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Mirrors for the Future: Vashti Harrison on Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Posted on 7th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

"It’s important to share their stories, and keep adding to the list, because every kid should have the confidence that they, at the very least, have the option to try."

Vashti Harrison, filmmaker, illustrator and author, discusses her new children's book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, which brings together the lives of 40 trailblazing black women in history. In an exclusive article for International Women's Day, she discusses the personal inspiration for writing the book, explaining why it is vital that we share these stories and inspire future generations to fulfil their potential.

In the introduction to my book Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History I write: “To be able to see yourself in someone else’s story can be life-changing. To know a goal is achievable can be empowering.” This is what's at the heart of why this book was so important to me.

When I first began this project I was interested in celebrating the contributions black women have made to history and sharing their stories that have long gone untold. But once I knew this book was going to be made and sold and in the hands of actual children it became really important for me to curate a very diverse list of leaders from different fields of study. I was thinking a lot about my younger self and how it took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do in life. I wanted to ensure young readers, particularly girls and girls of colour, would be familiar with names of filmmakers, writers and mathematicians along with the names of doctors and lawyers.

I hope that the short bios within Little Leaders inspire kids along their journeys, because undoubtedly they are going to be asked what they want to be when they grow up, and undoubtedly they will change their minds a couple times. I hope to diversify and expand their list of possibilities and encourage them to know there are leaders from all walks of life that paved a way for them. I don't think any of these famous leaders set out to be role models, but their stories are guiding lights for the ones who follow. It’s important to share their stories, and keep adding to the list, because every kid should have the confidence that they, at the very least, have the option to try.

This kind of representation in the books they’ve been assigned to read in school or the ones that they curl up with at night, offers children a reminder that they matter, and that there’s a place for them in this world. It shows them that they too can be the heroes, go on adventures and save the world. It’s an affirmation that they exist, that their concerns are valid, and it’s okay to be yourself. Once they realize possibilities not only just exist but are open to them - who knows what wonders they might unleash! Katherine Johnson believed that the only option for her as a black woman with a math degree in 1960s West Virginia was to become a school teacher, until her mentor encouraged her to apply to Langley Research centre. The scope of her possibilities was limited until someone helped open them up for her. She went on to calculate the trajectories for the all of the major space missions at NASA! It's hard to know what a reader is going to connect to but it often doesn’t take much, just a little connection, just a little push. Mae Jemison always saw herself in space, but wasn’t convinced there was a place for women at NASA, let alone black women. But, she was finally inspired to apply to the Astronaut Program because of seeing Nichelle Nichols play Lieut. Uhura in the original series of Star Trek. I love thinking about all of the kids who are inspired to have faith in their dreams and abilities because of these stories.

One of the other incredible things about these biographies is that many of these women were never defined by one thing or one passion. Even though Mae Jemison is recognised for being an astronaut, she also studied to be a dancer and dedicated her life to helping people. A new personal favourite, someone I hadn’t heard of before beginning this book, was Mary Seacole, a self-trained nurse and businesswoman. She used her savvy business skills along with her passion for healing to set up a hotel for wounded soldiers behind enemy lines during the Crimean War - even after being turned away from the British War office! I want readers to know, like Mary, even if you get turned away, your dream doesn’t have to be over. I want them to know it’s okay to take your time doing the thing you love like Alma Woodsey Thomas, who didn’t gain mainstream success for her art until she was 80 years old. I want them to know it’s okay to have multiple passions and one day you can find a way to bring them together like Mae Jemison! Most of all I hope readers walk away from this book full of ideas and possibilities for their futures!

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