I grew up in a small town in the middle of Tennessee. It was one of those drive-thru towns; if you were driving from Nashville to Knoxville you probably passed by it and only came to visit if you were looking for a drive-thru fast food restaurant. Growing up in a rural community, I wasn’t alone in the fact that several of my friends were also being raised, at least in part, by their extended family. My grandparents stopped going to school in the 6th and 8th grade and provided for our family through various, grueling, manual-labor jobs. My grandfather literally built the city we lived in, but that didn’t translate to wealth or security. When I was a kid, my grandmother held various jobs, mostly as a housekeeper, but also worked in the laundry department of our local hospital until it was automated. I remember going into houses with her. She would clean and I kept busy in the bedrooms of kids that had lives I couldn’t even imagine. Their futures included graduating from high school, going to college, getting a professional job, and so much more. College wasn’t in the cards for me. It wasn’t something we even talked about. College was for those kids. In the eyes of my grandparents, if I could graduate from high school, I would have the world in front of me. If I could find a nice boy to marry, I’d have a secure future. The day I received my high school diploma in May 1996, my grandmother cried. Only 1 of her 5 children had graduated, and I was the first grandchild. It was the start of a new generation that would strive for more, and I had already achieved more than they ever hoped for. Through tears she told me that with a diploma I could do anything. I could be President, she said.
I didn’t become President. Instead I fell into my role as a contributor to the generational cycle of teen pregnancy. At 19, I became pregnant with my first child. After a failed attempt at coming out of the closet in high school, I accepted my fate, married a nice boy, and started a family—just as I was expected to do. It’s hard being a self-loathing, closeted lesbian in small town. It was easier to push those feelings down than to face the truth. It was easier, until it wasn’t. Like so many LGBTQ people, especially those from small towns, I struggled with my identity. In 2005, that struggle manifested into an attempt to take my own life (I’ve deleted and re-typed this 20 times). When you’re poor, you don’t talk about mental health. Therapy was for people on TV, and depression was for people whose faith wasn’t strong enough. To anyone on the outside, my life was good. I had a good job, beautiful daughters, and besides the lack of intimate connection, I had a wonderful husband that was doing what was expected. But even with all the good, it couldn’t fill the emptiness of living a lie. While the attempt to take my life was unsuccessful, it took 3 more years after that day to acknowledge my truth; to start the difficult work of getting to know the person I suppressed for so long. It was hard. People were hurt. Coming out meant that my struggle would become my family’s struggle whether they wanted it or not.
My friends, my family, and my good job would all be lost in the name of being true to myself. My support system disappeared overnight. Starting over was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The job that I lost for cutting my hair, the family gatherings I wasn’t allowed to attend, the loss of my community, and the time with loved ones I’ll never get back seemed like the most tragic moments of my life. Some days the pain felt deeper than I could bear. I often asked why I lived when I shouldn’t have. What could I possibly offer this world?
Learning from the example of my grandparents’ work ethics, I buried myself in my work as a distraction, but it turned into so much more. Along my career journey, one thing became clear to me: when I was helping others find their passions and grow their careers, I knew I was on this earth for a reason. It’s where I found purpose. I’ll never forget the first time I extended a job offer to someone. I knew it changed their life, but more than that, it changed mine. I knew right then and there I would spend the rest of my life widening the path to meaningful work for others. Not just jobs with a paycheck, but careers where people can grow and reach their fullest potential—all while being their most authentic self. This was and is my mission; not just diversity and inclusion, but true belonging. I want to create access to not only financial security, but also to a seat at the metaphorical table. I want the ability to influence and shape the future for others; to do work that I could be proud of, work that my kids could be proud of, and work that will benefit my grandchildren.
Though I may have taken the road less traveled to get here, this work—my life’s work—didn’t come on the heels of a college degree; it came from the gift of my grandparents’ struggle. They had no money to leave me, but they left me with an example of unmatched work ethic. They taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing with all your heart. This work is my heart. My struggle helped me find it.
Sharing Your Gift
You are not alone. You may live in a place where you feel alone. You may not see yourself represented in your community, but you are not alone. Find your people. Reach out. Speak out. Speak your truth, even if it’s only to one person. You matter. And it really does get better.
It’s taken years of working on myself to appreciate the amount of work it takes to show up as my authentic self. It’s a nice corporate catch phrase to “bring your whole self to work” but if you are actively trying not to be true to yourself, it can create a dichotomy that’s hard to reconcile. My struggle helps me see how everyone is searching for their own truth. We work on ourselves every day. I forgive easily and trust more in the positive intentions of people. We’re all on a journey. I want to love and appreciate each person I meet for wherever they are on their path.
I am now the Director of Global Diversity Talent Acquisition for Twitter. It’s still a little surreal. I wasn’t looking for the last few jobs that were offered to me. I decided a long time ago to only do work that gives me fire in my belly. It’s the work I would do if I weren’t getting paid to do it. It’s my heart’s work. I’ve been so intently focused on that work for so long that others have noticed, and I’ve had the good fortune of my work speaking for itself. Had I not had to completely reinvent myself from a single source of truth I never would have found this work.
I want to pay it forward every day. Every. Single. Day. There’s a quote that I love that simply says, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Every day I know my purpose and every day I try to give it away. #WithAllMyHeart