By Kimberly M. Fletcher, Contributor
We are taught that if we get an education and work hard, quite possibly, we will reach the utopia of corporate America. This is viewed as a badge of honor by many Americans and is an even greater accomplishment for African-Americans because of the limited number of minorities within this elite society. I discovered my reality, in relation to the possibilities of my success, at a very young age while being raised in Opa-Locka, Florida and witnessing life lessons that ultimately decide success or failure. I was told many stories of those with promising lives as doctors, lawyers and athletes that succumbed to the pitfalls of drug use, drug dealing as a result of low self-esteem. The enticement of fast money and high rolling lifestyles during the heyday of the 80’s and 90’s were reality in my community. I learned to keep a small circle of friends because you knew those that were headed for success and those towards the pitfalls of the fast life they lived. While living in what the media categorized as the “inner city,” it was made abundantly clear that I would have to work twice as hard to achieve any fraction of success. Stories of murders, drug use, and inordinate despair saturated the local news, as if this was the ultimate plight for anyone in my hometown. The first view outside my front door as I walked out was that of a substance abuse treatment facility which ironically housed many individuals outside my immediate community. This was a center to help steer people to a clean and drug free life, however it mainly assisted Caucasians that were brought in from various affluent areas. At every step, reality was surrounding me and teaching me life lessons. I learned to pay specific attention to a person’s drive, environment, and if my actions would lead to another melancholy story.
My parents instilled in both my sister and I that we were expected to achieve great grades, never quit, and that success was determined by the effort we put into our lives. It was practiced and made clear that education was the cornerstone that would lead to high accomplishments. The actuality of how important and competitive schooling was made evident when I was bused to a middle school outside my area in the enclave of Miami Lakes. I remember sitting in core classes without many brown faces like mine and putting pressure on myself to be what I thought was perfect. The internal drive to show everyone that I was just as smart, if not smarter, than my classmates pushed my competitive energy. Solomon Northup, in 12 Years A Slave, suffered this same disease of success. His aggressive edge was to demonstrate to his Caucasian counterparts that he was equal to them and he felt he was on a level playing field. He ate at the same restaurants, wore the finest clothes like them, and worked just as hard. Solomon never thought about how he was being perceived and only seen as an economic widget in slavery’s trillion-dollar violent empire. The idea that we have arrived because of the façade of perceived integration is an ongoing difficulty. Coming from Opa-Locka, there is an edge that is ingrained in you to not take any mess and that only the strong survive. Any sign of weakness can possibly lead to being recruited to downward groups, taken advantage of by street-wise cons, or succumbing to the traps of an emotionless existence. This toughness is still with me today and eventually would be transformed into strategic survival.
After taking countless SAT prep courses and being academically motivated, I decided to attend Florida State University (FSU), due to a beneficial financial aid package, family ties and my desire to not burden my parents. I witnessed the economic machine and what differentiates the haves from have-nots. At FSU, top performing athletes (many who are African-American) were treated like royalty, some were passed in classes if they made the winning game goal, and ironically, the football stadium was built next door to the financial aid complex. Gifts, attention, and at times financial support was given to those that ran the fastest and jumped the highest similar to the trained “slave”. So what does this mean? I intermingled with those that had immense wealth as well as those from humble backgrounds. Entering the sorority house of white classmates reminded me of scenes from Gone with the Wind, due to the spiral staircases and an African-American housing staff. I began to recognize the high number of minority maintenance staff at this institute of higher learning and debated with fellow students on the importance of affirmative action.
I also learned how the original Florida A&M University (FAMU) Law school was closed in 1965 and the very books that were used by FAMU were taken and used by FSU law students. In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Acts to make it easier for Southern Blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes and other Jim Crow ideology were deemed illegal. In 1965, the Florida Legislature voted to close the FAMU Law School and open a school at Florida State University (FSU). Funds that were previously allocated to the FAMU Law School were to be transferred to Florida State University School of Law. Economic and democratic oppression were once again utilized to derail Blacks from independent accomplishment.
Whenever fellow minority students inquired about my hometown, I was often received by the response, “Oh, you’re ghetto.” I became very self-conscious and again, my ambition to excel grew to an almost obsessive level. Gaining employment within a great company was my goal, not realizing that I would not be in control of my economic destiny while working on this capitalist plantation. I worked at a fraction of my true financial worth to ensure Caucasian owned companies continued to make millions, provided all my business strategy at no additional cost, and never truly had a seat at the good ole boy’s table. At this time my understanding of economic freedom was highly misunderstood such as the “mis-educated negro”. Working for someone else, is just that, work and not empowerment as a business owner. Ultimately, I got my dream internship in New York City and was later employed at one of the top three advertising conglomerates. The office was located on Brickell Key in Miami and my norm was expensive dinners, top of the line business trips, and exclusive entertainment events. I worked hard and tactically as my university trained me, but as I think back, I wonder was I strategic? The salary for leading and growing million dollar accounts was dismal, a situation similar to that of the slave that picked cotton for master’s ultimate riches. I witnessed how some, without the required educational background, would be promoted quickly, while I would have to fight and repeatedly demonstrate that I too was worthy of promotions as well as monetary recognition.
In 2006, I relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, the Mecca for African-Americans with historic landmarks such as Auburn Avenue, Spelman College, and the home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My family was gracious to let me live with them as I got on my feet and tirelessly interviewed, searching for the perfect position. I had the opportunity again to work at great companies and the competitiveness was at an all-time high. This is where my corporate training of ensuring there was an email trail, understanding if an employee was fully vested do not question their minimal work output, and being part of social clicks would ultimately determine if you remained employed, were taught. My personal relationships towards others eventually suffered and I became strictly business oriented.
As anyone in advertising knows, when you have a diversified client list and profits are great, the sky is the limit. When clients are lost and become dissatisfied with agencies, heads will turn and positions will downsize. This became my fate in 2011 when I was unceremoniously fired. Now, I would need to determine the next step for my career. Where do I start? At this moment, it dawns on me that I do not have a final answer and the control that I once knew was no longer. As a result, I became part of a start-up business where I established client relationships, implemented corporate strategies, and strategically learned how to work with various personalities. My life coach, Percy D. Butler, CW4, U.S. Army, Retired, taught me these qualities through his military background and caring approach.
This journey has in no way been easy, but I would not change it for anything in this world. My faith, received at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Liberty City, saved me. I became distant with many friends and family because, for the first time, I felt that I failed. To ask for help, was not an option; but God has a way of humbling us. Now I realize more than ever the unconditional love of my parents, sister and great family/friends. As Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave experienced his enlightening through faith to make it through the harsh, violent days of slavery, I too leaned on my faith to understand that failure propels you to greater achievements. Material riches are just that—material, and not the definition of who you are.
I am happy, because I am now free (from corporate America).