‘They wanted me to make myself smaller, so they could be comfortable’
This article is part of Ambition Diaries, read the full series here.
For four years, Francesca Polanco, 30, climbed the ladder working in human resources at a New York tech firm, but in 2018 she quit and moved back home to Miami. Once there, she trained virtually to be a full-spectrum doula with Black-led organizations in New York, something that was impossible before the pandemic. Since June 2020 Francesca and her mother, Damita Polanco, 57, have been running have been collaborating and running their own practices, Damita in holistic herbalism and Francesca in birth work, in Miami. In addition to her business, Francesca and her partner care for their infant, and her 67-year-old father.
Damita also spent her career in Human Resources, for 30 years, working as a senior-level executive at a healthcare company. But in 2018 the company outsourced her job. After several months of travel, she discovered a passion for herbalism and turned her backyard into an urban farm. In January 2021, after her mother died, Damita inherited the land that belonged to her family in Virginia; there she plans to build the “garden of her dreams.” She views the land as an opportunity to be one of the first herbal farms owned by and for Black, brown, and Indigenous communities.
As part of the Ambition Diaries project in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the pair spoke with Fast Company about sexism and discrimination in their parallel careers, making the switch from corporate positions to purpose aligned entrepreneurship, and the role of a partner.
The following conversation between mother and daughter has been edited for length and clarity. Click here for more Ambition Diaries stories.
“THEY WANTED ME TO MAKE MYSELF SMALLER, SO THEY COULD BE COMFORTABLE”
Damita: Before it was called Human Resources, it used to be called Personnel. [In 1987] my boss, the director of HR, thought that the secretary working for the general counsel was very attractive. One day [the secretary] came in a very formfitting dress. He’s calling her name and laying dollars down on the floor as he’s backing up toward his office.
Francesca: Toward the end of my time [at the tech company], we had some pregnant women [working there]. Man, the comments! Especially [from] those in leadership—[things like] that maternity leave is a vacation. Or when we had to extend a reasonable accommodation for a pregnant woman: “well, we might as well fire her.” [Or] “We’re just giving away money for free?” What’s the point of this?” I had several women [who I worked with], who were scared to announce their pregnancy.
Damita: That was very, very common. Even as I grew through the ranks, I remember when I got promoted to director, the very first thing [they had me do was what] they called executive coaching. [My boss] got feedback about me from my peers and the people under me. The feedback was that I was smart and knew I was smart. But I was intimidating to everybody else. So, the feedback for me was to energy match and to make myself smaller, so that they could be comfortable, which was wild as hell to me.
Francesca: I mean the sexism, the racism ran rampant. I think it still does. And because we’re brought up in this culture of like, “Climb the ladder, do what you got to do.” Oftentimes you have that nervous chuckle, that uncomfortable chuckle, or you turn the other cheek or, and-
Damita: And you learn to stay silent because the few times that you do say something-
Francesca: You’re the troublemaker.
“I HAD BEEN RAISED TO BE A BOX CHECKER.”
Damita: Life is very different from five years ago. I was all about the B.S. I had beautiful suits. I had beautiful bags. I had beautiful shoes. [My] hair was perfectly coiffed and pressed. I made a salary that made me comfortable financially, but I was sick.
Now I live a very different life. I have the freedom to build a life that works for me that I just never had before. I think we both do. I knew I just needed to lean into this, which was scary. I had a mortgage. I had been raised to be a box checker. I woke up one morning and just was like, okay, I’m going to dig up the backyard, and I’m going to the garden.
Francesca: You made space for that four or five years ago, for me. We used to talk every single day, for hours. That time we spent talking to each other every day, it wasn’t until then that I could imagine something different that allowed us to dream, cultivate, and manifest what a new life could look like.
“YOU CANNOT LIVE THIS AUTHENTIC LIFE IF PART OF YOUR LIFE IS STILL A LIE.”
Damita: Everything that I knew had been taken away from me, my job, the amount of money that I had. And so I’m here in this white room, except there is one familiar thing here: my marriage. And I remember you asked me, “Okay, so what about him?”
There’s a level of fear about being alone and what that looks like? Because I [had] been with your dad since I was 25. My entire experience, almost as an adult, had been with your father. Twenty-five is young—really, really, really young.
It took me three years to build up the courage to say, “you cannot live authentic this authentic life if that part of your life is still a lie.”
Francesca: Whenever I would talk about you like to close friends, I would always say like, “Yo, like my mom is the smartest woman. She’s amazing, except when it comes to men.” That’s just that one thing, that one hang up— my mom chooses the wrong ones and [that] was my father. And I love Papi, but I was hyperaware of him not being a good husband or partner.
Growing up as a young woman, my sister and I would talk about this a lot, and we just would say like, do all men cheat? Do we just have to like get used to that or deal with it? Because of what we saw. We often practice learned behavior whether it’s intentional or not. We knew that we had the possibility of [not] putting up with things that we didn’t think were fair. So, it just became this sort of fight to not end up how we saw our parents.
“I FEEL BETTER THAN I EVER HAVE IN MY LIFE.”
Damita: I don’t think our story is different from many other Black families in the states. My family can’t imagine that I’m reinventing myself at 56. They just don’t understand. Many people don’t know what to do with themselves when they’ve been on this track and when they find it in their fifties.
I feel better than I ever have in my life. I feel confident enough to say, yep, I’m going to be a farmer, and I’m going to deal with 45 acres, and that’s not a problem.
“I LEARN SOMETHING FROM HER ALL THE TIME.”
Francesca: The pandemic has done good and bad in birth work. As a doula, it gave us more presence and awareness across the board for people. Before, it was only a specific kind of person that sought out a doula or even knew what that was. Now it’s becoming primarily known. On the other side, we were limited in our work because hospitals were not allowing doulas in because we are seen as support persons, just like a partner or family member rather than a professional. But the Black maternal mortality rate in this country is off the charts. Doulas drastically change that number because of the physical and emotional support we provide, as well as the educational support.
A lot of birth workers choose to give virtual support, but it’s not the same. I could give you the virtual support, but you know, when you’re in labor, [you] can’t have a phone in [your] face. It’s not the same. You need the person there with you.
Damita: It’s the hardest work you’re doing in your life. Your heart will never work harder than in those hours that you are giving birth. It is the hardest thing that you can do, and the support [Francesca provides] is needed. Just the tenderness that [you] show to the women. I am so proud of her. I am so in admiration and in awe; I learn something from her all the time. So, it’s role reversal when it comes to that. She knows everything and I know nothing when it comes to that realm—I’m exceptionally proud.
Francesca: I know that I’m living the life that I want to live and I’m standing in my truth and I’m walking in my purpose. But that’s not easy while living in the society that we live in. That’s the only thing that I wish was different. That this walk was a little easier.
Damita: I wish that I had come to this place so much earlier. I also can appreciate that I needed to go through everything that I went through in order to get here. But I still wish that it had been earlier . . . I wish that I didn’t feel the need to justify what we’re doing . . . Everything feels like you’re pulling yourself up on a sheer rock face against this. And then I say to myself a lot of times, and that’s okay to be a trailblazer. It’s okay to be different. Because if listening to the masses, we’d still think that the world was flat.
Francesca: I just want to give [my child] what you wished for your children. I want to provide more guidance and examples of being able to dream and follow your dreams. I also want to show him how to choose himself. I don’t want to be like Nana . . . I just want to change the trajectory of my lineage . . . I wanted to show him joy.
Akilah Wise is a public health researcher and journalist who covers topics in public health, medicine, and inequity in the U.S.
Melody Timothee is a Miami-based photographer who is passionate about art direction and storytelling.
Co-published with Fast Company.