The love and support that mentors showed Stephanie Nash as she grew up inspired her to pursue a career where she can do the same for others.
It hasn’t been easy, but Nash’s record of success as a family life and sex education teacher was a key factor in her being named one of YWCA Madison’s 2016 Women of Distinction.
Nash has worked for several nonprofit organizations in Madison, and in 2013, she received a a Mentor Award of Excellence from 100 Black Men of Madison. She served as program coordinator and youth development consultant at Kennedy Heights Community Center, and in 2010, the Kennedy Heights, Lussier and Goodman community centers received a $2.5 million, five-year grant to teach research-based sex education to middle and high school students in Wisconsin. Nash said the state at that time ranked third nationally for having the highest teenage pregnancy rate among black girls.
By the time the grant ended in 2015, the state’s black teenage pregnancy rate had dropped significantly. Nash said Oklahoma now ranks second, which is why she recently left Madison for Tulsa to pursue her passion for youth development and education. She works as a sex education teacher for the Union Public School District.
She recently spoke about her career, her forthcoming book and what it means to be coming back to Madison for the YWCA honor.
You have dedicated your entire career to empowering and mentoring youth. How did that journey begin?
I grew up here in Madison and I was born to a 15-year-old mother. I always knew that I wanted to work with kids growing up. You know when your teachers are in class and they’re like “Oh, what do you want to do when you grow up?” I was like, “I want to be a teacher," and that came mostly just from the love that I felt that I had coming from my teachers. As I got older when I transitioned into high school, I wanted to be like my youth development workers, my youth leaders and my youth ministry leader.
When I got to college I was trying to identify which route I would go. I knew I wanted to work with kids but I didn’t know if I wanted to be a teacher, a motivational speaker, or write children’s books, or something, so I was trying to find my way and then I started volunteering. From there I was like, OK, I just want to teach. I want to be a teacher.
I was inspired by the people that came before me, the people that impacted my life. I remember what I was dealing with as a teenager and the people very important in my life were continuously encouraging me — “You going to graduate high school? You going to go to college? You going to do those things? You can do whatever you want.” That was a constant thing that came from the people in my community that worked with me. So that inspired me to get in the field of youth work, youth development and education, and so here I am.
As the youth come in and talk to you, what are some of the obstacles they face that they discuss with you?
I think what young people are looking for is acceptance. I think a lot of times, especially in terms of adults, a lot of the young people feel like adults don’t understand them.
People just want to feel loved and supported as they try to identify and figure themselves out. One thing that I always tell adults is that we have to give young people the space and the capacity to develop, and they just want love. That looks different to different people, but the base is the same.
You’re writing a book called "Pieces of My In-HER Soul." Where are you with that right now?
So we’re pretty much done and I have transitioned to Oklahoma. We were in the editing stages when I left Madison on the 31st of January. So we’re looking to be released in the fall for that. I’m pretty excited. It’s been a very long journey and more of that was just in how it had served as a piece of my own healing. It has many things that I just have dealt with in my life and serves as a tool for motivation and encouragement. Pieces of My In-HER Soul, the HER on that stands for healing, empowerment and restoration.
Do you mind sharing a little from the book about your journey toward healing?
So I came home to Madison in 2010 and I started writing in 2012, it’s been like a five-year process for me. I had been in Georgia for nine-and-a-half years and me coming home is something that I said I would never do. When I left here going to college out of high school, there were so many pieces of pain that I experienced here that I just said I never wanted to come home.
But my grandmother got sick — and she raised me — so I was like, “Well, let me go home and just make sure my grandmother’s OK. I’m going to stay here for a year.” My grandfather had just died the year before so I knew that she was just dealing with a lot of stuff. So the first year that I was home I recognized that I was going to be staying here for a while. I knew that I was going to have to confront a lot of things that I had suppressed in my life that I experienced in my childhood. That sexual abuse. That incest, that rape. My parents being young and me not being planned. Me being a product of a rape. So I knew that I would have to face those things, and confront those things, and so that's how the journey began for me.
So inside of the book it talks about some of the things that I experienced. It talks about when we suppress those things, it has the ability and the capacity to toxify other areas of your life, whether that’s consciously, or unconsciously, or subconsciously. It talks about me being resilient and what I learned.
It also talks about my support networks. My actions were screaming that there was a problem but as a child I couldn’t verbally articulate and say, “This is what’s going on in my life and I need help in this area.” So I talked about the importance of those people who were there, even though I didn’t have a voice yet. It talks about finding your voice. It talks about being who you needed when you were younger, to other people, so that funnels into the work that I do and why I’m so passionate about working with young people. There’s something else I wrote in there that says behavior is not the problem, it’s a symptom to a problem and being compassionate and empathetic to the things that people are dealing with.
Thank for sharing that with me. So how has the work you’ve done shaped you and helped you on your own journey?
It allows me to see humans and be human. I love working with young people — that is my passion. You know, I tell people all the time that I see my own face in the face of every teenager that I deal with. It allows me to learn, to engage with other people and the things that they deal with. So my work is just my work and because I’m so passionate about it, it's not work to me. It’s just who I am. Every situation, every position that I’ve had, every time I’m talking to someone, it heals another piece of the inside of my soul. Just expressing our truth and encouraging and uplifting each other, whether it’s an academic setting or whether it’s in a personal setting. It just brings me so much joy. I feel like it has developed me as a human being.
What does it mean to you to be coming back to Madison for this award?
I’m honored to be on a platform with other amazing women. I want to congratulate the others and you know, Madison is home, home for me. When I came back in 2010, I was here for five-and-a-half years, so it’s hard for me to transition out, but I’m super excited to be able to come home to receive this award.