Laurel Sutton: Hello, and welcome to another Linguistics Careercast, the podcast devoted to exploring careers for linguists outside academia. I’m your host, Laurel Sutton. This episode is an audio version of a virtual panel held at the Linguistics Career Launch in the summer of 2021. The title of the panel is “Being Black and Successful Beyond the Academy,” and the moderator is Minnie Quartey Annan. Our two panelists are Mackenzie Price, an interactional sociolinguist specializing in language strategy, and Na’im Tyson, a data scientist and machine learning engineer. The panelists discuss their experiences in and out of academia as they navigate success, the importance of networks, and whether DEI in the workplace is productive or just performative. Topics include changing jobs, the structure of labor, free labor, affinity groups, imposter syndrome, networking, DEI, and NWAV. Links to the panelists’ profiles at LinkedIn, as well as other resources mentioned in this podcast, are in the show notes.
Minnie Quartey Annan: Happy Wednesday, everyone. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening depending on where you are in the world. I’m excited, excited, excited — a little nervous — to be moderating, but I know Mackenzie and Na’im will have my back, and we’ll move this conversation along. But my name is Minnie Quartey Annan. I am a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, and I am the Senior Director of Impact and Innovation at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. And today this panel — conversation, actually — is really going to be about what happens beyond the academy. Right? What happens when you decided not to go into the classroom or into administration? What are some other things that you can do? Or even if you decide to go back and return after some time. So we’re really going to engage, and we really want the chat to be popping and really make this about a conversation, because at the end of the day we want to share information, and the only way we can do that is if we all participate. If our two other conversationalists could introduce themselves, and then I’ll jump into a couple of questions, and then we will most definitely ask you guys to participate. So Mackenzie and then Na’im, please.
Mackenzie Price: Hi, my name is Mackenzie Price and thank you so much for having me. I’m based in Washington, D.C. I completed my doctorate at Georgetown… 2017 maybe? It took some time — I was there for a while and met some fantastic people. I am still based in Washington D.C. I’m an interactional sociolinguist by training. That’s what I call myself. Sometimes I also call myself a language strategist. And I am currently a consultant that’s focused on messaging strategy and communicating about race and diversity and inclusion. Before I started doing this type of consulting work, I had a brief stint as an adjunct professor at the business school in Georgetown. I was teaching qualitative research methods. And in addition to doing that, I also spent some time working at a think tank here in Washington, D.C, so have been doing a lot of consulting and qualitative research outside of the academy. Thanks for having me.
Na’im Tyson: Hello, everyone. My name is Na’im Tyson. I received my doctorate from the Ohio State University way before Mackenzie, but I too struggled a little bit, and I was a doctoral student for quite some time. Most of my work revolves around machine learning and natural language processing. Currently, I am a data scientist and machine learning engineer for a small startup called “pymetrics,” and I am an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science at NYU, where I teach Introduction to Computer Programming to undergraduates. Most of my professional work started before my doctoral studies. I received my Master’s in computational linguistics from Georgetown, and I was fortunate enough to start my career during the dot-com boom, so since then, I have been a programmer all throughout for — let’s just say for a very long time. While I was a doctoral student, most of my internships had to do with technology pertaining to natural language processing, and then once I became a doctoral candidate, I had jobs working as a software engineer or as a data scientist. And so that’s what brings me here today. Thanks for having me.
Minnie Quartey Annan: Thank you both, Mackenzie and Na’im. Mackenzie most definitely affected my time at Georgetown in the most positive of ways, so I’m so glad to see her on the call and to be able to have this moment with her. And I didn’t introduce myself in the way of schooling. So I went to Georgetown for undergrad; I got my masters at Georgetown. I wanted to teach at Georgetown, so I left Georgetown so I could come back as faculty, and I started my doctoral program at Michigan State. And I got to work with Geneva Smitherman, which was one of the most life-changing, wonderful experiences ever for me. And then, life happened — literally and figuratively. I had my daughter, who was very, very sick, so I walked away from academia all together. So, unlike the other two panelists, I didn’t get my job as a linguist. I actually use linguistics at my job, so it’s a little different. Once I was kind of rebuilding my life and figuring out my next steps, a friend of mine from college said, “Hey, we have this job opening in D.C.” I applied for the job; I didn’t get that job. I ended up being the supervisor of that job a couple months later. I came back to D.C., and I was like, “I need to finish this degree,” and so I reached out to Georgetown and they’re like, “We’re happy to have you back.” So I was able to come back to Georgetown. And it’s good to hear that other people are having struggles, and it took a while to get the final step. So it has taken me a while. Life has literally thrown so many curveballs. But I think that’s what we’re going to talk about today is being successful is, part of that is being resilient. So here I am, and we’re going to just kind of throw some questions to the panelists. I want to ask both Mackenzie and Na’im, how did you end up in your current role, but also, what has been the most challenging and the most successful in your current space outside of the academy?
Mackenzie Price: Well, I ended up where I currently am as two forces converged. So one is, I was in a really toxic work environment and knew that I needed to get out of it and got to the place where I was going to leave it and just figure it out after the fact. And then the other force that converged, which I think is useful for a panel like this, is that networks and networking really does work. And so I knew someone who knew of a consulting project that needed someone, and they reached out to me and I said, “Yes! I’ll do it.” And that’s how I got where I am right now. In terms of what has been a success, I think of it, to put it in linguistics terms, I think actually being a variationist at the beginning of my linguistics career was helpful, and one of the things that that helped me with and afforded was being able to have a lot of experience explaining that language is a tool for studying other things. Because people ask you, “You’re a variationist, what are you going to do with that?” And being able to explain why I care so much about different pieces of language, why I care so much about data, and what does that mean for you, and so just having practice explaining, “Yes, I study this thing, but here’s what I’m going to do for you with it,” has been really useful. And also even more specifically, a part of my experience as a variationist was talking really explicitly about what the relationship is between language change, race, colonialism, conflict, and that is absolutely… I do that all day every day is explain how these things relate to each other, and I couldn’t have done that without being the type of linguist that I have been.
Na’im Tyson: So I ended up at pymetrics due to my falling out of sorts with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. And as a former employee I still have to say this, that the opinions that I have are my own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I was previously a data engineer there, and I was working on some natural language processing projects, so my background as a linguist actually did help working there in that capacity. However, I was not satisfied with the level of service that I was providing to the institution and had changed drastically since I had started there, from software projects to more support-based projects, and so I decided to leave there and look for other opportunities, particularly as a data scientist or in machine learning. So after a few failed attempts, I ended up finding a landing spot with pymetrics. The most challenging part of being back in the space again is the fact that the technology is moving at a pace that I would say is almost — and I hate to use this hackneyed term — but it’s almost unprecedented how quickly some of these new language technologies get pushed out, and the fact that the field has shifted from your traditional linguistics underpinnings to more sophisticated structures such as artificial neural networks. But I think with enough training and enough persistence, that it can be done and you can learn these new technologies and apply them to your own work.
Minnie Quartey Annan: Thank you both. I think it’s really, really interesting how both of you talk about leaving a space because of various factors — and unfortunately negative. I know all the time we don’t transition from one job or one career to another because of a negative experience, but in many cases that is, whether it be people, whether it be the environment, whether it be a certain task or a certain mindset that the organization or that the people in the organization or the leadership have. So one of the things that I know all of us have seen, and kind of this idea and these mindsets and the shifts that we’re looking at now is DEI, right? Diversity, equity, inclusion. And I kind of want to get the sense from you, Mackenzie, Na’im, they’re quite pervasive, right? They’re everywhere, good, bad or otherwise. So I want to ask you: in your opinion, do you feel the DEI work at your organization or your — maybe not at your current organization, but past organization — do you feel like it’s performative, or is it productive? Because I think part of this as we think about how are you going to be successful, a lot of these opportunities and these ideas about diversity and bringing different kinds of people in, and making sure everyone has a chance and making sure everyone feels included — are we just writing something to write it, or are we actually writing something to put it in place? So I want to know for you in your current spaces, or your past spaces if you don’t want to speak on your current situation, do you feel like they’ve been performative and were checking boxes, or do you feel like they’ve actually produced some promising results?
Na’im Tyson: I can start with this one if you don’t mind, Mackenzie. So, I’ll start from the present and work my way back. So pymetrics basically is a human resource, AI talent matching platform where we try to create machine learning models that reduce the amount of bias in hiring. And so with that, by design, the organization has to deal with these DEI initiatives. What is unique about their approach is that they’ve sort of outsourced some of it, in the sense that they reached out to another organization to track, if you will, some of the initiatives that have been started, because there’s volunteer work, and it is also work that’s done internally, and then some people also can have donations to other organizations. And so it’s really refreshing because it’s a commitment that, even though it’s done by design, there are people who devote some of their own work time to diversity within the organization. If you take that experience and you compare it to my time at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, I would say that quite a bit of the most recent DEI activities have been reactionary and not necessarily performative. And what I mean by that is, during the time of the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, they sort of stepped up their activities, and what I mean by that is that they had sort of town halls where people were allowed to speak their mind with a facilitator that was from outside of the Fed. Well, I see the conflict in this in that the Fed, and the entire Federal Reserve System, basically is averse to getting involved in socio-political movements, and so this is something that they will consistently struggle with. However, in some cases they did sort of turn a blind eye to some of the political activities that employees felt obliged to engage in — that is, protests and certain other types of of positive activism. So I will see that type of organization always struggling. However, they do do some performative measures with their affinity groups and also outside of those affinity groups.
Mackenzie Price: And thinking about my experience, I’ve seen a few different things kind of across my time. But if I start in the present — so I’m a consultant, and the current project that I am working on was created in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the organization that I’m doing this project for thinking about what their responsibility to both their employees and also to the wider public was. And so you could look at that set of facts and say that my work is a part of a new chapter in DEI work. You could definitely look at it that way. Sometimes I look at it that way, and sometimes I don’t, but I’ve also been present in an organization as a staff member (someone who worked there) when an organization considered starting DEI kind of work, and both deciding to do it — like follow through — and I’ve also been present when they’ve thought about it and said, “No, that’s not something we need to do.” And so it’s hard to take that example and use it to answer the question you asked, do I think it is performative or not. I suppose I’m not really sure what I think about that quite yet. But when I think even farther back and think about my experience as a graduate student, and as a graduate student I had the experience of people who I was in school with assuming that my presence in the institution must mean that the department was going through some kind of DEI initiative, otherwise why would I be there? Which, let’s be clear, that’s ridiculous and grossly offensive. But, those are some of the things that I’ve seen. I don’t think I really answered your question, but I did share, so hopefully that works.
Minnie Quartey Annan: No, I… And as I said a few minutes ago, about you and Jessi Grieser being very much transformative and influential in the program, because after you left, I was the only one at Georgetown, and I think really those, that, what you just said really speaks to… It’s not necessarily answering the question, but it’s your thoughts, and I think it’s really about these spaces. And I don’t think this is a cut-and-dry “Let’s answer the question” if we can peg that the work that we’re doing, the statement that we put out — are you just putting a statement out because we have to check a box or are you putting this statement out because now you’re going to put some infrastructure behind it to actually promote change? And so what I really appreciated was when Na’im said it wasn’t necessarily performative, but it was reactionary. And unfortunately, the problem is, I think many times we become firefighters (right?) instead of making the house flame-retardant. So instead of saying, “You know what? We’re going to make sure that we help create an infrastructure, we create a system around making sure that we include others, and we create an environment that embodies different people, when something comes up,” such as the murder of George Floyd, or even when we were dealing with Ferguson and how that set a different spark of responses, we reacted to it and we didn’t have something in place to say, “Now, let’s talk about this, and how does this fit into our current structure?” We had to build something, we had to create something. And that’s why you see… Even here, I work with an organization — our employees, we have about 120 employees, at our peak we have about 200 over the summer, and it’s about 75% non-white for our employees, and our young people that we serve are 92% white, and I think we are getting to a place now as we’re shifting our culture here, but even as an organization that serves a lot of Black and brown staff and young people, we’re very much behind, and we are very much reactionary. And I think in some ways we have been performative: we say the right things, because we hide behind a brand. And I think that for me — and I’m actually at work and I’m very comfortable about saying this because I’ve shared this, right, and so I’m not saying anything that I haven’t said to leadership and to HR, but I think what’s really really important is, how do we become the biggest advocates in the room and the biggest forces of action for young people and our staff so they see that we’re not just putting up a statement on our website, but we’re doing this each and every day in the 15 sites that we serve in our virtual space. And so I really like this idea — I don’t like that this is the reality — but I really liked the way you articulated that, Na’im, that it is reactionary, and maybe not as performative — well, it’s cut and dry “performance” — but in some cases we are just reacting to what’s happening, as opposed to creating these intentional spaces and conversations and systems around how do we do this work. So thinking about — and I think, Alex, you alluded to this in the chat — kind of thinking about these affinity groups or these employee resource groups (right?), do you feel like, so Black, African American, certain gender identities in the workplace, Asian, Asian American, do your jobs offer these types of groups? If so, what has been your experience? And then, have they been useful? Have they been helpful? Have they been harmful? So if you’ve experienced them, what has been your experience, and do you think it’s a positive or negative one? And then I want to open that up to others because I know organizations, academies may all function a little differently. So I want to ask Mackenzie and Na’im first, but I would like some others to respond as well, because I think this is a really important conversation about the professional space.
Mackenzie Price: So, I’ve never been a part of a formal employee resource group. So either they have not existed, or I haven’t been able to join one because as a consultant who mostly works on a contract or freelance base, I’m not a full-time employee, which means I’m not able to participate in those kinds of groups. Now, that scenario tells you a lot about, that’s another important… The structure of labor is another important piece of this conversation about equity and inclusion, but I’ve never been a part of a formal resource group. Now, I have been, of course, a part of the informal meeting after the meeting of the people and the folk, but no, I’ve never been a part of an employee resource group.
Na’im Tyson: So I too had that same issue when I first started at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York where as a contractor I could not participate in those types of groups. However, once I became full-time, I was able to do so. The issue that I had with our affinity groups — and this goes back to the theme of being performative versus being productive, in that they would… They check all the boxes, they are funded, in the sense that they have speakers come in and talk at you, but they do not facilitate dialogues and definitive actions that occur after the meeting. And so, I alluded to before the conversation that we had about the social upheaval going on at the time, that should have been a discussion that should have gone on way before the George Floyd murder, because this has been a consistent theme within this country. However, the affinity group I was associated with for some reason did not decide to make it a part of their agenda throughout the year. Now, at my current position, there seems to be the issue of the forest versus the trees. So, yes, there are diversity initiatives within the organization at a very high level. However, at the level of the trees, you don’t see the engagement or the continued engagement with affinity groups of color within the organization. Now, I have my theories as to why that is the case, one theory being that we’re all remote, and we don’t necessarily have the opportunities to do that on an ongoing basis. There also is a Slack channel, but the problem with the Slack channel is that it’s sort of the equivalent of a breakout room in Zoom, You have to be assigned in order to feel included, and it’s not necessarily an inclusion by your own choice. And the affinity group, that is… And it’s called the Latinx group. Well, the problem is that I’m not Latinx, so it doesn’t… Any conversations there don’t necessarily apply to me, so I can only call it an affinity group in name, but not in its own action.
Minnie Quartey Annan: For others who are in the academy or beyond, do you have anything that you want to add? Ashley and Jordan, we most definitely will circle back when you are ready.
Attendee: I could go ahead and chime in really quickly just on the ideas of being performative, being reactionary rather than being prepared. I have definitely tried to reflect on that myself, and I try to talk to others about how I’m handling certain situations, but I do feel that it’s performative, and sometimes I feel like it’s that same kind of imposter syndrome situation, and I don’t know if you all can kind of check in on that, but in some cases when I haven’t really seen others demonstrating or modeling, I do get that sense of being performative. But I… in fact actually setting up better practices, or am I perpetuating like you said, more and more so being performative? I don’t know if anyone else can… Mackenzie Price: The point about demanding better practices and keeping the, frankly, advocacy and internal activism around practices is really important. And I think that that is what — of course, you know, being able to change practice, and how it is that people inside of organizations and institutions are going to relate to one another, that’s the — I think for me — in a lot of cases, that’s the ultimate goal and ultimate work. And is a lot of, again, in my experience, some of what gets talked about in the pre-meeting and post-meeting is, how did what relate to the meeting, or what happened in the meeting, how does that relate to things that we don’t see, need to see, want to see, are going to keep pushing for and talking about, and how can we change practice to match what we know would create a better experience?
Attendee: [unclear 26:12] at the University of Arizona we’ve been dealing with this. All of this is in… I think most of it at least is in response to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And it’s an opportunity that’s come along where the C-suite is ready to have conversations and to do things, but I was smiling because of the post about, you know, the small amount of money that gets done. So, what I try to do… I’m the one who got stuck with doing all of the organizing, so I was like… I came from an institution, UTSA where we had a Black Faculty and Staff Association and I served in that, and then I came to University of Arizona and Black folk don’t really get together and do anything. And I was like, “No, we got to change that. Black women got to come together, we got to do stuff, we got to go out to brunch and all this,” and then of course the pandemic hit and shut a lot of stuff down. And then, you know, Freedom Summer came, and then I feel like institutions were ready to have conversations that they weren’t necessarily engaging in in any real way before. And so what was difficult for me is having to say the same thing over and over. Right? It’s like, “None of this is new. Don’t ask me to do work. Don’t ask me to teach you how to do better when this is not new. Go find it. You’re researchers, you’re scholars. You can’t find a book? You don’t know how to use a database to find the stuff that you want when it comes to this?” So that’s kind of been my constant thing with that, but the fact that they’re at the table and listening and I’ve seen movement — of course they deal with the easy stuff first, right? “Okay, we’ll give you money for a SANKOFA group” — I didn’t want a SANKOFA, I don’t need a — I was like, “I don’t need you to help me get Black folks together. We can come together on our own. What I do need you to do is make substantive change.” Right? And that’s where the difficult conversations come in. We’ve seen some movement on that — they’re committing to a cluster hire, they’re committing to creating something like the UC postdocs, they’re committing to — one of the things that’s come up in here is about people’s inequitable statuses, and so one of the things I pushed for was that there are faculty here right now who are contingent faculty who want to be tenure-track faculty. Let’s shop here first. And so they’ve done some of that as well. So you can see some change, some things that are going on, but getting the big stuff — like we need to deal with these inequitable tenure promotion guidelines, like that’s a real thing, right? We need to deal with these problems with funding. We are on Native American land. It’s a land grant institution. You stole this land. Right? And another thing that’s contributed to this are the faux pas by people in the C-suite like the provost and the president. The provost actually at one point said when they were meeting with the Native American group and told them, “Oh, we give all of this money to Indigenous communities and, you know, we’ll never ever get that money back.” And I’m just like… You know. So they had to sit through a meeting, the Native student group that did this, had the faculty members and people from the community in a meeting with the provost and essentially lecturing them on, “This is how you messed up.” And so they’re having to like do all of this work now. But it’s like, this is not new. You’ve made these things, you’ve done these mistakes, you’ve done these things before, but at least now we can try to hold you accountable, but it really is about, you know, people have to show up. And they have to stick together and say, “We’re going to hold you accountable for the work that you need to do.”
Minnie Quartey Annan: I think so many of the things that you just said, Sandra — and I remember I came to you for some advice about a year ago and you were very consistent in that advice, and to hear — and almost using the exact same words, and to hear you say it again, I think it really resonates. We know how to do the research, it’s just about what we’re researching and what we choose to research and what we choose to find the solutions to — or even not find the solutions, but what we choose to try to solution. And it’s not all about getting the right answer, but it’s that you’re trying to get there and that you’re making an effort, and not just assuming that someone else will do the work. I did see a question in the chat box about leaving. And I think that depends on a couple of things. One, depending on your personality. I’m very outspoken about things, and I think Mackenzie talks about how she framed it, that she can’t be successful here. And because I am outspoken, I often advocate for people who aren’t or for people who feel like that they may be in jeopardy for some retribution, maybe losing their job or something like that. And I’m not saying that I’m invincible or I’m indisposable, but I know that there’s a lot more security in me being here then some others. And like I said, I’m not invincible by any means, but sometimes just having others that you advocate for. We had a diversity training a while back, and they were talking about what do you think is contributing to this space in a way that’s, like Mackenzie said, not helping you be successful. Or, when people think about diversity, how do you feel hindered? And so one lady talked about not having kids, and the other lady talked about having kids. Right? So, “Because I have kids I can’t participate in a lot of these random things that pop up, or these after five,” or whenever she gets off, after six, “because I have to go home and be mom and wife.” And the other young woman said, “I feel discriminated against because I don’t have kids, and because I don’t have that family, so I get extra work because people know I have time and availability.” And so it’s really this idea of what are we doing to think about diversity and what are we doing to set people up in whatever the spaces they are in, right? Whatever your situation is in, I think you have to articulate boundaries. I think boundaries really do help this notion of being successful and saying, “Although I don’t have X, or although I do X, that doesn’t mean every person that does X is just like me.” I think that’s one of the things that — we can’t just lump everyone together, and I think that’s the harmful thing about affinity groups and also the helpful thing at the same time. I think because we’re all Black, we assume that we’re all going to have the same experiences, or because we’re all women we’re going to all have the same experiences. We may have commonalities and we may have some shared experiences, but I think we have to be very, very careful not to lump everybody in the same kind of mold. And one of the things is… I do some consulting work as well, the Black Association… I can’t remember the exact name, but a pretty large company asked me to come and do a training to their group about how do we talk to people who essentially what they were — they didn’t say it like this, but it kind of came across like this and I had to help them reframe and reshape their thinking about like, “When people come in and they’re ghetto.” Like, what does that mean? Let’s unpack “ghetto.” Let’s unpack all of these things. What are you saying? And so this is the Black group, right? And they’re saying, “I hate when other Black… I hate when Black customers come in because they make it a bad name.” And so we have to unpack — what does it all mean and why are you even coming here? And I think, unfortunately, I don’t think it should have just been the Black affinity group, right? It needs to be others who come and have the same kinds of thoughts. Because this is coming from somewhere — this is not just an internal thinking, and now you’ve also helped perpetuate this thinking inside of the organization. So I think when we think about these groups and think about this work that we’re doing, I think Sandra’s very much right. It’s not about us doing the work for it, but it’s really about telling others: “Go do the work. You know how to do the work if you wanted to.” And not saying that you can’t be a presence in however you may decide to navigate in that space, but understanding your boundaries. I think success comes with establishing boundaries and sticking to them, because I wasn’t very good at that initially, and I think that that was a downfall.
Mackenzie Price: Something else that I’ve been thinking about over the last few minutes in the discussion is conversations that I’ve heard — like the conversation about why people can succeed and how that relates to the other point about changing policy and practice that we’ve been talking about. And one of the ways that… So, if I take a step back, I think in places that I’ve been in or around where I’ve seen some kind of inclusion or equity or diversity movement on, I’ve seen just from a strategy perspective, I’ve seen organizations and people inside of organizations kind of leverage this incredibly terrible myth that companies and institutions are like, friendly, and that you know, “We’re a team! And we’re a family!” Not true. But people do leverage that myth to say if this is an organization that, because we, our family has to care about and be very intentional about how we relate to one another and because we spend a lot of our time here, then this has to be a place that is not psychologically violent but is at least a… It’s not psychologically violent and is a place where we can be and be okay. So that, as I see it, can be a strategy for opening up a conversation about what are some of the things that make this a tolerable environment or not. And the conversation about “Is this tolerable?” I think — I hope, can make some progress on being able to show people in leadership positions that it isn’t just enough to have me on your staff. Like, I have to not hate coming to work every day. And that connects directly to specific policies. An instance that came to mind, just having a conversation towards the end of my time at a job that I left a few months ago, I had a conversation about how it was clear to me that I could not succeed because the policies of the institution did not see me or think about me at all. And an example was, the organization was in the process of changing providers for their retirement plans. And so, in changing providers… And they were changing providers to… Changing retirement plans, one of the things that was going to happen when the plans change was that technically you have to cash in your plan, and that means you have to pay fees in order to start a new plan, and the organization was only going to pay the fees for cashing out and transferring for people who had been at the organization for more than eight years. All right, okay, whatever. But if you look at the roster, well, the only people who’ve been at the organization for eight years are a few people who are — it’s a small organization — a few people who are in leadership positions. So what you end up saying is that everyone who is not has to pay a substantial amount of penalties for something that wasn’t their decision in the first place. And that’s an example of organizations making a choice. You chose who you are going to subsidize and who you weren’t. And so anyway, that’s an example — I hope — of being able to get into a conversation about the way things are happening in this organization does not work for me through this myth of, y’all think we’re friends.
Minnie Quartey Annan: I really appreciate, and the chat is blowing up, so it’s really great to have these parallel conversations about experiences, but also those who are putting them in the chat and then layering on each other’s exp… layering on, acknowledging, and really supporting and respecting people’s experiences and respecting what people have dealt with and how they’ve dealt with it and the diversity we’ve seen in the responses. The other thing I kind of want to talk about is — and this is something that I most definitely deal with, and so I’m going to shift the gears just a little bit, because when you’re in these spaces, I think being successful is about being resilient, like I said before, but part of that is also kind of charting your own course. And imposter syndrome and being… Imposter syndrome is very, very real, and I think we experience it… I won’t say everyone, some people may not, but I think for those who experience it, it may manifest itself differently. So for our panelists or for any of the attendees in the room, how do you see imposter syndrome kind of set you back a little bit and then how do you feel like you’ve bounced back if you have, or if you’re seeking advice on how to bounce back from thinking of being the imposter in the room?
Na’im Tyson: So, for me, being in a field that is usually dominated by people who are not from my ethnic background, I do have instances where I do experience imposter syndrome. But then I use one of the tools that has always helped me, and that is networking. If people thought that you were not competent in what you were doing, they wouldn’t reach out to you and ask you to do other things. So I always remind people of that, whether it be LinkedIn, whether it be Facebook, or whatever, whatever your primary networking mechanism is. The second tool that I’ve acquired actually is from my own interest in just learning a new word for the day, whether it be Spanish or English. And one of the words I learned today was the word “bunyip,” B-U-N-Y-I-P. Its etymology comes from an Aboriginal word that means “monster,” but when it came into English, it actually means an imposter. And so what I will tell people on this call and the people whom I see in my own travels is that you are not a monster. You’re there for a reason. You’re sitting there for a reason, and that reason is not for nothing. So, take that for what it is and keep moving.
Mackenzie Price: Definitely. I think my comment is the same, is definitely “keep moving.” And I think something that helps me keep moving, honestly, is thinking about… I do honestly believe that I am the dreams of my ancestors, and that really does go a long way in terms of pushing me into spaces that are uncomfortable. And saying things like — having Post-its around saying things like, “You can do this,” “You’re going to do this,” “This is going to happen.” And also to the point of networking and sometimes the meeting before and after the meeting, it’s important to find people who you can connect with who can remind you of that or at least who you know are pushing through uncertainty themselves and be able to have some space somewhere where you can exhale and just… just exhale. And that’s really important and restorative because whatever confidence we have, any grace we have has to be renewed. These are all finite things. If we don’t find ways to replenish them, they won’t replenish, and I think that’s an important antidote. But yes, I’ve definitely experienced imposter syndrome. But also — and this might be a little controversial — but I think also in getting through imposter syndrome, I have also been very intentional about thinking of ways, describing myself and my skills and who I am and why I should be at a place. That is kind of… How do I say this? In my experience, I have seen organizations be very interested in my skills and who I am and my persona because they haven’t met very many people like me. Maybe I’m the first or the second, or they haven’t met very many people like me. And it can be tempting to pull that into my own drive and my own narrative. However, I also don’t want my drive and my narrative to be at the expense of someone else or to not create space for the oodles of people like me that there are. And so that’s also, I think, a part of keeping that confidence and forward momentum going — is not having it be about whether or not someone like me has been present in this space before, but being driven by the other parts of my experience and my other connections, like to my ancestors, for example, in this world.
Minnie Quartey Annan: I know the chat is really hopping and popping. Anybody want to speak out loud?
Attendee: I actually just wanted to kind of say with the imposter syndrome — and I feel like I’m in the right space to talk about this — just, even with the colorist aspect of it, I run into that when it comes to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion specifically in terms of imposter syndrome as kind of what I was alluding to earlier. I mean, of course, in other positions, as far as my skill set for the job specifically, but in addressing certain issues I feel that in many cases, and even I have been… It comes up in different ways. Just that I will take on efforts to address certain things, but I might not be the best person to do that, to communicate what I’m supposed to be defending most effectively.
Minnie Quartey Annan: I think that — and Alexa, I’ll just piggyback on the point that just came up and then I see your hand all the way raised up. So one of the things is, I love going to conferences: LSA, NWAV, and the Black Linguist, right? Because in a department where… I mean, I’m not the only one now, but for a couple of years it was just me, and I didn’t have that space, not in a day to day, right, where I didn’t have a Black faculty, or I didn’t have other Black students to kind of go to and talk with, and so when we have some new Black students come in, I really tried to make sure that we created that space, because that’s what I didn’t have. But the other thing is, and the reason I bring up LSA and NWAV is, Sanja, Anne, they’ve been really great about creating this space for Black linguists to come together and be in a space to learn and to just vibe. Like Tracy just said: cultivating your tribe, that really just pumps you up, gases you up. And last year, two years ago… Or was it two years ago? Right before COVID, so last January, we were in New Orleans, and Sanja and Anne hosted a panel about being Black in linguistics. And I was just a… I think I was, I summed up a group or whatever, but it was one of the most rewarding academic experiences that I had ever had because I saw all of these amazing Black linguists doing things that I was doing, but we weren’t talking about our research, we were talking about how do we get through and navigate the academy, how do we support each other, how do we — from coming in as a grad student to being senior faculty, whatever that trajectory has looked like for the different individuals that were on that panel. It was really, really helpful and I think that right now, just imposter syndrome is crazy, it’s real. Especially I know for me, but I have some amazing people in my corner that just at the right time they send those encouraging messages, or something amazing happens, or you get that acknowledgment and you’re like, “That’s what I needed.” So finding that circle, I think, in this whole conversation about being successful — these are all tips about being successful. Find that person in your organization, in your department, in your back corner, wherever you need to do in the back alley, whatever your space is that you love to be in, find that person that’s going to kind of pick you up on those down days, because the down days, if you stay down too long, you never get back up. And so finding that circle, finding that group, and so I appreciate Sanja and Anne organizing that panel and now organizing ongoing the African American Language and Linguistics symposium kind of conference that goes on every year, now the SOBLAC, and so many different opportunities that I think that we can plug into to stay gassed up, as Tracy said, to most definitely combat this very real thing of imposter syndrome and however it may manifest for you. Alexis, and then we’ll go to Mackenzie.
Alexis Anderson: I just wanted to bring a point to say that when we’re talking about imposter syndrome, particularly, it’s incredibly imperative that we remind ourselves that we are in spaces that were not designed for us. So just being there — no one woke up and created these universities or created these public sector or private sector positions in a way for us to succeed. So just by — yes, the groups, the individuals, the meeting together — because, Minnie, to your point, the conversation wasn’t about your work. It was trying to succeed in white spaces, in spaces that were not for us and continue to have policies and procedures that are not for us. So, by your presence, by your work, by your authority, by all of these things, it should be easier when you approach it to say, “Systematically and systemically, I am not supposed to be here.” And if you try to keep that frame in mind, that has been really helpful for me to say, “Well, against all odds — against whatever you have put forward or designed or tried — you have failed.” So I think that’s really helpful on a broader scale to keep in mind that it’s not for you, and here you still stand.
Minnie Quartey Annan: Thank you, Alexis. And Mackenzie?
Mackenzie Price: Something else that factors into this is even looking at the — imposter syndrome, that is — looking at the metrics we kind of hold ourselves up to. And this is related to, Alexis, what you’re saying about “This space was not built for you, and the rules of this space don’t even see you.” And also thinking about, what are even the expectations I have about myself? One of the ways I realized that I was looking at the wrong things was I — you know, I’m a linguist, so I did a little experiment in my workplace at the time, and I started praising myself in meetings for getting things done on time. And you might say like, “Why would you do that? You’re supposed to get things done on time.” But if you look at this as, what are rules? Oppression — out the window, right. So if you look at it that way, then yeah, finishing a project on time really is the most amazing thing in the world. And it felt really strange at first to be talking about this, because people are not used to hearing you talk about yourself in this way. There’s a lot of… People are not used to hearing that kind of discourse from me, but I think just in that experiment I realized that if I just left it to what I normally would think was worth celebrating, I would not talk about myself at all, and clearly that’s not going to help, so let’s try something else of being excited when you show up, when you finish things. And yeah. Because you could say none of us are supposed to be here. So, if you look at it like that, everything you do is gold from a unicorn’s mouth, and talk about it in that way.
Minnie Quartey Annan: Okay, the “gold from the unicorn’s mouth.” I’m going to need to use that. I will quote you, Dr. Price, on that as we start to coin that and use that. We can always ask more questions and more questions, but I want to do a summative question, and then we can really open the floor for some final dialogue for the next few minutes. And we’ve kind of done this already, so this may sound silly a little bit, but if there’s that one piece of advice, right — so the panel, this panel, or this conversation was really the notion of being Black and successful beyond the academy, but we have a lot of people who are in the academy and that may be the trajectory that some people on the call decide to go. And some of us may decide to never go back to the academy once you leave. Whatever your preference, we love you and we will still support you through it all. But for Mackenzie and Na’im, can you give one piece of advice on how we can take this conversation and apply it tomorrow, apply it in an hour, apply it in five minutes, right, apply it in six months? One piece of advice or one takeaway that you want to leave us with before we open the floor for open dialogue and open conversation.
Mackenzie Price: I think that my piece of advice is something that I came into this conversation with and have seen evidence of in this conversation is that networks really do work. And this is another place where sometimes to fully embrace the power of a network, you have to change what your expectations — lower your self-standards and change what you think is appropriate or needs to happen because the bar is lower than you can ever imagine. And what I mean by that is, there might be a voice in your mind that says, “Is it polite to send someone a LinkedIn request and ask…” Like, who cares? Just do it. Bam, connection. Networks work. And also, even the length and the strength and the duration of the ties don’t function the way you think they do. So case in point, Tracy Conner, when was the last time we saw each other? I honestly don’t remember, but we are in each other’s network. And when we got on the Zoom today, it was as if time — what is it? Right? It doesn’t matter. And so networks and reaching out, talking to people, even just saying, “I want to talk to you about this thing I saw on Medium or on LinkedIn,” or “I have a question about whatever,” the worst thing that can happen is that they take some time to respond to your message, maybe. But having a network, and by that I really mean saying “hello” to people and talking to them about the things that are on your mind, is so important and facilitates both opportunities but also advice and support and feeling connected and seen. It took me a while to really learn this lesson and believe it, but it is so important.
Na’im Tyson: I guess the piece of advice I give to everyone on this call is to be so great that you cannot be ignored. I came to this piece of advice because of my own struggles during my tenure as a doctoral student. I had issues getting my generals papers approved. At Ohio State we had two pre-generals papers before you can take a generals exam. I couldn’t understand why I had these issues, so I looked up in the department manual. And I said, “Well, what is the acceptance criteria to get these papers approved?” There was one criteria that they… Right, excuse me, one criterion that they had, where if your paper is accepted by a journal or conference of your peers, then it is automatically accepted. So I took up that challenge and I said, “Look, every one of these papers is going to be in a conference or journal.” And so my first one was accepted to the INTERSPEECH Conference, and as a result of that, my advisor didn’t have the luxury of delaying the acceptance of the papers anymore. So eventually he signed off on the first one. The second paper, after a certain number of revisions, was accepted into a journal. So at faculty meetings, people would question him, “What’s the deal here? He passed the requirement, why don’t you pass him?” Then eventually he caved and he did it. So that’s really the call to action I give to all of you who are on the call. I’ll give you another example. So, Jennice had mentioned earlier about a case where if you suffered any type of bias or racism and you left the job. Well, I had a job where they left me. And they told me outright one day, “We don’t need a scientist anymore. We need more developers,” and this is after I helped them with four different patents for the same company. Four of them. All of them were my — I was basically the primary inventor on all of them. And so, they left me, and I didn’t put up much of a fuss about it. Six months later I get an email from one of their patent attorneys, asking me, “Oh, can you help us with one of these patents? We’re having some issue.” Guess what my answer was. So, in this case, they did not have a way of getting rid of me entirely. They had to deal with me. And so, my call to all of you, regardless of whether you win or you lose in your career, be so great that they cannot ignore you or your accomplishments, because those accomplishments will last you for longer than you may think.
Minnie Quartey Annan: Both of those, so Mackenzie telling us about the importance of your network. One of my friends, he always says, “Your network is your net worth.” Right? And really who… It’s not about what you have, but it’s about who you know and how they can help you get to where you want to be. And then Na’im is letting us know to be so great that you cannot be ignored. And I think my piece of advice will be: your journey is your journey. It is uniquely yours. My journey has been super crazy — hills, valleys, we went to grandma’s house five times, we came back, and then we crossed the ocean and then we sank a little bit and then we rose up and all of those things, right? But it has been uniquely mine. There may be one or two things I would change just because they are things that were in my control, but a lot of it I couldn’t control. And I think because of that, I’m able to reach more people and I’m able to talk to more people and help people understand. Going through a program with medical challenges, having a child who has a lot of medical needs or whatever your situation may be, there are other people who are dealing with those things, and because I was able to talk about my experience openly, that helps somebody else. So be comfortable in your own journey. My journey is not like Tracy’s, not like Mackenzie’s, not like Na’im’s, not like Sanja’s, not like Marcus’, etc., etc. And it took me a long time to be okay with that. And the last piece of advice is actually — I was meeting with my daughter’s neurologist and he says, “Stop mourning over what you’ve never had.” And what he was saying is, you know, my daughter has different abilities. She has… Her cognitive ability is lower than others’. And he said, “Stop trying to want the perfect daughter. Stop wanting her to be like every other child. Love her and celebrate who she is.” And when you think about this — and he said, “Stop mourning what you never had. Because she’s teaching you lessons that you never could have learned any other way.” And I’m sitting in the hospital, and I’m sitting looking at this man and at first I was like, “Why is this man coming to do this little test with her? We already know what’s going on.” And I left that room nearly in tears because he made me pivot my thinking, right? She’s never going to be what every other kid is going to be, and I love her for that because she’s taught me never to want to be what anybody else is going to be. So, enjoy your journey and embrace your own individual journey and stop mourning what you never had. I think that those are super, super critical lessons. And I think in doing those things, you can be successful and you will be successful. Because success for all of us looks different. There are 26 people on this call right now, and there are 37 definitions of success. Right? Because each of us in our own minds, we have our own definition of success and then we have two more. And so I think it’s really, really important just to be successful, whatever that means to you. Embrace your own journey. Get your network. And just be great. Be great. And so with that, thank you, Mackenzie and Na’im, for joining me. I really appreciate you have been amazing conversationalists. And everybody please feel free to join me on LinkedIn or whatever you need to do. Thank you so much everybody for coming and spending your hour and a half with us this Wednesday afternoon.
Laurel Sutton: Linguistics Career Launch 2021 was a one-month intensive program intended to familiarize linguistic students and faculty with career options beyond academia, in business, tech, government, and nonprofit organizations. Videos of all our recorded sessions are available on our YouTube channel. LCL 2021 was organized by Nancy Frishberg, Alexandra Johnston, Emily Pace, Susan Steele, and Laurel Sutton. You can get in touch at email@example.com.