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What does representation mean to me?

Courtney F. Aklin

Representation is more than just being able to look around and see others that might look like me in roles of leadership and influence; it’s about being able to look around and feel as though I truly belong.

During my 15 plus years at NIH, I have interacted with exceptional individuals who have helped shape my career and motivated me to strive for leadership roles across the agency. For me, there is warmth and a sense of belonging when I can attend meetings and see other women, particularly women of color, leading them, contributing to them, and helping to shape the outcomes that will inevitably follow. I clearly recall a day early in my tenure at NIH when I went to a symposium at Natcher Auditorium and watched as several directors and deputy directors of the institutes and centers took their places at the front of the room. At the time, it was primarily men walking down the aisle, but I noticed the women who were interspersed among them. Despite being few in number, it was clear each of these women had significant authority and decision-making roles, spoke to their science, and were well received by the audience. That picture has remained in my head and given me a vision and understanding of what could be possible—a seat in the front row.

Now, in my role as Acting Associate Deputy Director of NIH, I feel like it’s my turn to help others find their sense of belonging at NIH. To do this, I have purposely aimed to be my authentic self in all situations. There are times when I’ve had to host meetings with my children’s voices in the background or faces popping on and off the Zoom screen; yes, that’s me as a mom. There are times when I felt I needed to state things that may be uncomfortable to hear but not to state them would mean a missed opportunity for growth; yes, that’s me who believes in standing in honesty. There are times when I remained reserved, in the background, encouraging and supporting others to rise; yes, that’s me paying it forward. While I continue my time at NIH, I hope that someone else will see me sitting in the front row or at the table, hosting a meeting, and recognize that they too can belong here.

At the end of the day, I believe we all want to belong, and it’s wonderful when there is recognition and energy devoted to making sure that happens for everyone.

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