This blog post was originally published on August 12, 2018. PDXWIT endeavors to uplift stories that deserve to be told, so we are re-featuring Gabrielle Blackwell's powerful experience in the Portland tech scene as a professional woman of color.
The Beginning of the End
As I packed up the final box, I knew there would come a time when I would be able to share in clear honesty what led me to the point of leaving a community I shed blood, sweat, and tears into.
It was the last week of April as I lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering what it was that had emptied me out to my core. My phone buzzed, and I saw the name “Mom” lighting up my screen. “Gabrielle,” she said when I answered “I don’t start my next consulting project for another month, and I kind of want to take a road trip. If I flew into Portland and rented a car, want to join me on a drive to Vancouver, BC? Or maybe we can go somewhere in California.”
“Mom,” I responded with an air of desperation, “I can’t leave Portland only to come back here. I just…I can’t do that to myself.”
The following week, I packed as many of my belongings as I could in the back of a rental SUV and embarked upon a 4,000 mile, nine-day drive from Portland to Chicago.
Overworked and Over-functioning
The story of my departure from Portland began months prior. I remember being at the office at 7 a.m. as one of the executives of the company shared a word of caution regarding taking care of myself and the legitimacy of burnout. I wish I had asked him what he meant by sharing that piece of wisdom. Instead, I found myself burning the candle at both ends. I was busy with building out a department from scratch, wearing the many hats that come along with working at a small-to-medium-sized tech company and clumsily navigating office politics as a first-time manager.
But being in a new role wasn’t the main source of my initial worries. What I found myself most preoccupied with was my desire to be regarded as exceptional—despite my age, despite my gender and despite the fact that on any given day, the only other black woman I might see was the woman staring back at me in the mirror. As such, I overcompensated. I spent nights and weekends hammering away at projects, building training materials and eliminating every single point of perceived weakness I could identify. I wanted to make myself bulletproof. I went to great lengths to ensure that my role and my position at my employer would be secure and that I would have peace of mind knowing that I would accomplish what I wanted to in my place of work—and more specifically, in Portland.
But what I came to realize was, the more I overcompensated, the worse I felt. I became mindful of the impact perception was having on me. From there, I began asking why: why am I putting so much pressure on myself to become blameless? Why do I feel the need to be perfect? Why can’t I ease up a bit and give myself a break? Why am I experiencing such high levels of stress?
“I Am Suffering and I Need Help”
I had to admit, whether I wanted to or not, that I was suffering greatly. Once I was able to accept that truth, however temporary it might have been, was the point where I knew I could take the appropriate steps to get myself to a place of peace and begin practicing happiness once again.
I asked myself, where did the roots of my suffering stem from? I searched in books and movies, asked friends and family, traveled cross-country and made an appointment with a psychic. “Your mother was cursed while you were inside of her belly,” the clairvoyant shared with me. While the mystic in me was satisfied, my rational brain craved something I could make sense of. To say that I was the victim of second-hand exposure to curses wouldn’t lift me out of the trenches of distress and despair.
A Period of Research: The Tolls of the “New Normal”
So, I began researching the specifics of my situation—career-driven black woman—and found an article articulating the challenges that specifically black women face. The article, “Black Women Talk About Workplace Stress and How They Cope,” was based on a study that included focus groups with dozens of black women discussing how they handle stressors in the workplace. One of the most common coping mechanisms was relying on friends, family, mentors and others who understand the day-to-day experiences.
I read the article and I realized just how isolated I felt in the spaces I occupied in Portland. I had not come across any mentors who I could identify with or who could provide a blueprint for how to navigate the waters I found myself in. There were no outlets for me to explain why this isolation had such an impact on me. And when I did raise my hand to share concerns regarding diversity and inclusion, the challenges I faced were just that…challenges that only I would have to face.
Back in November of last year, I attended AWS’s re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, and I made my way to a session titled “Bridging the Racial Divide in Tech.” As the panelists finished fielding questions from the moderator, I had an opportunity to ask what the benefit is to being “the only” or “one of the few.” Their response went something along the lines of “It’s a trap.” What I interpreted that to mean is, while it’s nice to be a representative of what is becoming a new normal in our workspaces, there are also distinct challenges that come along with being “the only,” “the token” or “the unicorn.”
The experience I was having was an experience that others struggled with as well. We come into organizations where we find ourselves lacking representation. We wonder, how can we design an environment where coworkers and colleagues can become aware of our struggles without coming off as confrontational? We rack our brains trying to pinpoint how it is that we can contribute towards the establishment of a new normal, despite this being unchartered territory. And then, we pause for a moment only to realize that being an advocate for change is not part of our job description and not an activity that we are being paid to do. It was this blood, this sweat, and these tears that made me realize I had to leave.
The Final Word
I believe Portland is a community with open ears and open hearts, and my hope is that this account of why I left elicits sentiments of understanding and compassion. I envision a Portland that continues to build and foster inclusion and support, especially for marginalized/minority communities. And lastly, I hope to keep hold of all the ways that Portland has inspired me, in the weirdest of ways, to speak authentically and live in my truth.
Born into a family of consultants and entrepreneurs, Gabrielle Blackwell has always been fascinated with how businesses operate and scale leading her to a career working in tech startups and small-to-medium sized businesses. Throughout her professional and personal experiences, she has been intrigued by culture and the impact that it has in establishing environments built for success. Connect with her on LinkedIn.