Choices

It’s difficult to know where to begin but I can start by sharing what has created the spark in me that begins with the belief  that I am divinely designed... as terrifying of a thought as that might be. 

For many years, I was in what I now understand was a very toxic job. Like many young college graduates between 2009 and 2011, I entered a work economy that was on its knees. After 2 years and literally hundreds of resumes, interviews,  and depressing “no’s”,  I took a yes in an admin position for a non-profit that specialized in TB vaccine research. With an MPH in International Health and Development at one of the best public health schools in the country, everyone, including the hiring manager, knew that I was overqualified for the position. 

But a yes was a yes. Beggars can’t be choosers. You essentially get the song and dance. So I took a job and was told before I started that I would receive the top end pay because I was well over-qualified and as soon as an opportunity to be promoted to a more appropriate position presented itself, I would be hands down the first candidate. 

For those of you reading this who have far more wisdom about the professional circus, try not to roll on the ground laughing for too long.  Because you probably know what happens next....

The manager who made that statement was fired six months later. 

Over the next 6 years I had 6 very different managers. And these were all for the same position within the same department. Hope that also gives a nice, ice-frosted  window into the tumultuous nature of the organization of which I was a part. 

 But perhaps this story is about the other window we can look through. The window into who I was seeing each time I looked into the mirror. 

I took what I could get because I come from a long line of poor people, many of whom had never made as much money in their life. The fact that I was locked in a position that paid me for less than what I knew what I was worth [professionally] was unfortunate. In fact, the common statement shared around the water-cooler was the ever gentle reminder that “...in this climate, you’re lucky to have a job.” And so I tried to move forward in gratitude because it put bread on the table, it kept a roof over my head and all I needed was to be a secretary and forget about the mountain of debt and the larger mountain of blood sweat and tears I put into building up my professional career. The mission at the time was no greater than to be thankful for having a job during a time when so many other people in this country struggled. 

So for the next several years I worked very closely to those in power and was discouraged from doing much of anything that would upset how others viewed me. To those observing, I felt relegated to the role of a house slave in the professional plantation I navigated. Diversity and inclusion had not been raised to its current popularity. Most of those who found themselves in senior leadership roles were white men and women. Promotions were indeed handed out swiftly but oftentimes, not to anyone who even closely resembled me. I was an ‘overly polite’ plus-sized African American. And while I had an extremely ready smile, I’ll admit that I’ve never had the most perfect teeth. 

Despite this, I was always smiling. In fact, I was critiqued during a performance review for being ‘too nice’ even though I had met or exceeded timelines and all my goals for the performance periods in question. When I asked for an elaboration on what being too nice meant, I was told that people assumed that I wouldn’t be able to make serious decisions. There was no way they could know that I smiled when I was stressed, oftentimes to try to maintain positivity when others have given up hope for a silver lining.  And rather than that being seen as a sign of resilience, I was told it made me look like a simpleton. 

And I ate that toxic waste.

It became who I saw when I looked in the mirror. 

So, when I sat down for my first 1:1 with my fifth manager, I came stocked with a heart full of possibilities and hope for a change that was long overdue. My new manager was someone whom I had worked with peripherally, providing administrative support. I had only ever received positive feedback from her or sincere critiques on how I could improve so at the very least, I assumed I was sitting down with an advocate for my professional growth.

So when she asked me where I saw my career trajectory going, I looked her in the eye and said I would like to utilize my MPH in international health and development to transition into a role that was more appropriate for my professional skills and training. I had my eyes set on project management with eventually transitioning into program management. 

My new manager looked me in the eye and politely explained “... every organization needs its bread and butter. And not everyone can be the butter. We can’t just eat cake. Because people need bread too.” 

By then, she has not only completely lost me in the analogy. But when she saw the look on my face (which must have been a mix between a grimace and me beating down the desire to start screaming) she said, “You were the one that picked the most subservient role when you came into this company.” 

And there it was. That word that draws the line between master and slave. 

Subservient. 

Until that moment, I didn’t know employees could be subservient. 

Slaves can be. Employees shouldn’t be. 

So right then, two things happened. 

For the first time ever in my life I cried in front of my boss. [She gave me tissues, told me to clean myself up and she had a meeting to go to. And then she left.] 

But also that afternoon, I had my first (and I’m happy to say only) work-related panic attack. Because for the first time in the years spent at that place, I was without hope for something better. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to believe the lie they were selling - that I was stuck in the place I was and there were no doors or exit routes. 

But there was also a blessing born. Because that day was my professional rock bottom. 

I realized right then that I indeed had a choice. I could take the crap I had been shoveled as truth. Or I could choose what I knew was waiting to burst through my skin. I could pay attention to the potential within me rather than fit into the paradigm that others would have had me wear to suit their needs. 

My step one: I made the decision to look through in great detail the benefits package that the company had assigned us. And I found that we had the free benefit of a work life coach. 

Now, I come from inner city Baltimore. My parents have had a bevy of jobs to support their five children. We have gone through bouts of homelessness. We have been impacted by drug abuse. We have been on food stamps and public assistance. We have asked for money. We have been in line at food drives. And there were times when my parents literally gave their blood for money to give us something to eat. Work life coaches were something I had not been raised knowing about. Neither of my parents ever had bandwidth to get one and in essence, when we did hear about these coaches, we just put them in a box as a resource used by people with expendable money and time. 

But I decided that day that I was worth what I thought I was. I decided I was ready to be who I felt I was in my heart and to have her show up when I looked in the mirror. 

And I was able to find an amazing work life coach who helped me, not only to breathe through the quagmire, but also to manage what was sincerely something that I needed to carry. A skill that I needed to build. Something that I needed to improve upon (which is true for every human being on the face of the planet). 

Letting go of what was not mine to carry. 

That included the prejudices, stereotypes, and preconceived notions about how far I could go. The assumptions around how intelligent I was and what resources I had in my brain which were made the minute my brown, smiling face walked through a door.

All of that baggage was simply not mine to carry. 

And there are skills and pathways to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

In two years, I was a certified PM. I had paid my own way to attend conferences at Yale and at the NIH, taking my vacation time to do so because my sixth manager did not see the need to send an administrative assistant to any training that did not relate to me being a better secretary. 

Did I mention this organization was toxic?

When my six year anniversary came around, I celebrated by sending my resume out to an organization that had over 40 years of experience in my field and continues to do amazing work around the globe to promote global health. I was hired as a Project Manager and gladly stepped out of one of the worse relationships of my life.  

Two weeks later I got pregnant (after three years of trying). 

Meditation, mindfulness, and prayer were reiterated into my daily routine. 

And I moved beyond my chains.

I leave you with this truth and the following poem. 

It is a terrifying thing to believe in something that you can only see in your heart and which is not reflected in the eyes of the people you meet, especially in the eyes of the people who sign your paycheck. But most cages are ones of the mind. And while some people are comfortable being locked up, you don’t have to be. 


Choice

You don’t have to be. 

The you that stopped writing because most authors fail to publish. 

The you that reaches for food to quiet the stress that settled in your bones as a young black girl. 


You don’t have to be. 

The you that cuts off pieces of yourself to put bread on the table

The you that covers your mouth as you laugh to hide the discolored teeth


You don’t have to be. 

Overqualified and underpaid - because at least you have a job and gratitude has now become a major food group. 

Or in a big house and close to broke most days of the month.

You don’t have to be. 


Only Red. 

Or only blue. 

Or only American. 

Or from over the seas.


You don’t have to be.

Nervous to admit to being a Muslim woman who believes in Allah but chooses hair uncovered. Because that woman may not have a seat at either table. 


You don’t have to be. 

The admin whose manager said her role was to be subservient because he thought the word was applicable to employees as well as house slaves. 

You don’t have to be. 

Forcing your child to wean because no woman/warrior/or queen should need more than 6 weeks to focus solely on the health of her young. 

You don’t have to be. 


You don’t have to be.

You don’t have to be any one of those things.


Because we ARE. 

All of those things. 

A mosaic of what we want and dream and need - all living side by side.

Children of parents who worked until they died who left within our spirits a need for rest. 

And not just vacation days. 

But rest from worry and shame and poverty. 

Create within you what you already know you are.


View all Articles