The theme at St. Stephen’s this summer is “creating the future.” It comes from a quote by the brilliant and multi-talented Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.
As someone working with children and teens at St. Stephen’s this summer, the idea of “creating the future” is meaningful to me. In our world, so many factors conspire to destroy futures, rather than create them. Patterns of racism, sexism, poverty, illness, oppression, etc. poison futures unevenly, impacting children from marginalized groups most severely. Inexcusably, our society often supports--both explicitly and tacitly--this foreclosing of futures. We must be vigilant, constantly critiquing the ways in which our society fails to support expansive possibility and full flourishing in every child’s future.
Mae Jemison was vigilant. She recognized and disavowed the constricting messages that society was telling her: that women cannot be scientists, that Black people should not be ambitious, and that young people cannot work hard. Even as society told her that “all futures matter,” it covertly signaled to her that her future as a Black woman held little promise.
Jemison took these damaging messages and used them to make her own future even more incredible. She saw the sexist and racist expectations of her teachers and peers as a challenge to prove people wrong. Today, she continues to live an incredible life that inspires others because of the way she reacts to society’s message of “limits,” proving that the real limits are in society’s limited imagination.
Oftentimes, the young people at St. Stephen’s are likewise confronted with the message of “limits:” that the circumstances of race, class, poverty, and zipcode have preordained a limited future. The beautiful thing about working with young people, though, is that their imaginations refuse to be downgraded. They intuitively know that they have the power to “create the future,” one where they view society’s low expectations not as a barrier, but as fuel to propel them to unexpected heights.
Yesterday, on the way to a field trip at the Boston Nature Center, I asked some of the kids about the future they hoped to create. I heard cries of “doctor” and “police officer,” but the answer that caught my ear was “butterfly doctor.” This gentle response came from one of the kids (not pictured) who is generally regarded as rambunctious and challenging. Already, society is spinning stories about his limited future: “he’s a troublemaker, he’s a wanderer, he’s unintelligent”... in defiance of these tales, the young boy talked about how much he loved bugs, worms, and dragonflies. He wanted to help butterflies that had been hurt! The innocent trust that a career of such delicacy and care even existed, much less awaited this boy in particular, pushed back on all my limited expectations. While I don’t want to downplay his genuine behavioral difficulties, it struck me that I had allowed society’s story of “limitations” to foreclose this boy’s future in my mind’s eye. Only when I invited him to create the future did I wake up to his authentic sense of possibility and compassion. May all of us who work with young people likewise invite them to create futures of hope, peace, and possibility. And let us wake up and join them when they actually do so.
By Cooper McCullough, Teen Staff Coordinator
Cooper is a recent graduate of Boston College’s Schools of Social Work and Theology & Ministry. He enjoys working with teens and children to increase resilience and build prosocial skills. Fun fact: he loves to waterski and spend his day on a lake with his family.