Nia’s Winding Path
I’ve been an advisor to Nia Clark, 40, for the last few years. Someone asked me to meet with her to discuss a struggle she was facing. We’ve since had several dozen conversations as she has grown her practice. Nia is a resident of Los Angeles who consults to large organizations as a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & LGBTQIA+ Strategist. Welcome to her winding path!
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
I am a macro social worker which involves transforming, repairing, or undoing large scale social and systemic issues that impact large groups of people, communities, and cultures. It is a very broad field that gives me a uniquely transferable skill set. I use that skill set to provide training, education, consulting, and technical assistance across several industries including child welfare, research, yoga, international travel, academia, pharmaceuticals, television, and even online dating.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
My formative years were extremely unpredictable. The maelstrom of violence and instability made it impossible for me to consider what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was forced to look inward for solace and peace. I became more cerebral and was eventually confronted by an inescapable feeling, something I felt in my core. The one thing I knew for certain, the one thing I consistently wanted to be was a girl. From an early age my gender identity, my innermost concept of gender, was incongruent with the sex I was assigned at birth. I was always a very effeminate child though I grew up around boys and very masculine male figures. My mother, Belinda, strongly disapproved and used corporal punishment in an effort to curb this. One of my earliest memories was at age five. My mother had beautiful hands and loved to give herself manicures. One morning while she was gone, I snuck into her room, grabbed a fiery red bottle of polish from her dresser, and sat on her bed trying to paint my nails. It was the late eighties, and she had this metallic pink plush comforter set with a swirly brass bed frame. I accidently spilled polish on the comforter and made a big, red mess. I will never forget her response when she came home because she was more incensed by the sight of my painted nails than the spilled polish. Our relationship and her physical abuse worsened after that and she lost custody of me just after my eighth birthday. As I entered the foster care system, I became more vocal about being a girl. I tried coming out as transgender to a foster parent who responded by placing me in a mental institution in Rockville, Maryland for over six months. After I got out, I kept everything to myself. I didn’t trust any adults or my own mind for that matter. It took me another eight years to muster the courage to come out for good at sixteen. I haven’t looked back since.
It was at this age I also immersed myself into Boston’s queer culture. I began writing about my life and performing spoken word pieces at local poetry slams. Abe Rybeck, founder of The Theater Offensive, happened to see me perform one night and suggested I audition for his True Colors: Out Youth Theater, the nation’s longest-running LGBTQ+ youth theater troupe. I became a troupe member and received leadership and direction in a safe, supportive environment that encouraged – nay, commanded – my transness to flourish. My existence was honored and affirmed. I learned how to channel my pain into performance art, collaborate with others, and captivate audiences through storytelling. I became a vibrant, sociable young woman with something to contribute to the world. I regained hope. That hope inspired me to audition for acting schools at eighteen. I didn’t pursue acting for very long, but the greatest and most enduring skill I gained from that experience was public speaking.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
For me, this question is complicated because I spent most of my childhood in foster care and spent very little time with family. As a child it seemed like work took precedence over all other life matters and acquiring money was more important than bonding or spending time together. I was placed in the care of my grandmother for a very short time. We never celebrated holidays as a family. I was routinely left alone and unsupervised, sometimes for days, or my grandmother would bring me to jobs with her, so she didn’t have to spend money on an afterschool program or babysitter. Thanksgiving consisted of her leaving a cavalcade of CorningWare® dishes on her counters for family members to pick at while she pulled double- or triple-shifts at the hospital as a nurse’s assistant. Work seemed much more valuable than family.
Looking back as an adult, I’m able to appreciate my birth family in a much more positive way. From them, I inherited the calling to serve others. My grandmother was a healthcare worker. My grandfather was a naval veteran. One of my uncles was a fireman and another a police officer and Gulf War veteran. While work consumed most of their time, what they did was meaningful and helped save lives. That legacy of service to others is something I’ve always carried with me.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
Working at The Home for Little Wanderers (THLW) - the oldest child welfare agency in America - had unequivocally the greatest impact on my life. Altogether I was involved with the organization for twenty years, starting at age eleven as a client in one of their group homes. At fifteen, I became a peer educator for one of their youth leadership programs where I taught other LGBTQ+ youth about healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS, and safer sex practices. The relationships I built during that time followed me into adulthood. When I aged out of the foster care system in Boston at 22, THLW offered me a full-time job as a residential counselor. I am living proof that kids in the system can grow up and make something of themselves. Over the course of two decades this agency taught me everything; how to fish, how to drive, shop for groceries, pay bills, how to self-advocate, even how to do my taxes.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
I spent most of my professional years working without college degrees. My educational journey was a bumpy one. After finishing high school, with my social worker's encouragement, I tried attending college in 2002. I didn't have the discipline, confidence, nor self-determination to be in school and didn't believe someone who looked like me and had my rough background could earn a college degree. After dropping out in 2005 and again in 2009, I had given up on higher education completely. Realizing that I wouldn’t move up the nonprofit ladder without a degree, I gave school a third try and enrolled in community college in 2016. With my good grades and extensive work in LGBTQIA+ activism, I successfully applied for the national Point Scholarship Award in 2017, 2018, and 2020. This gave me the financial support necessary to enroll in the undergraduate social work program at California State University, Los Angeles and later a rigorous, one-year advanced clinical program at Simmons University in Boston.
Why did you pivot?
Direct service, while it taught me so much about myself and allowed me to work with so many children, youth, and families, was extremely draining. I didn’t have much of a personal life due to extreme burnout. Most of my free time was spent recovering from the workweek in bed or binge-watching TV. I knew I needed a change. I had also hit a professional wall. Better paying positions in child welfare typically require a master’s degree. While my lived and professional experience in the system had made me an expert to many, not having a college education continually stripped me of the gravitas and credibility necessary to advance. Going back to school was the best decision I have ever made for my future.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
Direct service provides a skill set that never leaves you. Responding to daily crises as a shift supervisor at a 24-hour residential treatment facility imbued me with an amalgam of transferable skills: how to collaborate, seek consensus, to actively listen and verbally or physically de-escalate others, how to build culturally responsive relationships with families, as well as how to mediate between young people and reporting agencies like hospitals or law enforcement. As I transitioned from crisis response to eventually become an activities coordinator, I learned to build social capital to provide opportunities to low-income families, public relations etiquette, garner in-kind donations, how to organize turkey drives and holiday gift drives, recruit volunteers, and grant writing.
What was new to me as I moved into consulting was not working with kids every day. I had to adjust to my conversations being primarily with adults. It requires a different approach and surprisingly more patience. I had to put away the preconceived notion that adults who impact or have access to underserved communities share the same values and protective instincts as me. I had to learn how to suspend my own judgment as a survivor of these systems and think of new ways to create “a-ha” moments for people to come to terms with their own inherent biases or narrow views. I had to build more empathy into my work.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
It was hard for me to learn the administrative side of consulting. How to draft and negotiate contracts, develop work plans with timelines and invoicing. The shift from employee to independent contractor was initially costly and I had to budget for out-of-pocket expenses like health insurance and travel. I was also unprepared for the deluge of interest that came from organizations that were not youth-serving. I had done so well as a child welfare trainer, people took notice and asked me to craft diversity & inclusion trainings for companies like Match Group, AARP, Mustache LLC, and AstraZeneca. That was a challenge. I had always been trained to thoroughly explain myself and write using very clinical language. That doesn’t work as effectively during Zoom meetings or a presentation for an advertising agency.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
Between June 1991 and April 2005, I was placed in more than fifteen foster homes, group homes, and residential treatment programs in both Maryland and Massachusetts. Being Black and openly transgender often resulted in me choosing between having a place to live and truthfully expressing my gender identity. Those experiences, however, imbued me with a deeply personal understanding of the vital role adults play in either affirming or rejecting vulnerable, marginalized youth and their intersecting identities. I became, through adversity, an expert of my survival and thus an expert of my life. I learned over time to channel that expertise into advocacy for vulnerable children and their families.
I also learned that healing is not only possible but necessary for personal growth. In 2015, I found my birth father, Clarence. He was not listed on my birth certificate so finding him was a bit of a task. When I spoke to him for the first time, I was shocked to discover I unknowingly had seven brothers and sisters along with dozens of nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’ve spent the last eight years meeting them all. I’ve become closest to The Websters, the largest portion of my father’s family that lives in my hometown of Boston. Our relationships became so strong that my uncle, Gary Webster, and his wife Gale graciously allowed me to live with them for a year and a half while I finished graduate school. They gave me the support and stability necessary to finish my education. It has been a sobering and emotional journey, but I’ve finally found a permanent web of connection. I feel more tethered to life and less nomadic.
I didn’t grow up with pride in my Blackness. I wasn’t proud to be Black because my mother’s family, my peers, and the Black community I grew up around didn’t like or accept me. This is the first time I’ve ever been part of a Black family that embraces who I am. We now spend Christmas and vacations together. They tell me they are proud of me. They remind me that I am loved. Meeting them has been so healing and restorative. I am now unapologetically Black and take immense pride in being so. Healing and restoring my identity have made such a positive impact on all the work I do.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
Black and Brown folks, queer and trans people, women, and people with disabilities often experience impostor syndrome. I continue to experience this. It is not solely an internal process or insecurity. There are systemic and sociopolitical reasons why you might feel out of place or inadequate while trying to ascend nonprofit or corporate ladders. Take that leap anyway. Don’t be afraid to go first or be the first. It is such a radical form of activism to take up space where you would otherwise not exist. You will visually personify what is possible when you take risks and can inspire others to follow suit.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
First, I surrendered to the reality that I was too hyper-independent. That was a direct result of being in foster care and a lifetime of family rejection. I realized to make this shift I had to be vulnerable and share my dream with others I deemed trustworthy. I asked for help. I sought advice from other industry professionals like Jay Guilford, founder of CoWorks Leadership Strategists, and Dr. Christian Rummell, a researcher and one of the nation’s leading experts on mentoring LGBTQ+ youth. They knew how to do all the things I didn’t. They became my mentors. They lent me their time, expertise, and resources. I found people that want me to succeed and see my potential.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
The hardest part about working in an industry like mine is not taking things personally. While my work is extremely rewarding, it is difficult to be confronted by the opinions or personal biases of those who don’t have much experience working with or being trained by people like me. Part of my job involves sharing my lived experience and history with others. That sometimes exposes me to sexism, microaggressions, cissexism, and extremely intrusive questions about my anatomy. Most of the time I’m able to depersonalize it and create opportunities for learning and mutual respect. These days, amid a scourge of anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black, and anti-women legislation, it is a bit more difficult. This is also why I lean on my mentors, family and chosen family for support. They remind me of who I am, what I’ve survived, what I’ve accomplished, and why my work is necessary.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I would love to do more public speaking! It is something I’m good at and could possibly do full-time with the right connections and opportunities. I also hope to write a memoir to share my story with the world, inspire other survivors like myself, and amplify the need for continued advocacy of marginalized and minoritized communities.
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
Instagram - @niadclark
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship and a Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z & LGBTQ Influencer by LinkedIn.