In Defense of the “Word Value of Time”: From a Soccer Mom

Big BenFotorMy friend Simon Kaheru (http://skaheru.wordpress.com) recently blogged about “the real value of time vs. the word value of time” following his business trip to Amsterdam in The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Simon fell in love with the abundance of “the real value of time”, where business meetings start on scheduled time, phone calls happen on time, and trains also run on schedule. A two-minutes train delay would be announced by the rail station attendant! He contrasted that with “the word value of time”, typical within Ugandan society, which largely swears by “Ugandan Time”. He argues that appointments are verbally agree to, with never the intention of honoring them because time is relative, no apologies for tardiness, as one is “better later than never”, is the popular saying!

I feel for all the sentiments Simon expressed! Though my comment to Simon was, come to America….with plenty of versions of Uganda, especially with public transportation..which is now creeping into some people’s time management skills!

I have had my share of fights with “Ugandan time”: tardiness makes me mad; time keeping makes my heart jump with happiness! I strongly believe that anyone who fails to show up per schedule appointment shows a lack of respect for their party. It is simply rude! I have walked away from meetings venues, when the other party did not show up on time. I once left my sister in the bank without notifying her, after waiting over two hours for my mother to show up to open a family bank account. I refused to return when they called me back.

I get enervated being the first to show up for meetings, or parties or other events, waiting around for thirty-minutes, one hour, three hours, five hours before more people show up and the event to ultimately start. Which is why I loathe formal events, particularly (no offense) organized by peoples of Ugandans, Africans, Blacks or colored! I remember one time while visiting my sister in Atlanta with my ex, she invited us to attend a  dinner party with her at a Ugandan friend’s house. The dinner was scheduled to start at eight O’clock in the evening, but by eight, we were still at her house, an hour’s drive to destination. Ten, still at my sister’s house, as she kept picking out what to wear. She assured us that that the party had not began, so at eleven o’clock we set off. True to her word, we arrived past midnight, right about when the party had just started!

Poor time management is beyond “Ugandan time”, it is ‘conveniently’ embedded in several African countries as “African time”, among Blacks people in America as “Black People’s Time” and people of color as “Colored People’s Time” or CPT.  Yes, it has even invaded our public service system here in America, where services in some public offices start sluggishly, and buses and trains in many big cities never run on time, including in the fast-and-furious “Big Apple”. Yet, we do not always get a courtesy apology or  “announcement of a delay”!

On my part, I must confess that, “the real value of time” keeper was me, some six years ago, a luxury I do not seem capable of affording since becoming a soccer mother. No! I am not going to blame it on my son, but it has a lot to do with him and the society in which I live, into which I am sometimes co-opted.

So, how did I cross to “the word value of time” people? While I not permanent there, I find myself cornered in by friends or my household. Those who know me will tell you that I pretty much run my son’s life on schedule. Dinner is served at six o’clock, then comes bathroom time with reading and brushing, child off to bed at seven o’clock, latest seven-thirty after sharing a bedtime. I would like him to have as much sleep as possible!

Not anymore! My time management skills have changed since I had my child. All his birthday parties have started later than my scheduled time, with guests showing up earlier than the hostess! Until child turned one year, I arrived late at literally every scheduled appointment because he would start popping just as we were getting ready to head out of the house. He had constipation, which meant another fifteen to thirty minutes of helping him push! From the one who always left for the airport two-and-a-half hours in advance, to avoid any mishap, I missed my first flight in life on a trip to South Africa in 2009 with my then fifteen month old child. We got to the airport check-in desk shortly after the baggage desk had closed because I was packing till the last minute; six suitcases, only one of which was mine!

Lately, Simon’s detestation for “the word value of time” comes glaring at me surreal, as I go about my “soccer mom” lifestyle. Child is now six and in first grade with more activities. Going to bed at seven in the evening is increasingly a luxury, with the changing school and after-school demands. I have enrolled him in both Karate class with a three days per week commitment, and in Cub Scout five days a month. Plus, now he has homework to return to school every morning and other class projects. And he still wants to have a snack, when he comes home from school, before he sits down to do his homework, with spare playtime before dinner is served. With our new routine, after-school is: snack in the car, Karate class, dinner in the car, daily homework to be submitted the next day, dinner, bathroom time, bedtime story and goodnight!:(
Amidst all of this, adhering to my sworn commitment to “the real value of time” is a luxury I seem incapable of affording, anymore. I wish I could! Now, I plan on leaving the house not at the hour but between time periods – between 6:00p and 6:30p, leaving a margin of error so that I do not go crazy over myself. A couple of times when I am running late, I have had to call up people I am meeting to apologize and ask for extra time or reschedule. Sometimes even when it seems we are doing great with time, with a projected extra fifteen minutes before our usual time to catch the school bus, we find ourselves running out of the house three minutes to the bus arrival. Thankfully, my son loves running, helping me warm up for my morning run. Sometimes we miss the bus, like happened today, and I have to keep breathing in, to avoid berating child or mourning about missing the bus.

With all the activities lined up each week, I worry that child will get overwhelmed and won’t get enough sleep in the night. Perhaps my consolation is, yes! I still make it on time to most official appointments, to our doctor’s appointments before time, child has not been late to school, and I am getting just about the entire “to-do” list accomplished. Still I think “the real value of time”, as “standard time” for social and business etiquette was created by a man, clueless about “The Surreal Life of a Soccer Mom”.

Not Everyone is Sophie, John, Jane or Matt: Diversity Consciousness in the Classroom

Recently, I was at an teacher training workshop, where the speaker for a session on “Qualities of a Good Substitute Teacher” mentioned the importance of identifying and connecting one-on-one with pupils in the classroom. In explaining why a teacher should know her students by name, she mentioned Sophie, John, Jane or Matt, as the four names off-the-cuffs in her classroom example. 

For me, that triggered something about the ingrained assumptions teachers might make about their students profile. Many of the assumptions reveal conceptions and misconceptions derived from one’s ‘comfort zone’ and surroundings. My assumption is the speaker comes from an ‘environment’ where most children are either Sophie, John, Jane or Matt. Or perhaps her education background was filled with students that fit such profile. That in a way creates an “illusive comfort” that knowing the profile of one’s classroom correlates with being in touch with the needs and special circumstances of each student. Yet, in a classroom environment, each child needs to be acknowledged and catered for/ included to their comfort.

How does a diversity conscious teacher make the classroom experience all inclusive for each one of these children? I asked myself the same question during a visit to the area elementary school. Of the two classrooms I observed: 1) First Grade class had one black kid, a young girl called Hannah; all the other kids were visibly white. 2) A Third Grade all-white classroom. Both classrooms had white teachers, as was the School Principal, and all the school staff I came in contact with.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with an all-white school, if that is the general population around the school district. My concern is whether and how children of other colors in the same school are included in a predominantly-white classroom. Particularly given the potential influence of the preschool experiences and home environment on shaping knowledge formation, knowledge generation, teaching aides and one’s comfort with the teaching and learning environment. In many places, the classroom environment has evolved beyond, S, J, J or M, the typical ‘blonde and blue-eyed’ and Judeo-Christian, thanks to desegregation and immigration of the Abequa, Biko, Horacios, Happy, Ijeomas, Lakisha, Özil and Muhammad into the same classroom. Our classrooms today represent children of varied backgrounds as immigrants, children of immigrants, first generation or generations of American-born or native to this country. They bring varied experiences from their homes, communities and experiences, all of which need to be represented for an enriched classroom experience.

Going back to Hannah, the only black girl in the First Grade classroom I visited. She seemed comfortable with her classroom and classmates, but had another story not visibly captured in the teaching aides and classroom environment I observed. While checking on her writing assignment, she read to me her story about her best friend, “I like playing with my best friend Usnuah!” To me, there was a different story with friendships not represented by SJJM. I wondered if her teachers take time to learn about Hannah’s friends, family and neighbors! Or whether she is offered a chance to share her ‘unique’ family and community background in a predominantly white classroom!

That is not to suggest that all white kids have the same family experience, although their differences [while paramount] are not as visible to the eye as Hannah. Moreover, when we got to engage with “disabilities”,  five students with varied developmental disabilities were ‘paraded’ in front of our seminar room, so we could ask questions for ‘our learning pleasure”. Perhaps the intentions were innocent, but the scenario reminded me of times when black people were caricatures of white audiences as, ‘strange’ study subjects, ‘caged entertainers’ [Sarah Baartman aka Venus Hottentot], the “Human Zoo” [most recently replicated in Norway], entrainment at lynching picnics popular in the South. And up until now, through international aid campaigns and hollywood movies that depict “the black victim” awaiting a ‘white savior”. Interestingly as well, our diversity trainer did not find anything controversial with showing a clip from the movie “Blind Side” to make her point about ‘developmental disability.

Which brings me to another topic covered about English Language Learners (ELLs), the now politically correct replacement of “English as a Second Learning”. The change was pre-empted after realizing that while ESL focused predominantly on immigrants and immigrant children, ELL recognized that some US-born children come from households where English is not the first. The basic assumption, as stated during the seminar was that [first-generation/immigrants] children “have difficulty learning not just English but the entire school curriculum.”

Granted there is truth to it, but with misguided assumptions that: 1) Simply because one does not speak English, they therefore, do not understand anything nor have sound knowledge to contribute to their classroom experience. 2) English Language Speakers are conversant with the English Language and do not need enhancement classes, which as a writing coach is not true.

I work with full-blooded American school children, those whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents and beyond were born in America. Yet, it is appalling that they cannot spell a simple word like “Pail” in Third Grade! I have found out that their school did not teach ‘phonics’, which I believe is great language learning tool. Nor are they offered English Language ‘Enhancement Classes’ at the Charter School they attend. Yet with ‘diversity’ more focused on ‘cultural’ and ‘developmental’ differences, such cases are fall out of the cracks of ‘special needs education’.

A diversity conscious teacher should ably pay attention to the non-verbal cues from their students, cater to their different needs, reach out and appeal to them, to make each one of her/his students feel included. Perhaps it starts with diversity training, which recognizes the changing needs of a classroom beyond the ’traditional’ diversities of “black or white” in America. There are multiple layers of diversity including physical or mental abilities, race, sex, geographical origin, family background, household and cultural ancestry. Today, classrooms composition includes children of immigrants, first generation Americans or migrant workers, Native American children, Muslim children,  inner-city kids.
Continued and refresher teacher training seminars would be helpful, as well as exposure to varied scenarios that stimulate “diversity awareness” and ultimately “diversity consciousness”. I thought for a minute, during my training, “Wouldn’t it be more powerful if the trainer on “diversity” were a minority? Yes, I am aware that white women in White America are included among the ‘minority groups’, but since the session focused on ‘civil rights’ and ‘disabilities’, a ‘racial minority’ or ‘personal with a disability’ as facilitator would have made a greater visible impact.

Diversity Consciousness would enable teachers and school administrators to understand that, immigrant children and children of immigrant parents might not actively engage in classroom discussions due to deferring cultural learnings about social interaction and authority. Immigrants from countries where authority is hierarchical might not engage as much with their children’s classroom teacher(s) ‘out of respect’ for the teacher or fear of challenging what in their upbringing is an ‘authority figure’ and ‘expert’ in their child[ren] education. I learned from working with Japanese graduate students as a Writing Tutor that it is not in their habit to actively participate in classroom discussions because it is considered rude to challenge ‘seniority’ in Japanese culture. One of my students settled for a lower class grade, even when he knew his response on a classroom test was correct because he did not want to challenge his professor that his response resonated with the experience of his home country. Diversity Consciousness needs starts with the school administration, selection of teacher or substitute teacher trainers, program administrators, school teaching staff and all organs in the school system in daily contact with our children.

Help Your Children Dream

I strongly believe in the power of dreams. They shape lives, build relations, mentor professions, restore hope and courage. They could be the keys to our personal and professional trajectories and success!

Just about every morning, my son wakes up with a dream. Either he is building a machine that will stop snow falling in winter, or he had Ninja powers or he was laughing with his cousins. Lately, he has had plenty of dreams about mommy getting married, to her [ex]boyfriend, who lives in another country. The first time, that dream made him sad and cry, because it meant, “mommy would leave him and go live with her boyfriend”. Since I told him, “I can never leave you, because I live for you, and you and I will go live with my PM when I get married,” he is now happy to dream more about mommy getting married. In fact he wants to dream about mommy getting married, as much as about mommy getting long hair! Never mind that “the dreamed for” does not exactly have marriage in her dreams or foresight. She has another dream, colored “green”. Yes! And it is part of that dream I would like to talk about.

Recently, I was coaching a fifth grader, and we were talking about traveling. I asked if she had been to her father’s country, Nigeria? She said no, and told me that she would never travel to Nigeria because there is Ebola. In fact, her father wanted to go to Nigeria, but she begged him not to go. I asked if she would go to other Africans countries, to which she responded with a vehement “No!” There are many diseases and people are poor! I asked her if my son and I looked poor, or her father. She said, No!

Yeah! That is the story about Africa, as told in America. I told her that Ebola is not everywhere in Nigeria, or every Nigerian would be dead. I told her my son and I took planes to come back to America, and while in “Africa”, we ate food everyday and did not catch or bring back any diseases. Then she told me that she would never got to place on a plane or boat or train. She will only go to places where she can drive or walk. She is not taking a plane, a boat or a train because she is afraid to die. Then I told her that one can die in their sleep or in the house or on the road. She said, “at least she would die peacefully”. I asked her, “how about in a car road accident,?” Well, she did not exactly have a response to that, but still no traveling, not to Africa and not by plane, boat or train. Life jackets do not work, planes fall in big oceans. Excuse after excuse!

I wondered, how a child of an immigrant from Nigeria could be devoid of a dream to travel and see the world? Didn’t “Tiger Mom” tell us that Nigerians are among the “Triple Package” aka  the “eight highly successful cultures”, thanks to their superiority complex! True, Tiger mom (with hubby co-author) mentioned something to do with “insecurities”, but in the sense of feeling inadequate or underaccomplished, instigating the strive to become and accomplish more. Not to shun traveling the world or getting on a plane!

I worried about this American 10-year old fifth grader, not having a dream beyond her fears. I wondered what may have shaped her fears? After all, her mom, many generations American has also traveled the world, including to Africa studying and learning about the world. Why would her daughter not wish to follow her mom’s footsteps, even if it were to board the plane to the world of California that is “without the African diseases”? Where is her curiosity about the world of her father, beyond the images and tale-tales from her news sources? Why can’t she compare herself to her parents who have been around the world?

Very often we are told that in order to be happy, we should not to compare ourselves to others. That is so cliché!  Plenty of my accomplishments are a result of comparing myself to others I have interacted with or got to know about. Watching, reading or learning about their accomplishments gives me the boost to keep going. Stories of folks who dropped out of formal schooling and built empires and lived large. Stories of people struggling worse off than myself, yet still afford a reason to smile, remind me to keep positive. Stories of my grandparents who never went to school but had the dream of educating their children. My paternal grandfather was not very wealthy, and could not afford to educate all his four children. So, him and his three older children agreed to send my father, the last born to school, with the hope that he would look after this family upon competition of his education, and got a good job. My maternal grandfather educated over 15 children while serving the church [unpaid] as a clergy, in pursuit of a dream that his children would never have to lack anything in life. They would afford to buy themselves clothes that he was never able to afford them.

In Africa where I was born, dreams are what childhood is made of! We are not afraid to dream! As a child, we often heard people dreaming about “going to Makerere”, the main university in the country and epitome as success. It was once the “Harvard of Africa”, so you can understand why many dreams focused and stopped at Makerere. Coming from a family that afford us a livelihood and decent education, not frequent flyer miles, I would say my dreams were not too far from Makerere either. Then as a little girl I went to Nairobi, Kenya with my mom, to shop for my first-born sister who was going off to secondary school. That was a big deal, where rich Ugandans resided, including my uncle and his family. Perhaps that shaped my love for adventure and travel, I cannot say so with certainty.

But I travelled the world, including within my own country. The more people I met and interacted with, the more my dreams widened. I thought of opportunities beyond my background, and seized them at a tender age. Nothing unique to me, but it is the characteristic of the African spirit. Little children dream of an education, they dream of becoming pilots, teachers, doctors, lawyers. Yes! Including dreams of meeting the US President and themselves becoming the US Presidents. Yet, we also know of the “American Dream” of getting rich and living large. Or as 50 cents said, “Get Rich or Die Trying”. Plus the Black struggle in America was sustained by the dream of freedom. Slaves, not allowed to exist as humans, to vote or to read and write, often found ways of ‘stealing’ the resources to learn to read and write and one day free themselves. Frederick Douglas, a slave, self-taught himself to read and write and publish, and went on to have a very illustrious and influential career. Political prisoners on Robben Island with Mandela during Apartheid South Africa told stories of ‘stealing’ empty brown cement bags and creating own writing tools that they used to write out their political strategies, which they tossed to each other over the cubicles in which they were detained. They also wrote letters and poems to their families and loved ones outside prisons. They had a dream to stay alive and sane by any means, and achieved it.

So, what stifles little minds like the one I encountered here in America, the land of “Big Dreams”, from dreaming? We as parents have a huge job of helping our children dream. Help our children live their dreams beyond the fears pandered by sources around them. Undo their [un]truths, to avoid them getting suffocated. Let them live a world of adventure, or risks, or searching and imagining. The world were impossible is nothing. Were careers and personal relationships are built on dreams beyond our wildest imagination. After all, dreams can come true. Haven’t they?

I would like paid work that works with me

They say, “Beggars have no choice”. So, I guess I am not part of that lot!

 

Why should anyone define themselves as beggars, anyway? Just because one is looking for paid work, does not make you a beggar. In any case, I think it is of strategic importance for “beggars” to have choice, lest they accept any and all toxic addition to their lives. Which seems true for many beggars: they pick their target audience carefully, typically around a busy intersection or subway; they  hold well-written placards asking for donations visible to even motorists inside their AC SUVs, and advanced beggars know to offer something in return – “food in exchange for any kind of work” or “god bless you for helping feed me and my children”. 

 
In my case, I want paid work that works with me, in terms of my schedule, my life and my responsibilities. In fact, I have achieved most of my career success taking this stand -of job, academics, personal choices that work with me.  It might not have come without pain, agony, sweat, disappointments and endurance, but what else doesn’t? No one wakes up to run a marathon (although I have kind of done that a few times); everything requires dedicated training and commitment. 
 
Similarly to most of my career advancements based on taking unconventional risks and making unpopular decisions, that have amazingly served me well! I have travelled the world, learned new subjects over and beyond my formal and informal classroom experience, made new friends, influenced plenty of people and mentored generations. I am fortunate to say that my previous employers have outstanding memories of me, however short-lived my work experience with them was. They will tell you that I am the most indefatigable, creative, imaginative, wittiest and personable colleague they have had the privilege of working with. I, too have fond memories of my employers, my professors and my colleagues. They taught me so much about professional commitment, they allowed me to venture out into new territories and trusted me with their work; they allowed me unfettered time for career and personal growth, on their clock, and mentored my writing, research, advocacy and activism. Beside, they supported me with time, money and personal resources, opening up their “binders of VIPs”, from which I tapped in advancing my professional, scholarly and academic careers. I think I have returned the gratitude by mentoring others, giving and dedicating myself to committing to unconventional work.
 
Among my most memorable employer is the women who introduced me to the world of refugees, to which I was oblivious hitherto. Although, I was born in a country that hosted generations of refugees from before I was born, most of us grew up not making much of ‘foreigners’, unless they were white or Indian. True, she paid me peanuts, but allowed me to travel the world and attend seminars for my career advancement, all on her time, and still paid me a monthly salary and sometimes gave me a travel allowance. As her personal assistant, she positioned me in places with high-level international dignitaries, who later secured me scholarships for international training. She taught me to write for public audiences, using the print press, and fundraising proposals to donors. She sowed the seed in me as a grantseeker, by taking me to fundraising meetings with international funders. She gave me the tools to become an institutional memory for establishment and sustainability of organizations, when she made me co-creator of a successor body to our  project on refugee rights. She made me feel very special, when she said I was the first Ugandan woman (then I was still a young girl) she had met who was not shy, who knew and perfectly stood for what she wanted, because I walked into her office and asked for a joy even though there was no job advertisement posted. When she asked me if I could bring my resume in two weeks when she was back from Oxford, to her shock I had my cv on a floppy disk in my bag, that I handed over to her to print out immediately! Just like that, I got my first ‘higher and long-term’ paying job while still a university student. Not only that, I successfully negotiated with her to work part-time and allow me use her office space and equipment to type up individual cases of prison inmates from a student volunteer project I headed, and in exchange investigate if there were any refugees on our visits to detention facilities!
 
Prior to that, I had had the privilege of being mentored by a distinguished law professor and scholarly activist, who stated a human rights center at the university with a component of practical training of student human rights activists. I was paid for three months as a student intern and sent to an NGO to learn practical skills of human rights activism and office work. The rest is history! Soon, I volunteered to coordinate student interns and the center staff, then I mooted and effected the idea of founding a prisoners’ human rights project, which I headed until I left the country. I convinced professors at the law school to donate pro bono time teaching human rights activism to university students beyond the law school, recruited student interns and volunteers to take visit places of detention, interview inmates and staff, and document conditions in prisons and prisoners’ human rights abuses, and partnered with legal aid and human rights organizations to take up court cases of incarcerated persons pro bono or help in family tracing, petitioned the government human rights agency to release persons on undue detention indefinitely or automatic bond, and ran radio and TV talk shows discussing conditions in prisons. At a time when human rights activism and student internships and volunteering were literally unheard of within universities, i grew the prisons project into the most popular student initiative on the university campus and among organizations and government human rights bodies. I was the “energizer bunny” back then, in all things voluntary service to the community, including spending December school-break fundraising and building a primary school for children in rural Uganda. The rewards were hefty, including fully-funded international travels and training, unlimited access to glowing letters of recommendation, unsolicited nomination to roundtables on national, regional and international human rights concerns, respect and admiration among my peers, and everlasting mentorship and friendships that I enjoy to date. 
 
Due to the strong foundation and mentorship never to be afraid of engaging on unconventional wisdom, I have been able to venture into terrain that I might never have chosen in the first place. For instance, while motherhood was nowhere on my “to-do list”, I took up it up, and challenged myself to have my baby all natural without any pain-relief medication or epidural during labor. I achieved my wishes due to disciplined pre-natal preparation using the tested “Bradley Method of Natural Child Birth”, and delivered a health baby. I stuck to the same kind of discipline, post-delivery, making sure that baby comes first alongside work, good health, proper feeding and all social engagements. Although I “played-pause” on “formal employment”, l re-enter a career later on that facilitated being a single traveling mother/scholarly researcher/community mobilizer.
 
I have not had a typical 9-5 job since having my son, yet I have been able to deliver above and beyond to all my professional employers and colleagues, and left everlasting memories. In any case, I have always worked beyond the usual eight-hour day shift, putting in late nights, very early mornings and weekends not because I do not have ‘a life’ – after all, I have traveled on vacation with child, run everyday, joined my social groups to weekend runs and out-of-town get-aways, and fundraised as a resource mobilizer and donated to worthy communities and individuals, and trained rural communities to monitor and demand accountability for public service delivery, especially in areas of child health, education and social infrastructure, and challenged communities and my social networks to mobilize and donate own physical, monetary and in-kind resources to re-build our communities instead of waiting for perpetual empty promises from central government or handouts from international groups. 
 
Now that I am back to my other geographical space in America, and I am sinking my hands, faith and hard work in “finding paid work that works from me”. That is, accepting of my status as a single mother, raising a toddler, and committed to being in his life. My plans for my child and career ambitions do not allow me the luxury of being in the same space with his daddy nor the support of my larger family. I know I have to make it work, like all single mothers do – working two or three jobs while striving to put food on the table for their kids, clothes on their backs and books and educational materials. Yet, I know one-size does not fit all. On my part, I am good at selling my services to achieve professional satisfaction and fulfillment, which is the approach I seek to pursue in order to earn an income, while allowing me time to raise and grow with my son. I would like to afford the opportunity to attend my son’s school activities, take him to weekend sports activities, education trips and holidays, make him meals at home and prepare him for school while at the same time not sacrificing financial and professional accomplishment. Observing children raised by maids with an age disconnect from the children or goal disconnect from their parents, makes me shudder, when they spend most time raising children on TV and indoors, as opposed to allowing children to create their own play through imagination and outdoors activities. Since my son has a restrictive diet, which is not very compatible with mainstreamed feeding and eating habits of ‘fast foods and snacks”, taking over most children’s diets in our society. 
 
These might seem trivial issues to plenty out there, but I strongly believe that they are central to a child’s upbringing. I observe in my geographical space, many couples have chosen to dedicate one parent as a “stay-at-home” or “work-from-home”, especially the mother, while the other [especially father] goes off to formal office 9-5 career. This affords their child[ren] a stable presence and full engagement of a family member. I am already talking to several colleges and university, who might be interested in developing partnerships for student international training and study abroad. I also have my eyes on international fundraising for grassroots community development, a field so dear to my heart and central to my professional and scholarly experiences.  

Job Interviewing Taboos –

We have all been to a job interview. By the time you get there, you have done a little bit of research about the institution you are interviewing with. At the very basic, you know a lot about the job profile and requirements, whether it requires travel, and have an idea about its clientele. You are told it is taboo to ask about ‘compensation’, until the prospective employer brings up the topic. Even then, it is safer to bounce the question back to the employer, and let them tell to you how much worth they think of you. Another ‘silent taboo’ is talking about family life at a job interview. Perhaps, if you are a man, indicating  you are a family man during a job interview could present you fairly, as a good family man, who wants a career to afford a good life for his family.  More than likely, if you are a man, you are not expected to spend most of your life as CEO of Home Affairs. Even in ‘liberal’, women are the primarily child rearers and homemakers/ home managers. But how about if you are a woman and a mother?

I recently read an article, “US Foreign Policy Gender Gap” by Sarah Kendzior writing in Al Jazeera, that perception and money affect the number of women in senior level foreign affairs positions. According to Kendzior, perception is related to the assumption that women are particularly diplomatic, or empathetic, or kind, while money dictates that one should be able to afford their way around, especially when competing for an internship in the nation’s major international affairs hubs like New York or Washington. As well, one should afford to fly to interview with The Economist in London or take up an unpaid internship with the United Nations involving temporary relocation to expensive global cities.

What we learn is that while money affects male or female alike, very few ambitious and talented young professionals or students from poor backgrounds can afford these opportunities, even worse mothers with small children. Already, Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing for The Atlantic in summer 2012 told us “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, not because they are not super-ambitious but due to a lack of structural support to juggle family and work life.

But something these two writers did not mention was the “deafening silence” to the “Don’t Talk about family life when job interviewing Taboo”. Sure, we can liberally give the prospective employer our physical address, indicate that we are an email or phone call away to “further explore our job interests with the recruiter”, and are “available to start work immediately ”. But we are not exactly at liberty to talk about our family situation, although I have encountered men who ‘comfortably sneaked” in their family life during a job interview. My assumption is they do it because, it projects “a responsible family man”, who prioritizes his family obligations as central to his career success. But for a mother seeking paid employment, it is quite taboo talking about “family life” in a job interview.

Picture this, you are a single mother, with a toddler and would like to be in his life, while equally working a 9-5 job, the standard full-time work hours. I have no doubt that plenty of single parents have had to ask themselves these questions, and many have excelled at work. But I doubt any or many ever brought up their marital status and family life in their job interview, maybe until after the job was offered.

I have been living abroad for the last four years in three different countries, working excellently at my job, with a balanced family, work and “me” life, thanks to the flexibility of my scholarly research career. While living abroad, I scooped plenty of interviews, and job offers, even when I brought out my family status at the first interview. At one job interview, I stated upfront that I am was a single parent, and wished to balance “family, work and me life”, and asked for a flexible work schedule that would allow me drop off my son at school, and pick-up him up at the end of the school day, before the typical end of work day, and also take a personal day off each week. I got the job on my terms, with my son at the center, and with me as a single mother.

Now that I am back in the United States with a richer career experience, I am having trouble articulating “my three-tier life” to any prospective employer. In typical consultancy or NGO employment, plenty of work is done offsite of the employing office – we carry office work on our mobile phones, at home, on the plane and in coffee shops. And while we sign up for a 9-5, we usually put in more hours than we are paid. For one of my employers abroad, I had agreed to a 10:00a to 3:00p from Monday to Thursday work schedule. Yet, I arrived two hours earlier every work day, and also worked on some Fridays, my weekly day off. Whenever I went out to conduct field research and training of village communities away from my office and home base, I spent three days away from my son, without compensation for the nights-out for work.

So, why is it a taboo to ask a prospective employer to factor in the life of a single parent, trying to balance work-family-and-me life? I am aware that having an international career and a degree from a US university might have reflected favorably to my employers abroad, most of whom were in the international affairs realm. But I would like to be accorded similar consideration from employers in international affairs back here in the United States. Most probably though, employers in the US have in the back of their mind concern for, “who will take care of her child while she is at work”, especially when she has to travel to sites away from home? Similar concerns exist whether one is applying for international affairs positions, as a waitress at the local Red Lobster Restaurant, or as a Sales Associate at Walmart.

But all is not lost for single “family-centralist” mothers. As Sarah Kendzior says, for women, [and for single mothers [or single fathers] one has to recreate their professional ambitions, by perhaps becoming a writer or blogger. I know plenty of [single] mothers who have quit lavishly paying and professionally rewarding careers to go on their own and have afforded the ability to put their children’s central. Handy and artistic work is another option that single mothers could pursue. If you are into academia, there are possibilities of teaching, student counseling, or organizing summer camps and student internships abroad, with a flexible schedule. However, getting your footstep in the door is the first mighty step to take. Still, that might not come easily, by telling the prospective employer that – “I am a single mother and I have a five-year old”. That is still a Taboo to Job Interviewing! Image

Embracing the Rejection Letter

What is your first reaction when you receive a Rejection Letter?
 

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I know plenty of us share that experience; from a job application, a lover, a rental application, loan or business proposal. Here I am talking about Rejection Letters from a Job Application.
 
I have had mixed experiences and reactions with a rejection letter: kicking myself, crying, or cursing the institution. Nowadays, I take a positive attitude as an opportunity to learn, either embrace and acknowledge the rejection letter or write back to where the rejection letter came from.
 
Sometimes, you apply for that job that “speaks to you”, one you say, “this is mine”, then things do not work out the way you hoped. After graduate school, I wanted to move back and work in Africa, so badly. So, all the career jobs I applied to where in Africa, while busting tables and retail sales in the United States on the side. I applied for almost any job that came up in human rights or program management at the African Union, printed, photocopied and notarized job application documents, and airmailed applications to Addis Ababa. Do not ask me how much it cost me; that is what the AU wanted as opposed to the US-way of applying via email. I never received a single response from the AU. I did not give up, but switched attention more toward Africa regional organization in Eastern and Western Africa, and in South Africa. 
 
I remember  a job in The Gambia as Deputy Director of a regional human rights organizations. I went through round one of interviews, then round two, and then called for an in-person interview. Yes, the organization flew me from Boston to Banjul, put me up for two nights all expenses and gave me an allowance for time taken and personal expenses. I went through a face-to-face interview with the board and Director, and took a written and computerized test. I was told, the organization was looking for someone who would double as Ag. Director, since both the Director and Deputy Director were leaving. I was told we were three finalists, although only two showed up. I did not the other person, until I met her in the taxi we shared to the airport on our way out of The Gambia. A Ugandan, woman, lawyer, Legal Officer of a refugee organization I helped set up years before I left Uganda. She pretty much had resume, expect she was still working “on the ground”, while I was “theorizing human rights” based in America. Plus, there is always that ‘subtle’ quizzical look that sometimes rears its ugly head as a question to Diaspora Africans seeking opportunities to return to the continent, “Why would you like to live “the comfort” of the United States to come back and live and work in “DDD -Dirty Difficult and Dangerous Africa”? But when I saw Ms. Lady, my gut told me, she had got the job. Needless to say, our ride back to the airport was about her “scheduling her date of resignation from her job in Uganda and moving to Banjul.” That’s how I found that the end of a beautiful dream and received my unofficial Rejection Letter on my ride back home to Boston
 
Then came a job with a regionalized organization in South Africa to work with Civil Society Resource Mobilization. With all my donor, grant making and grant seeking expertise, I knew this was in my bag. Believe me you, threw out my vow that I made when I left in 2000, never to return to work in “xenophobic South Africa”. I wanted a job, with a regional focus, and several organizations in South Africa do exactly that, including plenty in security, natural resources and international politics, which were the fields of my professional interest and scholarly focus. The South African job gave me a tingle too, and put me in cloud 7. For one, one of my referees was a reputed civil society activist known in most of Africa, and to the organization. Secondly, a friend had worked with the organization, and he gave me plenty to know about the organization. So, I thought I had this in the bag. This time, I pulled out all the lessons learned about “interviewing over the phone and computer”. !) Before the interview, do a mock interview with a friend, and looking at yourself in the mirror, paying attention to your intonations, your vocabulary and flow of communication. 2) On a telephone interview, stand upright to allow your voice projects better to the person(s) on the receiving end. 3) Smile over the phone as that reflects in your mood and the way you speak on the other end of the phone. What else didn’t I do? Yes, I also did a long written test, pouring my heart out! Alas! Rejection Letter came via email! Oh! I cried so hard! I reached out to my BFF (RIP), who had helped me prepare for the interview, cried to her, and she consoled me.  After wiping away days of tears, I wrote to the organization that had rejected me, and asked why they had rejected my application. Instead of sulking and hating the institution, I gained more insight into what organizations look for. 
 
I backed off applying to Africa regional organization, and went back to my previous dream – the United Nations, and added international organizations working in Africa – like Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, Care International, plus more. I uploaded my resume to many databases of international development, human rights and humanitarian consulting groups. My professional profile got registered, among the first by an agency that recruits on behalf of UNHCR Legal/Protection. Until I ‘unkindly’ expressed my dissatisfaction with being short-listed for several opportunities but not succeeding with any. I got struck off the list, and my cries and efforts to be reinstated were unwelcomed. But I learned a valuable lesson, “Speak your truth quietly”, and everyone is looking for a job, not just you, some with higher qualifications than yourself. 
 
At least an Italian Brick Oven Restaurant in Somerville, MA did not reject my application for a Hostess position, even though I did not get the waitress position, because my experience in the position was only mental. It gave me a little paycheck to look forward to, and afford me pay the monthly electric bill and personal expenses, while I housesat for my professor who had away from the brutal Boston winter to was India. Note to self: Always have Plan B, to help offset the financial burden when you are looking for work. With access to my professor’s full house, a computer, internet electricity, hot shower and a bed, I could sit in his study and type all job application letters.
 
Finally, the one thing that I have always believed in more supreme in success  -social networks -happened to my job search. It was not all my lucid applications and interviewing, but my social networks that found me the job I took. Don’t get me wrong, I got other job offers, five in total, thanks to my resume and personal interviewing skills. Three of the jobs were with the institution that shaped my decision where to go for graduate school -the United Nations. I got a call from the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, The UNV and UN Human Rights Office in Senegal. I also got a call to interview for a consultancy with the World Bank Resettlement Project in Chad, while shopping for shoes in downtown Boston on a Saturday. By then, I had already made up my mind to move to New York City. I dropped the UN for fear that “the recruitment process and final move would take longer, when I was tired of being underemployed and really wanted well-paid employment. I guess, my “work abroad obsession” had waned off, and considered the opportunities of moving to NYC, working with an academic institutions, and potentially enrolling in my PhD [still hoping to do it]. But why five jobs at once, when I could not get one when I desperately needed it? The lesson learned, you can never predict success and winning. I had learned much more about myself and my resilience. I sharpened my resume and cover letter writing skills, my interviewing skills. In fact, I have sent “Thank You for Considering My application”  letters to some organizations that have sent me a rejection letter. One was so grateful and wrote me back, “I wish everyone would take a negative response as diplomatically as you did.”
 
Now that I look back at al the rejection letters, and I am back into the job search, I am applying all the skills I obtained from multiple applications over the years: get on your feet and go look for work, apply and apply for as many opportunities as you can, refine your resume specifically for the position you are applying for, keep your friends in the loop that you are looking for work, and remind them of “that resume you sent”. Though, there are changes to my job search, some of which are beyond my control and design. The economy is not doing are good as it used to. Gone are the days, when I could walk into a retail department store or restaurant, apply for a job and told to start tomorrow. Ultimately, a Rejection Letter is not the end in itself. Nowadays, even a restaurant hostess position requires a resume!
 
I am keeping my options open, and casting my net wider. I am now grateful for any institutions that writes me back, even with a rejection – at least somebody looked at my application, so I tell myself. Ultimately, somebody will wash away all the “Rejection Letters”, and send me that one “Acceptance Letter” that I need.-