Six weeks ago I resigned from my position at Outspoken. Since then I’ve been thinking more about the other moments that have shaped me along the way. Maybe it’s because I know I’m in the middle of A Moment right now – after all, saying “yes” to any of the offers on the table will change my course – but this is also the first time I’ve been unemployed since I was a recent college grad. And while eight years later my situation and my circumstances are (thankfully) quite different, it seems inevitable that the memories from that time would creep back.
And they have.
We all have those moments of consequence, those defining stories that, when you put them together, create your story and your lens. It’s your job to remember them. Even if at the time all you want to do is forget.
I remember sitting in an oversized green chair at that Starbucks in Camarillo, CA waiting to meet her.
I remember staring at my resume, staring at my references, and staring back at the floor, in loop.
I remember trying to convince myself that I deserved this help.
Then my case worker walked through the door. I had a case worker now.
Her name was Pat and she was with the Department of Rehabilitation Services, an agency that provides advocacy for people with disabilities and helps them become employed in their communities. She was warm and genuine. She was my case worker. She was going to help.
Pat ran through the standard set of introductions, seemingly careful not to stray from her state-mandated script. While she did that, I thought of everything it had taken me to get here. The two years of driving across LA and surrounding areas for unsuccessful interviews. Prospective employers who openly laughed when I couldn’t get the words out. Assistants who hung up on me when I called. The abusive boss I had who told me I should complain less because I had no other option but to work for him.
I was in this Starbucks to prove them wrong. And to prove myself right. That I could do more.
Once Pat finished, it became my turn to introduce myself. I went through my own script while she followed along on the intake application she had in her hand.
My name is Lisa Barone. I’m living in Ventura, CA but I’m originally from the East Coast. My family, friends, and everything I know is still back there.
I moved out to Los Angeles before the ink on my journalism degree from Emerson College was dry. Things weren’t great back home. I can’t go back.
I have a stutter that I believe is impacting my ability to find quality employment. I know that it is illegal for someone not to hire me based on my speech, but it is happening.
I currently work for a man who sells vinyl records out of his home. I clean, list, and ship records. I also vacuum his house, do his dishes, dust, and perform other tasks I don’t believe are in my job description.
The fact that I am in this Starbucks is a testament to how out of options I am and how badly things have gotten. I had never identified as disabled or handicapped before. No one had ever informed me that I was legally disabled until a college professor forced me to register as such to pass her class. She didn’t sign my name on that dotted line, but she printed out the form and gave me the pen. When authority is abused it can be hard to spot.
By walking into that Starbucks, I was again admitting to a disability.
Back in the moment, Pat congratulated me on taking a bold first step toward finding a position I deserved. She then handed me a packet that would be our game plan. It outlined the steps we’d take together and the steps she would take on my behalf to serve as my advocate. It felt good to have someone on my team. Before we could officially get started, I’d have to visit her office to sign some paperwork.
A few weeks later I ventured in to see her. We huddled together at a small round table while she read the forms that I was to sign. I remember that she laughed nervously and apologized in advance. She said that while many of the forms “wouldn’t apply to my situation” I was required to sign them anyway. For legal reasons. It was standard procedure.
She apologized again.
On this day I was asked to sign forms promising that:
- I would not bite people in my new office.
- I would not become physical aggressive with my coworkers
- I would not throw or break things.
- I would not have tantrums.
- I would remember to groom myself and to shower regularly.
- I would wear deodorant and appropriate clothing.
Two years earlier I had graduated with honors from one of the best journalism schools in the country. Now I was facing a moment of consequence – reject the dehumanization happening or silently consent.
Even in that moment I recognized I was being given a second chance to take back the rights I handed over to that professor years earlier. Back then, I should have voluntarily failed the class. I should have stood up for myself and my own rights. I should have been my own advocate. But I wasn’t. I consented like she knew I would. Here I could make a different choice.
But I didn’t.
Instead of asking for what I needed — to hold on to my dignity through this process — I signed the form. And then I smiled at my case worker, thanked her for her time, and walked out of the building with shoulders sunk.
By the time I reached the parking lot I knew it was too late. I would never again walk into that building or allow them to help me. I wouldn’t allow anyone else to help me. I knew how they saw me.
Luckily, I got a break.
Soon after, I was called in for an interview with an SEO company located in Simi Valley, California. My case worker asked if I wanted her to contact the company before my interview and “explain my situation”. I asked her not to and I opted to interview blind. Two weeks later, I was notified I had the job. Two seconds after that I informed my old boss that I would be leaving. Because I could do better.
I would do better.
As I sit here contemplating what will come next after resigning from a perfectly profitable company, I won’t pretend that these fears and these moments aren’t still with me. They are. A small part of me is terrified. But the larger part of me knows that we all have to act as our own advocates and fight for the things we need, when we need them. Even when it’s hard. Maybe especially then. That’s what I’m doing.
I’ve received a lot of messages from people over the past couple of weeks congratulating me on leaving what was comfortable and comments they wish they could do the same thing. You can. Maybe for you that doesn’t mean quitting your job and taking on an unknown future. But I guarantee you it does mean identifying what you need and advocating for yourself. We should all be doing that. Just because someone hands you the pen doesn’t mean you can’t draw your own damn picture, whatever it may be.