I stumbled into the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion long before there were degrees and certifications validating one’s competency to engage in the work. At the time I worked for an amazing black woman named Vazaskia Caldwell, the YWCA of Pierce County’s first Director of Racial Justice. This new body of work was in addition to her already full plate as a department director. At the time I was a program coordinator working with incarcerated youth and supporting women navigating the horrors of domestic violence. I was so excited to be part of this national movement. The YWCA, USA had recently unveiled its new slogan, “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women”, and encouraged all affiliates to follow suit. The new slogan created division and conflict. It was a reminder that the fight to address the reality of racism and its overarching influence on every aspect of life would need to continue with vigor. Many white women felt strongly that focusing on the rights of all women would naturally lead to the leveling of the playing field for women of color. The division began to surface in day-to-day conversations among staff and volunteers.
I remember engaging in a discussion with another employee at the time who worked hard to convince me that her social status as a white lesbian put her in more danger socially and politically than my status as a black female. I didn’t have the language to fight back with, so I listened while I seethed in anger, knowing that she was wrong but being unable to articulate the feelings and experiences I had navigated all my life.
I felt so ignorant. The inability to communicate using the language of the oppressor infuriated me. I was in my second year at Tacoma Community College and the experience helped fuel my commitment to education and arming myself with knowledge. I had no concept of systemic racism, target or agent identities, peace-making circles, or even what inclusion was, but I was determined to learn. The sociology classes I took are what began to shake my world and clarify what I was experiencing and observing in my own life. The tide began to change, and I began to speak out, wherever I was and regardless of who was present.
Fast forward twenty years. I am now the CEO and founder of RISEWITHKJ, LLC, a small minority owned consulting firm with deep roots in the legal community. I started RISEWITHKJ, in 2017 without any intention of going into full-time business. I needed a business license to respond to requests for my expertise outside of the legal profession, Hence RISEWITHKJ, LLC was born.
After spending ten years in the legal profession leading the WSBA’s DEI work; working as a leadership and equity consultant with JustLead Washington, building relationships, deepening connections, and overtly challenging outright racist and discriminatory behavior it was time to move on.
We have been incredibly blessed in our work. Incredibly, undeniably blessed. I thank God for it all, I thank myself for getting up every day and moving forward despite the barriers I’ve faced, I thank my wife and business partner for the constant encouragement and belief in my abilities and competency and I am filled with gratitude for the many clients we have worked with who have helped us grow, learn, and transform from the inside out.
Working from the inside – out is a philosophy I brought with me to the WSBA and to my work. I believe the inside or internal informs our external way of being.
I began this work twenty years ago and I’ve learned more about myself and the world we live in than I would have ever imagined possible. This summer I found myself in sore need of rest and renewal. I was on the edge of another burnout – translation, putting everyone’s needs before my own. It was time for me to foster the process of my own renewal.
Fostering the Process of Organizational Renewal is one of 8 Leadership Competencies we promote and adhere to. The competencies are embedded in the JUSTLEAD Academy’s core curriculum. The curriculum was initially developed in partnership with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and is designed specifically to enhance the adaptive leadership capacity of advocates and organizations working toward equity & justice within Washington State.
Fostering the process of renewal requires individuals and organizations to engage the ability to bring fresh ideas and energy to the work that they do. This requires regularly stepping back from the day-to-day activities to recharge, to reflect on what you and your team are learning, and how you are collectively operating, and to adjust when necessary to address changing conditions:
• Be open to making change, even when it's uncomfortable and unexpected
• Engage in regular evaluation and reflection
• Consider the experience of yourself, staff, and collaborators
• Be open to innovative and unconventional ideas
To hit the reset button, I booked a weeklong trip to Sedona, Arizona. We registered for a detox and wellness retreat hosted by Sedona Mago Retreat Center. The retreat literally changed my life.
The silence. The peace. The rest.
I couldn’t write one word or even read a book while I was there. All I could do was rest. I slept in between each session. I only saw my wife during sessions and at meals. My mind, my body and my spirit needed deep renewal so that I could heal and hear. I needed to remember why I do this work. Why I stay engaged. Why I keep diving into the most difficult conversations and why I believe the work is needed.
Trigger alert --- WHY I DO THIS WORK…
I know what it means to be molested as a child by a family member you should trust. I know what it means to be molested by friends who are like family. I know what it means to be raped as a teenager and sexually trafficked by adult men who have wives and children. I know what it means to be controlled, threatened, and beaten by your pimp. I know because I lived it. It wasn’t a life-time movie, or a reality show or a meme. This was part of my life, and I learned to survive the best way I could. I survived but it took years of therapy, self-affirmation, and recovering from many bad relationships to heal.
With each professional role I assumed the more I recognized the need for healing in different aspects of my life. The sexual exploitation and abuse I experienced early on taught me to withhold my trust of others except for what I could see and experience with my own eyes. I took every promise with a grain of salt, expecting others to fall short on their word and always ready to find the answer myself.
The work of equity and inclusion requires deep trust for sustainable transformation.
I learned how to trust others very, very slowly and trusting white people was not a priority at all. I was taught by my father to never, ever trust what a white person says to you, to always remember that they will fail you in the end. This was a lesson buried deep in my psyche and it unconsciously influenced all my relationships. Intersect that lesson with the amount of sexual trauma I experienced before the age of eighteen and you can only imagine my challenges with trusting any soul on the planet.
I do this work in part because I understand the internalized terror that can come when being asked to share thoughts and feelings regarding race and other isms with anyone other than those closest to you. I do this work because I want to be the person who creates an intentional space of safety and peace for truth to be spoken even when its painful. I do this work to create a space that was not created for me.
Becoming a Christian in my late twenties turned the tide on my healing and my openness to trusting others. I learned first how to trust this entity that people called God but who I could not see, feel, or touch. I learned the concept of walking by faith and in my desperateness to be healed and to feel whole I gave myself over to it completely. But it was marriage to my third husband that taught me how to trust, forgive and live again.
I know what it means to finally open and trust someone with the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are vitally important to you and to have them betray your trust. I know what it means to be betrayed by a mentor and friend. I know what it means to be blocked out of community, ignored by people you’ve organized with, labored with, and fought the good fight with. I know what it means to be openly lied on and misrepresented by the person who took advantage of you. I know what it means to trust another practitioner in the work only to have them undermine and undercut you behind the scenes. I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed with isolation and silence because you’re the only black face in the room and you don’t know who to trust. I know because I lived it.
I do this work because I recognize the pain that others are carrying which prevent them from believing that engaging in discussions about equity, equality and inclusion won’t end in emotional or physical violence or being socially cancelled by peers and colleagues. I do this work because I have been gifted with the ability to use humor to break the ice, compassion to reach across difference and a sincere desire for peace that transcends the anger and pain I hear in raised or hushed voices speaking their own truth. I do this work because I am an empath who can feel and sense the pain of others without having to be told. I do this work because I want to be the person that says its ok to be you – whomever you are, if being you isn’t causing pain, humiliation, and destruction to others. I do this work because my heart hurts for the pain others are experiencing, and I want to create space for that pain to heal and trust to be reestablished.
We bring ourselves to this work. Every bit of ourselves. I don’t believe we can compartmentalize our trauma to prevent leakage into the everyday aspects of our lives. I believe unresolved, un-healed trauma finds a way to manifest itself because it wants to be acknowledged and healed. I do this work because I believe most of us have experienced some form of trauma and that trauma can be a barrier to us experiencing the safety and trust necessary to create equity for us all. I do this work because in my little corner of the universe I can hold the space necessary for trauma to be discussed without shame, shared without blame, and heard without judgment.
I love this quote by adrienne maree brown
“we are living in impossible times. If it were fiction, it would be critiqued as hyperbolic. If it were nightmares we would never sleep. We are living in times created by our own species. I can’t remember the last time my tears weren’t manmade. It feels like everything Is broken. We must, each of us, fix our attention on the nearest wound, conjure within us the smallest parts of ourselves that are still whole, and be healers. Heal with words and prayer and energy, heal with money, clean water, time, and action. There’s enough destruction. There’s enough nothingness swallowing the living world. Don’t add to it. There’s enough. Our visions are ropes through the devastation. Look further ahead, like our ancestors did look further. Extend, hold on, pull, evolve. “
Shame is such a big, powerful emotion. It shuts us down, closes us off and silences us even when our thoughts and words are valid and justified. Author Brené Brown helped me understand and overcome the power of shame, but the truth is, my work is never done. The trauma I have overcome seems to resurrect itself with each new situation, relationship, or partnership. I have learned that there are what I call evolutionary levels to everything. What might have caused me to feel ashamed five years ago, no longer has power because of the work I’ve done to heal but present me with a new experience, new people etc. and those healed areas begin to tingle again just waiting to erupt and prove that my strategies and tools are outdated and overworked. I have learned that with each new depth of growth and learning the wounded areas in need of further healing become reopened. Reopened for more healing. This is the gift of emotional evolution; the opportunity for greater healing, expanded awareness and increased wisdom for the journey ahead.
I used to think that perfection would keep me from experiencing the crippling shame I grew up with, but it didn’t. The pursuit of perfection from within my frail human form eluded me. I’ve been on this earth long enough to have learned there are no perfect beings; only humans striving for perfection as a tonic to any flaw or perceived defect. I do not believe that any human is perfect and because of that, I understand that the systems we create, the ideas we birth into the tangible, the relationships we engage in, the behaviors we are inclined to are all part of this beautiful, painful mess we call life. Acceptance of my imperfections as a healthy part of my existence was key to helping me heal from shame and guilt. I have no place to judge, my life is not one of perfection or overt goodness, I’ve simply tried to live the best I could with what I have and to be the best version of myself regardless of the circumstances.
I do this work because of the need to create and share space with other humans who are bottled up with shame and guilt. I do this work to extend my hand and heart to those who desire to be seen and heard beyond their mistakes and pain, beyond poor choices and unhealthy behaviors. I do this work to communicate acceptance and understanding regardless of ones socially constructed identity. I hold no illusions regarding our human ability to lie, cheat, steal, kill and destroy one another but I hold an expanded awareness beyond the manifested pain of our human existence. I do this work because I can see beyond vile actions and words to the pain, fear, and misplaced hatred they are anchored in. I do this work because I believe in the desire and ability of humans to live into the best and highest version of themselves.
I do this work because I know what it means to be included in community but not belong. I am African American. My roots are here in the United States. I grew up in a family where I was the only person with light skin. I do this work because I know what it means to be ridiculed because of the color of my skin, told repeatedly that I do not belong and that I must have been adopted. I do this work because I am intimately familiar with the feeling of not being enough, never being good enough never being black enough. I know what it means to be forced to defend myself physically simply because of the color of my skin. I know what it means to be rejected by those who are supposed to be your community, your place of safety and acceptance. I do this work because I learned that humans often operate out of silent pain, disillusionment, and desperation. The desperation of wanting to belong, wanting to fit in, desiring to be something other than what we are. I do this work because of what I’ve learned on the journey towards self-love and acceptance of who I am. I do this work because I desire to help bring healing and hope to others.
The work of race equity is not a job to me or even a career, it is a way of life. I am grateful to have come to this work because another black woman believed in me, invested in me, and opened a door for me. This work is my calling and is anchored in the desire to share whatever I can to assist others on their own unique journey towards self-love and authentic acceptance of others. I bring myself, my whole self to the ministry of this work. I am in pursuit of healing and peace, authentic discussions, and conflict resolution void of emotional and physical violence. I feel incredibly blessed to be who I am. To have lived through what I have and to still have a desire to love and hold space for others.
I am under no illusions; the journey of life is not given to the swift, nor to the strong but to those who endure until the end. I hold no misconceptions that I will be accepted by all, most or even a few but what I do know for sure is that I am here to share what I can of myself to help bring healing to others. I am not for everyone. I have never been the person with a huge group of friends. I am an introvert who consistently engages in extroverted work. I am the introvert that finds it painful to pick up the phone and talk to others, to text loved ones and to invite people to my home. I have invisible disabilities that make work difficult and yet increases my compassion for others. I now see my disabilities as a strength. I still wrestle with episodes of intense feelings of internalized inferiority but I have gained the tools necessary to work through the emotions when they arise.
I wrote this piece with a desire to finally begin speaking my truth more openly. I know that sharing this opens the door to more negativity than any soul deserves but I can no longer ignore the call to speak. The hatred, viciousness, and violence of human interactions can only be stemmed with authentic love and acceptance. The road towards that love and acceptance is both an individual and collective journey. I am here to help others figure out how to change the space they occupy. I am here to bring encouragement and joy to those who are exhausted, angry, afraid, disillusioned and burnt out. I am here to share words of kindness, understanding, compassion and love. I genuinely believe that love conquers all things. It takes time, sometimes longer than a human being desires. I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the three approaches he took to challenging the rise of Nazism; he believed the church was meant to call out injustice; everyone regardless of social identity were victims of injustice and deserved to be helped and that the church had a responsibility to do all that it could to halt injustice.
I am not a theologian, well known activist, politician, sports, or Hollywood figure. I am an ordinary human being using the light of my own life to bring light to others. I went to school much later in life, while raising six kids and working full time. I speak simply and can acknowledge that I am not in command of the “Masters” language but what I am sure of is my call to share a truth much bigger than a title, or public recognition. A truth that speaks to the heart of all of us; that you and I matter.
We can all change the space that we occupy, each day, moment by moment we can impact our sphere of influence. We are wonderfully and beautifully made, each of us. Our social and politically constructed identities are merely facades of our true selves. When we change the mental and emotional space, we occupy our physical and environmental spaces become transformed as well. I know that we can rise together. I know that we can find common connections within our humanity to overcome the many isms meant to keep us separate. I know that we as humans can live into the best and highest versions of ourselves but first, we must examine our individual selves with the light of truth. When we can face and accept the truth of our own pain, pride, and arrogance then we are ready to do our internal healing work. Along that journey we will be given the opportunity to share that truth with others and that is when collective healing can begin.
I do this work because I am called to bring healing through this medium. Someday that may change but for now I am grateful for the individuals, groups and organizations that have and continue to work with us. I do this work because I understand that people will change the world, not systems, programs, or education but humans who develop authentic care and compassion for other humans. I do this work because I have learned that I am whomever I believe I am, and I believe I am a healer, and this work is the tool I have been gifted with to use. Selah.