Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Dual managers and caretakers face additional challenges
The ‘sandwich generation’ needs your help. Here’s what you can do.
About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.
Managing as a person of color has its own burden when dealing with the dynamics of the workplace. Often overlooked, is the extra weight of culturally based family obligations that are a part of our daily lives.
If you’ve been on a Zoom call with me, or watched a webinar I’ve been a part of, you know the drill: My family is omnipresent.
My mom, 83, and my son, 11, continually vie for my attention. They love me and I love them, without question. So when I took my new job as Assistant Managing Editor of Diversity and Community at the Star Tribune, they came with me. Putting meetings on hold as I answer their questions, cooking meals on Zoom to make sure dinner happens, and so many meetings in my car is the way my life works as a manager/caregiver.
As I tell my story, you may see yourself in it. A lot of my struggles are human struggles, mid-life, mid-career struggles. What I want you to see is how race/ethnicity make those struggles more pronounced and complex.
The physical and emotional work that comes with this dual role of manager and caregiver is different. I am not only caring for my loved ones needs, but as a person of color, I am also their protector from the systemic racism that permeates our society.
Growing up in Harlem, my mother made very clear to me what she wanted when she got older.
“See what happened? She went into that place and went away from here,” was a constant refrain.
Nursing homes meant death and Ruby Lee wasn’t having it. From a very early age, I knew what her wishes were, but I also knew what that meant for me. There was no “if” she was going to stay with me, the youngest of two, it was “when.”
It was known that I would be more willing to take that work on. She had made sacrifices for me, going without to make sure my sister and I had the best education and experiences we could have. She was owed.
Not until I was older did I understand that fear of the nursing home. Over the course of her life, my mother had seen how medical and government systems have treated her, treated her family, treated people who look like her. Knowing that, she didn’t want to be alone and vulnerable in a place that didn’t see her value.
Her care is in my hands for as long as she is here.
My son. Having a Black boy in our American education system is like standing in the middle of a landmine field. Any direction you go could be wrong and cause life-long injuries. Each parent/teacher conference is filled with such anxiety. I wonder: Will they really see my son as I see him?
That uncertainty weighs on me in a way that I don’t notice until I say it out loud. I see it in the faces of my colleagues of color. These last two years have been a lot for us, in ways we still don’t fully understand. In many ways, we are drowning in responsibilities: to our work, to our community, and to our families.
- Don’t assume your experience is the same: Remember, every layer of difference is a multiplier. Whether it’s race, ability, sexual orientation, or adoptive families those differences add weight. The complexities of how those layers interact may not be knowable to you. It’s always better to offer support instead of advice.
- We need time and flexibility: Being the family protector means that during times of transition (the start of school or a change in a parent’s routine) there is a lot of family handholding and a lot of vetting situations for racial barriers. Be patient with your colleagues of color. We might be late or not as prepared as we want to be. Trust that we are trying.
Luckily, remote work has been my sanity savior. I am able to be present with my family but also get some work done. Colleagues should be flexible around when meetings are held or help by sending notes from meetings. The question you should ask is: how can I help keep my colleagues connected during this busy family time?
- Step up and ask: Just the simple act of genuinely asking how you can help can mean something. As I admitted before, sometimes I don’t know in the moment how people can help me, but I’ll be thinking about it. Knowing that I have a colleague I can call when I’m swamped helps. The deal is, when I ask for that help, you have to really be there for me.
- A job well done: Authentic recognition by colleagues and bosses can go a long way. Many of us deal with imposter syndrome which adds an extra layer of stress. As managers of color, we are trying to exceed expectations on a lot of fronts and sometimes feel like we’re failing on all. Let folks know their work matters.
So be humble in your understanding and be generous with your time and praise and we will do the same.
Assistant Managing Editor of Diversity and Community, Minneapolis Star Tribune
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- Charting a Path for 2022
This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Emma. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.
Kyndell Harkness is the Assistant Managing Editor of Diversity and Community at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Before stepping into this job Harkness was a photo editor for five years and spent more than two decades as a photojournalist at this news organization.