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YOU ARE ALLOWED TO DREAM

26 January 2023:


In the fall of 2019 I returned back to the states after serving overseas in my first deployment. Before I started my next job, I got the opportunity to accompany our Wing Commander (Wg/CC) and his Command Chief with visiting two Squadrons over the span of two days. Aside from receiving the myriad of mission briefs, touring the facilities, and meeting the Airmen, I also was able to observe and see what the Wg/CC looked at and valued with meeting the Squadrons. As a Captain, I was initially under the impression that it would be the content in the mission briefs that peaked his interest. But at the end of the day when the two of us had a debrief, he encouraged me to pay attention to the engagements the leaders had with their own people and how they responded to them. To be aware of the things that are not said in the room. Things I didn't initially look for. But one of the things that also stood out to me was one of the observations made by the Chief.


After touring one of the Squadrons, the Chief noticed that the pictures on the walls were all officer leadership. He called it out and asked why the Senior Enlisted Leaders within the Command were not visible. He highlighted how the enlisted Airmen NEEDED to see this and that only having officer pictures on the wall presented a very limiting message and was not reflective of the organization they were all a part of.


Before then, I never really paid attention to pictures on the wall but the feedback by the Chief made me a little more observant of it. I started looking at who was displayed, if I knew them, what career-field they were in, what uniform they wore, what they looked like, etc. Day by day passed by and each time I would notice a little more.


One day I gave a briefing on some of the work I had done and despite creating it myself and being knowledgeable on the information, I still found myself nervous. I asked myself, "Kristin, what else do you have to do to have some confidence in yourself?!?!" I ran a running list in my mind of my accomplishments and all the things I had done to prove to myself and others that I was a capable officer worthy of being in the profession that I'm in; that I belong here. But I still miraculously would find some kind of way to find areas where I "didn't know or do enough" and in turn would doubt myself. What do I have to do to be, or better yet, FEEL like I am enough?


2020 occurred. I kept passing by the same hallways. I started to notice all of the diversity in the organization I worked in. Military of all different services, civilians of all stature. People of all colors speaking a variety of languages. Some people wore suits, some in casual attire. People who were athletic, people who were not. Senior citizens were present while some High Schoolers were there upon internships, along with everyone in-between. Some people had physical disabilities; some people were extremely social while others nearly hugged the wall as they walked by. One day in the elevator I met a man with a paper bag over his head and a blind-walking stick. Apparently, he experienced a severe sensitivity to the light and people would refer to him as, "The bag man". The talent was undeniable, and the diversity was extremely visible and I grew to love it.


However, there was one place that didn't reflect the wide diversity of its employees. It was the Director wall. I noticed that the entire wall, spanning over 70 years had leaders who all appeared to be White Men. I went to the Deputy Director wall and it was the same thing with one exception: there were two white women. I asked myself how does the organization look one way, with work that has such a profound influence and credible reputation while the leadership all appears to visually look another way? A way that does not consistently reflect that of the organization. Why does this wall look like this? Are there messages being sent to me and everyone else who walks down this hallway, that resides on a subconscious level?


In 2021, I arrived in Korea. For the first time in my ENTIRE life I saw a Black Woman Air Force Officer in the position of a Wing Commander for an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing and the Command Chief was a Black Woman as well. NEVER IN MY LIFE had I seen anyone in this description in the position alone, let alone having two at the same time.


As I walked by the photos every day to get to my office, I started to notice a feeling happening in me. It didn't feel good; it was definitely some form of a discomfort. I saw Col Steven's (the Wg/CC's) picture every day and it was like it was sending me an encrypted message that I didn't know how to decode. Every day I would do my job as best as I had to give: somedays better than others, and I'd walk by that picture. It was like a reminder that I was being "seen" now. I asked myself, "is this pressure that I'm feeling? Shouldn't I feel 'happy' to see a person who resembles me on the wall? Why do I feel uncomfortable? What do other people think or feel, or not think or feel, when THEY walk by? What do they think or feel when they see me?"


During the winter of 2021, Col Stevens and her Command Chief, Chief SG, visited our Squadron. I carried out the CC's vision by organizing the briefers and when it came time for me to brief, I bombed. I got so nervous and overwhelmed and stumbled during certain portions of the presentation. I was looking forward to meeting Col Stevens so much. I hadn't seen anyone like her in that role in my life. I read her biography which was inspiring and had heard so many positive things about her from those who worked directly for her. I had so many questions. I wanted our team to perform well during the visit, so much so that I overwhelmed myself and dropped the ball. I felt embarrassed and deeply ashamed.


About a month ago, I caught up with a good friend of mine that I hadn't spoken to in over 7 months. Turns out she took two months off from work to take care of her mental health as well. We talked about the role life and work played in us reaching a state of depression and what we were doing to try to pull ourselves out of it. She apparently went on an entire retreat to South America, is working with a therapist, ended a relationship, and is just taking baby steps each day to become more informed with who she is, set boundaries, and commit to self-care. I told her about my journey over the past year and how I was still uncertain about so many things but am taking things one day at a time to figure it out. My friend said something to me that I have repeated to myself every day since. She said, "You are ALLOWED to dream." Her words shook me as I had been tip toeing around daring to desire something different than what was previously so safe and comfortable for me. Or that I was AFRAID of something. Specifically in the words of my therapist, "Why are you AFRAID of stepping into your GREATNESS?"


Yesterday my Squadron Commander shared with us how Col Stevens (our now, former Wg/CC) was nominated by the President for a selection to Brigadier General. While I don't know her personally, and only met her one time, I am so excited for her. As someone who, as of late last year STILL repeatedly gets asked "is it possible?" by young girls or other black people; or receives feedback from women, often women of color, who share with me how just seeing me in the position I am in, inspires and empowers them. I am excited for the impact just seeing Col Stevens will have on all kinds of people within the USAF and beyond.


I've come to the realization that maybe, my initial feelings of "discomfort" was a slow process of my mind and body unlocking itself into FINALLY recognizing that, "Yes, YOU ARE enough. So start getting comfortable with being great. And keep dreaming😉 "


Photo: BG (select) Kayle Stevens. The picture I walked by almost

daily over the past year.

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