Recently, the MAYA blog (virtually) sat down with Natalie Flake, Associate Consultant, to learn more about her journey and why she chooses to work on empower communities.
What are some of the biggest inflection points on your journey in your work?
So basically from birth to now my whole journey has been in education. So kind of every milestone has been an inflection point in my journey, but I’ll give you the high level overview. So I was very fortunate that when it was time for me to enter kindergarten, the old Staten Island college had been converted to a K-12 charter school, and I was able to get into that school. I was bused across town to go to the school. And at the time, when you’re young, your world is very small. So I thought that was just the normal thing, you know, to go to a big school. And all the eighth graders had laptops, even though this was like 1999 and things like that. So I was fortunate that I had a very privileged educational start, if not so much an economic start.
When I was around 10 or so, we moved from Staten Island, New York to this kind of backwatery, but very endearing town in Pennsylvania. And that was when I first got exposure to economic depression in some of those small Appalachian towns. When I was coming back into the education space, understanding that is something that’s not happening just at an individual level, but at a level of entire communities shaped my worldview a lot. But again, I was very privileged in that I was able to go to a private school in town that was really well-known throughout the region. And so I was able to walk away from that economically depressed town with an extremely good education. And then I went to college at Tufts, which was where I stopped seeing education as something that I was receiving and something that I could impact.
During my sophomore year, I joined Jumpstart for young children, which is in AmeriCorps literacy initiative where students come together and they’ll do lesson plans around usually short, sweet little books. And then they’ll go into classrooms and they’ll deliver those lessons. I had three partner children; everybody had three partner children. And I would say that watching them learn to write out their names and being there alongside them for that process and just reading with them every day and watching them learn really transformed me as a person.Prior to that, education had kind of been a thing that I had been doing for fun, I guess. I learned because I was supposed to learn, but I think that Jumpstart was the first time that I really saw a purpose for myself in it. When I reached senior year and it was time for me to figure out what I was going to do with my life, I was a biology major, but what had really moved me, on an emotional level, was Jumpstart.
So, of course, when Teach for America reached out to me, I applied immediately. And I got in and San Antonio was selected as my region. Honestly, when I applied, I didn’t really know anything about San Antonio at all. When I got here, it was a little bit of a shock at first. San Antonio is very different from any city on the East coast that I can think of. It has more of an identity than any other city that I can think of. There’s a very proud heritage in San Antonio. And really the first place that I had been in a long time that was majority people of color. And that had been the norm for a long period of time. And that experience of watching people of color being in positions of power in every field also really inspired me.
While I was teaching, I was reflecting on all of these lessons about communities and the roles of people of color. But I was also looking at the system that I was teaching in, and I realized that some of the things that I was being asked to do were contrary to the success and advancement of my students. I had a wonderful teaching experience. I taught high school science for seven years. But it eventually came to a point where I said, I need to work the system from the outside. And that is how I came to MAYA.
What’s something—big or small—that you’re really good at?
Okay. So I’m going to go the small route. I am really good at mixing colors. My junior year of college, I was getting my arts credit out of the way, and I had decided to learn theater make-up as my art course. And what I discovered during that time was I was really good at mixing colors for foundations. A lot of the girls would come to me if they couldn’t make a match for their skin tone and I would make that match. And it’s something that’s fun and requires you to think really carefully about what you’re seeing and what makes up what you’re seeing in a literal sense. And it’s just something that I still enjoy doing with eye shadow colors, lipstick, foundations.
What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute your success to, and why?
I would say that a lot of my success is due to the fact I am patient, both with myself and with others. I think that having to learn patience early on created the space within my mind to look at things empathetically. And I think empathy really translated well for me, especially in teaching because teenagers need you to understand. I think one of the things that happens sometimes when you get older is you kind of forget what it was like to be that age. But I feel like I remember more than I have forgotten because of my empathy. I also think that patience with myself also comes into play in my success. Because sometimes I don’t get things right the first time and I’ve got to re approach and approach it from a different angle or, you know, start over. And I think that I’m able to do that willingly with eagerness and from a place of self-love. Because I know that even if I don’t necessarily get something right on the first try, that I will get there.
What is the biggest lever of change in creating a genuine sense of belonging within a community?
I think that in order to create a genuine sense of belonging, there has to be power-sharing. And for there to be power-sharing, there has to be people who are naturally coming in from positions of power that have to be willing to relinquish it. And in a genuine way. You cannot extend people power within confines that really appeal to the person in power, but genuinely letting people exercise authority over their own lives and their own destinies.
When you’re not working to support communities, what do you enjoy doing?
So COVID has given us a lot of time for indoor activities, and something I’ve discovered, well, not discovered, but I’ve gotten better acquainted with lately that I’m really enjoying is scratch cooking. So it brings me great joy to go through the steps and the techniques. You know, like it could be something as simple as Julienning a carrot, or it could be something like, you know, creating a dough for bread entirely from scratch. But I think that it’s artful and it allows me to both learn from the masters via the internet, but also have that little creative space. And then at the end, you’re sharing food with people that you love. And what’s better than that?!