How does Harlem inspire you as a born and raised Harlemite?
Whatever you think Harlem is, my family is that. My grandparents used to have a business in the neighborhood and my father owns a barbershop on 116th, so that rich culture is engrained in us. Being from Harlem gives you a certain level of pizzazz and I'm proud to have that. The DNA is just different and it's admired across the world. When I went to Howard, I felt so good about myself because of where I came from. I know a lot of people from Black cities like Detroit or neighborhoods in Chicago feel the same way.
What are your thoughts on how Harlem is changing?
I'm proud of the evolution of Harlem. It may look another way on the outskirts, but my peers have to remember that the people who truly make Harlem what it is and the real decision makers look like you and I. I'm proud of the small Black-owned businesses that have been able to sustain themselves throughout these changes and give us, young black professionals, a place to call home. I just hope that for people who aren't from here, whether you’re Black or White, that you don’t isolate yourself. I think that's going to be the biggest difference. Be a part of your community board, go to your block association meetings. That's where you'll meet native Harlemites that can give you a wealth of information and start to bridge the gap. Education and an appreciation for the history of Harlem are important. Similar to what you’ve done with Strivers’ Row, newcomers can learn and redefine history while maintaining the value.
At Howard, you majored in business, but you ended up going into public service. What drew you to the field and how did you get into it?
I always knew I wanted to go into government. My reasoning for not majoring in Political Science was that I needed something solid to fall back on. During my time at Howard, I had the pleasure of interning at the New York Stock Exchange, NFL, Def Jam and Bad Boy, but I realized I like to be helpful. Public service is also an area younger people may stray away from, yet it's so critical. I thought I wanted to be an elected official, but working in Harlem and building relationships through my non-profit organization helped me realize I could be more effective in other ways. When the mayor ran for election, he reminded me the most of Barack Obama. He talked about ending the divide, the tale of two cities that a lot of people don't really acknowledge in New York City, and I wanted to work with him. It was amazing and it’s likely I will fall back into it again because it aligns with my purpose. I think my purpose is to build equitable environments, not just to push for equality. I'm in tech now because there is a gap in internet access that’s impacting Black and brown communities across the country. It seems unreal because we all have iPhones, but 45% of people in the Bronx don’t have WiFi access.
Your next stop was Big Brothers Big Sisters. How did you know it was time to move on?
My decision to leave any place is always based around a feeling of no longer being challenged. If challenge is absent, I’m not growing. With Big Brothers Big Sisters, it was an awesome two years of working with youth of color, increasing the number of diverse volunteers and managing our corporate partnerships. I was taken aback by the perception in the non-profit space that Blacks and Hispanics don't like to volunteer and am proud of my ability to shift that thought through recruitment. As young adults we try to find mentors but don't always spend enough time thinking about how we can mentor someone else. The biggest thing I hope people take away from this conversation is if you can't find it, then be it. Over the past year, I've tried to keep that as my internal motto because we have a lot to offer as young professionals, especially to our youth who can benefit so much from exposure. We're doing the unimaginable to our parents, to our grandparents. But weirdly enough, the generation behind us is finding it harder to have that same access and opportunity. Redefining what volunteerism looks like is necessary. It doesn't have to mean working in a soup kitchen. If you're a good writer, you can help someone become a better writer. There are so many ways you can do this thing called service that is comfortable to you but will still make a difference to someone else. And we have the much time. We are brunching on the weekends. We're at after work events. We can pull together two hours to do something monumental.
What does your role as a Community Affairs Manager entail?
I work for Intersection, which is the advertising and tech company responsible for the WiFi kiosks in New York City and a leader in the smart city movement. I came on board to join the External Affairs team, which merges my work in government and non-profits because I work with elected officials helping them to better understand the product and ensuring that we understand their needs and visions of what a smart city should look like. I also work with small businesses and local organizations to inform them of opportunities to advertise for free on our kiosks. That's a big deal for a small business because despite limited budgets, they can share a space with the Coca-Colas of the world. I also help New Yorkers get acquainted with the kiosks and the many services offered. You can make free calls to anywhere in the United States and use the tablet to do 311 searches. For low-income families, not needing to buy an expensive data plan because you have WiFi access on the street can be a huge help. Our surveys have shown that children are mostly using the WiFi for homework. On a day to day basis, it's very similar to government in that you never know what the day holds and I love that it’s so up in the air.
How are you empowered by your work at Intersection?
I am happy to be a gatekeeper. Many times we move on because the people that are inside don't look like us and because they don’t look like us, they don't know where to find us. They don't know how to educate us about opportunities that can benefit us. When I work with minority-owned businesses and give them information and see their face light up, that’s what it's all about. I used to be very afraid of being the person that only cares about Black issues but I'm realizing that is what I'm here for. I'm here to make sure that whatever room I'm in, I'm opening up every door and window to us. That's a common thread that goes through my career. When I was at Big Brothers Big Sisters and in control of the budget, I made sure to find Black-owned businesses and put money in their pockets. Being able to empower us through my leadership makes me sleep well at night. I'm going to always find a way to make sure there are more of us in the room.
How do you overcome the fear of wearing your Blackness boldly at work?
It's difficult and can be intimidating at times, but when you have the opportunity to teach, teach. A lot of what we encounter is ignorance and not in a negative way, but just now knowing. Everyone else's day to day might not include interacting with a person of color, so this is your opportunity to speak up. My dad would tell me that all the time and at the beginning of my career I was like “Dad, I can't rock the boat.” But you can, respectfully, and people will respect you for it. This is our time! I would encourage everyone, no matter what role or level, to speak up for us. When you have the chance to give a Black person a chance, do that, because we’re literally all we got.
Can you tell us about We Give Too?
Service is very important to me and I try to make sure that wherever I work has a corporate service or responsibility element. Going into the for-profit space, I knew I may have to create that and am working to do so. I also knew that the work of diversifying volunteers needs to continue and sometimes we just don’t know how to get involved. Granted, it could be as easy as a Google search, but people would rather volunteer at places that they've heard from or have some credibility. So I put together a platform where prospective volunteers can find opportunities and organizations and companies can access a database of volunteers of color with changing the face of philanthropy as our motto. I also have a goal of organizing volunteer events and programs with corporations. Many times non-profits don't want to do the work or invest the money to reach us, so they can tap me. I'm really excited to see what it blossoms into. I've tried not to attach too many expectations because it was something that was in my head that I just needed to get out. This is an important effort because often the people being served look like you and I but those controlling resources, leading conversations and doing the service don’t. That creates a challenge, especially when dealing with youth of color.
You’re a great networker. What are your keys?
Build authentically with people that you truly want to get to know and whose lives you have something to add to. Don’t be a clout chaser. When I reach out to people, I have the mindset of how can I help them, not thinking about myself. There have been several amazing people I wanted to connect with, but prior to having an amount of agency over resources, I had no reason to because it was only selfish. My second thing would to be humble yourself. Many times you go to networking events and there are key people, the panelist for example. But there are 50 other people in the room that could be mutually beneficial to meet. Just because their name wasn’t on the flyer or they might not look the part, doesn't mean they aren't the part.
What principles do you think have had the greatest impact on your attaining success?
To whom much is given, much is expected. I heard that quote at the age of 13 and it’s one of my guiding stars. I'm always thinking about how can I benefit someone else or be supportive and people admire that. Also, as hard as it can be, knowing that I’m on my own path. It's very easy, especially now, to look over to your left and see your friend is doing this and they're ahead because they're doing that and you might want to pivot. Just stay in your lane and you will get to your finish line. And remembering that there's no good and bad. Everything is just an experience. Angie Martinez, in her book, talks about never getting too high and never getting too low because life is cyclical. When things are bad, you can almost guarantee something good is going to come and when things are good, you can almost guarantee some craziness is going to happen. So, take it all together, with both a smile and a grain of salt. Everything that's meant for you, you will gain at some point. It might not happen today. It might not happen tomorrow, but you will get yours.
What’s on the horizon for you?
For the first time in my life, I can say that I don't know and I'm excited by that. I recently got married, so I’m definitely focusing on my personal life and becoming a real adult. I’m trying to hit my target weight and be stronger mentally. Given so much in the news about suicide and depression, I encourage everyone to spend time on their mental and spiritual selves as well as physical. The phrase self-care has gotten to be cliché, but protect your energy for real. On the professional side, learning and navigating the tech space to better understand how I can continue being impactful and connect it with my purpose. I'm like a sponge right now and it feels so good. I’m grateful for all the possibilities that are available. This next year is just me being a better me, living my best, truest and fullest life.
How do you stay motivated as you strive to achieve your goals?
I just try to remember the bigger picture. It's very easy for the mind to get polluted with a bunch of nonsense and distractions, but I know this work is bigger than me. Also, to keep it 100, I don't want to let down the people that invested their time, energy and resources into me. I want them to be able to be proud and know that I gave my best. During times when I'm not motivated, I allow myself to not be motivated. Sometimes we feel guilty when we're not high performing or kicking ass, but enjoy those seasons. 9 out of 10 times there's a reason you're in that space and there's something that you're supposed to take away from it, but if you try to rush through it you might miss the message. So, surrender to that energy and the reason why you aren’t feeling motivated because they're probably something that you should be working on.