I was first introduced to the Queens’ boathouse athletes when my supervisor invited me to tag along and observe a Resiliency workshop he was facilitating during the weekly academic programing. In Queens, an all-girls boathouse, there was an evident closeness and sense of community among the girls. They greeted one another and staff with a warmth and genuine excitement to share each other’s company. I knew that this was a group that I’d particularly enjoy working with.
So, when the opportunity came for me to facilitate my own workshop during rowing practice at the Queens boathouse I was thrilled, but also a bit anxious. The Queens teams are comprised of predominantly young women of color, the majority of whom are of Latinx decent. Thus, to serve them in a meaningful way it is important that I facilitate workshops that are relevant to their experiences and identities.
To do this, I summoned distant memories of what most influenced my life as a teen. In revisiting the melodrama, joy and genuine struggles of adolescent YoVanna, I identified a central theme in all of my most profound memories: beauty. I spent a significant amount of time fixated on beauty as a young woman. Either trying to embody it, envying other girls for their beauty, or looking for my beauty to be validated by others. As a now semi-grown woman, I now understand that beauty blossoms from within, that my worth lies not in my long lashes, but in my ability to be compassionate, loving and kind. What if I’d had this understanding of beauty at thirteen years old? All of that time wasted searching for something more gratifying in the mirror could have been devoted to some good ol’ fashion teenage mischief!
Thus, it seemed only right that I create an opportunity for a group of young brown and black girls to broaden their perceptions of beauty and celebrate all that makes them beautiful. On a Wednesday afternoon, I stood in front of a group of sixteen high school and middle school girls asking them to (re)define intrinsic beauty. “When I say the word beauty what do you think of? Who do you think of? What makes us beautiful,” I asked. My question was met with silence, then giggles, and finally a few reluctant responses. “So, someone who is like pretty, but humble about it,” a high schooler offered. “Yes, humility. What else?,” I pressed on. “Kindness,” added a girl shyly. “A person’s mindset. They way they carry themselves,” said another. “Uniqueness, Supportiveness, Passion,” and so it went until every girl had contributed to our community definition of beauty.
I then gave each girl a colorful sheet of paper. I Requested that they write their name at the top and then write five traits, characteristics or things that made them intrinsically beautiful, but only one of which could be physical. To break the ice, I shared two of my intrinsic beauties. “I am intrinsically beautiful when my contagious smile is reflected in the faces of those around me and I am intrinsically beautiful because of the melanin in my dark, glorious skin,” I shared modeling the same confidence I expected of the girls. Wow’s were whispered, then colored pencils met paper and intrinsic beauty was characterized. As some girls got suck on their second and third beauties, the most beautiful thing happened, a room full of teenage girls reminded each other of what made them most beautiful. “You're like so smart and helpful. Put that down.” “You are such a good friend.” “You’re like the strongest girl I know.”
They high-fived, hugged and told each other how beautiful they were every time they changed groups. I was moved by how open and vulnerable they were with each other.
I asked the girls to form groups of four in different sections of the room and nominate someone to read an example of what made them intrinsically beautiful to the entire team. After the nominated speaker of each group had shared, the girls would move to the group with the intrinsic beauty that resonated most with them and celebrate the whichever beautiful aspect of themselves that had brought them together. They high-fived, hugged and told each other how beautiful they were every time they changed groups. I was moved by how open and vulnerable they were with each other. It is easy to underestimate young people, particularly young girls. This workshop was an incredible reminder how beautiful young girls of color truly are.
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING PROGRAM WITH ROW NEW YORK
YoVanna is a recent graduate From North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University with a degree in International Studies and a certificate in Waste Management. As an exchange student in Uruguay she discovered her passion for cross-cultural exchange. Teaching English and volunteering with various youth development non-profit organizations abroad inspired her to pursue a career in the social sector. YoVanna is an avid reader and world traveler who loves dancing and deep-belly laughter. She spends her free time trying to expand her Spanish vocabulary and writing jokes for stand-up comedy.