(Photo via twitter.com/elaconf)
I went to Ela Conf for the first time in Fall 2016, and it was epic.
At first, I was skeptical about a tech conference for only women-identifying people, trans men and genderqueer folks. I don’t love exclusionary things. But getting to sit under a patriarchy-blocking umbrella for a full 36 hours was glorious. [Editor’s note: Read a recap of the 2017 conference here.]
Having support and advice that I didn’t need to filter and resize to fit my reality was something I had never experienced in my 10 years as a front-end developer and principal in tech. On the heels of this unprecedented high, I committed to take at least one piece of advice and make it work in 2017.
One of the speakers mentioned “asking for coffee” from everyone — potential mentors, colleagues and friends — and then being okay with what happens next, including the possible cons, like letting the conversation be weird and awkward, or being rejected or not connecting.
So, I spent the last year telling my imposter syndrome to STFU and asking people I didn’t know well to have coffee or lunch on a somewhat consistent basis. In return, I supported them by buying things they sell, or through connecting them with people or things they might find interesting. And if I couldn’t do any of that, I would just build a healthy friendship, because that in itself is valuable.
Here are the strategies I developed as a marginalized womxn to make sure I didn’t lose my courage throughout the year:
1. Be strategic about following up.
It’s not creepy to set and confirm plans. It’s not weird to collect someone’s contact info, to ask for a phone number, to set an agenda and time box a meeting as a courtesy to yourself and the person you are meeting. As someone who has been consistently told to take up less space and be less forward, this part is intimidating, especially in personal relationships. But this is normal humaning. (Or so I’m told. I almost believe it.)
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2. Be honest about where you are at in the process of humaning.
A couple of years ago I left Portland and ended my 12 years on the West Coast, and this left a whole host of small cultural things to relearn. But instead of living in my anxiety-riddled head, I asked a friend if he could help me get used to the East Coast’s practices of settling a bill — the order is different from the West Coast. He obliged, and our friendship grew. I also no longer feel like I have to put up a front around him and the exercise helped me ask more directly in general.
3. Respect autonomy — theirs and yours.
If it’s just not working or someone is unresponsive, let it go. Some people get asked a lot to lunch and coffee, or work a lot of jobs. For these people I look to see if I can purchase classes, attend shows or find other ways to learn from them. And the same goes for your feelings and needs. If you aren’t feeling a connection, it’s OK to move on and let them do the same. We float in and out of each other’s lives in the natural flow of friendship. This is normal.
4. No shame.
Said a weird thing, spilled something, messed up their name again? Let it go. Shame just feeds the anxiety machine. Shut it down and focus on scheduling your next lunch, coffee or class. And if you forgot to follow up, just do it now. If it’s too late, they’ll let you know one way or another. At the very least, you get more practice shutting up your imposter syndrome.
5. Have the confidence of a Mediocre White Guy.
This saying is going around; one of my mentors credited Kronda the first time I heard it. It’s become my mantra. Guys give themselves infinite passes. Do the same for yourself. Obviously, the world treats your work differently, but internally you can tell the patriarchy to STFU. As you flex your confidence muscles, it will change your outside interactions, at least a tiny bit.
6. Womxn can be great friends.
For a long time I was the gal who was like, “I don’t have femme friends.” In my 30s, I’ve had to let that go. Slogging through the patriarchal BS is exhausting, and no matter how good of an ally a dude is, they just don’t swim in it all day every day. I love Roxane Gay’s take on femme friendships. As someone who obviously needs guidelines to manage social interactions, I think these are great.
7. Get and give.
From getting a life coach, accepting help from the incredible womxn who offered to create space to mentor me and asking for direct support in a family crisis, this was the year I let people help. Receiving help has taught me how to support others better, and a beautiful ecosystem of care is slowly growing.
It was also the year I made space for non-essential communication with humans. Having better support, I’ve been able to make more space in my own life to keep chats and conversations going, to leave room for the unexpected reach-out or question, to trust that my skills as they are today are enough to be helpful in mentoring. Finding the best mentorship fit is a lot of trial and error, it will not always work, but when it does, it’s brilliant.
Receiving and giving space can be scary when you are so used to shrinking. But this is where telling your imposter syndrome to STFU can save your health and sanity long-term.
Most of all I learned that needing support is normal. All humans need connection and support. It’s how we survive. Take baby steps at first, make your own rules. But take them. The world needs your healthiest and happiest you. Now go, make those plans.-30-
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