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Career

How I Learned to Advocate for My Culture at Work

Aug. 3, 2017

'I grew to understand the importance of using specific, thoughtful language'

I grew up on the Navajo Nation in the northeastern part of Arizona. Kayenta, my tiny community, is outlined by glowing red sandstone, and my upbringing inspired me to launch Grownup Navajo, a blog and online community centered around my identity as an asdzaan Diné (Navajo woman). Today, I am a full-time entrepreneur, expanding the conversation about Navajo life in modern times.

Before I took the leap to go out on my own, however, I spent more than a decade working at The Heard Museum in Phoenix, which focuses on American Indian art and culture. My experiences there — I started out as an intern and eventually became the director of the education and public programs department — taught me about leadership, community, and communication. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to leverage my voice and promote cultural sensitivity. I readily shared my opinions and fought for the inclusion of outside voices. I grew to understand the importance of using specific, thoughtful language. So when I left the museum in order to start a platform and act as an advocate for my culture, I was ready. Here are the lessons that prepared me:

1. Identify the people you are not reaching.

In the arts and culture sector, we’re always talking about audience development – i.e. how to grow our community of visitors and benefactors. But it benefits anyone in any field to ask, “Who are we not reaching?” If you want to be a force in your office, make it your mission to pose that question, and then do whatever it takes to help your colleagues see what you see. When I worked at the museum, I made it my job to raise the flag about which communities were not being represented in our galleries and our boardroom. Speaking up can be intimidating, especially at first, but striving to be more inclusivestrengthens all of our work.

2. Seek out support from a mentor or trusted confidant.

I was lucky enough to have two very close work friends who served as a professional and personal support system. Whenever I hit creative roadblocks, they were there with candy or some inspiration (like a significant case study they’d come across). It was incredible for my well-being, especially in times of stress, to know they had my back. That’s why it’s so important to work to cultivate an understanding community is hard work, and you need to have people in your life who will bolster and embolden your mission.

3. Sometimes your ideas are going to slow down the process — and that’s okay.

When I worked at the museum, I consistently provided feedback to other departments about their language and visual choices for ads. Sometimes my suggestions meant new art was needed or that we had to go a whole other route. Oftentimes, as a result, the project would have to be pushed back a day or two. This was never my intention, and it certainly wasn’t ideal. But in the end, it gave us all the space to think through what we were communicating. If you find yourself in a similar position, give yourself permission to speak up. Progress takes time.

4. Take time off.

During high season, there were numerous weeks where I’d work ten or 14 straight days. Naturally, this made it hard for me to maintain my personal connections to friends and loved ones. Furthermore, I often felt as though my personal time was viewed as less important than that of other colleagues who had families and marriages. So, I found little ways to make time for myself — running and hiking before work, journaling, and taking trips to my homelands so I could be on my reservation, which is the most grounding place for me. I also kept in close contact with my supervisor so she knew exactly what I was doing on and how much my department and I worked. Keeping the lines of communication open helped my team defend our work and provided a shield, in most cases, from taking on even more unrealistic workloads. Remember, you have to take care of yourself in order to make a lasting impact.

5. Listen to what calls you.

There were numerous times during my tenure at the museum when I felt as though I’d hit a wall. At each juncture, however, I was able to make a change that wound up feeding my soul. At one point, I decidedgrad school would help. Another time, I decided to focus on my work to save up for buying a home. And this last time, when the voice inside me shared that I was ready to jump into a life where I was the creative driver in all parts, I finally decided to leave the museum and focus on Grownup Navajo.

Being my own boss has been incredibly exhilarating. Creating work in full alignment with my values fulfills and pushes me in ways I never knew were possible. So, when others hear that calling, I encourage them to listen, too.

This article originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s digital magazine and is by Jaclyn Roessel.

The Well is the digital magazine of Jopwell, the career advancement platform for Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students. Subscribe to receive weekly stories and advice in your inbox.