Izzy’s Interview with Lisa Gardner

Introduction

Lisa Gardner is a 52-year-old African-American woman from Wichita, Kansas. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California as a business major and journalism minor. She also got her Masters in Business Administration from Southern Methodist University. She is the Co-Founder of OMS Strategic Advisors, LLC Commercial Real Estate Firm. She currently lives in Plano, Texas with her husband and two children. As a result of her childhood, family, education, career, and parenting experiences as an African-American woman, Lisa is well-versed on racism and sexism and how intersectionality affects her and other women of color. However, none of this has, or could ever, stop her from achieving success as a person. She has a successful career, a loving marriage, two very bright children, and an amazing future ahead of her.

Childhood

Lisa was raised by two teachers who later worked as directors in her school district. As a result, her life as a child was extremely structured. Her parents’ expectations for her were no different than those of their students; therefore, they expected her to do all of the things they told their students to do. For example, time management organization, going the extra mile, obedience, summer reading, etc.

“I used to look at other kids and other households where it was not as structured, and I sort of longed to have that. But, at the same time at the age of 52, I’m so thankful for that childhood. Everything they taught me was more of the battle than my education. Teachers can’t teach you to be detailed. Teachers can’t teach you accountability. And so all of those things were just naturally in my household because I was raised by two educators.”

Lisa Gardner

In hindsight, despite the challenges that came with it, her strict upbringing instilled good values within her and ultimately set her up for success.

Family

Lisa was raised by both her parents up until she was 14 years old, when her father passed. Afterwards, she was raised by just her mother. In addition, she was an only child. When I asked her about her fond childhood memories, she spoke about her time living with her cousins during the summers. Spending time with them was her closest experience to having siblings, and she enjoyed that, as sibling interactions are actually good developmentally for kids. Furthermore, she discussed her family cultural traditions. She explained how part of the African-American culture is gathering around the table, eating traditional foods, chatting with the entire family, and playing games together afterwards. However, she also mentioned a key lesson she was taught as an African American child.

“There’s an extra sense that my mother taught me and that her mother taught her about the world. There’s a sensory that we [African-Americans] have in discernment and the reading of people, because it’s part of our survival. We have to understand the crowds we walk into, we have to understand the groups of people that we’re with beyond what they said out of their mouths, and we have to read faces and discern because it’s our survival. So I would say that’s a huge cultural lesson that you receive in an African-American household.”

Lisa Gardner

This narrative highlights what we learned in class about race. Racism affects marginalized groups far beyond the incidents reported on the news or rare encounters with strangers. Like Lisa said, African-Americans must develop a sixth sense for survival. Regardless of the situation, African-Americans are taught to always be on alert in order to discern the people and environment around them because, unfortunately, racism exists everywhere.

In her speech “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde supports this idea.

“Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is not rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves in the clinic, and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, and the waitress who does not serve us.”

Audre Lorde

This connects to what we learned in class about intersectional oppression. Not only does it affect African-Americans because of racism, but being a woman on top of that further complicates matters and requires being extra alert. A black woman’s experience with racism is not the same as a black man’s. A black woman’s experience with sexism is not the same as a white woman’s. This is why intersectionality is critical to fully understanding the unique oppression of being a Black woman, specifically given historical context and present day society. In regard to Lisa’s experience, her sixth sense must stay sharp in every scenario, because like the Audre Lorde said, there is not rest.

Education

Lisa attended school in a predominantly white environment. She was received differently than other African-American children because of her parents’ roles in the community. However, she still faced major racism. She recounts several incidents:

“I was still called an Oreo because I was brown on the outside but talked like a white girl. I was put into honors classes, and a lot of times there were teachers who would overlook the things I would say. Then, my white peer next to me could say the same thing and the teacher would then elaborate on what they said.”

“I was seven years old. I used to ride the bus to school. I remember a little red-head, little white boy looking over at me and calling me a [n-word]. I knew the term, obviously, and I knew it was not right. So the bus rides were painful.”

“But I’ll tell you, the most painful memories are the ones that aren’t overt in your face. It’s the covert responses. I was on the debate team and my teacher chose not to acknowledge my analogy of a certain passage that was read and then acknowledged it from my peer.”

“The principal, Katie McHenry, gave me a harsher punishment for an incident than she did my white counterpart.”

Lisa Gardner

Lisa goes on to discuss how she would rather deal with the overt racism than covert racism because she at least knows where the person stands. With covert racism, it is often subconscious racism or discrimination that they don’t even realize they are projecting–it is often the most dangerous type of racism.

This comment made me think. I would expect the overt, in-your-face racism to be more hurtful or dangerous than the covert. However, after she explained why covert racism is more dangerous, I had a better understanding of why she thinks so. This type is tricky because the person may very well know who you are, where you come from, and even know your heart and where you’re going, as Lisa put it, but they will still be racist and not know it. It’s rooted deeply within and hasn’t been addressed. UC Davis’s workshop handout “Microaggressions and Microaffirmations Series” explains this well:

“Sue et al. published a landmark 2007 study that defined microaggressions as ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intention or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights and insults.’ Microaggressions are often unintentional or automatic, come from well-meaning people, and may leave everyone involved uncertain about what happened. However, it is more important to consider the way a person may experience a microaggression than it is to consider the intent behind the sentiment.”

UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness Microaggressions and Microaffirmations Series

This further explains Lisa’s idea of why covert racism is more dangerous. Often times these people don’t realize what they are doing and thinking. They are not aware of the prejudice and biases that are present in their thought processes or ideologies. However, their words or actions impact the person experiencing the microaggression profoundly. This is why Lisa says covert racism is more dangerous than the overt.

Career

Lisa experienced and witnessed sexism in her career, starting from her job straight after college graduation.

“I remember graduating from college. I had interned with Pepsi Co. just like all my male counterparts did. We all got offers from Pepsi Co. after our senior year in college. My offer was exactly $35,700 a year. My male counterparts were at $40,000 to $43,000.”

“My first woman boss, Sherry, who I’m still in contact with, worked twice as hard as her male counterparts. She was a sales manager. And she had people like me reporting to her. She dressed twice as professional. She acted twice as professional. Very little smiles, knew her numbers at sales meetings, and studied hard. She was in the office early in the morning and still got discounted for many promotions. And that was back in 1992.”

Lisa Gardner

This narrative identifies with what we have studied in class regarding equality in the workplace, the gender wage-gap, and gender-based discrimination regarding job positions and promotions. We have studied the statistics of each of these areas, and Lisa’s experience directly reflects that women make less than men do for the same job. Women can work twice as hard or be twice as qualified and still end up losing a promotion to a man simply because he is a man. Chapter 9, “Women at Work” in bell hooks’ book Feminism is for Everybody supports this idea.

“On average, most women still do not get equal pay for equal work, that we are more likely to make seventy-three cents for every dollar a male makes.” (This isn’t even taking account the even larger disparity that occurs when taking race and ethnicity into account.)

“While much feminist scholarship tells us about the role of women in the workforce today and how it changes their sense of self and their role in the home, we do not have many studies which tell us whether more women working has positively changed male domination.”

“Women at Work.” Feminism is for Everybody

I think that bell hooks, the racialized gender pay gap, and Lisa’s oral history show that women are still not treated equally in the workforce. When making direct comparisons between women and men in the workforce, such as Lisa’s comparison with her male peers’ pay at her first job, there are clear disparities among several areas. Yes, women may gain self-esteem or purpose by having a job outside of the home, but is their presence in the workforce really changing male domination if there is not position or pay equality?

Lisa notes how differently a woman has to comport herself in business from a man. She now owns a business with her husband. Even then, however, she still faces sexism.

“We have run this company for 12 years. I think I’m more verbally articulate, but he gets a much quicker response. He doesn’t have to fight so hard to be taken seriously. It’s awfully funny how I have to put on such a direct, firm front to let them know: don’t mess with me. He can still smile because his very presence of being a male gets the level of respect that it takes me to almost change who I am.”

Lisa Gardner

This unfortunately goes to show that even as the co-founder of her company, Lisa still needs to work twice as hard in order to receive the same amount of respect as her husband. This further highlights what we have studied regarding sexism within the workplace. However, this emphasizes that regardless of the level or position in a company, women are still not treated equally.

Lisa also further comments on how being a woman affects one’s career in the business and corporate world.

“A lot of women would act very masculine, so to speak, and put on a different demeanor that would disconnect themselves from other women in the organization, so that they would be seen differently. I remember watching exactly that happen with one woman. I went to go get my MBA with her. She sat down and smoked a cigar with the guys, nothing wrong with that. But I knew she wasn’t doing it for the right reasons. She was doing it to separate and try to be like the guys.

Lisa Gardner

This quote directly analyzes how the image of masculinity vs femininity plays out within the workplace. In order to be treated differently, women must portray themselves as more masculine, because that is what gets respect. It is sad to identify the blatant sexism and gender discrimination that runs rampant throughout people’s jobs.

However, this does not only apply to gender in the workplace. In addition, Lisa comments on how being a person of color affects one’s career in the business and corporate world.

“You’ll find a lot of people of color will disconnect themselves from their own culture, and try to assimilate into the majority culture, so that they’re seen differently so they can get promoted. I think there’s a lot of reasons why a lot of subgroups have done that. People of color have done that all, they try to separate themselves and assimilate to look different or be treated differently. But when they don’t know is that it weakens them.”

Lisa Gardner

Similar to what was discussed regarding women in the workplace, people of color must also alter their character in order to assimilate to the majority culture. An especially important point that Lisa brings up is that doing so weakens them. I fully agree because if anything, it does a lot of damage. By assimilating, one is perpetuating the standards put in place and encouraging the need to change in order to fit that standard. It promotes the idea that in order to be successful, you have to alter who you are, which is just making everything worse in the long run.

Fortunately, Lisa feels much more empowered as the owner of her own company, especially being an African-American woman.

“Even as an African-American owned company, we’re also a woman-owned company, so I own the majority of it. But here’s the point. I think what’s really led with us doing well has been our character, first and foremost. From a black woman’s perspective, I think being an African-American has been the icing on the cake. Because we haven’t led with being an African American, we’ve led with: we’re qualified, we’re educated, we’re experienced, we’re seasoned. And we’ve led with the character, the culture of our company, and it is very important to us.”

Lisa Gardner

Parenting

Although she is a very successful woman with a solid career, she also had to make some sacrifices due to having children. However, Lisa does highlight that having a career and being a parent is doable. In fact, women who are mothers often bring additional, special skills into the workplace that people without children don’t have.

“Women executives don’t look like many executives, but they’re just as effective, if not more in areas such as time management because of the jobs that they have with being a wife and a mother. The culture within corporate America is beginning to recognize that some of the best time management people, some of the most effective leaders who have the most effective meetings, who don’t go over the schedule of the meetings, they are women.”

“When I went back to graduate school, Lauren [her daughter] was more than two years old. I knew I could not study the same as my male classmates got to study who were in my study group. So I was more efficient in my studies. And I kept them organized because I didn’t have time–I had a child.”

Lisa Gardner

Lisa emphasizes a wonderful point here. As mothers, as wives, as professionals, women bring valuable skills to the table because they are able to efficiently balance all of their different roles. More companies and businesses need to understand that because of this, women are actually great fits for leadership positions and promotions. Because of their necessity to multitask, they develop sharp skills that easily transfer over into the workplace.

When I asked how her experiences with racism and sexism have affected her parenting methods, Lisa expanded upon how it leads her to teach important lessons to her children in order to survive within racist situations.

“We always say they’re six senses as an African American child. That sixth sense is very intangible. It’s called discernment. It’s called understanding beyond what you’re looking at, or seeing, or smelling. I believe that both my kids have been trained in that well, very, in understanding that someone may smile and say hello, but you know what they mean. You can just sense from them what they’re doing, what they’re saying, or the way they’re looking.”

Lisa Gardner

This relates back to what we learned in Audre Lorde’s speech regarding being alert at all times and Lisa’s emphasis on learning the sixth sense as part of African-American childhood. To go even further, she explains how her experiences and witnesses of racism throughout her life have instilled a fear for her children, since they are African-American navigating white spaces.

“Every time my son leaves my house, even to be with friends, or the neighbors, or other homes, or tells me he wants to go here or there–I’m scared half to death. I’ve had to teach him what to do if he ever gets in a situation. We’ve had to rehearse how to behave as an African-American male. To think that that my son who is completely… he’s a gentle giant. He’s just beautiful, with a beautiful heart. To think that I have to teach him for survival how to act in case he gets in a bad situation, or even teach him that as one of the few African-American boys at St. Mark’s [his school] you can’t do what the other boys do when you go out.”

Lisa Gardner

This is the harsh reality for many mothers of African-American children. It is important to highlight the difference because it emphasizes how intersectionality affects people’s experiences drastically and that one woman’s experience simply cannot be compared to another’s. We spent an entire unit learning about intersectionality because it is a crucial differentiation to be able to make. Even within the feminist community, intersectional social identities complicate each woman’s issues further. Audre Lorde explains this very well in her speech.

“Some problems we have as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you. We [African-American women] fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.”

Audre Lorde

This is a prime example of white feminism vs intersectional feminism. It is necessary to take all intersectional identities into account because they drastically affect each woman’s experience. The example Lisa shares regarding her fear for her son directly relates to the example that Audre Lorde shares in her speech. As a mother with an African-American son, Lisa has unique worries for her children that other women do not. Feminists and women in general share some issues; however, it is imperative that feminists, white feminists in particular, acknowledge the struggles of African-American feminists. Being feminist is not simply being for the rights and equality of white women–it must include the rights and equality for all women, regardless of sexual preference, race, religion, etc.

Conclusion and My Perspective

At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Lisa: “If you could say one thing to my generation, what would it be? She responded saying:

“Do not make decisions that ruin an opportunity, or an open door, or an experience based off of your own emotions. Do not drive your decision making on your own emotions, how you feel. At 52, I wish I would have led less with my emotions, and more with a critical mind. That’s it.”

Lisa Gardner

I love this advice because I feel as though it is not something we young people hear often. We are often told to follow our hearts, follow our dreams, to not give up, or to be positive. However, I think Lisa’s advice is genuinely helpful and honest. Especially as young adults, it is easy for us to lead with our emotions. Although this isn’t always bad, leading with our critical minds, as Lisa put it, will guide us on the successful path of sound, smart choices. If we make decisions in this way, we will also be making the decisions that align with our hearts and emotions in the long run.

I learned so much from speaking with Lisa Gardner. Her personal narratives and experiences taught me so much more about race and gender than I could have ever imagined. Hearing her stories first-hand puts these issues into real-world perspective, especially in contexts that I understand. One thing in particular that stuck with me was her explanation of her discussions with her children about safety. As a White Latina, I did not need to be taught this growing up; neither did my other family members. Most of the time, people do not recognize me as a Latina, therefore I do not experience many microaggressions based on people’s assumptions about my ethnicity. However, hearing what Lisa said, especially about her son, made me check my White-passing privilege. I am fortunate to not have to deal with people treating me differently because of my skin color. Unfortunately, others do, and I imagine it is especially difficult for those like Lisa’s son who navigate White spaces daily, yet are not are not always able to do or say the same things as his white peers due to safety concerns. Overall, Lisa offered so much incredible insight on her life, her experiences, and how each chapter of her life has affected her, her family, her job, and overall life in so many different ways. It sparked ideas in my own head about my own intersectionality. I am a woman, a White Latina woman. I am a woman with goals, ambition, and determination. Lisa has shown me how even as a woman, I am strong. As a woman, I bring unique, valuable skills that others may not have. As a woman, I may have to work twice as hard, but I will feel twice as rewarded. As a Latina, I may be paid less or treated differently, but I am just as capable, qualified, and valuable. As a woman with goals, ambition, and determination, I will be successful no matter what. I am incredibly excited to have Lisa Gardner as my mentor and continue to learn from her and her experiences.

Thank You, Lisa Gardner.

Works Cited

Hooks, Bell. “Women at Work.” Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, 2nd ed., e-book, Routledge, 2014, pp. 48–54.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” Copeland Colloquium, April. 1980, Amherst College, Amherst. Speech.

UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness. “Microaggressions and Microaffirmations.”