“Before my corporate job, I used to be a makeup artist and after doing makeup for African-American women, I know black don’t crack!”
This was the response from one of my corporate women’s leadership seminar participants upon discovering that I was over age fifty. She was a younger European-American woman from the south. She punctuated her words with just the right flair in her gestures, and familiarity in her tone, to let me know she had indeed spent enough time around African-American women to feel she had earned the right to appropriate this cultural expression.
“Black don’t crack” is a popular expression in Black communities that gives witness to the tendency for many Black women to retain beautiful skin, with minimal wrinkles as we age. I attribute it to the melanin in our skin that serves as a protective shield from damaging sun rays. In any case, when I hear the phrase I think of a timely article that was written by Lottie L. Joiner in the Root back in 2013 in which she declared an even more poignant truth, “Black May not Crack, but We’re Aging Faster Inside.”
According to the article, “extreme stress causes wear and tear on our internal organs, contributing to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke in black women—all diseases of aging.”
According to a study cited in the article, “the cumulative impact of overexposure to stress hormones takes a toll on the body and contributes to the development or progression of such ailments as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, susceptibility to infection, carcinogenesis, and accelerated aging.”
What the article declares is that Black women carry a heavy load. Most of us are raised to be strong. We are taught to work hard to prove ourselves in a world that still is rife with stereotypes we have to resist every single day of our lives. We grit our teeth and hold in our true feelings less we get labeled the angry black woman for speaking too forthrightly. Life has taught us that we have to be twice as good to get half the credit. We take care of so many people around us, and too often we don’t take care of ourselves. Even the most privileged among us seem to fall prey to stress overload.
I was reminded of this reality this past Saturday as I and others celebrated the life of a dear friend, Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, who passed at age 55. Diagnosed with stage four liver cancer in August, she died on February 13. Beautiful on the outside. Dying on the inside. And she didn’t even know it until the disease had so fully progressed in her organ. So, you see, in my estimation, Black does crack. From the inside out.
Chandra and I met in 1998 as first year tenure track faculty members of North Park University in Chicago. We both held joint appointments—she as an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of the Women’s Center; I as an Associate Professor of Communication and the Special Assistant to the President for Campus Diversity. You see, in order to diversify our organizations and institutions, it’s not unusual for women of color to hold multiple roles. This is one of the structural loads some of us carry to help create inclusive cultures for the next generation.
Chandra was a leader par excellence. Educated at the finest institutions in the U.S. (Vanderbilt University (B.A. and Ph.D.) and Harvard Divinity School (M.Div.)), at various points in her life she held leadership roles as a Harvard Divinity School development officer (1988-1991), North Park University leader (1998-2001), Executive Director of College Summit Chicago (2001-2003), district manager within the Chicago Public School’s Postsecondary Education and Student Development unit, and vice president for research and director of the Pell Institute (2008-2012), an arm of the Council for the Opportunity in Education (COE). Her last leadership assignments were with the National Audubon Society as vice president for community conservation and education (2012-2016), and then as their vice president for diversity and inclusion. Chandra’s leadership journey was eclectic, and transformative for so many. Underlying themes of faith and fortitude, calling and care, resonated through her story.
Chandra continually encouraged me in my writing, posts and teachings about leadership, especially as they related to women. As this blog is dedicated to leadership topics, it is fitting for me to share a few reflections on Black Women’s leadership as inspired by the life and leadership of Rev. Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith.
Black Women’s Leadership is a Courageous Calling. Chandra was raised in the Baptist tradition and followed in the footsteps of her iconic father the Reverend Dr. Hycel B. Taylor II. She was ordained a Christian minister and embraced a sacred calling that entailed preaching and pastoring. It also entailed embodying the Gospel of love and living it out in the world. That is the history of Black women’s leadership—to courageously live the life of faith in and outside of the church. We must heed the call to serve in and through our faith communities, for sure; but we must also heed the call to work for transformation in educational settings, corporations, community organizations, homes, hospitals, wherever the need arises.
As you see from my listings above of her various leadership roles, Chandra had many career opportunities. Yet career advancement was never Chandra’s primary goal. Chandra was ever sensitive to how and where God was calling her. Her career, as stellar as it was, was at its heart a series of callings. Chandra entered into each new role believing and trusting God had called her to that place. She’d tell me, “Jeanne, I believe God is calling me” to this place…or that place. And because she was called to a place, she believed she held a sacred trust to “be a blessing” in that place. For Chandra, she didn’t just teach undergraduates, she pastored them. Helping first generation college students gain access to education was just as much God’s work as teaching Sunday school at 2nd Baptist, the church of her youth. Educating communities on the care of the earth was God’s work born right out of the Genesis command to steward the earth.
Parker Palmer, in the classic, Let Your Life Speak, says, “vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.” In other words, it is not something you hear out there amidst the cacophony of corporate ladder-climbing power grabbers, but something you hear within. The call is from God beckoning your true self to come forward and live passionately for the things God has ordained. That is how Chandra lived– intentionally listening for the voice of God calling her to live out her passion through each vocational assignment.
Such an approach to leadership is an invitation to us all. Admittedly, it takes courage to heed the call. But living “vocationally” is really an opportunity to serve and make a difference wherever one is called. Isn’t that at the heart of true leadership? We now lead on the trails blazed before us by Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Maria Stewart, Mary McLeod Bethune, Shirley Chisolm, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, and so many others named and unnamed.
Never forget that whatever leadership ranks you attain, you’ve been called there to make a difference, and leave a mark for good. We can never afford to allow our roles to become something we do just to get a larger paycheck, bigger title or more turf. Black women’s leadership must always remain a courageous calling.
Black Women Leaders Must Follow Our Passion. Black women are passionate beings. A society which doesn’t always get us, interprets our passion as anger, or attitude, or whatever. Dr. Renita Weems reminds us in her book, What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon,
“Passion is not something you find; it’s part of who you are already… [P]assion is what you pour into creating a life for yourself that has meaning and purpose.”
Like so many Black women before her, Chandra followed her passion to create a life of purpose. She was passionate about creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged young people to receive a higher education. Like many African-Americans, Chandra believed that education is the key path out of the poverty that plagues so many of our communities. She built a powerful reputation as an educational policy expert. But anyone who knew Chandra knew that she had a fierce passion for the environment. As her obituary reminded us, Chandra was an avid camper and gardener who spent time in nature. Chandra “favored earth tone colors, natural fibers and foods, and even relied on ‘Mother Earth’ in her womanist research and writing, theological and academic references, and her embrace of the world’s amazing ecosystem—all as tangible expressions of God’s unconditional love for humankind.”
After completing her doctoral work, Chandra did not immediately work in an area of environmental conservation. But her passion for conservation and caring for the environment never waned. She was called to a number of vocational assignments until five years ago when she was called to serve in executive leadership at the Audubon Society. There her devotion to education and the earth intersected and there she more fully lived out her life’s passion.
Her journey, like that of so many Black women before her, is a lesson for each of us to remember that each stage of our journeys has purpose. We invigorate those stages through our passion. In other words, our desires to make a difference can happen right where we are.
Black Women Leaders Must Do all the Good We Can…Within Our Limits. None of us knows just how much time we have on this earth. Chandra’s full but relatively short life epitomized for me the Methodist saying credited to John Wesley:
“Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
From creating systems that helped to open doors of educational opportunity to students from less privileged backgrounds, to creating structures that increased students’ readiness for college as well as their access to college; to advising doctoral students, mentoring undergraduate students, educating students and adults on the care of the earth and wildlife; to being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend to so many, Chandra did a lot of good in her life!
Yet none of us are immune to limits. And sometimes Black women from our faith tradition are predisposed to ignoring limits. We are taught very early on: “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens us” (Phil 4:13). It wasn’t until years later I realized Christ didn’t want me to do everything.
Though I never want to be limited in my thinking, I recognize naturally occurring limits are our God-given friends. For example, there are 24 hours in a day, no more no less. So, my sister leaders, we need to stop trying to cram 25 hours of work into one day, ignoring bio needs, relational needs and recharging needs.
Aging is a limit. As we traverse each decade, we slow down a little. The pace we kept at 25 is not the same pace most of us can keep at 45 or 65. It’s not just about aging, it’s about growing in wisdom and learning to do things smarter.
Time and space are limits. Each of us can only be in one place at one time. We must stop overcommitting, adding multiple engagements to the same spot in our calendars. Overcommitting ultimately serves to disappoint others and heap us with guilt.
The double assaults of racism and sexism are also limits. They are not insurmountable. But we face them and overcome them at a cost to our very souls. Sister Leaders we need space for healing the psychic wounds to our “self.” We need friendship circles to process our experiences. We need prayer circles that facilitate our accessing God’s grace and love. As leaders, we each need to build a sustainable infrastructure of support around us which includes coaches, advisers, mentors, promoters, encouragers and the like.
Death is a limit. I suppose it’s the ultimate earthly limit – to only have so much time in this world to make a difference. I often wonder if those destined to leave this earth “early” have a sense of that brevity of life in the very fiber of their being and therefore subconsciously try to cram so much in. Truth is, every one of us must be so mindful of daily living out our purpose and passion to the fullest that we do not get mired in the “stuff” that distracts and detracts us from leading a life of significance.
Black Women Leaders Have to Be Shapers of Significance. There is a Hebrew Psalm that asks of God, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, NIV). I’ve known some people who have literally numbered or counted their days. Chandra had over 20,000 days on this earth. But that number doesn’t really tell you about the texture of her life. The Psalmist is really asking us to remember the brevity of life and to develop wisdom as we live out our lives. Instead of counting our days, the Psalmist is really appealing to us to make our days count. Leaders must make our days count for things of significance.
Back when Chandra and I taught at North Park, the university had changed its missional tagline for students. At that time, our goal as leaders in that learning community was to help students lead lives of significance and service. The point of our mission was to differentiate between success and significance.
Too often we as leaders get caught up in our organizational efficiency and effectiveness and define success in merely quantitative terms—higher ROI, productivity, engagement scores, sales or the number of speaking engagements. Still others define success by the title on the name plate of their door, or the other “accruals” such as fancy cars, houses, and planes. These views of success seem to be something close to counting our days!
But in the grand scheme of things, do those things really count? Instead, sister leaders, isn’t our challenge really to create meaning? Isn’t that why we spend so much time carving out the right mission statement to connect people in our organizations to the broader purpose of our organizations? Making your days count now will help to create your legacy as those days touch others that will outlive you and continue the work to which you are so committed.
Black Women Leaders Must Tell Our Own Stories. I started studying and writing about leadership over twenty-five years ago now. In my early days, I noted that women, especially Black women were left out of the leadership discourse—the formal writing of leadership theory and practice. That has changed, but not nearly enough to capture the vast leadership contributions of Black women, in so many fields. Our stories of leading in the particular contexts where we lead are part of our personal and collective legacy.
Chandra wrote in the field of conservation and ecological theology. Chandra brought Black women’s voices into the ecological conversation. Chandra placed Black women’s stories front and center into the narrative of caring for Mother earth.
Chandra’s story was really about leading women and men of diverse backgrounds to a more conscious awareness of and engagement with the environment. She believed that if we as humans could make communities friendlier for birds, we’d improve those same communities for people. So, she told the stories of Black and Brown people and our relationship with the environment.
For instance, in the Huffington Post, Chandra told the story of a young Hispanic mother living in Baltimore who made a connection between bird migration and that of her own family’s emigration from Mexico. In so doing she gave insight into the importance of the “soul-bridging level” of our mutual existence. Chandra’s leadership was about telling stories that helped people connect to conservation. Even as I was completing this blog post, Chandra’s husband Bennie emailed to me and a few of Chandra’s friends an article that Chandra had written earlier and was published on February 8th in the EcoTheo Review.
Like Chandra’s article, legacy is ultimately something you leave behind. It is about the story that gets told about you and the things you’ve left behind to advance the causes you believe so passionately in. As leaders if we live with legacy in mind, then we are more prone to create things of lasting value. Slow down enough to share your story—those things of lasting value that you stand for, that you create and that you live for. Write it. Speak it. Share it for other women, especially younger Black women, who are coming along who need examples and role models that look and sound like them.
Black Women Leaders Must Learn to Care for Others and for Ourselves. Care is really nothing more than love in action. And Chandra cared deeply. She cared about and for her family—her husband, son, mother, brother and sister. She cared about her students, her coworkers, her mentees. She cared about principles, about justice. And she cared about her friends. Our last actual conversation included her trying to get to Chicago because she hadn’t been able to tell certain people there about her battle with cancer and she wanted so badly to let them know.
She cared deeply about the earth and the creatures of the Earth. Her work at the Audubon Society was the culmination of her work that brought her theology for earth care into practice. There she launched initiatives for creating bird-friendly communities such as the Lights Out campaign in major urban centers to reduce the number of bird casualties. And she developed curriculum to educate adults and youth on conservation. According to the Audubon’s website: Chandra’s goal was
to make environmental education and bird conservation a relevant concern and second nature action for people from diverse backgrounds– ensuring all people can become involved in sustaining the health of the habitats which birds and people share.
Admittedly, there seems to be a tension between taking care of others and taking care of self. Chandra and I talked about this. As Black women, we are so often trained and groomed to take care of the people we love: aging parents, spouses and partners, children, godchildren, church members and coworkers. Care takes the form of the listening ear, being the confidante, giving time, treasure and talent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting Chandra didn’t care for herself. Chandra took care of herself-she maintained a healthy diet, got regular massages and spent time at retreat centers.
I just wonder if we ever get that balance of self-care and other-care right. Caring for others and caring for oneself should not be mutually exclusive—but sometimes it feels that way, doesn’t it? It seems that the nature of our work as leaders, causes other-care and self-care to be polar opposites. That has to change!
If the studies I cited at the beginning of this article are correct, then we as Black women absorb a great deal of stress from the structures in which we work (not matter how much we might love our vocation). We work hard to dispel the cultural stereotypes by over-working, over-achieving and over-functioning. We are stretched to the hilt from living our everyday lives in this world as women who care deeply, but aren’t always cared for by the broader culture.
We must, however, take care of ourselves and each other. We must remind ourselves of our value to this world even when the world doesn’t always seem to acknowledge us. We must carve out space to just be. To listen to our hearts. To do self-work, soul-work or inner work. To care for spirit, soul and body.
Too many of us mistake being a leader with being a superwoman. We fall for the superwoman syndrome, believing that we have to be everything to everybody. We falsely believe we have to show up to every event. Mentor every young person who comes along. We over-achieve, over-function, over-work until we are over-come and overwhelmed. We multi-task instead of delegating, fearing that some task will not get done without us. We overcommit ourselves, trying so hard to please others. We don masks that everything is all right, hiding the real person within. The result is a leadership that is dispersed. It’s focused on what others expect of us and not on what we are truly called to.
We are hyper busy, failing to rest our souls and bodies. We fail to pay attention to what is going on inside. We stay in toxic environments way too long. Whereas, my friend Chandra was protector of the natural environment, I want to remind you to become a protector of your social/relational environment. Don’t be fooled–pollutants from toxic social environments seep deep and fracture your soul.
Yes, contrary to popular belief, Black does crack—from the inside out. To all my sister leaders, remember what you do as a leader, emanates from who you are as a leader. That leadership identity starts on the inside. And too many of us are “cracking” on the inside, and it’s time to change. Too many of us are leaving out of here or dropping out of the race far too soon, and it’s time to change.
I don’t know how much time you have on this earth. Neither do you. We have so much to do but we must learn to do it in ways that don’t damage our very being. Because Black does crack—from the inside out.
And one thing I know, life is too short for us to not live passionately on purpose, from a sense of calling, doing as much good as possible, crafting narratives of significance for this and the ensuing generations. This world needs our leadership now for as long as we are here. As Chandra’s leadership exemplified, as Black women, we live at the nexus or intersection of race and gender. Our intersectionality includes our spirituality, sexuality, and social class, all of which not only informs our standpoint and perspective on leadership but it creates conditions for us to lead inclusively and transformatively. It is that type of informed, inclusive leadership that is needed at just this juncture of history.
The world really does need us. So, Sisters, please take care.
© 2017 Dr. Jeanne Porter King