Judgments and prejudices hurt. No matter the reason—skin color, ethnicity, age, appearance—unkind words and cruel actions can lead to isolation and inhibition, leading us to be afraid to express who we are and hide our divine gifts. But the life-affirming practice of shifting our self-perception and rewriting our own stories can powerfully affect how we see ourselves and how others see us.
When Letitia Hanke was 5 years old, she quickly got the message from the bullies at her new school: She wasn’t good enough and would never amount to anything. Moreover, what was seemingly wrong with her was nothing she could change. She was unworthy because she was Black.
“When you hear something for so long you just start believing it,” she recalls more than 40 years later. “I hated the color of my skin, and I hated my hair.”
Her family had been living in the diverse city of Berkeley, California. When Letitia’s father was given family land in a more rural county to the north, he saw it as an opportunity for his immediate family to build their own home. But Hanke and her brother were among only six Black children at school. The cruel reception they received shocked them.
“Kids who could barely say their ABCs would call me the N-word,” she says. “They would say how ugly I was and ask why I was Black. Every day I would have someone beating me down. I used to hide so they wouldn’t steal my lunch.”
Hanke endured almost constant harassment at school: Kids spat on her, pulled her hair, and kicked her. Even her teachers turned a blind eye to the bullying. Once a boy shoved her off the seesaw while a yard-duty teacher charged with enforcing pupils’ good behavior watched and did nothing.
But one music teacher finally did act. She invited Hanke to come to her classroom and then put a trumpet in her hands. Every day she offered the child refuge from her cruel classmates while teaching her how to play the instrument. Hanke blossomed through music, becoming so proficient she was invited to join the high school band when she was only 8.
That intervention made all the difference for a child whose misery might have resulted in a much different life than the one Letitia Hanke has now. She is the CEO of her own roofing company and heads the foundation she founded teaching trade skills that are lifting up disadvantaged kids facing some of the same issues she did as a child: low expectations, poor self-esteem, and limited opportunities.
A supportive teacher and music changed Hanke’s life. “I found my passion in music,” she explains. “That teacher taught me how to read music, and I found something that gave me joy—pure joy.”
As Hanke blossomed and excelled as a musician—she also had played drums in her church and taught herself to play the piano—she began to gain confidence and become more secure. Other kids began to respond to her radiance and see her differently.
“A lot of the high schoolers had sisters or brothers that were my age. I started making more friends and doing really well in school. I finished all my math requirements by ninth grade, and people at school recognized that. I got voted Smartest Girl and Most Likely to Succeed. They started seeing me for me. Not Black Tish. Just Tish.” As Hanke stood up for herself, other kids started standing up for her.
Out of the Shadows
Through those hard times and even now, Hanke holds fast to her music as a spiritual practice. It is where she finds solace and inspiration and the expression of her faith, whether playing her drums, or putting on a pair of headphones and listening, or working on her own compositions. That outlook was reinforced at home by her father, a guitarist, and her mother, a singer. Music and prayer remain her favorite ways of communing with God.
Hanke studied music in college, juggling two jobs to support herself. In her junior year, however, another opportunity changed her trajectory. She took a job doing office work for a roofing company. She was so good at it that by her senior year she was working 60 hours a week managing the office. She took a leap of faith and quit school to work full time.
Within a few years she had doubled the company’s size, prompting the owner to suggest she buy the business. She spent four years learning the roofing trade to get her contractor’s license.
“I knew that I could do this,” she recalls. “I just needed to have the faith in myself.”
But not everyone she encountered had faith in her. Her application for financing was rejected by banks when she sought to buy the company she had been running for eight years. She had no doubt it was because of her race and gender. One of the bank lenders laughed at her application, thinking she was joking. She persisted until a bank referred through the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce took a chance on her.
Even then, Hanke, as a business owner, faced belittling remarks and bullying both from some customers and fellow contractors who were dismissive because she was Black and female. She notes that fewer than 1 percent of roofing companies worldwide are run by women.
Hanke fell back to hiding, the way she had as a child, using initials for her name, dressing in polo shirts like her male counterparts, and not putting her photo in promotions. One couple, warm and interested over the phone, were cold when she arrived for an appointment. The wife gasped when she opened the door. Her husband warned Hanke their house had a loud alarm system if anyone were to try to break in.
Hanke says she politely thanked them, wished them a wonderful day, and then drove around the block and “bawled my eyes out. I was in a lot of pain.”
Yet, the humiliation she experienced proved galvanizing. “I went back to my office, put that bid through the shredder, and said, ‘From now on, no more hiding.’
“I just blossomed. I decided not to let people bring me down,” she says, “and it changed everything.”
The Gift of Giving Back
Hanke proudly uses her name and photo, radiating confidence and joy in knowing she is more than enough. She has quintupled her company’s profits since she arrived, employs 26 workers, and has won numerous awards for her business and philanthropy.
It’s a message she imparts to her 20-year-old son and the students who enroll in her NextGen Trades Academy, the nonprofit she funds through her own Lime Foundation. The foundation introduces young people to jobs in the trades. Students come to the academy through high schools, probation offices, and other nonprofits. Once accepted into the academy, they are matched to professionals in various fields, many of whom go on to hire them into well-paying jobs with potential for advancement.
“Now they’re able to support their families. They can afford to buy a car. We have had students who were homeless, and now they have a home.” Hanke also sponsors a music program designed to help kids develop a sense of self-worth and hopefully avoid the dark paths of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, bullying, truancy, and exclusion.
She routinely tells these students to not be afraid to try new things, investigate opportunities, walk through open doors, and take setbacks without falling apart. She tells them setbacks can lead to amazing places, including an opportunity to reach back and help others believe in themselves and follow their dreams, helping them as she was helped.
On her Facebook page she writes: “God put me on this earth to be a blessing.”
“I feel like I’ve been blessed and now I’m able to give back and help others,” she explains. “Sometimes it just takes one person caring and showing some interest to change a life. That is the biggest thing I get out of my work, knowing I can be that one person who maybe saved someone from going to that dark place they were headed toward. I feel like that is what I’m here to do. And I plan to do that the rest of my life.”