Race, Class, Religion

As an African-American Christian woman from a working class background, I have had to confront race, culture, class and religion almost daily. The workplace provides a challenging environment to deal with these issues—even though I work for a non-profit. The more I work in the non-profit world, I’ve found the verse to be more true than I have ever realized: If give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

I recently experienced a personal and professional turning point along these lines. Earlier this year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. At various points I have had to take extended periods of time off work and work part-time in order to simultaneously keep my job and care for my mother since she’s in San Diego and I live in Los Angeles. I had informed my employer several months in advance that I would need to take three weeks of work and move in with my mother to care for her after a bone marrow transplant she needed after she completed her chemotherapy. As my supervisors and I discussed different options, I chose to work remotely from my mother’s house, with a borrowed laptop, and communicating with the office via telephone and email. I figured since my mother would be resting most of the time, I would have time to work on whatever projects or assignments I was needed on, and since I was aiming for a promotion, I would gain much needed “brownie points” in the eyes of my supervisors. Since my supervisors had been very flexible and understanding, I thought that things would not be a problem. Unfortunately, I was proved wrong.

My mother was released from the hospital a few days earlier than expected, so I called my supervisor over the weekend from San Diego (I went down on weekends to visit my mother) to let her know. She responded in kind and told me “everything would be fine.” But, on the day I returned to the office, I received an email from my direct supervisor, stating that since we were entering into a period with three major deadlines in a six-week period (she later realized that it was only two deadlines), I would have to come in a minimum of one day of week—two being preferred—in order to maintain my current job and continue to remain eligible for the promotion. She then went on to say that she and her supervisor (the executive director for the organization) felt that they had been more than generous given the situation, and that they needed my commitment in return. A large knot of nerves, anger and sadness formed in the bottom of my stomach. We agreed over email to meet—the executive director, my direct supervisor and me—later that afternoon. I sent emails to close friends, outlining the situation and asking for much-needed prayers.

The meeting that eventually transpired was one of the worst meetings with a superior that I had ever had. While the executive director and I basically went at it, my direct supervisor remained silent for the most part. The compassion that had been present since my mother’s initial diagnosis was completely absent. I understood where my supervisors were coming from, but I felt it could have been delivered with much more tact. Even though it was a difficult day, I felt that God had really given me a sense of clarity and wisdom about the situation.

This heightened clarity and wisdom was useful in a meeting I had with my direct supervisor the next day, once tempers and emotions were calmer. I realized the perspective that my employers were coming from, and how we were on different pages. With respect to race and culture, as a person of color, I innately have a sense of taking care of the family. For instance, I was able to say that I would sacrifice to take care of my mother without a second thought. That was lost on my supervisors, who felt that in spite of my mother’s illness, my allegiance should still be with my job—something I totally disagree with.

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My supervisor also expressed concern about the ramifications—financial and otherwise—of leaving my job I replied that my mother would be willing to help me out financially, as well as my father. That was almost incomprehensible for her, because she shared that even though she came from a financially stable background, she never felt that she had that security net. I realized that people who are poorer, in general, have a tighter sense of community and are willing to help each other, especially in difficult situations. My parents are not rich by any means, but they are willing to help me out. I’ve really never felt insecure about that, which I was not conscious of until this incident happened. I replied that I had faith that another door would open up, and I would be provided for. In addition, my relationship with God, plus the fact I am in a “valley” period right now, prepared me for any fallout that would result if I had to leave my job.

I don’t want to give the impression that all non-profits are terrible places to work, that your employers will be tyrannical, and you’ll have to become a robot once you enter the door. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and I was promoted and given a raise. But I still wonder if I should have just taken a leave of absence (under which I would have been protected under the Family Leave law), or if I should have just quit the day of that meeting. But the situation made me evaluate a lot of things of my life, and I feel that God was really speaking to me throughout this whole process. Either way I remembered what a friend told me: God hasn’t failed me yet, and there’s no reason why He would start now.

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