Authentic Gets You Allies

David“I learned how to fake it.”

That’s how one young man with LD/ADHD described his struggle in school. Instead of admitting he needed help because he learned differently, he stayed up until 3 AM doing homework. Then, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to fake it his whole life.

People who learn differently are often reluctant to ask for the accommodations that would help them learn better. Learning disabilities are “hidden” disabilities; they’re not seen. So, one of the most important things we do at Eye to Eye is teach kids to share their story. When you step out and say, “I’m dyslexic,” or “I have ADHD,” it’s that first, essential step in advocating for yourself and getting the accommodations you need. And sometimes, the best accommodation you can have is an ally.

But it can be hard to ask. Living with an LD can mean living with doubt. Self-doubt. Even though I went to Brown and got my master’s at Columbia, there is still a small part of me that feels like that kid who couldn’t read in the fifth grade.

When I was at Brown, I wanted to build an organization that would bring kids struggling with LD/ADHD together with people who had faced the same challenges—and made it through. To do that, I needed help.

So I approached the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. I told them about the mentor work I did at Brown and the grit and resilience that got me through Columbia. But I also told them how in fifth grade, I could only read at a second grade level because I was dyslexic. I told them how I failed tests. Lost assignments. I talked about frustration, loss of self-esteem, and self-doubt.

I said, “Right now, one in five students are in the exact same boat. And we’re going to lose them unless we act.”

Now, I took a risk in being authentic. And Johnson took a big risk in supporting me and the organization I had just founded. But an alliance was formed.

That alliance helped Eye to Eye grow from a seed to the powerful, organic organization it is today. It allowed me to hire Marcus Soutra, an Eye to Eye Alumnus who is now president of the organization. It allowed us to help thousands of young people in our mentor and alumni programs. Today, those kids are graduating from college. They’re going out in the workplace and changing office culture to be more supportive of those who work differently.

Foundations have doubts, too. The people at Johnson had hard questions for me, and they asked them. Their willingness to challenge me gave me a chance to answer that challenge. Too often, potential funders smile, don’t admit their concerns—then they turn you down without ever giving you the chance to change their minds. When you’re talking about changing lives, neither side should ever fake it.

Perfect doesn’t get you partners. Authentic gets you allies. People who think differently are coming forward in all walks of life, achieving amazing things, from founding new schools to writing songs for Justin Bieber to making strides toward a cure for cancer. They’re making us rethink what people with learning differences can achieve—and they’re doing it by being real about who they are

And the young man who stayed up till 3 AM because he felt he had to hide the fact that he had an LD from the world? He became an Eye to Eye mentor and then a teacher, helping other kids keep it real and achieve.

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