“My life is completely different from what I thought it would be right now.”
Our generation is probably the first that realizes how fickle the future can be, how important self-reliance is, the goodness in creating opportunities for giving back. No longer can we give our lives a blueprint — directions on guaranteed methods to success.
“We have to erase that image in our minds, appreciate the blank canvas and just flow with it.”
These are the words of Brittany Washington, 30, who seems to have based every move she makes on the idea that giving back comes first, those blueprints come second. The Monticello, Arkansas native — and one-time Illinois resident — currently owns The Rooted Sky, a “where comfy meets cute” clothing shop in Monticello, and is working toward her Ph.D. in leadership with a concentration in community development and higher education. Before that, she launched an inspirational T-shirt line under her brand Know Purpose. Before that, she sold resale clothing for kids in her store Mini Dreams. And before that, she was a middle school teacher for three years as part of Teach for America (TFA).
And she planned none of this.
The majority of Brittany’s career path has been pretty much selfless, meaning that a lot of what she’s done has been because she saw a need for it. She started to teach because TFA helps children in underserved communities receive better education. She started her stores to offer more affordable shopping options in her community. She launched her T-shirt line to encourage others and create a scholarship program (a portion of the tees’ sales go toward this fund). She’s working toward her Ph.D. to provide an educational foundation for the two nonprofits she wants to start in the future, which will allow others to pour into their communities, too.
“With young professionals today, it seems like the cool thing to do is leave your community and go to a big city, but why don’t we stay and give back to our own?” she says.
So this is what she’s doing. And it started with a colleague telling her about the TFA program.
“I researched it and thought it was a really awesome program with a great mission, and I wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “[During my time there], I learned so much about myself, about other people. My kids really inspired me. When you start teaching, they’re not your students; they become your kids. I still talk to some of them to this day.” Brittany taught seventh and eighth graders during the 2010 to 2012 school years, and then left the classroom and went back in October 2013, where she taught sixth graders.
black girl, create: What was most rewarding about that experience?
Brittany: Watching the students believe in themselves and really owning that they were capable and smart. Witnessing their growth and progress, not only academically, but the growth in their confidence as well. Anytime you have the opportunity to witness someone believe in themselves, it’s a rewarding experience and sweet feeling.
black girl, create: What’d you learn about yourself during that time?
Brittany: That there were still certain desires that I had — that’s why I opened the first store. As I encouraged them, I realized that there were some deep down desires within me too that I didn’t know were there. It’s so easy to tell people to be great and to go achieve your goals and not practice what you preach.
Brittany opened her first store, Mini Dreams, a kids’ resale shop, in August 2012 after being inspired to do so while she was brainstorming and writing in her hotel room during a trip to Disney World.
“There was only one kids’ store in my town at the time, and it wasn’t the most affordable. I said, ‘God, somebody should [open a store] — just not me,’” she explains.
The inspiration for the name of the store came during a prayer. “I said, ‘God, why do you give me so many dreams?’ And right then, that was the name of it — many dreams — but it was written as ‘mini’ for kids’ clothes.”
When she finally came to the conclusion that she was the person to open the store, Brittany says the community was supportive. “But I was so scared! With me not having any kids [and selling kids’ clothes], being black and young, I didn’t know how people would receive me. But I had to look at it from the standpoint of meeting a need, that it was something bigger than myself. It wasn’t my store anyway; it was God’s store, I just worked there.”
This was an idea Brittany kept with her through her journey as a store owner because she knew she wouldn’t keep it for long.
“I always knew it was meant for me to start it and pass it on from the time I opened it. I never got attached because I always knew it didn’t belong to me. I was just a temporary employee.”
Mini Dreams was open for a year, and she decided to change the format of the store, ultimately closing the year-round operation of the business.
“There are these big consignment events in Little Rock,” Brittany says. “So I said, instead of the store being open year-round, let me just host a couple big events here. I hosted one in May 2013, and it went well, and another event in September.”
black girl, create: What happened after that?
Brittany: It was perceived that I went out of business. A lot people didn’t understand the change in structure. So during that period in time, they would say, ‘I’m sorry that your business failed,’ or, ‘I’m sorry that you lost your store,’ but a lot of people didn’t realize that I had become miserable because my mind was so far down the line, thinking of the next thing I desired to create. But I was moving ahead of God’s timing. I eventually told the owner of the building I wanted to reopen, which we did in October 2013. Then by the end of March 2015, I found the Ph.D. program, and I knew it was time for me to leave the store. I remember telling God, ‘OK, somebody needs to buy this store by March 31’ — I was demanding it! But nobody showed any interest. When March 31 came, I literally had a break down in the middle of the store because I said if I didn’t sell the store by that day, we were going to close for good, which I knew wasn’t God’s plan. Yet I knew my season was up, for real this time. It did not sell by March 31, and I cried, cried, cried my heart out. It wasn’t about what people would think about me closing the store again; more than anything, it was me thinking, ‘God, are we not as close as I thought we were?! Do I not know your voice?’ The first time I closed — when I changed the business structure — I knew it was all me. This time, I truly believed my season was up. So that night, I went home because I knew the next morning I would have to make an official announcement. I had apologized to God for being upset and thanked Him for the wonderful opportunity, the community he allowed me to serve, for everything. When I woke up the following morning, I had two Facebook messages back to back from people wanting to buy the store. And God taught me in that moment that I don’t want you to put me in a box or on a timeline. The buyer came by the store the next day, and the day after that I had a check, and it was sold.
black girl, create: So how did you deal with people constantly saying things like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry you lost your store?’ That can be discouraging.
Brittany: For a while, I was combative. But then I realized that you’re going to have to stop explaining everything. You don’t owe that to everybody. At one point, I was completely down on myself because I began to own what people were saying, and I began to think maybe I did fail. I just learned that I cannot give people’s thoughts a place in my life — for the good or the bad. I don’t think you should take criticism to the head, nor applause to the heart because both of them can equally destroy you.
black girl, create: How did you get back focused?
Brittany: I had to get back to Jesus being the center because I was starting to make my dreams and my goals too important. I was making people’s opinions too important. And I think God just stripped me of everything to the point where I didn’t have a lot left. I didn’t have a choice but to cling to him. Being an entrepreneur and being a creative, you understand that everybody won’t understand you, and so for me, it was a really lonely place at times. I had to learn that even when I felt lonely, I wasn’t alone. God understood, and he was there.
After all that she’d been through, Brittany felt she needed to share her story and gained inspiration for the best outlet with which to do so as she sat in her empty classroom (after she returned for her third and final year as a teacher) reading her bible.
“I came across James 2:22, and paraphrasing, it says that we are made perfect through our faith. That phrase ‘made perfect’ stayed with me,” she says. “God had given me this vision for T-shirts two or three years prior. So I learned how to create a website [to sell the shirts]. I put it up, and I typed out my story, but I didn’t know how I felt about putting it out there because I’m so private. I remember [when I was about to share it on Facebook], I was breathing so hard! And I pushed ‘post,’ and I ran away from the computer!”
And, thus, the journey continued.
Though she hadn’t planned on going back to school, Brittany applied to the Ph.D. program she loved and made substantial life changes to prepare for it (selling the store, moving close to the school), only to learn that her start date had been pushed back a year. In August 2016, Brittany went back to the classroom — this time as a student. And she’s ready for the next step, wherever that will lead.
Her advice for other girls? “The journey in life can be complicated and hard to understand at times, but you have to hang in there,” she says. “Don’t abort the process because that’s where the beauty happens. Beautiful things are made more in the struggle than in the spotlight.”