where women celebrate their ageless authenticity

Teachable Moments With Educator Dolores Sheen

Founder of the Sheenway School and Culture Center in South Los Angeles

In 1998, I introduced myself to Dolores Sheen at an event I hosted through my public relations agency.  I had to know what this extraordinary mentor was all about as she led her flock of students with dignity and grace through a chorus of chaos on a field trip with LA Unified Schools. I have since come to love this incredible woman who, by example, empowers underserved youths to overcome the inequities they face by believing in themselves. I am blessed to call her my dearest friend, and anyone she meets in her extended “family” feels just the same way about 84-years young “Aunt Dolores.”

Of her many accolades: Founded Sheenway School and Culture Center in South Los Angeles in 1968; Presidential Award recognition with two White House Administrations; “Think Tank” member with legendary Brazilian philosopher/educator Paulo Freire; United Nations Human Rights Orator Award winner; established sister school in her ancestral village in Ghana, West Africa in 1994. *Of note, all educational operations are non-profit and supported through private donations and volunteers.

What brings you joy today, where you’re at?

Being me brings me joy; being alive and able to be a part of something that is tangibly good – service with the underserved… brings me joy.  A proactive team member of life’s extended villages where I’m free…able to give…grateful to receive…

Mature African American woman in red sweaterI don’t feel like a bump on the log or an afterthought…I am gifted to be able to explore every part of living. And it’s really fulfilling in spite of the painful emptiness I sometime feel because many that I love have departed. So, from time to time I almost feel kind of lonely to a certain extent, aware that the today’s youth are busy seeking what I have already found – experiencing challenges that I have already conquered – looking for Hope in the wrong places and faces.  So, I keep busy in life’s villages, inspired from the drive to serve – bracing my shoulders, at any cost, to bear the weight of the next generation. I take my stewardship most seriously.

Your method of teaching in the inner city has been recognized by two White House Administrations. What makes your approach so unique?

Perhaps, because I honor each student by giving them dignity in learning.  I respect how they need to learn. I get inside a child –  I reach to teach.  It’s about creating a learning experience to create learning experiences…a way of life!  Depending on their prevailing culture, I track the multi-intelligences with expectations on the lowest level, the average level, and the advanced level as I groom him/her for critical thinking. It’s kind of funny, but I must have recognized my calling when I was eight years old and set up a psychiatric booth in our garage. At first, it was just my friends coming by and I felt like I was a performer of sorts… then teens and even some parents started asking me questions about conflicts and resolutions. They always wanted to know the answer to the eternal question, “why?” It was rather weird, but I guess that is when I began wondering about my destiny…asking myself, “Why am I here?”  And, so, I began my journey…

I’m always a bit out of the box, but to me a teacher is a leader that has prolific curiosity and is not afraid of taking the road least traveled.  A teacher should not be totally locked in a syllabus or some kind of lesson plan of what to teach. Instead, a teacher should be an educator groping how to teach and when to teach.  Sometimes, the child is the teacher.  An educator is more of an architect, spontaneously creating original designs for curiosity, exploration, cognition, absorption, practicality, and preparation for each experience. I create a method, a hierarchy of learning that fits an individual. And it may not be with a textbook or even in the classroom. It may be in a kitchen, a garden, a museum, or in the streets my students navigate each day. Of course, academics are the priority, but how you teach them and how they infuse the quality of life and living is the legacy from an educator. More than acing a test or getting good grades, a love of learning is something that takes one to the next level.

Who has had the most influence on your life?

My father, who was a musician, composer, author, doctor, inventor, farmer, and so many things in service to the underserved. Papa was my first and most prolific teacher and mentor.  If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be me. His name was Herbert, and I was known by everyone in my extended family, as Herb’s girl.

Dolores Sheen African dress

Is there something that most people don’t know about you that would surprise them?

As a child, I stuttered horribly, and was made fun of a lot. It was so debilitating, I couldn’t even answer the phone because words would not materialize.  I remember coming home from school with something exciting to tell my mother, and I just couldn’t get it out. She would send me to my room until I could share it without stuttering, and it just broke my heart. I had a lot to say, and I wanted to be heard.  My parents took me to all sorts of doctors and they found nothing physically wrong, but I still couldn’t talk!  Music became my expression and I learned to talk through instruments and shared emotions through lyrics of song. I used to sing in the church choir and play the organ for services, which made me happy all over.  One day, it hit me. I didn’t stutter when I sang. So, after that, when I answered the phone,  I would sing a beautiful extended “h-e-l-l-o” to start the conversation, and somehow it allowed me to own my voice. I just had to realize it for myself. Subsequently, I performed on stage and participated in school debates.  I guess being determined to speak and to be heard, opened the door to face and overcome other challenges.   I was laughed at and dismissed as a child,  but invited to address the United Nations Roundtable on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland in 2001. Can you just imagine?

Is there a particular experience that changed or shifted you in your life’s journey, and would you choose it again if you could?

Becoming a mother was the ultimate experience in my Life Journey. I wish I could have had more children, but my health only allowed me three.

I loved maternity to the highest…being pregnant…taking care of and guiding my children through the different periods of development…the joys and the heartbreaks but then, so much more joy!  It was more than magical…it was ethereal!   I enjoyed finding creative ways to teach them and to enrich them.  They brought out all the love that created me.

And I guess having children prepared me for Sheenway even though at the time I had no idea I would ever become an educator. The ‘mother hen’ in me manifested even more with Sheenway –  I formally adopted two children, three at risk students who sort of adopted me and stayed for a few years, and thousands of nieces and nephews who have impacted my life with loving memories and happiness.  I guess you could say I got my wish to have more children!

Ghana School HouseYou were gifted land in your ancestral village in Ghana, West Africa, where you have established a Sheenway Sister School that now serves 200 children who never had access to education. I see you as the embodiment of the African proverb “Ubuntu” that speaks to humanity as “I am because we are.” What does Ubuntu mean to you?

It reminds me to see each life just as valuable as the other. Then I can ask myself who do I need to be? What do I need to do? What do I need to feel in order to be part of we? I’m that piece of a puzzle that makes we. And if we have a problem, then maybe my puzzle piece needs to step up, or step in. It’s about being one and being many. I don’t know how to fully explain it, but I do know how it feels to be the only one. And I also know how it feels to be many!

Dolores Sheen afro

Is there something that meant a lot to you before, but now no longer does? 

Oh, for sure – my hair. used to be my crowning glory!  HA!!! I had the biggest afro, it was wild. It kind of entitled me to feel as if I could do anything, it truly made me, ME,  in the 60s and 70s. And, like the Greek God Samson, my hair was my strength and my shield – I could even hide behind it. I was a huge, infallible presence felt by those around me.  Nowadays I keep my hair short for convenience, and I’m fine with it – I think my immortal essence still shines through!

With the fall season almost upon us, what was your favorite part of this summer season?

Ha! The fact that I was able to take swimming lessons with my students. I had a fear of deep water as a child…almost drowned. So, I thought, well, you know, they’re learning something new. They’re afraid to put their faces in the water. I’ll just go back to being a child, start from the beginning, and grow with them. That way I can understand more of what they’re going through, and we can be proud of each other.

Is there something you’re not afraid to admit that you’re horrible at?

Computer technology. Horrible. Horrible. And I don’t like it, so therefore I don’t pursue it. To me it’s a challenge to human intelligence because people are too dependent on tech as a crutch, to the point where they’re not using it as a tool, they’re using it for identity. And I rebel against that.

What is your superpower?

For me, it’s about realizing, and owning my power, or essence, on the inside, mastering the art of being a student. It takes power to survive, to contribute. It takes power to learn from and with your mistakes.  It takes power to love unconditionally.  It takes  power to be ‘we’ and not just ‘me’ – divinity!

We were born with superpower.  We were born to be heroes and sheroes. The world would be more benefitting if we remembered what it was like to be a child…unfiltered…before ineffective nurturing might blight early childhood.  When I look at a child, I look for me…like one would look in a mirror.   Sometimes I feel students are seeing themselves when they look at me…that kind of trust inspires me to be worthy so each day I strive for Sheenway to be a Magnus Opus for teaching and learning.  The other day one of my students really brought it home to me when he unwittingly revealed one of his superpowers (the Art of bringing Joy).  We were trying to develop a character for this play that we are writing. I used me as an example, asking how he would best describe my character?  He started by describing my gray hair and physical features. Then he went further and just sort of lit up telling me, “You’re special. Everything you do is special.”  It caught me off guard, for a child to equate and respond like that.  I was floored by this great compliment from a nine-year-old boy.  He made me feel special – lifted me higher – relishing another day of loving and the joy of being me in my own skin!

Sheenway School and Culture Center is this season’s Intentfully FiT partner organization. If you would like to show your support of this non-profit you can donate at sheenwayschools.org.

Dolores Sheen holds quote by MLK

  Aunt Dolores’ personal message to our Intentful community.