(More) Notes to Their Younger Selves: Five Pieces of Advice for Young Feminists from Women of Color

“What advice do you wish you could give to a younger version of you?”

Last year, I asked four feminist leaders that question; recently, I decided to ask five women of color—my colleagues in the social justice field—the same.

These were their responses.

#1: Find time to find your joy.

“Whatever that thing is that you think about all the time, that you can’t get out of your mind, that you will regret not doing — do that. My regret is waiting so long to nurture the creative side of myself,” says Brooklyn-based author and actor Nadia Owusu, who serves as the Associate Director for Learning and Equity at Living Cities. “We are fed this narrative that we have to ‘focus on our day jobs’ and advance in that space rather than doing the things that truly bring us joy. Sacrificing that to ‘succeed’ is not a wise move.”

“Working on my creative writing has helped so much with my job, too; not that that’s why I write, but I believe that everyone should find a creative space — access whatever it is that draws you into new ways of thinking — for the benefit of your work as well.” Owusu shares, “when I’m creating something, I’m starting from my own ideas rather than external sources. In our work, it’s so easy to coast on tropes; writing forces me to trust my own gut reactions and ideas, and work outward from there.”

#2: Be fearless about committing to the things you love.

“There’s nothing wrong with making commitments that you want to make early in your life,” says Elizabeth J. Reynoso, “because they will yield gifts for a lifetime.” Reynoso, who serves as Living Cities’ Associate Director for Public Sector Innovation, has a background in human rights and sustainable agriculture.

“All sorts of relationships take commitment — whether with people or with what you work on. Learn as much as you can and keep an open mind and heart when you are young, but don’t be afraid of prioritizing the things you want to become your legacy — whether that’s generosity, resource management, culinary triumphs, family, business acumen, poetry. This will mean closing some doors and saying ‘no,’ but be intentional about who and what you keep in your life and what you let go of.”

Reynoso shares that this includes everything from doing “grand gestures” for friends we want to keep in our lives to choosing to specialize early in the fields of work we are passionate about. “You don’t want to look back and think, ‘I could have put more into that. I could have invested more — not just with my money but with my time and my heart.’ If you’re putting your whole heart into it, you won’t regret it.”

#3: Choose faith.

“Choose faith,” Brittany DeBarros tells me. “It sounds so simple that it’s almost offensive and yet in a world so often designed to tear us down, make us doubt ourselves, and perpetuate the suffering of our communities, it’s a radical act to consciously choose to believe in possibility. For some, faith means a belief in the divine; for me it means a belief in humans and their ability to love better, do better, reconcile, and heal.”

The activist and entrepreneur based in Staten Island added: “I also use the language of ‘choice’ intentionally. Some of us are more naturally disposed to optimism than others. I’m not talking about having a positive attitude (although of course that’s great if you have one). Choosing faith is more of a value and conviction. It’s being hurt and choosing to keep your heart open and your empathy flowing. It’s seeing the way people contribute to systems of oppression and believing that they can become more conscious. It’s going through crippling depression and believing you still have worth. And at its most dire, it’s seeing pain and destruction all around you and believing the landscape of possibilities won’t always be so limited.

“Today, with many battle scars and in perhaps the most horrifying moment America has seen in my lifetime, I feel more sure than ever that if we stop choosing faith, we have started contributing to the inertia of our own situations and the situations around us. So keep choosing faith and as Offred says in A Handmaid’s Tale, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down.’”

#4: Accept the different parts of your identity without shame.

“When we are younger we are always trying to figure out the answer to the question ‘who am I?’” Hafizah Omar observes. “Remember that the answer to that question is always changing, and that’s okay.”

Omar is an Associate at Living Cities and an organizer in her community in Queens. She would tell her younger self: “you don’t have to feel guilt about different parts of your identity not ‘making sense’ together — it’s about accepting them without shame, since your circumstances and views change with time.”

She stresses that “you should never say ‘never’ — don’t judge people for their actions, because you don’t know what their situation is, and whether you might find yourself in a similar situation in the future. Not jumping to a moral judgment toward others will allow you to accept yourself more as you change and evolve. Continue to challenge what you believe in and how you see that manifest. Having values is not making a blanket statement — it’s about being able to interrogate yourself when those values are tested.”

Omar adds: “There’s a certain ‘coolness’ in the performativity of aloofness — learn to resist that, because it’s okay to like what you like, and to be giddy and excited about it.”

#5: Internalize the mantra, “I will not compromise my brilliance to make you comfortable.”

Tynesia Boyea is a mother of two and President and CEO of Reliance Methods. “Early in my career I had a peer tell me that I was ‘too effusive’ and needed to ‘rein it in,'” she shares. “Luckily, the senior executive of my department encouraged me and told me that I produce strong results because of the way I show up. But it was much harder to remember his advice when things weren’t going well. I remember a rough transition phase as a new manager — we had quadrupled in size in two years, and once again a few peers who were newer to the organization questioned my approach in our predominantly African-American market. Instead of standing firmly in both my market knowledge and lived experiences, I began to question how I showed up in the organization. I started mimicking the leadership style of other leaders to fit in until I had a mentor tell me, ‘Don’t be someone else. Be Ty. That is who our organization needs.’”

She took the advice to heart. “I wake up every day with the driving desire to be the best version of myself I can be,” she tells me, “to learn from the wisdom and experience of those around me, and to tailor my approach to the current situation and context. It is not unreasonable for me to expect that those I work with will give me that same respect, even if my perspective and approach make them uncomfortable. We don’t have to subscribe to people who want us to make ourselves smaller. We need to liberate ourselves to live boldly in our fullness.”

In sum, Boyea urges us all to remember: “The next version of loving yourself is embracing yourself. As women of color, we often mute ourselves as a workplace tactic or a political decision — what I’m learning is that I’ve focused for so long on making other people comfortable that I’ve been compromising my wholeness.”

I am truly lucky to have had each of these five women as a personal mentor and friend during my early years in the workplace. They have enthusiastically introduced me on conference calls despite my being the youngest member on the team; they have listened to my stories. They have told me repeatedly, “You don’t need any practice being smaller,” and read me Audre Lorde’s words to remind me, “it is better to speak.”

As I embark into the next stage of my career, these women’s words remind me every day to be fiercely faithful to my passions and who I am, while leaving space for myself to grow and play. Imagine living every day with an unbridled, open heart and filling it with the people, places and pastimes you can’t get out of your head, like there is nothing to lose — it’s simple and it’s freeing.

I commit to it because it has the power to be revolutionary.

Originally published at Thrive Global. Republished with author permission.


Ratna Gill is a recent Harvard graduate passionate about poverty alleviation and child protection. She currently works at Living Cities, a nonprofit dedicating to creating jobs for low-income people, particularly people of color. You can follow her on Twitter at @ratnaruidosa.