Culture News

Black History Month, a Time for Gratitude—and Paying It Forward

February 25, 2019

When people think of black history, they often focus on the struggle and how hard everything once was. We forget that no one did it alone. I choose to remember and appreciate the struggle of my African American ancestors while honoring the privileges and opportunities I’ve had.

I would like to hear more people recognize when somebody took a stand for them. For me, Black History Month is a time to appreciate the men and women of all backgrounds who mentored me in my journey. My maternal grandmother is the one person to whom I accredit so much of my success. But I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the programs and organizations that enabled me to realize my potential when personal circumstances may have curtailed me otherwise.

Part of appreciating black history should be acknowledging that many African American families have an inherent disadvantage socioeconomically and educationally–and, when you’re in a position to change that for someone, you should open the door. When we don’t acknowledge the champions we have today, we diminish the likelihood someone will step up, be a mentor, and advocate for a young or disadvantaged person tomorrow.

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Ayana (right), with grandmother Janet Thornton and cousin Tiara.

Ayana (right), with grandmother Janet Thornton and cousin Tiara.

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Ayana and Janet in 2001.

Ayana and Janet in 2001.

I couldn’t fully appreciate the breaks I had growing up in inner city North Philadelphia. My mother valued education deeply. On her limited salary, she paid discounted tuition at the local Catholic school so my two sisters and I could receive the best education possible. When money got tight, my mother arranged for me to spend second grade at a school in the northwest suburbs. (The schools in the inner city of Philadelphia were horrible when I was growing up, and many still are.) I returned to Catholic school for grades third through fifth. When she couldn’t afford three tuitions any longer, I entered sixth grade at the public middle school. It was terrible. Teachers had lost control of the classrooms. I would come home crying, “Nobody helped me,” or saying, “We did not learn a thing today.” My mother had me moved to a classroom for high-performing students and complemented schoolwork with her own book report assignments throughout the week.

Why does this matter for black history? That’s where inequities start—understanding what’s available for education often begins and ends with your ZIP code. The gains and deficits we experience in school shape who we are and what we think we can accomplish—unless someone steps in.   

My grandmother cared for me when I was in high school. She and my godmother would tell me what it was like for a young black girl to try to get a good education in the 1930s and ‘40s, which is to say, incredibly difficult. When my grandmother would say, “Don’t screw around in school; this is a privilege,” I knew she meant it, and that really pushed me hard. I try to instill passion for education in my nieces and nephews, but it doesn’t always resonate the same way to them.

I spent two years studying psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, before transferring to Temple University to be closer to my ailing grandmother. At Temple I was introduced to INROADS, a nonprofit that connects minority students with internship and mentorship opportunities at some of the biggest corporations in America. I jumped at the chance. While my friends worked at the mall and fast-food restaurants, I worked in an office for the first time.

All of my professional success can be traced back to my time as an INROADS mentee at Aetna. I was 19 and had no idea what to expect. My family members were medical professionals, retail workers, and teachers; they couldn’t prepare me. Yet I had so many people, mostly white women, who showed me the way. Maybe they didn’t give me the hardest assignments, but they made sure I developed the skills to succeed in a corporate environment.

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Ayana (seated, center) with her INROADS colleagues in 2001.

Ayana (seated, center) with her INROADS colleagues in 2001.

During my senior year at Temple, I rotated to Lockheed Martin, where I started to learn about human resources, putting me on my career path in leadership development and to LMI. I had the good fortune to continue at Lockheed after I graduated, and a few years later I was mentoring my own INROADS students. It was the greatest gift—I was in a position to guide others and help my organization understand why supporting these students was so valuable. I am thankful to Lockheed for the diversity they had in age and race within the company.

I’m grateful to INROADS, Aetna, and Lockheed Martin for leaning into diversity and enabling us to grow and learn to be professionals in a supportive, safe environment. I felt like 1,000 people were trying to help me grow. Not every day was easy, especially when I was the only African American woman in my twenties and early thirties, but it was worth it. Today, I show up every day for work to honor the chance they gave me.

I encourage everyone at LMI, and all of you, to appreciate the privileges in your life and use them to open the door for someone. Ask yourself, who can I swing this door open for because I’m here? Diversity is not just about race—perhaps it’s someone who is socioeconomically disadvantaged, or identifies as LGBT, or is considered too young or too old for a certain field. When you are in a position to help raise someone up, do it. Who can you make an “inroad” for?  

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