mural painting of a plantation worker with hand outstretched

“If you’re Black in Corporate America, you’re still on the plantation.” 

A friend of mine shared this sentiment with me, and rather than debate the reasons to agree or disagree, it made me realize that there are many lessons we all can learn from enslaved people on the plantation that can be applied to our lives today, especially in the workplace. Think about the pain, the violence, and the malnourishment, yet under these conditions many of our ancestors were able to survive and even find moments of joy. Any challenges we face in current day offices are nothing in comparison. 

Yet, imagine what we could be capable of overcoming if we took a closer look at what helped enslaved people to survive. If you want to take your professional life to the next level despite any challenges that come your way, here are some powerful lessons of resilience from the plantation that you can apply at work. 

8 Lessons from the Plantation to Apply in the Office

1. Trust Your Intuition.

Harriet Tubman couldn’t read or write. Instead of reading maps, it was her intuition that helped her to lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Her intuition is why she “never lost a passenger.” Of course she used life experiences and any information that came to her, but at the end of the day her intuition is what made the game time decisions in the most stressful situations. 

While your current day challenges are quite different, your intuition can help you when you need it most! Whether you’re having interpersonal issues with a colleague or you’re struggling to determine next steps on a project, take a moment to pause and see what guidance your intuition might have for you! The “gut feeling” that you’ve probably experienced before is real! Your gut has over 100 million nerve endings that send messages to your brain, and when something doesn’t feel right, you know it. But, you have to pay attention to receive this message.  

To access your intuition, pause and ask the question, “How does this option or this action feel?” Then observe your body. Notice any sensations… in your belly, your chest, your shoulders. If there is a tightness anywhere or something that doesn’t feel right, this is your answer. And, if your body feels great, well that’s also your answer.

Reflection Question: In what situations at work could you benefit from trusting your intuition?

2. Share Your Wisdom with Others.

Oral histories, storytelling, and folklore were a huge part of the lives of enslaved men, women, and children. They provided inspiration that the strongest, largest, most powerful animals did not always win. Tales like the Br’er Rabbit demonstrated that using one’s wits and intellect could help the seemingly powerless, overcome dangerous situations. Stories of individuals overcoming hardship helped others to believe that they, too, could do the same. These stories often provided coded messages about how to survive despite the mistreatment, and the most important aspect is that the lessons were shared across the community so that everyone could benefit. 

In the workplace, there are nuances of your organization you might have learned that others could benefit from. How do you get things done given the built in hurdles in the system? What are the working styles and personalities of the people in charge, and what’s the best way to get them on your side? Who’s genuine versus who has a history of not being able to be trusted? How did the most successful people here get to the top? If you have figured any of these things out, imagine how helpful you could be to those in your community by accelerating their learning process? 

Reflection Question: Who might benefit from your wisdom? More junior folks in the org?  Someone new trying to navigate the political landscape? Bonus points: Whose wisdom can you benefit from? 

3. Be Persistent and Resourceful About Upskilling 

It was illegal for enslaved people to read or write, and there were consequences if you were caught teaching an enslaved person to read or write.  Educated Black people were seen as a threat to the system of power that was in place. Yet, Black people of that era learned to read anyway! They acquired the skills necessary to communicate, which was instrumental in getting north and helping others to do so also.

Though extremely different in the gravity and the circumstances, when we think about our daily lives, there are many new skills that could help us get to where we want to go. While some people benefit from a manager that is proactive about their professional development, most of us can’t rely on others to be responsible for our growth. It is up to you, and you alone, to determine what skills you could benefit from and then find a way to obtain these skills. Did you know that you probably have a professional development budget allocated to you at your job? Have you been using it? If you don’t, have you ever considered asking your manager to fund a training course for you? 

Reflection Question: What new training and skills could help you to advance in your career? How might you be proactive in getting that training?

4. Be Creative and Adapt When New Guardrails and Restrictions Arise.

When enslavers and overseers realized that drums could be used as a secret means of communication, they were banned. What did enslaved communities do instead? They created powerful rhythms by clapping their hands and tapping their feet. They did not take “NO” as the final answer, but rather, they used the resources they had and a creative lens of problem-solving to maintain their culture, values, and sense of community.

I’ve spoken to many leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion roles that are adapting a similar mindset given the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision. They are making changes to language to meet the potential “legal risks” as they continue to push forward their agenda to create organizations that embrace diversity and ensure that people of all backgrounds are treated with respect and dignity.

Regardless of your role in the organization, new policies are often put in place that make getting your job done even harder. It’s critical that you leverage your own creativity and problem-solving skills to adapt.

Reflection Question: What policies are getting in the way of you getting your work done? How can you creatively get around the red tape?

5. Your Health and Well-Being Is Your Responsibility.

When enslaved men, women, and children were sick, they rarely saw a doctor. Diseases such as typhus, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and typhoid were more rampant in Black communities compared to whites of that era. Their diets were high in fat and starch, lacking in key nutritional elements which led to issues like scurvy and rickets. Yet, the enslavers did very little to treat them. Instead, they were incredibly resourceful in leveraging local herbs and home remedies including snakeroot, mayapple, red pepper, pine needles, comfrey, wild cherry bark, and much more!

In today’s working environment, no one but you are paying attention to how you’re doing. When I got back from medical leave and was still healing from detached retina surgery, my employer put me on an intense project where I’d have to look at the computer screen for 12 to 15 hours a day. If I didn’t look out for my own health, I’m not sure I’d still be able to see out of my left eye. If you don’t prioritize your own health and well-being, who will? Whether it’s your physical health or mental health, pay attention to what you need and be proactive about making sure you are getting it. Vitamins. Therapy. Exercise. Sleep. You know what you need! 

Reflection Question: What is one step you can take to prioritize your health and well-being this week?

6. Don’t Bottle Up Your Feelings; Connect with Your Community and Support System.

Imagine the intense emotions experienced when enslaved people watched their loved ones get harassed, beaten, and killed. Imagine what they went through when they themselves were treated as less than human. Rather than hold all of the emotions inside, they sought comfort from their support system. They listened to each other’s woes. One of the ways they shared and consoled each other was through song! Songs like “”Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” or “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” were ways to express these challenging emotions. 

How does this apply to your life today? If you suppress your emotions, they will build up over time resulting in a snowball effect that could result in physical health issues (e.g., high blood pressure, heart disease), mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety), or burnout which can be a combination of both. In my Black@Work workshops, Black colleagues are able to have a safe space to share experiences that we often sweep under the rug or don’t speak openly about (microaggressions, upward mobility challenges, etc.). It’s helpful to know that you’re not alone and receive support and tools to overcome the challenges.

Regardless of what’s causing you stress, it’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling during difficult times and call on your support system to lend an ear. Sometimes just saying it out loud can be helpful. Sometimes receiving helpful advice and words of comfort from those that love you can be just what you need.

Reflection Question: Name three people you can call on for support when you’re having a hard time.

7. Take Deep Breaths During Hard Days.

I remember hearing my grandmother sigh when she was tired. Now that I am trained in breathwork, I can understand now that this was actually a very effective breathing practice! I remember hearing her hum soothing melodies as she did her chores. The practice of humming was very common as enslaved people found comfort during difficult days. Humming is a way to use the breath to calm our nervous system because it involves long exhalations coupled with vibrations that resonate and offer peace throughout our entire body.  

While your day-to-day challenges might be incredibly different, you too can leverage these practices when you’re having a rough time. The simple act of taking a deep breath can do a lot. In my book, Black People Breathe, and my course Breathing Through Microaggressions & Racism, I share the Humming Bee Breath and how it can be very powerful for reducing anxiety and helping to focus. I also share the Extra Long Exhale, resembling a very intentional, longer sort of sigh, which is incredibly soothing when you are experiencing worry and doubt. Both of these practices stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, putting the breaks on your fight or flight stress response.

Reflection Question: In what situations could taking deep breaths help you in your work day?

8. Be Intentional About Finding Joy!

Enslaved people worked for 8 to 14 hours a day, but they made sure to find joy in the little free time they had. Singing, dancing, and storytelling were a big part of their lives when they weren’t working. They spent time connecting with family and friends. They were able to refill their cups despite how they were treated. 

When your schedule is packed, it’s easy to get swept up in the swirl of deadlines, projects, after-school pickups, errands, and to-do lists. It’s critical to be intentional about finding moments of joy so that your spirit is energized to do all of these things as your best self. Think about what brings you joy.  What makes you smile? Maybe it’s going for long walks or meeting up with old friends or going to your favorite restaurant

Reflection Question: What brings you joy, and how can you carve out time in your schedule to experience these things? What can you do in the next week?

Zee Clarke is the author of the book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). She has been featured in many leading publications including ABC, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Ebony, Essence, and Fast Company.

She is a Harvard Business School graduate who applies holistic healing practices to corporate environments. Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more.

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