I’m the first generation in my family to do many things for the first time: graduate high school, earn a college and graduate degree, and lead as the founder of Mi Oaxaca. The earlier experiences generated doubt about my presence in those institutions and organizations. But now I have a different relationship when the imposter syndrome arises.
I recently shared my thought process and reflections about how I address the imposter syndrome when it tries to peak its annoying head. I’ve been sharing this story with colleagues and friends quite a bit and sharing it more openly because I hope that those who freeze up when doubt and insecurities take over can access information and reflection to get unstuck.
Leadership and the Imposter Syndrome
In December 2023, I was invited to participate in a panel at the Mellon Foundation’s Humanities in Place grantee convening. I accepted the invitation because I know that part of my role as a founder and director is to put my work and voice out there.
One of the questions was on leadership. Specifically, how the grants we received changed our approach to team building, our relationships to the communities we center, as well as challenges and successes.
I vulnerably and honestly answered that the challenges I’ve faced have been internal, but that those internalized blocks actually stem from larger systems and cultures that make people like me feel like I’m not quite ready, not quite enough. I shared something along the lines of:
Neither of my parents had the opportunity to make it past sixth grade, so I’m the first to graduate high school. I’m the first in my family to go to college and to graduate school. I graduated from a prestigious public university. I did it while undocumented. Before DACA. I didn’t have access to grants, loans, work-study, or paid internships. Working in the restaurant industry is how I paid for the majority of tuition and fees. I juggled work, school, and family. It was hard but I did it. I can say that now, but back then, I certainly felt behind and like I didn’t belong in those institutions.
Now I’m the first in my family to start an organization. So when the voices of the imposter syndrome want to interrupt me, I list out all the things that I’ve overcome and the things I’ve accomplished in spite of systemic challenges. Then I reframe the experience and remind myself that I’m doing something I’ve never done before. That I’ve done really hard things before and that I can do it again. I am also aware that this journey entails making mistakes, and learning from them. I’ve already made mistakes, and I’ve learned from them. And when it comes to leading a community, we are best suited to lead ourselves. It’s not the credentials or fancy degrees that make us leaders. It’s the care and drive to figure it out.
After I answered, the room filled with applause. At the moment, I thought the applause was for the vulnerable response. But as the day went on I realized that it was because many resonated with the experience of the imposter syndrome.
We invited other grantees to share their comments and questions, one of the grantees shared her thoughts on leadership as it relates to her work in Socorro, TX. She said something along the lines of: When people think of leaders, they don’t look to places like Socorro, they don’t think leaders can come out of there. We have a narrow idea of what leaders are, what they look like, what they do, and I really appreciate Fabiola’s response. I have more to reflect on.
At dinner, one of the program associates shouted from across the table “Fabiola, I love you.” I shouted back “Thank you, I love you too.” How can I not love someone back when they’re expressing their love out loud?!
When I got a chance to be next to her, I asked “why do you love me?” Bold!
I’m summarizing, her response was: “because of what you shared about imposter syndrome. Me too. I come from a family that doesn’t have formal higher education. I grew up . . [she listed the various things that were particular to her experience as an Afro-Latina]. Then she continued, “but now I’m here, I make big decisions. And I wonder, “is this what having power feels like?”
The Imposter Syndrome and Social Conditions
The accomplishments thus far are because I’ve had people believe in me, the vision, the needs, and the work that I do. While anti-immigrant, anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, etc. are baked into policy that consequently shape social conditions and culture, there are also people who’ve had my back navigating this part of my journey.
Of course, I am afraid of failing. Of not doing it right or well. But I also remember a mentor’s words, which is that white men (and people) still get the most funding across sectors. And when they don’t “succeed” they don’t have to carry the weight of whole peoples and communities on their shoulders. They cut themselves slack and then they try again. My mentor’s message was to take some pressure off myself. That things don’t have to be perfect, that learning and iteration are part of the process.