Shana, 39, Germany (USA)

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What is your story of strength?

Two things really come to mind. The first is that from a very young age I have always worked. I didn’t come from a family where we automatically got money just for existing. We didn’t get pocket money, we were basically told that if you wanted extra spending money, you need to go out and earn it. Thus, from a very young age I started babysitting, I think around 12—I don’t know who would leave their baby with a twelve-year-old person but it happened. I always babysat, I got a job at the local grocery store, and this really ingrained in me a sense of working, and working has always been important. If you want to talk about the variety of jobs, I have had them. Throughout college I worked in the library, in the summers I worked as a lifeguard, my favorite job was being a park ranger—I was a state park ranger for two long summers in upstate New York. I have this sense that I always worked, and there has never been a time where I haven’t had some income, where I wasn’t in some way bringing some money in. For me that has definitely brought strength, focus, and a steadiness.

The other thing that has brought strength is my kids. I think that’s something people don’t always necessarily think of. Like I said, before I had kids I always worked, I was always focused, but having kids caused me to focus much more. First, time is extremely limited, and as my time is limited and it causes me to be all that more focused while I am at work. I think people often times only focus on the downside of having kids, but the upside is that now at work there is no leisurely coffee time because the time I am at work I am fully on and fully focused because that is my work time. The other thing having kids has given me—I have long worked on education issues, and have really been behind things like closing the education gap and providing people better options like vocational skills training and education—is that my work really has to have purpose. To get up and leave the house every day, to get everyone moving, there has to be a reason, and it has to be something I am fully behind, or it is not worth it. So I would say having kids has given me a lot of strength.

Can you tell me about a woman in your life that embodies strength?

I am going to cheat on this question and give two women because I think that when we think of women of strength there are those that we know from more of a personal context and those we know from a professional context, and I think both are important. On the personal side, like many women, I would say my mom—there is no question. First of all, she has been with her company for 46 years, she is very dedicated to her work—that is probably what ingrained in me that sense of having to work, that work is just a part of life.  My parents also got divorced when I was around 13, and she did a great job with my sister and me. My dad was often away on various military missions, and she both worked and was an unbelievable mom, and she had a house built herself and ventured out there. I would definitely say my mom.

The other is a co-worker I had. Her name is Stephanie Robinson from the Education Trust, and when we were together we were probably an odd pair. She was just a year out from retirement  at that point, and I was this brand spanking new 20-something year old with all the energy—if you think I have a lot of energy now, it was really bad back then– but she put up with it. What made her so amazing was that even though she had had a hip replacement, that did not stop her from traveling the country, going from place to place—she referred to herself as a recovering school administrator –and her dedication to fixing schools, to making schools better for poor and African American kids, for minority students, was unparalleled. This drive that she had behind her, and going through every airport —she called herself the bionic woman—and her level of understanding was amazing. We went and worked at all these different schools, schools that were really struggling with issues that a lot of us just don’t think about, kids that come in and have not been fed, whatever it was—but her absolute belief and her service and dedication to getting these kids up to the level they needed to be, that excuses were not acceptable and that we needed to come up with a plan—and in the most understanding way. I loved working with her—and it was the tall and the small too, she had a good six or seven inches on me, she was African American, I was 24 and short, but the two of us had this back and forth and it was great. I loved working with her. Nothing stopped her.

Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?

In thinking about this question, the list is a little too long to mention—seriously. In thinking a bit more, one of my biggest failures was when I did really bad on a graduate school exam, and it cut me off from a lot of different programs I wanted to apply to and future opportunities. And I thought about and reflected on that for a long time, and beat myself up over it. But I would say in the last couple of years I really couldn’t think of something more recent, and that was like 20—let’s say 15—years ago. The reason is that I have gone much more to the “fail faster” aspect of things. I fail all the time. I have projects at work that fail constantly, but now I think of it more as it fail fasts. I am willing to acknowledge failure early on, to say okay this is not going the way I thought it was, and to either scrap it or revise it, whatever needs to happen. So I am having these big failures less and less, and having that realization and focusing on how to fail fast so that I can actually learn from it rather than get stuck in it has been helpful.

How can women better support each other?

This is a hard one, because for me that is a question of how does anyone support anyone else, not necessarily just women. In one way it is being as open to others as possible when people come to you with problems and having more empathy, but also recognizing and noticing when people are struggling with something and not being afraid to say it, to ask or say “I noticed this, is there something I can do?” I have definitely taken more time to do that in the last years. And I still struggle with this question, but I think noticing situations, thinking about why someone did what they did, where they might be struggling with something or not feeling confident and offering to help—that is something I have really spent more time doing in the last few years. But I do this with my male colleagues as well, as helping everyone is important.

 

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