Wit's End


This is Devona Jefferson. I met her through a mutual friend and found out that she has recently achieved something many of us have dreamed of, but are too afraid to try.

Devona has always been creative. She picked up a camera for the first time when she was just 11. It was a Kodak 110, one of those flat black rectangles with a flash bulb that looked like a giant Lego piece. She was immediately taken with the artistic medium, and her father got her a 35mm camera for her college graduation so she could run with it.

But, she followed a more traditional path through college, majoring in Communications/Public Relations. When she went out to California for an interview with a celebrity publicity agency – it would have been a great first step! – she was unimpressed by the level of insincerity into which she would have had to immerse herself. It would have taken way too much energy to dig through all those layers of dissembling.

So, she (mentally) said  ”screw it” and headed back home to DC. After earning her Master’s in Psychological Services and Counseling, she eventually found herself working for the Federal government investigating workplace discrimination, first for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She really enjoyed it. She had been diagnosed with lupus as a sophomore in college, and it was satisfying to work in a field in which she had unique insight (chronic conditions fell under the protections of her office).

After five years at the FDA, her division got a new Director. It happens – government leadership comes and goes, while subject matter experts just keep doing their jobs. But this new Director was different. She brought with her a toxic working environment. Devona would come into the office never knowing whether she would be yelled at, sometimes publicly, or whether she would escape unscathed, only to have to brace herself all over again the next day. She would have to ask for permission to go to get her son when he was sick or injured. If the Director wasn’t immediately available, she would have to wait. If Devona complained, the Director would decry it as “disrespectful to her and to the job.”

The irony of the situation was not lost on her. She was a chronic patient – did I mention Devona was diagnosed with lupus during her sophomore year in college? – whose job was to investigate workplace discrimination, and whose boss was violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990).

At first, Devona tried going through the proper channels – the human resources department or a higher level of management. It didn’t work. Talk around the office was that the Director was protected from a higher level in the chain of command.

The environment continued to deteriorate. The Director would try to turn her employees against the ones who spoke up. Devona tried to get another position in the agency, but the Director blocked her attempts to move. It took a lot of energy, and the stress was taking a toll.

Lupus is one of the chronic conditions that requires as stress-free a life as possible. From the time of her diagnosis, Devona had been advised to cut out unnecessary drama. She was having flare-ups all the time by then. Add to that the worsening of the depression that often accompanies chronic conditions, and she was constantly questioning what she was fighting for. Why was she investing all this energy in something that was taking more from her than her paychecks were worth?

As Steve Harvey says, sometimes you just have to jump.

So she did.

Learn how next week.