Growing up Black in America, I commonly heard the phrase “we have to work twice as hard to get half as much.” When you’re Black in the workforce, you learn that there is a higher probability that your merit will be questioned, that the behind-the-scenes deals that quickly promote your white counterparts won’t apply to you, and that your voice won’t command the same level of attention or respect. You’ll also learn that calling attention to these micro-aggressions may put you at risk of being the over-animated, race baiting Black person who “just can’t let the whole race thing go.”
While it is vital to understand the landscape that you’re operating in, I believe in focusing on controlling the controllables. I unfortunately cannot solve workplace inequity in one day (though I would definitely do so if I could), but I can provide you with a few tips to more intentionally manage your professional development to maximize your potential and impact.
1. Get involved with a nonprofit board. Although the overwhelming majority of nonprofits directly serve communities of color, less than 20% of nonprofit board members are People of Color. This means, People of Color tend to be absent from the decision-making processes that impact the very communities that they represent and understand. Nonprofit board participation is a great opportunity do diversify these spaces and help organizations more equitably approach their goals, while providing you with leadership opportunities to own projects, participate in decisions, and learn the ins and outs of managing an organization. In addition, it’s great exposure to work with other people who are not your colleagues. Here is an opportunity for you to practice collaborating with individuals who have different work styles and workplace norms than you do, diversifying your pallet of skills and experiences and ultimately making you more competitive in your own job.
2. Identify a seasoned Black professional in your field but outside of your workplace that can mentor you. I cannot say enough about the impact and influence that mentors have had in my young professional life. Although we like to believe that we have all the answers and know what we’re doing, humble yourself and seize the opportunity to learn from someone who has done it successfully already. The benefit of developing a mentor relationship with a Black professional specifically is that they have navigated the systems and unspoken rules that impact minorities in the workplace and can provide the perspective that a white mentor simply will not be able to. Chances are, they have experienced the same subtle micro-aggressions and tokenization that you have, but they have learned how to carefully approach these situations (likely through trial and error). If you don’t have someone that immediately comes to mind, ask around your network–let people know what you’re interested in and what your long-term goals are, and gauge if they can think of anyone to connect you with. If they can, ask them to e-introduce you so that rapport is built automatically, and then take the lead on setting up time to chat. 9 times out of 10, seasoned Black professionals are willing to impart their knowledge and experiences on younger professionals that they know are going to continue to pave the way for our community. Mentor relationships are an excellent opportunity to not just work on the hard skills that are directly related to your field, but the soft, people skills (negotiating, collaboration, team management, etc.) that are just as–if not more important–to excel in throughout your career.
3. Actively attend networking events. I’m sure you’ve all seen them on your Facebook timelines and Instagram feeds — networking happy hours, power brunches, you name it. Set a goal for the amount of time you want to spend networking each month, and push yourself outside of your comfort zone to make it happen. You never know who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn, and it’s rare to leave a networking event without at least getting one or two business cards of potential connections. I’ve quickly learned that success is just as much about who you know as what you know. You can’t expect for your name to come to mind for a new position opening up if people never see you. You can’t expect to show up and do your job everyday and think that you’ll just stand out. Be intentional about expanding your network and placing yourself in spaces where you are inspired by the people you’re around. The more that you’re out there and the more that people see you, the more you’ll probably start seeing invitations to smaller networking events or one-on-one meetings. Networking allows you to build your brand outside of your workplace and it is one that is highly engaged and well-rounded.
What other ways to you work on professional development outside of work? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!