In the introduction to my book Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, I say “To be able to see yourself in someone else’s story can be life-changing. To know a goal is achievable can be empowering.” This is at the heart of why it’s so important for children to see role models that look like themselves in the stories they read. This kind of representation, in the books they’ve been assigned to read in school or the ones that they curl up with at night, offers children a reminder that they matter, and that there’s a place for them in this world. It shows them that they too can be the heroes, go on adventures and save the world. It’s an affirmation that they exist, that their concerns are valid, and it’s okay to be yourself. Once they realise possibilities not only just exist but are open to them - who knows what wonders they might unleash!
Katherine Johnson believed that the only option for her as a black woman with a math degree in 1950s West Virginia was to become a school teacher until her mentor encouraged her to apply to Langley Research centre. The scope of her possibilities was limited until someone opened them up for her. She went on to calculate the trajectories for all of the major space missions at NASA! It's hard to know what a reader is going to connect to but it often doesn’t take much, just a little connection, just a little push. Mae Jemison always saw herself in space but wasn’t convinced there was a place for women at NASA, let alone black women. But, she was finally inspired to apply to the Astronaut Program because of seeing Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek the original series. Just think of the kids who are inspired to become an astronaut or physician or dancer because they see themselves in Mae’s story!
But a role model doesn’t have to be larger than life. As much as the success stories of astronauts and athletes matter, so do the regular, everyday heroes. All too often I remember feeling at odds with being myself: a shy, introverted black girl, because the ones I saw on TV were sassy, cool and funny. The ones I read about were painted as heroic and sure of themselves. Representation matters at such a deep level for people of colour because there’s been so little diversity and nuance to the images of us in the mainstream. Things are certainly changing, but we’ve had little opportunity to create the content that humanizes us and combats stereotypes. So the kinds of role models matter as much as the amount of them we see. Shout out to the quiet kids! To the weirdos! To the ones who are insecure. To the poor kids, to the disenfranchised, to the immigrants. Our histories have been invisible and neglected so long, that there's a lot of catching up to do!
I went into creating my book with my younger self in mind. It was really important for me to curate a very diverse list of leaders from different fields of study. It took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do in life so I wanted to ensure young readers would be familiar with names of filmmakers, writers and mathematicians along with the names of doctors and lawyers. I hope that the short bios within Little Leaders inspire kids along their journeys because undoubtedly they are going to be asked what they want to be when they grow up, and undoubtedly they will change their minds a couple of times. I hope to diversify and expand their list of possibilities and encourage them to know there are leaders from all walks of life that paved a way for them. I don't think any of these famous leaders set out to be role models, but their stories are guiding lights for the ones who follow. It’s important to share their stories, and keep adding to the list, because every kid should have the confidence that they, at the very least, have the option to try.