Zuri Williams:

Career Agent, Mother, Advocate woman, profile picture

Can you tell us about your background?

I was born to traveling with parents. By the time I was 7 years old, I’d lived in Europe, Haiti, Georgia, and all over California. As a biracial person in the early 70’s, I was often the only mixed white/black person in the setting. One time I was one of the two black students in the whole school, and most of the time, people didn’t know what to do with me because they couldn’t easily identify “what I was” until I opened my mouth. Sometimes people got offended that I wasn’t the race they expected. In California, people expected me to speak Spanish. In Haiti, people expected me to speak Creole. In Georgia, people expected me to have an accent. It was weird.

How did this experience affect you?

When I was very young, in Upland, CA, neighborhood kids avoided me and would not play with me because their parents didn’t want them playing with non-white kids. I was the only non-white kid in the area. The parents were clear and loud about telling their kids not to play with me. In retrospect, they probably told their children not engage with me because they were Mormon, and I wasn’t.  being treated differently

It was different in Black neighborhoods. Sometimes, I was treated nicely because my lighter skins tone. Many times I was treated poorly because people expected me to be conceited.  My mom, with her blue eyes, always let me know that she wanted me to be darker skinned. I remember watching Sesame Street and strongly relating when Kermit sang “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Did these experiences translate into your work experience?

I didn’t have much guidance finding my first job. I started volunteering at a Music Warehouse until I turned 18 and got hired. I never had any issues with the customers. Most of them were surprised that I had a lot of music knowledge but that was because of my traveling and world experiences. I could talk about everything from Fela Kuti to Nina Simone to Led Zeppelin to the Sex Pistols. However, I did have a unique experience that has shaped my professional attitude.  Shortly after I got officially hired, the FBI came to my work to question my citizenship. They were very suspicious because I was born in Germany and had lived in Haiti and Georgia. They wanted to know why I was in California and how long I’d been here. IT was very scary.

The FBI? That is really intense. How did that make you feel having the FBI there questioning your citizenship?

It made me feel scared. They threatened to deport me. I didn’t know I how to prove citizenship. Hippies didn’t keep paperwork. My hippie parents hadn’t been stable in my life for many years by then.  I was young and naïve. That incident shaped my opinion about authority figures. I don’t think I’ve ever asked for neither a promotion nor a raise. This must be because of residual fear, right?  On the bright side, when dealing with clients I always try to remember that they have their own background and may have valid fears to be considered when assessing their situations and actions/decisions. My experience makes me open minded and allows me to listen more because I know that I don’t know what they have going on.

Do you have a professional or personal motto?

“We can make it work!”

This motto reminds me that even though we will always have problems, there are ways to solve every issue and become something greater. For some reason, I’m reminded of an incident when my 4th grade teacher sneered at me, “You’re not even a whole ‘n****r’!” in front of the whole class. My reaction was to immediately put my head down on my desk. I was mortified. I hated being the only person of color there. When I peaked around to look at the rest of the class, no one looked anywhere near me.

Today I think maybe they were embarrassed and uncomfortable because the teacher said it to my face. I remember having an epiphany in that moment. Somehow I realized that people are individuals, and even though no one in the classroom, including the adult teacher assistant stood up for me, there was no way that everyone there could have felt the same way as the teacher. Whoever thought it was wrong didn’t say anything, but I knew someone in that room had to feel differently than the majority. It taught me to seek out the individual for themselves, not as a group.

But I felt very invisible and ignored too. Just because I was different, no one, especially parents, would want to look me in the eye. As a child this can be damaging to their self-esteem and self-worth. When my daughter was in Pre-K and Elementary school, whenever I would pick her up, I tried to scan the room slowly to make sure that I made eye contact with each of the kids and smile at anyone who was looking my way. I wanted to let them know they each counted, a that they were visible, and that I acknowledged their presence. I hated never being looked at when grown ups came to the classroom.

Do you feel that you experience that invisibility today?

Yes, but I don’t a dish into it. I focus my energy on being an advocate for those who are ignored like the homeless community. I am very passionate about bringing awareness of the homeless crisis in San Diego to the forefront.

homeless population in San diegoEvery day I see people blindly walk past homeless people as if they don’t exist. It’s easier to ignore the person/problem than think how they came to that circumstance. I don’t get it.

Do people really believe if we pretend the homeless crisis doesn’t exist it’s just going to disappear?

That’s stupid. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem that we don’t have to do anything about. We can’t keep thinking like this. A serious portion of our population are underserved. There are too many tents lining our sidewalks in front of million dolor sky rise condos.

You inspire a lot of people but who inspires you?

I’m inspired by everyone and the people I encounter. People who get up in the morning to go to work despite the challenges they are having. The person who may have found a friend in the bottle for 30 years and got help to start rebuilding their lives. My barriers are not that difficult compared to others. It’s the people that keep on reaching for their goals, overcome their obstacles and want to better their lives; those are the people who inspire me. I root for the underdog.

In your professional experience, were you every told that you need to “work twice as hard?”

As an overweight, short, minority female, I never had to  told I had to work twice as hard. It’s simply implied. I’ve had quite a few jobs where I had to do the work of others yet never reap the rewards. At one job, I was doing the work of 3 unfilled positions on top my own. The company was in East County, and management did not want to handle any customers that had accents or “funny” names they couldn’t pronounce, so I was transferred all of those calls. I basically Project Managed their accounts. However, when corporate came to town, I was never asked to join in them for fancy business lunches. I was certainly never given credit or any acknowledgement of the business that was retained through my communication.

What does that mean and how has that affected you?

To me, it means people in positions of power (management, supervisors, etc) need to have been where the clients have been or have experience from the frontline in order to  manage effectively. If you don’t know the details of the needs of Clients, you can’t truly help. I don’t automatically respect “suits” because it’s likely they have been put in their position for reasons other than knowledge of client need or services rendered. People who could actually be effective in a position of authority are passed over all the time. I’ve seen promotions occur because a person “looked the part.” I didn’t matter that they lacked the experience and understanding needed to lead in the industry.  I believe if  you are different from the standard, you absolutely have to work twice as hard to try to prove that you have the skill and ability to do the job.

What is one piece of advice you would like to give to non-white professionals in the workforce?

Do your best. Keep your private life at home, and help each other. You can never go wrong being nice.

look out for each other and take care of each other