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My First Year In The Corps: On Identity, Muchness, And 'Creating A Sustainable And Necessary Change'

2017 corps member Leah Birhanu's reflection on her first year in the corps looks at the critical importance of self-work, mental health, school safety, and the urgency of driving tireless, collective change for equity. #OneDayINdy

By Leah Birhanu

July 19, 2018

Leah Birhanu 1

This summer, I’ve been surrounded by puppies, cups of coffee and familiar faces as I spent some time at my parents’ house in the Chicagoland area. There are very few things that fill me with as much love as being with my family, and this trip gave me some much needed time to relax with them.  As with any trip home, there was a lot of catching up with family and friends to do, and I found myself unable to answer concisely the question: “How was your first year?” How do I sum up the past year in a short response in casual conversation? How do I condense the tears, late nights, sheer joy and utter anguish into a single sentence? While I’m still not entirely sure, let’s see if I can tackle it in under 1500 words.

My first year exists in fragments of memories. Moments that stuck out as growing pains for one reason or another. Right from the beginning, my time with TFA was filled to the brim with strong, radical individuals dedicated to making a change. I learned lessons quickly and I felt deeply the magnificence of the organization I had begun to involve myself in. I found out fast that putting a room full of strong leaders and voices can be overwhelming and can be a source of unmatched tension. I forced myself to embrace the uncomfortable and be intentional about the relationships I wanted to build during my time in the corps.

My first affinity space during Induction is one such moment that I will forever keep with me. For those unfamiliar, affinity spaces are groups created intentionally to unify individuals around an aspect of their identity. They can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. And I love them. I grew up in a predominantly white, affluent suburb with very few friends of color, and even fewer black friends within that group, so I was nervous to be vulnerable in a space where this was amplified. However, the staff and corps members within the affinity space encouraged transparency and honesty with each other about our experiences thus far as people of color. One particular corps member challenged me to think more critically about the way I relate to my identity as an Ethiopian-American woman, and how that experience differs from other black American experiences. Perhaps this memory holds so much weight because as life would work out, my classroom demographic is made up of a fair amount of immigrant families, many of whom are from countries in Africa. Having a peer challenge me to dive deeper into what it means to me to be Ethiopian-American helped instill a sense of pride that I could then bring into my classroom and use to create more authentic and meaningful connections with my students. Even as I am writing this, I can think of six or seven more times when my identity as an Ethiopian woman was challenged or affirmed by my peers or my students, but I would be remiss if I thought that my entire identity was encompassed by those two qualities. 

“How do I sum up the past year in a short response in casual conversation? How do I condense the tears, late nights, sheer joy and utter anguish into a single sentence?”

Leah Birhanu

Indianapolis Corps Member 2017

Understanding the complexities of every human person, including myself, has been a large part of my TFA experience. My ethnicity and my gender are a huge portion of my identity, but my identity as a person with mental illness is also wrapped up in that. I have partnered with anxiety and depression my entire life - with a just dash of OCD for flavor - and I have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. For example, notice I wrote “partnered with.” I struggled writing that phrase because originally it read “suffered from.” This past year I have learned that while I may suffer sometimes or things may be challenging, the way I speak about my anxiety, much like my ethnicity, empowers me to claim ownership over it - however cheesy. I have learned the power that language can have, specifically regarding the conversations necessary surrounding mental health, and how it can help further intentional and progressive dialogue. I believe I that can make an impact by modeling how to be successful, regardless of my own mental illness, for my students who also have varying degrees of mental illness by using these conversations as a catalyst for change. It has been challenging to balance what my students need from me, my administration’s expectations, and my mental health at the same time, but sometimes you just have to put on some Lizzo (or a bop of your choice) and get to work.

Leah Birhanu Students

Amidst the triumph and the self-work (a common ProSat* buzzword), there has been tremendous heartbreak. I’m sure you’re aware, things are not great for kids in our country. There are so many opposing forces telling our children what to think, how to be, and who is cared for and cared about by those in positions of power. As a passionate educator, it is incredibly exhausting. I am so tired of constantly trying to “undo” the hurt inflicted upon my kids by various powerful forces, while simultaneously trying to keep them motivated to learn why x^2 is the inverse of √x. Honestly, it sucks, and it’s an uphill battle.  But it has to be done and it is clearer to me now that I have to join the front lines. It is challenging and tiresome work and I would sign up to do it one million times over again because the kids deserve more.

Considering the approximately 134 shootings as of June 18 according to Gun Violence Archive, our schools are no longer a guaranteed safe haven. Conversations with kids about safety in school look different and it is horrible to have to sit with a student during lunch because she’s scared and wants to memorize our emergency procedures. On March 14, 2018, I joined two other staff members as we accompanied those seventh grade students who wanted to participate in the National School Walk Out. It was solemn and frightening, and the pin-drop silence was earth-shattering as we re-entered the classroom.

Leah Birhanu 2

I am the educator I am today because of that memory and the moment that followed. After we walked back into the classroom, my students wanted to debrief. Not solely about the violence in Parkland, but also about what they could do to help - they asked to send letters, to make posters, to stand up and speak up, because this was not okay. In that moment, I was the weakest one in the room. I was surrounded by young, vibrant minds who wanted so desperately to make a change. As much as I am energized by my peers, there is nothing in this world like the pure and unbounding inspiration of a young student with a passion and a vision.

In times when I feel like everything is crumbling faster than an unstructured cake on Cake Wars (just stop putting your fondant figures on top of the cake!) and all my challenges are far beyond my locus of control, I turn to other voices for guidance. Black Lives Matter activist, host extraordinaire of Pod Save the People, and TFA-New York ‘07 alum, Deray McKesson, said it best when he stated “You are enough to start a movement. Individual people can come together around things that they know are unjust. And they can spark change.” His words will live on both as a future classroom inspirational poster, and as a mantra to energize me to continue fighting the good fight. It will charge me to bring my ever-changing identity into the classroom and encourage my students to do the same. It is a call to action for people like me, who feel the “muchness” of the world weighing down. A call to come together to work toward creating a sustainable and necessary change within our community. I am rested, I am invigorated, and I am excited to find out what else this TFA journey has in store for me.

*Indianapolis all-corps professional development Saturdays