Role Models. My Frequency Illusion.

Role models. That is my frequency illusion of the moment. A frequency Illusion is that thing when you just learn or understand something then all of a sudden it seems like the world is filled with instances of your new found wisdom.

Well I know what a role model is, at least by definition. But within the last few days, there have been more frequent instances of role model, specifically minority based role models, understanding, and counter role model behavior for me. Let’s start with the seed. AfroTech.

I’m attending a conference called AfroTech right now and yup, you guessed it, it is built by and for the black technology community and it’s wonderful. I was in a session where the speaker, Clarence Wooten, was promoting his new app, STEAMrole. Clarence was on the stage for maybe 15 minutes but was able to connect with the audience. He had passion and was sharing his wisdom. The reason STEAMrole exists is because he believes having a role model is so very, very important to the success of children. Clarence believes you need to be open, humble and transparent in order to show your true self. He described growing up in Baltimore and by the time he hit high school, he was in 8 different schools. As someone who didn’t grow up “well off” by any stretch of the imagination, can’t even imagine having to go to 8 different schools in my elementary years. I was privileged to have only gone to one and a private one at that. Clarence talked about how a lot of black role models tended to be your superstars, your Drakes, LeBron James type people of the world. Well the music, film and sports road to success is far to narrow for some kid to soley lay their dreams and goals after. There need to be more accessible role models, with more accessible paths to success, especially for minority populations.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” That is the motto of STEAMrole. To make these accessible role models visible. After researching that quote a bit, I found that it was coined by Marie C. Wilson. After a bit more research about Marie C. Wilson… wow. Role model indeed.

The White House Project was founded by Marie in 1998 and their mission “designed to engage women in the political process as voters, activists, and candidates through training, inspiration, and networking” (wikipedia) They wanted to have more representation of women in government and eventually as president. Why is this necessary? Because, especially at 1998, women interested in a political career were few and far between. There were not many role models for women to follow. Well after a little more digging, I found that the white house project went under in 2013, only to rise again as the VoteRunLead organization, again aimed at helping and training women to lead in politics.

I heard that there were a large number of women who won this last midterm election, resulting in a record number of women who will be serving congress in 2019. That’s awesome. Diversity and equal representation is important. However, in looking at the percentage, women will still only make up ~23% of congress. Not even a quarter yet. Still more work to do. I ran across a tweet recently talking about Iceland’s Woman’s Day Off protest. In 1975 90% of all females protested and didn’t go to work, do household work or take care of their kids. It reminded me of that movie in the 90s “A day without a Mexican.” Except this was real life and the Icelandic world DID come to a halt when women stopped. I’m sure there were people complaining about the protest, saying protests are stupid and never work. Well this one was so successful that Iceland elected their first woman president 5 years later, they have equal pay and represent 48% of Iceland’s parliament. The protest was so successful, they honor it and held the most recent one in 2016. While a success, there is still more work to be done for equal rights.

Back to the U.S. and specifically the midterm elections, look at the candidates winning! Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be the youngest female of congress ever at 29. Agree or disagree with her politics, you cannot take away her being a HUGE role model for young women, especially latina women. She’s smart, self-driven, confident and a genuine good human being. And what about Ilhan Omar? She won her midterm as well as becoming the first Somali-American elected to congress. She was born in Somalia and fled during the civil war to live in refugee camps when she was 10 until 14. Can you imagine being 14 years old, moving to the U.S. after having lived through a civil war and a refugee camp for 4 years, AND not knowing english at all? THEN to turn it around within 13 years to gain U.S. citizenship and be democratically elected to the legislative branch? Holy crap! Role model city here! Guess what? She is also a product of the VoteRunLean organization. 

I was in a talk yesterday led by Mariam Braimah about A/B testing at netflix. She is a product designer there and had some really good insight A/B testing I never thought of. She was a great speaker. She connected with the audience and delivered her wisdom on point. She is from Nigeria and during the Q&A there was another Nigerian women in the audience who is aspiring to have a career in tech. You could hear her being choked up as she asked Mariam a question. She prefaced her question “Thank you. I don’t see many black, let alone black Nigerian women as tech leaders. My question is, how did you do it?” There was role model moment being played out live before our eyes. It was beautiful. Mariam didn’t hold back with her response either. She was real and said that it is hard and you will get rejected, you just have to persevere and keep moving forward.

Speaking of moving forward, the last talk I attended was a fireside chat with Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. She talked about her winding career as an aspiring lawyer and her move into politics and eventually the White House. I can’t express to you how authentic she is. I’m sure most people already know that, but it was inspiring to hear her speak live. She held her time at the White House sacred, respecting what an awesome power it was to have the ear of the President. What is most impressive is the she cared. It’s surprising how low the bar has become, but she cared. She still cares and is very active. She talked about working long hours, coming home to tuck her girl in only to work for a few more hours, THEN proceed to make home pre-cooked meals for her family and her daughter because she felt GUILTY for not being the best mom. There were a lot of confirming, nodding heads in the audience. Her advice? Be gentle on yourself. Don’t be too hard. Don’t feel guilty. It’s okay to not be “the best” mom. Good is good enough sometimes. She is talking about the next chapter in her career life. At age 62, she is re-inventing herself as a board member for a few tech companies. Companies that she resonates with. Companies that realize that a diverse workforce is a necessity, not just lip service and a nice to have. Companies whose mission it is to reach out to people where they are and inspire and help them along the way. She talked about her childhood and said “My parents raised me aspirationally, not as the world they knew but as the world they hoped it would be.” Role model.

On my way back to my hotel after that talk, I was thinking about my childhood and what it means to be Mexican-American. I mean, for all intensive purposes I’m American and considered “white” BUT, just because I don’t speak Spanish or know of every Mexican tradition, doesn’t mean I’m not Mexican. I am. My father and mother are both Mexican but we didn’t speak Spanish in the house when I was growing up. I’ve had a hard time TRYING to be Mexican-American, with an emphasis on the Mexican side. It’s hard to keep focused though and just like learning a new language, it’s hard unless your fully immersed. I am not fully immersed. I could go on and on on this thread but the one thing I can tell you for certain, Edward James Olmos as Selena’s father? Relatable. 100%. Best movie scene ever:   

I ran across a tweet thread a few months back when that “Crazy Rich Asians” movie first came out. Th tweet is from Kimberly Yam and it is quick journey of her struggles as an Asian-American with the punchline being #representationMatters. Read it all.  I can tell you, #relatableContent. Representation matters. Role Models. You can’t be what you cannot see. It matters.

Once I got to my room, I was going to logon to do a little work before bed. I opened up Facebook and there was an ad about John Leguizamos’s new netflix special, “Latin History for Morons” And you know what the premise is? Apparently inspired by real life, John’s son has a paper to write for school on some historical figure. Guess what? They can’t find any latino “heros” in the history books. So the quest is on. Role models. Representation. (I know, creepy that facebook knows me before I even wrote this but hey, I have something new to watch now. He also provided a reading list I want to dig into!)

You know who else are role models? April Ryan, Abby Phillip, and Yamiche Alcindor

So what’s the point of all this? Role models matter. Representation matters. My father was an inspiration for me when it came to work ethic. I like to think I embody his spirit with my work ethic, or at least it got me to where I am today. I consider myself successful and a lot of that success was due to a lot of hard work I put into it. I spent many sleepless nights pushing myself in education and career related activities. I acknowledge my hard work as a catalyst for my success. I also acknowledge I was given opportunities that others did not have. I had a commodore 64 at age 11 with books on programming and parents that encouraged my spending countless hours on the machine. That allowed me to easily learn BASIC before high school so much that I was helping teach the high school Pascal class during my Junior year of high school. The fact that I even had the opportunity to have a Pascal programming class in high school in 1990 was a privilege that many others didn’t have, let alone the opportunity to help teach it. It wasn’t that I was smarter than everyone else. I had the opportunity to learn and develop expertise and passion for programming (hacking) before other folks were even exposed. My role models? Other than my dad, I don’t know. I can’t remember distinctly thinking of one. BUT I can tell you this, I NEVER felt out of place for pursuing my career as a programmer. I was a “white” male and fit in with the mold. Well at least until recently, but that is a whole different story.

My point is, I don’t know what it’s like to be under-represented in a way that many of the other people I wrote about here. And maybe, just maybe we’re seeing the ushering in of a more diverse workforce in tech and hopefully other fields so that our younger generation have more equal opportunities, regardless of race, sexuality, gender or any other difference. Maybe just because they will be able to see, they can be. I hope so. There is strength in diversity. We are more alike than different. We need to be kind and build each other up, even if the person your helping looks nothing like you. Now, let’s see if my words can translate into action. Nothing specific yet, but I’m trying. First step, off to day 2 of the AfroTech conference.