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Tiny Talk - The Joy That Binds Us

Dr. Nicol Russell Vice President of Implementation Research, Teaching Strategies, LLC

This Tiny Talk was given at the first EmbraceRace Early Childhood Summit on December 3, 2022. Watch more of the Summit and find out more about the contributors here. The transcript of this talk follows.

Andrea Huang, EmbraceRace: Welcome back everyone. We hope you had a refreshing break.

If you are just now joining us today, we welcome you to EmbraceRace's Early Childhood Summit, defending and celebrating early racial learning.

If you are in need of Spanish translation for today's summit, look to the chat box for access instructions.

It's now my great pleasure to introduce our third guest speaker of the day.

Dr. Nicol Russell is our beloved friend and colleague at EmbraceRace, where she serves as one of our Color-Brave Community Facilitators. She is also the Vice President of Implementation Research at Teaching Strategies, was formerly a teacher in early childhood and in early childhood special education, Arizona State Director of Special Education, Arizona State Deputy Superintendent of Early Childhood Education, and an educational researcher. She knows a lot.

In all her work, Nicol tries her best to choose the margins, a phrase learned from Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and to be a voice for Indigenous, Black and other children of color who are often excluded, neglected or otherwise overlooked.

Nicol's talk today is sponsored by Greater Good Science Center at the University of California - Berkeley, and her talk is titled "The Joy That Binds Us".

A huge welcome to you Nicol. The floor is yours.

Nicol Russell:

Thank you Andrea for that wonderful introduction.

And I just want to take a minute here to say thank you to Dennis and to Trisha for sharing their stories. I was a bit nervous about doing this talk because so much of my personal story is intertwined with the rest of the story that I'm talking about today.

And listening to how powerful they were, how powerfully they shared their personal stories, it made me feel at ease. I feel like I now have permission and I'm being welcome to tell this story, so I appreciate that.

Chris, if you put it on this first slide, I'd like to begin by telling you all a story. This story about this little girl here on the far left who was born on a bright sunny day in the fall of 1978.

This lucky girl was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to a young Kanaka ʻŌiwi wahine woman and her partner, a young Black man from Birmingham, Alabama.

She was the third child born into this family of different histories, this family of two young people in love, who were working hard to bring their cultures together to create a new shared culture for their children.

That girl was me. If you look closely, I think you'll see my dimples both in the one where my dad's kissing me where I'm yelling, my mom holding me.

And by the time I was in kindergarten, there in the green dress, I was one of four children in this growing family. And by the time I was in the third grade, right here in the brown vest, I think that was the style back then; it had to be, because I don't know why else I'd be wearing that, I was one of six children.

We were growing up in rural Hawaii during the '80s and '90s, and we were doing our best to survive.

My dad worked a variety of jobs, each time chasing more money so he could provide for our large family.

At one point he even worked on Maui. We lived on Oahu, and he was working on Maui. We saw him every other weekend or sometimes maybe once a month for two years. He worked there because the money was better than what he could earn on Oahu.

My mom, she worked too, lots of jobs, including selling everything from Tupperware and Avon, to Melaleuca, and Princess House crystal.

She had a food truck at one point where she sold mostly Hawaiian food. She was doing her best to contribute to our family's finances.

We moved from house to house, and on one occasion, moved from house to beach for a period of time when our family was experiencing houselessness because there just wasn't enough money to go around.

Now being this mixed raised family, living in poverty in an impoverished area where the people indigenous to the land were and are suffering from systemic racism and are still suffering from the effects of becoming involuntary minorities in their homeland, where settler colonialism permeates everything, that was hard.

But it's not all I remember from my childhood. There were good times and things too, and I almost always talk about what was great, and I so rarely tell others about what was hard. In fact, I think this is the first time that I share my story publicly about how difficult those times were.

I remember a few years ago I was sharing part of this story with a colleague, and she sincerely asked me, "So did you just not notice you were poor?"

I said, "Oh no, I knew we were poor." We knew we were poor. When you frequently worry that you won't have electricity or water because those utilities have been turned off for non-payment, or when you know that if you don't have toothpaste, you put salt on your toothbrush and brush to get the grime off, you're poor. You're acutely aware of how little you have.

But when you're laughing, and playing, and hugging and dancing with these people whom you love and who love you more than anything in the world, being poor isn't the only thing that stays with you.

You remember there was also so much to be grateful for and you hang on to those moments while weathering the things that are hard.

For my family, we had one another. There were six of us. I had five siblings, and we had these two incredible parents who were madly in love. They were wildly different. I had this one parent who taught us what it means to be truly Kanaka, to be in reverence of the creator and the universe, and the power and strength of love and family, community, while simultaneously resisting the continued imposition of American ways of knowing and being on Kanaka people.

And then we had this other, my father who taught us what it was like to be a black kid in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement and what it meant to face racism and injustice head on.

Now, in 1993, life changed for me and my family when my mom passed away from a very short battle with pancreatic cancer. We were 21, 19, 14, I was 14, 12, eight, and seven, and our lives were forever altered.

Our dad had quit his higher paying job to become a school teacher so he could have the same schedule as these four school-aged children. We moved houses so we could be in a more affordable place, and my younger siblings who were homeschooled now had to be enrolled in the local elementary school, and learning looked so different there than it did when they were at home with my mom.

So there were all these changes that came to my family.

Now, when I think back at that time between when she passed and becoming a young adult, I think about that time and what it took to get myself back on track both emotionally and academically, and what it took to accomplish what I told her I wanted to do.

I told her I wanted to go to college, and I told her that after going to college, I wanted to be a journalist. I had envisioned myself being either a print journalist or maybe at some point being a television journalist.

Now that my family had one income, my dad was very honest with me. He said, "I know you want to go to college, but if you want to go, you're going to have to get scholarships. There's just no way I can pay for that."

So I did. I worked really, really hard to get as many scholarships as possible. And by the time I started my freshman year at the University of Hawaii, I had 12 scholarships.

I lived at home and endured this two hour bus ride to campus and back home so I could save money on housing. I worked an on campus full-time jobs so I could afford things like food, and books, and clothes, and the fun stuff that you want to do when you're a college kid.

Folks who knew my story then would often comment about how hard I had it. "Oh, you poor thing," they would say. "You've got it so hard."

And I'd put on this sunshiney smile and say, "It's okay."

And I really meant it, truly meant it. Yes, I had lots of difficult circumstances, but I felt fine. I felt content. I even felt good, whatever good means.

And over time, what I learned that got me through those years after my mom passed was joy. It was the joy of her memory, the joy of the strength of my family, because of enduring this kind of childhood together, sharing in the same shared grief together. I had joy because these people knew me. They got me. I didn't have to explain a single thing to these people.

I also had joy because this woman right here in that photo on the left, at the center is my mother's mom, this beautiful Kanaka queen who was always a part of our lives but became even more integral after my mom's passing.

She was an essential relationship and presence in my life to the end of her life. It was joy because I still had my dad, the most kind, humble human being I've ever known. My siblings and I, even after we left home, stayed totally connected to one another and to my dad.

Here's a picture of us right here. This is from 2015, right before I had my daughter. I was getting ready to become a mother who was going to be mothering without a mother, and I was so nervous, anxious, and worried that I wasn't going to know what to do. And they all from different parts of the country, got on planes, came to Arizona and showed up for me, literally. Literally showed up for me to tell me that everything would be okay. And I've never let go of the feeling that I had, that I could become a mother who could successfully support bringing a child into the world.

I'm sorry, I said I wasn't going to cry. Here I am crying.

So when I think about that, when I think about the lessons that it's taught me, the most successful thing or most powerful thing I think I learned was that joy has power. It's so powerful, that joy.

Even right now, as I'm feeling these strong emotions, it's not just sadness. I feel joy. It shares space with sadness, with fear, with anger, with all those things that we experience.

It's not like happiness that depends on everything being just right, everything being perfect. You need that to be happy. But joy, it needs nothing else.

And when I think about this work that we're all engaged in and wanting to be a part of, racial and social justice, I think there's two lessons to be learned.

The first is that when it seems like things are insurmountable, that we are facing pressure in every which way we turn.

Andrew did a wonderful job at the beginning of telling us what's happening out there. Many of us have read these stories, watched these news stories. It feels like we are being pressured everywhere we look. In those moments, we rely on the power of joy to help us persist. It doesn't mean that everything's perfect, but it means we're digging down inside. We're tapping into joy so we can weather ourselves through these difficult times.

And the second lesson is that the sooner and more often we can provide children, especially children of color, with experiences and opportunities to cultivate this joy, the better.

We want them to start banking those moments of joy so it becomes part of their resiliency toolkits.

Maya Angelo said, "Laugh as much as possible. Always laugh. It's the sweetest thing one can do for one's self and one's fellow human beings."

Imagine that by encouraging children to laugh and play, and be themselves and be joyous, we're encouraging them to take action for themselves and for others.

And when I speak of lifting up joy, there are three types specifically that I'm thinking of.

There's the joy of being. Simply being ourselves in our full humanity, with a range of feelings, and emotions, and strength and weakness. There's just joy in being embraced as that person, joy and laughter in crying, in struggling, in soaring. When things are going really well in every way, just being.

So I would encourage you, every day take notice of those things. What brings you joy? Is it listening to your favorite music? Maybe a sing along and dancing. I'm one of those people who enjoys music thoroughly. Is it spending time with their family? Is it watching sad movies and crying because it gives you a release? Be in that moment and notice what brings you joy so you can do more of that.

The second type of joy I'm thinking of is the joy in connecting deeply to others. Connection to others can sometimes feel unexplainable. We just cannot explain why we feel so connected to sometimes people we've never met.

I'm going to give you an example. I'm going to ask you to close your eyes right now and picture this scene for a moment.

You're watching a video. There's a young child, maybe that child is about 10 months old, not quite one, and they're in the doctor's office and a parent is holding that child.

Now, that child was born with trouble hearing and hasn't ever heard their parent's voice. Now, in comes the doctor, places a hearing device over their child's ear and the parent speaks into a microphone. And suddenly you see that baby's eyes get wide. Their grin and smile gets wider at the sound of their parent's voice, and that parent is instantly in tears.

Now, open your eyes. What do you feel?

I know for me, every time I see that, instantly I'm in tears. Tears because I know the joy, the pure joy that baby is feeling, that parent is feeling, and the joy comes out in tears. That feeling of connection, that joy of being connected to others is what I'm thinking of here.

And then finally, there's joy in belonging. Now for social injustice warriors, we find joy in the power of our communities, whether they're large or small. We join groups like EmbraceRace and Race Forward. We participate in sessions like this one right now. There's joy in belonging to something that can literally change the world now and for the future world our children will inherit.

So here we are, back to my family. This was in 2021. We were all back together again.

This was after my daughter was born. We'd grown by three more children, and we'll grow by one more early next year. We're still spread across a number of states, all doing our best to help our children thrive and survive.

And I continue to tell our story because I think it's a story worth telling.

In fact, I think all our stories are worth telling because the stories keep our common humanity at the heart of this work, and it's joy that binds us.

At this time, I'd like to invite you to take out your phones or your mobile devices and scan this QR code right here on the screen.

The QR code would bring you to a Padlet. Now, if you're on your desktop or a laptop and you don't have access to a mobile device, I'm going to put the link in the chat be what I'd love for you to be able to do is go to the Padlet. There's the link in the chat. When you go to the palette, there's a plus button at the bottom. If you're on a mobile device, it's in the center. If you're on the laptop or desktop, it's in the right corner. Click that plus button.

Think about something that brings you joy. Is it a photo? Is it music lyrics? Is it a poem? Is it just a message of joy that you want to share with others? And add it to our Padlet.

And what we'd like to do is during our connect and reflect session, be able to share out what we're seeing from others brings them joy so that we can be inspired, encouraged, and just find more hope that we're not only doing the hard work of defending racial learning, but we're celebrating too.

There are things going well and things that bring us joy daily, and can we take a moment to recognize those things?

For me, joy was there when I was a child. It's here now in my adulthood, and it's part of the legacy I want to leave for my daughter.

I hope you walk away from this talk and from this time we've had together today feeling inspired and encouraged to continue doing the hard work of defending children's racial learning.

Thank you.

Christina Rucinski:


Thank you, Nicol.

I'm just laughing because I'm experiencing joy. I don't know that I can really articulate, put into words how much I appreciate your vulnerability, knowing you already, and getting this new window into your life and your beautiful brain and mind.

I'm going to reference the chat again and just note how much incredible love, and gratitude, and appreciation was coming through for you now during your talk, and I am just very, very grateful that we get to work with you and learn from you at EmbraceRace, learn from you in terms of caregiving, and also just in terms of being a human being. So thank you, Nicol.

Check out other contributors and talks from the EmbraceRace Early Childhood Virtual Summit 2022 here.

Nicol Russell

Dr. Nicol Russell is the Vice President of Implementation Research at Teaching Strategies, was formerly a teacher in early childhood and in early childhood special education, state director of special education, state deputy superintendent of early… More about Nicol >
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