Growing Pains #13: Mirrors

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There is no “right” way to be black, but because of how culture works, there are similar or shared experiences. Being a member of the culture and seeing myself as different caused me to reject some ways of displaying culture norms and widely accepted behaviors. Trying my hand at archery, being a gymnast, camping (which I’m still not sold on, but I’ll do because I love spending time with my friends), and a variety of other things are examples of “non-normal black people activities” (Stereotype).

My context has most often been US-based so my perspective is influenced by the culture in the United States. Consciously and unconsciously, I received information about what it meant to be black in the world from all sides. From how to speak and dress to the types of lives we “lead” and what we’ll be successful at. I needed to find representation. I needed to unlearn the stereotypes I, myself, held about blackness and black people, while also being true to myself. I needed to find present-day mirrors that reflected me back at me, while I worked to embrace blackness as a whole so not to exclude others.

I found a treasure trove of artists, friends, family, peers, icons, people larger than life and historic figures that transcended generations. I think of Donald Glover who is as creative as it gets. He continues to dive deeper into the work that inspires him, while also addressing issues affecting black communities through shows like Atlanta. I think of Andre 3000 who challenged the notion of black masculinity, while giving us great music and meaningful messages. I think of rap music and all its form. I think of Ava DuVernay who’s given us amazing films and commentary on issues that affect our people generation after generation. I think of Michelle Obama, and the grace and commitment she shows through her health and women’s initiatives. I think of where I was when Barak Obama was first elected. I think (often) of James Baldwin, who shared the feelings of wanting to leave or escape the US, but ultimately felt compelled to come back. (In some places around the world, the grass is actually greener for black people.)

I think of Nikki Giovanni who said “If you don’t understand yourself, you don’t understand anybody else.” I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates who discussed stolen moments created by fear as he explored Paris with a new friend he thought might bring him to harm because of what he experienced growing up in Baltimore. I think of Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega, and Idris Elba as the superheroes I looked for in all my Saturday morning cartoons. I think of my parents, black barbershops, family, laughter, creativity, travel, fellowship, and community.

I found mirror after mirror, all of different shapes and sizes and colors. I was seeing myself in my community. I learned that it’s not how you show up, but rather showing up at all and being authentic. A lesson learned early on, but later forgotten and learned again later, is that people just want you to be real. No two-way glass. No distorted funhouse mirrors. Just a mirror that might hold a reflection from time to time.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #14: Curiosity will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains 11: Tipping Point

“To be unfukwitable: to vibrate at the frequency of evolution, to be free, so far North, that you are able to restore your wholeness, to feel safe within yourself; to move calmly at the center of hurricanes.” – On Becoming, Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe

My hurricanes took the form of earthquakes. After graduation, I worked for an organization in Detroit that focused on using your interests and passions to participate in project-based learning. The relationships I gained from the work would transform my life. In meeting good people, I would learn to heal myself and crack open the parts of me that still needed healing. I began to learn what it meant to be black, what it means to be black for myself and for others. I would learn how to change through Sherina’s art, On Becoming, which is a one woman performance that invites participants to engage as contributors. The final quake came like a 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Any semblance of what I used to believe about myself was about to crumble.

“To be unfukwitable: to vibrate at the frequency of evolution, to be free, so far North, that you are able to restore your wholeness, to feel safe within yourself; to move calmly at the center of hurricanes.” – On Becoming, Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe

Blackness is not, I repeat, IS NOT (for the people in the back), a monolith or a singular way of being & existing in the world. We are a mosaic of beautiful people and abilities and interests and skills and genius and creativity and power and identities and complexity and life. I hadn’t fully understood this idea yet – the whole not black enough idea still ran through my mind. I was about to get some insight. As I sat in the crowd as both audience member and participant, I was invited to see all the parts of me. I was invited to work on myself. I was invited to trade my two-way glass for mirrors. I was invited to change. I was given an example of how to change from start to finish. It was time to “get free”. I was heading north.

“To be unfukwitable: to vibrate at the frequency of evolution, to be free, so far North, that you are able to restore your wholeness, to feel safe within yourself; to move calmly at the center of hurricanes.”

In her example, Sherina gave me insights on how to heal, on how to change, and on how to reconcile the relationships that might otherwise be severed. I had to go through and not around, nor under or over. I needed to be honest. I needed to be open. I needed to be authentic. I needed to accept how I viewed myself and others, as well as how others saw me. I chased after it and I’ve been finding it ever since. I was beginning to change. I was becoming whole.

“To be unfukwitable: to vibrate at the frequency of evolution, to be free, so far North, that you are able to restore your wholeness, to feel safe within yourself; to move calmly at the center of hurricanes.”

*Special thanks to Sherina for carving a path out for herself and showing others how to carve their own.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #12: Reflections will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #8 – Where Do I Fit?

When I think about my life, I think about moments in time. I call the significant moments pillars in time. Sophomore year was a life defining year, it was a pillar in time that would hold up the Parthenon that is my life. I wrestled with so many emotions – grief, fear, anxiety, success, loneliness, pain heartbreak, joy, excitement, anticipation, shame, calmness, emptiness. My life felt like a Greek Tragedy. I had three family members pass away in just under a year and a half. A cousin. An uncle. A grandfather. I am a first generation student so I was feeling the pressure to succeed. I still wrestled with being black and what that meant. The year was weighing on me. I needed support. I needed community.

I was fortunate enough to be part of two scholarship cohorts. I was automatically part of a community because of the two programs. I was a Leader Advancement Scholar (LAS) and a Multicultural Advancement and Cofer scholar (MAC). Each of these programs were different. They were made up of different people, targeted different communities, and focused on different experiences. In LAS, the cohort was comprised of mostly white students. In MAC, the cohort included various races and ethnicities, but I would say that it was primarily made up of black students.

With all that carried over from K-12 and life before college, I found myself spending more time with LAS than MAC. I lived in Troutman with MAC scholars, but you wouldn’t have known that. I spent nearly every day of the first year in Barnes with LAS kids, and I moved out of Troutman my second year. I sought out to build deeper connections with LAS students because I hadn’t been shown any mirrors. I didn’t see myself in the MAC scholars’ cohort. I saw myself in LAS.

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I was hypercritical of the MAC scholars program. I took every opportunity to shine light on any fault or annoyance that I found with the program. I’d complain with other scholars. The meetings ran long. The AV didn’t work. This event felt like a waste of time. In hindsight, those events were so important, especially as I clarified my values and began to understand what I wanted to do with my life. (I apologize to anyone who had to deal with that). I didn’t realize it in the moment, and by the end of sophomore year, I left the MAC scholars program and almost left Central.

All year long, I suppressed the pressures of life. I finished the year and spent most of the summer alone in Mt. Pleasant. I had time to learn about myself and “deal” with everything that was slowly crushing me. It was meditative and rejuvenating. I had time to think. Time to be still. Time to just figure things out. That was really when things started to change for me. With emptiness all around me, I had time to find the mirrors. I had time to see my reflection with clear eyes. All the stimulation was gone. All the distractions were silenced. I was finding my fit, and it was inside rather than out.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #9: Space will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #3: Space (The Beechdale House)

The Beechdale house was in my family four three generations. Decades of family history filled the walls. It is a four bedroom house. My favorite part of the house is the French doors that separated the living room from the dining room. Twenty-eight small windows filled each door. Anytime you entered either room, it felt like a grand entrance had to be made. There are seven stairs from the bottom floor to a landing with two windows that let light in halfway up to the top floor, and eight stairs followed upward after a short turn. The living room had three beautiful bay windows, a fireplace, and enough room for everyone. I loved that house. I didn’t love living in it.

There are plenty of happy moments. Like setting up my mom’s old gymnastics mats to have wrestling matches with my brother and our cousins in the living room or playing hide and seek in the dark with 10 people. Even family dinners at my grandmother’s victorian dining room table were very much enjoyed. Those happy moments will always be a prized possession. They also gave way to some of the pressure and anxiety I felt as a child.

I felt like I was suffocating every day. I couldn’t wait to go in my room and shut the door. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted my one space. Everywhere you turned, despite having an immense amount of space, there seemed to be no room for anyone. Throughout my childhood and teenage years someone lived with us –  a cousin, an aunt, a family friend, another cousin… multiple people at the same time. Honestly, the list could go on. I didn’t fully understand the role poverty played in creating these circumstances. I didn’t know people chose between paying rent, buying food, or buying school supplies. I didn’t understand how difficult it must have been to ask for help. I just saw the people taking up space as a burden.

I resented my parents for always welcoming people in. I resented people who seemed to always lean on my parents in a way that took them away from me. At ten years old, I remember breaking down to my dad, the frustration had reached a tipping point. My dad and I sat in our basement for what felt like hours. He asked over and over again, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Help me understand what you’re feeling. What’s wrong?” Each question landing on my ears the way a sledge hammer lands on a wall being knocked down. I searched for an answer with each question. I clawed deeper and deeper to find nothing. Uncontrollably, I responded “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t. I don’t know.” With tears pouring down my face “I DON’T KNOW!” I didn’t have the words to communicate what was crushing me. We left that that moment unresolved and hanging over us like a storm cloud. A few weeks later, I went to a few therapy sessions and it helped a lot. All I wanted was my family. (GET HELP IF YOU NEED IT! THERE IS NO SHAME IN TALKING TO SOMEONE.)

Even to this day, I am very selective of who gets to meet my family. The few people who have met my family have done so because of circumstance. It has absolutely nothing to do with me not wanting people I care about to meet my family. It’s more so about privacy and separation. You see, I love people and I learned that from my parents first. The values my parents demonstrated were love, compassion, humility, and dignity for all. Give as people need. The values communicated by their actions became my core value. People are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances. It took so long for me to learn that.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #4: Resentment will be up and ready for your reading.

 

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Graduation

  1. Hiring Processes are Slow (most not all). When application closes to the start date of a new hire could take 3 weeks or 3 months depending on the organization. Even if an organization tries to move quickly, there are still factors that get in the way of an efficient hiring process. Go in with the expectation that you’ll be in a process for at least a couple weeks and it might reduce your stress.
  2. Moving to a New City/Town/Country is Difficult, Even if You Know People. It can be difficult to feel at home initially. That feeling can last a for a few weeks or a few months. Recently, I moved to East Lansing and for the first month, I just traveled between work and home, with the occasional outing when Maggie visited. However, I found some cool community events that happen consistently. From Community Reads to Music Festivals, there’s plenty to do. The challenge was finding these resources. Googling your city or town might help. There is usually some a website or calendar of events provided by the city or town, especially during the summer.
  3. The Workplace is Very Different Than the Classroom. Companies and organizations are trying to create value. The best way to create value is by solving problems in a way that is effective and efficient, especially when it comes to time and money. Organizations are looking for critical thinking skills, creativity, initiative, and execution. Some organizations may “want” that type of employee, but the organizational culture hasn’t quite caught up yet. Give yourself time to understand the culture and how you can use your skills to be effective. Also, autonomy and decisiveness are important in many professions. Your supervisor may ask you to work on a project, but provide very little feedback during the process. Use that opportunity to be creative and decisive while working within the guidelines of your role.
  4. Relationships Matter BUILDING AND MAINTAINING RELATIONSHIPS IS IMPORTANT. Small organizations may solely rely on teamwork and collaboration. Large organizations definitely rely on the functions of effective teams. Group project members don’t go away at the end of the semester, which makes it that much more important to build trusting, mutually beneficial relationships. Thinking, and working, like an individual only take you so far, and it may also leave you with few supporters. Acknowledge the contributions others make and be sure to extend gratitude when appropriate.
  5. Diversity and Inclusion is Paramount to Success. This statement is loaded in that there are some general perceptions about what this means. The common perception is that diversity comes in the form of numbers, while inclusion means being invited to the table to share your perspectives, which are valued and appreciated. Organizations NEED both. Creating shared experiences to build trust and respect among different people can shift a company culture. Individuals may feel more comfortable sharing and challenging ideas in an environment where trust is shared. The inclusion of diverse perspectives and ways of thinking enhances a teams ability to be more creative in their solution finding, more empathic toward different communities, and more responsible for a common social good. It starts with relationship building.
  6. Initially, Work Will Stress You Out, but Eventually You Will Get the Gang of it (Hopefully). Change is difficult. Learning new skills takes time. Understanding how you fit in an organization takes time. Recognizing your own talents and strengths in a new context takes time. You are capable of learning what you need to learn to be successful. If you don’t know, ask. While talking with various supervisors, I learned that they prefer that you ask for clarification or support rather than moving forward unsure of what you’re supposed to do.
  7. Give Yourself Time to Advance. Ambition is good. It’s even better when paired with discipline and diligence. The perception is that we should be holding executive level roles as soon as we graduate, or at least within a few years of graduation. However, this perception is just that, a perception. For many of us, it will take a lot of work, more time than we expect, more schooling, and maybe even switching careers for us to “climb the ladder” of success. (Sidebar: Identifying what success means to you personally and aligning that with what your organization’s definition of success is important). This can cause undue stress and create a sense of failure if we haven’t progressed. Gain new skills. Build new relationships. Enjoy the process. Be intentional about your learning. Embrace challenges as they come. Try to make your work meaningful.

Keep learning to see the bigger picture.  – VincePRofe (1)