Traveling anticipations

What are you most looking forward to?

I posed this question to Aaron over drinks last Friday. Our conversation had drifted to our upcoming vacation to Ireland and Scotland, two countries that our respective ancestors called home.

Both of us had been dreaming of these visits for years. In fact, when I was an undergraduate student in Arizona, I had pursued a study abroad program where I would have enrolled at the University of Cork in Fall 2005. I could have spent the days reading acclaimed Irish writers, playwrights, and poets or mused over the prevailing political theories that had resulted in Western European’s attempt to paint itself as colonialists with compassion (note: you’re only fooling yourselves, colonizers.)

Alas, I did not make it across the pond that year. Instead, I was elected to serve as the Chairperson for a student-run nonprofit called Camp Wildcat…and I never looked back. To satiate a small taste, I did enroll in an Irish Literature course that fall, falling in love with “Eureka Street” while remaining in a state of confusion over “At-Swim-Two-Birds” (that has remained through present day).

What I was most looking forward to regarding our adventure wasn’t unique to our destinations of choice. Rather, my anticipations and expectations are borne from the very essence of why I desire to travel: it’s about being surrounded by not-yet-known people where I’m given the chance to listen, absorb, and experience a different way of being.

Recently, Shankar Vedantam, host of “The Hidden Brain” podcast, dedicated an episode to research showing how diverse groups of individuals generate more creative solutions. Whether it is a gathering of musicians from different cultural traditions —

YoYoMa

Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble is a perfect example of how incredibly talented musicians from all over the globe and create harmonies together

or top scientists in the relentless pursuit of a cure, we are able to tap into creativity in unprecedented ways when we sit around a table of people who are not cookie-cutter images of us.

Exposure to other cultures through traveling gives us the glimpse, even briefly, of what exists beyond the walls we have built. We may claim to hail from diverse areas of the country. Yet, when we look at the people who make-up the various constituencies in our lives — co-workers, friends, neighbors, congregations — how often do the people in these groups look/sound/think like us?

It’s not wrong to build relationships with others who do fall more in-step with our way of being. In fact, it’s important for us to find partners and companions who share our identities and experiences, to a point. Where it gets murky is when we only begin to allow individuals into our lives that resemble what we consider our best selves.

Yes, it may feel safer or easier to engage in conversation, as we can say: “I know how you feel” or “I’ve been there.” But, we can be empathetic and understanding to individuals whose life experiences are vastly different than ours as well. It may take more work. We must be willing to abandon our bias and actively listen. We must be able to let go of our singular perspective, which has been shaped by a lot of luck and a little bit of our own accord.

The good news: we don’t have to travel around the world to gain such insights through new connections. Sometimes it is literally us knocking on a neighbors door — you know, the one you’ve maybe thrown a hand up at in acknowledgement as you mutually wheeled your garbage bins to the curb or seen carrying a bag of groceries after a morning of errand-running.

Each day, let’s challenge ourselves to chisel into the walls we’ve built in our own lives. And, when we have the chance to explore, let’s say yes whenever it is possible.

After our “family meeting” on Saturday to walk through our trip logistics (does that really surprise anyone who knows us?), the hunt for the next adventure was on — sketching out itineraries in Colombia, Vietnam, or Peru….for 2019.

Time moves fast. We have to be intentional about creating those opportunities to see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and surround ourselves with difference. Which is why I am most looking forward to being in Ireland and Scotland — to hear fragments of conversation that I may or may not understand; to inhale fragrances from the local flora and fauna; and to arrive with a sense of wonder. I am thrilled by the sense of possibility of what I will learn and who I will meet.

That’s not such a terrible mindset to adopt each day, no matter which side of an ocean we wake up on.

 

Finding one’s roots (literally)

When I grow up, I want to be a farmer.

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This is what farming life is like, right?

I was sitting on an airplane, reading Jen Sincero’s “You Are a Badass”, when this realization first struck me. To that point, I had dabbled in spring and summer gardening, casting “ooohs” and “aahhs” as seedlings emerged from the soil and pollinated flowers transforming into peppers and tomatoes. Owning the title of “green thumb” still felt far in my future. Yet, I savored the moments spent in the dirt, checking each plant’s progress, and nurturing those in need of extra care due to rising temperatures or a hookworm infestation.

I want to have a farm that provides organic, healthy, local food.

I laughed at myself, embarrassed, after a beat. What did I know about farming? I had never even set foot on one to that point. Besides the three years of backyard gardening and the occasional interaction at the Durham Farmer’s Market, I was as green as the crops I so badly wanted to yield.

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This sums up the amount of interaction I had with farm animals to that point. Is that how one properly holds a sheep?

I want to create a place where young people can work, acquire skills, earn an income, and reconnect with the earth.

This pursuit, while ever evolving, stems from my core values of connection to earth, animals, and people; stewardship of natural resources; promotion of well-being; and access to one’s humanity and the skills, values, and temperament to build stronger communities.

During my time teaching in Vance County, my students became intrigued with the various fruits and vegetables I packed for lunch. Upon seeing a bag full of red bell pepper slices, one of my students, Ahmad, gasped: “You’re going to eat those?”

“Yes…?” I responded with that questioning lilt trailing off to signfy my confusion.

“Aren’t those hot?”

I smiled and opened the bag, letting Ahmad know that these red bell peppers slices were far from hot; in fact, they were sweet and crisp. He warily eyed the slice he plucked from the bag, looked at me once more for reassurance, and then took his first bite.

He smiled. “No, these aren’t hot at all!”

Such interactions with Miss Paulson’s lunch offerings took place with jicama, mangoes, and sugar snap peas. While most students lived in a rural county, their ability to access fresh food was minimum. Nearly 1/4 of Vance County residents are below the federal poverty line and 30% of children live in food insecure homes. But, don’t worry folks: there are dozens of fast food restaurants in the county seat of Henderson:

Henderson_fast food

I’ve thought about my students, their families, and the broader Vance County community a lot since leaving in 2009. Often, these reflections are tinged with guilt and sadness. I left. I had the choice to leave, and I did without hesitation. On the surface, I became an example of “white privilege tour of poverty” levied at Teach For America.

But, I promise you that while I physically left Henderson, I’ve never forgotten it.

Back to the plane: here I am, seeking out my purpose. And images of Vance County surged from my past and plopped down on the tray table in front of me, wriggling with anticipation. What if such a place could exist in Vance County, partnering with the school system, community leaders, and other organizations? Do such programs and projects already exist within Vance County or in surrounding places that I could support and learn from?

I want to create a place where young people have the opportunity to learn and demonstrate empathy and compassion to creatures and crops.

I want to develop a platform for them to build strength — physical, mental, and spiritual. I want to give them the tools to cultivate the earth at their homes and churches to transform our food system from reliance on processed, transactional products to homegrown, transformational produce. 

This lightbulb moment took place two years ago. At first, it was easy for me to shrug off taking further action. Between work and professional commitments, I was too busy. There wasn’t enough time; I didn’t have enough energy.

image (1)

I’ve done two volunteer shifts at the Piedmont Animal Farm Refuge in Pittsboro. Nothing says getting more hand’s on experience than cleaning out goat barns!

Alas, I have cast those constraints to the side. The call rings louder and louder each day for me to do something to work towards this dream. This past week, I finished Will Allen’s “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” about his project to transform the food system starting in his Milwaukee home. There are a multitude of stories similar to Will’s where people just starting doing. He emphasized that call-to-action in his book on several occasions.

Just start doing.

One theme I heard from two of the #NonprofitSTRONG Summit conference breakout sessions I attended involved honoring one’s roots. Our ancestral histories can be fraught and painful. And, they are still part of us.

I’m sorry that I know so little of my family lineage. One thing I do know is that I come from a line of agricultural stock. In fact, I still have extended family members operating farms in Minnesota. Perhaps the seeds of my dream were planted for me by past generations. Perhaps it’s part of the social awakening that the systems we have to nourish and feed us are failing us instead. Perhaps its a selfish quest to marry all of my passions — education, food, conservation, mentorship — under one perfect umbrella.

Perhaps it will all be a bust. But I won’t know if I don’t do.

The less sugar-coated version of desert

No, we’re not talking about those sweet treats that evoke feelings of comfort, happiness, and mayhaps a slight tinge of guilt. Instead, we’re dropping one “s” and focusing on the bizarre cultural phenomena of ascribing certain people’s situations to their supposed ethics.

Case in point:

Whether outwardly acknowledged or not, Americans (generally) hold two distinct viewpoints about people:

Wealthy people deserve to be rich.

Poor people deserve to be poor.

You may read those two sentences above and exclaim (perhaps just in your head) that you would never subscribe to those sentiments. Those are ludicrous and unfair!

I’m in complete agreement with you. Yet, I see that even those of us who like to believe that we’re above such projections often help perpetuate them through unconscious actions.

Before we dive into what those might be, let’s push pause for a moment and ask: how did we get here? Why do Americans believe so strongly in the correlation of someone’s socioeconomic status and the values/skills/traits that contributed to their lot?

A 2017 Pew Research study examined the question of what makes someone rich or poor and found that partisan affiliation was one of the most significant influences on viewpoint.

By about three-to-one (66% to 21%), Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say hard work, rather than a person’s advantages, has more to do with why someone is rich. By nearly as wide a margin, Democrats and Democratic leaners say the opposite: 60% say a person is rich because they had more advantages than others, while just 29% say it is because they have worked harder.

We Americans heart (as the kids say) the idea of the self-made person. You know, the one where someone (typically a man) pulls himself up by bootstraps and changes the world. But, guess what folks? These types of stories don’t speak for the hundreds of thousands who have been disenfranchised to even begin accessing certain resources to move beyond their current socioeconomic status. No access to loans to start a business; social supports for guidance; or even safe spaces to allow an idea to bear fruit.

Check this reporting out from Sam Pizzigati at Inequality.org:

“Just over 3 percent of the Forbes 400, the United for a Fair Economy researchers found, have left no good paper trail on their actual economic backgrounds. Of the over 60 percent remaining, all grew up in substantial privilege.

Those “born on first base” — in upper-class families, with inheritances up to $1 million — make up 22 percent of the 400. On “second base,” households wealthy enough to run a business big enough to generate inheritances over $1 million, the new UFE study found another 11.5 percent.”

If working hard equals being born in the right family, then congratulations! You’re ability to control the environment where sperm and egg came together forming you is commendable and well-deserving of wealth. But, I am going to hazard a guess that no one would admit to being successful at such an endeavor. Generally speaking, members of the upper and owning classes don’t work harder than members of the poor, working, and middle classes. They just got lucky.

How us do-gooders help to stop reinforcing this notion of desert

If we truly believe that much of our life is determined by luck — where we’re born, who we are born to, the societal expectations for our identities — then we need to be active in dismantling this “norm.”

#1: Eliminate the knee jerk reaction to include language around “people abusing the system” when talking about social supports.

I hear this far too often. This qualifer — “I know some people abuse the system and all…” Why is this commentary necessary? There are a lot of systems — social, financial — that people “abuse” every day. Sometimes those individuals make a lot of money. No, that’s not people utilizing the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) (in 2017, 42 million Americans were enrolled).

 #2: Talk about other forms of government “handouts” that exclusively benefit wealthy, owning class individuals.

If you were completing your own tax paperwork this year, did you celebrate the credits you were able to claim? Mortgage? Educational payments? How about contributions to your retirement?

Oh, did you think you weren’t one of “those people” receiving government handouts? And those three examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Yacht taxes. Rental property write-offs. No more estate tax.

And think of all of the incentives local and state governments offer multi-million and multi-billion dollar companies.

#3: Reflect on how you evaluate philanthropy and charitable giving.

Making a donation to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization makes people feel good (and it used to make people feel even better because you could write it off on your taxes! Now, less incentive. But again, who does that credit really benefit?). But, what does a 501(c)(3) designation truly tell you about a nonprofit?

It tells you that someone(s) completed the appropriate paperwork and paid the fee to the Internal Revenue Service. Consider it akin to the SAT or ACT tests many high school students may choose to take to pursue higher education. Do those tests — or any standardized test — truly evaluate someone’s preparedness for learning or intelligent? No. The tests reveal how a student performed on that test on that date at a certain time. That’s it. Sure, if you have access to resources, you might have been able to receive more instruction on how to prepare; you may have developed better study habits because of the schools you’ve been able to attend. But, it doesn’t mean that you’re better than someone else who didn’t.

Community-based organizations are the same. Just because a group doesn’t have that shiny seal of approval from the IRS, or has less than 10% “overhead”, or whatever Guidestar review it should have, doesn’t mean that the organization and its people aren’t doing vital work.  Avoid fanning “the flames of injustice.”

We can get hung up on giving to nonprofits that have the best name recognition or the shiniest covers. But real work to eradicate hunger, upend poverty, and dismantle systemic racism doesn’t come in 120lb gloss paper. It comes with sweat and tears. It can’t be captured in an annual report and doesn’t make an appearance at the gala.

Desert. Do people deserve their lot? Do you work hard? Are you wealthy? Do you know individuals who have struggled financially? Are you aware of the wealth you may have, even if income seems a bit spotty?

 

 

 

 

Being the #1 charity won’t end systemic racism

On my drive home from the gym this morning, I spotted a proclamation from the roadside glowing marquee of a nonprofit organization:

“Ranked #1 charity in North Carolina” alongside the Guidestar logo

This organization provides vital services to people experiencing homelessness; who are facing food insecurity; who are under-or-unemployed; who lack access to mental or physical health services.

So, what’s the problem? Why should we not also celebrate the achievement of being recognized as the top charity across the Old North State?

As my friend Atrayus reminded us at the YNPN Triangle NC #NonprofitSTRONG Summit in 2016, on the whole, nonprofit organizations are not achieving their missions. Whether we work to end homelessness, increase access to the voting booth, or close the achievement gap, we’re working in systems that have been intentionally designed to lead to inequities. Therefore, until we address that we’re operating in a flawed framework, we will continue to fail, number one rankings or not.

Each time the conversation, especially in nonprofit circles, turns to tackling systemic issues, the typical positive, optimist outlooks morph into echo chambers of negativity.

“It’s too much.”

“It’s too hard.”

“No one will fund that type of work.”

“(Insert group impacted by nonprofit’s service) needs help now. They don’t have time to wait for us to construct a new infrastructure.”

Each of these pushbacks isn’t wrong, per say. A commitment to systemic change can be too much; it is neither easy work nor work considered sexy by typical funders. Yes, people/animals/communities/natural resources do need champions in the here and now.

When we hear of individuals in other fields — science, business, sports — overcoming seemingly impossible odds, we laud them with accolades. They are our new muses, our latest inspirations. These innovators have defied what we thought possible within our current systems of knowledge and understanding.

Why can’t the nonprofit sector do this too? Why do we let the trope of being undervalued and meek permeate into our assessment of our own capabilities to upend and re-imagine systems? We are committed, passionate individuals whose values extend beyond the individual and to the whole. But, if we refuse to shrug off the restraints we have placed on ourselves — not to mention the ones broader society wraps around our bodies, hearts, and minds — then we will never be able to fully live our values.

Systems are behemoths. They can exist without us even interacting with them. And we allow this cycle to continue, day in, day out. I believe this happens because we either aren’t able or aren’t willing to push pause, really take a close look our systems, and name them for what they are: racistTherefore, systems plus racism equals…

Systemic racism. The folks at Race Forward have fabulous resources on what systemic racism is and how it shows up across a myriad of ways: employment, incarceration rates, education, health outcomes. Here’s one video focused specifically on how systemic racism is connected to wealth.

It doesn’t matter if we’re good people committed to racial equity. It doesn’t matter if we work at a nonprofit with a fabulous mission. We need to continue to do both of this AND actively disrupt systemic racism.

How do we start?

  1. Learn the definitions. What is race? What is racism? Is it the same as prejudice or discrimination? Community-based organizations like Dismantling Racism offers answers and more free resources.
  2. Explore how systemic racism shows up in your life, work, and community. Tap into an existing organization or network to get started.
  3. Learn more about systemic racism. Check out Podcasts like “Pod Save The People” . Read books like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, “Stamped From The Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi or any on lists provided by Internet-favorites Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. Attend a training or workshop. Talk with friends who have to a training or workshop.

Baby steps, yes. Every day, we have to take at least one step. What is your step today? What will be your step tomorrow?

Plod forward. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. But it’s way to truly achieve what we all believe in.

Instead of charity rankings, we’ll be able to close our doors. Nonprofits shouldn’t have to exist. We fill holes, gaps, flaws in our systems.

Let’s go to work.

Catalyst for commitment

Major observances, such as birthdays and holidays, often provide the catalyst for commitment, at least in my experience.

Last week, I celebrated with family and friends, near and far, the “achievement” of completing around rotation around the sun. I argue that luck and privilege served as the two driving forces behind that achievement. Still, I won’t squander the opportunity to give gratitude for more time to give and receive love; to build community; to learn; to fail; and to fight for a more just, equitable world [dismantling racism, white folks. Let’s name it.]

A re-branding of this blog seemed in order as I have (for the nth time) reaffirmed that I want to be a writer. And I want to be a good writer. Such ambition requires continual practice, reflection, and refinement. As a budding pianist, I recall drawn out fights with my parents, particularly my mother, when it came to carving out time for the dreaded “p” word. My seven-year-old entitled self truly believed that I could merely show up to each lesson and have improved by the grace of the Almighty without tickling a single ivory over the previous seven days.

I’m a tad ashamed to admit this, but this attitude followed me through much of my younger life. In 4th grade, I joined our elementary school concert band as a clarinetist. Again, I chalked up practicing as something other people did. That’s not to say that I never practiced throughout my  brief musical career. In high school, as I picked up the saxophone and melaphone, I recognized a need for me to spend time building my embouchure, finding the right pitch, and running through the various scales.

But how much better could I have been! (she types with regret)

This older (and much wiser) version of Katie recognizes and embraces commitment and persistence to a degree that younger Katie couldn’t fathom. However, I still find opportunities to derail myself in pursuit of how I want to be spending the limited resource of time.

Who do I want to be? When people look at my life, what would they say? While I’m not *quite* ready to write my obituary (a very uncomfortable exercise I experienced last year), I want to end the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors that keep me from growing into my desired identities.  What I want to be requires work. I could continue to show up. I could continue to coast. But, why? And how would that reflect my core values? Short answer: it wouldn’t.

Passion. Bliss. Contentment. These outcomes thrive in settings when your actions align with your values, personal mission, and vision. I’ve spent the last few months (ok, let’s be real, the last 20+ years) defining and re-defining each of those based on new information received, relationships gained and lost, and experiences processed. I hope that I maintain a growth and stretch mindset when it comes to self-awareness and self-assessment. In order to be the type of person that I want to be — for you and for the rest of the world — I must continue to check my assumptions, my bias, and my adherence to positions.

As of May 28, 2018, I want to work toward being a person who is known as:

  1. A trusted, honest, and loving wife/friend/family member.
  2. A person committed to antiracist work in all aspects of life.
  3. A writer who avoids wasting your time or her breath.
  4. A student hungry for knowledge.
  5. A future farmer who wants to cultivate a healthier, more sustainable natural world.
  6. A leader who is unabashedly relentless in demanding respect and justice and who can throw her head back and laugh loudly without apologizing.

The mindfulness practice that I started six months ago has created the mental space for me to explore each of these six areas to various degrees. Now, with more mindful prioritizing of my time, I look forward to improving upon each of these hats, one day at a time.

Today is day one.

That moment during ‘Waitress’ where I wanted to stand up and scream

Not the typical response during a Broadway musical, perhaps. Especially one built on the bubbly, emotional-fueled songs of Sara Bareilles. But, it wasn’t Sara’s fault that I felt compelled to stop the show and decry the scene unfolding on the stage.

If anyone needs to be blamed, then I will point a finger at the original book’s author, Jessie Nelson. Although I don’t like to blame others. It’s counter productive.  Instead, let me offer an open letter (are those still a thing??) to the writer about what bubbled up inside me at the pivotal scene in the musical:

Dear Jessie,

Former NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano said: “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.”

Adopting that approach to evaluating a day, I can proudly share that I had a heck of a day yesterday thanks to seeing the traveling production of Waitress. However, I also experienced a level of frustration that left a stain on my memory of the show. It has to do with this:

Waitress2

Jenna is a woman who has clearly endured years of pain and suffering due to an abusive relationship. She is a dedicated friend and employee; she creates and shares willingly. She is not perfect; she perseveres yet doesn’t allow herself to achieve actual happiness.

But then she has her baby and EVERYTHING IS SUNSHINE AND ROSES. She has the courage to leave Earl and start her own business. She reclaims her self-worth and finds her entrepreneurial chops. Obviously, she shares this newfound realization in a musical number dubbed ‘Everything Changes’ where Jenna sings:

“Today’s a day like any other
But I’m changed, I am a mother
Oh, in an instant
And who I was has disappeared
It doesn’t matter, now you’re here
So innocent
I was lost
For you to find
And now I’m yours, and you are mine.”

I do not doubt that such a moment could have such a profound impact on someone’s perspective and life. Yet, as an audience member struggling with infertility, it felt like a reinforcement that achieving motherhood is the ultimate quest. My life remains in gray until that moment of bringing a life into this world. If my life was a mess prior to this moment, then it will be magically scrubbed anew. 

If that is the measuring stick we’re using for women like Jenna, that such troubled lives can be turned around completely after taking on the role of mom, what does that mean for those of us who cannot — or don’t want to — take that journey? It reminds me of my former high school students, many of whom actively sought getting pregnant in order to create something to love — and something to love them — in their lives. 

While I applaud Jenna’s metamorphosis, I do wish that it didn’t have to be fully centered on becoming a mother. Because that makes me feel sad, inadequate, and worried that I don’t ever fully realize my best self if I can’t become a mother. Will I be able to experience that type of love and empathy? Will I ever feel that overwhelming sense of joy that I have watched play out in film, TV, books, and now a musical?

I know you can’t answer my questions, Jessie. But thanks for listening.

Sincerely,

Katie

Stop Telling Women to Smile

The costs of emotional labor

Emotional labor: something we give daily, often without much consideration. And, it is also something we demand daily from others. Again, this expectation often stems without much thought or deep analysis as to why we expect others to give their emotional labor freely and what the ramifications and costs are for that individual.

Let’s back up for a moment: what is emotional labor? Here are a few examples and perspectives:

“In a work context, emotional labor refers to the expectation that a worker should manipulate either her actual feelings or the appearance of her feelings in order to satisfy the perceived requirements of her job. Emotional labor also covers the requirement that a worker should modulate her feelings in order to influence the positive experience of a client or a colleague.” – Rose Hackman, The Guardian

“Emotional labor includes the management of negative emotions and the cultivation/performance of positive emotions as determined by the nursing role (Bolton, 2001). In addition to the specialized, technical labor required of today’s nurses, they are required to effectively manage their own and others’ (e.g., patients, physicians, aides, coworkers) emotions, so patients and their families retain a sense that calm, confident, and effective care is being provided. As others have shown, however, the expectations surrounding the performance of such emotional labor—or the management of one’s observed emotional displays for pay (Hochschild, 1983)—are not equally distributed across all occupational sectors or incumbents (Fixsen & Ridge, 2012Wingfield, 2010a). Beginning with Hochschild’s (1983) original study, for example, the performance of emotional labor has been framed as a gendered experience linked to sociocultural stereotypes of women as more emotionally competent and community-oriented (Ridgeway, 2008).” – “I Can Never Be Too Comfortable: Race, Gender, and Emotion at the Hospital Bedside”, Marci D. Cottingham,  Austin H. Johnson and Rebecca J. Erickson, National Institute of Health

““When they go low, we go high,” said Michelle Obama during that epic, make-you-want-to-cry speech on the first night of this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. For the next 15 minutes, Mrs. Obama moved a nation from the needle of fear and hate sharpened so dangerously by Donald Trump. FLOTUS spoke to the hearts of a country, dealt with the hate of an opponent, invoked a bloody history, and re-imagined “Make America Great Again” to “America is the greatest country on earth.” She lifted the DNC from confusion and controversy to optimism and committed engagement. Essentially, FLOTUS was doing the emotional labor so many Black women do in nation building, movement building and electoral politics. Black women’s emotional labor matters.” – Esther Armah, Ebony Magazine

Bottom line: there are expectations built within our culture that women, especially women of color, have to take on certain tasks and perform in certain ways. Why? Somewhere in our DNA, we were born with a skill set that makes us the best:

  • caregivers
  • event planners
  • notetakers
  • listeners
  • secretaries
  • assistants
  • customer service representatives
  • nurses
  • wait staff
  • flight attendants
  • doormats

Whatever we can do to make your experience the most pleasant, we will. Or, at least that’s the social value underpinning the concept of emotional labor. And that value does not require or even suggest that women should receive greater financial compensation for that work; equal access to power or decision-making; or even outward acknowledgement of their contributions.

Conversations around emotional labor are happening with greater frequency, which is great. Yet, how do we shift from deep discussions to real actions to address this social and economical inequity?

Reader! You can make an impact on this at your workplace, on boards you sit on, wherever you have the space to exercise privilege and power. And, you can most certainly take responsibility for shifting these norms within your own mind.

Don’t pigeonhole women to play key roles within a team/organization.

Y’all: I’m tired of the assumption that because of our “good handwriting”  or “innate skills” we will want to be the secretary/note-taker of the group. Those roles require the individual to divide their attention between participation and record-keeping, which means less opportunity to fully participate in the process. Women, especially women of color, have been shut out of these processes for eons. Step up and assume that role. Hold other men in the group accountable for doing the same.

Provide financial compensation for trainings, speaking engagements, and knowledge-sharing.

I work in the nonprofit sector, and I get it: we feel stretched when it comes to allocating funding for professional development and thought-leaders. Whether we’re planning a conference or hosting a forum, we request that experts donate their time and talent for our cause/purpose. Good for our bottom line = not equitable for said speaker.

We live in a world where we have access to vast amounts of information, and most of it comes without a price tag. At least, a visible one. But, we need to recognize that within that tweet (shout-out to Monét Noelle Marshall who educated me on this frequent type of informational co-option sans compensation) or workshop, someone is providing a service for you. They aren’t just “doing their job” but are actively participating in arming you with knowledge to make a difference, which will often result in a net positive for you/your organization. Pay them. If you don’t have the means to cut them a check, find other ways to compensate them in the exchange: a meal, in-kind marketing and promotion, etc. While those other options are fine, I would still argue that actual payment in cash is the ultimate goal. We can do a better job to allocate those funds within our budgets from the start. (Yes, we’re talking about being intentional.)

Let go of norms that people in certain jobs should act in a certain way.

There are certain jobs in our world that fall under the category of “performance”: dancers, musicians, actors, etc. The server at the restaurant is not one of those jobs. Neither is a receptionist. There are a myriad of examples where any gendered or non-gendered individual can hold a certain title, but we (consumers) expect different outputs depending on whether we perceive that person as female or not.

It behooves us to question our own emotions when we feel slighted in a service experience. Is our reaction based on our perception that the individual, because of their gender, should have acted in a certain way? What are the dangers of the assumption? Lost wages, lost jobs. The continuation of gendered norms that transfer to the next generation. The toll it takes on that individual (self-worth, self-acceptance).

As a white woman, I cannot and should not speak for women of color who are disproportionately burdened by emotional labor expectations. Here are voices speaking to this intersectional oppression and ways to dismantle such discriminatory norms:

A final takeaway from Adia Harvey Wingfield in a 2016 Atlantic piece on this fraught and frustrating topic:

“On the face of it, emotional labor can seem something normal and commonplace in an economy where service jobs are so ubiquitous. But as a lot of research shows, the pressure to produce and manufacture certain emotional states can be more draining for some employees than others. When thinking through various workplace inequalities, such as wage gaps and a lack of diversity in certain occupations, it’s just as critical to consider how important unseen labor is in shaping how work gets done, and who gets to do it.”

Featured image credit: Clyde Fitch Report: http://www.clydefitchreport.com/2016/02/black-women-misogynoir-communication/