Braille Monitor                          November 2019

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Mujeres of the Federation

by Mary Fernandez

Mary FernandezFrom the Editor: Mary Fernandez is a woman who brings and shares with the world her intelligence, her passion, and most of all her honesty. As Monitor readers will remember from past articles that she has written, she goes where others dare not go, and she does not let blindness get in the way, even when people fear that her going into impoverished neighborhoods will expose her to unacceptable danger because she is blind.

Here is a presentation that Mary gave at a seminar of the 2019 National Convention. It was advertised with these words: “This bilingual event features a keynote address from a dynamic Latina leader. It will provide inspiration and mentorship opportunities for the next generation of blind Latina trailblazers.” Here is what she says:

I spent much of my childhood in Cartagena, Columbia, where my story unfolded in binary terms: dos and don’ts. Like other kids, I did have chickens as pets. I did have room to be rambunctious—often, running around the house so fast that I crashed into a wall, denting the middle of my forehead. I did try to shave my imaginary beard with a real razor at the age of four. And then there were the things I was not allowed to do, most painfully, not attend school. I would wistfully watch my brother go off on the bus, books under his arm, and I’d just have my radio and chickens to pass the time.

So how does a young uneducated girl from Colombia, whose only odd claim to sophistication was a love for classical music, grow up to have a successful career, attend two prestigious institutions of higher education, and walk into spaces where people like me aren’t seen? There are three elements that have been essential to my success. My mother, who not only encouraged and inspired me to do my best, but who also made many sacrifices to insure I’d have a bright future, is central to my achievements. Second has been the role models and mentors who continue to demonstrate what is possible regardless of disability. Third, somewhere along the way I realized that vital to my success are authenticity, resilience, and gratitude. I’m going to share stories from my personal and professional lives that highlight these elements.

In 2013 I applied for a position with a highly selective federal agency. To my utter amazement, a month after applying, I got a call to initiate the year-long, eight-step, grueling interview process. And guess what? I received a job offer! I quit my very safe job, signed everything, and enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind to obtain blindness training while the security clearance process was underway. However, six months after leaving a perfectly secure job, I got a one-page letter withdrawing the job offer. I remember standing in Pam Allen’s office, crushed and dumbstruck. I had no idea what to do or where to go. I went to the bathroom and ugly cried while I called my mom. Later, I went home to ugly cry again. Funny thing about life though, is that you may be going through the hardest part of your life, but the world doesn’t stop, even when we think it should. So, I woke up the next day, and my stubborn streak kicked in. I had started this training program, and I was going to finish it. I was going to get a damn job too!

I often think back to this time in my life and all the ways it could have gone differently if I had gotten what I thought was my dream job. I would have never set off on a path toward business school. After completing blindness training, I went back home to New Jersey and was hired as a youth transition program coordinator, creating something from the ground up. While fulfilling, a year-and-a-half later I left that safe job, knowing that there was something else out there for me. I did all the contract work that I could find. I even worked as a customer representative for a cottage cheese company. Never mind that I literally had never tasted cottage cheese in my life! Hustling helped me realize the value of my network. It enabled me to explore my interests and eventually brought into focus my next step. I woke up one day and thought, “I really need an MBA. Then people will take me seriously, and I’ll have many more options. And this plan actually worked!

Attending business school at Duke has tested my resilience like no other time in my life. I don’t know many blind people, even in the NFB, who obtained an MBA. But I did know many blind pioneers, so I had no doubt I could do it. The journey has been challenging. First, you take all the classes that the world usually tells you blind people, particularly girls, aren’t good at, like stats, and econ, accounting, and my absolute favorite, finance. Second, institutional bias in higher education means that students with disabilities are set up to fail. I went through my first two quarters essentially with no accessible materials. When I say none, I don’t mean I was getting a bit of stats but not all of it—I mean none. Our quarters are only six weeks long, so falling behind even by a week means it’s hopeless. Third, there is recruiting. Recruiting season is when about a hundred employers visit campus to present on their companies and to network with students. After full school days we switch into networking mode, hoping that insightful conversations and brilliant questions will translate into a summer internship opportunity. Standing out was the goal, and at least my being the only blind one helped me get that part down.

I survived, and I pushed forward. It comes down to resilience, which is being able to persist even when you are bruised and battered. Resilience isn’t lack of failure; it’s being able to fail over and over and getting back up. Resilience doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you are punched to the ground; it means you feel the hurt and make it back up. Resilience can’t be taught; it is something we develop. And if I know one thing about immigrants, it is that we are damn resilient. We continue to work and succeed and contribute even when the message we are hearing is that we are not wanted.

Three months after recruiting started, and a number of unsuccessful interviews later, I finally accepted a job offer with Cisco. Working at Cisco was a dream come true. I worked on the Global Talent Brand team—we do marketing for talent acquisition. The Cisco culture is truly inclusive, and the people are brilliant, welcoming, and warm, a combination that is hard to find anywhere. However, as we move into spaces that people like us—blind Latina women aren’t usually seen, no matter the company culture, these characteristics become a focal point. Often, the curiosity grows from a desire to learn and understand our experience. For me, it quickly became exhausting being the new intern at this global corporation and the in-house accessibility and disability expert. In this instance I had to set boundaries. At the same time, it’s important to leverage our lived experiences to influence inclusion at all levels whenever we can. That’s what I did, resulting in guiding the team to create more accessible marketing materials.

I’ve learned that in situations where my intersecting identities become a prominent feature, authenticity, boundaries, and using my lived experiences help me navigate. Authenticity is a strength. It is important to bring our true self, values, and integrity to work. If we do that, we will always find the best path forward. If we do not, we will not fail, but we will not grow; we may please others but not ourselves, and ultimately, we will stunt our personal growth. Do not ever allow anyone to make you the token x. I set limits around what I will and will not tolerate. At the same time, recognize and accept that you are representing others. This acceptance allows us to better control our narrative. If it’s inevitable that a story will be told about us, then we should make sure we create that story. Leverage your knowledge and experiences to pave the path for those who will come after you.

So, here is what I want you to remember. First, play to your strengths. Second, embrace failure, because failure leads to resilience. Third, live authentically, live your truth. And last, be grateful. I could not have gotten to where I am today without an army of supporters behind me and trailblazers before me. Gratitude engenders joy and confidence, so hold it close to you. When you play to your strengths, when you are authentic to your values and beliefs, when you are courageous, you will leave an indelible mark in the world and blaze a path for those who will follow.

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