“In the race for diversity, equity, and inclusion, it feels like I just got My college track coach, Tony Sandoval, often said, “It’s not how you start a race, it’s how you finish.” Let me take a moment to tell you how I started.
Born in Los Angeles, my family and I moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1987, when I was just a year old. We arrived to Oahu with very little, just a few suitcases and dollars. We inevitably became homeless—sleeping in shelters, the fronts of libraries, the backs of strangers’ trucks—and begged friendly restaurant staff for items like bread and butter or chips and salsa. We survived on welfare and government subsidies.
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My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia before I was born. She managed motherhood to the best of her abilities, but I was permanently placed into foster care at 8 1/2 years old.
When I entered the foster care system I couldn’t read or write. As you can imagine, the naysayers were hovering. She will end up pregnant by 16. She won’t graduate from high school. Unfortunately, this is the reality for so many of the foster youth in the system.
I was blessed to have amazing tutors and support which enabled me to graduate from my high school on the Big Island at the top of my class. To survive the foster care system and the obstacles in front of me growing up, I leaned heavily into sports, especially running.
Running was freedom for me. On runs, I would let my mind wander to a life that wasn’t filled with the amount of angst, disappointment, and abandonment that embodied my reality. When I felt doubted, I would run, and I always felt so much better afterward—I was able to show up as my best self.
COURTESY FRANCESCA WEEMS
I also liked sports because my teammates didn’t care that I was in the foster care system and they weren’t concerned with who my biological mother was. The only thing my teammates cared about was whether I could win. And win I did—I was a five-time Hawaii state champion, eventually capturing the attention of the University of California, Berkeley, where I competed as a member of the track and field and cross-country team on a full academic scholarship courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Today, I run in my Bay Area, California, neighborhood after long days working as a managing supervisor at one of the world’s top global communication firms, FleishmanHillard (FH), in San Francisco. I oversee thought leadership platforms for C-suite executives of Fortune 500 companies. I also act as our office’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) committee lead, creating a space where people feel they can bring their authentic selves to work. Furthermore, I guide DE&I efforts for clients as a member of FH’s True MOSAIC team.
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Running reminds me that I am strong, I am powerful, I can take on anything that is thrown at me. It also helps me clear my mind, focus, and build confidence. When I run before work, I also feel an immediate mood change as endorphins are released. Whenever I feel doubted, I go on a run to reinforce resilience. Sports have taught me about getting back up when you stumble. Yes, you get scratched from the fall, but you must pick yourself up and keep going.
One of my favorite quotes is from author William Arthur Ward, who said, “Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” The quote is clear—either you let your circumstances defeat you or use them to reach your goals. I chose the latter. Running was my catalyst, because with every step, I vanquished doubt, insecurities, and inadequacies. I was determined to achieve a different life than the one envisioned by naysayers.
“RUNNING REMINDS ME THAT I AM STRONG, I AM POWERFUL, I CAN TAKE ON ANYTHING THAT IS THROWN AT ME.”
My turbulent upbringing brought special people into my life, like ESPN broadcaster Neil Everett. Prior to entering public relations, I worked in TV for almost 10 years. Neil inspired me to become a broadcaster.
In 1991, when I was 4 years old, my family and I took a trip to Hawaii Pacific University’s campus, and Neil, who was the sports information director at the time, saw us. He asked why my brother and I weren’t in school, and he could see we were malnourished, so he offered to buy us lunch. From then on, we fostered a relationship with him.
He had no reason to reach out to two random kids, but he did. He even bought me a cake on my sixth birthday. Shortly afterwards, my family and I moved islands so we lost touch, but life always has a way of coming full circle.
I followed Neil’s sports broadcasting career from afar. When I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009, my friends and family threw me a graduation party where Neil was the surprise guest. At this time, we hadn’t seen each other in two decades. I was elated and bawled. He had always remembered the little girl with pigtails and a bright smile. Well, that little girl grew up to be a sports broadcaster who would one day work for the same station Neil did on Oahu.
Neil Everett and the author.COURTESY FRANCESCA WEEMS
Many people ask if I am resentful of my childhood since it is so out of the ordinary. I never attended kindergarten so I skipped the phase where nap time was normal in school. I can’t recall a favorite childhood book because my biological mom never read any to me. However, if it wasn’t for these unusual circumstances that I found myself in, I would have never met Neil or the woman I would come to call mom: Jacqueline “Jacque” Woods.
When I entered the foster care system, I met Jacque, who was a social worker at the time. From the start, she felt like home. Jacque is also Black, and she’d pick me up when I was living in foster homes, do my hair, and feed me. She’d tell me that “Black is beautiful, Black is awesome.” I loved her so much.
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I lived in several long-term placement homes—and most of them were not great. I was a difficult kid, I had serious abandonment issues, and I was very confused with who I was. As a Black child, it was tough to be placed in homes where people didn’t look like me.
The turning point came when I was almost 14. Jacque was driving to work when she saw me sitting at a bus stop. My head was down, and I looked super sad. She said the look on my face broke her heart, and she decided to get me out of my foster home so I could live with her. To do this she would have to relinquish her role as a social worker given it was a conflict of interest. She did it without hesitation.
Jacque (left) with the author.COURTESY FRANCESCA WEEMS
I wish everybody had a Jacque in their life. Not only did she look like me and tell me I was beautiful, but she treated me the same as her own children. When she introduced me along with her 7-year-old twins, she said, “Meet my daughter, Francesca.” Anything they got, I got—and sometimes she even did more for me. She spent money she didn’t even have because she believed in my dreams so passionately, and she saw so much promise in me. Jacque understood inclusion. So much of what foster youth seek is acceptance.
Jacque was my biggest fan and cheerleader, on and off the track. She cultivated and supported my academic and athletic talents. She attended every track meet growing up, and was considered the “team mom” since she would bring drinks, orange slices, and other snacks. She made sure I was decked out in the latest running gear, hired a massage therapist for me on the Big Island, and paid for treatments when I traveled for meets inter-island. She sent me to running camps locally and in California—I had the opportunity to attend a Nike running camp at Stanford University in the summer of 2004. These were eye-opening experiences, which proved to me that I could run with some of the best in the country.
My life is a lesson about equity. So much focus has been placed on equality—everyone getting the same thing—when in reality, ensuring structural changes for underrepresented youth like myself takes equity, which is giving people what they need. It is about assessing the systemic barriers that foster youth and so many others from tough backgrounds encounter. I needed tutorial services so that I would be able to read, and I needed additional time to take tests and to have someone sit with me and walk me through things. In the end the investment is the woman that stands here today.
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But it bothers me that so often the fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion falls on people of color, although I do understand that so much of how I navigate my work comes as a result of lived experience. You don’t have to explain to me what it feels like to be the only one. I live it every day. With every step on the track, in the classroom, and now in the boardroom, my goal has always been to pave the way for others that are coming behind me. Today, I volunteer as a foster youth academic advocate pushing for change on the ground level.
Black people often don’t show up as ourselves at work. We change everything to fit in, from our hair to our speech to our mannerisms. That is what I am seeking to break down. That is what I strive for every day. To create a space where people can be themselves without apology. To create such spaces, representation must be a focal point.
“NONE OF THIS IS GOING TO BE EASY, BUT I HOPE TO CREATE A BETTER WORLD FOR THE FUTURE GENERATIONS.”
In the race for diversity, equity, and inclusion, it feels like I just got out of the blocks, and I’m trying to pace myself for the long haul. A lot of Black women work in DE&I, and you get the sense that burnout feels inevitable with the physical and emotional toll of the work. Ultimately, we must hold brands we love and the companies we work for accountable. None of this is going to be easy, but I hope to create a better world for the future generations. I want to make sure everybody has the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Running is still a source of stress relief, for mental health and community. It is what has always kept me going in challenging times. I know that my work as it relates to DE&I is a marathon and not a sprint, and the race is far from over. Luckily, I have been training for this my whole life.out of the blocks, and I’m trying to pace myself.”