Maria Kim and I have never met. She works at Cara, a workforce development organization in Chicago that helps those affected by poverty find and keep jobs, which in turn rebuilds hope and self-esteem. In explaining how and why Cara helps individuals remove internal barriers to maintaining employment, Maria often says, “You dream what you see.” Though I don’t know Maria, I count her as a woman who’s had a great influence on me, all because of what this simple line has offered. It’s added richness to the way I reflect on my own experience, and clarity in the ways that I plan to be part of the lives of others.
My father and his eldest sister were both born with Muscular Dystrophy. Neither ever walked, and both were either carried around or pushed in wheelchairs throughout their childhoods. Doctors told my grandparents that my aunt wouldn’t live past 14 (unfortunately, they were right) and my father wouldn’t live past 17 due to the ways that this disease affected their bodies.
While people generally focus on the physical limitations they faced due to their illness, it was the barriers imposed by others that would prove to be tougher to overcome. Parents of other children in their small town protested their enrollment in public schools. These children can’t walk, they said, and what they have must be infectious, making them a threat to others’ safety. The superintendent, despite having evidence to prove otherwise, agreed with the protestors. He denied my dad and his sister entry into the school simply because of the way that they looked. My grandmother fought the superintendent, the school board, and even her own neighbors in an effort to get resources for her children. All too often, she was told by teachers and medical professionals to give up her fight because resources shouldn’t be invested in children “like them” who “would never live to do much anyway.”
She was relentless, though, fighting battle after battle for her kids. She loves to share one story, in particular, that ended in victory. There were taxes to support special needs education, and if the county was going to collect the taxes, then they better use the money for its intended purpose, she said. If she were sharing this with you, there’d be some colorful language as she offered details of her thoughts on the school board and recounted the things she said to them at meetings. In the end, she was granted funding for a retired first grade teacher to come by the house once a week as a tutor. My aunt and father were both avid readers and explored the world through books. They had two other sisters who attended school, and they’d sit together to do homework, allowing my dad and aunt to learn math, history, and science.
This story is a much longer one, and my grandmother has recounted it many, many times to me. Her commitment to helping her children see—and thus dream—despite the barriers that others put in front of them, is remarkable. This isn’t the only reason I count her as one of the most impactful women in my life, but it’s a big one. My father only talked about this to answer questions, though he didn’t try to hide his experience and he certainly wasn’t ashamed of it. He simply didn’t dwell on the negative and the limitations; because he had the chance to dream, he was eager to live whatever life he had as fully as he could and pursue what was possible. He readily acknowledged his body’s limitations, while being clear-eyed about the many doors that were wide open. He had seen plenty, and so he could dream plentifully, even if others told him not to.
Everyone faces barriers, and the way we handle those barriers is a big part of what shapes us. Similarly, we observe others around us crash into barriers every day, and the way that they handle those affects what we see and what we dream.
I grew up in a part of southern Ohio that’s been made somewhat famous lately by the book Hillbilly Elegy, which paints a bleak, albeit accurate picture of what life is like in some towns in the region. The opioid crisis has torn apart lives, unemployment has been rampant since the financial crisis, and foreclosures are common. My mother and sister still live in the area and while I don’t live there anymore, I play a very active role in their lives and the lives of my three nephews. I didn’t have the words to describe my job as an aunt until I heard the line from Maria that “you dream what you see.” This is my goal with them, to help them see all that they could dream, to explore, and to find what it is that they love. We read and adventure together, we talk about different kinds of work that people do, watch and discuss movies to learn the stories of others, and celebrate their parents’ hard work.
My family’s stories contribute greatly to my passion to help people see and dream differently. I shared a little about my father, who was the first in his family to graduate from college. When I look back over both sides of my family, there’s tuberculosis, military service, alcohol abuse, lack of education, the relentless pursuit of education, and the kind of Depression-era poverty where people count pennies. We heard stories from both of my parents about our history, and while some had happy endings, others did not.
In my work with Stand Together Foundation, I’m inspired by the reality that, with the right help and inspiration, we can all dream a life of possibility, fulfillment, and flourishing. Thank you Maria, for the work that you and Cara do. And from my heart, thank you for that line, which has been clarifying and inspiring.
Lea Dulani is the HR director at Stand Together Foundation and works with our Catalyst Program on talent-related content. Lea attended Beloit College, where she majored in international relations. After graduating from college, she worked briefly in fundraising, and has worked in training, culture development, and human resources for the last eleven years. Outside of work, Lea spends her time investing in the lives of her nephews and trying out new hobbies.