This interview is the twenty-fourth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.
Catasha Davis, PhD, Researcher, FrameWorks Institute
Passionate. Loyal. Trustworthy
LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/catasha-r-davis-phd-5b119183/
What are some of your career highlights?
I would say there are two. While I was in graduate school, I was a fellow at the National Cancer Institute. Before this experience, I had never worked on cancer or cancer communications. My graduate advisor questioned why I wanted to do this. I thought it was a good opportunity to apply skills I had been developing as a PhD student. When you’re developing a career, it’s important how you apply skills to avenues and sectors that may not be in the same area of expertise. The fellowship was a great networking and learning experience and I learned how cancer related to all other communications I had been working on. (Catasha Davis pictured at right.)
A second highlight was finishing my PhD in Journalism and Mass Communication. It’s not an easy road to go down and it’s kind of a black box. I came from a family where no one in my immediate family had a PhD. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and there were lots of challenges. I started one program and left after determining it wasn’t for me. There were lots of twists and turns. Finishing the degree at a high level was a real highlight for me.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Strong people don’t need strong leaders. I have a large background in African American Studies. I always think about leadership being about empowering people to use their skills to do what they do best. It’s not about me standing in front but helping people along their way. It’s very important to bring people along with me and make sure lots of different voices are heard and people are seated at the table. That’s my leadership style.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I don’t know that I have a favorite type of challenge; there are distinctions about challenges. How I am balancing home and work is a challenge I have. I tend to be creative and think about how I can use my career skills to balance my personal life.
This is one of the hardest questions. It’s not a favorite but being a Black woman in academia or in nonprofits is always a challenge that I think about, am concerned about, and one that I’m always trying to navigate. In some ways it can be enjoyable to figure out how I am strategically getting through those things but it’s also an interesting space. I’m always thinking about balance and how to work through problems being who I am and having the concerns that I have.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
There was a point in graduate school when I didn’t know what I was going to do. I took a course on Black women’s activism and read powerful books: For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Chana Kai Lee, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story by Elaine Brown, and Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby.
These books lifted up incredible Black women who fought so hard in the lanes they were in – whether it was civil rights or journalism. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but always knew that whatever I did – nonprofit, for profit, academia – there would be a social justice component. Being in that course I felt really inspired. These women lived in times with less access, less opportunity and society was more closed than it is today and they carried on to further communities of color. I just wanted to carry the legacy of these women with me and do something or anything to fulfill what I thought was my obligation to move communities of color forward.
I remember reading Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur and this woman had the FBI after her! Still she fought and still she persisted. Ida B. Wells turned the light on lynching. I pursued a PhD in communications to help people. I use communications to mitigate negative impacts of stereotypes which connect to negative outcomes for people of color. Reading books about these women inspired me.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
The preamble for me is there is always a tension. I have a background in African American Studies and pretty much everything that I have studied and worked on has to do with race in some fashion, whether it’s clinical trial recruitment or mitigating discrimination against Black gay men. I use communications to persuade or in communications campaigns to get people to do something or change behavior.
In research, I do not want to cause harm to people; the goal is to help people. Sometimes I’m faced with projects where I think, “Is this going to hurt someone?” In the context of interviewing a person, can I re-harm them by asking them to talk about events that were traumatic for them? During certain projects, I have to think to myself whether I’m doing the very thing I try not to do.
I was on a project talking to female veterans. Some were people of color and some not. I didn’t have a large background on the subject, but when I started looking into it, there were things that happened to these women over their time of service and during the interviews they told me about some of the violent things that happened to them. I am a communications researcher not a therapist, so I was concerned that I was out of my lane. We could be re-harming these people by asking them to speak to us about their experiences. I tried to remind myself that the intent of our work was to create resources for these women. Additionally, some of the interviewees told us that being able to tell their stories was therapeutic. I’m very aware that some of the work that I do – the research itself – could be and has been very harmful to people. It’s a tension that I deal with every day.
I know the history of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Experiment. Informed consent is a thing and always something I am warring with in my head.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
A lot of women have had the experience – Black women specifically – sitting in a meeting and saying something and then a guy repeats what you just said. Others respond, “Great idea, John,” and you’re thinking didn’t I just say that?
I had a similar experience while I was in a meeting at the University of Wisconsin. I was a group leader with another woman of color on a research project. There was a male in the group and we were video chatting with our faculty advisor. The advisor’s time was extremely valuable and we had a lot to discuss. The guy had taken some data that I had pulled together and decided that he was going to write a paper. He co-opted the meeting to discuss his proposed paper. It turned out he didn’t know anything about the data I had prepared or how to run the statistical analysis. The faculty advisor began to explain to him how to run the analysis and how to cite the literature. He should have asked us but didn’t. My co-lead and I determined that this exchange between him and faculty advisor should be a private meeting. We said we would reschedule and left.
The important part – and it doesn’t matter if you’re in grad school or at a nonprofit – is that people are going to take your ideas, try to undercut you as a leader, and waste your time. You have to be bold and know you don’t have to deal with this. You don’t have to be rude, you can be professional and say this was out of line and extricate yourself from the situation. It can be stressful but it’s worth it.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
This goes back years for me. I started working out 2-3 times per week and being physically active. I do some unconventional things like yoga and pole fitness, which is fun and so relaxing. The aerial stuff puts my head in a totally different space. For me it was always about thinking about something else and getting my mind off work. When I don’t do it, I feel myself being consumed by work. The quality of my work suffers when I don’t engage in self-care. Exercise helped me make it through the PhD and transition from grad school to my current position.
I also travel together with my friends and that’s something that I would tell every woman to do if you can. People think travel is expensive but there are lots of ways to make it less expensive. One thing that has changed my life is seeing different parts of the world, getting out of the U.S. and experiencing different cultures. My parents somehow let me study abroad in Sevilla, Spain. I went in 2005 and came back and didn’t know anything that had happened in U.S. pop culture. I was out of my American bubble and decided from then on that I would travel. Travel has really helped me being a woman of color in academia. As the only Black woman in my program, I sometimes felt isolated. Prioritizing being able to get out and relax my mind is a constant process. I’m trying to figure out how to balance self-care consistently.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
I hope it doesn’t sound cliché, but you have to be bold. I don’t mean scream and yell – though that may be effective at times, but you have to boldly advocate for yourself and follow your gut instincts. I left the first PhD program I started and moved back in with my parents. People thought I was crazy since I was doing well in the program but it wasn’t the right program for me. They had doubts about whether I was going to return to grad school. A second example I would give is when I decided I didn’t want to go into academia. My peers were doubters, but I had to think about what was right for me. You can try to explain (your decisions) to people but you don’t actually have to explain yourself to anyone. It’s not about pleasing other people or making sure they understand. Being bold is about moving in a direction that works for you. Otherwise people will try to steer you in other ways. Ida B. Wells was bold. You have to do what you believe and know is right for you.