Opening the Gates: BBPW "Woman of Achievement" Award Remarks

On Monday evening, May 6th, I was delighted to be honored by Berkshire Business and Professional Women as BBPW’s 2019 “Woman of Achievement” at an awards dinner at the Country Club of Pittsfield. My full remarks are below. My sincere thanks to everyone who offered tributes in person and to my colleagues who generously shared video tributes! Thank you as well to Josh Landes and WAMC for the recent feature.

First, I am overwhelmed by your collective testifying to my vision of what community can be. I am honored by the reflections and tributes to my work via your attendance tonight, your sponsorships, and all of the beautiful words you have just shared here tonight. (Thank you Sam for being the MC!) These sponsorships support women and girls in our community who are working to further their dreams for themselves and their families.

I could not be more thrilled and humbled to be honored as a Woman of Achievement and to support this cause! It is near and dear to my heart and my story. Thank you all for being here and for traveling far and near! For me, authentically being honored here tonight means so many  things.

Most importantly, being the first African American woman honored by Berkshire Business and Professional Women, I see this as an opening of the gates. So thank you to BBPW for honoring me and being flexible as I’ve thought about how I want to intentionally celebrate tonight. Thank you for amplifying me and my work. I know I am being honored at this time because at this juncture in our political and cultural history BBPW is endorsing the need for a mission that promotes equitable representation and reflection as well as mutual respect for our Berkshire community of professional women while championing everyone’s humanity.

In thinking about this title, “Woman of Achievement,” I have paused and reflected… What have I achieved so far? Where am I headed? To help me answer these questions, I turn to quotes. (Those of you who know me know that this is a ritual for me to find pearls of wisdom from those that came before me. I have left one for each of you at your table setting tonight!)

My first quote is from Helen Hayes:

“My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others. That is nice but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success."

These words have taught me to frame this achievement recognition tonight as evidence of my practice of having faith, embodying learning, and leading with empathy and compassion.

With this, I want to ask that we lift up our communities as much as I feel lifted up individually tonight. I could not have achieved so many things without my family or without working with and through this beloved community… If you have worked with me (or BRIDGE) in the past 11 years, please raise your glass! This evening is for all of us! Yes!

I also want to thank our Berkshire delegates, politicians, and leaders for listening over your time of service to so many of us who are in the room tonight as we’ve all shared our experiences, our recommendations for policymaking, and our expertise on behalf of women and girls in our Berkshire community. Thank you!

In responding to BBPW’s invitation to share the messages that I would most want you all to hear, I first want to talk about accountability. When I lift up other people’s names alongside my own, this is part of my own practice of accountability. We are accountable to each other’s humanity, each other’s work, each other’s trials, and to each other’s individual experiences.  In working towards justice and equity in our communities, you may even be accountable to people who you would never imagine would hold the same vision for a thriving and flourishing Berkshire community as you do.

So, when you see evidence of a systemic or cultural injustice, you have to learn to shout it on the mountaintop. By doing this you begin to articulate your own intention towards a safer, more just, and more equitable society for women and girls; for people who have been historically underrepresented due to race, religion and ethnicity; for folks living in poverty; individuals living with disability or chronic illness and for newly arrived immigrants… just to name a few. This is how you make beautiful things happen. This is how you catalyze change and inspire courage over fear on behalf of your community. You owe it to yourself, your families and neighbors, as well as to generations you will never meet to use your voice.

Michelle Obama says…

“One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says (or does) distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t (or at least know I cannot) invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.”

Following her point, I want to share a few aspects of my work with you this evening:

First, Knowledge of Bias. I talk a lot about how I am not a fan of “anti-bias training,” despite very often being in the training field, because we all have bias. As humans, we all have preferences and are a result of our cultural context. So we cannot fight against these things, but we do have to acknowledge and navigate our biases. If you look at the science around bias, one thing you’ll learn about is microaffirmations. These are the small moments that affirm someone’s presence or identity over another’s. These are often invisible to the privileged eye. But, for example, when we walk in to a country club like this one, there is a history, a decor, and a particular patronage. All of these things affirm some groups’ or individuals’ presence more than others. The idea is for everyone to acknowledge cultural and historical bias here or in places like this and work with it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Let’s welcome those individuals who for reasons of class, gender, or race ordinarily would not come here as a guest. We need to affirm that everyone is welcome and valued in our communities and in our workplaces at all times.

Second, the Power of Love. Love and joy are not just emotional moods or states of being, they are actions and practices. And these actions can be far more powerful than what money or medicine can provide for any one individual or community. We see it time and time again in our history: if we choose to be brave and discerning, miracles, change and new discoveries can happen.

Here’s my next quote:

“..if you know what is love and what is fear, you become aware of the way you communicate to others. ...Love is not about concepts; love is about action. Love in action can only produce happiness. Fear in action can only produce suffering. The only way to master your love is to practice your love. “ -Don Miguel Ruiz, The Mastery of Love

Third, Reparations. I am happy that mainstream audiences are entering conversations around reparations. For example, colleges are offering free tuition to those adversely impacted by our country’s historical actions. Corporations are giving (with no strings or hurdles attached) to those adversely impacted by social oppressions. You can play your part in reparations, too. You can shift resources or leverage resources differently; you can offer apologies, acknowledgments or compensation where you notice harm; and you can drive forward new work. We all can create spaces for women and people of marginalized or historically underrepresented groups to heal, liberate themselves, and restore from the day-to-day trauma imposed by structures that harm us or have harmed those generations that came before us. Don’t shy away from asking what you can do. Lean in!

Let’s talk about Relationship & Mutuality. Mutual respect is about having enough love for one’s self to be intentional and deliberate in one’s actions, hold curiosity about another’s experience, and exercise the platinum rule: ask questions, listen deeply, and work diligently with and alongside other people. Working alongside another human being requires trust and a true, mutual exchange. It also hugely requires courage if we are to face hard things together.

In thinking about Practice and Permission to Fail, I talk about “equity in practice” all of the time in my newsletter, “Love in Action, Equity in Practice.” Equity work requires making sure that folks around you have what they need, including you. It becomes a practice to truly see and hear another person and to understand an experience that is different than your own. It is also a practice to think critically, know that you will make mistakes, and work to repair harm.

Maya Angelou says:

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Lastly, I want to talk about Taking the Long View in activism. For me, this requires vulnerability and resilience. I move through this world as a creative and oftentimes highly sensitive introvert with a range of traumatic experiences and barriers that would stop most people from believing there is good and hope in the world. With these truths, I also stand before you as a military child who went to several elementary schools, a childhood spelling bee champion who joined the workforce at age 12 (and never stopped working since), a National Honor and Spanish Honor Society member who participated in the Future Businessmakers of America… all before I left home at age 15 to go to college with three college courses already under my belt. I was emancipated at 16 and at 20, I was raising two children with a BA in both Art History and Languages & Literature for Spanish with a Women’s Studies award.

I stand before you tonight because I have been blessed with the deep knowing and never-ending faith that we can all do better and continue to learn and thrive everyday. Each opportunity in my life provided a pathway to healing and growth. Each of my trials and each barrier I have faced on my journey happened for some reason. I now know I was to learn from them and they were to make me stronger. If not stronger for me, then stronger for my children or possibly one of you here tonight. For this, I am filled with gratitude and infinite optimism in our collective humanity.

“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity… But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”

– Madame C.J. Walker

In closing, in your workplace, neighborhood, and families, I want to ask you, no matter what your identity is, to focus on these things:

  • Work hard at your own self-education and self-awareness each and every day.

  • Pay attention to others and their individual experiences and the impact you have or could have on them and do something with that intentionally each and every day!

  • Be accountable to your words and for your actions and believe that what you say and do is important and can catalyze positive change and connection each and every day.

Stemming from The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz offers:

“Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”  

My request to you is to embrace the vision of the world you want and the world we need to leave behind for the next generations and know you may need to let go of the world as you know it to make that vision happen!

And so I close now with my favorite quote from Audre Lorde who wrote:

“What’s the worst that will happen?... Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end. And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

Thank you all for coming out to share this incredible evening with me! Thank you to Berkshire Business and Professional Women for honoring me! Thank you for all of these beautiful testimonies! This has been a journey of learning to pause and to celebrate my own achievements, to savor these moments of joy and connection, and to ride these waves of knowledge and compassion.

Thank you!

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