(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Soneyet Muhammad loves hiring the sleeper.
Maybe they don’t have the best educational history, maybe they aren’t as well-kempt or clean-cut as their competition. On the surface, those candidates might not seem entirely capable of doing the work well. But something about them screams, “Hire me. I’ll love the work and get the job done.” And when they do?
The surprise of Muhammad’s colleagues at Clarifi is her “told you so” moment. Clarifi provides financial consulting services to low-income families, so having passionate people who are able to connect with clientele is a priority for the nonprofit’s director of education.
"I think people relate to who they know and see and experience."
“I think people relate to who they know and see and experience,” said Muhammad, a former finance professional in the corporate world. Leadership in the nonprofit sector, she said, is just as white- and male-dominated as the industry she left. “It’s unintentional for sure, but it has huge consequence.”
So, Muhammad leads by example. She’s a self-described “competent, professional woman of color” who believes her responsibility as a boss goes beyond just doing the job. She’s a role model for people who look like her.
That includes fellow employees who need to be able to see themselves doing her job, and clients — mostly single Black mothers — she works with on a day-to-day basis.
“It helps connect the dots for our clients indirectly. Not only am I here to explain how to read and understand your paycheck or to invest in a 401(k), it’s also about this person,” she said, pointing to her face, “being the only person of color in the room making a decision. They see me in a powerful position.”
That position can be difficult to picture yourself in when you’re a low-income head of household with money management difficulties.
“There’s a lot of shame and guilt around money,” said Muhammad, who admits she listens to NPR and Freakonomics podcasts for fun. “Guess what? If you make $25,000 a year, saving for college is not going to happen. How can you empower that client to make them feel like they’re still captain of their own ship?”
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It can be difficult to picture yourself in a leadership position when you're a low-income head of household with money management difficulties.
Muhammad strives to make herself and her clients’ finances feel approachable, so she relates to them on a personal level. The Point Breeze resident and mother of a 2-year-old son grew up in Rhode Island in a family that “never owned anything except maybe a car.”
Helping families she can relate to find the stability she has achieved is what keeps her going.
“Meeting a home health worker who’s overwhelmed with debt and doesn’t know what to do, but seeing my face in a room and thinking, ‘Maybe I can actually do this’ — that is powerful and needed,” she said. “I need to connect communities of color and communities that are routinely under-resourced to tangible results.”
Muhammad said there aren’t enough people who look like her doing the work she does. People create networks with people they can relate to, she said. And when people of color aren’t involved in those networks at a leadership level? Well, that trickle-down effect can have widespread, unintended impact.
“I think it’s about the relationships that people don’t have to give them the lens to see the damage they’re inadvertently doing,” she said.
That’s why hiring the sleeper is so important to Muhammad. In her own way, the finance professional has become a sleeper herself.-30-
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