Lean in and Lift as We Climb
By Dannette Gomez Beane
Sheryl Sandberg made famous the phrase lean in to indicate an effort to empower ourselves and others to stretch our aspirations to greatness. Lifting as we climb is a phrase often associated with underrepresented populations (rooted in the Black/African American community) to describe a person pulling someone up the proverbial ladder. For women and people of color in the United States, climbing the ladder is a strategy that has only been possible since the human rights movements (suffrage and civil rights) that afforded those opportunities. Leaning in, reaching back, and lifting as we climb are especially important to these demographics and others whose career opportunities face challenge because of their identity (e.g., LGBTQ, immigrant, etc.)
Since those in high levels of organizations remain majority White, American-born, straight, cisgender men, those who identify differently are constantly working to make room for themselves in these top positions. The journey is difficult and support is required. This article shares the stories of four women of color who are climbing and lifting as they go.
Pseudonyms are used to tell these stories.
The Story of Diana
Diana is a second year Masters student at a predominately white institution (PWI). She is an “only”; she is the only Latinx, the only Spanish speaker, and the only undocumented student in her department. She aspires to become a top administrator of a university and lead the way for other undocumented students to success. She did not get this far on her own. There were plenty of people and organizations that lifted her up, that she calls “angels”, who provided her funds, advice, and mentorship.
Because of the fear that surrounds undocumented students, much of her work is unrecognized. While rising, Diana has reached back. She belongs to online forums, group chats, and private messages of other undocumented students who want to know how she got this far. Diana is out – meaning she shares her status with the public in order to serve as an advocate. This is how she lifts as she climbs.
The Story of Stephanie
Stephanie is days away from defending her Ph.D. at a PWI. She has worked for over a decade as a university administrator and is ready to lean into a new role as a Dean. Stephanie is an “only”. As a Director at this university (and the only Latinx director in her field in the country), Stephanie sought mentorship from other Latinx community members. The community was so small that within her first year, she had met every Latinx-identified colleague at her institution and unofficially called them her mentors. It was not by luck that Stephanie became a director. The person who hired her and eventually stepped aside to give his directorship to her was one of Stephanie’s mentors, a Latino. He reached back and lifted up and is now a Dean. Stephanie learned from his grace and giving spirit and has mentored those around her, including Diana.
The Story of Carmen
Carmen is a Black woman at a PWI. Carmen is in an associate director role and sees herself becoming a director. However, she is in uncharted territory as few women of color have served as directors in her field. In fact, after signing up for a mentoring program through a national organization for her field, the organizers could not find a Black director and matched Carmen with a Latina – Stephanie.
Carmen is hungry for success and upward mobility. She is smart, strategic, and understands her political landscape as one of always-having-to-prove-yourself-with-little-support. Carmen relies on her growing network of mentors to maneuver to her next role as a director.
The Story of Coreen
Coreen, now Dr. Coreen, is an “only” in her department as a Black female faculty member at a PWI. Although very supportive, her department head and faculty are White. Coreen has the confidence and scholarship to become a strong tenured faculty member, but her journey will look different because of her color. Coreen has mentors and has been mentored. Stephanie mentored Coreen as a student and now Coreen is mentoring Stephanie through the Ph.D. process. Coreen’s research involves undocumented youth so she is a mentor of Diana, and now, Stephanie connected Carmen with Coreen to know another Black woman, since Carmen is considering applying to a doctorate program.
Lean in and lift as we climb. That is what we do; it is what we have to do. These four women, all at different stages of their careers wanting to lean in, are reliant on each other to lift as they climb.
Model of Mentorship, not Dependency
Women of color with Ph.D. degrees can easy get overburdened with a mentee load. Once others find out you have successfully reached a career milestone, you get invited as a panelist, guest speaker, or participant in a formal mentoring program. Many of these commitments are unpaid and even require you to fund your own travel expenses to support these engagements. As a result, the mentor is taxed. Mentors often pay it forward despite the costs.
The caution given to rising stars as they lift is to spread the load. Mentors must recognize their limits and abilities to lift or climb. When our loads are light, and we have a moment to catch our breath, we lift. When we are in steep terrain, we must reach to those above for support. Knowing our needs and limits can sometimes be our blind spots. To acknowledge that we have privilege in our roles is new to many of us and requires development. As aspiring and achieving professionals, we must always consider where we have been and where we are going and to not leave anyone behind.
Dannette Gomez Beane, Ph.D., is a counselor, researcher and instructor at Virginia Tech. Her research involves advocacy for Black/African American clients/students. She has served as a career counselor in the community, K-12 schools, and currently serves as an administrator in a higher education settings. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org