I am not your Yoko Ono

I never understood all these pop culture references growing up. “Privileged to”. “Serving at the pleasure of.” “Captain, my captain.” “One ring to rule them all.” They required context, specifically White context, and I wasn’t that. Also: I didn’t have the time. I spent my school vacations working the sandwich station, remembering the orders of the regular customers. Hey Steve: tuna on spinach wrap, right?

But people made it known when they thought it was funny that I didn’t know what they were talking about. One even said once, “Look! We’ve got a live one!” after they asked me to read the Chinese on the back of a fortune cookie at their favorite restaurant. I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights. My friends all laughed uncomfortably. One of them came to my defense. And I always appreciated that.

When I graduated college, I was privileged enough to pursue a career with interest as a variable. But I was also risk adverse about not being able to support myself financially independently. I mean, growing up poor does that to you. So I played along with the Ivy League conveyor belt to the management consulting world. My sister was worried and guided me to Deloitte out of the Big Four. “They’re the friendly ones,” she said.

In hindsight, it was because she recognized what was happening in my mind. And she wanted me to stay happy. She and I both see the world in different ways, but increasingly over time, our core principles are converging.

The powers that be at Deloitte were kind enough to let me defer my start date for a year after I was accepted to the Princeton in Africa fellowship. Hooray! Not only did I have the chance to explore a new field that participating in and ultimately co-leading Engineers Without Borders opened my world to in college, but I also had a guaranteed $72,000/year job back when I was done. I took the $500/year month stipend and the housing and transport stipend (benefits, in hindsight, were so inequitably provided to the non-local staff), and went off on my adventure, asking myself three questions:

  1. Will I like living abroad?
  2. Will I like working behind the scenes at a large international NGO?
  3. Could I survive this?

Yes, kinda, no.

So when people wiser than me offered me a job: any job I wanted! at their startup social enterprise, I said no. I’ll volunteer, I offered, but I need a secure job right now.

My first three months at Deloitte taught me my worth to them: I was “on the beach”, as they say. Turns out you were expected to job hunt once you already got the job!

Ugh. This wasn’t in the job description. Fine, I’ll play ball. I did what I knew how to do best: survive. I networked the hell out of Deloitte. I kept a spreadsheet. I noticed who else was quietly resisting. My peers, who are now Bail Bond Avengers, Civil Rights Lawyers, Community Organizers. Healers. Leaders.

I mean: not everyone is. Some people went off to start their own VC gig. You do you.

Anyways, I clearly realized I didn’t belong there. And by “I”, I mean my body did. Because I was going too hard. Just like in college. I read all the employee policies and figured out the rules. I worked 8 hours a day for them (to meet my billable hours metrics) and 8 hours a day for myself (pursuing the “emerging markets” practice work, playing quarterback for white colleague after white colleague, diligently formatting résumés that said nothing real. I wanted a life so I spent 3-5 hours a day for that. And then that left sleep.

God I’m tired.

So then, when I was 14 days away from meeting my two-year contract that allowed my 401k to vest, I spoke to a couple partners I semi-trusted, who seemed to trust me given the work they allowed me to do (like run around alone building a coalition of potential partners in Nairobi for a USAID proposal to build energy and water infrastructure). I told them I was leaving, moving onto my next step. Some of them were stunned: weren’t you happy here? Others responded with sadness: we were wondering, they said. We were wondering how long you would stay.

I still keep in touch with those who made a positive impression in my mind. Showing me, quietly, in their own way, what resistance looked like.

I jumped ship and ran back abroad where it felt like I belonged. Of course I didn’t belong. I went to Africa! What I was doing was going where I had privilege. Where I had power. Nothing drove that message home more than being followed by a drunk man coming back from the local fruit market; I walked quickly, head held up high, until I managed to duck into a local mall. Yaya. Even today, that mall gives me a sense off safety. Even after a similar mall in town was bombed by al shabaab. I still feel safer in Nairobi than I do here at home.

Anyways, I ran back to Nairobi. And I tried my best there to join visionary leaders and advance their grand ambitions to help. My god! Their ability to see into the future.

Until of course, those rosy glasses once again began to wear off. Ah. There it was. The misogyny. Coming from even the most benevolent of my colleagues. Of my peers. All white or men or some combination thereof. “I can write that!” I offered. “Ehhhhhh, how about you manage these folks instead.”

Ah. I see. Okay, message received.

This time, around the same time I was once again bubbling over. Once again playing switchboard, absorbing all the pain of the senior white women and senior Kenyan leaders. I couldn’t take it anymore. And then tragedy hit home too. And in my relationship. And I knew: I had to go back. Back to that strange land people insisted I call “home.”

I did it again. I joined an organization that underpaid me, but at least they gave me the opportunity to build my own team. When they started their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion task force, led by a force-of-nature senior Black woman, I conscientiously objected and opted out. I kept my distance to preserve my own sanity.

But I couldn’t handle it that much longer. There it was again: my well-meaning colleagues whispering or telling me straight to my face: “so how long are you going to be here?” Some of them… the ones in Detroit, St. Louis. The mid-level managers and earnest career beginners. They got it. They were wiser than me. They tried to give me pointers. But it didn’t matter. The feeling of not being able to breathe once again kept building.

This time, I lasted a little over a year. I offered to consult for a little longer, to ease the transition. I 1:1ed with my full team, letting them know how much I appreciated them (hopefully; maybe not enough).

I allowed myself a one-weekend gap before starting my new job. Last time, it was one-month, with just two weeks unpaid. I have a problem taking a break without being compensated. Because, the rules always had taught me, I didn’t deserve a break.

Bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.

Well, this time I’ve had it. I’ve spent my career searching for where I belong. Looking for a visionary leader who was worthy of my time and talent. Someone kind. Someone bold. Someone guided by their moral conscience, not their own sense of power and privilege. I thought maybe size was the factor, a thought sparked by visiting Rwanda and Burundi, and noticing the difference in ease of rolling out new policies and services compared to larger countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. So I went from huge to large to smaller to smaller, chasing the hypothesis that proximity would engender care.

Turns out, that was the wrong variable. Proximity doesn’t matter. Transparency does. Self-accountability does.

Your turn.

First published April 13, 2021. Many thanks to the Black , female, and caring coaches who have guided me throughout my life. You believed in me, when nobody else did it seemed. Edited April 26, 2021 to add this credit: the metaphor of not being able to breathe is a tribute to the many Black community members who have been murdered by police brutality in America especially.