Below is City Year AmeriCorps member, Anansa Benbow's, speech from the Women's Leadership Breakfast. Anansa discusses how she came to find her voice under the guidance of her Abuelita and listening to female rapper MC Lyte's lyrics about being strong. All of these experiences culminated into decisions to serve with City Year Providence and empower her students to find their voices, even when there are language barriers.

Finding My Voice

by Anansa Benbow, City Year Providence AmeriCorps Member proudly serving on the Hasbro Team at Roger Williams Middle School

My mother always said I came out the womb talking. When I was younger, I wouldn’t stop, so my parents taught me the silent game. I lost each time; not even my persistent stutter could silence me. Using my voice was something that came naturally, but true mastery of my voice was found with the guidance of the women in my life, the sheroes of my life. They helped me find my inner voice, the voice that would be tasked with talking me down from the ledge, and reassuring me when my best wasn’t enough. They helped my outer voice, the voice that would declare, “No” as a complete sentence, and the voice that would ultimately project my thoughts. Each of these women have impacted all the stages of my life leading up to my service with City Year.

MC Lyte was one of these women. Throughout my childhood, my parents were particular about the music I was exposed to.  During middle school, MC Lyte, a rapper from Brooklyn whose career took off in the late 80s, reined my cd player. I equipped myself with an arsenal of her lyrics to boost my confidence and defend myself against adolescent boys. Her music gave me pride, posture, and diction. Her voice carries a demanding tone and I wanted to speak with that same tone, the same conviction, poise, and eloquence.

Little did I know, mimicking the power in her voice would later serve a different purpose. At the age of 12, I knew the world was unfair, but I never thought of myself as someone who could use my voice to make strong declarations like MC Lyte. But like MC Lyte, I stood my ground and used my voice to threaten injustice. So when the opportunity presented itself, I was confident enough to address my university’s president about his lack of concern for Black and Latino students. There is no coincidence why I strive to make my students as confident in their voice as I was. Thank you MC Lyte for lyrics like, “I am woman, hear me roar, coming out fresher and flyer than I did before.”

People often wonder why I wear flowers in my hair, but for anyone who knows Lola Marquez, the answer is simple. As a young girl I saw my grandmother teasing her hair into the most perfect of buns and adorning it with a flower or sparkly pin. I would be wealthy if I received a penny for every time my mother commented on the similarities between my grandmother and I. My grandmother, or abuelita as we say, is the type of woman who you hear before you see and whose food you smell before you enter her home. Every time I sat between her legs to get my hair done, I learned a different lesson by her just being her.

My abuelita fled from Puerto Rico in the 70’s to a land so foreign and unwelcoming. However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that she held Spanish Harlem in the palm of her hand. My abuelita is brazen, she has style and an audaciousness about her. She was well known at her church, senior center, and known to slap dominoes with the best of them.

My abuelita has a voice that you never wanted to hear; because if you heard it, you knew you were in trouble. I often find myself using this same tone while being firm with my students. Typically, my Latino students are fluent in this language, not Spanish, but this unique language of, for lack of better words, direction. For example, last week I told a student to put something down and he didn’t listen, and then I said “pon lo patras” and he listened. Another time, a student left his plastic cup on a table. I asked him if it was his and he continued to walk away. Then I asked, “no es lo tuyo,” he smiled and threw the cup out.  And this is no fault of their own, they just understand a different language of direction. Being able to connect with my students through language is something about this job that I cherish. I am able to speak a language that they respond to validating this aspect of their homeland and home life into school. There is something uplifting and empowering about students feeling comfortable to use their voice.  To me, language is a beautiful and extraordinary example of human creation. And I thank my abuelita for giving me this voice and developing my fluency in this language.

Through my service I hope to have a lifelong impact on the young minds I work with. The ability to communicate is a very powerful weapon and finding your voice is a journey. I hope to emulate the women who have inspired me and empower my students to realize their voice. Being in an ELA classroom is unique because I am able to stress oral self-advocacy as well as the written. This is seen when my partner teacher and I use the Black Lives Matter movement as a way for students to write about why their lives matter, and display it throughout the school. For marginalized groups, society has a way of making you feel insignificant for demanding respect. I hope to help my students stand tall and firm while voicing their realities to the world.

I would also like to remind my students of the importance of connecting with others through language and strong voice. Most of my students have an advantage because they speak multiple languages, whether they hail from Haiti, Cambodia, Liberia, or various Latin American nations. As they get older, these qualities will open up opportunities for them. But in my opinion, the greatest opportunity they’ll receive is meeting a young person who they can connect with through language and ensure their success. This is the opportunity I am afforded through City Year.

As I stand in a room full of accomplished women who use their voice to influence the world around them. I am reminded how service to a cause greater than ourselves leaves the world a better place than we inherited it. MC Lyte’s lyrics helped me find my confidence and inner strength. My abuelita held me to the highest standard and taught me to have the audacity to use my voice. And countless other women have influenced me in one way or another. Everyone in this room, to someone you are a shero; whether you are an abuelita, mother, sister, or mentor; you have the power to produce change. You stand on the shoulders of giants, and now, others will stand on yours. 

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