Who am I? Sure, because that’s not a daunting question (she says sarcastically). According to my bio I am a developer. On Render Free’s ‘About’ page I am described as a “…program, curriculum, and community developer.” In fact, based on the professional positions I’ve held, I am an associate, a specialist and a director. And it was actually between jobs, with no professional title to reference, that I, for the first time in my adult life, asked myself this question: Who am I? I knew that I was more than my ‘9-5’ because there I was, existing without one. I must be more than what I do (most of what I was doing at the time was attempting to rectify the fact that I didn’t have a ‘9-5’). But if our careers are not the compass, what can we look to for direction about who we are? And perhaps beneath that, an even scary question: What if the discovery of who we are is proven to be less than adequate? Translation: Am I enough? Looking for answers to these age-old (yet ever relevant) questions of worth and identity, I began by recalling my accomplishments. What do I do? In a variety of contexts my work has always consisted of advocacy and care for those marginalized by racial oppression. My bio reads, “…informed by history and ongoing community relationships, through trainings and events, she inspires introspection, meaningful connection and racial identity progression.”
Yep, you read those last two words right – identity progression. So, to summarize, what I’ve done for others is essentially the very thing I felt I couldn’t do for myself. As you can imagine, this led to an internal spiraling straight into an identity crisis. Take heart, eventually (after six difficult months) I emerged from the pit of uncertainty with a simple truth:
all people have inherent worth
Never before had the saying ‘right under your nose’ felt so relevant. Yet, I enjoyed the simplicity of this new true North. It was one I had been living by in my community engagement and anti-racist practice for years but never with such a conscious spirit of hunger had I consumed this truth for myself. I hadn’t internalized it yet. Since moving to Minnesota I have held three job titles in less than two years. This was not the plan nor what I had expected. Before my time in the Twin Cities my resume felt sparse with only one place of employment spanning the course of almost six years. Here in Minnesota I have been invited into numerous companies. I’ve been present in countless rooms. I’ve sat at the table and been told it was a space to execute my life’s work: advocate and care for those marginalized by racial oppression. However, one thing came into clarity each time – to value equity in theory is very different than to practice anti-racism. In this context, my new role became to persuade. Before accomplishing what I set out to do, I had to convince those with power from within these institutions that racially oppressed people, Black and brown people, my people, are worthy of our collective attention and the resources needed to thrive.
I’m right here With this weight upon my shoulders Bound down
Here With your burden and mine
I’m left here While you continue to move forward
Here and left behind
Existing in these environments 9-5, five days a week, led to deep sense of exhaustion and ultimately hopelessness. This was not the work I had set out to do. In fact, eventually for each position I held, I realized that this work was not worthy of me. My body began to tell me in various ways (sleep depravity, newly developed anxiety, skin irritation, ect.) that though I can collect an infinite number of job titles, my body is finite.
In all this, Render Free was born. Community leaders are at a loss regarding how to dismantle unjust systems of oppression that have been adopted within their institutions. Persistent adaptations of systemic racism affect the day-to-day lives of people of color. We are left to endure trauma and race-based stress.
African American women disproportionately experience a number of stressful conditions and events that are linked to the development of mental health problems, including low-wage employment, caregiver and multiple role strain, medical problems and disabilities, social isolation, bereavement, exposure to traumatic events, and poor access to health care. They also experience greater morbidity from stress-related illness... Stress and distress impact health via both direct and indirect pathways. Stress is associated with a wide array of negative health outcomes. – Chanequa Walker-Barnes (Too Heavy A Yoke (54))
Thus, Black and brown women are left to carve out space for themselves. Moving in and out of institutions that are not created or developed with them in mind, they are repeatedly forced to justify their presence. This continuous effort, coupled with everyday concerns, creates deep psychological, emotional and spiritual fatigue.
Render Free is a space for her – for us. We will practice loving ourselves. We will learn together, in community, how to answer these questions with a resolution toward internalized dignity. We will remind one another: we too have inherent worth.