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The Garden You Never get to See

This past week I had a very unique opportunity to travel to the UK. The last time I was there was in 2010 for a 10 day Professional Development Training (PDT) experience as an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) Cadet. While the intent of my visit was different, I did experience a lot of nostalgia while I was in the country, particularly in my visit to London.


As a college cadet, I remember so badly desiring a commission into the Air Force but my failed Air Force Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT) scores delayed me in progression of that goal. When my ROTC detachment Cadre (They are the active duty instructors who lead and manage the program) presented me with an opportunity to go to England I accepted it, having no awareness of what that experience would do for me.


The PDT arranged for about 20 AFROTC cadets to spend 10 days at RAF Lakenheath. We had opportunities to meet medical group members and work on some of their training equipment, work out with and do combatives, fly on/in a KC-135 and see it refuel fighter aircraft in the air, fly in a CV-22 helicopter over illustrious green terrain, meet some of the fighter pilots (some even got to fly in their jet), watch a "Tops and Blue" musical performance, explore London, Cambridge and other cities within the country.


All of those experiences were life changing but the most transformative experience was meeting the people both in and out of uniform. In meeting some of the British citizens, I got to learn how they dance, and dance with them in night clubs. Share a drink with them while watching a football (soccer) game in a pub. When I asked one man for help with directions in London, he laughed and said, "You Americans have a funny accent," then proceeded to help me. I laughed and was in awe that in this part of the world I was the one with an accent. Another new experience was in this part of the world, I was seen and referred to as an "American". An American first and only. That was something I had never experienced before. Because growing up in America, specifically in CA, my primary view or racial identity outweighed my national identity. I viewed myself and the way I perceived others to view me (at least appearance wise), was Black. Black before American. Black separate from American. The way the British referred to me, and viewed me in my limited time with them was new and mind blowing.


I met several cadets on the PDT with me who were funny, fun, introverts and extroverts; compassionate but also had this fervent desire in them to persevere past their hardships; to achieve, to serve, and to ultimately transform the world around them into something that was more free. More inclusive. More enlightened than the world they inherited. I met active duty members, both officers and enlisted who were excited to mentor myself and my PDT cadet peers. The diversity in this group left me with so much reassurance that if I worked for it, the Air Force would have a home for me. A place where I could be the type of leader I desired, have an impact beyond what I imagined, and be with others who share the same values; to be secure. I returned from that PDT more hopeful, more energized and with an even clearer sense of direction of who and what I wanted to become.


This week though, I had a mixture of emotion. On one hand I felt excitement for the opportunity I was getting to do something new, and meet even more people from around the world. I was honored to be in a position and chosen for this unique opportunity. I was treated with so much kindness and hospitality by the people I met with that my encounters with them were nothing short of motivating and inspiring. On the other hand, I still feel this weight of caution and a guardedness. Where I formerly viewed much of the world and people in it with rose colored glasses, I am much more critical and reserved. And while my intrinsic governing compass that would formerly give me a sense of purpose, passion, and direction is no longer spinning out of control (as it has been these past two years) the arrow directing my path is foggy and I still can't make out which way it is directing me to go.


Yesterday I watched Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway play "Hamilton" in Victoria's Palace in London. The theater was beautiful and the play was well performed. It was interesting watching a play who has a central theme of "American Revolution" from England, in the very country that were the colonizers of the story's protagonist. While I unfortunately didn't ask any of my fellow British audience members what their thoughts were on the play, the gist I observed was those in attendance enjoyed it; some even described it as "amazing". I heard roars of laughter by the audience at the antics of the character of King George, I saw one woman cry when Philip died in the hands of his mother and father, and I even saw some sways and head bobs to the rap battles. At the conclusion of the play we all stood united in giving the cast a well deserved standing ovation. But despite the myriad of times I've listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, one line struck me that hadn't done so before:


"Legacy... what is a legacy?... It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see."


These words are shared by Alexander Hamilton's character right as he is about to be killed by gunfire in a duel by his friend, turned enemy, Aaron Burr. The entire play Hamilton is hungry to leave a legacy. His impoverished childhood and impulsive personality has him operating from a place of always having something to prove. He is both admired by some and hated by others because of it. Yet if he could ever just slow down, "take a break" as his wife Eliza in the play encourages him to do, he would see the abundant seeds he has planted in his legacy, and maybe he would have come to fully know that he is, and always was, worthy of fully experiencing the beautiful life he both was given and created.


I recently opened up an old email from my dad, that he sent me last summer. It was an announcement from my Alma Mater's AFROTC detachment inviting various High School Junior ROTC programs to attend their annual Cadet Leadership School (CLS). My dad forwarded me the email because he wanted me to know that the program I created is still going strong 11 years later and has expanded to include even more cadets across different military services and High Schools. When he forwarded me the email back in June I didn't read the full thing but this time I did. This time I opened the welcome packet and was extremely touched by what I read in the section titled, "What is CLS?":


"CLS is a professional development event for both ROTC [college] and JROTC [high school] cadets alike. The local detachment invites high school students to live a day in the life of a college Cadet in order to give them a taste of a possible route after high school. Historically, Detachment 088 has become home to several JROTC cadets who were inspired by their experience at CLS. In some cases, CLS was a part of the reason some cadets were motivated to pursue a college degree. Whether they end up at Sacramento State University or not, this event will help students determine what drives them -- what is their 'why'? "


When I read that explanation of CLS I felt in shock and my eyes began to swell. I remembered and began to reflect on how CLS came to be- at least, from my involvement with it. From a little black girl that just wanted more than what she saw available to her and others like her. To a high school JROTC Cadet whose instructors believed in her enough to invest in, and push her for opportunities similar to CLS so she could grow. To the college girl who was assaulted and desired nothing more than to turn her pain into something that could help others. Who found a team who went door to door with her to different High Schools and junior colleges to spread the word about Sexual Assault Prevention and Response to bring awareness and help build a more sensitive and accountable culture. To the Sacramento JROTC instructor who partnered with her on SAPR trainings who created CLS with a vision in mind of bringing in college ROTC cadets. To all of the leadership training this same girl conducted with cadets from Vallejo, Fairfield, Sacramento, and Reno NV which equipped her to build a program that could introduce cadets to what ROTC could offer and ultimately inspire them.


I didn't know it, but all these years, the little seeds I've planted that were inspired by my own life, my own dreams, by the many people I've met who've inspired, helped and worked alongside me; have been growing. I don't know to what scale and I don't know the depth of in what way, but I do know that motion is happening. It's still hard for me to understand or further process what that means to me while sifting through my own hurt. I also am still unsure of how to translate it into any form of direction or purpose. I'm still discovering what my new "why" is. But I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful that I will continue to grow in acceptance that the depth of influence an action or life can have, is not always visible or measurable. And just because you may not see it right away or in some cases ever, doesn't mean it's not there or any less significant. Therefore it's ok to enjoy making your garden and trust that it will grow.





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