Photo by Heather Nash
by Kristen Domingue
Our favorite part of our interview with Yodit Mesfin Johnson was the revelation that following her passion was less of a chase and more of a gradual unfolding. Instead of the push of urgency, there was a gradual pull toward alignment that allowed her to do work she loves in a way that works for her. So if you’re not “there” yet, don’t worry. You may be on an earlier step of a similar path to the one Yodit took.
My work and my passion for service is largely influenced by my parents. They were activists and teachers and lawyers, so I guess it was in my genetic makeup. Justice is and always has been a core value of mine. My career and community service have largely been driven by a deeply-held desire for justice; I work with the pieces that are within my reach.
Injustice feels like a fire I’m running towards rather than away from. When I see the effects of injustice, I feel compelled to do something about it. To act. To try to eradicate it. Advancing justice and liberation, especially with and for disadvantaged marginalized people and communities, is my calling.
Acknowledging the pain and impact of inequity feels like a ministry to me. The goal is healing and reconciliation. People experiencing injustice are my tribe; the truth is that many of them look like me, grew up like me, experienced trauma like me. My work allows me to heal my own experiences of intolerance and trauma and to pay forward what I received and learned along the way.
It’s work, but it doesn’t feel like it so much. I get to do what I love for the people I love, and that makes it not seem like work. Whether I’m working with a nonprofit, or with the young people I mentor, or facilitating conversations about power, privilege, and racism, my ‘job’ is to maintain alignment between my purpose, my passion, and my core values.
How to work and which work matters: the clarifying magic of becoming a mom
I’ve had two distinct professional paths: the one before I had children and the one after. I didn’t get married or have children until I was in my mid-thirties. In some ways, that was best for me. My twenties were spent working ‘jobs’ that didn’t necessarily bring me joy or line up with my purpose. They paid the bills (and financed my dreams!), so I won’t complain. My career at that time was a series of entrepreneurial and job mishaps. I was pretty disconnected from my purpose.
By the time I had my first child, I’d had a chance to begin some emotional healing and dug deeper into my entrepreneurial aspirations. I was in the thick of a burgeoning consultancy and working with an economic development organization when I learned I was pregnant with my daughter. It wasn’t the most convenient time, but we were so excited for this new chapter.
In 2006 our daughter was born. Sadly, she was premature and passed within a few hours of birth. We were devastated. Somehow, in the midst of our grief, I became fully aware that she’d been sent to me for the most important lesson I’ve ever learned: I am far more courageous and capable then I’d ever imagined. She was my ‘courage’ baby; she brought with her an experience of resilience and reclaiming my power. In her birth and transition, I learned that I could control the stories I attach to my life experiences; I don’t have to be defined by them. That experience taught me so much about myself and about my strength and conviction. Her story is important because she inspired a total reset of my career. The seeds of my career as a speaker, facilitator, and social entrepreneur were cultivated in those short months with her and in the years since she died.
My next big breakthrough came a few years later when our son was born. Greater clarity about my purpose and how I wanted to use my time on the earth became crystal-clear when I became his mom. My momma-bear instincts kicked in again, this time in full gear. The high-risk pregnancy forced me to be hyper-vigilant about balancing career and my wellness. I also decided when he was born — and this was a biggie — that I could still have it all, just not all at once.
I learned and taught myself the importance of reclaiming my time. I found tools and technology that made it possible for me to be home with him and still get paid. I adjusted my work schedule to align with his. I never stopped working, but I became way more intentional about what work I would and would not do.
My employer, Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW), allowed me the flexibility to work in ways that supported me as a mom. What they did for me a decade ago I try very hard to continue now in my role as Chief Operating Officer. In that role, I have championed changes and adaptations to our human resource policies that support families and make it possible for moms and dads to prioritize their children and earn a living.
The flexibility I have at NEW has definitely contributed to my long tenure there. I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am to do what I love and still be able to pick my kid up from school or attend a field trip. I am incredibly privileged in that way, and when I’m working with other nonprofit leaders as a diversity and inclusion consultant, I’m trying to help them think about how to bring inclusive and responsive policies and procedures into their organizations. I guess the student becomes the teacher.
Chasing passion versus allowing it to unfold organically
There was no particular point when I ‘decided’ to follow my passion or professional path. Instead, there was a series of decisions I made that caused the alignment I have now. Those decisions included practicing envisioning what I want, creating abundance through imagination, getting mentors who could help me process what I needed, and frankly, rebuffing the fear that I had to succeed. That was a key lesson, acknowledging my fear of success. Now, running towards my “fire’’ is much more methodical and intentional.
These days, a lot of my work outside of NEW is for my son. He and I actually work together at times. In honor of him and other beautiful children like him, I founded a program called Black Men Read (BMR). The program is a family literacy initiative that centers stories of Black folks — read by Black men — to audiences of diverse children. I founded this program because in his entire scholastic career (in Washtenaw County) and still to this day, my son hasn’t seen a Black man in a leadership role in his schools. In fact, in his entire school district, there are only three Black principles and around the same number of Black male teachers. BMR is a beautiful opportunity to disrupt that for kids — and it blends my work and family in beautiful ways.
I am proud that I’m at a point where I can see my tests as my testimonies. I am proud of my ability to speak truth to power. I am proud of my resilience. I am proud of the little person I was chosen to be mom to. I am proud that I am a Black woman using my magic for good!
Like anyone, I have regrets. I regret the times I allowed fear to immobilize me. I regret the times I made myself small. I regret not standing up to sexual harassment in the workplace years ago. I’m sad that my marriage failed. But I also embrace all of these regrets because without those experiences, I most certainly would not be who I am today. Regret is about acknowledging that we’re fallible. And we are. So I try not to stay stuck in regret for long. These days I ask myself, What was the lesson to help me learn about myself?
Never, ever, forget that you are worthy. Do not surrender your power to anyone or anything. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Stay humble. Speak your truth. Do not be silenced. Pursue joy relentlessly. Love radically. Build businesses that add value, the money will follow. Love yourself the way you want to be loved by others. Stay rooted and grounded in some spiritual practice. Value the wisdom of the elders.
We admire Yodit’s ability to listen to her life and the way its signals informed her work. So many of us spend life pushing against what’s happening in front of us. But what we uncovered with Yodit is the power of acknowledging how it is, and allowing the cocktail of life inform our steps.