WWOCN Leadership Conference: Emerging leaders among women of color
by Anita Martin
TMT Contributing Writer
Five local leaders of color gave a panel presentation June 7 at The Villager in the Atrium Community Room. The Wisconsin Women of Color Network, Inc. hosted the discussion as part of its annual leadership event. Speakers included Attorney and Administrative Law Judge with Wisconsin Workforce Development Angela Arrington, Maria E. Flores with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, United Way of Dane County’s Vice President Renee Moe, Janet Saiz who is the president of WWOCN, and Lakshmi Sridharan.
Flores, who resides in the Milwaukee area, said she wishes that more people of color would obtain employment in the federal government. “Latinos continue to be the most-underrepresented minority in the federal government,” she said.
Sridharan shared her experiences as a first-generation Asian person getting into the state system. “I had to start as a temporary employee with the state and had to prove myself before getting a permanent position,” she said. As moderator of the panel, she asked if other people had trouble getting starting out in the workforce as women of color.
“I felt like a cork in the ocean,” stated Flores, referring to what it was like when she started with the EEOC 26 years ago. Flores emphasized that young people of color need to take advantages of opportunities to network and learn from others. “At the time (I started my career), there was no Latino community, no LUCHA…,” she stated. “I quickly learned a lot of lessons on how to navigate…”
Saiz explained how she was the only person of color in her work group when she began working at Bell Telephone. Eventually over the years, she shared, some African American women were hired and finally a few Latinos, as well. “When you’re the only one, you’re always educating, explaining things…,” she said. “You are the role model, when you are the only one (of your racial ethnic group).”
Doing the right thing…
That puts the pressure on, Saiz said, to always do the right thing. She describes herself as the kind of person that tends to go “out of the box” and adapts things to her style. She reiterated that when the company finally started hiring more people of color, things started to change. “Still, as a native person, you are always trying to explain cultural things to people,” she said.
Saiz expressed concern that things may not change the way she would ultimately like them to be by the time she lives her last day. “But I think everybody has something to learn from everybody else,” she declared.
Attorney Arrington said that she was one of about 20 African Americans (and a total of 50 people of color) in classes that had on average about 600 students. The University of Indiana-Bloomington where she went to law school was committed to cultural competency, she said, a place “where you can begin to have an understanding and respect, not just a tolerance for, other cultures.”
When she started practicing law in the private sector after graduating, Arrington said she was the only woman and the only minority at the law firm. Folks assumed when she worked at the Department of Licensure that she was the secretary or the paralegal, so she began announcing her bar number from the get-go so people knew what her position was. During negotiations sitting at the table in a suit, Arrington said she was often mistaken for the paralegal.
“It made me a sharper person,” she said as she referred to these incidents. “You are the face a lot of times. Is it fair that you have to carry this responsibility? Yes and no…”
She spent a lot of time educating people that she was intelligent, hardworking, and driven. The comment was made that coming together as a whole, these experiences did not differ significantly from some of the things than Native American women, etc. went through as professionals and emerging leaders.
Moe, who mother was born in Taiwan and whose father was Norwegian, was the only non-white in her elementary school. She learned that “people will treat you…based on what they think you are, before they know who you are.” She pointed out how some things are different now at UW-Madison than when she first started attending college there; today, people of color make up 30 percent of the student body.
Enriching the workplace….
Moe said a fundamental question is, “How do you bring your full self to the table?”— all your assets, to help enrich the work environment. She stressed the importance of strong personal and professional relationships, whatever you decide to do in your life. She later addressed the challenges today’s young people must face, pointing out how difficult figuring out who you are can be. “That’s where the relationships come in and the mentorships come in…,” emphasized Moe, who in addition to her responsibilities at United Way serves as president of Downtown Rotary.
Moe encouraged women of color to ask for feedback from others, pursue lifelong learning, embrace your diversity, and celebrate your uniqueness. “…I don’t have to be shy about what color my skin is,” she said. It’s about being honest: “This is who I am,” and about “making the table bigger.”
“You can do anything, but just not (everything) at the same time,” Moe said, because you want to be able to do a great job and develop further skills.
People often remark to Moe that she’s ‘so nice.’ “Nice and effective are not mutually exclusive…,” she said, adding that people can have more honest relationships by building trust. “Build bridges together, and honor people where they are at,” implored Moe.
Sridharan reported that one of the most valuable pieces of advice she received over the years was to “think like a white male.” She advises women of color to “be a leader 24/7…Not, ‘it’s 4:30, time to go home and take care of the children and grandchildren.’”
“Recognize that diversity is here to stay,” said Sridharan, who was 40 when she came to Madison and the only woman of color in the environmental engineering department. Other pearls of wisdom she shared: “Get a mentor” (that can benefit you no matter what level you are at). “Know who you are; you don’t have to change who you are. Be yourself.” “Connect with other organizations.” “You have to toot your own horn.” “Prioritize your life…so whatever you take up, you can do it right.”
The next WWOCN event will take place Oct. 4, the Women of Achievement Award Celebration.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/Wwocnet or call (608) 244-6581.