One of my more fulfilling and humbling experiences has been coaching six Latina immigrant women who are part of a new program that supports low-income entrepreneurs to launch their own cooperative businesses.
What makes this program unique is the strength-based approach of recognizing and continuously lifting up the life experience that these women bring to cooperative development. We remind them that they are in charge (not us) of the success of their business; that if anyone can do it, they can. Their resilience is astounding: they have crossed borders against all odds; most of them are the primary breadwinners for their families, hold 2-3 jobs, care for their children so they can one day go to college and more. But no matter how much I lift up their resilience, in this society, I know that I am the one with the privilege: a US passport, a Master’s degree, stable income and the list goes on…
By the time the coaching sessions began, I already had a great deal of information about these clients— way more than they would ever have about me. Like most nonprofit or government programs of this nature, participants have to go through an extensive intake process that reveals their income level, family history and life experience.
So I had an inkling that the discovery session needed to be more about me than about them, and ultimately about the power differential between us. Most visible was my director level title; my skin color, lighter than most of the participants; my fluency in both English and Spanish; and my level of comfort as a trainer. The rest was a mystery that merited unveiling.
For my clients, coaching itself was completely new and unfamiliar. When asked what they understood about coaching, most of them compared it to a case worker who, “helps me cope with problems and access critical social services.” After explaining what transformational coaching was about, I let each one of my clients ask anything she wanted about me. I could tell that asking me questions felt like a breach in some way, so it was very important to emphasize the many ways coaching differs, particularly that I was not the one with the answers. I could see the discomfort melt away as I revealed bits of information about myself, acknowledging differences of privilege and making connections to shared experiences.
One of my clients, I will call Itzel because she identifies as indigenous, took me to task. She asked where I was born, what my immigration status was, how I got this job and what prepared me for it. A shift in our relationship happened when I shared some pain I felt around not belonging when I moved to the US from Mexico at age 13. I didn’t plan it this way. I was ready to focus on my privilege and own it, but while essential, that is not what created the shift for us. My vulnerability around difficult life experiences gave Itzel an opening. I could feel her compassion and connection around this topic of belonging. It was a particular kind of felt experience in the moment that told me a door had opened for both of us.
Where power differences are so marked around race, class and immigration status, conscious relationships are ongoing rather than something you just focus on during a discovery session. These coaching experiences teach me so much about the true meaning of conscious relationship, which is unlikely if differences of power and privilege remain tucked under a rug. I am learning how to meet these differences with clear eyes and an open heart, and most of all, I am so grateful for a profession that gives me permission to learn from and be transformed along with my clients.
Written by Maria Rogers Pascual
Excerpt from Coaching for Transformation by Lasley, Kellogg, Michaels and Brown.
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