Tiffani Jones Brown is a Lionhearted Listener

Tiffani is a 39-year-old writer, editor, mom, and Queen of All Word Things at a Silicon Valley tech company. She likes most people, and tries to find the best in them— or at least understand where they’re coming from — even when she disagrees.

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 Tiffani.

My family or origin is sort of “Southern gothic.” Appalachian coal miner types and factory workers on one side, Marines and Southern belle-ish types on the other.

As I child, I heard a couple of messages from this crew: On the one hand, be well-mannered and composed (genteel south). On the other, be your own person and don’t take any sh*t (Appalachian south). Those two impulses are always competing a little within me — there’s a strong drive to be gracious and accommodating, and an equally strong drive to be self-reliant and strong.

Where I grew up, men were usually the primary breadwinners, and women either worked part-time or stayed at home. My mom was single, so she had to hustle to pay for our rent and school activities, and I know she sometimes felt judged for being different than the other moms. In observing her, though, I assumed that I could support my family and chart my own path if I needed to. I also learned I could work hard — I liked watching her spread out her work on the living room floor while I did my homework.

Tiffani and her Nanny

I was also lucky that my grandmother (Nanny) didn’t work. I lived with my grandparents part-time, and my grandpa supported us on his factory wage.

I adored Nanny and loved that she stayed home. It meant I got more attention and time with her, and she seemed genuinely thrilled with my being there. I think in both cases — my mom and Nanny — the women I was closest to felt they had some agency in the choice of whether or not to work.

On the other hand, I didn’t know any women who had a “career,” and nearly all of them (I can think of one exception) were dependent on their husbands for housing and finances. My mom’s work was spotty, for example, and we relied on my grandpa’s income to keep us afloat when she was in between jobs. I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like without that — we were already struggling financially, but we would’ve been in deep trouble. I was hyper-attuned to our vulnerability, and decided early on that I’d make my own money, and make enough that I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Another side effect of growing up surrounded by these traditional gender roles and stereotypically “manly men” meant there were times I felt the men were expected to talk, and I was expected to listen. My chain-smoking Nanny, though, described herself as “loud-mouthed and proud,” and gave me solid workout in active listening. I think all this made me less likely to speak up first, but it also had some unintentional benefits.

Listening well is a quality I’m most proud of (at least when I’m demonstrating it). I find that when I listen, my relationships are better, and I can catch what people are trying to say, or find lapses in their logic in a way that sharpens my own thinking. I think it’s made me a better mom.

I know that many women have felt truly silenced by their cultures, and I’m lucky that this wasn’t my experience — despite the more stereotypical gender roles, I felt my family were genuinely interested in me, and cared what I thought.

What are 3 things about yourself that you did not choose?
I’m 5’6”, narrow feet, southern midwesterner.

What are 3 things about yourself that you DID choose?
I chose to…
1. Have a career
2. Be financially independent
3. Marry someone who respects me ❤

What aspect of your personal history most shaped who you are?
My family are kind. I chose not to be a Christian, but I was exposed to the best parts of that religion — loving your neighbor, treating people kindly, learning to forgive. I don’t know if it’s Jesus’ influence or just who they are, but my family are gentle.

What aspect of your identity gives you the most strength?
My family was chaotic, and there was a lot of dysfunction. Rewiring unhelpful patterns took grit. But because I was able to overcome the toughest parts, when shit hits the fan, deep down I feel that I can handle it and persevere.

As you’ve gotten older, what aspects of your identity have you shed?
Working too hard! I was always the kid who threw out my arm in softball. In college, I survived on coffee, cigarettes, and all-nighters. I’ve learned modulate and find a better balance over the years. Meditation has been a life-saver. I still drink too much coffee.

What or who in your life history most shaped your values?
My grandmother, Nanny, and my mom. My mom had me when she was very young, so my grandma filled in. She was chain-smoking, tough, and extremely loving. Nanny grew up dirt poor and had all sorts of stories about punching people in the face at county fairs, but she’d also invite near-strangers who were lonely to Thanksgiving dinner.

My mom is just very creative and independent. She was a dancer, artist, and breadwinner in a culture where none of that was the norm. She was always saying things like, “Sure that’s how people do it. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it that way.”

How do your values shape your community?
I try to teach my daughter critical thinking and kindness, so she can go out into our community with those skills. We do a lot of, “What do you think that person was thinking when they said/did that?” and “How do you think you’ll respond?”

Tiffani and her daughter

What is a value that has shifted for you during the pandemic?
I was more conservative (in my adventure-seeking, not my politics) in 2020. At the beginning, I was focused on the basics: being there for my family and friends; trying to maintain our emotional health and connection. That’s started to shift — I feel we’re all waking up and starting to explore again.

What values have helped you survive the emotional experiences of 2020?
Definitely a belief in myself, and an attitude that “This is hard, but we can do it, and we’ll come out stronger on the other side.”

What is something you do that brings you deep joy?
I love doing impressions and “play acting” with my daughter. She’s funnier than me, but she tolerates my jokes.

I’ve loved having more time with her since COVID, and some of my favorite creative pursuits are things I do with her: We’re learning to bake scones, draw realistic portraits, and skate in Golden Gate Park.

How has the pandemic and lockdown affected your passions?
Between parenting and working and surviving, I have struggled to find time for personal projects, like app ideas and essays. (Although the truth is, I also struggled to make time for these things before COVID hit.)

What are the rooms or situations that are hardest for you to speak up in?
I find it most difficult to speak up when I disagree with people I’m close to. I’m thinking of Dumbledore’s quote, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to an enemy, but just as much to stand up to a friend.”

What are the rooms or situations that are easiest to speak up in?
When I’ve got an informed point of view, or when someone is being obviously unkind or is just… wrong. Also when a kind soul says, “Tiffani, what do you think about that?”

Who is a woman whose voice you can’t get enough of lately?
Economist Mariana Mazzucato. She’s trying to reimagine capitalism by putting public health at the center of how we measure economic value. I love how she’s managed to influence a diverse group of politicians and executives around the world (from Bill Gates to Pope Francis), even though her agenda is super progressive.

What wisdom have you learned about using your voice that other women should know?
I love this quote by Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Headline History

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.

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna

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