Making Room — When Saying No is Saying Yes

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Before I start, I hope you’re paying attention to the Senate Judicial hearings for the Supreme Court seat for Judge Ketanji Brown- Jackson. It is worth watching and as Sen. Booker said “No one will steal that joy.

A few weeks ago, I listened to several amazing Black elders talk about mentoring and mentee relationships and sponsoring others to help their careers. They shared their insights about sponsoring women of color, being mentored, and how it shaped their careers. It was a love fest and I soaked up the conversation.

As elders (or baby elders so I don’t offend them) they get invited to a lot of meetings, commissions, events, etc. and need to balance their personal lives and work. Listening to them, I thought about how important it is to balance and to mentor or support people younger than us to grow into their own potential.

When Saying No, Means Saying Yes

One of the speakers on the panel, the first Black director at a large foundation, shared her journey to taking the job. She also talked about how now at this point in her life she has to be a lot more selective about where she spends her time and energy both professionally and personally. Other panelists also talked about sponsoring other women of color AND how it is important for younger women of color to take these opportunities seriously, be professional, and act with integrity.

As the speaker talked about how important it is to be selective and thoughtful about where to spend time and energy, I had the thought when those of us with access and privilege say no, we can intentionally make room for other Black, Indigenous, and POCs to say yes. We should be thoughtful of including others and passing opportunities to people who don’t have the same access to information, connections to people in power, or circles of influence. Many times we are more effective leaders when we’re focused and when we say no to things outside our scope or missions, or just plain not interested in. Focusing and saying yes strategically, and saying no to things outside our interest, allows us to make room for other POCs to say yes and accept invitations that can propel their careers.

How to Say Yes and No

It is more than just saying no to an invitation. I recently received an invitation to join a committee to think about food justice as it relates to public schools. If you know me, you know I enjoy a good bite of food, if you know me professionally you also know food justice is not one of my organization’s top priorities. There are others who follow the topic more closely and are much wiser about it and tapped into the same networks as we are. When I emailed with the organizer I made sure the other organization was on their radar, they were. I also approached other staff members to see if they are interested in taking part in the meeting, it is a great way for others to grow their networks if they are interested. Today I realized I just started working with a new women of color partner who is well connected to POC farmers and will probably bring a critical lens to their work. I emailed the organizer to see if I could connect them. By my saying no, I hope this allows others to say yes. I also have the win of focusing on topics that are mission aligned.

When I’m passing along opportunities and names for others to consider, I always put forward the names of people of color. As Ruchika Tulshyan calls it in her wonderful book Inclusion on Purpose, Shining the Light. It is important for us to sponsor and shine the light on POC colleagues. Make sure to pick up this book for deeper insights on this topic.

Sponsoring Others to Step Forward – And their responsibilities

Several years ago, I received a request to participate in a press conference at City Hall. It was a generous offer from my colleagues at the City to participate. That day I decided I didn’t have the bandwidth to trek downtown for a 15-min presser. I asked my colleague if she was up for it, she said sure and attended the event. My coworker made it downtown and joined the press conference right as it started. She didn’t even have time to take off her jacket. Her family was very proud of her for being on the news, although they asked why she was wearing a fleece jacket while standing behind the Mayor (a funny moment). She also got to network with several colleagues and widen her professional network.

I’ve also had the opposite happen where I’ve passed along choice opportunities to others and put my reputation on the line for other POCs and they haven’t taken full advantage of it or were not prepared.

While we don’t talk about this often, it is important to talk about the importance of being ready and honest when someone sponsors or pushes open a door for others. Ask questions to prepare for the opportunity, take advantage of people’s offers to help you prep, enjoy the opportunity, believe in yourself because someone else has put their faith in you too.

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