The New American Heroes

Dianna Feng brings Olson Zaltman’s research and her own story to the TEDxPittsburgh stage

Last month, I submitted an application my colleagues and I worked on together to TEDxPittsburgh 2017’s Call for Ideas. This weekend, I received an e-mail from one of the coordinators of the event, inviting me to share our idea with audiences in the city and those watching around the world on June 4 at the Byham Theater.

The theme of this year’s TEDxPittsburgh conference is Awakening: Ideas on the Rise.

We brought this story to a small audience at the White House in 2015, and now want to bring it to our hometown to inspire local organizations to amplify the voices of young women of color, and to help them awaken their inner hero.

We believe young women of color are the leaders and visionaries of tomorrow, and that’s why we decided to conduct one-on-one ZMET interviews with 16 minority girls across America to better understand their thoughts and feelings on making an impact on the world. We found that as these young women of color awaken to their destiny, they frame their lives as the archetypal Hero’s Journey, with obstacles to navigate and monsters to slay. Their end goal is transformation — they have big dreams to change themselves, change others, and change the world.

What is standing in their way? One thing is a lack of role models. Most popular depictions of the awakening hero focus on white male protagonists — Harry Potter, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and the list goes on. Young women of color lack representation — role models who share their racial and cultural background, who affirm their lived experience and their positive perceptions of themselves.

As we found in our research, this lack of representation makes it difficult for young women of color to picture themselves overcoming the many obstacles that lie on the path to awakening. To make it to the end of the journey, they need to be able to visualize their destiny.

Today, television shows that bring diverse representation to the forefront such as Grey’s Anatomy, Fresh off the Boat, Sherlock, The Mindy Project and Orange is the New Black have achieved mainstream popularity. However, there is still much progress to be made. This ongoing struggle is particularly salient today in light of political events such as the Women’s March, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the growing awareness of intersectionality — how racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination intersect. We need to create a sustainable cultural narrative for young minority women who want to become leaders and visionaries in areas that, according to society, are “ill suited” for them. Our research offers implications and recommendations that reflect both the conscious and unconscious desires of these young women.

Academically, I have comprehensive experience in psychology and a keen interest in the biological, sociocultural, and economic factors that influence behavior and cognition. Personally, I am a woman of color who has had to live through and overcome racial bias, socioeconomic hardship, and the clash between personal and cultural expectations, as well as the impact of these obstacles on my mental and physical wellbeing.

Growing up, I did not have a female role model — in media or reality — and spent most of my childhood attempting to fulfill the desires of others around me who dismissed my aspirations and instead tried to set goals for me based on my gender and ethnicity. I hated being not only a female, but also a minority. I felt ashamed when comparing myself to white women and girls, who seemingly had a greater potential to succeed because they had visible role models who shared their racial and cultural background.

Systemic barriers like this create unconscious tension between dreams and reality, and can ultimately hinder the success of young women of color. However, through purposeful and meaningful visual communication we can reduce these barriers and help these women succeed.

Identifying female role models in my late teenage years helped me imagine myself as someone without boundaries — someone who had the power to choose her own journey and attain anything she set out to achieve. As a woman of color, I know firsthand that imagery and communication can impact girls’ perceptions of themselves. I believe that this idea and this research has the power to help people support girls who are in the same place I was and encourage them to pursue their dreams.

I am particularly passionate about sharing this story on the TEDx stage because I believe that young women of color are the heroes of the future. Their potential is, in part, America’s potential. It is society’s responsibility to help create a narrative in which young minority girls are included and celebrated. Our empathy-centered research is a step in that direction and can help audiences see the world through the eyes of these young women so that others can awaken to the realities they face.

As a progressive organization, TEDx is the perfect platform that has the power to bring voice to these young women of color and put them in the forefront as visionaries and leaders.

Dianna Feng is an Insight Associate at Olson Zaltman.


TEDxPittsburgh is on Sunday, June 4 at the Byham Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh. Get tickets for the event here.

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