Elizabeth: Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.
Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.
Elizabeth: Today, we are delighted to have as our guest Sebawit Yirsaw who is a good friend of mine. She is an early childhood expert, an educator, a facilitator, a translator, a fashion consultant. She is a parent and a lifelong learner, an immigrant from Ethiopia, a bridger of cultures and more.
Welcome, Sebawit, to Creativists in Dialogue.
Elizabeth: So nice to see you again.
Sebawit: So nice to see you too, Ms. Elizabeth and Mr. Michael.
Elizabeth: So, this interview will cover the role that creativity plays and has played in the many different aspects of your life.
Michael: We like to start our interviews with a couple of [00:01:00] questions. And the first one is this: In what aspect of your life do you see creativity as having the greatest impact? In other words, like, which dimensions of your life come most readily to mind in terms of creative activity or creativity itself?
Sebawit: This is a very big question for me and first of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me to your podcast, and I’m really very delighted and very happy to be here with you both. As you know, I wear a lot of hats.
Michael: Yes, we are aware.
Sebawit: So, my creativity, just something that comes to my mind really is the creativity that I use with my kids. So, my parenting hat comes first. Yeah. With my kids, I’m very creative. I have two girls, beautiful girls that I’m in this field for, in the early childhood field for a reason. And yeah, I use a lot of creativity to keep them busy and engaged.
Michael: Sure. And we [00:02:00] will definitely ask you about your work with children and your work as a parent. Absolutely.
Elizabeth: Something else we deal with is how different people understand creativity itself. So Sebawit, how do you personally view creativity or the creative act? More as something that advances a field of expertise or something that is really useful for problem solving?
Sebawit: I would say more for useful for problem solving. Creativity is so important when it comes to come up with solutions instantly, immediately. Such as, for example, I, I work from home, so I have to do a lot of work and I have my kids on the side that they are off school, or they are just at home because they don’t have certain activities. So, I have to improvise and create some activities for them so I can keep them busy as I am doing something and as I’m busy as well. So, if you have a problem, you become [00:03:00] creative to solve that problem.
Michael: So, let’s explore your life as an educator and your use of creativity in that particular field. And this is particularly in early childhood education. Now, years back, you were a teacher—and I myself have been a teacher as well of high school students—but subsequent to that, you’ve become a trainer and a coach for early childhood educators through the, what, the CDA program, the Child Development Associate. How have you used creativity in those types of educational settings with both young children and then later I’ll ask you about how you’ve worked with adults.
Sebawit: So, when I was in the classroom teaching bunch of toddlers, I had really the most beautiful year of my life in the field. I have girls and most of my students were boys, so they used to talk—an example, so an example, like they used to talk about dinosaurs, and I didn’t have any idea what are dinosaurs. I’ve seen the [00:04:00] pictures, but I didn’t have any idea about the dinosaurs. What types are they, where do they come from, when they used to exist, et cetera.
So, what I did is I had to read and just research by my own and understand many things about dinosaurs. So, because it was presented to me by the students and I have to follow the students’ lead, I had to research and just, just know about dinosaurs. So, I just create the classroom environment into a jungle of dinosaurs.
Elizabeth: Prehistoric jungle.
Sebawit: Because I have girls, the girls are more about dolls. They play in the dramatic play area or dishes. They are more soft players, but the boys are more, more dinosaurs, cars, trucks, et cetera. So, I didn’t have any idea about dinosaurs or trucks. So, I had to learn so much by my own [00:05:00] researching and then become very creative in engaging those students. And teaching them more about dinosaurs, cars, et cetera. So, it just pushes something in me. So I can just learn first, so I can teach.
Michael: That whole notion of engagement, I’ve, some of the literature I’ve read on creativity, it is rooted in the ability to encounter or engage another person. So, if your young boys are all into dinosaurs, I guess you’d have to know enough about dinosaurs to feel comfortable engaging them, yes. And what about with adults? How did your approach to—I’m certain that adults were probably not as into dinosaurs—but, but how—
Sebawit: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. This, yeah, you’re right. With adults is a different thing. Yeah. With the CDA classes, for example, the CDA class was presented to me because there was a problem. So, when there is a problem, you create some solution for that [00:06:00] problem. So, within resolving the problem, you become creative.
There was—the CDA was given in Spanish and English for many years. So, all of a sudden there were so many requests of the Amharic speaking population to learn the CDA in Amharic because many of them take it in English and fail it for two, three, four times. So, there was a need to give this class in Amharic. The CDA Institute Director at CentroNía just came up with the idea of creating the class in Amharic, but then he didn’t have anyone who speaks and understands Amharic. He reached out to me because I was one of his students, and we came up together with a solution of creating this class.
So, I had been given many materials in English, but I didn’t have anything in a Amharic, so I had to do the translation and adjust the PowerPoints, many materials into Amharic. I had [00:07:00] so many Spanish and English, so I had to create the whole bunch of materials for the class and adjust it to the, that community based on, the understanding, the level of the students. So even though they are adults, they come from different backgrounds, even though they are from the same culture, they have different, understandings and backgrounds. So, I had to adjust it to each one of the adult students so they can understand better the content of the class.
Elizabeth: Speaking of Amharic, which is a beautiful but complex language and it’s a much bigger bear to attempt to learn Amharic than it would be to learn Spanish, for example. But my understanding of the language is that even at the graphic level, you have to redesign the visual presentation of language, ‘cause you can’t chop it up into syllables the same way that you can chop up English or Spanish. So, there’s—
Sebawit: That’s right. [00:08:00]
Elizabeth: —not just the translation of the materials, but you have to redesign the page or the PowerPoint.
Sebawit: Yes, yes.
Elizabeth: So that you don’t change the meaning of the sentence by, moving it to two lines from one line or something like that.
Sebawit: Yeah, because the English language is the way you speak it, you read it. The way you read it, you write it. But the Amharic language is not like English. So sometimes when I have to—not sometimes—all the time when I have to translate the English document into Amharic, I have to see, does that make sense contextually? Because sometimes some sentence doesn’t make sense, so I have to adjust it. Maybe I need to add some words or I need to take off some words in order to make it make sense contextually. It was challenging, but I was determined, and it was, it was an opportunity for me to test myself and how further can I go with my creativity to engage [00:09:00] adult students in this class? Yeah. And ensure that they get the content of the book, the content of the class.
Michael: And did you find yourself revising the lesson plans continually as you—
Sebawit: Oh yes. I had to do the whole—I’m, just, when I say I didn’t have anything in Amharic. I had to create the whole class material from the scratch. I have, I was given only the English materials, like the English PowerPoint. The book was in English. I had to just do the whole bunch of work in translating the materials and also making sure that the, that makes sense as well. That makes, that has contextual meaning, and it makes sense to the people and make it culturally, as well, sensitive to—does it make sense culturally? Does it make sense with the language? Does it make sense contextually? I had to see from all aspects of the, the [00:10:00] population, the language, the culture, the religion as well. I had to be very sensitive and careful.
Michael: And I’ve heard that—I have some friends that are Ethiopian—there’s a lot of different languages in Ethiopia.
Michael: Were your classes made up of a multicultural collection of Amharic speakers? So, it was a, was it a diverse group? And so, you had to deal with that diversity as well?
Sebawit: Yeah. Amharic is the national language in Ethiopia, and Amharic and English are the national language. And also, as you say, there are many ethnicities within the Ethiopian community and there are many languages, dialects within the population. Yes, the students from all the ethnic groups in, from Ethiopia. But they, most, all of them speak Amharic, understands well Amharic, and they take the class in Amharic. And when I was teaching, I made sure that they understand. I used to have a whole group, a small group, and also [00:11:00] I gave them time individually outside the classroom as well. So, it was not only in class, but also outside the class I was just being engaged with them.
Elizabeth: And my sense is that it was also an intergenerational group. You had primarily women, but not exclusively women, but women who were older and women who were middle aged, and women who were very young.
Sebawit: That’s true. I had from, my age group, younger than my age, and also way older than my age. In my mom’s level. So, they were diverse in the age group as well. The first cohort was more with older group, the second cohort was mix of young and aged.
Elizabeth: And culturally that intergenerational piece also is very important in terms of being respectful and culturally sensitive to where people have come from and where, where their immigration experience is and what their, what their grasp of English is, et cetera.
Sebawit: Yeah, especially now [00:12:00] this is a good point, Ms. Elizabeth, because now because the situation in Ethiopia is very sensitive, it’s very difficult because we are going through ethnic wars and ethnic differences. So I, I never touched the politics, but I just was focusing on the class, so I was very sensitive in terms of those sensitive topics. I was very sensitive.
But I had a good relationship with all of them. And I still keep group chats with them. So not only because there was a class. But even after class, I keep them together. I still reach out to them. When I find something interesting, I share it with a group. We have bible groups with each cohort. And also, not only people who took my class, but people who have heard about the class and wanted to learn more about child development and education. They want also to understand how they can help their [00:13:00] children because many people didn’t have this opportunity to ask someone who is knowledgeable and is in the ECE field. So, I believe that I am a great resource in my community, and I have a lot of phone calls outside the people who took the class with me.
Michael: This is a great segue into the question about your own life as a lifelong learner, as a student who’s—
Michael: —who’s gone back to school to earn various certificates, and obviously you’ve been, you’re a lifelong learner. So could you talk a little bit about what that’s been like, and the sort of the creativity involved in not only juggling lots of different roles and hats while you’re learning, which can be challenging, but also just picking up the learning ball once again to learn a new field.
Sebawit: Yeah. Learning never ends. I believe that learning never ends. And I learn every day from adults, from children, from everyone around me, even people who passes by me, because learning never ends. [00:14:00]
Yeah, I just get into the education field—I have said this in many interviews— because of my children. Before I become a mom, I used to work in the fashion industry, and I used to live in Europe. So, I worked for Yves Saint Laurent, Armani, I’ve been, like, I started as a salesperson and I had arrived to be a manager in some places, but that’s not that important right now because I’m so much into the education field and I love it.
I get into the education field because of my children. I kept my children for almost, my oldest one for almost two years with me, and my second one was 10 months when she joined a daycare. And I was very curious how would their day would be outside the house, outside without me. So, I start just volunteering in the classroom of my children, my own children’s daycare. And there the director who used to be there at that time, [00:15:00] I remember her name is Ms. Linda, she asked me, “Why don’t you work? You are good with the children. Why don’t you apply?” So, she brought me an application. I applied, I become a substitute teacher. They hired me as a substitute teacher. But I was involved with the parent teacher association as well. So, I used to serve as a parent president for the parent association at the first daycare that my children used to attend.
Then, because I was there with the teachers, I used to take, like, certain trainings, those trainings that are allowed by OSSE. I, as I was learning, taking these trainings, I love it. So again, I start taking my CDA. The director there pushed me, “why don’t you take the CDA?” So, I was looking around, I found CentroNía that was giving free CDA and they had childcare as well. So. I joined CentroNía CDA program and my youngest daughter was too [00:16:00] young to be in the childcare. But the center director at that time, who was Ms. Rosa Moraes, gave me the opportunity because she saw that my daughter was very independent, so she said, okay, even though she’s young—because my oldest was already in the age group, they have the childcare from two to 12 years—so she said, okay, your youngest can be with, in the childcare as well. So that gave me a, that opened me a door to become a certified teacher, which helped with me to get my CDA.
Then after I earned my CDA, I, in that time I become from substitute teacher, assistant teacher, then I become lead teacher after I earned my CDA. But I was part-time because right after I earned my CDA I went to college and joined UDC for my associate’s degree. Once I earned my associate’s degree, I moved to become a director because I’d been in all the hats, like substitute, [00:17:00] volunteer, substitute teacher, assistant teacher, lead teacher. Now it’s my time to apply whatever I have learned in school. And I become a director. So just from director, then I become coordinator.
I stayed outside CentroNía for a couple of years, and then in 2000– end of 2017, the CDA Institute invited me back to teach the CDA in Amharic. So, I get back to them end of 2017, beginning of 2018. So since then, I’ve been teaching CDA and also I become a coach. I be– I got a lot of certificates. I learned about the different assessment tools of the classrooms. Now I am certified to assess programs as well. It was a lifelong learning, as you say, like I’ve done a lot of things.
Michael: This is like in the last 11 years or something.
Sebawit: Yeah, 12 years.
Michael: 12 years.
Sebawit: Yes. 12 years plus.
Elizabeth: Speaking of the last 11, 12, 13 years, you are also a mom. You have two beautiful very early—
Sebawit: Yeah, I’m [00:18:00] so proud.
Elizabeth: —early young teenagers.
Elizabeth: Buckle up, Mom. Can you talk a little bit, we were talking a little bit about the role creativity plays with children, but let’s talk a little bit about the role of creativity raising children, your own children and just how—for example, if you were to write a chapter on or two on creative parenting, what would some of the topics be in that chapter?
Sebawit: Definitely understanding child development would be the first one. Because if I know the development of children, then I can do much more or I can go to the next level. So, if I know where is my child, then I know where to take my child from there. The first chapter will be understanding child development. And then also would be how to help my child, like from being in where he is or she is now to the next level. That, that would be the first chapter.
Elizabeth: In your [00:19:00] family, are there particularly playful things that you all do together as a family? Are there—if people get silly how does, what does that look like?
Sebawit: There is a lot of fun. There is a lot of fun. We, I play with my kids as if I’m a kid, but they don’t want me to play outside the house. Because they feel so embarrassed. They don’t want me to play outside. But inside the house, we do a lot of sport. We do, we play with different balls like the soccer ball. We go to the playground. We play a lot of games. And also, we have a lot of board games. Like we play Carta, we play Uno, we play, how do you call them? Those little, oh my gosh, those little—
Elizabeth: Oh jacks, dice, dominoes—
Sebawit: Yes, dominoes, Legos. We play a lot of things. Yeah. We play a lot of things. And also we play jumping jacks like, okay, we punish each other with silly things [00:20:00] like drinking a lot of water, it can be, or just, yeah, there is a lot of silliness.
Michael: Yeah, I can see that.
Michael: And then, I you mentioned yeah, understanding child development and then doing what you can to assist a child moving from one stage of development to another stage–these sort of hurdles that each of us goes, go through, right? As we develop as people. And that sort of makes me think of communicating and as a teacher and as a parent you’re constantly engaged in how do I really communicate effectively with another person, and with a child? And frequently creativity comes into play when you’re trying to communicate like what analogy should I use, like when you were talking about the young boys, you were, “I gotta learn about dinosaurs if I’m gonna communicate with them. ‘Cause if I don’t know anything about dinosaurs, then I can’t.” So as a parent, can you think of times when you’ve used creative communication to make a larger point with one of your children about what they’re going through?
Sebawit: As I said, [00:21:00] understanding child development is the first thing that I have done in order to have that understanding of my own children. And also have that good communication with my children. Because there is one theorist, developmental theorist that I truly like and studied a lot. His name is Erik Erickson, he’s from Germany.
Sebawit: He’s a German psychosocial—
Elizabeth: Childhood and Society or something like that.
Sebawit: Yeah, he is, he’s one of the developmental theorists. So, I like his theories because he put the different stages of development from birth to the end of our life. And also, I have seen his theory in own, my life, in my own life. Right now, my children are at the fifth stage, which is identity versus role confusion. Identity versus role confusion. They are just asking who they are. Right now. They are thinking of who am I? So, I just wanted them to understand who they are. They are born in America, but their [00:22:00] parents, both parents are from Ethiopia, and they are American Ethiopians, and they should respect both cultures and should speak both languages and also do not be confused about their identity.
Michael: So, you’re helping them navigate being bicultural having bicultural identities.
Sebawit: Exactly, yeah.
Michael: You’re helping them understand the relationship between those two.
Sebawit: They goes to church with me. They also have fun. I’m not so strict about, certain things, like, I want them to make their own choices, but I make sure that I explain them the choices as well. So, they make their own decisions, but understanding that their choice means or leads to where.
Elizabeth: The natural consequences.
Sebawit: Yeah, so there are no—exactly—so there are no secrets between us. We talk a lot about everything that’s happening [00:23:00] at school, at home. I talk to them about what happened at work at the end of the day, just when I meet them, we start like, “How was your day, mommy?” “How was your day, Afi[MM1] ?” Or, “How was your day, Faith?” So we talk about so-and-so did this, so-and-so—now they are almost teens they say, “oh, I like this one. I like that one. This boy is doing this to me and I don’t like him.” I don’t want them to stop talking to me about what happened to them. So, I keep my doors open all the time. My ears open to listen to them even though I don’t like it, or I think like it’s not appropriate at this stage.
Michael: Oh, you don’t let them see that you’re like, going this is not appropriate.
Sebawit: Yes. As a parent, you don’t feel comfortable that, that they are like, they are girls, and I don’t want anybody takes advantage of their beauty.
Sebawit: Their body, their—I don’t want anybody to play with their goodness as well. Like, their good humanity. So I just, my, [00:24:00] my role as a parent and as a teacher, as the first teacher of my children is explaining the world, explaining what’s happening and explaining the choices and the consequences of their choices. But I’m not forcing them to do anything.
Understanding, going back to your question, understanding child development is so important. I emphasize this within my community because we need to understand first where they are, where our children are, so we can help them based on where they are.
Michael: Where they are psychologically.
Sebawit: Yes. And physically and mentally. And we have to consider also who is around them. They are not living only with us. They are going out there in the school. So, they are exposed to different cultures, different religions, different, way of thinking and living as well. And so, I just, I’m open for everything and I believe, like, they’re, they’re [00:25:00] happy about my communication, my relationship with them as well. I have this role since they were young, since they were like toddlers. As long as they remember, I have always told them, “There is no secrets between us. Any issue comes to you, bring it to the table. Let’s talk about it and let’s come up with a solution.” So, if I don’t have any solution, then you gonna just create, you gonna come up with a solution for yourself, because I am not coming to you to school, or I’m not coming out there with you all the time. I’m staying at home. So I, what I can do is I can give you the tools, I can give you advices, but it’s up to you to apply it. So it, and their personality is different, their temperament is different, but thank God I know what’s personality, what’s temperament, and I understand them where they are, too.
Elizabeth: Speaking of family and traversing and navigating both the [00:26:00] breadth of human experience, let’s talk a little bit more about your own immigrant experience. If I understand it correctly, you, while you were originally from Ethiopia, you also lived in Italy before coming to the US. And so, I’m curious as to how, what your experiences were in the, of the culture of Italy different from the culture of Ethiopia, and then how is the culture of both Italy and Ethiopia different from your experiences in the USA?
Sebawit: That’s a good question, that’s a good question because when I went to Italy, I was very young. I was a very, I was a teenager. The difference between Ethiopia and Italy was, I have never seen a larger Caucasian community—
Sebawit: —in my life, because I was raised, born and raised in a city, but I never seen—everything around me [00:27:00] was completely, I was the only dark-skinned person in that community that I lived, so, for more than a year. So, in that sense it was very different and the way that the language was different. The food was completely different. So, I had to learn the language so fast because there was no one around me who speaks English or my Amharic language, my language. The food was different. It was okay because there was still a lot of spice.
Michael: Did you have to learn how to use a, could you in Ethiopia you were using—
Sebawit: Oh, we use forks. Yeah. We use hands, but still we use forks and spoons as well. The other thing that now, because you asking me, have you ever used a spoon? Many Italians thought that there was nothing in Ethiopia. They asking me even, “Are there bananas in Ethiopia?” [00:28:00] I was asking, are you banana? How the heck are you thinking, like, how the heck are you thinking, like, fruits are from Africa. Because, so, they were asking me, “How is—.” The most silly question was like, “Have you ever used, have you ever used spoons and forks and chopsticks?” Like they use everything there. And, “Have you ever eat pasta?” Pasta? I have been eating pasta for most of my life. It was not something new. Of course, the taste of pasta is different.
Sebawit: And, I was not, like, it was not that difficult to adapt myself to that environment in that situation. The most difficult thing was the language for me at the beginning. And also the way of living because they, everything was so fast. People walk fast, everything, like, they, they do everything so fast. So, it was—the most difficult thing was the language. For the rest, [00:29:00] because I was young, I feel—and just looking backwards—I think I adopted the whole situation, the whole lifestyle very quick. And after a few years that I was there people didn’t know that I was from another country. They thought that because I didn’t have even accent when, speaking Italian. They thought like my mother from Italy and my father, because my last name, they thought my father was from a different country. But my mom, they thought that I was from Italy because I truly learned the language so fast. And it was really awesome.
Elizabeth: So, you are, you are also bilingual in Spanish. So do, was it your experience at having learned Italian, made learning Spanish—
Sebawit: Yeah. Because of the Italian language, I learned Spanish very, yeah.
Michael: Four languages now.
Sebawit: Yeah. My, I need to improve my Spanish. I’m, I can communicate. I understand. I fully understand everything that they say. But I need to work a little, to be at the [00:30:00] level of the Italian language.
Elizabeth: What about coming to the USA? First of all, did you come to DC?
Sebawit: Yes, I came to DC. So coming from Italy to America was traumatic, honestly. It was, it’s a whole bunch of story behind it, but the most shocking experience was getting to a giant supermarket and see all this shiny fruits, giant gigantic fruits and vegetables, like shiny in the shelves.
Elizabeth: Polished with wax, basically.
Sebawit: Yea, so I went with my friend with whom I just stayed for a few weeks and I was just punching them with my—
Elizabeth: “Are they real? Are they plastic, what?”
Sebawit: Checking are they real? She was saying, “Stop it, that’s real! Don’t do that.” Because in Italy everything is not shiny. It’s like you find the fruits and with the leaves, [00:31:00] the roots are with the soil, with the dirt. So it was complete– and the milk is in gallons, everything, but in back in Italy it’s with liters, so small packages. So that was most shocking.
And then honestly the way that they dress up as well. There’s a dress code back in Italy, because in the morning you dress up certain way. If you go to work, you have to dress up, office wear, and weekends you can be, like sporty chic, whatever. But in here, even in weekdays, I see people with a lot of makeups, shiny things. And I was confused, is this, are they at a daytime club? It was, yeah. Is there a club? Something like, yeah. That was something that I just noticed.
But as life, lifestyle, like, as life experience, I think I’m easily adaptable person. So it was not that difficult [00:32:00] for me to insert myself in the society, understand the values here as well, and just adapt myself into the community. So it was, that was not that difficult. I think I have that kind of personality. I can just adapt easily with certain situations, in certain places.
Michael: Some people when they talk about creativity, they talk about the creativity is fed by multiple perspectives. And clearly some of the things you’ve been talking about is, in terms of the different cultural experiences that you’ve had, is you’re seeing life or situations from many different perspectives.
Michael: Can you maybe just talk a little bit about how these, this notion of multiple perspectives has fed your creativity in, maybe in child development, as a parent or is a teacher, as a fashion designer—we’ll get to that later, but….
Sebawit: Yeah, I don’t know. Somehow when I am in the creating, let’s [00:33:00] say, lesson plans or creating any documents or planning any courses or any trainings, it’s something that flows or comes out of my mind. I need to focus only, and I need to read. Other than that, like things come to my mind and everything just clicks together. And it’s not that difficult for me. It just, when I create, for example, certain trainings, I have to give certain trainings in PDIS or just for the teachers, the CDA, and also in my Sunday school, and some Ethiopian churches are invited in the Sunday schools to give trainings to the parents and also to the Sunday school teachers. I teach—
Michael: These are trainings in child development?
Sebawit: Understanding children’s development. Also supporting parents understand child development and child education. And also just share my own experiences as well as, like, study and research [00:34:00] based on my readings, I share that with parents in my church, you know? So they can use it inside the church or also outside the church, like with the schools of their own children. Helping parents understand child education, child development, and communicate with their own children. So I share my own experience as well.
Yeah, just, I sit, I need to focus, I need some quiet time with me. That’s mostly after my kids go to sleep because daytime, I work. I drop them and pick them up myself. After I pick them up, we have to play a little bit, snack, and then they have to do homework and I have to be between the two the two girls so they do their homework ‘cause I help them. And it’s dinner time, before dinner we play a little game, there’s a lot of silliness now. There’s TikTok, they want to dance. TikTok dances.
Michael: Are you on TikTok?
Sebawit: They put [00:35:00] me in TikToks too. Yeah. But I don’t allow them to post it because I don’t want to be seen dancing and they don’t want, honestly, they become very shy.
Sebawit: But, we dance. Then they get, they have to eat dinner. After dinner, I read them, or they read, we share some discussions about what they read. It can be Bible, it can be a book, it can be anything that they raise as an issue. We discuss, we have a little discussion time, then they go to sleep. That’s, after that is my time, my quiet time. I just sit and jot down my ideas and just come up with the whole presentation for one day. The good thing is I’ve been in various trainings and I have read a lot about these tools and books that I need to use in my daily work, my daily job. It doesn’t take me much to put my ideas together.
Michael: You must be an extremely valuable resource to your [00:36:00] church community helping them understand whatever struggles their children are dealing with in the schools.
Sebawit: Yeah. I hear a lot about very difficult situations and I give them directions and I try to be as full, as useful as I can. And also sometimes they need me to be present with them. For example, if they have IEP meetings or IFSP meetings or there is 504 meetings or there is any issue with their, the teacher of their child, they want me to be present and listen and stand for them, speak up for them. I can’t do everything because I work with various organizations and there are always conflict of interests, but what I can do and what I’ve been doing is help them, support them, give them words, encourage them to stand for, yeah.
Elizabeth: Right, right, help them navigate all these systems.
Michael: Just understanding all those different IPEs or whatever.
Sebawit: Exactly. That’s a individual education plan and a IFSP is for [00:37:00] individual family service plan.
Elizabeth: Right, for learners who have—
Sebawit: That’s for, younger children from zero three and three to four. And sometimes our culture is very sensitive in acknowledging problems within our children. It’s very hard to accept when you refer, when your child is referred to services.
Michael: Oh, I know, right?
Sebawit: So that’s something that I’m working with the community as well. So many parents call me like, “What do you think?” “My child is going through this.” “My child is doing this.” “Do you think this is right?” This is—”I can’t tell you, I’m not a professional who can diagnose your child, but if you see these red flags, you need to let them have services.” Services are mostly free in DC. There’s a blessing to get a lot of resources. So why don’t use them? Because I use them too for my own children.
Elizabeth: So you’re really an ambassador to your community, your faith community, and the families in your faith community to [00:38:00] navigate the educational landscape, but also, children are different, children are differently abled, people are neurodivergent, there’s all manner of ways of being that are not… that, that make a child’s schooling experience.
Sebawit: Yeah. That’s why I say all the time, the first step to good parenting is understanding child development and education. And understanding the rules here in this country as well. What are my rights, what are my obligations? That’s why I get into understanding the policies. What is my obligation, what is my right in my child’s education?
Elizabeth: Right, right.
Sebawit: That’s why I get into this field, like deep into it. I understand reading the policies and to what extent I can go further to help and support my child.
Elizabeth: Sure, sure.
Sebawit: What are the things that I can do? That’s why I participate in parent associations, in different meetings of the school, and [00:39:00] I, most of the times I try to attend celebrations of learning in the schools. That’s so important as well because that’s one of the parent involvements in the child’s education. Yeah.
Elizabeth: Right, celebrations, yeah. That’s a good point. Speaking of rules and stuff I wanna just talk very briefly about your role and your experiences as a facilitator and an evaluator of CDA programs, which I’ll remind our listeners, CDA stands for Child Development Associate, which is the entry credential to teach in the early childhood education community.
So, can you just speak very briefly about how you use your creativity when you were evaluating or facilitating in a professional environment like that? It’s your job to give feedback to an organization or to an educational environment.
Sebawit: So again, here the first thing that I do is understanding. Understanding the people who are in, understanding the students, understanding how I [00:40:00] can adjust the lesson or the program into that group of people. So, the first thing is understanding. And to understand, what I do is ask or assess first. When, in terms of the CDA class, I assess the students first, where they are and how can I just take them to the next level.
And also as an assessor, when, as an assessor, I can’t do much because as a program assessor, I’m hired by another organization, so I have to go out and assess the programs based on the, the assessment tool that I’m given. But when it comes to the program that I’m managing, first I do assessment, initial assessment, see where they are, then go through the lesson, and then I have checkpoints where I check with them where they are. And at the end of the course as well, there’s an assessment. But I go beyond whatever I’m given to make sure that the students are just able to [00:41:00] teach children the way that the children need to be taught.
Elizabeth: We should switch gears and talk about something that is obviously not dear and—near and dear to my heart, based upon my status as the worst dressed person you will ever know.
Michael: ‘Cause I, I read in an interview, you worked in Italy for Gucci, I think?
Michael: As a, what, a designer, seamstress, and then in customer service. And how was—then you mentioned it earlier, I guess you were a teenager.
Sebawit: Yes, I was a teenager.
Michael: How did that, those early experiences or the experiences in those fields, how have they influenced your, or affected—influenced your perspective on creativity and maybe your current work today?
Sebawit: Yeah, that’s a good question because as a young person, you are into fashion, into dressing, into the whole bunch of being very attractive by putting certain clothings and jewelry. I [00:42:00] was interested in the, not being a fashion person, but understanding how the fashion world works.
So I just I was talking to this friend who used to go to school with me, and my neighbors were very young like me, so we were talking about, and just as a joke, we say, let’s try to apply to this. So I was in school and I was, I was not that, I didn’t have that much time to do, to work. But I tried. And the first time I applied, they took me, not my friend. They called me and I had an interview. And when they saw me, they said, okay, perfect. The first interview, I was hired as a salesperson. And it was for me in that age, it was a good amount of money. And I was interesting because they say [00:43:00] you will have clothings for the whole year, so those closings are, like, they give you from the clothes that they are selling. So, because you are selling inside the store, you’re going to dress up.
Elizabeth: You’ve got to look good, yeah.
Sebawit: So, the shoes, everything else is given. Who’s going to be saying no to that? So yeah, as like an educator, I grow little by little, as a fashion in the fashion industry as well, I grow from the salesperson to little by little to tailor room manager because sometimes, the, some sizes are too big or too small to some people. So there were tailors hired to adjust those sizes. And also work in the store like the storage room, the—
Michael: You mean the, like the back room?
Sebawit: The back room, yes, the back room. So, where the pieces that—there are like one or two pieces for each show comes to the store. So, whoever is lucky will get that. [00:44:00] And then little by little, I used to attend the fashion shows, et cetera, so I went from salesperson to, to, grow to—
Michael: So, you ended up really immersing yourself in that world for a while?
Sebawit: Yes. So I used to travel as well, so it was really very interesting. But it was so busy because you had to travel, you don’t have hours, especially when start working in showroom. You have customers like by time and customers who come from another country, and you have to have everything ready and you have to select things for them, et cetera. So, it was really very busy. But it was interesting because I loved it.
Michael: You must have learned a lot about the power of that first visual impression, right?
Sebawit: Yes, yeah.
Michael: Cause that’s really what, fashion, what you wear is the sort of first impression that you give a person.
Sebawit: Yes. Yes. The way you dress up, the first time that these people comes—these are very rich people, very well-known people, famous [00:45:00] people—the first time they come to see you, you should make an impression. So, the way you dress up, the way you put your hair and the, your make up, everything else makes sense for them and convinces them, okay, this is going to sell me. So, it was really interesting because it gave me, the skills to be creative in understanding the personality of the person and getting things together for that person. And I was never wrong. I just, rarely, they don’t get things that I get them together usually. I was top, I was one of the top people.
Elizabeth: So, you were really a costumer.
Sebawit: Yeah, and I remember even when they come, “Ah, you had some of the, you had a shirt or a blouse two years ago or three shows ago.” And I remember the quotes. I don’t know if I can remember those quotes now, but I remember like from three, four, five years.
Elizabeth: Oh wow.
Sebawit: I used to [00:46:00] remember the quotes and I used to look for them and it might not be in the store, but maybe in the outlets, et cetera. So they used to travel and get them. And I had to serve like president wives, I can’t mention now, the names, some president wives, some celebrities from America, Russia, all over the world. And I had good connections with my customers as well, because I speak fluent Italian and English.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Sebawit: So it was interesting. It was very creative. So it’s not only I work as a salesperson, but I used to dress the mannequins as well for the veterans. So that was very interesting. I used to work with people who were like trained and I was trained as well as a veteran. So there were people who come to show you how to put things together. And I used to work very closely with some of those people and when they couldn’t come, I used [00:47:00] to just put, yeah.
And that’s how I dressed up my kids as young children. Now they have their own tastes, they don’t allow me to do anything. But when they were younger, I used to do that. I’m still interested in, decorating my room, decorating their rooms drawing. I do a lot of just, it relaxes me to draw, write, and organize my house again and change the positions. I’m crazy. I, my kids say, “Mom, you always create some work for yourself. This is good. Leave it the way it is.” But I like change.
Michael: Oh, are you always like redesigning rooms?
Sebawit: Yeah, all the time. All the time. Okay. Everyone’s, there’s something.
Elizabeth: This a tiny little question, but I wanna ask you, we were speaking of fashion and it is my observation that Ethiopian traditional women’s clothing is so incredibly beautiful. And whenever there is a celebration of the students graduating from the [00:48:00] CDA, women come in these gorgeous, long flowing white robes and the scarves and the shawls. Just, I don’t know the significance of this clothing, and I wondered if you could just tell us a little bit about the, how these garments and the aesthetic beauty is really woven into this culture and the creativity behind it.
Sebawit: Yeah. You’re right. Traditional Ethiopian clothes are really beautiful and they are all handmade. The design that you see on top of them is made by hand. The whole clothes is made by hand as well. It’s weaving. And when you go to church, it’s usually dressed to, for the church and big celebrations like holidays or big celebrations such as the CDA graduation. Yeah, there is a story behind it. I believe because when you go to the church in olden days, fathers of the church wanted not machine made, [00:49:00] but handmade, virgin, close to the church. That is like when you go to church, you are bringing yourself to God. So you have to have everything natural, not, so that’s why it’s white and it’s handmade and has only crosses most of the times if you see those designs on top of that clothes.
Elizabeth: Speaking of church, you are also a deeply religious person. I believe—
Sebawit: I try.
Elizabeth: You try. I believe you and your family attends an Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic church, is that correct?
Sebawit: Yes, yes.
Elizabeth: Which, again, I am no expert, but I believe our listeners will know that is one of the oldest Christian faith traditions in the world.
Sebawit: Yes. Yeah.
Elizabeth: I read that Ethiopia was the first place in Africa to worship the God of the Old Testament.
Elizabeth: And that for thousands of years, Ethiopians had to struggle to preserve and protect your faith tradition. I’m, my sense is that this faith is the creator of Ethiopian arts and crafts and culture and literature, as well as [00:50:00] of the secular and theological educational institutions. And I’m wondering if you could speak just very briefly, it’s a huge topic, but just very briefly about how belonging to such an ancient faith tradition that is so connected to the mystical—when Michael and I were running a theater, we shared our theater space with an Ethiopian Coptic church that would worship on Sundays, and we would do theater on Friday night and Saturday.
Sebawit: Oh, okay.
Elizabeth: And there was lots of incense and lots of, yeah. It was an amazingly mystical and, and really deeply, deeply reverent community. So can you speak briefly about if and how your own creativity and your faith are complimentary of each other?
Sebawit: Yeah. Actually, my church is very helpful and supportive of creativity because there are platforms that can encourage children to perform and adults as well [00:51:00] to perform in the Sunday school or even in the church services. There is an opportunity to present poems, to present theaters like religious theaters and play the, some of the Bible stories. And also play different instruments like the drum, the masenqo, it’s called masenqo, but it’s a one string instrument. And also the krar, or you call it guitar, kind of guitar, but it’s not guitar, but it’s krar, it’s with strings, and also the flute, and also this begena, which is gigantic krar, guitar type of—I don’t know how you call it, in English. So there are different musical instruments that we use to honor God and they’re used in the church, those are as well. But our children, many parents are, who are involved in the church services and in the [00:52:00] community are exposed to use those in instruments and also use their creativity in teaching the religion, the values of life, the culture.
So the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church is not only, like, a church, it’s also the culture of the Ethiopian people, it’s a history of the Ethiopian people. It’s the most ancient, it’s the most historical church in the Ethiopian history. Every Christianity come after the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the Protestants, the Catholics come out of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. At the beginning, there’s only, there was only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and then the Muslims, but then other Christians came to, to the society. So yeah, it’s, yes.
Michael: And, so, I just want to just expand a little bit on this notion of a community and creativity. ‘Cause at some level all of our creative vitality is [00:53:00] encouraged and kept alive by our relations with our communities. And the communities we construct around ourselves. And obviously the church is one of your, one part of your community, and obviously you’ve got your family. But then also while you’ve had certain mentors that have inspired you to pursue certain things. Could you talk about maybe some of, one or two of your most influential mentors in terms of creativity?
Sebawit: Honestly, miss Elizabeth is one of them.
Elizabeth: You’re really kind. Vice versa.
Sebawit: That I met the last years of my teaching career and, honestly, we taught play together. I translated for you many times.
Elizabeth: That’s right. That’s right.
Sebawit: And also, I just followed her with the Theatrical Journey Project. Yeah.
Michael: Oh, so you worked with Elizabeth on the Journey Project.
Sebawit: I did, I translated, yeah, for her a couple of videos in YouTube.
Elizabeth: In YouTube, yeah.
Sebawit: And also I did some things with her, she’s really one of [00:54:00] my, one of the people. And also, miss Rosa. Ms. Rosa is one of my first mentors that I’m so grateful to have her. Recently, I have not been hearing her. I need to call her now. This is a reminder for me to call her. She’s been really very helpful in pushing me to create my own brand, my own name. Her and Esteban as well, Esteban Morales, CentroNía Institute Director. Now I am so blessed to have also my supervisor, my manager, Pilla Parker. She’s really very motivating. She is a mentor. She’s not only my supervisor. I truly like the way that she manages things, the way that she pushes me to use my creativity. She gives me a lot of opportunities to use my creativity, such as giving trainings, just being part of different projects and different positions. So that’s, yeah, this, these three people I can, yeah, that’s very, and of [00:55:00] course in, from my family, my brothers, my sisters, we have really a very close relationship. They’ve been always supportive of everything that I do. And my spiritual father, he’s named Priest Mieraf he’s been such a valuable mentor person in my life.
Michael: So these are the people you still go to? If you have a—
Michael: —particular, particularly difficult issue that you’re dealing with in terms of your work or whatever, you would go to one of these?
Sebawit: Yeah, definitely one of those if I have a big challenge. And also, my coworkers, my colleagues, my former coworkers, and even my current coworkers. Honestly, I have a lot of people that I can ask if I have any issue or I feel like I need some support, a little help. Fortunately, I never just left with anyone with bad waters. I always left my places with good water.
Michael: That is so important, to be able to—
Sebawit: Yeah. I can always, yeah. I always can go back and ask people and they are always there for me.
Michael: Because, really, I think you’re absolutely right [00:56:00] that, in terms of learning and creativity, both, everyone is a potential source of inspiration or joy.
Sebawit: Yeah, because I’ve been helped by so many people, raising my children, going to school, just making my life here where I am right now. It’s not because I did a lot, because some people supported me as well. So I acknowledge everybody who’s been around me, my kids. So it was not—my teachers my advisor, my first advisor, Professor Bennett Roberts. She’s been one of the people who pushed me to leave the teaching position and go to become a director. Because she said, “Sebawit, you can do more.” And she used to say, “Make yourself marketable.” All the time.
Elizabeth: Back to the fashion industry.
Sebawit: Yeah. Ah, so you know, the fashion. I could have done something here too, but I didn’t want to because I had my kids and I needed to focus on them. That’s why I get back to, I get back in education. [00:57:00] I just focused on education only.
Elizabeth: But marketing yourself is a part of just being a professional.
Sebawit: Yeah. So she used to say me like, “Make yourself marketable. And you can do more. You have the ability. I see that potential in you. So you can do more, go out and teach the teachers.”
Michael: But she encouraged you to move into a sort of more managerial position.
Sebawit: Exactly. Yes. Yes. And so many other people all these people that I mentioned are really very valuable for me because they’ve been with me somehow and somewhere.
And before all of these people, I would like to thank my parents, of course. They have been, they are, they have been like such a foundation for me. Like they, they built a foundation of me, my personality, how to communicate with people, how to live, co-live with people as well. They taught me a lot. So. I never just would thank them enough [00:58:00] for giving me the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to be who I am. The love they gave me, the love that they had to share with my siblings as well. So, it’s, it is, I never thank them enough. Now they both are in heaven. They’re not here but I want to acknowledge them as well.
Michael: Yes, absolutely. We, so we like to conclude our interviews with the sort of the taking sort of the bird’s eye view and you’ve shared a lot about this long, this journey you’ve been on, this—you know what they call it, the theater screenplay-writing world, the narrative arc of a person—over the last 12 years. But ultimately, I guess since you were a, at least a teenager in Italy, but prior to that when you were in Ethiopia. And the role creativity has played in the shaping of who you are today. It continues to, will continue to shape who you will be tomorrow. So, if you could reflect on the role creativity has played in this larger question of shaping who you are as a person.
Sebawit: Yeah. [00:59:00] Interesting. Of course, I believe I’ve been so creative and I still feel I’m very creative in so many things because even though I left my parents early, but I was very creative in adapting myself in new situations. In many ways, several times as a teenager in a country where I had never been and I never, I never spoke that language and ate the food. And then just moving from there to here with children was also challenging. But because I had that creativity and adapting skill, I was not that hurt. It was not that difficult for me to insert myself into this community, the society, and make myself who I am now.
And I hope and pray that I will be doing more for others tomorrow. Yeah, it has been a journey, looking, reflecting back to my [01:00:00] life, since from my childhood to now my adulthood, I am so grateful to everything that I went through because hard situations made me a better person. Hard situations made me more creative in coming up with solutions, resolving problems, resolving conflicts between people, environment, it can be work situation or with my own children as well. It’s… my communication skill has been improved. There is still I have to work on. I never say that is the end. I still have to learn, but I believe whatever I went through helped me to be more creative and more adaptive to where I am living right now.
Elizabeth: Well, speaking of other people, you mentioned working with other people. One of, one of the reasons that we’re doing this podcast is that we [01:01:00] really, truly believe that creativity is a vital life force. It is a really necessary ingredient to a healthy emotional life. And certainly, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, having been in this country for many years, we are really in need of better emotional health. So, can you give some snippets of advice to other people about how to nurture their own creativity, the creative impulses, how to develop it and sustain it?
Sebawit: Thank you for this opportunity. I don’t think that I am wise enough to give advice. But I believe, yes, I had a lot of experience, life experience, living in different countries with different people from diverse background, helping me to understand better people and live in peace with people. I’m not right all the time. Nobody is right all the time. Nobody’s perfect. We all have our bumps, our stairs and stars, and sometimes [01:02:00] acknowledging people goodness and just give praise is good. And also when you see certain issues, not hammering them, but just be kind and use kind words to explain your feelings.
And, at the end of the day everything goes around, comes around, they say here. Be good to people, treat people the way that you want to be treated. So I always try to be as kind as possible because I am a religious person and also I received this kind of life values, respecting others. And also, there is nothing that I’m going to lose by being kind. So be kind to people. The way that people, you want people to be kind to you.
Michael: That sounds like incredibly good wisdom.
Elizabeth That is good advice.
Michael: Good advice.
Elizabeth: Well, lastly—and thank you so much, this has been so wonderful, Sebawit—we like to give our guests an opportunity to talk about either upcoming [01:03:00] events or publications or web links or if someone is available for consultations in their field of expertise.
Sebawit: Thank you so much for giving this opportunity again. So, I’m working on a website and creating my own brand and I’m planning to give trainings and speeches. Right now, I am on LinkedIn. And I have a Facebook account, but I don’t use Facebook much because I believe it’s a waste of time, but I think I should use it more for the professional piece. But I’m in LinkedIn and definitely I’m, I will be coming up with my own website and definitely with YouTube so I can reach far more people especially in the Ethiopian community, but also other communities.
Elizabeth: Anyway, this has been fabulous. It’s so great to see you. Thank you so much for coming over to our humble sound studio in northeast DC. And we’re just thrilled to [01:04:00] have been able to talk to you, Sebawit.
Sebawit: Thank you. Thank you so much for giving this opportunity and be with you and pass this time with you. Thank you so much, both of you. Thank you. Thank you miss Elizabeth, thank you, Mr. Michael.
Elizabeth: For more information about Creativists in Dialogue or our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or obh.c6d.myftpupload.com. This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.