Recently, I had a very illuminating conversation with someone about Corporate South Africa and how it treats black women. A friend found another black woman who gave her such invaluable advice, from one peer to another – that it changed her entire perspective. She and this colleague, a younger woman, set up weekly lunch dates, and had a chance to really talk. From navigating the pitfalls of office politics and how to handle conflict in the work world, to who to go to when she needed good advice for a project, she was given the inside story. For some people, it’s hard to get to know someone you really don’t know except through work. Something she said really stayed with me: “You don’t have to like someone to love them.” Actually, several things from that conversation stayed. Loving someone in this instance simply meant loving them enough to give great and invaluable advice. Although she sees this other woman as a friend, she said it’s not always about getting to know someone socially, it is just about giving the gift of knowledge. It is a pay it forward. And it is rare. We must make it common. We must make it a habit.
It doesn’t hurt to actually give people direct advice they will need to succeed. There’s plenty of advice not tailored or designed around our specific set of circumstances. Vague inculcations to be or do something that will not actually help in the long run are plentiful. This hurts us all, as our goal, especially as black women, should be to see that we all thrive. We need to be direct and intentional, and do better for ourselves and for each other.
So folks, if you see someone floundering, actually help them where you can. Give them a hand up just by letting them know about the pitfalls that they can encounter, and what to do when they need help in the work world. Have meetings with them, or if possible, check on them from time to time. What has been done for me is to put me on to work. Is to create a space for me to write and thrive as much as I could, and for that I am grateful. But career advice? Not really. How to navigate certain spaces, how I can do better, who I should talk to, who I should get to know – a lot of it has been trial and error. Yes, a lot of the time we navigate certain spaces organically, especially as creatives, but even then, even that needs to have more love, and more opening doors or introducing folk to like minds.
I’ve seen enough of other folks’ actions when it is time to build each other up and it amazes me. If there’s space for advancement, certain communities are just really good at making sure people within those communities know or hear of such opportunities, but they don’t stop there. They check on their people. They want to know that they are thriving. It’s hard to actually compete against a group of people that knows they are going to put each other on to the best information and the best opportunities. They’ll always be on top.
We have to talk to each other, and we have to do it in more formal settings. I’ve always been and shall remain forever grateful for the Black women who pointed me in the right direction, but I still felt, and I know some others also feel, that I’ve really mostly been alone on this road. What I also needed, what I craved, was also advice about the field itself. That’s something you get from a group of people – advisors, mentors or just folk in your professional network. That’s just not a conversation I’ve ever had. It’s always felt like if I reached out, I would be asking for too much. Someone just taking an interest in you and your work – that does feel so bomb. Someone you admire and who offers to help guide you – what does it feel like when they say yes, they have time for you? Some of you must know that feeling. And I hope you’re going to do the same for somebody else.
When my friend told me that she had encountered such a giving, gifting person in her professional life, I was surprised. Mostly because it occurred to us both that this was so rare. Some of the prickliest folk get ahead with good mentoring, and knowing the right people. You love, you don’t have to like. What of us Black women? We can’t all like each other, but there has to at least be love for us, right? Giving each other that Oscars hug and kiss even though we’re both in the running. And it’s not just acting like love, it’s acting out love. Making it a verb, not an intangible distant thing for too many of us. “You win, I win” is the attitude that can get us further.
There have to be tighter circles, more industry events and keeping things in-house. I might be preaching to the converted, I don’t know. What I constantly encounter are women who have been battered by the system. There has to be a better way. In my own small capacity, I get people asking if they can write for us, or if I can talk to their interns, and I’ve also offered myself as a mentor. Now and again someone asks for advice or tells me that something I wrote changed something for them. That feels good. I once had someone call me in Cape Town from London asking for advice on launching their magazine. You’d be surprised who sees you and understands what you can do for them. It hasn’t always been easy but I appreciate those moments. I think of what kind of things I could have avoided had I had the advice I can give right now. Also, I still do need advice and mentoring myself.
You can’t always quantify that kind of help or advice, and the seeds you plant may or may not take root, but you should understand that your knowledge could be valuable to someone. And that someone else has direct knowledge you need. We do seek it out, but we need for people to directly offer it up.
People can get together just to talk about specific issues in certain industries, and you can start small. If you have enough friends in your industry but rarely get together to talk shop, perhaps it’s time you did. You never know what gems you’re likely to gather, and without it devolving into mere gossip, or as is often the case, a commiseration session, it can be just the ticket. You need valuable information – set a goal to get it.
I once had a decent offer to be part of a group of writers, but at the time I was pulled in too many other directions. I think there is scope for a different kind of grouping for me personally, but I do admit that this person was on to a great idea, and I am also grateful for how loving that was. See? That pulling you in so you can also thrive – there are people who do this.
Are black women really, truly, and actually, networking with each other, or are we smiling at each other wanly as we pass each other in the hallways or on social media? Are we just Facebook friends but not hiring each other or at the very least letting each other know of our latest or longest running projects, and other projects of benefit to someone we know? Are we connecting each other to people in the know, people who can possibly also benefit from knowing us? What are we doing for each other, and ultimately, ourselves? If I have to listen to one more story of a Black woman crying in a bathroom because white management ethered her work or underpaid her or bullied her or any number out of the myriad things that go on, I’m going to have to scream. Because surely, we should take more responsibility for each other? If you are that person, and are doing us all good by mentoring, by hiring, by providing spaces to network, to share opportunities, commiserate and all the other things that benefit black women, then this is not about you, but you also should stand up and seriously, loudly, let us know who you are. If you have ideas, and know good people, let it all flow into the direction of success for more of us. What I’m saying here is not new at all, but needs to be said again I think.
Some of us have been swimming alone for such a long time in some murky waters. We have to kick some doors down ourselves. And many times, the most profitable spaces continue to be closed to us. What if we did something different, something so unprecedented as to cause a serious change in how we do business and how business treats us? It can be the change in how we see ourselves and each other, and what we do for each other, in a world that tells us we can’t, we shouldn’t, and we won’t. Meanwhile – we can, we should and we will.