As we observe Black History Month in February 2021, the annual commemoration takes on new resonance. While the nation grapples with deeply rooted issues of racial and social justice, we also have the realization that a new era is upon us as we as a country recently elected our first female Vice President. Kamala Harris, who is Black and of South Asian descent, is a politician who represents segments of the American population who rarely — if ever — experience the agency of political power, making her ascendance to the second-highest office in the nation more than just a story of a successful public servant.
On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, people across the globe watched as Harris took the oath of the office of Vice President. In that historic moment, like Barack Obama 12 years before her, she forever changed the face of American politics.
Leaders Like Me
The impact of seeing people in high-profile positions of power — such as President and Vice President — who look like many of us cannot be underestimated. Positive racial identity and racial socialization are crucial elements of healthy child development, issues that can be especially challenging for Black and brown families living in a racialized country.
In The New York Times’ “Black History, Continued” series, Imani Perry, professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, writes: “In the early 20th century, before Negro History Week had turned into Black History Month, African-American teachers and children in schools throughout the segregated South would paste images of celebrated figures of Black history on the walls of their schools. It was a public affirmation that greatness existed among their people despite oppression.”
On Inauguration day, mother Shawna Cruel was tuned in with her young daughter to watch the momentous occasion. At the moment of Harris’s swearing in, Cruel watched as her daughter stood at the television and raised her hand in an echo of the iconic moment. Cruel captured the moment and shared it via social media, a touching sight that soon went viral. The young girl’s mother remarked in sharing the photo that it was: “Just something letting the world know that those little eyes are watching and being inspired to become leaders no matter age or color.”
How Modeling Behavior Can Help Create Future Leaders
Modeling, also known as observational or social learning, is a powerful tool. When an individual observes the behavior of another and imitates it, they are “modeling,” which can teach a new behavior or influence the frequency of a previously learned behavior.
Social learning theory demonstrates that when children are exposed to the behaviors of positive role models, they can learn valuable new information and skills through mimicking those habits. Often, the learner isn’t even aware that they are taking on these behaviors, making this type of learning particularly dynamic.
Studies have shown that the effectiveness of the model is influenced by similarity, meaning the more similar the model is to the observer, the more effective the learning will be. This explains why peers provide such strong models for behavior.
Meeting the Moment
Harris and her audacity to succeed despite being an Asian and African American woman are helping change the way we see race and gender in America. From being elected District Attorney of San Francisco, to then being appointed Attorney General of California, election to the US Senate, and now as Vice President of the United States, the California native has built her career and broken barriers through public service while exemplifying compassion and a commitment to justice. She has also steered the conversations around identity politics and how we should be passionate about creating a world that is more welcoming to marginalized voices. The Vice President has often spoken on her duty to be a role model for those young Black and brown girls who would follow behind her.
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