Myra Evans-Manyweather greets people with a smile, a hug, and warm words. She tells people about the converted feed shed her family lived in when she was a girl, the cardboard walls her father constructed to create rooms, the tree in the backyard she used to cry under, the teacher who inspired her to go to college, the woman who inspired her to join ROTC, and the many times she felt she wasn’t worthy or good enough.
But she didn’t always want to tell people about these things. Evans-Manyweather said she was depressed for many years. She felt removed from others, yet stuck in the middle. She has an older and a younger sister and said she suffered from classic Middle Child Syndrome.
“For 14 years, that little girl was in the middle of two other girls, so she was neither the oldest where she got the responsibility, and she was not the youngest where she got all of the attention,” Evans-Manyweather said, describing her childhood at the release party for her self-published book, Start Where You Are, Tuesday at the Geekdom Event Centre. “There were hurtful words from her relatives like, ‘You’re not black enough.’”
Evans-Manyweather's insecurities were exacerbated when her small Coushatta, La. community integrated its public schools. She was a junior – one of the few students who agreed to attend the school – and she felt that she couldn’t be friends with just her black classmates for fear of not truly integrating with her white classmates. But when she became friends with white classmates, people judged her for that, too.
“This little girl went to her mother one day and said, ‘Mom, why oh why do they criticize me so?’ And her mother said, ‘Honey, it’s because they’re jealous,’” she said.
“This little girl didn’t have the luxury of choosing her start, so she would often ask, ‘What now? How am I to grow beyond poverty?’” Evans-Manyweather said. “Her growth came from her life experiences, and the tenacity to start where she was, and to use what she had. Everyone except for this little girl knew that you cannot start where you are not, and you cannot use what you don’t have.
“Maybe if someone had told her that when she was younger, she wouldn’t have spent so many days behind that old oak tree thinking about suicide,” she continued. “Or maybe they did say it to her, but maybe she never heard it because she was so very busy trying to be perfect, not understanding that she would never be perfect.”
Evans-Manyweather found her confidence through the guidance of women like her high school teacher who told her it would be a mistake if she – the first black female valedictorian of the newly-integrated high school – didn’t go to college.
So, she went to college at Grambling State University, a historically black school, where her life changed when she saw a poised, confident black woman in an Air Force uniform walk across campus.
She joined the ROTC and entered the military after graduation. Evans-Manyweather served in the administration branch of the Air Force for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
She felt isolated in the military, too. There aren’t many black, female lieutenant colonels in the Air Force, Evans-Manyweather said, and the peers she did encounter were so few that they felt they were in competition with each other. Alternately, she felt that if she got into a group where she was the only black person, people would think she had a “black chip on her shoulder.
“I was always looking around thinking, ‘How are the men going to perceive me?’ So I was careful, sometimes too careful, and I was held back by that. It was just very, very stressful,” she said. “Even though I did not deploy, I wanted to be a good mother, I wanted to be a good wife, and sometimes they needed me for the job, so I went, and I probably went more than I needed to.”
Evans-Manyweather said that these experiences taught her to not isolate herself along the lines of color or background. She met Ju Chen Bench in 2008 shortly after she transitioned into civilian life and started working in finance at Lackland Air Force Base, now known as Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Evans-Manyweather realized shortly after arriving there that she needed to hire someone to assist her with tracking and managing the massive base’s financial contracts.
Bench, a Taiwanese immigrant, taught herself English and put herself through finance school. Her quiet confidence in her work appealed to Evans-Manyweather. The two worked together and grew to appreciate the ways in which they lifted each other up. After Evans-Manyweather left the base, the two became close friends. Bench now works at the Air Force Medical Operations Agency.
“Because of her, I have what I have today. Because of her encouragement and being a mentor to me…because she got me started, I grew,” Bench said. “She turned me into somebody I don’t even know anymore.”
Evans-Manyweather said that Bench’s story was the inspiration behind her book: Bench had every tool for success, but she needed guidance on where to start her growth.
“You have to reach across the table and build a relationship with others,” Evans-Manyweather said. "That is what it takes.”
Evans-Manyweather has approached her civilian life in the same way. Her consulting company, E-Talent 7 Network, aims to assist women, veterans, and minority entrepreneurs in growing their businesses. She loves technology and wants to give her female employees opportunities, but even at collaborative co-working space Geekdom, where her company operates, Evans-Manyweather isn’t satisfied with the level of diversity she sees.
“The tech industry is huge, but even looking around at Geekdom, there are few women who are aspiring to get into it. I want to encourage them. They have dreams inside of them,” she said. “They can be builders of cities and communities and big tech companies. Sometimes it takes just organizing your thoughts and having someone helping you do that. I see that as my role.”
Evans-Manyweather wants people, especially that sad little girl under the oak tree, to know that lives can change if only they can remember three things.
“You have to start just where you are, use exactly what you have, and do what you can do."
Top image: Myra Evans-Manyweather signs a copy of her book for an attendee of her release party Tuesday at the Geekdom Event Centre. Photo by Sarah Talaat.