Nelson Mandela said “Lead from the back. And let others believe they are in front.” At Treetops, we think Mr. Mandela was on to something.
New Americans can often feel like they’re “in the back,” struggling to keep up with everyone else who already knows the language, understands the culture, knows the customs, and navigate new systems.
So with your help, we invest in young New Americans who have energy and grit and want to use it — and just need some help getting started. They’re ready to LEAD and they don’t mind doing it from the back!
This summer we helped three members of the teen cohort participate in the City of Grand Rapids’ Leadership, Employment, Achievement, and Direction Program. LEAD offers young people training in civic engagement, leadership, and employment skills.
For New Americans Beatrice and Angelique, this summer’s three weeks of LEAD training was transformative. East Kentwood High School senior Angelique loved LEAD’s intensive interview training: “I was so nervous at first but by the end, I was getting it! I was starting to feel it! We practiced with other students, but then I did an actual interview and that was so amazing! But I could not take the job because I have to study,” she says with a smile.
Her best friend Beatrice says her time at LEAD didn’t just give her interviewing skills. It gave her her voice. “Before LEAD, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t make eye contact. I was scared. I was thinking ‘I’m from Africa. And I haven’t been here for many years. English is my second language. But LEAD pushed me to go in front of people — “Go there! Stand up! Speak!” — and that got into me. I thought ‘I don’t have to be this way. I can let myself go, I can speak to everyone. My fears went away to see everyone talking in public. I thought ‘I can do the same thing too.’ It made me strong.”
In her first year at GRCC, Beatrice isn’t sure about her career path but says “How can you get a good job if you can’t even speak?! If you want a good job, you need to speak! Talk! What do you have in your mind! Share your ideas!”
Angelique already knew she wanted to be a nurse practitioner someday, but came away from her time at LEAD more energized about her goal than ever: “They talked about preparing for the future. What they said was an inspiration. It made me want to keep going. Because sometimes it’s not easy. I took away that if it’s hard, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
Beatrice heard that message from the many adults who visited the LEAD class. “So many people talked about their histories,” she says. “They didn’t have parents when they were my age, they were homeless, but they were saying, ‘Now look at me, I have my own shop; I have everything I need and so can you! You can get whatever you want if you want it. Do what you want, do what you love.’ I used to judge myself, thinking, if I talk, people are going to think ‘Oh, she’s African.’ But when I got to LEAD, they were interested in me, and where I came from and why am I here. And I thought, ‘You know what? I have to let it go. I have to let people know who I am. I have to be proud of who I am. They showed me the way I could do it.”
Perks like meeting Grand Rapids’ Mayor, Roslyn Bliss, and trying their hand at golf — “It was my first time touching a golf club!” — plus a staff that “treated us like equals and with respect,” made Angelique and Beatrice fans of LEAD. “I would tell (anyone considering LEAD),” says Angelique, “Go there and pay attention! Go there and learn!”
Angelique and Beatrice are impressive. They’re meeting daily challenges that many of us won’t face in a lifetime. But they’re just teenagers and need support. They’re getting that from Treetops because of you. “Treetops makes me keep going,” says Angelique. “Back in 9th grade, my grades were horrible. It was my first year here. Everything was so strange. There were times when I thought ‘I’m going to stop,’ but when I came here for the workshops they would say ‘Don’t stop! No one said it was going to be easy but it’s going to be worth it.’ I know some kids who have dropped out of school, but I think I can’t drop! No, I have to do something about it. I’m learning double-time. It’s better for it to be difficult now. I want to make sure that later it’s not going to be that difficult.”
When asked if she feels hopeful about her future, Angelique uses her LEAD training and holds her head up high, making eye contact. “Yeah,” she says simply. “I do.”