The selection and subsequent election of Sen. Kamala Harris to vice president serves, for Jennifer R. Farmer, as a beacon of hope and a validation of what Black women can achieve with hard work, tenacity and support from their village and the alignment of the stars.

Farmer, a veteran activist, public relations expert and practitioner, recently published “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life,” which addresses the challenges Black women face when they are both the first and only in professional spaces and provides a roadmap to success.

“The book speaks to the unrealistic expectations, racism, sexism and barely disguised hostility associated with being the first or only, said Farmer, founder of Spotlight PR LLC, a boutique firm specializing in communications strategy and training for leaders and groups committed to social and racial justice. “While a Black woman’s appointment, selection or ascension to a massive role is exciting, there is an underbelly associated with career progression.”

“I’ve been doing this for 17, 18 years,” said Farmer, a Columbus, Ohio, native, whose mother is from Barbados and whose father has Southern roots.

“My mother was very strict. We lived in poverty in subsidized housing where there was a high incidence of violence. Fortunately, my mother shielded us. I wanted to escape the city I was in. What drew me to PR was wanting to participate in racial justice – doing advocacy and helping people tell their stories.”

Farmer, an author and lecturer, dubbed “the PR Whisperer,” said she looked for a labor union whose members wanted or needed publicity and sought to tell their stories. She appreciated how unions benefit the wider society and was eventually hired by the Service Employees International Union.

In 2016, she founded Spotlight PR, a boutique firm that specializes in public relations and training for leaders and groups committed to social and racial justice. She works with a host of high-profile clients including activist, rapper and businessman Michael Render aka Killer Mike – host of the Netflix show, “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike” and one half of the rap duo Run the Jewels, Art, Beats & Lyrics; the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II; author Edgar Villanueva (Decolonizing Wealth); Bankhead Seafood; and various social justice organizations such as the Funders’ Collaborative for Youth Organizing, Repairers of the Breach, United Methodist Women and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The mother of two said her motivation for writing the book was to address and focus on the experiences of Black women professionals who’ve been told they’re too loud, aggressive, assertive, not nice enough, not enough, or too much.

“I made an intentional decision not to speak to women of color because the experiences of Black women should be called out singularly,” said Farmer, a graduate of the University of Rochester. “I also feel that often, people use women of color or people of color without distinguishing the unique experiences of various groups. I wanted to be clear that it is OK to speak directly to Black women without expecting us to once again have our uniqueness glossed over.”

“I couldn’t manage the way my white male bosses did and expect to hear the compliments they received. When I began hearing things like, ‘you need to be nicer,’ I internalized it and believed something was fundamentally wrong with me as a human being.”

“It wasn’t until I started being vulnerable and speaking to other Black women that I learned that we were all hearing feedback that made us the problem versus the workspaces around us. I am hopeful Black women will find gems [in my book] to add to their toolbox to help them shut out the noise, steel themselves and survive and thrive as the first or only Black woman in professional spaces or unique life experiences.”

Farmer looks at the ascension of women like Harris, Marilyn Mosby, Kim Foxx and Aramis Ayala who all broke barriers to become the first Black women elected as states attorneys in their respective cities and regions. The quartet represents pioneers at a time when African-American women have shattered glass ceilings and barriers in public spaces including politics, commerce, media, medicine and law enforcement.

Farmer said she was elated when President Joe Biden chose Harris as his running mate but notes that from the time Harris announced her intention to vie for the presidency, she faced stiff headwinds of sexism, racism and gender bias.

“People expected Harris to put on a brave face, smile and operate superbly despite what she may have faced as the first and only,” Farmer said months before Harris was chosen.

“People will hold her accountable for things for which she has no control. The attacks will come from all sides, even from people you would think would be in her corner. The hurdles she will need to clear will be massive, and that is notwithstanding her partnership with a prominent Democrat.”

“She is still Black, a person of color and a woman and with that, she will face challenges,” she said

“These are not insurmountable, as her entire career has demonstrated. But it is important that her village support her, that she has spaces where she can be authentic and vulnerable and that she march to the beat of whatever drum is comfortable and realistic for her.”

Farmer has taken her own advice and said she has always marched to be beat of her own drum.

“This book is both a self-help guide and business tome focused exclusively on the unique challenges that Black women face in work and life,” she said.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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