Formative Experiences: Reflections From Alumni: In Conversation with Rosalin Walcott
As a young girl growing up in the projects of the South Bronx, Rosalin Walcott embraced lessons from her grandfather and older sister about the importance of knowledge and community. Little did she know, she was being prepared for what would be her life’s journey: one dedicated to improving the lives of others and learning. Now working in the orbits of the legal industry, her journey did not take the path of a familiar straightforwardness but rather filled with curves and bends. Key to that journey, was her formation at Lake Forest College.
This interview flows naturally as discussing her evolution through the years. More than that, it is about the journey of an inspiring black woman
I open ….
Part One: Life Story and Experiences
- What’s your current position? How long have you been in this position?
Up until July 2020, I was a paralegal in Chicago. I am currently unemployed. Mainly due to covid, but also in part to the racial injustices happening in the US. Working in the environment I was working in started to weigh on me. I reached my limit with the killing of George Floyd. I became mentally exhausted. I had been working since I was 15, so covid, kind of, gave me an out; the time to reflect really. My family lives on the East Coast, and with me alone in the Midwest, they felt it would be better for us to be together or closer. I agreed and sent in my resignation.
I have family in New York and Atlanta. New York was congested and mounting with covid cases at the time, so I made the decision to move to Atlanta with my sister. I used the last couple of months of unemployment to look back on my career, to figure out what I wanted moving forward, and connect with myself.
I got back into writing (I was an avid writer at Lake Forest) and also connected to my photography. I have a blog. I am going to showcase my photography on a website, and the plan is within the next year, to write a book or two. Meanwhile, I stay open in my employment search.
- What would you say most motivates you to do what you do? What are you most excited or passionate about? What are the goals you most want to accomplish in your work? Not so much the goals that are in your job description, but the goals you hold personally?
Helping people motivates me. Moving a person, an organization or myself forward. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. As a Black man in the South, in the time he grew up, his ability to learn and gain upward social mobility was taken from him, so he always pushed and told me, “Get your education and learn. No one can take away your knowledge.” He had to leave school to work to help the family survive. He realized not only his Blackness, but his lack of education made him a target.
Like my grandfather did for the generations that came after him, I want to uplift and mobilize people by building and connecting. That is what I hope to accomplish.
- I want to understand how and why you ended up here working in this position. What led you to this job? What were you doing before you came here? What attracted you to work for ________?
When I graduated from Lake Forest, I did non-profit work for about 6 years. First, I did a non-profit that was run like a for-profit. That was a big lesson for me on reality v. feeling. It FELT like a nonprofit, like for the people. It benefited them greatly but the bottom line was money. I focused on the type of work we did and I didn’t heed their profit focus. Working there was hard because I’d choose people first. For me growing up in the projects of the South Bronx, the impression upon me was everyone deserved housing, education, community, and generally a safe environment. So my transition into the legal field from non-profit made sense.
I actually studied litigation. (Loyola University of Chicago). Banks were being taken to task for the 2008 Banking Crisis, so my work on those matters led me to handling commercial litigation and then real estate work. This culminated into my work with what’s called Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) Deals, where you use tax credits from the government to purchase and create all types of low-income housing. This includes Veteran housing and housing for the elderly etc. I say that because when I talk about it people assume just Section 8. All of it allowed me to create mobility for myself and others. Acquiring and sharing that knowledge is the attraction.
- Now if we can, I’d like to go way back for a little while. Where did you grow up? What was it like to grow up in _______? What was it like to go to Lake Forest College?
Where I grew up was really cool but it wasn’t the easiest. I grew up in the
South Bronx, specifically the Forest projects. I lived across the street from Fat Joe. The Bronx out of all the boroughs (of course, I would be biased) was familial. If you from there, or you visited, you would know people looked out for each other.
I remember I went to the corner store and parked my bike on the side. And when I came out, someone was trying to steal it but someone else from the neighborhood was like, “If you don’t put that girl’s bike down.” I loved it. I felt cared and looked out for.
At Lake Forest, being a black student was not easy - at least not for me. There was this shock of being in Lake Forest. I was a resident assistant and had some systematic issues there. [Confidential] Overall I had several incidents that would remind me where certain people and systems thought my place was.
I pared down how involved I was compared to my time at boarding school as a result. A mistake. Outside of those incidents I was able to forge really important relationships and bonds with staff, offices, and professors, down to my recruiter. There was some sense of belonging and being genuinely valued.
- Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.
There were a couple of people along the way, especially advisors. At Lake Forest, one of mine was Mark White [passed away]. He was a communications teacher. So through him, I was writing a lot and did an independent study focusing on hip-hop, and how it influences Black people and Black history. In his passing, I made a survival decision to push that away, and that’s how I ended up working for the non-profit. I recognized that in losing him, I went on a little different type of journey.
Another key mentor was my older sister. There’s five siblings total and I’m the youngest. Because my sister was older and was the next sibling up, she really took care of me. She taught me how to read early and anything that she learned, I was learning. So, I was five years ahead. My sister and I played school; I was reading; I was doing math; we played store. That experience gave me the love of learning and the love to then share it. That really shaped my mindset.
I try to avoid it, but in this case in the last few months I've been putting together how to better deal with organizations and systems that try to tell me as black woman that “Your abilities are fixed and that’s it” or “This is how I’ve measured you and that’s it.” I've been taking stock of myself. I know I am knowledgeable and valuable; I can grow;; I can get better and therefore be a better person. I don’t have to prove that to you either. She [my sister] gave me that Growth mindset which was a huge thing.
I meet people who agree and listen to these systems with Fixed Mindsets that say they are not worthy and do not have value. It’s hard when everyone’s telling you that. But I was lucky enough with my sister to know that isn’t true. As an adult I have more clarity, that clarity I want to pass on, especially to our youth.
- Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing today? Tell me about them. Your challenges and rewards.
I have a life changing experience related to Lake Forest. As I said, I was a resident assistant and there was a disagreement with the administration. I was a resident assistant in the boarding school I attended. So, I took the work and students seriously. It was an important job. It was about the way they handled it that made me feel less of a person.
Effective Listening and Role Modeling is spoken of, when referring to Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIBs). Effective Listening is seeking to understand, echoing back what you heard and calibrating BEFORE interpreting. Interpreting too soon, you're making it about yourself; protecting yourself, department, or institution. Role Modeling is the actions of each individual modeling the policies, missions and values of the whole. It is being there, asking/respecting differing opinions, sincerely advocating for others. These things done better would have made all the difference for me. I kept going up the chain till I found that. I am proud that I found where the principles and mission of the school was being role modeled, not everyone is going to follow suit.
The occurrences before reaching that point made an impression and was a challenge. I was struggling to have my voice heard, really to find the right words for the situation, and to be taken seriously. I didn’t realize it, but I could feel it was going to be a theme in my life. I wanted to get it right then so badly. A foreshadowing to life in the corporate world
Anyway, I used that experience to figure out what I needed to do to become a better person, to find words in those moments – when everything was against me. I realize my perspective in thinking I was the challenge needed to be broadened. Someone not hearing your words, doesn’t mean you lack them. Strengthening your core of self-esteem and confidence allows those words to flow freely. I was a strong and powerful young woman externally, internally there some places that needed some stability. I have put in the work and since then become someone that can deal with such challenges.
Part Two: Reflections and Lessons
- What are the lessons for someone like me, or for any other black student especially those transitioning out of college?
It’s hard for me to answer that because I think I was and am a particularly sensitive person. I grew up having to predict people’s emotions, feelings and moods to help
myself and people around me. I have perfected the talent of reading moods, types of language and subtext. Picking that up has been a huge blessing: I take big ideas and merge them with complex thoughts easily, but picking up on everything meant little energy, mis-internalizing, and struggles with people. I don’t recognize these things in others , so my answer may not connect. My advice is more about continuing to figure out who you are, who you are not, and keep growing. Your sense of self, builds self-esteem and that pours into your faith in your abilities (confidence). That's your core, strengthen your core.
I’d also say it’s the dualities – that there is a lot of dualities to be Black and to accept all of that, whether it’s the duality of black culture and society, understanding the difference between living and surviving, the duality of professional life and social lives, truth and perception, and your own value v. the perception(s) of self. For those transitioning, take a moment and understand that being black, sometimes, means your foot is in two places or multiple things. Andin being Black, woman, man etc., they seem to be fighting each other. They don’t have to. Explore them, understand them and take agency to accept them all or what makes sense to you. They don’t have to fight each other and you too.
- From your story, if there was one thing you could do differently, what would it be? Why?
I wouldn’t have focused on surviving so much. I would’ve took a moment, to really pause and understand that I didn’t have to live a certain way or be a certain way just to survive or just to get through. I was equally of value than anything and everything around me was, whether you are doing it for family, or to help pull certain people up. Add yourself in there.
Ask yourself what do you want? And keep that energy upfront. Keep enough energy for yourself. You don’t wanna get too far down the road and have to pivot and figure it out because you left yourself behind doing it for everybody else.
I got lucky and didn’t wander too far. But I would say, for instance, I would go straight to Village Voice from college, or some other publications and just figure it out. I was young and acting like I was 40 and had children. I do love my journey though.
- What did you learn from the people you met along the way to become who you are now?
I learned to slow down. Again when you’re thinking of survival and what you gotta do, sometimes you’re not living in the moment and being present. Folks along the way, while supporting me, were able to pull me back a little bit, help me take stock and enjoy time. That’s the main thing I learned from them to slow down and enjoy.
- What do you think you taught them?
I think I taught them that everything could be fun or enjoyable. I don’t care what it is, I’m gonna have fun with it. And the next one is value. So whoever is in my presence, I try to tell them I value them or what I see of value in them that makes them uniquely them.
5. What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to?
At least one of these books is gonna be finished this year. The one I am trying to finish by the end of the year is geared towards college students. I got the idea for it cause my niece (next generation) went to college and I was like, “What would I tell her?” You know, the things of adulthood I would want her to know. I also have a blog now that I write about my journey, stories, and poetry. I look forward to my creative works.
I’m also excited about what type of job I find next. I am staying open and I’m looking at paralegal positions. At some point, I would like to do Educational Psychology, exploring the ways, and developing cultural sensitive curriculum to teach and educate youth.
- What gives you a sense of hope? What makes you concerned or worried?
I would say in making my decision to resign from my job and doing it, a lot of what helped me was the rising of so many Black voices. There were a lot of black women that were tweeting, posting, writing articles and talking about their actual experiences in corporate America. I was like, “I’m not alone.” Not only were we talking about it, they were being unapologetically honest, and that turned into, “What are we gonna do about it?” I suddenly had the vocabulary, and when you can formulate the problem you can find resolutions.
That’s made available coaching or made apparent that coaching is for US (Black people) to get to the next level. Same with therapy. There’s so many support groups now geared to help people organize, mobilize and heal. Entrepreneurship is rising within the black community. We are really figuring out and finding out ways to be vocal together. So I feel pretty unified in that.
That kinda stuff gives me hope.