Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Natives Matter With Native Matters

Hey to all you Hip Hapa Homeez and Watermelon Sushi fans! Welcome back to Watermelon Sushi World where we're featuring another Hip Hapa Homee.

This week, meet Vanessa Girard better known as Dr. Ness, the author of a book for Native American and multiracial teens called High School Survival Guide.

Q: Dr. Ness, how did a nice girl like you end up with a Honduran Mayan Indian father and a black, white, French and Cherokee mother?

A: My father worked on a ship that delivered mahogany from Belize (formerly Honduras) to the United States. He was in port in New Orleans and my mother was hanging out with her cousin at a hotel cafeteria. Her cousin's wife, Della, saw my dad sitting at the counter. She introduced them and gave him my mom's phone number.

Q: How did you experience all those unique cultures while growing up?

A: We moved from a neighborhood that was predominantly black (with a large mixture of medium to dark-skinned Creoles) to one where we lived across the street from whites and our next-door neighbors were light-skinned Creoles who could have passed for white. Our ethnic makeup was a secret; my grandmother refused to talk about it other than to say we were not black. My father could barely speak English when he came to the states and married my mother. He was 22; my mom was 14. Unfortunately, when she was pregnant with my brother, child number six, my father walked away and never looked back. I was four-years old at the time, and none of us was allowed to ask why or if he was coming back. So, the only culture I know is the Creole culture of foods like gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding, and stuffed peppers; strict Catholicism; dancing the second line; and jazz and zydeco music.

Q: What do you know about the Mayan Calendar and the significance of 2012?

A: I only learned of my Mayan heritage within the past year, so I am not familiar with any of it.

Q: How did you end up working with the Pima Indians in Arizona?

A: I had quit my job as a high school English teacher after six years--five of which included advising both school publications and a life of constant deadlines and fundraisers. I substitute taught for a year after that and became desperate to get back to "work". My daughter is a born athlete. She played basketball with a Pima who asked her if she would be interested in teaching on the reservation. She had a bachelor's degree, but not in teaching. She replied, "No, but I know someone who would!" I got the job as an English teacher at the alternative school, grades 7-12. The structure was a joke. There was no discipline policy. I would send a disruptive student to the office only to have the student return saying the office said they did not know what they were supposed to do with him. There was no bell to alert the end of classes so teachers would let students out of class arbitrarily and the students would go around banging on classroom doors, scaring the crap out of everyone and disrupting the lessons. And, the buses arrived at the school anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes late! I was ready to resign when the tribal Education Director offered me a promotion to Dean of Students. I got the school organized and the students on track and was promoted, in the next six months, to Community Educator--which took me out of the school and into the community.

Q: Where did you get the idea of writing High School Survival Guide?

A: The Tribal Education Department was comprised of several divisions that offered resources to every age group except K-12 students. As community educator, I redefined my role and began meeting with the K-12 administrators on the reservation. We assessed needs and formed strategies on how to best help the students succeed. I wrote proposals and attained funds from tribal leaders to implement all the programs that were suggested by these professionals. But, in 2006, 50% of our freshmen failed at one of the local high schools. Every suggestion I made to the middle school administrators to prevent this from happening again was shot down as unfeasible, so I wrote the book because I realized that these students were culturally and socially unprepared for high school environments off the reservation.

My multi-ethnicity, combined with my work with this Native American tribe, sparked a compulsion in me to understand cultures and identity, so I entered the doctoral program at the University of Phoenix and studied diversity and leadership. It was an amazing experience! I performed a qualitative phenomenological study because this, in my mind, was the only way to get to the essence of the issue. I was fortunate enough to interview 20 diverse leaders comprised of four Hispanics, four Asians, three whites, three blacks, three Native Americans and three Creoles. The themes that arose were self-esteem, identity, stereotyping, perception and oppression. Lessons were learned for each theme that directly applied to the problems my students were experiencing, so I used the findings from my study as the foundation for the book.

I lost my job because I refused to submit the book as a work product, which would have limited it to that tribe. I wanted to help as many students as possible. I wrote the book on my own time; it did not belong to the tribe.

Q: What was the worst incident you experienced as a teenager attributable to your multiracial heritage?

A: My African American brother-in-law used to tease us all the time, telling us we "didn't have a flag". We would eventually begin to cry, saying it wasn't our fault, and he would immediately apologize and say it was cool--that we could "ride the fence" and be whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. I didn't get it; I just wanted to belong. He wasn't being mean; he just loved to tease--it's a guy thing. He was great!

Throughout my developmental years, I experienced deep, underlying resentment from black females who looked at me with venom and felt compelled to tell me I was black no matter what we were talking about. And, they would say it accusingly, as an insult.

I'd like to add that I have attended many mono-ethnic conferences and have always felt welcomed, except for one: at an African American Women's Conference. I attended it with a white woman. The black women smiled at her and glared at me.

Q: You've been an English teacher, dean of students, assistant director of education, dean of academics, and now you're a consultant for diversity and leadership. Is there one role you've enjoyed more than the others?

A: They all had their places and I enjoyed each one because with each I felt like I made a difference--which is what teaching is all about! I guess I'm a born educator. I'm enjoying writing. This is the next step to my ultimate calling. I want to reach the masses and impact them positively; to instill healthy self-esteem and well-being in all people, but especially people of color and, particularly those of mixed races; and, most especially, the young people!

Q: Dr. Ness is a cute way to use your name. How did you come up with such a clever way to identify yourself?

A: We southerners have a habit of shortening first names as a term of endearment. I don't like to be called "Vanessa" because it seems formal and "cold". Friends and family have always shortened my name in various ways: Ness, Nessa, V, Van. After I earned my doctoral degree, being called Dr. Girard was weird and, again, a bit formal. I wanted something catchy, easy and still "me". When I tried to get a personalized license plate, DrNess was the only combo that was available and it stuck!

Thank you, Dr. Ness for your insights. Check out our girl in the pix above, and her website at:

The prolific Dr. Ness has also written a screenplay about two princesses--one black and the other Creole. Her goal is to get it onscreen within a year so if you're a producer with an interest, please visit Dr. Ness' website for more info.

Now, on to some other mixie news: I'm sure some of you receive the Ikea catalogue. Besides selling some really cool, cheap furniture, these guys tend to be politically progressive, too--that is, judging by the models used in their advertisements.

For instance, turn to page 21 and tell me what you see. Does that look like a light-skinned man of African descent sitting with his laptop while his biracial son plays piano and his white wife strums a guitar? Could be. But, unfortunately, all three are sitting so far from each other that it's hard to say. That, plus the father looks like an accountant or something else serious while the mother is a mismatched hippie flower child. So, are they a family or just three neighbors having an impromptu jam session? Ikea, talk to me!

One thing I like about this outfit is their boldness in presenting single folks as consumers. Of course, singles are probably their best demographic. Still, how refreshing to see two different individual males on pages 119 and 129 both messing around in the kitchen!

Finally, on page 363, there's what appears to be an interracial couple working on some floor plans. While the black woman hovers over her laptop, the white man marks on some drawings. Both look happy, but not exactly in the throes of romance. There's still a little space between them on the couch so it's difficult to say if they live together or just work together.

In any case, Ikea, thank you for recognizing diversity.

Hey, over at our Watermelon Sushi Fan Page on Facebook, we're still collecting headshots. If you'd like to be involved, please join the Fan Page and send your headshot to

Our Hip Hapa Homeez group on Facebook is growing, too. There, we post links, photos and videos that are relevant to the mixed-race experience. Remember, you don't have to be multiracial to join us--just supportive.

And, don't forget to check out our film and Hapa*Teez t-shirts, too.

Until next week, I am devoted to being...

Your Hip Hapa,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Ness is an unsung academic heroin of The MRM (Mixed-Race Mouvement)-deserves more propz.