For decades, the educational system has emphasized academic excellence to the degree that social-emotional learning is compromised. But until a child is emotionally and cognitively present, it is very difficult to introduce content standards and academic content. Dr. Tracee Perryman believes that nurturing emotional intelligence is key to fostering developmentally-appropriate learning to our children. In this conversation with Whitney Lauritsen, she discusses how she uses her expertise in developmental psychology to help under-resourced children achieve their full potential and leave no child behind in the process. Dr. Perryman also explains how she encourages children to learn with technology, how she supports them in terms of mental health, and how she helps parents teach their children and understand what success looks like for different children. Dr. Perryman is doing pivotal work when it comes to helping the underprivileged transcend barriers, close the opportunity gap, and promote inclusion on purpose. Tune in to this episode to learn more from her!
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Leave No Child Behind: Nurturing Emotional Intelligence In Children With Dr. Tracee Perryman
I’ve been having a wonderful conversation with Dr. Tracee Perryman, our guest for this episode. I was asking her about her background and the evolution of the work that she does, which we’re going to discuss on so many levels in this episode. She started telling me the story of how her mother influenced her work, and how it expanded the way that she was thinking about supporting people. Dr. P, I would love to go back to that story. You were sharing about going to the University of Michigan. That’s where you studied. Take me back to that point and then bring me through what you learned after you finished school.
I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the University of Michigan. I became very interested in Developmental Psychology, particularly children and understanding children. We had final papers and research papers that we could write for graduation requirements. I found myself voluntarily doing research within daycare centers. What I did was look at different daycare centers and the activities that I saw based on the socioeconomic status of the families.
I visited some daycares that serve primarily affluent families. I also visited the University of Michigan’s Child Care Center and then came back to my hometown of Toledo which was only 40 minutes away to study my mother’s Head Start classroom. I was impressed by the fullness of the curriculum in the day for children who were labeled under-resourced, the love she put into it, and the literacy-rich environment but particularly the emphasis on social and emotional development and embedding all of that into learning.
Those were some of the things that I learned before graduation. I also did a lot of research theoretically on how children learn, their cognitions, how they respond to social situations, and all of those things. When I graduated, I thought that I knew a little something about the work and what it meant to serve and work with children. Very quickly, I figured out that I knew a lot less than I thought.
By that time, we had moved on and started child care through our nonprofit Center of Hope Family Services. I moved from the researcher to the practitioner. I’m working in this space alongside my mother. I could not get anything right. I made so many mistakes when it was time to translate the research into practice. I frustrated her. I could tell by her face. It was facepalms all day. I am not saying or doing anything inappropriate for children but I do not understand how to manage a classroom effectively and how to stimulate learning in a way that is developmentally appropriate for children that small.
After making mistake after mistake, I rightfully felt inadequate at that point because I didn’t have the skills. I decided, “Let me sit down and be quiet.” I stopped trying to teach and do the work. I figure out and observe why my choices are incorrect in these situations. I started following my mother around and watching how she handled the children, set up the activities, and used the language in a way that the child understood but also spoke to the life of that child.
It didn’t take long when I started to make the connections and become effective myself. I thought, “We’re trying to also build an organization. We don’t have the luxury of a staff following Mrs. Perryman around because somebody has to do the work.” That was what I learned from her practitioner standpoint. I went back to school to get my PhD in social work with a minor in education. I started putting these things together in a way where we could scale and train other people on the best practices.
I did benefit from a very literacy-rich environment. My father’s side of the family valued education heavily. In my younger years, he taught me how to learn, pursue education, and succeed in the classroom. I’m not saying my mother didn’t because my mother taught me how to read but I am saying that my father had a critical role in that as well.
I always say, “My father taught me how to learn and my mother taught me how to teach.” Putting both together, they’re the reason why I’m here. It is their influence that has shaped my passion for this work and taught me the skills to carry out the work. I then had to go back to do the research and bring it all together so that we could scale and grow the work.
It’s a beautiful thing because you benefit from people, specifically parents who are incredibly nurturing. They cared about you. That’s probably the most important thing any human being could get in life. How did your mother learn to do all of that? What was her background? Was it through experience, education, or a combination like you have?
It was a combination. She’s very talented. There are some things that we are called to do innately and we figure out. She was always excellent with children. She taught me to read when I was two. She took magazines with ads and tied them to commercials. I saw the Kraft symbol on TV and that’s how she taught me to read. That’s Kraft or Pillsbury at two years old.
At that time, she was not a trained educator. These are ideas that came to her on her creativity. When we were in different organizations, she was always appointed to work with the children. She would find engaging activities for them to do. She is always structured. She knows what is appropriate to say when. She had that gift. Children loved her.
An opportunity came to take a position as an early childhood educator. By that point, I was fourteen years old. That’s when she found that that’s where she was supposed to be all along. She then got the training and credentials for the work at that time and was a very effective teacher. She came to find out her biological father in Alabama was a school teacher back in the ’50s. Part of it was her jeans but it was so interesting how her path was always there but all of the pieces didn’t connect to so much later.
I was going to ask you why you think your mother, your father, you, and it sounds like your grandfather as well or maybe other family members feel so drawn to supporting children and their developmental years. Is it a genetic thing or is there a bigger story behind it?
It’s a combination of both. From my father’s side of the family, his mother did day work. She said, “The doctors whose houses I’m cleaning, where did their kids go to school? That’s what I want for my kids.” That equality and sense of having the advantage of being somebody was what drove my grandmother. She was a stickler for education. She never wanted any of us to miss a day of school. It was so important for her.
My father has two doctorates. When I was four years old, he was in school studying all night. I would see books and highlighters. I’ll go around with a book and his highlighter highlighting. I didn’t know what I was highlighting but I could read the book. People would ask me, “What are you doing, Tracee?” I would say, “I’m going to college. That’s where I’m going.”
These are the things that I saw as a very little girl. Also, books. My parents would say, “You go to school to learn but that’s not the only place that you need to learn.” They had books everywhere, all kinds of books, beautifully colored books, books with all kinds of different experiences. My father’s expectation was not we got done at school but he would make us read some more. However, it’s not just the reading but the artwork.
We always had a house that was full of rich art. We would have pictures of musicians and people struggling in hard times. It all told a story about perseverance and diversity of talents and gifts. Also, valuing not just reading and math but also, visual and performing arts. They’re exposing me, my sister, and my brother to as many experiences as they could so that we could find our gift by seeing all the things that were possible.
What an incredible environment you grew up in. It seems to me like it’s not something I hear a lot of people at least telling me that they’ve had. I wonder how many people take school, education, and literacy for granted. They don’t prioritize it. More and more, I wonder how technology is impacting children. I didn’t expect to go there quite yet but might as well.
Tracee, given your upbringing, your parents, and everything that you’re describing, it felt so intentional. Also, the state of things which I’m sure there is still intention in it but we’re living in very different times because of technology and the draw to find shortcuts, I suppose, and some conversations about things like artificial intelligence, for example.
I’ve heard the fear that we might be stripping away some of our humanity. We have so many tools at our fingertips that we might not need to learn in the ways that we used to learn. The statistics around book reading like you’re describing are going way down. Does that come up in your research or is that something that you give thought to and want to have an influence on how not just children are developing but how society is developing?
Yes. The great majority of educators have been impacted by this conversation. We teach a lot of different modes of communication and expression. My goal has been to recreate my childhood experience. That’s my whole intention. Just like I was exposed to the visual and performing arts, we require our students to take electives. Those electives are visual arts and performing arts. We have coding classes as well but in those performing arts, music, for example.
What we have found in our performing arts work and music are children who come in with these apps. They told me, “I can use an app and make a beat. I can do it all by myself.” The conversation I had with that young lady was, “Wouldn’t it be great if we learned how to be the programmers of these apps rather than the consumers of these apps?” To be the programmer, you have to understand the musical theory well enough to be able to set up the codes and frameworks so that the beats that you’re pulling from here make sense.
That was one example of how we explained to children. 1) You’re going to still have to utilize a certain level of human intelligence or you might be left behind. 2) Since technology has grown, one of the content standards for Common Core is understanding different types of informational texts. Just because children are not necessarily reading books or full books or full stories does not mean that they do not have the capacity to read.Just because children aren't reading books does not mean they don't have the capacity to read. Click To Tweet
We started back in 2018. We were moving over to PowerPoints for our kindergartners and up to bring out information and put it in a more structured rather than a story with a beginning, an end, and a plot. We are cutting to the chase because we understand that they’re used to looking at texts and everything coming so fast. We started by introducing the content in a way that resonated with what they were used to and then moving them back to books and things that were less familiar to them but more familiar to us. That’s one strategy that we’ve learned.
I also do training for parents. I teach them how to help kids comprehend what they’re reading. One of the things that I do for parents is to help them relate to it. If you are questioning them about who broke my favorite vase, you would be very adept at asking the who, what, where, when, why, and how. If it’s about some drama, you all are very update at getting information out of your kids and training your kids, in many cases, to be able to watch a scene to get the information that you want.
All we have to do is take that and transform it into reading. Also, use language that might be more resonant to what they’re used to. What I’m saying is instead of, “Who are the characters,” it’s, “Who all is over there?” If something happens, you’re going to ask who all is over there. I’ve got my child read a book, “Who all was in there or who all was over there?”
When you go to school, do you know what that is? That’s the characters. Take their language and then back it back into the common core language. Teach them because when you go into different spaces and deal with different people, you need to be able to speak their language just as much as you want them to speak yours. That’s one of the examples that we use.
You read my mind because I’m very curious about how you help children learn outside of the classroom. Just as your parents impacted you so much, all parents could benefit from some of these frameworks. I’m not a parent. I learned a little bit about parenting by watching my friends and other family members parent their children. I certainly notice how challenging it seems. One concern that comes up often is around the school environment.
Do their children have access to teachers that are supportive and are they getting an education that works for them and all of the social dynamics that happen at school? School is such a huge part of a child’s life in general but so is the home life. How do you support a child through both elements of their life with their parents, teachers, and the other children around who are certainly a big influence on them?
One of the challenges over the past couple of decades is the emphasis on academic excellence to the degree that social and emotional learning is compromised. Until a child is emotionally and cognitively present, it is very difficult to introduce content standards and academic content. That’s one of the functions that through after-school programming we can enhance. We understand that there are legislative mandates that require that teachers do certain things.
Those are things that teachers can’t control and they only have so many hours in a day. One person, I don’t care who it is, can do it all. That’s why we need to work together and each of us takes a role. One of the things we emphasize at ELEVATE! is figuring out what is going to take to have that child in the classroom and ready to learn. We remove those social and emotional barriers and teach them how to handle conflicts with peers and teachers.
That’s a part of life. You’re not going to always get along with everyone who has authority over you. That doesn’t change when you become an adult. How do you deal with what is positive, what resources do you have, and make them work for you? How do you navigate those waters? Also at home, parents have to work two jobs. They are under a lot of pressure and strain. The school’s systems are putting strain on them because they’re required to make sure that these children meet certain benchmarks. Their classroom ratios are too large and they don’t have enough time.
All of this is working together. We can fill in a few graphs. First of all, as I indicated, helping the child navigate to school landscape. As we’re able to help those children navigate the school landscape, parents start watching and asking questions, “How did you do that?” When they come in to pick up, come to observe, and come for special events, they’re observing how we handle the children, work with the children, and stimulate their engagement in learning. They then start modeling those behaviors.
Once we can start and master those pieces, then we can start getting deep into those content standards and helping with academic learning. We are able to accelerate because we know how to use different forms of language. We can speak the child’s and the school’s language at the same time. A lot of times, the language from a legislative or a policy standpoint sounds more complicated than it is.
Phonics recognition or phonemes and there are other blends and sounds. It’s simple. Does your child know the two consonant letter blends? B and L, what does that sound like? We don’t always take the time to transform the standards into plain English so parents can help. Give them time to practice. Every little bit helps. Make instructions clear and time-bound enough that it’s possible because every little bit helps.
Another thing that we don’t always do the best job of where ELEVATE! helps is helping parents figure out what success looks like. A lot of times, we hand them flash cards and activities but we don’t give them examples of how to know when the child is ready to move on to the next skill. We then wonder why parents are overwhelmed and they disengage.
Those are some of the major areas where we’re able to help plus bring in enrichment that children won’t get otherwise like music, cooking, and arts classes. Also, doing a cooking class and then breaking it down. “We have to double a recipe. You do fraction.” They go, “I can’t do fractions.” I say, “You couldn’t have made this pizza because you had to cut it up into fours, pass it out, and tell me how many pieces you had left. You can’t tell me you don’t know how to do fractions.”
We have to get a common language here. Take the tactical activity and then tie it back to the math problem. Those kinds of things, ELEVATE! was able to do to support everybody involved because everybody was overwhelmed, the kids, teachers, and parents. Sometimes we are too but at some point, some things we can do something about and some things we can’t. Let’s start with what we can control and make movement that we’re able to make baby steps. It doesn’t take much for kids.
As they see a little bit of progress, they will try so hard. Sometimes we think that we have to teach them how to read a chapter of a book and they’re happy if they get through ten pages. If we celebrate that and they’re reading three-syllable words that they can’t read before, they’re happy with that. Being able to leverage those small wins and baby steps, and keep those kiddos encouraged, they’ll do the rest. If they’re at the center of the solution, they rise to the occasion every time.When kids see a little progress, they will try so hard. Click To Tweet
I feel like that might be a good segue into the mental health side of things which is the main focus of this show. When I was introduced to your work, Dr. P, I was struck by how school might contribute to or could help with mental health. We’re in a time of alarming mental health issues. It seems more so with teenagers but when we’re talking about development, I imagine that these mental health challenges start a lot earlier than many people recognize. That’s a big part of your work. I’m not fully sure where to start but I’m curious about your thoughts on how come we start at the earliest time possible with a child to support them with their mental health essentially?
One of the keys is being truly connected with the children. We study them to understand what is normal behavior for them. There are some children who are normally quiet. That child is not withdrawn. However, a child that’s normally boisterous is all of a sudden not talking. Take the time to pay attention, flag, and say, “There’s an issue here,” and then try to figure out what might be going wrong.Take the time to pay attention. Click To Tweet
However, until you understand what a child’s normal patterns are, it’s hard to do that. A lot of times, we don’t pay attention. Also, make sure that every child feels like they’re loved and valued in the classroom to begin with. A lot of mental health symptoms start because they don’t feel welcome when they arrive. If they don’t feel that they belong there, then that’s going to lead and can take children down the road of having serious mental health symptoms.
If something does happen, they don’t feel like there’s anyone they can go to for help. Be in tune with children and build rapport with them well enough that if something happens, they feel like they can come to you and it will remedy a lot. With young children, mental health symptoms don’t manifest themselves like traditional depression. A lot of times, it can be behavior or conduct issues, fighting, and aggression.A lot of mental health challenges start because a child doesn't feel welcome in the classroom. Click To Tweet
It might be how the symptoms present themselves in a classroom. Do not label every child who exhibits aggressive behavior as being an aggressive child. What are the social conditions under which that is happening? It’s one thing I did do right in the early years of this after-school and summer program. There was a child who was in trouble every single day. His teacher is like, “I can’t handle him.”
There was this hallway and blinds on one side but then there was an open window and a bush so that I could sit behind and see the whole playground. This is what I found. During recess time, nobody will play with this child. I said, “Let me keep looking.” I looked around and all the other boys had new haircuts. He did not. All the other boys had fresh clean clothes. He did not.
We did not put that child out. We called mom and said, “This is the social dynamic that’s going on. This child does not feel welcome. This child feels excluded. That’s why this child is exhibiting what looks like anti-social behavior. Let’s start with going and getting him a haircut. There are barber schools that will give free haircuts to boys in need.”
“If you need assistance with getting him clean clothes, then you let us know and we’ll help but do what you can do first.” She went and got him a haircut. She cleaned his clothes up. We put him on a decent pair of shoes. They made him a part of a social group. We did not have another issue for the rest of the summer. If it’s unaddressed, then it does become a mental health issue.
My heart breaks for that child. I imagine those things happen all the time. This concept of noticing and welcoming someone doesn’t fully make sense to me why anyone wouldn’t be treated like they belong and they’re welcome but it’s a complex thing. Sometimes we don’t notice. We have to be intentional about helping people feel welcome and belong.
To your point, there are a lot of factors because sometimes somebody doesn’t tell you when they don’t feel these things. If you don’t ask or pay close attention, they might mask it well or maybe you’ll think, “This person’s just that way. This person doesn’t want it.” This got me thinking about essentially not making assumptions.
What are some other ways that we can be proactive about making children feel welcome but adults as well? You do a lot of work with women in leadership and that shows up in all stages of our lives. On a broader scale, as teachers, parents, classmates, colleagues, or friends, what are some of the ways that we can be more intentional about belonging and welcoming others?
One thing that we do at the beginning of our academic school year is take a picture of each child and put them on the board with a star behind it. Everybody is a superstar. I call them The Superstars. We all started at the same level and that level is greatness. I tell parents during orientations that we have a zero-tolerance policy for making anybody feel physically or emotionally unsafe, and that includes adults.We all start at the same level and that level is greatness. Click To Tweet
We don’t tolerate physical or relational aggression, whatsoever. I tell parents it seems harsh but once you allow it, the environment becomes so toxic so fast and it is nearly impossible to clean it up once you allow that element of hatefulness or enmity into a space. That’s why we have to be strict. Everything has to be rooted in love. Understand that people come from different environments and expectations of what is appropriate.
There are individuals from the standpoint that we encourage children to be independent and problem-solve. The question we have to ask though is what is developmentally appropriate? What does that look like? What does independence look like at 2, 4, or 10? What does independence look like if you’re the other in the room? It’s different if everybody’s alike. For that young man, he’s the only one without of haircut. Being self-assured is a little different for him.
We have to be careful with that. Even children. The reason why they’re excluded is because of their social skills. I had one. He was a sweetheart but he had been isolated to the point where he didn’t have to deal with different peers. He was used to being able to do whatever he wanted to do and it was always okay. He goes to school and he’s about ten years old. He keeps sticking his finger on people’s personal space. They were like, “He’s got to stop.”
He was upset with them and a lot of times he was sticking his finger in their faces to get their attention but it was not the appropriate way. In that case, we had to take him to the side and say, “You got to learn how to get along in a group. This is the reason why they’re isolating you. We need to get you some social skills.” We coached that child to figure out how to get along. It’s not always that the group is often at their appraisal but even with them, we said, “You see he’s different in the way he communicates. Give him some grace.” On the other side, we said, “You got to learn how to get along.”
There are times when we do have to lead children to be more assertive for themselves and teach them how to speak up for themselves. There are children who are bullied. Even though we have a zero-tolerance policy, if I see that there’s a child who cries, every time somebody says something, I say, “They’re doing that because you give them the reaction that they want. It’s a game for them.”
“Do you remember the Tickle Me Elmo where you hit the button and he sings and dances? To them, you become that game where they hit the same button.” I tell parents that too. I say it a lot of times. “Your kids are doing that because you’re acting like the Tickle Me Elmo. They push your button and you scream. They think it’s a joke.” I said that to children who are bullies.
I said, “I’m going to deal with it. We’re going to deal with it because it’s not allowed here. The next time I see you guys go to school, Dr. P not going to be there.” Therefore, when you go to school and they say, “I don’t like your shoes,” you tell them, “I don’t care what you think. They’re my shoes. I’ll wear what I want. You wear what you want,” and go on about your business. Take a book and go sit on a swing and read. Let them know that you’re going to be all right no matter what. Their friendship is not that important. It’s not that you’re going to cry over it consistently.
Yes, we have emotions but you have to also understand when those emotions are being used against you. Those children who learn it will offer to play. They will come. I say, “Don’t be too excited. You still might have to think about it because the next week, they’ll kick you out again to see if they can get you to come back. Don’t play easy.” There are times when we have to do a mixture of getting people ready to deal with hostile environments.
In ELEVATE!, we can control it but we can’t always control it. In the space that we can control, affirm every child from day one. I also say, “The children who are happy behave. The children who feel good about themselves are happy.” We can operate from a normative context of everybody being somebody. I find that a lot of the bullying and that kind of stuff goes by the wayside.
If a child has an issue or an issue of stress, they feel comfortable to come and tell an adult and talk through it. We help them problem solve. If there is something happening in their environment that is a detriment to their mental health, then we have to have conversations with everybody involved that is causing that situation. We had to bring the adults in to figure out what we were going to do about it.
I’m impressed with your knowledge and experience, given that this conversation started back when you were getting started and seeing the journey of how much you’ve learned about children and all of these elements and factors that impact them. You were sharing with me the two books that had come out on Amazon. You also have a third one that came out about women’s leadership, which I hope we get to explore as well. In the first two books, you were describing the difference, I believe. The first one was about children growing up in an urban and the second one was suburban.
We’ve won state awards for our work and some other awards around innovation and excellence. We would always get questions about, “Why are you so successful? How are you able to do the work in the manner that you’re doing it?” Meanwhile, COVID happens. We have to take this curriculum and administer it online on a dime. That got me thinking. How can we share these lessons learned on such a larger stage? If our local community is having these questions, probably individuals from many communities, nationally, are having the same questions.
We started with the context in which we were operating. At that time, it was an urban school district. The students we were serving were probably over 90% African-American. The research has said for a long time that there are disparities in African-American achievement by the measure of standardized testing. What I know is there is no difference in African-American aptitude. The question is, “How do we close the opportunity gap?” That’s always been my question.
I shared the curriculum of the activities we’ve done and our why through the first book, Elevating Futures. While I’m writing Elevating Futures, the Center of Hope gets a call to move into a suburban district that is overwhelmingly not of color. We argued for decades about equity and culturally relevant teaching. What that simply means is teaching that relates the content standards to the everyday experience of the kids that are in front of you at that time.
What we were not going to be are hypocrites that we were costly responsive to African-American kids but then when we were put in a context of non-African-American kids, all of that advocacy goes out the window. That wasn’t going to be us. It was not going to be the Center of Hope. We get the call to move into the Suburban District in May and we’ve got to be up and running with a year-round solution by October. I had to call back Mrs. Perryman and get some help. I said, “We’ve got to have a curriculum ready to go for these kiddos. They deserve it.”
Once we wrote it, we said, “We just wrote this curriculum for 28 weeks. Let’s share a quarter of it, 7 weeks or 7 activities with the larger community who has the same questions.” What happens when your community is not all African-American or is not all urban? What do you do for that population of children? That’s how the curriculum ELEVATE! came out. The frameworks are the same. The readings are carefully chosen to speak to the children where they’re at.
Could you share an example of some of the differences between where people are based on where they’re living and what environment they’re in? I don’t know the difference between a child growing up in an urban environment versus a suburban environment. How do you approach that?
In an urban environment, there are well-documented risks. You may be expected to pass the same proficiency test but you may not have had all the resources or the best curriculum or books. There’s an equity issue. There is a disproportionate exposure to poverty. There may be a disproportionate exposure to crime. Therefore, that child is going into the classroom not necessarily with the same freedom to focus on learning. Let me put it like that.
For that group, I would have to assign them readings that talk about the neighborhoods they live in but not just talk about the neighborhoods they live in because that exacerbates the sense of fear. We were giving them examples of people who grew up like them and were able to transcend those barriers and do things positively. That’s one thing that you’re going to want to look at for an urban environment. Also, understanding from an identity standpoint.
A lot of times, if you’re overwhelmingly of color, you may not look like the beauty standard in the L’Oréal commercial, even though a lot of our commercials are making progress in terms of being inclusive. They are showing different faces and hair textures but we still have a ways to go. The residual effects devaluating certain skin tones and different hair textures, our children are going to deal with that for probably some time. It doesn’t just go away.
For them, I give them readings with pictures of people who look like them with beautiful, thick, full, and 4-coil hair because it tells them without even talking about it. “If the reading has somebody who looks like me, then I must be somebody. Since I see myself, I might be excited to figure out or listen or read what’s in this book because I see somebody who represents me.”
In a suburban environment, a lot of times, those concepts are already understood. There’s a lot of media that reinforces how they look and show up in the world. For them, my focus is a little different. We can get right to the chase of it. “I can do anything and be anything.” For them, it’s like, “How do we channel it? How do we plan?” I tell them, “Confidence comes from two places. It’s competence and character.” For them, I’m like, “How are we going to get there?” You have the resources you need. Dr. P is going to show you how to use them because of the expectations that you’re going to be the best and brightest.Confidence comes from two places: competence and character. Click To Tweet
That’s not to say for my urban kiddos. They don’t have the same expectations but sometimes to build rapport, we have to deal with some other elephants in the room for them to truly feel like they are valued and we’re not only saying that because we’re their teachers. Sometimes we have to dig a little deeper for them to know, “They do get me. I trust them.” I then can say, “Competence, character, and confidence, how are going to get you out there?”
I’m saying wow a lot while my microphone is muted because I’m in awe of this important work that you’re doing and addressing things that need to be addressed more with awareness and education. It’s the elephant in the room. I feel like I haven’t heard enough people talking about it that way and making sure that everyone feels a sense of belonging as you are so passionate about. It does take that intention and clarity on differences so that people feel truly welcome and develop that trust.
That leads me to want to learn more about another element of work that you’re doing with the new book about women’s leadership. I’m curious how you made that shift from children at a developmental age to adult women. I imagine adult women but I suppose women could mean a lot of different ages. Tell me about that and that progression in your work.
I felt like the work that I’ve done with children has been my why. That’s my call. I felt at this juncture, I can start to talk about how I was able to answer that call and fulfill it. I felt that there were a lot of lessons for women in this. There have been so many struggles. In Toledo, they told us that there is a non-profit for every 100 people.
As an extremely saturated market getting off the ground and then being a small upstart family founded, there are a lot of perceptions around what that means and what it means for the community. People don’t see all of the extra work that goes into it. For example, we started in ‘97. I got a modest regular paycheck probably starting in 2012 and didn’t get health insurance until 2015 or 2016. People don’t see all the sacrifices while you’re constantly being told, “No.”
On the other side, you have people who need to go on to tell you no rather than stringing you along. There were so many lessons. What I’ve always tried to do is give people what I didn’t get. With the knowledge that could have accelerated this much faster, my goal is for other ladies not to suffer that. You have to fight your way into the conversation. As a woman, you’re labeled a lot for that. You can be demonized a lot for doing what it takes to survive and speaking up to say, “No, that’s not right. That’s not what we agreed to,” and that’s a problem.
A lot of women are in conflict or turmoil about doing the right thing for themselves because nobody gives them permission to speak up for themselves, be proud of their work, be proud of their accomplishments, and pursue their accomplishments. I wanted to write this book as giving women the permissions that through my parents, I was given.
I understand that most women, by the way I’ve shown up in spaces, my approach, and the looks I’ve gotten, I’m like, “I guess I’m the only one that got the permission to speak up.” The looks are telling me that nobody has told you it’s okay to be honest, hold people accountable without apologizing for it, and aim for the stars. I saw women silently conflicted and bitter because nobody told them it was okay to make the decisions for their lives that they wanted. I felt like if I could make a contribution to at least tell women that they have options, then that would be a piece of my legacy that I would want to leave.
It’s so beautiful and needed. It’s something that perplexed me. I also was raised by parents who believed in me. They encouraged me and supported a lot of the dreams that I had. As an adult, sometimes I’m faced with the reality that not every woman has that. I have been reading a book called Inclusion on Purpose, which specifically addresses the barriers that women of color face.
I felt so heartbroken to see these statistics. I am also frustrated that it isn’t brought to my attention quite as much. We hear a good amount of information about disparities with gender but I certainly was very ignorant about the impact of not just gender but also other forms of identity. I’m curious if that comes up in your work and how you can support women where it’s not just a matter of gender but there are other factors where they might feel like the other person in the room.
That’s one thing that I taught at the university level to social workers. I used to always tell them, “If you go someplace, always sit, observe, and find out who the other is in the room. I understand that the other changes but who’s the different one? It can shift. Make it a practice no matter who the other might be to make them feel welcome because the environment can change things.”
There’s no permanent majority necessarily and there’s no permanent other. That necessarily depends on where you are, where functioning, or where you’re working. All of those factors come into play. In the book, I keep it general because as soon as we define six others, there will be a seventh. What I decided to do was focus on helping women build their brand, whatever it might be, and stand by it.
I don’t have the poem I wrote in the book but even about my identity, “A mouth that’s too big for some was my mouth and I stand by my wording.” Whatever the problem, I’m like, “Get with it, get over it, or get out of the way because I can only be myself.” That’s what I try to give women whatever trait or factor they feel might be an issue or point of contention. Get permission. That’s who you are. Build your brand and stand by it.
There’s already somebody else and the person that they are forcing you to emulate is already here. A marketing team cannot create an identity for you. You got to do that. All they can do is enhance the delivery of that identity to the public but I spend the first two chapters of my book talking about branding from a place of authenticity.
To do that, you have to figure out what is it that you want. Forget if there was nobody watching. If you had no parameters, no current job that you felt like you had to finish and no obligations, what would you be doing with yourself? What would you want to be doing with yourself? Those are your values. Those are things that you find to be important. When we’re honest about what is important to us, we can be happy. I understand the pressure of social economics.
I’ve told women, “You might say you’re not doing this or that but I’m happy.” When you’ve done the self-work of identifying your values and identity, you could say that and mean it. When I started Center of Hope, I was at U of M. I graduated. In my hometown, I was criticized a lot for not taking a government job or corporate job. People call me names. They called me lazy. They told me I was too lazy to work and I didn’t have the social and emotional skills to get along with people. I don’t want to work for anybody or with anybody.
The things that they said were building because it didn’t look like it was generating revenue. People call me low motivational. “You’ve got this U of M degree. You’re not doing anything with it.” These are the things that people in my hometown say about me. I felt called to keep moving forward. I didn’t know how I was going to turn out. All I knew was I didn’t want what they wanted. I went through that pressure firsthand.
For the most part, when you have a certain type of personality, people don’t say stuff to your face so they laugh at you. I’m like, “As long as you all say it to my face, you laugh at me behind my back all you want to. That’s all right because I don’t want what you want. I’m sorry. It’s not in my DNA. I can’t do it.” That’s where I start women.
Whatever traits you have and whatever you love, that’s what it is. Accept it and lean into it. No apologies. When people say what they have to say, say,” I’m happy.” Be comfortable with it because the world is looking for the next you. They are not looking for the next them. They’re already here. Build your mark. You may blaze the trail for them.
You may be the person positioned to take whatever field you’re at into the next direction but if you’re running down the wrong lane, fooling over there with something that you were not called to do, that’s where the conflict and tension come in because it’s like, “Did I make the right choice?” Learn it, lean into it, and then leverage it.
After that, I feel like you’re called to be speaking on this. You were sharing with me your passion for workshops. Not just teaching and writing but presenting and giving keynotes. I feel like that’s what you gave me and the readers. These words of inspiration and motivation landed with me. I feel so grateful that you’ve spent this time sharing all of this so that they can land with other people who are reading.
Maybe they thought they were just going to learn about childhood development and after-school programs but you have so much to share based on your journey. You do it in such a profound way. It’s such a thrill and an honor to learn from someone like you and for you to be passing on all these messages. You’ve instilled a lot of hope in me. You’ve educated me in ways, which is one of your gifts. It’s a beautiful story and there’s so much more to unfold for you.
For the readers who are interested in the books we’ve referenced or want to hear Dr. P speak, invite her to speak, or take a class, she is doing so much for you. The easiest way to reach her is through her website where it’s all laid out beautifully. Everything is in one place. I love that Dr. P and I both use the word elevate in our work. That synergy felt so exciting, for me, at least. Thank you so much for spending this time with me.
Thank you for inviting me. I’m moved by the invitation. It has been delightful speaking with you as well.
I’m so glad.
About Dr. Tracee Perryman
Dr. Tracee Perryman (https://doctor-p.com/) is the author of Elevating Futures: A Model For Empowering Black Elementary Student Success. She also is the CEO and co-founder of Center of Hope Family Services, where she leads the organization’s mission to improve the life outcomes of individuals and families living in urban settings. Dr. Perryman partners with government and not-for-profit organizations, foundations, and leaders in education to realize results rooted in evidence-based programming. She graduated with honors from the University of Michigan, earned a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Bowling Green University, and received her PhD from the Ohio State University College of Social Work.
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