Tuesday, March 21, 2017

If You Build It, It Will Carry You

Hokey picture of our "gut'  asking for trust

Many people make decision based on their brains while many other trust their hearts. Still others use external data points or factors outside themselves to make decisions.

The "right" answer probably varies and is wholly dependent the individual.

I'd say I make most of my decisions based on my "gut."

And if I'm honest, before this post, I'm not sure I ever looked up the definition of gut. and dictionary.com says: gut: informal personal courage and determination; toughness of character.

What an amazing validation of the my point today.  Our own personal courage and determination equals our gut.

Lately, I've had to lean into my gut for some major decisions especially because data and other logical decision making tools were unavailable to me. Sometimes, actually most times my gut has not steered me wrong. I believe that is because I've utilized my gut for some time now. Easily the last 16 -20 years of my life, I have strengthened my gut's ability to steer me. In some cases, especially business and related to my vocational talents - I almost trust my gut exclusively and rarely does it fail me. I noticed, however, that on issues pertaining to my personal life, my gut is not as practiced nor as confident as it is in professional issues.

I'm very new to trusting my gut personally speaking and it has floundered but I persist. Why? Well I have ample evidence that this muscle works and works well on the professional side of the house so I am building its capabilities on the personal side.

Further, I am encouraging my 15 year old daughter to learn to wholly trust her gut. It's not something we just started, it's been ongoing since early in the middle school years. I cannot tell you how many times, I've said, "Emma - what does your gut say to you? Whatever that is, trust it and build it."

Last week, Emma did one of the most courageous things she's done in her young life and I could not be more proud.  She made a move. A very unpopular and not fully understood (externally) move that rocked both her peers and some other adults in her life. This move was not easy. And it required lots of explanation and defending but I watched her embolden with each challenge to her decision. I watched her handle an adult more than quadruple her age with grace, respect but unshakable conviction and firmness.


I can't even imagine what I would have done in life if I'd started trusting my gut at age 15. And as I write this I know people my age - mid 40s who STILL don't trust their own guts. That's my ask.

As courage and determination are malleable, you can build your gut - starting now.  Today.

Take steps to build you courage. Start small. Give yourself some small wins and encouragement to build momentum to bigger things.

Ask trusted people in your life to remind you of moments of courage and determination - we often forget. Record them and recall them when you need them.

Repeat. Build your gut and then give it practice. Again and again.

If you build your gut, one day it will carry you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Tattoo, Root Canal and Locs: Why Experience Matters Versus Change For Change Sake

Over the last 4 months, I've had 3 incredible experiences with top notch professionals - giants in their space. Each time, I was moved to write about those experiences and never got around to doing it and today I know why. In the aftermath of the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education, it is clear why I could not write this post one day sooner.

Know how

Experience matters.

I got a tattoo, had a root canal and converted my afro to locs since September 2016. Each endeavor required research and identification of a professional to journey with me to my goal. Each professional had to walk me through their process and how they were the right person for the job. I had to look at their "track record" and draw conclusions from their past performance.

My tattoo artist - King Ruck, founder of Black Spade Tattoo based in downtown Las Vegas is the bomb. Not only is he a featured artist on the Spike TV show Ink Master (a fact I learned AFTER I'd narrowed him to my top 2), but he was fantastic in my prospecting consultation. I could see his technique and methodology to prepare for a tattoo experience as I watched him meticulously lay out his materials while we talked. When we got to the part of speaking directly about my design, he came close and listened intently about the 'why' I was inking myself and gave great insight that spoke directly to my need. Ruck walked me through the experience and what I could expect 3 months later at the appointment.  The actual tattoo experience itself lived up to and exceeded my expectations and I'm already plotting my next tattoo.

In contrast to the tat, my root canal was an extremely annoying conclusion to an ongoing tooth issue that plagued me most of 2016. It culminated with me being recommended to Dr. Jet in Lincoln Park who specialized in root canals and worked with people on a budget. The marketing materials for Dr. Jet were sterile yet they thoroughly walked me through what to expect. I was able to call and have a preliminary call with his office and him and it was great. He was explicit and sent me to his website upon concluding the call. It was there that I learned he'd done more than 25,000 root canals and only practiced root canal therapy the last 5 years of his career. There were specific asks of me and expectations were set before he ever put a hand in my mouth. And like my tattoo, Dr. Jet blew my expectations away and there was not one ounce of pain - something I was sure I'd have.

Finally, yesterday after more than 5 months of consideration, I converted my beloved afro to dread locs. During my research stage, I narrowed my selection down to one particular stylist and the whole process from investigation to installation was phenomenal. Diane gave me options about the work and explained the difference between sister locs and loc stitch verses regular dread locs (I didn't even know there was such intricacies) and together we selected the loc stitch style for me. Not only did she do the job well and within the time she promised, she even called me to let me know I'd over paid her from the fee we agreed to.

Experience matters. We need to do business with people who understand what we need and the many possible ways we may need to get there. We need to work with people who have experience in the spaces we are asking them to lead. We need them to be able to speak the language of the people they intend to serve and bring them along for what they can expect while working together. We need reassurance that people doing a job for us have practical and theoretical knowledge of what we are asking.

And just like I did not hand my body over to just anyone to tattoo, perform a root canal or convert my afro, we as a nation should not let just anybody take over such a critical aspect of our existence and future prospects. I understand wanting change. But change that does not add value is likely not change at all.

Betsy DeVos' utter lack of expertise in education is appalling and I am ashamed that it appears I spent more time looking for a tattoo artist, dentist and hair stylist than our president did on finding the best person to lead our education system.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Three Reasons Hidden Figures Reminded Me I'm Ready for Trump's America

The ladies of Hidden Figures and their actresses on screen
Hidden Figures could not have come out at a better time - for the country and for me personally.

This drama based on the lives of women who were literally hidden from the history books of one of the most significant accomplishments of NASA in history, John Glenn's orbiting the earth in 1962.

I loved the film from start to finish and there were three significant reasons why this film moved me as it did going into 2017.

Black Women As Humans

While the movie shows us the extraordinary intelligence of three very different Black women, it also delves into each of their humanness. We don't see super human fearless "strong black women," We actually see women with fears, hopes and dreams. We see women depending on each other and community for support. We see women standing up for themselves while simultaneously doubting if they have the right to do so. We see the true complexity Black women face as leaders both at home and in the workplace. This film "goes in" on the story behind the story that we often miss on film about ourselves. We see laughter, tears and gritting of teeth by three glorious Black women - we get a full range of emotions versus the stereotypical angry Black woman narrative. We do see them get angry but we also see them experience joy, satisfaction and contentment.

This was especially touching to me as I've explored how I tap into my full range of emotions. I was raised to be strong and even on a recent phone call as I was breaking down talking about my divorce, I was admonished to 'be strong" by my dad. He meant no harm but has no idea how strong I am letting myself feel my pain. It is counter culture for Black women. We are bred to push on and push through. So glad to see pop culutre catch up to my new reality.

Black Women Pioneering

I've often wondered if my spirit of ingenuity was just me or if it was innate in being a Black woman in America. After seeing this movie, I'm convinced it's indeed both. When you look in spaces where Black women enter as the 'onlies," we have a habit of elevating that space and it never being the same. Katherine Goble as an addition to the NASA task force team as a "computer" changed that team forever, how they worked, how they looked at their work and even how their work was received by the astronauts. Look around you today, so many Black women out of sheer brute force -  create, initiate and drive innovation in our country, most often in the shadows of mediocre White people. Yet, we shine anyhow.

Heading into the 7th year of my business, expanding our offering so much and taking a leadership role in driving equity discussion and action, pioneering is something not only I need to do, but something our country needs me to do. Much like the ladies in this movie, the conditions require my best thinking and resilience to drive our country forward to its true future. Then, it was the Space Race with the Soviet Union, now it's shaping what United States of America we will be - one that leverages and utilizes the talents and contributions of all its citizens or  a country that only cares about the advancement of a choice few. You know which one I'm working towards and like the ladies in Hidden Figures - we will win.

Black Women Having A Second Chance At Love (Movie Spoiler Alert)

The central character of the film Katherine Goble is a widow with three beautiful children we see early in the film. She manages her stringent work and mothering with the live-in help of her own mom. When a local military man moves home, her squad is adamant about hooking her up with him. The movie takes us through their awkward dating life which is scarce due to the hours she puts in at NASA to his grand and no less awkward proposal. There are only a few more subtle references to her marriage and we see very little of the relationship in the movie but it was significant enough that one of the films postscripts alerts us that Katherine and her second husband Jim Johnson recently celebrated 56 years of marriage together. Instant tears of joy from me.

Anyone who's been in my life or even casually observing has seen the way the dissolution of my 15 year marriage has wrecked me personally this past year.  Even as I am typing through tears to write this post, I am experiencing my first holiday without my kids and as a single person. I absolutely STILL believe that I will have a 20 year wedding anniversary. 15 months ago, I thought it might be with Isael Barreto but I now know differently. I know I am an amazing catch, perhaps pressed for time and focused on building a business and reforming government but still a woman who wants a partner. Seeing Katherine Goble meet and marry someone gave me life. Why? Some days, I cannot even imagine how I'll make time for a new man in my life and that stretches even more trying to imagine the man who will be man enough to love and cherish me with all my intensity and drive. But seeing that on film and knowing it played out in real life for another brilliant Black woman gives me hope.

Hidden Figures is a movie for such a time as this. If those ladies could excel and drive our nation's transformation back into leadership in the Space Race, under the conditions they faced in 1960s United States of America - BRING ON the next administration.

I am ready.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Ode To The Midwest City That Healed Me: Minneapolis

My beloved Twin Cities, although I spend most of my time in Minneapolis

Approximately one year ago, I made the final decision to let go of my marriage that I was clinging to for dear life in the aftermath of my husband's depression and subsequent spiral out of my life.  After a tough but awesome 2015, I decided not to enter 2016 trying to repair what was clearly gone. I vowed to "Recalibrate" my life in 2016. And recalibrate I did. But I could not have done it without Minneapolis Minnesota and my almost monthly treks there.

Let me count the top three ways Minneapolis forever changed me for the better in 2016.

The People

Literally, the people of Minneapolis carried me. First, there was the business colleague turned friend who runs a national conference for a downtown university. Opening his home and friends to me on a very tough trip in the middle of 2015, I cried my eyes out and poured my heartache out on his back patio on a warm Monday night in June. That vulnerability led to a bond and set of friends who would buoy both me and my kids during this entire year. From the freezing cold thrifting day in January to the pilgrimage to Paisley Park in July, one member of that group has become a constant each visit and I don't know what I'd do without him. Or I could also give credit to the two different new friends I met flying to Minneapolis this year - the middle seat on his way back from the Cayman Islands friend who actually kept in touch and the young man  rainbow spiked hair I had an intense conversation with on his way back from RiotFest in Chicago this past fall - both of these men have been bright spots for me and great new additions to my personal tribe. I'd be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to the business colleagues who also enveloped me and my kids with love as we explored the many parks and recreation facilities across the metro. From the ski instructors on the bunny hill to the paddle board rental manager, we were welcomed and treated so well by every person we encountered on every trip to Minneapolis as a family and that goes double for all the times I flew there alone.

The Work

The work I've done for my largest client in Minneapolis has challenged me beyond any other work since I started my business. From the complexity of the ask originally to how we have evolved our relationship over the last two years has grown me as a consultant and strategic partner by leaps and bounds. One great example is how they constantly question how we accomplish their goal to raise their relevance in the their area. We co-created some great work on unconscious bias and continue to push boundaries on why and how to push an inclusive leadership agenda forward in an organization that is not traditionally accustomed to speaking about equity, diversity and inclusion. This work with this agency has opened the doors to other agencies in the area. When I stop to really think about it, it was in Minneapolis that I launched the inclusion and diversity service offering in 2014 after my business was a a few years old and constantly asked to bring our perspective on inclusion and diversity to clients we had up to that point. It was at the Forum on Workplace Inclusion (the country's oldest and largest conference dedicated to diversity and inclusion)  in 2014 where my debut talk was the top rated talk out of 65 that year and I solidly earned my spot as a fresh and leading voice in the space. I have been a faculty member ever since with this coming spring as my first time in 3 years that I will only attend the conference and not present. I look forward to seeing the conference and my work there from a completely different perspective.

The Discomfort Converted Into Healing

Anyone who knows me knows I have never been one to hang out outside much. Cold or hot - I tended to be more of an indoors type of gal. Working with a majority of my clients as a parks and recreation agencies - you can imagine, I've had my share of invites to outdoor activities.

Denise, when you gonna come ski my hill?

Will you make it to our fill-in-the-blank-outdoor-festival?

Have you been on our hiking trail, lately?

Some of the many questions, I've faithfully dodged over the years and made many legitimate excuses to never partake in the the Illinois parks and recreation community. Not one Illinois parks and rec person can remember me taking them up on the many invites over the years. Boy, did they take notice this year when I was tweeting and posting from various parks and recreation sites in western Hennepin County starting in January with a video of me tubing down a hill in Elm Creek Reserve. I had vowed not to tube leading up to that trip. Barreto kids cajoled and park district employees ribbed but I was certain, I'd not do it at all or maybe only once. It was a negative 25 degree day in January and I was sure that I'd flake on the tubing and that the kids would join me. I was wrong. I went down that hill not once but three times. And my kids went down many many more. By nightfall, I was up on skis on the bunny hill behind Evan snowboarding for the second time in his life. We had a blast but most of all, I pushed past the cold and discomfort of being outside and enjoyed myself. I had no idea that would lead to a year full of outdoor activities and breathing of fresh Minneapolis air. I found myself getting to work sites 30 to 40 minutes earlier just to walk around the properties and "take in the scenery" the lush or barren landscapes - all beautiful, all serene, all wondrous.

This past summer, a boat ride turned into hours of paddle boarding when the boat "did not start". And while I don't believe to this day the boat didn't actually start- I am glad it didn't as paddle boarding became a thing at the Evanston beach this summer for my kids. I also liked it and would have done it in Jamaica had Hurricane Otto not come and followed us on the Thanksgiving vacation. We sat for hours in a cabana by the beach in Jamaica and read for hours in hammocks between trees almost every day of our vacation - a rarity for me. And it wasn't just in Minneapolis or Jamaica that drew me outside. I made it a habit back home with my Illinois parks and rec clients to arrive early and/or stick around post meeting and walk outside surveying the outdoors, breathing the air, quieting my soul. My initial discomfort with the outdoors melted away and provided a solace for my most frustrating moments. I live across the street from a park and now, I often step away from my desk to get fresh air -- outside.

Minneapolis, there were so many more aspects to how you assisted me in recalibrating this life of mine but none greater than your people, my work there and the way you made something uncomfortable for me before, absolutely irresistible to me now.

You did it. I am an outdoor gal.

Thank you.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

First Snow Triggers New Appreciation for The True Purpose of Winter

The snow covered tree outside my front window

Fall is my favorite season from start to finish. This season gives way every year to Winter and its  final days have always given me pause to reflect on the upcoming process that winter brings. Snow falls and brings about a natural slowing down of every thing.  Winter is a time for hibernation and the almost "death" of all growth.

This December as the first snow fell upon us, my personal life as I have known it for the last 16 years completely "died". After more than a year of knowing my marriage was over and the final decision to make it official, the day of the first snow in 2016 marked the first full week of our new normal of not living as a foursome. We are working daily on the new family dynamics. Holiday traditions as we've known them have to be reimagined and executed all once.

If I am honest, it is way harder than I ever imagined. This time of year is a constant reminder of our life as we've known it and the excruciating process of what we know and love hibernating. Shutting down.


Winter is a chance for everything to stop and just be. And that's exactly what we need right now.

As I hit the final month of this year of recalibrating my life - my womanhood, my motherhood, the relationship with my former life partner and how I operate as an entrepreneur in my new normal - I have a full appreciation for what Winter really is.

It is not death for the trees, flowers or grass beneath the snow cover.  It is the full stop of activity among them. They are quiet. Still. And undisturbed for a season.

That is how I move into this Winter. Ready for the quiet, still, undisturbed time to reflect on all the changes in our lives at this time. Rested from a respite island vacation. Replenished by time with my kids and my thoughts. Knowing full well what awaits me at the thaw.

New life.
New ideas.
New energy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Panacea To A Drought Season or Your New Normal

For more than two years, I have spoken about the "tough season" my family and have have faced. Many times I've referenced it as a desert, a drought and most certainly a "temporary" moment in time for us. As this "season" has given way to a new normal that is quite different to my old life, I have  come to terms with how I face life today.

First, I have a posture of surrender. I surrender myself to circumstances beyond my own control. Now surrender in this case is letting go of control as well as not allowing the circumstance to impact my core.

Single motherhood. Not my favorite term and certainly not a term I ever wanted associated with me. Took extraordinary lengths to never be a single mom prior to my marriage yet here I am at 45 recalibrating my life as a single mom. Surrender in this case meant letting go of my own deep rooted beliefs about single motherhood. This exercise also challenged me to rethink my womanhood and what it meant to be a woman. It helped me think beyond what I was conditioned to think about motherhood, womanhood and marriage -  and I had to surrender all those thoughts given my new information and it has been liberating. Surrendering those thoughts and actions based on those thoughts made way for the second way I've come to face my new normal - a posture of gratitude.

Now, I've always been a somewhat positive and thankful person. You could always count on me to send you written thank you notes and that's a trait I passed to my children. I started an Awesome Jar a few years back to literally track all the good things that happen to me each year so I can take time on New Year's Eve to be grateful for them. Being grateful has always been in my DNA but I see now how it's even further and deeper ingrained in my daily life.

Because of the sheer amount and length of painful experiences we've had in the last few years, little things I took for granted before are sources of joy for me.

A phone call from a long lost friend.
Cocktails with a new friend.
A text from a virtual friend.
A hug from a growing boy.
Snuggle time in the bean bag chair with young lady.
Over 200 birthday wishes on Facebook.
A full day without tears over anything lost.
A compliment from client.
An incremental project.
An idea for my blog.

This list could go on and on and on. I actively seek things to be grateful for these days. I can be grateful for the big things like an amazing birthday month that included a 5 day vacation in Jamaica with my kids and equally thankful for a 2 hour conversation with a new friend. My heart has grown bigger and my woes smaller.

Next time you find yourself struggling in a tough season or resisting your new normal - take time to surrender and be grateful. Rinse and repeat.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Sloppy Towels = My New Sanity

Towels folded by others. Perfectly.

With a huge sigh of relief, I made it through September 2016. Four weeks, 12 flights, 2 road trips and about 8 nights in my own bed total. I do it to myself every year so it is not really a surprise and in the midst of it, it always hurts but on the other side, it always feels good.

The productivity.

The contacts.

The projects

Nothing matches the energy boost to my business as September of every year.

Now this year is different because it's the first time I'm winging solo as a single mom. The previous 4.5 years I could count on my husband to keep everything running smoothly at home during my chaotic time on the road. I say 1/2 because last year, I had an indication the marriage was over and his untreated clinical depression had rendered him less than capable during last year's annual September run. It did not end well and I knew I'd be in for it come 2016.

I planned better and overall it went well.  Yet there were aspects that still did not go as smoothly as I'd have liked. And thanks to the towels you see at the top of the page, I am ok with that.

Those folded towels changed my life in early September.

When I've been used to partnership and two adults carrying the load financially, physically,  mentally and emotionally for close to 14 years and I have to deal with it slowly peeling away; it is hard. It is exhausting. It is sad. But it is also frustrating. My instinct is to resist.

And in the midst of all the changes in life, you want some things to stay the same. Like the towels.

OH - but there is where I found life. Letting go of what was and accepting what is. Empowering others to chip in and accept that help without judgement.  Those "folded" towels and my ability to put them away without refolding them marked a new era in my life.

Not so long ago, I would have refolded them without a word and put them away. But not only would that have been bad for me but the message to the folks who folded them would have been that their contribution was good, but not good enough. It was physically painful to put them away as is and I laughed and giggled all the way to the pantry.

Since then, the dust in the corner doesn't bother me as much. The unpacked boxes from our May move don't nag at me at all. When I'm a few minutes late to pick up a kid, I don't sweat it. Eating Pizza Hut twice in one week elicits a shrug. Quilted Northern on sale versus Charmin Ultra Soft - nah - that's where I draw the line but you get the point.

We have entered the era  of "good enough." And my sanity is thankful.