For more about the series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, click here.
Lindsay A. Powell, MPP, Asst. Chief of Staff, Office of Mayor, Pittsburgh
Vibrant. Determined. Intentional.
Tell me about your current role.
I work on policy and legislation that pertains to equity and inclusion, recognizing that equity is intentional and intersectional. Some folks limit equity work to workforce diversity, hiring, and promotion. It’s more external and comprehensive: how do policies and programs at the City promote equity and advance communities? How does an equity lens relate to paving, for example? I work with most departments to ensure that programs, policies, and practices have an equity lens.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?
(Laughter.) I’m super nerdy and often enjoy “My Shot” from the Hamilton soundtrack. It really resonates for me. Women of color, specifically Black women, feel a profound sense of responsibility to hold the community. Black and Latino women share…and I don’t want to say “burden,” but it can be a heavy weight at times but can be honorable too. The song resonates for me particularly because women have a shot to lift up community and lift up voices. It seems daunting since it’s just you, but it feels incredibly important. In talking to my friends, a lot of us feel that way.
Another song is “Formation” by Beyoncé because anything by Beyoncé is amazing and in my career and work, I have had a cadre of incredible women who are all about the advancement of women.
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?
Before working in Pittsburgh, I worked on Capitol Hill for a congressman who I still respect and admire, but the tension was always thinking pragmatically. My focus areas were criminal justice and sentencing reform, which were contentious, but it was a valuable time for me to be there. I wanted to expand the policies and include more, but there was an emphasis on thinking pragmatically. Do we need to unlock this bit? Will this be palatable for certain stakeholders? It was really frustrating for me, being a hyper-progressive millennial and learning from others that you write legislation that is likely to get passed. You meet with people, and edit, edit, edit; it’s a much slower process. I ended up writing a bill that didn’t go that far on its own. It died in committee, but the language lived on in a bill that the congressman wrote during the next session.
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?
With the sentiment of reclaiming my time, I feel like I often must assert my time. I’m often the youngest, only woman, only woman of color in the room and regardless of my title, I have to assert myself: “Yes, I know what I’m talking about. Yes, I’m authorized to make these changes. You don’t have to check in with the chief of staff. My word is final.” I don’t like doing that since women are typically more collaborative. I notice that at meetings with women the head of the table is avoided.
No matter how many degrees or accolades I have, I’m young, I’m a woman, and I’m a Black woman. I definitely look to Auntie Maxine. Sometimes in the office when I’m feeling a little impostor syndrome, I play that hearing with Mnuchin. This is my show. I’m running it. I am the chairwoman. You have to put your foot down even though it’s uncomfortable. A lot of my friends talk about impostor syndrome where, as we are moving up in our careers, it feels like someone is going to take your mask off and say, “You’re not supposed to be here.” It can gnaw at you.
There’s a huge burden of feeling like what you do is for the community and the places where you grew up…and that you’re the only one with this tremendous responsibility. I make a point in meetings to make room for women at the table. I’ll say, “I think Sheila had a point.” If you don’t create space for people, then sometimes they won’t make it for themselves. I try to do that for women to make sure voices are heard.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
This is so important. My mother is a yogi and always reminds me of self-care. Make sure you really take care of self and listen to your body. I love to cook and will often blast music and make space each night to cook. That experience reminds me of being home with my mom. I cook at home as much as I can.
I also really enjoy spaces where other women are talking about difficult things — it’s never just you thinking this. Impostor syndrome, for example, felt like I was the only one feeling this, but others experience it too. I appreciate being in spaces where folks can share and be authentic about hurdles we are facing as women and women of color in this world. Maybe it’s part of the human condition to think you are the only one having this feeling; it can lead to crippling self-doubt. Wherever there are spaces for women of color to share and be authentic are a form of self-care for me.
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
I want to be an auntie: someone relatable who can hold you close but give it to you real. There are women in my community who hold me and guide me in the most loving and playful way. I’m not scared to tell them I texted him back when I wasn’t supposed to. They take you at your authentic self even when you can be doing better…aunties who pour into me selflessly. I would love to be that for the next generation…playfully guiding them and holding them close when they need it. (Lindsay A. Powell pictured at right.)
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Trust your voice. I struggle with this every single day. I don’t always trust my gut. Our guts make us very different and exist for a reason. It’s been curated through every struggle and we gotta trust it. Every morning I have to remind myself that I got here because of my gut and can’t forget that voice or my gut. Trust your gut always; it got you here and will take you to next place.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
The social sector often has people who understand the experiences but haven’t lived them. I would create spaces for more people with lived experiences. There is a propensity to look at the learned scholar or expert in the room. If there were more spaces where experts and persons with lived experiences could be at the table with equal weight, then I think we could have more robust impact for the communities we want to affect.
“Here’s what the data says” — but what’s the community saying? If we are talking about resources for single mothers, why don’t we just talk to some of those single mothers? We may see something here downtown in our office building by looking at data, but we miss out on other insights by not having people with lived experiences involved. Make spaces for those with lived experiences that are equally weighted and not just a consult, but an equal contributor.