Thursday, April 29, 2010

"You Better Learn to Have Nerves of Steel"

In January I blogged about an up and coming Latina teacher who was young, talented and ambitious. At the time she was sitting in my office, crying her little heart out because her principal and vice principal weren't helping her with her leadership potential or a leadership project that she had to complete for one of her classes.

I eventually had to intervene, and assisted with her to put in a couple of transfers to some other schools which would allow her to better develop her potential. I contacted two principals and told them that she was putting in a transfer to their sites and that I recommended her. I don't particularly care for one of the principals because she often tries to make herself seem like she is better or more knowledgeable than me. But it's not about my relationship with this lady, and I recommended this young teacher to transfer to her school because I have heard that she is pretty competent and I also think that she would be a good role model as a Latina manager.

About a week ago, I ran into the principal that I really don't care for and she said loudly in front of other managers, "I thought that you said Elisa (pseudonym) was the best of the best. Didn't you highly recommend her? Well, I just interviewed her". And she squinted her face.

"She has a lot of potential," I said.

"A lot of potential? I thought you said that you highly recommended her! I mean, she looked really well on paper, but her interview was another thing. Didn't you highly recommend her?" she asked.

I said, "What are you talking about? So she's shy-so what. She has a lot of potential and I thought that you would have appreciated that I recommended her to you". Our meeting suddenly began and so we stopped discussing the topic.

Today the young teacher made an appointment with me because she wanted feedback on a project that she is working on for her leadership class. At one point in the conversation, I asked, "So, what have been some unintended outcomes that you have learned as a result of the project? Have you learned anything specifically regarding your own personal development?"

And she started crying hysterically once again. She suddenly blurted out, "Everyone tries to make me feel stupid. Even the other day when I was at the interview with that principal, she was really intimidating and condescending to me. She talked down to me the entire time and I started thinking that what I was saying was stupid".

(Note to self: Don't ever, ever, ever, ever again put a fragile girl like this in a situation such as this. Why, why, oh why did you actually think that if this principal is insecure with you, that she wouldn't be insecure with another woman?)

The young teacher continued to try not to make herself cry, and she admitted that as a result of the environment that she has been in for two years at a certain school that she has now started to see a counselor. "That's good," I suggested. "We all need to talk to somebody".

But as our meeting went on, I began to understand that her difficulties are so much more than the simple explanation that her feelings are being hurt. In fact, she's being blocked and undermined everywhere she goes.

Her Latino family puts her down and makes her ambition into a joke at family functions. Many people in her extended family put her down for going to school, for getting multiple degrees and for wanting to be a leader. My advice to her? "Stop telling them things. Who gives a fuck what they think. Don't go around them much. Don't let them project their insecurities onto you".

Her next issue? She has been taught to respect authority as a Latina, and to feel Latina and Catholic guilt that I'm sure many Latina/os know exactly what I'm talking about. My advice: "I don't know what to tell you, girl. Stop being apologetic, and mimic what the white folk do and say, as well as how they act sometimes. They have no problem with being assertive.  Don't silence yourself. But you better recognize that what is labeled as assertive when a white person does it will be labeled as aggressive when coming from you. Just suck it up and don't let it bother you."

At the end of our meeting I told her, "You have a triple burden. You are an ambitious woman, so they will try to hold you back.  You are a Latina, so you will face racism. And you are also going to have to get shit from your very own family and Latino community, many of whom will try to put you down as well. You better learn to have nerves of steel".

So she went on her merry little way, quite happy and content. But all evening there has been a nagging feeling in my head that there are so many women out there who don't have support systems and mentors to help them achieve their full potential. If it's not that, it's the fact that they have men or family members in their lives who aren't pulling their weight and are holding them back from achieving their dreams.

Women of color have an even more uphill battle because they have to fight against all of the typical obstacles, as well as navigate in a system that is not responsive to diversity. We have to fight against the typical bullshit that all successful women have to face, but we're also have to fight against racism and bigotry. And we also sometimes have to fight against some of our own families and communities.

But we can all move forward if we continue to mentor one another and build one another up when the world is constantly trying to tear all of us down.

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