When Your Pain Becomes Your Breakthrough: Interview With Kasharna Pusey
This interview is a continuation of Kasharna Pusey’s story, which you can find here.
Nneka: Hi, Kasharna. So great to have the opportunity to talk with you! You gave us such a heartfelt story about your transition from marketing to fundraising and the physical impact of racism. In your article, you told us about the breadth of the story. Today I wanted to talk to you about the depth of the story, how you felt and the personal impact on you in that moment and moving forward.
Kasharna: Thanks, Nneka, and thanks for inviting me to do this. That sounds great.
Nneka: Tell me, what attracted you to marketing?
Kasharna: I landed in marketing because I was always somebody who was creative. I was interested in the entertainment aspect of marketing, as well as the promotional side. That really attracted me. I've collected Cosmopolitan magazines forever. I was the magazine collector when I was younger. I loved seeing different articles and ads. To see that advertising was a part of the program that I enrolled in—creating ads for magazines— this spurred me to take the program.
Nneka: Once you graduated from college and you started your first job, you said you landed with a very large agency, one of the largest in North America. Tell me a little bit about what it was like when you first got to that job.
Kasharna: It was exciting! There were a lot of young professionals and new graduates, so I fit in with the demographics of the agency. It was great. It was a very welcoming environment. The new hires formed our own little social circle. I fit in really great with this group, so there were no problems. Like I said in the story, it felt like a fairytale. I kind of had to pinch myself. I kept thinking, "Is this what it's really like in the corporate world?"
Kasharna: Yes. He would just make little comments here and there. But then he’d say, "It's just harmless fun. No big deal," until it became personal. What really caught my attention was the year of the Super Bowl when Beyonce performed. She delivered an incredible performance. It was all about Black empowerment. And the following Monday, he started trashing it right away.
One of the white girls said, "Beyonce was incredible. Her performance was so good." He immediately disagreed. He was like, "Beyonce is overrated. All she does is just shake her ass." He didn't get her message, which is fine. It was just the way he destroyed the performance with his words. Internally, I felt hurt, because I had so much pride from that performance. On top of that, once he said something, everybody started trashing her performance. It started out as small talk, regular small talk on a Monday, then everybody started seeing the performance as negative, ultimately agreeing that she was overrated.
Nneka: Would you say that the conversation essentially silenced you as one of only two women of color in the office?
Kasharna: Yeah. I didn't really speak up, to be quite honest, during that time. I felt so discouraged.
Nneka: Can you give me a more personal example of this treatment by your boss?
Kasharna: Oh yes. Often in our one-on-one meetings, he would launch his attacks. He would say things like “I expect you to be more advanced at using Excel. I expect you to know this. I expect you to know that." I was an entry-level employee. It was my first job ever in advertising. And I felt that his expectations were unrealistic. He would frequently say very condescending things like that when we had our meetings.
Nneka: Did you see him treat anybody else this way?
Kasharna: No. Never.
Nneka: When did you start getting sick?
Kasharna: When I really started getting sick, I started to miss work a little bit more than usual. At that point, we were barely having conversations. I don't know what he assumed, but he wasn't very kind. It just kept getting worse and worse, and I kept getting sicker and sicker because I was just internalizing that hurt that I was feeling. I was scared to share with our human resources staff because, even though there was open communication, there was a lot of gossip. I would hear stuff about other employees.
Nneka: In retrospect, did you understand the correlation between the rejection, racism and humiliation you were experiencing in the workplace, and your health, or did you initially think they were sort of two separate things? Is it in retrospect that you've been able to put that together?
Kasharna: I would say a lot of it was in retrospect because I faced a lot of depression during that time. I was depressed after Christmas. When we had our Christmas break, we were off for about two weeks. I did not want to go back to work. Once I got back to work, another incident happened. One of my colleagues came up to me, and she said, "I noticed that this person treats you a certain way, or he speaks to you a certain way. He doesn't have any right talking like that to you. He shouldn't be treating you like this." She continued, "If you ever need me to stick up for you or defend you, I will." From that point, I began to see more clearly. I said to myself, "If others are noticing it, then I'm not crazy. This is not a pity party for myself. This is real."
Nneka: What did you think your future was going to be? Were you planning to try to find something else in marketing, or were you just focused on getting well and then changing course? At what point did you decide, "I'm going to make a shift?"
Kasharna: After the advertising experience I was thinking, "I don't think that life is for me.” I was still really ill, so my brain was foggy. I was in survival mode, and then, on top of that, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. When I couldn't find employment, I lived with family, so it made it easier to focus on my health. I couldn't find a good job, so I did some soul searching. I'd think, "What's wrong with me? What's causing all these issues with my health?" I realized that because I was not working, I was starting to feel a bit better because that anxiety was now gone. I guess it was a different type of experience. I was looking for a job, and that was stressful, but it wasn't as stressful as being in my previous job. It was a different kind of stress. Honestly, my last day, I felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders when I knew I never had to go back there again.
Nneka: Tell me, who was your support in that period of time?
Kasharna: A lot of it was my inner strength because I was ashamed of sharing this information with people. I felt like I failed. I felt like I had this great opportunity and I failed, so it was on me. I did have my family. Financially, they were there for me. My brother and his wife, they were also supportive. I would come home and tell them a lot about what was going on.
When I typed up my resignation letter and told them what was happening, they were supportive of me. They didn't judge me. They said, "You have to do what's best for you, especially if it's affecting your health—your mental health and your physical health." They were so supportive e. They saw the impact of what I was going through. I would come home, and I would literally just be in my room until it was time to go back to work.
Nneka: Tell me a little bit about how you went from the shame to having confidence in sharing your story and coming to the conclusion that there's life beyond your pain?
Kasharna: How I came to that conclusion was really understanding my illness. Just facing it head-on really made me understand that I was internalizing my hurt, because basically Hidradenitis Suppurativa is an auto-inflammatory disease caused by stress. It was the stress that I was feeling that was causing this issue. It wasn't my fault.
For too long I placed the blame on myself when really this wasn’t happening to me because of something I did. I had to understand the illness. In addition, people began understanding what was going on, and that encouraged me. People seeing my illness—seeing me take antibiotics all the time, seeing me in chronic pain, not being able to move my hand and do simple things like picking up a cup. I began educating people on what was wrong with me. Their understanding really got me over the shame of it.
And then just pushing forward—doing the soul searching and not giving up. I really tried to figure out what my passions were and how I could still achieve what I set out to do.
I went into communications because I liked the glitz and glamor of it, but I wanted to make a difference. I just didn't know how. I slowly started to figure out what the big picture was. I tried customer service, but that wasn't fulfilling because it didn't bring out my creativity. I needed that creative aspect in order to thrive and function.
Nneka: What is your passion?
Kasharna: My passion is living a life of purpose, giving back, helping others and making a difference any way possible.
Nneka: As you were starting to feel better, you began to search for another opportunity that was better aligned with your passion, which ended up being fundraising. Tell me a little bit about that discovery.
Kasharna: I discovered fundraising through research when I was doing my soul searching. I was thinking of doing my post-grad in public relations but fundraising actually popped up in my filter. Choosing fundraising was the best decision I ever made because it checked all my boxes. I was still able to be a part of communications, still able to be creative, and I was still able to live that life of purpose—by giving back and spending my days working for a cause that is changing lives.
Nneka: Tell me about the life-changing internship you mention in your story.
Kasharna: It was great. My internship with Women’s Hospital College Foundation was really good. How that came about was through networking. It all began through LinkedIn, by connecting with Kishshana Palmer, a fantastic fundraising consultant. She took the time to speak with me. She didn't know me from Adam, but to this day I still appreciate her because she gave me time. She's a really busy nonprofit professional, and her time is valuable. She took the time to really listen to me and hear me, and then she connected me with you.
You invited me, with open arms, into your Black fundraising group. You took the time to listen to me, hear my story. You arranged for me to volunteer at AFP Congress in Toronto because I was interested in volunteering.
Through Congress, I met Jennifer Bernard, who is somebody I really looked up to. My internship was possible because you were always encouraging me to follow up. "Did you reach out to Jennifer?" That made me feel very special.
It was great to actually have somebody outside of my family who advocated for me, who wanted me to succeed. I've never had that before, so it felt really good.
Jennifer set up a customized internship for me that pretty much checked all the boxes I had. Up until that point I was having a difficult time finding an internship that covered all the criteria required for my school program.
Nneka: It is a delight to support you, Kasharna. I believe you have great talent. Tell me a little bit about your perspective of group of fundraisers.
Kasharna: It's like a sisterhood. It's a safe place where we all can come together and share our different experiences. I love it because we all have different experiences, but they're still so similar. It's very inclusive. I don't feel like I'm alone. I feel like there's so many stories that intertwine with each other when we share. And I can relate with the people in our group. It's great. It's influential. It's insightful. Like I said before, I feel safe when I'm in our group. I've never felt that way before, being a part of a networking group or an association. Feeling safe feels really good.
Nneka: When I approached the group about writing these Bright papers, and you agreed, tell me about how you decided to write about this experience.
Kasharna: I didn't know I was going to write about this experience. One day I was sitting on a patio, sun out. I was in good spirits. I said a prayer and I said, "God, speak through me." I was just reading over the criteria of what was needed for the writing assignment when I saw that I could share my pain. I realized that I could share different things, and I thought, “You know what? I'm going to share this story because I've never really spoken about it." I wanted other young professionals that have experiences or are experiencing what I went through to know that they're not crazy. They're not alone. This is real.
Nneka: How is your health today?
Kasharna: I'm great. Since I had my surgery, I haven't had to take any antibiotics. I was happily saying to myself yesterday I haven't been sick in so long. There was a time when I literally would have a cold, then the flu, or I would be in chronic pain every other week. I haven't been sick in six months, not even a cold.
Nneka: The healing process that you're talking about in your article is physical, emotional and psychological. Do you think it’s ongoing? Are you still healing?
Kasharna: Yes, I'm still healing. The good thing now about my healing is I no longer internalize it. With our fundraising group, I get to share how I'm feeling. If I experience any sort of racism or discrimination, I no longer suffer alone. I share it, and then I let it go. If it comes to a point where I have to speak up, I'm no longer afraid because I have mentors. They encourage me. They help me to craft what I'm going to say. I'm no longer fearful. That fear is gone because I know who I am, I know what I'm capable of, and I know, if you reject me, there are people who accept me.
Nneka: Tell me, what does your future look like, my friend?
Kasharna: My future. Good question. I see myself continuing my work in fundraising, maybe one day becoming a major gift officer. I'm not 100 percent sure what area I want to focus on in fundraising in terms of cause or issue. I feel like over time that will change as my passion changes and the world changes. I definitely see myself becoming a major gift officer because that's an area of interest. I believe one big gift can make a huge difference. Hopefully, one day, I can help make one of those big gifts too.
Nneka: Is there anything else you want to say to our audience about your story, your experience, the group, or the process?
Kasharna: Absolutely. I would just like to say that I didn't share this story to condemn my boss. Maybe he just didn't know better. If you don't know better, you can't do better. This is not to bash him or to make me a victim. I don't feel like a victim in this situation anymore. I feel like I've learned so much. If anything, this experience put me on my path. It was something I had to go through.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the best experience, but it made me stronger—mentally, emotionally, and physically. I want to remind everybody out there to be mindful of your actions and how you treat other people. A simple comment could push somebody over the edge or hurt them deeply. To you it may be just a simple comment. To them it could be the biggest thing in the world.
Secondly, I would like everybody, especially white people, resist fear when you see groups of people of colour gathered together and seeking comfort in each other. It's a shared experience. We understand each other’s realities.
A lot of the time I see it's okay for white people to gather in offices, to join groups and to laugh and socialize. If it’s people of colour gathering, it's looked down on and/or cautioned. That's a form of racism whether you see it that way or not. It affects us. I just want to give and receive support and ultimately be in unity with my fellow Black colleagues.