Tyra on Music, Safe Spaces, and Black History Month
Tyra Thompson is known around the office as one who always manages to get things done with a smile on her face, while having a playlist for every possible scenario at the ready with no notice. She's multi-talented, driven, and has such an incredible perspective on what it means to be a Black woman, and how making noise can be a really good thing.
What are you passionate about? Personally and professionally.
I am super passionate about creating safe spaces for people to be themselves. The way that I create that in my personal life, and my professional life outside of ABLE, is through music. As well as working at ABLE, I am also a singer/songwriter who loves to create music that people relate to. I love the fact that music is so universal and therapeutic.
Whenever I have had to overcome a tough time in life, there has always been a song to get me through. I’m passionate about creating that soundtrack for other people to use when they need it.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background and what made you who you are today?
I grew up in Naperville, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago). There were many minorities in my area, but not a lot of Black people specifically. As one of the few Black girls in my school, I always felt the pressure to be perfect. I was reserved and quiet out of fear of being seen as too loud, the ratchet Black girl, or less intelligent. I had completely watered myself down.
In high school this changed for me completely. I went to a high school in a neighboring town that was much more diverse in every way. I also started singing and was involved in a choir program that celebrated diversity. I learned that I was not great in spite of my differences, but because of them. For the first time, I was encouraged to be my most authentic self. This program ultimately led to my desire to pursue music, but it was so much more than that.
This is when I realized that we all have a story that needs to be shared; we are all in this world to do something. It was at this moment that I also realized that life is too short to waste time dimming your light.
The combination of my shyness and the realization that we all have greatness within us that needs to be shared made me who I am today. It is the reason that I feel so passionate about creating safe spaces for people to express themselves and feel seen.
What motivates you to keep pursuing your goals?
I want to change someone's life in the way that I felt mine was changed. I personally experienced that through music, which is why I have always been so passionate about pursuing my passions through that avenue.
This is also very applicable to my work at ABLE. This job has given me a living wage which makes me feel seen and allows me to pour more into my music. In addition, the work we do also helps others to feel the same. The moving pieces present in our Nashville campus, allow the company to scale and make it possible to make a global impact, change the fashion industry, and make other people feel seen.
What or who is your biggest motivator or inspiration?
My parents, influential teachers of mine, and the Queen, Beyonce will always be inspirations of mine. However, recently (as cheesy as it may sound) my biggest motivator has been myself. With all of the encouragement that I have had (or haven’t had in some cases), progress has never been made until I made the decision to make it.
As a woman, especially as a Black woman, I have had to overcome obstacles when people told me I couldn’t. I have had to sift through the opinions that have been thrown from every direction to step into my own light. As an enneagram 9, this is HARD, but I have had to become my own motivator in order to see my excellence and to become the most powerful version of myself possible.
What do you think about when you hear “Black History Month?”
Truthfully, I used to be afraid of Black History Month. Growing up, I wasn’t taught about how noble and brave the leaders of the civil rights movement were. I was taught that they got assassinated when they made too much noise. I didn’t want to only hear about Martin Luther King getting shot, or people being beaten on Bloody Sunday.
Later in life, when I started to do my own research on the history of my culture, I realized how strong Black people are. I discovered how many inventions were created by Black people and how the world has been changed by our courage, culture, and creativity. Now when I think of Black History Month, I think of it as a celebration. It’s a chance for our stories to be told when they are so often ignored.
Why do you think diversity is important in leadership roles?
I think diversity in leadership is important so that multiple voices can be heard when decisions are being made. When decisions don’t directly affect you, you tend to look at them differently, even if you have the best intentions. When there is diversity in leadership, there is someone in the room representing a certain group to say, “this might not be a good idea.” That’s how you avoid campaigns with a Black boy in a shirt that reads “coolest monkey in the jungle” or a campaign that advertises a range “from normal to dark skin tones.”
It could also help to improve company culture. How do you know how to handle a situation where someone is discriminated against, when the discrimination doesn’t affect you or you have never experienced the pain associated with it?
This does not just apply to racial diversity, but to different genders, creeds, and walks of life as well. Adding diversity in leadership can in turn, allow your product to appeal to a broader audience, because people can feel the difference between someone that is attempting to appear inclusive and someone who truly is.
What struggles have you faced as a woman of color, and what have you learned from them?
As a woman of color, I have faced too many struggles to count, but they all seem to boil down to being a put in a box for what I look like instead of who I am and what I am capable of. Whenever I experience rejection I automatically wonder if it’s because I am Black or because I’m not what the person, company, etc. is looking for.This could seem like a personal problem or something that is in my head. Unfortunately, there have been many occasions where people have explicitly told me that they are not looking for a Black girl, or that they actually think that Black people are less intelligent. I have been told that being ratchet or less beautiful is a side effect of blackness and that if a Black woman is eloquent or beautiful, they are the exception and not the rule.
I allowed myself to be a victim for a long time. I used other people’s false opinions of my blackness as excuses for my failures or lack of effort, but I eventually learned that this did nothing to benefit me. Experiencing the struggles of being a Black woman eventually made me stronger. I learned to create my own boxes and that I didn’t have to live in the boxes that other people were trying to create for me.
What’s one thing everyone can do to participate in Black History Month?
I think the biggest thing everyone can do to participate is to truly read up on Black history and to take it seriously. Black History affects more than just Black people. Black history is American history. Without Black people, we wouldn’t have peanut butter, stoplights, potato chips, guitars, hair straighteners, mops, x-rays, or fire extinguishers. Beyond inventions, the dynamic of our country and our culture as American people is largely a result of events in Black history.