Shannon Polk is a woman who lives her entire life with the goal to inspire woman and to forge a path for her daughter. She agreed to an interview with two of our editors this past November for the December featured: Kathy of the Month. Sarah (one of our editors) has personally been impacted by Shannon’s story, and is a witness to how powerful Shannon’s kindness is. Shannon’s experiences and life perspectives stem from her background as a licensed attorney, mother, wife, associate pastor, world traveler, and ultimately a mother. We were invited into her beautiful home to meet her husband Jonathon and her daughter Lara.
During the interview Shannon discussed a wide variety of incredibly current and hard topics, and she also talked about her passion to change women’s future in roles of leadership. The interview was filled with words of wisdom, advice, and experiences. To give her words the room they need to linger and the room to grow, we have chosen to split her interview into two segments.
Shannon’s adversities and her developed grit have brought her to where she is now. Shannon and Jonathon have now been married for 11 years, and during that time dealt with the struggles of being an interracial couple. Shannon makes sure that Lara is able to see through her family's experiences, and learn that there is nothing she cannot do. Shannon makes sure no one mistakes their biracial family as a weakness, but see it as part of the strength and glue that keep them together. In the first half of this dual part interview, Shannon’s focus is on the dreams of women, their experiences as mothers and as professionals, and the necessity of being wholly formed as a woman. Shannon’s thoughts have been subdivided into groups organized by the general theme of the topic.
We look forward to hearing how her story inspires you.
Shannon Polk is this month’s Kathy
We are Kathy.
Their stories. Her stories. Our stories.
Finding a place for you to be you
Just recently I was invited to be a part of this podcast/blog by Open Door Sisterhood. They found me on Twitter. “Hey will you come on our podcast?” they asked. I said, "Sure!" They said, “You seem like a renaissance woman!” (She laughs) The renaissance has not happened yet, let’s be clear. They asked, "You know, tell us a little about what you do." I said, "I do consulting." "What does that mean?" It means I go to places and help people figure out how to spend their money, or help small non profits figure certain things out. This also gives me time to be a part-time pastor. What am I doing there? Starting small groups, we started with MOPS and then three more are going to start in the next year.
I want to start a small group called Propel, which is for women looking to find their way in leadership. Then a second small group called Alpha which is for people who have the following questions: what does the Bible really mean, why do you believe that, who said that this is true, and who said that this is right? There has to be a place to ask questions. A Sunday service isn’t designed for you to have this dialogue. We know dialogue is important. That’s valuable. I don’t think you come to faith because someone bangs you over the head. I think you come to faith because you have an honest place to ask questions and inquire. Out of that you can develop relationships. We are also going to do a third small group to help people get grounded in their faith, especially if they are new to their faith. The idea is that these spaces will give people a place to just plug in.
We left the church we were at (before Shannon and her family found their current church) because we knew we needed something more multicultural. Which is when I said to Jonathon, "We are gonna go to 52 churches in 52 weeks." And he said, "What?! I’m not going around all of Michigan with you..." Then later he says, " I have found the church! I have found the place! It’s in downtown Flint. This is it! It fits your faith based background and it fits my driving distance range… We can do this!"
And that’s how we ended up at the church we are at now. So we got there, and I went up to the pastor and I asked him, "How do you feel about women in leadership within ministry?" He said, “It's awesome. What do you want to do?” I was like, is he real? Is he serious? It was really exciting to be some place that I didn’t have to be something other than who I was, where I didn't have to try and fit in to some mould, where they weren’t asking me to imitate the pastor’s wife. I could just be myself. They accepted me with all of my little quicks, my proclivities, and let me grow into the ministry position.
You don’t have to choose between motherhood and your profession
Often times women find themselves in a place, particularly professionally, where they are told they have to choose between motherhood or a position. That’s what I did my doctoral work on. It’s this idea: what are the things women need in order to be in leadership? You know, often times we have babies and we leave the position. We have an exit ramp but we don’t have an on ramp to go back or to enter. So the church I’m at works with me. You know she (Lara) comes with me when I have to preach at certain places.
I’ve been all over the world and back, and he says, “We’ll be here when you get back."
Have you seen the trailer for, “The Basis of Sex” ? My husband and I are also attorneys. I finally saw the trailer, and I realized Ruth B Ginsburg and I married the same man. Jonathon has never said don’t -- Don’t go here. Don’t do this. I’ve been all over the world and back, and he says, “We’ll be here when you get back.” He’s never ever tried to say “What you really need to do is stay at home.” There’s this kind of new neo conservatism that has sprung up in men of faith that are saying, “I need my wife at home.” He’s just never been that way. He’ always been like, you wanna practice law? Practice law. You wanna preach? Preach. You wanna start a business? Do it. How can I support you? How can I help you? We are a team. We do this together. Whatever you need.
Living a full life as a woman
When I went back to work after giving birth, he (Jonathon) stayed home for two months with her (Lara) and he worked from home. My friends are like, " Man, you went to Idaho for five days! How did you do that when you have a baby?" And I said, "Cause number one, she looks like him, and I don't think he’s going to let the person that looks like him die. Number two, I didn't marry someone that I thought was stupid. So I’m pretty sure he’s capable of keeping a person alive. I'm pretty sure he’s capable of doing this for five days."
I always tell that to new moms. At some point you are going to blink, you cannot watch this child 24 hours a day.
You know, I don't buy into the "oh my gosh, we have to do everything as women," or "we have to do everything as mothers." No, we have limits. My mother used to say “Honey, at some point you are going to blink.” I always tell that to new moms. At some point you are going to blink, you cannot watch this child 24 hours a day. My mother was very good at practicing self care when I was growing up. She had her one night a week that was just for her. She had her bowling league, and she would say, “You’re gonna go over there and get babysat because I need some time for me.” She was divorced, and at the time she would say, “I’m going out on a date. You can’t cause you’re 13, so your uncle is coming over here to watch you.” She would get dressed and then go on a date. She would come back and I would ask her, “Well, how was it?” Then we would sit and talk over apple turnovers with ice cream. I got to sit and watch my mother have a full life as a woman. Watching my mother taught me to have a full life as a woman
Before I met Jonathon I had been to Italy and France. So when I met him, some of my first questions were, "So what do you do? Where have you been? What's your life like?” Because I need to know that you’re not going to squash everything I have been doing because I tried to max out my ‘singlehood.’
Be a person that is wholly formed
It's really important to me that Lara knows how to be a whole person. I just finished reading Michelle Obama's book, “Becoming.” So now I’m going to do a Bible study off of it. (She laughs) I think there are so many things in that book that we need to embrace, especially as women of color, topics that are so critical. Like here’s one of the things that she (Michelle Obama) says in her book, “When I met Barack Obama he was a wholly formed person.” I think so often as women we don't spend enough time making sure we are wholly formed.
But when are you spending time on you? Spending time on knowing who you are? Making sure you understand what your soul needs?
Michelle talks about how she was checking all the boxes, right? I’m gonna get these kind of grades. I’m gonna go to this school. I’m gonna have this career. Then she meets Barack Obama. Now she’s like here’s this guy who went from a community college, to Ivy League, then he did some community organizing, and did all this other stuff. She came to realize that he really knows himself. He spent a lot of time getting to know himself, and I think we as women don’t spend a lot of time getting to know ourselves. We don’t build reflection time into our day. In our singlehood we are so busy trying to achieve. We try to get the right house, having the right sub, having the right couple friends. But when are you spending time on you? Spending time on knowing who you are? Making sure you understand what your soul needs?
I’m always trying to figure out what’s that next thing. That’s how I wind up being that Forrest Gump. I just find myself in weird places with interesting people. I look for that, that’s what I need, that’s what fills my soul. I’m raising a kid that’s a lot like me. She'll say, “When are we getting on a plane? When’s our next vacation?” All I can say is, “You’re six. You don’t need a vacation. I promise you that.”
Also, just this idea of figuring out what moves you. What makes your heart sing. For me a lot of that is meeting people, it’s preaching. Preaching makes my heart sing. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a preacher. I knew that when I was 16 years old, I told my mom. She said “We’ve got too many preachers in the family I’m going to need you to get a real job,” which is how I wound up at Michigan State University. My mother refused to let me go to a Christian college. I got a degree in International Relations with a minor in Economics. I thought I was going to work for the World Bank. God had other plans. We make plans, and God laughs. I’ve had a lot of those experiences. For me it was always preaching, it was always writing, it was always speaking. It’s always been traveling. I told Jonathon about my travel calendar being set for 2019. “So I need you to put that in the budget. A couple of these trips you’re going with me and a couple of these I am going on my own.” He laughed. “Who does that?” You know...It’s my thing...
Being OK with my right now
The biggest thing for me has been accepting my right now and learning to love my right now. I think so often we are always striving for that next thing, for that adventure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love where I am right now. It means I am curious about where I am right now. I don’t have to strive to get anywhere. I can just enjoy this space. This house. This kid. I can enjoy this right now, right where I am, and not wonder about the next hill I have to climb. No, I need to love what’s happening right here.
Love what’s happening right now so that you don't miss it. Because sometimes we do miss it. I realized that after a couple of health scares after getting pregnant with Lara. I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure after having her.
Last month, I had to have a biopsy done because they found a lump in my breast. It’s those kinds of things that make you stop and go, "What’s really important, what really matters?" I don't want to miss this. I don’t want to miss seeing Lara jump up and down. I don’t want to miss Jonathon’s dry sense of humor. I don't want to miss these really awesome moments that happen every day.
I just want to make it easier for women to move into leadership. I just want to make it easier for them to do the things they love without stuff holding them back.
So at the same time I’ve been asking myself... You’ve got all these degrees but what does that really mean? A lot of that was done out of insecurity because I wanted to make sure people knew that I wasn't stupid. Some of that is because God was like you'll need this in the future, even though I didn’t know what that was going to be.
There are doors that open up because I am an attorney. I'm glad about that. There are doors that open up because I've done the doctoral work. I’m glad about that. But when I think about what I want to do... I just want to make it easier for women to move into leadership. I just want to make it easier for them to do the things they love without anything holding them back.
Besides the difficulty of coming back to work after maternity leave, what do you feel are some other things women face that hold them back from leadership?
So for example, for the past 18 months my dad has been living with us, he has Parkinson’s disease. Right now he is staying with my step sister. Unfortunately, women normally end up being the primary caretaker. There are women you know or work with that are like, “Oh I’m taking care of my dad right now, or my grandparents." That’s an emotional weight that you’re carrying in addition to whatever else you’ve been doing professionally, whatever else might be going on personally. So the question becomes, how do you navigate that space and manage to move forward career wise?
So what does it look like when we have these family obligations? You know I’ve seen some of my friends have to move their parents in. Some people even assume family obligations, like when you get pregnant and people assume you’re going to want to stay home with the baby. Why? People will say, “Because you got a family, I didn’t think you’d want that kind of pressure.” It’s the motherhood tax. Likewise there’s the fatherhood benefit. People automatically assume when a man becomes a father he’s going to want to earn more. So they’ll naturally say, "Oh he’s going to need a raise. He’s probably going to be more interested in a position because he’s got more people dependant on him." So it works, two different ways. So as women we need to know, "Hey, how do we navigate this space?" For women of color, and as well as other women, there are biases.
Sometimes it’s an unconscious bias.
One thing that’s really interesting to me is when I went to a ministers meeting out of state and someone said, “Oh, I'm surprised to see you here! Who is watching your child?” I was laughing because in my mind I'm thinking to myself, no one is going to ask that question to a man. Getting people to know and understand that having a child is not a weight, she is a benefit. She asks me really great questions and helps me make sure that I’m not wasting time doing other things. I can devote time to her and time to things I want to do professionally. It requires a different kind of juggling. That doesn't mean that it won't happen or that I’m unwilling to readjust my schedule.
I say the only thing that's not for you, is the thing you don’t want. Because if you want it, then it is for you. What’s your dream? Do it.
Michelle Obama talks about in her book how her guidance counselor told her, “I don't really think you’re Ivy League material. I don’t really think you’re the kind of kid that gets into Princeton.” You’ll hear comments like that at different points along the way of your professional journey. “Oh I don’t know if that’s for you.” I say, the only thing that's not for you is the thing you don’t want. Because if you want it, then it is for you. What’s your dream? Do it.
You know who you’re supposed to be. Just be her, because WE NEED her. There’s somebody waiting for you, there’s somebody who needs the answer that you bring.
People will spend a lifetime trying to tell you what you’re not supposed to do. It takes a while for you to uncover again what it is that God put in your heart when you were a little girl. There’s a wonderful book by Joan Saxton, “The Dream of You." She asked the question, “Who is it that you wanted to be before anyone told you that you couldn’t be that? Before anyone told you THIS is the path you have to be on?” So often as women I think we are socialized to put our dreams somewhere else. So my thing is, you know who you are called to be. You know who you’re supposed to be. Just be her, because WE NEED her. There’s somebody waiting for you, there’s somebody who needs the answer that you bring.
In my sermons that’s what I always try to bring things back to... This truth that there is something amazing on the inside of you that God wants to set free. We need the real her to be set free.
Lara made a comment to one of the ladies in church, “My mom is a doctor, a lawyer, and a preacher. She can do anything.” My first response was not excitement. My first response was fear. All I could think about is that this little biracial girl is going to have people all along the way try and tell her all the things she can’t be. I was sad to think of what she was going to have to battle in order to hold true that, “If mommy can do it, I can do it.”
Whatever your dream is, you gotta follow it.
When I got my last degree, I did it because I just really wanted her (Lara) to feel like there was nothing that she couldn't do, that every door was open for her, and that she could do anything. I think it's so critical for girls to not feel like they're being pigeonholed into something. You can do it. You can. Whatever it is.
You wanna be a Formula 1 driver? Go for it.
You wanna own your own business? Go for it.
If you wanna be a stay-at-home mom, go for it. It’s not anybody's job or right to tell you who you are. Whatever your dream is, you gotta follow it.
You are a busy woman! What is it that you hope Lara sees and learns from everything that you do?
That the world is her oyster.
While growing up in a single parent home, my high school had the chance to sing at Carnegie Hall. I told my mom, “I’m going to sing at Carnegie Hall.” She said, “We don’t have the money to send you to Carnegie Hall.” I said, "Well I can sell some crackers and cheese to raise money to go!" She said, “Shannon you won’t be able to raise enough money selling crackers and cheese to go, but if you do then I’ll let you go.”
I walked up to Central High School, got the paperwork, and in two days I had sold enough cheese and crackers to make the first payment. When I came back home I told my mom, “Like I said before, I’m going.” I’ve always been that way, and I want her (Lara) to know that there is nothing that she can’t do. If you wanna go on a cruise, go on a cruise. If you wanna write a book, write a book. Live. Live and die empty. That’s what I want for her. I want to show her what that means.
I want her to say, “That woman, one time she told daddy that we were going to Blanc-Sabon, and we wound up in Montreal in the middle of the night.” I want to leave her with these crazy memories. I was showing her some of these pictures of when I went to Paris, or pictures of me in Mexico doing all this crazy stuff… It’s like... Just live! Really live!
I feel like God made a really super big planet. I have lived in Flint my whole life, and people ask me how!? I say it's because I leave and I see what’s happening in other places and that excites me. I see other places where other people want to live. I can take my story with me.
You figure it out. And you live. Live hard. Love hard.
I found out Delta had a $200 round trip to Paris. WHY on earth wouldn't you get on that plane and go? Like just go! You figure it out. You live. Live hard. Love hard. I wanna be that Christian that skids her way into heaven. I think for me, people always thought as a christian you gotta sit somewhere, read a Bible, join a monastery. I think, NO. For me I have to run, I have to live.
You're not your experience. That’s not who you are.
What would be your advice for women who deal with the social stigma of divorce?
(Deep sigh) I was raised by a woman who was divorced. My best friends had children before they were married. Everyone makes decisions. Some of them are great. Some of them are not so great. What I love is that we have a God who doesn't look at the last thing I did and then say that’s who I am. You're not your experience. That’s not who you are.
I don’t know why you made that decision. Maybe it’s because your husband was kicking your tail, maybe you got divorced because your husband was on drugs, maybe you got divorced because it just wasn't working out anymore. It’s not for me to judge that. It’s nobody's job to judge that. My job as a spiritual advisor is to help you where you are, to get you where God wants you to be. I have to see you the way that God sees you.
When Jonathon and I got married, we asked ourselves, "How do we see each other?" He said, “I see you the way God made you. I see you as pure. I see you as clean and I see you as holy.” To me that’s how we have to see people, because that's how God sees them.
I don’t care if you just got out of jail, or if you just got off meth, or if you stole something. God doesn't see you that way. That's not who you are to him. Every time God sees us, like in the old testament, like in the Book of Ezekiel “I see you in your mess. I see that, but let me tell you what we are going to do now.” I have plenty of friends that are married to husband number two, and they don't even remember the name of husband number one. It’s not about where you’ve been, it’s about where you’re going. I wish that the church as a whole could see that, because there are so many people that we have ostracised. The church has ridiculed so many. I’ve had friends who got pregnant before they were married, and then had to go in front of the church and explain, "What they had done." Listen, I think we all know how that happened, okay? We don't need her to go in front of the church, we don’t need that.
Is there one piece of advice you want all women to hear?
Hmmm. Probably…First, life is a smorgasbord. Eat everything you can find.
Two, be yourself. There’s not another you. We need you to be great, like Mary Williams said, "Who are you not to be great? We need your greatness. Be yourself."
And third, live unapologetically. You're gonna make mistakes if you live. You're gonna blink like my mom said. That is okay, that means you are flesh, and you are human. Still get up and decide what tomorrow is going to be. I have blown it way more than I made it. I have made lots of mistakes. Lots of stuff I did was crazy, dumb and weird. We get up again tomorrow. Tomorrow's another day, and we'll figure it out.
Written by We are Kathy editors Jenifer Veloso and Sarah Elkins
Photos by Alexandria Chrisele Photography, Alexandria C. Green and our Editors