GatorCast Ep. 3: A Place Where I Belong - An interview with C Nicole Mason (Part 1)
By College Relations, Media Services and the Office of the President, February 6, 2019
President Johnson: Welcome to GatorCast, Green River College's official podcast. This is Suzanne Johnson coming to you today, president at the college. We are about to start a very special two-part series, an interview with Dr. C. Nicole Mason. For some of you at the college, you know this. Dr. Mason has been visiting us for the past several days as part of our One Book program. Her book has been selected as one of our One Books this year and so she's been here for a number of days, participating in a lot of seminars, workshops and classroom visits. She also was our keynote speaker to start our academic year off back in September.
We are very excited to have her in our podcast. Before we start our podcast today, I'm going to give you all a little bit of background about who we have in our sound booth. Dr. C. Nicole Mason is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America, published by St. Martin's Press, and is a professor in the department of women's and gender studies, and a visiting scholar at the Center for Public and Non-Profit Leadership at Georgetown University. In addition she serves as executive director of the Center for Research in Policy in the Public Interest at the New York Women's Foundation.
Prior to this position, Dr. Mason served as executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. There she held the distinction of being one of the youngest scholar practitioners to lead a major U.S. research center, or think-tank. Dr. Mason is an Ascend fellow at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, and has written hundreds of articles on women, leadership development and economic security. Her writing and commentary have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, Real Clear Politics, The Nation, The Washington Post, Marie Claire Magazine, The New York Times, The Progressive, ESSENCE Magazine, The Root, The Miami Herald, Democracy Now, and numerous NPR affiliates, among others. And one of my favorites, Dr. Mason delivered a well-received TED Talk at TED Women, on the courage to disrupt and the gift of being difficult. Dr. Mason's spark for social change came about while volunteering her time at a local battered women's shelter in Washington DC. Before then, she never thought it was possible to make a career out of helping others, or using one's voice to help bring about change.
Some additional facts that are especially favorites of mine: it might be of interest to you to know that she is a mother of two precocious twins, Charlie and Parker, has a motorcycle license, can lay a hardwood floor, and lives by the motto you must dance through life.
Welcome to Green River College Dr. Mason, I'm so happy to have you here.
C. Nicole Mason: I'm so happy to be here and be back here at Green River College. It's been an amazing couple of days and, you know, this is really great to be here with you.
President Johnson: We feel so grateful for your time. You've been here for a few days, when we're taping this podcast. For the listeners out there, and for students who attend Green River, you know this: Born Bright is one of our One Book selections this year, and you've been here meeting with students, and classes, faculty, staff, talking about the work. So, where do we start? Let's talk about the book, Born Bright. How did it come to be?
C. Nicole Mason: That's a really good question. So I had started working on a book, it was a policy book. It was going to be straight policy, talking about poverty, talking about families, and with the book proposal that I submitted to a publisher, an editor, I included a vignette about my life and my family. And the publisher came back to me and she said well, we think the policy stuff is really good, and you could write a policy book, but what we're most interested in is your story, and perhaps you should consider writing a book about your family life, and talk about policy but lead with your personal story. And she also said that it would be easier to write because it was my own story, and later I found out that she just said that to get me to write it, because it really was one of the hardest things I had to do.
President Johnson: What is the power of the personal narrative? I find it interesting, your book begins with a little flashback in terms of a picture of you as a six-year-old, or a seven-year-old, and then you share a moment at a conference, and you're about to be the presenter at a session. And then you diverge into your life story, and then you come back out at the end of the book in terms of next steps and actions, and back into policy. How did you find writing this personal narrative? Did it have the same powerful impact that you were hoping it would have in relation to how you were thinking about originally going to a book contract?
C. Nicole Mason: So the journey to Born Bright has really been amazing and transformative for me. I didn't know what to expect when I sat down to write the book. I didn't know what kinds of stories that I would tell, I didn't quite understand or think about how honest I would be, and how much I would reveal, and as I began to write it I thought the best thing I could do is to be really authentic and tell this story in a way that no one else could tell a story like mine. And I didn't worry about how I would sound, if I sounded smart, if I didn't say the right thing. I really wanted to be authentic and true to myself, and my history, and also to challenge a lot of things that we've come to understand about low-income families, black families in America, and really tell a really honest story of what it's like to grow up as a young, black person, or a black girl in America.
President Johnson: If someone were to ask you: tell me the overarching themes of your growing up years, how would you answer that question? I know we don't have as much time as we might like to have with a podcast to be able to retell your story in Born Bright, but how would you summarize your life story that's shared in the book?
C. Nicole Mason: So one of the biggest themes, I think, in the book, is one of perseverance, and overcoming, and following a life through to the end without knowing where you're going to end up. I think that's very true of the story. And I also think it's a story of constrained choices, and it asks much larger, or a meta-question about what would you do if you were in a similar situation? I think it's really easy for us to conjecture, and say if I were in this situation, I would do this. And especially it's easy when you have resources, and you have opportunity, but what if you don't have information? What if you don't have resources and you're faced with some tough challenges, and both choices seem like a no-win, but you have to make a choice, what choice do you make? And so I think that we've all, or we've been in a situation where we've had to choose between two not so good choices, but for low-income people and poor people, when they are faced with these constrained choices, sometimes it's just really to get to the next level, or the next thing, the next meal, it's really about survival. And so asking all of us to really think about our choices, and what they mean to us and in our lives.
President Johnson: So perseverance, constrained choices, those really resonate with me. When I read your story, I've read the story several times, there's this persistence and perseverance that comes through, even at a very young age. When your teacher says to you you're smart, do you know that? I get the impression that you already had a sense of that inside, is that an accurate assumption?
C. Nicole Mason: I think that I believe that I was smart, and I liked school, so I knew that from the very beginning. And in school I really, if there was an assignment I rushed to get it done, I wanted to be the first one finished. And whatever I could do to please the teacher, to get a star, or to get an A, or get a good mark, that's what I wanted to do. But it wasn't until my second grade teacher said it that it began to make sense, like, you know, you are smart. And my mother, she would get the TV Guide, or the telephone book, and she would have me read it out loud to her friends, or she would give me a word to spell and have me spell it in front of her friends, and she would be super proud, and so I knew that there were something there, and I think when my teacher said it it was a bit of an affirmation.
President Johnson: And it sounds to me, and for our listeners who have read the book, you certainly have a lot of examples and histories that Nicole shared with us in terms of her relationship with her mother. But for those of you who haven't read the story yet, hopefully you will, I'm wondering, with that attention that your mother generated to you, how that might've been really affirming in terms of your relationship with her?
C. Nicole Mason: Absolutely, you know, when I was small I really believed the sun rose and set in my mother. She could really do no wrong. I looked up to her, I admired her, and hung on her every word. So as a child, she was proud of me even if she just said read this out loud, I could tell that this was something that she liked for me to do, and was proud of it, I did it. And so it made me really happy to want to excel, and to please her.
President Johnson: Where do you suppose this perseverance that you showed at such a young age, and this interest in terms of school, where do you suppose that came from?
C. Nicole Mason: In thinking about school and why I loved school so much, I think school was a place where, because there were times when things were really chaotic at home, and really unstable, we moved around a lot. And so school was a place that I felt like I had some control, and I was rewarded for good behavior, and good marks, and so it was really very affirming for me. School was a place where I felt really competent. And even in those times where there were teachers who, when I would come into a new school, that doubted my abilities for whatever reason, I knew that I was capable, and I was just going to show them how smart I was, because I knew that even if they underestimated me they would soon see that I was smart.
President Johnson: There's a lot of talk about this concept of grit. That students that have grit will be able to succeed, if they try hard enough, they have persistence and effort applied they will accomplish what they set out to do. And those who don't succeed lack or have low levels of grit. I'd love to hear your thoughts around this concept of grit, and what you think the implications are of such a notion.
C. Nicole Mason: In general I think being persistent and having grit is, generally speaking, is a good thing. It's good to have grit, it's good to keep trying. However, I think it's not fair to say to a kid who has everything stacked against them, and a lot of obstacles, and barriers, and schools that are not working, a community that's not working, and to say that all you need to do is push through all these obstacles, and minefields, and you'll be okay. And if you can't do it then too bad, you know? You just didn't have enough grit. I don't think that that's fair. I think the fair thing is to remove all those obstacles, and barriers, and make it so that not only do kids not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, if they're in a safe school, do they have the resources, and they have the space to be able to dream, and think, and write, and create without those obstacles and barriers. And if you're an artist, and you want to become a better artist, you keep trying, and you keep trying, you keep doing, and you keep doing. That's grit, you know? Telling someone that they need to you know, overcome all these obstacles and if they succeed that's great, that's grit. I think we've got it all wrong.
President Johnson: Yeah, I want to circle back to that concept of grit and talking about grit being considered purely an internal variable that determines a person's outcome at the expense of not considering external variables, so I do want to circle back to that with you, especially in terms of your work at The Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest, and your public and non-profit leadership work. So we're going to hold that thought listeners, we're going to come back to that. Was this a difficult book for you to write?
C. Nicole Mason: It was really difficult, I think it was more difficult than I had anticipated when I set out to write it. Before writing it, or before sitting down to write it I went back to many of the communities that I've grown up in in and around Los Angeles, California. For example, I visited my first apartment building where I lived, and as a child the apartment seemed so big, and super nice, and it was a place where I played, and I ran between apartments. And when I went back, you know, a couple of years ago, it was really dusty and gray.
President Johnson: Was this your first time back?
C. Nicole Mason: It was my first time back.
President Johnson: How many years would that be?
C. Nicole Mason: That would've been about 20 years, 20, 25 years.
President Johnson: Wow, wow.
C. Nicole Mason: And instead of curtains there were sheets for curtains in some of the homes in the apartments, and clotheslines hanging from the stairs to a fence. And with my adult eyes I said, you know, wow, this is very humble, this is a very humble apartment building. And then I also said to myself this is where poor people live. You know, as a child that wasn't my reality, that's not how I thought about it. But I had a different perspective and lens coming back 20 years later. And I think that happened many times over.
I went to another place, and I was really taken aback by what I hadn't seen as a child. Like, you know, this was my community, I love my community, I love the kids that I played with in my neighborhood, you know, what many people may have considered a dangerous neighborhood, it wasn't dangerous to me because I understood it, and I knew how to navigate and negotiate it. It just really brought things into sharp focus. The other thing that was difficult in terms of writing the book was that I had to really go back and relive a lot of traumatic experiences. And many of them, at the time I didn't really understand as traumatic, you know, it was just life. And going back and by way of example, I'm thinking about moments of episodic homelessness, and going without food, and direct violence, it was normal.
It wasn't until much later, and even writing the book, that I really had some context for those experience, and could for the first time really think about those experiences in relationship to what I know to be true about poverty, food insecurity and homelessness now, if that makes sense.
President Johnson: Yes, how many years was it? The story takes you to Howard University. You're there, you're about to start your first year of college. When was the next time you came home? Did you come home during the summers? Did you go back to work back in Las Vegas?
C. Nicole Mason: I did come home, I came home for Christmas break because that's what college students do. So I came home for Christmas break, and I came home for the summer, and I worked at the food court when I came back home. And you know, I really struggled that summer when I came home because I really was struggling with my new self, who I've become a year later after being away at college, and what I left behind, and my family, and I didn't want them to treat me differently. I wanted to be that same person, even though I wasn't. And so that was really hard for me.
President Johnson: Let's talk about that a little bit more. I've had a lot of years in college, and was in the classroom, and I've heard from a number of students that, in particular, are first generation to college students, that they've experienced a time of transition where they feel like they don't belong anywhere in particular for a while. They don't feel like they belong quite in the college world that they've now become part of, and they don't feel at home anymore in their neighborhoods. There's a sense of an alienation, or a lack of roots. And I think I'm hearing something like that in your descriptions, and also I've had students share with me just this evolving and developing new identity. And I'm wondering how you navigated that? How did you negotiate that transitional time of growth of development of the old world, and your old life, and the new life you were in and moving further into?
C. Nicole Mason: It was very messy, it wasn't a straight line. Sometimes it was a circle, coming back to old habits, old behaviors, I can tell you, and I don't tell this story often because this story cuts off when I get to Howard, and so you really don't know what happens after that. So I go home over the summer, and my cousins want to go shoplifting. And because I had shoplifted before with them before I had gone away to college, I was like, I didn't want to say no, you know? I wanted to fit in, and I didn't want the rejection. And so we went to Dillard's Department Store, I remember this, and we shoplifted and we got caught, and I was 18, so what that meant was that I wasn't going to a juvenile facility, I was going to jail. And I remember crying, you know, because they took me away.
President Johnson: Oh boy.
C. Nicole Mason: And I was there, and at that point I was semi-vegetarian, so I didn't, you know, eat beef. You know, I'm in college, so now I'm a new person, I'm a vegetarian and--
President Johnson: I went through that sort of phase as well.
C. Nicole Mason: You know, like oh my God. And so they served me food, right? because I'm there, and I start crying because it's a beef patty and it's food that I, and I said, you know, it was just horrible. And I was there with a group of women, we were all in the same cell, and it was just not a good experience. And I got let out on recognizance, because I had no prior record, you know?
President Johnson: Thank goodness, right?
C. Nicole Mason: Thank goodness. But I remember thinking, I said this is not your life, like what are you doing, like what are you doing? It was in that moment where I said to myself you have to decide who you're going to be, because you can't be both, you can't do both, you know? I decided that I was going to figure out how to embrace this new self, and this new identity, and step more fully into it, because that's not who I was.
President Johnson: What a pivotal transition point, and that was between your first and second years of college.
C. Nicole Mason: And you know, I've had those moments, not that kind of moment, thank goodness, but I've had similar kinds of moments where I've had to evolve and ask myself, who are you? Who are you becoming? In those moments when there's been fear, or I've had anxiety about that in-between space as a student.
President Johnson: Let's talk a little bit more about those. Can you come up with other examples of these moments where you're asking yourself that sort of reckoning question? Okay Nicole, who are you, where are you going, where do you want to go?
C. Nicole Mason: Well, there's a couple of things that I can immediately recall. One is a friend of mine who was solidly middle class, and kind of a know-it-all, so you know, I'll say that. And she was talking to me, and I was there at Howard, and she goes well, you know, you jump middle class because you're at Howard, so you're middle class now, so you can't, you know, whatever you're tryin' to pull around this poor working-class stuff, it's kind of over because you're middle class.
President Johnson: Interesting.
C. Nicole Mason: And I didn't know what to say, was it true? Because I didn't feel middle class, because I just felt like I didn't know the codes, I didn't have anything, you know? And there was a moment where, again, who are you going to be? Are you going to cling to this narrative of not having anything, are you going to be aspirational and start to really think about well how do I, if I'm moving into the middle class, or if education is providing me this access, how do I take advantage of all the opportunities that are right before me and embrace them? And I decided to lean in a little bit more, and try to understand what she meant. What does it mean to be a middle class black person in America, what does that mean? How do I think about my past, and my history? How do I integrate that into this new identity, or this new life, is there space for it? And what I ultimately came away with is that there is absolutely space for the Nicole that had gotten to this point, and also the Nicole that I was becoming. Both those two identities could co-exist, and one didn't have to cancel the other out.
President Johnson: Wow, I think that our listeners, especially for our students that are first generation to college, I can't help but imagine hearing your examples, although the particulars might be different. This whole negotiating the world that you're coming from, the world that you're moving into, the moments where you question yourself and ask yourself who am I, what am I becoming? What do I want to become? Where am I going, and how do I make sense of this? Because I'm still the same person, and yet different experiences. I can't help but think this is resonating with our listeners because I do believe that we all go through points in time in our lives where there's transitional moments. Whether it's going to college, or getting through college, starting a career, changing careers, moving, whatever those times might be, that require sort of a retelling of our stories, or a revising of our stories, you know? I think we each have narratives that we tell about ourselves, about our experiences, about other, and we're constantly, I think, if we're growing, in revising mode. And it strikes me that your journey from growing up in the Projects of Los Angeles to Howard, which is essentially what the Born Bright story provides, is one of continual revelation and insight, from a child, to the teen, to the young adult woman, and how you found ways to integrate and become a whole self, which is sitting here today at Green River. So I'm hoping that that resonates with our students.
I know from students who have spoken to me directly, I think that they all have had varying challenges of the sort that you're describing, and have had to make hard choices in terms of the friends that they had, the friends that they retain. The new friends they might make, how they integrate their family and neighborhoods with the world that they're in now, it's such a journey. What advice would you have for students who are right there, like you were that summer, with the shoplifting experience? Or engaging with the fellow student at Howard saying hey, you jumped the middle class, you know? This whole poor narrative isn't going to play anymore. What would you say to students that might be listening who are exactly there right now?
C. Nicole Mason: What I would say is that you know who you are at the core, and you know where you want to go, and who you want to be, and remembering that in those times of challenge, whether it's a situation that you've gotten yourself into that you realize a little too late that you should've made a different choice.
President Johnson: It's quite a scene in the jail cell with the meat patty.
C. Nicole Mason: It's quite a scene, and the meat patty, and it was really something. And again, I just had to take a step back and to remind myself about who I wanted to be, even if I wasn't there yet. I think that's the most important thing, you know? I cannot say that I've always had, or felt very confident in the direction that I was moving in. I think it was most important that I just kept moving, and kept trying to figure it out, and when it looked like a door was closing figuring out a way to open and try another door. And I think that's the most important, and even realizing that a mistake is just that, it's a mistake, it's not a defining moment, and you can undo it, or figure it out, or take a step back and it'll work out.
President Johnson: You know I'm hearing a couple of, I think, really important messages for listeners. One is a mistake is not written in stone, it's not a forever, it's a moment in time. And our lives are journeys, they take many turns. And I've heard you, even on our podcast today and other presentations about the nonlinear aspect of how life can be. But the other thing that you mentioned just a few moments ago when you said, you know, you know who you are deep inside, you know who you want to be, and I believe that too. Even though people can wonder who are they going to be, or what do they want to do with their career, I think if you have the quiet where you can listen to that inner voice, and to trust that, and to honor it. Another thing that strikes me in terms of what you were just talking about is the confidence. I think so many times, especially when you're early in your young adult life as a student, you think that the confidence comes first and then you do. And you just referenced, you know, that you're not so sure that you've had the confidence in place. You've had the fear, you've had the anxiety, but you've done it anyway. It's kind of like you did it afraid, you did it afraid. I was struck by a theme in terms of, I think, who you are based on what I take off the pages of Born Bright, that there has always been a level of courage, or bravery. The ability to do it afraid, that was there in you as a young child, and persisted, and helped at different points in your life. And I think that's an important lesson for everyone to remind themselves of. You don't have to feel confident, but you do have to, how would you finish that? You don't have to be confident, but you do have to?
C. Nicole Mason: Be brave, and be courageous, and be willing to take the risk. because fools take risk, you can just step out, you don't have to know what's going on, but you did it, and it doesn't require a level of confidence, it just requires that you just move. And I think that's what's so amazing, that you don't actually have to have it all mapped out, and planned out, because life can take you in a lot of different directions. Some directions that you didn't even know that you wanted to go. And I think in thinking about Born Bright, and the path, and the trajectory, it wasn't about, like you said, it wasn't about confidence, per se, it was really just about having just a little bit of the courage, it's not even a lot, but just having a little bit of the will to just push a little bit harder, just a little bit harder. And seeing and watching what happens, or what unfolded. You know, one of the stories that I love, which I think is maybe some of the listeners can relate to, is when I went to see my college counselor, and I said to him, I said I think I'm going to apply to Howard University. And he looked at me and he said hmm, that's interesting. Well, you know that over 50% of the students who apply to Howard don't get in. And I inferred from that that I shouldn't maybe apply, or he didn't think I would get in. And again, I knew nothing about applying to college, I didn't know what it took. And it was a paper application, so it wasn't electronic.
President Johnson: This is the ancient times. For some of our younger listeners, yes, you did things on paper and mailed them.
C. Nicole Mason: And mailed them, and hope that they arrived.
President Johnson: Snail mail.
C. Nicole Mason: There was no priority mail even, it was horrible. How were you ever sure that things got to places? And this application was outrageous. I included poems, I wrote an essay, I had a table of content, you know? This application had every, I threw in the kitchen sink and I just sent it in, I just sent it in to the admission's office. And I didn't know what was going to happen, you know? And obviously it wasn't right, you know? And I got accepted, and the only thing I can take away from it is that you just have to try, you know, you just have to say okay, I hear you. I might get a no, but then I might get a yes. And I don't know how to do it, it doesn't even make sense but I'm going to do it the best way that I know how. And I'm sure the lady on the receiving end of that was like what is going on with this young woman? But she looks like she really wants to be here, you know?
President Johnson: Something stood out, or a number of things stood out in that application. It reminds me of something, and I've heard a lot of narratives from others who, you know, when they tell their story, and these are sometimes prominent people, I'm sure you've heard interviews with people that talk about varying challenging life experiences. And a takeaway I have found, and I wonder if it resonates with you too that a recurring theme in many peoples' lives is that they had repeated opportunities for being underestimated, and they took those opportunities of being underestimated, whether it was directly said, or sort of insinuated or implied, exactly as you were saying so you inferred from oh, 50% don't get into Howard. Oh, so he's thinking that I can't get into Howard, right? That these moments of being underestimated sort of fuel motivation, has that been something for you?
C. Nicole Mason: You know, when I think about the college counselor, I think about some of the other things that have happened, where I think people have had lower expectations, or didn't believe that where I said I was going I was going to go, and I'm not sure that that felt like underestimation to me, I think it felt like, to me it felt, the thing I go back to is who do you think you are? Who do you think you are to want to go to Howard? Who do you think you to want to leave? Who do you think you are to want more? And I couldn't answer that question. I didn't know who I was to want more, or want to go to college, or want to be a writer. But I said, well why not? I don't know who I think I am, but I'm going to figure it out. And that, I think, has been the fuel. This idea that there's a place for me, a place where I belong, and if I'm not in that place then there's a problem. And I said well, my place is wherever I want it to be, so I want to leave, I want to go to college, so that's what I'm going to do. And when I think about some of the messages that kids get from an early age, it's that that's not for you, those things are not for you. Whether it's going to a computer science camp, or going to Howard, Harvard, that's not for you because of where you come from. That I think is very harmful, because you have to overcome that because some way, this might be a tangent, but in some ways you know your place. You see it around you, so you know what's expected of you. And so when you start dreaming of a place that's not where you already are, then there is resistance, and you bump up against people who reflect that back to you, you know? So for example, when I would talk about a career, it was never do you want to be a lawyer or a doctor? It was are you going to be a hairdresser? Or my grandmother's a damastic, my mother is a bus driver, so those are jobs that I knew very well, and that would've been acceptable for me to have one of those jobs. But to say I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a writer, that wasn't my place. And so to try to reimagine your place and where you could be I think is hard to do when everything around you is telling you that there's a place for you.
President Johnson: I hope you've been enjoying our conversation with Dr. Mason. We have so much information and material we want to talk about. This is actually going to be a two-part series, and so our next podcast will be a continuation of our conversation that we started today. In the meantime, please go to greenriver.edu/gatorcast for more information about Dr. Mason, you'll find a link there for more resources. And if you'd like more information about our One Book program, and you recall I mentioned that her book, Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey From Nothing to Something in America is our college's selection this year as One Book. If you'd like more information about that program we also have a link for you there, next to our podcast episode, part one of Dr. Mason. So with that everyone, thanks for listening. This is Suzanne Johnson speaking to you. Don't forget to subscribe, greenriver.edu/gatorcast. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify and Google Music so far. We'll talk to you next time.