“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, (1), 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.
> 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.
> 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.
The day I glided onto the national stage, I left my work voice at home. It was with a loud, boisterous, commanding voice that I took the stage in August 2015 in front of 15,000 people in Seattle, Washington. There, I told the story of Michael Brown and the young people who took to the streets of St. Louis and all over America in the aftermath of his death, galvanizing a movement. It was with this voice I exclaimed, “Yes, Black Lives Matter,” and it was with my voice, my authentic voice, that I proudly told the crowd I was joining the campaign as Bernie Sanders’s national press secretary.
> The day I glided onto the national stage, I left my work voice at home.
Every day since then, I have used my authentic voice. Whether it was on a conference call to note that what someone was suggesting was culturally insensitive, so “we aren’t going to say that,” or whether it was in an email asserting, “Respectfully, that is incorrect.” Every single day, I rely upon my authentic voice to show up. It was my authentic voice that helped calm the waters during a rocky convention when I exclaimed, “No one stole the election from us.” It is my authentic voice that regularly pushes the boundaries in mainstream newspapers about the need for young people to be heard and our role in this election. It is my authentic voice — despite people telling me, “You are only here because you are black,” or that no one would “ever pay you to talk again,” — that earned me a contract with CNN as a political commentator. The authenticity of my voice has allowed me to harness my political power and even more so, my power as a young woman of purpose.
While speaking with these dynamic young women following my speech, I remembered a time not too long ago when I was uncomfortable with who I was. I expressed to the young women that we do ourselves a disservice when we have a “work voice,” and that every single time we decide to show up as someone else or put on a façade, we are in fact losing. And not only do we lose, but the millions of lives we’re all called to change and influence lose simultaneously. At that moment, in the hallowed halls of Yale University, two young ladies looked at each other and agreed: “Today, we are going to commit to being ourselves, and we have to hold each other accountable. It starts today.”
Make that three.
I, too, refuse to have a work voice and am committed to holding myself and other women accountable in love and purpose. It’s my hope that young women near and far will lean in to who they are and embrace their own authenticity. It is my hope that we won’t shrink, but rise to the occasion. The truth is that not only do we not need to fit in others’ boxes, but a life of authenticity gives us two choices: (1) create our own boxes, or (2) be boxless.
> It’s my hope that young women near and far will lean in to who they are and embrace their own authenticity.
On November 8, 56 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Going forward, I am committed to using my voice to create change. It is honestly exhausting to wake up every single day and fight, but that is in fact what I intend to do. I know I stand on the shoulders of brilliant, beautiful women like Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Barbara Jordan, Carol Braun Moseley, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Donna Brazile, and so many others who never hesitated to use their authentic voices. They are whom I draw my strength from. That is how I intend to move forward. Ladies, now is the time to be exactly who we are.
_Symone D. Sanders is a champion of women and the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign._