Samantha Davis epitomizes the result of allowing your experiences to mold your perspective of society and harnessing that perspective to actively seek change. Merely four years after completing graduate school, she has managed to start a nonprofit Black Swan Academy that seeks to empower African American youth to be involved in their community, immerse herself in social activism in the District of Columbia, hold a leadership position at the Young Professionals of Greater Washington; all while maintaining a full time Senior Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist position at So Others Might Eat (SOME), an organization that supports the poor and homeless in the District. I found it fitting that she be my first interview for an inspirational person, given her ability to direct her passion for improving the lives of others into more than a career and into a lifestyle.
I first met Samantha during my time as a graduate student at American University (AU) and even then she didn’t strike me as someone who stands on the sidelines. Not only was she involved with AU’s School of Public Affair’s Graduate Council during her first year, but she also became president of the Council on her second and final year at AU. I remember even back then I looked up to her and my admiration of her involvement in the world around her has only grown. Interviewing her for Wear What You Have gave me the opportunity to finally ask where her fire comes from and how her upbringing impacted who she is today. To the impact of her childhood on her adulthood she attributes to a mother who has always been involved in non-profit organizations, her draw to churches that prioritized public service and a family that constantly validated her self-worth. What resonated with me the most about her description of her childhood was her refreshing awareness of the luck of a family that created a narrative about her that served as a foil to the stories that most African American youth especially women are exposed. It’s this ability to analyze herself in the context of her surroundings that I find to be most inspiring.
In my opinion the thread of self-awareness, which allows her to let her experiences guide her, strings together Samantha’s ability to accomplish what may take others years. While she dabbled with the thought of a career in nursing, physical therapy and even marketing, she was able to recognize the passion she harbored for involvement in services that sought to empower the disenfranchised. Soon enough she said, “seeing the same faces” in troubling situations in a program that she volunteered thrust in her the urgency to seek out systematic change. Her pursuit of a Master’s of Public Policy was a direct result of the desire to hone skills for the purpose of changing systems that relegate individuals to a vicious cycle of poverty and disempowerment. She maintains that she “uses the skills that she acquired at American University everyday”. Similar to the choice to attend AU, the creation of Black Swan Academy reflects Samantha’s belief that systematic changes require a systematic revolution. Black Swan Academy seeks to tear down the perception that “socially and civically” minded black people are an exception by creating programs that teach young adults to be “socially responsible” and simultaneously “advocat[ing] for the elimination of structural barriers impacting the Black American community.” Currently the Black Swan Academy serves “40 plus middle and high school students in out of school time programming and nearly 800 DC residents attend community outreach programs such as service events and forums”.
While AU has been very helpful in preparing her for her lifestyle, she does accept that AU couldn’t have prepared her for everything, especially on how to deal with a contentious issue like racism, which is salient in her work at SOME and her nonprofit Black Swan Academy. For the skills needed to speak about racism in a productive manner, she has employed advice from mentors, additional reading and conferences that educate on the subject matter. Another skill that she concedes requires some more polishing is her ability to take care of herself while juggling so many projects. I love how she refers to taking care of oneself as self-care; which is something we both agreed that if you are so involved is somewhat of a skill. How does she juggle a full time job, a foundation and social activism? Samantha credits her support system which incudes family and friends with keeping her sane. “My day starts at 8am and can end at 10pm…I have to remember to eat.” She says that the importance of reminders from her loved ones to do little things like eat is something she appreciates.
Even while she works on improving her self-care skills on top of an already packed schedule, she still has time to formally plan her next steps. So what do you do after you’ve established your life as an advocate for human rights? You learn even more about yourself and expand what you have already built. On what’s next for her, Samantha says that she wants to learn more about the African lineage of her family because as a multiracial individual she knows more about her European heritage than African origins. She says once she figures out the dominant African ethnicity in her genetic make up, she’ll visit the country in the continent where this ethnicity is found for at least one week. In addition to reconnecting with her roots, Samantha hopes to expand the footprint of Black Swan Academy by getting enough resources to maintain a fulltime program director. I have full confidence that she’ll accomplish both goals and continue to be an inspirational individual.