By Samantha McKenzie
“I take inspiration from everyone and everything. I’m inspired by current champions, former champions, true competitors, people dedicated to their dream, hard workers, dreamers, believers, achievers.” ~ Conor McGregor
I am a natural champion of women. Maybe it’s because I grew up surrounded by a handful of warrior women in Brooklyn, N.Y. Or maybe it’s because every Sunday, I witnessed a few females faithfully filing into those church pews. I grew up around people who passed on their generosity towards me and I, in turn, gave it right back to them. There may not have been many silver spoons in our neighborhood, but the women around me made sure to carefully polish the ones they had. They taught us well. They put their best foot forward each and every day and I sat on the sidewalk of their lives in sheer admiration. My mother was bold and beautiful. My aunt was religious and real. And my older sister was smart and steadfast.
I learned early on to keep my chin up, stick my chest out and be my own champion.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in the midst of powerful women. I was proud of who I was long before Wakanda. Back then, we didn’t count on celebrities to dream big. We didn’t point to the silver screen for confirmation of our identity. We read the Bible, gained our applause from excellent report cards, street ball touchdowns and home runs, and dance recitals. I cherished every quarter I received from proud aunts and neighbors who rewarded me for small successes. I used these little accomplishments to remind myself of my personal greatness, my family contributions and my connection to the Creator. It was how we measured our steps back then.
I saw these traits in Claudette Stephenson, a single mother who moved from London into the apartment building that anchored our street. She hired me first as a babysitter and then later for my first real corporate job. I never told her, but she was the first Black woman I had ever seen in a leadership position. I watched her manage a tough group of men and women (myself included) and fight for whatever it was she thought her staff deserved. Standing a little over five feet high, she commanded respect and used every bit of her brains to forge herself forward into a very profitable career. Our friendship evolved into family. She was bold, she was confident, she was a champion.
I saw these features in many others along the way. It was evident in my friend, Elana Muhammad, who passed away too soon. She was smart and sure-footed and believed in people more than they believed in themselves. She didn’t allow you to shrink in her presence. She challenged everyone around her to do better, to show up even when it was easier to stay away, and to search for their voice amidst the noise. She was pointed in her speech. Her words stung, yet they healed so many parts of me. She was late for every meeting, but as soon as she arrived, her presence commanded the room. She was boldness. I speak of her often, like she is still alive, because her wisdom lives on through me and many others. This is how life works sometimes. She was bold. She was confident. She was her own champion.
I see it today in my daughter Tahirah. I saw it in her when she was a child. Parents complained to me that she was too bossy, so I tried to tone her down. It was pointless. I learned to help her hone her natural leadership skills, while thinking of others. She didn’t mind speaking up then, and she doesn’t mind speaking out now. When her mind is on a mission, there’s no road she won’t travel to get to her goal. Always passionate about justice, she found her voice early on and stretched it even further when she showed up on the campus of Winston-Salem State University. She raises her hand high above others in class to prove her point. She professes her message to all that would listen. She’s joined protests, challenged ignorance and drives the family completely crazy when she won’t shut up about her political views. But we love her and more importantly, we love what she believes in. In a few short months, she and all of her conviction will be graduating college and heading on to something new with all of her boldness, her confidence and her ability to champion another cause.
It’s our time. It’s your season. Hold your chin up. Stick your chest out. Be bold. Be confident. Be your very own champion. There’s just no substitute for your strength.