Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Choices, Career Options, and Career Opportunities: An Interview with My Father.

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By Paula Celeste Neeley

Paula is a participant in The UpTake’s freelance community journalism training program.

How we perceive ethnicity, gender, and class influences our thinking, the decisions we make, and the actions we take in our day-to-day lives … the three are inextricably linked; you can’t really discuss one without discussing the other. Moreover, it matters very much how we personally identify with these terms because limitations transcend these categories.

The guiding question for this interview was: How do others deal with such restrictions in their careers? Many people of color have confronted these issues and have developed a personal methodology to navigate around them, but I wanted to hear survival strategies. So, I asked the wisest man I know, my dad. 

Spotlighting Celester Paul Neeley 

Born and raised in Robbins, Illinois in 1943, Celester’s views on ethnicity, gender, and class were shaped by both his maternal and paternal grandfathers, both of whom owned and operated their own businesses with their wives in Robbins. In 1964, he graduated from Blue Island High School, one of the first racially integrated high schools in Blue Island, Illinois, and married his high school sweetheart, Cynthia.

He and Cynthia started their family in Chicago while attending junior college –he in data processing and she in a secretarial program—and later relocated with their 3 daughters to Indiana. Over the course of a decade, Celester and Cynthia owned and operated The Record Mart, retail music and novelty stores, selling albums, 45’s, 8 Track and cassette tapes, along with afro-centric books, jewelry, and greeting cards. They also owned the Midwest Distributing Company, a wholesale operation in Indianapolis that supplied merchandise to the surrounding region’s Record stores. 

During this time, they served as cultural and economic leaders in their community through their involvement with the Urban League, the NAACP, Girl Scouts of America, and the Boys Club. On the side, Celester, aka “Pamoja”, was a DJ, and hosted a weekly cable TV segment, “For My People.”

Battling a serious illness in the 80’s caused Celester to re-evaluate his goals. He and Cynthia sought a new direction for their lives and their family. They decided to sell their businesses, downsize their possessions, and in 1982, an opportunity to attend a two-month missionary training school in Brazil presented itself. Celester and Cynthia completed the training and, over the course of the next three years, sold their home, sold the majority of their belongings, installed their oldest daughter at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and relocated to Rio de Janeiro with their two youngest daughters. They remained in Brazil for over a decade and then began traveling around Europe, Africa, and Russia as invited guest speakers across denominational lines. 

Celebrating 56 years of marriage, Celester and Cynthia currently reside in Indianapolis. They enjoy traveling, watching movies, and spending time with their three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren. They maintain an active public speaking schedule, continue to travel internationally to speak wherever they are invited, and return to Brazil annually to speak at conferences, seminars, and other trainings for church leadership. 

How would you describe your upbringing from a socio-economic perspective?  I was born into a family that could be described as poor. When I say “poor” I mean we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had one another, a place to stay, food to eat, and clothes. We were poor, but we didn’t know it because everyone in our little town was in the same economic situation. I was fortunate enough to have two grandfathers who were in business for themselves: one owned a gas station garage and the other one owned a, I guess you’d call it a service truck. He sold fruits and vegetables and things that people in the neighborhood liked.

Do you feel like you’ve accomplished some of the things you wanted over the course of your life? Yeah, more than ever. I had dreams and a lot of those I’ve been able to achieve. One of them was getting out of that little town. I graduated high school, got a good job. When my father and stepmother bought a house just outside Chicago city limits, everything changed. My two sisters and I met new people; we were in a new school with new surroundings. We were the only Blacks, so we learned how to deal with that whole situation … how to adapt to how they treated us. Those schools had better things than the schools in Robbins, so we liked that. Our lives changed for the better. The only way we knew that [people] lived better than we did was when we went out of our town.

Was it assumed that you would go to college or technical school?  Not really. [My parents] wanted all of us to graduate from high school. That was the goal, get a high school diploma because at that time that’s all that was required to get a job and to work in the automobile industry or the steel industry. If it so happened that you did go to college, that was like … a dream come true. But none of my relatives ever pushed me to go to college after high school. 

Was your family able to offer options to you for earning a livable wage?  Both my grandfathers owned their own businesses, owned their homes, and their cars. As a young boy, I had unique opportunities to learn the operations of two different businesses. It was just hands-on. This is how you do it. This is what you do. I found out a lot just watching. 

[With] my grandfather who had the vegetable truck, fruit and vegetable truck, my job was to watch. A lot of times, we’d be in neighborhoods and the kids would come to steal … apples and oranges, bananas and stuff. So my job was to make sure they didn’t. There were little gangs and if they came by, I’d hit the horn. Of course, if my grandfather heard the horn blowing, he’d come out and the guys would take off. That didn’t make me very popular in school. 

Years later, when my parents opened their own business, my dad gave me a similar job! I was about 8 years old and I would get up early on Saturdays and he’d take me with him to pick up merchandise in Indianapolis and Chicago. He would go in to talk to Record Store managers and I would sit in our van with the doors locked and read my books. He told me my job was to watch the merchandise. “If anyone comes up to the van, blow the horn and I’ll come out.” The same was true in our record stores during the Christmas shopping season, my sisters and I were to watch the customers and let our parents know if anyone was trying to steal. Interesting how history repeats itself! As I think back, those were my early lessons in human behavior, reading body language, and being observant.

On Saturday, my grandfather would go and buy his produce. So I got a chance to see how he negotiated, how he picked what he was gonna sell … it was a quality issue and he knew quality, like when things were fresh and when they were not. A lot of the things he bought, he wasn’t gonna sell all in one day. So he knew their shelf life, so to speak. He knew how to pick that stuff and he showed me how. And if it wasn’t fresh, sometimes he’d drive back and talk the guy down and maybe get the produce at ½ price. Of course, when he got back to Robbins, he’d try to sell that stuff first.

My other grandfather taught me how to work on cars, fix tires, change the oil and tune them up. The grade school I went to was across the street from my grandfather’s garage. About 3 days a week, I would get out of school and go across the street, and change into my work clothes. My job was to go around through the garage and pick up all the tools from the 3 or 4 mechanics my grandfather had working for him. I’d pick up the tools, wash them off in gasoline, and then hang them up on a wall. I learned my fractions because all the tools were labelled that way: starting with three-eighths, seven-sixteenths, half, nine-sixteenths. When I got to 3rd Grade, I knew all my fractions because of the tools. But I learned a lot about cars, about motors. I was fortunate to have two grandfathers who were able to teach me some things.

“If you don’t plant anything, you don’t get anything.”

Additionally, his paternal grandmother maintained a family garden and everyone in the household worked in it. He learned that “if you don’t plant anything, you don’t get anything.” They all benefited from her ability to can and preserve the produce from the family garden. And they ate well.

This solid foundation of practical knowledge served as an excellent springboard for almost everything Celester accomplished in life. When he was in high school and showed interest in going to college, his teachers arranged for him to take the classes that would prepare him for college-level courses. He got into a local Junior College to study data processing, but also took a class on Automatic Transmission Repair because that was a big thing at the time … many of the cars were changing from standard shift to automatic. That was his “Plan B.” He had planned to join the Air Force (the Vietnam War was on full-scale), registered for the Draft, passed the entry test, and was informed that he could enlist right away, but he wanted to wait until the end of that summer … a decision that changed the trajectory of his life. He got hired at the Steel Mill in Chicago, started making good money, and forgot all about the Air Force.

With obvious societal limitations and less tangible, perceived limitations in the community where he grew up, Celester intentionally navigated around those to create the kind of life he wanted to live for himself and his family. This is one of the lessons I learned from him and my mother: Don’t let others limit my options. Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Did you ever feel a divide between those who did White collar work and those who did Blue collar work?  I had one [Caucasian] friend whose father did White collar work. Everybody else worked in the Factory. I didn’t have many people who encouraged me, in fact I didn’t have anyone who encouraged me to seek out a career as a White collar worker. Everybody I knew was at Blue collar work, they worked hard and did the best they could with what they had.

“How do I get work on one of these machines?”

And there was a lot of jealousy. People would say, “Why do you want to do that?” But everybody who was a White collar worker, except one Black guy, was White. They lived in nice homes, lived in nice neighborhoods, had nice cars. So, it became evident, at least to me, that if you wanted to live a pretty decent life, you had to get [a job] that paid good money. At the Factory, someone could do well, but those jobs weren’t open to Black people. And at the Steel Mill, [Blacks] could sweep floors, but you could sweep floors your whole career! In fact, when I got hired there the first thing I did when they asked me to sweep floors, I asked my supervisor, “How do I get work on one of these machines?” My supervisor administered a test to gauge my ability to do the necessary math, read a blueprint, etc. and I passed the test. A few months later a position opened, I bid on it, my bid was accepted, and I was promoted to work as a Drilling Machine Operator. I was still attending night school for data processing. 

The older guys at the Steel Mill said to me, ‘We see you coming in with your books and on your breaks, you’re reading all the time. If you’re really serious about doing something with your life, don’t stay here more than 3 years.’ That surprised me and I asked why. They said ‘You make good money at this place and what’s gonna happen is that you’re gonna get married, you’re gonna have children, you’re gonna buy a house and then you can’t leave.’ It was good advice. Your mother and I had been married about a year and a ½ , and she was pregnant with your sister. So, I knew exactly what they were talking about. I continued with Night School for a couple of years and that 3rd year, I left for a position as an air freight agent with one of the major airlines. It was a good job and paid more and I didn’t have to get my hands dirty. 

This is another lesson from my father: stretch the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with. Stay open to learning. I found in my own career that when I’m observant, opportunities present themselves that move me into areas that were “not the norm” for someone like me. Once Dad got hired at the airlines, he asked his supervisor what his chances were of getting transferred to do data processing in the Data Division. From night school, he knew how to operate the huge computer units using punch cards and he wanted to learn more by working on cutting-edge systems. He was told to learn his job as an agent and do it well, and that a transfer to another department was something to consider down the road. 

He excelled and several months later, asked again about a transfer to data processing. His supervisor was reluctant to lose him to another department as he was their only Black agent. Celester “saw the writing on the wall” as it became clear that promotion opportunities would be limited.

They didn’t flat out tell me, but I could tell I was kind of locked into [the position as] Air Freight Agent, but that’s when I met a Black business owner, Miles (not his real name), who flew frequently. Miles said, “I’ve been watching you and I think you’d make a good manager. I have several Record stores and I need managers. I’ll pay you $50 more per week over your current salary to come work for me.” 

I accepted that offer, but only after doing my own research, I went to visit the stores and talked to the managers who said it was a ‘growing operation.’ I noticed that the stores were clean and the merchandise was well-displayed. I thought that since I had never managed people, ‘why don’t I just learn from him?’ I handed in my resignation at the airlines and received the biggest shock of my life.

[Miles] put me to work in his warehouse, not as a manager in a Record store. He had had a fire and a lot of records had gotten burnt. Miles had negotiated with the company where he bought merchandise that if he catalogued all the records that had gotten burnt and put them in boxes, they would give him full credit. So, my first job with Miles was dividing all these records (45’s and albums) and categorizing them by label and by artist. It must have been a million records. I thought I had made a big mistake. If I’d known I was going to have to do something like this, I wouldn’t have taken the job. 

But I did that for almost a month and [Miles] said to me, ‘Well, you passed my test. Most guys who want to be managers, they want to just start working with people. But since you said you don’t know anything about records, I wanted you to know all the labels and all the artists.’

Celester was earning the respect of his new supervisor and he describes that experience as “a blessing in disguise” because, through that experience, he gained valuable insight to the Music industry, knowledge that became extremely relevant for ordering and maintaining inventory in a Record store and it was knowledge he put to good use when he and my mom later opened their own retail Record stores. Dad worked for Miles for two years in Chicago, before he resigned and moved us (by then my younger sister was born) to Anderson where they opened “Pamoja’s Records.” When they opened their second, third, and fourth stores in Indianapolis, they changed the name to “The Record Mart.”

When your mother and I had completed renovations to an old abandoned laundromat with the assistance of a Small Business Loan, our physical location was ready, but we didn’t have any merchandise. Miles became an early investor. He told me, ‘Pick out whatever you need. Pay me when you can.’ I did exactly that and as business picked up, we were able to repay Miles’ generous loan of merchandise within a year.

My father’s professional path was not a straight shot. Instead, it wove through a series of jobs. At every stop, he dreamed of accomplishing more and asked those around him how he could advance. Early experiences opened his eyes to the larger world and a different way of living, which influenced him as a young boy and guided the adult he became. Seeing there was a better way to live, he pushed himself to learn more, and offered opportunities for others to do the same. 

Did you have other champions or mentors or coaches along the way? Yes. Of course, my biggest champion was my grandfather, the one who owned the garage. Whenever he was going anywhere, he would always take me and he was always talking, telling me stuff. That was right in the heart of the Black Power Movement.

“It’s one thing to be angry, but it’s something else to turn that anger into something that will help you or help others.”

I had other champions, like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, When you grow up in a small town and then you come out of that small town to some place like the city of Chicago, you see the disparity and you come face-to-face with racism and discrimination. And so, I was trying to learn:  what could the Black Power Movement do for me and for the people I knew? It’s one thing to be angry, but it’s something else to turn that anger into something that will help you or help others. 

Most of the people I graduated with, we had made up our minds, we were not going to suffer the same things our parents had suffered. They told us the stories about coming to Chicago, being on the bottom of the pile. My father told me he had to work in the graveyard digging graves [before he got on at the steel mill].

We made up our minds, ‘we’re not gonna put up with that stuff.’ The Black Power Movement began to develop and your mother and I were just 100% supportive. We did not participate in student demonstrations, but we supported those who did. What they were doing was the right thing because [Blacks] were being Drafted and sent overseas to fight in Vietnam and couldn’t [travel safely in] Alabama or Mississippi.

Dad shared some of his childhood experiences of taking road trips south to Tennessee to visit relatives. It was important to his maternal grandfather that he and his sisters not forget where they or their families had come from and his grandfather knew the southern route “to keep you out of trouble.” They’d take a picnic basket and drive straight through from Illinois to Tennessee. His grandfather’s people were tobacco farmers with guns for hunting rabbits and squirrels and all the kids played in the creek. He and my aunties thought it was “outta sight” to live like that, but he also observed that his southern cousins were “visibly” poor.

“… and you don’t have to despise them …but there are people who are poor and they’re not doing anything to get out of it.”

It kinda shaped my ideas because I knew I didn’t want to be poor and my grandfather was showing me there are some people in the community … and you don’t have to despise them … but there are people who are poor and they’re not doing anything to get out of it. 

Can you share a time when you felt like someone was placing limitations on you? What happened and how did you move beyond that?  Well, we knew that in high school. There were limitations on us. The school both your mother and I went to …we knew that there were boundaries. And once you understand where the boundaries were, you just didn’t … why push it? In the winter there weren’t a lot of things to do and so we went roller skating at a rink about 20 miles away from where we lived. We had to go through several White communities to get to that place in LaGrange, Illinois where the skating rink sponsored a weekly event they called “The Midnight Ramble.” 

We’d skate from 9pm until 2am and it was just like an unwritten thing in our minds:  get your gas before you take off, and don’t stop to get any food, don’t stop to get anything! You go right on through those communities. Once we got to LaGrange [and got to the skating rink], then we would just enjoy ourselves. But we knew those limitations were placed upon us because we were Black. And once you understood that, you realize, okay, well, you either could make a lot of stink about it and end up, you know, getting your head bumped by the police or just understand it.

“You find out where [the limitation] is and you operate where you can operate.”

It’s a rule, don’t break it. That was another thing that made me go to school. I realized that if you’re on the bottom of the pile, you’re always gonna get the worst. [We] knew there was a color line and we were happy about the Black Power Movement because it was knocking down those lines. I mean Chicago was a boiling point because there was tension. Our parents knew, just like we found out, there’s a color line. It was a limitation. But you find out where it is, and you operate where you can operate.

How would you define institutionalized racism?  Early in my life I thought racism was just White people against Black people, until I looked it up one day. The dictionary said it was “preferential treatment based upon race.” You [were able to] step up, if you are White. You had to step back, if you are Black. That’s how I saw it. Later, I had to change my whole understanding of it, because I knew a lot of White people who were not racist. It was not evident that they were racist at all. They wanted to help Black people as much as possible. So, I came to understand that as an individual, you can be prejudiced. Black against Black, Black against Hispanic, Asian. Prejudice is a one-on-one thing. Racism, to me, is an action against a group. 

Take the police department: if all the police on the police department are against Black people, to me that’s institutional racism. If you go to a school, and the majority of teachers don’t like Black students, that’s institutional racism. It’s an action against a group. When you grow up with that, you learn to recognize it, and you learn to deal with it as best you can.

“Prejudice is a one-on-one thing. Racism … is an action against a group.”

What are some of your beliefs about gender: male versus female, male and female roles, gender equality, things like that?  Well, I’ve always believed that women should [earn] the same as men. I was raised like that. My grandfathers and their wives worked their business with them, and they treated them as a co-partner. My grandmothers were the accountants. Where my grandfather would operate the vegetable business, and he would go out and buy everything, the money was handled by my grandmother. 

I never saw him putting her down because she was a female. The same thing with my other grandfather. He always treated [his daughters and wife] well and respected them as female. I just didn’t see that when I was growing up. It was only when I got into the greater community that I saw it wasn’t the same. When I had my own business, your mother was a co-partner with me in our business. Most of the managers for our stores were female and I always paid them what a man would make. I never thought that it should be any different.

The early ideas he saw at play in many of his work experiences: gender equity between his grandparents and how they operated their businesses, the pay inequalities at the Steel Mill- these experiences shaped my dad and influenced his actions across his life span and translated to how he operated his own business and his own hiring and salary practices.

Considering how we started the interview, talking about coming from a poor family, and I look at your life now with Mom, you two have operated your own businesses, you two have raised a family, and you two have traveled the world speaking to thousands of people. Was that anything that you envisioned for your life?  No, but one thing that Maya Angelou said, and it’s a powerful statement, she said ‘you can’t do better until you know better.’ When I first heard that, it kind of stunned me. Once you know better, now you can do better. Why? Because now you’ve got hope. 

And what I see about people who are poor; a lot of them don’t know better. And without knowing better, they can’t do better. Thank God for television, and the internet, and movies, because people are being exposed [to a variety of information] a lot more. When I was growing up, information was not as free flowing as it is today. That statement she made has stuck with me because it’s clear you can’t do better until you know better.

This interview with my father gave me a cohesiveness about his life experiences. He and my mother have always been very forthcoming and open in sharing about events in their lives, but their comments are targeted. I had heard from him some of these key decisions he faced, but I never knew the sequence or the crossroads he was at when he made them. I have a new appreciation for the tenacity he displayed by not allowing others to limit his career choices. When obstacles were placed in his way, he navigated around them and when he found himself in a leadership position, he made it possible for others to have opportunities.

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