The Stories We Tell Ourselves Matter

Applying for the Clay Hunt Fellowship Program (CHFP) was something I felt that I needed to do. As a black woman and a U.S. Marine, I am always conscious of the systemic racism my fellow Americans and I have experienced, even after fighting for and serving our country. But, I also needed help transitioning from that service into the unknown of civilian life—into a society finally outraged by how Black Americans have been treated. So, after retiring from military service, I applied to, and was accepted for, the fellowship program for veterans like myself in order to step out of my comfort zone.

At my first CHFP social, I was completely thrown by how white the room was. This was not a new scene for me because, as a black person in the U.S. Marine Corps, I often found myself in a room such as this, and at times I was also the only female.

Clay Hunt Fellow and former U.S. Marine, Atiya L. Corbett.

What was new here was that that week my Base Camp (BC1), had our orientation into the fellowship and a new concept of how to interact was presented: “vulnerability”. How quickly the lessons of the week resonated in me. I felt an uneasy feeling, as though I shouldn’t be there or questioning ‘why am I here?’ I quickly confided these feelings with two of my fellows. The feedback I received in that moment was priceless. They were understanding and encouraging, letting me know that I am in the right place, and to look beyond any self- or man-made doubt. “Show them who you are,” they told me.

Immediately, I knew this program, this organization was something different. It was new, innovative, and on the road to providing true social responsibility within an organization. Since embarking on my journey with the other fellows, we have had some very difficult conversations, ranging from discussing our greatest failures in life to the current protests for social change on the issue of race in America. These have been hard conversations for us all. However, we’re able to truly begin to see each other, hear each other, and most importantly understand each other from a deeper viewpoint. Why? Because we’re learning about shame and vulnerability, and for the first time in a long time, we all are being given space to truly reflect and examine “self”.

So, I would like to share and expose some of the “shame” that has been keeping me from being vulnerable a time. I have reframed my story while going through the Clay Hunt Fellowship program.

The shame I carried around was an inheritance passed down from generations. Before CHFP I didn’t realize that how I told my story was a reflection of how I viewed myself. I usually started my narrative off by explaining that I am not a statistic or a stereotypical black woman, despite the adversities of growing up under an umbrella of stealth racism and discrimination. My shame is I’ve always felt I had to explain “why” I exist, why I am worthy, and why I belong. My shame was being told as a young girl that I am “Black” and being black comes with great responsibility—and great fear. So, this theme has been embedded in my every life experience from childhood to adulthood. It is only when I started choosing to be vulnerable with myself that the story I told myself begin to change.

Here’s my story, at least the short version.

I was raised by two beautiful souls whose lives were affected by the trials and tribulations of a dysfunctional society. However, they succeed in raising four children and living lives of purpose. From my parents I learned resilience, strong work ethic, and that I am beautiful. Once I came of age, I chose to dive into life headfirst, by joining the United States Marine Corps.

Over the years, I have become more mindful of my interactions with others. There’s a reason for that: After serving 20 years in the United States Marine Corps—including a tour in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and two tours in Kyrgyzstan (Operation Enduring Freedom), I returned home to endure countless adversities ranging from discrimination because of my race and gender, to being an intelligent black woman in a masculine-driven profession. I spent eight years of my career in service as an advocate for Marines who were sexually assaulted by their fellow warriors. I have seen Marines who I’ve served with die. I have seen the smoke from the burn pits where human remains have been burned. While in the service, I spent a week in the ICU. I have been in counseling since 2015 because of everything I have seen and dealt with.

And, I have achieved so much in my life. I have a loving family that I built with my husband. I have learned to truly love myself and to have compassion for all.

Throughout my youthful adulthood, I spent many years being offended by others’ actions. What I have learned over the course of my adulthood is to take personal responsibility/accountability for my actions and reactions. I have learned to examine my actions and thoughts to ensure they align with who I am striving to become. This is not an easy feat. And through the CHFP this learning has gone further. I’ve learned that it’s not what we receive, but what we do with what we receive that matters. If you’re angry, you’re angry; if you’re insulted, you’re insulted. It’s what you do with that anger or insult that matters. The only thing we can do is improve ourselves and branch out from there.

I applaud the fellowship and Team Rubicon for choosing to lead the way and for creating the space for hard conversations to be had. What I am learning every day is emotional resilience. As I learn to become more vulnerable about my “shame,” then I can grow, become a better citizen, and become a better human being in our society. I am not my ancestors. I have built upon what they created, outlived the past, and taken myself, my career, and my family far beyond anything they ever could have imagined. I’m a Marine, a veteran, and now a Clay Hunt Fellow. And I’m still growing and learning along the way.