Learning to Be Brave and Breathe: An Interview with Reyna Hamilton

Learning in the Making: Live! invites guest hosts of color on as equal and valued partners and collaborators, so that they can tell their stories and showcase the amazing things they are making and doing! This is because youth of color deserve to see engineers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, creators, and makers of color! In this series, we interview our guest hosts to learn a little bit more about them.

Maker Ed chats with Reyna Hamilton: a versatile educator, maker, and tinkerer; Manager of School Programs at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science; and guest host on Learning in the Making: Shapes in Nature Parts 1 and 2.

Maker Ed: Tell us a bit more about yourself.

Reyna: I am an educator, a maker, a tinkerer, a lifelong learner, the daughter of an immigrant, and the descendant of enslaved peoples. I am the first one in my immediate family to earn a degree. I have been in the field of informal education for 23 years… wow, that’s a long time! That was by no means my original plan, it started out as a job in an afterschool program. I needed money and there was a position open. I had no idea informal education was a “thing.” I stumbled my way through the first few weeks and fell in LOVE with working with youth and their families. It was quickly thereafter I decided to make it my career. My experiences have run the gamut — from my early beginnings in working in afterschool programs, running child development centers, running preschool programs, to now running school programs at a science museum. It continues to be quite the journey! Looking back to where I started, I would not have imagined myself working in the museum world. I’m an adventurous aunt so I have taken my nephews and nieces to all kinds of museums but to see myself working in one, nonetheless as a manager of a department… nah! Museum worlds can be very white; we don’t see people who look like us, coming from our communities. So how did I end up here? Because a very special person in my life saw something in me that I didn’t see… and she gave me the push I needed to take a risk. I took the risk and was asked to join the Lawrence Hall of Science team, to support a community initiative that was out in Solano County called the Inventor’s Lab. Because of my previous experience working with youth and families, working in communities of color & underserved populations, this was where I needed to be. 

The transition hasn’t always been easy. I miss the relationships and connections you develop when working in a community over time. I miss seeing that progress over time. How do I navigate that? Because I see the value and impact just my presence makes in working in a science museum. We are able to have a “touch” on  thousands and thousands of kids — kids from Oakland, Berkeley, Natomas, the Central Valley. There’s value to our youth being able to see someone that looks like them as the science teacher and as a “boss.” Kids being able to identify with me (and I with them) as a woman of color that loves science, the teacher with the funky pink hair, the museum professional that talks like them, looks like them and can identify with them. Sometimes working in this field feels very uncomfortable and different, but knowing that I’m able to have that touch, that impact is what keeps me doing what I do. 

Maker Ed: What excites you most about your work? 

Reyna: Hands down, it’s the interaction I am able to have with children and families! Although I am the Manager of School Programs at the Lawrence Hall of Science, there are times I get to go into the classroom and teach… which is always the highlight of my week. I love being able to engage with young people, to go on that 60-75 minute science journey with them. Watching the “light” go off in their minds as they learn new concepts, apply new ideas, and of course, make new things! That’s what really excites me most about my work. I see these students maybe once a year, but to have that touch on a youth’s life, for them to be able to see themselves in a different light, see themselves as a scientist, an engineer, a mathematician, someone who feels confident in their skills — it’s so important. Several people in my life have been that person for me, helping me to see myself differently. So, I’m excited about being able to support both kids and their families to see their children in a different light. It’s so powerful. 

Maker Ed: Why do you make? 

Reyna: My family comes from a long line of makers. My family is from Oakland, my father worked while my mom took the lead in raising four hungry children. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we’ve always been makers. And I’m sure this was instilled in both of my parents at an early age as well. Whether that was, “Oh I found this table with 2 missing legs and need to fix it to make it work,” or “Oh, this iron is broken and needs to be fixed,” making was part of our culture. We didn’t have the luxury of running out to Target and buying something new. We were taught that you had to be creative and resourceful. I remember helping my dad rebuild the carburetor in his car, making bike ramps out of random pieces of wood, using a shopping cart and a hand saw to make a go-kart! That aspect of being creative, resourceful, recycling, reimagining, and reusing things has always been a part of my life and my family. We didn’t call it “making,” we just called it living. I didn’t actually know what “maker” meant until probably the last 7 years. I just thought that’s what we did all the time. So it was easy and very natural to carry over “making” to my educational practice. As an informal educator, it’s been natural to bring that into the learning arena. There’s so much kids can learn through making — that creative element, being able to problem solve, think critically, and learning to use tools. It’s so empowering to know that you can either fix it, make it, or figure out it yourself. That’s why I make and why I love to incorporate it into teaching, learning & working with youth and families. As an educator, making the connections and calling out the learning in making only leads to a richer experience. You’ve now coupled the intrinsic motivation of making (it’s fun, it’s cool, I can do this) to the life skills and real-world application. 

Maker Ed: What is your favorite thing to make?

Reyna: Besides cookies, I love using power tools! A few years back, I wanted to build planter boxes for the backyard garden, but I didn’t have a circular saw or even know how to use one. However, there are so many ways to learn things, so I watched some videos, did the research, and bought a circular saw. Realizing this was a teachable moment (and a very empowering one), I brought my 14-year-old niece into the endeavor. We watched videos, we rolled up our sleeves, and we built those planter boxes! Being able to share that experience with her was even more powerful because she now knows how to use a circular saw, how to measure wood, mark it off, cut it, and build something! Those types of shared experiences are some of my favorites. 

Maker Ed: What dreams do you have for young people? 

Reyna: My hopes for all young people is for them to have lots of different kinds of experiences. Experiences that pull them out of their bubble, that pull them out of their immediate community — experiences that are more global and bring them in touch with things they normally wouldn’t do. Experiences that allow them to take a risk, to exercise being brave, experiencing the new, the different, the weird, the things “white people do,” experiences that take them out of their smaller sphere. There is so much you can learn about yourself and the larger world and where you fit. Young people, you fit! And if you think you don’t, Ms. Reyna is here to tell you that you do! You fit, you matter, you count, you are powerful! I’ve had folks in my life who have helped me to exercise my risk-taking muscle, to try my hand at non-traditional experiences, and I hope to move that forward.

Maker Ed: If you could share one word of advice to give to other educators, what would it be? 

Reyna: Figuratively, put your mask on first! Take care of yourself first. Educators, both informal and formal, have a hard job… it’s always been a hard profession. I especially tip my hats to classroom teachers and strive to support them anyway I can — you are doing work I cannot. Add on the additional challenges of our current state of affairs — the pandemic, the pain, the anger, the stress, the unrest. Educators, please take care of yourself: breathe, get some fresh air, stretch. You can’t be there for our youth unless you take care of yourself — the youth need us and we need them.

Maker Ed: Are there other makers and/or educators in your community whose work you’d like to promote?

Reyna: Established in March 2020 by international and multicultural education doctoral students Eghosa Obaizamomwan Hamilton and Gertrude Jenkins, Making Us Matter is a collective of Black Educators providing academic instruction in the midst of COVID-19 school shutdowns. Making Us Matter Virtual High School seeks to build a shared community of Black educators who are invested in providing students with a curriculum that is both challenging and empowering. Through critical thinking and a social justice lens, Making Us Matter recognizes, emphasizes, and humanizes Blackness.

Now that you’ve learned more about Reyna and her work as a museum educator, join her to learn about building stable structures in Learning in the Making: Shapes in Nature




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