#HeroesAndSheroes

 

For the first day on the job I wore my dark blue Calvin Klein pants suit, a light blue striped Ralph Lauren blouse, the one with the white collar and white French cuffs, and clunky blue Tommy Hilfiger loafers. My coif was frizzy, but I don’t mind looking like an Afro-headed Anne Taylor – Anne Taylor on a budget. I found all my designer pieces at Marshall’s and TJ Maxx, and did my hair myself.

I got up in time to make an egg sandwich and coffee for breakfast before I left. I was determined to arrive feeling comfortable rather than rushed. I read the Washington Post on the train, and felt sufficiently briefed by the time I arrived at my stop. It was a good thing I left early because the Capitol Hill campus is a maze. Not long after I passed through the metal detector and collected my keys and purse off the conveyor belt, I realized I was in the wrong building.

“O.k. Who moved the elevators?” I joked, smiling at a pair of security guards.

“Where are you going ma’am?” the woman guard asked with a cocked smile, her sandy-colored dreadlocks pulled up in a ponytail.

“I’m going to work for Senator Jackson,” I said, digging in my purse to find the card with the room number on it. “I was here just a couple weeks ago for my interview.  The elevators were right there,” I laughed, pointing.

“Ma’am you’re in the wrong building.  I could send you through the tunnel, but I don’t want to get you lost again.” She opened the glass door next to the revolving glass doors and pointed the way.  “What you want to do is go back out here, hang a right and go in the next building,” she said.  Her partner lit up with a smile.

“Tell her the truth,” he said sarcastically.  “What she really wants to do is make a left and run.” He shook his head. “I seen Madame Jackson make grown-ass dudes cry,” he chuckled.   “Grown-ass white dudes. She breaks ‘em down.”

I laughed with him.

“Run? Me? Don’t let the smooth taste fool you,” I said. I hate it when people mis-read me as soft because I smile easily.

I was glad I wore sensible shoes as I walked two city blocks to get to my building. The work crowd was just beginning to trickle in.  I took the stairs to make up for lost time.  The worn white marble steps and polished wooden rails held a certain charm I could enjoy even in a rush. I pushed open the heavy steel double doors leading out of the stairway. My steps echoed through the corridors. I noticed the flags posted on each side of an office entrance – the U.S. flag and the state flag.  I smiled when I reached my new office.  There stood one grand ole stars and stripes on one side of the entrance, our state flag – a lone white eagle under a big yellow sun against a red background – on the other.

The office door was locked. I slapped the wood a few times, waited a few seconds, and then pounded. A woman about my age woman opened the door gave me a strange look.

“Oh. My bad. They said someone would be here early.  I’m Ruqiyah Paige, the new communications director,” I said.

“Come on in.  I was on a call.  I’m Octavia,” she said.

I followed her through the office lobby where photos of Senator Jackson with Corretta Scott King, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and the first woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi adorned the walls.  The front desks were vacant and the only sound was a fax machine spitting out papers.

  • List 10 people in your life you admire and tell why you admire them.
  • What personality traits of theirs do you have or wish you had?
  • Knowing that your admiration of him/her is likely a reflection of dormant strengths you have, just waiting for your permission to blossom, consider an upcoming big decision or project in your life. How would you handle it if you were acting more like the people you admire most?

#DifficultPeople

 

June 15, 2008

 

I hoped I made the right decision. I prayed about it but got no answer.  Should I go to work for Senator Billie Jean Jackson, knowing what I know about her? Or should I follow my first instinct? I cringed when her chief of staff asked me to apply for the job. Then I thought better of it. It would be an honor to help her tell her story her way as her communications director.  I could use all the reporting, writing, and political skills I had gained over the years to get her messages out.  I had worked for Madame Senator before – ten years ago when her district director hired me in the District Office back home. I am familiar enough with Madame Senator’s legendary temper tantrums.

“That’s MY goddamned name on the door. The people voted for me! Fuck you!” I had heard Madame Senator scream once when I was on the phone with her office. I had heard her chief of staff fire back.

“Sit your simple-ass down somewhere and let me handle this! Your ass is too hard-headed! That’s what’s wrong with you!”

Sitting at my desk in the District Office, I pulled the phone away from my ear. Where I came from, that language was unprofessional at best.

“Aw fuck you!” Madame Senator yelled back.

“No! Fuck you!”

They went around and around a few minutes.

“That’s Madame Senator?” I asked the receptionist.

“Yep.”

“I hope we don’t have company,” I laughed.

“A reporter just left,” she said. “Who would you like to speak to?”

I explained that we were waiting for approval of a few “thank you” letters from Madame Senator. I wrote letters to or for our constituents daily, then submitted them to Madame Senator’s district director. I hardly spoke with the Senator directly.  Even when I had to call the Hill office, I would speak with her legislative director or her chief of staff instead of her.

“Would you like to speak with the Senator?” the receptionist asked.

Not if I could help it, I thought.

“Just slip a note on her desk reminding her that the District Office is waiting for her to sign off on those letters. Thanks.”

Despite Senator Jackson’s temper tantrums, I have a lot of respect for her. I had loved working in her District Office answering voters’ questions and helping them access federal agencies to solve a problem with veterans’ services, a Social Security check, or a family member in a federal prison. We might get twenty to thirty desperate calls for assistance a day. I had enjoyed working on community events, such as her annual “Congressional Essay Competition” for high school students. Students could win cash prizes and showcase their work in Madame Senator’s newsletter and our hometown newspaper. I had especially enjoyed working on Madame Senator’s annual Christmas party where we dressed as elves and served more than three hundred poor children pizza. We handed each child a toy, a coat, and a book, purchased by donations from corporations. I remembered how much it meant to me to have one thing for Christmas in my youth since my parents could not afford gifts for us.  So it had been an especially rewarding part of the job to spread holiday cheer to other poor children.

I had worked on Madame Senator’s annual “procurement fair,” where we helped local small business owners meet federal agents to later secure federal contracts.  Madame Senator would hold a press conference, assuring voters that she was working to create opportunities for them. She was brilliant and persuasive. It was no wonder she had been reelected to Congress ten times, then elected as our state’s first African-American senator. She became only the second African American woman to serve in the exclusive club of old white men. I worked for her not only because I needed a job at the time.  I also believed I could learn a lot working with her.  That’s what I believed at twenty-six.  Ten years later, I need a job again, but this time, I believe I can give her the edge she needs. She’s getting old now and needs new energy, new ideas.  So, I accepted the offer even knowing what I knew.

I e-mailed my best friend, Victoria, “I accepted the job! We’re about to make history!”

  • List three of the most challenging people you have encountered in your life.
  • What did you despise most about them?
  • How could they possibly be a reflection of you – your fears/beliefs that keep you from behaving like them, your secret admiration of their strengths?
  • Why do you think they have focused their attention on you? What is it about you they admire and are pushing you to overcome or develop?