by Amber Hamilton
In June 2017, I had the privilege of accompanying four MMI Works students on an externship to Ireland. The students, who earned the externship by participating in our summer program last year and applying through a competitive application process, were able to experience a curated trip packed with meaningful experiences. The students did everything from assisting with a local music festival, to touring a local high school, to visiting UNESCO heritage sites renown globally for their unique beauty. The trip was quite an experience for any young person to have, but it was particularly novel for these students—several of them had never traveled abroad, never been on a plane, or never seen sites like the ocean first hand.
There were many takeaways for the students; it was wonderful for me as an experienced traveler to see the inevitable awakening that comes with traveling abroad through their eyes. They wondered aloud what it would be like to live in a climate so consistently cool and damp (as opposed to the scorching summers of Memphis) and laughed at our workouts climbing the steeply hilly streets of Derry (as opposed to the relatively flat streets of Memphis). As students in Derry put on a special music performance for us featuring traditional Irish folk music, one of our students treated them to a beautiful vocal performance of a pop/R&B ballad. They visited the sites of the freedom struggle in Northern Ireland, walking the streets of the infamous “Bloody Sunday”, and considered how different the fight for justice was there, not in terms of black and white, but in terms of Catholic and Protestant. They were shocked to discover that college is free for students in Ireland and wondered how they would see college differently if money were not a factor. They also had conversations with locals that led them to think about how Americans are seen globally in 2017, particularly in light of our new presidential administration and videos of police brutality against black citizens that are now seen across the world.
But I believe the ultimate takeaway for the students is embedded in experience of travel itself—to experience, in a conscious way, the perspective of being a Memphian, an American and a global citizen, that is, the ability to observe yourself outside of your normative experience. These students started to build a memory bank of encounters where they noted political and cultural differences, shifted certain perspectives, and allowed themselves to consider a world of “what if” on a global scale. What if I traveled to more places around the world? What if I did a semester abroad here? What if I relocated somewhere else in the world after college? The simple idea of bringing back stories, pictures, experiences, sights and sounds from a place that none of their families or friends have visited is thrilling and empowering—they have a gift to share that is all their own and an inspiration for others.
The students also got to experience themselves through the eyes of a world that sees too few black American travelers. What does it mean to show the world that our experiences are richer and fuller than how we are often portrayed in the global media? What do we want to tell the world about who we really are? We are not victims, we are not criminals, we are not defined by poverty, we are not just athletes and entertainers. We are diverse, intellectually and culturally curious, politically informed, and connected to all of the issues that bond us as a global family, from climate change to access to technology. Travel reinforces our connection to each other beyond hometown or nationality—the global “we” materialized and became real for these students.
As much as the students were able to absorb from the trip, my hope for them is that the trip inspires a true broadening of their thinking, dreams and perspectives. I hope they see the importance of putting down their phones and technology, even if just for a few minutes, to dream about how they want to experience the world (not through a screen). What do they want to taste, smell, touch, hear that they haven’t experienced yet? I hope they do not allow themselves to be dissuaded by the notion of scarcity, the idea that certain things (like travel) are inherently out-of-reach for them because they aren’t rich. Travel is so valuable and enriching; it is worth investigating the actual costs for going wherever they dream of going and actually putting a plan in place to get there, even if there will be some scrimping and saving along the way. Lastly, I want them to steadfastly and fervently believe that the world is their oyster; I want them to know that there is no site they can’t explore, no journey they can’t experience, no place they shouldn’t bring their full selves to shine. There is so much for them to see, so many talents and experiences they have to share with the world, and I hope this trip is the first in a lifetime of adventures across the globe.
Amber Hamilton is a seasoned leader, coach and trainer with expertise in leadership strategies and nonprofit management. She started her career and honed her toughness in professional sports management, first as an intern for the NFL, then moving on to eventually become the Assistant Director of Player Development for the NFL Players Association. She later joined a consulting firm advising sports teams and clients on diversity and executive hiring. Amber discovered her passion for community service and redirected her career to focus on working with community organizations and NGO’s. She began working at Fannie Mae in its Office of Community Giving, as a senior manager directing the employee volunteer program and overseeing grants to community partners. As a funder, she developed a deeper understanding of both the challenges of nonprofit organizations, and the transformative work they were able to accomplish with the right support. Amber went on to lead a national group of nonprofits during her tenure at Rebuilding Together, where she served as a vice president overseeing 165 local affiliates. Her team focused on providing training, consultation, compliance advisement, best practices, and capacity building support to their network. After taking a sabbatical to travel through Central and South America, Amber returned to the U.S. and founded All Matters Handles Global Consulting, a coaching and consulting company that advises nonprofits on strategic, operational, and leadership issues. Amber served as the Interim CEO of the Soulsville Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee, overseeing the work of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School. Currently, she serves as the Chief Operating and Strategy Officer for the Memphis Music Initiative. Amber has a B. A. in political science from Howard University, a master’s degree in executive leadership from Georgetown University, and a certification in executive coaching from Georgetown.