July 27, 1995… A day I don’t always think about, but one I will never forget.
I arrived at work at my usual time, 8:25 a.m., about 5 minutes before required. I typed in my password and received an error message. I tried again. Still an error. I called IT (or whatever the department was called back then). No answer, so I left a voice mail message.
I busied myself, filing a few papers and cleaning my desk. And then, around 9 a.m., I got a phone call. The office caller ID said Human Resources, yet the voice on the line was the Editor-in-Chief (EIC) whose office was nowhere near HR. She asked me to come down to HR. I thought it was odd, but I didn’t really piece it together until I walked past my boss’ office. The normal cheerful middle-manager with a seemingly stress-free job looked solemn as she talked to a few other editors.
Something was not right about this. This day was not going to be a regular day.
I greeted the EIC in the HR office and she got straight to the point.
“Katara, we are re-organizing. Your position is being eliminated.”
Uh? Eliminated? Is this a lay-off? I ask myself. How could it be? I am 24, smart, received great grades all of my life, and I even have a master’s degree—already. How can I not be a valuable part of any team?
“We have an enhanced severance…” she said as I tuned back in and immediately perked up.
While I was wondering how I could be laid off at such a young and promising age, my real angst was around the bills awaiting payment with my next paycheck—only 2 days away.
But the EIC gave me a check right then. It included my 2-week pay (and I didn’t have to come back to finish off the week), my vacation pay… And if I signed the agreement, I’d receive more money in the mail within a few days. I had no clue what enhanced severance meant, but I knew I would be able to pay my bills for at least a few weeks. I was able to breathe. But wow, how did this happen?
Throughout the next few weeks, I was filled with several emotions—including sadness, anger, amazement, etc. I had already started looking for my next career move so I wasn’t grieving the actual loss of the job, but more so the loss of income. I took advantage of the career training the company sponsored for us—and for the first time, I really thought about what I wanted to do and how I could get there rather than just searching through job postings. In the training class, I wrote my retirement speech, a great activity, and focused on what I wanted said about me—and as the great trainer mentioned, it had little to do with work and more to do with my impact on others. I didn’t need to just look for a job, I needed to look for a way to make an impact, to promote the issues I held near and dear to me. I needed a mission. Ahh, the stuff you don’t learn in a text book.
I remember taking down my braids, fearful they would stop me from getting a job. The trainer agreed even though my fellow laid off co-workers said I shouldn’t because they thought my braids were beautiful (It was perhaps the first time they had seen up close a black woman with braids and extensions). My best friend said her church was praying for me. My other bff hopped on a train from New York to Connecticut and tried to choose activities that didn’t require money. My J-school friend allowed me to room with her at the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) in nearby Philadelphia—because I could drive there and attend the big job fair for just a little money. My sister agreed to loan me money until the severance came through—and I recall holding the phone and receiving a knock on the door from the postman. My check had arrived; my sister could hold on to her money—until I needed it later. Then she and I watched the O.J. Simpson verdict while on the phone and screamed at our television sets when the verdict was read. I drove to Philly and had a great time, telling my college teacher (a former celebrated newscaster in New Orleans) I had been laid off. He looked at me as we danced at one of the great NABJ parties and said: “It happens to the best of us.”
I returned home and continued to apply to what felt like 100 jobs. I visited the library and searched through the papers. I even called the job I had turned down just a few months ago. I worked part-time for a focus group company, something I had interest in and loved. And I got to take home the leftover food we served participants—that’s really like money in a single, laid off girl’s pocket.
And, after a few weeks of desperation, I called a friend who knew Jet Magazine was hiring. The Editor there gave me her Fed Ex info and I sent my resume immediately. She later sent me a plane ticket to fly out for an interview. I met John H. Johnson at a large conference table. Within a few minutes, I was offered a job at a historical company for a historical publication. It wasn’t my dream job, but it was a job—at a celebrated institution—and I could see how my mission could be shaped by working there. And to top it off, Mr. Johnson said: “We put new hires up at the Hilton next door for 30 days.”
That was some compensation. I was running out of money and I’d get to stay in a really nice hotel for 30 days… And I’d be moved from my little studio apartment in Connecticut to my favorite city, Chicago. I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot.
And, I had survived. When I did my taxes in January, I realized I had made more money in 1995 than I had made in 1994. Whoa. How did that happen?
During this lay off and particularly during my fasting (a new spiritual discipline I picked up with the loss of my job), the message I heard in my head over and over as I prayed fervently was: You will learn to depend more fully on me. I had to learn to trust God in a new way. Money didn’t come every two weeks… It came in different ways (the food from the part-time job, the offering my church took up for me when I announced I was relocating, the nod from my landlord who told me there was no need to pay for the week I was staying past the lease date). Somehow, God had provided—and somehow I was okay. I was more than okay. I landed on my feet. I accepted a job I may never have and I learned a lot there. I worked hard. I made friends. I got to hear first-hand how Mr. Johnson built an institution. I learned to depend more fully on God.
It really does work together for good! (see Romans 8:28)