4 Ways I Came to Know My History and Embrace My Power

Originally posted on LinkedIn by Nereyda Esparza.They say that you should write about what you know and love, and to me, there’s nothing more exciting than to understand how women can grow and embrace their power.Last year at a workshop in Chicago I had the great pleasure of meeting the legendary Gloria Feldt, former CEO and President of Planned Parenthood and founder of Take The Lead, an organization that develops women to take equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.  She introduced me to nine power tools effective leaders use to embrace their power, and I left inspired to start this project. Over the next couple of months, I will write short essays on each of these tools in an effort to inspire women, especially young millennial women to better understand #PowerTO, what it is, and why we should have it.The nine power tools are:

  1. [bctt tweet=“Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.”]
  2. Define your own terms first, before anyone else does.
  3. Use What You’ve Got. What you need is almost always there, in your hands or within reach, if you can only see it and have the courage to use it.
  4. Embrace Controversy. It gives you a platform. It nudges you to clarity. It is a teacher, a source of strength, and your friend, especially if you are trying to make change.
  5. Carpe the Chaos. Change creates chaos.
  6. Wear the shirt. Your gut-level commitment to what you decide to do with your one “wild and precious life” is a potent power tool.
  7. Take Action; Create a Movement. Things don’t just happen; people make them happen in a systematic way. “Don’t agonize, organize!” as labor movement leaders often say.
  8. Employ every medium. Use personal, social, and traditional media every step of the way.
  9. Tell your story. Your story is your truth and your truth is your power. Others need and want to hear it as you want and need to hear theirs.

The following short essay is the first of nine to follow illustrating how women can embrace own power using Gloria Feldt’s tools. My plan is to use this space to profile incredible women and their journeys in hopes that I can inspire more people to do what they love and love what they do.Power Tool #1: KNOW YOUR HISTORY AND YOU CAN CREATE A FUTURE OF YOUR CHOICE[bctt tweet=““Well-behaved women seldom make history.”- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich”]I disagree. It’s not so much that only rebels, warriors, or activists make it into history books, but that women who accomplish great feats are also ones who ‘shake things up’ by breaking barriers, showing unyielding grit, and pioneering bravely into the unknown to accomplish their goals. I am still stunned or rather perplexed, by how little we know about the many incredible achievements women have contributed to society. Sure, we all recognize Madame Marie Curie, but how about Ada Lovelace – the first computer programmer? Or how about Dr. Shirley Jackson, the first black woman to obtain a PhD from MIT an inventor all things fiber optics? There are countless other examples of incredible role models, and it is imperative that we learn their histories in order to better understand where we came from and where we are going.It is also important to remember that no matter our age or background, we are ALL making history everyday! I am going to combine power tools #1 and #9 and profile my own history as well as some lessons I learned along the way about embracing who you are to propel you forward. I hope this will inspire you to do the same or go out there and ask someone you admire to tell you their story.Brave sea nymph Nereyda circa 1991 Where to start? My name is Nereyda – a name I had difficulty loving until I learned its etymology. It comes from the Greek Nereids. In Greek mythology, the Nereids are sea nymphs, daughters of Nereus, and can be friendly and helpful to sailors fighting perilous storms. (You might recognize one famous Nereid, Thetis, mother of Achilles, who famously held her son by the ankle as she dipped him into the river Styx). Well, we all know how that ended up so I asked my mother why she had chosen such a funny name for me. She told me that she wanted me to stand out from the crowd, to be unique and to be bold. This taught me my first lesson in knowing your history – know your name and why it was given to you!I was born and raised in South Texas where I lived, studied, and traveled frequently between the US and México. My parents are Mexican immigrants and made sure to keep me close to my roots, I learned how to read and write in Spanish before I did so in English. We attended family celebrations on both sides of the border, and I grew up transcending two very different cultures from an early age. Growing up in this community helped me unlock a passion for learning and a strong belief that education is the greatest enabler in life. It also fostered my love for history, politics, economics, and the Latin American region as a whole.Instead of attending my local high school, I decided to challenge myself and enroll in a free magnet science and math school outside of my school district. It was there where I met my school librarian, friend and lifelong mentor, Lucy Hansen. Lucy is a Fulbright Scholar and former German professor with a fiery spirit who taught me how to love learning and encouraged me to dream and execute higher than ever before. It was Lucy who ultimately convinced me to choose Smith College, a women’s college in New England, and begin a journey that would change the course of my life forever.At Smith I learned more than ever about the power of women’s leadership and our scope and influence in the world. I rejoiced in the idea of living and studying in the same halls that heroes like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Julia Child, Sylvia Plath, Shelly Lazarus and many others did before me. Smith’s curriculum is tailored to write women back into history and in every class I took from constitutional law to developmental economics, I learned about the many ways women had contributed to these areas and domains. It was the most heady, nervy, intellectually exciting time in my life.Smith was also the place where I met some of the greatest friends, my ‘sister-network’, who I love dearly and who I know I can call for support through any adversity. That’s the beauty of attending a women’s college; not only do you make friends for life you also have a network thousands strong who have taken the path before you and will help you in your journey. I called on my sister-network when I was looking for a job, moving countries, separated from a partner and equally important – to celebrate life’s success both large and small.Second lessonDo you have a group of women in your life who love and support you? If you don’t, go out and create one! Court your friendships like you court your lovers. Invest time in finding the people in your life who will nurture and support you at your best and at your worst. Network with purpose and be sure to follow up with a genuine interest in learning about someone’s life and career.Smith College Ivy Day 2009 pictured here with Nereyda Esparza, Massiell Tercero-Parker, and Caitlin FlynnIn college I also seized every opportunity to live and work abroad. I traveled to Argentina to study the recovered factory movement, spent a summer in Brazil with a professor from Amherst College studying Afro-Brazilian culture, and spent my junior year abroad at the University of Manchester navigating the English tutorial system and sharpening my critical thinking skills. Travel invigorated my soul and gave me just the right amount of courage to apply and be accepted at the University of Oxford to continue my education. In the fall of 2009, I graduated from college and headed to Oxford feeling naively optimistic about my future. I had made it this far and nothing could stop me now!Boy was I wrong. Imagine going from a radical feminist college to being thrown into the depths of the most traditional institution in the world. If Smith helped nurture me, Oxford helped push my boundaries and widen my horizons. They expected more from me and when I struggled, I had to dig deeper in order to deliver. I still remember the feeling of defeat after my first tutorial session with Dr. Timothy Power. (Yes, his name really was Dr. Power!) Thinking back I’m so so grateful for his time and his feedback – he made me not only a stronger scholar, but a more resilient person. I knew that in order to succeed at Oxford I had to work smarter and choose a topic for my thesis that I both loved and believed in.I conducted my research on the effect conditional cash transfer programs have on indigenous women in Latin America. I spent my research summer with the women in the communities of Zinacantán and San Juan Chamula in the mountains of Chiapas. I received top marks for my work and was commended at my viva (Oxford speak for terrifying oral defense). [bctt tweet=“Lesson three – do you see setbacks as opportunities for post-traumatic growth?”]All the positive psychology research in the world shows that our mindset is a powerful tool to help us overcome adversity.In 2012 I graduated from Oxford and experienced one of the proudest moments of my life – seeing my mother and sister sitting in the top rows of the Sheldonian Theatre to watch me accept my degree. My mother grew up very poor on a little ranch in Tamaulipas, México with five other siblings. Her education interrupted at an early age, she went to night school and graduated from high school after her second child was born. My mother spent most of her young adult life working as many immigrant women do, in people’s homes as a domestic worker. In profiling her own history, I asked her what her greatest aspiration in life was, and she told me it was for her children to go out and live lives of their own volition and to do all the things she never had the power to do. On that bright cold day in December 2012, my mother from a little ranch in Tamaulipas, sat in the Sheldonian and watched as her youngest daughter was sworn into Oxford’s prestigious alumni community. As I took my degree from the Vice Chancellor, I only had one person on my mind. I think that’s the day when my relationship with power fundamentally changed – instead of power-over (a patriarchal concept), I know had the power-to lead the life I wanted to live.I am incredibly grateful for my time spent at University. It was here I met women like Shaharzad Akbar, passionate activist and first Afghan woman to attend Oxford (and fellow Smithie!), Diana Ples a maths and philosophy double major who reworked all my existing knowledge, Mele-Ane Havea, MBA and Skoll Oxford Scholar, and incredible men like Kanishka Narayan, Adviser to the UK Secretary of State, and Will Sentance, CTO of Codesmith – some of the most intelligent and passionate people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.Which brings me to my fourth and final lesson learned - find ambitious people who excite you, motivate you, bring out the best in you, and never let them go. In addition to creating lasting friendships, foster genuine connections with the people who you will continue to learn from the rest of your life. You will be all the richer for it, I know I have.Pictured center left with the PLDP.
(See if you can spot John Fallon, Pearson CEO, hidden in the group!)Today I live in New York City and currently work for Pearson Education where I was selected out of 685 qualified applicants to participate in Pearson’s competitive (2% acceptance rate), two-year rotational leadership development program (PLDP). After completing the program, I joined the Global Employability and Career Success Team as the Associate Director for Employer Solutions where I operationalize Pearson’s strategy to expand our presence in the professional education marketplace. My path wasn’t always easy, and it is certainly far from over! Needless to say I’m excited about what is to come in 2016 and the many more adventures that I am waiting for with open arms.To recap, know your name and where you come from; build a community of women and men that you can count on no matter what; see your setbacks not as obstacles but as opportunities for post-traumatic growth and finally, surround yourself by bright, intelligent, ambitious people who will bring out the best in you.So what are you waiting for? Go out and make history!