“I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took…” Prologue Hidden Figures page XV. I was 37,000 feet in the air cruising over Iowa when I read that. I smiled and quickly penned this entry. SBF. The only. Single isn’t just “not married” it is also lone, solo, one, unique.
The author, Margot Lee Shetterly speaks about these women who were “black female mathematicians at NASA” and I thought, they were “onlies” long before I was born. Women who look like me who sat where I sit. I thought of what they heard, how they were treated, the wisdom they gained. I thought of my mom working at a bank in my hometown and what her experience was an an only. Of Big Sis who, when we moved to the suburbs, was nearly finished with her senior year at a predominately black high school and had to transfer to an all white high school, the same school I attended more than a decade later. My dad as the only black to pass the Brakeman exam and earn his place alongside white Brakeman and how he continued on and earned his place as Conductor. Granted he’s not female but the “only” experience is powerful.
When you are the only one you set the tone for how those who follow will be treated. You mark time. You set the boundaries and create space for the women whose shadows haven’t crossed the boardroom threshold. You define what a SBF, educated, articulate, prepared, intelligent brings to an organization. You are a pioneer.
When racism, sexism, and nepotism stand as sentries blocking your path to promotion, how you maneuver and negotiate the obstacles establish the course for the next woman.
How much of your true self you bring to work (culture, food, style, vernacular) sets the bar for the ones who follow. You are the forerunner, the herald, the one who writes the vision. Do you know this? That your tone, loud or quiet, hard or soft, crass or tactful deposits a seed that germinates a myriad of emotions in the recipient. Emotions that grow like runway vines and if not pruned will spread uncontrolled. You are a trailblazer whose next step defines the destiny of those who follow.
You will not always be the only. One day another will join you and when she does embrace her with the care and feeding of a mother to her child. Know that she may not grasp the vines you cut to make room for her, the weeds you cut off at the root to prevent them from strangling her breakthrough to the sun. Give her the best of you, your wisdom. Teach what you know and be willing to learn from her and with her. Together, two can create space for many.