I grew up in a small, rural town in Ohio. When I say “rural,” I mean cornfields aplenty. I loved where I grew up and it helped to shape me into the person I am today. Thankfully when I was young I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel overseas and was exposed to different European cultures. But, when I left my hometown at 18 to go to college, I started to see glimpses of what I was missing and what I truly did not understand. When I relocated to the Washington, DC, area years later, I came face to face with my worst reality: ignorance. I was an educated woman and I felt truly uninformed having been raised in a majority white, blue-collar culture.
Having earned a Women’s Studies Certificate in college broadened my education, but as someone who is an experiential learner, I had many questions that went unanswered or that I felt resistant or embarrassed in asking, especially when seeking answers from someone of another culture or background. You see, asking someone just like me would not have sufficed at all … in fact, such action might have gotten me wrong answers filtered through an uneducated and unexperienced filter.
I wanted to learn and I needed open, friendly, and “safe” environments to do so. I didn’t want to remain ignorant any longer. So I started asking questions … which, I learned mostly the hard way, took nuance. Sometimes my questions were taken as curious and answered. Sometimes I heard things like “Heidi, are you asking a stereotypical black question again?” It was done in jest, but just like everything said, there was an ounce of truth in it. During those moments, I would shroud myself in shame and pull back into my cocoon to avoid the discomfort of the awkward moment.
One day a friend who is like a brother to me and I were having a casual discussion. I was telling him of a beautiful African-American woman who I had just seen. He said, “Can I ask you something?” And, of course, with our trust-filled friendship I said “yes.” He asked, “Why did you choose to say ‘African American’ instead of ‘black’?” I said, “Honestly, I feel as if I’m being the most respectful and safe, so as not to inadvertently offend, when I use ‘African American’.” He thought about that for a second and said that what I said was interesting because he relates to the American black culture rather than the African culture and that it why he prefers “black.” He also said that he could understand why I chose the term I did and that he learned something: that when people ask questions, they are trying to learn and not offend and that it was his job to help to educate. In that moment, I blossomed and knew that he and I had both grown as people.
It takes courage to ask and help others understand. If we start from a place of noble intent, we are sure to gain more ground in coming together as a human family. And this safe and trusting environment is essential to get there. But what if my friend hadn’t challenged and thus educated me? Neither one of us would have learned different perspectives.
I’ve referred to this before, but my coach tells me that your personal board of directors should not look or sound just like you. What would you gain from being surrounded by YOU? Sure, you’d never have an argument, but you’d never be challenged to grow and progress either. You cannot be fearful to learn something new. You cannot become more self-aware (which is truly a gift) if you are not open to feedback. You cannot start to grow as a human being if you restrict others from your path and walk through life with blinders on. You cannot be personally successful without examining a more worldly view.
Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” which is why diversity of thought is so key is both professional and personal growth. Your team must be diverse.Albert Einstein
Your environment must be safe to contradict one another so that innovative and creative ideas spring from challenging each other. So how are you going to get there? How are you going to challenge yourself and be open to others with a new perspective? Who are you going to invite onto your personal board of directors?
Personally, I know that this is a life challenge for me because of my beginnings, but I know I’m not that same woman who left rural Ohio. I continue to walk through this life being curious and wanting to know more. I know I have so much to learn. I am more afraid to be seen as ignorant than to be seen as open and curious. People around me know this about me and aren’t afraid to tell me I’m wrong or should possibly consider other possibilities. What a gift. Truly, for this courage and openness, I am grateful.