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My name is Niamey Thomas. My name means River; it is the capital and largest city in the West African country Niger. My name represents the essence of power, strength and peace, which I try to embody every day. I am Black and Mexican and I am a creator. I create dances, curriculums and spaces for people of color to understand their identity, passion and purpose — these are lessons others tried to teach me but failed because they were more concerned with the box I did not fit into than the freedom I can have outside the boundaries of that box.
Identity is very important to me. I believe it is essential in navigating society and before you can love or accept anyone else, you must first love and accept yourself. When looking for an organization to partner with during my term at Public Allies, I wanted to find an organization that would allow me to be myself, an organization that would allow the opportunity to create and one that would not try to place me into a box.
I found that organization. Swift Youth Foundation is an organization that focuses on supporting the social and emotional development of youth and enhances social awareness and leadership skills for teens through mentor relationships. As the Program Coordinator, I created the curriculum for four of the seven programs: Swift After School, Club Swift, Swift Saturday and Club Swift Jr.
Club Swift is an after-school program for teens in North Phoenix. This specific program is geared toward giving the teens skills to be great leaders within their communities and at Swift After School program. During the school year, we at Club Swift covered many topics to equip and prepare them to be the best leaders. These students come from low socioeconomic communities and are not expected to achieve much, however neither was I. I was expected to get pregnant in high school, drop out and never attend college. In addition, when I went to college I was expected to drop out after my first semester. With these odds against me, I understood the importance of informing these students that they could achieve anything.
A time that sticks out to me was the day we were talking about our leadership styles. The students each took an assessment that would tell them their strengths and leadership style. It was exciting to learn things they had always thought of as weaknesses were actually strengths. One girl specifically comes to mind. She wanted to be a makeup artist but was not sure how to do it. Becoming “Instagram famous” did not work for everyone and she felt defeated when her posts did not get the views she desired. We began to talk about the expectations and work ethic required to be a makeup artist. The other students were so kind, began to affirm her and reminded her that she could be whatever she wanted as long as she worked hard and used her strengths.
It was empowering to see the strength of these students, to see the support and love that they have for one another — the respect that they have. It is amazing to see young people understanding and owning their identity, especially in a world where being plastic is in fashion. The kids at Swift are all so authentic in their own right, and that is how I knew I belonged at Swift.
Niamey Thomas was part of Public Allies' Class 12. She was placed at Swift Youth Foundation as a Program Coordinator. Public Allies Arizona is a 10-month apprenticeship program designed to develop the next generation of civic leaders.