At this year’s closing ceremony for Colin Powell Center fellows, we hosted a student speaker, Jamiela McDonnough, and Lisette Nieves, the Belle Zeller Distinguished Visiting Professor in Public Policy at the City University of New York at Brooklyn College (her alma mater) and member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Her speech resonated with a number of our fellows, and a few offered us their reflections.
Our Insiders’ Perspectives
By Simone Gordon
I had the pleasure of introducing Lisette Nieves, our guest speaker, at this year’s closing ceremony. In Ms. Nieves’ many roles—an advocate, a professor, a professional, a mom—she is always a leader.
Ms. Nieves took the evening to talk to us about her journey. She described her family’s history, beginning with her grandmother’s bold decision to leave Puerto Rico, the only place she knew, with eight children and venture out into the unknown in search of opportunities for her children. She recalled living in a packed house in Brooklyn with uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmas, all living together. Her family supplied a strong support system, instilling values and offering sound advice—words of wisdom that give her strength and purpose even today. As Ms. Nieves spoke, many fellows nodded their heads in agreement as her story reminded many of us of our own. She reminded us that no matter what we decide to do in life, we each have a unique perspective to bring to the table, which is invaluable. Our insider perspective into the communities we want to help allows us to look at their assets, and not only their needs. The same values that our families taught us—the value of education, hard work, discipline, and staying close with family—are the same values and strengths that can help a community address its problems.
Ms. Nieves also took the time to speak candidly about herself and her own growth, not only professionally but personally. She joked that one thing she appreciates at her age is the fact that she is able to freely express herself, and she doesn’t feel the need to apologize for stating truths about herself. In my head, I thought, “Yes! You go, Ms. Nieves!” Her confidence assures me that it is OK to express my interest and desires without fear of what others may think. It is important for us to be able to identify who we are as leaders, which requires accepting one’s abilities and limitations.
After the ceremony I asked Ms. Nieves: How did you decide what job positions and opportunities to take in order to get to the point in your life where you felt accomplished and satisfied? She responded frankly: Why do you have to decide? Why not do it all! She said she took advantage of “right-now opportunities” as they were presented to her. She ventured into different organizations and gave herself opportunities to learn new skills and gain new knowledge. She also made sure to leave a lasting impression on the organization before she left. Her words remind me that there is no instruction manual for success with steps 1, 2, and 3. Sometimes success is about taking chances and allowing our passions to guide us to do the things we love. It doesn’t have to be either this or that; it can be this now and that later. After hearing Ms. Nieves speak, I felt motivated and ready to take on the world once I graduate. She is truly an inspiring leader.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
By Salma Asous
At the Colin Powell ceremony, I sat right in front with the other Partners for Change fellows to cheer on Jamiela McDonnough, our peer who delivered a beautiful speech about her journey at City College. Afterward, Lisette Nieves was introduced and delivered a lively speech that communicated a deeply meaningful message.
Ms. Nieves told us about her childhood and journey to become the first Puerto Rican Rhodes scholar. Growing up with immigrant parents was both a blessing and a struggle. She had to learn to apply to and pay for college all on her own. She had several moments in college when she felt isolated because she could not fully communicate to her loved ones about the stresses she was enduring. However, she always had a strong support system: a loving home to come to, albeit a crowded one, and a goal to hold onto.
Her story truly hit home for me because my parents both immigrated to the U.S. in 1992 and I was born a year later. As the oldest of four children, raised in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, which was home to three generations of the Asous family, I completely understood what Ms. Nieves meant by growing up thinking you were middle class. The older I got, the more I too realized that many people did not live in a similar setting, and I grew thicker skin to protect myself from the many instances when I heard or saw negative pictures painted about immigrants, Muslims, Palestinians, etc.
There is no time for complaints when you grow up in a home like mine. You learn to adjust to several situations quickly, and you learn to care for, accept, and respect others. You have to see the bigger picture. You learn that although you do not have a lot, you have more than others do. And as Ms. Nieves said, “When you have more, you give more.” After living in Jordan for a year, I also feel as if I understand what that meant as well, to have more, even if it cannot be measured in material items.
During the speech, I remember thinking that we have all become a little richer as Powell fellows. We have applied ourselves all year with knowledge we gained in the classroom to our work in various sites in the community. I worked as an intern with Health Leads and attended classes with Shena Elrington, a health-care lawyer. One of the most meaningful experiences was when we presented a “Know Your Rights” workshop in the South Bronx to a group of about 40 parents.
Ms. Nieves has reminded me that our strengths might not be obvious, but the culmination of our experiences can be used to make an impact if you just “shift the frame.” Being the only Palestinian-American in the Sophie Davis program, and writing a community health assessment about Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (where there is a large Arab-American population) has made me more aware that this is a minority that is often not recognized. Ms. Nieves definitely inspired me to work on this issue rather than feel isolated.
Assets of Strength
By Paola Martinez
Last May 14, the Colin Powell Center at the City College of New York celebrated the end of the semester with a dinner event, where Ms. Lisette Nieves, a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, was the keynote speaker. With great energy and enthusiasm, Ms. Nieves greeted the audience and described herself as a woman born and raised in the Brooklyn and “Puertorriquena,” letting us know immediately how proud she feels of her Hispanic origins. I find it very interesting that despite her tremendous achievements and her accomplished career in the field of education, Ms. Nieves decided to spend the first part of her speech talking about her family life. I think that this is both, humbling and inspirational.
Coming from a Hispanic background myself, I can say that her story resonates with me. She shared that despite any challenges, her family always encouraged her and her siblings to pursue a higher education. She shared that her mother’s support, for example, was not only limited to her children, but she was always a strong supporter to other family members. As Ms. Nieves described, “In her house there was always a room for a family member who needed it.” In my opinion, Ms. Nieves experience highlights how family support is one of the most important elements to succeed in life.
Like Ms. Nieves, I was raised in a household where there were many challenges every day, but I never saw this as a disadvantage. In fact, despite any difficulties, my mother was always helping neighbors to sign her children for school, get their birth certificates, and talking to them about the importance of giving an education to their children. She is the most dedicated person that I’ve known and the one who gave me my first lessons of public service. Therefore, like Ms. Nieves, in my family, especially in my mother, I learn to give back and to serve. She is still my main source of inspiration and motivation.
Ms. Nieves speech planted some seeds in me and helped me to understand that everything that we have in our lives must be considered as an asset to strengthen our lives and our communities. Therefore, our personal stories, our background and our culture, should build the foundation to everything we do in life and never a motive of shame. As I pursue a career in education and public service, I hope that like Ms. Nieves, I can carry those values with me and share them with the people that I will work with in the near future.
Read more about Simone Gordon, Salma Asous, and Paola Martinez here.