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Watchen Nyanue Is Making Space For Black Women To Climb The Ladder Of Success On Their Own Terms

"I love us for real. If you get us in position to win, we're always going to make sure that we all win."

BOSS UP

The ability to advocate for oneself can be one of the greatest tools in our arsenal of personal and professional growth. For Black women in the corporate world, specifically, this is a unique rite of passage earned through speaking up on your behalf for promotions, negotiating salaries, or even overcoming workplace bias and discrimination. This process, though challenging, can reveal to us the inner voice that will serve as both a guide and champion for our upward mobility. Thankfully, women like Watchen Nyanue, founder and CEO of I Choose the Ladder, are creating space for Black women to find their voice in the workplace to climb the ladder of success on their own terms.

Watchen grew up in Liberia during a time of civil war and national unrest. From the ages of six to eight, she watched as her country was tugged between war and peace, exposing her to the worst of what the world could be, and ultimately reshaping her views on fear. "I think living through that trauma gave me an appreciation for life, but it took fear away from me. Life can be very fleeting, so I always tell myself, 'Why not just try it?'"

After her family emigrated to the US, music and television served as a guide for who Watchen saw herself becoming. Unlike most traditional immigrant households where becoming a doctor or lawyer is revered, Watchen's parents gave her the license to discover her passions and explore her skills outside of these trades. "My dad is an engineer, and because he understood what it took to become that, he would say, 'Go find what you want to do and be the best at that.'"

Courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

This freedom to explore granted Watchen the space to gain clarity on the purpose of her work and the legacy she would shape in the long run to impact women like her. Because of her tenacity and the relationships she built along the way, Watchen has a resume that extends from companies like Comedy Central, Johnson Publishing Company, and now serves as the Senior Vice President of the WNBA, Chicago Sky; one of the youngest Black women to hold that position.

Today, Watchen applies the wisdom she's gained in her professional career to her work as the founder of the career summit, The Climb, and career consulting company, I Choose The Ladder, which bridge the gap between ambitious Black women and the corporate elevation that awaits them.

"I love us for real. If you get us in position to win, we're always going to make sure that we all win."

On reshaping the Women’s Empowerment/Conference space and launching the Climb Summit.

"For me, I tend to create what I need. If I need it, there are probably other people who need it too. There was a level of frustration that came with conferences. I'd receive all this information, but I don't know what the first step was to do with it. At the I Climb Summit, we take away all the fluff. We make sure we're intentional about the women who are leading and teaching and make sure they identify as Black women and feel comfortable talking about their journey as Black women because the challenges that we face are very unique to us. We don't need to see the highlight reel, we need to pull back the curtain a bit to show what it's really going to take to succeed."

Courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

"We don't need to see the highlight reel, we need to pull back the curtain a bit to show what it's really going to take to succeed."

On giving Black women the tools to advocate for themselves in the workplace.

"We launched our latest product, The Review Planner, because I feel like our annual reviews don't always get maximized. For me, it's always been about keeping receipts and having clarity around how my success is being measured. The planner helps you track your progress all year long so when it's time for your performance review, it's not your manager telling you what they think you did or you telling them what you remember, it's actual data that backs you up. It's your job to bring to their attention how much of a boss you are and what you bring to the table. If you don't find ways to infuse that into conversation with your managers, they may never know."

On how to navigate spaces when you’re the “only” in the room.

"My goal with I Choose the Ladder isn't to convince Black women to leave corporate, it's to make sure that once you do, you leave with as much as you gave. There's a price we pay to be in these spaces, so we need to make sure we're getting the benefits, which can't just be our title or salary because those things can be easily taken away.

"If you plan to be senior in any industry, most of the time, you're going to be the 'only'. But perspective matters: what do you want to get from the people in these rooms? Yes, it's going to be tough, but what reward do you want to receive for having to pay that price? Be very strategic about how you spend your time in these spaces."

"There's a price we pay to be in these spaces, so we need to make sure we're getting the benefits, which can't just be our title or salary because those things can be easily taken away."

On strategic networking and the power of building organic relationships.

"I have a solid squad of mentors and sponsors and everyone that I have, I found doing work -- whether on a committee or volunteering my time. So when they say 'be organic', don't put yourself in spaces because you have an ulterior motive. When you are engaged in the things that you care about, you tend to work harder, people see you as your best self, and you naturally gravitate towards each other.

"Another thing is, I have a natural curiosity about people; people are interesting. Ask folks about themselves, the books they're reading, the art in their office. It doesn't always have to be career advice. Figuring out your intercepting points of interest can take a lot of the pressure off and be a jumping-off point for a conversation that can lead to a relationship."

"When you are engaged in the things that you care about, you tend to work harder, people see you as your best self, and you naturally gravitate towards each other."

On denouncing shame around unemployment and how to pivot during a pandemic.

"If you're in this economy and find yourself unemployed, underemployed or just doing what you need to do to pay your bills, there's no shame in that. Give yourself some grace; it takes time to pivot. You can't control that you got laid off or if a company hires you. What you can control is how prepared you are for your interviews, how intentional you are about growing your network, and how much work you're putting into yourself to develop new skills for when, not if, that new role comes."

On the one piece of advice that shaped her the most in your career. 

"Most of the things we fear never happen. And sometimes we don't try things because of fear of the unknown. Whenever I'm feeling uncertain about a decision, I do an exercise called, 'What if? What is?' I write out all my 'what if's' and in the 'what is' column, I balance it out with what's true. By the time you reach the end, you'll see that you've already handled a version of what you're afraid of. I tell people all the time that you have all that you need right now to do what you need, right now. Just trust the process."

To connect with Watchen, follow her endeavors on Instagram @ichoosetheladder, and tune into her podcast, I Choose the Ladder.

Featured image courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

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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Featured image by Shutterstock

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