Jennifer R. Farmer is the founder of Spotlight PR LLC, a trainer and an activist communicator. She’s also the author of “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life.”
Here’s a Q&A with Farmer about her book.
Why did you write “First and Only”?
I wrote “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life” to document the experiences of Black women who find themselves in the position of being the first and only, being celebrated while navigating a new terrain and being publicly honored for their achievement but internally held to unusual standards. I wrote the book because far too many leadership books were written by white men or nonblack people, and those books do not speak to the racism, sexism and classism that Black women experience at work and in life. I wrote this book because if Black women choose from many of the leadership books on the market, thinking a book will help them navigate difficult situations and that book is missing a race, class and gender lens, they may be sorely disappointed, and their needs will go unmet. Finally, I wrote “First and Only” because Black women must view and navigate every bit of leadership advice they experience through the lens of their unique experiences and identities.
Who is the audience for the book?
The primary audience is Black women. A secondary audience is people of faith. A final audience is people who would like to be better allies to Black women. I single out Black women because there is not a ton of content that speaks to what it is like to show up at work and in other settings as the first and only. While all women face challenges in a patriarchal society, Black women face intersecting oppressions of gender, race, identity, etc., and need unique solutions. But often, as Christians, we think good intentions are enough. Because we don’t actively mean to hurt other people, we are fine. But it takes work and learning to understand how to show up with and support the Black women in our lives. In this book, I am candid about race, and I am candid about my faith. Persons who identify with Christianity will love this book because they will hear my testimony and hear of the power of God to sustain us, even in the face of cruelness and uncertainty.
Why did you focus on Black women vs. women of color?
There are already books on the market that speak to the needs of women of color. There are fewer books that speak specifically to Black women. I also believe that being a person of color doesn’t mean one is pro-Black or pro-Black woman. I have witnessed many ways in which women of color have perpetuated harm against Black women. I’ve also witnessed companies hide their anti-Blackness under a cloak of hiring women of color, every woman of color except Black women. I believe Black women are unique, and it is time for more research on our needs. Further, often Black women are told to find themselves in the work of other non-Black women. I believe Black women need books that are written specifically from their lens.
Why is this book relevant now?
For decades, Black women have been told to find themselves in the pages of leadership books that were not written for them or from their perspective. Leadership books were introduced to the market without specific references to the role of gender, race, class and sexuality in career advancement. We are in a period where Black women’s decades-long advocacy is being heard and recognized. We are also in a period where there is considerable backlash to honest discussions of race. In this moment, we must push forward rather than backing down. We must continue to state what we’re experiencing, understanding as Zora Neale Hurston once said, “if you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
What advice do you give Black women about caring for themselves?
I am honest in the book about the need to care for ourselves. I talk about the importance of being vulnerable; taking space to nurture our mental, physical and spiritual needs; and asking for help. I urge Black women to consider how having a spiritual practice and being connected to faith can help. I acknowledge that while religion has been a source of pain, once I gave myself permission to unlearn harmful doctrine, I was able to experience a more liberatory faith. I also talk about the ways in which I have embraced things like counseling, exercise and support groups to care for my mind and body. My biggest point here is that if we center everyone else, and not ourselves, we will fail. Who wants that?
What is your message to people of faith?
My message to people of faith is that loving God is important, but there is more we must do to bring about equity and justice. One of the most important things we can do is to humble ourselves, learn from others and lean into discomfort around race. We must be willing to admit that in a world built on capitalism and white supremacy, a lot of what we’ve learned about race and people of other races is wrong. There is no shame in being wrong, but there is shame in being unwilling to learn and grow. People of faith can lead in this area, and this book is a starting point.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I want Black women to feel seen and validated. I want the people who work with Black women to be open to a different frame of mind in terms of what it looks like to support Black women and create space for the leadership of people who are not white. I want Black women to see themselves as not just work horses but as brilliant vessels whose expertise is too often devalued and undermined.
Why should people read this book?
If you are a Black woman, you should read “First and Only” because it is an affirmation of your existence, a testament to your resilience and an inoculation to help you manage the attacks you’ll experience. If you want to be a better supporter or ally of Black women, you should read this book to learn about ways to show up effectively and consistently. If you work with or employ Black women, you should read this book to glean strategies for ensuring the work environment and culture is welcoming and inclusive of Black women. Finally, you should read this book because it is one of the few leadership resources written for Black women by a Black woman.
What is one surprising aspect of the book?
One of the things that surprised me as I was researching for the book is the limitations of networking. Everyone is told to network their way into a better job or board position. But the seldom spoken fact about networking is that it can disadvantage Black people. Because most people network with those whom they are most comfortable, many networks are not racially diverse. If Black women are not in the networks with access to jobs, capital and board positions, they will not hear about or be tapped for those opportunities. While Black women are encouraged to network, people in positions of power must also be encouraged to develop more inclusive networks and to do their own anti-racism work so that they are receptive to Black women when those Black women do indeed show up. In essence, I am advocating that we take the current leadership advice about networking and tell the truth about it. If the entire burden and onus is placed on Black women – without holding non-Black people accountable for racism, patriarchy and misogyny – then Black women will continue to be held to impossible standards without the possibility of advancement.
How is this book relevant for nonprofit organizations?
It is all too easy to confuse having a noble mission with being noble people. Saying one is committed to racial and social justice doesn’t mean that one doesn’t need to continue working to be anti-racist. In fact, when one has a noble mission, it is all the more important for them to do their own anti-racism and anti-sexism work. Organizations can espouse principles of justice and still perpetuate harm. People can consider themselves good progressives and still behave horribly to the Black people with whom they work. This book surfaces common issues that Black women face at work and in life with the intention of affirming Black women and enlightening others on ways they can knowingly or unwittingly cause harm. It is an insider’s perspective that gives allies and persons who want to be supportive concrete ideas for doing so.
What other books should Black women be consuming?
I am a huge fan of Iyanla Vanzant – every one of her books will give Black women life. Bell hooks has been an early inspiration because she focuses so much on race and gender. Austin Channing Brown is great, as is Kristi Lauren Adams’ “Parable of the Brown Girl.” I love Ijeoma Oluo’s work, and Dr. Cindy Trimm has also been incredibly helpful.
Jennifer R. Farmer is the founder of Spotlight PR LLC, a boutique firm specializing in communications strategy for leaders and groups committed to social and racial justice. Farmer also founded the Center for Social Justice Leadership, which supports leaders and organizations in creating more inclusive workplace cultures.