Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Options, Career Choices, and Career Opportunities – An Interview with womanist, Lyvonne Briggs

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Pastor Lyvonne Proverbs Briggs

By Paula Celeste Neeley

Just before I went to college at age 17, I lived for a few months with my grandparents in Chicago and worked at a department store in one of the wealthy suburbs during the Christmas season. In a conversation with a Black male co-worker about class and race and privilege, he defined white collar as work white people do; blue collar referred to work done by everyone else and poor whites. But, he said, because of the way I talked, I could probably get white collar work. Hmmm. My brain catalogued that as ‘race and education’ being an important factor in my future career.

During my college years, I took a full load of classes and worked a variety of part-time jobs: cleaning houses, babysitting, monthly weekends with the Indiana National Guard, work study at the campus library, and as a clerk in a grocery delicatessen. By the definition I’d been given, my jobs did not fit neatly into blue collar or white collar categories. One of my Army sergeants “enlightened” me that blue collar was work that required you to wear a uniform, get your hands dirty, and earn minimum wage. White collar was a job you could wear your own clothes to, work with information and people, and earn a salary above minimum wage. Hmmm. My brain catalogued that as ‘information work is worth more than physical labor’.

These conversations did not clarify things for me. I didn’t care about making a LOT of money, I just wanted to live in a nice neighborhood, drive a car, pay my utilities, and be able to eat out whenever I wanted. Was a career option really based on my skin color? My parents, both Black Americans, owned their own businesses and they did the information work and the physical labor. I guessed they made enough money because we lived in a house, had two cars, and went on family vacations. 

Why would my facility with the English language provide opportunities for me that were not available for others who looked like me? What additional skills did I possess that might open doors for me? How was I supposed to choose a career? I wanted to do work that would earn the respect of my peers and leaders and the leaders I respected the most were ones who were not afraid to get their hands dirty right alongside me, or at least had done the work they were supervising me to do. I wanted the kind of life where I could move easily from doing physical work to doing thinking work. In my experience, the most interesting people I knew could straddle that divide and pay their bills.

These were my early flirtations with ideas about the intersection of race, class, and “intangible” privilege, which seemed to be a moving target that I could not consistently detect or define. This is still true. These issues are so intertwined that when we speak of one, we are necessarily commenting on the other. The 4-part Spotlight Series this year was designed to dig a little deeper, through personal interviews, to explore strategies other people used to navigate ethnicity, gender, and class in the workplace. As a woman of color, these issues represent an obstacle course that I constantly move through, but being able to name what I swerve to avoid doesn’t remove the obstacles. The final interview is with an individual I met through participation in one of her outstanding “Surthrivor” workshops.

In the Spotlight

Lyvonne Proverbs Briggs, lovingly known as “Pastor Bae,” is a body and sex-positive womanist spiritualist. She is a writer, pastor, preacher, spiritual life coach, and highly sought after transformational speaker and seminar leader. A TEDx speaker, she has been featured in ESSENCE, Cosmopolitan, and The Washington Post magazines and Sojourners named her one of “11 Women Shaping the Church” in March 2019. An Emmy-award winning media producer, Briggs is the founder of beautiful scars, a healing-centered storytelling agency focused on fostering pleasure and resiliency. 

She is also the curator of The Proverbial Experience, a series of twice weekly spiritual gatherings via Instagram Live. A former pastor and certified spin instructor, Briggs offers consulting for sacred and secular institutions. She has partnered with Lyft, Auburn Seminary, the Atlanta University Center, San Francisco Department of Health, Young Women Social Entrepreneurs and more. She serves on the board of Art and Abolition, an organization that exists to heal, empower, and protect young girls in Kenya who have survived male sexual violence. 

Briggs is a graduate of The Lawrenceville School, Seton Hall University, Yale Divinity School, and Columbia Theological Seminary. She is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated and the inaugural cohort of the DO GOOD X Startup Accelerator. Briggs, a New York City native, is currently based in New Orleans, LA and can be found on Facebook and LinkedIn. Or follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @LyvonneP.

How would you describe yourself?  I am the daughter of Caribbean immigrants. I was raised in what would be considered a middle-class family. Very education-focused. Same with my church. My church was middle-class and Caribbean. My school was almost all Black and that was a mix economically, until middle school, which is when I got around more international folks.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a music video director. I was going to go by “Chocolate D;” the D stood for Deluxe. When I was a senior in high school, I took a film course and fell in love with Spike Lee and wanted to become the female Spike Lee. So I think, at the crux of everything that I do is a desire to tell stories, and to just share my creative genius through media. I was admitted to Tisch School of the Arts as a Film and Television Production major. I was on that path academically and professionally, but you know, people plan and the Creator laughs. So it was definitely a great part of my journey, but it’s not where I ended up ultimately. I’m not in Hollywood making movies. I’m in my living room, creating videos.

When it comes to the “American Dream”, a college degree has been touted as the ticket to the middle class. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?  That’s total bulls**it, right? If education were the way to economic stability, then Black women wouldn’t be suffering from a racialized pay gap. We’re the most educated group in the entire country and yet, Black women make… I think it’s $0.63 cents to the dollar compared to white men. So that’s obviously not true. 

“A dream that does not serve … the most marginalized  among us is not a dream. It’s a nightmare.”

I think we need to talk about what it means to be American. Anything that’s American is inherently evil because of the way this country was started. So there is no “American Dream” unless you are a Christian white man. When people are talking about ‘make America great again’ what does that mean? When has America ever been great? Who has it been great for? Slave owners? The old Boy’s Club? Like, who is saying this, right? What does it mean to be American? 

Okay, so I’m thinking of the “American Dream” and the American Negro by James Baldwin and whether the “American Dream” is at the expense of the American Negro. And of course this is language from the 1960s, but Negro, Niggah, Black … that language is still very prominent. The “American Dream” does not serve all Americans. It doesn’t exist. A dream that does not serve the least of these, and by least of these I mean the most marginalized among us, is not a dream. It’s a nightmare.

In your community or family, was it assumed that you’d go to college?  It was not are you going to college? It was where are you going to college? Particularly with my dad’s side of the family, they were the academic ones. I mean, everybody had Masters and JDs and Nursing degrees and whoop de whoop. And then my mom, she was in junior college when she got pregnant with me, so she dropped out of college to birth and rear me. Here’s this young woman, 20 years old in city college technical school, gets pregnant, and uses money that is earmarked for tuition to buy a crib. I think that’s indicative of, you know, when we’re talking about the “American Dream”… are there rich white women who are struggling to raise children just out of their teenage years? Or are they legacy at Yale and Harvard and other Ivy League institutions?

I am so delighted to be a part of this great legacy, but I also realize that because my mom never finished her undergraduate degree, that might have been something that she absolutely positively wanted to see in her children. And so I have two Master degrees! I, you know, I drank the Kool Aid and here we are. I have a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School that is a comprehensive degree in Theology and Religion with a focus on Christian Social Ethics and Black Women’s issues. And then I have a Master of Theology, which is an advanced master’s degree that required a thesis and I focused on Practical Theology.

Was your family able to give your options with regard to college attendance?  When I was in 7th grade, I got tapped by my middle school guidance counselor to apply to be a part of a program called Prep for Prep Nine. And Prep for Prep was started in 1979 to help talented and gifted Black and Latino students get access to what we would consider premier educational opportunities, independent day and boarding schools, and private schools, right? So, rather than having the best and the brightest of the New York City Public School System, you know, skate our way through high school, we were led through a 14-month preparatory program. Whereas the summer after 7th grade, Saturdays during 8th grade, and the summer after 8th grade, we were taking academically rigorous courses to prepare us for these private schools. 

“When you are open to maximizing your potential … your path is not linear. Life is not linear.” 

So from a very young age, I knew how to put on, I was valedictorian in 6th grade, okay? I learned in elementary school that my success in academics was paramount. I was told:  You’re going to graduate. You’re gonna go to college. You’re going to get a good job. And I graduated from college without a job and was like, what happened? I did everything right. I did everything ya’ll said I was supposed to do. I got good grades. I went to a good school, like, what happened? So it just goes to show that you can be inundated with dogma and religion, you can be socially and culturally conditioned by family, church, society, but at the end of the day, when you are open to maximizing your potential and fulfilling your destiny and your purpose and your calling, your path is not linear, right? Life is not linear. 

We [shouldn’t] have the cultural pressures that say, you can go into Medicine or Law or Business, and that’s it. Like those are the only three disciplines that are laud-worthy … that are considered accolades or applause-worthy. What does that mean for creators, for healers, for artists, for spiritualists, right? And it’s similar to when we started seeing the acronym skip from STEM to STEAM. We realized, we have to include art when we’re talking about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Why are [they] trying to bifurcate everything? That’s a very westernized, colonized way to look at things … that [things] have to be either/or. That is extremely oppressive and repressive and suppressive. 

How old were you when you became aware of white collar professions and blue collar professions?

High school, honestly, because before then, I had only seen my family. You know, everybody worked professional jobs or folks were in school. I didn’t really see “blue collar” until I went to high school and I noticed that with these private schools, the faculty would be predominantly white, but the service folks would be pretty much all Black. And it was this weird plantation dynamic almost. I realized that I was super privileged. So I think class stuff really came to a head when I was in high school.

“It was this weird plantation dynamic.”

I mean, you can’t separate it from race. When I think about blue collar workers, they’re often poor Black and Brown people. And the fact of the matter is that when we see these racist white people saying ignorant sh**, like ‘don’t let Mexicans in because they’re stealing all of our jobs’ … they’re not becoming CEOs of mega corporations, right? Undocumented folk are working in washrooms and in kitchens. And, you know, I see some of our kin hanging outside of Home Depot waiting to be picked up just to work a day’s wage, maybe $50 in cash. I don’t know ’cause I’ve not hired anyone that way, but, the point is that there’s such a gross divide between the folks who are working what we call blue collar and the folks who are working what we call white collar. 

Did you have champions or mentors or coaches along the way?  All of the above and throughout my life, depending on where I am, whether it’s academic or ministry-related or business-related, I’ve always had mentors, people who are willing to sit with me and give me feedback. I can consult their expertise. [They are] people who support my work, love what I’m doing, speak my name in rooms that I’m not even aware of. There are people who are invested in me, particularly across social media platforms. 

I am a digital content creator, so getting people to buy in, to get excited, and to think differently about their life, their spiritual journeys, their business practices, that’s something that’s super important to me. And, of course my own concentric circles of community, starting with myself, my spiritual practices, my connection to my creator, to my ancestors and my spirit guides. I’m thinking about my healthy relationships with biological family members. I’m thinking about friends who have become family and about all the different ways that I know people: through my sorority, through school, through work, through spiritual stuff. I find the Divine in community and so community is essential to my wellbeing.

Can you remember a defining moment when you adjusted your thinking around what “the world” expected of you and what you wanted to accomplish?  The first thing that came to me was getting a divorce. I had been married for a little less than a year when I realized that I had made a mistake and over the course of the next month, my husband and I decided that we didn’t want to be married to each other. And when I was telling people about it, I would hear things like, “Oh, just give it two more years. Oh, just give it five years.” I was like, is that what married people are out here doing? Just trying to get to an anniversary where y’all don’t hate each other? That doesn’t sound healthy.

Despite my public persona, despite being a Black woman in spiritual leadership, despite, at the time, being a person serving in a church, or who had just come out of serving in a church, you know, all those social expectations of, like, perfunctory perfectionism. Where perfection is an illusion. No one is perfect and yet we all work so extremely hard to appear to be perfect. And in that moment, I was like, I could be miserable, or I could be honest with myself and say, this is not a good fit. This is not a relationship that is serving my highest self. And so desiring separation and divorce from my former spouse was my choosing me. Because in saying “no” to that marriage, I was saying “yes” to everything else that comes on the other side of releasing those spaces, beliefs, narratives, and thought patterns that no longer serve you.

Say more about that ‘perfunctory perfection’. I love the alliteration, first of all. The concepts in that phrase are so dense.  I think because of social obligation, because of social conditioning, because of trauma responses, many of us stay in situations that we have outgrown, but that we are accustomed to. And so whether it is a job, a marriage or other relationships, a home, a living situation, you know, a mentality like if you were raised as a child who by default, because of incapacitated caregivers, you are always taking care of adults in your life… you think that your role is Caregiver. When the fact of the matter is you were a child and you were deserving of care and attention and love and all of that. 

“… we can evolve beyond the roles that were assigned to us.”

We have to think about how our experiences shape and mold us and how we show up in the world and how deeply, deeply we need to be healed so that we can evolve beyond the roles that were assigned to us. The degrees that were bestowed upon us, the corporate ladders that were thrown onto our porches. You know, the desires that mainstream media tells us we’re supposed to want. Maybe you don’t want to get married. Maybe you don’t want to be a homeowner. Maybe you don’t want to have children. And guess what? That’s all okay. Because the “American Dream” is a nightmare anyway. So stop contorting yourself to fit this role that you don’t fit.

I will name some terms and I’d like to hear you define them and share a personal experience. 

Institutionalized Racism – The systematic exclusion to resources, opportunity, and access based upon one’s race or a parent’s race. [As for personal experience] I can talk about private school, usually predominantly white ones, particularly predominantly white Christian rich ones and the ways that they uphold anti-Blackness because of who they are called to serve. I taught at a school, a rich white Christian prep school, in Atlanta. And when it was time for Black History Month, there were these little school notices that would go out. I was an advisor for the girls who identified as Black. And I asked one of them to give me two quotations to use for the Black History Month school blasts that would go out. 

Long-story-short, she submitted a quotation by Malcolm X and a quotation by Muhammad Ali. The school administration decided to reject both of them and instead used a Martin Luther King quotation. That was outrageous. I was livid because I told my students, “Oh yeah, your quotation will be going out on Monday”, or whatever day of the week it was, and it didn’t. And so I’m like, it’s one thing for you to be explicitly anti-Black, right? Because when white people use King quotes, it’s always, “A threat to justice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere” or “The arc of the universe bends towards justice.” They never want to [quote him] when he was talking about economic justice and equity. Right? That’s when their folks actually shot him down: when he started talking about money. 

Needless to say, it was like there was a systematic silencing of pro-blackness, of censuring Black students, of sacrificing Black students at the expense of keeping white people comfortable. That was not the first time that I had seen that, but it’s a time that I remember.

Ethnicity/Race – Race is a made up social construct anyway, right? It was what, the 1700s, when race actually became a thing? So it hasn’t even been around that long. When you think about ethnicity and what ethnic tribe you’re from, it’s not necessarily like Black, white, Asian, Latinex or anything like that. So I think a lot of our language has gotten conflated and that [is due] to a racist, sexist, xenophobic system. 

For me, nationality is more important because outside of the States, let’s look at FIFA, right? The world cup. You got Brazilians rootin’ for Brazil, right? You got Nigerians rootin’ for Nigeria. You got France rootin’ for France. Like, Americans are not rooting for the American soccer team! I think that example is a microcosm of the disintegration of nationalism in a country that was never built to be nationalist, because that would mean that we would all be proud to be American. 

But again, going back to the first part of this conversation, what does it mean to be American? Now we have to talk about Confederate flags. Now we gotta talk about, you know, KKK and the White Aryan Nation, all these different sects. We desire tribe. You are goin’ to find your folk. If you are a racist bigot, you goin’ find your folk. If you are a disabled queer tarot card reader, you goin’ find your folk. Yeah. Race is made up. We should stop living into it. Ethnicity is closer to what I think we all need, which is ultimately tribalism and nationalism, but that’s not something that we will ever have on this land.

Gender Bias – Deeply embedded and unconscious or subconscious, I don’t know, might be both … prejudice against people based on whether they show up as what we call masculine or feminine, or non-binary. [I experienced it] when I was in preschool. We had a dance party and my favorite outfit at the time -I was three or four- was this pink button-down shirt with three buttons and matching pants. It was like Chinese silk floral print, or something like that, but I loved this pantsuit. So I was like, “Ooh, I’m wearing my pantsuit to the party. Let’s go!” 

So then I go, and I’m dancing, dancing. And then, you know, how you movin’ around the room? I go join this circle of girls. And it was two white girls, they were twins and another girl, and I cannot remember her race. But I go to dance with them, and one of the twins said, “You can’t dance with us. You’re wearing pants!” I was like… but that doesn’t make any sense. Right? So in her mind, if you’re a girl you’re supposed to be in a skirt, and if you’re not in a skirt, then you shouldn’t be included … in preschool!

An adult example is when I was serving at a church in New Haven, Connecticut, when I was in seminary and one of our denominational leaders, I mean, high up, like first or second in the state, came to our church for “The Seven Last Words” service, which is traditionally on good Friday in Christian churches. There are seven phrases that are lifted up by seven different preachers. I was the youngest and the only woman. So when we gather to pray before the service starts, this particular person was like, “Hey, how you doing, Reverend? How you doing, Doc?” You know, all of the titles. And then when he gets to me, it’s, “Hey, sweetheart.” That was the first time I experienced that. My today-year-old self is like, “Actually, it’s Minister Briggs”, but I was just so shocked. Also, one of the men should have stepped up and said, “Oh, this is Minister Lyvonne.” 

“… womanist theologians and ethicists and Black feminists … we live at the intersection of race and gender.”

Is there else you want to say about the intersection of ethnicity, gender, and class? Ultimately this is why everyone needs to be reading all the womanist theologians and ethicists and Black feminists because we live at the intersection of race and gender. And race and gender are inextricably linked to class and status. And then once you put in sexuality and sexual identity, it just becomes a hodgepodge of hot mess-ery, if you’re not in the right hands. So listening to the voices of the most marginalized among us is going to help everyone get free. Womanism will save us. Womanism will heal us. Black women have never wanted a freedom that did not include everyone.

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