We are living in uncertain and unprecedented times. Following the insurrectionist violence at the U.S. Capitol, many of us are wondering how the nation has lapsed into such utter chaos. While we knew stoking the flames of hatred would cause irreparable harm, watching on our TV and computer screens as an angry, mostly white mob stormed the U.S. Capitol was surreal, especially in a Democratic nation.
In this moment of deep division, people of faith must relentlessly advance a bold vision that is anchored in love, justice, and accountability. To do that, we must assess what it is that we each possess—that, when pooled together, can affect change. We each have something to offer, and the challenge becomes finding it and harnessing it. While no one person or institution has all that is needed in this moment, if we create space for one another’s genius and ingenuity, our society will have what we need.
It is in that spirt that I share this excerpt from my forthcoming book, “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life.” “First and Only” is a leadership resource for Black women who have found themselves in the position of being the first or the only. Unlike most leadership books, my work speaks to the unique challenges that Black women face and posits that a spiritual practice is a key to liberation and sustainability.
In some instances, technical mastery guarantees success. When it comes to Black women, technical mastery, or knowing how to do the specifics of one’s job, is the floor and not the ceiling for on-the-job advancement. It is like the entrance exam into law school: doing well on the test will help you secure a seat in the program, but you need to clear a different set of hurdles to become a lawyer. To get and feel good in that dream job, Black women need to heal childhood wounds, challenge systemic racism, and adopt a lifestyle that prioritizes our personal care and nourishment. But we also need to be clear about the gifts we possess; the things we do effortlessly yet brilliantly; and the skills, forged through life experiences, that help us thrive. We need to be clear about what is in our house.
This phrase “what’s in your house” is from 2 Kings 4:1–6 in the Hebrew Scriptures, or what Christians call the Old Testament. This passage of Scripture highlights a newly widowed woman’s complaints to the prophet Elisha. Creditors were harassing her and threatening to take everything she had, including her two sons, if she did not satisfy her debt. How many of us can relate to being hounded by creditors, unsure of where to turn or how to come up with money to satisfy our obligations? Probably many of us. Elisha responded by asking the woman, “What do you have in your house?” She told him all she had was a jar of oil. He told her to go borrow as many vessels from her neighbors as she could. She was to transfer oil from her jar into those vessels and then sell the oil to pay her bills.
It turned out that with one jug of oil, she was able to fill all the vessels she had collected. Each time she poured out oil, it was replenished. In fact, she had more oil than she could use; she didn’t have enough vessels to contain all the oil in her possession.
What is remarkable to me about this story is that the solution to the widow’s problem was within her reach. Such is the case with us. For every problem we face, God has already provided a solution. Sometimes we have gifts that we undervalue or overlook because we do not see their worth. Or other times we internalize society’s devaluation of our presence and our gifts.
But each of us has something to offer; something that someone else needs. Some people were given the gift of words. They can communicate in a way that causes others to stop and listen. Think about some of the greatest orators of our time and the impact they have. Others of us have a passion for service. Their ability to care for others so they feel loved and appreciated can literally change lives. These are the people who run shelters, open their homes to people in need, and nurture and teach children.
Others are mobilizers, mobilizing people to action on some of the most pressing challenges. They host a party or call a gathering, and people come. They launch an organization, and people line up to join.
The key is to never lose sight of what’s in your house. Our liberation and the liberation of others is influenced by not only what’s in our proverbial house but also by our understanding of the gifts and skills that are uniquely ours. Regardless of what you face, you possess something that will help you overcome. It may seem like a small jar of oil to you, but it may just be enough.
If you do not know what is in your house, you cannot develop a deep sense of self and an abiding confidence that will sustain you. If you do not know what is in your house, you will struggle with articulating your value and talents, particularly when it comes to negotiating in your best interest. If you do not know what is in your house, you may give away something that people are willing to buy. Or you may withhold that which the people around you need.
Knowing what is in your house is not just a nice thing to understand, it’s an imperative for Black women. Too often we are undervalued and under-appreciated. When we know what’s in our house, we show up understanding our value without relying on the external validation that may or may not come. We cannot wait for others to discover our gifts, nor can we place our esteem in others’ decisions to celebrate us. We must take inventory of ourselves, understanding that we have value by virtue of existing. The gifts we have are merely icing on the cake.
I hope 2021 is the year when we bring all our gifts to bear. I hope it is the year when we take up space and utilize all which we have been given. I fear that is the only way to right the wrongs in this country and ensure we can pass on a worthy future for our kids and grandkids.
From First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life by Jennifer R. Farmer copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.”