“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

BABE #277: NICOLE HIGGINS - Director, Orlando Together

BABE #277: NICOLE HIGGINS - Director, Orlando Together

Nicole serves as director of Orlando Together, an organization that seeks to fortify cities by undermining racial divisions as they manifest in business, education, religious, and civic life. She’s also the executive administrative assistant for Lighthouse Central Florida, a Lululemon educator and a roaster of direct trade coffee at Orlando’s Downtown CREDO. She’s intentional, articulate, strategic and shows up each day (to her various hustles) committed to facilitating honest conversations that bridge divisions and create space, solidarity and progress for the future of Orlando and beyond.

The Basics:

Hometown: Orlando, FL
Current city: Orlando, FL
Alma mater: Mercer University (Go Bears!)
Degree: BS, Psychology; MA, Cross Cultural Studies (Fuller Seminary - Pasadena, CA)
Very first job: Babysitting; Summer Camp Counselor (age 15)
Hustle: Director, Orlando Together; Executive Administrative Assistant, Lighthouse Central Florida; Educator, Lululemon

The Interests:

Babe you admire and why?
Is it cheating to say my mom? I hope not. She just received her sixth star as a finisher of the world marathon majors, recently finishing at the Tokyo Marathon—yes, running. She didn’t even begin her running journey until after she turned 50. A friend asked me not too long ago if I feel that I’ve surpassed my parents, and I can honestly say no. They continue to raise the bar and live life to the fullest, and my mom leads the charge in the family letting her curiosity find a new adventure at least once a month. I can’t keep up!

How do you spend your ‘free’ time?
Outside of social and family commitments and sleep, right? Because I love to prioritize those! In the quieter moments, I’m catching up on a couple late night shows and probably a true crime documentary, and then researching dream recipes and sewing patterns. On a good day I actually get started on those cooking and sewing projects.

Favorite fictional female character? Why?
I display a children’s book on my bookshelf called Island Born, by Junot Diaz. It tells the story of Lola, a young girl who is given an assignment to learn about where she was born. Having moved to the states at a young age, she has no distinct memories to tell, but through a series of interviews with family and friends and neighbors, she uncovers the rich history that lives in and through her and comes to sincerely take hold of the truth that she is a daughter of the islands. I read it only a few months ago, and my heart leapt leaps and bounds to see myself through such a beautiful depiction.

Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
Black coffee. As for adult beverage, my choice is all dependent on context. I prefer spirits (tequila and soda, or Cuban rum over ice), but you can’t go wrong with a solid glass of red wine.

What would you eat for your very last meal?
Oxtail (with steamed vegetables and rice and peas, of course)—or maybe ackee and saltfish if my last meal was breakfast. Lately I’m inspired to enjoy EVERY meal... kind of like pausing to enjoy that perfect bite of a sandwich, even if you can’t save that bite for the end.

If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Truly, I wish I could have a casual meetup with my grad school friends on a monthly basis. I’m in Florida, one friend is in Toronto, and the rest are in southern or central California... so it makes that ‘casual’ part difficult.

The Hustle:

Tell us about your hustle, providing an overview of your job and roles.
Orlando Together takes the idea that honest conversation is the best bridge to our divisions and seeks to undermine racial divisions through place-based training that facilitates those honest conversations. My title as director allows me to wear different hats: listening to our Board as they support our vision and programming, developing and executing our programming, coordinating our team, communicating with participants and pursuing potential participants! Speaking of programming, we take a three-tiered approach to our place-based programming: inviting participants to articulate the experience that shape their respective paradigms, exploring those paradigms in our city’s physical and historical contexts, and inviting participants to consider the individual and collective role they play in building a city marked by advocacy and inclusion in all its sectors.

What does your typical workday look like? Which various ‘hats’ do you wear throughout the day?
Ahh, now we get to it: Orlando Together is not my full time 9-5 job. I’m the executive administrative assistant at Lighthouse Central Florida, an incredible organization who helps chart a course for those living, learning, and earning with vision loss. I’m also a part of the Downtown CREDO team, roasting our direct trade coffee for our three name-your-price coffee shop locations a couple times a week. These are two incredible Central Florida social enterprises, bridging the nonprofit and for-profit sectors with sustainable business models that are solving social issues. Long story short, I’m a fan of the social enterprise model and am privileged to be connected with them all. I’m an early riser—or at least my brain is—so my day starts early with emails and Orlando Together work or a yoga practice, work at Lighthouse, followed by an Orangetheory workout (I’ve been bitten by the bug) or a networking or social commitment in the evening. Lather, rinse, repeat! On the weekends you’ll find me attending Orlando Together programming, catching up on errands, family time, coffee roasting, and sleeping in.

What inspired Orlando Together? What has the evolution of the organization been like since you created it, and what was the most important piece of your vision for it?
Orlando Together emerged as an annual event within Downtown CREDO, an organization founded in 2010 dedicated to inspiring the pursuit of meaning, impact and community. We held an annual bike rally, bridging neighborhoods and celebrating the diversity that makes Orlando a great city. Over time that bike rally became a parade (themed “Orlando Together”), and in 2017 we thought it would be fun to host a dinner on a main through street in downtown named Division Ave. Spoiler: when you look at racial census data for the city, Division Ave is aptly named. Orlando Together kicked off in Fall of 2017 with a Dinner on Division—not quite on the street, but I haven’t given up that dream yet—and we were able to invite over a hundred people, including elected officials and neighborhood leaders and business owners together to explore redlining and the history of segregation that has left its mark on Orlando. The dinner was a success, so we spent 2018 thinking of ways to invite people to similar honest conversations on issues of race and how it manifests in our present day realities.

What inspired OT programming? What types of daily systems and processes does OT tackle?
The way we structure the programming has been a fun journey. When it comes to honest conversations, trust is a priority—so we have been mindful to maintain not only a smaller size for each group learning together but also asking participants to meet at least three times over the course of three months. Sometimes that’s feasible, and sometimes it’s not, so we are working on two-day opportunities for groups, whether at workplaces or church communities or volunteer organizations. Our facilitators are subject-matter experts (depending on the sector of participants, eg, civics, education, religion, etc). My favorite part, though, is getting outside the classroom. Of course we can talk about what we were taught about law enforcement growing up, but there’s something different when we ask that question in two different neighborhoods and drive through each. It is one thing to hear about the school-to-prison pipeline, but it’s another thing to take a tour of the local correctional facilities and look at the faces and ages and race of the men and women who are incarcerated. There’s a deeper context to experience how we live in the manifestation of racial policies, practices and legacies when discussing those experiences with people who have different life experiences from one another.

With such emotionally-charged topics to tackle, how do you remain motivated and enthusiastic in your work when faced with naysayers or negativity? What advice do you have for those in similar positions
Lead with your why! The mission doesn’t change—I want Orlando to be a city marked not only for its hospitality and creativity, but inclusivity in all its sectors. The ‘how’ can be creative and multifaceted, and there will be plenty of people who have suggestions. Also, surround yourself with like-minded people who are in the hustle with you. Maybe it’s a different hustle, but sharing a table at a coffee shop with someone else catching up on emails is a comfort. Also, take breaks. The work of addressing racial divisions began long before me, and it is bigger than me. I get to be a steward of facilitating these conversations, but it’s tough work that takes ALL of us, which means sometimes it doesn’t have to (nor should it) rest on my shoulders. Take a break from Twitter; go for a walk outside; laugh with your friends over something nonsensical. Schitt’s Creek is a GREAT laugh.

What did your hustle look like before Orlando Together? How have your past professional and academic experiences and lessons prepared you for the work you do today? How have they not prepared you?
I mentioned my time at CREDO: I managed one of CREDO’s coffee shop locations before moving into the community partnership arm of the (then) nonprofit. In grad school I had the opportunity to intern with an interfaith organization devoted to economic justice, civil disobedience included. In hindsight, the path looks more linear that it really is, but I have stepped into relationships and pursued the doors that open in front of me. Don’t be afraid to reach out and share a table with someone at a coffee shop. That’s how I got my job at CREDO.

How would you say being a woman, and particularly a woman of color, has affected your professional experience? What can we do to create more equal, uplifting (and well-paying!) spaces for women in your industry?
There’s always that tiny voice that wonders if my achievements are because I’m that good at what I do, or if I’m filling a quota and don’t rock the boat too much. Fortunately, I’m pretty good with my commitments, and I stopped worrying about rocking the boat. There are still certainly moments when I need to be strategic, and those doubts come creeping in: “would this message sound better if it was coming from a white guy?” or conversely “I don’t want the only female person of color in the room—me— to be the one to point out issues of access and equity.” We still have a way to go with that last point, and it reminds me of the need for allies, or as I like to say now, accomplices. We don’t have to wait for the black woman to point out an inequitable situation; However, if the marginalized person speaks up, listen. I can’t wait to see more women of color at key decision-making seats, and not just the boots on the ground executing. In the nonprofit community, I’m encouraged to see so many people of color making their own tables, so to speak, but I’d like to see more at the c-suite level across the board in our business community.

What would you say is your biggest strength? What would you say is the skill you most need to improve?
I often tell people that the secret is to give a shit and show up. It’s kinda reductionist, but that’s what it comes down to. I like to see myself as the hype girl with an administrative streak, so I like being behind the scenes building out the plan. But with several hustles, I want to fine tune that business side and get better at pitching the economic benefit of honest conversations on race to businesses. A bleeding heart who can seal the deal!

Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
Locally, Falecia Williams who is the president of Valencia College’s West and Downtown campuses is my constant woman crush every day, as is Emily Wray, Full Sail University instructor and storyteller extraordinaire (many of the images from Orlando Together are from her creative eye). Both carry themselves with such grace and ease, and both articulate a perspective that consistently challenges me to broaden my perspectives and trust my gut. Truthfully, Orlando is STACKED with incredible women working hard and making an impact for good. Certainly not in my field, haha, but I don’t think a week has gone by where a girlfriend has not texted “have you read Becoming yet? Team Michelle Obama for inspiration.

What does your approach to work/life balance look like? How do you unplug and unwind?
Some days, work is work. And that’s ok. And keep that text group of girlfriends on “do not disturb” but keep that text thread active. Lately I’ve had to admit that endorphins are real. Get as many as you can, in the way that makes you happiest. Yoga is my favorite.

Career and/or life advice for other babes (both inside and outside of you industry?)
Trust your gut. I’m still learning how to do that, rather than crowdsourcing everything. Gratitude goes a long way.

Connect with Nicole:

Orlando Together / Personal Instagram / Email

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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