Throughout the year Out & Equal aims to elevate diverse voices, stories, lived experiences, and perspectives, in this blog and across the work we do. We kick off February, in celebration of Black History Month, with an interview with one of our very own, Shivon Jackson-Manuel (she/her), Senior Manager of Corporate Engagement, whose story highlights the importance of intersectionality and the importance of Black queer talent… not just in February, but year-round.

Tell us about yourself, your role at Out & Equal, and a bit about your journey that led you to where you are now.

My name is Shivon Jackson-Manuel, my pronouns are she, her, hers. I am a Senior Manager of Corporate Engagement at Out & Equal where I work directly with Partners on their day-to-day aspects of engagement, as well as bringing new Partners into the organization.

I was first introduced to Out & Equal through a previous employer when I was selected to attend the 2019 Workplace Summit. Out & Equal really changed the trajectory of how I chose to show up at work and dedicate my time. Long story short, I’m here now because of the change and passion that Out & Equal invoked in me as a leader and as someone that’s a practitioner in this diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) space.

I am also a proud graduate of Clark Atlanta University, which plays a huge role in how I show up in the workplace. I find that many people still don’t understand what HBCU’s are and think that they are “lower class” education and not on the same level as other institutions. However, attending an HBCU helped further my career, confidence, and direction as a Black woman in America. It’s another aspect of who I am that comes with a lot of bias attached —bias I hope the DEIB industry will ultimately dismantle.

I have a multitude of identities that make me who I am. I’m a woman, lesbian, Black, proud military spouse, and so much more. All of that makes Shivon.

February, as many know, is Black History Month. What is a call to action that you have for our Partners this month and beyond? How can they turn their dedication to Black employees in February into year-round efforts both in and out of their workplaces?

Workplace cultures of belonging come from the top. The people leading the change and able to make the decisions in your organization must be bought into this work in order to have an inclusive workplace. A lot of the necessary influence and pressure comes from the Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). The work of ERGs is important now more than ever to advocate for change throughout the workplace.

Also, efforts must be consistent to be impactful and to avoid the appearance of pandering or nice-to-have gestures. Prioritizing inclusion for a marginalized group for one month out of the year is not sustainable, whether it’s Black History Month, Pride Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, etc. The work must continue year-round to see impact in the form of retention, recruitment, a diverse leadership pipeline, and employee engagement. Be intentional about what you want to see from your organization and put real work, budget, and talent behind your goals.

The more you support Black people year-round, the more your organization will reflect an inclusive workplace. Show up for your Black employees, intentionally and authentically, 365 days, not 28 days.

Let’s talk about intersectionality*. Why is intersectionality so important in our conversations around workplace inclusion?

As a Black woman in the LGBTQ+ community, my experience is different from a straight Black person, different from a Black person in the disability community, from a Black man, etc. Focusing on the intersections of our identities helps us understand the different obstacles and privileges that we all carry. When I walk into a room, the first thing people see is my Blackness. Black people cannot hide the fact that we are Black (not that we would ever want to!) but it is obvious the second we walk through the door. However, I may not come across as a lesbian because of how I present myself. You wouldn’t know that I’m an HBCU graduate. So, in order to fully know me, you have to understand and acknowledge all parts of me.

I can’t speak for the experience of Black people without higher education and how hard it is for them to navigate the workplace. I can’t speak for Black people in the C-suite and how they must overcome racism in their roles. I can’t speak for the experience of Black parents and how they balance work and childcare. Employers need to ensure they are acknowledging and connecting with these different groups of people for their workplaces to be truly inclusive for all Black people.

* Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how social identities—such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and gender identity—overlap with one another and with systems of power that oppress and advantage people in the workplace and broader community. By coining the term “intersectionality” in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw named and brought visibility to the long-standing interlocking inequities that many women of color, in particular, had been fighting for centuries.

We’ve all seen the trend of organizations encouraging their employees to show up authentically. What is your experience with showing up authentically in the workplace? How realistic is it for Black people to be their authentic selves at work?

For Black people, there will always be the fear of showing up authentically and then being deemed “unprofessional.” Professionalism in Corporate America has long been synonymous with certain gender and racial traits. From our hair, to our clothing, the way we speak, and even our names — Black people have long been called unprofessional. The fact that we are still advocating for the CROWN Act across the country — a law that prohibits discrimination based on hair style and texture — just shows how far we have to go to truly operating in a culture of equity and belonging.

In my experience as a Black woman, I’m often not allowed to express emotion in the workplace because I come across as the stereotypical “angry Black woman” or I’m “too aggressive.” I’ve had to sit in my anger or hurt in the workplace while I watch my white counterparts being able to cry, yell, and fully express their feelings. If I do the same thing as them, I’m creating an unsafe and unprofessional environment. I am constantly aware of my image, my brand, and how I’m being perceived by my white colleagues.

Employers, managers, and colleagues generally and broadly should understand the internal battle that Black people must have with themselves when we are being told to show up authentically — what is too authentic for you to handle? And why must this battle, and emotional tax, be ours alone to pay?

January was National Mentoring Month, a topic of which we featured on our blog. Why do you think is it important for historically overlooked and/or marginalized communities to have coaches, mentors, and sponsors in the workplace? What advice would you – as a coach, mentor, and sponsor to others yourself – share with young Black, queer people who are entering the workforce?

Having a mentor that looks like you and understands your experience as a marginalized person gives you space to share honest truths. You can let your hair down and have honest conversations about what you are experiencing without fear of judgement or repercussions. Mentors can help you grow in terms of your concrete goals, but they are also able to help you prepare mentally for future obstacles and challenges.

Sponsors often bridge that gap and are thus incredibly important for marginalized people in the workplace. They are the people that put your name in the conversation behind closed doors, they pull up a seat for you at the table that you otherwise wouldn’t have been invited to, and they move the roadblocks out of the way before you run into them. I’ve had sponsors in my life who have driven change and advocated for me without me even knowing until later on.

The advice I would share with young Black professionals on their career journeys is that if it doesn’t bring you peace, don’t fight it. It’s not worth it to lose yourself or cause mental harm for something that you thought was important — whether that is a higher salary, a different title, or acceptance in a workplace that isn’t right for you. If you are struggling to fit in and don’t feel included, you don’t have to stick around. It’s okay to leave a toxic environment, it doesn’t make you a quitter.

Final thought for our readers… something that embraces, but also goes beyond Black History Month: What is your vision of an equitable workplace?

Wonderful question, but a tough question because I recognize my vision comes from my lived experience. To achieve an equitable workplace, everyone must understand that equality and equity are not the same. Equality is when everyone in the workplace is given access to the same exact opportunities. Equity is making sure all employees have equal and fair opportunities based on their individual needs. An equitable workplace would guarantee access, opportunities, fair treatment, and advancement to all, while identifying and alleviating obstacles that may cause the exclusion of some.

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