Dear Social Impact Sector: I'm Tired!

What is it like being a single Black mother in the social impact sector? Aileen Puhlmann shares her journey with us.

von Aileen Puhlmann, August 26, 2020

Header: Howling Red via Unsplash.

"to belonging" is a long-term project driven by tbd* that aims to change the discourse around diversity and inclusion to one of belonging. Anti-racism, feminism and equity will be the focus of our work and should lead to a radical systemic change in the impact sector, from "power over" and "power for" to "power with". This content series is a part of this project and is made possible by the Open Society Foundations.

«There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not lead single issue lives.»
Audre Lorde

I'm a woman, I'm a mother of a wonderful daughter, a single parent and I'm Black. I'm a Social Impact Sector worker by conviction and have been working every day for 12 years to make the world a little bit better. Why do I explicitly state that I am Black? Because I believe that it is not self-evident, even a coincidence, that I ended up here - because I notice that this sector does not think of people like me. I am an exception, an anomaly. As a social climber and the first in my family to study, I was by no means destined to work as an academic in an international development context.  It took a mother to guide me in the right direction, teachers to recognize my potential and scouts to give me insight into other milieus. They also made sure that I spent my youth with voluntary work and not on the streets of my "social hotspot" ghetto part of town. 

My Journey

I came back to Germany four years ago after living abroad for 13 years. After my studies and first work experience in London, I went to South Africa for my first professionally relevant job. I was first allowed to gain professional experience as a scholarship holder and then had contracts as a consultant in local economic development with a large German governmental institution. Seven years later and with a child in my luggage, I returned home to my home town of Hamburg.With a permanent contract with a social business in my pocket, apartment, daycare place secured and grandma ready to help me, I was ready to start.  So far so good.

I am a Mother

From the very first day in this new life it was clear that I had been wrong. I didn't just come home. I came home as a mother and was now subject to a "Code of Conduct", certain rules of engagement that I had not yet been able to decipher. In South Africa I grew into my role as a mother in a relatively relaxed manner. It is a society that considers children to be the most normal thing in the world, where motherhood does not take on a special role and where it is completely okay to leave the office for the child's Christmas party. I was even an above average "good mother" because I had a child seat in the car...! Jokes aside, I had been living in an incredibly mother and child friendly country. But these new rules of engagement in Germany surprised me: what educational concept would I choose for daycare; what about sugar-free nutrition? Would I buy a cargo bicycle?  How long did I spend at home with my child ?  And would I live a plastic-free life? Questions upon questions that were to rain down on me and that completely confused me.

Relatively quickly it became clear to me that women exist  in a sensitive minefield. Any answer would immediately influence the image that would be made of me. At least that is how I felt. It took some time, but I slowly realized that each of these encounters was an attempt by other mothers (yes, they were mostly mothers) to project their own insecurities onto me. Questioning my family model meant in return confirming one's own and simply passing  their insecurities on. In retrospect, I now understand much better why women often make it so difficult for themselves. We are expected to work as if we have no children and to be mothers, as if we do not work. In the balancing act between family and career it seems easier to play us off against each other than to deconstruct patriarchy. But in these first few months of questioning my family has made me deeply insecure.

I am a Single Parent

I raise my daughter alone. Yeah, really alone, without a substitute model. I don't feel sorry for myself because it doesn't do me much good. It is what it is, and we're making the best of it. I work full time. Stop! Here's the moment when my counterpart looks at me suspiciously and asks me how this could possibly work. How long does my daughter spend in daycare and why have kids if you don't have time for them. The list of questions is long.

I work full-time and I have a daycare place that gives me the time I need (I have already written an article about my racist experience in the day care centre). In addition, I have a great network of family and friends* and the firm conviction that "it takes a village to raise a child".  Nonetheless, being a single parent in Germany means not being seen. The family model does not officially exist and not so long ago the state was the guardian of a child when the father was absent. Fiscally, the state still does not recognize that I finance a household on my own. Yes, absurd, I think so too. Quite apart from the social stigma that virtually labels me a failure - because somehow women who live alone with a child are responsible for not being able to keep their husbands – our children are three times more threatened by poverty and two thirds are in some way dependent on state aid. I somehow struggle through and I am told that I do it with ease. But I am often on the verge of a nervous breakdown, because my construct is based on very sensitive pillars: health, care and network.

I am Black

Yes, I define myself through the political concept of being Black. I express my solidarity with all those who, because of their African descent - no matter where Europe's colonial expansion has condemned my sisters and brothers - have to struggle with discrimination and marginalisation. In Germany, it has only felt possible to speak in a differentiated way about experiences of racism - and to be met with open ears - since George Floyd's violent death. But I have been making these experiences all my life and now, again, as the mother of a black child.

I rarely see myself reflected in the field in which I work, I have no role models or colleagues who look like me. On the contrary, the people I am most likely to approach are usually the target groups I want to empower with my work. For a long time I thought that this "being unique" would be an advantage, would give me opportunities that other people don't have. This feeling, however, is a result of our collective isolation: always being the only one, always standing out and enduring certain ascriptions on my own, all this has left its mark. Some people say I have a fighter's nature, but how would I have survived if I hadn't had to stand my ground?  Early on I developed coping strategies to deal with my minority experiences, I had no other choice. It certainly also brought me a whole load of resilience. And yet I am still very aware of my privilege and know that my experiences can still be classified as mild because of my one German parent. What if I wasn't a native speaker, if I didn't have a German passport, or if I was darker?

I am Tired

What am I talking about? The recognition that I am a sum of my experiences, that my being a woman, my being a mother, my being a single parent and my being Black makes me who I am. But what my real concern is: that I do not see myself represented in the Social Impact Sector. People like me are often not considered, especially in the (social) start-up sector. Family friendliness, individual solutions and flexibility are more likely to be found in large corporations and perhaps state agencies, but not in a sector that actually wants to contribute to a better world. I understand that you rely on your network to get started, but if your own network is very homogeneous, it is clear that what grows out of it cannot be very diverse, unless you make the effort and think ahead. I know,  easier said than done. Apart from the fact that apparently and statistically the majority of founders, board members etc are male, it often takes a long time until personnel structures have grown in such a way that they allow a truly holistic approach. I also understand why this is often the case, I just think that 'belonging' has to be considered, especially when founding a new company: how do I get a diverse group of people interested in us, who want to be part of what we are building?  

I can absolutely understand that social climbers or migrant job starters first want to earn money and don't see themselves in the social business area. People in this sector often work for years on a low wage level, “for the cause”. But if you have to feed a family and are dependent on the compatibility of family and career, then entry becomes difficult. What am I really getting at? I want to make it clear that intersectionality is an important issue. People have to be perceived on many different levels in order to benefit from their multifaceted experiences. It is worth it. It is important for the social impact sector to be aware of the positioning of employees. Only then can one promote belonging and benefit from diversity at all levels.

I like to work in my field, I like to work in a young, innovative sector and I have experienced a lot of appreciation and support in my career. However, I would appreciate it if we didn't have to demand solutions for ourselves, but if we were involved and considered from the very beginning. Because the constant jumping up and whirling our hands, "Hello do you see me?" is damn tiring.