“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

"There is a Jewish family living on the eighth floor. They must be destroyed!" Standing on the concrete stoop outside my apartment building in Minsk, Belarus, a neighbor spoke those piercing words. My small hands tightened, clenching my polka-dot dress. My family was the only Jewish family living on the eighth floor.

Months later we immigrated to a predominantly minority neighborhood in Baltimore. In school, my teacher taped large signs around me in a new language: "CHAIR," "TABLE," they spelled in bold navy blue marker.

"Jewish." "Foreign." "Different." I desperately wanted to erase those all-too-familiar labels. I wanted hide my Jewish identity, to yank down those taped-on signs.  But I never did.

Instead, I tried to see beyond these labels. It helped me connect with people – especially marginalized people – because I began seeing beyond their labels too. When I taught an art class for men deemed "criminally insane," I chose not to know their crimes or diagnoses. I let their artwork speak for itself.

Today, I strive to define myself before others define me. I will be the contrarian that challenges groupthink. I will be a policymaker in business and a businesswoman in policy. I will be an artist in a studio and outside one. Throughout, I aspire to create opportunities for others to join me – to define ourselves, fly in the face of expectations and open seemingly impenetrable doors.  

 

— Inessa Lurye