Gabrielle Valdes on Education and Opportunity
By Danielle Echols
Gabrielle is an entrepreneur, educator and community builder. She received her BA in Communication Studies from California State University in Long Beach, with a focus on Women's Studies, Research and Media Analysis. After working in Early Childhood Education in LA, she moved to Chicago and worked as a behavioral therapist to support children with autism and their families. Leveraging her experiences in education and empowerment, Gabrielle was brought on as Co-Founder of Prismatic, an education non-profit building access to project-based learning, to impact education in Chicago. Here is a little of her story:
Tell us a little of your backstory?
I used to define myself by the performances I danced in as an artist and ballet dancer before I knew what it was like to experience the rush of telling a story through a newspaper. I went into college not knowing who I wanted to be and left knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I developed my guiding philosophy as an early childhood educator valuing inclusive spaces that encourage individuals to show up as their true authentic selves. I took a detour after teaching to “do what I was supposed to do” by working a corporate job and then left a year later to get back on track. My curiosities exposed me to a wide range of experiences in the social impact sector, startup world and non-profit space which prepared me to take a leap of faith myself. I now leverage my experiences and expertises to co-run Prismatic, an education nonprofit that building access to project-based learning to teachers and administrators, in hopes to make small, but powerful incremental changes in Education.
How did moving to Chicago begin to change your narrative?
Moving to another city and un-familiarizing myself with my surroundings and my community allowed me the time and space to really think about what I needed for myself- being able to physically remove myself from an environment where I felt it was so easy to drown out my own voice in others’ opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles. Not to say that Los Angeles specifically caused me to leave, but instead, it was more so what LA represent to me personally. It was a place where I struggled to have a work and life balance was in a relationship where I completely lost myself and a time in my life where I valued the opinions of others before my own. Moving away from what was familiar and comfortable allowed me to reinvent myself, try out new personas, listen to my voice and truly advocate for my needs. I’m much stronger than I was before, and I attribute my growth to be the result of moving to Chicago.
How did you become involved with Acceptance Tour?
I first became involved with the Acceptance Tour back in March when Debra (Giunta, Founder and Director of Design Dance) and Jonathan (Lazatin, Community Impact Designer of Design Dance) were making the video for the IndieGoGo campaign. During a conversation they were having around whether or not the tour was something that was helpful, I interjected and went on a long-winded tangent about how I wish I had something like the acceptance tour growing up. As a young dancer, I was deeply immersed in the dance culture and found myself never feeling good enough. I struggled with self-acceptance most of the time I looked in the mirror of my dance studio. It was not until I was 18 years old when I finally left the competitive dance world. It was the hardest decision I made during my young adult life and took me almost a year to make. In retrospect, it was the best thing I did for myself. Leaving the dance world, which was so intertwined in who I was at the time, created enough space for me to start working on myself. Eight years later, I can honestly say I have a newfound love for ballet and a more compassionate relationship with myself. Conversations around self-acceptance and body image that need to happen more often at a younger age.
When you were in college, what was the vision for your life? How has it evolved/changed?
Back in college the vision I had of myself changed often. I wanted to be a journalist, an event event planner, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a teacher. There were also multiple times when I wasn’t sure what career I wanted. I've always been curious about a myriad of subjects, but grew up in a household where changing interests meant you were lost. It wasn't until graduation that I was sitting in the bleachers as my name was being called to claim my Communications degree that I fully committed to the idea of becoming a teacher. With much resistance from my family, I decided to not pursue Public Relations and instead became an ECE Teacher. Figuring out my career path back then is still so relevant to me now. This experience has given me the confidence to feel comfortable to pivot career paths often. Every year I grow as a person, which only makes sense that my career grows with me.
When did you get involved with Prismatic? What sparked your interest?
Ever since I was an early childhood educator, I saw the importance of student-centered, project-based learning. The kiddos I worked with had the opportunity to learn from authentic, personally crafted projects. They became curious about food so we co-created an entire unit about life cycles, gardening and cooking. Through this entire process the kids learned about the world they live in. More specifically the different seasons, insects, their community and themselves. They became more interested in learning, not to mention grew resilient to failure and more confident in their ideas and skills. These moments with students exposed me to the power of experiences and project-based learning. I wanted to continue this work from an advocacy position, and officially became involved with Prismatic in January when Debra brought me on as co-Executive Director. Debra and I align in mission and values, which make our partnership natural and fun. It’s a great working together, especially since we both are passionate about education, ideas and entrepreneurship.
It seems like education is a common theme in your work. How do you feel creativity and education are connected? In what ways do you hope to bridge this gap (if there is one)?
I truly believe that creativity is essential for students, teachers, administrators, parents and community members. Creativity is for everyone and is an integral part of learning and growing. I believe that one of the the obstacles to thinking you're a creative person is this misconception that you're inherently born with these qualities. But creativity can be learned, practiced and grown. Education should allow opportunities for students to try new things, become more resilient to failure and be creative. School had the ability to be an environment that encourages and empowers all students to act on their ideas, be vulnerable and take risks, no matter their background or experiences. We can bridge this gap by having ongoing conversations with parents, teachers, students and concerned citizens about how we can foster a more inclusive and safe space at school. Classrooms have the opportunity to act from a place of curiosity, empathy and trust. Together we should really think about what our priorities are in the long run for our students and our communities.
What have you learned about self-acceptance in your developing career?
I've learned that there are times to say “no”, that leaving doesn't mean you're a failure, and that it's imperative to schedule time for self-care. These lessons all stemmed from being able to accept and advocate for myself. Earlier in my career, there were multiple times when I wasn't getting paid on time, doing free work and working overtime every day. I honestly didn't have the self-awareness and respect to take care of myself at that time. I defined success by not having balance between work and play, putting others before myself and working long hours. I had to prove it to myself and everyone else that I could be successful. Eventually, I found myself completely burnt out, broke and depressed. Even though struggled during this time, I wouldn't change that experience. It taught me about resilience, vulnerability, self-compassion and acceptance. It’s what's made me who I am today.
What are some things you’re still hoping to learn?
I’m still hoping to learn what it means to be a wholehearted, holistic leader, who is able to comfortably blend the personal and public. I am continuing to learn how to show up authentically, in everything that I do, even if there’s a chance I’ll mess up or look silly. Being vulnerable and allowing myself the opportunity to connect with others and my work is something I’m still working on, and will always be.
Currently, Gabrielle Valdes is working towards her M.Ed at Arizona State University to gain a deeper understanding on Curriculum and Instruction in the classroom. She will be speaking at our Acceptance Tour in Austin on Monday, April 24th.
For more information on Gabrielle, visit her links below:
Facebook: Gabrielle Valdes