Inside every room, there are outsiders who have found their way in the door. They may not look like the others in the room, but they are often just as passionate about what it offers as everyone else.
Remember Betty Reid Soskin, America’s oldest park ranger? Betty first got involved with the National Park Service in 2003, when she was asked to be a member of a planning committee for a new park in Richmond, CA. Richmond boasts the largest collection of intact historic buildings from World War II. During the war, it was a shipyard that cranked out victory ships. The new park would celebrate the home front effort during World War II, and significantly, the “Rosie the Riveters” who worked there.
The planning committee could have been a formality, but Betty took it seriously. The Richmond shipyards were deeply relevant to her. Betty worked there during World War II when she was in her 20s. But she was no Rosie.
As Betty informed the planning committee, kindly but clearly, Rosie the Riveter was a white woman’s story. The image of a white woman putting down her apron and picking up a welding torch held little resonance for someone like Betty, who came from generations of working black women and herself worked in a segregated union hall on the Richmond home front. Worse, it whitewashed the history of Richmond, a majority-minority city to which tens of thousands of African-Americans had immigrated during World War II. Those African-Americans, like so many adults during World War II, were heroes who uprooted their families and changed their lives to help the Allies win the war. If the new park focused solely on Rosie the Riveter and white stories of the home front, Betty feared it would disenfranchise the many local African-Americans who had made extraordinary contributions to the war effort.
Betty received a formal invitation into the room of the park planning committee. Once there, she fought to be heard. She found space for herself and her passion in the room. Inspired by her participation on that planning committee, Betty went further. She became an interpretative ranger for the park when it opened, putting on her park service uniform for the first time at the age of 85. Now, Betty tells her story to visitors at the park, proclaiming her and so many people of colors’ membership in the effort to save the world in World War II.
Betty Reid Soskin became an inside-outsider in the National Park Service. Insiders often look to inside-outsiders to be representatives of their communities. If you’re the only Asian person on the committee or the only teenager in the room, people expect you to speak up for your experience. You may be asked to be an ambassador for the room, forging new doors for more people like you.
Some inside-outsiders take on these challenges with grace and eagerness, like Betty Reid Soskin. But they’re not all Bettys. Maintaining dual consciousness is confusing. Inside-outsiders are like transfer students. They are in the room. They want to be there. But they don’t speak the language perfectly. Their prior experiences are different. They come from another place.
Frequently, inside-outsiders are alone. The only person of color on the board, the only conservative on the liberal staff, the only artist in the room. They may be tokenized or marginalized, intentionally or unintentionally. When inside-outsiders are alone, it’s even more challenging for their voices to be heard. It’s even easier to feel doubt or dislocation within the rooms they have chosen.
Even a confident leader like Betty experiences that dislocation. When Betty is lauded as a park ranger, or a master interpreter, she often corrects people. She says, “I’m a truth-teller. Right now they call that an interpreter, so I guess that’s what I am. But I never had formal training in it.”
When I went to college, I became an inside-outsider. I was a female electrical engineering student at WPI, an engineering university. Female students made up 1% of the electrical engineering department overall. I loved my school. I loved my (male) professors. I found friends—male and female. I loved the spirit of invention and experimentation. But I never quite got used to the feeling of being in a massive lecture hall, looking across the aisle, and seeing only men. Where was I, and where were the other women?
I was an outsider who loved my new room. But that did not mean I knew how I had gotten there or what made me different from other women. I gave tours to prospective students and their families in the electrical engineering building. They were all male. I remember talking to groups of boys and their parents, pleading with them: “Tell your sisters. Tell your girlfriends. This is a good place for them too.”
Theoretically I was a representative for women in engineering. I was even enthusiastic about being that representative to some extent. But that didn’t make me an effective recruiter of female students. It wasn’t my job, and moreover, I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t have a chance to talk with young women–the ones who weren’t coming on the tours–and share why electrical engineering was relevant to me. No one in the administration asked me how I got interested or tried to glean what had made WPI relevant to me. All I knew was that it was.
Betty Reid Soskin knew the door that she had been invited into: the park planning committee. Most inside-outsiders can’t trace the exact door that let them into the room. It’s not the job of inside-outsiders to figure out how they got in. It’s the job of insiders to welcome them, listen to them, support them, and see what can be learned about how to make the room relevant to more outsiders.