5 min read

Tenure and tight ropes

Last week's newsletter was your Eid reminder to connect with community. COVID is far from over in the world and the best foreign correspondents I know are directly under attack right now. And because who doesn't love a Black church choir?? Here is your must-click once again.

“I want to tell my story without fear.”

There were so many reckonings last year that in the cacophony of a chaotic pandemic summer I started to lose track . But they all seemed to follow similar cadence and arcs. Repeatedly witnessing these arcs play out over social media, I was never comfortable with spineless rubberneckers praising bravery yet doing nothing to explicitly support the brave. Social media has a way of accelerating dehumanization as public spectacle. Someone else's personal pain is not an exhibit at the zoo meant to educate and entertain. These are people lives.

I bring this up because last summer, coming back from an offline break where I played in the mountains and flew my drone, I logged onto social media and saw a mentee of mine in the middle of one of these public reckonings. Over timelines, comment threads and Buzzfeed articles, I saw the arc playing out once again and the mob slowly forming to come for her. I went into mama bear mode and called her. When she answered I asked exasperated, “What are you doing?!?!”

And that was the day my mentee mentored me.

There is a cost to speaking out— a physical cost, a spiritual cost and a literal financial calculable cost.

When young Black women in the workplace seek me out for counsel, they are often experiencing what Professor Kecia M. Thomas coined with the phrase going from "pet to threat". It is painful social violence to experience and one where if you've been through it, you can recognize from several football fields away. I advise these women to first and foremost shore up their financial security. Not an emergency fund. Not a savings account. Not even a Fuck You Fund. Personal finance nerds have a retire early number called FIRE. I ask young Black women, “What is your Save Yourself Number?” I tell them to “Assume this job and the next job is gone and no one is coming to save you. From that figure out how much you need to feel safe in order to do what you need to do to be in integrity with yourself." I explain, "This is a cushion to `0014 buffer blowback because the systems and the people who directly benefit from those systems and do not want to truth to come to light will try to ruin you. Knowing your Save Yourself Number is a gift for your peace of mind." When I called my mentee in mama bear mode it was driven from wanting to protect her, it was from knowing her, her sensitive heart and that she was definitely not at her Save Yourself Number yet.

It didn’t matter.

“I want to tell my story without fear,” she told me.

Transparency around gendered, sexist and racial violence is still a privilege. It is a thing that is essentially only revealed when it is "safe" to do so. As we checked in over FaceTime, my mentee helped me understand that somewhere along the line, I started to falsely conflate safety with security when it is not the same thing. Safety and security are two very different structures and concepts. Security is created through community, power, distance, space and yes, money. Safety is a universal right but not a universal standard. What creates safety for me is different for someone else.

Director of Healing & Resilience at Faith Matters Network, poet and Justice Doula Micky ScottBey Jones's describes the space between safety and security in her poem, Invitation to Brave Space

Together we will create brave space.
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” —
We exist in the real world.
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love.
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be.
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.

This is why my mentee was so steadfast in her conviction and said to me very matter of fact: “I know who I am and I am loved.” She reached security because she already had safety and from there she made her own space for bravery. Love was the net that caught her when white supremacy shoved her off the tight rope.

What will catch you?

We all deserve to tell our stories without fear.

Our culture directly benefits from the bravery of women like Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. Our political discourse is brightened and sharpened by leading public intellectuals Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillian Cottom and Melissa Harris-Perry.

Do you know what all these women all have in common?


Job Security.

I came up with having a Save Yourself Number after learning how Anita Hill’s security was marked for life following her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Conservatives, after failing to convince the University of Oklahoma Law School to revoke Anita Hill of her tenure, waged a five year war to get the entire University of Oklahoma Law School unaccredited and later defunded a professorship endowed in her name. Years after her testimony to the same Senate committee where she too tried to prevent yet another man accused of sexual misconduct from achieving a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, Christine Blasey Ford has not been able to resume teaching duties at her university due to consistent security threats. To say nothing of all the men with bad opinions who regularly try to come for Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Melissa Harris-Perry.

These women each speak the truth bravely in the service of collective safety and live with their personal security subject to continuous threat, a burden they carry long after the news cycles and timelines have moved on. They are due far more than tenure for that grace.

This week Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina. Hannah-Jones is the leader of the seminal 1619 Project, a powerful voice in journalism who believes it is important to tell the truth about America without fear. Hannah-Jones is also an alumna of UNC and a MacArthur Genius with unassailable credentials but that has not deterred racist conservatives intent to obscure the truth about ourselves continue to try to assail her. And so the reckoning arc is playing out once again. There is the bombshell in-depth reporting, the public sign-on letters from outraged faculty and the explanatory Twitter threads. When all of this comes at such a price, I always find it curious why these arcs never seem to include addressing the literal accounting for something the brave should never have to carry alone– security.

The cost of telling the truth should not be paid by truth-tellers anymore.

Have you ever considered for yourself what security you need to tell your story without fear?

P.S. I'm having dinner with my mentee tonight. If you'd like me to pass along a word of gratitude for her bravery, hit reply here and drop a line.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is a human rights technologist. She is committed to leveraging innovation as a tool to unlock opportunity and dignity for all. She does this through her work in technology, media and investments. This is her personal newsletter.