In 2018, I was asked to speak at the Union Pacific Law and Risk Management Conference. I excitedly said yes as it would be a wonderful experience to share my story. Little did I know that the theme of the conference was literally: TELL YOUR STORY. I’m sharing my speech with you here to encourage you to tell YOUR story as well! Maybe it’s to your children or your loved ones. Maybe you have a story to tell to your co-workers or neighbors. Maybe it’s simply that you need to get some of your story onto paper?
Some of you may already know most of my story, but I’d still love for you to read the entire speech as it has some new concepts and thoughts I’d love to hear from you on … and what your opinions are on the topics.
Union Pacific has always been a part of MY story. Born to a black father and a white mother in 1976, before it was “ok” to be a mixed race child, I was raised in rural Nebraska with my three siblings - I’m the oldest of four. After my parents had their first two children, both girls, they adopted our brother at the age of 3 weeks. His biological parents are both black, and then the baby of the family came along less than a year later, another biological sibling.
We lived about six hours outside of town in a little place called Wellfleet. To us, our childhood was everything it was supposed to be. However, when I look back, what I didn’t realize at the time, was that we were very isolated. I was lonely and often confused about where I fit in.
My father’s name is Yoaman. He was born in Salzburg Austria in 1954, while his father was serving in the US military, but then spent the majority of his childhood right here in Omaha, Nebraska. He graduated from Benson High School in 1973 and word on the street is that he held multiple track records for many years at both Benson and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He was hired as a fireman for Union Pacific on June 9th, 1974 and later worked as a hostler (moving trains at Bailey Yards in North Platte). Simultaneously, Union Pacific was introducing a formal training program for future engineers. Because of a national railroad agreement in 1972, Union Pacific shifted from being an organization that asked its engineers to learn on the job by shadowing, and instead implemented an official program.
This training program required four weeks of book work, a 450 question exam, as well as on-the-job training, which typically meant 60-75 trips with a qualified engineer instructor.
In January of 1975, he applied for the program and he later became one of the first black engineers for Union Pacific.
He was featured in that article up above in the Omaha World Herald in April of 1975, a year before I was born, and some of the most memorable quotes are:
“[during our summer past times of going over the tracks and watching the trains roll past] It was easy to admire the heroic figure of the engineer’s sun-bronzed face thrust out of the side window, a face framed distinctively by peaked cap and red bandana. Now the faces behind the electronic controls may be black, as in the case of Yoaman Smith, or feminine as in the case of Ms. Beyer and Ms. Orozco.”
Another quote that stood out:
“All of the trainees have stories to tell and all have their reasons for wanting to become Union Pacific engineers.”
Not necessarily crucial to this story that I’m sharing with you today, except that it prompted our move to Omaha and set me on my trajectory, is the fact that my parents got divorced when I was a pre-teen. Not something that is uncommon or out of the ordinary, right? Except that when you are the child of divorced parents, it can be incredibly damaging.
Part of MY STORY is that I assumed it was the same for everyone. That this abandonment and hurt was normal and customary. Not only was I hurting from the divorce, but I felt I didn’t belong in my own family with siblings who hadn’t been impacted the way I was from my parents splitting up and my father leaving our home. I also was struggling (but didn’t yet know it) with not fitting into either our white family or our black family. Adding to the isolation was the fact that I was homeschooled for the majority of my childhood (before it was legal to do so).
Fast forward to when I became a young mother at 18 years old. I was the recipient of a Habitat for Humanity home here in Omaha and after completing my required 250 hours of sweat equity, moved into a small home on 39th & Ames. For those of you not from Omaha, that’s pretty squarely in the middle of “the ‘hood”. I paid the bills by working as a paralegal - right here in Omaha for some of the best attorneys in the country. I was also a bartender and also worked as a lunch lady in Westside High School’s cafeteria … (pause) … yes, a lunch lady, complete with a hair net!
You see, after seven years of working sometimes double and triple shifts to make ends meet, I found an opportunity with a local school district - to work just ONE job, make a living and be home with my son on snow days, during summer holidays and after 3pm every day. I was never happier than those days as a lunch lady at Westside! I soon met Todd, my now husband, we, moved to outside of Atlanta GA and then Cleveland Ohio, and eventually became a family of five.
As a side note, remember that I mentioned I was homeschooled? Because the Nebraska Board of Education hadn’t quite caught up to alternate forms of education, another part of my story is that I was denied a diploma as a homeschooling graduate. Not until I was pregnant with my THIRD child and in my 30s, did I obtain my GED. While I have taken a few college classes here and there, to this day I have not obtained a college degree, yet I am in leadership positions and impact my community on a daily basis.
The reason I tell you this is to demonstrate the responsibility we all have to our community, and our individual responsibility to tell our stories. Until we share where we’ve been, we don’t put out signals to the rest of our community (or organization) about our similarities and shared experiences.
About six years into our marriage, with a 3 year old, a 6 year old and a 12 year old, my husband came home and asked:
“What do you think about moving to India?” To his surprise and shock, I said “why not?”
When our plane touched down in Delhi, which was slated as a “hardship post” in 2009, I literally felt as though we were welcomed with open arms. This was due --- in large part – to my husband’s tireless antics before we arrived (as he arrived India a LONG four months prior to our arrival).
When I landed with the children, our home was already staffed with amazing people, we had massages waiting for us after hauling in our massive suitcases (full of beef jerky, macaroni & cheese and all of the other things I knew we would be miserable without). My husband even set up a dinner with new friends - a fellow expat new to Delhi, and his family.
We also felt a very warm welcome into our new community because, when you have children attending a VERY large international school, the invite to be a part of a tribe is par for the course.
But the longer I lived abroad and the more people I met and got to know with different life circumstances, the more poignant the stories became. Life overseas is not always a liquid lunch date, or a warm hug with a double kiss on each cheek. It is not always an understanding nod, a lunch date invitation, or a cuppa extended with an offer to “sit here!”
After our three years in Delhi, I found myself dealing with the after-effects of Chikungunya - a disease I contracted while in New Delhi. Chikungunya is most easily described as a mosquito borne illness that has symptoms similar to dengue, and mirroring lyme disease, with an extra focus on the joints.
The way that Chikungunya presented rendered me completely unable to participate in daily chores and normal responsibilities. I found myself unable to get out of bed in the mornings, and ready to fall asleep for the night at 5pm. I would get sick at the drop of a hat, even with something as simply as a common cold. My lymph nodes would swell, my internal temperature would soar, and .. the only solution was to move to a place that was more palatable for healing.
Due to our location in Asia, the most likely option was the island of Singapore. Unfortunately, my husband’s job didn’t quite find its way to Singapore, so the kids and I spent the next year living apart, with very infrequent time together as a family. We realized as a family that the long term separation was not a wise choice for us, and so we --- just as suddenly --- repatriated back to the United States. I was quickly in a place that I was supposed to feel was “home”, and desperately missing my community. Desperately missing MY tribe.
When we lived overseas, I found myself first navigating a world of simply no longer being employed, to one of being completely dispensable. We had hired help in our home and I was literally only needed to check in twice a day … at school drop off and school pickup. I was thrust into a world of not being needed. I had gone from a reality of being the sole breadwinner, provider and mainstay in my small family, to a stay-at-home mom to three children (and providing for their every need, carpool moment and packed lunch) to literally NOT BEING NEEDED.
I spent several years following trying to find my place, my home, and most importantly, my community. We lived in Orlando Florida, Northern Virginia, Columbus Ohio, and now find ourselves back in Nebraska - 15 years later. Quite the whirlwind, as you can imagine. Along this journey, I began exploring what my purpose was, and quite honestly, spent a lot of time focusing on me. Honing in on my story and why it matters. I’ve come to realize that I exist to impact the world, one zip code or postal code at a time.
When I dig deeper into my personal history, it appears more like an eternal quest to make sense of feeling like an “other” my entire lifetime. Because I’ve lived “in the middle” as an other, I have long sat squarely in the space of not quite belonging and this is where my story begins. Often times we look at our existence in this great big world in far too much of an insular way. What about ME? Why doesn’t anyone in the office like me? Will I survive? Where on earth did they get these new policies and procedures?
What if we turned the tables and instead of focusing on the I, we focus on the WE.
When I look back to the various pivot points in my life, one common theme starts to become very prominent.
Community is not something simply nice to have. Community is not something that we can take or leave, as you would choose sparkling water over still. Community is not a choice like economy vs business class. NOT experiencing community is no longer an option for our physical, emotional and mental well being when operating inside of a corporation, volunteering for an organization or … when looking to better our lives.
Community is what helps to make the pain of life a bit more palatable. Community is what reminds you to be strong, and is where the casseroles on your doorstep come from when you need them. Community is where you are allowed to be precisely who you are, instead of who you are assumed to you should be.
Community is that thing we can not afford to miss out on.
A community is the very thread that brings us together to advocate on behalf of each other. It allows us to bring comfort to one another, and offer support - sometimes when we don’t know yet that we need it. Inside the sense of belonging that community brings, follows a set of resources, balance, and strength to do brave things in this world.
Let’s look at the literal definition of community:
I don’t know about you, but just reading that definition makes my heart happy. It gives me a feeling of safety, of belonging and of something in common with others. It makes me feel as though I would have someone to share my stories with, a friend to explore with, and a relationship to grow with someone else, outside of my immediate family. This definition makes me feel less isolated and that I have others to lean on. Let’s break down the definition a little bit.
First, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” For me, if I had known of other people in my “same place” that were like me - with brown skin, slightly crazy hair and ashy knees and elbows, I would have felt community much earlier. If I had been aware of other young girls whose parents had divorced and who were feeling abandoned, I would have experienced the power of community at a way younger age.
Think about you and your current location. This first definition could be described as your physical neighborhood. The homes that share property / lot lines with yours. If you live in an apartment complex or on a compound, it would be quite easy to describe your “same placeness” as a physical location. Or if you look at the last piece of the definition … having a particular characteristic in common, this could perhaps mean personality traits, or a life phase.
We can find community with others whose children have left the nest, fellow military veterans, cruise obsessed single people or even those among us who speak similar multiple languages. We can find community with other fellow curly-haired girls, those who have lived through divorce or fellow humans who have to check the “other” box. If you’re of mixed race, you know exactly what I mean.
For everyone in this space here today, it can be simply defined as those you share a common office space with, or perhaps those individuals working on a project together.
The second definition then expands a bit on the concept of community by giving us the words “fellowship”, “a feeling” and “common goals”. I also really like the point of the definition where it talks about having a joint ownership or liability inside of a community. Remember that -- joint ownership and liability. We will discuss that later.
When my family lived in the rural confines of the zip code 69170 (Wellfleet, Nebraska), we desperately needed community. As one of the few families “of color” in that same location, we needed community. Because we chose to homeschool during a time when it wasn’t yet popular, we really needed community.
I watched my mother methodically and intentionally create community for our family. She reached out and asked for connections. She started new relationships and consistently explored how we might be of service to others in our community. In serving others and giving of her talents, she not only modeled that behavior for her children, but created a boomerang effect with the others that we came to know.
Community has always mattered to me, I guess, from a very young age. However, not until we moved to New Delhi, India to start our life abroad, did the absolute importance of it really start to sink in. I landed in the dead of night, with three bewildered and already jet-lagged children. We had already been on our own for four months, as my husband had departed for India long before we were ready to. We stayed behind to complete school, sell our belongings, put our home on the market, find new families to adopt our animals, organize the immunizations, insurance and … just about all of the things! I was exhausted long before we even arrived. Adding insult to injury was the cracked tooth I experienced on the plane AND just as we were landing, I mistook a large chili pepper in my indian airplane fare for a green bean and walked off the plane, barely able to see with my mouth on fire.
The early days of life in New Delhi were harsh but beautiful. Poverty existed on literally every corner. Dirty children - - barely old enough to walk - begging for money at the stop lights. Disfigured and disabled men asking for a few spare rupees at the front of the market. Dust and heat and the smells. But also, the stunning resilience of the women - working manual labor in gorgeous pink saris. The family bonds that were woven into daily life, even inside of the ever present caste system. Because of the massive acclimation that was needed not only to the climate, but also to the culture, it was imperative that I find my community, and find them fast.
Ubuntu is a beautiful — and old — concept from the Bantu languages of Southern Africa. At its most basic, Ubuntu can be translated as “human kindness,” but its meaning is much bigger in scope. It embodies the ideas of connection, community, and mutual caring for all.
Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee said “I am what I am because of who WE all are.
In unity is strength. In kindness is humanity. In humanity is community.
Say this out loud to yourself:
“I have experiences and wisdom to share with my coworkers and community. I am what I am because of who WE are together.”
Bravo! Do you believe it?
Not only do you have things to share with each other, you NEVER know who might cross your path who is in a sad place, or feeling lonely or just needs a smile to pick them up. In order to put yourself in that position of giving of yourself to a possible new friend, you have to be out there .. literally crossing paths with people. Seek out people in nearby cubicles or who share lunch tables close to you. Say hello to someone who is reading a book you’ve just finished. Offer to pay for someone’s coffee. Intentionally seek out your community.
With a bit more showing up and kindness — two things I believe very strongly in — we can start to be community builders, each and every one of us.
If you are willing to go all in, focus on the WE, and commit to your responsibility to community, keep these things in mind.
Remind yourself often, of the things you offer your community, your coworkers and your clients. Replay the sentences in your mind: “I have experiences and wisdom to share with those around me. I am what I am because of my story AND who WE are together.”
Ask yourself, “How can I add value to this situation?” with every new opportunity. Keep your values, wisdom and offerings at the forefront of your mind — writing them down on post-it notes and put them on your computer or mirror if you need to!
Keeping on this same track of joint ownership and responsibility, we’re going to shift into a bit of mindfulness. You may feel this is a wide and quick diversion from the topic of value, community and our stories, however bear with me. I promise it ties all together! When we look at generals preparing for battle, or athletes before the big match, we are not surprised that they spend an incredible amount of time MENTALLY readying themselves for the task at hand. For us it is NO different. We need to work on our mindfulness in order to best bring value to our community and our organizations.
You - - as individuals in the legal field - - know how important your time is. How it is spent. With whom its spent. The only thing more important to how and with whom is … IS IT BILLABLE. Even though you are not tasked with tracking billable hours, you still know exactly what I’m referring to, right?
The average attorney working in a private practice bills about 150 hours working for clients each month and over 200 hours at work over all. That’s a lot of time dedicated to other people’s needs! What comes a close second to captured time is the responsibility to be ahead of the conflict. You are trained to be ahead of the curve and scan for problems. You are at the top of your game in this arena.
However - -
You are consistently positioning yourself on many different fronts : moral, cultural, ethical. You are being asked to be critical, judgmental, proactive and consistent. How can you leverage your talent and abilities, and be a stiff competitor with passion for your work, and yet stay balanced, composed and … zen? Add to that a lack of community, a lack of trust and a disconnect within our organizations today and we are quite frankly - screwed.
How do we remedy this?
Remarkably, it starts by spending time in meditation and mindfulness! Let’s practice that for two minutes. Come on, you can do it with me … it’s less than .1 of a billable hour!
When we do this together, you can either close your eyes, or gaze down at the floor in front of you. We’re all going to be adults and do this together, and no cheating by pulling out your phones. I’ll be watching. I also promise that I won’t eat into your lunch time by taking you through this meditation practice!
Begin by taking a deep, but slow breath in - through your nostrils, with your mouth closed. Let your breath leave through your nostrils as well. Continue breathing in a natural and unforced way for just a few seconds longer.
While we are breathing, don’t worry if your mind wanders or you find yourself holding your breath at any point. Just refocus your energy on breathing in, and breathing out.
Now, as you breath in, say quietly to yourself: I will be open to sharing my story.
When you breath out, quietly say to yourself: I am a valued member of my community.
Let’s quietly continue this for one more minute. Breath in and repeat your “I will be” phrase. On the exhale, repeat your “I am” phrase.
*** Ok. If your eyes were closed, slowly open them. If your eyes were fixed on a spot in front of you, slowly raise them.
So how did that feel?
Do you feel a bit calmer and more attentive?
Do you feel in control of your mind?
You’ve been taught - since back in the days of law school or perhaps while earning your paralegal degree - to think in a way that anticipates conflict. Those feelings of adversary outcomes manifest stress. With stress comes negative feelings. With those negative feelings, often comes a lack of trust and vulnerability.
Normally, we think about trust and vulnerability the way we think about standing on solid ground and leaping into the unknown: first we build trust, then we leap.
However science shows us that we’ve got it backward. Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neurotheologist and director of research at Philadelphia's Myrna Byrd Center of Integrative Medicine recently studied the brains of spiritual leaders while they meditated or prayed. He says: "The more you do a practice like meditation or prayer, your brain physically gets thicker and it functionally works better." It’s called a practice for a reason! I encourage you to do just that - practice this as you commute to work, or as you’re getting ready in the morning.
An EXTREMELY helpful and free app is called INSIGHT. I encourage you to download it and check it out!
So we’ve talked about community, our value, our stories and mindfulness. The last thing we’ll talk about today that bears equal importance in this conversation: culture.
Lou Gerstner, a former retired CEO of IBM says this:
The culture of an institution, I’ve come to learn, is not just one of the things you manage. It ultimately affects everything that goes on in the institution. You have to understand it, shape it, and talk about it. And, you have to lead it.
What happens though when you aren’t at the head of the table with any influence? What if you don’t feel like you have the ability to shape that culture? What happens when you are in a position of employee? What do you do when the culture of an organization or your community once aligned with your values, has now shifted because of changes in the structure, leadership or mission?
The first step is to understand what the Union Pacific mission is:
The Men and Women of Union Pacific Are Dedicated to Serve. Union Pacific works for the good of our customers, shareholders, communities and one another. Our commitment defines us and drives the economic strength of our company and our country.
The second step is to get very familiar with the core values of Union Pacific:
Passion for Performance. Our passion, concentration and determination will drive our safety, customer satisfaction and quality results.
High Ethical Standards. Our reputation will always be a source of pride for our employees and a bond with our customers, shareholders and communities.
Work as a Team. We are all part of the same team, and working together to reach our common goals is one of our strengths. Communication and respect are the foundation of great teamwork.
Taking a look at those two pieces of the organization, how can you bring your own ethical standards, passion for performance, and teamwork to your daily work and value?
Then look at the people around you. Who is on your team or the projects you’re currently assigned to? What is your calling, your purpose and what impact can you leave on the individuals you spend every day with? What does their story and experience bring to your table?
When we break culture into manageable discussion points, often we find that it all comes down to little moments of social connection and interaction.
In a book called The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, he researched many groups to find commonalities. He found consistencies - - regardless of whether the group was a military unit or a movie studio or an inner-city school - - and some of those similarities were:
• Close physical proximity, often in circles
• Profuse amounts of eye contact
• Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs)
• Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
• High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone
• Few interruptions
• Lots of questions
• Intensive, active listening
• Humor, laughter
• Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.)
As I read that list, how many of them do you experience on a daily basis, personally? Those similarities that Coyle discovered all fall into the realm of belonging cues. Belonging cues are behaviors that create safe connection and include things like proximity, eye contact, energy, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, etc.
Inside of your community, or within an organization, belonging cues operate solely to answer questions like: Am I welcome here? What is my future here? Can I be comfortable with these people?
This is where the speech could veer in a direction of neuroscience and details about the amygdala, but that’s not my forte. Let me leave it here by saying that belonging helps us use our brains to build and sustain social bonds.
When you belong to a people group, a place, or a moment, you begin to feel valued, and you in turn value others. This sets the stage for meaningful interaction, teamwork and motivation, and can begin completely rewiring an entire situation, project or organization.
If we start to look at how all of this ties together, let’s go back to the theme for this conference: tell me your story.
In learning each other’s stories, we mimic a trampoline. You ask the first question … and then instead of being a sponge and just absorbing what they say, you add energy to the conversation by adding support, and asking more questions or comments.
When we inadvertently interrupt the flow of storytelling, we stop learning from each other. It is as if someone has bent their knees, and literally stopped the bounce. It’s the bounce that’s needed to propel the other person on the trampoline, and continue the story. So in this way, the problem happens when we stop asking questions.
Roshi Givechi says
“I’ve found that whenever you ask a question, the first response you get is usually not the answer—it’s just the first response. So try to find ways to slowly surface things, to bring out what ought to be shared so that people can build from it. You have to find a lot of ways to ask the same question, and approach the same question from a lot of different angles. Then you have to build questions from that response, to explore more.”
In going just a bit further with asking questions of each other, and being willing to tell our stories, it is also important to look at the WHY behind all of this mattering.
Alison Levine is an author and mountain climber and has ascended the highest peaks on every continent, including Everest and has skied to both the North and South Poles.
“First thing I do when I get to base camp on any mountain is walk around and talk to every other team that’s there. People think I am doing this because I am extremely social, but that’s not why I make the rounds. I want to get to know people on other teams BECAUSE if anything should happen to one of my team members high up on one of these mountains, I want the people around us to feel a connection and an obligation to help us. It is a very strategic decision. There are a lot of factors that go into whether or not someone can be rescued from high up on the mountain, but one thing that always works in people’s favor is knowing the people who are heading up the route at the same time. Because people who know you are more likely to go out of their way for you and perhaps to take on a large amount of personal risk on your behalf.”
As you leave the room today, on your way to lunch, please take a colored sticker from the bowls at the doors. Please add ONE sticker to your name badge. That colored sticker represents your story. Your unique set of circumstances, your experiences and the value you add to this organization.
If you are up for the challenge, your mission -- from the moment I step off the stage -- through the conclusion of this conference and as you make your way back to your offices across the nation … is to connect with people that have different colors than your sticker. Ask questions that help you identify your similarities and differences --- using that colored dot as your initial point of reference.
At the beginning of my time with you, I hoped to deliver on these three items. Take a quick look at each of them. Can you identify one of them that stood out for you more than another?
1. The value - and importance - of trust in each other, and the importance of community.
2. The power of mindfulness in your daily work, and
3. The responsibility YOU have to the culture of this community.
As you go about the rest of your day today, and tomorrow … SEEK OUT the commonalities you share with each other. Seek out the differences and variables in the way you present to each other. Seek out the stories. This is a big, sometimes scary and complicated world. Be willing to tell YOUR story. Only by acknowledging our human connection with each other will WE start to effect change in our communities and organizations.
After my speech, several people - including the EVP and Chief Legal Officer - came up to ask me some questions or let me know how the speech impacted them. The two most meaningful comments came from one gentleman who told me how impactful it was to learn about my father, and he asked me to tell him thank you for lighting the way for other minorities at the company. The second most meaningful comment came from a gentleman who told me he had never felt comfortable telling his story and sharing his experiences before because he assumed no one would understand him. He left that day feeling energized and supported to start doing just that.
Our stories are powerful, but only if we share them.