Karen Alexander, 42
Lives in: Toronto, Canada
Nominated by: Jill Jones
Karen Alexander is described by those who know her best as effervescent. And it’s true. After spending a good portion of her life dreaming of becoming a cheerleader, another good portion of her life pursuing that dream in an incredibly impressive feat of perseverance, Karen spent a sensational three years shaking her pom poms for the Toronto Argonauts.
The incredible perseverance that saw a nineteen year old Karen audition for a professional cheerleading team without any formal dance training then helped her pick herself up after rejection and keep trying until she was finally accepted at age 26, is what still drives Karen today.
Throughout our conversation, I came to realise, (as did Karen also), that she’s always pursued things with a single mind until she achieves them. Karen’s ambition has always been veiled by a misunderstanding of what ambition means but it has existed there none the less. While she says she’s spent her life just doing things, motivated only by what she is going to enjoy, not thinking actively about her path, in fact she’s been working hard to forge a life for herself that she is proud of and happy in.
Now Karen works for the Canadian government where she thrills her co-workers with her wicked sense of humour and where she’s been slowly but surely moving up the ranks.
We love Karen’s peace and passion and the fact that she describes herself as a kid with a mortgage.
Karen, how would you describe yourself?
My friend Jonesy (Jill Jones) describes me as ‘effervescent’ and I would agree! I am not your average 42 year old woman! I don’t believe I carry the amount of life baggage one would expect from somebody of my age and it makes me a better person for it. I don’t worry about things I do not control. I am not easily embarrassed. I don’t shrink away from conflict or responsibility. While I have my moments where I don’t feel at my best, I will deal with those emotions and put it aside so that it doesn’t keep me down. I use this same technique to help out friends and family who could use a pick me up or a different perspective while dealing with a problem.
Knowing that about yourself, what are people’s greatest misconceptions about you?
While I love people knowing I am a no-nonsense woman, I don’t like it when people tell me that I am an ‘angry black woman.’ I get defensive and will challenge what they mean. Just because I will rant about an issue that grinds my gears, or express disappointment or disgust about a particular topic (or person), doesn’t mean that I’m angry. There are times where I am angry and, goddammit, I will express that emotion! But do not look at this perpetually smiling face and tell me that I am angry. Just because I am unafraid to speak my mind, that doesn’t mean I should be given the ridiculous label of ‘angry black woman.’ It makes me…angry! [Laughs]
What have been the biggest lessons of your 42 years so far?
Five years ago, in November 2008, I was visiting Jonesy (Jill Jones) in Montreal, who I love. The day I met her, I remember I was like, Who is this person, I want to be her one day! Whenever I spend time with her I want better for myself, she inspires me to want better. She just is this exciting person. I was talking to her and her friends about life and I realised I want something for myself.
Years earlier I had gone back to school to study HR management, I wanted to switch careers from IT to HR. When I visited Jill I was in HR but not where I wanted to be. When I came back from that trip, I thought, It’s time to make that bold move and go and apply for things that are much more responsibility. You know, ‘bigger’ jobs than what I was doing. It was time to move on, time to push it.
A posting was offered in government that was due that day I came home. It was many levels above my job…it was a manager level job. So I applied for it. I got a call January of 2009 offering me the job. I didn’t say yes immediately, thinking, I can’t take this job, it’s too responsible, I’m not mature enough! I was 36 years old.
I hung up the phone and started to cry. I cried for about two hours until my manager called me in and said ‘You don’t need to go into a job knowing everything, you have competencies in this area and this area and you’ll learn the rest.’ ‘But I have to manage a regional budget!’ I said through tears and she said, ‘Karen you have a house?’ ‘Uh huh,’ I said. ‘You handle your household budget?’ she asked. ‘Somewhat!’
She told me I could do it.
Five years later here and I find myself fighting to keep that job from another department who wanted me to move back. So I’ve come from being nervous about responsibilities to going, Hell yeah this is my job and I’m going to fight you to keep it longer. So I’ve grown in terms of that.
Look at the job description and the competencies required. If you can do that job now, then you are currently grossly underpaid!
So where do you think the feeling that you weren’t ready for that kind of position came from? What is the root of that feeling, that you’re not mature enough to have these adult things?
I thought that managers were these super serious people and they’re very driven and you have to have a certain strength and be just very ambitious and laser focused and want to be a director one day. I don’t want to be a director, I don’t want to be anyone’s boss. I just want to do my job and when the day is over, I’m finished. I thought that’s what a manager would be, that they just want more and more. Whereas I just wanted to expand my knowledge in human resources and stay in the learning field.
But then when the posting came out for the position and I was talking to my co-worker who has been a really good mentor for me. I was telling her ‘I can’t get this job, it’s four levels above where I’m paid now.’ She said, ‘Karen look at the job description and the competencies required. If you can do that job now, then you are currently grossly underpaid!’ It’s true!
That’s a great way to look at it! I like that. Going back now to your twenties now though, when you were a cheerleader, how did that happen? How did you talk yourself into pursuing that?
Well it just looked like so much fun! It all started when I was thirteen and I saw this bumper during a Sunday night Disney movie or something like that and they had this bunch of high school cheerleaders, they all looked so good and I was like That looks like fun! I want to do that one day.
My school was a very small school though so we didn’t really have a cheerleading squad until my grade ten year when I was fifteen. I tried out for the team. It was a week long process, I went to all the meetings and went to a cheer camp for the day and I learned various moves. I thought my odds of making it on to the team were good. But I didn’t make it and I couldn’t believe it! There was this mandatory move and I did it and this other girl, who got in, couldn’t do it. So I vowed to show them! I looked at the Toronto Argonauts cheerleaders and thought, I’ll make that team one day and I’ll show them! Damn it!
So when I turned nineteen (the minimum age you could be), I went to audition. They had just changed the requirements and you had to be a strong dancer to get in. I could shake it at the club but I wasn’t a trained dancer. I tried out anyway, didn’t pick up the steps and didn’t get called for another audition. But I went because I had wanted to be one for three years. I wasn’t as exuberant as I am now but I just wanted it so much.
I tried again when I was 20 and didn’t make it then either. But then, when I was 26, they got a new coach and she was in the paper saying she was looking for girls who were role models, not just dancers. So I decided to try again and I made the team! This new coach wanted well-rounded girls and that’s why I made the team.
I would have got pregnant and had a 25 year old by now if I’d made the team at nineteen. I would’ve been corrupted under the spell of a hot player who was older. So it worked out much better.
Once you hit 40, it can be sobering that people don’t view you as youthful anymore, even though I very much am.
Knowing what I know of your story, I’m curious as to whether or not you would describe yourself as ambitious?
I would now and I only realised that over the last couple of years. I didn’t think I was before because I had a vision in my mind of what being an ambitious person means: that they’re always moving up the ladder, they’ve got their MBAs or their masters degrees and they’re always changing. And I thought, Well, I’m happy with government. I realised I do jobs within government but it’s all to a certain point…that point where you want more. I never thought of it that way.
Well I think it’s pretty incredible because being a cheerleader was a goal that you uncovered at the age of thirteen and pursued for well over a decade until you were nearly 30. Few can say the same of their goals in life. Speaking of, what did you love about your 30s?
I loved my 30’s. My three years with the Toronto Argonauts as a cheerleader boosted my self-esteem to an all-time high. Having football fans tell you how beautiful you are is quite lovely! I moved to my first condo in downtown Toronto and loved being out every weekend getting very familiar with the bar and restaurant scene. I met so many new people, which is always a thrill for me. Got my heart broken many, many times so while that’s never fun, it taught me that I do not stick around to put up with bullshit. I won’t spend years with someone just to have a boyfriend to complain about.
I learned I’m incredibly self-sufficient and my friends love me for it. My confidence has served me well as I entered my 40’s. Now that I’m 42, the world is a little different. Announcing your age as being 30-something is still linked to youth. Being 40-something, people assume you are more serious and men on online dating sites all but ignore you. I feel no different other than the fact that I have so much more life experience and I don’t sweat the small stuff.
Once you hit 40, it can be sobering that people don’t view you as youthful anymore, even though I very much am. Regardless, I’ll just keep being myself. Trying to have as much fun as possible and making a difference in the life of my friends and family.
You keep mentioning fun! Let’s talk about that. What does fun mean to you?
It drives everything I do! Everything. Everything! If there was a good time and I missed a good time, I would never forgive myself. I need to always be where the action is. My mother is a very friendly and outgoing person, I’m like her but on steroids.
People remember me because I am silly, I just don’t care, I just want to have a good time. Kids loves me too because I am them but with a mortgage. I just enjoy laughing and looking for the funny parts of life. I can be serious but I don’t want to be all the time. When I was in uni I wanted to make sure I made new friends. I lived at home with my parents so I commuted to school. I joined the volleyball team and played horribly but did it to meet people. I went to every dance I could and hung out with people who looked like fun. My best friend and I went to Mexico together in 1998. She was getting over horrible bronchitis so on the second night she was sleeping and told me to go out and have a good time. I opened the door to our room looking over this parking lot in this resort, I saw some people and called out, ‘Hey, are you guys going out somewhere? Yes? Wait for me! Hi I’m Karen!’ and we just had a great time. I can’t let the grass grow under my feet. I have one life in this body, I can’t waste it.
I always said when I was younger that I don’t want to be a young mother. I knew I wanted to have a good time first, make mistakes, date a lot of people.
That leads me to wondering where you think you might be in ten years from now? What does the future hold for you do you think?
I have such a challenging time coming up with a response! I couldn’t have foreseen the last ten years occurring as they have so it’s tough to imagine where I will be ten years from now. I could be a mother or step-mother, I could be married or maintaining a steady stable of young lovers. The world is my oyster! On a more sobering note, I will be seven years from retirement (oh my god!) which means I will be keeping an eye out for what sort of work I would like to be involved in once I retire from full-time work with the federal public service. I also hope my family and friends are in excellent health so that we can enjoy our time together.
You mentioned the possibility of parenthood in your future, what does it mean to you to raise a child?
I’m the oldest of three, I have two younger brothers so I’ve always had a maternal side. I’m a protector. I do love the idea of being a parent, of raising a life. I’ve never answered that question or analysed it before, all I know is that I am completely willing. I understand that being a parent is not just about raising a mini-me, it’s raising a person. I always said when I was younger that I don’t want to be a young mother. I knew I wanted to have a good time first, make mistakes, date a lot of people. I wanted to go and have a good time and then I could have a child and not worry about being jealous.
So I have no regrets, I did a lot of fun things! When I’m a parent, I’m not going to wish I could have done this or that or focus on what I didn’t do. I’ve done it and now I’m just along for the ride hopefully teaching empathy and gratitude and just being a good person to my child.
What should we be talking more about?
We should talking about respect for each other. There was something recently about a woman who was out on the street getting catcalled 100 times or something like that. When I was eighteen, I remember I was on the subway waiting for my friend to meet me, it was summer and I was wearing a crop top and shorts and this guy walked past me and said ‘Nice tits.’ I said, ‘What did you say to me? Did you say to me nice tits? What’s wrong with you?!’ and he was so startled that he ran away! I was like, Hmmm, so you gotta call them out on it.
You’re not going to say that to me and get away with it, some of us will actually yell back and startle you and if I change someone’s behaviour by embarrassing them then I will keep doing this. We should instil this in one another, we are people and everyone should have respect for their fellow human by not making assumptions, not catcalling, not grabbing.
What would be your piece of advice to the women who are reading this? What is your motto?
We only have one life in this vessel and we should do what we can to enjoy it. To not have regrets, to pursue what we want to pursue and not worry what others think. You have one life so go out there and go for what you want to go for.
Thank-you Karen Alexander
Things I Love
My nephew Lucas
He’s ten years old and barely pays any attention to me if his Uncle Daniel is around or if there is a game to be played on his iPad. But when I accost him to tell me he loves me, he will confirm that he does indeed care about me. Sometimes.
My family—I have a big family—my mother had five siblings and her surviving brothers and sisters all live in Trinidad with their kids. I have only visited a handful of times but thank goodness for FB to keep track of their lives. I cannot live without my immediate family though. Seriously…who else would take care of me?
I debated saying ‘my best friends’ but even they know I would abandon them in a heartbeat if I had to choose because my friends and delicious deep fried potatoes.