February 16, 2021

An invitation

I recently read an article about playing golf. Apparently, most people that start playing golf begin because someone invited them to play.

I grew up in a small town in south Louisiana. My hometown, Bogalusa, Louisiana has a population of around 12,000. When I grew up there, it was approximately 18,000. That seems so small in comparison to other bigger cities that I have lived in. When you grow up in a small town, everyone knows everyone. If they do not know you, they ask “Who are your people?” And they immediately know what kind of family you were raised in. At the time that I grew up there, the city was still very segregated. While we had integrated schools, there were still many things that were separate. Most churches were either black or white. We had separate proms. Even our local YMCAs and YWCA were separated by race. No, there weren’t any signs that said, “keep out,” but it was just custom and tradition that kept the citizens doing most things separately.

When I was in eleventh grade, we had a new teacher start. She was a retired teacher from the town, but who had lived in the Midwest all of her adult life. She had returned to live there for retirement and so she started teaching again at my high school. Mrs. Strange taught creative writing and honors English. After a couple months of being in her class, she asked me to stay after class one day. She asked what my plans were for post-graduation and we talked about my hopes to go to college and major in journalism. That was the first day that we had a one on one conversation, but it led to many talks about my future and what I’d like to do and what she thought I should do. One day when I came in, she pulled out some old photographs of herself from a beauty pageant. She was a beautiful lady and the class tried to imagine the teacher sitting in front of us as the same young lady in the photographs. After class that day, she pulled out a newspaper. It included an article about our county’s upcoming fair. Louisiana is known for its fairs and festivals and this particular fair was a big deal in our county. It was such a big deal that school was always closed for three days because everyone attended.

She asked me that day if I had ever considered entering the pageant for the fair. I had never considered it and told her so. She asked why, and I explained that while everyone participates in the fair, African American girls are never in that pageant – it’s not for us. She told me that there were no rules that said I could not participate, and I should strongly consider it. She told me that it was time for things to change and she thought I should enter it. After a few more nudges from her and conversations with my family, I decided to participate. It would require a lot of prep work, a formal gown, interview suit, etc. She told me that if I needed anything to prepare for the pageant to let her know and she would see that I get what I needed. I didn’t need anything to prepare as my family took care of that, but what she did do was open my mind to the possibility of doing something that tradition and comfort had prevented other girls before me in participating. Previous generations had just accepted that it wasn’t something African American young women participated in and really there was nothing stopping any of us from participating.

I did enter the pageant and it was a scary experience. The on-stage interview, the walk with the formal gown, etc. While I was the only African American on that stage, I had an audience full of familiar faces and supporters encouraging me. At the time, I was upset that I did not win, but now as an adult I realize the important step was just to participate- to break down the barriers that stood before us. I often think of Mrs. Strange when I think about advocates and allies. She was a teacher who simply invited me to participate in and consider possibilities for myself. It did not matter if the town and/or county had never had someone like me participate, there was nothing stopping me from doing it. I think of her as the first ally in my life.

Imagine what having someone who takes a special interest in you and suggests opportunities where you get to stretch and do things that you had never considered or saw yourself doing? Sometimes all it takes is for someone else to recognize your talent and nudge you to try something new. In 2020, we saw a lot of people who wanted to do something to further race relations and diversity in corporate America. We are bombarded with talks and articles about allyship, advocacy and authenticity. Sometimes all it takes is an invitation – recognizing talent in someone and reaching out to get to know them and their goals and ask how you can support them. Every day that we go to work, we have people that cross our paths and our area of influence, how often do we speak up for the new or junior person? How often do we advocate for them to be assigned to a new project? When we are in meetings and creating something new, when we look around, how often do we ask ourselves, “Who isn’t represented here?” Why don’t we invite them? Advocacy and allyship aren’t just buzz words- they are calls. So, what is stopping you from being a Mrs. Strange to someone else? All it takes is an invitation.

By: Valerine Conerly, Client Relations Specialist, United Heartland