The First Step in Controlling Your Narrative
By Natasha Berryman
If you missed the season three premiere of #VanguardSTEM, #BBBinSTEM: Bravery Beyond the Academy, I strongly encourage you to watch it. In it, one of our phenomenal guests, Dr. Danielle N. Lee, urged viewers to take control of their workplace/academic narratives as a constructive response to being mislabeled, misunderstood and/or still successful while being vocal about the social-justice topics they were passionate about.
I’m of the opinion that in application, implementing Dr. Lee’s sound advice begins with stepping back from whatever situation or environment you’ve found yourself in and being honest about what’s actually happening in that space.
Folks who strive for and achieve excellence have a tendency to be more critical of themselves than may be warranted. It’s important for us to take responsibility for our thoughts, behaviors and contributions to the enterprises we’re part of, but it’s equally important to acknowledge the role others play in making an environment what it is — whether it’s positive or it has more negative implications.
#VanguardSTEM exists to create community and foster dialogue about the experiences of women of color (WoC) studying and working in STEM spaces. As such, we know all too well that it is not uncommon for WoC to encounter STEM environments that are discouraging, disparaging or downright hostile. There are some things about life that are normal — change, conflict, stress — and we are often told that some characteristics of our environments are normal. But normalcy doesn’t necessarily equate to functionality, and it does not make you entitled, angry or emotional to recognize that.
To take it back to science, at the genetic level, some cells have an ability to sense small changes in their environments, especially from gases that are important for ensuring, and hampering, life. These cells know when the oxygen in their environment bottoms out, for instance, or when carbon dioxide is lethally abundant. This sensing, and the suppression and expression of survival pathways that follows, literally ensures that they thrive.
In the same way, WoC have to be very mindful of the environments in which we work and learn. It’s necessary for us to name and objectively describe the conditions of our environments, parsing out what is “normal,” or characteristic, and what is not — what is functional and what is not.
To say that academia is stressful, tiring and competitive may be the “normal” conditions of that environment, but to be traumatized by it, wounded, patronized, disrespected, disregarded, ignored — those things are not normal. They are dysfunctional and detrimental, and they have to be understood as such so that you can respond appropriately. There’s power in calling something what it is, especially if the tendency is turn a blind eye towards it or to settle for an insufficient response.
Assessing the environment you’re working in positions you to develop a strategy for an appropriate response. A dear friend helped me to apply this concept in my own life by encouraging me to reframe a toxic work relationship I am currently bound to.
She impressed upon me that if I had to be in this relationship which is so inclined to be parasitic, acknowledging it, emoting about it if I needed to, and then thinking through how to, at the very least, make that relationship symbiotic was imperative to my success. I needed to find a way to cypher something beneficial from this relationship.
What can this person teach you? What institutional knowledge do they have that would help you navigate my space? What skill set can they pass on that might position you for success? You must look for ways to benefit from the things that cause stress and strife — then follow up with boundaries that limit the nonsense that wants to follow.
If your goal is to see the excellence in you realized, then everything you do must work toward that end. It’s very difficult to control what happens around us — there are too many variables, but we can control how we respond to it. Begin with an honest appraisal of your environment, giving name to the things that oppress you and developing strategies to not only stare those things down in the face, but to potentially benefit from them.
Some days, it will be a battle, but very few good things are born of ease.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
All rights reserved. The content above or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of #VanguardSTEM except for the use of brief quotations, with attribution, and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to #VanguardSTEM, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at firstname.lastname@example.org