Natalie Wright Njotu, M.S.CCC-SLP
This article is a part of our “Elevating Underrepresented Voices” series. Our goal is to use our platform to help all speech-language professionals learn about the issues facing our profession when it comes to underrepresented populations. Please click here to see what other SLPs we have featured.
Natalie Wright Njotu, M.S., CCC-SLP
SLP and Founder of Black Educational Resources
Natalie Wright Njotu is a Jamaican-born, New York-raised, American-school-based, speech-language pathologist (SLP) currently living and working in Japan, serving military-connected students. After seeing her own son’s reactions to Black main characters in books and educational materials, Natalie realized that it can be hard to find resources that show Black/African-American and Black/African children as main characters. Natalie went on a mission to help her child and her students consistently see themselves and their experiences reflected positively in printed texts and on screens. She wanted to give innovators, professionals, teacher-authors, and parents who are Black a chance to showcase their talent, expertise, and creativity. She wanted to help parents and colleagues quickly find specific resources and other materials without hours of futile searches. Lastly, she wanted to create a safe space for these conversations to be had and unique experiences celebrated alongside mainstream culture.
Black Educational Resources was her solution to this problem and the hub she created is now helping others diversify their learning materials to better meet the needs of their children, students, and clients!
Quote: He clutched the book to his chest, hugged it tightly, and squealed “It’s me! It’s me!” When he finally let go, I noticed it was one of my go-to books, “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont. The Black main character has hair like his. “Yep,” I concluded, “I have some damage control to do here.”
I am a Jamaican-born, New York-raised, American-school-based SLP currently living and working in Japan, serving military-connected students. My undergraduate degree is in Anthropology. I studied abroad in Osaka to satisfy requirements for my minors in Linguistics and Japanese Studies. After obtaining my M.S. in Communication Sciences and Disorders, I eventually went on to work for the Department of Defense Education Activity.
To say studying abroad was life-changing is an understatement. I fell in love with Japanese culture, language, and people. Japan is also where my Cameroonian-born husband and I met, got married, and have decided to raise our 3-year-old son. Japan has always felt like “home” to us. Like in Caribbean and African cultures, as well as parts of the U.S., acknowledging those in your immediate presence is an essential and vital aspect of your upbringing. You don’t dare walk by an elder, a neighbor, much less a colleague without greeting them properly, no matter your mood. This and other nuisances of Japanese culture just makes “sense” to me and my family. Most of all, we love the peace of serving here. The military family is close-knit and diverse. When I go to stores on-base or off-base, I am not typically treated like a “Black woman.” I am treated as an “American.” My family is not profiled; we are free to simply “exist.” Safely. We are not followed around in stores. In fact, in local establishments, we often have to go find cashiers to give them our money. They are busy tending to their stores and not bothered by us. Actually, there was one time I was followed around in a clothing store back while I was an international student. As it turned out, the clerk realized I was struggling to find clothing in my size. She was looking at me to see what kinds of items I was choosing. She then began pulling out similar pieces she thought may work for me. Right before I left the store, she gave me a small gift, an omiyage, a token of appreciation to encourage me on my quest to find something that fit. It was so incredibly sweet, thoughtful, and humbling that I, a foreigner, was treated with so much kindness in a foreign country simply because I was an “American,” and therefore a guest. The combined 20+ years that my husband and I have lived in Japan have been primarily positive. Cops here don’t tend to even carry guns. I have only recently stopped holding my breath when the keisatsu, police, pull up in a squad car alongside or behind me. I have to remind myself of where I am. While in the States during summer breaks, I am often grimly reminded of who I am.
During my husband’s first visit to the U.S. soon after we were married, I took him for a brief drive around my alma mater. Shortly after getting on campus, the lights of a squad car flashed in my rearview mirror. My husband was confused as to why we were being pulled over. I knew why. It is an all-too-familiar occurrence. Over the customary loud thudding of my heart in my ears during these stops, I heard the officer explain that he had pulled us over because we were “driving slowly” (the campus speed limit) and we looked “suspicious.” No other reason. Just that. As I was searching for my license, he saw my government I.D. and asked me about it. I told him my profession and where I worked and we realized that his former duty station was my current one. He let us go and my family and I went on our way without incident. The fact remains he pulled us over just because we looked “suspicious” although no law was broken.
On a more recent visit to the States last summer while at a rest stop between Toronto and New York, a little girl about 4 years of age was playing with my then 2-year-old son. When her food arrived, she said: “see you later n*****.” Her mother scolded her by saying, “We don’t say that…here.” I could fill volumes on everyday direct and indirect instances of racism my family and I have endured from the aisles of local stores to the hallways of academia and beyond.
In the last few months, I have had my own call to action as I have observed how some organizations and individuals I support took a quick, clear, stance against systemic racism, while others took a slow, meandering one. Still, others took no stance at all, indirectly stating that the social injustices highlighted by police killings of unarmed Black men and women are not significant enough of a problem for them to weigh in. So, I took to my social media accounts to do what I know to do: identify the need, find a creative solution, and implement a plan.
I discovered that each year I unhesitatingly spend a considerable amount of my finances on therapy tools including apps, books, teacher-made materials, relevant professional development, continuing education, memberships, certifications, etc. I spare no expense when it comes to meeting the needs of my students and increasing my knowledge base. But, was I doing enough to diversify my own materials? Was I uplifting and empowering those burgeoning, unsung, authors, and innovators that have been marginalized? What could I do during the summer of 2020 while the world raged and cried out for justice in the midst of a pandemic?
Originally, the idea of investing more resources and time into Black books and materials came about at the beginning of the year. My son had just celebrated his 3rd birthday around Christmas, and we had binge-watched all the cute animal and princess movies on our new streaming service over the break. Watching these animated movies was something my Grandmother had wanted for me as a little girl, so I was ecstatic that I could do this for my son. However, watching the movies in succession disquieted me: “Wow,” I thought to myself, “He is not here.” My son’s existence as a Black, American, Caribbean-African boy having positive, diverse experiences in the States and overseas is just missing. Untold. Gone. Nonexistent in the narrative. “No wonder,” I mused, “he watches the Black Panther repeatedly and thinks that New York and Toronto are ‘Wakanda.’”
As if I needed another reminder, one day shortly after his birthday while I was rotating out the Fall and Christmas books in preparation for the semester’s themes: Valentine’s Day, Black History Month, St. Patrick’s Day, etc., a book caught my son’s attention, and he grabbed it off the stack on the floor. He clutched it to his chest, hugged it tightly, and squealed “It’s me! It’s me!” When he finally released the book, I noticed it was one of my go-to books, “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont. The Black main character has hair like his. “Yep,” I concluded, “I have some damage control to do here.” He was teaching me in his own way that he did not see enough of himself in the stories we read and shows we watched. I started combing through what popular online retailers had to offer and I was disappointed to see that the choices of Black children’s books are so limited. I was reminded of an article in the New York Times “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” by Walter Dean Myers, a favorite author of mine. In the piece, he shares that there is a “… gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text …” The most recent statistics from the Cooperative for Children’s Books Center indicate only 11.9% of books that were published last year (2019) had main characters who were Black/African.
So what could I do about the lack of representation? What was my solution? Huzzah! Black Educational Resources was born! Why? I want my child and my students to consistently see themselves, their experiences, as well as unique ones, reflected positively in printed texts and on screens. I want to give innovators, professionals, teacher-authors, and parents who are Black a chance to showcase their talent, expertise, and creativity. I want to help parents and colleagues quickly find specific resources and other materials without hours of futile searches. Lastly, I want to create and continue to foster a safe space, a hub, for these conversations to be had and our unique experiences celebrated alongside mainstream culture.
To be a part of this movement, educators and specialists including SLPs, OTs, P.T.s, parents, authors, innovators, illustrators etc., who are Black are invited to join our private Facebook Group: Black Educational Resources. Allies are welcome to collaborate with us on Instagram and YouTube. You can also find general “speechie” posts on my Just Wright SLP Instagram profile.
Connect with Natalie and Black Educational Resources:
Want to learn more? Here’s how:
To be a part of this movement, educators and specialists including SLPs, OTs, PTs, and parents, authors, innovators, etc., who are Black can join the private Facebook Group