Why I Might Not Be Self-Employed If I Had My Way

Photo by  Daniel Spase  on  Unsplash

About a month ago, I had the immense pleasure of being interviewed for The Dream Differed Podcast. Now, let me set the scene for you. This was a breakfast interview — a whole breakfast. Waffles made in front of me, bacon, mimosas — just, mm. Hosts Christian and Cayman must’ve known something about me when they planned this. Total strangers only moments before, they had me warmed up and gabbing for well over an hour with ease. 

But seriously, Christian and Cayman’s questions stirred up some incredibly significant reflections for me — including the topic of todays’ blog post. As December begins, I’m looking back on two years of self-employment. Two years of not always knowing month to month where my income is going to come from or how much it is going to be. Why?

When Christian asked a question that touched on this, I said:  

(13:30) “I think I just came to understand that that was the only way I was going to have the power to make the decisions that felt dignified to me, and appropriate — even within the nonprofit world… I really expected [the nonprofit and doula worlds] to be spaces where people were very thoughtful, very open to conversation, very reflective, and — you know — we’re doing it for the community right? That’s the slogan, that’s on the brochure, that’s on the website, and everything so why wouldn’t people carry that into their actions and the way that they talk to their coworkers and the way that we make decisions, but then the reality of being in the space and being like —  

”Oh, as soon as I say something I’m a ‘non-productive member’ of this community — as soon as I point something out, it’s like, ‘well, 'I don’t understand that experience, what’s your basis?’ What’s my basis? I’m my basis! I’m the basis!... I carry the legitimacy of what I’m saying with me; I’ve carried it my whole life.”

I needed my work AND my life to be valued. And I needed the lessons and sensitivities of my life’s experience to have a tangible impact and role in my work.

I needed this partly for me — to feed my own soul, which surely gets weary in the workplace when I feel undervalued and silenced — but also because I was seeing that it had DIRECT impact on the outcomes of my work, which had to do with the quality and direction of peoples’ individual and communal lives!

I haven’t innately changed. The way I work hasn’t really changed either. When I was working for someone else, I was still just as genuine and hardworking as I am now. I still cared for the people I worked with and near the same way I care for folks now. I still pulled long hours and did things from a place of passion.

But I didn’t have the power or the influence to be sure that my own good intentions weren’t being… overshadowed or undermined or maybe even upended entirely… by systematic flaws.

Now, to this point it sounds like I’m saying the opposite of this blog post’s title, and — yes that’s sort of true. Unless I come to a point where I understand that practically, I need to put my self-employment to the side in order to sustain my life — I’m likely going to stay self-employed. 

But… in an ideal world, if I had my way, I wouldn’t have those concerns I expressed to Christian and Cayman.

In an ideal world, if I had my way, I could be a part of a company or a nonprofit that provided benefits, and vacation time, and vocational development, and genuinely communicated with the folks they served, intentionally and self-critically pursued the goals they claimed to be committed to, really valued and listened and heard staff who voiced concerns about the communal culture, and did hard work to be sure that the communal culture aligned with the mission… and more...

In an ideal world I never would have felt like I had to go my own way to provide the kind of support I would want to be provided if the tables turned.

If in this world, I ever find a place that proposed to hire me full-time and met those qualifications, I’d absolutely entertain the option. 

So, when Christian asked me if the freedom of self-employment equates to happiness to me, here’s what I said,  

(17:53 in the audio) “I don’t know. I think right now, in a way yes because it just feels like the route… when I think about my ideal, I don’t know if self-employment is ideal. I mean, I’d love to have security, you know, and feel like I’m a part of something that’s not just me. I think it’s exhausting, honestly, being self-employed, and you have to have all these hats on that it’s just not possible for someone’s strengths to be in all the areas that you have to manage when you’re running your own business, so you’re going to have weak spots… and doing things in community is always better, but… if the community’s not ready, sometimes you just do it on your own and that is happier.”


Don’t Tell Me How Culturally Competent You Are and Why

Photo by  Houcine Ncib  on  Unsplash

I’ve been having a really hard time lately. All my life I’ve been in spaces like these ones. Spaces where I’m one of a few Black people or people of color, and I have white people around me (often many of whom I like/admire/appreciate) who are asking me for answers to problems that are quite honestly… not the kinds of problems that have bullet-point answers. So what can I say?

What do I say to someone who says to me, “I’ve heard that I need to reach out to you because I need to hear from Black folks, but I’ve also heard that I shouldn’t burden you with the work of asking you these questions?” 

“Yes.” I feel for the tension here. Both of those perspectives are valid. I want people to listen to Black voices. I also want people to respect that calling on Black voices means those Black people speaking have to enter the uncomfortable and challenging space of figuring out how to communicate their experience to people who may be hearing about these things for the first time and have push-back to the truth.

It is labor. It is mental and emotional labor, not to mention actual time that you are taking away from hours they could worked, or moments they could have had with friends or family, or self-care that they probably already don’t get enough of. And considering the history of Black bodies and labor… probably a good idea to be very mindful of that.

So then someone says, “I will pay you to talk to me/my group. I know it’s labor, and I will pay you for it.”

Okay. Thanks… I appreciate the consideration. But, now I’m wondering… to what end?  

One does not simply become trained in cultural competency (Lord of the Rings reference intentional, hence the meme).

CheyenneVarnerBlogCulturalCompetencyMeme.jpg

If you’re going to pay me or any other Black person to talk to you so that you can now say to someone else, “I’m trained! I’m qualified! I can work great with Black folks now!” then you’ll be wasting your money and I’ll be wasting my time AND worse, putting my stamp on your misunderstanding of what we’re dealing with.

So then someone says, “So you want me to listen to you. But you don’t want me to always call on you. And you don’t want me to pay you?”

Look, if you and I live in the same city, interact in the same online spaces, have any organic ways of connecting at all — here’s what I want.

I want you to know me. I want to know that there’s no agenda to our communications. That you’re not going to make some big announcement post on Instagram or add to your list of services or raise your rates because we had this conversation.

There are groups that do trainings and that’s great. I’m not knocking trainings. I’m just saying unless I have told you specifically that I am a trainer and I offer this training and you've paid me for said training and it is the day of the training and we are in training…

I am not your training field. I am a human being.

And that’s why I want to know you too. I don’t want to feel tense around you. I don’t want to

have a really hard time knowing what to do with my face when I hear you say that you love all the babies in Africa in a conversation about Black women in America, or talk about the little bit of Blackness in your family member, or the civil rights social justice history of your uncle.

If someone brings you up I want to be like, “Oh! You know Janie too? She’s great, I saw her over at Brewer’s the other day. I think she just had a birth at St. Mary’s but I don’t remember, she was on her way to yoga so we just chatted for a minute — I know I’m trying to get like her with that self-care rhythm.”

See how normal that is? I want to be normal with you.

I don’t want you to think I’m being mean when my face contorts when you say things that I know you have good intentions saying. But I want you to know that I have a hard time hearing those things because they feel incredibly distant from what is going on between you and me in the moments that you say them. Don’t try to tell me how cultural competent you are by building some sort of verbal resume for it.

Cultural competency is the life that you live. It is listening, it is acting, it is evaluating the impact of your actions, listening more, acting more, evaluating more, and on and on and on. And yeah it’s going to be hard and not everyone’s going to love your decisions or approve of them.

But what are you doing this for? Are you doing it for praise? Or are you doing it for impact?

And what is impact? Do you have to be at the center of it? Or could you be satisfied pouring in and stepping back?

I have work to do too. Because our world has raised us to see each other in strict and narrow ways I associate whiteness with connections and resources (often accurately, let’s be real). But because of this sometimes I have to remind myself, look this is a person with an experience, just like I am a person with my experience. I don’t want to take you for granted, either.

I get that White folks are not a monolith any more than Black folks are. I can’t and don’t expect every white person to have the same access and availability. But I absolutely do expect any White person who tells me they want to do better to start showing me.

Like I said, this work is both of ours. But realize this…

While it’s likely that you (White Folks) have been grappling with these issues fairly recently in your life — and as distant potential participants in injustice (like you often say, “I didn’t own slaves / I don’t personally do XYZ / I’m not one of these politicians”) — many POC have been aware and grappling with these issues since around age 10 or younger — as the personal and generational recipients of discrimination.

I specifically remember the day I realized… not just that I was Black but that being Black meant something bad could happen to me or someone I loved. I was 8 years old. So I’ve been at this for almost 20 years.

Sometimes I get angry. Tired. Sad. But I’m still in it… and (though there are some folks I do have to establish boundaries with) I’m in it with you, not against you. So let’s do this thing.


Sometimes I Don’t Even Blog — This Is One of Those Times

Photo by  Anita Austvika  on  Unsplash

Photo by Anita Austvika on Unsplash

Between travel, wrapping up writing and reading for my doula certification process, and some very real just emotional and mental exhaustion, sometimes I don’t have the capacity to put a blog post together, and when that happens honestly, I have to just remind myself that it’s not that serious. I’ve said plenty out loud lately. The blog can take a backseat this week.

Charge or Fundraise? Raising the Question as I Experience One Answer

Photo by  iam Se7en  on  Unsplash

Photo by iam Se7en on Unsplash

It’s an interesting concept isn’t it? Have you ever thought of fundraising so that your services or your product could be accessible to someone?

There are two sides to this coin. In the age of Kickstarter, IndieGogo, GoFundMe, Generosity and other crowdfunding and donation sites, we have plenty of platform options for it. But put that against the pressure to “know your worth” and expect that delivery from folks you’re providing services and products to — it’s not so clear what to do.

This was the position I found myself in last month, when a parent reached out to me with a unique situation that called upon my doula services from states away. I won’t go into the details of this unique situation, because that’s honestly neither here nor there. All I’ll say is that with the request in front of me, I knew there had to be a way to make a way.

In general, I don’t always charge for my services. Sometimes I charge according to my sliding scale, sometimes I barter, sometimes my services are available voluntarily — free! How’s that fair? It all depends on context.

How did the person/organization requesting find me? And what is their capacity to pay?When people find me through my website or my social media, most of the time, they have the capacity to invest in the service they’re looking for, and they expect to, and it fits.

Other times, with my doula services, people get matched with me after they apply for support through The Richmond Doula Project. The Richmond Doula Project is a collective of doulas that specifically exists to make doula support accessible to folks who wouldn’t have it otherwise. We recently added a sliding scale option for folks who find us but do have some capacity to pay. But the majority of the time, that’s not the case.

Is there another factor to be considered?Usually the two above questions are enough to determine how something will be paid for and to what extent. And because I’ve operated like this for over a year now, usually wherever we land works well.

But in this case there was an additional factor to be considered. Travel.

When I had a conversation with this parent about that, we were on the same page. She understood that traveling would cost me, and while she could pay for my services (through installments), she understood that wouldn’t be enough to get me there to be on-call for her birth. But she definitely didn’t have the capacity to pay my travel costs.

So were we at an impasse? We could have been. But, did we have to be? Did this have to mean she couldn’t have the support she was reaching out for?

“I have an idea,” I told her. “I think we could fundraise to cover my travel costs.” I felt that between some fundraising and the first installment payment she would pay, I could get to her, and the rest of what she paid could cover the services that I would provide.

Why go through all of that?

I don’t know if I’d do it for anything other than birth support. When it comes to birth support, I think, why would I not do it? Birthing people, and to such a large extent, Black women in particular, have to go through so much just to be and feel safe in their birth experiences.

If I know that this woman would feel that much more at ease during labor by my presence (especially knowing the impact of emotional stress on labor) and I know there’s a possible way for me to get there to make that happen, why would I not do it?

Honestly, I shouldn’t have to fundraise. Insurance should fully cover access to birth support. Hospitals should hire or reimburse for continuous birth support (they’d probably save money in the long run). Companies should offer access to birth support to their employees as a part of their benefits. This kind of support is important enough, and proven enough, that access to it should be woven into our lives in some way, shape, or form.

But we’re not there yet. So I made a t-shirt. And I invited people, real wonderful people all around me to buy that t-shirt and fill the gap.

And now I’m going to Georgia to provide some birth support.

P.S. The campaign isn’t over yet. If you want to join the team that’s supporting this, click here.


How Do You Solve a Problem Like Work/Life Balance?

Photo by  Shalom Mwenesi  on  Unsplash

(Said to the tune of "How do you solve a problem like Maria?")

What does work/life balance really mean? Does it mean equal parts work and equal parts “life”? Does it mean enough “life” to give you energy for all the work? Does it mean a back and forth throughout a week, or work work work work vacation work work work work long weekend work work work work…

I think this can and should look different for different people in different seasons of our lives. When I was in college, I put my classes together in ways that I felt would force me to get up early and start working earlier in my day so that when I started resting, I’d already have work behind me. When I was working for a nonprofit, I took work home with me a lot. I’d work from 9am to 12am some days. It was out of passion and conviction and I wouldn’t take that back. Now, I try to space out my days. Work some hours in the morning, break for lunch and maybe an extra hour for midday errands when traffics slow, and then pick things up in the evening, maybe even after dinner and work again until late at night.

My personality, and the stage of life I’m in, and the way my employment is — these all encourage and enable me to practice work and life the way I am right now. I’m hopeful that having this season will help me carry some healthier practices into the other seasons of my life too, even if I can’t manage my time in those times the same as I do now.

I’m really grateful.

And I’m really in awe of the people I see around me kicking butt and taking names in their own way, their own seasons. Parents who work so hard and raise adorable little humans at the same time — I can’t imagine how I’d change diapers and graphic design right now. Couples who do their own thing and then bring their amazingness together to do even bigger things — that’s just beautiful. People who work multiple jobs to keep life moving smoothly and pave the way to the future they desire — that’s endurance, right there.

I see people who show their vulnerabilities so that others won’t feel alone. People who share how it can be hard to get out of bed and how they do life through that. I see people who seem to always be on the go. People who are always somewhere, saying something, making something happen. I see those worlds collide, too.

Because honestly, no matter what our personalities are — whether we might feel we are more inclined to go go go a little too much or to slow things down a little too much — we all have to go on this journey of finding what balance is and how we can achieve it — and it’s just not easy.

Especially in a world that certainly doesn’t do most of us any favors in that journey.

So this post is a little different than some of the other posts I’ve made lately. It’s really just… what’s been on my mind. No tips or tricks, no answers.

Balance is hard. Priorities aren’t always easy to clearly establish. Sometimes things we really care about don’t get the time and attention we want them to get because there are other things we literally can't avoid giving time to... at least for a while.

My hope for anyone reading would be that you’re able to find ways to make sure your health and wellness are on the top of that priority list though. Yes, we have different seasons in our lives but still, only one life.

Whatever it means for you... I hope you hold a moon beam in your hand. ☀️


What does work/life balance mean to you in this season? Do you see it changing sometime? Tell me about it!