Recently a former manager and mentor Maria Giudice asked if given a blank slate what I might choose to do with my life. I honestly hadn’t really thought about this before, and my mind was first filled with thinking of my many obligations. The exercise of removing those blockers, even for a moment, allowed me to answer her — I’d study Spanish Literature. I would leave a Masters program being able to read and dissect Don Quixote and so many others in Spanish. Why? This was harder to answer.
Digging into my ancestry I find myself being more connected to Adjuntas, a small town in the mountains of Puerto Rico where both my great grandmother and grandmother came from. The region, known for many things in the early 19th century, was mostly a haven for Taino, Cimarrones (escaped African Slaves), Anusim (Jews forced to convert), and other Sephardi Jews fleeing persecution and forced conversion. So much of my life has been tied up in my identity of being both Puerto Rican and Jewish. My bloodline, not necessarily unique, is a mixed bag of conflict, as has been my life experience. Losing my mother at a young age naturally set me adrift. She was a woman who was the dominant figure holding our family together and the main tie to my identity. Without my mother’s guidance, I was left to piece together my own self-image. Through the fog of following what’s expected, my life’s slightly unconventional path brought me to a place that had seemed to be a fit for all misfits — Design.
Twenty years into my career I think about my responsibility as a Latina leading in this industry. It has bubbled much more to the surface most recently as the talk du jour is so focused on “belonging.” Having professionally almost always been an “only” in the room has left me deeply skeptical about what that actually means in our day to day environments.
Growing up in NYC, I was never different; in fact, thanks to Welcome Back Kotter, I had Juan Epstein as a comforting point of reference. This helped me normalize, and feel prideful in being different. I learned how to be an “only” after moving out of the safety of New York City to North Carolina for college. Being continually asked, “what are you?” forces you to question the same, at first defensive until eventually existential. As much discomfort and resentment I felt, instead of running back to New York, I stayed. Was it because I wanted to conquer my fear of being an “only”, or understand it better by total immersion? Regardless of why, it gave me one of the most valuable experiences of my life — perspective outside of my narrow view and safe community.
As the first woman in my family to graduate college, I tried to pave the way for myself in what was at the time a totally nascent industry. Persistence was the norm as my daily experience was discouragement. Time and time again I was called “mousey” or “meek” because I was quiet and thoughtful. Often dismissed but never lacking for drive and ambition. Many people not considered to be the traditional type for [fill in the blank] are continually underestimated and overlooked in how they can contribute, manifest change and influence culture.
Malcolm Gladwell has spoken in-depth about a “mirrortocracy”, and in my professional experience, this has become increasingly apparent. In universities, at conferences, and inside companies, we build our networks from a foundation of people who are like us. The main problem is there aren’t enough people who look like me to mirror, which perpetuates the reality that every room still looks the same, no matter how much we talk about diversity and inclusion as an exercise. As much as we talk the talk of nurturing and mentoring “onlies,” only when there are more of us, will that actually take root. That growth will be evidenced in diversity of thought, being, and experiences.
To feel left out is a deeply human problem, which is why its consequences carry such heft and why its causes are so hard to root out of even the healthiest workplaces. — The Value of Belonging at Work, HBR
I am not identity politics driven as I believe it distracts from the greater good of one’s purpose. However, I feel strongly that there is significant social impact Design and Design Operations can have in the way we hire and think about the makeup of our organizations. In many ways, Design Operations as a discipline is an exercise in Culture Design. Now that we have arrived, how are we actualizing change? A willingness to question our new and evolved environments will expose the cracks in the foundation, the gaps in our understanding of difference. Bringing self-awareness to our internal experience that values and prioritizes learning, compassion, and a propensity towards meaningful engagement can drive the change organizations often desperately need.
In thinking back to Adjuntas, a thriving community built as a refuge for such divergent groups of people experiencing some of the harshest realities of life, I wonder — what were the rules of engagement? How can we learn from those experiences and practice them in our daily rituals, bringing a reason for being to our professional communities? How do I show up as a leader allowing for collective and individual value systems to thrive?
In exploring these questions, I have begun the process of being more professionally intentional, striving to learn and pay it forward. Working towards addressing our most pressing organizational blind spots in how we can design our cultures inside to be more reflective of the realities, and idealities, outside.