Shanta Lee / Part II

Here is the continuation of my interview with the prolific and poised Shanta Lee.

If you haven’t read Part I yet, CLICK HERE and get yourself up to speed.  I promise you, it’s worth it.  We’ll wait right here…


Angel MackinnonOkay, next.  What is it like to be a very visible and active black woman in a predominantly white town?

Shanta Lee– Ha ha ha.  I feel like I walk a tight rope.  I do.  I always feel like if someone upsets me, or if there is something that pisses me off- People say very sideways things sometimes to me, in professional settings.  You’d be surprised.  Professional settings, passive-aggressively, I let it roll off.  Most of the time I’m in my head thinking, “What the hell?”  I’m like, did they really just fix their face to say that?  Other times, I’m thinking, well, no I can’t be the angry black woman, if I say something or have an attitude.  I have said things, but I always have to make sure, I have to tone-check myself.  And of course there are times when I am tone-checked.  I love when that happens.  It’s my favorite.

So the best way I can sum it up is I feel like I walk a tight rope.  Especially, I’m someone who expresses myself with my body, I love to dance.  I love to go-  Like there’s my favorite DJ who’s coming back next weekend, and I’m like, great, I’m gonna be on that dance floor, and da da da da da.  And I’m thinking, what if someone videos this and puts it on Facebook?  And it’s like, who cares, I’m just dancing.

But for me, it’s not just a thing with this town.  In life, I remember when I was in my early twenties, I was a grassroots organizer.  I created and implemented Planned Parenthood of Southern New England’s State-Wide Internship Program.  It’s still running.  We were one of the few affiliates, if not the only affiliate, who had this type of model for it’s interns.  I created it, implemented it, we did trainings, and I worked with all of these colleges, all these activists, training them, put that in place.  And I was allowed to telecommute.  So they were sharing me with also Trinity College, where I was running, creating, and implementing an academic mentoring program, connecting college students with middle school students.

I thought of my age, when parents were looking to me and needing answers for certain things, or I had to work with the school administrators from Trinity and with the middle school.  I thought of my status as part-time, but also, not really part-time grassroots organizer, I was full time.  But I was part-time on site.  And, me feeling like I had to be super super super accountable and super responsible.  Show up!

Partly as my upbringing.  I’ve run into all sorts of things.  I’ll never forget getting some feedback.  I was working for the city of New Haven, I was their Director of a Health Equity Alliance.  We were one of three sites, and someone gave back feedback that was like, “She shouldn’t be the Director, she should just be a coordinator.”  And

I’m like, “Okay, I’m just gonna let that roll off.”

Walking in the room of PhD’s, which I have done several times, or I don’t know-  I was in my early twenties, and I was going toe-to-toe with a funder who had houses on different continents, and he was funding one of the projects I was overseeing, and he was telling me how I should go over people’s heads and stuff, and I was much more fiery than I am now.

I still am very sassy, it’s gotten a little worse, but it’s also gotten a little calmer.  And over time, I had to think about, “Wow, how are people perceiving me?  Especially wearing this skin?”

And I’ll never forget, I remember one of my colleagues talking about someone we were bringing in from the community, and again, this was years ago.  And she said, “Oh, she’s just so much!”  And I’m thinking, that’s probably what people think about me over the years; my intensity, my loud, my self.

It comes with a special weight because I’m also in this brown skin, and let’s face it, loud black woman, angry black woman…

In life, this is not new!  Walking this tight-rope, it’s not new.  Dealing with people’s reactions when I tell them things that  I’ve done or am doing, their eyes getting as big as saucers, and I’m like, “Okay, I won’t tell you that I’m in charge of like 8 different things,” I won’t.

But it’s always a tight-rope, it’s always navigating, and I think that’s just how it is in life.

And then also, dealing with people who’ll tell me, “I think of you beyond that, I think of you beyond your brown.”  Which is not a diss, and a diss at the same time. I’ve had people of color tell me, “I look at you and a see a black woman, and yet I don’t see a black woman.  You’re just Shanta.”  Which- That’s a high compliment to me, but it doesn’t take away that when I walk into a room of people, could be a room of 8, 7, 4, whatever, or when I’m so public here, and I’ve done a lot of work, and I will continue to do a lot of work publicly, doesn’t take away from me still thinking of myself as still that little black girl from Hartford.

Well you know what people think of Hartford, coming from an urban environment, things like that.  And I’m like, well I’m not really OF Hartford, and even when I was in Hartford, people never thought I was a part of that either.  So it’s interesting.  Because I’m someone who didn’t really belong in my group.  People would always tell me, “Oh, well you talk white.”  So it’s like when you have dealt with that, and also different iterations of being a black woman and being in charge, to a lot of people, that’s threatening.  To men, that’s threatening.

AM–  I find it comforting, personally.

SL– Oh, I love that.

AM– I really do.  Because I’m from New York, I;m from an urban place.  Like I remember my 4th grade birthday party, I had invited like 70% black kids, and my grandma came.  And my grandma’s like, thick accent from Norway, really nice lady, but she’s like, “Angel, why are there so many black kids here?”  And I’m like, “What do you mean?  They’re my friends.  I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.”  But at that point, I started to understand, and I started to try to push my grandmother away from that question, because that’s not the question.

SL–  I, too, am comforted when I connect with people from cities.

AM– Well, I am happy to have met you, and I’m happy to see you navigate the box.

SL– Oh yeah, ’cause that box is a bitch, let me tell you.

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Angel MackinnonOkay, Do you consider yourself to be successful?

Shanta Lee– No and yes.  I said no first.  Through the lends of some of my friends, they’re used to me having made a certain type of salary in Connecticut.  They’re used to me driving cars, things like that.  According to some of them, it does appear, not now, but maybe at one point, that it all went away.  Especially when I went through my divorce.

So I have had a couple of cars die on me.  My vehicle now is a motorcycle, even though I can’t ride it in Winter.  I mean, success according to…If or when I decide I want to leave the area to have more access to-  You know, for the work I do here, all the work I do, you get paid 3-4 times more in another area like that!

I’m not above that.  I’m not, at all.  I guess for me, I like to think about success in the following way.  I mean, have I been successful in my loveships?  Hell no!  Two failed marriages under my belt, and relationships, I have a hard time with intimate relationships.  And some friendships.  I have a hard time.  I have a very hard time.

If we were to look at what was lost, sure someone could say, “Oh you’re not successful based on those things.”  If we were to look at my professional resumé, with the graduate degree and all of that, people would say, “Oh yeah, you’re successful.  You’re the picture of success.  Look at all the things you’ve done!  You could check that off the list.”

But I think success goes deeper than that, and we’re going to fail as a society if we don’t redefine how we see success.  The questions I like to ask myself are:  Have I contributed?  Am I doing something in the world or in my life where I can contribute and can give back?  Am I growing and pushing boundaries as a person?  Am I doing my job as a human being to at least see what some of my purpose and skills and gifts may be, and invite others along on that?  Am I living my life to my full potential?  Am I trying?  Am I taking risks?

If I can answer yes to those, and if I can feel good about those, then that’s successful.  And according to those metrics, Yes, I am Successful.

But in terms of “Capital S”, where everyone has the pissing contest… which sadly, I can participate in that too!  Like, “What do you do?”  “I’m this and I’m that,” and you give your titles, right?  But that’s not really the WHO of YOU.  Those are just some of the robes you happen to be putting on.  I did.  I chose some of those things.  I like to be in leadership roles.  But again, I like to push the boundaries.

We kinda set the bar low too, though.  That’s kinda setting it low to say, “Well, can you pay your bills?  Are you comfortable?  Can you buy the things you like for yourself?”  Sure, yeah, I can answer all of those questions.  Can you go places and do things and have things to show?

But at the end of a life, I don’t want people to say, “Oh, well she accumulated this, and she had this house and this and that.”  I want someone to be able to say, “Wow, look at the lives she’s been able to change and impact!  Look at the people she’s been able to bring along.”

That’s what I want.  That’s success for me.  I’m working toward that success.  And I won’t sit on my laurels, it’s not a “Capital Yes.”  It’s just a “yeah, kinda.”  And I’ve been able to bring my art more along, I’ve been able to do more of my photography, more of my dancing, more of my writing, and share it with the world.  And that for me, is successful.

Now of course everyone gets into the whole, “Oh, well did anyone buy your ART?”  Well does that define you?  When people start placing value on your art and what it is, and what it means.  I don’t know if I can play with that pissing contest.  ‘Cause someone’ll go jump off of a bridge for that, so I’m not doing that game either.

For me, I’m always one to say that I am competitive, but I do not compete.

At the end of the day, did I make a difference, did I touch lives, and am I doing things for myself that feel good?

…To Be Continued…


Love, Angel

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