She hails from Nigeria, but she has become a powerful woman in West Michigan in her own right. Let’s talk to Nkechy Ezeh, an internationally recognized scholar and tenured Associate Professor of Education and Director of Early Childhood Education Program at Aquinas
College. She’s traveled the world providing Professional Development and Parent Education workshops in Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai, Japan and Singapore to name just a few locations. At the core is her commitment to help vulnerable children in the classroom.
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>> Produced by women about when powerful women, let's talk is a series of interviews with women who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live.
>>Well hello everyone, I'm Jennifer Moss thanks for joining us for another exciting addition of powerful women, let's talk and today's powerful woman is Doctor Nkechy Ezeh she’s an international scholar currently serving as a tenured associate professor of education and director of early childhood education program at Aquinas college. Dr. Ezeh thanks so much for joining us today.
>>Thank you so much Jennifer.
>>So, to give a little background you had a lot of experience in our community and you received many awards that surely any powerful woman would enjoy.
You're the 2018 winner of the West Michigan woman of the year.
In that same year, you were also selected to be one of the 50 most influential women in Grand Rapids and also a YWCA tribute award honoree and this is among so many other accomplishments, you’re also a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority in national and international public service. So again Dr. Ezeh I am happy to welcome you to this edition of powerful women, let's talk-- so let's talk.
>>Let's talk education -certainly a huge part of your lif, you prepare new teachers for early care and education directly involved in the community and youre a former early care and education worker so I want to talk about early care you work with children, some of which perhaps many of them are vulnerable and low income, I know this is your hearts passion.
So tell me about your work and how important it really is to you.
>>Thank you again for inviting me I really appreciate this.
My walk and my life kind of goes together -I don't know where one starts and the other one ends because being a vulnerable parent myself I came to this country when I was about to turn 20 years old now- so the community e who became the grandparents, my sisters, my siblings I believe I met you at the Messaiah Baptist church, you know just surrounding myself so that I t I knew immediately that having the community to surround a family member who was drowning is the only way they are going to get out of it.
So education is very important to me because my father drilled it in us that we need to get education and that was kind of him, so seeing what the commute and my husband and I were able to do with our own children.
I knew that I had to help and all that our children get a good start in life, they know after all, child education really propels them to move their child to move forward so education is very important to me and as you mentioned I train future teachers to work with the children, all children.
Not just the one that look like they’re doing all that. I also have to make sure that all children are ready for when the teacher comes.. We have to get the children ready to be educated; they will also have to educate the future teachers so there is no separation the 2 of them goes hand in hand.
>>I was going to say it’s like a big circle.
>>It is a big circle.
>>I think it goes all the way around and comes back to the beginning. So you mentioned you're dad
And you were 20 when you came here, you are from Nigeria.
>>And your father was a village tribal chief and said he encouraged you to always what?
>>Remember who you.
>>Remember who you are, that's very important.
I would imagine, do you take some of that and instill that in the children that you are trying to save from being in that vulnerable community or a position.
>>Yes. yes, while growing up it really didn't sink in that much, you know when you’re a child and your parents tell you.
>>You’re not listening.
>>You’re like, yeah yeah yeah and daddy would always say, remember who you are and then every now and then he’d say, who are you again? And I’m like daddy you know, pappa, you know who I am. Well tell me I don’t know.
So my dad instilled that in me, remember who you are. So every time I am shaken, every time I feel the world is being mean to me, every time somebody gets on my nerve I will center myself and remember who I am. And sometimes it means reminding myself who I am, I’ll kind of mimic my dad’s voice and say, who are you again? And I’ll call my own name out.
It is very very empowering when I do that and working with the children that I work with I always remind them to remember who they are.
It’s something about that because when you are a vulnerable child and you feel like you don't have anything going for you somebody is saying remember who you are it centers you and kind of brings you back to your core.
But I also remind, especially with my kids getting older, I remind them that who you are how is like a double-edged sword.
You know, who you are you are for instance my daughter, you are Enina Ezeh you are Nkechy Ezeh’s daughter.
But you are also a black woman in America.
So you can't you can't pick one and leave the other one.
>>You can’t separate them really.
>>You can’t separate it, so for me I am Nkechy Ezeh right, I know who I am my dad was a tribal chief, I was loved I was brought up to go after anything I want and especially growing up in Nigeria where women, I know usually are seen so for me to navigate that is very empowering been now, I’m in America and daddy’s voice is telling me, remember who you are. You are Nkechy Ezeh, you are a woman, you have an accent and sometimes somebody is going to use that to shake you.
So I tell my children you can’t just go with the oh I know who I am I'm this, you also have to remember the other part because when you remember that knowing, yourself means knowing everything about yourself and owning it.
So you see when people use the term oh you talk kind of funny it won’t hurt my feeling because I know that, you telling me what I already know by myself you know, like.
>>And its part of me and so you are good with that basically.
>>And I'm going with that, it's a battle for me and when people said that instead of being upset like I used to in the beginning I say. yeah, isn’t that powerful, that’s me.
>>You don't talk like me.
>>Yeah, you don’t talk like me so you do talk funny.
>>So as you look at that and talk about what your dad instilled in and knowing who you are have you encountered barriers here, I mean you came here at 20 and how have you continued to move your career upward and onward and what kind of barriers did you perhaps perceive.
>> Yeah, you know remembering who I am helped set the foundation for me.
I also know that I needed to know who I am is that I came from Nigeria where the villagers know everybody where I'm surrounded by that village and I have to build my own village I have to be a part of Messiah Baptist Church, one time, I don’t know if people knew that at one time I'll go to Messiah Baptist Church in the morning for Sunday school because that was my black family I needed that but being a catholic person I have to go to St. Andrews because I felt like if I didn't go to St. Andrews- you’re like uh oh Lord you know, you're not being true to who you are
but I needed to build that family to kind of help guide me and all that so I can also learn, I learned a lot about the culture I learned about how black women navigate the culture through looking at those powerful women at Messiah Baptist Church.
>>So American women navigating.
>>American women navigating.
>>Which is different for you.
>>Yeah it’s different. Looking at how they dress how the professional women- American professional women dress -looking at the women from Messiah Baptist Church so I saw that I was speaking of that so barriers in terms of the culture shock.
This had different, you know the air is different ,the way people talk that talk to you is different.
So many barriers that I have to navigate but always centering myself when I get back I know that I'm in my house in my living room, you know we have all this Nigerian stuff all over the place and it's a way for me to kind of center myself and then I go back so many barriers that I navigated in terms of the cultural shock -don't understand when emotional, why are you angry and all those kind of things.
Yeah, it just so many things but making sure they have a place that you ground yourself in those days in the late 80's and early 90 Messiah Baptist church grounded me- you know to kind of connect with that root that African root to that I don't have any more and being able to see those women and connect with them most of them, you know like you, I kept in touch with over the years and that’s what has helped me.
>>And again that you can go back to that to the belief of knowing who you are each time, I mean I would imagine that centers you, it grounds you for the most part. So what about finding your own voice? you have done extensive work in the Grand Rapids community in early childhood and not just here and we'll get to that in a second, but how did you kind of find that that voice for yourself being comfortable in your own skin I guess to say in America perhaps.
>>Yeah, you know I think some of them were a little bit accident and some of them I was born with it and I think that's why knowing who you are help you be your authentic self.
I again when my dad kept saying that it didn’t hit me until when I was removed from the comfort of knowing if I turn left or turn right my parents were always there.
Here I’m in America and I remember when the day I was leaving my dad say when you get to America, you don't have a father and you don't have a mother.
>>He said that?
>>What did that mean?
>>Remember who you are because as a child I always had to rush to my dad had to rush to my mom
Now and I remember saying to my dad, what do you mean I don’t have a father you don’t have a father in America, you don't have a mother in America and he kind of brought it home and that helped position my mind that I don't have anybody here it’s just you here and you have to literally sink or swim, and you going to make it and with the prayers and everything so when I got here, I know who I am by the accident I was talking about I never really planned on going into early childhood, education noooo I wanted to be a lawyer, you know I was growing up in Nigeria where women didn't have that much voice at that time so I knew that I wanted to go into law to advocate for women because I felt like they needed to have a voice- why don't they have a voice and every time I spoke up I got in trouble about it and I say ok I am going to get into something now.So when I got into America, you know I just walked in, I got into Grand Rapids Community College and I saw a brochure about child development by that time I was pregnant with my first daughter and I was like child development? I know the meaning of child, I know the meaning of development. That what you do you mean child development- in Nigeria we had social work we didn't have really child development as a discipline.
So I was intrigued and I said to myself if nothing else I want to take a couple classes for the child that I'm carrying so I need to because now I don't have them and I don't have an auntie I don't have a Grandma, nobody to help me raise the child so when I got into it -it did something to me, the books that will tell us to see children ,black children but it was such a demeaning position on all- they didn't look well or a picture of children from Africa, or Guatemala,
They just looked raggedy they didn’t look well, they didn’t look like the children I know. I’m like the children in the Messiah Baptist Church they don’t look like that, I don’t have a child then. That is not the Africa I know.
>>That wasn’t the picture that you knew and saw.
>>It did something to my spirit, I don't know exactly how to say it, but they just bothered me and when I saw a picture of white children it was nicely kept, the person was well and if there is anything wrong it was because of something they couldn’t control.
So, a child could be on a machine with tubes and oh you see is because they’re sick, but African children, all black children were not kept, they’re stomach and I’m like no, no no.
So it became this internal fight I will see that in a class out and I would get home when my kids started growing and I had my own children, I need black child around and say oh youre going to do this they would do it, I’d say you see, black children, I needed to prove to myself.
>>You needed to prove to yourself even so it became kind of an inner not a, not a struggle but a feeling that you needed to work in this and to help people see themselves.
>>And then once I was able to prove it, it kind of drove me and really help me to push forward and say wow you could do this. That's what really gave me the voice and say you know what these children cannot advocate for themselves you need to say it because I've tested it with my own children and I’ve tested it with other children I am working with at Messiah Baptist Church and I was able to own that because it was it was the knowledge that I gained myself I have power over by and you know I needed to get it out there and I got into a lot of trouble about that, but.
>>Not as trouble now because you have a great following and you are like one of the major presenters in, in early childhood, education and then you have that early childhood center so and you get your work also is far-reaching you've conducted professional development and parental education workshops throughout the US, Australia, Dubai, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Nigeria I mean that's just to name a few international spots, what was that like because your work is recognized, and you have that yearning to make a difference and thus you are internationally known.
>> You know when I started doing my walk first with Messiah Baptist church and then I got appointed to be a professor at Aquinas college- I started doing my work over there and then when I was finishing my doctorate.
My dissertation I got a call just like that-hey would you be interested to come in and do a lecture I believe it was in Australia at that time.
I'm like wow by that time I started doing things locally here in the US and it was exciting it was a really a little something that I know kind of helped push me up their because prior to that I felt like some people were still struggling with who I am and why I’m challenging certain things I is that I challenge things when it doesn't make sense it doesn't make sense to me that we getting funding on the black vulnerable children but we're not doing anything substantial for that you know we keep on the just doing the same Ol same Ol and if you keep on doing the same ole same ole you are going to get the same results.
So as I was challenging and then after it was like I was pushing the system but the system is not in kind of changing on making things a little different, so I got excited about the opportunity to go to Australia and present and then I presened that and you know you do it one time here and in the people started hearing about it and know doing that people that came started inviting me so in that early childhood, education work to do in training, coaching them mentoring them in the classrooms and also parent education was exciting because most of this schools I was going to are international schools.
So, they recognized that the strength that I bring they recognize that is the expertise that I that I brought in I tell you Jen it felt so good it was almost like people know you will be coming, they expected you to come they were excited that your there.
>>They welcomed you .
>>They welcomed me. I felt good and I was like wow I didn't get that kind of welcoming in some area in U.S. but it was because at one point I realized it wasn't really my accent, it wasn't really how I’m saying it, it's what I'm talking about.
>>What you are saying.
>>What I was saying.
>>What you were trying to do to get change.
>>Yes, and when I realized that I felt better because before I was like what is it about me why don't they like me, what is this.
>>You personalizing it.
>>Yes, yeah so.
>>But it wasn’t really about you, it was about your message.
>>It wasn’t about me, it was the message. And then once that clicked I started feeling comfortable in my skin and it kind of gave me that extra boost to keep on pushing people and pushing and keep on pushing and all the way to testify not the K1 2 of appropriation commute in Lansing to again for changes in a policy so that our vulnerable children just need to have a fair share and they need to have
A good Foundation- they were not asked to be born into the environment they were born into but if society or our community is going to be getting funding based on their situation we need to put that money back in that community and we need to empower families, we need to empower community and our community cannot continue to be like that because of the zip code on all of those kind of didn't know how children does that better so was I recognize that it was really what I was talking about not me.
That gave me extra boost in addition to knowing who I was in the hear.
>>To push even harder and to know why you are doing that.
>>So you mentioned, you have 5 children, yes, the all grown now right, yes, so you had such an accomplished career -how did you do it all- because you said you were 20 when you came here and then later on you had your kids how to balance all of that because you had such a great message that you are pushing in and you had your own children as well.
>> Who knows- if I stop, at that time I knew if I stopped to think about anything I wouldn’t do it. I just had to do it.
I also will say that I have a wonderful husband who is really cool sometimes I’ll tell him you don't behave like a typical Nigerian man because it typical Nigerian man will not just let you to be out to doing all this work and all that so my husband knows when to pitch in he did a lot of school runs he did a lot getting dinners ready from teaching most of my classes early on was also at night and on that, but I'm a I was very good at planning I planned a lot because I knew it was it is very important to me the message I’m carrying and I think I'm also internalize that that that was my calling
At the end of the day, I'm gonna meet my maker and it's going to be well what do you do for those vulnerable children and so I planned a lot you know so on Friday, we did the laundry clean the House in the evening we stay up as late as we can and then we sleep in on Saturday and I coo-k I cook for the whole week.
>>Oh the whole week!
>>Oh yeah we pack for the whole week, you know we package it and color and I know sometimes the kids would joke about it and see how we own a blue tupperware and as it was to lead uh yeah, just planning ahead and now so that a lot of support from the community because the message that I'm promoting also resonated with the community.
And I’m lucky that all you know even within ELN and Aquinas college have always had been in an environment where people have supported what I'm trying to do and all that so I would love to say I did it all but I really did not do it all by myself you know.
>>But that helped the impact of others helping you -made it a balancing, finished that balancing act so to speak so you do so much what do you and your family do for fun, what's happening in the Ezeh household?
>> Ezeh household, what do we do for fun?
Believe it or not we just got out we watched the TV , we go to church and we gather. We've got that you know barbecue in the backyard, they’re all grown up now so whenever they home we barbeque.
>>Family food and fellowship.
>> family food and fellowship I love ,I love that and for me just my work fills me up, but I like to listen to music and just you know just chill you know sometimes I can be in the House and I’m not a wondering person, I travel a lot so I just like to be in the House and eat my Nigerian food One day I was cooking and one of my kids came in and said it smells like African in hereand I said yeah it is an African house and I love it.
>>Yeah, hopefully you share your food because I’d like to try that, no just kidding. It sounds good. So what makes you laugh, what’s laughter, how does it come about?
>>What makes me laugh is seeing children happy, you know children have this authentic that comes from their belly.
>>That belly laugh right.
>>They laugh and they put their heads, and it’s the most silliest, stupidest thing ever so just seeing that and I'm reflecting on my day and evening and I just think about what a child said and I'm just cracking up and it is like my husband was that when he was so funny what are you laughing at and I say you won’t get it. I say this 4 year old said this and I here we go again the and just.
>>But that’s wonderful.
>>Yeah, thank you.
>>And do you have a motto or encouraging words that you might say to others as an educator when you work with so many others and dealing with family and friends, even a favorite saying or perhaps a model that you might share with others.
>> For me really my work and that's what I try to get the future workers and even my future teachers to understand, you have to personalize it -my work is so personal and I think that's why I give it all and that's why sometimes it hurts also because it's so so personal to m.e
And you know my Angela may not get it all but my Angela talk about when you know better you do better in know, it's OK if you didn't know if use is okay, if you didn't know that this parent have 3 jobs and that's why she couldn't be available for the parent teacher conference now you know- what are you going to do differently? Arel you just going to keep on sitting there saying well, they don't care all she doesn't care make it personal that when I see any of the children that I worked with I see them as my own children.
I literally treat them like that my own children because I've come to believe that if I don't think of that child’s future now help to take care of that child's future now and do all I can that child is going to be in the neighborhood with my own children and it's not going to be pretty so we, I need to take it like they are my own child and I have to make sure that they are ready for life because if they are ready my own child children will be maybe my own grandchildren, future grandchildren will be ready and all that.
So I'm not expecting anybody who gets into this work, this work is very very hard is very emotional, sometimes you feel like you did everything you doing you couldn't see it because you really don't see the end product right away.
>>That is true it’s very true.
>>I wait 18 years, I wait 10 years, I wait 15 years before I see it so you just have to have that belief that you are doing the best you can for this child and this family and if you come in with that kind of attitude everything will work out ok.
So when I do that I feel good and but when I feel like I haven't given it my all then it bothers my spirit that I have to find a way to make it better.
>>That cycle that goes around.
>>I like that you talked about it goes back around.
>>And when you know better do better.
>>Do better yeah.
>>And I have to mention your Laker for life, getting your master’s degree at GVSU, anchor up right.
>> Yes, yes, yes I love it.
>> Wonderful well thank you Dr. Nkechy Ezeh and of course I want to thank all of you for joining us for this edition of powerful women, let's talk I'm Jennifer Moss.
>>Produced by women about when these powerful podcast focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live want to hear more powerful women, let's talk get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts please rate and subscribe powerful women, let's talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU its underwriters are Grand Valley State University.