Author Jennifer R. Farmer
Just in time for Women’s History Month: Black Women Unmuted spoke with communications strategist and author Jennifer R. Farmer about her new book, First & Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life – an extra salient topic right now, with so many Black women rising to the top in corporate America and in elective office.
We asked Jennifer to elaborate on what it means to be a barrier-breaking Black woman, and how our first-and-only sisters can best cope with the burdens of history. Check out what she had to say!
Why Did You Write First and Only? I wanted to document the experiences of Black women who find themselves in the position of being the first and only, of being celebrated while navigating a new terrain, and while being publicly honored for their achievement but internally held to unusual standards. I noticed that far too many leadership books were written by white men or nonblack people, and those books do not speak to the racism, sexism and classism that Black women experience at work and in life. It sets us up to expect we will find guidance on navigating the difficult situations we face due to race, class and gender, only to leave us sorely disappointed with our needs unmet. I wrote “First and Only” with that unmet need in mind. Black women must view and navigate every bit of leadership advice through the lens of our unique experiences and identities.
Speaking of “first and only,” we have a truly significant first before us in real time: Madam Vice President Kamala Harris. What advice would you give to her in managing a first of this magnitude? Similarly, what would you say to other sisters who find themselves navigating as a “first” in politics? It is humbling to think that Kamala Harris would need my feedback. Yet I will offer it anyway. I would encourage her to not let the political machine erase who she is. So much of politics is about conformity, though there are people, and certainly the world, who need to see her authentic self. Similarly, I think that in all she does for others, she should maintain her own goals. At the conclusion of her term, when she is assessing what she has done and accomplished, she should have her own priorities, not just the things that others have given her. Relatedly, the goal is not to remain the “first.” Anything that she can do to promote Black women and women of color is important and should not be taken for granted. Indeed, she should be committed to this idea of opening space for other Black women, even in the face of resistance. I think this advice applies to other Black women navigating life as the “first.”
We also are seeing Black women rise as CEOs in corporate America, such as Rosalind Brewer at Walgreen’s and Thasunda Brown Duckett at investment management firm TIAA. Is being a first-and-only in the business world different for them? The essence of what we face as the first and only is universal, though it may look different in different industries. As the first and only, we navigate worlds that those around us may not understand. The rules may vary from place to place, but the challenges persist. The goal in writing this book is to affirm that this is a unique experience, honor Black women for their courage and resilience, and think about how to promote the creation of safe spaces for Black women.
What do you hope to accomplish by shining more light on the overall “first and only” dilemma for Black women? I want Black women to feel seen and validated. I want the people who work with Black women to be open to a different frame of mind in terms of what it looks like to support Black women and create space for the leadership of people who are not white. I want us Black women to see ourselves as not just work horses, but as brilliant vessels whose expertise is too often devalued and undermined.
Is this book only for Black women, or can people of all races and genders relate? If you are a Black woman, you should read “First and Only” because it is an affirmation of your existence, a testament to your resilience and an inoculation against the attacks you’ll experience. If you want to be a better supporter or ally of Black women, you should read this book to learn about ways to show up effectively and consistently. If you work with or employ Black women, you should read this book to glean strategies for ensuring the work environment and culture is welcoming and inclusive for Black women. Finally, you should read this book because it was written for Black women by a Black woman. Who knows us better than us?
What advice do you give Black women in this book about caring for themselves? I am really honest about the ways in which having a spiritual practice, being connected to faith and people of faith has helped me and propelled my work. I talk about the ways in which I have embraced things like small group bible studies, prayer with friends, yoga, counseling, and exercise to care for my soul and my body. My life has not been a walk among roses or a walk on rose petals. I am confident that I would not be here were it not for my faith or people who have showed me the face of God by displaying tremendous kindness, patience and love. While everyone must decide for themselves, this book is one woman’s account of how faith has helped her.
Is there anything you were surprised to learn as you wrote this book? Yes! The limitations of networking. Everyone is told to network their way into a better job or board position. But the seldom spoken fact about networking is that, for Black women, it relies heavily on the willingness of white people and non-Black people of color to open their networks to us. Since most people network among those with whom they are most comfortable, many networks are not racially diverse. If Black women are not in the networks with access to jobs, capital and board positions, they will not hear about or be tapped for those opportunities. While Black women are encouraged to network, people in positions of power must also be encouraged to develop more inclusive networks and to do their own anti-racism work so that they are receptive to Black women when those Black women do indeed show up. In essence, I am advocating that we take the current leadership advice about networking and tell the truth about it. If the entire burden and onus is placed on Black women – without holding non-Black people accountable for racism, patriarchy and misogyny – then Black women are held to impossible standards and others are being disingenuous in the process.
OK, how can I buy this book? You can purchase “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life” from the publisher, Broadleaf Books, via Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. It is also available in retail stores such as Target and Walmart.
Jennifer R. Farmer is the founder of Spotlight PR LLC, a boutique firm that specializes in communications strategies for social justice, and the Center for Social Justice Leadership, which helps to create more inclusive workplace cultures. You can learn more about her at www.jenniferrfarmer.org.