Conquer having conversations about uncomfortable but much-needed topics: There are so many things we aren’t comfortable discussing because of fear or because we don’t understand how important it is to have certain conversations. I think a lot of healing can be done if we learn how to have healthy, respectful dialogue.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Athalia Monae: Innovator of the ALAHTA hairbrush pouch and author of “Why the Secrets”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in the projects on the Southside of Chicago, in a family of nine children and both parents. I was soft-spoken and mild-mannered but loved to have fun, loved laughing. I laughed a lot in school, which would get me and some of my classmates in trouble with our 8th-grade teacher. I liked hanging out with friends but, I loved school and reading. The school was one of my favorite places to be. I was a bookworm but also the typical child/teenager. After entering high school, I started taking life seriously, not exceptionally serious, but just serious, if that makes any sense. I did so well in high school that I graduated a year ahead of my graduating class. That wasn’t my intent but I was happy about it.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
When I was 13 years old, I started doing odd jobs for a bedridden neighbor, the odd jobs consisted of me going to the store and washing dishes for her, a few times a week. She was very fragile and weak, so she had a caregiver. One day I came home from the neighbor’s house and my mom’s friend, Ora, was at our house. She mentioned to me how she noticed I like to work, I confirmed that I did. By this time, I was now 14 ½ years old. She asked if I would like to come work with her and I excitedly told her I would. She worked for the Chicago Board of Education and got me a summer job thereafter I turned 15 years old. I assisted her and the ladies in her division. They taught me how to do the filing system, how to type, answer phones, etc. I worked there for two summers before I sought out a job where I can make money beyond the summer months, so I started working at Burger King. I loved having my own money. That experience at the Board of Education made me want to work in administration when I got older. I’m grateful to my mom’s friend for taking interest in me and helping me get my first office job.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m currently working on my next book and my vision for this book is that anyone who reads it, will walk away with a changed heart and mind for the better. I’m also working on my Podcast, which is due to launch soon. I love helping people in almost any way I can if I can. When COVID-19 first struck us, I felt so heartbroken at the loss of lives more than anything, but then there was the loss of jobs, homes, and businesses. To add to all of that, we had to witness and experience the tug-a-war that was going on with our politicians…very sad. As I’m watching things play out, I kept wondering what I can do to help out. My first book launched during the Pandemic and I was interviewed by a radio show owner to discuss my book. After the live interview was over, she and I continued the conversation, which resulted in her inviting me to do a Podcast at her radio station. That’s when the light bulb went off. I started thinking, this could be the perfect platform for me to help out with everything that’s going on. I pulled my notebook out and started jotting down topics that I felt is needed and would be appreciated at any time but especially now. I started reaching out to potential guests and was encouraged even more when everyone I reached out to, agreed to be a guest on my Podcast. The purpose of this Podcast is to Inspire, Uplift, Encourage and Inform. With everything that’s going on, I know it’s weighing on a lot of people’s mental health, so I’ve invited a psychiatrist for one episode and a clinical psychologist for another episode. Families went from barely seeing each other to being with each other every day all day, parents became their children teachers, some families went from having more than enough to not having enough, families who are used to spending the holidays with their loved ones had to either have holiday’s with family over Zoom or not at all. One of my guests is a business coach, so that episode is for anyone who’s looking to start a business or move to the next step in their current business. All the content will be to help people in one way or another. This is my contribution to helping out.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
When I was 20 years old, I was looking for a new job, I applied at a staffing agency about an hour away from where I lived. I was tested and had basic office skills but no software experience. I wasn’t qualified for any of the positions I applied for. The office manager told me if a position becomes available that I was qualified for, she would call me. After a few days, I called her and explained that I didn’t have a computer and wanted to know if I can come in and use their computers to learn the software I needed so that I can become more marketable. She agreed to allow me to use their computers to do tutorials. When she asked how often would I like to come and I told her three times a week for two hours each day, she seemed very shocked because she knew I didn’t live right around the corner. She asked if I was sure I wanted to drive out there that many times just to use their computers, I told her I was positive. I explained that the sooner I learn the software, the sooner they can retest me and the sooner I will be qualified for the positions I was seeking. She laughed and told me she liked that. I had been doing the tutorials and sharpening my other skills for about three weeks when the office manager approached me about a temporary position with the State of Illinois. I would be covering for someone while they were out on maternity leave, so I knew it wasn’t a long-term position. One week before the employee who I was filling in for was due to return, that department manager came to me and told me how impressed she was with me and she encouraged me to apply for a permanent position, she told me to use her as a reference. Later that same day, a manager of a different department came to me and thanked me for helping them out and told me to use her as a reference as well. I was so excited and happy. I applied for two different positions, took the Civil Service exam, and once I received notification that I had passed, I contacted the office manager of the staffing agency and updated her on what was going on, she was so excited for me and told me she wasn’t surprised to hear any of what I had just shared with her. She shared with me that I didn’t have all the skills the temporary position required but she knew I would do well. She told me that I impressed her with my desire to learn that software, how I was willing to make that drive three times a week to do what I needed to do to make myself more marketable. She told me to never lose that determination and persistence. Her name was Ms. Cooke and her nurturing the potential and drive she saw in me, meant the world to me. That advice she gave me has always stayed with me.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
Every time I think about this situation, I laugh. So, this company I worked for had organized some workshops for all employees. We all received emails, which included what rooms we should report to, the dates and times. After we received the emails, I spoke with a few co-workers and we were all scheduled for the same day but we never discussed the time or room number we were supposed to report to. We all assumed we had the same information since we were all on the same team. On the day of the workshop, I reported to the room that I was assigned to. I didn’t see anyone from my team in the room, which was weird. I asked the person next to me, what was room was we in. The room number he gave me was the same room number I was assigned to. My manager’s boss was the moderator for the room I was in. I strongly felt I wasn’t in the right room, so about 10 minutes after the moderator started talking, I raised my hand and told the moderator that I didn’t think I was in the right room, he asked me why did I think that. I explained that although I’m in the correct room based on the email I received, I didn’t see anyone from my team in this room. He told me that as long as I’m in the room that was assigned to me via email, then I’m okay. A half-hour after the workshop started, my manager peeks her head in the room and signals for me to come to the door. As I’m gathering my things to leave, the moderator looks over at the door at my manager, she tells him that I’m in the wrong room and tells him the room number I should be in. He looks at me and says “I told you, I didn’t think you should be in this class”. Everyone in the room started laughing, except my manager because she had no idea what we were laughing at. He told her the truth before she and I left the room. Although I did the right thing, my takeaway was, follow your gut feeling.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Maya Angelou is one of my favorite authors and when “I Know Why the Caged Bird sings” was first published, I mentioned to someone that I was going to buy the book and that person surprised me by gifting me the book for Mother’s Day or Christmas, I don’t remember which one. I was so excited, I immediately started to read the book. I was blown away at how transparent and generous Maya Angelou was. She shared a lot. Her will to flourish into this beautiful, smart, and intelligent woman, despite the things she had experienced and witnessed over the years was very impressive and is something that resonated with me. She didn’t allow herself to be held hostage by these things. She was mute for years because she felt that her reporting the person who hurt her had brought harm to him and she didn’t want to bring harm to anyone else, but once she started to speak again, she realized how powerful her voice was. Her voice was well received and appreciated, even after her death. This resonates with me because of the things I have experienced over the years. I refused to let it break me, or hold me, hostage, instead, I used it for different stages of growth, it played a part in me not allowing my failures to be final, in believing in myself, and standing strong in what I believe in.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite life lesson quotes is by Karen Salmansohn, “The older I get the more I realize the importance of walking away from people and situations which threaten my peace of mind, self-respect, values & self-worth.” This quote speaks to me so much because, in the past, I kept people in my life that I knew weren’t good for me in one way or another. I kept them in my life because of my concern of hurting their feelings if I distanced myself, loyalty, love, or because of how we were connected. At that time, I didn’t realize the damage I was doing to myself by keeping these people around. I was sabotaging my peace of mind, self-respect, happiness, values & self-worth. After I realized what I was doing, I took responsibility by removing myself and doing better. How they reacted after I did what was best for me, was all the confirmation I needed that I did the right thing. That’s when I started to feel my best.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is encouraging and supporting others toward either a common, individual, personal or professional goal. It’s not being afraid to stand alone in any matter that you feel strongly about. It’s providing support even if you’re not currently where you would like to be. It’s doing the right thing, even when you’ve been done wrong. It’s realizing you’re just as flawed and imperfect as the next individual and being okay with that.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
There’s a lot of people that are hurting financially, mentally, and emotionally and this has been their situation way before now, but the COVID-19 and the presidential race had added to that. I believe things evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now because too many people have lost focus as to what’s most important. We’re not thinking about the bigger picture and what’s best for us all. We’re not respecting each other’s opinions. We’re allowing stress and frustration to lead our thoughts and, in some situations, our actions. Sadly, everything that is currently going on is a lot to handle for some people and they don’t know how to handle it.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co-workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
Although my relative and I are not alienated, we do have different points of view about the new administration and we disagreed about that, but no lines were crossed. I still stand strong in my beliefs and she still has her beliefs. Also, I’m in an interracial relationship and my significant other and I have gone down the same road as my cousin and I have. He and I have had many uncomfortable conversations and disagreements about the Black Lives Movement, systemic racism as well as the old and new administration but we’ve also educated each other on certain topics and we’ve grown individually and as a couple.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
I think realizing that because you come from the same family doesn’t mean that everyone has to think alike, is a start. It’s okay to have different views. If you have a different point of view as a family member, have respectful dialogue as to why you feel the way you do. Sometimes there are no right or wrong answers, you just feel the way you feel for whatever reason. Educate each other on why you feel the way you do, if you have supporting information to back up what you’re saying, present it. Use that as a teachable moment. I feel that communication is underrated, and if families learn how important it is to communicate openly, honestly, and respectfully, then most likely, there would be far less division.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
The workplace is kind of a tough one because it’s the workplace and that’s different than family. I think a good place to start would be at the top with management because management sets the tone. They could create workshops with a moderator for employees and have them discuss their points of view and why they have those views. Before the workshop, have rules put in place for everyone so that things don’t get out of hand like they’re known to get with political topics. A lot of times we’re divided for whatever reason and once we start to talk and have discussions, we realize that the division was pointless. At one of my previous jobs, one year, management conducted this workshop a few times a day that spanned over a week and a half or two, they wanted to make sure all employees participated. In each session, they placed the employees in groups of six, maybe seven, each group was given a number for that particular group and the groups were instructed to discuss the topic that we were all given, we were given 10–15 minutes to discuss. After that time, one person from the group would share with everyone else in the room what our views were, even if they were divided. We were then instructed to move to a different group number and repeat what we had done in the previous group but with a different topic. The objective was for us to understand that’s it’s okay to agree to disagree and for us to have conversations with other employees that we may have seen walking down the hall but had never said anything more than, hello, good morning, or something work-related. There were new relationships formed because of the discussions/interactions at the workshop. It was nice.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self-identify. But of course, there are many other ways to self-identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
I agree, I believe the majority does see political affiliation as the primary way to self-identify. Years ago, I had a “who am I and what do I stand for” moment, with myself. I think we should all have one of those moments. Think about it, and be honest with ourselves. Do not factor in family, friends, or coworkers. Some people make decisions based on what they feel is expected of them from people they’re close to. After being able to self-identify, try and find groups on social media or in your community that support who you are and what you stand for. Knowing who you are and what you stand for is very vital, it helped me with better decision making, strengthened my critical thinking and my self-love.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term, there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals, none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
Simply put, don’t play the go-along to get-along game. I understand how easy it is to get sucked in, but do not fall for it. Social media gives some people a false sense of importance. Some people will do or say anything to increase their social media following and to get noticed. Educate your loved ones and friends as to what these companies are doing, because not everyone is aware. Encourage them to educate others. We have to start somewhere and that would be a good starting point.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
If there’s anything we can do, I would say, think for ourselves and be realistic. Some of the information reported is reported to purposely cause division. If you care enough about what the media is reporting, fact check by thoroughly doing your research. Whatever your stance is, stick with it. I can’t say it enough, be respectful of other people’s opinions. We don’t always have to agree but it’s a must to be respectful when we don’t.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
Great question. It is very sad and it’s scary as well. I don’t think we realize that in the end, no one wins. When we do this, I don’t feel we’re truly thinking about longevity and the dangers that we may very well be contributing to by not being responsible with our privileges and the decisions we make, which most, if not all the time is based on popularity or us not doing our research on the candidates who’s running for office. A lot of us vote for whoever the collectives are voting for, or for anyone running (without educating ourselves on the candidate) for the same party that we have aligned ourselves with.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Be mindful of what you say before you say it: Think to yourself, if you would be offended, feel disrespected, or hurt if it was said to you, then maybe you shouldn’t say it to anyone else.
- Respect each other’s point of view: It’s okay to agree to disagree.
- If there’s a way that you can help, please do: If you know someone is in need, sharing a resource, being a listening ear or even a kind word can make a big difference in their day. None of that cost a thing.
- Try putting yourself in the other person shoes first as opposed to immediately judging: None of us are always at our best and it can catch some people off guard and rub them the wrong way, but if we keep in mind that that could easily be us, then I think we would show more grace to one another.
- Conquer having conversations about uncomfortable but much-needed topics: There are so many things we aren’t comfortable discussing because of fear or because we don’t understand how important it is to have certain conversations. I think a lot of healing can be done if we learn how to have healthy, respectful dialogue.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Some of the things we can do to be nicer to each other are, remind ourselves daily that we are all human, we all have feelings, we all need understanding and we are all flawed. Taking account of these things would be our way of keeping ourselves in check, which would be a great benefit to the rest of the world.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m naturally optimistic about any situation and this situation is no different. If we all tried to do something to help, doesn’t matter how big or small the gesture; I think it can get a lot better if nothing else, but we all have to do our part and be consistent.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would tell young people that their contribution isn’t only for our today but it’s going to make the world a better place for them and the families they will one day have. I would explain that all of our contributions are a shared responsibility. Volunteering or doing something nice for someone else makes me feel good and I would share that with them and encourage them to do the same. I’ve given even when I didn’t have a lot to give but I had more than the person I was sharing with or the people who were benefiting from my volunteering. Those experiences are part of what keeps me humble and extremely grateful.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. ?
Yes, I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Sara Blakely. She and I are both innovators of products for women and I admire how she’s grown her brand. My product is different than hers but I’m just as passionate about my product as she is about hers. I’m currently where she first started years ago. Having an opportunity to connect and conversate with her would be great.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can be followed on Instagram at www.instagram.com/athalia_monae and my website as well, www.pouchesbyalahta.com.
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for having me.