Be a Role Model for Younger Women in the Workplace
The young women on staff were watching me. They thought I was the baddest bitch on the planet.
This essay from The Cut came across my feed the other day: Why We Need Older Women in the Workplace by Lisa Miller. It took me right back to one of the most precious periods of my career when I was the older woman in the workplace. The deep satisfaction I felt knowing what my presence meant to the younger women on staff will stay with me forever.
When I snared the position of Graphic Designer for the Alliance Theater Company here in Atlanta, I was beyond thrilled. Kenny Leon was at the helm and one of only three African-American Artistic Directors of a major theater in the entire country.
I was so, so proud to land this gig. Moving to Atlanta the year before, I worked at The Gap (for two whole days) and then survived three horrific months of telemarketing before getting fired (That’s another story).
Snagging this position felt like a gift from the heavens. Finally, I was getting my life back on track.
It was my first day. The elevator doors opened on the third floor. Auditions were being held and a beautiful soprano filtered out from rehearsal hall #1. I gasped. The lilting voice touched my very soul, magnifying the utter joy I felt. I was the in-house designer for the largest regional theater company in the Southeast! No longer slouching at Desk 10 in the telephone room at ABS Telemarketing.
At that moment I almost burst into tears.
Beyond the glass doors, a young Black woman with stunning green eyes sat at the reception desk. She was there three months earlier when I hauled ass and resume down Peachtree Street after hearing about the open position. While I wondered if her eye color was genuine or contacts, she graced me with a joyous smile.
“You’re Edwina, right?” She stood and extended her hand across the desk. “I’m Tammie. We’re so happy you’re here. Welcome to the Alliance Theater.”
And what a theater it was! With the most diverse group of people I’d ever worked with; Black, white, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican, Southern Baptists, sage burners. It was a rich gumbo of rowdy young Nubians and mellow old hippies. And those young Nubians took an immediate shine to me.
Graduates from Emory, Spelman, Clark-Atlanta, Georgia Tech, UGA, this particular group of women, all in their early to mid-twenties, visited my office one-by-one or in pairs, for the rest of the week. Tammie, Imani, Jada, Candace, Roz, Lisa and Leigh.
They introduced themselves, invited me to lunch, and made no bones about how happy they were to have me here.
The Alliance Theatre was a very busy place. And everyone had their role to play. With six main stage shows, three studio shows and three children shows per season, we were never NOT busy. I was the only graphic designer on staff. My workload was heavy. Crazy heavy. Every day.
Now for a little cultural education…
In Black families, when there’s an older adult child, twenty years old maybe, with a baby sister who’s two, when that older child starts having kids, often those kids grow up calling their youngest aunt Te-Te. It’s a title that’s fully respectful of the relationship, but they still might run the streets together as peers.
The young Black women on the theater staff elected to call me Te-Te. I was honored.
At any time during the day, you might find one of them hanging out in “The Cave” — that’s what they called my darkened office. Sometimes we wouldn’t even talk. They were content to sit, flip through fashion magazines, and listen to WCLK, Clark-Atlanta University’s jazz radio station, while I faced my computer monitor and worked on show art and the collateral pieces that went with each production. I would often ask their opinion about the graphics I created. They loved that.
They shared their plans with me.
Several were going back to school to get their graduate and master’s degrees. And they kept me up on all the latest office gossip. There were two breast reduction surgeries, a few abortions, three weddings, an arrest, scandals involving various members of the board and of course, the never-ending saga of their ongoing love lives.
I wasn’t trying to impress them. I came to work on time every day, dressed in my own style, and performed my job to the absolute best of my ability. That’s all. But I had no patience for the prima-donnas on staff. (Everybody’s got them but they can be so extra in the theater.) My Girls watched me shut down a lot of inner-office nonsense because who had time to indulge in it?
I suppose these young Black women saw their future in me.
Being in the arts, they were all sensitive and passionate about what they were doing. They wanted to be able to do it forever. So, for me to walk through those doors at damn near forty and snag a key position meant just as much to them to see it as it did for me to get it.
“I wanna be like you when I grow up, Te-Te.”
I loved working there. We all did.
When I marched into the General Manager’s office demanding a pay increase and got it, I didn’t do it just for me. I did it for them, too. I wanted them to see how to stand up for themselves, rely on the value they bring to the table, and demand recognition for the roles they play. Negotiations got a little dicey but I held out and won.
My Girls thought I was the baddest bitch on the planet.
These were Gen Xers with plans for their life that didn’t necessarily include a partner and/or children. But then I got married. And they saw that it was possible to have an expanding career and a romantic life too, without sacrificing either. Seeing that kind of winning in the workplace is what every young woman needs.
This happened years ago. We’re all connected on social media now. I’ve watched them move to various parts of the country, earn their degrees, and create thriving and successful careers. I’ve seen them struggle with divorce, loneliness, single parenting and health issues. I still call them “My Girls”. And they still call me Te-Te. If I sound proud, it’s because I am.