Authenticity Forged by Love

I’m often asked, by young women of color especially, how I maintain my authenticity in the workplace. The ability to ‘bring your whole self’ to work is a complex subject mired by social, political and economic tensions. It requires a deep sense of self, political and situational awareness coupled with a heavy dose of courage. While I have long driven diversity and inclusion strategies aimed at transforming corporate cultures, remaining true to my character has been both a work in progress and a defining trait. I am able to be me — to be kind, bold, brave and steadfast no matter what — because others have fought for me, lovingly and fiercely.

I was reminded of this recently when we celebrated my father’s 60th birthday on a family trip to the Bahamas. It was a perfect way to cheer a man deeply rooted in family and a Caribbean lineage.

During his birthday dinner, we all teased my father when he announced he wanted to say a few words about everyone at the table. As is common with my impassioned ‘papi’, we were all in tears at his first words, most of all him. When it came to me, he began with a story he has selectively shared over the years. He recalled the day he first saw me, when as a clueless fifteen year old living in the Dominican Republic and eager to move back to New York City, he was struck with a clear and distinct realization, he was in love with his baby daughter. That fierce feeling was quickly followed by a deep sense of protection which to him simply meant he would fight for me, always. And always fight for me he has.

The first time my street wise father fought for me, he was about 18 years old. Fearing what would become of me if I was raised by my mother in a midtown Manhattan community riddled with crime and poverty, he asked his parents to raise me in the Dominican Republic. And so, on his next visit as he found me on the street with my mom’s crew, he announced I would be moving to live with my grandparents. While not a fully hatched plan, my father did have the foresight to bring his best friend Joe for protection should he face a physical altercation. He did not. My mother relinquished me, perhaps ambivalent about her role as a caretaker; perhaps recognizing I could lead a better life elsewhere. In either case, in that moment, my father changed my life as he dared to dream for me what he couldn’t for himself.

Years later, in my junior year of high school in the Dominican Republic, my father was advised that I needed to complete my PSATs in the United States to improve my chances of entering an American university. He quickly bought a small house in New Jersey where I moved with my grandparents who devotedly came along to help with the transition. All so that I could achieve what my father fought for since my infancy — advancement through education and opportunity.

Knowing that I have people in my corner willing to fight for me, whether it be my father, grandparents and aunts; or the friends, bosses and mentors who have heartily advocated for me, has allowed me to stand fully and authentically in myself. And to champion the same for others.

I’ve been able to stand firmly anchored in who I am, often despite what others expected of me, because I’ve been fought for when I most needed it. Light has been shined on me so that I can open doors and lighten the load for others.

Just like my father fought for me, I fight so that my daughter grows up to be self assured, strong, unafraid to advocate for herself and others. My circumstances and that of my daughter’s are far easier than that of my father’s, and I have him to thank for that. Her voice, courage and kindness are my way of honoring his good fight and lighting the path forward for others to do the same.