I recently had the opportunity to interview Davia Samms, founder of Lifeaholic Costa Rica, on my YouTube show “What’s Your Everest.” Davia, a “Melanated person,” as she calls herself, said the PTSD of daily micro (and macro) aggressions from living as a person of color in the US was overbearing.
“Why would I live in a country that hates me?” Davia asked.
So she changed the playing field, founding her company, Lifeaholic Costa Rica, a relocation consultancy that is building a community of like-minded people, wounded souls from around the world, in Costa Rica. That community now numbers over 100 professionals, families, artists, and children who are finding space to breathe and live the authentic life they never thought was possible elsewhere because of discrimination.
From school to work to seemingly simple everyday interactions, Davia and Gregory shared their lived experience of facing racism in the US. And they painted a picture of what it feels like to live feeling healed and free. “Blue skies, daily beach time, and fresh organic food,” Davia opined. Without the racism.
(Watch that full interview here.)
A Compelling Story
When I first learned about Davia and her business, I felt compelled to write to her to learn more. I was taken aback by the risk she undertook, leaving behind her life in the US (so often touted as the greatest country on Earth) and everything she had built. She did it with two four-year-olds in tow to boot! Her determination translated into action, to me, was remarkable. She had assessed that there was a better life for her out there and she was going to make it happen.
This had me so curious about Davia’s strength, bravery, willingness to learn something new (language and culture, farming, starting her own business and home schooling) and risk tolerance.
She brushed my admiration aside, stating she had no other choice lest she “go crazy.”
In her own words:
I was just another cog in the American workforce machine before moving to Costa Rica in 2016. Although I’ve always been driven, intellectual, and hungry for success, I couldn’t seem to advance my career no matter how hard I worked. Eventually, I realized that there would never be an opportunity for a promotion at my job, and that it wasn’t my fault…I didn’t have the foundation that my white coworkers had to build their lives and careers on. There was no generational wealth for me to fall back on, and there weren’t any higher-ups putting in a good word for me at the water cooler. I was one of three black people in a department with approximately 100 employees. And no one––not a single person––in upper management looked like me.
I eventually had to face reality and admit to myself that the only way to really see positive change in my life was to remove myself from the machine entirely.
I Saw Power in Davia’s Vision
Davia saw that she didn’t have to accept the paradigm she was presented with in the US; that despite decades of getting the message that she was somehow a second-class citizen in her own country simply because of the shade of her skin, she still was able to maintain the belief she could and would find and make something better. She created a path. She created an avenue. She created hope for herself and then built a business model to empower others who wished to join her.
The Metaphor in Professional Sports
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), in 2014, about the time Davia was coming to wits end, “there [were] 153 teams among the six biggest professional major league sports in the United States and Canada: the National Football League (32 teams), the National Basketball Association (30 teams), Major League Baseball (30 teams), the National Hockey League (30 teams), Major League Soccer (19 teams) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (12 teams).
Among these 153 teams, there [was only] one Black majority owner.” (Diversity Inc., 2014) That same year, the players playing for these white owned teams were 76.3% Black for the NBA and 66.3% Black in the NFL.
The Parallel to Sports Psychology/Mental Game Coaching
I saw a parallel to my work in sports psychology and mental game coaching for professional and amateur athletes, in terms of people of color being asked to sacrifice and give their all in a game where players are commodities earning money for white team owners. (You can hear more about this plays out in college sports in my interview with Charles Grantham.)
As a mental game coach we help athletes with specific techniques for centering, visualization, and tools to cope with anxiety and build self-confidence. We break down and reframe past events so athletes are empowered, confident and prepared for their next approach. Maybe the athlete is distracted or experiencing self-doubt. Or it’s the “p’s” …perfectionism, procrastination or performing under pressure. The focus is often on the athlete and looking at internal factors that stop them.
Hearing Davia and Gregory’s story (listen to the full interview here) begged the question for me: How do I factor in the external societal pressures? How might an athlete of color tune out a lifetime of micro and macro aggressions with the game-winning shot on the line? How does one stay motivated, focused, in the zone, believing you can accomplish a championship when you are otherwise regularly receiving communication that you are not free from suspicion or safe on the streets?
There are so many young Brown or Melanated athletes playing for college or professional teams in the US today. Day after day, they are practicing, training, giving over their lives to excel at a sport (whether it’s for school or their career). So much is demanded of them, their bodies, and minds, and so much is measured, gained, or lost on their performance. And so much is at stake. Sports careers are short by nature and injury can come at any time. All the while, many of the decisions that will determine an athlete’s future, their success or failure, are at the whim of coaches, team owners, even fair-weather fans, the majority of whom are white.
When Changing the Playing Field is the Only Option
Davia Samms concluded she needed to get out. She could not perform at her best anymore given the climate she was living in. Even Davia, however, by her own admission, had an advantage. She came from an educated, well-to-do family tree. She grew up traveling with people who encouraged her to learn and explore the world. She came from people who taught her she could have better because she deserved better. Given US average household income statistics, however, most Americans don’t have all that going for them. And young people of color even less often.
I had long thought of the stadium floor or turf or grass as a fantastic equalizer. The shot is either in, or it isn’t. It’s either a touchdown or not. You either win or you lose. To a great extent, I surmised, politics had to be left in the locker room. To win, you needed the whole team. When you had that, you had an hour, two or three of what might feel like magic. No race. No religion. No politics. Just Team Win and Team Lose. Us versus them.
Davia opened my eyes to a much more complex dynamic that is ever-present. With eyes opened, I consider how a person who gets the message that they are ‘less-than’ on a regular basis can tune out the garbage and zone in on success. And even that is the asking the person who is the target of discrimination to build their own defense. Clearly it’s not fair. I had liked to think and hope that most Americans want to be fully on Team USA or even Team World, envisioning an equal playing field for all. For that we must speak up and act and let our voices be heard, to not let the “riffraff” (aka racist systems and people) interfere with our focus.
Until that time, amazing, inventive entrepreneurs like Davia Samms will continue to leave for a better team.