I was more nervous driving up to the Newport Rhode Island home than I had been addressing an audience of 1,200 logistics professionals. My host put me up in the historic mansion, The Chanler at Cliff Walk. The accommodation, alone, intimidated me.
As I rang the doorbell of the beautiful home, right off Ocean Drive, I felt the same as I did the first day of college - having turned 16 years old just a few months before. Do I belong here? Have I over-sold myself? Will they be under-whelmed by me? Bedside gender, what could I possibly have in common with wealthy New England white women? I met my host, a few months before, on a flight to Toronto. She is a recently retired New York investment banker who reminded me of Diane Lockhart from the popular CBS show, “The Good Fight”.
After she complimented my Vibram FiveFingers, we discussed how I partnered with the global footwear brand to contribute financially to St. Jude’s mission to cure childhood cancer.
“You are from Memphis. You work for a railroad. You are NOT a professional athlete. But you are the first African American woman to become a brand ambassador for this active footwear!?”
She was clearly intrigued. By the time the flight landed, we had spoken extensively about brand strategy, leadership and female philanthropy.
I stepped into the house with a manufactured smile. I was calmed only a bit by the warm greetings of a woman with brown skin like mine. She spoke with a Jamaican accent, addressed me by Mrs. Williams and received my coat. There I was shaking hands with women from my host’s investment club. All seven women of these were like Diane Lockhart’s. And, I felt like Celie from “The Color Purple”. I wanted to grab my coat and run my ass out of there before I made an utter fool of myself. We exchanged pleasantries for only a short time before breakfast was served; Portuguese toast stuffed with fresh blue berries and smoked salmon with capers. Someone had done quite a bit of research on me. The ladies opened up with questions about my book project, Storealities and how the project fit with female philanthropy. One woman even asked whether my husband, a Memphis police officer, had recovered from his car accident on Christmas Eve. These were not things I had discussed with my host. They asked me about my political views. I was honest. We were not on the same side of the aisle. After that question, I was certain I had made a huge mistake coming here. But then something happened. A woman named Janice announced her third child died from leukemia when she was only 3 years old. “She would be your age”, she said stoically. The next woman to speak admitted she has been born in Mississippi and picked cotton with her grandmother when she was a child. Each lady then went around the table sharing a piece of her story. They didn’t talk about massive wealth, the men they married, the success of their careers or even female philanthropy. They shared the moments in time they felt deeply isolated as women. They acknowledged addictions, abuse and family rifts they said may take generations to heal. “Never look at someone else’s story and wish it was yours.”, I thought to myself. Now I knew why I was here. I wasn’t here to talk brand strategy or philanthropy. I wasn’t here to impress them or even encourage them to invest in women’s empowerment. I was here to bear witness to just how similar we are. One woman admitted she felt too ashamed and too privilege to speak publicly of her private pain and private challenges. How do I dare speak, aloud, the pain of my son’s drug abuse and the women in your community fear their son’s being victim of police shootings? “How dare I compare?”, she said with her head resting in the palm of her hand. It broke my heart to think any woman would feel her suffering was less valid than someone else’s. In that moment, all the things that made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to sit amongst these women were irrelevant. We talked for 2 hours about our womanhood. The youngest woman of the bunch, was only a few years older than me. She was unmarried and didn’t have children. She said, the first week at her firm, I man asked her, how much would take to get her in bed. Before I knew it, I said, “Well damn!” with my thickest southern drawl. The women all burst into laughter. We joked for the next few minutes that they would make it an official hashtag of the Rhode Island women’s society; #Welldamn This breakfast helped me to uncover the illegitimacy of my own bias. It also showed me how important Storealities is to all women - not just poor women, middle class women or women, like me, who overcame poverty to experience prosperity! All women’s stories matter.
And nothing touches my soul like being the bridge between the women of Rhode Island and Memphis Tennessee’s poorest community - 38126.
Our True Wealth Is Our Story.