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News | Feb. 17, 2023

‘Reach back and bring others,’ Black History Month and beyond

By Michael Hong DLA Troop Support Public Affairs

From celebrating Black History as an intern at Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support, to making history as a first Black woman deputy commander, Kishayra J. Lambert reflects the values she holds of unsung African American leaders. 

“Black History Month is not just about celebrating African Americans singularly as a part of that month but it's also about learning the contributions that are indelibly ingrained into the American experience,” said Lambert. “It is an opportunity to celebrate how we are more alike than unalike.” 

For Lambert, Black History Month was not exclusive to Department of Defense observances, although they were impactful to her experience. 

“I’ve known about Black History Month all my life,” said Lambert. “Here at DLA Troop Support—which was called the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia before 2010—I remember the programs we had in our auditoriums.” 

“I remember one year we had Tuskegee Airmen guests,” said Lambert. “Another year, the pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, of which I was a member of, came and gave a message. I’ve always learned something through those engagements.” 

Lambert began her career with the DoD in July of 2000 through the Outstanding Scholar Program, shortly after graduating from La Salle University in Philadelphia. 

Since taking on the role of deputy commander in July 2022, Lambert is not only the first Black woman to ever fill the role at Troop Support but, she is also currently the only African American woman Senior Executive Service position holder at DLA.  

The following Q&A represents her perspectives on BHM: 

Q: What does BHM mean to you? 

A: I look at Black History Month as an opportunity to uplift the stories and voices of those who have made a significant impact to African American culture and the Black American experience in this country.  

Though many know about the stories of dynamic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, there are many, many unknown stories of pioneers who have made a significant difference. 

While the month of February is set aside for this acknowledgement, I will be glad when these lessons are so integrated into the overall American cultural experience as they should be for all races and ethnicities so that the stories of unsung African American leaders are not just told in February. 

Q: Do you have any specific individuals who come to mind regarding BHM? 

A: The first individual who comes to mind is my mom when I think of Black History Month. My mom demonstrated to me the power of voices—to stand up for what is right and to be impactful to others—and the importance of leaving a legacy that is less about the individual and more about the community. 

In 2002, she and some others in her community took a stand because they did not want what was a grocery store turned into a “Deli-Stop-N-Go,” in their African American community.  

My mother and her community believed that such a store would sell alcohol at all hours of the day and would encourage its excessive consumption in their community. She and those in her community sat outside that store protesting its existence every day for over 700 days until the store eventually closed. 

Q: On the DoD’s theme of: Inspiring Change, for this year’s BHM, what comes to mind? 

A: When I think of “Inspiring Change,” and overcoming racial inequities for the theme this year, I can’t help but reflect on one specific experience, on finding out that I was the first African American Chief of Contracting for the Philadelphia District United States Corps of Engineers—after I was in the position for about 3 months. 

One of the employees let me know that I was the first African American to hold the position, and they explained that after I was selected, and before I started, my predecessor and another member of the District looked up a photo of me online and placed it on the window inside of his office along with a picture of a ghost that was placed over my head. 

For those that don’t know, one of the derogatory terms that is used to refer to African Americans is: spook. 

Once the employee speaking with me had seen it, they went to the Equal Employment Opportunity office at the time and asked for an investigation. In a reply to EEO, my predecessor indicated that the ghost was a leftover Halloween decoration and was unrelated to my picture. There was one slight problem with that explanation, which is that I started that position in April so there was no reason for a Halloween decoration to still be up. 

While my predecessor retired, I still chose to work with the other individual who was responsible knowing what they did. I believe that individual eventually came to think very highly of me and my knowledge and abilities and recently reached out to congratulate me on my current position. 

For me, inspiring change is about being who people don’t believe you can be in a positive way and proving their stereotypes wrong so that maybe they are more likely to give the next person a chance. I share this story because I think it is important for others to know that being a “first,” is not always an easy journey.  

Beyond the scope of BHM, there is a lesson to be had from Lambert and her decisions to become who she is today. 

“There is a weight and responsibility that comes with being the first—or the only one of anything—whether you want it or not,” said Lambert. “There's a tendency for people to look at someone who is different than the norm and what such observed individuals do becomes the standard for what other such individuals are believed to do.” 

“When you look to ‘the first woman’ and she happens to not perform up to standards, I believe there's a tendency that decision makers are less likely to choose a woman again for that position. I believe it's the same for African Americans, and so—with that—there’s a significant responsibility, accountability and sentiments of: I don't want to mess this up for future generations.” 

To counter these preconceptions, Lambert advises those who wish to follow her footsteps to inspire change within their career and to pave their own way.  

“I would say find your own journey, because the sacrifices that I've made may not be what others are willing to make,” said Lambert. “I think that you need to determine where you want to be and put in the work to get there and not expect anybody to give you anything.” 

“And then, once you get there, make sure to reach back,” she said. “That's what I do. Reach back—reach back to others who are trying to come up the ladder. It's not just about getting to the top of the ladder. And when I say others, I mean all others. I'm not just talking about women or just African Americans. Reach back to other people to help them.” 

Lambert currently has three mentees. One of whom is Tyean Jackson Billie who joined the SES ranks in 2021 after 16 years at the Social Security Administration where Lambert worked from 2015 to 2021. 

“Mrs. Lambert’s mentorship taught me to embrace change and challenges especially on roads less travelled,” said Billie, Office of Systems deputy associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration. “She constantly dared me to seek understanding and look at opposing ideals and perspectives. Furthermore, she taught me to use opposing ideals and perspectives as a learning experience and not to avoid them.”