Doing the Work

Meet three alumnae who have devoted their careers to fighting racial injustice by opening hearts and changing minds

By Erin Aubry Kaplan

A colorful mural of women

Anti-racism, like green energy jobs, has become the work of the American future. After the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 touched off massive protests and exposed the entrenched nature of racism in everyday life, the national conversation turned to what to do now and how to do it. The urgency of the conversation is laudable, but the reality is that many people have been doing “the work” for decades and have much to tell us about what racism is made of and what it will take to overcome. Martin Luther King Jr. said it often, but it bears repeating: Changing laws is necessary, but changing hearts and minds is essential.

Three Barnard alumnae — Michelle Maldonado ’91, Vernā Myers ’82, and Enola Aird ’76 — have forged distinguished careers facilitating the changing of hearts and minds. All are Black and former lawyers who realized early in their careers that combating injustice and inhumanity in its everyday form was their greater purpose. They do it in different ways: Maldonado develops mindful, compassionate business and organizational leadership; Myers redefines diversity and inclusion as meaningful action rooted in self-reflection, hard truths, and empathy; Aird heals Black communities by consistently exposing the lie on which racism is built. Each endeavor is powerful on its own, but together they are a clearinghouse of anti-racist practices that each of us can adopt to some degree right now. Maldonado, Myers, and Aird have done the essential work. And they continue to do it, now more vitally than ever.

Inner Work, Outer Behavior

A headshot of Michelle Maldonado
Michelle Maldonado ’91. Photo by Lionel Madiou.

For Michelle Maldonado, big change is all about inner work. She is founder and CEO of Lucenscia, a leadership development and business strategy firm that sees compassion as the basis of good leadership and of good living — compassion, after all, is the spiritual foundation of anti-racism. To build compassion, one must cultivate emotional intelligence, which Maldonado defines as the ability to effectively parse and monitor the feelings and emotions of oneself and others. Such self-awareness creates a kind of equanimity that leads to social awareness, a move from “me” to “we” that is the essential dynamic of compassion and its corollary, kindness. 

Mindfulness and other meditative practices are the core of Maldonado’s experience; she has been a certified mindfulness teacher for five years. Raised Catholic — her family has roots in Cape Verde, a predominantly Roman Catholic country — she had a kind of awakening as a 7-year-old during a summer visit in Wyoming with a great-aunt. The aunt, a practicing Buddhist, introduced Maldonado to a daily meditation and affirmation routine that she intuitively embraced and continued to practice after she returned home to Falmouth, Massachusetts. The experience seeded and helped shape Maldonado’s later conviction that inner work determines outward behavior and action, on the job and in every other realm. In some ways, the realms are all the same. “Self, family, community — this is what we bring into work with us,” says Maldonado, who works with many sectors, including tech, government, and law enforcement. “It all comes in and affects how we create protocol, policy, hiring policies, determines who gets visibility. Resting on all of that are biases that have grown within us over time.”

My purpose is very broad and very short — I want to alleviate suffering in the world.

Michelle Maldonado ’91

While Maldonado views people similarly no matter what field they work in (“It’s all humans in the same spaces”), she says law enforcement poses specific challenges. Her clientele has included the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. With these groups, Maldonado says, she seeks rather than avoids the “tender points” — things about work and people’s feelings about work, and about themselves — the topics most difficult to discuss. “I always have to figure out: How do you maintain humanity on the other side of the equation?” she asks. “The first time I asked that question, there were crickets in the room. Silence. That’s because law enforcement is hierarchical, militaristic. It’s about following orders. But at the same time, there is a desire to uphold humanity. They’re exposed to trauma every day, which manifests in incidents of brutality.” Though she is compassionate, Maldonado is not naive. “Of course there’s racism,” she says. “But there are cops who are just as sickened by the bad incidents, and they feel powerless to make accountability happen.”

The drive to make a difference was instilled in Maldonado during her years at Barnard. Dissatisfied with the selection of majors, she created her own, a hybrid of Spanish language and Latin American studies. Her thesis proposal was a bombshell: the Catholic influence on the oppression of Mayan people and the corporate exploitation of labor in Latin America. And she proposed to write it in Spanish. “Nobody wanted to be my advisor,” she recalls, laughing. “Too controversial. But that was the beginning for me — I saw organizations showing up badly in the world. That was something I wanted to tackle.” (The thesis earned an A+ and honors.)

In 2012, Maldonado was working in data metrics at an online company when something else dawned on her: Successful leadership is less about what you do and more about how you do it. “That’s why I was successful — my how,” she recalls. “I was able to translate that, to show people that ‘how’ impacts revenue, achievement, everything.” That realization led her to start her own business but with a new ambition that went beyond the notion of “business.” “My purpose is very broad and very short — I want to alleviate suffering in the world,” she says.

Though she’s a big believer in doing, Maldonado believes even more in being. That’s something that task-obsessed Americans often miss. But understanding and clarifying one’s state of being is imperative. “Think of something, and then observe your physical response to it. These responses seem small, but they affect our decisions, our biases, any of the ‘isms.’ If we’re not paying attention, we’re just at the whim of these feelings,” she says. “How does empathy and compassion play a role? How do we create psychological safety? How do people feel safe making a mistake? These are the jobs of leaders [to do the work] so that others can do that work.” Maldonado’s status as one of those leaders was recently reaffirmed when she became a member of the Brain Trust of Representative Democracy, which is dedicated to increasing and instituting diversity and inclusion in Congress, where she, along with fellow practitioners and experts, offer tools and leadership that further the organization’s mission. 

Ultimately, she thinks, overcoming racism and other isms is less about tactics and more about honing a vision of the world outside the mind. “We label all the things we fight against, but what I want to do is describe the outcome we desire,” says Maldonado. “Organizations” — and she could be speaking of America itself — “still have lots of people who feel like they don’t belong. We need to fix the system, and the system is us.” 

Diversity, Equity, Reality

A headshot of Verna Balcony
Vernā Myers ’82. Photo by Laurie Bell Bishop, The Vernā Myers Company.

After the cultural reckoning following the killing of George Floyd, veteran diversity strategist Vernā Myers’ professional life substantively changed. “Now I sit in a company that’s interested in doing the work and allowing me to lead the work,” says Myers, who is vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix and head of the Vernā Myers Company, which provides diversity, equity, and inclusion training and guidance to corporations, government agencies, and others. “I feel bolder,” she adds. Bolder, and also humbled. With the new corporate interest in justice and dismantling institutional racism came new responsibilities for Myers — and some realizations about herself.

“After the George Floyd event, I spent lots of time prepping leaders for conversation. That’s when I realized that I’d been spending all my energy on white men, not Black men,” she recalls. “Black men told me that’s how they felt, that I was not spending any time on them, and that’s kind of heartbreaking. So many people like me said the same thing: They were writing memos for people, but they were focused on the wrong people.” Myers realized that she had been engaged in “system beating” — doing what was necessary in order to succeed in a white environment, even if that white environment was asking you to advocate for Black people oppressed within its system. It’s a multifaceted irony that Myers saw as her own wake-up call in a country that appeared, at long last, to be waking up.

One of the good things about the anti-racist movement is that the traditional pressure on Black people in every line of work to assimilate is easing up amid conversations about what real equality looks like. “Now we have the concept of allyship — giving everybody a job,” says Myers. “I am seeing white people, straight people, acknowledge privilege — and they’re starting to understand how to leverage it to create the kind of world they say they want.” Most encouraging, she says, is that “they’re willing to take risks, stand up, get into it with their family, discover hatred they didn’t know existed. Now when people say, ‘What do I do?’ there’s no excuse anymore. If you are not anti-racist, you are part of the problem. Because the status quo is racism.”

That’s long been true, of course. But Myers says Americans typically default to individualism when faced with a huge abstraction like racism; it’s how we survive. But now that cover of individualism no longer works. Which isn’t to say that individuals can’t make a difference or be part of the anti-racist solution that depends on changing hearts and minds, often one at a time. Voicing objections to racist comments made at the workplace or around a dinner table with an uncle or a grandma is a form of enlightened self-interest. “Once you realize you’re doing it as much for yourself as for anybody else, you’re good,” says Myers. “It’s not, ‘Oh I’m doing it for society.’ It’s you — you have a stake.”

Myers graduated from Barnard with a degree in political science before going to work in corporate law. Before realizing that “it wasn’t for me,” she worked at a firm where all the partners were Black, something she assumed represented great progress. It did, and it didn’t. “I wasn’t trying to prove my competence,” she says. “But it was a gender thing. You’re working for a bunch of men, and they don’t necessarily understand.” With a new baby at home, the corporate work ethic — one year she found herself doing a deal on Christmas Eve — became less and less appealing. She took time off, eventually accepting a position as executive director of an organization of law firms interested in furthering racial diversity. By the time Myers started her consulting firm in 1998, she knew the lay of the land, and the issues, intimately.

Myers knew from the beginning that diversity wasn’t just about improving the demographics of job sites or offices. “Diversity work is usually about hiring and recruiting, exclusively,” she says. “I knew that wasn’t enough. It was much more about the environment they were inviting people into. Even with diversity, firms figure out how to exclude. These environments are shaped by white and male supremacy.” That view was not always an easy sell before this year and in some ways still isn’t. “The firms that hired me, I sometimes discovered, didn’t have the commitment,” she notes, with some understatement. Her Barnard education taught her plenty about commitment. Though the environment was supportive, Myers and the other relatively few Black students struggled with other things — attrition, a lack of money. But Barnard gave her the opportunity to soar, literally: Her first plane ride was across the Atlantic when she was a sophomore, the result of applying for a program in England that she discovered by faithfully “reading the boards” on campus. That exceptional school experience, among others, “gave me a huge sense of what I could do as a woman,” she says.  

Now when people say, ‘What do I do?’ there’s no excuse anymore. If you are not anti-racist, you are part of the problem. Because the status quo is racism.

Vernā Myers ’82

Myers says that one of the things we have to commit to changing is language: For too long, diversity and inclusion have been soft-focus terms that tend to shield white people from the discomfiting truths about racism. As a diversity and inclusion specialist, Myers is on the front lines of change, moving us all away from those soft-focus terms to more confrontational — and accurate — terms like “bias,” “anti-racism,” “anti-Blackness,” and “centering.” Changing language, she says, changes the way we think about inequality.

Of course, thinking about inequality and fixing it are two different things. On a recent trip back to her native Baltimore, Myers found herself asking the question: Why, after so much time, do Black people still struggle? “It’s because leaders still decide against marginalized groups, over and over,” she muses. “That’s intentional. 

It’s designed to keep the people in power in power. Rather than put resources where they’re needed, they say, ‘Let’s put all the development money in the harbor project where white people are; the benefits will trickle down to everyone.’ It never does. How about centering the people at the bottom?”

Myers’ question is both hopeful and unnerving: Do we have any courage? Echoing Maldonado, she declares that we must “equip everyone with confidence, courage, and compassion. That’s necessary for inclusion. If leaders do that, then everyone will come with them.” 

Unraveling White Supremacy

A headshot of Enola Aird
Enola Aird ’76. Photo by Karissa Van Tassel.

For Enola Aird, racism and inequality persist because of one fact: We are living a big lie. White supremacy, for all its real power in shaping the American way of life and the fortunes of people of color for hundreds of years, is a lie that will lose its power only when we stop believing it. Aird says this is especially critical for Black people who have internalized the lie of Black inferiority — the complement of white supremacy that has wreaked havoc on Black people’s collective self-esteem. Dispelling the inferiority myth is the core work of the Community Healing Network, the nonprofit that Aird founded in 2006 in New Haven, Connecticut. “Why are we here in 2020? Why George Floyd, Breonna Taylor? Because we have cast Black people out of the circle of humanity,” says Aird. “Our work is about reclaiming our place in the circle. This is about much more than racial justice. It’s about being recognized as humans.”

Aird applauds the fact that white supremacy and white privilege have become mainstream notions suitable for public discussion. The next and more crucial step, she says, is understanding the reasons why these paradigms continue to dominate our imaginations and our reality. “We really haven’t dealt with the lie and how to get it out of our lives and institutions,” she says. “Acknowledging the reality of white supremacy now is fine, but we’ve got to go deep. We’ve got to grab that thread and pull it out, more and more and more,” until it unravels completely.

The lie pervades not just the U.S. but any country with a history of colonialism or slavery or both. Aird is from Panama, and the story of her own birth — told and retold to her by her mother when she was growing up — made her aware early on of the dehumanization behind the lie. “When I was born, my family was very happy, because they had been trying to have a child,” she says. “In the midst of all that excitement in the hospital, the white Panamanian nurses said, ‘Look, they love their children.’ In Panama, you sit between a sense of Latin racism and American racism.”

Our work is about reclaiming our place in the circle. This is about much more than racial justice. It's about being recognized as humans.

Enola Aird ’76

That family story figured prominently into Aird’s earlier career as an advocate for mothers and motherhood. In the mid ’90s, she worked for a violence prevention program at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and later founded and directed the Motherhood Project at the Institute of American Values. The Community Healing Network (CHN), with its framework of a global Black family, is a natural outgrowth of that work. “The question of values became important to me,” says Aird, a mother of two. “It led to the Motherhood Project, which was mothers working for a human future. All my activism is rooted in my experience as a mother.”

When she was 9, Aird moved from Panama to New York. She chose Barnard mainly because the watchful aunt with whom she lived wanted her to stay close to home. It proved a good fit, and her college experience gave her the confidence to abandon her first career as a lawyer, a profession that had seemed almost inevitable for many Barnard grads. But along the way she did “learn that lawyers can do more than lawyering. They’re problem solvers,” she says. “I was at Barnard just after a big social revolution involving women like Angela Davis and other radicals. They were always in my mind. I admired people who did things about problems that they saw. If they weren’t satisfied, they attempted to change conditions they didn’t like.”

The Community Healing Network is such an attempt, though the breadth and depth — not to mention longevity — of the condition it seeks to change seem especially daunting. But Aird is optimistic. CHN seeks to heal racial trauma by following ubuntu, an African set of beliefs that sees the self and the community as united in a web of reciprocity — or, as Aird puts it, “a person is a person through other persons.” It is in stark contrast to Western individualism, embodied in philosophical statements like “I think, therefore I am.” No country on earth is more wedded to individualism than the United States, a fact that’s made racism here that much harder to fight, and more corrosive. “Black people have to get healthy together,” Aird says. “As we come out of this culture that has so devalued our lives, we are the key to each other. We have to be in community together to fully blossom, to come back to ourselves.”

Contrary to the view of some that the Black fight for equality is eternal, Aird believes there is — there must be — an end to 600 years of struggle. To that point, CHN has declared that the 2020s will be the decade in which Black humanity will flourish and white supremacy will recede or disappear. Impossible? Not to Aird. “Ending the lie can happen,” she says. “We’ve just got to keep grabbing that thread and pulling and pulling until the fabric doesn’t exist anymore. Then we have to create a new one.”

Latest IssueWinter 2021

In this issue, learn about three alums who have devoted their careers to racial justice.