Oprah Daily – Featured Article “Building Unity Is Their Family Business”
A promise she made to herself and God has led to a shared purpose and career passion for this writer and her daughter.
Twenty-eight years ago, on Mother’s Day weekend, my daughter, Gabrielle Victoria (Tori), was born. While she was the greatest gift of my life, at the time, I was going through one of the worst periods of my life. I was in the midst of a divorce, buried in debt, and facing the frightening reality that I was now a single parent. As a Black woman mothering alone, I was now in the minority-one-parent-household statistic, and terrified that I’d make mistakes in parenting that would lead to my beautiful, innocent baby girl becoming a statistic, too. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.
In front of others, I put on a facade of confidence and surety, but I was stressed-out, losing weight, and feeling hopeless and alone. I even tried to fool myself into thinking I had everything under control at times, but one day, when Tori was 6 months old, I became present enough to notice her looking up at me with those big, beautiful eyes. In that moment, I was reminded of just how dependent on me she was, and just how broken I was. I no longer wanted to pretend that everything was okay. I prayed desperately, “Dear God, if you get me out of this debt and pit of despair, I promise I’ll never get into it again.” I also promised Tori that she would enjoy a life as full as any child with two involved parents and that I would be someone she could look up to as her shero. For me, this meant going back to school at night and on weekends in pursuit of my master’s and doctorate degrees, which I did while working a full-time job in human resources. I also committed to getting counseling and figuring out how to become debt-free.
As Tori grew bigger and stronger, so did my desire to be the protection and example she needed in life. She started to experience things that I would have given anything to shelter her from. In kindergarten, unspeakably hateful words were spoken to her because of the color of her skin. She started to see the jagged edges of the world and began asking heart-wrenching questions about race that no child should be forced to ask. Simultaneously, I was facing my own battles with racism and prejudice at my job. The more my career in HR progressed, the more I began to experience inequities as a woman, a person of color, and a single mom. I was overlooked for promotions, had insensitive comments directed at me, and was made to feel invisible. I would sit in meetings and come up with sound ideas to implement that were ignored, yet 20 minutes later a white male colleague would utter the same words and be applauded. I had been told many times that I wasn’t qualified enough—yet asked to train people, even my new bosses!
There came a point in my career when I entered into diversity and inclusion but quickly felt like I was the token Black. An interaction with a former employer all but confirmed this, and it was a crushing setback to my career. I was making so many sacrifices to be able to provide for Tori and had spent more than seven years obtaining my degrees and multiple certifications to take away the excuses of why I wasn’t worthy. I lost my sense of self and was miserable.
Weeks later, when the hurt and devastation subsided, I got mad and purposeful. Even though I thought I wanted to be done with DE&I, I felt in my soul that if something didn’t change, my daughter would experience this same type of prejudice and racism when she entered the workforce. Although traumatic, this experience fueled my resolve and I forged ahead with my inclusivity work at a different company.
After an intentional conversation about my career with Tori, who was now 14 years old, her passion for diversity and inclusion began. In the two years that followed, she became the first African American in Montgomery County, Maryland, to be a titleholder in the Miss America Teen Pageant, with a platform of “Eliminating Hate, Bias, and Prejudice in Our Society.” This led to her being selected as an ambassador for the National Youth Leadership Conference (hosted by the Anti-Defamation League) and working with Invisible Children, an organization that partners with local peacebuilders across central Africa. Her role was to educate people about the atrocities that children in Africa were enduring, and she was part of a team of youth ambassadors that raised over $10,000 to contribute to that cause. My daughter was following in my footsteps and picking up on the example I set out to be for her when she was a baby. I could not have been more proud.
It’s been 30 years now, and I am still loving HR and DE&I work. The darkest moment in my career was ultimately one of my greatest lessons. I am now coaching thousands on how to step over racism and biases to realize their dreams, and I run a global consulting firm that helps organizations transform their work cultures. Last year, I was asked by Wiley Publishing to write the first-ever Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Dummies book, available on Amazon.
I’ve kept my promise to God and to my daughter. Our purpose has now fully aligned, and last year, Tori made the decision to become part of my firm, working alongside me to help organizations build cultures of inclusion, equity, and belonging. It gives me no greater pleasure than to leave a legacy for my daughter, and together, we are making life better for those coming behind us.
Shirley Davis, PhD, is the author of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Dummies, available everywhere.