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My New Job Taught Me To Be OK With Failure

Workin' Girl

Being taught "you have to be twice as good to get half of what they have" was the beginning of my perfectionism. The saying that permeates the walls of black homes taught me two things: one, I need to work extra hard, and two, I cannot mess up. A microscope was on me, as a black woman, to do things right and to do things well.

This became evident in all my professional roles. Goals must be met, procedures must be followed, and visions must be executed seamlessly. I totally understood why—the work being done was important. As a marketing professional, communicating the wrong information to the public could lead to missed deadlines, unmet fundraising goals, and poor event attendance. As a resource development strategist, unmet fundraising goals meant major community programs wouldn't get off the ground because the resources weren't available; the most vulnerable populations wouldn't be served. And as a student affairs practitioner, inaccurate academic records and a lack of student resources meant low retention rates and unfulfilled degrees.

All of these would be serious problems, but none of them are life-threatening.

My desire to be perfect and my past jobs’ unwillingness to honor failure was a recipe for disaster.

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Anxiety-inducing, stressful disaster. So, when I started my new job, I was completely shaken up by my supervisor's excitement for failure.

During the first interview, I was asked about my thoughts on failure. Considering what I mentioned above, I responded honestly, "While I think it's necessary, I've never been allowed the space to fail in the workplace." The interviewer immediately shot back, "At this department, we honor failure. We want our team to fail so they can find a new solution. We want them to fail so they can learn something they never knew. And most importantly we want our team to be okay with failure."

Did this mean they had low expectations? No. It simply meant that they cared more about growth than they did about perfection.

I was excited about the possibility of working at a place that honored failure, but I didn't realize how challenging it would be to release the strongholds of perfectionism and the fear of failure — even at a place that expected it.

I started the new position with the anxiety from my last job. Worried that I won't do things right, stressed that I'll mess everything up, dabbling heavily in a bit of impostor syndrome. My supervisor constantly spent time reassuring me that she doesn't care about failure, she cares about me not learning something from it. "That's when we'll have a problem," she said. And that's when it stuck for me.

Failure isn’t a destination, nor is it an end—failure is a lesson. A redirection. 

Whether I wanted to acknowledge this or not, I'd been failing at things all my life. I've had failed relationships that led me closer to myself. A failed bank account that taught me how to properly save. Failed relationships that led me closer to the man of my dreams. Failed job experiences that better equipped me to handle the toxicity that comes with some workplaces. Failed side hustles that reminded me (honestly) what I am and am not good at.

All my 'failures' served as lessons to position me for something greater. They all taught me something new about myself and helped me get clearer about my expectations and goals. They all shaped me. They taught me a different way to approach the same problem. They helped me to identify multiple solutions and taught me how to choose the best one. They guided me toward strategy. And even helped me figure out how to overcome hardship and adversity.

Failure isn't all bad and I'm learning that more and more each day. So instead of being afraid of it, perhaps it's time we start welcoming it. Perhaps it's time we recognize that much like success, there is purpose in failure too. And perhaps we learn to use failure to become our best selves, rather than wallow in self-pity.

“We honor failure here.”

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When my supervisor said those words, and immediately followed up to make sure I understood and was okay with that, she allowed me the space and freedom I always longed to have at work. One where creativity and trust looms. One where people know the world isn't ending if something isn't "right".

And one where, despite being a black woman who has to work twice as hard to get half of what they have, I am allowed the same grace as everyone else.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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