When I was a girl, I was a co-conspirator with an activist nun and priest in inviting the Black Panthers to speak at my Catholic school. That tells you something about me and my life and times.
It was the 1960s. People were waking up to the fact that the American dream, while splendid in theory, was in reality a nightmare for anyone who wasn’t a white male.
Women were pushing for equal rights. Millions of African-Americans were marching and protesting peacefully, but a faction growing impatient with the snail’s pace of civil rights gains was becoming increasingly radicalized. Mexican immigrants, without whom the nation’s agricultural abundance would rot, started fighting for a fair wage.
I had a front row seat to this unfolding awakening.
Growing up in Oakland, California, during the 1960s, I lived and breathed the changing times. Radical nuns and priests sensitized me to the world of struggle that was life for women and minorities. I’ll never forget a cursillo—Spanish for a short course in Christianity—when the nuns and priests of our parish loaded us in school buses headed for grape country, and I got to hear Cesar Chavez speak. To this day I feel the man’s power, and I have a photo of Chavez hanging in my kitchen.
And then there was the day we invited the Black Panthers to speak at my school. I can still see them, four young black men marching into the auditorium with military precision, wearing sunglasses, berets, and leather coats to go along with their formidable Afros.
While many people only remember how the message of the Panthers grew increasingly radical and militarized as the civil rights struggle lurched on, at the outset the group was established to monitor police behavior and to give agency to the black community. The Panthers’ children’s breakfast and community meals programs marked a breakthrough; they were tending to and supporting the community. I feel anguish that fifty years later, we’ve barely shown any progress, with calls for police to wear body cameras in the wake of persistent police violence—and fatal shootings—of unarmed black suspects. From Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland, to Los Angeles, California, police violence against black suspects continues.
Fifty years ago, African-Americans marched for equal rights carrying signs saying, “I am a Man.” Today, African-Americans protest carrying signs saying, “Black Lives Matter.”
Fifty years ago, Chavez rallied Hispanics with the rallying cry, “Si, se puede!” Today, politicians battle among themselves to assert who would be more unforgiving and restrictive of immigrants from Mexico.
My work as a narrative coach is in many ways animated by my interest in giving voice to the marginalized, those whose stories have been lost and made invisible. When people are disenfranchised and made invisible, everyone loses something.
Our lives are guided by two great stories: the ones we tell about our own individual lives, and the dominant societal narrative. For far too long in this country, women and people of color have been belittled in this dominant narrative.
As a consequence, their own personal stories have been belittled. Many women and minorities, stuck in problematic stories and the marginalizing dominant narratives, have been unable to live into their full potential.
But when someone with courage stands up and offers a counter-narrative, it can cause a seismic shift. As a youngster, Malcolm X aspired to be a lawyer, but a middle school teacher told him that wasn’t “a realistic goal for a nigger.” He rejected that dominant narrative, and later went on to preach a different story: one of black superiority, offering a new world of possibility for people of color to live into.
Likewise, Chavez offered a counter-narrative to the story that Hispanic immigrants were powerless and subservient. His leadership of the Delano grape strike ultimately brought about a collective bargaining agreement between growers and table grape harvesters—a new story of power and agency.
I now use the dynamic of story to help women and people of color live into their full potential as business executives. By helping them to see the problematic aspects of their stories and create a counter-narrative, I also help them live into their greatest potential. Meanwhile, by sharing those stories with each company’s power structure—most often white men—we’re then able to create a more inclusive dominant institutional narrative that recognizes the worth and contributions of women and people of color.
I’ve come a long way from the teen who conspired to invite the Black Panthers to her Catholic school, but my vision for how the world should be has never changed. I’m saddened that many of the battles that flared during my youth still rage today. But that just adds urgency to my mission. And at least there’s this: Instead of being a bystander protesting, I’m helping effect positive change within corporate executive suites, one story at a time.