Before we are even born, our families, close family friends, and neighbors all have their own ideas about who we ought to be. Our families will decide where we live, what kind of clothes we will wear, where we go to school, what kind of food we will eat, and what opportunities we may have in life with little effort on our part. Sometimes, they even have ideas about our personal characteristics and our careers. When they choose our careers, this is based an idea about what kind of meaning that career holds for them and these feelings can be transferred along with the message about the action to be taken to achieve this goal. They may truly love us and wish the best for us, but their well wishes may not always be in our best interest, or in that of our community.
People who are not in our family may also have expectations for us throughout our lives. Teachers, supervisors, and friends get to know us and, based on their own experiences and expectations, form opinions of what we should and should not do or be. Even strangers sometimes form opinions of us based on appearances and limited interactions.
As a child, I was never encouraged to work in the nonprofit sector. I was not steered toward becoming an executive director until I gained sufficient experience and demonstrated competence as a nonprofit employee. Yet, I cannot imagine being engaged in a different career path at this time in my life. This was a goal that I formulated based on my vision of how my skills could make the most significant contribution. Today, I find that many adults do not know what the nonprofit sector is or what an executive director does. How could this be presented as a possibility to me if others were unaware of it even being an option?
I have had a few experiences of exclusion based upon my religion, gender, appearance, and social class throughout my life. These experiences did not inform me or shape my opportunities; rather, they revealed the prejudice and ignorance of those who set up and maintained these social parameters. When I am told that I cannot do something because of an irrelevant personal characteristic, I feel empowered to prove that person wrong by redefining expectations while honoring my personal skills, talents, values, and dreams. Collectively, we have the ability to overcome barriers to full participation in any system – with time, patience, perseverance, and resolve. As Kurtis Blow says in one of my favorite songs Throughout Your Years, “with a little hard work and dedication, we’ll pull together and rock the nation.”
I certainly acknowledge that there are many oppressive, exclusionary systems throughout the world and that these are perpetuated by prejudicial beliefs and feelings of entitlement. I also acknowledge that this is unacceptable. We must do what we can to create meaningful opportunities for engagement and provide access to social and capital resources within existing systems and, when necessary, create new organizations and other social structures to realize inclusivity.
We are responsible for the decisions we make throughout our lives. We have to live with the consequences of the direction we choose. Refuse to let others choose for you.