What does your freedom look like?

Happy 2020 y’all!

I’ve been thinking of the start of this year almost as a half-way point. For me, the year really started in June, with my 24th birthday, and general life upheaval and move to the Bay. Since then I’ve come such a long way. I’m more confident but also maybe more reserved. My sense of self-worth comes from a deeper place, where before it was very dependent on external praise/validation. And I’ve truly proven to myself that the only barrier between me, and the things that I want for myself, and would like to accomplish, is me.

I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s experience. Many of the systemic barriers that prevent people from following their dreams (student loans, car notes, familial obligations) aren’t issues that I face, and that’s in large part because of the sacrifices my family made to remove those barriers for me. Not to discredit my own efforts, leaving engineering to pursue (and secure! but more on that later) a career in writing & communications was 100% me. But I was able to do all of these things because of the foundation provided by my family, and that’s not a reality of my experience that I want to undervalue or discredit.

Now that I am here though, and have succeeded in reaching some level of stability, I’m starting to focus on other ways and places I’d like to grow. The Bay is fraught for sure, but it wouldn’t be the place it is if there wasn’t so much opportunity here. While brainstorming, I realized how much I miss volunteering. In the past, NSBE (The National Society of Black Engineers) supplied the community activism & volunteer piece of my life without my having to think very hard about it. I’m not engineering any more though, and I wanted to positively impact my community (what can I say, NSBE til the death of me) in a way that felt genuine to the person I am now, and the life that I’m currently leading.

*Side Bar* It’s wild how quickly I’ve started to consider the Bay my community. I’ve only been here 7 months (!!!???) but I feel like I’ve lived here for years. I was FaceTiming a homie a couple days ago, who stopped mid-convo to go “…are you wearing an Oakland beanie right now?” I was, and had been for the last 3 days. “Did you ever consider wearing a Dallas anything when you lived here?” he asked. The answer: a resounding hell no. So yeah, despite all the shit I talk about the Bay, there is something oddly special about this place. It grows on you, whether you want it to or not. There are skeevy things about it, absolutely, but like generations of Burkins’ before me, there’s only so long we can stare an issue in the face before trying to doing something to solve it. Enter 826 Valencia.

I learned of 826 Valencia from a co-worker of mine who’d previously volunteered with the nonprofit, and knew how much I like to write. The program preaches agency through the written word, and engages under-resourced students ages 6 – 18 in being the authors of their own narratives. There’s something really powerful about teaching kids at young age that their voices matter, and that they have the right to tell their own stories. So much of my life in the Bay has been characterized by blessings literally falling in my lap. 826, and the opportunity to do the work I love, impacting communities that look like me, feels like another one of those blessings.

Alright I’m getting sappy and this is getting long so time to wrap up. During today’s volunteer orientation one of the facilitators discussed a project they’re working on with the students, a book of student stories in response to Nikki Finney’s spiraling epic of a poem The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy. The prompt they posited really struck me:

What does your freedom look like?

The older I get, the less I know. So much of the Black Experience is holding paradoxes inside ourselves: pride & self-hatred; anger & subservience; love & indifference. And I think freedom is at the base of all these emotions, but I don’t know what it looks like in the context of today’s society, or what it means when I know that we (the human we) are capable of being better…and simply choose not to be. Freedom for me often means despondency, as I compare all that we’ve accomplished to how much farther we still have to go. But life is the going. So maybe, for me, that’s what freedom is too.

Stay sane out there guys,


Crazy, crazy life update: I am now the full-time Communications Associate for AI4ALL, where I craft stories that further our mission of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the field of artificial intelligence research and technology. I am beyond grateful for this opportunity, and so incredibly stoked for everything that’s coming next.

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