Cultural Inheritances Are Powerful

January 4, 2021

I really struggled to write this article. I struggled with it more than anything I’ve written in the last five years. Not everyone is burdened by the pain of others and still some will only care briefly—volunteering for a few months or writing a check that helps feed the machine but doesn’t quite fix it.

We are waging war against poverty, racism, patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, and countless other manifestations of systemic oppression by skimming through a book or two, calling ourselves allies, and writing think pieces. But, until hearts are changed in a way that our response is a collective demand for change and refusal to participate in oppressive systems—even if they erase our individual privilege–I don’t believe we will fix anything.

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” – Audre Lorde

This quote is often used omitting the last line. However, I believe it’s crucial to my own story. My mother had all of her children between 18 and 21. She and my father worked at ShowBiz (now Chuck E. Cheese’s) when I was born—the first of three children. They were earning so little our family was eligible for government assistance in the amount of 50 cents each month to feed our family. My mother never believed in the system anyway—this simply reaffirmed her values. Her next move informed so much of my own work ethic and value system.

Our economic challenges afforded my siblings and me the opportunity to enroll in the Saginaw County Head Start program, one of the first in the country. It was a program designed for children in families like mine to empower us to have a shot at the quality of life that our cultural inheritances may have deemed inaccessible. It was a shot at equity.

The Head Start program was an instrumental part of our lives as my mother, a high school graduate at the time, volunteered her time so methodically it eventually opened doors for her to become a social worker under the grandfather clause in place at the time.

However, the implications of cultural inheritances marred by poverty, violence, drugs, blight, white flight, redlining, barriers to post-secondary education, and other factors best surmised as systemic oppression grew to be too high a price for retaining her professional title and raising her family. So my mother took the leap of faith that definitely inspired my own in 2014.

It was 1997. She had taken the gamble of leaving us with family for six months to prepare a place for us in Georgia. My parents had been separated for a few years. She came back for all four of us (including my teenaged aunt who lived with us), and we never doubted she would. We loaded the 1993 Mercury Tracer to the brim, leaving behind a lot of the things we loved and traveled more than 800 miles away to a world that would introduce me to my greatest cultural inheritances and my most earth-shattering experiences.

As expected, that first year centered around changing schools, making new friends, moving into an apartment for the first time (my sister called the two-bedroom apartment a hotel for months), and adjusting to latchkey kid life since mom always had two or three jobs to sustain us. These were the anticipatable, whimsical parts of the journey, and I still smile about a lot of those things.

However, our entire family surviving carbon monoxide poisoning, quickly followed by losing my younger brother to a car accident that I still believe may have been prevented by something as seemingly simple as a sidewalk, changed my life forever. It was my first real heartbreak for sure, but it introduced me squarely to the three core values that have allowed me to exceed my own expectations in many ways, not just professionally: resilience, reading, and relationships.

Resilience is more than an unwavering commitment to accomplish a goal; it’s the willingness to audaciously choose to re-evaluate those goals, as knowledge of yourself and the world expands.

Reading is perhaps more of a practice than a value. My mother was adamant about making us read books growing up. We literally had a TV-time allowance. However, as I’ve grown, my understanding of reading has transformed. Reading is about purposefully inviting myself to walk in other people’s shoes with the intention of learning to operate with a level of compassion and grace that isn’t often afforded to people who don’t share my lived experiences and perspective. Reading isn’t just about grabbing the next New York Times bestseller. It’s about paying attention and noticing the nuanced difference in the words spoken and unspoken in the people around me. It’s part of why, when I ask people how they are doing, I make an earnest effort to listen, make eye contact, and listen for changes in tone that may indicate my extra caring may be beneficial in the moment.

Relationships are built using the first two values. Relationships are complex, messy, and uncomfortable at times. You have to consistently commit, re-evaluate, and read through them. Good and healthy relationships, even ones that seem difficult, move you towards your goals. I’ve also discovered that power moves aren’t only born via the boardroom; some of your most valuable relationships are with the people sharing a cubicle with you.

Resilience, reading, and relationships—that’s how we win. That’s how we open our hearts—and our minds—to make a collective change.

These three values I learned from watching my mother were the catalyst to my entry and success in the A/E/C industries. I had envisioned myself in a lot of different roles before learning about an eight-week contract position at a small engineering firm in Maryland from my (then boyfriend) husband. After having multiple roles at two companies in three years in the mortgage industry, including 18 months of contract work, it was extremely clear that this wasn’t the right fit. I needed work that would allow me to use the creative gifts and talents I valued most.

I took a leap of faith and accepted the temporary role. With just $1,000 to my name when I hit the road in my Kia from Atlanta in 2014, I began the journey that has blossomed into my career in the A/E/C industries where I’ve built amazing relationships and become the person I hoped and believed I could be growing up.

Article written by Uniqueka Walcott, CPSM, proposal manager for Moffatt & Nichol. You can reach her at uwalcott@moffattnichol.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.