Meandering Toward a Meaningful Something

This is a written version of remarks delivered at the Barnard College '13 Reunion Class Dinner on Friday, June 1, 2018. Although the message is similar, the tone differs; shout-outs are muted, jokes geared to the room omitted, and an anecdote or two have been added.

 

Allow me to preface my reflection with a disclaimer that I need to revisit on a continual basis: People share versions of themselves that are edited to various degrees. Everything from who we are in person to our Instagram accounts are curated to some extent. I am no different. I meticulously craft my image, shielding the less enchanting moments from view. Since this reflection centers on the circuitous path I’ve taken since graduation, I want to acknowledge that there have been many bumps in the road omitted from this telling.

Had reunion been in the spring of 2014, summer of 2015, winter of 2016, or damn near any day in 2017, I would not have chosen to speak before you all. 

That begin said, it is my distinct pleasure to address you, fellow members of the Barnard College class of 2013. For being just five years removed from college, my roles have been surprisingly varied. I’ve had whirlwind adventures with stints in idyllic places and a few tumultuous seasons sprinkled in between. However, the constant has been a commitment to seeking opportunities that challenge and nourish me as profoundly as I have felt bolstered by Barnard. 

As a child I was a part of communities where I was often the only. There we so few black people in the lives of my peers that I learned the name of the lone black girl at another school from acquaintances who mistakenly greeted me with her name.  I grew up with few black peers and with the exception of my parents, there were essentially no black adults within my communities. My school had no black teachers or staff, except for the band director. My extracurricular activities were similar. By the time I arrived at Barnard, my relationship to race was consumed by the struggle of being a token. I was featured in nearly every enrollment brochure while regularly being asked asinine questions like whether or not black people get darker in the sun.

I dreaded engaging with blackness. There were few things I resented more than Black History Month, which to me was the time of year when I would be asked to speak as the representative of all black peoples -- virtually none of whom I even knew. In high school we read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  I was seething with a deep discomfort masked as rage; furious that we were reading the novel because it would draw unwanted attention and leave room for conversations I was actively avoiding. I wanted no part in serving as a bridge for my peers to engage with race, so I barricaded myself from stories made for me and histories bound to my own. By the end of high school I was desperate for a new environment. From a very young age it had been clear to me that I needed to find my people and my place. New York seemed as good a place as any to begin my search.  

But Barnard presented a different set of challenges. I distinctly remember walking into Hewitt dining hall on the first day of orientation and feeling a wave of terror. Barnard had more black representation than I had ever experienced (more a comment on my childhood than on the racial make up of our class), but that also made it the first place I had to deal with race in a broader way. I remember thinking to myself,

"Could I belong here as a student if the majority of people who looked like me were in service of a student population that largely did not? Would I find the daily reminder of the limited opportunities most black people have access to more isolating or demoralizing than being the token black kid?"

It took time, but in many spaces and among various groups at Barnard I finally felt I belonged. By junior year I was beginning to experience what belonging can ignite in a person. In classes at Barnard, which on the surface did not look much different from my high school literature class, I felt visible to and supported by my peers and our professors. I grew comfortable enough to explore topics I would not have risked engaging in just a few years prior. It was becoming clear to me that the same stories and histories I had refused to engage with were points of entry into a world I was so desperate to find.

For most of my childhood I was keenly aware of feeling out of place. I had been so hellbent on finding a place where I felt more at ease that I had never thought past relocating. Midway through fall semester junior year, I realized three of my six professors that semester were black and was moved to tears. I didn’t know what I was missing until I had it. At twenty,  it was the first time I'd ever had a black classroom teacher. At Barnard, for the first time, I was beginning to envision who I wanted to be in the future and not just how I wanted to feel in the present. Long before taking Feminist Theory or knowing anything at all about Tina Campt, I would see her walking through Barnard Hall and imagine what adulthood could look like for me. I could point to the work and character of Tina Kampt, Kim Hall, Neferti Tadiar, Lisa Hollibaugh, Monica Miller, Caitlin Trainor, Maria Rivera Maulucci and many others and see traits that I wanted to cultivate in myself. It was life affirming and comforting in a way that continues to unfold years later. Yet as brilliant and captivating as my professors, advisors, deans, and instructors were, the most important lesson I learned at Barnard was the power of belonging.

You only need to feel a sense of belonging one time to carry yourself more confidently thereafter. Barnard was the first community that I felt enough a part of to dare to seek out a context in which to ground my sense of self. The sanctuary I found in Barnard and the growth it facilitated in me raised my expectations for what can be accomplished in a semester, in a summer, in a year. I left Barnard more comfortable in my skin - across various identities - than I would have allowed myself to consider possible. And armed with a new found confidence and the incredible network we’re so fortunate to access, it was time to embrace life outside of these halls.

In my first role, I worked for a women founded and led professional services start-up in the City and took two lessons from my client development role there. 1) I am not cut out for sales. 2) You can love what you do. I did not love my job. But I had been in the company of people who felt passionately about their work and after just under a year, I did a 180 degree turn in search of work that nourished me. In the summer of 2014 I moved to New Orleans. I was fortunate enough to work with two cohorts of nine and ten-year-olds and amazing educators. Teaching was an incredibly rewarding and challenging experience. I found myself fixating on the systemic factors that impacted every facet of their day-to-day lives.

On a basic level, wealth affords people choice. A person who is wealthy but ailing, would likely give up significant wealth in exchange for a return to good health. In contrast, a person lacking material wealth in an environment where wealth does dictate autonomy is not restricted by their means. The vast majority of my students' parents worked in part time roles for employers who lack the decency to give part time employees a regular schedule. Meaning they could not commit to picking up in their child on a recurring basis after tutoring. They could not consider taking a second job, because they never knew which days they had off. 

As a teacher I learned 1) I was drawn more to the systemic factors that were barriers for my students than than I was drawn to the micro moments with them, no matter how magical or energizing the breakthroughs. I continue to have so much respect for teachers who are so resilient in committed to the meaningful impact they make in the lives of students and their families. 2) My preference is a more quiet, introverted workday. So when a operating role at a start-up travel company geared toward black millennials became available, I jumped at the opportunity to return to the private sector. 

At the travel company, I made incredible friendships and for the most part found a group of peers who raised the bar even higher; from belonging to being understood. The role was remote so I worked in relative solitude and had the good fortune to travel. But after a year and a half I had learned all I could there and it was again time to transition. Unlike my previous transitions. I had made a clean break and for the first time since graduation I was searching for a job without currently having one. 

There is nothing quite as humbling as a job search. But the Barnard network was there for me each step of the way. Many of you here tonight, friends and other classmates, alums from other years served as sounding boards and internal referrals. In conversations with peers it became clear to me that I lacked clarity. After one such conversation, I paused for two weeks in order to focus on better understanding what I had gained from previous roles and what I wanted in my next professional endeavor. I was already armed with the lessons of my first two roles and at the travel company I had gained a few more. 1) I take great joy in bringing a product to life, so I prefer start-ups to established companies 2) I wanted to continue building on my operating skills but in a far less precarious and more data-driven environment. It was time to seek out a logistics-driven tech company 3) I had been fortunate to find a home among a majority of my coworkers; a sense of self acceptance I could carry with me into environments unlikely to resemble the demographics of my former team. Like my experience at Barnard, I felt fortified and more confident. 

With these experiences behind me, I joined DoorDash last December. I lead a team that handles DoorDash Drive support. As a people manager of a growing team now spread across three states, I get to apply many of the skills and lessons I've learned in prior roles.  Five years removed from our time together at Barnard, I continue to reap the benefits of all that I gained as a student here.

For me, Barnard raised the bar for what a community should feel like and serves as the benchmark for personal growth to which I continue to hold myself accountable.

The Barnard community has anchored me throughout the many twists and turns of my circuitous path. Every professional pivot, though challenging, has brought greater clarity around what I value and who I aspire to be. I am grateful to be a part of this community alongside the members of the class of 2013 and those who've come before and after us. I am eager to see where our journeys over the next five years will take us. I do not know exactly where I want the journey to lead me, but I am certain that meandering toward a meaningful something always proves to be worth the precarious nature of the ride.