(Photo above courtesy of Te’Era Coleman)
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Te’Era Coleman inspires others to dream by first believing in herself.
My mother raised me and my four siblings by herself with the support of my extended family. That’s why she made every effort possible to keep us busy with extracurricular activities. Even as my mom worked three jobs, she always encouraged us to pursue our dreams. When I told her about my dream of performing, she wholeheartedly supported me, even flying to New York City for my conservatory audition.
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I never had a vision of going to college. I didn’t even know where to start. But, with teachers who believed in me and my mom’s support, I was accepted into a top conservatory for acting in Pittsburgh.
As soon as I arrived on campus I walked into my dorm room and heard a few people chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I was surprised and didn’t know what kind of situation I had gotten myself into. But soon I was moved by their warmth. My mom had just been deployed to Afghanistan for military duty, and my new friends did whatever they could to support me.
As a first-generation college student, there were many nuances to higher education that I was not aware of or had the privilege to maneuver. Going into my second year, I couldn’t afford my tuition and wondered whether I would make it. A friend encouraged me to try chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, set a goal that seemed impossible and challenge to accomplish it.
As I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every day with a clear goal to stay at school, I began to feel confident that I would win. I realized then that Buddhism was about really believing in the power of my life.
I realized then that Buddhism was about really believing in the power of my life.
I started reading some works by the Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, who I now consider my mentor in life, that emphasized the Buddhist concept of the “oneness of life and its environment.” As I chanted and studied more about Buddhism, I started to remember why I wanted to pursue performing in the first place and why I was at college.
My grandmother, who walked the same high school halls as the legend Muhammad Ali built a family of eight with my grandfather. Before we all came along, my grandparents were denied proper mortgages for buying a home in particular neighborhoods. This practice of banks preventing Black families from becoming homeowners is what we now know as redlining. Backed by the U.S. government, redlining our communities with discriminatory practices has had severe long-term impacts on Black families.
From a young age I understood that I would encounter a world of injustice simply for being. I would listen to the story of my great uncle who took my mom and siblings to watch the Kentucky Derby. They were dressed to impress, but nonetheless were denied entry. My great uncle voiced his frustrations and reprimanded them for their offensive behavior, teaching my mom and her siblings the lesson to call out racism.
I thought to myself, Who is going to tell the stories of my family and be the inspiration for those who have suffered the most? I redetermined to complete what I came to college to do—that is, to tell the stories of people like my grandparents and to be an inspiration to young Black and Brown children, so they know their worth. Chanting each day gave me the confidence to make it happen. I was able to receive my undergraduate degree on time, and my whole family celebrated together with me.
I redetermined to complete what I came to college to do—that is, to tell the stories of people like my grandparents and to be an inspiration to young Black and Brown children, so they know their worth. Chanting each day gave me the confidence to make it happen.
My work really began when I moved back home and saw firsthand how over time the mistrust between my community and the local government had only deepened. But this time, I had my Buddhist practice. I had read a dialogue between the civil rights activist, confidant to Martin Luther King Jr. and historian Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda. In their book America Will Be! it says:
The abolition of discriminatory systems does not mean that hearts of those who perpetrated the discrimination will be touched and transformed. This is why it’s imperative to change the urge in people’s hearts and minds to discriminate.
Inspired, I suggested bringing together community leaders with local city officials before our annual Victory Park Day to discuss our concerns and dialogue about how to provide support to the community. The event was a great success because we started to recognize and take responsibility for our community and its growth. And the work continues today.
Recently, I moved to Brooklyn, New York, to pursue my MBA and expand my acting career. Despite theater work being almost impossible to book, I was cast in a role at a prestigious off-Broadway theater. Due to the pandemic, the shows are audio-only but with my Buddhist practice I know that this is only the beginning. I’m not afraid of rejection or competition because I know why I’m doing it. I want to portray young Black and Brown youth in a way that makes them think: If she can do it, so can I.