Like both of my parents, I am a workaholic. My mom is working three jobs, even though her children are adults and she doesn’t have a mortgage. She is the go-to person at her job to pick up the overnight shift, even if she has just finished a shift. My dad, a retired Marine, spends several hours a week volunteering and almost never kicks back and enjoys the Pensacola sun. He has his mission work, his prison ministry, his deacon work, and he even does some work with the youth. 

Working hard isn’t about money; hard work is not necessarily a critical component of success. We work hard as a credit to our character and our race. As a young person listening to Dr. King’s What is Your Life’s Blueprint speech, he reinforced the value of hard work. He said when it is time to discover what you will be in life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this moment in history to do it. He urges us to not just to do a good job; but to set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. This has always stuck with me. Maybe it was the passion in his voice or the cheering of the crowd or how I saw it aligned with my family’s values. Whatever the cause, I have always understood the assignment. 

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I am no stranger to hard work. As a single mom on welfare in my early 20s, I finished college and completed my Masters. I worked in professions that pride themselves on how hard the work is and how low the pay. First, I worked as a schoolteacher and then in direct care services for the underserved, and then as a nonprofit leader. None of these jobs were easy. In fact, some of them were just downright dangerous. Through my work, I have been exposed to hazardous toxins, dangerous person drills, court cases, elongated jail sentences, bomb treats, shoot outs, lockdowns, gang fights, funerals, and so much more. 

Dr. King continued to say “even if you are a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” All I wanted for myself was to make my parents and community proud; to not be the reason Dr. King is turning over in his grave. So I worked hard in deplorable conditions and sometimes in bad situations.

Image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King speaks in Atlanta in 1960. (AP Photo)

When I decided to start a business, it was my work ethic that gave me the confidence to go for it. I worked 40 hour work weeks and then spent another  40 hours pouring into my entrepreneurial passions. The whole time I was homeschooling my teenager about hard work. Eventually, I grew my business enough to leave my 9-5, and my son went on to community college. 

But on my 40th birthday, my body started falling apart. First it was the fibroids. Uterine Fibroids are noncancerous growths in the uterus. They were so large I could barely walk, and it seemed like the bleeding would never stop. More than 60% of all black women experience fibroids by the time they are 35. It was pretty scary, and although dozens of women in my family had undergone the surgery, they had all stayed relatively silent about it, and so it was all very new to me. Since I didn’t have vacation and sick time I worked through it. 

On top of that, my mammogram was irregular. I was devastated because Black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. When they see abnormalities, they simply say, ‘we will keep an eye on it. Come back in six months.’ This became a large gray cloud looming over my head because I know Black women are  30% more likely to die from these tumors because of lower rates of surgery and chemotherapy.

Oh, and I just plain hated the gynecologist I was seeing. We didn’t jive. The pelvic exam was so painful that I had sexual trauma for months afterwards. I shudder to think about it even today- two years later. Her care and bedside manner left a lot to be desired. Lucky for me, the next step was finding a surgeon. I was sick. I needed surgery and more observation. More than that, I needed a doctor I could trust and collaborate with. 

At the same time my career was popping off. I was featured in Forbes. We were just about to launch the Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Equity & Diversity Institute, and my talks and workshops were in high demand. I couldn’t afford to be sick. Especially because we were at the height of COVID and my business was booming. 

I started trying to plan my surgery around my impossible work schedule. My surgeon was really great about it. She put me on birth control to stop the bleeding, gave me something for the pain, and she assured me she knew what she was doing. A couple of weeks later, I was accepting the Best In Business ‘Woman Up Award’ of that year when I thought maybe I should head back over to the doctor’s office to ensure that this new pain I was feeling wasn’t something else. I had started limping hard and my head was foggy. It was weird. 

Turns out on top of needing a hysterectomy and needing my mammograms monitored, I now had 3 lower leg blood clots – DVT. Being sick sucks. I wasn’t sure if I would pull through. I felt like the cards were stacked against me.

I was on bed rest and taking two shots a day for clots. I was launching the Institute, and managing the business. Two days after coming home from having a hysterectomy, I was back at work. The press, the deadlines, the meeting you can’t miss, etc… 

Literally less than 72 hours after having my uterus pulled out of my body, I was looking cute in a TV interview, but I was mad at myself. Somehow, this was who I was, and I didn’t like it one bit. I knew I had some major changes to make. 

As much as I value my work, I wanted more for my life. 

Shortly after I could walk again, I committed to walking on the treadmill 30 minutes a day. Honestly, I was still too sick to do it in one setting. Since it was Black History Month, I decided to re-listen to the Blueprint of Your Life and there I found new answers and inspiration. 

Dr. Kings starts the speech with, “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth, and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”

How did I miss this as a child? I feel like my whole life I have been taught to work hard and adapt, but never to accommodate. Lately, I’ve been working to untangle my unhealthy work habits, my need to overachieve to prove I am a good person and my race has value through my work. I am learning to listen to my body, to rest; to prioritize my joy. 

I still work hard. Ultimately, my goal is to be the Beyoncé of DEI but gone are the 16-hour workdays, forgetting to eat, and coming back to work before the doctor clears me. If I want to do the work, I have to be around. That means being well and being able to do it. I often saw my propensity to listen to my body and take care of myself as the enemy of productivity. 

My boundaries have garnered microaggressions and disappointments. I have realized that a big reason I perpetuated unhealthy habits was because these are often the  baseline expectations of friends, family, colleagues, partners, and sometimes even strangers because of white supremacy culture, exclusive workspaces, and just a general lack of grace for humanity. It is all actually pretty sad. I am working hard to reframe those relationships and disconnect from people, institutions, and organizations that don’t find value in my life and work.

I have lost friends and contracts, but I have grown wiser, wealthier, and healthier.