Sowing the Seeds: Whitney’s Story
If you ask Whitney Bright what she wants for her 3-year-old son TyFayn, her answer is simple: it’s “the world.”
“The same things I want for myself,” she adds, before asking if that’s selfish. “Safety and security, to be exposed and live and get an education.”
These are all things the 24-year-old Chicago resident thinks – and cares – deeply about.
Born and raised in the city’s Englewood neighborhood, consistently noted as one of the most violent and with a poverty rate above 40 percent, Whitney wants more. And these days she’s determined to make sure she and TyFayn get it.
But her story isn’t necessarily the one you might expect to hear. Whitney attended a public magnet high school 10 miles from home that earned this South Side girl with a nose ring, mismatched shoes, fanny pack, leather jacket and a wool skull cap a scholarship in grain science and industry to Kansas State.
Culture shock, and a genuine disinterest in that field of study, led her to leave after a semester. She tried again, heading to the University of Missouri, where she became pregnant and engaged (which didn’t work out), and ultimately decided to return to the Windy City.
“I don’t feel tied to any one place, but I always end up coming back to Chicago,” Whitney said almost with regret.
That doesn’t mean she plans on staying though. When she says she dreams about the world, she means it. From talking about saving up to buy a tiny house that would let her travel around to moving South to enjoy warmer weather to a vacation in Asia – Thailand or Cambodia, she’s not sure, but their exotic images serve as her screen saver – Whitney is determined to make the most out of life.
But don’t let her fool you. Despite being back where she started, Whitney is making an impression. And part of that is because she has a new approach to the future.
“I left the hood to go to this [high] school; I liked it and got the attention I needed, but I was just doing what people wanted,” she said, echoing her thoughts about her two attempts at out-of-state colleges. “Now, I do what I want; the things that feel most natural to me.”
That includes a lot of things, including volunteering at an organization that helps train citizens on how to handle medical emergencies like gun shots or asthma attacks until EMTs arrive; working part-time in a high school as a student aide/tutor and running a girls’ support group; attending parent peer groups at Educare, LIFT’s early education partner in Chicago; participating in community organizing and social justice events with TyFayn and finishing her final semester at Chicago State.
A place where she finally found her fit. Whitney decided to major in psychology, with plans to be a therapist, hopefully entering a PhD program in the near future.
That major is also what brought her to LIFT.
As part of LIFT’s partnership with Educare, staff meet with parents and caregivers during breakfasts and other parent resource meetings. It’s at one of those that LIFT-Chicago Senior Program Manager Sarah Spunt overheard Whitney talking about the internship she was looking for.
A short conversation later and Whitney was officially part of the LIFT team. Because of her unique perspective as a parent, and with her deep desire to focus on research, Whitney is helping LIFT better understand why parents engage in community programs and what makes them stay. She is also helping develop a parent leadership program, with the aim of having parents as coaches once they are finished working with LIFT. She works two days a week for school credit as part of the internship and then works one-on-one with Sarah on her own goals. Just like the other members. It’s a unique opportunity for Whitney, and LIFT, which was built on the premise of member-driven program design.
And that’s good, because Whitney has some strong feelings about why there’s often a disconnect between marginalized communities and social services provision.
“I think we don’t participate because it’s very much ‘we’ll tell you what you need’ or ‘we’re going to save you’,” she said. “When the best take is just to empower people. To tell folks ‘you’re in control’.”
Which is exactly what LIFT believes too. Something Whitney says really is pretty helpful.
“Some days I’m self-driven and motivated, other days it’s nice to know someone is expecting something from me,” she said about her work with LIFT, which is focused right now on helping her looking for a better part-time job and studying for the GRE test.
And it’s that type of strong, goal-oriented thinking LIFT often sees in members who are poised to thrive.
“If you’re getting to the point where you’re putting goals to paper, you’re going to do it,” she said about the parents who can succeed with LIFT. “But, it’s great to know I’m not in it by myself.”
And Whitney wants to make sure she’s not the only one who gets to experience that. The future “global citizen” believes more parents and caregivers could benefit from a more holistic approach.
“If you give people the confidence and self-efficacy, then they don’t need you,” she said, quickly checking if she used self-efficacy correctly first. “Give people space to grow into themselves and they’ll come through, because people are awesome.”
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