At Olori, we don’t only make quality products that make women feel strong, and confident; through our collaborations with local artisans and women-owned businesses, we help create continuity and more economic opportunities for women. Also, every product sold provides tuition for an underprivileged girl; safe to say we are all about empowering women. Our Founder, Tomide Awe, was in conversation with Turquoise Brennan, and they discussed education and its importance, its role in female empowerment and righting societal wrongs. Here is an excerpt from their talk.
Tomide Awe: Thank you so much for agreeing to be part of the first interviewees for the blog, Turquoise. Can you tell me a bit more about yourself? Your background, why you wanted to be a teacher, just your story in general.
Turquoise Brennan: My background starts really with my parents; my father is a white man and my mother is an African-American woman. We were poor growing up, but they wanted the biggest thing for my sister and myself, which was education. So, my parents used any extra dollars they had spent on books for us. Anything that we did do later in life, as far as a trip or anywhere we went, my sister and I were asked to write essays. We had to always earn whatever we got, and we did that by doing some kind of work for my mum and my dad. Any day we took off school, he would add up the cost and we would have to pay him.
My dad was a police officer; he had been a police officer on the street for about two years and then he got into an organization called Police Athletic League, which is pretty much cops protecting and serving but spending time with kids. By the time I was ten, he was doing that, and I liked to spend time with them every day after school, and every day during summer. I definitely saw the impact my dad had being a white male in an all-black neighbourhood for twenty years, and I saw what an impact he made just being a presence. And that pretty much set me up to say I want to be around kids all the time. I want to impart anything I know onto kids because I didn’t have many people that looked like me teaching me when I was growing up.
It was really important to me to learn everything I possibly could, and be able to go back to the classroom, especially in inter-city. I have always worked in struggling areas; I just believe that the kind of education that everyone deserves should not be dependent on their zip code or economic status. Every child deserves the absolute best education, which is why I have stayed where I’ve stayed for twelve years.
Tomide Awe: You’ve been a teacher for twelve years?
Turquoise Brennan: I’ll be finishing up twelve years in June
Tomide Awe: Wow! That’s amazing; congrats! You’ve been teaching for twelve years now; what would you say are the guiding principles for you as an educator? What is your philosophy on teaching and learning in general?
Turquoise Brennan: Thank you. I would say my philosophy on teaching is that I believe teaching is crafted over time; you are never perfect at it, you continuously work on it and hone it, and you’re learning the whole time while the kids are learning along with you. It really becomes a part of your life. It’s not a nine-to-five or something that stops in the summertime; you have to be very committed and you sacrifice a lot if you really want to make change in the people you work with. That has to be your focus, and you have to hunker down and make a decision when you’re going to do it if you’re going to do it well. It’s not an easy choice to make, you have to be very disciplined to do it.
No matter what student is in front of you, no matter what you think about them, what you know about them based on appearance has to go out the window. You have to inherently believe that every child is worth it, and they really can do what you’re asking them to do. If you don’t, you will have stereotypes and you’re not going to provide the child with the education they deserve.
Tomide Awe: From everything you said, what I hear is that you have a deep passion for bringing education to kids that would otherwise not have access to quality education; is that correct?
Turquoise Brennan: Yes, absolutely.
Tomide Awe: As a teacher, have you had any peak moments? What has been the most joyous moment of your career?
Turquoise Brennan: There are so many! I think when more people get to see how well my students do. Winning awards is great; in 2016 I got Teacher of the Year and that was great, but that’s not something that stands out to me. But these past two years, my students, out of ten middle schools in the city and the network, have scored the best in literature across all those schools.
Tomide Awe: That is amazing.
Turquoise Brennan: It is amazing. To guide people who think they can’t do it and who are just absolutely incredible, makes me want to do better. I’m very honest about all the challenges they are going to have just being black, just coming from where they come from. We talk about it all the time and I always feel like I provide them access to my own life and my own struggles, and things they wouldn’t normally see, guess, or hear, so that they are super prepared for life in general. Students I’ve had years ago come back; when they see me standing at my same corner in their neighbourhood, they know I’m there, they know I’m not going anywhere.
Tomide Awe: To balance the view, what would you say is the worst part of being a teacher?
Turquoise Brennan: The trauma that the kids come to school with has been the biggest lesson and the biggest challenge for me, continues to be. They have so many things they bring with them that I didn’t have growing up. I now look back and think how privileged I was, even growing up poor like I did. They come to school with such baggage: they have been hurt, harmed, not loved, ignored, neglected, and that comes out every day in the class room, and the biggest lesson I have learned from that is patience. Some of their trauma can be jarring. It can be humbling. You have these moments as a teacher, as an educator, as someone who is supposed to be their role model and I had plenty of those, and there are moments to remember what these kids go home to, and that it is something I have to constantly check in with and learn to be more patient. That’s something I am constantly working on.
Tomide Awe: I guess that’s why they need great teachers in the classroom as well, to be able to provide some sort of support outside of their homes.
Turquoise Brennan: Yea, we are the most stable people they see all day. We call ourselves solid objects because normally they are with people who unravel them and they are unravelled all day long.
Tomide Awe: When you teach, do you see any marked differences between boys and girls in the way they adapt to learning? Would you say there are any trends in that regard?
Turquoise Brennan: I would say of course. Teenage boys are much easier because they are very innocent, naïve. The girls around this age are quite interesting; this is the time when they are concerned about image; their hair, the way they look. Sometimes they don’t want to come into the classroom when they have half of their hair braided and half of it out. I think the pride and sense in being a black female is not spoken enough about, so they sit in the background more. I always repeat to them, “Have a bold voice, be confident when you’re speaking. No one will ever listen to you if you don’t have a presence in the room.” I think with my class, I give the females a definite opportunity.
Tomide Awe: This reminds me of my experience in Nigeria. Just thinking of some of the people around me, and it’s a cultural thing, educating girls wasn’t much of a priority. It wasn’t the same for my family; the girls were probably more of a priority. In Nigeria and Africa in general, they think girls are going to get married anyway. They will end up in another man’s house, so they would rather spend funds educating boys because those are the ones who will carry on the family name. I heard something similar from a doctor in Philadelphia and I was shocked that something like that happens in the US. What is your view on that? Why is it important to educate female children?
Turquoise Brennan: Females have always been the unheard gender, and they have a lot to say. I think they need to know that there is more out there than just being the secretary to the man. They need to know that they can be leaders in all facets, not just in the nurturing stance. It is interesting for me especially because I am 33 years old, divorced, and never had kids. Yet I spend my entire life with kids. And I think a lot of the time when new students meet me, it’s interesting to them. The kids who have known me for a long time also ask the same questions, “Where are your kids?” Even teachers ask me all the time. I am more than content with these kids being my kids for the rest of my life; they are my life. It’s different but empowering for them to see me in this role. I go home and read, I go to their games, they call me, they text me. I am in their lives and they are a part of my life.
Tomide Awe: What part can the nation play in ensuring that girls get the voice that they need, that they are educated and brought up to be smart women? Do you think for instance having more female teachers would help?
Turquoise Brennan: I truly beleive that overall, education has been a largely female profession, but I would say creating more female leaders in education and pushing them that way sets the tone for the actual building. A lot of the time, females are teachers, but we don’t see them at the higher level. There are not enough female educator/leaders who will provide more opportunities for more female students to do things, to take initiative, to be readers. I don’t think the programs are creative enough. Most of the time when we think about after-school activities, we think about basketball, football; those things are given the most funding. There are not enough female leaders and people in the community who want to step up and run projects. At my school, we have Girls on the Run, which is a program run by a teacher at my school. We have another teacher who leads the girls’ dance team. We are able to do that, but we are only one entity out of a city that doesn’t do that.
Tomide Awe: Why do you think the city doesn’t invest in things that relate to the leadership development of girls?
Turquoise Brennan: I think because they don’t see value in it. They look more towards what can bring in revenue and what people want to see. People want to see boys playing sports and going to college. I think it is not thought of enough that women deserve an equal opportunity to express themselves in the same way that boys get to do. It’s a given that they get to do it; we have to fight for it.
Tomide Awe: When I started Olori, what I was thinking was, we talk about these challenges a lot, it is very obvious that they are there. Kudos to the ladies that are working on these programs, but I feel like women who are already leaders have to take the bull by the horn. If no one will do it for us, we have to find a way to do it by ourselves. It’s not saying we are at fault or the executives shouldn’t be putting gin investment where it is due, but sometimes if we want to see change we have to start it. It’s not fair, but we are the ones who suffer.
Turquoise Brennan: I think you’re right.
Tomide Awe: Hopefully, we will begin to see a bit more being done. I’m hopeful that the voices that are being raised about women and girls in general continue, and that in the near future we begin to see some change. I think in recent times, the level of activism going on around women empowerment makes me hopeful for the future of girls around the world.
Apart from education, what do you think are some factors that can contribute to raising well-rounded and productive citizens?
Turquoise Brennan: I would say we need role models; if that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is. We need time that is precious between you and someone else in a mentor or role-model relationship. I have people I look to who are either younger or older than me; just looking at all the things they are doing and have a passion for is empowering.
Tomide Awe: I agree with you; without the models in my life, I don’t know where I would be right now. What role do you think educators, people on the boards of education play in causes such as feminism, equality, and matters of social justice in general?
Turquoise Brennan: I think that has not been discussed yet. It is critical that these discussions be had. In our school, they have begun a series. They started it two years ago and it’s called Culture Context. They have people in your building who become mindset leaders; one is the person who runs Girls on the Run and the other is the Guidance Counsellor. They go to trainings so that they can then bring the knowledge back to our schools and have workshops for us. They have really started conversations for us. We start always with the same norm: things will not be better until people learn to accept differences, listen to each other’s messages, and assume best intentions. We as a staff talk about how race affected us as students growing up and as educators now. We spend time doing healing to write exercises on that, we also spend time sitting in co-worker groups; you have to sit with teachers you don’t see on a daily basis, different grades, different context, they really mix it up so you are definitely having these in-depth conversations about how you see yourself as a female, as a person of your race, as a human being, and how you pass that on to the people around you, including your students. That has been the start of something that I believe other schools need to do.
Tomide Awe: Thinking about a girl in your class, one of your students, as she leaves your classroom, what is that one thing you want her to learn and take with her into the world after your time with her?
Turquoise Brennan: I want her to know that the one thing she can always have with her no matter where she goes, what happens to her, how hard life gets is education. You will never lose the education you have been given. You can always add to it and you can always use it as your weapon or tool. I know that no matter how many hard things I have gone through, the one thing I could always keep with me was my education. It has gotten me far, helped me meet people, and it’s the one thing that doesn’t let me down.
Tomide Awe: Expanding on what you said about education as a tool that every girl ought to have, how does education empower you?
Turquoise Brennan: It sets you apart form other people. It is self-driven and limitless. For me it’s this thing that nobody gets to direct but you; you decide where it goes. And I think that it is personal, private, and can be something that you have ownership over and take accountability for. It’s something that you own, you have, you get to keep.
Tomide Awe: It has been an amazing conversation with you Turquoise; thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Turquoise Brennan: It was my pleasure.