As long as I can remember, I’ve had ambition. Some of the early career paths I considered for myself were Oscar-winning actress, renowned surgeon, or world-famous architect. Eventually, I picked a more modest career goal of working in urban policy, but my ambition stayed with me. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where I was encouraged to ignore the structural barriers imposed upon me — it never occurred to me that our society wouldn’t want a young half-Filipina woman to succeed or that my personal narrative was that important to my professional ambition. The role models in my family are immigrants, strong women, mavericks who defied authority and carved their own paths. They are my history, and their stories told me I would succeed in my future.
When I accepted the offer for the Greenlining Policy Fellowship, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I would end up in a “real” job after graduate school, not in a one-year Fellowship program. Personal development had never been a priority for me; my ambition always kept me more focused on doing well in school and making the right connections, and I was worried that joining the Leadership Academy would derail me from the path I was on.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I never expected my first job out of grad school to challenge me the way the Fellowship has. I was prepared to push myself hard and grow my policy skills, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to open myself up to personal development. Greenlining is the first place I’ve ever been that encouraged me to reflect and self-discover, but learning to let go of my preconceived notions of those things took time. At first, it didn’t feel natural to share the story of my family and my identity with my cohort; at some point, I’d decided that my professional aspirations should be completely separate from my personal narrative. I didn’t feel that my identity as a biracial woman mattered in the workplace, but over the past eight months, I have embraced who I am and learned to see my identity as part of what I bring to my work as an advocate for racial equity. I can’t make good policy without acknowledging how my background shapes my values and attitude toward the work.
Patrick Brown, the Leadership Academy Director, frequently talks about how there is no such thing as “hard” and “soft” skills — there are only “hard” skills and “harder” skills. The Fellowship has taught me so much about the value of these harder skills that can’t be taught in a classroom, like leading with compassion or practicing true self-care. Our society places a higher value on an impressive resume than on social skills or self-awareness. Meditation, mindfulness, coaching, storytelling — I had always avoided these types of activities because it didn’t fit into the narrative I had written for myself. Before Greenlining, my personal narrative was something along the lines of “Sonrisa Cooper worked hard her entire life, got her dream job, and retired comfortably with the respect of her peers.” I don’t know what my new narrative is yet, but I have learned that taking better of care of myself will allow me to achieve my goals without compromising my own needs.
I realized that before the Fellowship, I had made the mistake of seeing my accomplishments within the narrow definition of success that our society has created. Unlearning implicit bias, remembering the lessons from my family, and practicing different ways of thinking has pushed me to be a better equity advocate for communities of color. My personal narrative and lived experience make me a stronger advocate for the communities that we serve, but it’s hard to recognize that when you’re so focused on fitting into the mold. I still have plenty of ambition, but I wield it better now. Wherever I end up after the Fellowship, I know that I will continue to #ChangeFromWithin using the tools of the Greenlining Leadership Academy.
Sonrisa Cooper is Greenlining’s Economic Equity Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.