"What was your experience as a black woman in politics?" asked a student at Yale University during an event sponsored by the Yale Democrats and the Yale Black Women's Coalition. I shared my thoughts on the presidential election, my time with the Bernie Sanders campaign, the collective power of young people, and what it was like to be a young black woman in one of the craziest election cycles in recent memory.
I told story after story of being the youngest, and oftentimes the only, woman with melanin in the room. I recounted to the students how I often was denied access to "staff only" entrances because individuals working the venue did not believe I was staff. I detailed an instance where a state trooper attempted to remove me from Senator Sanders's entourage for no other reason other than he thought I, a young, black, short-haired woman, did not belong there. I explained to the students that I experienced going to meetings or events where people would address my junior male colleagues assuming they were the senior and I would have to assert that I was in fact the decision-maker and lead point of contact. I had no idea my words, stories, and analysis would be so relevant due to the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.
One of the best parts of the evening was the Q&A after where I got to meet the students, take pictures, and hear some of their takeaways and experiences. During this time, multiple young women of color thanked me for demonstrating that it was OK to be our "authentic selves." I held back tears as young African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American women attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country told me how rare it was for someone, especially a black, twentysomething woman, to come to their campus and deliver a message that underscored one does not have to "put on" or use their "work voice" in order to fit in, be respected, or be successful. They told me it was refreshing to see me standing where I was, speaking my own truth.
Until that cool October evening at Yale University, I had not realized that I no longer had a "work voice." We all know what the "work voice" is — the voice or tone many people of color or women may use in professional settings, but it differs from the actual way she or he normally sounds. The "work voice" is our way of being professional and not standing out in an unpleasant way. We're taught the "work voice" as early as our first intern training program, or honestly maybe earlier, from the television shows we watch. A change of tone or voice may seem like no big deal on the surface. But it can lead to women of color also stifling their thoughts, ideas, passions, and purpose to fit into someone else's box.
There was a time when one could have found my work voice on my voice mail, at the office, on a conference call, or whenever I answered a random number on my cell phone. Then, in 2014, I joined the progressive trade movement. I sat in meetings with people every day who did not look like me, and it appeared they never hesitated to be themselves. They never hesitated to give their opinion. There, I realized if I wanted to be effective in my work environment, my "work voice" would not be enough. I needed to get bold and assert myself as someone who was valuable to the team and had a perspective that mattered. Shedding my "work voice" was a process. It did not happen overnight.