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Is it Possible?

4 March 2023:

For the past 10 days, Michael and I have been traveling in South East Asia on a Royal Caribbean cruise to finally celebrate our honeymoon. We spent a fews days in Singapore, traveled within Ho Chi Minh Vietnam, and had several adventures within the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya Thailand. We had so much fun together exploring a part of the world we had never seen together, even if our time in each of the countries was less than 48 hours. Last night, as I looked out into the ocean from my stateroom balcony and reflected on the overall experiences, a memory I had with one of the Senior Enlisted leaders (SEL) I've worked with came to mind.

Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with an SEL. The topic came up about "firsts". The SEL mentioned how they don't like when leaders are presented as the "first" in the position from a particular race, gender etc without explaining their credentials. They said, "I don't like when they LEAD with that because it makes it sound like thats the only reason they were hired.... when they say 'this is the first black or first woman' in the position my next question is, are they qualified for the job or were they hired just because of that?" My position was that, there are still so many people in America (and the world) that don't know if an accomplishment like that is possible for someone like them so highlighting or leading with that diversity feature instantly says to them that yes, it is possible. And with further digging into who the person is and how they came to be, viewers will learn how.

The SEL and I had a very good conversation about this as we both exchanged our point of views, enlightened and gained valuable perspective from each others different positions, then went about our work day as a team.

My stance used to be very similar to that of the SELs. I remember hearing the announcements about "the first black Secretary of Defense" or the "first Woman to complete ranger school" and despite the celebration I had for the achievement, I always felt a significant amount of discomfort in celebrating the selection. I would think, "did this person EARN this achievement because of MERIT? Are they qualified for the job? Or is it something else....RACE...SEX..." This frame of mind also extended to voting. 2008 was the first year I was legally allowed to vote. There was so much discussion at the time as this was the first time there was a Black person as a front runner candidate for U.S. President. I remember some of my teachers criticising how many people are just voting for Obama because of his race and not looking at his credentials. How he has potential but is very young and Senator McCain is much more experienced. I asked some of my classmates how they felt about the election and what side were they leaning. In my JROTC classroom, many were locked in on McCain. "Definitely McCain" one of my peers said without hesitation. McCain was a Vietnam veteran. Was experienced in the Senate. I asked others outside of the classroom. One Black man who was my neighbor and would also play tennis with me to help me train said, "Oh Obama for sure. OBAMA," without hesitation and with a strong conviction. I felt very conflicted. I wasn't sure how to examine one's credibility for as serious of a job as President of the U.S. and I didn't want to choose anyone just because they were Black and I was Black, or they were a veteran and I wanted to someday be a veteran. Due to the confusion that lied within, I ended up not voting in the historic 2008 election. My dad was very disappointed in me for not executing my civic duty in voting. He then provided me with a passionate history lesson on how many people fought and died for me, a black woman, to have the right to vote and I needed to not waste it going forward.

The more aware I've become of my American history, the more people I've met, the more experiences I've gained both inside and outside of the U.S., I see how limited my former way of thinking was. I've spent so much time trying to avoid "black" or "woman" things out of fear that it could be perceived in an unfavorable way. I worried that when others saw me, that their instinct is to see the education I have, or special programs I've done or jobs that I've obtained and believe that if I do not demostrate unique, AMAZING talent all the time, then the belief is that these accolades or accomplishments are only within my possession because I am "black". Not for anything I've done, but because an institution had a box to check and regardless of my competency, they let me lackadaisically walk right on in and take the spot of someone else, more deserving. And in order to disprove this perception, I take on an INSURMOUNTABLE amount of pressure (much of which has resided in my unconscious) and work myself repeatedly to burnout in order to prove that I belong, to prove "my worth". I do this with every assignment, with every job, with every room I walk into or crowd I encounter. It's exhausting. Meanwhile, for many of my peers, a question of worth, belonging, competency, right to rest, is not even a worry-not to the degree that it has been for me, and what I've come to learn- others like me.

As I looked out into the water from my cruise balcony I thought about all of the staff, the guests and the overall experience. When I went on my first Royal Caribbean cruise to the Caribbean in 2018, what stood out to me the most was how multicultural the staff was. They were literally from all over the world while the majority of guests were American. I remember the Captain being a man and being white. Fast forward to today, this cruise, was categorized as international. The majority of staff that I encountered (chef's, waiter/waitresses, housekeepers, entertainment staff, guest services, excursions, etc) were black and brown people from South East Asia and a few from Africa, and the caribbean. Yet the two Captains of the ship were both white men and the guests were predominantly older white people from the UK, followed by older white people from Australia, a mix of cultures from Asia, then the U.S. I couldn't help but look at the staff, the guests, and the Captains of the ship and ask, "why does it look this way?"

There has been several encounters I have had where I receive feedback from people on what it means to them to see me or know where I have been and where I am today. As a young Lieutenant I met up with an old friend for lunch who also was black, and when he found out I earned a commission he said, "So it is possible." I thought YES YES IT IS and there are others out here! I thought of the Tuskegee Airmen and wondered why the possibility of a commission was a wonder to him. There have been several other black officers that have come before me, I am not the first. But I guess meeting and seeing for yourself hits differently. I remembered the little girls who came up to me during the summers I led summer leadership schools for high school JROTC detachments during my college ROTC and early Lt days, and was told, "it's really encouraging to see you, a woman, leading this whole camp." I thought about even my time living out here in Korea, where one Korean civilian woman expressed her desire to want to bow to me, because she had not heard or seen a woman officer in a position high enough to lead men. While I have had to do the work to earn EVERYTHING that I have, somewhere along the way I have forgotten and in some areas, never knew, where I truly come from and why these features about me "being black, being a woman, being a BLACK WOMAN" resonate with people in such a way that lifts them up.

While these interactions were meaningful to me, I haven't always felt that institutional powers valued the ability to lift up and empower marginalized people. Had it not been for my JROTC instructor, Lt Col Billy Lakes, repeatedly pushing me for opportunities like these summer leadership schools, and for the minority officers I met in those camps who reached down and lifted me up to show me that what was possible for them could be possible for me too, I am confident I would not be in the USAF today. Especially as an officer.

As I stared out into the water, I thought about the first human on the moon- white man. The first person to orbit the earth- white man- the first 43 U.S. Presidents and 45 Vice Presidents- white men. Every CSAF until Gen Brown- white men. Every CMSAF until Chief Bass- a man. All but two (CMSAF Barnes and CMSAF Wright), appear to be white men. This trend extends to the majority of government and private institutions across America. Yet, many people who supported these faces of history and monumental milestones they championed, were NOT white men. Is anyone asking why this is? Does this make anyone else uncomfortable? If your answer is these were the only people capable, competent, or available, I would encourage you to look deeper into this.

As I continue to look around not just at America but around the globe, I realize more and more that I am not the one who has anything to prove; the people who continue to hold the institutional power are the ones who have long overdue work to do in "proving." Just as I felt discomfort seeing a black woman Wing Commander's picture on the wall (because I had NEVER seen this before, and it made me feel seen- like maybe that could be me one day, for the first time in my AF career), I think the constant absence of diversity in leadership at ALL levels should be a source of discomfort for everyone. I think people should be doing all they can to nourish and bring up the next generations- our replacements, so that our systems are JUST, FAIR, and TRUSTWORHY, for everyone and not oppressive or designed to benefit a very small, selective few. I believe the repeated questioning of someone's credentials upon selection into a position is a sign of a flaw in the system- not the person. It's dangerous placing unqualified people or people who demonstrate toxic behaviors into key leadership positions. But if the systems were not so exclusive to everyone but one demographic, we could trust that those hired into positions of power are there because they earned it. There wouldn't need to be a question of "is someone qualified?" We wouldn't need to celebrate "firsts." The only first we would celebrate would be a first for America. Or a first for our human race.

So until that day comes, I will no longer carry the shame or fear I once carried about openly acknowledging or celebrating a "first." When my imposter voice attempts to shower me with self-deprecation or self-doubt, I am pulling out my umbrella armed with memories of myself, my ancestral history, and God within me and say to myself, "Kristin, REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE!!!"

And if anyone else approaches me, regardless of whatever their gender is, what their heritage is, what they look like, what they believe, their sexual orientation, etc; if they ask me, "Is it possible?" I will confidently tell them, that "Yes. Yes it is. And if you don't see it now, you can make it be. You will not be alone even if it feels that way sometimes. And you are WORTHY of support each step of the way."


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