Family Roots Pushed Amira to Redefine Her Future
How the 23-year-old athlete and model chased her education and big-city dreams to become a first-generation university graduate.
"I Am First" is a series elevating people who are breaking new ground in sport and life.
"When people ask me where I'm from, I say, 'Bumblef*ck, Nowhere'". More specifically, Amira Natanne is talking—and joking, to a degree—about Lutcher, Louisiana, a small industrial town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. "You have to leave the motorway to get to it", the 23-year-old model and recent university grad says. "You have a high chance of knowing everyone or being related to everyone".
It may be a small town, but Lutcher is the foundation for Amira's determination to seek out a bigger world. She's a first-generation university graduate. Her degree—and life in New York City—are part of a dream realised by leaving Lutcher to pursue higher education in bioethics, and now, other career opportunities. Sitting in her apartment, 1,500 miles away in Bushwick, Brooklyn, she reflects on how far she has come.
Amira's roots run deep and wide in Lutcher. Her great-grandfather founded and operated the first and, for a while, only paramedic service in that part of the county. Growing up, once someone learnt her last name, it was not uncommon to hear stories about how her great-grandfather had saved their relative's life. "We're 45 minutes away from a city either way, so it was my family taking care of that entire area", she says.
Her extended family were instrumental in shaping her upbringing. "You were raised by whoever was in the room at the time", she recalls. And those in the room always pushed her to create and determine her own path. "I was never told, 'Oh, you're a girl. You can't do this'", Amira says. "It was more like, 'You'd better go get in line and do whatever to take care of yourself. Don't allow people's opinions to affect your overall outcome'".
"I was never told, 'Oh, you're a girl. You can't do this'. It was more like, 'You'd better go get in line and do whatever to take care of yourself'".
So, Amira decided she'd get in line for more. "I knew I didn't want to live [in Lutcher] permanently", she says. "It's a place where you go to high school, you marry your high-school sweetheart, you guys move in together, have kids, he works at the plant and you're buying a house at 22".
Instead, Amira set her sights on New York and university. For four years, she immersed herself in as much as she could, participating in almost every extracurricular activity Lutcher High School had to offer, including rifle club, pole vaulting, numerous honour societies and the powerlifting team. "Loved powerlifting", she remembers. "I absolutely loved it. I was not good at it, but the team itself was really, really great. They're like 10-time state champions. There were some greats. I was not one of them, but I contributed where I could".
After sending out dozens of university applications and
getting an acceptance letter from New York University in 2015, Amira caught a flight from Louisiana to NYC to start a new chapter, along with other classmates.
"A lot of people that I met were first generation", she says, "which I think was comforting to know and made it a little bit easier".
Leaving Lutcher opened up many new experiences. For example, she has signed with a modelling agency and has appeared on runways at New York Fashion Week and in a handful of advertising campaigns. Her move has also reawakened Amira's early desires to see the world. "It showed me that I'm capable of doing things", she says. "I've learnt that I'm independent, street smart, charismatic when I need to be, and firm when I need to be". In fact, she has already knocked out solo trips to far-flung destinations like Indonesia, Mexico and the UK with ease.
Now, Amira is figuring out her next moves and how to be intentional about her life, including her relationship with sports. Although she misses being a part of organised sports teams at times, her movement practice helps keep her grounded. She does some weightlifting at home, takes long walks and is about to start a 30-day yoga challenge. And, despite her self-proclaimed impatience, she is trying to incorporate meditation.
Inspired by her grandfather, her university coursework explored internal medicine and its impact on the marginalised bodies at the intersection of gender and race. She is passionate about reversing the high mortality rates for Black women during childbirth and has been thinking of channelling that energy by pursuing a doula certification to support mothers before, during and after giving birth. It's an area of importance that also hits home for her. "My mum has had five kids, and she's had four C-sections", Amira says.
The New York transplant believes her curiosity and relentlessness to ask questions, and the drive to do something about it are easily traced. She gets it from her family. "What I learnt from them was to be a community caretaker", Amira says. "My family took care of the community".
Words: Lakin Starling
Photography: Courtney Sofiah Yates
Film: Sara McDowell, Amira Natanne
Reported: September 2020