January-February 2021

‘Why can’t it be me?’

Growing up, C. Marie Taylor kept being told “no.” Now the former CEO of Leadership Montgomery is helping companies recognize systemic racism—and confront their own biases.

C. Marie Taylor, who runs Equity Through Action, at home in Silver Spring. Photo by Lisa Helfert

In 1981, when C. Marie Taylor was 8 years old, financial problems forced her family to move from a large house in Washington, D.C., to a small apartment in the Virginia suburb of Annandale. “We were among the first Black people to move to this area,” she recalls, “and when I went to school, the first day I was there, there was a little girl who said, ‘Oh you can’t sit here—Black people can’t sit here.’ And I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ So, because I was 8, I made the incorrect choice and picked her up and threw her across the table and said, ‘Well, you can’t sit here either.’ ”

That day “was my first trauma, my first witness of racism,” Taylor says. It was far from her last, and today, at 47, she runs a consulting business called Equity Through Action that helps companies confront and correct racial bias.

“What I’m hoping to do is change the culture within organizations, to help them learn to listen to Blacks and Latinos and Asian people of color,” Taylor explains. “I’m trying to get them to learn a new vocabulary that’s inclusive. I want them to re-evaluate the systems they are using that perpetuate systemic racism, and to undo them and redo them. I want them to let go of some of their power and give it to somebody else.” She’s coached a corporate executive on hiring vendors that value diversity and establishing a mentoring program for Black employees.

Those goals flow directly from her childhood in Annandale, where she says she “really struggled” in school and cried to her parents, “Why did you move us here? This is a terrible place. Why do they hate us?” Her teenage years were “lonely and hard,” but the high school drama club provided a refuge, and when they put on the play Dracula, she tried out for the lead role. “I remember the drama teacher saying to me, ‘Well, you actually did the best job, but we can’t have a Black girl as Dracula.’ And I couldn’t understand why not. Dracula isn’t real, it’s a fictional character, so why can’t it be me?”

Taylor describes the prejudice she encountered as a “constant stinging” sensation. “Visualize you’re walking through a field of gnats and they’re just always coming at you and you just can’t get past it,” she says. “That’s what it was like growing up there, a field of gnats just picking at you all the time.” So after graduation she headed for Howard University back in Washington: “I ran to the Blackest place I could find, I didn’t want to see another white person ever again.”

But the suburbs had left a mark. She “enjoyed white music and dressed like a white kid from Annandale” in sneakers and a backpack. At Howard, the other students would jeer: “What is that music you’re listening to? What is that fashion you have on? How are you carrying yourself? That is not how we roll here.” She juggled several jobs to pay the bills and wound up quitting school and finding work as a mental health counselor, even though she lacked a degree. “I’m a natural born hustler,” C. Marie says with a laugh. The nonprofit world opened her eyes: “I realized that all these decisions were being made for people of color and from marginalized groups, but there weren’t any of those people in the rooms making those decisions, and it pissed me off. I felt I needed to be in that room so I was like, I have to go back to school.”

After earning an undergraduate degree and a master’s from Trinity Washington University in D.C., she felt she was ready to run a nonprofit, but when she tested the job market she received no offers. She was still using her first name, Charnay, which her father had made up, and a friend told her: “It’s your name. I look at resumes all the time and when I hand them to folks, if someone has a Black sounding name, they usually skip over it. If you use your middle name, your resume will come to the top.”

So in 2011 she became C. Marie Taylor and soon landed a job running Interfaith Works, a social service agency based in Rockville. But that required her to move to Montgomery County for the first time, and life in Germantown came as a shock. “I was single at the time, and I was like, I need a husband and a lawn mower,” she recalls. C. Marie identifies as bisexual and had a long relationship with a woman before marrying Shhonn Taylor, a technology specialist for the federal government. They live in Silver Spring and he is building her a “she shed” to house her consulting business.

Last summer, she was still serving as CEO of Leadership Montgomery, a nonprofit that provides training, education and other programming for political, economic and community leaders in the county. She had long dreamed of starting her own company, and thought that move was still years away, but many factors encouraged her to speed up her timetable: the spread of the coronavirus, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the memory of her parents, who both died young. So in September she quit her job and hung out her shingle. “There was this burning sense in my stomach that in the time I had left on this earth, I have to spend every working moment fighting so that there isn’t another Black woman whose life is lost, whose childhood is stolen,” she explains. “So I took this giant leap of faith and said, ‘I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it now.’ ”

Taylor’s path and purpose actually started when she first encountered racism as a child. “What I really learned when I was in third grade at that table is how people don’t always see Black people in the full sense of our humanity,” she tells me. “So the work I do, the core of all of it, is trying to get white people to see the humanity in non-white people.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.