Navigating the workplace as a Black person can be tough and extremely challenging. This is especially true if we take into account moving through these spaces with intersectional identities. For so long, our community has been conditioned to pick our battles and that there is not enough room to focus on multiple struggles at one time. How many times have we heard that we must work ‘twice as hard’ in order to gain what our white counterparts have in life? This is not only unfair but a complete disservice to ourselves. This ideology often subjects us to dealing with and tolerating petty nonsense, discrimination and even exerting this same energy toward each other. 

Because of this, Areva Martin—a CNN Legal Analyst whose television credits include co-hosting CBS’ daytime syndicated talk show Face the Truth, The Doctors, and her digital talk show, The Special Report with Areva Martin—has dedicated her work to shifting mindsets to positively and holistically occupy the industries and work environments we occupy. In her latest book Awakening: Ladies, Leadership and the Lies We've Been Told, she focuses on dismantling the table and building a new one that makes space for all, no matter what career path they seek to occupy. 

With 2022 on the horizon, Areva Martin analyzes the state of today's workplace while sharing some ways to tap into your power at your workplace for the new year.

EBONY: What led you to answer your calling of empowering and teaching people to own their power through understanding and seeking equity at all levels, both inside and outside of the workplace?

Areva Martin: I was really disturbed by some of the leadership books—that came out in the mid-2000s—that focused on women that really paralleled the “lean in” theory coined by Sheryl Sandberg, theory that she has since revised. The initial theory was somehow that women weren't doing enough, that we needed to do more in the workplace. We needed to take on more assignments, make ourselves more available and really make a greater commitment to the workplace. That bothered me when it came out. I was glad to see Sandberg revising that ideology.

We focus on the oppressed having to work harder to receive equal treatment rather than looking at the systems that have gotten us to where we are. There are a lot of parallels in gender equity conversations as there are in racial equity conversations. 

Having already been thinking a lot about that, I was really propelled after the civil unrest to see that we were finally ready to have conversations about systems and systemic issues. Do we finally see how these systems actually create barriers for people? There are many parallels in terms of gender equity especially when the reality for Black women is that our identities are intersectional. We deal with racial equity issues, gender equity issues—and depending on our age—we may be dealing with age issues. We also may be members of the LGBTQ+ community.

I just thought it was time for a fresh approach in general. You can't lean into a closed door.  I thought it was time that we put the onus and the blame where it deserve to be placed, which is on these systems, and not on hard-working people.

Within the past five years, there has been a  sharp rise of this “girlboss” mentality and “hustle culture,”where working 24/7 without rest is prioritized. There has been a transition to Black folks working all the time, not enjoying the fruits of their labor. What are your thoughts on these ideologies and if there is a median that can be reached? 

Whether it's “girlboss” or #BlackGirlMagic, comes a sense of fatigue and this tremendous pressure that we have to do everything and bear the responsibility for everything. Whether it's getting candidates elected in tough places like Georgia or for bearing the brunt of the pandemic through working in these low wage, high contact jobs in retail or healthcare. I think there's space for all of these ideologies. However, if you want to buy into these concepts, you need to go into it with eyes wide open and recognize that no matter how hard you work, whether it's 24 hours, 18 hours, 14 hours, you are working in a system that is controlled and designed as a white cisgender, heteronormative patriarchal system. 

You can't lean into a closed door. 

There is but so much all of us can do when the system is designed in a way that disadvantages us. We see that with respect to again, African-Americans. We’ve talked about being at the bottom of every category relating to health, the wage gap, wealth gap, homeownership gap— all of those are tangible things. It's not because Black folks haven't been working hard. It hasn't been because we haven't been saving that money or that we haven't been buying homes and building businesses. We've been doing all that stuff. However, built into our laws and our system are things that prevent us from reaching the position of equity. I want the girl-bosses and hustlers out there to understand all of that. We also need to simultaneously work on dismantling this system. We hustle because at the end of the day, we are still going to be frustrated not to be where our white counterparts are.

Do you feel that individuals have had an ‘awakening’ themselves to both consciously and actively work toward building inclusive workplaces or have we taken steps backward? 

I think both have happened. I definitely think there was a a period right after George Floyd murder, where we saw some corporations try to rise to the occasion. $50 billion was pledged to social justice and civil rights organizations. Big companies were bringing in diversity and equity specialist  and having classes about what anti-racism looks in the workplace and how to combat these racist policies. Books about race and racism were flying off the shelves. Some Black businesses had the biggest investment in their businesses ever, whether it was capital investment or clients purchasing more goods and services from them. We did see that in this period there is what some would consider advancement. There was a lot of encouragement but  over time we started to see this waning. This is the typical thing that happens in periods of conflict. There's great interest, there's great reflection, there is some progress, and then there's backlash. The conversation always becomes, ”is it a moment, or is it a movement?” 

Fast forward to the beginning of 2021, the DEI classes aren’t as crowded. People started getting offended by terms like white supremacy.  Again, there was some progress, but there's also been backlash. This is pretty typical in this journey of trying to get to equity in this country, whether it's gender equity or racial equity. This is a very common historical pattern. Despite everyone saying that after they watched the 9 minutes 29 second video that this time it was going to be really different—but it wasn't really.

As there has not been as much emphasis placed on the systems we navigate in the workplace traditionally, how can Black folks curate an attitude to break down that system by their own means? Additionally, how can this be done in a way that's holistic and actually tangible—that works towards equity—whether the person is a C-Suite executive or starting a new job?

One of the reasons I wrote Awakening is so folks would have the courage to have these uncomfortable conversations in the workplace. I don’t want people to be discouraged by the obstacles that the system has stacked against our community. However, let’s start going into these spaces with eyes wide open so that we can attempt to make things better than how we found them.

On a macro level, we all should be supporting policies and even political candidates that support policies that make systemic changes that will make it easier in the workplace. On a micro-level, those who are in positions of power should be doing everything they can to not let this moment pass by, to ensure that this does become a sustained movement and that they continue to use their power in their places of business to create more opportunities to advance in the workplace beyond mid-level management, to create more C-suite and more executive level positions for our community. This also comes by way of mentorship and generally being champions for one another.