By Marni Fritz
October 1, 2016
Often in the anti-racist social movement, the work of women goes ignored. Women work tirelessly behind the scenes, only to be represented by a man with a bull-horn. This erasure is exhausting and overwhelming. In an effort to raise up the voices and anti-racist work of women in Pittsburgh, I am beginning a series that focuses on the fierce women who are taking ownership of their work, to discuss concepts of identity, what their work looks like, and how they make sure they are giving themselves the emotional attention they deserve.
“I have always wanted to work for myself my whole life. For the past three years I have been trying to figure out what that will look like.” Liana, a black woman adopted from Brazil by white parents, reflects on her life as a businesswoman navigating the nonprofit world in Pittsburgh. But her experience in Pittsburgh nonprofits and higher education has been one of tokenization, exploitation and exhaustion.
Claiming that her education wasn’t good enough, the white women with whom Liana worked influenced her to go back to school. But without the support she needed, Liana was discouraged by the head of her department, who actively tried to convince her professors to give her a lower grade than the ones she earned.
“When I think about identity, I always say: ‘Other people decide who you are for you.’ I can do whatever I want- dress a certain way; try to get people to think a certain way about me. But, ultimately, my identity is determined by them.”
And unfortunately, Liana discovered that she had also been feeding into that. After approaching her mentor, who was also a woman of color, Liana had realized that “it was for white people that I was pretty much doing everything I had ever done. To prove something to white people. Never to me.”
Currently Liana focuses her energy on two separate businesses using different approaches to combat racism: Adopting Identity and The Good Peoples Group. Adopting Identity is an organization for individuals who are ready to delve deeper into anti-racism in their own lives. The Good Peoples Group focuses on training for businesses and nonprofits looking to cover the basics.
The offices of both entities are opening around the New Year, with opportunities for membership. As a member, one would be able to take advantage of workshops covering various topics around power, privilege, race and identity. Members would be allowed to use the facility, resources and personal consulting time based on their membership level. “These businesses all came from life experiences, learning about myself in the process, learning more about systems, how certain things make me feel, make other people feel, and what was standing in other people’s way.”
For Liana, it is extremely important to help those she’s working with find happiness in the process of deconstructing racism. But a major problem Liana encountered with anti-racist work was the systemic focus.
“In an effort to make white people feel comfortable talking about race, we promote a mentality that ‘it’s not you, it’s the system,’ which is detrimental to anti-racist work. We make up that system. We reinforce that every single day. We are part of it. Which is why the only way I could ever live with myself is to not work for other people.”
The emotional exhaustion of working in nonprofits and being an “activist” soon became too much for Liana. “When you do this stuff all the time it kills you. Which is why we say stop expecting black people, brown people, etc. to have to deal with this. Because the stuff that white people have to do, we’ve already been doing and we have all this other stuff on top of it and it’s overwhelming.”
She describes herself as an empathetic person who really takes on the emotional burden of her environment and it was killing her.
“I need to be happy. At least sometimes.”
And she’s right. It is about finding the “joyful process,” the balance and “a way for me to care for other people, do work, help change the world and give, but in a way that is also helpful for me, not just killing me slowly.”
Part of the emotional care Liana allows herself is finding a balance specific to her needs. To her, this looks like making money, helping people while helping herself simultaneously, focusing on specific big things she wants to go after, being OK with not doing certain things, and not feeling guilty if people chide her for “not showing up.”
“That’s the beauty of it – it’s not that I don’t care what other people think, but I check in with myself.” People often expect a lot of emotional and physical energy from people doing social justice work, but for Liana, setting boundaries is paramount.
“In Pittsburgh everyone’s expected to be a certain way all the time and it’s just unfair to all those people and to ourselves because it limits our ability to grow and change.”
Make sure to check out the Good Peoples Group and Adopting Identity on Facebook to stay updated on the opening of their office space and services!
Photos by Njaimeh Njie
Marni Fritz is the Director of Communications and NewPeople Coordinator for the Thomas Merton Center.