It is an honor to be featuring Chemay Morales-James on the Parents Who Inspire series! I learned about Chemay’s organization, My Reflection Matters (MRM), as I was researching toys, books and other resources that were diverse and expanded beyond the “white as normal” narrative represented in the majority of children’s items.
My Reflection Matters sources and highlights educational items that affirm the identities of Black and Brown youth, from pre-k-12. Chemay has a background in education with heavy roots in social justice work. My Reflection Matters is informed by her professional experiences as well as her experiences as a Latinx mother raising Afro-Latinx children.
MRM is a burgeoning project that currently disseminates information via Facebook, Tumblr and a newsletter with more to come. Read on to get to know Chemay better and learn about My Reflection Matters!
Tell us a little about yourself:
My name is Chemay Morales-James. I just celebrated 10 years of marriage with my husband, Shane James. We have two beautiful, brilliant boys Judah (4) and Keanu (2). I’m originally from Waterbury, CT but currently reside with my family in Watertown—a neighboring small town my parents moved to when I was just entering adolescence.
This past June, I left my job of almost 10 years at NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools (Prior to Metro, I was a special education teacher for about 5 years.). While at Metro, I served as a Senior Educational Equity Coach.
In brief, this means I spent a great deal of time researching, developing, and implementing anti-bias and culturally responsive training with school leaders and teachers in hopes to address racial inequities their schools or districts were experiencing with primarily Black and Brown students. This job was life changing as it played a pivotal role in expanding my critical consciousness and capacity to be a change agent in society.
As a parent, what’s your favorite part about living in your city?
Family and community are very important to me. I love that I live in walking distance from my parents and sisters. I also live very close to Waterbury where I have fond memories growing up as a child and, now, spend most of my time with my kids hanging out, volunteering, and supporting local events.
What are your passion projects or in what ways do you engage with your local or national community?
My kids are my biggest passion; however, in addition to educating them, my newest endeavor has been My Reflection Matters (MRM). MRM began in February of this year; however, I’ve had the vision for this for several years when my first child was about a year old.
The idea was born when I was visiting our local parent-teacher store and left there so agitated at the fact I didn’t see my child reflected in any of the educational products being sold there! Not even a brown baby doll in the imaginary play section was in sight!
I left there steaming, but immediately inspired to start outlining my ideas for My Reflection Matters. The ideas sat for a while, but when it was time to buy toddler underwear, the internal, emotional tantrum started up again. My first thought was…why are there no dark skinned caricatures for my child to have splattered on his bamsee (As my Trinidadian hubby would say when referring to my kids’ bottoms.)?
I’m not against having my children wearing White caricatures on their clothes or reflected in their books and toys. What I’m against is giving into a larger narrative society has painted about what “normal” looks like. And that is a standard I try to break everyday by surrounding my Afro-Latinx boys with an over abundance of images, language, and rich history that mirror them and our ancestors so that they are able to develop a healthy sense of self.
As I started to research products and share them with other friends, I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one throwing silent tantrums in the toddler underwear aisle. I shared my idea for MRM with a friend at work and she connected me with a personal coach, Nafeza Kingston, who really helped me lay out my initial steps to building My Reflection Matters.
As of now, MRM exists on social media (Facebook and Tumblr) as a space where I share with other parents and teachers educational resources that affirm and reflect the identities of Black and Brown youth from PK-12. “MRM’s mission is to provide the tools necessary to support and nurture the development of healthy racial and cultural identities of Black and Brown children and older youth. It is my hope that through the thoughtful use of the resources shared by MRM, this engagement will foster self-worth in youth, a love for humanity, and develop in them the ability to think critically about the injustices they and others experience empowering them to combat internalized and institutional racism and oppression in American society and around the world.”
Each month I put out a free newsletter highlighting my finds for that month. Folks who sign up gain free access to direct links to purchase or learn more about a resource. As I continue to make personal connections with different independent business, I’ve been requesting them to send me free samples to give away during monthly contests.
At this point, I don’t make any money off of my newsletter. In order to continue building MRM, I’m working on finding ways I can make an income. For example, I’m in the midst of putting together services I can provide to parents, educators, and students in my local community who are interested in finding ways they can better support the development of healthy racial identities of black and brown youth. But, for now, I’m pleased with the baby steps I’ve made thus far and thoroughly enjoying this new journey!
What’s your favorite part of your civic engagement activities?
Hmm…three things come to my mind and not in any particular order.
1) Meeting people like you that are politically and socially conscious. The positive energy fueled by the human connections I’ve made is what helps maintain my momentum.
2) Knowing that I can be of service to others and my own kids simultaneously. As a busy mom, I’m always looking for ways I can kill two birds with one stone. I love including my kids in this project. We are starting to get some cool products to sample, so I love seeing them experience them, asking them for feedback, using the resources to initiate conversations around race and social justice, and, of course, sharing their adorable photos!
3) Through this project, I’ve begun to play around with graphic design and discovering I actually quite enjoy it. There’s always been a creative side of me that I brought to my classroom as a former teacher and as a social justice education consultant at Metro. However, this passion project has allowed me to control how and where I want to use my talents.
I’ve taken all I’ve learned working with brilliant people at NYU Metro like my chicas (girls) from the Center for Strategic Solutions and Dr. Pedro Noguera and I’m applying my understanding of the educational research around social justice and racial identity development into a creation that fits my children’s needs and the needs of other Black and Brown youth, but in a different way. To be honest, this entire experience has been quite liberating and empowering, because for the first time in life, I have no one to answer to except myself!
What inspires you to engage in these activities?
My children, former students, and my personal experiences are what inspire me to do My Reflection Matters. Growing up, I never learned about my cultural history in school unless it was being told from the lens of the oppressor, which was never inspiring, accurate, and rather depressing. I remember my mom expressing her frustration trying to find books that spoke of our ancestral heritage, were written in Spanish and English, and displayed images of children that looked like us. Finding culturally diverse toys was even more of a nightmare for her. My mom didn’t need to know all the research I learned while at NYU and teaching in the classroom to know that Black and Brown kids need to see positive images of themselves. She instinctively knew that words and imagery mattered and impacted her children’s’ sense of self. And that was all she needed to know. Now that I’m older and more experienced, I realize I have the power and agency to change that—I refuse to keep waiting for someone else to do it.
With independent organizations and individuals like Little Buzz Book Club, Melanites, Lee and Low Books, Nuskool and the growing list of other resources I have researched and shared in my newsletters, there are definitely more options available for me as a parent and teacher than there were for my mom; however, many of these resources are still tucked away and often don’t make it into the mainstream marketplace, which is why I do the work that I do.
Any words of wisdom for parents wanting to create space for civic engagement in their own busy lives?
MRM is a big project for a full-time working parent (what you see now are the building blocks to a larger vision I have), and not everyone has the time to commit to maintaining the momentum while building slowly.
For parents looking to engage civically at a smaller scale, I recommend you start by finding out what local events are occurring that are leading conversations around race and equity. Commit to attending at least one and connect with audience members, panelists or organizations that speak to social justice in a way that reflects your beliefs. You may not be able to always attend events your new connections ask you to be a part of, but attaching yourself to a community of folks you trust share the same values as you, will help keep you informed about social issues you care about and serve as a support network. Social justice work is deeply emotional and you need community to do this work. Revolutionary civic acts never happen in isolation.
I am so inspired by Chemay and her work at My Reflection Matters! I strongly suggest you follow her on social media as well as sign up to receive her newsletter.
A year ago, I had very few books or toys that featured people of color or diverse, multi-racial and multi-cultural story lines. My Reflection Matters has helped me to identity products that are more representative and inclusive of our country’s diverse population and affirm the identities of Black and Brown youth. My kids’ toy and book collections are a work in progress, but now anytime I’m purchasing a gift for another family or for my own children I consult MRM first.
Chemay is doing the heavy lifting for educators, parents and caregivers by researching and vetting products that offer a much-needed counter narrative to the white-washed world of education and children’s toys. Her passion and expertise shine through her efforts.
Inspire on, Chemay!