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Shy Girls Can Lead
Youth councils helped me recognize my strengths
Bernadette Benjamin
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I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was about 10. My first taste of how law can help people was watching the TV show Judge Judy. I was captivated by how well she was able to first explain the mistakes people made, and then get them to come to a reasonable agreement. I liked that she helps people reconcile.

I was also impressed that Judge Judy is a woman with a lot of authority and holds a job many people associate with men. I liked the idea of becoming a judge and challenging that stereotype.

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The summer before I started high school, I spoke to my mom about wanting to be a lawyer.

“What do you think will be your biggest challenge?” she asked.

“I guess, presenting my case in front of a jury. You know I’m shy.”

We were in a restaurant having lunch; my mom sat back and crossed her arms. “How do you expect to be a lawyer if you are shy? You need to grow out of it if you want to be successful. If you are going to work with others, you need to be more outgoing so you can stand out.”

When my mom said that, my heart stopped. She was right but I didn’t know how to even start to break out of my shyness. My mom and I are nothing alike; she speaks her mind and people gravitate toward her. She’s a determined person and that trait helps her talk to others in a direct way.

“You need to break out of this shyness. Just say something,” she concluded. I wanted to say,
“Easier said than done.” But instead I just hung my head low, not saying a word.

Why I’m Shy

I think I’m shy because I have low self-esteem. One reason is I am 4’9” and I constantly get teased about it. To counter that, I decided to excel in academics. I got good grades but it didn’t come easily; I had to work really hard to get them and I still do.

I thought that would make me feel better about myself but I think it backfired. I started feeling like people saw me as a one-dimensional person who was only interested in getting good grades. As a result, they expected that of me all the time and I didn’t like that. I had other interests and sides to me that I wanted people to see. For instance, I love anime, creative writing, and listening to Celtic music.

I continued to doubt I would be able to be a lawyer because they’re not just outgoing, they’re leaders. At the time, I thought the definition of a leader was someone who is in the front, standing out, so that people look up to them. I thought leadership was about taking control, forcing people to listen to you so that you can gain authority, much like Judge Judy.

But that wasn’t me at all. I usually let others take control while I did the back up work. For example, in AP Global we did a lot of group work. Nobody pressed me to contribute ideas; others came up with them. Those ideas became project outlines and I put the project together. That became a comfortable routine for me.

When I got to 10th grade, I continued to feel bad about myself and compare myself to others. I hated being called a midget, and wished there was something I could do about it. I decided the only way to try and overcome these insecurities was to push myself out of my comfort zone.

No Longer Invisible

In order to do so, I joined two youth councils, Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets and Youth Justice Board. Both train youth how to raise awareness about issues like violence and juvenile justice. I wanted to be a voice for change and to gain experience meeting and working with new people.

It helped a lot. For example, after I’d joined Youth Justice Board, we went on an overnight retreat. My heart raced: I was scared to get on the bus filled with people I didn’t know. Instead of talking to anyone, I read or listened to music. I didn’t want to say anything stupid or be judged negatively.

The camp was in the woods. For two days we did activities to get to know one another. In one exercise, the objective was to get everyone to face in the same direction. I remember hearing, “Turn this way!” and “Lift up your arm so that she can go through.” And “Stop, you are hurting me.” Everyone was talking but me. But when I saw everyone’s stressed expressions, I spoke without being asked to.

“Hey, everyone, why don’t we try a different strategy?” My heart pounded in my chest when they all looked at me. But they weren’t looking at me with disgust or judgment like I had expected. They looked at me as if my opinion mattered.

“What do you have in mind?” the Hispanic girl to my left asked. I didn’t know a different strategy but I knew we needed a new one. Thankfully, somebody else in the group had a strategy in mind. He said, “Just as Bernadette said, we need a new approach.”

I was surprised that he referred to me because I usually felt invisible especially when I was in a group. This helped me warm up to the group and risk talking more.

image by YC-Art Dept

In fact, I was the first to speak after we got the directions for the next challenge, which was the web challenge. We had to go through different sized shapes to get from one side of the space to the other. I said, “There are enough open spaces for all of us but they are all different sizes. It would make sense that the bigger people go through the bigger hole.” Everybody agreed.

As we worked through these activities I became more comfortable. I learned I had to talk to be noticed and that good would come out of it.

During that school year I made an effort to be more outgoing. It worked, but it was a struggle to see myself as a leader.

I Led the Way

In 11th grade I became a Youth Ambassador for Coro Exploring Leadership, a 10-month youth council that educates students on how to be effective leaders. We isolate a problem in our school and set out to find solutions. It’s a competitive council to get into, so it was a boost to my self-esteem to be accepted.

My group and I noticed that students were stressed about testing and they didn’t have many support systems in place. We decided that the solution was to implement a peer tutoring program. For months, we went back and forth on ideas for the peer tutoring kick-off that we were planning. It was hard, especially when we had different agendas for the program.

I started the conversations but I didn’t boss anyone around. Instead, I would ask others’ opinions as well as give mine.

Three weeks before the actual event, I took the initiative to organize everything that seemed to be falling through the cracks. I learned that I’m good at analyzing a big project and figuring out what needs to get implemented to pull it all together. This is a kind of leadership style.

“OK, we want to support our teammates to make sure the work gets done. What are the final deliverables?” I wrote down all the tasks that needed to be completed and checked off the ones that my group said were done. When I looked at the uncompleted tasks, I asked the people in charge what kind of support they needed and then found a way to give it to them.

The kick-off event was successful. Over 30 students attended. I was not only happy but I felt accomplished. I looked around the room that had chips and juice spills on the floor and chairs scattered everywhere. “We did it!” I said to my fellow Coro council members. We had created a positive change in our school that would benefit students for years to come.

Now I understand that leadership isn’t about being in the forefront. Leaders collaborate with different types of people to accomplish one goal. They know how to work well with others who don’t all have the same perspective. Now I know I have these strengths. I wouldn’t have learned this about myself if I hadn’t joined youth councils.

Though my self-esteem is low sometimes, and I’m still a bit shy, I now know that I’m a leader, and therefore, can be a lawyer. I’ve learned that many lawyers spend much of their time collaborating and negotiating, so continuing to get better at those skills is what’s going to make me successful.


Your Voice Matters to Mayor de Blasio

That’s why his office has a goal: to enlist 30,000 high school students to serve on the dozens of city-wide youth leadership councils by 2020. Youth leadership councils are comprised of young people who work in partnership with adults on a specific area of community or school policy.

“We want young people to have direct input in policymaking that affects their neighborhoods and schools,” says Chelsey Clevenger, Youth Leadership Council Coordinator in NYC Service, a division of the Office of the Mayor. Other perks: Like Bernadette, you’ll develop leadership skills as well as networking opportunities and experience that will help you prepare for and succeed in college and at work.

Think you have what it takes? “A good candidate is one who has a passion for change and wants their voice to be heard,” says Clevenger. Check out these sites for details about various youth councils and when to apply:

New York City Youth Leadership Councils
nycservice.org/pages/pages/74

Youth Community Leadership Course
cccnewyork.org/get-involved/advocacy-courses/youth-action/YCLC

Youth Justice Board
courtinnovation.org/project/youth-justice-board

Youth Leadership Council
youthvoicenyc.org/ylc

Youth Organizing To Save Our Streets
crownheights.org/y-o-s-o-s

New York City Youth Council
coronewyork.org/coro-programs/new-york-city-youth-council

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(NYC-2016-03-22)