I am going to preface this by saying while it took me four years to do this it won’t be the same for everyone else. Somebody might be able to do this in a week or a day. But the reasons it took me a year might be familiar to others on a similar journey. This is one of my break down posts. Where I share a story about my path to success which is rarely, if ever, straight and narrow.
On a particular day in my Sophomore year in about three semesters I started realizing the subtle hints, put-downs and otherwise offish feelings I was getting from my peers weren’t just because of my quirky personality. Quite a few times, I received “positive” feedback that I impressed people by being a Black chick interested in engineering and it finally started to irritate me in the way that it should.
But as a rising student leader this made me dig in. I found a way to do what I do best, which is herding cats. I love using my skill set in what some most certainly would call AD&D for big projects and crisis management. I can pick up a whole world on my shoulders because I only hold it for a few seconds. So I took on some major science and research projects that both had great funding, amazing teams, quick turn around deadlines and big turnouts. For the next year and a half, I was at different times coordinating a team with over 30 students, managing a budget of 10,000 dollars and reaching over 2,000 strangers though STEM outreach, and developing virtual reality!
But my first event exclusively for diversity and inclusion was a photo shoot.
Last summer, during my time as an intern, I learned a lot about cultural bias and representation in the technology world. I used the stock photos from the Women of Color in Tech Chat photo shoot. This story became a source of inspiration that taught me about the restrictions of positive representation of people of color in media and tech. Realizing that stock photos at the time were tough to find, I decided I wanted to create a set of my own, but my first try entirely flopped. Money and space were the issues. I realized my network was too small to make it happen without better resources.
That school year quite a few things happened on campus and in Idaho that did not help my self-esteem or sense of safety. One incident was that my club’s homecoming float, that paid tribute to Black Lives Matter, was vandalized right before the homecoming parade. That made me feel very unsafe on campus. A lot of people said, well this is Idaho, get over it.
I poured more time into my POC community than my time in other extracurricular activities. I went to more POC club meetings, helped organize multicultural events, and along with my peers, faced off with the student government. I eventually found myself a part of a committee to form an Inclusive Excellence Student Council at my school. And I found a place where I belonged and felt sure in my identity of bringing my whole self to school. My connections grew while I found myself developing true friendships, hearing and listening to people of color all the time.
So a couple of weeks ago I tried the photo shoot idea again. I have had the privilege of working for a couple of tech companies in internships and was able to pay a photographer. That was one milestone. The second was to focus on taking up space in my local community. This design meant I didn’t need to book an expensive studio or space. I could use the great outdoors if I needed to. The next and most important part of the success of the photo shoot was the people. This summer, when I put out the call, I had many activists, student leaders people of color and supporters that were willing to gather in a visible space and do this photoshoot.
Don’t get me wrong, building relationships with other people of color in Idaho can be hard. One reason it is hard is that there are a lot of White people in Idaho, which can mean that it is more likely for a White person to know another local Black person than it is for a Black person to know a local Black person. Sometimes paths never cross. Also, the barrier to entry for the POC community in Idaho is high because it often feels like there is only one diversity group in any area on campus or in town and it doesn’t always fit with my personality or preferences. The unfortunate truth for many marginalized students on our campus is if they choose to prioritize fit over availability it usually means isolation from a more diverse population on campus. There are plenty of fraternities or sororities, faith-based organizations and even civic duties to perform but not so much available in the area of cultural representation and cultural diversity.
It took me a year of mining relationships, sticking with it and being present to find my group. It didn’t come quickly but with patience and a lot of listening, I finally realized my goal to create an event that focuses on my POC community. My beautiful, growing and ever vibrant advocates, organizers, troopers and friends!
If you want to put on an event that benefits marginalized groups here are three tips:
Don’t out anyone!
My other failed attempts that I didn’t mention in this post focused too much on having other people of color stick out and recognized for who they are. And that is not always something that people want to do. When creating more public facing events, I had to expand my network to people who were also comfortable being visible.
Not every person of color wants the responsibility of bearing their soul to the world and you really can’t and shouldn’t force that on anyone. More genuine relationships instead of publicity stunts mean more possibilities.
It is tough to be a useful ally if you can’t understand the words that people are saying. After a year of observing my POC community, I felt I had learned a new language. Before I began to spend more time with them, I had no idea what the terms code switch, unconscious bias, intersectionality or even transgender were. Nobody around me in the engineering college or the honors college talked like these students did. At first, I wasn’t picking up on inclusive behavior and how to monitor and disrupt my own cultural biases. When you listen carefully, maybe more closely than usual, it is easier to catch the double meaning and the broader context that even exists in majority groups. The problem and the real truth is, we have been conditioned to have a firm belief in the validity of White culture. Sometimes to the point that Whiteness is almost invisible and does not allow the appreciation of anything genuinely different. I use the lack of diversity in the film industry as an example, without diverse perspectives inside one of America’s most prolific media forms, multicultural understanding is not disseminated very well through the country.
Don’t be an outsider
If you plan to put on an event for a group you do not identify with or even a group you DO identify with, and you don’t have an invitation to do so or a request, don’t EVER do it on your own. If there aren’t two to three people that you can call and who represent the community as well, it is better to sit on the idea and wait. What I learned to do instead of having these strategic partnerships was to jump on the bandwagon for other opportunities that were being started by other people. This realization allowed me to lend my perspective and gain the trust of the POC community. The valuable tip here is to genuinely interact with the people you want to be an ally with, speak their language and WAIT to be accepted. And when I say the ability to call other people that represent these diverse groups I do mean call. Emails and reaching out on social media have become more useful but I do not call student government leaders my friends because I emailed them a couple of times. I call them my friend if they are my FRIEND and supporter.