Since graduating from college seven years ago, I have often found myself as the only Black woman (or one of few) in my office environment. Growing up in a pretty diverse suburb right outside of Chicago and then choosing to attend a PWI, I knew that this was something I would inevitably face throughout my career.
While I know I’m not the only one who lives this reality, I have noticed that as I continue to grow professionally, the lack of Black women in my space (particularly within the nonprofit sector) isn’t something that should be ignored.
Separate from my work performance (which is pretty strong, if I do say so myself), my personal experience inside the walls of my current and previous employers have taught me to fully embrace my blackness unapologetically. From trivial banter, such as being asked how long it took for my box braids to be installed (3.5 hours and no, you may NOT touch my hair) to the drama of being thrown under the bus by a fellow brown girl because she failed to do her job correctly, I’ve learned to choose my battles wisely, not let my emotions get the best of me and to take full ownership of my voice, even if it does shake a little.
For those who may be just starting their journey in corporate America or charting waters at a new company, here are four ways you can navigate your workspace in all of your #BlackGirlMagic:
Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. This is critical, especially when it comes to expressing your creativity and being thorough in your work. There have been plenty of times when I’ve passed up opportunities to really flex my skills or even explore a new tactic or strategy because I was afraid to simply try. Word to the wise: trust your judgement and don’t be afraid to ask for help in the process. Your employer or client didn’t hire you to play it safe — so when all else fails, underpromise and overdeliver. Always.
Be present, be prepared and keep calm. Chile, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people pull up on me (literally and electronically) in a panic about things that weren’t even that big of a deal. Over time, I’ve learned to respectfully how to tell Rebecca, Bob and Alison to take a few steps back, breathe and allow me to come up with the best solution for the problem at hand. Their urgency is not your emergency. I’m a big believer in the transference of energy — so when someone comes at you with negative energy, return a burst of positivity and protect your space and your peace.
Take and keep your place at the table. Don’t ever, ever shrink yourself. I remember one instance recently where I was in a room with some pretty prominent members of our board of directors. I thought that since I was just taking notes for the meeting, I should sit away from the table in the corner. Immediately, two of the board members (a man of color and a woman) called me out and made me sit at the center of the table. This may seem like a small gesture, but it reminded me that as a young black woman, I have a right to be in that room – and not just as “the help.” More importantly, my perspective and voice matter. Which leads me to my fourth and final point.
Build relationships with people outside of your organization. In that same moment that I was kindly scolded by those board members, they immediately became advocates for the work that I’m currently doing — encouraging me to think differently how we connect with our constituents and supporters both online and off. As the somewhat new girl, I’ve also created space for me to connect and build partnerships with our partner groups and long time supporters in order to expand our advocacy work, and raise issues (read: those that impact communities of color) that may have gone unnoticed once before. Not only does this create stronger bonds for my organization, but it shows that I am proactive and dedicated to our growth in the long term.
Women of color already face enough obstacles inside the workplace, and the last thing we should ever do is shrink ourselves to make someone else comfortable. Remember to stay out of your own way, make your voice heard and let your gifts shine as brightly as they can.