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Liska Wilson: The Work of Racial Equity

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I was in the racial equity space since before I knew I was in the racial equity space. Before diversity, equity and inclusion, also called DEI, was on trend, I was doing DEI work. I didn’t know I was doing it, but when I take the time (as I have recently) to reflect on my career, it’s been so obvious. Even more obvious, but previously overlooked, is the fact that I really like doing it. This is a new and ironic feeling for me; it’s a space I had been actively avoiding because I don’t like the spotlight. I didn’t like being pointed out as different because growing up as an awkward black girl, “different” was rarely ever good. As I grew into a successful black woman, being “different” often never even felt good. It was ostracizing and lonely because I was often the only.

I’ve always excelled academically and professionally. In corporate Upstate NY, that meant I was used to being one of the only black or brown faces in the room, especially as I climbed the ladder. The higher I climbed, the less diverse it got. As a black woman, if you’re not careful, you can lose yourself and sense of identity by falling into the trap of being engulfed by work. We spend about one-third of our life working, so when you’re in a space that erases you, sometimes it’s hard to stay grounded and connected with who you are as part of your racial collective. Why does this matter? Besides awareness of self and identity playing a critical role in how we authentically show up in the world, it’s important to recognize where we stand as a group and where other groups stand in relation to us, so we can identify and do the work that needs to be done.

Back to being in the racial equity space but not wanting to be in the racial equity space. I’ve been an active member of the professional community here in the Capital Region for almost a decade now and one thing I’ve always noticed is the lack of racial variety at networking events and in professional groups. I used to ask myself, “Where are the black women?” I knew they existed (the census said so) and I was dying for some connection that I knew I could get only from women who looked like me and shared similar intersectional experiences of being a professionally successful black woman.

The racial equity work that I’ve been committed to throughout my decade of full-time work experience has been She’s a Boss, a not-for-profit originally founded on the intention of building my resume. She’s a Boss was inspired by my mentor at the time and my dad’s voice in the back of my mind telling me that “as a black woman you have to work twice as hard as everybody else to attain even HALF of what they have.” She’s a Boss was meant to be my “twice as hard” to make sure that I was employable. 

Noticing the lack of diversity at professional development events and organizations already in existence, I sought to target black and brown women in the area to come to my events. At the time, I didn’t know I was building a tribe, but I was. I brought black women together across several generations for professional development, mentorship, workshops and networking mixers. 

Behind the scenes, I was targeting black and brown women through our imagery and word choices, but publicly I had taken a stance to not directly say “we empower black women.” Our wording simply said “we empower women.” I chose to do this because of those past feelings since childhood that associated being different (and being black, really) with being undesirable. I didn’t want to put us, my organization, into a box labeled charity: “We have to help them because they’re black.” I felt like I shouldn’t have to slap “BLACK” on there for you to notice us or want to help us. I didn’t want THAT kind of attention.

That was my stance for years, but over this last year my mind has changed. I started learning more about my personal and collective history, real inclusive history. I started learning more and paying attention to how different things made me feel and I addressed them. I stopped going to networking events because I was tired of seeing the same monochrome rooms where I never felt quite 100 percent comfortable. I left organizations and dropped clients for similar reasons. While I was tired of being a token and underrepresented in every room, it took me first giving up on my organization before saying “enough.”

She’s a Boss now proudly broadcasts that we serve women of color, especially black and brown women. We say this boldly and fearlessly because we need unapologetic support. We need specified support. Racial and gendered disadvantages in the system are so blatant and so destructive that it can only be fought with the same level of “get ’er done.”

There’s a quote that goes, “The apology needs to be just as loud as the offense;” that’s how I feel about She’s a Boss. We are an answer to the offense of racial inequity in the workspace; we are fighting the system by creatively, aggressively and tactfully giving women of color what they specifically need to rise and shine.

Liska Wilson is a well-known leader and sought-after speaker in Upstate New York’s Capital Region. She is a published writer, business owner and not-for-profit leader who believes in doing the work and paying it forward. Liska has a BS in marketing and management from Siena College; she also has two bold and witty young daughters who make her a proud #girlmom. Founded in 2011, She’s a Boss provides mentoring programs and immersive leadership development experiences for collegiate women of color to empower them to rise and shine in their careers. Learn more at