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The Strategic, Futuristic, Achiever & The Upper Limit Problem - Part 1

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

My name is Nikki M.G. and I am power-holic. I am constantly thinking about strategies and tactics for organizing individual and collective power to achieve a better future. I'm obsessed with figuring out how and why wealth disparities, racism, and sexism have persisted in the 20th and 21st centuries in the US, so that I can be one of the people to change that reality. And I've built a successful career as an organizer with that obsession. Over the last 15 years I've ran multiple coalitions to win historic public policies to protect workers, coordinated slates of grassroots candidates to run for and win public office, raised millions of dollars and mobilized thousands of people to take organizations and campaigns to the next level, and more. But like all juicy stories, my path to power was not easy or clearly laid out.

I've been addicted to figuring out the "power puzzle" since I was about 8 years old. That's when I could start to articulate questions about the contradictions I observed and heard about what it meant to be American... Like that time an Irish American kid who lived in the same public housing projects as me...who recited the same national anthem daily at our school.... told me that I was still "nothing but a nigger" after inquiring why my mother was white... on the bus ride home.... from our underfunded public school... in1990 ... in Maryland. There are so many American contradictions in that scenario - did you catch 'em all?

All through grade school I thrived in humanities classes where I could read, write, and analyze global cultures and histories. I was a 'straight-A' student because I was deeply aware of how poor we were, and I somehow believed that students with straight-A's got all the scholarships to all the colleges, and nothing was going to stop me from attaining that power to change our family situation. (Sidenote - I also naively believed at the time, that to be financially successful, all I had to do was go to college and get a job with my fancy bachelor's degree and then I'd be able to take care of myself and my mom. I knew that it wasn't hustling for tips or working in the hospitality industry at least - which is what I had grown up doing and would do for a looooooong time.) I was so nerdy about learning where power comes from and determined to get some of it for myself, that I even chose to go to the HOBY Leadership Camp during my junior summer. Who does that? Nerds and Geeks who become future leaders. That's who! And that's me in 1999, above, in the red, Kurt Cobain-inspired sunglasses, smiley face t-shirt, hemp necklace, Aquarius pendant - AT LEADERSHIP CAMP - for those of you who had no idea this level of awkward nerdiness existed. #BlackAlternativeGirls

When I got to the University of Maryland, College Park campus in the fall of 2000 though, I tricked myself into thinking I wanted to be a civil engineer and design better city infrastructures... because my mom, like many parents from her generation, told me over and over, that the only way to be financially successful in America - is to become a lawyer, doctor, or engineer...or to join the military. So I chose engineering to appease her at first, but after 2 months of pure misery in chemistry class and the impending fear of physics requirements - I immediately switched to majoring in English and American Studies - Literature of the Civil Rights Movement and American Media studies to be specific. Ahhh - sweet, sweet relief. My mom wasn't happy about my decision because she feared I was setting myself up for further impoverishment, but I was much happier growing into my natural genius rather than oppressing it.

But, some horrific, traumatic things that I won't delve into right now, happened to me and my friends in college, as well as 9/11 and the aftermath. My outlook on the world became more cynical than ever. More importantly, the idea that I could do something to change the madness of the world, still seemed impossible. After 4.5 years of studying literature from some of the greatest civil rights organizers in history, I still had no clear idea what organizing or advocacy was for a career. I had more of an idea about activism, but I had no idea what a union, worker center, nonprofit, thinktank, or foundation was. I had no idea that just a few miles away from my university, in Washington, DC - some of my future mentors were organizing new community-labor alliances and campaigns to change some of the unjust conditions of work and life that I cared about most.

I hadn't found my tribe yet. I had lots of diverse friends and had joined many groups, but I always felt like an outsider looking in, masking who I really was in order to be welcomed somewhere. As such, I felt angry and lost about what to do with my life and my degree. I felt depressed and hopeless about my future - even though I had earned a degree from the school of my dreams with a 3.8 GPA. It was like I had just climbed Mount Everest but I was upset with myself for not reaching the moon. I had lost sight of my natural genius and was overwhelmed with the feeling that I would never be enough; that I was inherently flawed and would never be able to accomplish anything meaningful or impactful to shift racism, sexism, violence against women, exploitative working conditions and poverty. So instead of facing my feelings and aspirations head on, I developed a little drug and alcohol habit to cope and escape. Here's me rolling my ass off at Nation around 2004 (the best club in the world for queers, geeks, goths, gays and dancing queens of all sorts, abruptly and unfairly shut down in 2006), trying to discover alternate universes where I could feel more alive, more love, and maybe more truth....

Little did I know at the time, that the repeat feelings of inadequacy and being fundamentally flawed, would be "the sunken place" that I would dwell in my mind for the next 17 years. But no matter how many self-deprecating narratives "HULK SMASHED" my dreams daily, the inherent drive to achieve - to make something out of myself and leave this world a better place - was LIT LIKE LESLIE KNOPE. So - what did this Leslie Knope type with self-destructive HULK inner monologues do with herself?

After I graduated from college, I continued to do what I was trained to do - and that was be perky, hardworking, and silent in the hospitality industry in order to rack in as many tips as possible. #PunsTotallyIntended . . . In fact, because I was one of the perkiest and hard-workingest indebted slaves of all, it wasn't long before I was promoted to be an assistant manger at a casual fine dining restaurant in downtown DC - Rosa Mexicano. Honestly, this was the most abusive work environment I had ever experienced and it affected my mental health severely. It was assault city basically. Any worker on anyday could expect to be verbally, physically, or sexually assaulted by a manager, corporate manager, coworker, or customer without recourse. I am sad to say that's not an exaggeration. I'm even sadder to say that I thought it was normal and played a part in the cycle of abuse.

Here's a photo of me being appreciated by one of my senior managers and by one of my trainees, and me playing my role as an appreciative young lady slave at Rosa Mexicano in 2006... And then here's one of me from that same time period, smoking a blunt in the club one night after work... once again trying to find an alternate universe where I could feel more alive after another shitty day and night at work. See the correlation? No? Ok to put it bluntly - a lot of low wage service workers drink and drug away their tips to cope with the daily creep show that is the hospitality industry. At least my friends and I did... #DontJudgeMe

But not forever. After 5 years of near homelessness, repeat sexual harassment, assaults, and rapes, being surrounded by people addicted to fast money, drugs and alcohol in the DC restaurant scene - I experienced my own big-bang - a collision so scary and perfect that it altered the course of my life forever.

One morning, I was casually riding my bike through the Logan Circle neighborhood of DC. I was headed to pick up a bag of weed, then go walk a couple of dogs, then head to my bartending shift at night - a typical day in my life back then. I remember like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, perfect sunny day. I was wearing short shorts, a lose hanging, neon yellow tank top, bright Victoria's Secret magenta bra, and flip flops. I wasn't wearing a helmet. I never did back then - fact... due to me not seeing the value of my life at the time...and also because I am brave, a skilled city biker, and at the time valued style over safety. #Vanity #JudgeMe

And literally out of nowhere, the universe crashed me. The universe was like "enough of this shit, Nikki" and then it intentionally flipped my bike over 3 times.

It was a head-over-heels-crash-where-lots-of-strangers-run-to-surrorund-you-to-see-if-you're-dead-or-alive-kind-of-crash. Now I say the universe did this 'to me' because IT DID. There was nary a pothole nor rock in my path. No one hit me. No gust of wind or sudden downpour to throw me off. Just the Universe tired and frustrated with a genius stuck on a hamster wheel. Plus, the universe had just sent Bonnie Kwon and Meghana Reddy - two brilliant graduates from UC Berkeley, from immigrant families, and who cared deeply about food and worker justice - to DC build a brand-new worker center - the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). And it was time for me to meet them. They would induct me into my tribe and finally show me a real path to power.

Continue to read about my path to power and key organizing lessons I learned along the way in 'Strategic, Futuristic, Achiever and the Upper Limit Problem Part 2.'

Power On, Power People!

- Nikki M.G.

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2 comentários

Lillian Walker Shelton
Lillian Walker Shelton
05 de abr. de 2022

I am so proud of you! You should also include that you are a dissertation consultant.

Respondendo a

This is true!! Thank you Dr. Lillian!!

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