Natalie saves the world by making the Web accessible to all. She’s a 43-year-old digital accessibility subject matter expert, living in West Oakland, California, and singing her song loud and clear.
Prologue: I believe the stories we tell one another have the power to change the world. Especially the stories we tell one another about ourselves.
As a society, we focus so much of our attention on the bold-faced “success stories” of CEOs and best-selling authors, the famous and infamous. We get accustomed to glossy, polished anecdotes that are fun to read but hard to relate to. Too often — especially during these times of isolation and separation — we miss the remarkable stories that live all around us.
The neighbor across the street.
The woman behind the cash register.
The co-worker we see every day.
Captivating, inspiring, powerful stories live inside each of us. This series celebrates those stories with 15 interviews of women whose voices you likely haven’t heard before. (Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems like the perfect time for it.) I asked each of these women to share some of their personal story, and talk about how they have found — or are still finding — their own voice.
Today, we hear from Natalie.
In her own words…
When I was 15, I decided that I was awesome and went to work figuring out how to believe in myself.
I had read a book called The Nature of Personal Reality by Jane Roberts. She channeled this entity called Seth, and it was this whole conversation about how you get to be who you are.
Reading that book sent me on this incredible inquiry of looking at every piece of who and what I thought I was and choosing it, saying: “Oh, I get to say how things are? Well then, this is how it’s going to be!”
I decided that: I say who I am. I say what black is. I say what woman is.
I’ve never been someone who would take other folks’ advice without reservation; and when I decided that I was the one who got to say how things went, there was no going back.
I felt like I had permission to carve out exactly who I wanted to be — with words and with my connections to people, and with how my life was going to go.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where my father’s family is from. My parents divorced not long after I was born, and so I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Lynchburg is the center, the locus, of my mom’s family. It is also home to Jerry Falwell and Fleet Enema, if that tells you anything about it. Lynchburg is a gorgeous place, nestled in the central Shenandoah Valley, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And it is incredibly segregated, even to this day.
What did the culture that you grew up in teach you about the role of women?
There were strong women around me — single mothers mostly — and my grandmother, even though she was not a single mother. Women were where the buck stopped in the family. But also there was a lot of permissiveness and allowances for men’s behavior.
I think my mom’s generation was committed to making sure we girls felt like we could do anything; but really, they were trying to believe that for themselves.
There was this schism for me because I was trying to say to them, “I’ve got a better way. I can fight the patriarchy much harder than you!”
Isn’t that sort of how it goes? The young saying, “I have an idea of how I can do this better, and nobody can see it but me!” I definitely fell into that stereotype.
It took me a while to realize what my mother and grandmother sacrificed, and what it took for them to be who they were in my life.
What is something about your identity that you have chosen for yourself?
Who I am for myself is femme. It’s a principal piece of my identity and my gender identity. Some time ago, there was a book written by Kate Bornstein called My Gender Workbook. I highly recommend it. Check it out.
I went on this inquiry: What does gender mean? How has it shown up for me in how I connect to people? I really treasure the wholeness I feel inside a community of femmes, especially femmes of color.
For me personally, femme is close enough to the woman binary for me to inhabit my body and inhabit life without a lot of unease. It is more nuanced for me, principally because of breaking that down and thinking, “Okay, well if my sexuality is different than my gender, what does that look like and why?”
What aspects of your identity do you find strength in or take solace in?
I’ve thought deeply about gender and about sexuality, and about what relationships should look like, and about what family is and what it means, and what kind of futures are worth building. So those things are easy for me to have an opinion about and share.
Whereas, as I’m getting older and uncovering new pieces of myself, or reconciling what I thought in the past — I feel shakier and more uncertain. Those queries still have a lot of fear.
What are some fears you’ve been wrestling with lately?
Top of mind is being more of a visible and vocal leader in my community of practice. I am a senior leader in the field of digital accessibility. So within the intersection of that digital accessibility space and disability rights, I am trying to be willing to be othered so closely, and to grapple with the public gaze.
With the world we live in now, there’s a bit of a requirement to be on the public stage, and that’s been really hard to prepare for. It’s like a train I see coming and I keep hoping I could avoid it, but the train is finally here. I feel like it was accelerated by the pandemic, because all my speaking requests are on Zoom. So it’s very intense. I’m trying to get through all my fears about that so I can make a difference around what I’m committed to.
I organize my life based on my commitments. I’m committed to a Web that works for everyone — no one left behind, no holds barred, no kidding. That commitment is big enough that when I get stuck or want to quit, I suck it up.
That’s why I organize my life around commitments — so there will be something bigger than me, something worthy of fighting the roller-coaster, stomach-in-my-throat fears.
Tell us more about your work and why it’s so important to you.
Basically, I’m trying to make the internet more accessible. (Web accessibility means that anyone, including people with disabilities, can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute to the internet.)
I think it’s my duty, as a person who is not often perceived as disabled. There’s crazy treacherous gatekeeping happening all over the place. My whole purpose in life is to throw open those gates, as far as possible. Given the shoulders that I stand on, I have no choice. I come to this work honestly, as a garden-variety pinko commie. (she laughs)
The foundation I’m standing on is justice and equity. I think access to information is a human right. The opportunity to participate and to be connected — that’s what it’s all about. It’s about people.
So this journey, for me, all started with heartbreak. I was divorcing my first spouse, and went back to live with my family. I quickly realized I needed to find a new plan, and decided that what I was going to do was save the world.
I decided to move to Washington D.C., which is the nonprofit capital of the world. There are more than 20,000 nonprofits based in and around Washington D.C. I just thought I was going to go there and save the world.
I ended up as a political organizer for a tiny nonprofit that was working for a living wage campaign in Maryland. It was heart-breaking, back-breaking work. This tiny organization had some essential business software that held all of their users; it was like the lifeblood of the organization. But nobody had any facility with using it. This was back in the late 90s; at that time, nonprofits had no tech bench.
So I taught myself a little bit of SQL to whip this database into shape and then I realized: This is how I could save the world.
I started working for nonprofits and doing database developments, and they were asking me to build websites. And I was like, “Sure, yeah!” because I would always say yes and then figure out how to make it happen.
The constituencies we were working with had slower internet connections and older browsers. And I got really interested in and excited about web standards and the whole standards-making process, accessibility, and building accessible websites — all at a time when the internet was like the Wild, Wild West.
The federal government had this law on the books called Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. And this law was not being adequately enforced. So the National Federation of the Blind sued. (They are gangsters. I would not have a career if it were not for the National Federation of the Blind, and I thank them every day.) So then, all these positions opened up in the federal government around building accessible products — and because of my background and building compliant websites, I started working for the government.
Pretty quickly into that experience, I realized that I did not want to work in federal government. So I reached out to someone whose work I respected and asked them if they’d be willing to take me under their wing. And he did. And I started out in accessibility consultancy; and the rest, as they say, is history.
How does your community support your values?
I think casual acquaintances are kind of easy, but keeping and building relationship is based on that shared values piece. It’s harder to find those folks and keep the folks around who can be family.
Like I said, I organize my life around these certain commitments. And they’re not commitments that I have — these commitments are who I am.
I think about my relationships to people in those ways too. One of my commitments is being and building family — a family of folks who are also being and building family, whether they articulate it that way or not.
Can you describe your community for us?
I inhabit a community of creative women. One of these women is my good friend Jessica Miller. She’s a photographer, like an amazing, world-renowned photographer based out of LA. She’s a photo journalist, professor, all the things.
Back in high school, I was sitting on the stoop of my school, just waiting for a ride somewhere, just doin’ my thing. And Jessica sat down, and we struck up a conversation about music or something, and we have just been simpatico since that moment.
Our friendship is an unlikely tale. She was a white woman who was younger than me, and whose social circle was really different than mine at the time. But it has just been a match made in heaven.
And then 20 years later, I met this woman Almah Lavon Rice, who’s just a really brilliant, brilliant writer. Like, her mind is just made of magic. We met because of mutual friends at a protest, and we have been connected at the hip ever since.
There’s my friend Cristy Road, who’s an amazing artist. She created Next World Tarot, and I sat for the drawing that became the Empress card in the deck. Her work is magnificent, just ridiculous. And to know her and understand the stories and themes that run through it, just makes her work so much more exciting and interesting.
I would not be who I am or be able to think about what’s possible in my career, or be able to know, just all the things without the laughs and criticism and come-to-Jesus-es that I have with these and other women.
I’m saying all this to say that if you just think of me and my hyper-obsession about accessibility and inclusive design — I think I make more sense in context with other women who are also obsessed with and committed to their craft.
If you could give advice to other women who are 15 and just reading the book that’s going to change their life, or maybe they’re 20 and heading to DC to change the world — what would you tell them, especially in regards to using their voice?
You know what, I’m going to sound like an old lady, but I’m great with that! I’m moving into my Crone space; I’m beginning to feel it a little bit here and there. So I’m trying to reconcile that, but I have young women in my life who are earlier in their careers, and I am emboldened by their willingness to grapple with their voice in public and be wrong and thrash about.
If I could offer any advice, it is to stay fearless. Nobody can sing your song. NOBODY can sing your song.
I feel like I spent my life trying to prove that my voice was good enough, when I really just needed to realize — and I’m just coming to the realization now — that really, actually, nobody can sing my song. Nobody has the unique combination of all the awesome that I whip together.
So that’s the advice I would give. Nobody can sing your song. So sing, girl. Sing!
Read more VOICES…
Jamae Tasker is a Warrior of Love
Shayna Hodkin is a Spellbinding Poet
Sam McWilliams is an Intrepid Cliff Jumper
Hattie Anderson is a Confident Black Goddess
Elizabeth Schroeder is a Swashbuckling Peacemaker
Nikka Diaz is a Natural-Born Empath
Kelly Galeano Arce is a Dauntless Truth Seeker
Tiffany Miller is a Nurturer of Dreams
Emma Rekha Marty is a Guardian of Hope
Ruth T. is a Queen of Hearts
Tetyana Borshch is a Radical Daydreamer
Brittani West is a World Class Risk Taker
Tiffani Jones Brown is a Lionhearted Listener
Kathy Azada is a Bright Side Enthusiast
The titles for the VOICES Series come from Exercise #2 in the Permission to Speak Workbook. The exercise, “You have more power than you know,” encourages participants to choose a title from a list that is offered, or — if none of those titles feels right — to make up one of their own.
“Each of us is our own harshest critic, most of the time,” the workbook says. “We don’t always see ourselves as we are. We instinctively try to hide many things about ourselves — our failures, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our obsessions. …But the things that make you you also give you power.”
Each woman interviewed for the VOICES Series either chose a title for herself from this list, or gave herself a title of her own making.