by Melissa Brunner
Sloane Lewis says she was in first grade before she realized she was black. A classmate told her, she says, and she went home and asked her mother if it was true.
The revelation, Sloane says, was not necessarily a good thing. It suddenly made her realize how different she was from the 490 other residents of Norwich, Kansas. And it was the beginning of questioning whether she was supposed to be doing and dreaming all the things she was doing and dreaming.
Sloane shared her story Wednesday at the YWCA of Topeka's Leadership Luncheon. Sloane stepped in for the injured Theresa Vail, the woman who succeeded her as Miss Kansas. While Theresa's stories of breaking barriers as a woman in the Kansas National Guard and as a woman who enjoys outdoor pursuits like hunting, Sloane's story of raising the bar higher for herself when others set it low is equally inspiring and absolutely worth hearing.
Sloane's mom raised her in the small town in Kingman County, southwest of Wichita. She was the only black person there. When Sloane tells the story, she doesn't sound bitter. She's simply stating the way it was. But when her young classmates pointed out how her appearance was different and how they all knew her appearance was different, it made the young Sloane withdraw. She loved to sing in church and started to wonder if, in doing so, she was drawing even more attention to herself. As she and peers grew up, Sloane noticed many turned to abusing drugs and alcohol. Among those falling into that trap was her cousin and best friend, Michael. Sloane watched Michael enter the foster care system. He came to live with her family at one point, too.
Then there were the messages from her own family. Her step-father, Sloane says, was a white man who discouraged her from having contact with the black side of her family. She says he told her black people could not do anything without government help; that black people were not destined to achieve. When she said she wanted to attend the University of Kansas, she was told people like her didn't go to a school like that.
But Sloane didn't listen. She figured out on her own how to apply for financial aid so that she could attend KU. Then she heard about the Miss Kansas organization and how the winner could earn scholarship money. On a whim, she entered. She was crazy, she was told. People like her didn't win. She never entered a pageant before and couldn't afford a thousand-dollar evening gown. She learned she needed a platform, a cause to promote, and settled on empowering at-risk youth. And she won.
Sloane says she prepared for the Miss America pageant by reflecting on how she could make her platform hit home with the judges during her interview. She hoped to use the story of her cousin. She wanted to say that here was a young man that had been in the foster care system but managed to pull himself up and set a course to do something with his life. Here was a young man who did not let where he came from determine where he could go. She never could frame that argument. A month before the Miss America pageant, he took his own life.
It adds a poingent urgency to Sloane's story. Never tell a child he or she cannot achieve. Never tell a child that her or his current circumstance must dictate and limit their future goals. Instead, create the framework - be it programs or just personal support - so every child has a fair shot at reaching for their dreams.
Sloane will graduate from KU this spring, marry her college sweetheart then move to New York City to teach in a high-needs public school classroom. Was Sloane at-risk? She can't say for sure but she does know she never really thought she was until people started telling her she was, and telling her she would fail. Thankfully for all of us, she didn't listen.