The first professional job I ever had was teaching sexual health part-time at a nationally recognized non-profit. I traveled a short 20-minute commute outside of the city into the surrounding suburbs, but the differences between the two areas were like night and day. As I breezed along the expressway every morning and left the busy hustle and bustle of the inner city behind, I would always look at the opposing traffic braking and beeping loud and do a happy little shoulder-lean to my music over the fact that I didn’t have to be stuck in that mess everyday anymore. When I got off at my exit, it was clear that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore; the most popular spot in an area of all interstate and backwoods was the local Wal-Mart.
I was definitely out of my element, but I didn’t feel the urge to hightail it back to the city so I could be surrounded by people who looked like me and spoke like me. I embraced the duality that had just become my personal and professional life. This particular position meant that I was included in the administrative level of the organization, and surprisingly, I didn’t notice that not only was I one of the youngest employees on this level, but also the darkest. As I entered community meetings and corporate conferences, I knew based on my appearance alone that people thought I looked more like the young women I was teaching more than a facilitator. Still, I wasn’t uncomfortable, and even though I may have looked like I should be asking the questions instead of answering them, I knew that I belonged in those meetings. I’m educated, professional and damn good at what I do.
One of the things that I strive for in my career is to challenge young people to step outside of the world they know. So many young people are afraid to leave the 10 blocks of their neighborhood and unfortunately for some, that means that the only thing they will ever see are a lot of the same, whether that includes hustlers, baby mommas, crime, poverty–whatever. My parents always gave me a certain pride about my community, but they also made my childhood rich with experiences that took me outside of my familiar surroundings. As a result I feel just as comfortable at the block party BBQ as I do at a black tie gala.
But I’ll never forget a class I once observed. While a co-worker and I discussed the different opportunities students would have to visit places like the zoo and the art museum, the first question one young lady asked was, “Will there be white people there?” As we went on to discuss why this was her primary concern, she went on to reveal that she had never been an actual victim of racism, but simply felt like she didn’t belong and wasn’t comfortable around them.