Owning My Failure: Who Came to the Table?

Failure. It is a scary word. In fact, if you asked me what my deepest fears are I would say failure and ending up ordinary. I was blessed/cursed with a Type A personality- meaning I always overwork myself, I never say no, and I will bleed if it means I can achieve a goal. Failure is not something that I take lightly, nor is it something that I freely admit when it occurs.

I’ve just finished watching a video presentation from a former staff member of my Alma Mater. In the presentation, Tasha Bradley, who once ran the Black Cultural Center at Berea College spoke to the success of failure and how you cannot have one without the other. Her presentation inspired me to be honest with myself about a recent failure of my own.

A few nights ago I sat in front of a packed house, waiting to give my presentation to the community at large about UpGrade Athens County and all the amazing ideas and pieces of programming we had in store. Months of work had gone into this moment; nights without sleep, weekends spent tethered to the computer answering emails, updating websites, and creating visual aids.

There is a power to where you sit at a function. During this launch event, I sat as part of a panel of experts and leaders facing the crowd. As I sat waiting not so patiently for my turn to speak, keeping the butterflies in my stomach and the bile in my throat at bay- I had a feeling that this was it. UAC was launching this evening, we had advance to the semi-finalist stage of Georgetown University’s Energy Prize Competition and now we had less than two years to change Athens County Ohio and possibly win five million dollars. To say the stakes were high would be an understatement.

Finally, I approached the podium and looked out on a sea of faces. The first I noticed; my Father and Stepmother who had driven almost two hours just to come and support my professional life. Seeing them front and center made me extremely nervous, even with my formidable background in public speaking. More so than my parents surprise visit, I only had five minutes to introduce the public to a new service through UAC, Made possible through the network I had created as an Appalachian Transition Fellow. The service is designed to have community members call and be connected to a local energy expert (who happens to be me) who can answer their questions, connect them to financial and talent resources to carry out their UpGrades, and guide them through their energy efficiency projects.

About five lines into my prepared words I stumbled, I faltered, I embarrassed the holy hell out of myself. Why? Anyone who has ever seen me in a professional setting knows that I am a good orator and can engage and enlighten a crowd with ease… the answer came down to one sentence. UpGrade Athens County is dedicated to increasing the energy efficiency of all community members. Seems simple enough, but as I looked out onto the crowd it suddenly felt like a lie. The sea of faces I had mentioned a moment ago—not a single one belonged to a person of color. In that instant I knew that I as a Fellow and as a responsible human being had failed. 

Athens County’s permanent residents are predominately white- but there exists in our community a plethora of people of color who have made Athens their permanent home. There is also a mega house of multi-cultured engaged young people who attend Ohio University; and UpGrade Athens County, I, had failed to attack a single one of them.

I omitted that line of my speech and kept going, visibly affected by my realization for the remainder of my words. As I took my seat again, a fog came over me as I took a moment to reflect on UAC creation, planning and implementation. Why had I never realized that our entire planning committee was white only? The majority of those also retired, self employed, or generally financially stable? How could it have not come to my attention that in the six months I had been working with UpGrade Athens County I had not had an in-depth conversation, a meeting, nor even a brief interaction with any one of color, or anyone of low socio-economic standing? Here I am living adjacent to this community because even on my stable income I cannot afford the inflated rental market that Athens has due to the university, I am the low income, young, marginalized voice trying to engage in energy and this community and I literally cannot afford it—yet I have never thought to systemically change this, or even voice it, for not only myself, but for the entirety of this portion of the community that feels ineffectual.  

During this fellowship, I have been fortunate to receive countless hours of training on equality, transition, and justice. I know that for Athens County to transition their economy they must have a table representative of all aspects of their community. Yet I had done nothing to ensure this was a possibility. As I sit here writing, reflecting, I wonder if the reason I stayed silent about the absence of diversity was due to the fact that I got caught up in the ‘rat race’ of just trying to get things done as they came and never took a moment to notice—or was it because I still do not feel as though I truly belong at the table myself and thereby kept silent as to not ‘rock the boat.’ To be sure, I am the youngest member of the UAC central planning committee, I am new to Athens, and to some I am an infiltrator put here by an outside organization to ‘fix’ Athens County. Even if all the preceding facts are true, they still should not have kept me from sharing the knowledge I was bestowed by my Fellowship.

Yes, in the first six months of my fellowship I have failed to create a table in which all members of the community feel welcomed and are present. In owning my failure I hope to turn it into a success. This realization at the halfway mark will guide my remaining time as a Fellow and I will strive to not stay silent for fear of alienation but to speak up not only in my role in UpGrade Athens County, but within my other role at ACEnet and as a community member at large. I am fortunate enough to be in the political pulse. On a first name basis with mayors, commissioners, heads of area influential organizations- it is time I stop acting like an employee of these various organizations and begin acting like a Fellow.

- Carol Davey