, and that question invited me to learn from my own mistakes instead of damage my already fragile confidence. Curiosity invites people to be in charge of their own learning. That exchange, it helped me approach my next project with the expectation of success. Permission, community, curiosity: all of these are the things that we will need to breed the confidence that we'll absolutely need to solve our greatest challenges and to build the world we dream, a world where inequity is ended and where justice is real, a world where we can be free on the outside and free on the inside because we know that none of us are free until all of us are free. A world that isn't intimidated by confidence when it shows up as a woman or in black skin or in anything other than our preferred archetypes of leadership. A world that knows that that kind of confidence is exactly the key we need to unlock the future that we want.
I have enough confidence to believe that that world will indeed come to pass, and that we are the ones to make it so.
Thank you so much.