Diversity & Inclusion

Our committee is responsible for championing initiatives throughout the Raymond A. Mason School of Business that are both diverse and inclusive to students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, and partner organizations.

D&I Committee Goals

Our goals are to:

  1. Actively nurture an environment of diversity and inclusiveness where every individual is embraced, respected, and afforded the same opportunity to grow, to succeed, and to contribute to the Mason School's success.
  2. Actively engage with communities within the Mason School to promote educational efforts related to differences in race, religion, gender, ethnic origin, age, socioeconomic status, political preferences, physical abilities, sexual identity, and sexual orientation.
  3. Foster the individual's desire to lead a life of Principled Achievement within and external to the Mason School which includes a personal respect for diverse communities as well as an understanding of inclusiveness as it relates to the greater-Business community.
Principles of Community

We believe that in order to uphold the mission, vision and goals of the Mason School, it is our collective responsibility to create and foster an environment that is inclusive and respectful for all. As global citizens, we encourage everyone within the Mason School community to embrace our values which at the individual level demonstrates

  • Respect and responsibility for self and others
  • A spirit of generosity
  • A life dedicated to inquisitive learning and development
  • An acknowledgment that an individual's own words, actions, and relationships show a commitment to these values
Diversity & Inclusion at the Mason School

Diversity & Inclusion at the Mason School is not limited to the activities of our committee. Every day, our students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, and partners are actively engaged in a range of initiatives that help our community grow, strengthen relationships, and better understand one another.

Explore our gallery to learn more about these efforts.


Diversity Goes To Work Podcast
 Nathan Chin
Nathan ChinEpisode 6: November 22, 2021
Self Awareness and Intersectionality

Nathan Chin

Episode 6: November 22, 2021

Self Awareness and Intersectionality

Today we welcome Nathan Chin, a senior manager of inclusion, equity, and engagement at Cvent and William & Mary alum ('08). Nathan joins host Phil Wagner to discuss intersectionality at work, what it's like to navigate the workplace - and life - with your whole authentic self, how DEI-minded leaders and managers can use an intersectional lens to make their work more valuable to the organization, and so much more.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • What intersectionality means to Nathan
  • How Nathan's own intersectionalities inform his professional work
  • What it's like to navigate life's experiences with an intersectional identity
  • How tokenism plays out in workplace D&I work
  • Why it's important to call out performative allyship
  • How important a quality support circle is
  • Why it's important to use one's privilege to advocate for others
  • How employee satisfaction improves if they're able to be their authentic selves
  • Why D&I work is improved with a budget and formal support structure
  • How businesses can support Employee Resource Groups
Transcript

Nathan Chin: Self Awareness and Intersectionality TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Nathan Chin

Disengage when you need to, there will always be trauma ready and waiting for you to have to work through. So make sure you're taking the time to take care of yourself. It's okay to do slightly selfish, seemingly frivolous things if that means that you can keep fighting for another week, another month, another year.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Hi, friends and welcome to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today we're going to dismantle one of the biggest words that we hear pretty commonly in the DE&I sphere, intersectionality. We want to talk about the ground-level implications of that word and what that looks like. I'm joined for today's conversation by Nathan Chin. Nathan is an alum of William & Mary and also a DE&I change advocate himself. Nathan has spent the last eleven years at Cvent working in product lead and product management and then moving most recently into a new position as the senior manager of Inclusion, Equity, and Engagement. Nathan has had an eye on not only this topic but DE&I change management over the past decade or so. Nathan, it's an honor to have you on our podcast. Thank you for joining us.

Nathan Chin

Likewise, thanks for having me.

Phil Wagner

So, Nathan, for this episode. One of the things we're really trying to do is situate this big concept that we hear all the time of intersectionality, particularly as it plays out in the day-to-day world that we operate in. So tell me when you hear that term intersectionality. You've done a lot of work in this area. What does that term mean to you, and how does that resonate?

Nathan Chin

Yeah. So I think for me, at least the term is really about where. Kind of the different common experiences of the different facets of Mayer anyone's identity tend to overlap and where you have the shared experiences or even in some cases, where you have an awareness of how differently one of your identities is treated from another. So it can be both the similarities they have or the stark differences, but really, just those unique experiences that come together by being a member of multiple groups, whether those are majority or minority.

Phil Wagner

Those multiple group affiliations or identity affiliations, I think, are sort of key, and we always try to be very careful on this podcast, not tokenize anybody and single them out and say, Tell me your story. However, I know that you've sort of agreed to come on and do that. So even with that cautious framing, can you tell us a little bit more about your own intersectional identities and specifically how those inform your professional work?

Nathan Chin

Yeah, absolutely. So at least for myself and my work identity. I am of part Asian descent. My dad is Chinese, and my mother is Caucasian, but my dad and actually his grandfather were born in the US. So we've been Asian Americans for quite some time a couple of generations back, and then I'm gay, been out since about age 15 or so, helped to co-found our employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees, and then kind of some other interesting things that don't always come up. And I always like to kind of call it some of the parts of diversity that are kind of under the diversity iceberg as it can be. So I was actually born overseas and didn't come to the US till the first time till I was six years old. So my first experiences because we're a foreign service family, we're all with foreign cultures, primarily Asian cultures, spent actually total nine out of my first 18 years of life overseas in Asia, lived in Japan, Korea, Burma, and Singapore. So that's actually a pretty interesting one that I think has come up a lot of work that no one would expect off the bat because we have a large office in India as well as a couple of the global offices. So the cultural sensitivity awareness is something that I think often gets overlooked in our experiences. If you're raised in a margin of society, but then also understanding kind of some of the challenges that different cultures have and giving it through that lens.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. So how did those experiences then shape how you interact with employees? I know we've talked offline a little bit about your work with employee resource groups and your work doing D&I work sort of day-to-day at Cvent as well in terms of the LGBTQ community, correct.

Nathan Chin

Hmm-mmm.

Phil Wagner

So you've done this work. How have those identities shaped that work? I think what we're trying to get at here is as we prepare listeners who want to go out and engage with diversity equity inclusion work but may not know-how. How do we use those past experiences or identity elements to inform our approach? Anything we can learn from your experiences.

Nathan Chin

Yeah. So first and foremost, I would say, and this is something I actually teach a course that our company provides for anyone when they first get promoted to manager for the first time. We have a little people leader boot camp for them. But the course that I actually lead for is called leading inclusively. And one of the things that I try to highlight first for everyone is there's so much more to diversity than what's there at the surface. If you think you don't have anything to contribute, chances are you're wrong. It could have been being raised in a single-parent household, having different cultural experiences, having different moral, ethical value systems than most of the others. So what's really important is to kind of find the things that are important to you important to your identity and lean into them, try to bring them out as much as possible. Let that determine what causes you to engage with or what perspectives you have, and definitely don't be afraid to speak up. I think the other thing that really helps is just putting as much of your diversity on display. That doesn't mean necessarily need to be antagonistic or aggressive, or every time someone makes a comment jumping up and down in their face. But one of the things I've found over the last few years is that the more I try to be and it's become a buzzword but my authentic self at work, and that's just representing all my communities, representing myself, not censoring and saying my partner, my significant other, but saying, my boyfriend. People really appreciate that even if they aren't necessarily of the same group. I can't count the number of times I've had people reach out to me after the fact and say, hey, I just started. I really appreciate you talking about being out at work. I didn't know if I could bring my partner to the holiday party—little things like that. So even if you're not doing the active work on committees or within HR or trying to drive initiatives, just the very act of being yourself and representing those different parts of you publicly can actually really move the dial as far as making people aware or making them feel like they have a community or are included.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I really like that. I think we work a lot with executives who are very nervous to center the touchy, feely nature of D&I, right. Like they're all about results and data. But at the end of the day, this really is about those human lived experiences and simply being human. Right. Living out your authentic experience has a way of at least telling us a little bit more about the health of any organizational culture has a way of contributing to that D&I work. We've talked a lot about different identity affiliations, and I so appreciate you sharing a little bit more about yours. I don't think that we often take the time to really sort of sit and dismantle or figure out how all of those identity elements work together. And I'm sure that while they often work together in ways that enhance our approach, they can be complicated at times as well. I mean, I think we're probably a little bit guilty of being reductive here on this podcast sometimes, but I'm wondering how your intersectional identity elements, I should say, situate you in relation to diversity and inclusion work. So I'm thinking about the complexity here of those identity collisions. So, for instance, we're recording this in June 2021. June is Pride Month. That's the month where we really celebrate and recognize the contributions and the obstacles surrounded by the LGBTQ plus community. But June 2021 isn't just Pride Month, right? It exists on the continuum where just a few months ago, in March, there were heinous acts of violence committed against Asian American folks. And just last month, the nation watched as Derek Chauvin went on trial for the murder of George Floyd. There's a lot of different identity-related things playing out in society at large. Can you share a little bit more about what it's like to navigate those identity streams? Like celebrating Pride Month while also recognizing we're not too far removed from heinous acts of violence that really show us this diverse and inclusion picture is a little bit more complicated.

Nathan Chin

Yeah, that's a great thing to bring up, and I'd be remiss to not also point out that we have Juneteenth coming up to us around the corner. We're recording this a few days before, which just finally got passed as a federal holiday earlier today, thankfully. But it's interesting. I think the best overarching thing I can say is you kind of have to take everything as it comes. When we had those horrible shootings in Atlanta against the Asian spas, I pretty much spent that week crying every time I looked at the news, and I just had to be very upfront about that with co-workers like, hey, look, hey, How's your day going? I was like, I've cried three times, and I would make sure to tell why so they could understand. But it's tough sometimes because we have a whole month of Pride activities with our employee resource group that we put on a mix of educational sessions, kind of more fun social things that we partnered with. But like, we just talked about, we have Juneteenth coming up just a couple of days from now, and there's some heavy things happening as well. I think it's very easy to focus solely on your own group, and sometimes for a period of time, one group might need a little bit more attention because it's hard to try to juggle all these different identities simultaneously. So you might have to do a little bit of a rotation system for the lack of a better term. But it's also important to know to find allies in those other groups and know that you working on something doesn't necessarily take away from something else. Like, I really appreciate the Culture, which is our Black Employee resource group. No one has made any comments or suggested, like, hey, maybe we should tone things down to the Pride activities leading up to Juneteenth. While we're both focused on a lot of our individual goals and initiatives, we also want to celebrate the other groups. So we try to cross-promote as much as possible and try to find ways we can bring it all together. A lot of ways that comes out is in the content of the programming around work that we provide. So some things I pushed pretty hard for as far as our Pride Month activities. They've all been on Zoom because we're all working from home these days, but continuing a panel we had last year as well, which is just talking about the LGBTQ minority experience and how that's different when you're just in multiple minority groups as opposed to just one and a lot of things that folks might or might not realize that they have to go through and have to give some credit to my old professors for a lot of these topics that I'm aware of now, but talking about things like passing and contact switching and microaggressions, at least being a multiracial individual are a big one for me because whether it's asking where my dad or my grandfather came from five times, even though they're both born in the US or saying I don't count with the white folks because I'm Asian or I don't count the Asian folks because I'm white. You simultaneously can be part of multiple things but also not belong to anything completely. So a lot of juggling and balancing, but I tend to just kind of go with where my emotions take me at the time. I think there's always something to be upset about with any of these groups, and rightfully so. And you definitely want to push those things, but you need to balance a lot of the kind of anger, frustration, activism with a lot of the celebration and things that make them wonderful. And for every kind of push that I try to make within the company for one of these identities or groups, I try to also balance it with something celebrating those groups or bringing more people in and educating them on something, whether that's just cultural practice or things they might be doing that they're unaware of.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I love that contribution to this conversation because I think that it shows some of the benefits then could come along with our diversity and inclusion work. If we're willing to put in the work, there are a lot of folks who roll their eyes and say you add another dimension to this conversation, but if you actually choose to dig deep and see that there are nuances and there are complexities and obstacles, and we don't have everything figured out just by slapping a D&I Vision statement on our website. But we have to toil with some discomfort, and I think it's okay to lean into that discomfort and say, well, as much as we are being inclusive and as much as we are invoking an intersectional lens that doesn't just make it an open, widely acceptable experience for everyone. And I think that complexity brings some value. I think personally to ourselves, as well as we dig deeper, we grow in our cognitive sophistication and our empathetic self-awareness towards others. So really good points here.

Nathan Chin

I would completely agree. And I think one of the things I've seen volunteering with a lot of the D&I work at work because it's not my full-time job by any means. But I've been blessed enough to have bosses that believe in it and allow me to spend as much time on it as I want to. Like you said, we can't be afraid of difficult conversations. Almost everyone I've talked to who works and volunteers on D&I-related activities within our company. I can tell you that I feel like I'm pretty comfortable speaking the large majority, if not all of them, would prefer a leader that says I did this wrong. Let me continue talking about this with you.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Nathan Chin

Then someone who tries so hard to get it right the first time you don't make any progress. I think, like you're saying in the heights, it's perfectly fine to discuss those issue representation. And this is my personal opinion, but it's also sometimes don't focus solely on the one bad thing and acknowledge some of the other benefits that come from it because it's never going to be perfect. We need to be able to celebrate what progress has been made as well as what areas of improvement there are. And if we're afraid of those conversations, or if we're afraid to put anything out unless it's perfect, we'll never really get there. Progress is incremental. We need to say, hey, great. We did this well; we can do this better. So let's iterate on that for the next time that we approach this. So I have kind of the same frustrations with folks that tear something apart because of one item and don't really kind of focus on the rest of the positives it provides. But similarly, don't think that they should ever be ignored or anyone should ever be censored for calling out the elements that could be improved.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely. And that's the narrative of innovation, right. Like we did some things good. There are some things that we could do better, and we roll with it. And I think that it's really important not to lose sight of that. We've talked with a few guests on our podcast, and there's a theme that really has emerged across episodes, which is that D&I work is necessarily ego-free work. You cannot do this work if you've got a fragile ego because you are always going to be off in your interpretation in some way or wrong. And that's okay. That discomfort, if you can lean into it, can actually be fulfilling in the end. If you have a growth mindset, not one that is so driven by such a fragile ego, I should say. I want to talk a little bit about how identity plays out in the professional world because you've spoken to a few things here, and I think there's something to explore further. So I think we have to also bring up in conversations like these the idea of tokenism, right. So you mentioned doing D&I work, although not as your full-time job, but just sort of being involved. And I assume that that comes because you care about this work. And I think that's why a lot of us do this work. But I think we have to be very careful because tokenism typically plays out because somebody in the organization, albeit well-meaning or with positive intent, seeks to put someone on a stage as a voice of authority simply because of their identity. Right. So you're the black guy. How do you feel about this or like, hey, you're gay? Let's be sure we put you and make you the leader of the D&I committee. And I think that's well-intentioned but can also push folks in spaces that they might not want to engage in or tokenize them. I'm wondering, have you seen that play out in your life? Do you tend to see it play out in one area, like sexuality, more than the other? You mentioned being pinpointed? Where were your father and grandfather from? I'm curious how that tokenism plays out.

Nathan Chin

Yeah, at least within the work context. I would say definitely more of my LGBT identity is brought up as token. But one thing I tried to do very early on was to lean into it. There are some things that I can't speak well, too. And so, if I'm brought on to something, we did an audit a while back of our language last year within the application. So we had our content team going through. And luckily, we weren't like any of the companies that had references to Master-Slave and code or things like that. We went through and did an assessment looking at the etymology of different words, and it was myself, black female, one of our content writers, and then at least one or two other individuals that I'm blanking out who are involved. But I definitely got the sense from some of the other folks while they cared about it. It was a little bit of fatigue at that point. This is happening last summer-fall. It was like, hey, it's great that we want to change this. Why do I have to be here? Why can't someone else take this up? And that was pretty eye-opening for me, realizing that. I think as long as you're very honest about the fact that you can't speak to all experiences or you aren't necessarily represented that community, that doesn't mean that you can't do good for them. So I realized the other person wasn't talking as much. So I leaned heavily in and was looking up origin of words, giving my opinion, and trying to weigh in, even though a lot of them weren't necessarily words that were scrutiny against parts of my identity. So I think, on the one hand, if you get a seat at the table unless you really just don't want to do any of the work, and that's better for someone else, in which case definitely find someone else to try to pass it off. I think it's important to take that opportunity and try and push some progress or at least point out like, hey, I'm the token person at this table. Why don't we have more? Why can't you all push these initiatives? Do you have to have me sign off on them? You can actually do a lot as an ally or a person outside of the community. There are so many great resources these days. People. You can talk to things through social media that I really don't think it has to be restrained to those groups, and we don't always need to be the final sign-off on any initiative. I think it is important to listen to them when things come up, but progress is progress, and even if it's incremental, I think it's worth sitting there. One thing I do want to call it that's kind of a personal issue I've come into lately that I think also kind of rested somewhat is, well, if you aren't a member of a group, it's important to still, you can push initiatives. It's important to not be a toxic ally either. There are some folks I've encountered where they leave feedback on various events or panels we have. So like last year, we're putting on some panels, and we're working with all-volunteer, no budget, asking employees in the company who's willing to speak on this topic. And the person is very upset that for one of the sessions where we attached some personal speakers outside of the company that were friends of one of our employees, we didn't have anyone of color on the panel. We admittedly we had our minority panel two days later, which was missed by that individual, but they left just this excoriating piece of feedback that was going on about how we were falling short, and we were basically all pushing everything back from a white female and talked about it with some of the other folks in the other groups, and all of us kind of agreed like this is not helpful. This is not something that we see. It's definitely good to stand up, but make sure you're not creating fights where there aren't any, or if you do have things to be upset about or that you want to be pushing, make sure you have something actionable. Just a complaint or saying this is not an I want to see more diversity. I want to see more commitment to diversity. That's kind of hollow. Like you need to have actual action feedback for someone to work on. The things that we talk about is that the people that you see is that the programs and initiatives there are. There's a lot more that goes into it, but I feel like that I've definitely seen more on the rise, just kind of people on a soapbox, but it's ultimately not constructive.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that performative allyship, I think, is really tough to grapple with, and I do think it often comes from a well-intentioned place, right? People don't have anything except to raise awareness, but I still agree it can actually run in a counterintuitive way, right? It can work against us because it creates further division, and it kind of tees me up for what I think is an important question in that through everything you just talked about, it's very clear that there is a pretty significant emotional labor felt by people, particularly minority communities, who do D&I work because you've got sort of the double experience of shouldering the burdens of oppression that tend to come. I think society has shown us it's not as equitable as we'd like it to be. And then doing this work tends to be pretty emotionally laborious as well through all that and then experiencing things like the spa shootings or like violence against LGBTQ people or just the stuff that sort of defines the global D&I conversation. That's a lot to carry. I'm curious how you seek out support, how you seek out healing, how you seek out community, particularly given that identity is complicated. So it's not just you're not isolated to one individual identity pocket. How do you seek out that support when parts of your identity and the communities that associates with face challenges? That's a loaded question and probably not well worded.

Nathan Chin

Yeah, I think it kind of differs for a lot of folks, but having your support circle is absolutely one of the most important. And I'll be one of the first, love a good nap or weekend inside. Disengage when you need to. There will always be trauma ready and waiting for you to have to work through. So make sure you're taking the time to take care of yourself. It's okay to do slightly selfish, seemingly frivolous things if that means that you can keep fighting for another week, another month, another year. It is inherently a human experience that we're going through. So it's important to take care of yourself. For me personally, a lot of that is having some very good and close friends at work that are either very strong allies or parts of these groups and sometimes definitely not our work systems. We'll have some little vent sessions just, hey, can you believe this person that was so annoying? I can't believe that. Get it off my chest, feel much better, sometimes reaching out and educating the person, making sure I say my piece that helps as well, but a lot of it for me tends to be just focusing on things outside of that and really just kind of disengaging for a moment, taking a break, focusing on myself, exercise, meditation. All those are great activities, but I'd also be remiss if I didn't kind of call out one of the that's definitely an issue, but one that's far, far tougher for women and especially women of color in the workplace. I'm very thankful in that while I am member of several minority groups, we're either generally well perceived, or I can pass those majority groups, so I don't have to deal with it as much. But the number of times that female colleagues within my company or elsewhere have told me they get comments like you're being emotional when there really are completely valid things to be infuriated about that you'd be well within your rights to be screaming and throwing things they have to suppress because it's perceived as emotionality, which is weakness or as anger is often the case for black females, which they probably should be pissed about almost everything that's being done. But it's shocking to me to see how much they have to pull themselves back and how much they have to hold back because of those stereotypes and because that's often perceived. So one of the other ways that I really do feel like helps, even if it doesn't necessarily in the moment, is reaching out and trying to be a support for other people that you know are going through those—letting them have that moment to venture, acknowledging the pain and the frustration that they're having to suppress just in order to not be seen as someone that's going through an episode during a day. I think helping others can also be one of the best ways to relieve some of that stress. And I'm lucky that I get a little bit less than some of the other groups, or my expressions are more accepted by those who hear them generally.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and again, teeing up perfectly for where I'd like to go next, Nathan, but talking a little bit more about maybe not just passing, but also just privilege, broadly speaking, right. So not all of your identity elements carry the burden of marginalization, right. So you might have privilege in some areas. It might be economic privilege. It might be masculine privilege. And I know just the word privilege is going to just send up a radar for some folks. But identity is complicated, right. And so there are hills and valleys, so to speak. I'm curious how you use those spaces of privilege to help support others who may not hold that privilege in that specific identity domain.

Nathan Chin

Yeah. Excellent question. Having several identities and being someone who generally passes within several majority groups.

Phil Wagner

Which we should probably define right.

Nathan Chin

Good point.

Phil Wagner

What is passing mean to you in your day-to-day? How does that play out?

Nathan Chin

Yeah. So passing to me is the ability to be perceived as a member of another group, even though you might not actually. So, even though I am a half Asian, I am often perceived as a white male, at least until people learn my last name is Chin, which is about as tiny as it gets or not all the time. But definitely, I've had more than a few people at work or other places assume that I was straight when they first met me, some girls asking if I was single, which, unfortunately for them, didn't work out so well. But it's just that assumption no one ever assumes, or at least most people that are of a different race. But for some of us who are lighter-skinned or multiracial, we might be confused for a different race and thus be treated as if we are an insider of that group. That can often come with benefits. But in some cases, it could mean the opposite. It could mean that you end up going through some things that most people of your actual racial, ethnic origin would not have to.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and it plays out across so many different identity domains, right. So you may have

Nathan Chin

All of them, really.

Phil Wagner

a disability that's not visible, right. You have that sort of like identity negotiation inside of you of am I disabled? I don't present as disabled to the general public. There's a complicated internal dialogue that comes a lot with that as well. But anyways, I digress. We were talking about privilege. Thanks for that.

Nathan Chin

So privilege, and I think it's something most people would assume. But one of the things I try to always do is when I do kind of sneak into some of those groups and almost feel like a double agent. But take a moment, stand up, identify yourself and point out the things that are being done that are wrong. It does put a target on you, and sometimes it's tough, and some people might not be in a safe enough space to do that. And that's entirely okay if you're not safe or comfortable for going into that. But I personally find it really important to make sure when I am in those groups, advocate for others because seeing what it's like on the other side, I know how difficult it is for those other individuals, but if you aren't someone who is moving between those groups or has those different parts of your identity, I don't quite want to say ignorance because it's not like they have the opportunity, but they choose not to. I mean, there is more availability these days of kind of research and other things to get those perspectives, but it's just not being aware you have no idea that it exists, and there is privilege. I know that some people get upset about hearing that, but I have a very good friend from actually met him back when I was still in college, but here in DC, and he's a black man who does drag sometimes. But he and I've heard this point made on drag race as well makes a point to present as effeminate because it is much less dangerous to be perceived as a gay man than a black man at 01:00 am at night when you're walking down the street. If he is carrying a bag and has a great outfit on girls, don't cross the street. And that's a privilege that I can walk up to someone at 02:00 am and not have them clutch their purse or not have them think that I'm going to rob them that some people don't deal with now some might, but 99 out of 100 times that's been my experience. I think we do need to acknowledge the things that we get. There's also been so many things supported by actual data now, like black homeowners and their valuations or the rent or the insurance rates that they're charged. Their homes are valued lower. And then, as soon as you have a white person pretend to own the home, the appraiser gives it a higher value. That's played out time and time again. And if you aren't aware of your privilege, you're not necessarily a bad person for still benefiting from it. But I think it is important for any of us that are aware to try and spread the wealth around a little bit or at least advocate for others and make sure that others are aware of what benefits we get just by being in the majority.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and it's important for leaders to have that vocabulary. It's a tired argument to me because it's lazy thinking that we don't talk about privilege at work. I don't agree with privilege. I don't like that because it's designed to make people feel bad, and I don't think it has anything to do with good or bad, right. As leaders, I think it's our responsibility to have a vocabulary to recognize the very experiences that you just spoke to, Nathan, the guy who presents as a effeminate because it's far less dangerous to be perceived as gay than black. Those experiences on the weekend or in the evening. That employee doesn't get to clock in nine to five and forget those right. They don't get to have a whole separate employment experience that is devoid from the memory of that trauma or the memory of just the complications of that identity. And so I think it's so important for leaders to do the work of diversity and inclusion with a full understanding that it is complicated and what happens out there follows employees into their nine to five.

Nathan Chin

Yeah, absolutely. And it doesn't even necessarily, in many cases, stop there just because it takes so much effort to adjust your personality to change how you present yourself that it might not just be an outside-of-work thing. And it's something that then rolls into who you are at work and the identity you present. So knowing just what some folks have had to go through and how that has influenced where they are is why it's even more important to make sure you have safe spaces at work where people feel like they can be themselves without needing to assume any other identities or faces or play up certain things just so that they can be secure. You want to give them, and you really get the most productivity out of people going back to kind of the business argument for it when they don't take any of them or when they bring their whole self to work. I know there have been multitudes of studies, and I always am on my soapbox for a national coming-out day around not being out at work. We'll preface that by saying, I think that's absolutely, each person's decision would never out someone. And I think that should be completely up to each individual. So I would encourage everyone to be out because when you are not out at work, the stress that your body and brain goes through, just making sure you don't mention same-sex boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner that you don't say that you went out to a gay club the other night or that you're doing drag brunch or I'm even coming up probably some of the smallest or silliest reasons for that, but it's cognitive burden, and that's with you every day, and when you're watching yourself 8 hours a day while you're trying to do your work and do your job and be productive, you really don't have your whole everything is not firing 100%, and I think it's been linked to deteriorated health and so many other things. It would be like if someone told you you couldn't answer to your name for a week, and anytime someone says that you have to ignore it, pay attention the active effort of what it would take to ignore being called your name or other things that are just second nature to how you should be, and you'll start to realize how much active effort it takes for a lot of these folks when they're going through this. So really, creating those spaces for people to be themselves at work does so much and honestly builds a lot of loyalty. I think one of my fondest memories of work was our CTO. I've known he interviewed me from my job in product nine years ago and has always been a great mentor. He's actually the sponsor of our LGBT employee resource group, but I just ended a five-year relationship and was passing in the hallway, and he's always got six meetings at the same time he's probably late for, but he saw me and asked how I was doing, and I just mentioned off-hand, and I was like, oh, it's been a little bit of a rough week. This relationship had just ended, and he just stopped in the hallway, admittedly very late for probably several other far more important things, and said, how are you feeling about that? How are you doing and took a moment to stand there and talk to me in the hallway, told me if I needed any help with work stuff for the next week or two, if there's anything I could do, they could do to help out that they would be happy to, and that's why I've been there ten and a half years now. Yes, another place might have higher pay or some other benefits, but knowing that I have people who care and will create those places for me to be myself and bring any emotion, anything else going on to work so I don't have to hide and suppress it makes me more loyal, makes me more productive because I can take the time to work on those things when I need to I don't need to feel embarrassed about asking for a couple of hours off to not going to say, just go in a corner and cry. But hey, I need the afternoon for some personal time and no one questions. And that's something I'm thankful for. Now that's not necessarily the experience for everyone in my company. So I think that's where it's important then to take the privileges I have and try to push those for others, tell those stories, tell other managers how much that means to someone when they can do those kind of things, and hopefully that all kind of exponential effects and grow the environment.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and maybe I'm just super lofty and a dreamer here. But what I love is that it gives what you just talked about gives an actionable clear framework for how organizations can do DEI work in an effective way. And it's not throwing 17 billion dollars to changing our website and hiring a billion new minority people, which I think all of that is important, right. But what you're talking here, I think, gets to the heart of the issue, and it's the hardest part of it. But it's taking the time to open up for uncomfortable conversations, conversations that inevitably will cause people to draw closer together and build that community. But if you're looking for a clear first step to take your DEI work further, stop and talk and stop and listen to your employees and your colleagues. And I think you'll find that those small conversations aren't small at all, that they actually do quite a bit to move this work forward.

Nathan Chin

Absolutely. I would give a little plug because I think at my company we've had a great kind of heart for a while. At least, that's always been my experience as I've gone through. But the area we've fallen short, and luckily we now have two great new heads of HR that we hired or one global head of HR and one VP of talent. At the beginning of this year, they've been really doing some amazing things, but that's a great starting point, but it's not enough on its own. So we haven't actually had the finance or equity for most of the time. We've been doing things purely volunteer outside of work hours. And it's a lot if you're not lucky enough like myself and a few other individuals to have a boss that says this is a valid use of your work time, it becomes extracurricular, and it's heavy stuff to be doing on your own without a budget being expected to put on educational sessions or drive awareness or improve sentiment when it's basically a complete volunteer effort. I definitely applaud. I think it was LinkedIn who just recently announced they're paying the leaders of their employee resource groups $10,000 each just on top of their annual salary. Because I'll be honest, it's a separate, full-time job. It's great to think and talk, but if you don't have someone you can delegate a task to, you've got to send out invitations to an event, coordinate speakers, figure out reservations for rooms and timing, or get virtual meetings set up. There's a lot of legwork that goes into it. And honestly, a lot of it can't happen unless you have some of that buy-in, which always starts at the top. You can have as many grassroots movements as you want. If you don't have buy-in from the top, it's really not going to go anywhere. But then you can start to work on those things like creating a better website, getting better recruitment channels out there. And there's really so many different ways to solve some of these issues. You can do a lot of them for low budget. Even little things like, I know in the past I've heard stories that we've had candidates declined to go forward in the interview process because their first three interviewers were white males, and that's not it was. Hey, we need someone from this department to interview who is available. Some people turned it down. We do have relatively diverse staff throughout the company. We've got some areas where we need some improvement, but some are outperforming other tech companies, but that doesn't matter for that one person who went through the interview process and saw three white men interviewing them. So that's an easy free thing that you can do is make sure you've got good interview panels that people are going through. And then that also leads to things like the website and other areas. So yeah, I definitely think emotional conversations and being open, and listening are the foundation, but it doesn't go very far unless you get those additional elements of investment.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I should definitely back up and clarify here for anybody listening, do not do D&I work absent of a budget or a formal support structure. Do not walk away thinking that because I think that's also a weakness is that we then do sort of cheap efforts. And I agree conversation is a lot, and conversation can do a lot, but it is certainly not enough. Nathan, I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to those employee resource groups. That's a valuable space for support for building community, for giving feedback. I think up the feedback loop on how to then do D&I work better as it moves forward. What's your experience been with those employee resource groups, and how can those assist us? I think as a tool in our DEI toolkits.

Nathan Chin

Yeah, I think they can be a fantastic resource if your company is just starting to build out these kind of initiatives or efforts where you can check in what I would call kind of just a sanity check for any future plans. Like, hey, we're thinking about doing this. Would you all like to be involved? What can we do? Does this sound like a good idea, helping to direct potential partnerships to talking with those individuals? If you have anyone reaching out to your company for those. For us, it's been kind of an interesting journey. We have four of them now, with some others potentially on their way. But our four are Empower which is for women. We have Fierce, which is for LGBTQ+ employees. We have Cvets, so a play in our name, but for our veterans and family members and then the Culture, which is for black employees. Now all these are groups that are open to all individuals. There is no restrictions on membership or anything like that. But we are looking now with some HR guidance at what the policy on closed meetings with you because it is important sometimes to have a space where just the community members can get together and discuss. But that should definitely be for more kind of tactical and not like social events or anything like that. But it depends because each of our groups were formed independently. We're very lucky. One of my good friends and the Fierce leadership board members is an inherent product or project manager. He lives in spreadsheets and dreams in spreadsheets, so we're able to get off the ground, organized very quickly, and tap a lot of the networks that we had to get some programming and some events on the way. And over time, as we kind of got onto our feet, we started to get reached out to more. So we do a large conference every year in the US and Europe for our users. And so, we started to push and ask and make ourselves available as a resource for getting more diverse content. So this year, I'll be moderating a panel on building diverse and inclusive event communities, everything from event planning to sourcing to attendees to venues. And even though my folks within my employee resource group is with the LGBTQ+ community going to be making sure that we take that opportunity to hit a lot of other things, like accessibility, ageism, and a lot of the other areas that are very prevalent but often ignored when it comes to kind of the hey, what do we tackle first when it comes to DEI? But I think one of the biggest things you need from a company to make those groups successful budget obviously should be the number one thing, and you can make up one, ask others, figure out what you'd like, but that's a great place to start. You're definitely going to need some sort of support, and it shouldn't be only on your shoulders. Fine to carry it for a little bit, but definitely start those conversations as quickly as you can.

Phil Wagner

Well, this is maybe a good place to insert a question. In that, I was already mindful of the burden we put on people who carry experiences of oppression or marginalization. I think sometimes we bully those people into seeking support, right. And particularly, I don't think ERGs do that. But I think that it can be complicated if you are a black female veteran who has a female partner, right. So it's like there's four ERGs. Do you join all four? And then what does that do to then take you like, how do you decide? And I'm curious, as we take an intersectional lens, how do we navigate being forced to choose between those competing identities? Do you have any insight?

Nathan Chin

Yeah. And I actually did just remember my other point, which I will weave into here as well. But at least for us, our membership is currently very passive, and we are working on building that out and seeing whether we want to have different tiers of membership and what that means. But at the least, I would say have a place where anyone, regardless of whether they have those identities or not, can go to easily find out about what is going on and be at least a bystander to those discussions, because knowing that that home exists and having a place is great, and you don't want there to be a high barrier to entry where if we're going to have this ERG and you're going to be a part of it, you have to attend this many meetings per month or per quarter and meet these minimum commitments. I think that's fine for leadership board or for people that are maybe actively organizing events for it. You can set some standards there, but it needs to be very accessible because, like you said, there might be times where your job pulls you in other directions, and you can't spend as much time on these. So you want them to have that community accessible, and it needs to be open because, particularly with the LGBT group, we can't identify some of our members as easily as some of the others. And you definitely, from an HR standpoint, can't ever ask. You would get fired so quick, so we have to kind of play it careful, but decide. And that's where I definitely recommend if you are forming or looking at forming ERGs. Get one started if you have others. Get those individuals together to talk about what they want. Having uniformity across your ERG program at a company has so much benefit, so so much benefit, making sure that your membership standards are aligned, that you're communicating in similar ways, that you are cross-promoting events from each other because there's no reason, like women Empower and Cvets have been posting just as many of our events for Pride Month as we do for any of theirs because you'll need to have each other's back when it comes to the administrative things. Hopefully, you're not competing for budgets or anything like that, but you want to present a united front, and probably the one other thing I learned from LinkedIn Webinar that was one of the most useful insightful is as hard as it is, and as emotional these things are try to put some KPIs around it, or at least start collecting some data, say, hey, is there any sort of correlation between the membership in one of the employee resource groups or more than one and employee satisfaction or promotion rates or retention rates. There are so many all companies are doing engagement or poll surveys and some of these other things that we can use to get insight for employees. Marry that with this just basic membership data or activity. And then you can make a better case for an increased budget or for more organizational support when you can show, hey, people that are in one or more ERGs have this much points higher satisfaction in our last employee survey. Track that over time. Make your case. Emotion is a large part of it, but you definitely want to have some sort of actionable element that comes through a lot of that data.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I completely agree. I think KPIs are vitally important, and I think that there's such balance in your answer there, Nathan, because it doesn't take DEI work and devoid it of emotion because that's part of it. Right. But it also doesn't fly in the other directions, which I think we see organizations do and just go like, full data mode, right. Like, let's collect all the data and all of the surveys and focus on only outcomes and not what those outcomes can do for us over the long term—so much fantastic insight there we were supposed to talk about intersectionality. Of course, we're talking about KPIs. We're talking about employees. We've been all over the place, but have one final question for you going back to intersectionality because that's been the central theme throughout our questions here today. You've seen these experiences play out not just as a leader but also as a participant in the world of work, right. And you've likely felt support. You've likely felt a lack of support. So I'm curious. Going back to the theme of intersectionality, can you offer any insight to DEI-minded leaders and managers on how using an intersectional lens to this work in the workplace can make that work so much more valuable. Any thoughts or insights for us?

Nathan Chin

Good question, at least for me personally, and I know that I inherently have that intersectional lens. I always think of the adage that might have been confused as for someone else, but wise man realizes how much he doesn't know. Being able to see bits and pieces into these different groups makes me aware of how much I don't know about the experience that other people have, so we need to be willing to create space for them to speak up, to tell their stories, to give us opinions or react. And there's never a single person that has this amazing viewpoint into all of the different facets of diversity. You could check off a whole bunch of different races and protected groups. In my mind, that doesn't fully give you coverage to others. In fact, it gives you all these kind of combo viewpoints that are going to be very different than someone that might live solely in one of those groups. So I think the other thing that's probably important for me just to think about when it comes to that is just that there are so many different facets to individuals. You might be focused on one thing in particular, like, what can we do to make our black employees give higher sentiment ratings or something like that? And that's fine to start an initiative, but you need to take a step back and look at how it's going to be perceived from a lot of the other sides or angles. I think a lot of initiatives or things that come up at work are kind of driven by that monolithic lens, or monolithic might not be the right word, but that singular lens that they're used to, they are used to. This is my primary identity, and I only have a primary identity. I don't really have these others, or I switch between. So a similar group would appreciate this in the same way and not realize that for a lot of us, there's a lot of different parts that might impact how we view that, not that's actually the way it works. But like one-quarter of me might find that totally fine or even great, and the other three quarters might be extremely offended or upset because it's going against those. So I think just keeping in mind how things are going to be perceived and not being upset if there is kind of any pushback or if there are things raised, I think it is on both sides. You need to raise things respectfully until they're not listened to and then, by all means, make some noise. But similarly, your best intent will never outweigh execution. It's always a combination of both. So be open and willing to listen to the viewpoints of others because they have ones that you don't and intent is good. But it can only take us so far. It can still ultimately be something that is racist or sexist or ageist or so many other negative impacts on people that it's important to just be open to those perspectives, seek them out if you can seek out different people, if you can, don't put it always on the same person, give them that emotional burden and just be open because there's so much more complexity to these issues into the world and to people. Then you tend to realize just by looking at them.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I couldn't agree more. It's so important to recognize that intent and impact are two very different things. So always being mindful. But your answer there, Nathan, really, I think, gives us a good framework to help solve some of the issues that we face in everyday diversity, equity, and inclusion work, right. You're telling us to avoid doing this work in silos. You're telling us that it all comes back to community, that it all comes back to open, critical, sometimes dialogue, and that you're telling us I think that there's really room for everybody because we all are comprised of so many different intersecting identity variables. There's a space for you in this conversation, and I always think that's an important reminder. Maybe not every space is for you. Maybe not every platform is for you. But there's room for you to be involved in doing this work and making the world of work a more inclusive place for all. Nathan Chin, it's fantastic always to connect with an alum, but it's really fantastic to connect with alum who has such good food for thought like you've brought for us today. So I want you to know that we really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and being willing to chat with us here today.

Nathan Chin

Yeah, the pleasure was entirely mine. Thanks so much.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the Business School at William & Mary. Be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Deborah Fabian
Deborah FabianEpisode 5: November 8, 2021
(Trans)itions at Work

Deborah Fabian

Episode 5: November 8, 2021

(Trans)itions at Work

On today's episode of Diversity Goes to Work, host Phil Wagner welcomes William & Mary alum Deborah Fabian. Deborah shares her incredible journey as a transgendered professional; from hiding her true self from her colleagues out of fear, learning to love who she actually is, and finally fully transitioning late in her career and the lessons learned along the way. 

Podcast (audio)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • Deb's career journey as an orthopedic doctor
  • What it was like to come out during a time when transgendered people weren't widely accepted
  • Deb's experience getting arrested for cross-dressing in the mid 70s
  • What it was like for Deb living in the "in-between space"
  • The impact living in the closet had on Deb's professional career
  • What led Deb to come out of the closet fully at age 62
  • The contrast between coming out to colleagues vs coming out to patients
  • How Deb's lawsuit against a Connecticut hospital affected a Supreme Court ruling
  • What constitutes the best kind of trans allyship
Transcript

Deborah Fabian: (Trans)itions at Work TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Phil Wagner

Hi, friends. Thanks for tuning in to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Normally, we start our episodes with a fun, upbeat intro. Although today's conversation will be fun and there's some great conversation to be had, we wanted to give you a little bit of a content warning. In today's conversation with our guest Dr. Deborah Fabian, we'll be having some tough conversation. We'll be talking about gender identity, bodies in transition, and there will even be mention of suicide. If these topics sound a little too intense to you, we invite you to disengage this time around. Come on back in two weeks for another episode, as always. Thanks for listening. Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human-lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Thank you for joining us yet again on another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, a podcast where we center the human experiences of our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. It is a true honor today to speak with an alum and somebody who I have gotten to know quite well over the past few weeks. I'm so excited to chat with her. Joining me today is Deborah Fabian. Deborah, welcome to our podcast. It is truly an honor to have you today.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Great. It's great to be here, and pretty much I love William & Mary and hoping to get back into the fold a little bit more.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and we're excited. If you do a quick search on William & Mary's web presence, you'll find Deb sprinkled throughout. Her name is sprinkled in some stories, and she's been involved, and we're excited to get you, I think, looped back in into some classes perhaps this year as well as you head towards retirement. Deborah, tell us a little bit about who you are professionally and what you've done since you've left William & Mary before we jump into our actual recording process today.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Okay. When I left William & Mary in '71, first thing that happened was I got drafted but then started medical school that fall. Finished up med school, went up to Dartmouth to do a couple of years of residency, then got pulled out to serve my active duty time. Then finished my orthopedic residency in early '80s and have been in practice in orthopedics ever since. At times with a group, at times solo, and last six or seven years, I've worked for the government at an army base, Fort Polk, Louisiana, and currently at the Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico. So it's sorta been a very professional experience, though, but you mentioned retirement, am two weeks away from-

Phil Wagner

I was going to ask, do we have an official countdown? Two weeks. That is so exciting.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Well, it's exciting, and it is a little concerning because I started medical school, if you counted, 50 years ago. So this has been my life, practicing orthopedics, so I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to do when I grow up.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, for sure. Well, Deborah, I hear that the East Coast is a great place to settle post-retirement, and if you need any help in Williamsburg, we've got some great realtors here we'd love to have you close.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

That's my plan.

Phil Wagner

All right, let's see if that comes to fruition. So, Deborah, we're not just talking about your professional journey. We're talking a little bit about your personal journey, too, and I mentioned if you do a quick search in William & Mary's web presence, you'll find a little bit about your story. You've been so forthcoming about that story, and it's such a powerful one. Today, we're really centering the experiences of trans identity, and I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind sharing your story. I know it's complex and spans out over different portals of time, but can you share that story with us here? And part of that story began here at William & Mary, correct?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Yeah. Back in the '70s and '60s and '50s, when I grew up, the term transgender didn't exist, and when I would go to the library or try to find any information on what I was feeling, the terminology and the descriptions were brutal. So trying to accept that that was part of me back in those days, I found it impossible because the descriptions and the psychiatric diagnoses were. I couldn't live with myself. I covered it up as best I could. I covered it up to everybody else and tried to cover it up to myself, but that really just didn't work. It was always right there. The flip side is I played soccer at William & Mary. I was in a fraternity and did well as a guy. I just had this underneath sense that life isn't good.

Phil Wagner

You've talked a little bit about in some of the conversations I've read. You speak on what it was like to be closeted to yourself. I'm wondering if you can walk us through the process of coming to a sense of self-acceptance. Obviously, that was not a straightforward or easy road, and the time in which you came out again, like you noted, that was a complicated time. While we've made some great strides and trans-inclusion, it hasn't always been just a hotbed of trans equality along the way. So what was it like to work through that internal process of being comfortable enough to own this identity?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

I'd say that I had to overcome a lot of non-self-identity. What I mean by that is in med school, I would read in the psychiatry textbooks what I think it was called transvestitism and transsexuality. And in the psychiatric textbooks, it was terrible. It was a severe. I remember to quote a severe psychiatric condition. This has been written somewhere else, but I'll say it again, when I was a med student, we had a trans patient on the psych ward who had tried to kill herself, and the psych residence basically laughed at her behind her back and said she deserves to die because she's screwed up. I was struggling with my own self and hearing that and decided consciously or unconsciously that I could never tell anybody about it. I got arrested when I was a resident, I was out cross-dressed, and some very long story, but I got arrested. Strip searched, thrown in jail, charges dropped, but I saw a psychiatrist the next day or two days later, and he told me, whenever you feel like you're a woman, or whenever you feel like dressing like a woman, remember yourself in the jail cell kneeling down in front of the toilet, which is what I did to wash the makeup off. So that was mid-'70s-

Phil Wagner

Wow. So I want to be clear here. You were a medical resident. So you had been through rigorous training programs. You've definitely proven your professional qualifications, and on the same flip side, the types of patients that you're evaluating, you're then sort of made spectacle of publicly being arrested for what was known as cross-dressing at the time. This all played out together?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Right. Yeah.

Phil Wagner

It's almost unbelievable. So this was '60s, '70s. Is that when this occurred?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

That was about '76, '77 somewhere in there. That night I got some pills and looked at them on the dressing table for about three nights. I had a one-year-old daughter at the time, and she saved my life.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

And that was the '70s. That's what was thought. So I had a tremendous self-loathing that to even get back to neutral took a whole lot of work. To get back to where I could even let alone accept myself, just not want to kill myself.

Phil Wagner

And I'm sure professionally, so as you then phase back into medical residency, there had to be like a complex identity negotiation process, right? How do you renegotiate the identity of who you are to the other medical residents or to your patients or people who are in the know then? Correct me if I'm wrong, Deborah, you started living as Deborah, it was at 61, age 61? Is that correct?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

62 but yeah.

Phil Wagner

Okay, 62. So what's it like? And I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it seems like for some of that journey living in an in-between space. I think we've seen that term used for people coming out as trans where they're moving through the transition process, even in just a public way enacting that identity. What was that like, particularly in those professional spaces to know but to not get there until age 62?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Right after I was arrested, the only person at the hospital who knew was the chief of surgery, and I think he was embarrassed to ask me about it, and I had just seen the psychiatrist. So I thought I don't have to do this anymore. I'm cured. If not cured, I'm so totally embarrassed and disgusted with myself that I don't need to tell anybody else. I'm good. So there's a very short time when it was the in-between time because that was. How old was I? 30ish or so. I just shut it down completely. Not the need, not the desire, but there was still cross-dressing in total privacy, secretiveness. But going out, telling anybody, absolutely not. It was all internal until the mid-'80s when I couldn't not talk to somebody about it. So I found an advertisement for a therapist who dealt deals. She's now in her 80s, and we're still very good friends, but she dealt with this. The initial process was it wasn't certainly a physical transition. It was a mental transition. So the first number of years working with her was getting over this, thinking I needed to kill myself and getting over the hatred of myself before I could even begin to start accepting myself. I don't know if that makes sense, but there's a pendulum I guess that had to come back to the middle before I could move on. In all this time, I started private practice in '83, so I was very busy at work. What would happen frequently was I could ignore it until I saw and this may sound silly, but I'd see an attractive woman in a dress I liked, and I would go not into a deep depression, but certainly dysthymia is the word I was taught. It's just low-level depression almost all the time.

Phil Wagner

I can't help but think about. I guess the term would be the emotional labor of carrying that self-hatred. We talk a lot about now, diversity, equity, and inclusion work, about employees bringing their full and authentic selves to work. Your experience is so far removed from that. Did that have any bearing on your professional work? I mean, starting a practice and having a very successful career even up until that point had to be marred, at least in part by the fact that you could not live authentically, perhaps for safety reasons, even at the time. How did that play out in the professional world? Did it have any impact?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

I honestly don't think it affected my personal. I was so good at hiding it and so good at hiding it to myself. Yet, it certainly affected relationships. My now ex-wife, she found out about it early on and just told me you never talk about it, you can't do it, you're disgusting, which is, frankly, why she's my ex-wife now. But I was very, very good at covering it up moving on because frankly, that's what you learn as a surgeon is you haven't slept for three nights, but you go to work. I don't think it ever affected my surgical practice. It affected my ability to be happy.

Phil Wagner

So I appreciate that perspective, and I think it really speaks to some of the experiences that particularly trans folks face that need to separate identity into pieces and segment it certain spaces for safety or for just professional. It's complicated, and I know that the journey has been complicated for you. You've been so forthcoming about that. I'm wondering if we can get closer to that age 62 marker where you did indeed come out as Deborah. What led you to say this is the moment. I am comfortable personally, professionally, socially to really live that authentic life at this point. Can you speak to that?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Sure. The single biggest thing that happened in the late '80s was meeting my current wife. I met her actually at my therapist's house because I was invited to present transgenderism to a group of women that my therapist was a social group that she was part of. So I came scared to death. This was about '87 or '88, and Leslie, my wife, was in that group, and she describes it differently from how I describe it. I describe it as just being totally afraid of everybody there and afraid of being myself. She describes it as somebody who came wanting to find her authentic self and being willing to be open. So I was still married to somebody else at the time, but we got to know each other and long story and a lot of stuff in there. But we ended up getting married three years later, and she knows everything about me. So being able to be with somebody, certainly in an intimate relationship, but also any relationship, and just being totally out there was a new experience for me. I didn't need to cover up, lie about anything. I wouldn't say she encouraged me to cross-dress, but it was always like, sure you want to, let's do it. Let's go out to dinner. It was never a secret. Again, that was '91, so we just had our 30th anniversary two weeks ago. So she encouraged me to not cover it up. And gradually she had a lot of friends, turns out I have a lot of friends who cared about me who were happy, felt privileged to know about me. That was a slow process, and I was seeing a couple of different therapists at the time. I had been on antidepressants for a couple of decades, actually, and they weren't working. In 2009, I was in practice in Gardner, Massachusetts, very successful practice, but I was quite depressed. And what she said one day was, I'm tired of you being depressed all the time. I don't like being around you. I love you, but you just know I don't like being with you. So we went to see an endocrinologist in Boston shortly after that. The psychological process has been my whole life. The physical process of transition began in 2009, and what I decided to do during that time. It's hard to describe getting over the self-loathing to the neutral position, to getting to the point of, oh, okay, not just okay. This is me. So that process is frankly probably still going on, but for a couple of years, I transitioned full-time in October of 2011. But from '09 to 2011, at some point in there, I decided what I'll do when I go to work in the morning. I will find somebody every day to tell, and it worked. I gradually, of course, I picked easy people first, and then I ran out of those, and I had to go to others. Eventually, I told the CEO and whatever they call board of directors. The more I did that. This is before I formally transitioned. It just became, "You know what? This is me." So it really was about getting to be okay with myself. That's the key thing. Because once I was okay with myself, anything anybody else said just doesn't matter.

Phil Wagner

And I'm wondering that process, as you did it slowly, you had some easy wins at first. Did those people who didn't always know you as "Deborah" accept you as Deborah right away? I'm sure there also had to be some tough conversations there. What was it like, sort of negotiating interpersonally in those conversations that this is who I am, even just the semantics? This is how you refer to me now. I think we talk a lot about pronouns, but there's a lot of change that I think comes with our communication interactions with others. Can you speak to what that was like for you and friends, colleagues, maybe even patients?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

When I picked one person at a time to talk to, I was male. I was David, dressed as David, talking like David. Again, I picked easy people. And the conversation was usually, Oh, yeah, okay. That makes sense. Or I get it, or just a big hug. The easy part went first. What that did was allow me to develop a little confidence in myself and not just confidence, sort of grounding what I was feeling and being able to put it into words. When I transitioned permanently at work, I was on the ethics committee at the hospital, and it was my turn to pick a speaker for this ethics committee in October 26th of 2011. So I said, well, if I get to pick somebody, I'll pick me. So the word got out. I had taken several weeks off, and the word got out that I was coming back looking a little different. So it was packed, standing room only in the auditorium, and I told my story, including a lot of things I'm saying today. And I got a huge standing ovation and nothing but hugs and welcome. Now that was the easy day. So you mentioned practice and coming out to patients and things. That was quite a bit more difficult. As I said, I was solo, private practice. I rented space in the hospital. I needed a constant. As an orthopedic surgeon, you fix one person, then they go on, and you just need a constant influx of new patients all the time. My practice slowly died. Took about four years and the last couple of months I had to borrow money to pay my staff. There were a number of really memorable moments during that time. A month or so after I started working as Deborah, I had a patient who, it's my favorite story. He had a Vietnam campaign hat on and Vietnam jacket, and clearly, he'd been through it. I didn't serve in Vietnam, but I was in the military in the Vietnam era. So I have great respect. So I told him, you need some surgery. Here's what we need to do. He said, yes, thank you. I don't know that I want you to do it, and he pointed at me and indicated what he meant. I got it, and I don't want to operate on anybody who doesn't want me to. But I said to him. I get it. But just so you know, I was active duty during Vietnam. Actually, I was reserves during Vietnam. I spent three years as a battalion surgeon for a Marine Infantry Battalion and then five more years in the reserves. So I understand Marines, and I respect you, and just so you know, I have that background. Then he stopped for a second and said, "Oh, jeez, you were with the Marines?" I said yeah. "Oh, when can you schedule the surgery?" That to me, it just told me how I should live, basically. I'm out there. I'm honest. People ask me, why don't you try to change your voice? Well, I tried, and I could change my voice, raise it, or whatever women do. But I couldn't think about what I wanted to say. All I did was think about how my voice sounded, and I said, I'm just going to talk.

Phil Wagner

I love so much about that story, Deborah. One thing I like is that it really, I think, encourages us not to see people as one aspect of their identity. Like it's not just Deborah who is a trans woman or a woman. It is Deborah who also has military experience and also is a physician, and also, and also, and also. I think that's a really powerful reminder, not to reduce people down to just the visible or what we might want to reduce them down because it's then easy. The other thing that I think of as you share that is, oh, my gosh, how do you have. And I don't know the word here. I don't know if it's maturity or if it's confidence or like the self resolution to not take those comments personally. I mean, that's such a hurtful comment. To have a fully qualified physician capable of healing right in front of you to say I don't want you to do that. Your response is ridiculously gracious. How did you get to the point where you didn't take it personally or was it personal, and it's something you dealt with to the side. Was that therapy? How do you get to that place?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

It's still sort of going on, although not so much anymore. I'm here. That was early on, right after I transitioned. In this particular case, I have always made it a point when I see somebody in a Vietnam jacket. I've always made it a point to go up to them, shake their hand, and say thank you for your service. I wasn't there, but I know what it was like. I had a lot of friends killed there. So I just have so much respect and compassion for anybody who did that. So it was easy for me to listen to him, knowing intuitively and not that I knew his specific details, but what he had been through somehow or other. So that, in that particular case, was very important. So sometime in 2014. Well, I'm going to back up because in 2011, when I was getting ready to transition in the spring-summer, I intuitively knew my practice was going to take a hit. So I started looking at other jobs. I was still dressed and presenting and using male pronouns. I applied for a job as an orthopedic hospitalist hospital in Connecticut. I had to fly down, talk to the current organization. Interviewed, was offered the position. There were three of us. They needed three full-time, so I was offered the job. This was about June or July, and I wasn't going to start till the fall. So I knew I was going to show up on day one as me, not as the guy they interviewed because I have always thought, not always, but more recently I've thought, I just got to tell you I don't want to surprise anybody. So I went down to the hospital and told them, and it was several of the senior people. Just so you know, when I show up, and I was a guy at the time, I'm going to look a little different. I had some pictures of me at that meeting. It was oh great. No problem. Two weeks later, I got a call. The job offer has been rescinded, and so I-

Phil Wagner

Was it for that reason? Did you know? Did you have to assume? Did they explain?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

They lied. This is a five-and-a-half-year tale now, but I'll cut it way down. They made up some lies about me and just blatant things that they say I said at the interview, which I would never say. I mean, why would I lie about myself? So I had actually talked to a lawyer before I told them, and he said you don't need to tell them. You can show up day one, and they can't do anything about it. But that isn't the way I wanted to start a position with everybody angry at me already. So I called the lawyer back after having the job rescinded, and we filed, and again, this is not a simple process, as you probably know, lawsuits.

Phil Wagner

Sure.

Dr. Deborah Wagner

About five and a half years with multiple depositions. I sat through many of their depositions, and I had transitioned at that point and just to be lied about. I think at that point is when I became a little bit active in the movement, and you're not going to lie about me. We can debate whether I'm a good orthopedic surgeon. We can debate whether your patients will accept an orthopedic surgeon, but don't lie about me. Let me prove myself. So that helped me because I got angry, and I was ready to go to court, but we eventually settled in whatever, five years later is, 2017-ish. I can't tell you the name of the lawsuit, but it was a hospital in the middle of Connecticut. So Fabian versus some hospital. You can look it up. I'm really proud of this. It became part of the Supreme Court argument within the last year. People said, well, you ought to sue for three, five, or six million. Well, it wasn't nearly anywhere near that. The money actually wasn't the point, although it was enough to hurt them a little bit. It was enough to make me feel I'd done the right thing. Other people have cited that lawsuit, so. I don't know if I'm answering your question anymore. Getting angry at being treated wrongly. That's what did it for me. So during that time, I decided nobody's going to treat me that way. I'm not going to accept that.

Phil Wagner

So there's sort of two conversations that we've pitted, and we started off talking about really, really positive conversations. I appreciate that you led off there and also shared some of the hurtful, really tough conversations. I would imagine, and I might be wrong, there's probably a subset of conversations that are right in the middle of those two. So I want to talk a little bit about social support. I'm certain that along your journey, even just well-meaning colleagues have often said things that were not fully inclusive or appropriate. Like excessive curiosity about the details, or hyperinvasive questions, because I know those are some of the common obstacles we read that trans people face when coming out. Have you had those experiences? How do you deal with well-intentioned people that might cross a line even though it's well-intentioned and ask questions that are just, frankly, none of their business? Any communication strategies you can share?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

My wife and I talked about this a lot because absolutely that happens. One of my favorite lines that Leslie and I came up with when people ask me, "Have you had the surgery?" It depends on my feelings toward that person would be, yeah, it's really none of your business, or two, tell you what? You tell me about your genitalia, and I'll tell you about mine. That shut up several people.

Phil Wagner

Usually, that shuts them down, I would hope.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Again, a big part of that was just getting okay with myself. There's another experience that's sort of along those lines. When I was at Fort Polk, we had a big hospital-wide meeting, 300, 400 people in this auditorium. It was right after the 2016 elections, and I'm sitting there with the army and ex-army. One guy got up a couple of rows behind me and stood up and started blasting transgender in general and me in particular and just telling me how screwed up I am and how God was going to do this and I was going to hell and all that.

Phil Wagner

But directly to you.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

He was facing me. I was facing him in front of 300-some people. So I had the other microphone, and I debated long and hard about what to say. One of the things I was going to say was, well, Mark Twain once said, "Never argue with a fool. People may not be able to tell the difference." I ruled that out. It was too subtle for him, but he kept calling me "he" and "sir." When he finally shut up for a moment, I just said, "It's really customary and considered polite to use the pronouns of the person as they appear, and if you don't know, just ask them what their preference is." That didn't shut him up. So he kept on going, and five minutes later, I said, "I'm going to hand my microphone back before I say something I regret." I did, and I got a huge applause. I couldn't have done that five years earlier, and that has really been and continues to be "I'm okay with myself." I'm willing, and I say it all the time. Yeah, I'm weird. I get it. I'm different. When people say, we don't understand it. I say you can't understand it. I've lived it for 70 years now, and if you're trying to make sense of it based on your own perspective of life, you'll never do it. You can't do it.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, there's so much to unpack there, but I think it tees up a question on how we can use your story to shape and guide younger generations. That's an encounter that I think really toes the line not just of hostility but really of violence. You see how a conversation like that can get very heated and could lead to perhaps physical violence, which I know is something the trans community faces significantly. So I'm wondering, and I want to be mindful of not putting too much of a burden on you, but I'm wondering if you can speak from your own experiences or share advice with other professionals, young, old doesn't matter, who might be in the place that you were and thinking about transitioning while employed. Again, there's some complex stuff. Could be violence, could be hostility. Do you have any insight or advice or thoughts to those folks, specifically on what they should consider?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

I think the most important part for me became being okay with myself. And maybe as an aside, I know there are. When somebody calls me "him" or "he," it depends on the situation. But I usually say I'd appreciate it if you use the female pronouns, and most of the people will say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to." I have this picture of some other people I know who are in somebody else's face. You make a mistake, "How dare you?" How the term misgendering and I have always gotten good results with just saying I'd appreciate it if you use this term and also just walking away from the situation. I'm not sure if I'm accurate or not, but I feel like I've gotten better results by being a good person, by being a good surgeon, by taking care of my patients, by being nice to other people, than by being fully confrontational. Walk as Johnny Cash says, "Walk away from trouble when you can." If somebody is an idiot, I'm not going to make them not be an idiot, and that's not my job. When I talk to students, in fact, I was down at William & Mary a couple of years ago to the Lavender Group, and one of the messages I gave was if you're transitioning or if you're coming out as gay or lesbian or whatever, make sure you are excellent at what you do. Be an excellent surgeon, be an excellent teacher, be an excellent whatever, and then if you're discriminated against, you know it's not because of your qualifications or you. It's because of them.

Phil Wagner

I'm wondering if maybe on the flip side, you can speak to managers, leaders, supervisors, colleagues who are not transgender, like cisgender. I'm wondering if you have advice for what you wish the people around you, what information you wish the people around you had before you came out at 62, and maybe speak a little bit to like what constitutes effective or the best types of trans allyship. Allyship that's not just performative, but is actually meaningful and supportive and all of those things that those folks need as they work throughout that process.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

There's so much to that.

Phil Wagner

I know. That's a big question, probably not well worded either.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

No, I got it. I've had various thoughts as you're speaking it. Number one, capital one, is to care. People all the time because of my voice when I'm on the phone with somebody, it's always "sir." Even when I try now, I can't do it differently. So care. So when I correct somebody, and this happens, I won't say daily, but almost daily. Somebody will say because I'm a senior surgeon, they'll say sir, and I say, would you mind using her or ma'am? Almost everybody immediately feels awful. Like I screwed up. How can you forgive me? I say that's okay. And some people, I think some trans people take that very personally when they get misgendered. I don't. I wish everybody called me ma'am, and I wish I was five foot four and size four, and I'm not. I'm six feet tall. So when they're very apologetic, I say all I ask of you to do is to care. And if you care, then, yeah. I screw up all the time. So what was your question?

Phil Wagner

No, you're hitting right to the heart of the issue. What can those allies who are leaders, managers who hold influence, or maybe even just colleagues, what constitutes effective allyship?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Care about the person. Number one, whatever label we put on somebody comes after their humanity. That's a profound statement. I've never said that before. They're a person. They're your friend. They're your whatever. And if you then need to label them. I've given this talk, and I said, if I label you a New York Yankees fan and I'm a Red Sox fan, we're never going to see eye to eye on anything. So it's beyond the labels that you apply, and I hope that I'm a role model who I've let a lot of things roll off my back. There are some things I won't let roll off my back. That's being impolite to me. Threatening me, I've had that. But a good ally, number one, cares about the person—male, female wearing a dress or blue jeans or whatever. You care. When you don't know something, when people don't know my pronouns, I want them to ask me, "What pronouns do you prefer?" Just what you're saying? How can I be of support to you? That's number one advice.

Phil Wagner

Simple. And I love that that transcends so much. It speaks to even the heart of those situations that you've experienced where if you just employ the value of compassion, of caring for other people, that's going to enhance your leadership. It's going to enhance you, broadly speaking. There's really nothing I think to lose there. I've got one final question for you-

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Just to expand on that.

Phil Wagner

Oh, yeah. Go for it.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

Because if you treat the person as a label, you have put on them, that's how you see them. If you treat them as a person who, by the way, oh, he's transgender. But first of all, number one, your employee or your teacher, or whatever, she's a person. Then the rest gets to me very easy. The labels then don't matter.

Phil Wagner

One final question for you, Deborah. We've talked a lot about your history, your journey, your experiences, and you bring an incredible history with you as you're now near retirement and move to a different phase in life. I'm wondering as we look to your story, what's one thing that we can learn, particularly about what it means to include and be compassionate and care for trans individuals. What can we learn from your story specifically?

Dr. Deborah Fabian

A number of things come to mind. Number one is what I already said. Care about other people. If you do, then whatever label you put on them no longer matters. That's for our allies. For me as an individual and for others, love yourself. I say that at age 72, back at age, whatever it was 25 or something when I had a gun to my head, that's not quite as easy to say. But do whatever you need to do. Do the therapy. Be around those people and recognize that there's nothing wrong with you.

Phil Wagner

Deb, it's been fantastic to chat with you, and I appreciate that you are so forthcoming. It's truly appreciated, is all I can really say. It's not something you have to do. I don't think that it's your responsibility to shape or guide our understanding, but there is. I think so much we can learn from your journey, and I so appreciate that you have been willing to share that journey with us and our listeners. Thank you so much.

Dr. Deborah Fabian

It's been a pleasure, Phil. Really enjoyed. Thank you for having me.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. If you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the Business School at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

 

More Podcast Episodes

 Diane Goodman
Diane GoodmanEpisode 4: October 25, 2021
Skeptical (yet Optimistic) about the D&I Enterprise

Diane Goodman

Episode 4: October 25, 2021

Skeptical (yet Optimistic) about the D&I Enterprise

Today on the show, Phil Wagner welcomes Diane Goodman. Diane has been an educator and consultant on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice issues for over 30 years. She has worked with numerous organizations, community groups, and schools and universities to create environments which allow all people to feel valued, be treated fairly, and able to work together productively. She is the author of "Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups." Diane and Phil speak about the shifting language around the DEI space, being able to embrace discomfort when doing DEI work, whether or not being "nice" is enough to accomplish DEI work, the joy of unlearning racism, and much more.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • Why Diane is skeptical of the current D&I industry
  • How Diane includes social justice in her DEI work
  • Can D&I work be done apart from a commitment to social justice
  • What is the role of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant
  • How to engage in productive conversations about difficult topics
  • What mistakes do organizational leaders make in regards to DEI work
  • How can a white person effectively occupy the DEI space
  • How everybody is differently harmed by systems of oppression
Transcript

Diane Goodman: Skeptical (yet Optimistic) about the D&I Enterprise TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Diane Goodman

Is this the world you want to live in? Like, is this really the world you want to live in? I know that's not for me, and that's not the world I want my kids to live in.

Phil Wagner

Hello, from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes To Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real, human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, Diane Goodman, to our podcast today. I'm a fan of Diane's work, and I was so thankful that she agreed to join us. If you're not familiar with Diane. Diane Goodman has been an educator and a consultant on diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice issues for three decades. Diane worked with numerous organizations, community groups, schools, and universities to create environments that allow all people to feel valued, to be treated fairly, and able to work together productively. Diane has been a professor at several universities, and she regularly presents at national and international conferences. Diane is the author of the book Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups and co-editor and contributor to Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, as well as other publications. Diane has been cited in The New York Times, Working Mother Magazine, and the Christian Science Monitor and has been a consultant to the Museum of Natural History in New York and the documentary White People from 2015, created by Jose Antonio Vargas and MTV. Her extensive and varied background enables her to bring a range of skills and perspectives to meet the needs of her clients. Diane, it's so good to chat with you, and that's quite an impressive biography. I'm so glad you're willing to join us. Have I missed any details in that biography? Can you share a little bit more about who you are and the work you do?

Diane Goodman

So thank you for the invitation to talk with you. I'm really glad to be here. Yeah, and in 30 plus years, there are a few other details that you missed. I don't know that our listeners need to hear all of them, but really, my life work has been committed to how to create more equity and inclusion and justice in our world, in our communities, in our organizations. And so that's really the path I've been following through different venues, working in higher Ed, being a consultant, writing, other capacities.

Phil Wagner

So, Diane, you and I have chatted offline that the work that you do is not explicitly framed as diversity and inclusion work, particularly in the way that we might talk about it on this podcast. In fact, I know you've noted that in many ways, you've become skeptical of the D&I industry as it's currently configured. I love if we could center that conversation early on in this episode because I think that your framework is an important framework to understand the D&I enterprise. Can you offer any insight or share your approach as a consultant?

Diane Goodman

Sure. So having done this work for so long, it's been interesting to watch the evolution of language as well as how people approach work that is now being called DEI diversity, equity, inclusion work. When I started doing this formerly in the 80s, I was schooled under the framework of social justice, and that's still language that I use that actually is having a resurgence now. We've moved through multiculturalism. We've moved through diversity. We've now been DEI. Sometimes it's JEDI Justice, equity, diversity, inclusion. People are now using the term belonging so clearly the language and ways people frame this vary and evolve. For me, what's been important to hold on to is the sense of are we talking about issues of systemic inequities? Are we acknowledging issues of power and privilege? Because what I have found is that diversity, which I think of, is how do we really value and recognize the diversity among us? And that can be around race or sexuality or ethnicity or ability or religion? Many of those different categories. So that's really important. And thinking about the representation of people in our organizations is really important, but it's not enough, I believe. We also need a sense of inclusion. Do people feel respected? Do people feel valued? Do people feel really part of an organization? But the piece that a lot of people then leave out is okay. Given those, how do we also acknowledge the fact that we are positioned differently in society, and that shows up in our organizations? That we do have hierarchies, power hierarchies in our society based on race, based on gender, based on sexuality, based on class, and so on. And we need to acknowledge how those are impacting people's lives historically and currently in society at large. And then how that's manifesting in our institutions. So that's why I hold onto and frame my work, including social justice.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think this is such a timely contribution, too, because as we're recording this, there's a social battle over the very thing that you're speaking to, right. Like we're in the midst of a battle right now on critical race theory that will change three months from now, then three months from that. And it seems to me that a lot of folks focused on D&I work really lean into, particularly in the organizational sphere, that belonging piece, because that's easy, right? Like, we can all see the business case for that. But your work, as you noted, really centers the term social justice. Now that's loaded, Diane and I would imagine, because it's not often discussed favorably or it's not always discussed favorably. There are a lot of organizations specifically that are hesitant to frame their D&I work as social justice. So I think my question is, can you do D&I work apart from a commitment to social justice?

Diane Goodman

Well, I think people do it all the time. Again, people have different approaches, and I think talking about I know we'll talk more about being consultants in organizations. I think it's important for people to be clear about what their approach is and what they're trying to do, and what the goals are. And so, yes, people do D&I work, and that can have value. But people just need to be clear what it is. I mean, for me, I always make sure to include the E, so I don't talk about diversity and inclusion. I always make sure that I include the E, which is equity, which to me, aligns more closely with the social justice piece—again, recognizing power—issues of power, issues of privilege ensuring that they're equitable outcomes for different groups of people. So I don't always use the term social justice. I'm always sensitive to what language resonates for different groups and organizations, but I make sure I include the E along with the D and the I.

Phil Wagner

I think that's so important to it's just like the LGBTQ acronym, right? Like that continues to shift in how we do we use the plus. Do you do IAP? And I think the language around diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you know it, now we're adding belonging and justice. I think language shifts, and that's part of the discomfort of just growing with how the conversation develops broadly speaking. I think you tee'd this up well to talk about consulting, and so you're a consultant, and you work to really help others, I think build consciousness, build a competence and understanding and a commitment to equity and inclusion. Can you talk a little bit about what a consultant in this area does, particularly from the lens that you invoke in your own consulting work?

Diane Goodman

One aspect is doing organizational analysis. Some people call it equity audits. Where is the organization currently at in terms of its environment, culture, policies, practices to be creating environments where everybody can really thrive? Everyone is valued. People have access to resources and opportunities. So often, that's a starting place. Let's look at where are things at? Where are we doing well? Where we need to be paying some attention? Other pieces that happen are creating DEI plans. So based on the information, how do we want to move forward? So really creating measurable benchmarks, accountability measures, a real plan for how to move forward. Another piece that often happens in conjunction with that is different aspects of training, and that's where I really focus my efforts. That's what I love to do most. So I love doing education. I love doing training. I love doing facilitation, and that's really helping people develop the awareness, knowledge, and skills to implement the changes. Because what I find is that even people have good plans and they have good intentions. If we don't understand, we don't have self-awareness around our identities. We don't understand other people. We don't understand how we are reproducing inequitable dynamics. If we don't understand what microaggressions are, those subtle insults that we do unintentionally. If we don't have skills about how to speak up or how to analyze policies and practices to make them more inclusive. Then we can't be creating the change that people say they want.

Phil Wagner

In so many ways, I think you're talking about inserting a new lens into how you see the world, right? In those learning conversations. You're asking people to really occupy an uncomfortable space where they become necessarily self-reflective to the degree that they acknowledge things that are not fun to acknowledge. You've been at this work for quite some time, spanning three decades. Do you have any tips and tricks for those of us that are newer to the game in trying to facilitate productive conversations that are going to waltz into that territory of discomfort for the people engaged within them?

Diane Goodman

First, I appreciate you recognizing that, yes, this can be uncomfortable. So I don't think it always is, but it often is. And that's not a bad thing. As an educator, that's often our learning place, our growth edges. When we feel uncomfortable, it's like, oh, what new is happening for me or what new am I learning? So embracing the discomfort is really valuable when we're doing this work. What I have found and many other people have, and research is validated, is when people feel shamed and blamed. That is not opening them to learning. So that's the first place I start. That is not a useful approach.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Diane Goodman

If we want people to be open to learning.

Phil Wagner

Right because there's no productive outcome to that, you're going to shame somebody into a corner. You're not empowering them at all to make the change. I love that.

Diane Goodman

And also, it shuts people down. It doesn't open people up.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Diane Goodman

People get into a defensive place, and that's not opening people up to learning or hearing or new perspectives. The other thing that I start with is the assumption that we are all socialized and culturally conditioned by the society in which we are a part. And I do most of my work in the US, although I also do some work globally, and wherever people are, there are systems of inequity. They don't always look exactly the same, but there are power hierarchies everywhere. We are all socialized into those. So we all get messages about which groups are valuable, which groups are better, which groups are worse, what's more normal? We all have biases. We all have lenses, as you're saying, that we need to shift because of how we've been socialized and how we've been culturally conditioned. In the work on implicit bias extensively shows that we all have implicit biases no matter what our group is. And even when we're part of marginalized groups, we're still socialized to accept the negative messages about our groups. So when I start there, it's like, okay, I just start from the place. We're going to have biases. We're going to have stuff that we don't know. We have not been adequately educated. So okay, let's just start there. Me included. And let's see what we need to reevaluate? What we need to relearn? Where things that we have stereotypes around, and how can we get smarter and more competent?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I mean, as a consultant who has again been engaged across three decades, I'm sure that you've had to keep a close eye on the social conversations surrounding D&I. Do you have any concerns about where that conversation is right now because you talk about the necessity of or the lack of education, rather? And I think you see a social movement that's really trying to ramp that up, right? Not educate students on systemic issues, particularly surrounding race. How do you, as a consultant, anticipate that's going to play out for when we train what might be corporate executives 20, 30, 40 years in the future?

Diane Goodman

Well, hopefully, we will be in a very different place 40 years, you know, in the future. I really, really hope. But we've been seeing that play out already under the Trump administration, like banning federal money to support anything that mentions certain words related to race. So we've seen that happen. Fortunately, that's been overturned. But as you're saying, certainly there are many campaigns to limit what people learn. And I think it is essential. We need to know our history. We need to know our history. And that includes understanding racism. That includes understanding ideologies of white superiority that have shaped this country. And the other thing that I think is really important, going back to your previous question, is it's not about individual blame? I mean, I identify as white. I also have many other identities.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Diane Goodman

But it is not about me being a bad white person. It is understanding systems that were created to benefit white people to keep white people in power. But it's not about me being a good or bad white person. I think I'm a good person. I try to treat people well. I try to create more justice in the world, and I have benefited historically from the laws and policies and practices, and ideologies in this country that have benefited white people. And it continues to this day. So I think that's a critical piece of we need to understand history. We need to understand systems. We need to understand how those legacies impact us today. And there's no getting around the importance of that knowledge. If we are to move forward and create more democracy. To create more equal opportunity. I mean, things that people hold dear as principles in this country.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I want to come back to that whiteness conversation because you really center that in your work, and that's been very impactful to me, but it's not lost on me that it seems like it's a blunder or a very ill-informed approach to assume back to the conversation on critical race theory that if we just don't talk about it or if we ban conversations about it, the problem will just work itself out or go away. I think that's a blunder. And I'm curious, as a consultant who's worked with a lot of clients, what types of common blunders do you tend to see with the clients that you work with? Like, what types of issues tend to occupy most of your time as a consultant as you work alongside clients who need to fix issues or work proactively to ensure they are fully diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Can you share some of those blunders with us?

Diane Goodman

Yeah. And so again, this is other choices consultants make about which clients we choose to work with. So that's the other thing. Some people want to work with clients that already have a significant commitment to issues of equity and social justice. So they're starting at a different place than other organizations where this may be very new. As well as the demographics of a particular organization. But I think one thing that I see fairly frequently is the sense of wanting to keep it very surface. So sometimes the extreme is like to check the box. It's like, okay, we need to have a diversity workshop. So we're going to have an hour diversity workshop. We've checked the box. Now we can say we've done diversity, and we're all good.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Diane Goodman

But then even for people who have done more work, not really willing to dig into what I think is the harder work of looking at the power dynamics in an organization and being willing to look at what needs to shift there to give people who have been kept out of positions of power in an organization as well as in society access to those and in really serious ways, move aside or create real pathways to those positions. Because in most organizations, if you look at who is in the top echelon, it tends to be white people, men, and other dominant identities. And as you move down in an organization, it tends to get more diverse if there is diversity. And so, being really willing to shift that is a lot more challenging for organizations.

Phil Wagner

So is that sort of the end goal, too, like as a D&I consultant, work to reconfigure organizational spaces and hierarchies to open up room for those, I guess, non-privileged or marginalized communities to occupy leadership positions. Does it go beyond that? Is that where you tend to focus most of your time?

Diane Goodman

It's one piece, but not the whole piece. So, yes, I think our organizations need to reflect our larger communities. And so people should be in different positions throughout an organization, including in leadership, and especially when people have been kept out of those positions, it's even more important to ensure that those voices and perspectives are being centered at leadership levels and are having the opportunity to offer leadership. So that's one piece. It's also more broadly shifting the culture of an organization. And that is both the formal and informal dynamics. So it's the policies and practices about looking at outreach and recruiting. It's looking at performance evaluation. It's looking at benefits people get so all those kinds of things, as well as one of the norms, the cultural norms about how you need to speak, how you need to dress, what kind of flexibility is given to people for different situations, what kind of holidays are recognized? So I think it's really creating cultures in organizations that reflect the diversity of people that will then allow everybody to show up as their more authentic selves and can thrive in this environment.

Phil Wagner

And I think that's what distinguishes a D&I consultant from a good D&I consultant or DEI consultant, right? Because it's not just here's a boxed solution that I toss across to your desk. It's taking the time to have those conversations, to listen, to get a pulse on the organizational culture, and then develop a tailored approach to that organization, too. That reflects what you do in NYC is going to look different than what you do in Chicago, which is going to look different than what you do in Albany or down in Georgia. And so it's being mindful of those smaller dynamics. And I think that tees us up for where I want to go the next, which is back to that conversation on whiteness. A lot of those cultural dynamics are found or revealed as we have those teaching opportunities, those learning moments that you talked about earlier, and you've published a lot of works on this, including some that have been really impactful to me in my own teaching. In one of your pieces, Diane, you ask what's a nice white girl to do in an unjust world like this. And I think even just the framing is such important rhetoric because there's this pervasive idea that if we're just nice, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all of those things that we deal with will go away. Is being nice enough? Is that what this work is all about?

Diane Goodman

No, certainly not. I do want to just explain that title a little bit that in that it was really reflecting on my experience in the world. I've often been perceived as a nice white girl, and this was about my own social justice learning journey, and the framing of that was to acknowledge that clearly, the way I'm experienced in the world is very different than how many other people are experienced in the world and that I have a role, as does anybody in working towards justice. But yes, on one hand, we should be nice to people. On the other hand, niceness can often mask the willingness and the ability to be more authentic, to deal with conflict, to really address issues that need to be addressed. And that happens frequently, talking about blunders in organizations that is something that is very predominant. People are often very uncomfortable about really engaging difference. And again, I don't put this as personal blame. We have not been taught. We have not been given opportunities, most of us, to really learn how to have these honest conversations. So we tend to avoid them, and how we avoid them is let me just be superficially nice, but that is not addressing any of the issues that will really allow people to really feel as if they belong or treated fairly, are respected, and create a more equitable environment.

Phil Wagner

I couldn't agree more. And the second part of that title, it goes back to that white piece, right. So what's a nice white girl to do this? I think white people specifically, Diane, often struggle to figure out how do I occupy space. I think you have people who choose to disengage because they're like, I'm white. That doesn't apply to me. And then you also have well-intentioned folks who say I want to be engaged in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But I don't want to hold space or occupy even more positions of power. What have you learned in your journey as a white person doing this work? Can you share a little bit more on that?

Diane Goodman

First is do our own work, educate ourselves. Read, read, listen, watch. So I find the more informed I am. It makes it easier to figure out what I need to be doing. And now there is a plethora of wonderful material out there written by other white people who have been struggling with this and have learned as well as people of color. So that's the first thing I think the self-awareness and learning. And then it's listening to people of color. If we're talking about race. And I would say that anytime we're part of a dominant group wanting to be in solidarity or support or allyship with people from marginalized groups is listen to them. What are they saying? What do they want? And then how do we figure out how to work in solidarity with folks in collaboration with people. To be addressing those issues and concerns? So there's no magic rule. There's no magic thing that one always needs to do. But I think that's really where we get the guidance to figure that out. And the other thing that often comes up is not looking to people of color to educate us. I think it's nuanced. I think we need to be open to having conversations, and we learn through those conversations, but not looking to someone to explain something to us when we could easily go on the Internet, and there it is.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Diane Goodman

And I also want to underscore your point about really being mindful of the space we take up. And I know this is a struggle for a lot of white people, me included of. When is it important that we speak up? And when is it important that we don't? I think sometimes white people air to the side who are conscious of this. So I think a lot of white people take up way too much space. But people who are conscious of this, I think they shrink in a way in which we're not using our power in ways that would be effective.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Diane Goodman

And so we do need white people speaking up around issues of racial equity, and especially when we're in positions of power to say, wait a minute, what's going to be the impact of this policy? Whose perspectives aren't we including? Whose voice needs to be at the table to be making this decision with us? And I think those are critical spaces where white people really do need to be speaking up and speaking up with other white people. So it's not left to people of color to be correcting the biases or microaggressions that might be happening.

Phil Wagner

And it's certainly in our best interest to do so right. I have talked about some of your work that's been impactful to me, and there's two pieces as we move towards the final set of our questions here today. One of those pieces notes that there are significant costs associated to oppression, and those costs are also felt by people of privileged groups. Can you speak a little bit to some of the work you've done in that area on the costs of oppression, even to people who are white who occupy positions of power or privilege?

Diane Goodman

Yeah. So I strongly believe, and this has motivated my work, that we are all harmed by systems of oppression. Not in the same way, and I want to be really clear about that. I am not suggesting that white people are oppressed by racism and the way people of color are, but these are dehumanizing systems that we all, as I said earlier, need to be socialized and culturally conditioned into these inequitable systems, and those have obvious harms for people of color or people from marginalized groups. But the harms to the people from dominant groups is, again, our humanity gets diminished because we are taught to think of ourselves artificially and accurately as somehow superior to other people that we are taught to have to ignore the suffering of other people. To ignore the inequities that other people face to be able to exist in this reality. And we lose the benefit of all the brilliance of people of color who could be contributing. We lose the opportunities to have personal relationships as well as broader coalitions to be addressing issues that affect us all. So there are tremendous amount of personal costs, social costs, moral costs, societal costs to white people by systems of racism. And I also think a lot about what world do we want to be living in? I know many people were looking at the murders last year of George Floyd and the endless list of other black and brown people as people are also understanding the legacy of racism in this country of all the ways that racism manifests currently. We saw in the COVID epidemic about who had access to health care, who was being forced to work in unsafe conditions. It's revealed the insidiousness and the prevalence of racism. And I look at good people. And I ask, like, is this the world you want to live in? Like, is this really the world you want to live in? I know that's not for me, and that's not the world I want my kids to live in. And that, to me, is the other motivation. It's creating a world that works for all of us. So that's again, going back to how to engage people in the work. I mean, this is again, the approach I take is that this, I believe, is about our collective liberation expression. I use justice frees us all. And I really believe that.

Phil Wagner

I believe that too, and as a parent of two young children, I think that it is important to lean into something that you talk about or utilize a lot in your work, which is the spectrum of emotions that we can and perhaps should feel as we do this work. And I think a lot of diversity and inclusion work sort of segments us. There's a lot of negative emotion. It's fear. It's shame. It's guilt. And I don't think that those are always useful, but I think that some of those are necessary as we work through our own, doing our own work. But you also really center the positive emotions. And I think that gets left out, particularly as we work with people of privileged groups. So Diane, my final question for you today focuses on one of the best takeaways that I've gotten from your work, which is about the joy that can come along with doing the work, the joy of unlearning privilege, of unlearning oppression. As we conclude our conversation, can you speak a little bit to the joy of engaging in this work? I think so many people, white people, in particular, feel threatened, scared, fearful, shamed. How can we change our mindset so that this can be rewarding, if not joyous, in our learning journey?

Diane Goodman

Yes. So the irony about starting with joy 15 20 years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who also did this work. And she was, I think, said, what spells relief, a take-off on the Tums commercial that you spell relief for her. She was talking about unlearning racism, and I was thinking about the joy of sex or the joy of cooking, and again, was using it. Ironically, the joy of unlearning racism, as if that was ironic. And no one understood the reference to the joy of sex or the joy of cooking and shows how old I am. But I found that as I would do this work. And I would talk about how my own unlearning journey around racism as a white person has been liberating, has been transforming, has been positive, the kind of relationships now I've been able to have not feeling so stupid, feeling more comfortable in different situations, feeling more competent, just feeling more authentically myself and more aligned with my values. I would talk about that, and people's mouths would hang open. And I then interviewed a bunch of other folks who I knew also were having this experience. And so I did write it up under a piece called The Joy of Unlearning Privilege and Oppression. And so again, I use the term joy ironically. But what I found in talking with other people is joy really resonated. That was not ironic. It was real, and that certainly resonated in my own experience. It just opens up worlds to us, opens up healing to us. And yes, there are lots of feelings that are part of doing this work, and some of them are uncomfortable and painful. But I often liken it to therapy and not saying that this work is therapy. But we know when we go into therapy, we realize, okay, something's not right. There's some reason that we're there. And even though therapy itself isn't always fun, that we know it's a growthful experience. And hopefully, if we come out at the other end or at some point in the process and feel like I feel better, I feel more whole. I feel more authentic. I feel better able to be in the world. And to me, that's a lot of what this journey is about. And so I really encourage people to hang in through sometimes the beginning parts. It's hard to feel that as we start to realize, oh, my God, I didn't realize all that I didn't realize, but that really is a process that can be joyful and certainly is liberating and healing.

Phil Wagner

I love it. There is and probably should be some discomfort. But that discomfort is so worth it in the end, for the very goal that you highlighted earlier, creating a better world as lofty as the goal as that seems, I think at its basic level that's what diversity equity and inclusion work seeks to do improve the world by really focusing on improving the world of work. So, Diane Goodman, it is a true pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your candor. It's been a real joy to speak with you.

Diane Goodman

Great. Thank you so much. It was great to talk to you, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes To Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary. Be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Jennifer Brown
Jennifer BrownEpisode 3: October 11, 2021
D&I Consulting

Jennifer Brown

Episode 3: October 11, 2021

D&I Consulting

Today we are joined by Jennifer Brown, author of "How To Be An Inclusive Leader." Jennifer has a Masters in Leadership and Organizational Development and formed Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC) to help companies meet their leadership goals. JBC subsequently transformed into spearheading Diversity & Inclusion consulting for many organizations. Jennifer and host Phil Wagner discuss what it means to be a D&I consultant, encountering apathy within the business space for D&I work, and what lived experience, if any, is necessary to do D&I work in a formal capacity.

Podcast (audio)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How Jennifer found herself as a full time D&I consultant
  • What constitutes D&I consulting
  • How Jennifer translates business theory to D&I work
  • How to counter apathy within the business world regarding D&I work
  • What qualifies someone to be a D&I consultant
  • How Jennifer approaches different companies' challenges to D&I consulting
  • Why companies in crises make excellent clients for D&I consulting
  • How Jennifer approaches clients who are doing D&I work begrudgingly
  • When should organizations bring on D&I consultants
  • What should companies look for in a D&I consultant
Transcript

Jennifer Brown - D&I Consulting TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Jennifer Brown

I think right now we're throwing a lot of things that people in a really disjointed way and that we're sort of missing. What are we really all going after? And it honestly is the human potential to thrive.

Phil Wagner

Hello, from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes To Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real, human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome listeners to episode number three. You heard that, right? Episode three of Diversity Goes To Work. I'm so excited to welcome today's guest, somebody I look up to, somebody whose work I have read actively, somebody who is now a friend of the business school in so many ways here at William & Mary. And our guest today is Jennifer Brown. Jennifer Brown envisions inclusive organizations where all of us can thrive. And I love how in her work, she helps us figure out how to make that vision a reality. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, a dynamic speaker, and a diversity and inclusion expert. She's the founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting or JBC, and her consulting firm guides some of the world's largest companies in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She's an acclaimed keynoter and a podcaster. And after you listen to this episode, go download her podcast, The Will to Change. It is so, so good. Her award-winning book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader, calls on allies and advocates everywhere to activate their voice. She used the training from that book to recently lead a training for our 118 new first-year MBA students here in the Mason Business School. She's also got a new book coming out this November, Beyond Diversity. Be sure to preorder a copy. Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us today. I again am a big fan of your work. I've read your book. I followed your work throughout all the many things that you've done. So it really is a true honor to get to chat with you here on our podcast today. As you know, our focus is to really center the work of D&I Consulting, and I think that's a little bit of a confusing enterprise. We know what consulting is, but it's a little bit different when you do it in the D&I sphere. So I'm wondering, to kick us off, can you share a bit more about how you found yourself in diversity and inclusion consulting in a full-time capacity? And perhaps how JBC came to be what it is today.

Jennifer Brown

Thank you, Phil. Yeah, it's a winding road, and no two roads are the same into the world of D&I. So we all, when we get together, we compare career trajectories and say, huh, I wonder how that happened. But the important thing is that it happened because a lot of us, we feel that this is our true passion, right? Our true calling. So there's enormous job satisfaction, I think in the field as hard as the work is. And we'll get to that later. But my road was activists in my 20s, always nonprofit, thinking I was going to be in nonprofits. But I was also a singer. And so I came to New York to be a opera singer. Study vocal performance with the plan of having a career in that space and then unfortunately injured my voice had to get a couple of surgeries, sadly to repair. But it would really fundamentally alter my ability to do eight shows a week for weeks and months at a time. So that's the problem. And I needed to reinvent and reinvented. Luckily, somebody said, you love the stage. Why don't you consider being a trainer? And they meant a leadership trainer? And I said, What's that? And then I went got a second Masters in leadership, and organizational development, which became my new and sort of, I might even argue, a deeper passion for me. And I just fell in love with facilitation and group dynamics, thinking about leadership and systems change and things like that. And I was an HR person for a while in the training and development world and then went out of my own 16 years ago. So I've had my own business, and originally it was me doing team effectiveness leadership training. Not really D&I, but I also am a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and since I was 22, but I was closeted as a performer, closeted as a corporate person, struggled as an entrepreneur to think, oh, my goodness, I need to make money. And how is that going to impact who I am? How is that going to impact my ability to do that? But I worked through it. And these days, I'm very out if you Google me. I still come out in my keynotes, but I think the dovetailing then of all. I was very much in the LGBTQ workplace advocacy conversation about 20 years ago when we were still looking at domestic partner benefits just to put a date on that, right. It feels like ancient history, but that wasn't widespread at the time. So that's what we were fighting for. And as such, got to know all these amazing companies and the people in the companies in the ERGs, the affinity groups who were leading the charge and pushing their employer to be better and to do better by the community, to recruit more, more respectfully, to market more respectfully to the LGBTQ+ consumer. So those were the early and very heady days. I loved those days. They were difficult, but it was also the sort of small group of very dedicated people trying to puzzle through. How can we get corporate America to really be in solidarity with us? And what are all the pieces that they need to do, and what would be, hold them accountable for as a community? And it was very it's still a wonderful model for change. And now we see that companies are getting pressure from all sides to do a whole bunch of things. But I think even 20 years ago; we were doing this on a much smaller level. Yeah, and so D&I consulting then. I had the company, but we were leadership-focused. And then being LGBTQ, I started to realize, wait a second, there's this thing called diversity and inclusion. It's a field. There are people who run this in companies. I started to bring in experts into my company and market them out because I love marketing in addition to the consulting that I do. And I was like, I can bring the talent, but I can maintain that Rolodex and keep sort of stay in that thought leader position and make sure that I'm providing the most amazing resources for our clients. And that's how we started to build Jennifer Brown Consulting, and I got to from very early days. I wanted to work on the business, not in the business. I was very clear that A I was out of bandwidth really quickly in the early days. I mean, there was just no more time in the day because we were so busy, and I realized I had to scale. I just had no choice. But I think also, though, I wanted to scale because I think the team approach and all of our diversity of lived experiences is what makes JBC the amazing company that it is. And it's not just my story that matters. It's all of our stories that matter, and we get to bring those every single day. So we never anticipated this past year because 14 out of the 15 years we've been in business, it's been a very hard road to be in the D&I space really hard. And it had to be sort of deeply deep passion to weather all the apathy out there about the work and the lack of budget and resources that were allocated to this work happening. So it's been a real challenge as a business owner, and I feel like I can finally breathe this past year, Ironically, Ironically, because it's been such a painful year for so many very real reasons.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you know I love that sort of storytelling element. And you mentioned apathy, and it seems that I think apathy is always hostile to a degree. But the apathy is really channeled into open hostility for D&I work as of late. And so, when I always think of D&I Consulting, I used to frame it as D&I consulting is really helping your client tell the D&I story. And that goes back to your point of moving them along, like getting them to push past that apathy. But you also talked about pushing the envelope, and I feel that in the openly, somewhat hostile communities, we sometimes find ourselves doing this work that pushing can be sort of uncomfortable. What is D&I Consulting? Is it telling the story and shaping the story? Is it pushing the envelope? Is it figuring out what the client needs and then adjusting your approach? What is this work that you do as an enterprise?

Jennifer Brown

So many things, it's all of those things which makes it such a unique field. It pulls on so many. We have to wear so many hats to do this well. And if you're a consultant and you're external to organizations like me, we sort of wear a couple of kinds of hats, but we have a limited authority in a way because we're not driving initiatives internally. We don't have ownership for them. But we get to be that sort of third party advisor and expert and sort of extra set of hands, sometimes depending on what a client really needs, working with that internal consultant, if you will, who's trying to generate the buy-in internally, sending out the communication, structuring the effort, winning people over to the effort, cracking through that apathy that you just said, which is still very much with us. And I agree apathy is a form of resistance, for sure. But we have to awaken people out of apathy and somehow articulate the reason for DEI and the value proposition for it in organizations in a very creative way that reaches as many different kinds of learners as we can, which means we have to be very creative about how we talk about it, thinking about what's in it for me, what's in it for other people, from where they sit in the organization, whether it's sales or marketing or the engineering side or the customer service folks or the talent acquisition people. This touches and should be weaved into each one of those functions rather than maybe being owned by this siloed function, which is traditionally what it's been. So the best D&I consultants, both internally and externally, do all the things you just said. I meet the learner where they're at. I give people the right argument at the right time that resonates. I make it very sort of business-critical, and I also appeal to people's want to be better leaders, to be better humans also, and to be able to resonate with a changing world. And I think if you're not concerned about being able to do that, then I'm not sure you have a business in the organizational structures.

Phil Wagner

So I want to go back to that. I'm going a little off-script here, Jennifer, but you mentioned the business outcome, and I think that a lot of D&I consulting really speaks to the heart of that, right? That there are clear, measurable outcomes for your organization if they buy into this work and do it well. However, one of the things I've noted in your work is that you speak from a very theoretical place that's not always like business language. I mean, there's a lot of deeper theory. There's some critical theory. There's some feminist theory that really under work. How did you take that and learn to translate that to an audience that probably hasn't always bought into the underpinnings of that theory? How did you learn to bring real theory into this business space where it's so focused on practical and outcomes and deliverables and data? What was that process like for you?

Jennifer Brown

We really have to be able to do that because if you have a purely academic conversation, it's not going to work. I think, though, being a consultant and having a degree in organizational change, I think really grounded me in the reality of the day-to-day corporate, mainly, which is what we work in that day to day reality. And I was in corporate. I was in HR roles in various fields, from insurance to retail, just like two completely different worlds. So I did witness and gather all that language, sort of notice how things were done, notice how people spoke to each other, how they communicated, how initiatives were rolled out, what was successful. What wasn't successful. How do we get people on board? How do we think about different audiences with different levels of appetite for the change that we're suggesting? How do we speak that language? So there's so much customization in the work. And I like that you know some people don't love that because I think the last thing you want to do with your D&I work is throw, like, a boxed solution at something.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

It is really, really a very creative field, and you need to be armed with a variety of things. But it's interesting you notice the theory in my work because I'm not an academic at all. But I guess to me, a lot of it is just obvious. It's like if I can take one theoretical construct, like Fragility, say, from Robin DeAngelo, or take intersectionality from Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw. I think my gift is translating it to leader behavior.

Phil Wagner

Yeah

Jennifer Brown

Thinking about like so okay, so I'm explaining intersectionality to you. But how do you put this into practice tomorrow? And I have all these ideas for how to do that because my job as a consultant has been to connect the dots. I mean, consultants have to do this all day long. It's literally you have to make it real for leaders to be able to apply it right away and to break it down into chunks that are manageable. And then you've got to take this very, quote, unquote, kind of overwhelming and potentially scary topic that puts a lot of people on the back foot and somehow make it accessible and exciting and like a growth opportunity. So that's I think where my consulting background and when I say consulting, it's interesting because I know you work with there's a lot of MBAs that are going to be listening to this. I don't mean I was ever in a big consulting firm. I wasn't in any of those. I was not a Booz Allen

Phil Wagner

Right.

Jennifer Brown

consultant on the road every week. I never was that. Although that's a fabulous grounding from a skill set perspective in the work I do. But I was more the trainer facilitator, spending literally hundreds of days in the learning classroom. So really more coming from the learning and development side, thinking about how do people think about this? How do they feel about it, and then how can I not just have this concrete bottom-line ROI conversation, which honestly doesn't really hold me? It doesn't hold my imagination.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Jennifer Brown

It's not the technicolor world that I live in. I think this is so personal. I think leadership journeys are personal. And I think if we can reach the personal learner at a place where we can kind of think about, well, what is my philosophy of change? What is my role? What is my best role in a change equation? Am I the instigator? Am I the supporter? Am I the fire starter? Am I like thinking about, like, avatars of roles we play? I mean, I think about that a lot. And even in the D&I world, there's the activists, there's the fire starters, who are the sort of very uncompromising, I might say, like anti-racist specialists.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

I'm not that. I'm the translator, probably. I'm thinking about these concepts and relating it to behaviors. And then I might even advise the organization. So how do we hold people accountable then for this behavior change? What do we need to set up? Right. But those translators are critical. I might argue the world needs a lot more of us that can make that message make sense and put it into real terms and be able to make it real and scale it—scaling it right. It's not enough to just have a bunch of people in a room like we now think about as a team. So how will we hold people accountable over time and not just hold them accountable, but equip them with the knowledge to meet the accountability to meet the metrics and the responsibility right? We treat people so badly in organizations. We hold people accountable for things that we haven't even really equipped them to achieve. And inclusion and diversity is a really new language for a lot of people, and we just have to back up like, we're going way too fast for, like, 99% of people. So that's really important to think about. When you're a good consultant, you meet the learner where they're at. And that should be your obsession. The second you get out of bed every morning, you should say, how can I meet people where they're at, give them the right thing, the right next step. How can I encourage that along? And how can I accelerate somebody's learning journey? Because at the end of the day, that's what matters.

Phil Wagner

And I love that so much because I teach communications at the management level. How do you do this work? I think it goes back to communications and not just in your deliverables, not just having excellent conversations, not just having great presentations that make people's mouth drop open, but stepping back and being fundamentally self-aware and listening and tailoring your approach from there, I think it's critical. I want to build on that a little bit more, so in How to be an Inclusive Leader, you center a very clear message, and that's that in your belief, anybody can and should be an inclusive leader. But I want to flip that a little bit. Can anyone be a D&I consultant? You talk a little bit about your story, and you talk about being LGBTQ and being female-identified. I mean, what about straight-up like white men? Do you have to have those D&I anchor points to do this work well, or what makes a good D&I consultant?

Jennifer Brown

That is the hot question right now. Yeah. Who gets to do the work right? Who has the I say, like moral authority to do it. And, you know, I guess there's like, my answer before this past year, and then there's like, a little twist on it related to this year. But historically, there wasn't as much scrutiny, I think, on who's in this space because there was so few of us anyway. So it never occurred to a lot of us. I think that, oh, my goodness, like white practitioners, are flooding the zone. And are we okay with that? What does that mean for the field, et cetera? I mean, nobody was flooding the zone as long as I was in it. Those of us who were in it, we're so grateful to kind of know about each other, find each other, and we all had our own niches. And I've been in it now for 16 years. But many I know have been in it longer. I would say it was very diverse for years. And then I think the question now is one of equity, which is which voices have been underrepresented and who can really teach something effectively when you don't have a lived experience related to what needs to be taught. But then I might argue that then who teaches what I might call allyship? Who teaches the intersectional, the perspective, and also the perspective of those of us, which is, by the way, all of us who have privileges with a small piece. So when I say privilege, I don't mean just white and male, which is typically how it's referenced and weaponized, frankly. And those are two kinds. But there's a list of 50 others and many of which I have access to as an LGBTQ+ woman in a male-dominated world and somebody who arguably has strong with marginalized identities. So I think the problem with saying that certain folks make good consultants and certain don't is that it really change is going to take all of us and all of our perspectives. Some messengers, some messengers that look like me, might be able to crack in and get into a room or an environment where I can be perhaps heard differently, and I don't say that because I condone it. I disagree heartily with it, but it is a reality. I mean, I've seen it happen a million times with the straight white men that I know that do this work, walking into a room of straight white men. That conversation is really different than the conversation that would happen if I'm in there or if my black woman friend and colleague on the JBC team is in there, right. And we all in my world. We know that this is true. We make no bones about the fact that this is just where we're at as a human race.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

I think given that foundation of let's assume this is true where we're at, my goal on my team is to have a wide diversity of voices and messengers and teachers on our team, and that we're sort of able to pair people up is really interesting. If you can pair up different lived experiences as a facilitator team, it's amazing, but you've got to be again kind of paying attention to where is this audience at in terms of their who do they need to see? How do things need to be presented? What's going to have the most traction most quickly? Thinking about how can I put the right messenger in front of a group of people to save ourselves time and to accelerate the growth, which is to me, I keep my eye on the prize.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

That's where I want to go and not by any means necessary. But I think we can get creative. But I will say it's a hot topic and question to say who's allowed to do this work. It's interesting because you could look at me and say, not knowing I'm LGBTQ+. And honestly, some people on social media have come after me and criticized me,

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

not knowing who I am, and even if they knew who I am, maybe they believe that I don't have a role to play. And it's hard because I think, gosh, is it my job to then decenter myself and leave the field? And that has occurred to a lot of people both already in the field and also lots of aspiring people who want to get in the field. But I would tell you all the D&I consulting skill set is not just from our lived experience. I mean, that should be on obvious, but we may have direct lived experience of certain identities and be able to teach from that place, and we have a ton of passion. It's also a technical skillset that has to do with things I think it has to do with our change management, adult learning, conflict management, facilitation and group dynamics, organizational design, learning, learning design, learning development because we're always thinking about learning approaches in this work. Less so, I think legal less so because that's something that I think can be that's a technical skill that can be accessed or may be outsourced. But if I was talking about successful consultant skill sets. It's funny; they're not really D&I skills. They're actually from these other domains that make us very effective. So those are the things I would seek out. And then if you compare your lived experience and even yes, sometimes, by the way, white guys have a whole lot of diversity dimensions going on. It's just not visible.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Jennifer Brown

I would never I tell people you have no idea who's sitting across from you because there is so much work to be done. There is enough work and then some for all of us to have roles to be doing this. There's more companies coming online all the time who are just now creating their first positions, and each one of us does it in a certain way that I think we'll reach some part of our audience. If we could somehow unleash that power of all of us, I think we'd move faster.

Phil Wagner

What I love about you, Jennifer; it's in all over your work. It's on your podcast. It's in your book. It's in this conversation. You're always willing to talk about this work can sometimes be messy. Just the field is sort of messy. And I think a lot of people probably get access to D&I consultancy because they find themselves with a mess on their hands, right.

Jennifer Brown

Yes.

Phil Wagner

It seems to me that D&I work plays out on two distinct levels, right, and probably shapes your work as a consultant. So you have organizations that are super proactive have recognized there's apathy, or they haven't done what they've needed to do to have effective D&I work done in their organization. So they bring you on to say, what can we do? But I would imagine that you also get a lot of reactive companies that, for some reason or another, they've got a PR crisis or inner turmoil like something has hit the fan. And so, you probably are brought in to help solve problems. I'm curious how you approach each of those is one of those more enjoyable to you as a consultant. Are your strategies different? Like, how do you approach that?

Jennifer Brown

Oh, yeah. You'd be surprised. You'd think a lot would approach us because of crisis. But actually, I think a lot more approach us because they know this is a business differentiator. They know that they need the help of an external expert, that they don't know what they don't know or they know what they don't know, and they want that accountability partner or that sort of SME on the outside that can tell them so this is what this company is doing. And this is what your competitors are doing, or here's the industry. And here's where you sit in this sort of continuum in your industry. Don't you want to be out in front? So honestly, the competitive advantage piece probably is the biggest driver. But yes, sometimes companies are in crisis, and I think it depends. I think of readiness and willingness, that classic model of are we ready to do the work? And are we willing to do the work two different things? So we try to get our hands around that and kind of say, how bought in is the CEO and why? What has happened here before, if anything? And how did it go? Who was involved? How is DEI viewed in this culture? What do we need to undo in terms of previous damage or failed attempts, right? What would make a successful alignment for a successful initiative look like? Who needs to be in the room? Where do we start? All that stuff, and I think in going through that, that's our kind of intake process you figure out like, okay, so what's the urgency? Is this a crisis because something didn't happen, and somebody was embarrassed publicly? Or is it the CEO's ego, or is it maybe usually CEOs involved because honestly, CEOs often kind of hold the keys to the stuff. They're either super on fire. And I came from another company that did this better. And they're coming into a company that has nothing.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

That often happens. And the CEO is like; we need to build this, like yesterday. And can you help me accelerate that and sort of generate the right structure for it? Because the CEO doesn't know what the structure needs to be. All they know is that they need it as a competitive differentiator. And they need a story to be able to tell on the news or in the headlines or to their partners. I mean, deals are won and lost these days partially and more and more on if I'm sitting across the table from you and we're doing a big deal like I want to know what your D&I plan is like, what are your statistics? What is your representation was like? To me, this is like organizational risk factors.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

That if we're sitting across the table, we need to be like, wow. So you're not doing anything about this? That's really an interesting choice. I wonder what that means. If we spend money with you, how much are you going to understand our customers? Like, how much are we going to have a shared value set and commitment to having the best and brightest and most diverse workforce because we agree that that's what's best for our sort of health as an organization. So I do think the pressure is coming from a lot of different directions. And I'll take it all. I think a company crisis can make an excellent client because the appetites there the accountability, maybe from the board, or maybe they're being audited. And maybe, yes, people are being marched through this compliance exercise. But maybe the challenge there is how can I turn compliance into willingness

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

and into skills? And some of us as consultants like that challenge, you ask, what's your favorite? My favorite is I love working with learners who are so hungry for every single thing that we can give. I love an audience who's already kind of diving deeply into everything they can get on this topic. And they want to ask me the really hard questions, not from a place of resistance or doubt,

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

but from a place, I want to know how to manage this when I hear it. That's the kind of conversation I really love because then we're interacting at this higher, more strategic level that actually challenges me as a consultant to think through something that I haven't really thought through before. It stretches me. And I love being stretched. I mean, after a while, you do feel there's a repetition in the work like, oh, my goodness, if I have to explain this one more time. So there's a little bit.

Phil Wagner

As a Professor, I certainly get that sentiment. And I think one of the things we teach our students now is that you can't not be in the business of D&I work. There's this long-standing misconception, and it sort of just gets pushed to HR, and HR and PR will deal with it. HR and PR will deal with all the crises that pop up, and otherwise, we're good. But as you know, it's about organizational risk. It's about emerging as a true leader in this space. And you mentioned the will to change. I love your podcast. So as we sort of moved towards the end of this conversation, we situated those two different types of D&I response. You've got proactive people. You've got reactive people. I would suspect that you've got sort of like a third space here, too, right? You've had to have come across leaders who do this work, but grudgingly, they do it. But straight up, only because they have to. How do you see that work? I know on your podcast, and you talk about this will to change. It's an intrapersonal decision that you've got to decide to shift your own thinking. But how do you approach clients that might sign on begrudgingly or people in the enterprise that you consult? We might do this work only begrudgingly?

Jennifer Brown

Right because our clients aren't doing the begrudging, right? Our clients are on board, and usually, senior executives are pretty on board, because funny enough, it's really the frozen middle in organizations you might teach this. But it's where the change efforts go to die is the frozen middle. Is that middle manager level that's really tricky to kind of get the message through to and properly I think incentivize and encourage and train so that they can meet D&I goals because that middle manager role has a lot of day-to-day tactical pressures on it. And D&I can take some time. It takes attention. It takes maybe slowing down in a world that's just about speed and accomplishing things. I think that the nature of work and that level of the organization makes D&I like hard to apply and hard to track honestly and hard to measure, and hard to incentivize and reward around. But that app that sort of I'm doing this because I'm being forced to go to unconscious bias training and oh wait a second. Aren't we fixed because we all went through this training? I sometimes wonder if people just don't understand what all this is about. I think somehow, the D&I field has not done a great branding job with what we're really going after. And I think, honestly, maybe I'm just unusual, too, in terms of how I define what we're going after. We're literally talking about the future of viable business

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

and the future of talent pipelines that are super diverse that are coming into organizations saying, I expect inclusion on day one. I'm going to bring my full self. I'm not going to be in the closet. I'm going to let my flag fly and talk about all my mental health needs. I mean, it's very transparent and open, and we're so not prepared. So I like challenge myself honestly to talk about DEI without talking about DEI because honestly, it's a leadership conversation. It's a future work conversation. It's a human potential conversation. It is literally, to me, the gateway to having a purpose-oriented, engaged workforce that really wants to be somewhere. That really wants to give that extra something because they feel seen and heard and valued. So speaking of inventing new language to describe this in, and you didn't hear me say kind of anti-racist and all of that, that is definitely kind of a track of the education that's going on. And I believe that you have to be ready to take that work on because to me, throwing that kind of work into an organization that's done none of the stuff that I'm talking about is probably going to create more defensiveness and create a whole different problem. We have to prepare. There is a sequence of learning, I think, and a sequence of readiness, and there is an order that I would put some of these topics in. My stuff, I think, is very foundational, and at the same time, I think very future thinking and sort of big picture, and also your role as a person that I don't want to shame you into learning. I want to invite you on a learning journey, but I think there is sort of as consultants we need to think about the order that we give things in. And that order, I think, needs to make sense in terms of people's progression. If we think of our own progression as learners, what were we ready to learn and when and why? Who pushed us? But what is too much pushing? What is eating so much that you feel sick? Like, what's the point?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

You want to digest, you want to metabolize, you want to give things time to really, like, be in our tissue. And if we can kind of move with learners in this way, giving them the right thing at the right moment and pushing just enough because we got to be uncomfortable to be learning and to be leading. I think right now, we're throwing a lot of things at people in a really disjointed way and that we're sort of missing. What are we really all going after? And it honestly is the human potential to thrive, and that fundamentally is what we're talking about. And D&I has not been described in that way. I don't think.

Phil Wagner

I so agree with you. Jennifer, I have two more questions for you as we conclude the conversation here today. But there are a sizable number of D&I consultants out there, and that number is growing regularly. They're not all great. So what might bringing on when I should say my bringing on a D&I consultant be especially valuable. And particularly, what should organizations consider when they're thinking about bringing on a D&I consultant? You got any advice from your years in the practice?

Jennifer Brown

Yeah, I mean, if you have industry background that you can somehow find in someone, that might behoove you because every industry speaks its own language. So if you're a defense contractor, you may want to think about folks who spent decades in that industry, and that can speak that language. But again, that doesn't make you a good consultant. And I love that you said that. What makes a good consultant? You know, I think the messenger back to what we're talking about earlier is sort of what physical package does the ideal person need to be in in order to be like, heard by those who are resistant or apathetic in an organization? I think that's an important piece. How I would mostly, though, listen for how somebody processes information and what sorts of if you were interviewing someone, I want to understand, how do they lay out their strategy? They put the pieces in place. How do they think about organizational change? Where have they implemented things before? So much in D&I is not book-learned. It is experience learned. And it is all field, all practicum, all application. It's a strange field in that way because I wouldn't care how many certifications you have in D&I, and by the way, there's not that many. And I don't care about your degrees, because what I really want to know is, where have you built this before?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

Were you on a team that built this? What worked? What didn't work? What might you recommend here, given what we've told you? That piece, having seen it and be either adjacent or a part of it or leading it, is our currency, really. And our visibility across as many different industries and different sizes of companies is really critical. I have lots of friends who have gone from the big, big company to the smaller company, even though they're very senior, but the ability to pivot. And if there's nobody else to be able to own the whole thing and build the whole thing yourself. I mean, in a way, you'd think a smaller company with no D&I history might be an easier build, but in a way, it can be a very hard build because you have to know everything. You got to have the whole picture in your head how you're going to build it. Versus joining the Wells Fargo DEI team, where there's, like, 60 people,

Phil Wagner

Right.

Jennifer Brown

many of whom are PhDs, and you're just like you're bolting on and kind of hanging on to the caboose of the train, you know, because that's a best-in-class team. And yes, Wells has had their problems, but I use them as an example because they're one of the biggest D&I teams I know of. So as you evaluate talent, I'd say, how much does this person feel? How much do I feel that they are going to be very meet us where we're at not be judgmental about where we're at. I think there's a little bit of this is what you should be doing. This is where you should be. You should be tackling this. You have to do this or that or whatever.

Phil Wagner

Condescending, yeah.

Jennifer Brown

Yeah, it's a bit. And this can be a little coming from academics sometimes that, again, not translating it to where people really are. I don't think it's not something that should be imposed. This is something that we should be eliciting from people.

Phil Wagner

I love that.

Jennifer Brown

I mean, right. And that, to me, is the most challenging, amazing work is to figure out, like, I could give you a boxed solution all day long or bring in courses. But if I don't bring in the right courses, it's going to be a disaster.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Jennifer Brown

So anyway, I think being other focused and extremely emotionally intelligent about others, and then what do they need? When do they need it? Who needs it? In what order? How do I think this is going to go? But again, we're not going to know because you can't predict how this goes. You can build. I wouldn't even do a three to five-year strategic plan with D&I.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

Because look at last year, so much changed. So I think to being flexible, like doing enough of a minimum viable product that everybody's happy. But then having the buy-in and support to say, you know, let's go back and revisit this. Let's look at this target again. Let's think about the feedback we're hearing from people around. What more they need to learn in order to reach this target. Being very sort of responsive to that is a huge part of the skill set.

Phil Wagner

So my final question is in your book, you know, and you really center this message that anyone can and should be an inclusive leader. We talked about that earlier.

Jennifer Brown

Yeah.

Phil Wagner

Do you still believe that in 2021? And what can those of us who would identify as inclusive leaders? Where can we really focus our energy for the most good in the complicated D&I sphere that currently exists in our modern world?

Jennifer Brown

Oh, my God, two huge questions. Can everybody be an inclusive leader? I probably have to believe that that's true. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. I really I am such an optimist about people, and I think some folks can be huge resistors and turn into huge champions. And I've seen it happen. And I want to extend that belief and faith in people that it may take time. And it may take something huge to happen in your personal life, sometimes for you to have that light bulb moment. But I'll tell you, ask anybody in my world, we live for those light bulb moments like we live for them. They make life worth living. It's hard work, and it's hard-won. But it's really cool when it happens. So anyway, I do believe that. And you know what? Even if values-wise, I don't agree with inclusion, say you don't agree with meeting LGBTQ, whatever that means. What is helpful, though, is when you enter an organization, you subscribe to the values of that organization, and you sign up to be a leader or a manager. And as such, you have a duty to represent that so you can be an inclusive leader and not necessarily have an alignment with your personal values outside of work. I can just leave that there, like, okay, you know, to me, what matters is the kind of experience of belonging that you're creating, and you have a skill to do that, regardless of perhaps what you believe. It's not ideal, but it might be how we get people there. And then your other question was, what's one thing we can do to kind of accelerate others ourselves and others in our environments. I'd like us all to be louder voices. I'd like us to put our ally or co-conspirator hat on and be very vigilant for bias when it shows up and, you know, be the spokesperson so that somebody else doesn't have to always be the educator or the one that is complaining about harmful language or microaggressions. I think all of us need to have this hat on everywhere we go and speak up and invite a conversation for learning for people, particularly of different kinds of privileges, who may not know and may not understand. So I think that if we could do that more and more, it would lessen the burden, the emotional labor on others who've really, really been struggling to thrive in a workplace not built by and for them. And I say them I mean us too. I was that closeted person for years. Who was like, what am I doing here? This is horrible, and I know that I'm not shining and doing my best work because I'm spending a ton of time like living a lie about my personal life and my family. How much of us who are relatively more comfortable in any given system? How can we be the vigilant ones? How can we be the ones that speak up? How can we give the feedback? Because it's less risky for us to do that.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Jennifer Brown

Right, and so I would challenge all of you to think about when was the last time I gave somebody some feedback about language or a joke or comment? Or when was the last time I walked into an interview process and realized there were no candidates that weren't male or weren't white? Did I say something? Did I sort of put my foot down and say, I'm not participating in this? We need to do better. We can notice things everywhere because they're everywhere.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jennifer Brown

Like literally, you can blindfold yourself and just go like there. There's a problem because it's everywhere. So pick a couple of spots to up the ante, put some pressure on. Know that in doing that, you are sort of scaling this effort and not leaving the work to oh, HR will do it. Diversity team will do it. The ERGs will do it. I wrote the book so that all of the rest of us would understand what we need to do so that we can all be participating in a concrete way.

Phil Wagner

I love that. Jennifer, there's so much good stuff here to unpack. Speak up. Be a vigilante. Invite others to learn. I love how you've done that for me. I love that our listeners learn from that. We will certainly link to your book. And I know that this is not the end of a conversation between you and I. It's been so stellar. Thank you for joining us. I appreciate it more than I can express. Jennifer Brown of Jennifer Brown Consulting. Thank you so much.

Jennifer Brown

Thank you so much, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes To Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs for initiatives here in the business school at Woman & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Jeff Trammell
Jeff TrammellEpisode 2: September 27, 2021
Politics and Hope

Jeff Trammell

Episode 2: September 27, 2021

Politics and Hope

Today on Diversity Goes to Work, we welcome Jeff Trammell to the show. Jeff has a very impressive resume, having been the former rector and current member of board of visitors at William & Mary and an advisor on inclusion initiatives on two presidential campaigns. He has also served on the board of trustees for the Association of Governing Boards for Universities and Colleges, and on the board of advisors for the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland. Jeff and Phil talk today about Jeff’s journey in business, politics, and education; topics discussed include changing perceptions of inclusion, the role of politics in D&I work, and hope for the future. 

Podcast (audio)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How William & Mary made history by electing Jeff as rector
  • How diversity and inclusion corresponds to the pursuit of truth
  • Is there a political reason why marginalized communities traditionally don't fare as well in business
  • Why it's important to "bring your full self to work"
  • How have diversity, equity, and inclusion issues progressed politically in the past 20 years
  • How LGBTQ rights have recently regressed politically
  • Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work inherently political
  • What is the challenge as educators when confronting D&I work
  • How can one build consensus when dealing with the spectrum of D&I ideologies
  • What is next for D&I work
Transcript

Jeff Trammell: Politics and Hope TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Jeff Trammell

Our challenge is to bring it down to the individual, the personal level where someone understands that when you include everybody in your thinking, you're stronger.

Phil Wagner

Hello, from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes To Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome listeners to yet another episode of Diversity Goes To Work, a podcast where we center the real human lived experiences that make and inform our D&I work every single day. I'm very honored and excited to host today's guest Jeff Trammell. Jeff is the former Rector and member of the Board of Visitors here at William & Mary. Jeff received his BA in History from William & Mary, and it's JD from Florida State University. His professional experience includes an impressive array of both academic and public policy engagement. In addition to serving as Rector and as a member of the Board of Visitors at William & Mary, Jeff has served on the Board of Trustees for the Association of Governing Boards for Universities and Colleges and is on the Board of Advisors for the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland. Jeff's public advocacy includes serving as the former chair of the Board of Directors of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, sitting on the Board of Directors for the Human Rights Campaign, and the Board of Advisors for the US Holocaust Memorial Virginia. Serving as the Senior Project advisor for the LGBT Victims Remembrance Project and serving as senior advisor for LGBTQ Outreach for the Gore 2000 and Carry 2004 presidential campaigns. Jeff, it's a true honor to speak with you and geez louise. That is quite an impressive biography. I'm so glad you were willing to join and make time to chat with us. Have I missed any details in reading that biography? I'm certain that I have given your impressive array of experience. Can you share a little bit more about who you are and what you do with our listeners?

Jeff Trammell

Well, I'm an old basketball player, too. I mean, I was captain of the basketball team at William & Mary. That's still somehow graduating, probably to the surprise of a couple of my professors. No, I love William & Mary. It took a kid from North Florida and introduced me to the world. And as our Liberal arts education does so well, I think we're second to none. And as we say, taking kids at 18 and turning them out of 22 with a skill set to change the world. I'm not sure I've changed the world, but I've at least had a good education that's allowed me to try to make some contributions. I would just say in terms of things of which I'm proud. One of them is that in electing me as the Rector, William & Mary became the first major public university in the country to elect an openly gay chair of their board.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jeff Trammell

And I'm proud that it happened in Williamsburg, not in Madison, Wisconsin, or Berkeley, or a myriad of other places where one would think that that would have happened first. But I'm very proud of that. And, of course, in a personal level, but an institutional level too, that William & Mary was a place where that could happen because most major universities in the country were not at that point in 2011 when I was elected the Rector.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And thank you for setting the standard for the institution. And I share that same love and affinity for William & Mary and that focus on inclusion to see how it's grown since 2011. I think it's quite heartening as well. Jeff, our goal today is to really center a very tricky topic within the sphere of diversity and inclusion work, and that's politics. And you have been engaged in political work broadly speaking before we get to sort of your work on the Gore and Kerry campaigns and the political discussion that we're going to center here, I'm wondering if you could sort of tell us a little bit about the work you've done that scaffolds under that umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion work. Can you share any insight from your career about maybe in our current iterations of diversity and inclusion work, whether they're effective? Whether they're just window dressing? Where they fall short? You've got got a great bird's eye view given your impressive career. Any insight?

Jeff Trammell

I would say that the one insight that has continued to develop within me as we've all been on this journey to better understand what inclusion really is, no matter the organization, whether it's society at large, down to the smallest organization, it's often truths. Pursuit of truth, and maybe that's my history degree from William & Mary coming through loud and clear. But when people tell me that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are not relevant today, I say that is not truthful.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jeff Trammell

Let me take you and show you the direct legacy of those governmental political decisions that were made over centuries and the impact they held on American society. So this is truth we're talking about. When we talk about why do traditionally marginalized communities not fair as well, sometimes in business or in other organizations, why they're not as confident? Well, I would cite Mya Angelou's observation that the worst thing they do is they teach us to hate ourselves.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jeff Trammell

And when that happens at an early age, it has a lifetime of ramifications. So in the corporate world, I saw young gay men and women and others who came from those types of backgrounds. Less willing to pound the table and say, I know I am right or to swagger into the presentation and said, I'm going to tell you what you need to know. That reticence about one's own role is a legacy of political and policy decisions that marginalized people for a long time and affect real lives, real organizations, in business or otherwise.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I think that's important in the corporate world. We use this a little bit of a cheesy cliche that bring your full self to work, bring your full. But there's a degree of truth to why that's so necessary, right. I think you're speaking right to the heart of that issue. So then centering the political role of D&I work. You've served in some high-profile advising positions for the DNC, working on both the 2000 Gore campaign, the 2004 Kerry campaign. How have you seen diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, broadly speaking, playout and progress for the DNC since those campaigns? We come a long way since 2004.

Jeff Trammell

Yeah, we really have. And I think that I start with the recognition that we're all privileged to live in a time of change. Hopefully, in a generation or two, people will look back on it and say, Well, I don't understand why the big issue, right? Why is a big issue that someone who was LGBT was elected to a position of leadership? But we know in the time of which we live. There is a reckoning occur on multiple levels. So I would say some of the things that I saw were that we went from a sort of limited awareness of what diversity meant. It was window dressing in the early days. It was though with the picture has to have some people of color in it. Or we'd like to say that we have a lesbian partner in our law firm. And those were all important steps. I mean, arguably, where we are today could not have been achieved without these sort of baby steps that were taken. And certainly, I look back on my own experience. I remember when being working for a consulting firm in the early 80s, and when they found out I was gay, they asked me leave.

Phil Wagner

Oh, my goodness.

Jeff Trammell

So I felt like I knew, right? I mean, here I am, white, jock, former basketball player, the world at my feet, right. I'm a William & Mary alum. And then suddenly, when someone finds out you're gay, they could yank the rug out from under you. Well, that's eye-opening. And for me, it helped me crystallize in my mind what perhaps people that can't hide, like women and racial minorities, deal with all the time. But the point is that over these years, sometimes one step forward, two backwards, but usually taking two steps forward and one backwards, we have progressed remarkably and sometimes through pure fertility. Look at the way in which marriage unfolded. I remember, as late as 2011 and twelve, trying to get the Virginia Council and Higher education business leaders interested in domestic partner benefits for the faculty and staff at William & Mary and other universities in the Commonwealth and being told not to raise the issue because it made some of the businessmen in the group uncomfortable. Well, we had within a few handful of years, marriage was the law of the land, and parenthetically my husband and I had the privilege of being married in the US Supreme Court by William & Mary's Chancellor, Sandra Day O'Connor.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jeff Trammell

So an all William & Mary event that was unimaginable, just two or three years prior to that. When we were fighting literally just to make sure that faculty at William & Mary who had a partner that might have cancer could get health insurance. And it was a struggle. We came up with creative ways at William & Mary to try to protect our own.

Phil Wagner

Two steps forward, one step back conversation, I think, is an important one because I think, particularly in the era that you were advising those campaigns that really defined the progress of LGBTQ rights. I mean, you think about what was it 2004 right, Del and Phyllis getting married in San Francisco and then a little bit later annulled and then married again, and then prop eight came. I think that's sort of been the tug of war, particularly for LGBTQ rights. And I think in some ways, it seems that we're taking multiple steps back right now, here in 2021, as it relates to LGBTQ rights specifically. I'm wondering if you can speak to the opposite side of the fence, right. There's been a little bit of movement or a lot of movement in a myriad of ways in the Republican Party. How has the D&I conversation shifted in the RNC over the years? From your perspective.

Jeff Trammell

Citing a recent example, it hasn't shifted very well. In the last few weeks, I've been working on a resolution with Senator Tim Kaine to have a formal federal apology for the mistreatment of LGBTQ federal employees, service members, civil servants, foreign service officers during the lavender scare the witch hunts. The mistreatment and discharging of hundreds of thousands Americans who were basically punished by their own government because of their orientation or expression. And we just introduced the bill this past week. Senator Kaine did with Senator Baldwin and 17 sponsors we could not get a single Republican even a sponsor at resolution, which is nothing more than an apology for what happened decades ago. I think that speaks to the leverage within the Republican Party at present and the fear. I don't think most Republican officeholders have anti-LGBT views, but there is the leverage from the social conservatives as such within their party. They fear the primary, and they don't want to provide any ammunition to a critic. That would say that they don't uphold traditional power. So, yes, we're at a two steps backwards when it comes to the Republican Party. Not always true. There are some places where progress has been made. I mean, I tell you, the place it's been made, and it's often cited, is in the corporate world. Today, when we have a congressional hearing, as we did on the Equality Act, we bring forth CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or even small businesses because the reality is that the political process of social issues often tracks behind the public.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jeff Trammell

In certainly the business world.

Phil Wagner

You know, as of late, it seems that we are engaged or bombarded with a constant stream of rhetoric. It's really gotten louder over the years, positioning almost all diversity, equity, and inclusion work, or just diversity equity and inclusion stuff as something that is inherently political, inherently Liberal. I'm thinking about recent conversations on critical race theory, for instance. I mean, this has just blown up. There's a lot of political discourse on this right now. And even just two years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is about as conservative as you can get approved the use of critical race theory as a supplemental tool. And so it seems that there's just been this grab hold of diversity, equity, and inclusion as something that is now inherently political. And I'm wondering, is it? Do you have any thoughts on is this work truly political?

Jeff Trammell

It's not political. It's truth. And I go back to that North Star if you will. How can it be unacceptable to say that which is what critical race theory does to say that government decisions made in the past on slavery and Jim Crow have an impact on societal challenges today? How can you possibly say that redlining did not help create poor neighborhoods? They're largely people of color. How can you say that school segregation did not have a lasting impact on the Commonwealth of Virginia or the nation at large? I put the attack on critical race theory in the same category as other untruths that are promulgated from whether it be who won the presidential election to whether there was massive voter fraud to a general and a great corollary question here is the role today of social media and making untruths, perhaps dominant over truths. But I put it in that category.

Phil Wagner

So does our goal then become to try to depoliticize diversity? Do we put a label to say this isn't political? This is for everybody? Or do we focus on telling the truth? What about those instances where there are multiple versions of the truth sort of playing out particularly politically?

Jeff Trammell

I think you ask a great question here because, yes, we want the concept of inclusion to not be politicized. We want it to be an intrinsic part of the way we see ourselves, whether it be as a business or a University, or any other subset of American society. And I think that we've made progress in that regard. But I do think that we have to not talk in terms of what Jim Carville is fond of calling faculty lounge talk. There's a legitimate debate of whether using the term Latinx people of Latin American origin in America want, and it's not up to those of us who are, quote, the academic elite to tell them this is what you shall be called, right. I just use that as a

Phil Wagner

That's a great example.

Jeff Trammell

example, of our challenge, and our challenge is to bring it down to the individual personal level where someone understands that when you include everybody and you're thinking you're stronger. I mean, if you're putting together a strategic plan and you don't have the perspectives of people who make up a major segment of American society and your marketplace at the table. Your strategic plan is going to be flawed.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jeff Trammell

So we want to get beyond the sort of the theory, the faculty lounge theory, down to the practicality of what?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and I love that focus on practicality. And I teach so many bright, you know, our students, Jeff. I mean, they are bright, they are engaged, they are passionate, and they have a mature approach to diversity and inclusion work far beyond, I think, what would be expected, particularly of an undergraduate student. But you bring up a great theme here, which is that often academics or people who are young in their D&I journey D&I advocacy journey may come out ahead of what's really needed or desired for the communities that they're working on behalf of. So I think the Latinx is a great example. Do you have any advice from your career on how to temper your D&I work to make sure that it is truly well balanced so that particularly younger, more social justice-minded D&I advocates approach this work with a sense of maturity? A sense of balance.

Jeff Trammell

Yeah, and I think that is you just put your finger on our challenge as educators. Is to move beyond our sort of academic and theoretical view to the practical, the real, the on the ground application. And I'll turn to a brief example. We had a group associations of governing boards of universities and colleges to work on free speech on campus a few years ago, which obviously critically imported issue, and they needed they realized they didn't have a student on the panel, god forbid. Even though we're talking about free speech on campus. So, of course, I volunteered a twamp. I'll go find a typical William and Mary person, a swamp student who will, as you just describe, be the brightest, the most articulate, the most caring and engaged. And this is an overall remarkable human being. And of course, I'm describing the typical student at William. I married. So this wonderful young man joined our talent. He was just what you would expect. But then he got into this area of microaggressions, and he talked about how that students feel like they shouldn't have to be exposed to things that make them uncomfortable. And I asked him, what did he think the real world would be like after they left the University? And if we were preparing them for jobs in the private sector or working for any nonprofit working on issues around the world? Did they think that they weren't going to encounter cultural issues that make them uncomfortable? And isn't it our job to prepare them? And we had that lengthy discussion, but I think it's one area that students need to understand early on, which is a part of a good education. It's not to shield you from having to learn that people may not like you or however you identify, but it's how to deal with it, right. So I would just say that's just one example of the disconnect between good intentions by students and the world in which they will live after they leave campus.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. That's such a great example to share, too. And I think it's a well-intentioned off-ramp. We come into contact with an uncomfortable idea. We're immediately looking for an off-ramp to get back to our comfort zones. And we're talking about politics, and I think that politics can do that well. Maybe not even just with students. But when you're working with other perhaps conservative-leaning professionals, necessarily, as we've talked about diversity equity, inclusion work is going to hearken to political themes. It's going to hearken to political policy because it simply cannot. And so as we get to that space in conversations and we find our colleagues wanting to take an off-ramp, I'm curious how you've built consensus across the aisle, how you've found middle ground, how you've built middle ground, or how you've built a third space that maybe isn't middle ground. But get some buy-in from those who may not give it freely, at least initially.

Jeff Trammell

Absolutely. And the HEBS asked me to write a pamphlet, which I did on chairing a University board, and I told them that the best experience I got was working as a congressional staffer because when I worked in the Congress, or a committee made up with people of all different philosophies from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, you learn that you have to build consensus. And what does that come down to? Well, it comes down to personal relationships and listening to people and understanding their positions, even when you don't agree with them at all. So I think that certainly, for me, being in that intense political environment was invaluable. And when I was Rector, half of my board was appointed by a Republican governor. But I made the point of going and meeting with each of them often in their offices. It took time. It took effort. But I wanted them to know that they could talk to me. They could let me know what they wanted to accomplish, and the personal relationship is essential. And I would encourage anybody to build relationships with people who have different points of view, come from different backgrounds, and don't avoid them. But find the common ground, and you will be improved. Your relationships will be improved. But more importantly, you can be more effective at whatever your task is if you build the types of relationships that get outside your comfort zone but allow you to operate in the world as it exists. And that's what we're talking about, after all, is in a University. We're trying to prepare people for success, whatever goal they put before themselves. And the one bit of advice I would get, don't disappear into yourself but reach out. You know, it's the essence of politics. It is building up your relationships and having a system that will allow you to be successful.

Phil Wagner

I don't mean to paint so O'Neill's picture here. I'm thinking back historically, there have been some great relationships cultivated across the political aisle from like Reagan and Tip O'Neill being a great example. Kerry and John McCain, Michelle Obama, and George W. Bush.

Jeff Trammell

Exactly.

Phil Wagner

But it seems right here right now, the political environment we find ourselves in 2021 is not conducive to building. You don't see the same. I don't see the same foundation set to be able to cultivate those relationships. I'm wondering if you can offer a perspective. And how do we get out of the toxic political culture win right now to get back to that place where we truly can forge relationships across the political island, get stuff done.

Jeff Trammell

Obviously, that is essential. And there are people like writers like George Packer who say that we're in a new era where the consensus is gone and that we may never get back there. But I think we have to be optimistic and say that we have to reinforce the system. Imperfect it has been. It has brought us where we are. It's allowed us to flourish in ways and fail in others. But the American system is critical to this whole endeavor, obviously, and that's what I hope will see us through this. I don't have the magic answer, but I do know that we've been in dire times before we've found our way through it. And when I look at the next generation, such as our students at William & Mary, I'm encouraged.

Phil Wagner

Me too, me too. And I have a sense of optimism. And I think that you need that for this work. I think that you need to remain hopeful for what the future could be, to remain hopeful for the potentials of a better tomorrow, because that's what carries you forward. And I think is what carried us historically through all of the ebbs and flows in social inclusion. I'm wondering if you can provide just some insight on where you see the next trends or major milestones in diversity, equity, and inclusion going. Particularly within our current political climate or complicated global environment. Where do you think we can set our sites to next?

Jeff Trammell

I think that where we are today, as you and I are talking, which is under the auspices of a business school, tells us a great deal, doesn't it? Change is coming in many ways through the business world, as opposed to the political world. Gridlock in the political world, which is largely all caused by massive amounts of money that make well-intended members of Congress unwilling to vote on the basis of their own views. But on the basis of making folks happy on the outside. We're in that situation. I don't see an easy way out of it. But what I do see is progress is being made in the business world. And when I see, I mean there's a long way to go. We don't have if you look at boards of directors, look at corporate boards, for example, one of the great next frontiers, where we've seen some backsliding in recent years. We have a great paucity of LGBTQ directors of Fortune 500 companies. Virtually none. I've been involved a little bit with some groups have been working on that. Why? We know that the LGBTQ market is huge and growing. As more young people identify as LGBTQ, the percentage of consumers is going to go from four or five to eight or nine. Even higher with some of the youngest consumers. So how can there be a disconnect? We don't have directors. How can Fortune 500 companies feel it's okay not even to think in those terms where they may have one black woman or one Hispanic man. I mean, there still is so much sort of tokenism and disconnect in the leadership of corporate America that's one of the next frontiers. Government will play a little role in that. States have been legislating in this area. California has taken the lead and mandated greater diversity in their corporate boards. Other States are doing it in bits and pieces, probably a dozen States out there right now. But this is one of the areas to watch because, again, the actions in the corporate world and not in the halls of Congress.

Phil Wagner

Such great insight, Jeff. I've got one final question for you if you're willing. I'm trying to synthesize everything we've talked about today, and I'm reminded early feminist advocates reminded us that the personal is political. And as we've noted today, even the professional as it relates to DEI work is certainly political. I think your life has wonderfully synthesized all of those. And I'm wondering if you can share a little bit more for our listeners, particularly those that may be our younger students just beginning in their DEI advocacy journey, on what they can learn from your journey and what they can come back to as they hit those bumps in the road as they find themselves in the one step back, not two steps forward part of the DEI journey. Any insight for those just beginning this work?

Jeff Trammell

I would just say that understand that you can't script where life will take you but be prepared for with a mindset that everything's possible and that you're going to be open to getting to know and understanding society better as events open around you. I grew up in a two-traffic light town 50 miles west of Tallahassee, Florida, and what is the Deep South really? And if you'd ever told me that I would grow up to be chair of the board at William & Mary, or married in the US Supreme Court or work on presidential campaigns, I would say never. You know, I'm a kid who is struggling to survive in a very conformist society in a small town. And you and I know there are millions of kids like that, and that's the reason that I'm so encouraged by groups that are now reaching out and working with those kids and that they have an opportunity to see people like themselves an early age. But you believe in possibilities and believe that you can prepare yourself for whatever comes your way, and you will get the opportunities. Again I don't want to sound too overly focused on our students at William & Mary, but I cannot help but just be so impressed every time I'm on campus that our kids are doing a pretty good job of preparing themselves for what lies ahead. And I would say if I could offer any advice to William & Mary kids, is maybe to understand and better appreciate what you're getting. You're getting an education second to none in terms of the teaching experience, the classroom experience, very few of your peers around the country are getting that. This high of quality of education you're getting. So when you leave, William & Mary have a bit more swagger, have a bit more belief that you can run through any barrier in front of you because you can. And if there's any problem, I see with our kids is too much humility sometimes. I want them to be very aggressive in the political and corporate world, and they are, but I want them just to understand just what they're leaving Williamsburg with.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I would agree. And I think you'd be quite proud. I've only been here one year, but to see their work is just it's truly impressive, and it's inspiring to think about what change could be coming down the pipeline if they go and apply that same tenacity out there that they do here. Jeff, thank you so much for your insight. This has been truly personally rewarding for me. I know William & Mary has been shaped greatly by your influence, and I'm so thankful that you've remained connected and always willing to pour back out into our community here. So thank you for your time. Thank you for a very stimulating conversation. It has truly been a privilege.

Jeff Trammell

Well, the privilege is mine. The pleasure is mine. Anytime I can help William & Mary in any way, I feel like I'm giving back in a small way. The incredible things that it did for me. And it is sort of what I encourage everyone who has had the privilege of being a student at William & Mary to remember is that we all have to pay it forward.

Phil Wagner

I'll have to pay it forward. I appreciate that. I think it's a great note to end on. Jeff Trammell. Thank you so much for your time and for joining us today.

Jeff Trammell

Thank you so much, Phil. I appreciate it.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes To Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Amandeep Sidhu
Amandeep SidhuEpisode 1: September 13, 2021
Faith, Turbans, and 9/11

Amandeep Sidhu

Episode 1: September 13, 2021

Faith, Turbans, and 9/11

Today on the very first episode of "Diversity Goes To Work," host Phil Wagner welcomes William & Mary alum Amandeep Sidhu. Amandeep is an Equity Partner at Winston and Strawn, focusing on regulatory and compliance counseling, state and federal government investigations and complex civil litigation involving regulated industries. He's a Co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, the largest civil and human rights nonprofit organization in the United States dedicated to protecting the interests of the Sikh community. Amandeep speaks with us about the origin of the Sikh faith, growing up in America as a Sikh, breaking barriers as a turban wearing professional, and how life dramatically changed after 9/11.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How the events of 9/11 led to the origin of the Sikh Coalition
  • How the Sikh community relates to the global landscape of religion
  • What are the origins of the Sikh faith
  • What are the Five K's
  • What it was like for Amandeep to break into the professional world as an observant Sikh
  • How Amandeep navigated the events of 9/11
  • Have Americans become more accepting of Sikhs and turbans after 20 years post-9/11
  • What can Americans learn from the Sikh community
  • What is the message of the Sikh faith
Transcript

Amandeep Sidhu: Faith, Turbans, and 9/11 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Amandeep Sidhu

Within 24 hours of 911, that group of loosely connected young professionals. We had a handful of lawyers, a handful of law students, some of us that were in business, some of us that were going to go to law school. Some that were undergrad students came together and said, We've got to do something.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. My name is Dr. Phil Wagner. I'm a faculty member of Management Communication, and I'm your host for our new podcast, Diversity Goes to Work. We've carefully curated content from some of the best and the brightest, both our own here at William & Mary and across the globe. To help you sharpen your approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. And since this is our very first episode before we really begin, we wanted to clarify a few things. First, this isn't your normal business school podcast. Throughout our first season, you'll often hear the casual conversation of two friends or, in many cases, the casual conversations of two strangers in the process of becoming friends. And those conversations will play out in our 35 to 40 minutes episodes. Though we hope our conversations will lead to better-formalized diversity and inclusion work, our goals are actually much, much smaller. We hope to shed a light on the humanity behind that work more than anything. To give us all a reminder that the often complicated and sometimes frustrating space of diversity and inclusion work is well worth our time. So forgive us if the conversations are a little awkward or clunky or don't quite sound as polished as what you might suspect. In our episodes, we'll cover everything you don't get in your standard D&I training at work, from politics to violence to size diversity to disability and beyond. We are unpacking the often uncomfortable truths that stand in the way of effective diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Throughout, we'll adjust the language we use, and we'll honestly probably say things wrong a time or two. That's okay. We'll often chat about the nuances of language in this work with our guests. After all, we're here to learn and grow too. Finally, we'll try to always be clear and not make assumptions about your knowledge on topics in this arena. We'll talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, justice, peace, and beyond. Sometimes you'll hear us say all of those terms aloud. Other times we'll use some version of shorthand. You might hear us say D&I for diversity and inclusion or DIEO for diversity. Inclusion and Equal opportunity will try to be consistent and mirror the language used by our guests. But really, the language in this topic area shifts quite a lot, and old habits die hard. So give us grace as we go. Otherwise, buckle up because we're getting ready to do a deep dive into the human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. It's truly an honor not only to kick off this episode but to kick off this podcast with such an engaged Alum of the University as we find ourselves looking back 20 years on the 20th anniversary of the horrible tragedy that is September 11th. Our goal today is to look back with a mindfulness of looking forward, and our guest today, Amandeep Sidhu, is here to share a little bit more about his journey post 9/11 and what that journey might mean for the future of inclusion work. Amandeep Sidhu is a litigation partner at Winston & Strawn in the firm's D.C. office. Focusing on regulatory and compliance counseling, state and federal government investigations, and complex civil litigation involving regulated industries. Aman is also the co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, which is going to really inform our conversations today. The Sikh Coalition is the largest civil and human rights nonprofit organization in the United States dedicated to protecting the interests of the Sikh community. Aman has led lobbying efforts in Congress regarding hate crimes, profiling, workplace, and public accommodation discrimination and also serves as lead counsel in an ongoing effort to end the U.S. military's presumptive ban on the service of Observant Sikhs and other religious minorities. In partnership with the Sikh Coalition and other organizational partners, his work led to a historic policy changes in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force that has opened the door to over 60 Observant Sikhs serving in the U.S. military. Aman, it's always an honor to speak with Alum of the College, but such an honor to speak with you given the prolific nature of your work. In reading your bio, I'm certain that I've missed something of importance. Care to patch any holes for us?

Amandeep Sidhu

Thanks so much, Phil. I really appreciate the introduction and appreciate the opportunity to participate in this podcast. Loved my time at William & Mary class of 2000. Going out into the world at that time as a consultant in Washington, DC, before I decided to go back to law school and was in DC when 9/11 happened. So you mentioned the Sikh Coalition. The origins of that organization came out of 9/11 just a year after I left Williamsburg and really was an inflection point. So certainly looking forward to this conversation and answering questions that you might have.

Phil Wagner

For sure, and we're going to center that timeline because I think it's important as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/ 11 as well that we factor that into our conversation today. But before we begin and I know this is an impossible question. Okay, it's super impossible, but I think there are a lot of inflated or conflated misconceptions about Sikhism, with some folks relating it to Hinduism or others relating the turban to Islam. Can you briefly frame Sikhism for us, particularly as it relates to the global landscape of religion and culture? That's a difficult question, but we'll start there.

Amandeep Sidhu

Absolutely. So just right out of the gate, the word Sikh and it's pronounced sick in Punjabi. It can be pronounced seek in a sort of the Americanized version of that. And you'll hear both the word Sikh means student or disciples. So Sikhism as a faith is a group of students that were constantly learning. And the Sikh faith arose in the late 1400s in what is now India. And what is the origins of sort of Punjab, which is now half in Pakistan, half in India. And it arose at a time when the dominant faiths in South Asia were Hinduism and Islam. And there was a caste system in the Hindu faith that created a tremendous amount of inequality in South Asia. There was a sense of inequality between men and women at that time in Islam that was also a source of concern. And the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak he basically saw a vision for another path, right. That there is no wrong religion, that if you are a Hindu, you should be a good Hindu. If you're a Muslim, you should be good Muslim. If you're a Christian, you should be a good Christian. But to be a Sikh would be to believe in sort of absolute equality between men and women based on socioeconomics, that there's a belief in democracy and sort of representation. And so the faith arose again late 1400s, and sort of in this arc from 1469 to 1699, there were ten what we refer to as living gurus or teachers who essentially came up with the faith. And in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh was the 10th and final living guru. What he said, as he was coming to the end of his life on Earth, was there'll be no living guru behind me. The compilation of the teachings of not just those Sikh gurus but also prominent Hindu and Muslim Saints of the time were compiled into our Holy scripture called the Guru Granth Sahib. And that would be the reference point for the faith. And it is about 3000 pages of poetry talking about how you have a relationship with God. That you do good things on this Earth, that you treat other people well, that you are part of society, and that you either for you know you do your best in this life on Earth. And then the idea of reincarnation is certainly part of the Sikh faith that you move on to the next phase, which is sort of that oneness with God. But what Guru Gobind Singh also did in 1699 was gave Sikhs a very unique physical uniform and identity. And that's really where a lot of the confusion comes from. So I wear a turban. I have an uncut beard. My beard is very long down to the middle of my chest, but it's groomed, and I use gel and hairspray, and I press it, and it's groomed in a way that makes it look the way that it does. Underneath my turban, my hair is in a bun, and that comes from the idea that your hair is a part of your body that you don't destroy. So the first symbol in that identity of the Sikh uniform is uncut hair. All of these symbols start with the letter K or kaka in the Punjabi language, so we sometimes refer to them as the five K's. Kesh is Uncut hair, and then it's worn with the turban covering it. The next is Kangha, which is a small comb symbolic of keeping yourself in neat appearance. So my hair is long, but it's not open and matted. It's tied up in a bun, and it's cut nicely. The turban is optional for Sikh women, so you will occasionally see Sikh women wearing a turban, but otherwise, they may wish to wear a small headscarf may not wear that all the time, maybe just for religious services. Third symbol is a steel bracelet called the Kara, and this is worn on your dominant hand. Really, as a reminder of your responsibilities to the faith. It stems from being worn as a form of defense mechanism during battle. That you would wear this almost as armor with multiple bracelets on your arms to protect yourself from a swords blow. And it's worn again as this reminder of your faith. You're going to go and reach to steal something or do something bad? It's a reminder to say you have this obligation of the Sikh to be better. The fourth is called the Kaccha. It's a special kind of boxer short that quite literally was worn as a practical reality as Sikhs in the 14, 15, 1600s went out to battle. People didn't wear underwear. So they wore the Kachera as a practical piece of that uniform, but also as a reminder to live a responsible and measured life, but also that you don't have to be anesthetic and go into isolation in the woods to be religious. You should be a contributing member of society. You should have a family that you should be engaged and involved in your community. And then the final is a sword worn very much as a practical reality of needing to defend not only the Sikh faith but also other minority faiths from oppressive activity. During that time period where there really was an effort to forcibly suppress the Sikh faith and other minority religions. The Kirpan was raised as a defense, and it remains as part of the uniform again as a symbol of defending equality and democracy, and justice. And so those five symbols together are the uniform, the most visible of which is the turban, and that's where clearly a lot of confusion arises. The turban is worn culturally in South Asia and in the Middle East. It is worn by some members of the Muslim faith. It's worn in celebratory events by Hindus at weddings and other ceremonies, and growing up, born and raised in Virginia, born in Norfolk, grew up in Richmond. My parents were the first Sikh family that came to Richmond, and at that time in the 70s, 80s, you know even into the 90s, most of the questions were around the exotic nature of the turban and the occasional you know, is your dad a wizard? And that really evolved with the first Iraq war and then very dramatically with 9/11, where there was just an association of the turban with terrorism.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

And so that's sort of that story arc of the identity and how it ties to the current realities.

Phil Wagner

And that's such a great over. I mean, that was significant. You packed a mean punch in that explanation. It's so helpful, I think, to set the stage for where we're going in this conversation. And I want to get to the post 9/11 discourse in just a second. But I had the opportunity to review a piece you wrote for the National Law Journal, where you talk about being the first observant Sikh. And thank you for that correction in pronunciation. That's helpful, too. Just up the road in Richmond, right. And now you're one of just two turban-wearing professionals, I believe, as an equity partner at Winston. You're also the first turban-wearing partner at an Am Law 100 firm, the first in U.S. history. Talk to us a little bit about breaking those barriers professionally. There had to be ebbs and flows as culture progressed, right. As we had a different understanding of brown people, of turban-wearing people, it couldn't have always been easy.

Amandeep Sidhu

Absolutely, you know, so growing up in Richmond. Certainly, there's a history of racism and connection to the Confederacy, and it's a tough place. That's where my folks decided to settle and because they were the earliest sort of settlers of the Sikh community in the Richmond area. I grew up sort of under the shadows of both my mother and father being advocates out of necessity. And so I remember going to Lions clubs and church groups and other forums with my dad, where he was explaining the Sikh faith. There's no form of proselytization in the Sikh faith again, going back to that idea that there's no wrong religion. It was purely out of education that we're a member of the community. We have this unique identity. Let's dispel myths, and let's help people understand. I had older mentors of mine who were in high school or college who came and helped me do those types of presentations when I went to school. To help understand why I looked the way I do and present that to my classmates. I'm the oldest of three brothers. My youngest brother is nine years younger than me. Ajay was an elementary school student as I was finishing high school and heading into college, and so going and speaking to his class and explaining why he wore a small, you know, under turban as a kid and helping him navigate what could otherwise be a scenario where there's bullying and teasing and all the other things that have unfortunately been part of the upbringing of young Sikhs. So for me, as I came to William & Mary starting high school, coming to William & Mary, there were a handful of Sikhs. Turban-wearing Sikhs who had come before me. So I was very fortunate that I had a couple of friends who had been in the William & Mary community before I arrived as a freshman. And so there was at least some level of familiarity amongst the student body and faculty and fraternity and great community, and so that helped. But it was still sort of like every moment was an opportunity to educate. And when I went to D.C., I was at a consulting firm for the DoD in very conservative environments, traveling to naval bases in the middle of suburban Illinois and Air Force bases in Georgia. And in that military environment, every moment was an opportunity to educate. But my perspective always was I'm happy to talk, I'm an open book, I'm happy to ask questions, but just by virtue of my presence as someone who is American in every sense of the word, but has this unique identity as a Sikh, that that that my presence alone is an education. That this is someone who looks different. But it's certainly not any different from me, and probably has very similar lived experiences that I have. In 9/11, again, was sort of this incredible tragedy and inflection point that sort of forced that conversation in so many different ways. And so I don't want to get ahead of you on the questions, but going to your specific question, sort of being the first, it was just sort of my experience, right. I played basketball in high school for one of the prep schools in Richmond. I was the first turban-wearing Sikh to go to that high school. The first turban-wearing Sikh to play in the Virginia Prep League. And there were games where referees came to me and said, you can't wear that thing on your head. And so we had to take that challenge up to the board of the Virginia Prep League and get their clear and unwavering commitment that this was absolutely fine. So that issue didn't arise again. And then you flash forward to law school. I went to University of Richmond. I was the first Sikh SBA President of the President of the Student Bar Association. And so it just was sort of part and parcel to who I was. And so I went to a clerkship at the Virginia Court of Appeals. First Sikh there. And when I came to McDermott Will & Emory, which was the firm I came to right out of my clerkship. A handful of observant Sikhs in big law. And when I made partner in 2013, it was at a time when there literally was not another turban-wearing Sikh partner at any large law firm in the country. So Am Law 100 is the hundred largest law firms in terms of numbers and revenue in the country. And I was the first. And when I moved over to Winston & Strawn as an equity partner, I became the second equity partner. So one of my friends, who I mentored when I made partner at McDermott, went on to make partner in his firm and then was elevated to equity partner a few years later, which was amazing. And he became the first, and I became the second. So it's groundbreaking, but it's also sort of just the way that I've operated as I've navigated my professional life.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, in that piece, you talk, you have this quote, you said my diversity unmasked I had no choice. And so, this becomes part of just the normal rhythms of identity work for you. But those rhythms had to change post 9/11, and we're sort of dancing around this. But I'd love to sort of go there now—point-blank. 9/11 caused number one, a lot of tragedy, a lot of inflection, a lot of good reflection. But it also led us to where we are now, where there has been historically since 9/11 this sort of like systemic fear of brown people, broadly speaking, and particularly those with visual markers, like a turban. Can you speak to how you've navigated conversations, what 9/11 did to shift those conversations, and how you've brought that education framework in the conversations post 9/11? That's a really thick question, but I'd like to really park there because I think it has significant implications for the diversity work that we do in the post 9/11 era.

Amandeep Sidhu

Absolutely. I mean, again, backing up before 9/11 growing up in the South, I faced discrimination, both directed at my family, directed at me, verbal harassment, physical fights that broke out. All this is before 9/11. I've experienced that kind of horrible experience as someone who is different and who has faced that kind of discrimination and bigotry. And even with that context, 9/11 was just so profoundly different in how it felt. So I mentioned that I worked for a DoD consulting firm at the time of 9/11. I lived in Arlington, Virginia. I worked in Old Town Alexandria, and so my route driving to my office quite literally went past the Pentagon on Route 110. And that day, I got in the car, and I turned on the radio. And there were discussions about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center tower in New York. It wasn't clear that it was a large plane. There had been a minor incident a few years earlier with a small two or three-person small jet that hit a building in New York. So I thought, oh, this is horrible but didn't realize the gravity until I walked into my office and I came upstairs, and everyone was gathered in this big meeting room that had this T.V., and we were watching the first tower on fire and smoke coming. Before and I just driven past the Pentagon. And before it was even reported on the news, we could look out of the window. We saw smoke coming from the Pentagon. We were that close that we could see the smoke coming in the distance. And then second tower was hit. You know cell phone service was horrible. Email was still working, and everyone was freaking out just as Americans, right? That's why this experience was so horrible. Is that first and foremost, as Americans, we experience the most significant tragedy in a generation happening right before our eyes. But as we're processing that horrific tragedy as Americans. I was seeing the emails coming through on the Yahoo group in New York and the Yahoo group in California, and the one in D.C. In the Sikh community, of elderly Sikh man attacked with spiked baseball bat in New York and position fired on the spot in Cleveland, Ohio, and people chased down the street. And so the people pulled off of planes. And so the immediate thought around violent hate crimes, employment discrimination, profiling, and everything else in between was just swirling in my then 21, 22, 23-year-old brain right. I was a year out of college, and we sat around and tried to contact family. And again, cell phones weren't working. So we got through on email to tell my family in Richmond that I was okay in D.C. And I had a lot of friends that were in New York, some of whom were down near the World Trade Center. We found out later it was within a day or two that one of our good friends from college was actually in the World Trade Center and died. And so that was sort of the experience as Americans. We were just crushed. But as a Sikh, we realize things are just getting worse. It's just getting started.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

So it was sort of this multi-faceted attack on every fabric of my body. And I drove home that day. I drove right past the Pentagon on 110. And as I was driving, you know it's sort of poetic in the most tragic way, someone tried to drive me off the side of the road. And so I was driving my car. A pickup truck pulled up next to me. They started waving their arms and yelling epithets and swerved their car, and I pulled over, and I was safe. But it was just sort of a very, very clear wake-up call that this is just going to be so much worse than anything we've ever experienced. And so I went back to my apartment and, you know, I watched the news. And I cried, and I talked to my family. But within 24 hours of 9/11, again, that group of loosely connected young professionals, we had a handful of lawyers, a handful of law students, some of us that were in business, some of us that were going to go to law school, some that were undergrad students came together and said, We've got to do something.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

We don't have an ACLU or an Anti-Defamation League, or an NAACP for the Sikh community. We just don't have that, and we need to create it. And so, we came together and created a database on September 12 to start tracking these incidents of hate crimes and profiling and employment discrimination. And within a week of 9/11, had come under the banner of an organization we called the Sikh Coalition. And initially with the idea that we were creating a coalition of all these loosely organized groups around the country of young Sikh people who wanted to make a difference. And so that really was the birth of the Sikh Coalition was in the hours and days after 9/11.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. It's not lost on me that there's this competing notion of identity and, of course, that's intersectionality at work. But on one hand, fully American, like full-blooded American, right, working through the same grief and processing mechanisms as the rest of the country, yet immediately othered in that same context. Right. So you can't be a part of that healing process fully because you're being sort of pushed out, at least at that point, maybe by fringe groups. And we know that that's escalated since then. I want to park here just a little bit and think about instances of violence specifically. And, of course, we can't lump all cultures together. But as of late, particularly in the last two to three years, random or intentional acts of violence against communities of color against Asian Americans against Sikhs has seemingly ramped up. And I'm wondering how that violence specifically impacts who you are as a professional. I know your work is, of course, fully professional, but there's an activist bend to it as well. Right. What you're doing as an inherently human rights function is that where the violence leads you? I'm just curious how it shapes your professional endeavors because you don't get the opportunity to just clock in nine to five and forget the world that attempts to other you or directs violence towards you. How does that shape your professional experience?

Amandeep Sidhu

Yeah. I think that we think about again these moments of inflection, and 9/11 was absolutely one of those. And then I think, undoubtedly, that the death of George Floyd was this really significant inflection point for our country for the conversation about race and police and discrimination, and that doesn't just extend to those limited pockets. It's extended into the corporate world and into the academic spheres. It has shifted the conversation in a way that I had not previously seen right like 9/11 was a shift in the sense that this happened. But it didn't change the conversation about how do we be more inclusive? It was how the hell do we avoid our people getting killed and beaten and fired and pulled off planes? And so, for me, I alluded to the fact that I've experienced violence and bigotry, and I've been the victim of hate crimes. I've been the victim of being chased and attacked by people because of the way I look. I've been pulled off of a plane during those months after 9/11 because I fit the profile.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

Quite literally, the words that were told to me was that I fit the profile of the people who did bad things in our country. And as I traveled with my team with the DoD security clearance badge on my belt. And so you know, for me, you mentioned the idea of that unmasking or inability to cover. You know, in the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation that happens professionally, there are these the idea of being your authentic self at work. The idea of covering that as people of color are their mechanisms that we use to cover our identity and speak in a certain way in the workplace and a different way at home or wear certain clothes outside of work and not in the workplace. And I think the reality for members of the Sikh community because we have such a visible, unmistakable, and, you know, not removable part of our identity with the turban. Is that we can't really use those mechanisms. This is who I am, and this is who I'm going to be in the workplace and who I'm going to be outside of the workplace. And I do feel an affirmative obligation to be an open book and to answer the questions whether they're good, bad, or stupid. I guess there is no stupid question. But I don't take any question from anyone, whether it's in the workplace or outside with a fence. I want to engage in that conversation. And if I can change one heart and one mind or ten or 20 or a thousand or whatever my impact can be, that's positive impact.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

And I want to make that change. But I also think that as we've had the conversation over the last year, in particular with the black community in America, I've only experienced an infinitesimally small fraction of what the black community has faced in this country over time and every individual's lifetime. But it does help me see what that experience looks like.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Amandeep Sidhu

And I just think that for someone to sort of walk-in someone's shoes, that's how you start to understand how bad it's been and why a community might feel oppressed. And a community might feel a level of injustice. And a community might feel like things have not been fair because they haven't. But when you have not experienced any of those bad things in your life, it's very hard to wrap your arms around that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, there's so much to unpack there, but I keep coming back to the fit-the-profile conversation, which I think is where a lot of the anti brown sentiment post 9/11 has come from. Yet random white guy picks up a gun and shoots up a warehouse. And I don't feel that the majority population experiences that same sort of fit the profile of discrimination. A lot of that goes back to aesthetics, right. And so, aesthetically, you present in a way that is bound to elicit some type of response, particularly for those that are looking for it. I'm wondering, has the conversation grown since 9/11? I mean, we like to think that we're doing better now, right? We are so progressive. We are so inclusive. Have the conversations shifted in a positive way? Are people more accepting of the aesthetic place of the turban and some of the other Sikh identity variables for lack of a better term?

Amandeep Sidhu

There is no question that we are in a profoundly different place 20 years after 9/11. And the conversations we had in those years after 9/11, every meeting with a lawmaker, every meeting with an agency, every meeting with folks from the White House or at the state level, wherever we were, in whatever environment. The baseline education level of like needing to explain the basics of the Sikh faith before we ever got to any of the substance that was what happened. And now there really is like, at least in most of those environments, a baseline understanding.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

And the laws have evolved in a way where it has become more adapted to the fact that we have a very diverse country and that includes members of the Muslim faith and Hindu faith and Sikh faith and other faiths where people are going to look a little different, and things are going to be a little bit different. But the way that that conversation has shifted has been through just a very concentrated and strategic level of outreach and education and lobbying, and the Sikh Coalition is one of those organizations. There are many others. And quite frankly, it's the allied organizations that also have started to and not started for now almost 20 years made the Sikh community a part of their conversation. So we're talking about the broader Asian American Pacific Islander community. The Sikh community wasn't necessarily a part of that conversation before 9/11. It was sort of a fringe and isolated piece. And those organizations were some of our first and most powerful allies after 9/11. The fact that the allyship with the black community, the allyship with the Muslim community. One of the things we did very deliberately after 9/11 as an organization with the Sikh Coalition and me personally is that we never said we're not Muslim. That was never the defense. And that would have been the easy thing to say. Is to say

Phil Wagner

That's so good.

Amandeep Sidhu

we're not Muslim. Why are you coming after us? But it wasn't just that we're not Muslim we are Sikh. But it is absolutely not okay to be attacking the Muslim community. This was not an act committed by a community. It was an act committed by fringe extremists that happened to consider themselves to be affiliated with that community. And as you alluded to, every community, whether it's white, brown, black, has elements that are going to commit bad acts and that cannot be attributed to the entire community. And one of the things that George W. Bush did very soon after 9/11 that made a difference was that he came out very publicly and he said, We're going to protect the Muslim American community. This was not an act that was committed by an entire community, and it's not okay. And that tone that was set at the top, it did diffuse right. There were still people that were shot and killed. There were still people that were brutally beaten. But it could have been a lot worse if the tone was not set in a way that it was at the top and carried down. And the difference, sadly, for the last four or five years, is that the tone that was set at the top of the last administration was one that just fueled the flames and empowered those that had these thoughts sort of under the surface and had been either intimidated by or diffused by having a black President for eight years. They, all of a sudden, were in power. To say and do whatever they pleased. And that's why you've seen such a significant uptick in hate crimes and violence against people of color in the last four years.

Phil Wagner

Again, so much to unpack there. And I'm struck by how gracious your framing is. I mean throughout all of the instances of violence and oppression and just the day-to-day rhythms of working through the world while Sikh. There's an incredible graciousness in your response and in your narrative recounting here. And I want to shift the conversation a little bit in response to that because it's really important to me that we don't look at any community that faces oppression through a victim lens. I don't want to just frame this as wow, your life is hard, it is hard because there's so much, I think, valuable opportunity to learn from your experiences and from your faith. And that's really the goal here, too. You speak from that place of grace. And I can't help but wonder if that's mapped on. I know that it's mapped on to the values of your faith. And so, as we start to part towards the end of our conversation, I'm wondering if you can share a little bit more on the potentials of Sikhism for informing our approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. What can we learn from principles or tenants of your faith to really do to go out and make the world, I should say, a more inclusive place.

Amandeep Sidhu

Thanks, Phil. One of the reasons we have this identity as Sikhs is that we are considered to be ambassadors of our faith. Ambassadors of those concepts of equality and justice and accepting of communities regardless of their origins. And the turban itself was worn as a beacon, a crown in and of itself was a rejection of some of the inequality that existed, right? It was worn by royalty in South Asia at the time. You had a caste system, and in Sikhism, one of the concepts that came about in 1699 with that creation of the Khalsa, the sisterhood and brotherhood of Sikhs. And the adoption of this identity was also the fact that every Sikh man received the name Singh S-I-N-G-H, which means lion, and every Sikh woman took the name Kaur K-A-U-R, which means Lioness or Princess. And that by taking on those names and giving up your surname, you were giving up your caste, and you were taking on a name that denoted equality. That everyone would have the name Singh, everyone would have the name, Kaur. And that shifted to middle names, and some of that class identity has come back. My last name is Sidhu, which it ties me to a region of Punjab. That's a farming community. But my middle name is Singh, but many and a large majority of Sikhs take just the name Singh or just the name Kaur, a sense of that equality. This idea of a Langar or a meal at the end of our services on Sundays or in India, you know, every day. Everyone sits on the floor regardless of your social or financial station. You sit on the floor during the religious service equal to one another. You cover your head out of respect. You take off your shoes out of respect. You eat a meal sitting on the floor out of respect. The meal while there are no dietary restrictions in the Sikh faith. The meal that's served is vegetarian, so everyone can come. And regardless of your religious practice or your dietary restrictions, you can come. And so people that travel in India or travel to larger cities in the U.S., they can just go to a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship and receive a free meal, because that's just sort of the way that they've operate. And so you see all these tragedies that are happening around the world with earthquakes and flooding and tsunamis and everything that's going on in India right now with the farmers protests outside of New Delhi challenging some of the oppressive laws that are impacting farmers primarily in Punjab and around the country. You see these Langers, these open meals that are happening there to provide resources and support to people who have been displaced or facing tragedy or homeless or whatever their experience is. And so that spirit of the Sikh faith is one of engagement. And there's an idea of Chardi Kala, like the idea that you are constantly in a state of overwhelming joy to do something good in this world. And so that idea, it really permeates like members of the Sikh faith. And so, it's not a unique thing to the Sikh faith. There are people across the world and across the faith community that have similar excitement about just doing good things in the world. But that is sort of baked into being a Sikh. And so, you know, for me, I'm not a victim. I'm absolutely not a victim. I remember after 9/11 sitting on my cellphone and watching the news and actually crying and thinking, what are we going to do? And that lasted one night, and then after that it was, what are we going to do? Because we need to do something. And for me, deciding to go into the corporate world and spend time my career now in the big law world. That wasn't a foregone conclusion that I would either do that or I would be successful doing that. But in and of itself, it became a challenge that I'm going to be a trailblazer by virtue of me being here. And if I'm able to make it, someone behind me is going to be able to make it. And I'm going to be able to mentor those folks that are coming up behind me, and I do. So that they are not the first. Right. One of the people that was one of my earliest mentors and friends that became a lawyer is Gurbir Grewal, who went to William & Mary Law School. And he was a 1 hour when I was a first-year in college, and we knew each other from before we were friends and became much more close while we were together in Williamsburg for three years. He was the first person who I looked to say, okay, a big law firm might be an option because he had done it. I didn't know any lawyers, but I knew one. Should I do a clerkship? He said yes. He went on to be a federal prosecutor and then a state prosecutor. And he's now the attorney general of New Jersey.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Amandeep Sidhu

He is the first turban-wearing Sikh attorney general in U.S. history. And so when I look to those people like that that have just been trailblazers in their experience and him being in that position, it sends such a strong message of acceptance. Such a strong message to say, the top law enforcement officer in the state of New Jersey who oversees every aspect of law enforcement in that state, wears a turban and beard. Wears it proudly. Doesn't hesitate to speak about his identity but also to speak about the values that are extended by that. So, you know, Juneteenth celebrations, LGBTQ celebrations, Asian American Pacific Islander History Month, whatever it has been, it's someone with a turban conveying the sense that these things are important to us as Americans and for him New Jerseyans. And so, anyway, that's sort of been my mode of operation throughout my life.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And there's something I think, so inclusion focused about Sikhism from what I understand. And I could be wrong because I'm not a part of the community, but the purpose the goal of Sikhism, unlike many other organized religions, is not to cultivate converts, right? You're not trying to steal from the Christians to add to the Sikh pile, right? The goal is to encourage deeper faith exploration in authentic ways for those people. Correct.

Amandeep Sidhu

That's absolutely right. Yeah, no, it's a faith that is the fifth largest religion in the world. They're about as many members of the Sikh faith as there are members of the Jewish faith globally. But in ultra-small minority. In India, it's less than 2% of the population, and it's more than billion people. So it's still a lot of people. But it's a small minority. In the U.S., they're about 500,000 Sikhs. And then you've got pockets around the world in the U.K. and in Canada and Australia and New Zealand and Africa. And so you have Sikh community around the world, in the diaspora. But, yeah, the purpose of the faith is not to grow the numbers per se but to spread the message.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

And the message is that there's a way for us all to get along. There's a way, and it's acceptance. It's accepting of the fact that people are different and they have different ways of living. They have different ways of having a relationship with God. And if we don't respect that, then we're going to have a world plagued with violence and discord.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and you tee us up well for what is my final question of today. The inclusion focus, the goal of cultivating authentic relationships, and really the centering of mentorship. I think it's highlighted well in this conversation. And so I'm wondering for my final question, knowing that mentorship sort of just flows from you, it's a natural extension of your faith. I'm wondering if you can offer any helpful words or insight or mentorship to those listeners who might find themselves in the place that you found yourself in 2000, right. In the pre-stages of becoming an unsuspecting trailblazer. What advice do you have to give those folks resilience to go out and make the changes when it's tough when the conversation isn't always friendly towards diversity and inclusion? What advice do you wish 21 year old you had before going out and changing the world like you have?

Amandeep Sidhu

Well, thank you and for overstating the impact that I've had, but I appreciate it, Phil. For me, if I look back, the path that I've taken was not by design. I didn't sit down when I was 18 and say, I'm going to go to William & Mary, and I'm going to graduate from William & Mary, and I'm going to go to law school, and I'm going to get a clerkship. And I'm going to go to big law firm, and I'm going to be a partner in seven years. And I'm going to do all this. That was not the conversation that I had. It was I'm going to figure this out along the way because my parents were immigrants. They came to the U.S. in the 70s. They both were in the science and medical community. That was all they knew. And so, for me to decide to walk the law school in and of itself was a very unique path to go down because they didn't know any lawyers. I didn't know any lawyers. The only thing they were familiar with was sort of the worst stereotypes of lawyers. There's a funny story of when I graduated from law school, I had accepted my clerkship, and I was getting a pro bono award from the Virginia State Bar, and my judge was sitting with my dad in the back of the room, and my father leaned over and said, you know, when Aman decided to go to law school, I was really not sure if he was going to do something good in the world. And my judge leaned over, and he was like, I think Aman's going to be okay. For me, as I embarked on that path, I was both tragically but also fortunately able to be part of the group that created this organization, the Sikh Coalition. I knew that that was something that I was deeply passionate about, and it was just a natural extension of what I had grown up doing as just my day to day on an education and outreach. But I also sort of had this alternate vision of, like, I want to make it. I want to do it in this corporate law world. And I think there's something that I can achieve there and an impact that I can have and expertise I can gain, and important work I can do when my health care and my sciences practice. But how do I make it all work? And again, not by design. But I was really lucky that I was able to frame this pro bono component of the work that I do in private legal practice. And so, I brought in the Sikh Coalition as a pro bono client of my law firm. We did a ton of work around hate crimes and profiling, and bullying in schools. And in 2009, we partnered with the Sikh Coalition to lead out on an effort to end religious discrimination in the U.S. military. And that could be an entire hour separate podcast. But I will just very briefly say that Sikhs had served with turbans and beards in the U.S. military for most of the 20th century. In the early 1980s effectively, there was a ban on all religious identity. So yamakas, beards, turbans, hijabs, everything was banned, and some communities were more organized, and the Jewish community was able to challenge and legislatively change the policy. The Sikh community was a little bit newer and smaller in the U.S., and so that ban effectively persisted. Until 2009, we had two clients who came to us and said, we're being told we have to shave our beards and take off our turbans to continue our service. What do we do? And we were able to put together a campaign that included media and lobbying and legal and everything else in between and get them accommodations. And then another guy behind them in 2010, and in 2016, we had to litigate a couple of cases. But in 2017, the Army changed their policy. So nine years after the launch of the campaign, the Army opened its doors, and now there are 70 turban-wearing Sikh service members in the U.S. Army. The Air Force followed suit, and we're still working on the Marines in the Air Force. But I've done that all from the perch of this corporate legal environment. And I've done it as a pro bono lawyer. And so going to your question on like what my advice is. Is that as you're cultivating what you're going to do professionally, right. If you're going down the track of business or academics or law or medicine or science, whatever it is, that may be your soul and life profession, and that's great. But if it's not, if there's something else that sort of makes you tick, there's a way to integrate it right. There's a way to find balance. And in particular, in the last few years and in the last year, even more specifically, where the awakening in a corporate world of what's possible in terms of corporate social impact is so high that find a way to balance that. And that's just generally good advice like balance what you're doing in your day-to-day. That's paying your bills. That's keeping your life sustainable. If there's something else, make sure you find a way to integrate that into your life because it can be deeply rewarding. And for me, it's been the work of. The thing I'm most proud of is the pro bono work I've done with the Sikh Coalition because I know that that impacted not just people's lives but the trajectory of history in this country.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Amandeep Sidhu

The first two observant Sikh men. We got them into West Point in 2017, and they just graduated from West Point.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Amandeep Sidhu

That wouldn't have happened if all this legwork hadn't been done. It wouldn't have happened if we didn't have the resources that came together to be able to do that. And so don't underestimate the possibilities of what you can do, you know, across different buckets because there's a way to do it.

Phil Wagner

Wow. I'm so inspired by all that you shared today, and again, there's so much to unpack, and I appreciate that because I think it will give our listeners a lot to think about in so many ways that I think can inform our approach to diversity, equity and inclusion and work. Thank you. It's all I know how to say right now because I think I'm still processing and learning from your approach. I think it's just incredibly balanced and mature, gracious, and thank you so much for sharing so openly. Thank you for your candor. Thank you for going to very vulnerable spaces and sharing some of the experiences post 9/11. It has truly been a pleasure to speak with you.

Amandeep Sidhu

Thanks so much, Phil. I really appreciate it.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes To Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

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