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Eye to Eye

Last weekend, I watched a docuseries on Netflix, African Queens.  Executive produced and narrated by actress Jada Pinkett Smith, this show highlighted key African women who played significant roles on the continent, and likely the world.  The first portion of the series depicted the story of Queen Njinga (also spelled Nzinga), a 17th century ruler of what is now present-day Angola.  Based on an actual event, there is a scene where Njinga, with the support of the king and before she becomes queen, goes to meet with Portuguese governor Joao Correia de Sousa at the Luanda slave port on the coast of Angola.  She goes to meet with him in an attempt to forge peace with the Portuguese and to cease their stealing of her people and sending them to the Americas via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  After pleasantries are exchanged, Governor invites her and her entourage into a sitting room to discuss the matter – by inviting her to sit on the floor while he sits in a chair.  Njinga, quickly realizing the power play, motions to one of her attendants to come to her. The attendant quickly gets on all fours to allow Njinga to sit on them, so she can face the governor as equals.  Essentially, you do not have to give me a seat at the table for I come with my own.  #BossMove

I later reflected on this scene and found myself thinking about the coy moves people may demonstrate in an attempt to assert dominance and/or some other a misguided belief of superiority over others.  How many times how you found yourself attempting to have a discussion with someone and instead of listening to you, they are obviously more preoccupied with showing you your ‘place’ than attending to the matter at hand?  How many times have you found yourself in the space of deciding whether to say something preserve some sense of self-respect and dignity, or not saying a word because to do so may significantly damage your career?  How many times, after making the decision to not say anything, do you walk away feeling insignificant, disrespected, and probably a little disappointed in yourself for not affirming your right and value to be treated with basic decency?  How many times have you felt you had to make that decision because you were keenly aware that the environment in which you operated in was designed to ‘correct’ persons who not fit some pre-determined mold, whilst elevating those who demonstrate complete disregard for any semblance of respect towards others and professional decorum?

If any of the aforementioned resonate with you, trust me, you are most certainly not alone.  There have been numerous times in my career, in various environments when I have been in such situations, having to do higher order social calculus in a span of mere seconds.  My career or my dignity?  Advancing a project or feeling like a hypocrite around those whom I have shared the importance of boundaries and self-worth?  The struggle is real, and the decision is personal.  To say it is disappointing to feel the need to have to operate like this is a gross understatement.  Though I still have my fair share of encounters where I experience these behavioral demonstrations of childlike insecurity, cloaked in borrowed authority, as I have increased in age and experiences my decision to sacrifice self-respect becomes more and more distant.  I generally make the decision to engage and correct because I believe it is my ‘place’ to teach others to do better in how they not only interact with me, but also persons who look like me and/or are not the image of the status quo.

You see, each engagement with others can serve as a teaching moment for you and the other person.  You are presented an opportunity to learn about the limits of your tolerance regarding various behaviors, such as how others treat you, and how you decide to challenge these behaviors, if at all.  You are also providing the other party with an opportunity to receive feedback on the impact of their actions, thus empowering them to make the decision to adjust going forward.  If they adjust, great.  If not, data point for you.  The learning adventures never cease.

Deciding to speak up is a deeply personal decision as you and you alone will likely face the consequences – good, bad, and in between.  Not your mentor.  Not your parent.  Not your work spouse. You.  So when people tell me they decided to not declare their right to be treated with basic respect, I am sure to not heap more salt onto their wounds because I know they likely made the best decision they could at that time.  My role is to provide support and figure out how to best prop them up going forward with their head held high.  It is part of my value and belief system to figure out how to figuratively and, in some cases, literally give them the tools, support, and resources to face others, eye-to-eye, human to human, equal to equal.  It is also to remind them their value is not dependent on the actions of others, but it is inherent just by the fact they are here.  And I challenge you to do the same for your colleagues, friends, and family members who come to you for support following encounters that may lead to them questioning their worth as employees and as people.

One of my favorite quotes is by newly elected Maryland Governor Wes Moore: “I am not in any room I don’t belong.”  Every room that you step foot in is a better place because you are in it.  Every time you share an idea it tis a blessing to those who have the wisdom to recognize it as such.  Every moment you walk with your head held high it is a melody to the ancestors watching you claim your birthright.  Own it without explanation.

Be well and stay unapologetic,

Dr. Tonya