By Kamaria Mason
There seems to be a cycle in our society where each generation struggles then eventually finds their way. The process of developing into a self-sufficient person requires us to go through certain growing pains. However, a very blatant disconnect is evident between the generations who have “made it” and the up and coming generations “trying to make it.” This is very visible when it comes to performing in the workplace. An extra element is added to that dynamic when people of color communities are involved. The experience of black women in the workforce is a multifaceted subject matter. Wisdom through the generations were often passed down while visiting beauty salons, bible studies and other cultural meeting places. Sadly, with the rise in high tech communication, personal communication has actually started to deteriorate. At times it seems women of color communities have lost ground in imparting the wisdom that future generations need to make it in this world. So what can be done to fix this? It starts with a generation who is willing to share and a generation who is willing to listen. This concept led to a series of interviews where I asked various professional women of color to share their personal experiences to start a much needed conversation.
There is a perfect scenario that most college graduates envision- that right after college they will find their dream job, make their desired income and flawlessly excel into excellence. In some cases events can fall directly in your favor such as with Barbara Hamm Lee, the host of the Virginia based NPR program “Another View.” With 40 plus years of career experience, Mrs. Hamm Lee gives hope to many women of color who desire a career in broadcasting and media. She shared about how she had the opportunity to work for her local NBC station right out of college after completing an internship with the company. She also held the title of Lead News Director in 1994. This is truly inspiring when noting the fact that she was the only African-American female to hold that position in the top 50 news market in the US at that time. Mrs.Hamm Lee had this to say about takeaways she’s gained from being in the workforce, “You need to always stay relevant; education never ends. Be informed of emerging trends in your business field. Lastly, be open minded and willing to trying new things.”
Although it is often disputed, navigating the workplace in a black female body has a specific set of experiences that other groups are unaware of. When asked if being a women of color has shaped her experience in the workforce, Jamie Hill, with 30 years of professional experience shared, “As a women of color, I realized that we have to work harder to prove ourselves capable. In a lot of cases I have seen that black women have to earn the respect that non people of color and women of other races receive automatically.” When asked about her most notable takeaways from being in the workforce she had this to say, “ I learned that you have to be strong willed. You have to learn to maintain respect from others. I also found that you have to let your moral stance be known by standing up for what you know is right. I feel that people respect you more for that in the long run.”
The women that I had the pleasure of interviewing all had a substantial amount of experience in the workforce and in their respective careers, and had to make decisions to keep them growing in their professions. When asked how they knew when it is time to make an employment move to progress in their career, Barbara Wilkins, another workforce veteran with 40 plus years of experience expressed,”I got to a point in my career where I had to take a break. I just felt tired and burned out from the day to day routine. I lost my drive and I actually decided to change careers for a three-year period. I did eventually return to my original career path with a renewed passion. When asked about an important take away that she has had since being in the workforce, Ms.Wilkins shared, “From my personal experience in the workforce, I found that it is important to always do your best no matter how you feel. And if you find yourself in a rut, be honest about it and find a way to get yourself back on track.”
No one‘s journey in the workforce is identical; some even find that their passion leads them to venture into new avenues and territories. That was the case for relationship and lifestyle expert Alvean Lyons. Mrs.Lyons’ passion for helping others started her in the position of a school counselor. Her desire to help people to live their best lives encouraged her to expand her outreach to becoming a full time counseling consultant. Her mission to reach as many people as possible with her positive encouragement led her to public speaking and other outreach initiatives. When asked about her personal experience as a black woman in the workforce she shared this, “I have found that being a black woman has been beneficial and detrimental at times. The expectation for women and especially women color is not as high as other demographics. This reality, however, can be useful especially when using the element of surprise. Many naysayers were unable to obstruct my success because they underestimated my potential.”
A majority of the accomplished women that I interviewed were very seasoned in the workforce. It can be daunting to think about what your professional life will be like decades from now. Each and every day millennials are making their own strides such as Shantel Davis. She shared this about her experience so far, “My profession of choice is media. My original desire was to become a reporter. Being a woman and then a woman of color meant that the odds against me were greater. Though these realities were difficult, they actually allowed me to see why it was important to launch out and do what I really love on my own terms. Pursuing reporting in particular allowed me to see what I liked and didn’t like concerning the job. It allowed me to embrace who I am as a woman of color even more. It also helped me in my decision to take everything that I learned to create my own web series that speaks about issues that my culture deals with on a daily basis. Lastly, being in the workforce has allowed me to recognize that I am in competition with no one but myself. As long as I am the best authentic me, the doors that are supposed to be open for me will be opened.”
Although as adults we are required to live and learn as we go, being able to appreciate the wisdom from those who have already blazed the trails is a necessity. When asking all of the interviewees their advice for women of color just starting out in the workforce, they had a variety of things to say. Mrs. Hamm Lee gave this advice, “Make sure you always stay on top of your game. The adage that as an African-American you have to be twice as good is still true. However, don’t pull the race card immediately. Be aware of your environment and recognize that as a black women in the workplace you will have to navigate differently than your colleagues in certain situations.
Ms.Hill had this to share,” Young women of color starting out in the workforce need to always be honest with themselves. Although they are young and new, they need to realize that they will no longer be seen as children and have to make sure they represent themselves in a professional way. Always be prepared. If you are giving 100% and paying detailed attention about what is going on around you, then you will lessen your chances of being caught off guard.
Ms.Wilkin advised, “I want young women of color just starting out to know that with hard work you can get anywhere and do anything. You need to make sure that you always do your best no matter how you feel at the time. You need to understand that you will have to pay your dues. Lasting success will not come to you automatically.
Mrs.Lyons had this to say, “You are your own product and you need to believe in your product or no one else will. Know what it is you’re bringing to the table. Lastly, make good business decisions by knowing what you have, what you want and how to get it.”
Ms.Davis wanted fellow millennials to know this, “Patience is the key; also, work hard, have integrity, and build relationships. Building great relationships with the people around you will open more doors than you know.”
As the world around us continues to change, we need to heed the wisdom of generations who have stood where we stand now. Each generation has had their own specific trial and victories.
If we take the time to share the wealth of wisdom, we will be that much more prepared to build up the next generation and continue to grow as a community.