The Other Side of Unemployment

Previously published in The Washington Post

Find a way or make one. That was the motto drilled into a certain set of Washington area young women when they studied together at Clark Atlanta University. This motto fired them up through difficult times on campus, it helped them through bouts of unemployment, and it continues to instruct them today in their work on prominent Black radio and television shows and at the DNC, working on behalf of our first African American president.

I first heard their story when I met one of them at a networking party recently. I was fascinated that they all succeeded – and at the same time.  Sure, I had heard stories of all eight children in a family getting their college degrees and having successful professional careers. I had heard of groups of friends from college all succeeding in their respective endeavors. But after a few years of streaming reports of job loss, families losing their homes, and public frustration mounting to the levels of widespread “Occupy” protests, these young women’s stories of success, of success after set-backs, seemed refreshing, a nice reminder that things do work out. All is not loss.

As we geared up to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, I asked them how Dr. King’s legacy and the motto they learned at their historically Black college helped shape their life.

“Find a way or make one? Those were words to live by,” said Janelle Morris, a Largo High School graduate. That motto instructed her when, just a few months after graduating, she and her husband learned they were having their first child. She was working as an administrative aide in Howard University’s School of Communications at the time while her husband continued his studies at Morehouse University.  She worried that starting a family might stall her career in television before it got started. She picked up extra work at CNN.

“It was right after 9/11 and they needed all the help they could get. That was my break into television,” she said. So, after working her nine-to-five at Howard, which she held onto to maintain health insurance, she clocked in at CNN and worked an over-night shift. Within months, however, she landed a full-time job working at WUSA. She loved working in her chosen career field and reaping full benefits. But then she was laid off when the company downsized. She was unemployed for almost a year. “That’s when the motto really kicked in, because I had to keep the faith that I would get back in.  Every report I saw said I’d be lucky if I got a job again, let alone a job in television,” she said. “I was unemployed on Oct. 16, 2010. On Oct. 16, 2011, I was in a live truck covering one of the biggest stories of my career. That’s my testimony of faith – and that motto,” she said.

She was hired by Roland Martin’s Washington Watch, TV One’s premier political talk show, just in time to help produce the network’s three-hour live broadcast of the historic dedication of the King Memorial on the National Mall last year. Now, she is excited about helping cover the presidential race this year, excited about producing live television at the DNC when America’s first African American president likely gets officially crowned by his party for re-election.

Teria Rogers, who grew up in Fort Washington and graduated from Friendly High School, is one of the producers of the Michael Eric Dyson Show.  She has also produced for local radio talk show calebs including Bernie Mac and George Wilson. “Find a way or make one? I had to apply that early on. Financial aid didn’t come through? What? Find a way or make one. This class is full? Find a way or make one,” she said. When she graduated in 2000, she found a paid internship at News USA in Fairfax, Va. She later landed jobs at WHUR and Radio One, and made lasting relationships with mentors.

When Teria was between radio gigs once, she took a job working for an afterschool program. In 2008, Teria, who was raised in Grace United Methodist Church in Fort Washington and still draws on her spiritual beliefs, found herself producing Sirius XM Radio’s popular Mark Thompson show live from the Democratic National Convention when Obama was nominated as the party’s first Black presidential candidate.

Teria and Janelle have been friends since middle school. On campus at Clark Atlanta, they befriended Janaye Ingram, who would go on to become Al Sharpton’s D.C. Bureau Chief for his National Action Network, Kimberly Marcus, who would land a job as the Democratic National Committee’s national director for African American outreach, and Valeisha Butterfield-Jones works on Obama’s campaign, charged with helping turn out the youth vote for 2012.  Together, they became what President Obama, Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson, and Roland Martin all have in common.  They are among the women behind the movement today.

In her DNC capacity Kimberly planned King Day volunteer efforts in D.C., Pennsylvania, and N.Y.  Gearing up for Black history month she is promoting even bigger plans.  She is working to ensure Black voter turn-out for candidates “up and down the ballot,” she said.  “Most importantly, this cycle we’re making sure President Obama gets re-elected.”

Kimberly moved to Maryland from New York ten years ago to work for the NAACP as its director of economic development, before starting her own consulting firm, then going to work for Jesse Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow/P.U.S.H. Coalition in D.C.  “I left corporate America because I needed to do something to contribute to the up-liftment of my people,” said Marcus, who is also married to the soul mate she met in college and raising their three-year-old twins.

Hearing their stories reminded me of so many I have heard, and experienced – but had forgotten during the recent years over-shadowed by stories of economic crisis and public turmoil.

Butterfly Inspirations

One Sunday evening earlier this month, I received what felt like direct inspiration from God. I was on the job at Barnes and Noble, learning my way around the children’s section, straightening books on the shelves when one book caught my attention.

It was “The Hungry Caterpillar”. I began reading the book, fascinated by its colorful illustrations, and found myself transported back to when I was seven-years-old. I remembered my delight at the neighborhood library, walking home with an arm full of books. But as I began reading the story, something else occurred to me. “Hey! This is the story of my career!”

The story told of an egg hatched one dark night. The sun shined on it and it hatched and grew legs. It began to crawl and eat. It ate fruit the first several days, then binged on a feasts of everything edible and got a stomach ache. It created a cocoon and hid a while then hatched again, this time a beautiful butterfly. This story hit me like a divine message put in my path to explain something I had been struggling to understand myself – much less explain to others in upcoming job interviews. In the moment, it made perfect sense:

* The egg – my idea, inspiration to pursue a career in journalism.

* The sunshine – encouragement from family, friends and mentors. *Growing legs and crawling – education, learning the skills and theory of the trade and moving through entry-level jobs.

*Eating fruit – the jobs where my innate talent and passion for communication was nurtured. Feasting on everything edible – after the journalism industry crumbled, I took any job available – some good for me, some frustrating and some down right traumatic.

*Stomach ache – I could not digest it all. Could not understand it all. I ached, felt like a failure.

*Cocoon – I withdrew, shunning party invitations and visits with my grandparents who I believed must be privately judging my failures.

*Cocoon breaks – I could see the light through my dark, self-condemning thoughts in this moment that Sunday. I can break out of the condemnation, old judgments, sense of failure.

*Wings – my beautiful appreciation of all the job experiences I’ve had and my bright optimism about new job experiences, including this seasonal job at a book store allows me to see me career as the big, beautiful butterfly that it is.

Ironically, by Tuesday I had decided against reading so much into the book about the caterpillar which had caught my attention. But, on my way to the post office (a message distribution center, right?), I noticed a caterpillar in my path. I could not ignore the irony.This wasn’t even caterpillar season. We mostly see caterpillars in the spring time, right?

The caterpillar on Oct. 11, crawling across my path could only have been a wink from heaven, right?