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Roquita Coleman-Williams

Roquita Coleman-Williams is a member of the Memphis Area Transit Authority Board of Commissioners and former president of the Memphis World Trade Club. She became a certified train conductor in her role as a solutions manager for Canadian National Railway. She is an inclusion strategist for F&H Solutions Group. 

A 'hard-headed woman' committed to inclusion

By Published: March 26, 2019 2:12 PM CT

I started a career 22 years ago in sales and marketing, a male-dominated industry. My accent was so thick that my manager had to have this very uncomfortable coaching session with me about how to enunciate words like ‘specific’ and ‘asked’ and ‘business.’

When I was appointed the 63rd president and the first African-American president of the Memphis World Trade Club, I was very uncomfortable because my predecessors all had polish and prestige and executive presence.

But I’m hard-headed. For as long as I can remember there’s been a voice in my head telling me I didn’t belong. The louder the voice was, the more determined it seemed to make me.

This determination has taught me some profound lessons, like how to turn the story of negative expectations into a commitment to inclusion. How civic leadership could become a profound path to purpose. And it taught me that you don’t need a title to lead.

I’m pretty certain it was that Memphis grit and grind that I wasn’t always so comfortable with that helped me earn a license as a locomotive conductor at nearly 40 years old. (The next time you’re held in traffic behind a two-mile-long train, you can do something you’ve never done before: Think of a hard-headed black woman.)

When I arrived at the University of Memphis as a 16-year-old high school graduate I was terrified. Not only did I feel like I didn’t belong, as any 16-year-old would in college, I had this nagging voice in my head telling me, ‘You’re not as smart as they think you are.’ And there were times when I wanted to drop the books and walk off of campus, but I knew without an education I would become one of the 110 million Americans receiving government assistance today.

I was born in the South Memphis housing projects in the 38126 ZIP Code, where families earn a third of the median income for the Memphis area, and economic mobility is the lowest in the entire country at a staggering 2.8 percent. Imagine growing up in a household that had to depend on an income of $4,000 a year in 1977 when I was born. Or what it would feel like just by way of the neighborhood that you were born in, to know that you had a greater than 97 percent chance of not being able to move from the bottom 20 percent of earners to the top 20 percent of earners in a single generation.

I thought the only way I would ever get ahead in this lifetime was to get as far away from Memphis as possible. Behind that voice telling me I didn’t belong was the expectation of prejudice, the expectation of bias. And I think it was the expectation of something so profoundly negative that would have actually kept me in poverty even more than the circumstances of my birth or the community in which I was born.

Recently I watched Jane Elliott, an anti-racism activist, declare on the “Red Table Talk Show” on Facebook that prejudice is the emotional commitment to ignorance. Makes sense to me. But what is inclusion a commitment to?

Inclusion starts with that voice in your head. For years I felt like a peacock, walking into the office filled with lions. It didn’t matter that I was achieving economic mobility, it didn’t matter that I worked for multi-national companies, that I was traveling the world helping organizations connect their businesses with global markets. None of that mattered. I just didn’t feel like I belonged.

For that person who feels like she doesn’t fit, inclusion’s a commitment to walk through every opportunity door whether they welcome you or not. And for you lions, you power-brokers in the industry, it’s a commitment to go beyond tolerance to empathy for that person who has the courage to face the unfamiliar.

Verna Myers is a vice president of inclusion strategy for Netflix. She says diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. I think we expect inclusion and human equity to be warm and fuzzy like dancing to your favorite ‘90s underground Memphis rap. Or climbing up into your grandmother’s bed at seven months pregnant eating warm sweet potato pie on college break.

No.

What are you willing to do to make a strategic business objective happen? Would you work 12 hours until the middle of the night operating trains in freezing temperatures with snow that comes up to your knees?

I spent six months training as a locomotive conductor manager. That required learning mechanics of trains, safety rules, technology, the rules of rail operations. I had to demonstrate the physical fitness to handle massive rail equipment. This was the hardest, hard-headed moment of my life.

That voice showed back up. She was like, “Roquita, what advanced-degree sales and marketing professional do you know is learning to maybe fly airbus cargo planes in order to market next-day air delivery?” I didn’t know any. But what I knew is that I have a stubborn determination.

That first leadership appointment shifted something for me. Industry lions use their influence to build a bridge for a peacock. Without even knowing it, they helped me overcome the profound expectation of exclusion. And in place of that was a sense of belonging that compels me to make a difference.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

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Roquita Coleman-Williams Memphis World Trade Club

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