Besides all of my responsibilities as a Lady, I have a full-time job as the Executive Director of a small nonprofit in Boston. We’re hyper-local, serving students in the Boston Public Schools by matching them with academic mentors, adults who go directly into their classrooms and help them with their schoolwork so that they achieve and thrive. This means that I have the unique privilege of both my professional life and my personal life being dedicated to causes that I love - public education and women’s rights. Recently, though, I had an experience in my professional life that gave me a reason to reflect on the mission of my personal projects, one that I want to explore here.
While I’ve been with the organization I lead for a number of years, it’s only about a year ago that I became ED. So, there are still some responsibilities that I’m getting used to. One of them is that I am now the official “face” of the organization; a big part of my job is to go out and spread the word about work in the schools, to help people understand our mission, the positive impact it has on the lives of young people in the city; and why folks should support it with their time, money, or both.
This outreach can take many forms - I write regular pieces for my LinkedIn Pulse, I speak in front of groups ranging from 10-500 people, I attend local and national education conferences and present about our work. And while all of that is new, in the sense that I am now the official “voice” of our mission, it’s also familiar. I did similar work in my old role, on a smaller scale, and it’s very much like the work I do on behalf of the Ladies. When I do these things, I also have an easy time promoting them, sharing the links to the essays I’ve written, inviting folks to the public forums in which I speak.
However, for the first time, I had to do a video interview talking about our work and how mentoring is an effective tool for supporting students. I’ve been on camera before, but off the cuff, woman on the street style, rather than “official expert.” The piece was for a local news outlet the covers very specific Boston-based happenings, and the interviewer is calm, kind, and extremely experienced. The interview went very well overall - my posture was good, I didn’t rush too much through my answers, I was prepared and knowledgeable about my topic. It was what happened after that surprised me.
The point of doing an interview like this, of course, is for people to see it, and since it’s a small cable news show, the most eyes don’t come from folks actually tuning in on their televisions - it comes from the social media links that are created after, the ones you share with your own networks and supporters. So, when the link went up, I dutifully copied it and went to share it on my personal platforms…and immediately found myself in a strange battle…with myself. I found myself wanting to include an introduction to the piece by way of apology.
“Hi, here’s the BNN interview I did. Sorry for all the vocal fry!”
“Here’s the interview - hope I sound like I know what I’m talking about.”
“Here it is - sorry I sound like a cartoon chipmunk!”
WHAT WAS GOING ON? Why did I feel so compelled to share this moment, that I was frankly pretty proud of, with self-deprecation and apologies?
Eventually, I talked myself down off the ledge and posted with a simple, “If you don't live in Boston and want to watch the interview, it's right here, right now .”
But since that interview a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about that struggle, and why it was so hard to just take ownership of that video when I’ve never really had a hard time sharing other work. I think it comes down to a basic truth.
Women are encouraged to make themselves smaller, literally and figuratively.
Whether it’s being encouraged to diet or told that they’re being shrill, society reinforces the idea that women should take up less space, particularly in the workforce. How many movies have you watched in which the take-no-prisoners, no-nonsense business woman is a villain, or a project to be reformed into a kinder, gentler person? (Heck, we have a brand new one coming out this year.) We see it too, in the way that the media currently portrays women in politics - too loud, too much, too outspoken. While in my case there was no danger of that accusation in terms of the interview itself (it’s a pretty innocuous thing to say that volunteers are wonderful, and that children benefit from more support), what comes hand in hand with all of that is an instinct not to be too prideful, to diminish our accomplishments along with ourselves. The story wasn’t about me, but the entire point of it was to position myself as a thought leader, an expert in my field, and the apologies were a way of distancing myself from those claims.
Obviously, there’s also a more primal discomfort that affects all people equally - most folks are uncomfortable with video and particularly with hearing their own voices. (There’s some pretty solid science about why that is.) But the battle in my head felt like it was about more than that, it was about beig recognized as a leader and my right to that space.
Ultimately, what worries me most is that I was never taught these “rules” for women directly. My parents and family always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. My husband, friends, and family all support and encourage me. Identifying as straight, cis, and white, there are very few spaces where I’ve not been welcome and very few privileges I haven’t been afforded and I still struggle.
And that takes me back to why I do what I do, both at my job and here, in this more personal outlet. I want children, and especially young girls, read stories, see movies, and meet people who show them that they can lead. That they are experts. And that they can take up all the space they want, without apology.