Looking Within: An Interview with Communicator and Change-Maker LaTara Harris

As the regional director of external affairs for AT&T in the Mid-Atlantic, LaTara Harris focuses on local legislative and regulatory matters in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Legislative work – strong legislative work, she says – is equal parts education, community engagement, and information wrangling.  

It seems AT&T chose the perfect person for the job.

“It’s almost as if everything I had done [prior] was preparing me for this opportunity, and allowed me to really embrace all of that,” she says. “I enjoy strategy. I love to hear people. I love that we can all have a voice and a seat at the table – and agree to disagree if need be – while ensuring there is awareness on both sides.”

Harris, who also works with a number of the charities supported by AT&T, says she has watched the company transition from a telecommunications company, to an entertainment company, to a company that is continuously transforming today.  “[AT&T] encompasses several different aspects of how we communicate as a society,” she says. “It’s just an amazing company to be a part of, and it is a company that is making a difference in our communities.”

Making Initial Changes

As a member of a military family, Harris did a fair share of traveling as a child, spending many years in Hawaii before her father was stationed at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.

“This is kind of where we landed,” she says.

Over the years, she would take on jobs in a number of different industries, before finding a niche, of sorts, in finance.

“But I felt like it wasn’t right enough for me,” Harris says. “It’s a great career, and I loved that I knew the content well. But I also knew that I was extremely expressive. And it limited me. I wasn’t able to express myself and be extremely joyful and joyous in the work I was doing.”

A New Knight at the Roundtable

Craving some sort of expressive fulfillment, Harris began volunteering (and volunteering – and volunteering.) Helping others. Doing tons of work in various fields. That’s when the Maryland Business Roundtable came calling.

The Roundtable provided opportunities for volunteers like Harris to speak to students in a classroom setting about life after high school, preparing them for future success. She was all too familiar with that nuanced question: “What do you want to do with your life?”  

“I felt like, ‘My gosh. This has been my story.’”

She jumped on board. In short order, she was officially offered a permanent seat at the Roundtable.

“I thoroughly loved that work,” Harris says. “I met some of the most amazing people. We were doing incredible work around education reform and ensuring that students were ready for life after high school, really at that intersection of business and education and community – all of that. The work that I truly, really love.”

Ten years passed as Harris worked to build a base of volunteer speakers. During her tenure she helped to enlist the talents of 3,000 volunteers, reaching more than 500,000 students.

“We were really informing and helping young people understand those next steps so they wouldn’t be a lost soul like me,” she laughs.

But at some point, Harris admits she began to get antsy once again. Once again, she acted.

“I started upskilling,” she says.

Her first step was to take part in The Leadership, an experiential leadership development program courtesy of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC).

The program provided Harris with tremendous civic insights and relationships, but more was needed.

Shifting Gears and Making the Grade

Harris decided to pursue her Master of Business Administration degree at the University of Maryland University College.

A mother of four – her youngest 1 ½ years old at the time – and still employed at the Roundtable, she found herself in the midst of an intricate juggling act.

“I definitely had to figure out how to work during the day, come home, and have the presence that my children needed. And schoolwork was after all of that. So, I really didn’t have much sleep for a few years even though I had the help of many,” she laughs.

For Harris, though, there was no turning back.

“You know, having been brought up in a military family, I believe when you make a commitment to something and you have a goal in mind, you work very hard to accomplish that,” she says. “You give more than what’s expected of you. I really wanted to accomplish that. And I was able to get that done.”

This drive, she says, is the culmination of so many influences – her personal life, her career, and a need for creative fulfillment. “But it was also just knowing that my soul was saying something different,” she says. “It was saying, ‘You need to shift right now.’”

Rethinking What’s Possible

Shortly after earning her MBA, Harris received a call from AT&T regarding her current corporate role, a dream job that also landed squarely in that intersection of business and community that she loves.

Over the last eight years, Harris has been involved with a number of volunteer deployments and relief efforts, such as a national endeavor that is hyper-focused on getting employees involved in their local communities. Harris spearheaded the program in the Maryland and D.C. region.

Harris says the opportunity to act as a subject matter expert and help elected leaders make informed decisions is at the heart of what she does. 

“Just that they [elected leaders] are able to come to me for help as they’re trying to understand an issue that might impact our work,” she says. “I’ve developed incredible relationships in the region, and I think that really has served us well.”

In 2020, a new way of working also led to significant changes with AT&T’s volunteer efforts.

“Our volunteers are now shifting from volunteering in-person to volunteering from home,” Harris says. “Which is not to say that we weren’t already [doing volunteer work digitally], but we needed to … pull all of it together. And I was responsible for that.”

Of course, 5G deployment throughout the region is also a pretty big deal.

“It gets us ready for the smarter technologies that are coming,” she says. “I look back on my career and realize, ‘Wow. You were a part of that.’”

Making Lasting Changes

Harris says her role at AT&T comes with the standard stresses and challenges.

 “With the pandemic and the social unrest, this has been a really, really challenging year for so many people, including myself. And you’re talking about someone who is constantly used to being out and engaged. And now our doors are shut, and we’ve got to figure it out.”

The result, Harris says, is that people have been forced to “look within.”

“You don’t have the types of escapes, if you will, that you had before. You’ve really had to become one and get to know yourself more – to figure out what you needed to get through some of the most challenging times, in terms of unrest,” she says. “It really has forced us to figure out new ways of communicating. New ways of engaging. Because what is true is that these challenges still exist. Now – more so than ever – the challenges are there.”

Harris says she had received multiple calls from friends, colleagues, and associates who were truly struggling through everything 2020 yielded – the uncertainty, the unrest, the social upheaval.

As she had done so often before, she went to work.

The host of a Women’s Empowerment Organization – WeEmpowerWomen – she opened up lines of communication.

“I call them kind of mental health sessions if you will … and we’ve [been trying to help] people navigate these challenging times,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of people talking about the importance of the relationship you have with yourself. We had a special on domestic violence because those cases were increasing.”

Harris was also nominated to AT&T’s Equality and Inclusion Task Force, where she was charged with figuring out how to best communicate internally, externally, and beyond.

 “I’m able to say as a woman of color and an African American woman that some of the challenges I’ve constantly faced haven’t necessarily been given a voice in the workplace or in different environments. But I think with George Floyd, there was no more holding that back. This has been an incredibly challenging year and we might all be in the same storm – but we’re riding it out in different boats.”

So many people, she says, are struggling with world events. Everyone is recalibrating and figuring out how to move forward when daily routines have changed.

“Work is no longer going to work. I’m sitting in my home office here and my son may bust through the door at any minute telling me about his friend that’s slouching in the classroom. It’s just a very, very different time for all of us,” she says. “Still, we have to understand and learn how to set our own boundaries, as well as figure out what we need to replenish ourselves, [while] knowing that the needs are still there. We must constantly be mindful [of the needs] all around us and … how we can use ourselves and use our gifts to help and build communities.”

Harris has high hopes for 2021.

“One thing 2020 has done is shine a spotlight on our country and on us as individuals,” she says. “For whatever reason, many of us were pretty – I don’t want to say ‘complacent,’ – but I am going to say complacent about the real issues and the depth of the issues that still very much existed in this country.”

“There’s a lot of pain here that a lot of people are trying to reconcile in their minds – how and why we got to this place,” she continues. “We’ve heard people use the term ‘a new normal.’ But now you’re also hearing: ‘We don’t want to go back to where we were.’ We have learned an entirely different way of engaging and interacting. And while I don’t want to see us on Zoom forever, I do hope we will approach things much, much differently moving forward.”

Harris believes there are opportunities now more than ever before to do the work to build stronger, more fruitful connections with each other.

“I’m not just talking politics, I’m talking race relations, I’m talking work, I’m talking at home. I think that 2021 is filled with responsibilities, and I don’t think we’re going to go back to business as usual once the doors open. And that’s a good thing. That’s a really, really good thing.”