I had the privilege of attending the, Forging Partnerships for Inclusive Excellence Symposium, which was hosted by Northern Kentucky University October 13-14. It was an energizing, thought-provoking, meaningful experience for all involved. I was honored to lead a workshop entitled, A Blueprint for Effective Diversity and Inclusiveness in Higher Education. I was pleased to share my work, and not at all surprised to come away learning so much. It was especially meaningful, as NKU is my undergraduate Alma Mater. As a first generation college student, I well remember the fourteen years it took for me to accomplish my Bachelor's degree, and the role that the faculty and staff at NKU played in my ability to finally walk across that big stage. All these years later, I still find myself emotional when I crest the hill and see my university before me. It literally is coming home for me.
Diversity and Inclusion are issues I have spent a lot of time and effort on in my career. I've come full circle, from naively believing I understood these complex challenges, to nearly being defeated into joining the voices that make sweeping generalizations after a very traumatic personal negative work experience, to finally realizing that I don't know nearly what I need to know.
I do know one thing. For certain and for sure. I have a voice, and I have a responsibility to use it.
There were many, many incredible people at the symposium. Among them was national thought leader, Dr. Damon Williams. He opened the conference and set a theme that carried throughout both days. He was direct, vulnerable, truthful, and told his story in such a meaningful way that I have reflected on it ever since. During one session, he shared about a professional experience that was devastating to him because of the treatment of his supervisor and others at his organization. He spoke about finding the strength to rise up, and then looked at the audience and said, "NEVER let them snuff you out.....Never, ever let them take your voice. When you disrupt things to tell the truth, and lead change, they will get uncomfortable, and try to snuff you out. Never, ever, allow that to happen." I've often wondered if I should share my most personal, vulnerable thoughts and feelings with others, sometimes after I already have opened up and done that very thing. I learned from Dr. Williams that it is very powerful to do just that, if you can summon up the courage to do it. So here goes....
Because of Damon's words, I shared with my workshop attendees an experience I had as the only white executive team member. I bounced in the door on my first day, in a light pink linen suit. I was unaware that the culture at that organization was for all executives to wear the school colors. Which were decidedly NOT light pink. Add my Irish complexion, complete with my hair, which I often refer to as the red tornado, well, to say I stood out would be one huge understatement. The executive team started filing into the boardroom for the meeting. I had met most of them throughout the interview process to be appointed to that role. Everyone was friendly. I still cannot quite explain the visceral reaction that happened to me. I felt different. I felt "other-than"....And it wasn't because anyone said anything, or did anything to me. I found myself unable to resist placing my hands under the table in my lap, thinking irrationally that maybe no one would notice my pale skin. At one point, I remember thinking, this is exactly the sort of situation that must have produced the phrase, "I just want to crawl out of my skin." I was so grateful when the meeting ended, and I vividly remember retreating to my office and shutting the door. Feeling confused, upset, and unable to articulate what had just occurred. I then picked up the phone, and called one of my best friends. He's an African American friend and colleague of many years, and we have sat around many a conference room table where he was the only person of color in attendance. When he answered the phone, all I could find words to say was, "I'm sorry. I didn't understand."
And I realize that I still don't truly understand. I had that transformational experience, but he had walked in his shoes, in his skin, for all of his life. But it did grant me valuable insight. It was only the start of my education at that appointment. I met some of the most wonderful people, and conversely experienced some of the most humiliating and debasing treatment which left me feeling powerless. I nearly let it change me. Into an, "Us versus Them" type of thinking. To be completely truthful, it nearly destroyed me in every possible way. I disrupted things there, speaking the truth and finding the courage to not violate my own moral compass. It is an experience that I still work everyday to recover from, and move forward taking only the good with me and releasing the pieces that were so terribly painful. They tried to snuff me out.
Which brings me to my next point. About listening to your higher power, or inner voice, or whatever is leading you. For several years I've thought I really was supposed to be heading up my own efforts, and leading my own company, but I let doubt and fear dissuade me. So I ended up at a university in the deep south, and really came head to head with how deeply seated the issues remain with respect to discrimination and white privilege.
There were virtually no people of color in that small community. Nearly everyone I encountered had lived in that county for their entire lives and could not imagine anything larger than where they were. I clearly remember the first time I had my hair cut, and was talking with the young woman who was helping me. She was 24, and simply incredulous that I had moved there on my own. She kept asking, "So how in the world did you find somewhere to live?!" And then shared that she had a giant goal that was on her bucket list. She wanted to visit Atlanta. She was already married, and had built a house on her parents' property. I literally could see I-75 out the front window of her shop, and told her that if she jumped on the interstate she could be there before dinner. Her response? "I can't go there by myself!"
Disparaging remarks about women and minorities were common there. I once had a Vice President introduce me to a group as a, "Northern Sympathizer." I remember responding that I was from Kentucky and everyone in Ohio thought I was a southerner. He thought it was hysterical, and I remember thinking I might as likely encounter a unicorn before finding another woman anything like myself in that small community. Another surprising experience came when I visited the local Toyota dealership to purchase a new car. I found one I really liked, and the salesman told me he was reluctant to let me test drive it. "Ma'am, this car is a STICK SHIFT. Is your husband going to come and help you with this?"
I am single. And my father taught me how to drive a stick shift as a condition of getting my license. So I replied, "That's unlikely...what are we talking about here? A standard H? Four on the floor?" I love to write, but I have no words for the way he stepped back and looked at me as if he had just seen his first vampire.
My point? I kept receiving messages that I was somewhere that I didn't belong, and in the end telling the truth, and disturbing the norm was too much for them. I finally got knocked out of the boat enough times to begin to trust that I should follow where I had been led to for several years. So here I am.
Learning that I still need to learn so much.
Understanding that I have value to add to the discussion about diversity, inclusion, change and rising. Rising up. Striving to be the best version of yourself that you can be. I am not better than anyone else. No one is better than me.
We have come a long way. We have so much more work to do. My six year old grandson asked me recently, "What EXACTLY do you do?"
What I do is take all of my experiences and channel them into the future, into a positive direction. To be open to learning from everyone I encounter everyday. To trust. To believe. To contribute. To disrupt what needs to be disrupted. To be thankful. To be curious. To tell my truth...To be willing to continue to move forward. To be unwilling to ever allow anyone to snuff me out.
What do you do?