Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong?
I’ve been there. As a first-generation Black child growing up in all-white neighbourhood in Montreal, I was living in spaces not designed for me and felt like an outsider who wanted to be in a place where I was heard, seen, and mattered. That search for belonging followed me into adulthood. Although I have a wide circle of wonderful friends, I struggled with networking and expanding my career connections.
And not because I am shy or have nothing to say.
I attended networking events – from meetups to mixers – in pursuit of connection and belonging. I became very frustrated: the lack of diversity in members and presenters was disheartening. There were few people of colour or from diverse ethnic backgrounds; the lack of diversity extended to gender orientation and persons with disabilities. As a Black woman, I felt zero connection from these gatherings. I didn’t feel I fit in at all.
During my search for a more diverse and inclusive group, a friend mentioned a wonderful organization that supports and celebrates all women by providing career services and networking opportunities. I took her advice and joined Dress for Success’s Professional Women’s Group. I went to Dress for Success and listened to women like myself who wanted something better, something greater for themselves. These women weren’t attached to their function like their job, they were connecting with their souls and their spirits. After attending the Professional Women’s Group meetings for six months, I received an invitation for suiting services. The experience that followed will always be one of my fondest.
When I arrived at the boutique for my suiting service, I was warmly greeted by a smiling woman who would be my stylist. The room was full of beautiful tops, skirts, suits, and outfits. When I looked at the clothes, I felt like a child in a candy store. My stylist was amazing and kept finding clothes that loved my body. As I looked at myself in the mirror with a room full of admirers, I felt like a star.
That experience triggered a flashback to my childhood – to a time when I was singled out to wear a particular costume in a school play. To put this story into context, we were the only Black family in the neighbourhood. I was constantly a victim of physical harassment and racial taunts. My society believed that anyone who didn’t look like the majority was to be viewed with fear and hatred. I was constantly shown that I was not welcome, and I was subjected to pulling of my hair, offensive words about my skin colour, racial insults and horrific stereotypical pictures shown from teachers and students. And I remember thinking wow, these folks were happy to live with their limited world view and didn’t want to meet or learn from different groups of people. My roots during these formative years were very shaky.
So, when I was asked to play a tree in the school play, I felt dejected. When I told my mother that my part in the play was a tree wearing an ugly green outfit – standing way in the back of the stage where I would not be seen or heard – she was furious.
My mom told me, “Since you are going to stand out, then you better shine.” I had no idea what she meant – but she meant business. She dipped into her material box and like Edward Scissorhands, started altering the costume. Endless amounts of shiny material fell to the floor as my seamstress mom worked her magic. I couldn’t believe what she created: she transformed the hideous green outfit into a masterpiece of glitter and shine.
When I showed up for the play, everyone was stunned. My aggressors even looked at me differently – with admiration. The major characters in the play decided I shouldn’t stay in the background and moved me up front. The spotlights made my outfit glisten and shimmer. Audience members smiled and pointed as my glorious tree took centre stage.
I’ve always felt that my “tree moment” signalled a change in my life. Just like a tree needs water and nutrients from the soil, I felt that I was growing from the old negative labels to gaining a more soulful life of abundance. I realized that there is a life beyond the limitations of racial discrimination. And to feel a sense of belonging I would have to do the inner work to change my inner negative dialogue of my past.
My experiences in overcoming those really bad times of being treated less than human, I relived that shimmering, glistening tree moment as I stood in front of that mirror in the boutique. Just like the tree, I was recognized for the beauty of who I am, not the racial stereotype. I felt rooted in endless possibilities, and a new sense of self and spirit flowed through me.
I realized that the narratives of my past don’t have to be my future. Dress for Success has allowed me to do the work of personal discovery and stand tall as a tree in my own greatness.
I am now an ambassador for Dress for Success for two years, I have learned not to be a victim and am proud to be who I am. I’ve taken action and welcomed change by speaking to many groups about the power of being part of Dress for Success, an organization where women can know a sense of belonging and to embrace who they are inside and out.
Being an Ambassador is a great opportunity to see women like myself evolve into their own greatness, thanks to the amazing suiting, employment, career advice and other professional services. Dress for Success Vancouver is a community of people who have embraced me. I am seen and heard, and finally – I feel like I truly belong.