Diversity Goes To Work Podcast

Diversity Goes to Work is a podcast centering real, raw, andDiversity Goes To Work series art inherently human perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of work. Featuring guests from all walks of life, from internally acclaimed experts to everyday lay people, each episode seeks to do a deep dive into our common humanity in an effort to improve the quality and outcomes of our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Launched in 2021, Diversity Goes to Work releases 10 episodes per season. Season 1 debuts September 2021 and Season 2 debuts January 2022. Phil Wagner, a faculty member in Management Communication, hosts the podcast.

 Kathy Black
Kathy BlackEpisode 18: June 6, 2022
Age/ing Part 2

Kathy Black

Episode 18: June 6, 2022

Age/ing Part 2

Today we're continuing our conversation on aging and age diversity in the world of work with a true expert, Dr. Kathy Black. She is a professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida, a Next Avenue Top-50 National Influencer in Aging, Hartford Geriatric Social Work Factory Scholar, and an advisor for Age Friendly Sarasota. She joins host Phil Wagner to discuss aging in the workplace, what drives her personal interest in creating age-friendly spaces, what makes an "age-friendly" workspace, and so much more.

Podcast (audio)

Kathy Black: Age/ing Part 2 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How does dignity factor into age in the world of work
  • How autonomy relates to dignity
  • What role soft skills play in an age friendly environment
  • What are the benefits of an age diversified workforce
  • How the pandemic has affected the older workforce
  • How best to navigate communication differences between and among generations
  • How does the older workforce keep relevant in a world where wisdom has been replaced by data
Transcript

Kathy Black

The nowhere for retirement fills work, and many people will find themselves having to financially support themselves. We can talk about some of the macro policies surrounding that, but the reality is people will be in the workforce longer.

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. This week, we're continuing our conversation on aging and age diversity in the world of work. And we are joined by a true expert. Dr. Kathy Black is a professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida. She's a Next Avenue Top 50 National Influencer in Aging, a Hartford Geriatric Social Work Faculty Scholar, a fellow in the Gerontological Society of America, and an advisor for age-friendly Sarasota. Dr. Black has more than 40 years of experience working in the field of aging. She's been a practitioner, an educator, a researcher, and she's worked directly with older adults and their families as a geriatric case manager, a medical social worker, and a geriatric nurse in long-term care, hospital, nursing home, and community-based settings. She's got experience at every single level. She has conducted over 200 presentations in the field of health and aging at local, state, national, and global venues. She's been the principal investigator on more than a dozen grants in aging. She's authored over 50 peer-reviewed publications in top-tier journals. She's widely cited. She's a phenomenal expert. She is a dear friend and someone I am delighted to be able to host on today's episode. Kathy, thanks so much for joining us today on another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. I'm delighted to speak with you. I'm very familiar with your work. I'm very familiar with you, given that we were once colleagues, and I could not be more excited to hear your insight on age diversity in the world of work. Kathy, you spent your very impressive professional career really focusing on age. What drives your personal interest in creating age-friendly spaces?

Kathy Black

Well, Phil, it's an honor to be with you, and you are just an esteemed colleague. So truly, this is my privilege to be with you today. As you know, Phil, I have a passion for aging, as other people have a passion for what they do. And I just, from a very early age on, enjoyed older adults, love the stories, love the people, and literally have made a career caring about how people age. And of course, as society has continued age, it's more about how do we live fully across our life course, at every life stage and ability.

Phil Wagner

And that's what sticks out to me about your work, Kathy is that a lot of your work focuses on dignity, dignity among aging adults. From your perspective, how does dignity factor into age in the world of work specifically?

Kathy Black

Well, Phil, I'm glad you asked about that. And we did a study about a decade ago, and we asked the community, older adults in the community what dignity and independence meant to them. And Phil, as you know, I can take your blood pressure, I can get a blood value. But there is no barometer reading on dignity. It's very subjective. And what we found was that three main concepts and they really do apply to work as well. And that is this concept of autonomy, which is people's dignity is part of feeling that they have self-direction, self-choice. They can rely on themselves self-sufficiency. So that's very important. Again, it's subjective. People have different balance on these aspects. But autonomy was very closely related. There was a very strong relational component with dignity. That is, my dignity is also impacted on how I'm treated. So your recognition of me is part of my dignity. So respectful treatment. And by the way, it's also respectful treatment of others because you can't be in a dignified space if others are being treated without dignity.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Kathy Black

And again, there's a persona aspect here. I don't want to say that it's all embodiment, but for example, you do hear people say that they feel invisible or that they are judged as feeble, perhaps because of some changes. So that's a very important component of this sort of interpersonal relational angle. And then lastly, we also heard from people that it's highly intertwined with their identity. People have a sense of self-pride, acceptance, self-appreciation, self-worth. And that's an inherent worth. After all, we all have inherent dignity from birth, but also an earned worth. And so, again, it's a highly subjective construct but very important to all of us. Very much plays out in the work world.

Phil Wagner

It does, and it plays out in the pragmatic recommendations that you make based off of your work, too. Cathy, some of our listeners may not know that you've really spent a lot of your professional career cultivating age-friendly spaces, and you've been recognized for that work. Can you share with us from your perspective what is an age-friendly organizational space even look like?

Kathy Black

Excellent question. There is a certified age-friendly employer website now, and I'm quite impressed with it. They're professionals who have really pulled together, and people can be identified as age-friendly businesses. And I'll tell you what they're looking for. First of all, you do a self-study, and then you can do more to promote yourself. But they're looking really the entire gamut of the work world, from organization management HR. So, for example, that there's a commitment in workforce policies, organizational culture, employee relations, workforce planning, and composition, retention, candidate recruiting, management style, training and development, the content of the job, the process, work schedules, arrangement, compensation, healthcare benefits matter, a lot and savings and retirement benefits. So that's sort of some of the structural elements I also want to share with you. I was very impressed with this model that just was I think it was one of the last issues of the Gerontologist, which is the leading journal in my field. And they looked at age-friendly workplaces, and they really scoured what is out there in the work world. And so, an age-friendly work organizational culture. And so, by the way, that's a distinction. We could look at this from a societal level. We could look at this from an organizational level, from an industry level. We could look at this from a personal level. But what is an organizational and age-friendly workplace? Well, there's recognition and respect goes right back to those points and dignity that we talked about, that there's fairness and equality. People feel that they're being treated not because of age, which, by the way, is really chronological. And I'm going to come back to that in a moment that there's awareness phrasing. Phil, something we haven't talked about is there's an enormous diversity of age, and it's almost a joke to talk about age as a homogeneous, monolithic group. Phil, there are six generations alive today. Gen X is in their fifty's. The millennials are going to hit 50 in 2030.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for that note, Kathy. As a millennial, I appreciate the reminder.

Kathy Black

But the reality is we are so different. Now there are some normative changes with aging that are real, and there are some life circumstances that can just hit us that impact our ability to perform in a work environment. I mean, Phil, not all of us can stand on our feet all day. We can't do those twelve-hour shifts sometimes. Some of us have eyesight or vision issues affecting our ability to do tedious work with our hands, our eyesight, or even perhaps even driving in at different times of the shift. So, there's a lot of considerations when we listen to people in our community. We heard people talk about caregiving responsibilities. They want to work, but they've got people that are counting on them. Again, people have their own health issues, and so there's a whole bunch of circumstances. I'll just tell you a very famous study that was done in Germany with BMW. They found that there was a lot of errors in the various plants, and so they artificially populated one of their plants with older workers. And what they determined was that by changing the workplace, productivity increased. So, to not automatically assume there's nothing inherently wrong with the older worker, but the workplace can be adapted. So just getting back to that, there is this sense of awareness-raising because Phil look aging, and being older it's social construction. It tends to very negative connotation. It is learned you weren't born associating older with anything negative, but it has been learned. And so, it's going to take some relearning. The truth is we're living longer than ever before. We have much to contribute in social, economic, civic life. And so, we'll have longer working lives as well. And by the way, people need to keep working more, as many people are really unprepared for their extended longevity. And honestly, if you look across many industries, many organizations and industries are really gray, and they are really struggling with how do they encourage more people coming in? So, some of the things that organizations can do, Phil, again, in addition to helping change those attitudes and supporting those relationships. At the level of working with the employee, it's all about growth and development. We need to continue investing in people at all ages. And so, I'm sure you're familiar with the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes. So, we want to utilize those and continue to build on those. Lifelong learning is very important. Phil, our entire educational structure, you and I know this well, is quite linear. And it was built for a different time and space where there was demarcated points in life. You went to school. You worked. You're retired. Well, the nowhere for retirement fills work, and many people will find themselves having to financially support themselves. We can talk about some of the macro policies surrounding that, but the reality is people will be in the workforce longer, and many people want to continue contributing. So how do we invest and support their personal development, career development, manage their mobility across stages, and job enrichment? And remember, because health issues do become increasingly more common with age, how do we continue to work with people to work with their changing health? I was at a career Sun Coast meeting with an older 58 support group. They all were looking for work, and it was unbelievable to be there. And it broke my heart. I wanted to leave there, giving everybody a job. And I remember one woman so desperate and saying to me as I was leaving, I really desperately need to work. And I start dialysis next week.

Phil Wagner

Oh, wow.

Kathy Black

The issues are so real. So how do we help people stay healthy as well and keep them at the level that they want to continue to contribute? And when changes do occur, how can the workforce be redesigned? We heard about nursing stations again, nurses. The nurses are aging. The nursing workforce is continuing to get older. And so again, those twelve-hour shifts are hard on the feet, hard on endurance. And so, how do we redesign those workspaces? So, you're not walking as much, for example, recrafting roles, redeploying. Again, retention is going to be increasingly important. Even the front page of today's New York Times Phil was about China increasing their retirement age because their recognition, and this is very true in the United States as well. We need to continue to utilize older adults in labor because of the changing demographics. And the skilled workforce is not going to be there, and so part of that accommodation, Phil, is flexibility. And by the way, that works for all ages, flexible working, work-life balance, reduced workload. And I also want to share with you, Phil. I know that you will greatly appreciate this. Your listeners may not know this, but you are just such a gift in so many ways. But you were also very strong in critical thinking. You were all over that because your sense was people don't just learn things and get a degree, but it's the way they think and the value they add. Well, you should know that nearly every top ten list of future important work skills. And again, this is from the World Economic Forum. The Institute for the Future online learning platforms refer to what is needed today as soft skills, hard to quantify abilities, traits, mindsets, empathy, social, emotional intelligence, judgment, sense-making, communication. And, Phil, guess what? These things come with experience, and that's where we're at today. This is a highly prized and valued attribute that only you get with age. So, in fact, older adults add a lot of value to the workforce. And it's very important that organizations wrap their arms around that and really leverage that.

Phil Wagner

You knocked that out of the park, and you covered many of my questions in one because that's where we were going to go next is what are the benefits of having age diversity? And I think you've laid that point well. So, I want to go back to something else that you said, Kathy. Could you talk about changing times? And I think that story of the woman who's getting ready to go on dialysis and seeking a job really reveals the fractured world in which we live right now. Obviously, we're still in the midst of COVID-19. We're conducting this via Zoom, and all the complexities that come with that aside, we know that the world has certainly changed with COVID-19 changing everything we know about the world and the world of work. What changes for older or aging adults do you foresee coming?

Kathy Black

It's already happened. It's already happened. We saw it really during the recession. And it's also happening now. And that is older adults are those who do lose their jobs are far more likely to not return to that level of income or get a job. Again, we're seeing record numbers of people taking early Social Security, claiming disability. And we also have people reinventing themselves and entering into entrepreneur opportunities, really tapping into other ways to and again. Phil, it's about making money and surviving, but it's also about finding a sense of purpose and meaning. You look at the American ethos, and it is very much a very strong work ethic, particularly among boomers and the older age groups as well. And so, people's identities are heavily wrapped up into their ability to contribute and add. And so we want to have a work environments that are conducive to that.

Phil Wagner

That's excellent. I want to shift directions a little bit more and sort of harken back to the dignity framework that you laid out for us earlier. I work with multiple generations across our programs here, and that's one of the great things about our University, and our business school is that we get them from Gen Z to Boomers who come into our executive MBA program. What are some of the things or what are some of the most important things rather than younger employees Gen Z's, maybe young millennials should keep in mind when they're communicating with older employees. It's not just that ethic of respect. There has to be fundamental communication differences. That's why. Ok, Boomer sort of took off a few years ago. Right. Like, how do we navigate the communication differences between and among generations?

Kathy Black

In some ways, it's useful to look at cohort differences. After all, people were shaped differently. Certainly, Gen Z has grown up quite technologically literate and experienced major life events that have shaped who they are. Every generation has that. But sometimes, generations can be a barrier, and it really comes down to individuals. And some of the most effective things happening out there are really individualizing, personalizing, and pairing people. I'll give you an example. I have students write self-reflection essays what they learned constantly in my course. And I was teaching a sociology of aging course. And of course, we cover everything in their work, etc. And the student wrote that he said, it's because of your class. He must have worked in some environment. There was shift work that every week. I guess there was some shift opportunities that were more prized than others. But he said, Kathy, it's your class that helped me realize there's this older guy that they all didn't like. And it's your class that helped me realize he needed to work because he needed the money, he needed to take the day shift because he couldn't drive at night and that he needed to get out of the house because it was socialization for him and he had something to do. And that level of empathy, by the way, Phil goes both ways. It is not just about, oh, all of these things about the older adult. The older adult needs to also have empathy for that younger worker who's raising a family, who's struggling to put food on the table. So, it's respect. It all goes back to respect Phil and Phil. It doesn't just happen. I mean, sometimes workers just sort of connect, as you know. But what we know is that intentional design is really the way to go with that. And it has to be reciprocal that both are learning from each other. And the gifts are not always apparent. They're really sometimes special insights, but it speaks to our soul Phil when we connect with each other in those ways. And again, I will say that some jobs are just that. They're just a gig for somebody furthers their career. For others, they're a passion. So, again, so much depends on where people are at and what they're wanting in that work environment. But we can all make a difference in the sphere which we interact.

Phil Wagner

I love that. I think intentional design is key here in the Mason School of Business at William & Mary. We recognize sort of what can happen when you bring multiple generations together. And so, we've got a great program that some of our listeners might be familiar with called the Executive Partner Program, where we brought people in back to William & Mary, some alum, some who are just affiliated with the local Williamsburg community who come after serving sometimes decades in the world of work. And they come, mentor, our students work with them, and we create some great synergies across age boundaries. So, we asked some of those executive partners here in the Mason School of Business to provide a question for today, and they all sort of echoed the same themes. But this one was probably the most pointed. And so I want to ask you, one of our executive partners asks, how does the older workforce keep relevant in a world where wisdom has been replaced by data? And by data, they mean Google. Do you have any insight?

Kathy Black

So, we tend to glamorize technology. We are in a technological age. We are the Internet of things, driverless cars, 3D printing, AI. We glamorize technology. And unfortunately, we idolize youth. And I know that the median age at Google and Apple, and Amazon is quite young. But as you know, Phil, there are plenty of people at every age group who can be really great with technology. So, it is just a number. And part of the problem is we are focused on that. And there are some implicit assumptions, even in a statement like that, Phil. And look, Phil, there are no faults here. Technology changes are real. They are in the workflow. And I have a daughter who was working at a hotel, and I stopped in one day to see her, and she was working with an older woman. I said, oh, that's great, Alyssa. How are you doing? And she liked her. And then, a week later, she didn't care for so much. I said, why? She said she can't figure out the computer system, and it's taking her a lot of time to do her work for my daughter to do her work. So, there's an assumption that older people cannot learn. However, that's not really true. And part of it is older adults are sometimes their own worst enemy by being resistant to learning. But the reality is everybody brings gifts. We need to look at how to optimize those gifts and really question those assumptions because there are plenty of listen. There are 20-year-olds who aren't very tech-savvy. So, part of that is really, I think part of the mindset change that does have to occur.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love that. And I think that's sort of what I'm hearing in your answer is that relevance doesn't mean going out and learning Snapchat or ticktock, right. I think relevance is sharing the insight you have from your experience and fostering meaningful relationships across the generational span because that's what's going to really get us to the humanity. That's what's going to develop that empathy. That's what's going to get us to dignity. So that's super profound. I've got one more question for you, Kathy. It's like the one we ask everybody on this podcast. And in D&I work, I think we often wish that we just had a magic wand that we could wave and fix all of the problems related to those areas of D&I that we care most about. What is one thing that you'd like to see the world of work do to make itself a more inclusive place for aging and aging individuals?

Kathy Black

Well, I think I would probably say if organizations were able to recognize and promote these are little gems where we have businesses where older employees are valued, nobody really knows about them, or you happen to come upon them. But the more we share that and promote that externally as well, the more we start to change and counter some of those stereotypes that are out there. Remember, stereotypes are the beliefs. Wow. How could that be? I thought that I was starting to challenge that, and then it will affect prejudice it will affect discrimination down the road. And so, I think promoting that and recognizing that it's leadership and changing the narrative.

Phil Wagner

I love that changing the narrative. And that's exactly what we're trying to do through this podcast series, change the narrative by refocusing our D&I efforts back on those real, human-lived experiences. So, Kathy Black, thank you so much for joining and sharing some of your research and your insight. So profound. We so appreciate your time. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

Kathy Black

Great to speak with 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

 Kathleen Slevin
Kathleen SlevinEpisode 17: May 23, 2022
Age/ing Part 1

Kathleen Slevin

Episode 17: May 23, 2022

Age/ing Part 1

Today we are delighted to be joined by Kathleen Slevin, the Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Sociology at William & Mary. Kate is an award-winning researcher, teacher, and thought leader. She has served in a variety of administrative capacities at William & Mary, including Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. Kate studies the intersections of age and other mechanisms of social inequality, and joins us today to talk about ageism in the world of work and what we can do to combat it.

Podcast (audio)

Kathleen Slevin: Age/ing Part 1 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How ageism is openly accepted in the U.S.
  • What implications the gender discrepancy of ageism has on the world of work
  • Chronological age vs. functional age
  • What Kathleen learned about the intersection of age, race, and gender while writing her book "From Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones"
  • What are tensions between inequalities and privileges that are brought about by age in the workplace
  • How unpaid labor, like childcare, shapes the role of women in the workforce
  • How does the nature of retirement shift among race and gender roles
  • How has COVID impacted the planned retirement of older workers
Transcript

Kathleen Slevin

I'll always argue that if you want to understand people in the labor force, you really need a life course perspective. You need to see where they started. You need to see how they progress through the labor force.

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 another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Thanks, as always, for joining us. It truly is an honor to welcome today's guest to this episode. This episode is really exciting, not just because of the content but because of the prolific nature of our guest. Again, it's an honor to welcome Kate Slevin, who is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of sociology here at William & Mary. Kate is an award-winning researcher and teacher. She's a thought leader. She has served in a variety of administrative capacities here at William & Mary, including as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. And Kate studies the intersections of age and other mechanisms of social inequality. You are in for a true treat. So, Kate, thank you so much for joining us. Before we begin, why don't you go ahead, introduce yourself, tell us who you are, what you do, and then we'll kick off our conversation?

Kathleen Slevin

My name is Kathleen Slevin. I grew up in Northern Ireland as a member of the Catholic minority. I went to a Catholic boarding school in Northern Ireland, and then I went to University in Dublin. I studied sociology, and I came to the United States as a young woman after undergraduate school to the University of Georgia, where I did my degree in sociology. My area of concentration then was gender and gender inequality. And as I progressed in my career, I added an emphasis on age and studying age. And that became a very interesting segue into studying retirement and particularly women in retirement because there was almost in my discipline nothing written about women in retirement. What was written was really quite biased because the assumption was women retire much more easily than men because they go back to being housewives. Well, I said to myself, well, you know what? As a woman in the workforce, I never wanted to be a housewife. So it doesn't really make much sense that, as a retired woman, that would be the attraction to retirement. So that started a series of studies specifically on women in retirement and issues surrounding age and age inequality. And that's really. I have three books, two of them co-author, no all of them co authored, and I have a slew of articles, but they've all concentrated on basically gender and age. And of course, as a woman who is now in an old age myself, I find this kind of even more interesting as I now live what I have been writing about. So that's the short version of my life.

Phil Wagner

A short version, we'll take it. Part of what we try to do in these podcast episodes is do a deep dive in individual areas with the full recognition that, number one, that's impossible. And number two is not best practice. We know that there are so many identity intersections. And one of your books, though, Stumbling Blocks to Stepping really strong book on this issue, looks at the lives and stories of 50 professional African American women. What did you learn about intersections like between age and gender, and race in that project? Can you speak to that?

Kathleen Slevin

Okay, can I go back a little bit just to lay a foundation, because I think it'll make our lives much easier, as we discussed? So I want to first just talk about age and ageism just as a foundation because that kind of covers the ground for everything we'll talk about. So if you think about age, it's an identity, just like race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and all of these identities really serve as critical locations that shape our lives. And all of them are embedded, as sociologists would say, into social structure. So if you want to look at the workplace, the workforce, all of these entities are embedded into the social structure, and our jobs really are to expose the ways in which they're embedded. And when we do that, one of the things that we see is that age takes on a very unique and special place, especially in the United States. And in general, I will be talking about the United States but because there's a glorification of youthfulness in the United States, and there's a very strong ageism, not just in the workplace but in the society in general. Now, unlike racism and sexism, ageism is openly accepted. People make jokes about old people. Old people make jokes about themselves. So even among the old, it's the one identity, one might say, certainly one contrasted with gender and with race, where those who are occupying this stage of life really make fun of themselves. And we don't find that with race. We don't find that people of color denigrate themselves. We don't find that women, in general, denigrate themselves, but we do find with age that we have such a pervasive emphasis on being youthful in this culture that we do denigrate old age. And so if we look at ageism as a systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old, what happens is then we start to treat them as other, and that becomes a problem. And of course, that starts to intersect with other identities, whether it's gender being one of the most powerful ones because we know that women experience ageism earlier than men, and we know that in general, women experience more ageism than men. Part of that has to do with the fact that we live in a culture of youthfulness and we emphasize looking young. And so we put that onus on women more than men, so that when men start to age, we say, oh, to you, for example, you look so distinguished. Oh, don't you look such a lovely grey-haired man? He looks so distinguished. Women of the same age, we say, yes, they're really past their prime. So that becomes a problem that has all sorts of implications for the world of work. So we know, and I'm almost finished, that being old and the notion of old carries a very unique stigma with it. And we know that bodies, our bodies are the sites of the judgment about age. We live in a culture that where age is being biomedicalized. And so if you, Philip or me, decide, you know what, I don't like to look old. I really am going to do things to make myself look more youthful. I'm going to dye my hair. I'm going to Botox my face. I'm going to get cosmetic surgery. We now know that age a lot. We can't change our race. We can increasingly maybe play with gender, but we certainly can't change our race, but we can do things biomedically to make ourselves look younger. That presents its own set of challenges. And I'm going to make two other points about age. If we look at age, particularly as we are sociologists, we talk about chronological age, and that is obviously, I am 40, I am 50, I am 60, the chronology of age. And we know that people can be seen as old at different stages. And I'll give some examples, and it's important for employment. A woman model at 30 could be considered old. A professional football player at 40 is usually considered old, but a Senator who is 70 is considered an appropriate age to be in that role. So chronological age is a complicated and often not particularly useful way to look at people in the labor force. So that's number one. Secondly, we have functional age, and functional age is really about an individual's physical and mental capabilities. So are you Phil at your age? Are you physically and mentally? Do you have disabilities? How is your eyesight, how's your body strength, and so forth? So functional age is a much different thing. But the one thing that we know is that, unlike functional age, chronological age is a very poor predictor of many things, including what happens in the labor force. So I wanted to kind of lay that foundation.

Phil Wagner

No, that's such a good foundation because I think that it's so important to distinguish those avenues. And we just got done recording an episode for this series on size diversity and thinking about the Biomedicalization of weight and size configurations. So it really shows how malleable some of these are, while they're also permeable, such a good foundation. Let's talk about age, then, as an intersecting concept. So again, in that book, Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones, you really look at the lives and stories of African American women who are professionals and working through the intersections of age, gender, race, three really complicated intersecting variables. What did you find out in that project? What does that do to shape your understanding of the topic we're talking about?

Kathleen Slevin

Fascinating. Well, first of all, it's provided me with my own role model. These women provided me with my own role model for retirement. Why don't we look at these women? We looked at these women for a very pragmatic reason. They were part of a cohort where their white counterparts were typically not in the labor force or if they had been in the labor force. So these women, when I interviewed them, their average age was 69. They were highly educated. Twenty-four of them had master's degrees. Nine of them had PhDs. They were not typical, but they were women who had always been in the labor force, unlike their white contemporaries, because white privileged women, educated women at the time these women were coming up, dropped out when they had children. So to see these women through their life course in the labor force and then to see them in retirement presented us as sociologists with a very interesting way of seeing a group of women who had never exited the labor force and they had come through the labor force through tremendous systemic racism and tremendous systemic sexism. And so the intersection of those created for them life opportunities that had they been white and had they been male, many of them probably would have ended up being President of the United States or some of them. I mean, they were just so well qualified, but they worked in segregated they were almost all in education because that's all that was available to them. We have one lawyer. We have one MD. The rest were in education. That's what was available in the 1950s and 60s to educated women. So they went through their work lives in a very, very segregated system. We took a life course perspective. And I think I'll always argue that if you want to understand people in the labor force, you really need a life course perspective. You need to see where they started. You need to see how they progressed through the labor force. And so these women, in many ways, they were very successful, certainly compared to they were very successful they didn't have peers, let's put it that way. But race and gender very powerfully shaped their work lives. As I said, they experienced a lot of very blatant discrimination. Promotions they didn't get. Salaries they were in school systems. Once the school systems integrated, they were actually in school systems where they could demonstrate they could look at the statistics and find that they were getting paid several thousand dollars a year and less than some white women with less qualifications than they had. So the discrimination that they faced was really pervasive. But they were very resilient, strong women. So they were; also, I think one of the things that fascinates us about them, certainly compared to their white cohorts, if you look at white people, even today in the labor force, white people tend to take a very individualistic notion of success. My success is my success, and what I do is about me. Whereas African Americans and particularly women of the generation we interviewed, very much saw their role as race uplift. They saw that as educators, their job was not just to educate kids. It was to take particularly black kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and to give them the advantages and the education that they needed in order to succeed. They were conscious of that. They spent time with these kids outside school. They mentored these kids. They did what in the sociology literature is called race work. They were very conscious of doing race work. And then finally, I would say that when we talk to them as we were talking to them in retirement, we find that they engaged in tremendous unpaid labor in retirement. Unlike their white counterparts, who, for example, privileged white women would tend to go to museums and work as dolcents in museums, or they would work in garden clubs or whatever affluent white women do. These women spent their time working in the black community to advantage or to minimize the disadvantage, particularly young people in the black community were experiencing. So just one little example, when I would try to get on their calendars now, these are retired. Remember when I tried to get on their calendars, it often took me three to four weeks to get on their calendars. They were like, oh, no, I have three things to do this day, and I have to go to the school system, and I'm tutoring kids. It was unbelievable. So I think it underscored the way that race and gender intersected throughout their lives, the discrimination, the race work that they did, the unpaid labor that they did in retirement to really better their communities.

Phil Wagner

That unpaid labor is something we definitely want to talk through as well. We're going to run a podcast episode later in the series on the role that particularly people of color, and now I think Asian American people as well are carrying into the world of workplace from the trauma that exists outside. That doesn't go away when you clock into your nine to five, right.

Kathleen Slevin

Exactly.

Phil Wagner

All of the extra responsibilities that are carried along, and certainly want to explore that. But you've also written on age as a sort of prime space for social inequality. What are the tensions between inequalities that are brought about by age in the workplace? And then what about the privileges brought about by age, things like security and longevity, and all the things that come with tenure in the workplace?

Kathleen Slevin

Right. I think the most useful concept to help us explore that is the notion of cumulative advantage and cumulative disadvantage because if you look at cumulative advantage and you take a life course perspective, a man or woman, and let's say a white man, just for the sake of argument, a white man who in his earlier life has been very advantaged, has gone to the right schools, has been mentored by other powerful white men who have taken them along, who has played golf, who has had all of the unseen advantages that come with being a privileged person and being surrounded by privileged persons, then I think you see how cumulative advantage really works. And as that man goes up the hierarchy and then becomes an older man, you often find he is turning backward, and he is doing the same thing typically to other white men because that's who remind him of himself. So we know those stories of cumulative advantage, and then the other side of that coin is cumulative disadvantage. So you start off on the wrong side of the tracks. You don't go to the schools where you have the contacts. You get into the workforce. You're kind of marginalized in the workforce. Promotions come along, and for a variety of reasons, you don't get the promotion. Then you have how all of these issues play out of privilege and disadvantage. We know that men of color don't have the same advantages that white men have. We know that white women have advantages. And I would be a very good example of that myself. Even though I came as an immigrant, nobody stopped ever in my career. Nobody stopped and said, you know what? You talk weird. Where are you from? They would say, oh, I love your accent. Where are you from? Ireland. I love Ireland. And so they would love me. I had Turkish friends who were colleagues. And when they went into the classroom, for example, they had a hard time. Students were like. I don't understand you. Why don't you speak English the way the rest of us speak English? So there you see kind of cumulative disadvantage, even if you look, say, at white women.

Phil Wagner

But doesn't that change who then or how we teach? So thinking as educators, so often, we reduce this to a simple upward trajectory based on merit. Right. Like based on cumulative achievements. And I think fundamentally rewrites our pedagogical responsibility to prepare students with diverse experiences for the realities that may not be necessarily how it works.

Kathleen Slevin

Yes. Well, let's even talk a little bit there, Phil, about diversity within groups, and that's kind of what I was hinting at. But one of the things that we do when we stereotype is that we homogenized members of the group. We treat them all the same. All old people are the same. All Latinos are the same. All Asians are the same. And we know that that is such a false way, whether we're in the labor force or not, to homogenize people. For example, if you look at immigrants, somebody could be a recent arrival. They could be a fifth-generation American. Hispanic or Latinx are very diverse. You have Mexican Americans who are mostly seen as Brown. You have Puerto Ricans who are mostly seen as black. You have Cubans who are often seen as white. You have Asians who are also very diverse. You have Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean. So the extent to which, whether in the workplace or the real world, that we homogenize a group and say, oh, they're all immigrants, or they're all Asians, or they're all whatever, we're doing an enormous disservice to diversity. Does that make sense?

Phil Wagner

That makes total sense. I couldn't even respond because I'm really trying to process because there's such nuance here. For as much as we're talking about age simultaneously, we aren't. Because we can't, right. That goes back. You cannot reduce down to just the simplest root of it all because those roots are so intersectional. It's so strong. So there seems to be another layer of inequality here. And you hinted at this just a bit ago that your work really touches on. And then, when we think of the labor force, the labor market, when we think about labor, we think of paid labor. Right. Can you speak to the issue of unpaid labor, particularly for women, and how that shapes their role?

Kathleen Slevin

Yeah, there's a huge amount written in sociology about unpaid labor, and I've always loved that literature. And, of course, when we talk about unpaid labor, it's not exclusively the labor of women, although it is certainly predominantly the labor of women. And when we look at it in the case of women, we need to look at women who are working outside the home. So we know, for example, that working mothers, full-time working mothers spend 50% more time each day caring for kids than fathers. That's unpaid labor. We know in this century, and we know in the last certainly 30 to 40 years, that men have been much more engaged in household work than their fathers or grandfathers were. But still, women still carry the burden. And I'll give you a very personal example. When we talk about, we're going to talk more about COVID. I have a daughter who's in her 30s, married, with two young children, very privileged. She's a fertility nurse. Her husband is a Vice President of a start-up. They have two little kids under four and six. COVID hit and the nanny. So they were privileged enough to have a nanny. The nanny got freaked out, and she said, I'm out of here. And the five-year-old was starting kindergarten online. So my daughter had to quit her job. Now, why did they decide that? They decided that because her husband made more money than her. Again, the unpaid labor by default came to the woman in the family, and she was the one who has to. She is the one. It's not that he doesn't help, but she carries the burden of the unpaid labor of childcare. So childcare is a very important part of unpaid labor. But throughout the life course, another very important part of unpaid labor is looking after older members of the family, or if you're at my stage, looking after grandkids. And those are the jobs that fall predominantly to women, particularly in the United States. And, of course, the pandemic absolutely ratcheted up the pressure on women to do that unpaid labor, even more than they had been doing, for they were working two jobs.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. We're going to have the pandemic for sure because I want to set it up. But you raise this notion of this sort of mythical ideal of empowerment that comes from being a woman and being active in the workforce. And there's this other mythical ideal we have surrounding much later in life, which is retirement.

Kathleen Slevin

The golden years.

Phil Wagner

The golden years, right. Like the very idea of retirement that varies greatly by demographic. That's mythical, too, that there's this automatic dream that we think after a 40-year work career, we're just going to settle in and play golf forever, right.

Kathleen Slevin

Look at the ads on television, Phil. You see a very good-looking, predominantly white, sometimes upper-class Blacks. They're standing on a dock. They have a glass of wine in their hand. The sun is setting, and they're just like, what will we do tomorrow? We've reached the good life and so forth. That's such an anathema to what most people experience. That's the life of white affluence. That is not the life that working-class men experience because many of them have to re-enter the labor force in order to make enough money to survive retirement. And, of course, it most certainly is not the life that women, unless they're extremely affluent, have.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. So how does the nature of retirement from the perspective of your work, how does that shift than by those demographic intersections? Can you observe that in any way?

Kathleen Slevin

Yeah. Well, I mean, if you look at social class, you certainly can see that blue-collar. Let me backtrack a little bit. So you have a situation where you have bodies that are not stressed on a daily basis in terms of your physicality. If there's stresses because you go to the gym or because you go running or whatever, you do not have a job that debilitates your body. Blue-collar men of all races have jobs. And women, whether they're waitresses carrying heavy trays or they're working for Amazon, and they're on their feet 14 hours a day, and their legs are killing them. Their bodies, for lack of a better word, disintegrate much earlier in their lives than people of privilege, like all of us who sit at desks, men and women who work in the fields and are the laborers who are providing our food for us, the same thing, back-breaking work without adequate health benefits. So there's the other part, adequate health benefits. So I used to always say to my students, look at me, a privileged woman who has had excellent health care all of her life, who has had nothing but the best, who exercises for pleasure, who keeps fit. I'm 73 now, and I say this is what 73 and privilege looks like. Take somebody who's 73 who's been working in the fields. Their bodies are going to be in much worse shape. And the way in which they enter and exit the labor force is going to be shaped by their bodily, the way that their bodies have been disintegrating, for lack of a better word. Does that make sense?

Phil Wagner

It makes total sense. And this is not a planned question. So sorry for any surprises, but you keep using this word, that it's the P-word, right. And that's privilege and even teaching diversity courses among students and certainly working among faculty and business professionals. That word is a bad word. I mean, that is a word that elicits so much emotion. Is that just sociological lingo, or how do you make that term palatable?

Kathleen Slevin

How else can you describe the advantages? Call it an advantage. In sociology, it's not a bad word. It's just a descriptive term. It's a non-pejorative descriptive term to describe the lives and the work experiences, but the lives in general of people who have been advantaged by health care, by education, by choices of jobs in the labor force, by availability of childcare, name all of the aspects that create advantage.

Phil Wagner

And the work that you do is so helpful in illuminating that conversation because I think when we work with students to simply recognize privilege as not something to fear or be ashamed of but as a catalyst to produce change, you get those knee jerk reactions to say, well, I had a tough go of it. I didn't grow up rich, and it's so much deeper than that. And it's those intersections again that I think thank you for the work that you do. You talked about COVID earlier, and we want to ask about that as well. So we're certainly still in the midst of COVID-19. As we record this, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not sure what the other side will look like, but we see another perspective or change coming, we think. So. How has COVID impacted the planned post-professional or retirement life of older workers? Do you have any insight on what COVID did?

Kathleen Slevin

I don't think we know yet, but what do we know, or what can we conjecture? Well, we know that age and older age makes workers much more vulnerable to the virus, and so we know that many had to quit work unwillingly in order to minimize the risk of dying or getting infected. Now, that's if they could afford to. But if they couldn't afford to, and many millions could not afford to, whether they were on the front line, they were essential workers, and so forth. They had no option but to go to work and expose themselves. And many, particularly minorities and people of color, have died at much higher rates because they did not have a choice. The three of us had a choice to sit in our lovely houses and work online. And that is not a choice that everybody has had. And let me give you an example of again of age. I listened early on in the pandemic. I listened to the school Superintendent of Virginia Beach talking about how the teachers her supply of teachers had changed. And she said typically, in a summer, I would get 20 unexpected retirements. And she said last year, in one month, I got 200.

Phil Wagner

Whoa.

Kathleen Slevin

I got 200. Now, teachers, certainly they're not, on the scheme of things, well paid, but they do have advantages that blue-collar people do not have. They have pensions or some form of financial security that allows them to withdraw from the labor force. They may re-enter at another time, but they can withdraw in a way that a blue-collar person can't afford to withdraw. They have to pay the rent, and they don't have a pension, and they don't have a 401K, or there's not enough in their 401K to cover everything. So I think in that way, age and privilege intersect in very interesting ways. And, of course, the ways in which everybody's retirement income has been affected by COVID remains to be seen. People may have to work longer. They probably will have to work longer, particularly those in the service sector. And those in nonunionized jobs because they're going to have to make up for loss. They're going to have to make up for lost time. And many of them have been in tremendous and are in tremendous debt. That's going to take them years to get out of. So their retirements are going to be well. They will not retire. That's my prediction. They will die with their boots on because they won't be able to retire. But as opposed to again, I use that term, not pejoratively privileged, particularly privileged white men, when they exit the labor force, sometimes they re-enter by choice, and they become consultants.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Kathleen Slevin

That's a choice. Most blue-collar people who exit and re-enter the labor force do not do so as a choice. They do so because they need the income. So I think COVID, of course, everything you read about women have said that COVID has knocked working women back ten years, and I believe it. And certainly the example I gave you of my daughter, she's lost a year of income. She's lost a year of contributions to her 401K. She's lost a promotion that she could have had. That's going to be the story for many women. Now, on the other side of that coin, she could afford to only do the unpaid labor.

Phil Wagner

There's so many again, I keep using the term, but complicated intersections for as dire as the situation is, the goal of our podcast, the goal of our teaching, I think the goal of our day to day work is recognizing that we don't have a magic wand to just wave and fix everything. But by creating awareness and a sense of personal responsibility and ownership, we can start to address some of the systemic inequality as it relates to these issues. But let's assume that we did have a magic wand because I sit and think about that often. If you had a magic wand and you could just wave it, what is one thing you would waive it, and you'd wish that the world of work would do to become a more inclusive place for the people that you've worked with and what your work has revealed.

Kathleen Slevin

I have thought about this so much since you raised it. It's not one answer.

Phil Wagner

Okay. That's all right.

Kathleen Slevin

Okay. So I would say if I were to take the absolutely global big picture, what would it be? It would be, again, taking a life history perspective. And I would say we need to begin by reducing inequities and disrupting all of the ways that needs to be disruptive so that we can get a fairer and more level playing field. So that we would realign labor market policies with schools, with daycare systems, with the modern realities of working parents. Then we would have a permanent federal paid parental leave policy that we would have subsidized daycare, that we would enter the 21st century, for God's sake, like most of the Scandinavian countries, and say, you know, this is the reality. We have fathers and mothers in the workforce, and we cannot ignore that. We cannot leave them on their own. So it would be to create a world of work that reflects the real world. And of course, you know this, work in the United States, people are obsessed by work. It takes a dominance in their lives. Now you say, well, it has to because I have to make a living. But if you look at vacations in other Western, quote, developed economies, you find that when my husband goes with me to Ireland or to France, he's like, oh, my God, they're on vacation all the time because people do not work. They don't live to work. So I think that the United States, I don't see it coming in my lifetime, but I think that we've got to improve wage equality. We have got to decrease the gender-race gap. We've got to be realistic and say we've got to realign or align our policies with the real world. Does that make sense?

Phil Wagner

It makes such sense. And I'm just sitting here so inspired. For as important as the work is that you do, you're also just a delight to speak with. So if you ever lecture, count me in as a student in the front row because I think we're both here to learn, too. We've committed our lives to this. Our research focuses on this. But for every element, you know, there are some elements that you do not or areas that can continue to grow. I really appreciate you taking the time to educate us. I look forward to reading more of your work, but this means so much to us. I think it's going to just take this conversation in such a powerful direction. So now that we greatly appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Kathleen Slevin

It is my pleasure.

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 is here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Amalhin Shek
Amalhin ShekEpisode 16: May 9, 2022
Advocacy as a Professional Endeavor

Amalhin Shek

Episode 16: May 9, 2022

Advocacy as a Professional Endeavor

Today on the show we're joined by an alum of William & Mary, Amalhin Shek. She has spent the last 8 years working for US Aid in a variety of different capacities; from COVID-19 response to Malaria response in Latin America and the Caribbean. She brings an impressive background in research, planning, and strategy, and today discusses what it's like to work in the field of advocacy in various different countries around the globe.

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Amalhin Shek: Advocacy as a Professional Endeavor TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • Amalhin's career journey through William & Mary to US Aid
  • What drives Amalhin to do the work that she does
  • What Amahlin has learned about DEI in her work
  • How the global picture of diversity, equity, and inclusion informs the modern landscape of DEI work
  • What it means to be a professional activist
  • Reconciling the pursuit of foreign aid with the threat of colonialism
  • Best practices for those who want to enter the professional world of advocacy
Transcript

Amahlin Shek

Solutions cannot be made and designed in our little Ivory towers of the agency and headquarters. The solutions have to be local because, at the end of the day, problems, yes, are local, but they do not respect boundaries. They're generally regional in nature.

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 again to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real, human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. I'm joined today by an alum of the College, somebody who's doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work in a different way than what you might suspect. Amalhin Shek has spent the last eight years working for U.S. aid in a variety of different capacities, working on everything from COVID-19 response to Malaria response in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is her current role. She was a student at William & Mary, and she got her B.S. in public health here. Along with an MPH at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health. She brings an impressive background in research, in planning, in strategy. Amelia, welcome to our podcast and thank you for joining us.

Amalhin Shek

Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Phil Wagner

So my first question is probably a little bit simplistic to you, but you bring such impressive experience. Can you break down for us a little bit more of who you are and the work you do day-to-day?

Amalhin Shek

Yes, absolutely. So I finished up at college with a degree in public health. I really dove into that by virtue of being a member of SOMOS, a Student Organization for Medical Outreach and Sustainability, where I had the opportunity of traveling to the Dominican Republic at least once or twice a year and really getting a sense for what fieldwork in the global health field actually entailed. That led me to decide maybe I don't want to stay on the pre-med route, maybe I don't want to be domestic and do just the clinical work, and drove me really in the direction of global health programming, design, and management, which is where I am now. And so I will caveat that I am here in my own capacity as an alumna of the College, and any of the opinions or views that I express are my own and not necessarily those of USA. So that brings me to where I am now, which is currently where I serve as a Malaria advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And so, in my current role, I work with a range of our implementing partners, foundations, other U.S. government agencies, including the CDC, truly design and implement activities that are aimed at controlling and eliminating malaria in the Americas. As a member of our Bureau health team, I also backstop our South America regional health programs with a primary focus on our work in Bolivia and Venezuela. And so we are a tiny team. So as an umbrella over each of our scopes is really the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before moving into this role, I worked on our Emerging Pandemic Threats program, where we were implementing the president's global health security agenda and our Bureau for Global Health and doing everything from Ebola, Yellow Fever, and obviously, most recently, COVID response to also really instilling a sense of a one health, a planetary approach to emerging stenotic disease prevention, detection, and response.

Phil Wagner

Just such an impressive background, and Amalhin, I know that you bring experience in research and in policy. I mean, you worked in research here at William & Mary. That was one of your professional roles. I'm curious what drove you to do this work? You know, today, we're thinking about casting a much wider net on what diversity, equity, and inclusion work looks like. And of course, of course, this isn't you being a D&I officer, but what you do certainly has an inclusion-focused, that planetary approach. I'm wondering if you can speak to what drives you to do this work.

Amalhin Shek

Yeah. So I could say; personally, I'm the child of two professionals who, in their roles in the U.S., were primarily educators, but also my dad worked in the health field as a clinical psychologist for a public school system. My mom's first career was an optometrist. I think that both education and health are kind of just in my blood. As a child of immigrants, however, though, I also just have this desire to learn, meet, understand, and interact with as many different cultures and backgrounds as possible. And just by virtue of the experiences I've had in traveling in my William & Mary experience, meeting so many peers from just all over the world and really learning about just the diversity of backgrounds, not just ethnic and cultural, but also in terms of just lived experiences, I would say a lot of that just kind of drove that desire to make sure that in my career I could work globally, and I could address the moments in situations where I saw issues of inequity and where I could really say what I felt needed to be said about social injustices. And by virtue of having this interest in health and a science background at the College, have been able to more or less combine those two interests when it comes to designing our programs and really working with the array of implementing partners, but also multilateral agencies and donors that are, in essence, trying to collaborate to solve a lot of these big challenges in global health.

Phil Wagner

You set up perfectly for where we're going next. You've been on sort of the front lines of some strategy and planning on really important global health initiatives. Of course, we're talking about COVID-19, but also malaria, other global health crises that have fleshed out. I'm wondering in that capacity, science background, research background, policy background. But what have you learned about diversity, equity, and inclusion in your work?

Amalhin Shek

Yeah. So one of the biggest pieces and something that I would say all international development and donor agencies are still grappling with and will continue to grapple with for at least a little bit longer is that solutions cannot be made and designed in our little Ivory towers of the agency and headquarters. The solutions have to be local because, at the end of the day, problems, yes, are local, but they do not respect boundaries. They're generally regional in nature. And so you need to one learn from the local experts, learn from the lived experiences of the communities that you're serving, and making sure that you have that multitude of voices at the table so that you can both learn from colleagues from across different regions, but also help promote, again, that trans boundary. I don't want to call it south to south, which is what we say generally, but country to country and partner to partner collaboration, teaching, and learning. One big example of this from my partner portfolio, the president's initiative, is that recently a group of African scientists wrote an open letter to PMI, essentially calling us out on an approach to just the way that a program was designed in a manner that it did not really tap into the voices of local leaders, local experts. And the response was one of acknowledgment, one of humility, and one of ensuring that we moving forward, can create those equitable and dignified partnerships and really making sure that we really tap into the ideas of those who share these lived experiences of the communities that are most affected by the diseases that will strengthen all of our collective work.

Phil Wagner

This is so good because it speaks to so many of the themes that we've explored with our other guests. I love how you talk about the Ivory tower solution, and I think so much of D&I work, even in sort of the Western organizational frame, follows that approach. Right. A bunch of academics or consultants got together, pull up a plan or a blueprint, make an acronym, send it out as the package to be adopted. But this is contextual. And certainly, on the global framework, there's context, there's humility. There are so many great themes on the list. I appreciate you really speaking to those as well. And to that point, I think so much of our D&I work specifically is really Western-centric. And I think I'm guilty of that even on this podcast or sometimes even in the way that I teach because we work with so many students here in Williamsburg. We're going to go out to typically organizations in North America. But your work has taken you global. What I love about our programs here is there's a strong global footprint. I'm wondering from your perspective what that global picture of inclusion tells us about the modern landscape of diversity and inclusion work. Can you speak to the global clarification that might come from your work?

Amalhin Shek

Yeah, I would say kind of following this theme of really decolonizing development and global health. And just again, that Western approach to our problem solving, it does have to be grounded in a bit of self-reflection and introspection in terms of our role in problem creation. And so one piece of it really is taking that step back and thinking about the power dynamics when we're thinking about the development of the solutions, considering who the experts are and how we view that, but then also really becoming aware of our biases, admitting them and making sure that we are inviting the local experts who for generations in most places have been the ones doing the biodiversity conservation work, have been working on matters of land rights and really protecting their environments. But I think the other piece of it is making sure that in our own Western coordination of the work, making sure that we are inclusive, that we're flexible of the different lived experiences, the different types of degrees that people come with, and making sure that we're not limiting these dialogues to just the folks with the Ph.D. or the bench research experience, and that we are including folks from all countries of origin, from all walks of life and levels of experience. It doesn't just have to be the person with the multiple titles, multiple degrees. You can learn as much from somebody who has been a community organizer as you can obviously from somebody who has been in the research mix for a long time. And I think really, at the end of the day, we do have to consider who it is that's in control of the design of implementation and who's getting credit and take into account that this Western-centric approach won't work everywhere. It's not the most sustainable approach either. And really, ultimately, what we need is that community-based understanding of the power dynamics. And it's not just at the international level. It's really sub-national levels, even just the household levels in our work. We have to consider that sexism, racism, classism, the just caste systems playing out differently across different regions of the world has to be considered. And again, really, at the end of the day, acknowledging our own role as the Western world in all of this and really reconciling with the fact that many of the inequities we see, for example, right now in my current role, a lot of the inequities we see across Latin America and the Caribbean are rooted in colonialism and both in that original Spanish conquistadores but also recent interventionism. We do have to kind of consider what are the ramifications of these efforts and how we move forward from that, and again, are humble in admitting and reconcile and improve our work moving forward.

Phil Wagner

I'd think that you speak to so many things, again, that many of our past guests have spoken to as well, particularly as it relates to taking up space or dominating space in this conversation. These problems are complex, multifaceted, and span the entire globe. So there's room for everybody. But it's about being mindful of role and power and space and voice. It's really powerful, Amalhin. Part of our goal in this episode, as I mentioned to you, is to really cast a wider net on what it means to do D&I work. I teach a lot of students at the College, but I teach a lot of graduate students across almost all of our graduate programs. And I'm seeing a real hunger, a professional hunger, to do diversity and inclusion work. These are deeply held convictions that students have. And so, I think your work is a great sort of snapshot as to where inclusion passions can drive you towards professional endeavors. And so, I want to toe that fine line between employment and advocacy. You work in a field where your professional experience is, at least in some capacity to me, activism. Right. I mean, you're active on behalf of communities who need assistance. Do you see this as activism? Does USAID see this as activism? I'm just wondering what your sort of lens is as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion, and activism as it relates to the work that you do. Can you clarify for us?

Amalhin Shek

Yeah. So again, that personal capacity, and I guess just thinking about the definition of the word activism and something in considering this, is that at its root and in the most basic of senses, you can look at activism as campaigning for some kind of social change. And when we think about USAID versus, obviously, the personal perspective of the agency's employees and why those of us who go into development go into it. I think we kind of find this middle ground because we might have on one end of it, the technical advocacy, and then on the other piece of it, professionals who are, like, extremely passionate about their technical roles to a point of being activists on them. At the end of the day, as an agency, we're working on this ongoing social change. And so that's obviously something that is both internal to the place of work within our agency. We have employee resource groups. We have our Hispanic employee Council and foreign affairs agencies, where part of our work really is looking at how we shift policies to make sure that we are recruiting, retaining, and promoting members of the Latinx community within the agency. Our women at aid group does the same for making a workplace that is more women supportive, friendly. And so, there is quite a bit of that inside of the workplace. I think that it's something obviously that 2020 drove home for so many industries and for so many workplaces. But I guess when we think about it externally facing in terms of the work that USAID as a technical agency does, is that we, at the end of the day, have a role in implementing U.S. foreign assistance using that sound technical evidence. So we have experts in fields ranging from agriculture and biodiversity conservation to HIV AIDS to veterinary science, to world-renowned economists who are working in their respective technical areas and in their regional bureaus and missions to essentially design programs that are addressing the key development challenges of our partner countries. And so because we have this technical approach, I don't think that we can call it direct activism, but rather the fact that we are motivating social change by enabling citizens of our partner countries to not just come to us and tell us and help us identify the problems, but ultimately collaborating with them and our host country governments to really create those enabling environments to address those challenges.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think that fits perfectly with the interest of many of our students. Right. That there is, again, this deep-seated hunger to drive forward positive social change and to marry that with a professional skill set. And I think your work is a great example of how that can be done to truly impressive and impactful professional endeavors. So thanks for toiling with the nuances of language there for us. Amalhin, we talked about this a little bit earlier, and I want to circle back because I think it's an important question. You talked about being mindful in your approach and how even USAID and development as a whole very mindful of context and location sell to sell. I'm wondering how you reconcile working in foreign assistance with an understanding of the colonial impacts that foreign policy can have, sometimes in well-intentioned but unhelpful ways. How does that play out, particularly the personal level, somebody involved in those development efforts?

Amalhin Shek

I will be totally honest. It's difficult. There are days when I may be hearing a conversation, hearing an anecdote, and really have to go through the mental gymnastics of understanding the history and the rationale from one perspective while considering the foreign policy piece of it. Right. And kind of the various ethos of agency of where I'm working. And so I think that for anybody who is again, a child of immigrants and our parents came to the U.S. for opportunity and for whatever reason, parents and family leave their countries of origin, I think that we do have to and have to take advantage and get the opportunity and take advantage of the privilege that we have in having had the experience of going to a University that allowed us to explore what we were interested in and that really developed those technical skill sets that then in our professional lives, empower us to think critically about these issues and also come to solutions, whether it is in the specific way the project is designed or the way in which we're empowered to ask our implementing partners or ask the folks on the ground to do the work in a way that is inclusive and in a way that is responsive of those potential unintended consequences as I speak to just our role in admitting our wrongs or failures and reconciling those. One example of that is through our current environmental and natural resources management frameworks efforts, where we're really looking at addressing environmental justice as a social justice issue. And so this means inviting diverse voices that we haven't traditionally brought into these discussions and making sure that those voices are included in the hiring decisions for our technical leadership roles, for our implementation roles, and really making sure that when we are thinking about the design of these initiatives, the design of these programs, we're making sure that all voices are at the table. I think it does take a lot of self-reflection. It can take an emotional toll. And so I think that is a place where for folks wanting to do activism and wanting to enact social change, I think we do have to remember to take care of ourselves and to really establish our boundaries so that we are able to play the long game because it is, I think, a multi-generational set of challenges that we are going to be working to change and turn around. So a lot of self-reflection. A lot of self-care.

Phil Wagner

For sure, and the same holds true in even Western extensions of D&I work, albeit to a significantly different capacity. Right. That you have to always be mindful that what once worked or what was well-intentioned may not play out as we had intended. You've got to pivot in the moment. Such great advice there, Amalhin. I have one more question for you, and I really appreciate you being willing to come on and share. One of the true benefits, I think, of this podcast is to get the opportunity to speak directly to leaders in the making. We hope to develop them, so they become people like you. And so, I'm wondering what advice you might have for those who are coming through their undergraduate or graduate experience, even just getting started in the world of work listening to this podcast. What advice do you have to those folks who want to dedicate their future to advocacy in some way? Any lessons learned from your journey?

Amalhin Shek

Yeah, I definitely would say try as many different things as possible and become exposed to as many different disciplines as possible because it is in that ability to think multi-sectorally interdisciplinarily, which is something that we get at William & Mary, but something that you don't want to lose. A skill that is going to be so critical to being able to empathize with folks of different types of industries from different sectors. Because half of this is, I would say, getting in the head of your audience and communicating to your audience in a way that emotes with them, obviously, while still remaining true to yourself. And so I definitely say don't say no to new opportunities once you get into the workforce, attend as many of the brown bags side sessions and meetings on topics different from the one that you work on so that you have at least that exposure and can speak to different thematic areas in their languages. And I would say the other piece too is really don't be afraid of reaching back both to those students that are younger than you because, within the College itself, things are changing every year. The research is evolving. And so I think staying in touch with what's happening in higher education is super helpful, just as much as reaching back to those peers and colleagues that are older than you and really getting a sense of the different opportunities that are available and obviously the different paths required to get to those. And at the end of the day, I think making sure that you take that time to slow down and not let yourself be burnt out because there are so many issues to solve, so many issues to address. And really, again, it is a long game. I don't know if we can go into if you want more development specific.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I mean, I would love to go there, at least in part because, again, we try to mint our students with a significant focus on the global experience. And so we have many who come from sustainability, who are interested in development. So if you have any takeaways, that'd be great.

Amalhin Shek

Yeah, for sure. And so I'd say when it comes to the international development sphere, we are so grounded and mired in like, oh my gosh, I need to have the international experience, I need to have volunteered or done like students helping under some of us or what have you. But at the end of the day, working in international development, it's less about where have you lived and can you handle living in a resource-limited setting? And more about how effective are you at that cross-cultural communication and dialogue? How effective are you at understanding the real situation on the ground and, where needed, communicating on behalf of your partner on the ground? And so, if it is AmeriCorps Vista or whatever domestic resource-limited setting, volunteering, or work experience, you can apply that to an international career. Obviously, having a second, third, or fourth language is really helpful. Myself I'm bilingual. I grew up speaking Spanish in my household, and having that kind of ability to dialogue with partners and ministries of health in a second language is really helpful. So if you are able to learn a second language, definitely do recommend that. But I think really, at the end of the day when we think about the international development sphere, it is just how can you speak to multiple cultures? How can you speak to different backgrounds, socioeconomic, neurodiverse backgrounds? I don't want to say be a chameleon, but really your ability to be a person for all and really drive obviously your technical understanding with your just being a human of the world.

Phil Wagner

Yes, I love that. And humanity is sort of the central theme and core value of this podcast. We're trying to cut past all of noise and get right back to those real human, lived experiences. Thank you, Amalhin, for sharing yours and for doing the work that you do. It's always so inspiring to follow our alum, but what a great example you are, and thank you for coming on and making time. Such a pleasure to speak with you.

Amahlin Shek

Thank you. Likewise.

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

 Michael John Carley
Michael John CarleyEpisode 15: April 25, 2022
Identity Development and Resilience

Michael John Carley

Episode 15: April 25, 2022

Identity Development and Resilience

On today's episode we take a deep dive into neurodiversity. Our guest is Michael John Carley, an author, school and business consultant, and the former Executive Director in the autism, neurodiversity, mental health, disability, and DE&I worlds. He joins Phil Wagner to discuss the world of work through the lens of neurodiversity.

Podcast (audio)

Michael John Carley: Identity Development and Resilience TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • What terminology is appropriate when speaking about neurologically diverse people
  • Does neurodiversity still fall under the disability umbrella in the world of work
  • How Michael came to understand what it's like to be on the autism spectrum
  • What are some challenges people on the spectrum face in the modern world
  • What Michael's work has revealed about being employed and unemployed while on the spectrum
  • How can the world of work make itself more inclusive to the neurodivergent
  • How COVID has changed the world of work for neurodiverse people
Transcript

Michael John Carley

One of the things that doesn't get talked about enough is that behavioral differences sometimes do not mesh with what we think of quote-unquote professional behavior. And that's a big elephant in the bathtub that nobody seems to want to address.

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. Welcome to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today's episode is a quick and deep dive into neurological diversity, a topic that really hits home for me. There's a long-standing joke in academic circles that the best research is, quote, unquote me, search. Indeed, so much of my own journey in the D&I landscape happened because my own quirks. I shared in an earlier size diversity episode that I had some attachment there, but one of the other on-ramps I have personally to doing DE&I work happens sort of underneath the umbrella of this topic. I was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome in my prepubescent years, and to this day, if you see me walking, talking, teaching, or even just eating lunch, you'll likely notice that I twitch sometimes my face contorts. It's the whole thing. It's fine. I'm not embarrassed about it. Who knows, maybe one day we'll talk about it on a future episode. But recently, Forbes put out an article that noted that Tourette syndrome is just about as common as autism. An autism or autism spectrum disorder, as we largely talk about it now, is the conversation that we're going to have today. So today, we're focusing on that spectrum. The spectrum as we know it is sort of this neurological continuum upon which a broad range of social skills and speech patterns, and nonverbal communication behaviors and beyond exist. And we've changed a lot about how we talk about the spectrum. And today's guest has a lot to offer as it relates to this topic. He himself identifies as someone with ASD after being diagnosed in 2000 at the exact same time as his four-year-old son, which came as a big shock to him. Michael John Carley is an author, school and business consultant, and the former executive director in the autism, neurodiversity, mental health, disability, and DE&I world. He has published or spoken at length in a variety of outlets, including for the New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Times, HuffPost, Newsweek, ABC News, BBC, Fox, The Chronicle of Higher Ed Psychology Today. Oh my gosh and beyond. He is everywhere. In 2012, he was one of two people on the spectrum to address the United States Congress and their first-ever hearings on autism. He's addressed the United Nations, he's written books, and he was kind enough to join us for today's episode. Michael, my friend, it's a delight to welcome you. Thank you for joining us. Before we begin, I want to ask something that we've asked on a few other episodes as well, and I think it's important. It's related to language. As we have our conversation today, are there words or phrases that we should or should not say as we talk about living life on the spectrum today?

Michael John Carley

That's a great and very large first question there, Phil. I would say that there's no real short answer because I think when any marginalized community is suddenly liberated to the extent where they're actually convinced that they can start having conversations amongst themselves about the words they like or dislike that are used to reference to themselves, that conversation takes a while to progress. And I think with the word neurodiversity, we're still sort of trying to figure it out ourselves. There was, I think, an initial reaction of, oh, well, it's just the brilliant Aspies. And then I think we all quickly realized how not inclusive that was. And now I think we're starting to realize that if we are really going to be inclusive, that we have to start looking at really all neurologies or all diagnoses that present with behavioral differences and understand that much more heavily stigmatized diagnoses like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder. If we're going to be true to the concept of inclusivity on this, we have to invite them as a seat to the table. And that shouldn't be so threatening because those of us that have been working so hard to improve the iconography of words like autism or before that Asperger syndrome, they know that you can improve the stigma on all of these diagnoses. And it's time for, I think, a lot of those folks. But I would go even further that at the end of the day, if we are looking at behavioral differences that, let's say, poverty-induced trauma or financial anxieties. Qualify you as neurodiverse and from an intersectional capacity, as far as, especially race is concerned that makes the word neurodiverse ever more inclusive. So great question.

Phil Wagner

And this is not in the pre-slotted questions. So sorry to throw one out here. You talk about a seat at the table. Until recently, neurodiversity has really been scaffolded, particularly in a lot of diversity and inclusion work under disabilities. Are we seeing that change? Do you think that that still scaffolds underneath that larger domain, or is this something inherently different?

Michael John Carley

No, I think it's still under the umbrella of disability, especially if we're talking about the world of work because the world of work has to compartmentalize things. That's how they bridge. That's how they learn. However, I think the definition of disability at least has been, at least in my mind, redefined from the old days of looking at it in two ways, which was physical disabilities and non-apparent disabilities, another not apparent. You could break that down even further into psychological disabilities. Neurological disabilities like the autism that I have, learning disabilities, and all that jazz. Now, I think we've, or at least I certainly subscribe over the last at least seven years, to a three-way look, which is accessibility, neurodiversity, and health. And I think that if we're going to have to do the Darwinist thing of compartmentalizing, that this is kind of the way to go, especially because if you don't break it down this way, you get so many different contradictions and disability. The main problem with disability in the workforce has been that out of all the elements of D&I. It is by far the more intimidating to those corporate cultures that need to incorporate us. And we got to remember most of those are for profits. They don't care about doing the right thing. They're beholden to their shareholders. And so they got to cut it right. And if you have this giant contradiction that needs to be explained between neurodiverse populations that will fare so much better in this world and help each other out when they're more open about their diagnoses and proud of it and can talk about it without shame. And yet, from the health space, if you're open about your HIV diagnosis, your cancer diagnosis, you're exposing yourself to civil rights violations up the wazoo. And so, therefore, that need for privacy goes in direct contrast to the neurodiversity needs. And therefore, that's why that separation, I think, really helps to frame overall disability. But I will say to close the question that anything with a prefix of dis is bound to have a psychologically negative effect.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so good. That's such a great perspective. You've teed us up perfectly. And I'm really excited to hear more on this next question. But how you personally, Michael, have come to experience the terminology they're talking about today has likely changed over your life. Do you mind sharing just a little bit about your story with how you came to understand what it means to be on the spectrum in your own life?

Michael John Carley

Sure. Absolutely. I was one of those weird kids in growing up that, luckily, once I found my way to a wonderful high school run by hippies who just loved everybody and they accepted me for who I was, even though they didn't understand who I was, they just assumed positives in the unknown as opposed to negatives, like the school I'd gone to prior and that I was one of the lucky ones because I was thought of as being really inherently talented, especially in the arts. And I can look back on those days now and with just as much self-love as I've ever had in my life, tell you that I wasn't anywhere near as talented as people thought I was. But I'm certainly grateful for that because it opened up the door to opportunities. And I found myself in a community in the arts, which it's okay to be weird in the arts. And I had a really great stupid day job as this minor league diplomat doing work in romantic places like Bosnia and Iraq. And when there's lives that are at stake, it's okay if you offend the boss with what you said every once in a while because the work is just that urgent, and not everybody can do your job. So it was another atmosphere that I had luckily found myself in, which it was okay for me to be a little weird and a little rude. And I'd always known that there was this sense of confusion about who I was to other people. The people that didn't really like me just thought I was. Can I say the A word on your podcast?

Phil Wagner

You can absolutely.

Michael John Carley

Okay, thought I was an asshole. And the people who liked me thought, oh, Carley is tell it like it is, guy. And I'm thinking both sides are equally wrong. But I'm going to go hang out with the tell it like it Is crowd because why would I hang out with people that don't like me? That just doesn't make any sense. And then comes that day when and in my case, it was one week apart from my then four-year-old son that you find out through a diagnosis that you're not an asshole. And I don't have the words to be able to tell you what a biblical weight that is that's lifted off your shoulders because suddenly now all of your differences with the rest of humanity can be lumped into the idea of different wiring and not about your character. It explains so many things, but it also sometimes explains things in which ways in which I didn't want. I took a month after I got the diagnosis, I took my kid. We lived very close to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens at the time, and we went for a walk every day for a month after that. And he was four years old. He would trace the stream that runs through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. And what I would do is I would basically look over every incident that had happened in my life prior with this new lens and with this new prism. And it was quite a revelation because I would think back to all those people that I thought really liked me. And sometimes they did like me. But other times, I had to realize now they were keeping me at arm's distance because they didn't want anything to do with me. They were being polite to me because they didn't want anything to do with me. And then I would think of the people that I thought had been mean to me, and some of them had been mean to me, but others, I had to realize, oh, my God, they were the ones that believed in me. They were the ones that were saying. You can do this. I'm challenging you to do this. So it's a world rocker. But I would also say that as I think we were talking about before we hit the record button is that 20 years ago, when I was diagnosed, you were mud even with Asperger's syndrome. And suddenly, we started changing the dialogue about how that looks. And suddenly, the iconography surrounding Asperger's syndrome got a lot better quick. But autism was still negatively thought of. And then, we started to get to work on the iconography surrounding that word, and we improved the iconography about that one as well. So it has been quite the journey, which is where we now are starting to see those other diagnoses of neurodiversity finally having an opportunity to improve the iconography surrounding those words. And I will share with you, just to close on the subject of personality, I mean, there's one story that I did have to realize, however, which was when a couple of days after I had gotten diagnosed, I was at work, and I took an elevator with a colleague, and I was sharing with her my son's diagnosis, but I wasn't going to share mine. No way. And she threw me because she knew more about this stuff than I thought she did. And she said, well, isn't that genetic? And I was just caught. Caught dead. And I'm sputtering out words like, well, no, I don't really think so, no. Elevator reaches the ground floor. She gets out of the elevator in front of me, and the image of her back just as I'm exiting the elevator and she's a few feet outside the elevator in the lobby is emblazoned in my memory because I knew that at that very second I had stabbed my son in the back. What garbage would it be for me to ever say to him, you should be proud of who you are if I was going to be such a coward?

Phil Wagner

Wow, that's huge. I'm riveted by your story. I'm riveted also, not just from the professional angle but from the parenthood angle as well. Fascinating. So you mentioned this briefly in your last answer, but how we've come to understand what it means to be on the spectrum has changed a lot, even in the last 20 years, even in the last ten years. When you think about the challenges associated with the definition in the here and now, what are some of the challenges people on the spectrum face in the modern world? 2020 and beyond?

Michael John Carley

I would say that we're still figuring out the right paths to take, but we don't know necessarily how to walk on those paths or how fast to run on those paths. We have all these concepts like neurodiversity, like inclusion, like even the subject of things like emotional intelligence and microaggressions, all of these catchphrases and these pseudosciences sometimes, dare I say it, that kind of gets in our way. And I'll talk to especially the concept of emotional intelligence, which is something I've written about and not in a very favorable way more than once. And this is an element in which I think; obviously, people are under the impression that they're helping people who are neurodiverse by embracing. But honestly, if your career track is going to be influenced or you're hiring by this particular unrecognized, quote, unquote science, I find that to be actually a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it is a very diagnostic staple to be behind in your emotional development if you have many different non-apparent disabilities, including autism. Like what I have. A lot of times, I think that people think that I've learned to adopt a lot of neurotypical ways, and sometimes they're right. But at other times, I'm just brilliant at hiding my cluelessness, and that's a very different animal. But again, emotional intelligence is literally penalizing you for your behavioral and your emotional developmental differences. And so it's just stuff like that that we're just not thinking straight about and that we're not being clear-headed enough about. I've spent a large part of my career, not the biggest part, but a large part as the school consultant. And I can tell you that, especially when we did a little bit of a stopover to take care of some in-laws in the Midwest where you see these hey, come see our inclusive classroom, the inclusion buzzword. Okay, great. Wow, you've got an inclusion classroom. So ergo, the rest of your school is exclusive?

Phil Wagner

Right.

Michael John Carley

How is that inclusive? And it's going back to the old euphemism of 70% of the people that are broadcasting that they're inclusive. They're holding a dance where they've invited people, let's say, on the spectrum, to the dance. But in 70% of those situations, the person goes to the dance, and they stand against the wall, and nobody asks them to dance. That's not inclusion. We've got stuff to work out. I think that we get what the road should look like right now, but how we figure out what the rules of the road are, we're still figuring that out.

Phil Wagner

And it really goes to show the necessity of conversations like this. For instance, I teach communication and soft skills when we talk about emotional intelligence all the time. I will never see that word the same way. And I've been doing D&I work for the better half of a decade. And so I think that's what can be so frustrating about inclusion work, and I mean frustration in a good way, is that it's iterative it's constantly moving forward. We're constantly tweaking our thinking, and that's beneficial for us. But I think it burns so many people out. That's why we wanted to have a podcast like this where we can do those deep dives. It's so fascinating. So we've done some extensive work on being employed and also unemployed while on the spectrum. Can you share some of that work with us? What is that work revealed?

Michael John Carley

Yeah, I think that. Well, it's so tough because one of the things that I have to keep in mind sometimes is that none of us, whether we're on the spectrum, whether we're part of any marginalized community or not, that we're not experiencing a world like my uncle who spent his whole career at IBM, or my stepfather who taught geology at the same college for his entire career. This is now a community of people that constantly shift and constantly change jobs and the turnover rates. We know what if you're a good HR department. You know exactly how much it costs to have a turnover in the mailroom or have a turnover in senior management. It's always been helpful to me to make sure that when we start talking about the employment question that, we do frame it within a larger employment versus unemployment dilemma that we've been having in this country off and on. And part of the issue also, I think, is that it's really tough for us to get a really accurate picture on where we're at when our unemployment statistics lie like no other statistics on the planet. If you have, for instance, that person that has finished their six months of unemployment benefits and they're still unemployed, but they're not taken into consideration in the unemployment numbers. If you have somebody who, let's say, was disabled but had a good gig and was able to work it in an able-bodied position, and then because of, let's say, the housing crisis, they lost their job or financial reasons, they had to get some insurance, so they went on disability, those folks are often not taken into consideration of the statistics either. And it's just very hard to track when there's so much movement going on. So that's kind of a long-winded prelude to your question. But for me personally, I've just had to accept the fact that no one is ever going to give me credit for how willing I was to sell out to the man all my life. I've just been kind of forced into either creating things for myself or taking on temporary assignments just because the nature of the work that I do is so all over the place. And I'm not complaining, but it's just a different work situation when you have these diverse incomes coming in from, at least for me personally, either from consulting, the old days when I ran non-profits, speaking gigs. I won't say book sales because I don't really think any of us make money off our books. We make money off speaking gigs that come from the books. But that's sort of a halfway around the question. I will say this, though. I always worked. When I was ten years old, I was getting up at 04:00 in the morning to deliver papers, and when I was 13 years old, I was working for two and a half hours in a jewelry shop polishing jewelry. I've worked at a bunch of different jobs, and the subject of labor fascinated me during those years in the Midwest because we were in Wisconsin, which, if you know, the situation that was happening there with Scott Walker, where they've destroyed public education and organized labor at the same time. And I made all my money out of state. I would get paid infinitely more than I was worth as either a speaker or a consultant outside. And so, I had a lot of time on my hands in Wisconsin. And just because the whole place was confusing, me and New Yorkers with autism diagnoses who don't drink probably should never move to the Midwest anyway. It's just going to be a bad fit. And it was just all confusing. I couldn't get it. It was Trump country, too. So the whole Trump thing is, and I'm taking on the state's educational apparatus and getting my ass kicked every day. And I'm saying to my wife, who grew up there, what's going on here? I can't figure this out. And what I would do that gave me actually much more of a sense of what that place was like was that nobody checks because everybody is so desperate for labor in certain aspects. I created a completely BS resume which just had the most minute and small accomplishments possible on there, like mowing lawns like fudging everything I've ever done into the most blatant lie, high school diploma. That's all that's on the resume and everything like that. And I'm Mike, and I submit that so that I can work all these horrible jobs that everyday Americans, we just saw Nomad land. I was working all those jobs, maybe two days a week. But just as a way to educate myself, not undercover boss or anything that silly or dramatic, but it really helped for me to frame just the sort of employment troubles that all of us are in this country. Back in the day, you could graduate with just a high school degree and have health insurance and have a pool in the backyard of the home that you owned. Nothing but gone. Absolutely gone.

Phil Wagner

So your story speaks a lot to the power of personal resilience, and I think that's very inspiring. But I question whether there's opportunities unmet opportunities that the world of work is not yielding or presenting to employees who are on the spectrum. So do you have any thoughts on ways in which the world of work can make itself more inclusive to people like you who share your experience framework?

Michael John Carley

Well, number one, they should be motivated. And I think that they don't actually understand that yet. I don't think they read enough Harvard Business Review statistics that prove that the more diversified your company is, the more that you will outperform your peers. And that's a culture change. That's a culture change. That is an issue that is getting completely in the way of the success of the company. So at the end of the day, I'm sure they're going to realize because they do have to report to their shareholders that they are going to have to diversify, and they're going to have to get better at the onboarding process. They're going to have to teach their managers better about how to handle emotional regulation challenges in the workplace. And right now, they're still very much intimidated by those factors. I will say this, though. It's not because they don't want to. It's not because they're bad people. It's just because they don't have the confidence. And the reason why they don't have the confidence is because they don't have the training. And two of the reasons why they don't have the training is that number one, I find that in the employment consulting I've done, and when I was running ASTEP all those years ago, the hardest thing was to get them to make their managers commit to training time because they just wanted them doing all the things. Any break like that was going to be a productivity halt of some kind or interpreted that way. And that was the real minutiae of where I think a lot of the inability stemmed from. But it's also any kind of cultural change is also always going to be hard. And I also think that especially when we're talking about neurodiversity, we're talking about those behavioral differences. And one of the things that doesn't get talked about enough is that behavioral differences sometimes do not mesh with what we think of as quote-unquote professional behavior. And that's a big elephant in the bathtub that nobody seems to want to address. Everybody wants to be able to talk in corporate-speak terms. In corporate speak terms. I'm sorry, corporate people. It is not transparent. You talk around issues. You do not talk directly to issues. And one of the aspects that in the most successful neurodiversity onboarded companies, where they have a large population of folks like us, I guarantee you that in every single one of those companies that those neurotypical employees are communicating ten times better than they ever did amongst themselves, thanks to being forced to not use the soliloquies, the euphemisms, the sarcasm, the corporate speak language, and to actually have to deal directly with people and talk directly to people in a transparent and humane and non-way.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I get it. Cutting technicalities and not resting in the nuance. I think if your story shows anything, Michael, is that you can go through a million microaggressive trainings, you can go through a million inclusion trainings. But there's so much at the intersections of nuance here that's so important to slow those trainings down and really cut through and speak to the humanity behind it all.

Michael John Carley

Amen. You say the word microaggressions right now. I mean, we have very lively conversations at NYU sometimes about the concept of microaggressions, that if they're not based in race, that really needs some reframing, because sometimes I think everybody's getting the idea that the concept of microaggressions mean that if you were offended by somebody else's behavioral difference, then you're absolutely right to have been offended. And no, that's not the case. In the case of different neurologies, there may be emotional regulation challenges happening with that individual that caused them to overstep or be more dramatic in their language, and therefore, the intent to offend you was not there. You're wrong. So this is the sudden nuance to exactly what you're talking about, and you couldn't be more right?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, it's uncomfortable. That's the thing because there's no black and white, right or wrong. It's everything gray right in the middle.

Michael John Carley

I think the solution, too, that's really helpful for everybody to understand is you can acknowledge the impact that that person's statement had on you and how it felt. You can't deny that, but don't trust your instincts. We're just not smart. Yeah.

Phil Wagner

That's good. I have one more question for you, and it's like a super hypothetical. Right. We don't have a magic wand to give you, but if we did and we handed you a magic wand that you could wave and fix the most pressing issue facing neurodiverse people in the world of work right now, what would you waive that magic wand to do.

Michael John Carley

Phil, it's not one thing. There's one thing that's a wonderful problem to have, which is there's now such a glut of unqualified and just really inept, quote, unquote neurodiversity consultants that are just capitalizing on the popularity. I wouldn't have any other way. We both know what it was like ten years ago. We didn't have that problem. We had the opposite problem. But oh, my gosh, it's pretender land out there. That would be one thing. But it's really taking the absolute top shelf viewpoint of everything that's been going on, you know, getting rid of the whole interview concept. If you have to work so hard to get through an interview with somebody at a company because of all the traditional the eye contacts, the shaking hands, and stuff like that, you're not going to last very long at that company if it really took you that much to get through, if that kind of culture permeates in the interview if you look at how people write their job descriptions and I can show you examples that are hysterical, where a company has written will do data input in a cellar with no windows, no human contact for pretty much all of their day and at the bottom, it says strong leadership skills required.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Michael John Carley

People just don't think sometimes. And it's because of the obligation to the cultures that existed 30 years ago that just do not work really for anyone today.

Phil Wagner

Has COVID changed that at all for neurodiverse people, or has it made it better? Has it made it worse? Has it changed it at all?

Michael John Carley

That's a great question, and I think the answer is only going to come after COVID.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Michael John Carley

When we see whether or not if we're approaching this from an all-over disability field, I can relate you to so many people that will, especially for accessibility and transportation needs, have said I've been waiting for this all my life. All my life. And yet, at the same point, are we going to be allowed to record Zoom lectures if we have, let's say, processing difficulty and need to hear the material over and over again. But there's an intellectual rights issue with the person that gave the presentation. So all of this stuff, that's a question that I think is yet to be answered afterwards.

Phil Wagner

More to come. More to come. Well, Michael John Carley, it's an incredible pleasure speaking with you. I really appreciate you taking your time to inform our approach to diversity and inclusion work, making sure it's really inclusive for all. Thanks so much for your time and your energy today.

Michael John Carley

Thank you, Phil. I really had a great time, and your questions were fabulous. So anytime.

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

 Dr. Jessica Grosholz
Dr. Jessica GrosholzEpisode 14: April 11, 2022
Entrepreneurship as Justice

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Episode 14: April 11, 2022

Entrepreneurship as Justice

Dr. Jessica Grosholz is an Associate Professor of Criminology and the Campus Chair and Director of the Masters in Criminal Justice Program at the University of South Florida. She joins host Phil Wagner today to discuss how her work with incarcerated individuals folds into the larger diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation, the different challenges women face post-incarceration, what the best practices are for working alongside or leading post-incarcerated people, and much more.

Podcast (audio)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How Dr. Grosholz got involved with entrepreneurial work
  • Why its important to avoid certain words when talking about incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks
  • How the post-incarcerated experience differs between white people and people of color
  • What is the mission of the Florida Coalition for Higher Education in Prison
  • What the phrase "banning the box" means
  • The benefits of teaching an entrepreneurial mindset to incarcerated folks
  • What has been the biggest takeaway from teaching in prisons
Transcript

Dr. Jessica Grosholz: Entrepreneurship as Justice TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

There are all sorts of contexts in which people commit crime. And so, without having a full understanding of that context, it becomes really problematic to judge people.

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 to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real, human lived experiences that can help us inform our approach and the strategies we use to make the world of work more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place for all. I'm particularly excited about today's episode. I'm joined by a true expert, but also a dear, dear friend and colleague who I've known for quite some time. Dr. Jessica Grosholz is an Associate Professor of Criminology and the campus chair and director of the Masters in Criminal Justice program at the University of South Florida and the University of South Florida Sarasota campus. She's a research administration fellow. She's an award-winning faculty member. She's actively involved in community-engaged work and service-learning. So we are truly in for a real treat today. Jess, welcome to our podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Thank you so much for having me, Phil. I'm excited to be here. I'm excited to speak with you and see you. It's been too long, and I'm just excited to put the word out about diversity and inclusion in terms of my research, in terms of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated population.

Phil Wagner

So, Jess, I feel like this is sort of this episode is a little bit like a bad joke set up like a criminologist and a communications guy walk into a podcast at a business school, and everybody turns and says, what are you all doing here? So, Jesse, you're a criminologist by trade. Tell me, how does a criminologist get involved in entrepreneurial work?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

That's a really good question, Phil. So I did my graduate work at Emory University, and while I was there doing my dissertation work, I interviewed formerly incarcerated men in the Atlanta area and really just to understand their experiences with incarceration and then how those incarceration experiences shaped their reentry experiences. So did their time in prison make it harder? Did it ease the transition? How did it impact housing, family reunification, and employment in particular? And as I was speaking to the men, really that employment piece became a sort of focus. Right? We know they're not able to find employment. The research really suggests that a year after being released, about 75% still cannot find stable employment. And as they were talking to me and as we were having these discussions, I started to realize that they were sort of taking their employment into their own hands, so to speak. They were starting their own businesses. They were taking nontraditional routes to find employment and by nontraditional routes, meaning sort of those legal avenues. Right. They want to be prosocial contributing members of society. So they were becoming Reverends, pastors, starting barbershops, starting lawn services. And I started realizing that entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial training was really important for this population. Fast forward a few years. When I started at USF Sarasota Manatee, I met a colleague, Dr. Jean Kabongo, in the College of Business, and I realized his area of expertise was entrepreneurship. And we started talking, and light bulbs went off in both of our heads. We realized we could be providing entrepreneurial training to incarcerated populations, both in prisons and in jails, to sort of provide them with the tools, skills, and what we call sort of that entrepreneurial mindset for when they are eventually released because, as we know, 95% of incarcerated individuals are eventually released.

Phil Wagner

All right. So this is a lot to unpack, and I really want to get to that work with Jean Kabongo. I'm familiar with that work, and I think it's incredibly powerful. But there's an important sort of off-ramp here that I want to take before we really settle into our conversation. And it's an off-ramp focused on language. So I hear you, Jess, and I hear you using very specific terminology, and I hear you not using terminology that I might suspect. So we're talking about you use the term formerly incarcerated folks or incarcerated folks. Is that the language we should use here today? Do we say, prisoners? What do we say? What do we not say as we're talking about this population?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

So we really want to avoid those traditional words that we hear all the time. Right. Prisoners and inmates, those are really dehumanizing. They're sort of derogatory. There's a lot of stigma that comes with those phrases, those words. Right. We want to refer to individuals as individuals first. They are human beings. We want to make sure that we use that humanizing language. They are individuals who just so happen to be incarcerated at the time, or they just so happen to be formally incarcerated at the time, or they're individuals caught within our criminal justice system.

Phil Wagner

I love that. And I think that people-first language is an approach that we utilize across sort of the gamut of diversity and inclusion work. And maybe that's where we should go next. Jess, our focus here is, of course, on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I'm wondering how you see your work folding into the sort of larger framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Do you have any thoughts?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Yeah. So I think my work fits very well into this diversity, equity, and inclusion sort of framework. We can't have a fully thriving society without including the formerly incarcerated population. As I mentioned before, 95% return home if they're not included as a contributing member of society. Our society in and of itself isn't successful. Our society can't thrive. Our economy can't thrive. We can talk about all those economic issues in a little bit. But having a fully equitable society means including formerly incarcerated individuals within all institutions in all aspects of our society.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love that. And there's so many takeaways, I think, for the organizational sphere because that primary mechanism of equitability and inclusion has a significant organizational component, right. Plugging in employees into meaningful and gainful employment to create that sort of ongoing engagement in our democratic society. I think a lot of us would think about the idea of inclusion and the idea of criminal justice and really draw our attention to sort of the mess that the criminal justice system sort of is right now as a whole. And that system has been critiqued and held to increase scrutiny over the recent years, following multiple instances of recorded violence against communities of color and beyond. I'm curious if your work explores how the post-incarceration experience specifically plays out differently for people of color versus white people and maybe also for men and women. That diversity piece, how does that follow the post-incarceration experience?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Great question, Phil. So we know that people of color minorities are disproportionately affected by our criminal justice system, so it should not be surprising that those that come out for reentry. Reentry is a more difficult experience for people of color and minorities. They are significantly less likely to find employment. They're less likely to find stable housing bouncing around from house to house. They're returning to communities that are under-resourced performer incarcerated individuals. So my work really does focus on those on diverse groups, on men and women in particular as well. So we know that women go to prison or go to jail for very different reasons than men likely to have been involved in some sort of domestic violence situation prior to going to prison or jail. And so, coming home is a very different experience for women and black women in particular. They may not feel safe returning to the environment that they came from prior to going to prison or jail. So that housing plan is up in the air, they're more likely to be full custody parents. And so going to prison or jail means that their kids are likely to be with relatives, whereas when a male goes to prisoner or jail, it's likely that the mother takes care of the children. And so, returning home is a big issue for females. For women where they need to find stable housing, they're more likely to, as some of the research refers to that as ping pong, from short term housing to short term housing without finding stable long term housing. And they are often, while being reunified with their children is really important, less than half, or about half, aren't actually reunited with their children. And then I'm working on a new project, actually, with Dr. Sandra Stone and Dr. Sandra Fogle on the Tampa campus to investigate how the reentry experiences are different for older formerly incarcerated individuals. So a lot of the work really talks about reentry in general, talks about reentry in terms of usually ages up until about 40, 45. We get a lot of information about reentry for that age, very little, not as much, I should say, on the older incarcerated population that's returning home. And we know that those individuals face significantly greater challenges. They are in worse health, more likely to have chronic conditions, have a harder time reunifying with family, especially if they've been incarcerated for a long period of time. The family may not be around anymore. They may have, in a sense, burned bridges. The family may not want to talk with them anymore, or the family may have simply passed on. So they may not have people to go home to. And then, in terms of finding employment, bringing it sort of back to this employment workpiece, older formerly incarcerated individuals, they don't just face the stigma of having a criminal record, but they also face that ageism stigma as well. So you've got employers that already might have some ageist tendencies, and then you've got someone that's, in a sense, tristigmatized, is that a phrase? I'm going to make that a phrase if it's not.

Phil Wagner

We'll make it a phrase that's good. I love that. And really invokes that framework of intersectionality. Right. That there's not just one monolith of experience of what it means to be incarcerated or post incarcerated, and then it's complicated and that even that post-incarceration experience is not just glorious sunny days. Right. There are still obstacles to be addressed as you move on. I think part of your work, Jess, really seeks to sort of bring about better education about the entire timeline, for lack of a better term of that experience. And you've done a lot of work just bringing awareness of the role of education and what education can do to make that post-incarceration experience better. I know that you're part of the Florida Coalition of Higher Education in Prison, and your goal is to improve our understanding of what access to education can do for those who are currently incarcerated. Can you speak to that work just a little bit and what that work seeks to do?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Yeah. So the Florida Coalition for Higher Education in Prison is really about bringing higher education to our state prison system and giving access to those who are incarcerated, giving them access to higher education potentially credits potentially being able for them to succeed when they get out. Right. They need some sort of education while they're incarcerated. One of my colleagues in this organization or two of my colleagues in this organization at Miami Dade College, they received second chance Pell and have been working to provide classes at one of the state prisons down in the Miami area. But they run into huge obstacles. Right. The state has their state you need residency requirements trying to get individuals who are incarcerated knowing that they were residents prior might be a year or so prior to being incarcerated. Their time in prison doesn't count as a Florida residency requirement. It's very, very difficult. But they have stayed the course. And I think bringing higher education to incarcerated populations is vitally important for success when they get out. And it's vitally important for our institutions to begin to, in a sense, we talk about banning the box for employment, but starting to potentially think about banning the box when it comes to applications for higher education.

Phil Wagner

And talk to us about banning the box. So for some of our listeners who may not know what that refers to, what are you talking about here?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

So banning the box means that you're not asked that question. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Right. So you don't have that stigma that. Oh, no. They're going to ask me this question on the first page of this application. I'm never going to make it any further, whether it's a college application or a job application. And getting to the next round of interviews is vitally important for formerly incarcerated individuals because they might be able to explain what had happened, or they might be able to show that they are valuable members of society that they are willing to they're ready to make a difference.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's good. I want to go back to what we talked about at the beginning, which is some of your real seminal work, Jess, to spawned some of those awards and all the accolades that you've gotten, which is your work with Dr. Jean Kabongo in the College of Business on equipping those who are currently in prison or incarcerated with entrepreneurial skills. Talk to us about how you specifically have brought education into that space and what it's done.

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

So we began our class. Well, let me take a step back. We started talking about this project in 2015. I guess it was. And it took us a good year before we were able to get everything working with the Florida Department of Corrections with USF and our particular institution, which was Hardy Correctional Institution. It took us until September 2016 before we had our very first class at the prison. We have since taught eight classes, seven full classes. We were in the middle of our 8th class when COVID hit, and we couldn't finish the 8th class. So we have taught 118 men at the state prison. We then brought a different sort of entrepreneurship class to our local Sarasota County Correctional Facility. Instead of the eleven-week course that it is at the state prison, it can't be eleven weeks at a jail because of the transcendency of that population. Right. They're in and out in much shorter times. So we made it a four-day workshop, and we've completed two of those workshops before COVID hit. But to back up, it's sort of a overview of entrepreneurship. Dr. Kabongo teaches the class, and I'm there as sort of that researcher program evaluator side of things to ensure that every class we offer is roughly the same. We're covering the same topics and to really get a sense of what the men are learning how they're transforming during the semester. And Dr. Kabongo teaches them all about developing an idea, finding the opportunities, feasibility analysis, target markets, developing a business model, writing a business plan, the whole gamut of entrepreneurship with the overarching theme of developing this mindset. Right. And we want them to have this mindset that even if they don't start their own business when they get out, they are able to handle failure, handle adversity and move on to the next challenges and move on and realize that one failure doesn't mean an entire failure. Right. It doesn't mean you're a failure. It means that it might not be the right opportunity at that time, but the next one is going to come along. We hold that mindset. I should say, really strongly. And I think one of the biggest things that we do in this class is that it's not just for individuals who are going to eventually be released from prison. We want individuals who are incarcerated for potentially life to also have this mindset because improving that mindset while incarcerated can also improve behavior while incarcerated. And so, as I mentioned before, 118 men have completed our class at the prison. Of those who are eligible for release, 31 have already been released, and only three have returned. So while we obviously cannot say that it is due to our class, we take some pride in knowing that only three have returned. And I keep my list updated. I check that list. I just checked it on Monday, wanting to make sure that I have the most up-to-date numbers of the people who have been released and those who have very few who have returned. We take a lot of pride in that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. That's so good. And I sit here, and I come at this from a very different perspective from the perspective of communications and diversity work. What I love about what you do, Jess is that you are giving these folks space to rewrite their participation in the narrative. Right. And so, instead of seeing themselves through one lens, you're inviting them and giving them permission to rewrite who it is that they are both for the here and now and both for their future. And I think that's incredibly powerful stories playing powerful role in how we see the world and how we see ourselves. So I love your work. I'm a big fan, and not just because we're friends, but I really do believe in the value of it. And coming at this from the lens of sort of program manager, researcher, taking this all in from a justice perspective, you work with incarcerated individuals, many of whom hope to reenter the world and the world of work if it's possible. Can you share with us some of the recommendations that you have for those who are eligible and able to then reenter the workforce after being incarcerated? Any big tips or takeaways from your bird's eye view?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

I think the biggest takeaway is to not give up hope after one failure. Right? They're going to experience hardships. They're going to experience challenges. We know this. There are upwards of 44,000 state and federal barriers in place individuals who are returning from prisons or jails, things from the inability to volunteer at your child's school, accessing affordable housing, accessing student loans, receiving public assistance, serving on a jury. But I think one of the biggest ones is this inability to become licensed for certain types of jobs. And that includes like Cosmetology. I was just reading or listening to a podcast that they said it's harder. There's more training in place for cosmetology than to become an EMT or a paramedic. And so, there are a lot of barriers that don't necessarily make a lot of logical sense. They're not necessarily set up to improve public safety, but for those who are reentering and want to rejoin the workforce and they want to be contributing members of society, it's finding those employers that are formerly incarcerated friendly. There are employers in all communities. You have to sort of be in the know, although we shouldn't have to be in that situation. But find those employers that are formally incarcerated friendly and do not take your first no as you give up because everyone hears no it's being able to handle that, handle that adversity, handle that failure and move forward and find the next opportunity because it is out there.

Phil Wagner

Love that. I'm sort of teed up well to go where I want to take the conversation next because you're talking about creating friendly work environments for post-incarcerated folks. And I have sort of two more finalized questions as we get to the end of our recording. And they both deal with the same issue, which is creating that friendly workspace, for lack of a better term. And the first really deals with colleagues. So I'm wondering if you have any advice or thoughts to normal, everyday lay people, people who are in the world of work doing their nine to five and find themselves working with or maybe alongside formerly incarcerated folks. I'm reminded that there's a lot of media lately in the last decade or so that's really maybe shaped our narrative of how we feel about incarcerated people. Everything from Orange Is the New Black to Scared Straight. Very different than the 1980s and 1990s cops, right? So I'm wondering if our ideas have changed or what ideas you have for how people working alongside formerly incarcerated folks can and should treat those individuals.

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

I think we need to realize that there are so many people caught up in our criminal justice system in the U.S. that it is likely you have been working with or have found yourself a customer of someone who has been formally incarcerated without even knowing it. And so I think it's important to sort of take that stigma away, to take that sort of fear of the unknown. We have these stereotypical views of certain groups of people that must be formally if they're in public and they're not in prison. They must be formally incarcerated based on how they look. But I think it's important to, in my opinion, it's not a lot of people's business to know your history. If you're doing your job well, then that should be what matters the most. There are going to be people who say, well, what about it's important to know if they've been convicted of certain offenses. There are all sorts of context in which people commit crime. And so, without having a full understanding of that context, it becomes really problematic to judge people, to judge people on past experiences, past poor behavior, past situations that they might have found themselves. And it's one of those things that I think about every time I go and teach the class at the prison or the jail or any time I bring my students with my service-learning class to the jail. I always have a list of the names of the people who are incarcerated that we're going to be working with. I never look them up ahead of time. I don't want to prejudge someone before I get to know them. I want to be able to have sort of they have a clean slate for me. While they may be in a different circumstance, they might be incarcerated. They might be in prison. They might be in jail. I don't need to know why they're in there. I'm there to teach them, to help them be successful when they get out, or to help my students experience and learn what being incarcerated means and what leaving prison or jail means, those challenges that they face.

Phil Wagner

That's good. Thanks for sharing all that. And then my final question for you, Jess, is we prepare a lot of leaders. A lot of people listening to this podcast, we hope, are those of our MBA students, our graduate students, those who are going to go out and make a change in the world of work. And we are actively trying to prepare leaders for the world of tomorrow. I'm wondering what advice you have specifically for leaders, people in positions of power, people in positions that are able to create and cultivate change. I'm wondering what advice do you have for how they can cultivate a work environment that is truly supportive and a space that will lead to fulfilling and gainful employment for formerly incarcerated individuals? Any thoughts for leaders?

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Yeah. So I think it's important for leaders, business leaders, to really understand the importance of this population and the importance of including this population in employment and in work without including the formerly incarcerated population, you're losing out on diversity. You're losing out on those sort of diverse viewpoints, creative individuals, innovative individuals, a whole population that is deserving of employment. The research actually shows that they're more loyal to the company when they're hired. There is a higher retention rate, lower turnover when they're employed. And that by not including this population, the GDP is actually reduced between 78 and 87 billion dollars by not putting these individuals in the workforce because many return home during the prime working age. Right. We want to be able to include them in the population or in the workforce, I should say. So it's vitally important to not miss out on this population.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, Jess, that's so insightful. I think particularly now as we gear towards sort of mid-COVID post-COVID referent space where I think employers are really struggling to fill many positions, it seems like a prime opportunity and then, of course, beyond. Again, I think your humanity and people-focused approach here is not only refreshing, but I think it gives us a lot of good food for thought as leaders, as managers, as change agents to rewrite the narrative to be more inclusive and also further our approach and our insight as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So Jess, my friend, thank you so much for taking time to chat with us on our podcast. It has truly been a pleasure. Lots of stuff to unpack. Thank you so much for your insight.

Dr. Jessica Grosholz

Thank you so much for having me, Phil. I really appreciate it, and I am blessed.

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. I next time.

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 Crystal Morrison Joseph
Crystal Morrison JosephEpisode 13: March 28, 2022
Race and Trauma

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Episode 13: March 28, 2022

Race and Trauma

Today we welcome Crystal Morrison Joseph - an alum of William & Mary. She's a licensed clinical professional counselor, a licensed professional counselor, and an approved clinical supervisor in Virginia and Maryland. She specializes in anxiety, depression, psycho-oncology, racial identity formation, and cultural trauma within the Black community. She is the author of two books: "Conversations with a Clinician of Color" and "Poundcake & Private Practice." She speaks with us today to discuss trauma, Black professionalism, and how we can all better ensure the world of work is truly an inclusive place.

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • What the link is between trauma and systematic racism
  • How do microagressions contribute to trauma
  • The importance of recognizing microagressions in everyday speech
  • How psychological trauma, stress, and coping impact Black lived experiences in the organizational sphere
  • What is the difference between direct and indirect trauma
  • How trauma and chronic stress permeate Black professional lives
  • How microagressions can have a macro impact
  • What are some actionable items that allies can do to meaningfully support Black lives
  • What are good self-care practices people can do to combat trauma
  • How can learning institutions best support students of color
Transcript

Crystal Morrison Joseph: Race and Trauma TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Fear drives behavior, good or bad or indifferent. I cannot swim. I grew up around water. I'm from Tidewater, but I know what my limits are. So I don't completely avoid water. But I know that I can't go but so far out with so much capacity of life jacket and deep-sea fishing and scuba diving and all that. I avoid those things, but I think we have to have a conversation about what can we unlearn, what can we relearn, and then what just needs to go in the trash.

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 friends to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Thank you for continuously tuning in, for engaging with us. Keep sharing with friends. If you wouldn't mind, drop us a review. Five stars would be nice. But regardless, keep coming back for more. We're so thankful for you. I'm excited for today's conversation as we take things in a little bit of a different direction from where we went last time. I'm joined today by Crystal Morrison Joseph. And together, we are going to have a conversation on mental health. So Crystal is an alum of the College, and she specializes in anxiety, depression, psycho-oncology, racial identity formation, and cultural trauma within the black community. She has over 16 years of experience working with persons affected by mental health challenges, systemic barriers, and culturally traumatic experiences. Like I said, she's an alum here at William & Mary. She got her Bachelor of Arts in psychology and Black studies and her Masters of Arts in Counseling Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Washington, DC. You won't find Crystal just in her office. She'll allude to her couch, I'm sure, in this interview, but she's out there doing the work. She's a prominent figure. She's the author of two books, Conversation with a Clinician of Color, Likeness, Lucy and Lemonade, and also Pound Cake and Private Practice, Five Things I Learned During My First Year. Crystal has given so much of her time coming to speak with our students, engaging with us. I'm so thankful again to hold space for this conversation. Thank you so much, Crystal, for joining us. It is a pleasure. As always, to speak with you.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Hi. Yes, thanks for having me. I totally appreciate the read of my bio. I hate for it to sound dry, so I try to go a little bit off the beaten path when I describe myself. Thanks for providing the synopsis of me. Cheers to the community. I'm here being a part of a community that I hold near and dear to my heart, which is William & Mary. So I appreciate you all having me. COVID, unfortunately, has jacked up a little bit of my on-the-ground initiative, so podcasts have been the safest way for me to do that. I also have an internship and residency program. And so, this fall will be the fourth cycle of that.

Phil Wagner

Congrats.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

That's just to teach people to be better than I am. And a little bit on the entrepreneurship role grad school. And our role doesn't really teach you those things. Hence the book. The book two copies actually are in the swim library. If anybody the pound cake one, the other one is on just public domain or people can reach out to me. Thanks for having me.

Phil Wagner

Hey, thanks for filling in some of the gaps of that bio. You're clearly someone on the move, and I'm thankful that you made time to chat with us today. Today's conversation, I think, is going to be a little thick, particularly given some of the other conversations that we tend to have when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now, as a licensed mental health counselor, I know that you're comfortable with those thick conversations. So just a little of a note to our listeners. We're going to go there today in this episode. So take the time to step back and pause if you need to if we get to places that are a little rough. But I really want to center in this conversation the experiences of trauma and specifically how our diversity, equity, and inclusion work can be trauma-informed. I think that it's so important that we really step back and talk about the trauma that comes along with systemic racism. And I know that BIPOC folk face daily onslaughts of racism. But if you don't live those experiences, I think it's really easy for people to think that racism is just about a few ignorant comments. And if we're just nice, all that will go away. But can you help us understand a little bit more, Crystal, the trauma of racism as it exists in sort of the day-to-day rhythms of life?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Sure. Absolutely. So I have to kind of separate it out. So a little bit didactic here. So with trauma, trauma includes your personal perceived reaction to an event. So initially, it's the visceral reaction you have. So in psychological and theological terms, that reaction is either acute but then also can go into long term. So once the acuity and the frequency of said reaction or the ripple effects of that reaction continue to occur, you get into the long-term effects, such as what people like to call shell shock, PTSD, which is post-traumatic stress disorder. And so, when you look at the perceived notions of how someone operates in their environment, that can mean they come in contact with traumatic events almost daily, depending on where the stimulus occurs. And the stimulus can be a person, place, thing, situation, some words that you may hear that are pinging right now, like triggers. So that's typically what we identify. So the trauma of racism is the repeated presence of racism in someone's life, which we know includes prejudice, discrimination, overt, covert actions, but also microaggressions. So to answer your question regarding the day-to-day rhythms, they typically occur with microaggressions. The things that people do and or say that to the person doing or saying it's like, oh, this is no big deal, I'm just going to do it. But they don't realize how it infringes, and it becomes patronizing, discriminatory, and hurtful to the other person. And so, I think we should be mindful before we speak and to just listen and understand why someone's point of view is that way. To give you an example, the best example I can give from a self-disclosure standpoint I remember putting together Ikea furniture years ago with a previous employer small team of staff, and one of the nuts and bolts were missing. And I said, oh, gosh, Ikea gypped us. And someone in the room was a descendant of Eastern European family where the word Gypsy was a derogatory term. And then that's how you get the word gypped.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

And so it means to steal or procure something without purchasing. Right. And so it caught me completely off guard when she pulled me to the side to the point where I was in tears because I didn't mean to offend, not knowing that that word had so much charge to it. And it had been a part of my vocabulary for almost 30 years at the time. And so that's just one way I like to kind of explain to people. It could be day-to-day things you're doing and saying that never are met with any sort of pushback or challenge. But then you say it to the wrong person, or you do it to the wrong person, and they're going to be like, wait a minute, not today. We're not doing this. So day to day, our vocabulary, our semantics, how we go about how we entreat business. When you look cultural differences or reading the room, everyone reads the room differently. So, yeah, I guess that's the best.

Phil Wagner

It's super, super helpful. And in your work, it's like your mind. I know that as you sort of break apart the work that you do there, that psych piece is about like preparing your mind to see things differently. Right.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Correct.

Phil Wagner

Seeing things different and what I love about what you just said, Crystal, is I think that that personal reaction is key. And it's very telling because that tells us, as DEI advocates, that you have to listen. Right. You don't get to decide if something is traumatic or not. I think that goes both ways. Don't make someone a victim. Don't look at marginalized communities through a victim lens solely.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Right.

Phil Wagner

Also, step back and listen. Whether you perceive something to be offensive or delegitimizing or not, you don't ultimately get to decide. Right. Your job is to listen and respond accordingly.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Right. So, yeah, there's a recent conversation about the professionalism. Well, professionalism is that word is interesting because of how it's used to categorize people, but what it means to have your nose pierced or a different color hair than you're naturally born with. And then who is to be taken seriously? Or does that cause a distraction in the workplace? And so certain communities like color. I like color. I've dyed my hair red and purple and blue, black and all these things. But I also understand that I work for myself, and I can make certain rules. And so the conversation is who gets to decide what is appropriate? And so, to your point in trauma, you have to understand, okay, you've offended someone. You're traumatizing and or re-traumatizing someone. How do we make it stop? And it doesn't happen overnight, especially with trauma. The lingering effects of who the person that is experiencing these nightmares or in social media, we call it trauma porn, where you're positioned over and over again to these events and these visuals.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I want to be mindful that we don't go there today talking about trauma so that we sort of get, like, that emotional high. And it's a really delicate balance to walk that like. I think often we don't talk about things that are deep in DEI work, particularly in the professional sphere. Right. Like, we stick to high-level definitions and stuff that makes us feel good. And I think there is a time where we need to sort of go there. So I'm glad that we're doing that with you. And I think it's easier to understand the trauma when we connect it to systemic inequity and perhaps even more so to the violence that BIPOC folks face every day. I know the last few years have given us literally video snapshots into some of the encounters that people of color have been facing since long before cell phone videos and social media existed. Right. While we continue to fight for justice, people of color continue to grapple with the collective trauma of Trayvon and Eric and Michael and Ahmaud, Breonna and George, and all the other lives that sort of go on that have been snuffed too early. As a woman of color and a mental health counselor, that's a unique intersection gives you a great insight, a great bird's eye view here. I'm wondering if you can offer some insight into how the intersections of specifically police violence, psychological trauma, stress, and coping impact black lived experiences in maybe even the organizational sphere.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

It's rough out here. Let's position it this way from a timeline with Treyvon Martin. I was in grad school still, and that was a force to be reckoned with, the ignition or igniting of protests nation and worldwide. And then now you fast forward to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery so you can imagine what I possibly see in here on my couch. But prior to that point, as a black woman, I've lived some of these things. I've seen some of these things. I've been followed in stores by security. I had people mistake me for someone else because, quote-unquote, all black people look alike, things like that. And it's frustrating. So you combine that with not being able to unzip your skin to social injustices, racial injustices, about black bodies being expendable. And so that's the phrasing that I typically use with my clients and those that I supervise is the expendability of black bodies. It's almost like, well, if you can't be procured for capital gain, then, oh, you don't mean anything.

Phil Wagner

Oh, wow.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

And God forbid you speak up and say, let me get my bike out of your yard, or I'm just walking home with my hoodie on because it's cold outside, and I want my skittles. You're looked at as a threat. You're seen as a threat. And so, something I have to explain to people is my bio doesn't really matter to an ignorant person. My papyrus from William & Mary in Latin doesn't mean anything to an ignorant person. And sometimes people see you coming, and they assume stereotypes back to ingrained prejudice and exploitation of racism outward, it's like, oh, well, that's just a black woman, and she doesn't mean anything. Or to Sha'Carri, who beat out Flo-Jo's record. She has orange hair, eyelashes, and people are kind of going at her from my community. And those outward about this isn't okay. And it's like, well, can we cheer for those people and those women who don't look like what you say should fit in your box? And so, with the police brutality, it's been difficult because of how our systems are structured and to see how our bills are still sitting on the table regarding George Floyd and the anti-policing bill and stuff like that. They haven't been signed in the law. They haven't been pushed. It tells you on a federal level how people view black people or those who identify as black. And it's been hard. I have people who come in, and all they can do is just breathe for the first five to ten minutes discussion because they can't even verbalize how they're feeling.

Phil Wagner

And this is an important point. Right. Because I think if you're a white person or white presenting person, or in any majority group, it's easy to look to be like, well, that's not you, right. You're not George Floyd. You haven't had those interactions with the police. And that's a really ignorant and reductive framework because we're not talking about those who have just had violent interactions. There's a lot of research to suggest that just indirect exposure to that violence, it can cause trauma and chronic stress. Right.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yup, and thank you for saying chronic stress. So diagnosing, obviously, is a part of my day-to-day job. And for Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other people of color, I try not to put them in this huge medical box. Right. And you go down the list, and you're doing the differential. And it's like none of this fits. None of this fits. And it's because of chronic stress, or it's because of psychosocial stressors that are seen as environmental in how they originate versus the organic, which imbalance of chemicals in the brain. So the WHO and the American Psychological Association are in conversation about the terms such as burnout and other psychosocial stressors, racial trauma because they're trying to determine how to classify it on a psychological standpoint. But also everybody, 90% of my practice, they have experienced racial trauma or some sort of trauma secondary to psychosocial stressors in their environment. How can you expect someone to be okay when they're paid $0.63 to the dollar? How can you expect someone to be okay when they don't have child care, and they're penalized for leaving their children in a hotel overnight just so they can go to work? It's that, but it's also those who have reached a pinnacle of success, so to speak, who have the degrees, who have the education, and who still can't get ahead quote-unquote or still can't be respected because they're black or they embody a perceived threat, and it's frustrating.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I'm wondering if you can speak to how trauma and that chronic stress seep into black professional lives because it's not just like folks of color get to clock in nine to five and put aside the collective fear and anxiety and systemic racism. Right. You don't just get to lose that because you're at work. So what are the professional consequences of violence and trauma against communities of color in the professional world?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yeah, so the phrase we all love hostile working environment, which then sometimes activates an EOC suit and things of that nature, it's hard. So for me, I'm siloed. I'm isolated. It's just me. As far as me and another person in the room, I don't have a huge practice. And our work as solo practitioners can be highly isolating. But when you look at larger systems or even like campuses, universities, prior to COVID, we were intersecting with a lot of people. I think with the onset of COVID, it's increased, or well, it's increased our isolation from each other, but it has decreased what our communicative skills are going to be. So I do feel like the hostility, perceived hostility, and microaggressions can increase because you can't read the room as well. And I want to say that of the things that I've seen, microaggressions still tend to be at the top of the list. Corporations assuming that certain employees that identify as Black, Indigenous, Brown, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other people of color that they have certain resources. Right. So the best example I can give is when the school said, okay, no more children in the buildings. We're going to do virtual, go home with your parents. So most of us have, like, WiFi at home, but we have a generic speed. We don't have this extreme business speed. So if you live in a two-parent household, mom and dad or caregiver otherwise are trying to take care of business on their laptop, streaming over WiFi. But then little Johnny and Susie have to also do their homework and school work. So now we're fighting over bandwidth. Whereas, say, a parent who doesn't have the same resources or there's a grandmother, multiple generations living in the home, maybe WiFi wasn't even a thing because you didn't have a job where you needed WiFi. You may have been I call them beautification specialist, but a housekeeper. And then your child gets sent home, and now you're scrambling for even the hardware, a laptop, or what have you for them to participate in school. And my brother told me a story. My brother is in North Carolina, and I have a nephew who's five, just turned six, and they're doing virtual school. And so because of the age group, they have the teacher and then they have the teacher's assistant. And this classmate of my nephew was kind of hot dogging and being the class clown. And there was a lot of women trying to get his attention. And the little boy just wasn't listening. So my brother was home and kind of peeped around the screen, and he intervened, and he said, please sit down and listen. You're disrupting the class. But my brother noted that when he looked at the screen, the young boy was in his mother's bedroom during class, and mom was knocked out in the bed behind him. And so it was later found out that mom worked the third shift and was also pregnant. And so she's tired, but she's trying to get him to engage in school. But you can't watch over him and get your sleep and work on third shift all in a 24 hour period. So I think the assumption of resources and allocation of time needs to be reconsidered. When you're looking at corporations and how trauma and chronic stress during this time has affected people and will affect people. I mean, these things have been going on prior to COVID, but now it's like it's in the forefront, and the layers have been pulled back.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I think that's so important to take that intersectional lens. Right. It is so reductive to just make it all about race because there's an intersection of race and class and then resources and gender, and there's so many configurations. And then that intersectional domain is going to impact generational curses, for lack of better term. Right.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yes.

Phil Wagner

Main systemic if we just put Band-aids on the surface level issues, I'm wondering, we've talked about microaggressions, and I think, again, if you're in a majority community, it's easy to say, well, they're micro for a reason. Right. Like they're small and inconsequential. But those microaggressions have some macro consequences. And I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to either how those or even just again, that systemic racism impact how folks of color see themselves. Right? I mean, does it have an impact on identity and how they see value and their ability to contribute meaningfully in the world?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yeah, I agree. I think because of the injection of these comments or micro and macro aggressions. I agree with you. So I use the term injected based on it not being present prior to. Right. Think about a child who hasn't seen the world around them, and then it then turns into generational curses as you discuss. And then you end up interacting with each other and yourself in that fashion. So now you have in-group fighting or within-group fighting. Right. So now we're crabs in the barrel outside of our traditional environment trying to keep each other in check when, in reality, what we should be fighting together collectively as a larger system to dismantle. And so there's a lot of various theories and arguments about it. But given what I've seen personally and professionally, it might not happen before I close my eyes for the last time. That's how much of how much work and how much of a fight we have to do. And fear drives behavior, good or bad or indifferent. I cannot swim. I grew up around water. I'm from Tidewater, but I know what my limits are. So I don't completely avoid water. But I know that I can't go but so far out with so much capacity or life jacket and deep-sea fishing and scuba diving and all that. I avoid those things. But I think we have to have a conversation about what can we unlearn, what can we relearn, and then what just needs to go in the trash? Because for those who consider themselves allies and co-conspirators, we really need you to step up and do the work continuously because we're tired, and we're faced day to day every day with these intricacies. And as much as some people want to sit in the house all day, we can't avoid it. And so even though, like, I've carved my own path and tried to avoid certain things from a corporate level or other things, there are still people I have to answer to. There are still powers greater than me, and there are still a lot of macro microaggressions I can't even avoid, even though I'm my own boss and things of that nature. So it's not easy.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I think the learning piece is an important piece, unlearning relearning. But there's also a doing piece. And I think it's okay to be skeptical of the DEI industry. And I think sometimes we try to do as a sort of like cheap and plastic effort to show that we're getting stuff done. That said, social support is vitally important. So I'm wondering what steps BIPOC allies or Sarah Ahmed calls them accomplices. Right. Because accomplice means we are truly in it together. We are bound to the hip. What are those actionable things or do items that those allies, activists, co-conspirators can do to actually meaningfully support black lives? Like actually do it, not just say it.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yeah. I mean, I would say call folk out. Call them out. You know, in D.C., if you see something, say something like if you hear something that's not going well in a meeting or, you know, your colleagues had an idea, but then it gets usurped in a meeting and then positioned as someone else's, call them out. I also think a redistribution of resources is necessary. And I don't always mean money when I say that. That can be your time. That could be your hobby or talent and then also giving grace to yourself and to other people that maybe today is your day off and you don't have it in you to call people out or what have you. And also, I would say do the work there's that whole I can't think of the mean. But like Google is your friend, consistently calling upon Black, Brown, Indigenous, people of color, Asian, Pacific Islanders always show up and do the work for you. Please leave us alone. That's just how we feel. It's like you don't want us until we can be used for gain. And then an issue that I was finding is people were calling as soon as the pandemic onset and all these things. And then you'd say, okay, well, this is my speaker sheet. This is my contract. This is my invoice. And it's oh, we don't have the budget for that. And I'm thinking, okay, but six months ago you had so and so on your day is, and I know what they got paid. So it's like, okay, here we go with the expendability part again. So I would just say for people that we have relationships with, we're going to bend for, we're going to move for. We're going to do things with. But other than that, please make sure you pay people what they're perceived. I can't even say what they're worth is. But what they're asking for, what their perceived value is, what value they're bringing. And then also a one and done is not okay. It needs to be a continued lifelong effort. That includes teaching your elders in your life who may be ignorant. That includes teaching your children. That includes having conversations with the person who services your vehicle or what have you and just really flipping things on their head and saying, this is not right. And this is why or these are the facts here, or this has recently been uncovered, and this is the history that I'm going to teach and not what was taught 20 years ago. Read the books. There's so much information out here that has been downplayed and or put on the banned books list or whatever. But storytelling in my community is very important, whether it's written and or spoken, more so spoken than anything. And it means a lot. So just listen to the stories, whether you agree, validate, or not. But just all of those things just do the work continuously show up. And then maybe we could see some change because we can't continue to work ourselves into the ground when the system around us wasn't even you could say we built it, so to speak, but it wasn't built for us to thrive in. So we need other people to help show that, like, okay, this is wrong. This is wrong. You're wrong. You're wrong. Do this over.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I love how you brought that full circle. We started the conversation by talking about the expendability of black bodies, particularly through acts of violence. But there's a professional expendability, too, right? Like a one and done. I'm not going to pay you. I just expect you to show up and give us insight. And there's a difference, I think, between highlighting Black and Brown voices versus using Black and Brown voices as a substitute for Google because it makes you feel better, you know?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Right.

Phil Wagner

I think that there's a profound difference there. And thinking about my own lens, I always want to be careful not to victim cast. Right. It's important for me not to just look through a victim lens towards marginalized communities because that takes empowerment away, too. However, just realistically, right. That's what your mind is all about. Let's check the realistic things. Realistically. This trauma, these experiences, this expendability it, has to impact identity today. And I would imagine that self-compassion and self-care have to factor in heavily as Black and Brown people try to navigate a world that increasingly situates them as expendable. So as a mental health professional, can you share maybe a little bit about your own self-care or the self-care practices that you recommend for any of our listeners who are maybe grappling with that same experience of expendability?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yeah, no, absolutely. I would say I'll go high-level wellness. So walking outside, getting your vitamin D, I know summer is here now, but 30 minutes outside absorbing it. You don't have to be out there too long. Vitamin D does help with your neurotransmitter cascade and how you process your dopamine your serotonin, which means possibly a happier you. I would also say check in with all of your medical providers. And I'll get to mental health in a second. But I say that because a lot of people, of course, had to forego visiting certain physicians because of COVID. And that's okay. But your full body needs to check up. And I'm definitely about holistic mental health, so definitely mental health. Now, I don't bite. Most myself and my colleagues, we don't bite, I promise. And just because you sit on my couch doesn't mean that you're crazy. And so I know some of the media, the shows that are coming out in treatment and things like that, there are some ethical concerns that we have as a community. It is entertainment, folks. We will never tell your secrets anything like that. I die with my secrets and your own. I promise. For those of you who are religious or believe in a higher power, you can do both. You can pray, and you can sit on my couch. It's okay. And then self-care for the women or those I identify as women that I'm speaking to, we think it's oh let me get my pedicure. Let me get my hair done. The men let me get my beard oil. Let me get my head wax. All of that, I consider that grooming. So just like a cat licks itself to clean itself, that's more grooming. Self-care is not always cute and fancy. It can be doing the hard work. So even like hot yoga, I can't stand it. It's suffocating to me. But some people enjoy it. And sometimes, showing up for yourself in those ways are difficult. So sometimes, it's changing behavior. Sometimes it's setting a boundary with a loved one that you never thought you'd have to put a wall between. Sometimes it's facing something that makes you extremely anxious. So self-care and compassion include those things as well. Getting a good night's sleep and unplugging from your phone. So all of those things. And I'm human, too. I live life, and I don't want people to think that I'm holier than thou. These things are not the easiest to do. I have a therapist. I like getting my hair nails done, but I know it's different. I have to force myself to get up and walk in the morning. So those are very real things for me. So I don't say that just sitting in my Ivory tower.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I think it's so important, right? Isn't it amazing how self-care has been commodified for capitalist gain? Right. A lot like the DEI enterprise, we've made it go out and buy a $2,000 bag, go out and spend money, and that's fine. All of that has its place. But that's not inherently self-care, right? Self-care is not always comfortable and frivolity. It can be a deeply profound and sometimes uncomfortable experience, but important for the end goal. I would be remiss, Crystal, if I didn't ask as an educator, not as a podcast host. Here at the College, our mission is to support all of our students, and I'm wondering if you have any advice for how we can best support our students of color as they work through what's a really rigorous curriculum.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

It is.

Phil Wagner

Can be traumatic in and of itself. While also navigating the world in Black or Brown skin. Are there any extensions of support that you received that were helpful or ones that you wish would have existed? Like speaking to the educators here at the College? Sorry, listeners, we're making this internal conversation. Is there anything that might be helpful for us to consider?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Yes. So when I was coming through, William & Mary had Office of Multicultural Affairs, which is now shifted into the larger Diversity office, and it's moved to another side of the campus center. That was a godsend for me. I was there maybe three times a week during business hours, and that was when Dr. Brennan Hurt and Dr. Sean Glover headed it. Let me see. And then we shift back to the academia side. So I really enjoyed all my professors. I made sure to go to office hours when I could, and I just appreciated how personable they were. And so, I did have a tragedy that I experienced while I was in school. And the way that the campus came together for me, from professors to the Dean's office to the counseling center, was absolutely phenomenal. I couldn't have asked for a better foundation during that time. And even when I came back to school, it was just nice to see that no one pitied me or anything like that. They still said, okay, these are your assignments or whatever. But I had different benchmarks that I knew I could meet. And so, I think the school has done a really nice job of progressing and assessing and moving forward by establishing Office of University Advancement to keep up with their alumni. Here I am, but also the relationship that transmits between those who matriculate and the professors. And I know we didn't really have homecoming last year, but just the activities during homecoming. And so I think campus is on the right path also with the renaming of buildings and just certain festivities and hallmarks that I had when I was there, but that I still see being done. I read my magazines. I keep up with my newsletters. So you seem like a truly personable professor. So I could see students popping into your office hours, or I could view you teaching, say, a certain way. I think also, I know academia is not easy both on your end but also us as students with such a rigorous campus. But I think also pausing curriculum for the sake of honoring the students' presence in world events is important because to continuously teach to a book or to the Queen's taste, so to speak. I think it would dismiss what the students experience when they walk off-campus or when they leave your classroom. And so, I think a lot of students over the past year have appreciated some flexibility because people aren't on Eastern time zone anymore. They're all across the nation trying to tune into class, or the assignment might not go over well because it's just different now. So those things. But I had a great experience. There were some things that popped up, and we came together as students and addressed them, and we had a voice. I felt like we had a voice.

Phil Wagner

I'm encouraged to see how the College is being so proactive and ensuring that the next 400 years are truly centered on the right motivations. And I went back to this past year. We saw particularly some profound instances of violence against Asian Americans not too far south in Atlanta, being a great example, and to see how the William & Mary community paused and really supported all of our students and even opened up the conversation for a larger conversation on violence against minority communities. To really make this a holistic community effort, I think, shows some really just true intent, really good intent that is centered again on the right foundations. And so, I appreciate that insight for how we can adjust our pedagogy. I think that's always an important conversation. Crystal, really, just one final question for you today. And as a mental health therapist, I'm just wondering, are there any final words that you have leaving this in a truly open-ended way? If we're all collectively metaphorically sitting or laying on your couch, final words might you have to offer us?

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Where there's breath, there's hope. You belong here. You deserve to be here. What you're experiencing or how you feel is valid. Don't let anyone tell you differently. And then, if you need help, there is help. There are resources. There are several directories that are positioned specifically for Black and Brown and Indigenous people. Therapy for blackgirls.com. Therapy for blackmen.org. Therapy that liberates is another directory I'm part of. I really like it, though, because the community is strong. There's Indigenous practitioners listed LGBTQIA plus. And then Melanin mental health is another podcast they're run out of Texas by Afro Latinas. One is a sex therapist. So we're here. Google can sometimes derive information that might not be helpful. But if you need anything, feel free to reach out. I try to leave people with resources if nothing else.

Phil Wagner

Well, thank you for the resource that is you.

Crystal Morrison Joseph

Thank you.

Phil Wagner

It's so open, and I really appreciate that. I always try to be very mindful not to overly center those interpersonal experiences and exploit your experiences, but you've provided so much good insight today that I hope will be helpful. I know will be helpful to those listening. So Crystal, thank you so much for taking your time to come and speak with us on trauma, black professionalism, and how we can all better ensure that the world of work is truly an inclusive place for those Black, Brown, and Indigenous employees. Wonderful insight. Thank you for joining us.

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

 Rita Sampson
Rita SampsonEpisode 12: March 14, 2022
The Day-to-Day Work of DIEO

Rita Sampson

Episode 12: March 14, 2022

The Day-to-Day Work of DIEO

Today on the show we welcome Rita Sampson, the former Chief of Equal Employment Opportunity within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She is currently the Director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. She joins us today to discuss her career journey into the D&I space, what gives her her energy and passion for the work, and the importance of self-care for D&I officers.

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • What are the Three C's of being a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer
  • Is there one aspect of D&I work that is more important than the others
  • How D&I work is a team sport
  • How the pandemic shaped the D&I space
  • How the percentages of employee diversity in the intelligence community have changed in the past five years
  • How best to forge a D&I future in the face of competing demands
  • What should students do to best prepare for a career in the D&I space
Transcript

Rita Sampson: The Day-to-Day Work of DIEO TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Phil Wagner

Hi friends. There are a few moments in life where the right paths just cross, and everything makes sense. Today's conversation happened because of one of those moments in my life. In Fall 2020, I had the opportunity to meet Rita Sampson, today's guest, in a talk about setting diversity and inclusion KPIs. At that time, Rita was working in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, serving as the U.S. Intelligence Community's Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Equal Employment Opportunity. It's a position she held for over a decade. She brings so much legal and leadership experience to conversations on DE&I, having held numerous attorney leadership roles as well within the Department of Justice, the FBI, and beyond. But full disclosure, we recorded this episode some time ago in early 2021. We had been saving it because we wanted to release it for Women's History Month because Rita is both a powerful female leader and someone whose leadership has made an impact on our nation's future and, thus, its history. Yet, true to Rita being Rita, her gift has made room for her. So while you'll be hearing a conversation recorded while Rita was still at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, she has since moved into a new role, and we couldn't be more excited for her. As of February 2022, Rita now serves as the Director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. That office is a neutral and independent office within the SEC that creates and applies best practices to achieve equality in the workplace and compliance with anti-discrimination laws. That office also gives us a lot of expertise in legal and social science analysis, proactive prevention of workplace discrimination and harassment, conflict management investigation techniques, federal sector equal employment opportunity roles and processes, so much. And as you'll hear today in our episode, they could not have possibly picked a more qualified leader to help helm those efforts. So without further ado, let's step back in time just a little bit to spring 2021 and kick off a conversation with our guest. A beloved, appreciated impactful leader of DEI, someone who has made a monumental impact in my own DEI leadership journey. Rita Sampson. 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.

Phil Wagner

Rita, welcome to our podcast. You have had such an impressive career. As we just heard. But tell us in everyday terms, what do you do every day in your D&I role?

Rita Sampson

Awesome. Thank you, Phil. Thank you for inviting me because this is something that's very near and dear to me. And I don't know this whole impressive career thing, but it certainly is what I've done over the course of many years. And diversity and inclusion is sort of, for me, the culmination of that career. And what do I do on a daily basis in leading diversity and inclusion and leading equal employment opportunity? I kind of break it down into three C's, and let's see if we can get these three C's going. The first one, of course, is conversation. So being a diversity and inclusion officer means that you are the one that is driving internal conversations around diversity and inclusion. You're creating a space where people in the workforce can come and should come to feel connected. So we don't just hire people and leave them at their desk doing nothing. You want those people to be at their very best, feeling fully sparked, safe, secure. We talk about psychological safety, but this doesn't just happen naturally. You have to help create the conditions for that. And so, sparking these conversations is one thing that happens in the diversity and inclusion space. I think the other part is understanding connecting to the mission. And so diversity and inclusion in the air is all well and good, but what we're doing is tying it to our actual business outcomes by being a more diverse and inclusive organization. You're a more high-performing organization. Not because that just sounds good, but it's empirically proven. You have to be able to understand, first of all, what happens over here when we're talking about analysts, what happens in the space when we're talking about rocket scientists. What do we know about covert operations? The diversity and inclusion officer has to know a little bit about every part of the mission and then be able to explain how getting the diversity and inclusion right advances that mission. And then I guess the final C that I'll talk about is continual learning. If you want to stay static, then this is not the area for you.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Rita Sampson

This is a space that is always evolving, always growing. You want to make sure that you are growing as a person in terms of your competencies, that you're able to be a communicator, that you understand and have peeled back the onion off of just superficial, nice to be diversity, but to really understand every aspect of how humans operate in an organization, how they operate in relation to one another, and that takes continual learning. What I do on a daily basis is try to make those conditions all happen because it is not just the right thing to do, but it makes us a safer nation when we do that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I love so much about those three C's. Number one, I'm a communications professor, and there's sort of a communication underpinning to all of those in that we think of diversity and inclusion as big, bold initiatives, and indeed they are. But really, that work happens in those small interpersonal encounters most often. That's where people feel included, and they feel safe, and they feel valued. So I think that tells us a little bit about strategy and then the final note you made on continual learning. I think that's so important because what that also requires is a lack of ego in your D&I work because you're always learning somewhere along the way you're going to be wrong. And you have to check that ego and recognize it's for the greater good, not just morally speaking, but in terms of the business outcomes as well. It's a great foundation.

Rita Sampson

Right. We don't go in saying, I know all the answers. That's definitely not the way to go because you don't know all the answers, and you are learning. So you should have that creative space.

Phil Wagner

And sometimes, there are no answers. Right. You just rest in the discomfort and say, well, what do we do with what we have to get to some semblance of a solution that may never work in its totality? There's such good advice. So tell me, Rita, did you always plan to do diversity and inclusion work? Did you find yourself here on purpose? How did you find yourself where you are doing this work day-to-day?

Rita Sampson

Well, if you went back in time to where I won't tell you what year I graduated from this place. But no, that wasn't a part of the game plan. I knew I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to practice. I ended up practicing in the area of employment law employment litigation, which meant I saw a lot of things happen inside of organizations where conflicts are completely broken down. And it was around that time where I started asking the question, how can we avoid some of these types of encounters within the workplace? How can we get upstream and make sure that our actual culture is healthy, that our leaders and our managers know how to engage with people, and that some of these conflicts that we see could be avoided? And that's when I started understanding that there's a whole new space called diversity and inclusion. And that's when I said, okay, this sounds like it is, right for me. It has some of the aspects of law because there are familiarity with civil rights, but it's more than compliance. It's more than just getting people in a room and talking about issues. It really is being very deliberate and strategic in how you position your organization to succeed. So that to me was very attractive. And then this opportunity came up, and voila, here I am.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, voila, here you are. In that answer, there's this sort of embedded notion that a lot of D&I work is either proactive or reactive. Right. Like, you either react to a crisis, a situation, a discrimination suit, something happens, and then you react, or you're proactive you get upstream, as you know, and that sort of relates to the next question, which is like, which part of D&I enterprise is the easiest to do? I would imagine it's probably easier to be a little bit more proactive. But in your day-to-day position, I know that your goals are to help the intelligence community attract, hire, promote, retain a highly skilled and, diverse and inclusive workforce. That's a goal that I think many organizations have in their D&I work. And this is probably a tough question, but which one of those is easiest or most difficult? Attracting, hiring, promoting, retaining diverse talent where are the easy wins in D&I work, and which ones are a little bit tougher?

Rita Sampson

Wow. So I was asked a very similar question at a congressional testimony, like, what is the most important thing to focus on in order to be successful? And I couldn't answer the one thing because it's all-important. It's creating the conditions for success. From my own personal perspective, when you're talking about attracting the new workforce, that to me just resonates because I love to help people understand what we do in the intelligence community. I came at it just mid-career, had no idea all that happened behind that secret closed door. And therefore, I know that there are really super bright people out there who also is given the opportunity to understand what we do. Would jump right on that, and those are the people that we need, the talent, because of course we're competing with the private sector, we're competing with other government agencies. We're just out here in this competition for talent. And I think that if there's anything that really gets me excited is when I have the opportunity to speak to colleges and to professional organizations and share with them what happens and why the intelligence community is so important. It's because we're looking for people to bring their diverse perspectives to solve hard problems. And when you start shaping it like that, we don't actually want you to think like the person who sits in the cubicle next to you. We need you to think differently. We want you to think differently. And then I start talking about, hey, did you know if you come into the intelligence community, you could go to some of our internal universities and have a master's degree and learn a foreign language and just travel the world? And so it is in that energy space where I start talking about attracting the workforce of the future that I get really super psyched about. I think on the flip side. The hard part is when we have people when we bring people on board, how do we promote, retain, and advance them? Over the course of years, we've shown that we don't do half bad we're making great progress in hiring. But when it comes to our senior leaders, we're not as diverse as we should be. So those are the challenges that keep me awake at night. How do we make sure that we're positioning people to advance in their chosen careers and that they have the support and the mentoring that they need to see themselves, first of all, as future leaders of the organization and that they get the experiences along the way to do just that. And that's where our strategic partners come in. Diversity and inclusion officers is not a one-man show. Right. It is not an individual sport. We'd like to say it's a team sport. You must get in it to win it and being able to attract more people to understand what we're doing and to help one another succeed. That's what gives me a lot of energy, but at the same time, never-ending continual work.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. That energy space is something I want to speak to as well. I totally agree. Effective D&I work is certainly teamwork, but even on the team, the quarterback might need a little bit of extra rest in prep for the big game. Right. Because it's a little bit of a situation where all eyes are on them. So doing this work as somebody who maybe holds the title or is designated as a D&I officer, that, of course, takes a lot of energy, and it has to come along with some high points and low points because that's your professional career. Right. So can you share with us maybe some of the D&I high points you've had along your journey, and then maybe from a more vulnerable space, the tougher moments to move through, the ones that required resilience and perseverance? You've been at this work for quite some time through multiple social iterations in the D&I conversation. So we'd love to hear the high points and the low points if you're willing to share.

Rita Sampson

Okay. Can I start low first?

Phil Wagner

Start low.

Rita Sampson

Low has got to be known as 2020, right?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Rita Sampson

There's all things in at that moment. I think many of the years of the work that we have done in this space came to a testing in 2020 because we sat in the midst, and we're still in a global pandemic. We saw extreme disparities in health outcomes for underrepresented groups, minorities, persons who are poverty. We saw with our own eyes the disparity. We also, in that same year, saw what we call a reckoning and social justice issues, and we had to not be able to segregate those social justice issues from the workplace because each of us was impacted by that. And there was a real call for the diversity officers to lead the response on these issues. But at the same time, the diversity officers were also exhausted.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Rita Sampson

And the emails, the phone calls, what should we do? How do we lead our people from this? What do we do first? Do we listen? Do we come up with a plan? So that was a very difficult space to be in as an executive. But I think on the same or the flip side of that same coin, we saw people making bold moves and making declarations that we are ready for a fundamental change and that we must embrace the imperative around diversity, around equity, to ensure that we're actually getting measurable outcomes. And we're holding ourselves accountable for the changes that we know we need to have. And just seeing the number of allies that stepped up into this space and kind of held our arms up and held us up while we were pushing along, that to me gave a lot of optimism and help to refuel, totally help refuel us. But this is not easy work. It is very rewarding, but it is not easy work. And sometimes, when you think about, oh, I have a passion for diversity and inclusion, just keep in mind that a passion is not going to do it. At the end of the day, you have to have that passion. But at the same time, it's passion plus more.

Phil Wagner

There is so much more. It's a textured journey. Right. For every up, there is often a down. Victories often come from challenges, but those are challenging to work through, particularly when people I think are looking to you to maybe set the stage or set the agenda in that moment of social shifting. Where do we go? That's a precarious place to stand, I think, as a leader, to direct the story, direct the narrative where it's going next. So, yeah, I appreciate you sharing a little bit more about those challenges and moments of, I think, victory as well. To that point, about energy and energy spaces. What energizes you to do this work? Obviously, we get that energy when things go well, and we've led some great initiatives. But what gets you out of bed every day to do this work? Where do you draw that energy source from?

Rita Sampson

Well, I certainly am a person of faith, so that always is a source of my energy. But I think fundamentally understanding that everybody has a gift. And when you recognize you have that gift, it's your responsibility to use it. And I think I know that I must use the gift that I've been given. My father would say, I'm the youngest of five kids. It's the power of influence that she has. She can make people do things that they didn't think that they were going to do, and just persuading and building coalitions is something that I really enjoy. You wouldn't know, but I am totally an introvert, but I love people. And just being able to connect people one with another, some of that is, hey, listen, I'm going to connect you, and then I'm going to take my introverted self over here and let you all do your magic. Right. But that's one thing that connects me is knowing that I have a gift, and I enjoy being able to pay that gift forward and to create conditions where other people are able to use their gifts as well. And the diversity and inclusion work can be a little exhausting. So we have to refuel at times.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I want to talk about that at the end. The necessity of self-care is really part of the job description and duties to tend to ourself. But you talk about your gift, and I fully believe that your gift will make room for you. And you've found a place of, I think, significant influence, obviously, with what you do in the office of the Director of National Intelligence. Many matters in that office, I'm sure, are not something that we can discuss on a public podcast. But to the extent that you can, we've talked to a lot of D&I officers on this podcast thus far, and you're situated in a very different space. Can you speak to the role of some of the diversity and inclusion issues that you see as they relate to national intelligence?

Rita Sampson

You're absolutely right. There's a lot of things that cannot be shared with the public, and that does make it difficult when we're in this diversity and inclusion space. But for the last five years or so, I've made sure that we publish our diversity numbers so that the public will know where we stand and how we're progressing in that space. The balance comes. We won't actually tell you the number of employees we have, but we are giving you an optic of the percentages and how those percentages have changed over time. And we're looking specifically at minorities, women, and persons with disabilities. We're looking at the core mission roles that form the intelligence community. So analyst positions and science, technology, engineering, and math positions. And seeing are we having a more diverse impact of our underrepresented groups in that space. And so that's part of the transparency story. Another part is that we've recently undergone this journey where we're being a lot more intentional about sharing. And that's a cultural shift in the intelligence community because there are certain things that are not classified, and we should and can. It's our responsibility to put that out to the public because we serve the public. We have intel.gov. It's a really great source for understanding our people and getting a sense of what kind of people work in the intel community. So that website has barrier breakers. So you get a sense of wow, they're actually normal people cool people that work here in the IC.

Phil Wagner

Okay. So to that point about transparency, I mean, that's especially difficult given where you are positioned. And you've noted in a past session that I was able to attend that you can't always be fully transparent like you give the percentages. And I think that's a great buy-in. I would imagine there are other people who don't work in the intelligence community who at times find it tough to balance that need for transparency with doing their due diligence. So do you have any advice on steps forward when you can't just put out the company laundry, for instance? How do you work to make the public and your employees and everybody in that relationship aware while also recognizing, again, you can't just let it all out there?

Rita Sampson

Wow. So one of the things that we followed industry practices. So not just staying within the intelligence community for our discussions, because if we're just one big Echo Chamber and we're just talking to ourselves, then we don't get better. And that's part of the whole business case around diversity and inclusion in the national security arena is that we have to have diverse voices around the table and include different viewpoints. Otherwise, we have things like groupthink. Groupthink is bad when you are trying to make a decision for the President, for Congress, or for the military. That's not going to work well. If you haven't looked at the vulnerabilities or the blind spots. We intentionally create relationships with the private sector and with University partners and bring them in and Red Cell and Red Team so that we know that we've gotten all of those viewpoints together. I think another part of that is understanding that if we provide more information to the public, then the public will come in and give us suggestions for how we can do better. Part of that is the strategy framework that we just adopted this past year, and it's build intentional partnerships. That's one of our four pillars of that strategy is we're building intentional partnerships to increase access to diverse talent. And the whole notion of intentionality and transparency are part and parcel to that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think that's so key, too, is listening to not only the suggestions but sometimes the critiques of the public. Right. When you find yourself doing D&I work, you're often subject to a lot of criticism or skepticism from a variety of different angles, too. So I think there's a fine balance there to figuring out how do we respond in a meaningful way and not just sort of all over the place. Let me be willy nilly with the wind because the winds of this conversation, I think, develop over time. So do you have any thoughts on how to best tune your energy on the path forward when you have maybe competing demands from different constituents or different segments of the public?

Rita Sampson

Oh, absolutely. Different segments of the public, different segments of the workforce. Sometimes you can get caught into a reactive mode. And I think what that tells us is that we always have to have a strategy. We always have to have very clearly stated goals and then hold ourselves accountable. Periodically we check in to see how are we doing on that? What additional resources do we need to actually accomplish the things we say that we're going to do, and then being patient and understanding that it does take time to lead organizational change. Now, we shouldn't be looking at decades from now, but sometimes it won't be the overnight change. And sometimes there are some bold overnight moves that we can make, but just always being very deliberate and moving forward. And I always like to say we are going to disrupt the status quo. As long as you're disrupting the status quo, then you're making progress. One other thing, because with you being an expert in communications. You know, also that how you communicate what you're doing is very important. And in the diversity and inclusion space, it is very important to communicate that this is not a zero-sum game. That this is an effort that will lift all boats, that what we are doing is focused on merit, and it is focused on what is best for the organization. And sometimes, that is a discussion that has to happen. It has to be led by the diversity officer because not everybody understands what we are doing in the diversity and inclusion space.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so good. One of the things I love about you, Rita is that I think in the realm of D&I work, it's easy for some people to become disenfranchised and say, that's a little too touchy-feely for me, a little too like human. Right. I'm a data analyst, and you always come back to one thing, which is key performance indicators. And I've heard you speak on this at sort of a corporate level, but I hear that embedded in your answers here, too, that you've set those KPIs for yourself. Right. So that when the work does get tiring or when you're dealing with competing demands, you come back to that central why that central focus. Those results that you as a professional with a line item to do D&I work have set or established for yourself to do. And I love that because I think it gives a buy-in framework for even those who are technically minded data-minded, that this is still a results-driven effort. And so it's not just that interpersonal stuff, and that's certainly a part of it. But there are real anchor points to strategy, to data, to logic that I think we can come back to. So those KPIs are fantastic. I want to go back a little bit to where we started here, which is the starting point of your career and how it's iterated over time. I get to work with a lot of very bright, very talented, engaged students here at William & Mary in the Mason School of Business. And I'm really heartened because I see a hunger and a thirst for diversity and inclusion leadership among some of our students. As someone who's been engaged in this work for a lengthy career, what advice do you have for those students who are hoping to sort of break entry into the D&I sphere as a full-time employment opportunity, as a professional area of focus? Any advice for them?

Rita Sampson

Yeah. So I think that in any career field that you endeavor, you need to have good mentors. So you need to identify some people who are doing this work and have some conversations with them because you really want to go in eyes wide open to the greatest extent that you can and understand that you're really now a corporate C suite executive. So you have to understand the mission of whatever organization that you're in. You have to understand the business drivers what is important to the organization because then you can shape your strategy to have a resonance with that. Yes, there is a social aspect to it, and there is a business aspect to it. So you have to be able to do that. I think you absolutely and William & Mary students are great at this, but you have to be a great writer.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Rita Sampson

You have to be able to communicate both in writing and orally. You have to be persuasive and, most of all, resilient. And I think definitely if I got nothing else from my years at William & Mary, it was a great sense of resilience. I got it together by the senior year.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. It's a community right of passage. That great resilience is necessary. I think that's really good. I love the idea of mentorship, and I think that that's so important. You need social support, no matter your professional endeavors. But I think in this space specifically, it can be lonely at times as you disrupt the status quo. That can be an uncomfortable place to be. So my final question for you, Rita, really centers on that as well as you disrupt the status quo. As you get into the business of doing the work of D&I, I think we often focus on action, action, action. And indeed, some of D&I work is never done right. It's ever ongoing as the conversation shifts. And I know that that requires some self-care as a necessary part of the D&I professional sphere. So tell me, over your career, what have you learned about self-care, and how do you practice it?

Rita Sampson

Probably one of the more important parts as people begin their careers. When you're young, you can just keep driving and driving, and eventually, you realize, I'm driving on empty.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Rita Sampson

And so you can't allow yourself to ever get into that space. And so always embedding health and wellness, whether it's physical wellness rather or mental wellness as well. It's very important to always have a check-in. Am I eating right? Am I getting enough rest? Am I surrounding myself with people who are positive and therefore bring me positive energy because you need that? And on those times when my tank is completely empty, am I investing in getting the help that I need? Am I having these conversations, and I'm a big proponent of employee assistance programs. Call them up and tell them what you're going through because it's going to make you a more effective person for the long term. You're not in it for a series of quick wins. You're really trying to play the long game and to do that. You have to be at your best at all times.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And that long game is going to necessarily come with challenges along the way. That's how you grow. That's how you learn. And I think some of the most helpful paths forward often come in those moments where things aren't working out. We learn, and we strategize and repurpose, so self-care super important.

Rita Sampson

I will admit that 2020 I ate a lot of brownies.

Phil Wagner

You and me both.

Rita Sampson

But to regroup, being graceful to yourself, and being able to put yourself back on track when you do go off track. Those are critical for long-term success.

Phil Wagner

Viewing yourself in that same compassionate light that you sort of preached as the gospel message of D&I. Right? That central message of inclusion, I think, needs to be directed at ourselves sometimes too.

Rita Sampson

That's right. So I've got a new treadmill, and I'm walking, and I limit my brownie intake as much as possible.

Phil Wagner

All right. I'm still working on that last piece. Rita, it is such a pleasure always to speak with you. You have been so impactful to my own D&I leadership, and I so appreciate that you are willing to come on and share with our listeners. Thank you so much.

Rita Sampson

Thank you. Thank you for having me. I can't wait for us to get together again.

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

 James Milam
James MilamEpisode 11: February 28, 2022
Dis/Ability Part 2

James Milam

Episode 11: February 28, 2022

Dis/Ability Part 2

Today we welcome James Milam. Due to a birth defect, James has been confined to a wheelchair his entire life. He joins us on the podcast today to discuss how he grew up with an active lifestyle, what lessons he's learned from the workplace and how he's been able to navigate a successful career, his advice for what the world of work can do to make itself a more inclusive environment, and more.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How had James defied expectations during childhood
  • What was James's revelation about his disability during his college years
  • What has surprised James the most about being a wheelchair-bound professional
  • How did COVID-19 benefit James in his professional life
  • What words or phrases would James recommend when discussing disability
  • How to navigate conversations when someone inadvertently uses offensive language
  • What should the world of work do to make itself more inclusive to persons with disabilities
Transcript

James Milam: Dis/Ability Part 2 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

James Milam

For me, I would much rather come out and have people say something, even if it's a bit brash or unrefined, than cover up their truth, feelings, or thoughts.

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. Actually, today is a little bit more like a mini-episode. You know, those rare instances where you're able to just make calendars align and facilitate a conversation that's sort of how today came to be. It is an honor, however, to host our guest, even for just a brief conversation. Today's guest is James Milam. He is a proud MBA graduate from 2019 and somebody we are certainly proud to affiliate ourselves with. Like I said, James is an alumn of the College well known across Miller Hall and across campus. He now serves at Deloitte as a senior consultant based out of Nashville. James has an incredible story incredible passion, and I'm so incredibly grateful that he has created time to speak today and share some of that with us. James, thanks so much for making time to join our podcast today. A beloved alum, someone whose name is mentioned regularly down the halls of Miller Hall. So I guess before we begin today, I should ask you, what have you been up to since you've left the halls of the Mason School of Business?

James Milam

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It's wonderful to be able to talk about this topic, so I wanted to go through a little bit. So prior to graduating with my MBA, myself, along with three of my fellow classmates, we're fortunate enough to receive full-time offers from Deloitte supporting their government and public services practice as human capital consultants. So that's what I've been doing. And since onboarding back in July 2019, I've served on the Military Health System account, where I was given the opportunity to support Navy Medicine's Financial Business Operations team by managing their portfolio of SOPs or standard operating procedures. I've recently taken on an additional role with the State of Tennessee account, supporting Ten Cars Engagement and Training team with Organizational Change Management and Training Development Services or their upcoming Medicaid Eligibility System upgrade. So, in addition to the client work that I do, I support Deloitte's William & Mary recruiting team as the Campus Engagement Workstream lead, the National Office Council, and the Gps org suite. PMO team org suite is an upcoming asset within Deloitte's Human Capital OT offering, and I also work on numerous client pursuits.

Phil Wagner

Very cool. And we should probably mention James. So you're coming as a proud representative of Deloitte but not speaking for Deloitte, right? Speaking from personal experience today.

James Milam

Yeah. Thank you for teeing that up. Right. So this topic, just in its form, is very much based on a case-by-case situation. And so today, everything I'll say is coming from me, and my experiences and are my opinions, not those of the Deloitte.

Phil Wagner

Excellent. Always important to make that note. So, James, we're going to jump in here because, as a young professional, you're very forthcoming about living your professional life while in a wheelchair. What have those experiences been like, and what surprised you most about your professional experiences?

James Milam

Yeah. So I think it's really important that I tee up the nature of my disability. Right. So I think you're probably interested in me sharing that I was born with something called sacral agenesis, which requires the use of a wheelchair in my daily life. Now, sacral agenesis is a birth defect of the spine, which in my rare and mild case, prompted the development failure of the lower three vertebrae in my spine. However, I do want to be clear that I feel very fortunate as my condition will not worsen throughout the course of my life. And I have full sensation and feeling all the way to the tips of my toes. So going forward, I can tell you a little bit about my background just as a person outside of that. I grew up in White House, a small town north of Nashville in Tennessee, and through grade school, I played trumpet in the marching band, became an Eagle Scout, and on numerous campouts, carrying on a normal childhood, as you might imagine, from a very young age, my parents enabled me and sometimes forced me to become independent. Even though this thought never entered my mind, the expectation was communicated very early on that I would not allow my condition to hinder my life's advancement, achievement, and character development. I can go on a little further. From high school, I attended William Jule College in Liberty, Missouri. It's a ten-hour drive from home, so that was really helpful with becoming independent. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in physics and economics. And while in school, this is kind of interesting. I completed a ten-day, 120 miles outward-bound trip through the Florida Everglades as part of a leadership fellowship program. While on that trip, I ditched my wheelchair and spent the entire time with a crew of my peers in canoes. So I think very much survival style trip. Right. So we're camping in canoes, pitching tents on a beach. If there's not a beach, we would sleep on the water. But this experience taught me that your body is a machine, and it can do as much as your mind has the capacity to make it do. In hindsight, I see my college years and the three years of professional years after as a period of awakening. Throughout this experience, I became very in tune to society's tendency to put differently-abled individuals into a category. If I achieved, I was seen as inspirational. If I struggled, it was seen as a direct result of my situation. So when I left the Kansas City area and began my MBA at William  & Mary, I sought to learn and understand how I could achieve and become valuable simply for my knowledge and skills instead of because I was an inspiration. I also drastically shifted my focus to people. How am I perceived and understood by others? How could I do as I've always done, which is to overcome in spite of barriers, rather than just expecting society or people to change their perspectives of me on their own? So that's a little bit about my background.

Phil Wagner

So, James, earlier, you came to speak in one of our undergraduate courses earlier this spring, and you noted that COVID 19, though horrific in so many ways, actually helped you a little bit in your professional life. Can you speak to that sort of digital divide example that you shared and how it's played out in your professional life?

James Milam

Yeah, definitely. So the separation of a computer screen for me provided an opportunity to understand how interpersonal interactions might be different without the scariness that someone might feel when first reaching out to me or approaching me in my wheelchair at a crowded after-work networking event. It also reassured me that my managers weren't holding back responsibilities due to a fear they might overwhelm me. I saw no change in the amount of work that was expected of me, which, again, is probably kudos to Deloitte on that end. Right. But it allowed me to just kind of understand it a little bit further.

Phil Wagner

That's very cool. James, terminology is something that I think you and I have chatted a little bit about as well, and you spoke on this in my course earlier this spring. Terminology is a tricky thing. In your own professional or personal experience. Are there certain phrases or certain words that you recommend when talking about your own experiences? For instance, do we say disability? Do we say disabled? Do we say wheelchair-bound? Uses a wheelchair? What do we say, and what do we not say? Do you have any insight?

James Milam

Yeah. So for me, I think terminology is 10% content and 90% delivery. Right. I typically and casually describe myself as confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound. Now, I read in an article that you gave request that that may be negative. Right. So I'm apparently doing it wrong. I see no impact on my self-esteem or capacity to accomplish things based on what people say right. Now from an activist perspective, separate from my own experience and how I feel, I do see an importance with when you're referring to people who have different abilities, placing the person before the adjectives when describing a person who is differently-abled. So as an example, I notice and sometimes educate people who say things like the wheelchair guy or the blind guy. Right. So I just think that those, in general, are bad. You don't want to describe someone by their disability. They are someone first, and then they may have a different ability.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's really good. The article that we read, I would agree, sort of like really goes to the far side. And I think when we work in context with students who do not have a physical disability, we try to get them to the safest place first and then work backwards from there to have interpersonal conversations with those that we interact with, make sure that the labels or descriptors we use meet that person's own specifications. So that's super helpful.

James Milam

An example I like to use here is in the grocery store, right. There's always a three-year-old or a four-year-old. They'll kind of look at me funny, and they can't really contain their stares. And it's kind of hilarious because their parents are like hiding them and be like, no, you can't do that, or you can't say why you're out loud. Right. I love that opportunity because the first thing I'll do is I'll ask the parent, hey, would you mind if I take like 20 seconds to just explain. Right. You give the kid version. You don't give the version I just gave previously. You tell them a little bit about, yeah, I use a wheelchair, but I also go swimming and I scuba dive, and I love to do outdoor activities. So you just kind of give them that. You reduce the scariness from a very young age. And I think if we start the conversation as early as possible, we'll start to see even more positive changes.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. It's a tricky balance, isn't it, because you want to foster a sense of connection, and connection and curiosity are related, but curiosity can quickly become something it wasn't intended to be. And so, as much as you want to foster those connections to encourage someone to say, hey, tell me what's up with your story. It's just a really tricky area. I think that's part of what we're trying to do here is to open up conversations where we can ask some of the things that we may not normally be able to ask, where it's not appropriate to ask so that we can really cut through that noise and develop those relationships. James, I'm certain that people somewhere along your journey have said something offensive to you. Perhaps it's the language they use, a comment they said about your experience. How do you navigate those interpersonal conversations when someone says something offensive or uses an offensive term, perhaps not even meaning to?

James Milam

Yeah. So this may be an unpopular answer or maybe not even what you're looking for. But for me, I would much rather come out and have people say something, even if it's a bit brash or unrefined, than cover up their true feelings or thoughts. An example of this might be what if someone in a wheelchair or someone who had trouble getting around didn't receive an invite something because the location had maybe like two or three stairs at the entrance. And in this case, if this was to happen to me, I've never and don't intend on ever letting stairs stop me from getting somewhere that I want to go. I've climbed ten flights of stairs at will to go zip lining or go down water slides at water parks. And it's the assumptions that people make out of misinformation that sort of drives strong emotions for me, much less than being misinformed or not exactly sure how to describe it. And maybe they just say something unrefined. And furthermore, I would just say to the capacity that people are able and on a case by case basis, there is an ownness on the person who's differently able to have an appropriate perspective. And so to reduce that offending culture. Right. That can be very debilitating if it can become an excuse. Right. Like, oh, I don't want to go there and get to know that CEO because he doesn't believe what I think he should believe, or he doesn't describe my ability in the way that he should. Right. I think that it's really important to avoid those types of excuses and get away from that toxic perspective if you're able to.

Phil Wagner

Good. That's really helpful. Well, James, this is really insightful. I've got one more question for you, and it's the question we like to ask all of our guests on this podcast. We know that no magic wand exists to sort of wave and solve all of the problems in the world of work that surround disability in equity. But if you had a magic wand, what's that one thing that you'd really like to see the world of work do to make itself a more inclusive place for those with different abilities?

James Milam

Yeah, I think it's all going to start with being bold, addressing the elephant in the room. Right. It's very similar to the idea that if you don't know how to pronounce someone's name, you ask them at the beginning of the conversation. If you have to leave a call early, you manage those expectations at the beginning of a meeting. If we can do these things in corporate America, we can also bring out the elephant in the room in a respectful manner. Ask open-ended questions. So I said this in your classroom, but I want to reiterate it again because I just think it's a great piece of advice. And I received this while at a discussion at a lunch at work. And it's an open-ended, top-down approach for managers. Right. So managers should ask open-ended questions to everyone upon joining the team. So not just people that you can see they have a different ability, but a lot of abilities you can't see.

Phil Wagner

Right.

James Milam

I highly recommend if you're a mid-level manager or higher, ask open-ended questions to learn about your team. Things like, are there any team norms or things that I could implement within the team to help you optimize your work with us. Are there any thoughts you think I should be aware of or that you'd like to make the team aware of to help you perform at your best? Right. So putting the ownership on the person with a different ability to be transparent about that, and then you can address it in the most the least highlighted way. Right. You want to be really discreet with these types of changes, and so it allows you to be very smooth in the way that you manage people and also have a high-performing team.

Phil Wagner

Very cool, James. Anything else you want to share?

James Milam

No, I think this is just a fantastic discussion that you're opening up, and I can't thank you enough for starting the conversation and providing a lot of these deep insights. I think the last thing I would say is that as someone with a different ability, I certainly understand that these are case-by-case answers that I've given today. And I just want to say to anybody else who's listening to this, I have a level of optimism in my life that is, I think in a lot of ways unmatched, and it's something that I've worked on for a very long time, and I realize that times are hard and that I have a very, in this case, the situation because I have overcome a lot and have been enabled by a lot of people to overcome a lot. So I just wanted to say that, and so I'm very thankful to everyone that is in my immediate network and family and friends.

Phil Wagner

Thanks, James, and I'm very thankful to you. You provided such great insight in so many different domains, both in my class and in our podcast, and through our alumni networks. So it's always a privilege to connect with an alumn. It's certainly a privilege to connect with you. So we really appreciate your time, and thanks for your insight.

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.us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time in.

More Podcast Episodes

 Kathleen Bogart
Kathleen BogartEpisode 10: February 14, 2022
Dis-Ability Part 1

Kathleen Bogart

Episode 10: February 14, 2022

Dis/Ability Part 1

Kathleen Bogart, Associate Professor of Psychology at Oregon State University, joins host Phil Wagner to talk about disability advocacy in the workplace, why ableism is the forgotten "-ism," how one finds a support community for a rare disease, and more.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • What drew Kathleen to study psychology
  • The distinction between person first and identity first language
  • What insights Kathleen has gleaned from her research
  • The alternative expressions people with facial paralysis utilize
  • How a majority of disabilities are invisible
  • The concept of disability as a social construct
  • What is the non-disabled ally's role in disability advocacy
  • Is there a definition line between what is and is not a disability
Transcript

Kathleen Bogart: Dis/Ability Part 1 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Kathleen Bogart

Disability actually is probably the most common minority in America. 25% of American adults have a disability. And so that's why it's especially surprising that it doesn't come up in these conversations more.

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 another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. We're so excited for all the engagement we're getting on this podcast. Thank you for continuously tuning in. And thanks for tuning in today. As we shift our conversation to a topic, we have not discussed just yet on the podcast, which is disability. And when we sat down to think about who we wanted to have on to talk about this topic, it was really clear that today's guest would be a great fit for all of her impressive work and engagement in this area. Our guest today is Dr. Kathleen Bogart, who's an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Disability and Social Interaction Lab at Oregon State University. She's a social health psychologist, and she specializes in disability and in ableism, particularly in the context of rare disorders such as facial paralysis. She's been awarded so many different awards, including the first annual Social Personality and Health Network Diversity and Research Award. She's been named professor of the Term at OSU, but she's a true advocate, an ally for people with disabilities and rare disorders specifically. She's the co-founder of the Disability Advocacy and Research Network, or DARN for short. And she's extensively involved in disability advocacy both at Oregon State and abroad. I love her bio because it says in her free time, you can find her walking her cat or developing pescatarian recipes for her food blog. Clearly a multidimensional guest today. We are so excited to welcome Dr. Kathleen Bogart. Kathleen, could you first begin just by telling our listeners a little bit about who you are and the work that you do?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah, sure. Well, thanks so much for having me today. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. So my background is that I am an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University currently, but backing it up. I was born with a disability called Moebius syndrome, and that's important because it really shaped the way I moved through the world and how I came to do the career that I do. So Moebius syndrome is a condition that's characterized by facial paralysis and impaired lateral eye movement. So it's a very visible disability. And so, when I was going through my early life, I started to notice just that other people got a bit confused by what I was trying to communicate because they were looking for a facial expression that often wasn't there. And it just made me fascinated about communication. We do so much with facial expression, but we also do so much with all those other communication channels, words and body language and gesture and all that stuff. And so that really made me just fascinated with basic psychology. So I pursued undergrad and then grad work in those areas. My Ph.D. is in experimental psychology from Tufts, and I had just great mentors going through grad school who, honestly, I really appreciated as allies because they recognized that they didn't know a lot about Moebius syndrome. Honestly, some of them didn't know a lot about disability in particular, but they were happy to support me and learn. And that's exactly what I needed. I got this great position at Oregon State, and I've been just doing research on Moebius syndrome and then broadening out, right. So facial paralysis in general, rare disorders in general, and disabilities in general. And in this kind of like series of concentric circles, I've been really interested in the commonalities that all of these groups experience. So we really focus a lot on stigma and discrimination experienced by these groups and the way that we can change the way the outside world views and treats these groups.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. This is a little bit of an aside question, but one of the things. So I'm a communication researcher, and I love how you speak to those elements of gestures and nonverbals and all of the elements of communication that drive perception. The other side is the language piece. And we know one thing that we found in this podcast that there's so many different ways of labeling, for lack of a better term, the concepts that we're dealing with as we guide the conversation today. You use the term disabled. You say differently-abled. Like, what's the language that you would recommend that we use as we talk about these concepts?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah, I'm really glad you asked that question because so many people wonder about how they should talk about disability. And I think also that the worry of saying the wrong thing has stifled these conversations. I certainly don't want to speak for everyone, but I will say that I really like the term disability or disabled. And I call myself either a person with a disability or a disabled person. So those two are, in turn, are called person-first language and identity-first language. And they're a good argument for people choosing to use one or the other. I happen to just kind of use both as a way of honoring kind of flexibility there. But person-first language is all about ensuring that we understand that the disability is just the part of a person, whereas identity-first language is like, well, actually, my disability is a very important part of my identity, maybe like my race or gender or something like that. So we don't say people with blackness. We say, black people. Some people feel like we should disabled people and then to your question about differently-abled and words like that. I really like just saying the frank term disability. I feel like euphemisms, like differently-abled or even special needs, those kind of they're skirting around the reality of this identity, and it's nothing to be ashamed of saying and talking about. And I think when we skirt around using the word, it further stigmatizes it. And this is also the word that's used in our civil rights legislation, right—the Americans with Disabilities Act. So let's say that word and mount that on to our civil rights.

Phil Wagner

Love it. Oh, my gosh. That's so clear and so helpful. So you've done a lot of research, and you've talked a little bit about what drove you to that research. We'd love to hear what that research has shown. What are some of the important insights that you've gleaned from your own research? Can you share those with us?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah. There's so many different.

Phil Wagner

That's a big question. I know it's big.

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah. So kind of starting at the beginning, I did initially focus mostly on people with facial paralysis and speaking to the communication piece that we're both interested in. I became really interested in the way that people with facial paralysis may communicate in alternative ways. So if facial expression is limited, we find that a lot of really successful people with facial paralysis amp up their expression in other areas, and they call this alternative expression. We find that people who were born with their facial paralysis are more likely to use a great deal of alternative expression compared to those who acquired it at some point later in their lives. And jury is still out on exactly the mechanism there. But we think that it may have to do with going through one's initial development with one's disability may really put you at a teachable advantage for working out ways to engage with your world. So we also know that those are effective strategies improving other people's impressions of someone with facial paralysis. So we know that by default, people tend to view someone with dampened facial expression as kind of sad or bored or even intellectually disabled. But we find that our participants who use more of this alternative expression are actually viewed by strangers in more positive ways. So that's one angle. I like using that line of research as an example because it starts by focusing on the target, the person with the disability. But then here's how we turn it around so that people without disabilities also play a role in reducing ableism. So then what we do is we train or work to train people who are likely to interact with people with disabilities, people with disfigurement, stuff like that. We train them about alternative expression and about just comfort with using language and stuff like that. So we do that with a lot of different populations now.

Phil Wagner

You have just mapped out like 17 different pathways for questions that I have. So I'm trying to figure out where do I want to go next? Because I really want to talk about that allyship piece. I think that's so critical, but I also think it's so complicated. But I want to tuck that away because I really want to focus. Your work has this sort of meta-message, and the meta-message I take away from your work really looks at disability as a broader entity. And you note that ableism is often like the forgotten ism. What do you mean by that exactly? And then I guess I'm specifically asking, what are the consequences for leaving this content domain out of our broader conversations on diversity and inclusion? Do you have any insight there?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah, absolutely. I really do feel like disability is kind of this forgotten ism. When we talk about DEI, we have this really important list of identities. And I can't help but now every time I see a DEI statement. I look for disability because I'm just hyper-aware of the fact that my group has been erased over and over again, and many times it's not included. And so what happens here is that people do these DEI trainings, or they have these statements encouraging people to apply for positions, but it doesn't mention disability or disability is an afterthought. So I even think about who's training the trainers. Right. So when you think about the people who are running DEI initiatives, we often talk about how important it is to have people who have an identity that might fall into one of those categories as someone who is doing the teaching or designing the programs. And those people are rarely disabled. And, of course, we're not talking about these identities in separate boxes. We need to think about intersectionality, and disability is a totally great example because it absolutely can intersect with all of these other identities. And so, I'm always surprised when people don't acknowledge that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And that's so crucial, even in our podcast, for as much as we're trying to do this sort of deep dive into specific identity domains, we do so with that full acknowledgment that it's sloppy, so it's intentional, but it's misinformed because it's impossible to do effective DNI work when we do that in such a siloed fashion. So that's such a great point. To that point, thinking about the larger umbrella of disabilities, your work specifically focuses on disabilities and disorders that are rare. And I think in your work, the number was affecting 200,000 people or fewer every year. That's really where you sort of or have focused in on as a subset of your research. So does disability advocacy account for that? Is it inclusive in its own right? I mean, what steps can disability advocacy or DNI work sort of take to ensure that the wide spectrum of abilities are included in that conversation?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah. So that's a great question. And let me step back for a minute because I want to contextualize actually how widespread disability is. And this really goes back to what we were just saying about how it's just forgotten ism. Disability actually is probably the most common minority in America. 25% of American adults have a disability. And so that's why it's especially surprising that it doesn't come up in these conversations more. Now there is so much diversity within that 25%. And here's how we get to all the different common and rare conditions that can result in a disability. Right. I have been especially interested in rare disorders. And so, in America, a disorder is defined as rare. As you said, when it affects fewer than 200,000 Americans, there are 7000 at least rare disorders. So when you collectively look at all of them in America, actually approximately one in ten to one in twelve Americans has a rare disorder. So this is a common experience, even though the 7000 different underlying diagnoses vary. So we do need to be sure to include this in our advocacy work. Historically, any minority group needs to come together, put aside its smaller nuance differences sometimes, and just kind of become a large group for lobbying and organizing power. And that really is what is starting to happen in the disability community. Historically, it has been a bit more fractured. So you'll see, like most of disability advocacy started among people with mobility disabilities, which is, of course, a really important segment. I mean, if you go back and think about the history of it, the literal symbol of disability in this country is a wheelchair user. It's on our parking lots. It's on our bathroom doors. Right. So that group has been great about being visible, quite literally, but there are a lot of invisible conditions. And many of these rare disorders are invisible. Some of them are visible, like mine. The majority of disabilities are invisible, so they don't look like that symbol. So we really need to remember the diversity within that population. When I think about kind of how my work can align with the greater good of the disability community, I like to think about the social model of disability, which is in contrast to the way we think about disability by default in America. The way we think about it by default is the medical model, which is we really focused on the underlying conditions and so-called pathologies within an individual. And we place the ownness on the individual and a few Esoteric specialist doctors to deal with the quote-unquote problem of disability. But the social model is the model that many disability activists and scholars adhere to. And this is very much like a social psychology view of disability. It says that disability is a social construct. So it matters less the individual diagnoses that people have and what's going on in their bodies or minds. It matters more the value that society attaches to those people and the way society includes or excludes them. So when I think about this work, whether I'm talking about one very rare condition like Moebius syndrome or whether I'm talking about the entire collective group of 25% of Americans. That is one thing that we all have in common. Right. It's the social exclusion. And to me, as a psychologist, that's the most exciting part is that it's much easier to act upon social behaviors than it is to act on more than 7000 different underlying euchologies. Right.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. It's so good because I think so often it's not that we try to make DNI work palatable, but we try to simplify it so that we can wrap our minds around it so that we can have action that sort of checks it off the to-do list. And I think one of the things our podcast is really showing us is that this work is sort of always moving forward because it's so deep, and it's so broad at the same time. To the point of actually getting involved in creating more inclusive spaces. I'm going to sort of take our conversation a bit of a different direction towards allyship. There's really two questions I have, and I'll start, I think, with the most simple, and that's in your lab. You do a lot of great work in your lab at Oregon State. You focus on disabilities. And that piece we just talked about, that social interaction piece, and we talked about communication earlier. We know that communication is sort of like a double-sided coin. It can certainly bring us together. It can be an effective agent for change, but it can also perpetuate distance and stigma. How has your work in your lab or in your research? How has it produced results that can help inform our approach to effective allyship, particularly as it relates to social interaction and communication?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah. So this is a great point. I always want to start off when talking about allyship by saying allies are awesome, and we absolutely need them. And we also just need more disabled voices in our conversations. And what allies get to do is amplify those voices and spread it more.

Phil Wagner

So this is a good sort of segment you're getting right at my second question. This is perfect. We're totally on the same wavelength here. But I'm often reminded of that sort of ever-pervasive mantra. That not about us without us. Right. And there's been just decades of non-disabled people, perhaps sometimes well-intentioned, speaking up, speaking for, speaking over disabled voices. And so, I think allyship is particularly important, but it's also particularly complicated in this area, particularly because of just the history that's come before it. So as we talk about allies, where do you see their role in disability rights and advocacy if they don't have or hold a disability themselves?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah. Thank you for adding that extra nuance to this conversation. Yeah. I agree that there is this long history of it's a generally well-meaning, people who do not have disabilities, who are designing and conducting the research about disability, writing the laws and policy and things like that. By sheer numbers, there are going to be 75% people who don't have disabilities and 25% or so who do. We absolutely need well-meaning allies, but those allies really need to listen to people with disabilities. So one concrete example from the research world is something called participatory action research, which means that you are including the people who have a stake in the matter, the participants, you might say, as actual participants. So they are designing the research. They're working as consultants. They're helping you understand and apply the results and get it out to the people that matter. And that's something really important to me as a researcher. I have a disability. That doesn't mean that I can imagine what everyone with a disability would want or need. So more and more, I'm including these methods. And I think especially non-disabled researchers need to do this more. It's still quite rare in the disability research world. So that model works at a much larger scale, too, when we're talking about making policy and making laws, listening to disabled people. That's done to some extent in the past. But often, it's not enough. Often you get kind of a token person to come into Congress and speak out about their testimony. But we need much more than that.

Phil Wagner

Is there a line, a definition line for what disability is or is not? A few weeks ago, we were talking about disability rights and advocacy in my diversity course. And this is not to belittle the student who mentioned, but she said, I have acid reflux disease. Do I have a disability? And I identified somebody. I have Tourette syndrome, which has not historically been classified as having a disability, though it certainly provides some awkward social interactions that lead others to perceive that I may in some context. Have you figured out that sort of space where this is or is not a disability?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah, there are so many. It depends on who you ask. Basically, there are so many definitions of disability. I like to start with the Americans With Disabilities Act definition and kind of go from there. I think it's a pretty good one. So the Americans With Disabilities Act says that you can be classified as disabled if you have an impairment or a condition that significantly affects your ability to do one or more major life activities. Okay. So keywords there are significantly affecting, but the definition doesn't end there. There's two more clauses. So the next clause is having a history of such an impairment. So that means that if you had a disability at one time that has been remission or it's now recovered, like, say, you had cancer or significant depression, and now you're in remission, and employers still might find out that information and discriminate against you because they're worried about health insurance costs or people not coming into work or whatever. So that protects people. And then the final clause is or the person is regarded as such. So this means that the person does not even need to have an impairment that impairs their life. But if someone discriminates against them because they believe them to have it, then they are also covered against discrimination. And that's often like I teach about those issues, too. And that's often the one that my students have the hardest time wrapping their head around. So let me give you a concrete example that actually comes up a lot in my own community of people with Moebius syndrome. So because of our kind of relative lack of facial expression, sometimes we are erroneously thought to have intellectual disability. I've heard of many people in my community showing up to job interviews and being told explicitly or implicitly that they think that the person is not intelligent enough to be able to complete the job. It would be very uncommon for someone with Moebius syndrome to have an emotional disability. This is not even a real disability that they have that the employer is imagining one to be there.

Phil Wagner

Wow. That's such an effective vehicle to take that clause and really show the potential because even when you're explaining it, I was thinking it would be so easy for somebody to sort of co-opt disability status for those sort of malevolent reasons. Right. Like out of some misguided notion of convenience, like a parking pass being a prime example there. But I love that vehicle because it's so important. And I'm so sorry I'm going in so many different directions. But you bring up a really important notion of social support. And we know that to navigate all of just the tumultuous life circumstances that we face in any of those identity domains, social support is such a critical space for us to sort of get what we need to get through the day-to-day. You mentioned your community specifically. And to the extent that you're willing, I want to ask, what does that social support look like? Does it come from your sort of subset space of people who have the similar disorder that you mentioned that you carry with you? Does it come from like-minded people within the disability movement? Is it external? What does that sense of social support come from in situations like the one you mentioned?

Kathleen Bogart

Yeah. Well, I mean, ideally, it comes from all of those fears. Right. So personally, it was really meaningful for me when I connected with other people with Moebius syndrome, which I didn't do until I was in my 20s. And like many rare disease groups, they will have, or the Moebius Syndrome Foundation will have a conference yearly or every other year where people can come together and meet each other. And so I went to this conference for the first time, and it was truly profound because it was the first time in my life I ever met not just one person who looked like me, but I was surrounded by a room of people who looked like me, and suddenly we were the majority group. So after that, I actually started conducting research on the experience of people who attend this conference. And my anecdote maps on really well to a lot of other people's experiences. They say, well, it's the one place where I feel normal. It's the one place where I don't have to explain myself. I know that people know exactly how I'm feeling. I think there's so much value in that, but it's got to come much more broadly as well. Kind of like I said, with my research, I found it to be really beneficial to kind of go broader than my own specific disorder. So I really enjoy connecting with disabled activists with all sorts of different types of disabilities and backgrounds. Allies, like we've been talking about, are super important as well. I have great family and friends who do not have disabilities but have always been really supportive. And I just have to give a shout-out to one of my best friends, who is another psychology professor. Her name's Amanda Hemmesch. She's a social support researcher, so it's definitely great to bring her up here. She's at St. Cloud State University, and she doesn't have Moebius syndrome, but because of her social support research interest, I brought her in to do this study on Moebius syndrome social support, and she just fell in love with the conference and the vibe there. And she's been going as my ally ever since. She knows a lot of people in the community, and I think she's just a great example of an ally and someone who exudes social support.

Phil Wagner

I love that. And I love that anecdote too because it's such a powerful charge to hiring managers, to leaders who can shape change. It echoes the reverberations of you can't be that you can't see. And within the world of work, I think the more that we check those unconscious biases, we work to move past direct, sometimes forms of discrimination. And we create a more inclusive space where people with varying life experiences, varying abilities, disabilities are represented in that space. It's better for everyone, right? That's not some charity act to people with disabilities. That's better for everyone. It's better for the clients that we work with. It's better for the quality of our social interactions. It's better for our bottom dollar. If we're thinking in a purely business case, it's such a clear charge and reminder of the potentials when we move past those barriers that may not even be barriers, to begin with, barriers that we've created so profound. I so appreciate you sharing that. One final question for you, and I think what we often wish is that we had some magic wand that we could just waive, particularly in the world of work, and fix it, make it more inclusive. If we handed you that magic wand with your perspective and your research and you're able to wave it and make the world of work a more inclusive place for people with disabilities. What would that look like?

Kathleen Bogart

My one-word answer to that would be flexibility. And I think the pandemic has really shown us what can be accomplished when we are more flexible. That's one little silver lining of a really awful more than a year we've experienced at this time. So people with disabilities have been advocating for flexibility in the workplace in terms of the ability to work from home or the ability to work flexible hours for years and years to very little positive effect. Right. They're getting the messaging that, oh, it's not possible, you won't be productive that way. And then this is a great example of the social model at work. So as soon as the pandemic created barriers so that everyone was disabled essentially. Everyone could not go into work unless they were in a few certain essential fields. Everyone was disabled, and everyone had to start working flexibly from home. And we found that we can do it. And employers gave those accommodations. And I know I and many other disabled advocates are just really hoping that that does not go away, that we don't forget the adaptations that we've done through this time. So that flexibility can help so many people, as you were saying, not just disabled people, but anyone who, for variety of reason, has kids, even a kind of night owl schedule versus work schedule, and certainly people with all sorts of disabilities. Right. So maybe episodic conditions that you have good days and your bad days, and on a good day, you are ready to take on all of your work, and maybe you can be really productive and then get it in the bank. And then when you have an off day, maybe you're not going to work, but when you allow people to kind of use their own schedules and strengths and energy, then they're going to be productive.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. Those are all of my questions. I cannot thank you enough for your insight. I know that this is your research, and it comes from such a natural place, but it's so helpful, and it's such a great framing device as we really try to drive forward the conversation. So I really want to know that we appreciate your time so much. Thank you so much for being here. It's been a real pleasure.

Kathleen Bogart

Absolutely. This was a lot of fun. I really love your conversational style. And you've just got fabulous questions. I can really tell that you're in it for the right reasons.

Phil Wagner

Thank you so much. 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 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 in.

More Podcast Episodes

 MaryBeth Asbury
MaryBeth AsburyEpisode 9: December 20, 2021
Fat is Just Fine: Size Diversity Part 3

MaryBeth Asbury

Episode 9: December 20, 2021

Fat is Just Fine: Size Diversity Part 3

On our third and final podcast around size diversity, host Phil Wagner welcomes Dr. MaryBeth Asbury, and Associate Professor at Middle Tennessee State University whose research focuses on weight and obesity stigma in interpersonal and health interactions. She and Phil talk about how the culture in one's home growing up affects their views on their own body, how 3D body scanning can be used recklessly in higher end department stores, why weight stigma D&I work benefits everybody in the workplace, and so much more.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How the work fat has been given power by society
  • The most important discovery MaryBeth has found in her research of weight stigma
  • What is the connection between weight stigma and religiosity in family dynamics
  • How 3D body scanning has changed the conversation regarding weight stigma
  • Why organizations should consider size discrimination in their D&I work
  • How organizational culture helps and hurts size diversity conversations in the workplace
  • What should workplaces do to be more weight inclusive
Transcript

Beth Comstock: Courage, Creativity and Change TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Phil Wagner

Welcome friends. As I noted before, what started out as a plan for one episode quickly morphed into a three-parter. That's because our recording with three practitioners who work at the intersections of weight and inclusion have so much to offer to this conversation. So to conclude our three-part arc on size diversity, I could honestly think of nobody better to help tie a bow on top of this conversation than my good friend MaryBeth Asbury. Dr. Mary Beth Asbury is an Associate Professor of Organizational Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. We met a number of years ago and share one important common trait. We are both proud Jayhawks and graduates of the University of Kansas. MaryBeth's work looks at identity and intergroup communication specifically as it relates to weight, obesity stigma, and health care interactions. 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.

Phil Wagner

MaryBeth, thanks for joining us today. I'm really excited to have a conversation with you on the topic of size diversity. This is an aspect of D&I work that we believe is important but underutilized or under-looked at. So before we begin our real conversation today, let's talk a little bit about language. When you do work in this area, what words do you use? Like, dare we say fat? Do we use overweight? Do we say obese? How do we dance around the language on this topic? Got any recommendations for us.

MaryBeth Asbury

So I am partial to using the term fat because it's a term that really is neutral. We have sort of given it power to be negative, but really it's just a descriptor. And I'm not really a fan of using words associated with the BMI. So things like obese or overweight or quote-unquote normal size. We all know the BMI is incredibly flawed, and so I use the word fat. I refer to myself as fat. I am not offended if someone says you are fat because I am. I'm fat. So that's how that is. I also think you have to understand context, and you have to understand your audience. So if people don't want to be called that, you can say person of size. You could say someone with a larger body. But again, I would steer away from those BMI terms.

Phil Wagner

Good. That's good. And that fits with what we've been talking about. So right on the money there. So, MaryBeth, you and I are both researchers and academics, and we're both nerds and thinks that research is cool. But rarely do we get to tell the world about the cool things that we find. You have found some super cool stuff in your research. Can you share a little bit? What's the coolest or most important thing you found in your research on weight and size?

MaryBeth Asbury

So I actually would refer to a recent study that my co-author, Alesia Woszidlo at the University of Kansas and I have been working on. And I should say these are preliminary findings. But what we have found is statistically significant. And so, we looked at family communication patterns, religiosity, and the development of weight stigma and body esteem. I had been doing interviews about people's experiences with their families and weight communication, and I seem to find that people who had, I'd say, more adverse messages about their size. They often had a very strict religious household. And so, I wanted to see quantitatively if this also pans out. So we measured it. And family communication patterns actually talk about two orientations. There's conformity orientation, which is sort of how strict we are about families following rules and homogeneity of thought. And then, we have conversation orientation, which is how open we are to talk about things. Am I allowed to talk about politics? Am I allowed to talk about religion, even if I don't go with what the family thinks? So what we found in our study, and now, again, these are preliminary results. If they were significant, is that when conversation orientation is high, and religiosity is low, children have better body esteem. They think more positively about their bodies. On the flip side, when conformity orientation is high, and religiosity is high, we are more likely to stigmatize others about their weight. As a Christian and someone who identifies that I find this very troubling because the majority of the sample was Christian. And basically, I'm like you all aren't teaching your first Samuel. God looks at the heart. What are you doing? But apparently, even if we say that lesson in Sunday school or think like that, actions are telling us to judge others based on their size in that context. This is just some new stuff I'm looking at at the moment.

Phil Wagner

That's so cool because our listeners probably don't know that you're also a Deacon. Am I wrong?

MaryBeth Asbury

I am a Deacon.

Phil Wagner

So this is right up your alley. And that makes sense to me, too. Right. Because you have that high religiosity, and it invokes this sense of your body as a temple. Right. So then, there's a sense of rules that come along with keeping up with your temple standards. And there's a lot of body standards within the Church, broadly speaking. So that's super fascinating. I'm curious as a follow-up, MaryBeth, the rules-based orientation does that relate to, like, you are allowed to eat this. You are allowed to snack, like creating children surrounding eating patterns.

MaryBeth Asbury

It could be, yes. So we're actually following up with a larger data collection to ask those follow-up questions because what we found we were just kind of like, why what's happening here? We've got another survey out that is a bigger sample and is asking those direct questions about is it conforming to a certain size, certain food rules, and things like that.

Phil Wagner

That's fascinating. Your research is fascinating. You've done some other stuff, too, MaryBeth, related to 3D body scanning. Can you talk to us about that project? Because that's a whole different focus on size.

MaryBeth Asbury

It is. So I got into 3D body scanning because there's another professor at MTSU. His name is Rick Cottle, and he's in textiles and merchandising. And basically, 3D body scanning is his baby at MTSU. He got the scanner. He did all these presentations looking for research collaborations. And we happened to serve together on a psychology master's thesis that looked at how 3D body scanning affected body image in men. And when we were doing the study, we were like, these people don't know how to talk about what they're seeing. They have never seen themselves three-dimensionally because even a mirror is a 2D image, right.

Phil Wagner

Right.

MaryBeth Asbury

So when you see yourself three-dimensionally, it's like what's going on here. The reason why we feel this research is important is because stores are starting to adopt this technology based on so you can go into a high-end Department store. In fact, some of them have them right now. And you say, I don't know what size I am. And they'll say step in the scanner, right. And we'll figure out what size you are from that. And so we're like, okay, if this is going to become mainstream, if it trickles down into everyday stores, people need to know how to talk about what they're seeing. So we've collected the first round of data, and we have to collect a second round. But it's on hold due to COVID because the body scanning lab is pretty small. We have to socially distance. But what we have found is that first of all, when people see a 3D image of themselves, they depersonalize the image. So before they stepped in the scanner, we would say, describe your body, and they would say, my body is, or I am. And then after they got scanned and looked at the image, they would say it is the image is even though that's them right there's depersonalization. There's also their comments got more negative and more specific about their bodies. So before the body scan, describe your body. Oh, I'm average. I would say I'm tall. I would say I'm thin. Then they would look at the scanner and describe your body. Well, my arms are huge. My stomach sticks out. My waist is wide. My hips are big, right? It became more specific, and it became more negative. So again, we have to look at some follow-up studies post-COVID. But in general, we're trying to figure out how to help people, first of all, how to help stores develop a way to describe here's what you're going to see when you come in so that it doesn't affect body image. It doesn't affect anything. And then also how to talk about what they see because people just don't have a language for talking about themselves three-dimensionally at the moment.

Phil Wagner

But the language patterns make sense to me because we live in our bodies, and you often just sort of, like, put them at the back burner. But that same sort of viewing orientation is the same level of judgment we see directed to people of size, fat people. So then you then see yourself like, see that body? I think it's easy to see how it's sort of our natural reaction to judge bodies based on size typologies or differences from what we expect the standard to be. We know the standard is messed up, but that's fascinating research, and there's a lot to do there, I think, with ethics and what it does to step in that scanner at a high-end store and not trigger somebody who might have an eating disorder.

MaryBeth Asbury

Well, our IRB is very particular. I mean, I think rightly so that we have a disclaimer if you have ever had an eating disorder, if you have an eating disorder currently, or if you have those tendencies, you are not allowed to get scanned because we can't trigger people into falling into that pattern.

Phil Wagner

You have a store who thinks I'm going to be super techy, right? Not thinking like a researcher, not thinking about the ethics, and so, I think there are a lot of practitioner recommendations that can stem from your research.

MaryBeth Asbury

Yeah, absolutely.

Phil Wagner

I want to change topics ever so slightly here and talk about the role of size in diversity and inclusion work. That's really what our podcast focuses on. And many people think about the larger work of D&I and say there's so much going on right. There's George Floyd, and there's COVID-19, and there's the effects on working women and global LGBTQ discrimination. There's a lot. So why are we focusing on size? Can't you just go on a diet and call it a day? Why is this in your mind, MaryBeth, an issue that organizations should consider in their D&I work?

MaryBeth Asbury

So first of all, I think we have a problem as a society, but also it trickled into organizations where we seem to think that people's size is something that's controllable. And medicine social science research is going to tell us that that is not necessarily the case, despite what society tells us. So our size is based on genetics. It's based on socioeconomic status. It's based on experience trauma, living conditions, access to health care. And it's not just as simple as calories in and calories out. So if we think about it in those ways, then it does need to be a protected class, right. Because for a lot of people, as in the majority. Your size is predetermined, right? It's what it's going to be. And your body, no matter how much you diet, is always going to want to get back to the size that it is meant to be, right. That's just how it is. That is the science behind it. So what I think when we look at diversity and inclusion with this is we need to think about it in terms of how we frame accessibility. So accessibility is something that helps everyone, not just people who are differently-abled. So, for example, having automatic doors, right. Helps people in wheelchairs and helps people who may have crutches. But it also helps people with strollers. It also helps people who have their arms full, right. So it helps everybody. Making it accessible. So we need to think about this in a similar way in terms of size. So if we create a workplace where fat people or people of size can work comfortably, it will also help others. So, for example, if we say everybody in the company gets to choose whatever type of chair you want, you don't have to be in a chair with an armrest.

Phil Wagner

Armrests, yeah.

MaryBeth Asbury

Right. If we say that you're not only helping people of size, but maybe you're helping someone who is tall, maybe you're helping someone who is shorter. Maybe you're helping someone who just needs a specific chair, right. So when we open it up to all of these issues, we help everybody. We are not just helping people in that group, right. So that's how we need to think about this as far as I'm concerned.

Phil Wagner

So there's no harm, no foul, right. It's not creating special privileges. You're actually opening it up to say here's special privileges for everybody. And you also get to be more accommodating.

MaryBeth Asbury

Exactly.

Phil Wagner

Excellent. You're an organizational communication scholar. So you really focus in on those two elements, communication within the organizational sphere. And I know you do some interpersonal communication work as well. You study a lot about organizational culture. So how does organizational culture help or hurt in conversations like these when we're talking about size diversity and body positivity?

MaryBeth Asbury

I think one of the things we have to understand is that there are a lot of microaggressions that happen around size, so it's not necessarily overt. It's not necessarily I am out to insult a fat person, but it may be again, as the chair example, chairs with armrests are unhealthy. It may be signs in the break room talking about calories of something. It may be workplace wellness things that are happening at work that are just considered a normal part of the workplace. And so, when we think about organizational culture and body positivity, we need to, first and foremost, start looking at those microaggressions that happen. And those might even be telling people you are not allowed to comment on other people's appearances because we shouldn't do that anyway, but also because of sexual harassment potential, but also because, let's say, for instance, we say, oh, my gosh, you look so good have you lost weight? That automatically tells me that if I'm fat, I cannot look good. So even if people are paying a compliment, it creates a culture of fatphobia that we might not consider. And so I think in terms of changing the culture, we need to talk about it in terms of having people maybe go through trainings and look at issues at how maybe their everyday conversations, things they wouldn't even consider bad and things they might not intentionally consider an issue may come to play in promoting a less than positive body arena or body positivity place.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Super fascinating because I think so much of that is well-intentioned. But off. Right. We prop up diet culture. We prop up the health and wellness industry, and that sounds good. But there are a lot of things that aren't so healthy and don't promote wellness within that industry as well. So it's complicated outside of the organizational sphere. And I think it's complicated within as well. All right, MaryBeth, I've got one final question for you today. We know that no magic wand exists that we can just wave and fix all of the problems in the world of work. But what is one thing that you'd like to see in the world of work or see the world of work do to make itself a more inclusive place for people of size?

MaryBeth Asbury

I think you need to include in your diversity policy stuff about size and how to do that is. You need to have people who have experienced that on those committees that create those policies. We need to listen to people, listen about their experiences, and make policies that help people be more comfortable in the workplace. Ultimately, if people are not comfortable, it's going to affect your bottom line, right. That's going to affect how much work they can do. And so, if we want people to be able to do the work and the assignments we give them, we have to be able to provide space for them. That is safe. A space for them that is comfortable. And that goes across all issues of diversity, not just size diversity. Right. You have to have people on those committees that have experienced these things, right. So, for example, I know that at some colleges, they already have policies about size diversity. And you, as a faculty member, are not allowed to comment on people's size, even if it's a compliment. And that's a very good place to start, right. But if we look at corporate America, we're not seeing that. And a lot of that is because we think the condition is controllable. We think there's too much other stuff going on. Why should we care about this? As you noted. But the issue is that if you want people to make money for you, make sure they are comfortable and have a safe space to work. And if you can do that, then you're going to increase your bottom line. And again, it's that idea that accessibility helps everyone. It's not just it only affects people who have this limitation, right? It helps everyone. So if we frame it and how it can help everybody. It's going to help people and businesses in the long run.

Phil Wagner

Excellent, MaryBeth, that has a very fantastic insights. Thank you so much for making time to speak with us. We look forward to following your work.

MaryBeth Asbury

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. 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

 Jessica Richman
Jessica RichmanEpisode 8: December 13, 2021
Small Chairs and Office Culture: Size Diversity Part 2

Jessica Richman

Episode 8: December 13, 2021

Small Chairs and Office Culture: Size Diversity Part 2

As promised, we're continuing our three-part arc on size diversity. Building upon our conversation with Dr. Rebecca Puhl, we're joined today by someone who has spent her professional life advocating for body positivity, specifically within the context of the world of work. Jessica Richman is a San-Francisco based Trade and Investment Director for the Australian Trade and Investment Commission. But we're talking today about something else that Jessica has been involved with. In 2019, Jessica founded the VISIBLE COLLECTIVE - an initiative that advises companies on product development, marketing, and new business development to better serve people of size.

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • How Jessica became an advocate for size diversity at work
  • What is the role of size diversity in D&I work
  • How has weight bias compared to other workplace biases
  • How is weight discrimination covered under federal law
  • Why have some states passed weight discrimination laws and not others
  • How have social media algorithms discriminated against diverse body types
  • How size discrimination affects genders, race, ethnicity, and identity differently
Transcript

Jessica Richman: Small Chairs and Office Culture: Size Diversity Part 2 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Phil Wagner

Hi, friends. Welcome to Diversity Goes to Work. As promised, we're continuing our three-part arc on size diversity, building upon our conversation with Dr. Rebecca Puhl. I'm joined today by someone who has spent her professional life advocating for body positivity, specifically within the context of the world of work. Jessica Richman is a San Francisco-based Trade and Investment Director for the Australian Trade and Investment Commission. But we're talking today about something else that Jessica is involved with. In 2019, Jessica founded the Visible Collective, which is an initiative that advises companies on product development, marketing, and new business development to better serve people of size. 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 to our podcast, Jessica, and I think our first question should be, what is the Visible Collective?

Jessica Richman

Hi, Phil, so good to be here. Thank you for having me. So the Visible Collective is really kind of a consultancy that helps businesses better understand people of size or people of higher weight. And we help businesses understand through insights, and we help them use those insights to focus on product development, to focus on kind of internal strategy, you know D&I strategy. So it's really about working one on one with companies to help them better understand the customer, basically this customer and then help them kind of execute against that understanding.

Phil Wagner

That's interesting. So right away in the intro, we hear something I think really interesting. You say people of various sizes or people of higher weight. I think that leads us to a really important question as we begin today. And when we speak to people for the episodes that we're recording, we recognize the language. It's a tricky thing, and it varies from context to context, particularly in conversations on diversity and inclusion. So can you tell us what should we or should we not say, dare we say fat? Do we say people of various size? Like, what language do you use? What language do you recommend that we use as we talk about this issue?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. So I think it's a really good question. I would equate it with what's kind of discuss pronouns, right. Like people select their pronouns. But people who are higher weight really are not ever encouraged to kind of say the particular words that they prefer. Right. So in my case, I would say fat, right. I don't want someone to refer to me as overweight or obese. And I think when you look at the data, you see that a lot of those terms, they're medical terms. They are used in medical environments, and most people really don't prefer them. Particularly obese is one that turns a lot of people off. So for the purposes of this conversation. I think focusing on fat, also focusing on higher weight and people of size, is really the approach. But as I mentioned, I think giving everyone the opportunity to pick their own wording. There's a clothing company called Kingsize, right. And so some people like Kingsize, it really is open to the individual, I think. And that's really important.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I love that framing because it sort of just owns the language on the nose, and it takes the value proposition out of it, right. There's not over or under that's there's not really better or worse. There just is. And that is, is the humanity really good? All right, Jessica, that's super helpful framing. As we begin our first question for you, dealing with your area of expertise is really all about how you got into this work, to begin with. We're finding that all diversity and inclusion work goes back to a central why. And we're really interested in the why function here. So what's the why behind your advocacy, the why behind you doing size diversity work. And then we're really trying to think about why organizations should focus on weight in their D&I efforts. Can you tell us a little bit about your why and how organizations can find their why in this area?

Jessica Richman

Sure. So I've always lived in a larger body ever since I was a child. I've always been fat of some type or another, some type of fat, basically. And so my background is primarily in kind of retail and kind of consumer insights and marketing and strategy. And so it occurred to me as I kept progressing through my career that there was really a lack of insights and data to inform organizations about how to approach anything related to people of size. Whether it's diversity, product development, whatever it is, and there's starting to be more data, of course, when it comes to apparel, but it's still not good enough, frankly. We have a ways to go. So my particular story is this is something that affects me. I distinctly remember going in for an interview for my first job out of school, which was working for Walmart.com and just trying to look for a suit. And at that point, I was a size 14. The average size in the U.S. is 16 18, and it's 18 20 for African American women. But at that point, I was a size 14, and it was pretty much virtually impossible for me to find something and spent a lot of time crying in dressing rooms. And I think a lot of people kind of relate to that. And it's just added pressure that I didn't need when preparing for an interview. But I guess it's moments like that that really made it occur to me that this is really important work. That's kind of the journey on my end is my own lived experience combined with my own professional experience. In terms of companies focusing on this. So to me, obviously, it would be nice to say it's the right thing to do, right. But the truth is that I think first and foremost, it comes down to talent, and it comes down to business outcomes. Right. So from a talent perspective, talent is very rare right now. It's very rare in the field, especially that it's most needed in. And so when you look at some of the data, particularly around people of size, LinkedIn published a report basically suggesting that there's potentially millions of people missing out on job opportunities, which could be unlocked by particularly tackling the issue of size bias. So missing out on millions of people who could be good at doing particular roles, and then they identified. And this is yes. They identified. Over half so 56% of employers surveyed stated they believe that they're missing out on talent due to discrimination against people because of their weight. So people are basically missing out on talent. And the challenge is that there's 2.1 billion people in the world, nearly 30% of the population, who are labeled as obese or overweight right. Who would fall into those for the purposes of this discussion? BMI categories BMI conversations, a whole other conversation. But there really is a need to address this, particularly to get that talent, because to lose out on that much talent, it's a problem when there's a shortage of talent. The other thing really comes down to product innovation, and because of weight bias in the workplace, there are not as many leaders, especially female leaders in decision-making positions of power, who can help inform strategy because those people were biased. We're taken out of the system early on because of bias. And so, therefore, you may have less senior managers who are able to influence decisions and, therefore, may not think as much about plus-size clothing or may not think about the need for creating larger office furniture because they've never had that lived experience. So that's really key. And there was a really interesting study as well in the MIT Sloan Management Review, which basically talked about it's not only when it comes to kind of hiring and employing people, but they conducted and this once again as lived experience this is not shocking to me, but they hired people to thinner people, right. And then they hired people, and they put on prosthetics to appear overweight and say overweight because this is what their study said, and the overweight customers received poor treatment from salespeople than their thinner counterparts. The key issue here is that the shoppers who experienced the subtle discrimination unshockingly spent less money and reported a lower intention to visit those stores, right. And so it really comes down to the bottom line here. People really need to, especially in one on one customer-facing settings. It really comes down to the bottom line. People will spend less money if you don't treat them nicely. Kind of common sense, actually.

Phil Wagner

Jessica, you note in your work that we've made great strides in D&I work. But there still remains an opportunity to sort of better address size in that equation. What do you think the role of weight or size or our body is when we're talking about inclusion in the world of work? Any thoughts?

Jessica Richman

So right now, most companies don't see weight and size as playing much of a role, which is, I think, part of the issue to begin with. But when you look at some of the research, so Harvard just published a study. It was a ten-year study. And when you look at that study, attitudes about sexuality and race have become more neutral over the years, but bias against overweight people has increased. In particular, implicit attitudes and unconscious stereotypes found that racism bias had dropped by 17% and anti-gay bias by one-third. But bias against higher weight people went up by 5%. So just from a pure data perspective, there's room for work to be done. And when you look at some of the assumptions that people make around people of size, it's lacking in self-discipline, sloppy in appearance, less healthy, less agreeable, less emotionally stable, less extroverted. These are all assumptions that people have, and the results of some of these assumptions are obviously not hiring as many people as size, not putting people of size in customer-facing roles, or where they can be seen. So people at the front office, office managers, secretaries. But employees who are higher weight have issues around, obviously hiring practices, but lower wages is huge, fewer promotions, harassment from co-workers, and unfair job termination. So there are a lot of reasons why this work needs to be done. There's only one place I've heard of. Actually, that has an employee resource group for people of size, and that was Square. Interestingly enough. But those support systems and those networks and that education just doesn't exist. And I think the challenge is when you go back to why a lot of D&I programs exist, to begin with, is because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a lot of companies were afraid of being sued, right. So they needed to upskill their employees and educate them so that they didn't do anything wrong, which would have led to a lawsuit. Now we've seen a significant transition. The reason why I'm bringing that up and why that's important is because I don't think companies will really adjust overarchingly until there is some type of policy, either, especially at a federal level, but at a state level as well. And the culture now, I think, has changed where D&I is being seen as the right thing to do. But it's also being seen as the best thing to do for the business. And I think that companies don't yet see. I think weight and size is so far back because A  it's not in actual policy. But then, when it is actually in policy, it's going to still take another, let's say, 10, 15, 20 years for people to actually see it's the right thing to do. So I think we're, frankly, decades behind, but because of the data because of this really implicit bias issue, and just because going back earlier, too, it affects the business, it affects the ability to get good talent. I mean, this is why the D&I work needs to be done. So there's a lot of space for that work to be done, I think.

Phil Wagner

There's a really good segue here. I think related to the divergence between inclusion and then sort of legal mandate. And I think it's really interesting that you've done work in both. For me, it's easy to see that issues of size scaffold under inclusion. You want your employees to feel included, you want them to feel like they're part of the culture, you want them to feel valued. We get the business case for that. But as a consultant, you help companies also better understand and comply with weight-related laws. I think many companies are probably surprised that such laws even exist. So from your perspective, how is size really covered under the law?

Jessica Richman

Well, it's not covered enough is the bottom line. And the most important thing to know is there is no equal employment opportunity coverage for people of size. It is not included at a federal level in policy. The only state that has passed a law that has protected people from weight discrimination is Michigan. Washington State has recently held that the state's definition of disability in the Washington state law against discrimination included individuals with obesity. But that is a different thing than what Michigan has done and what Michigan has done, by the way, years ago, like decades ago, right. So in Massachusetts, lawmakers have continually tried to introduce a bill which would focus on the intersection of kind of height and weight because a lot of this is weight-related policy kind of intersects with height-related policy as well. In this particular legislation would focus on addressing body size, stigma, and discrimination, and it would add to the state's anti-discrimination laws the words height or weight similar to how it has sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. So right now, there really isn't much coverage. There are some local places, kind of locality, San Francisco, Urbana, in Illinois, Santa Cruz, in California that actually do. Their local laws prohibiting weight discrimination. So there are local laws, but there really is nothing at a federal level. And what's interesting is that the Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut actually talks about how public support is in favor of actually making it illegal for employees to discriminate against for employers to discriminate against employees because of their weight. So when you look at that data, public support appears to be increasing from 2010 to 2015, research found that support for laws to prohibit weight discrimination in the workplace increased from 73% to 79%, and support was high among people who identified as male and female and regardless of political orientation. So there is movement in favor. A lot of people then ask, does the ADA provide legal protection and overarchingly not really, because it has to have some intersection with something else, right. And it could be a psychological condition. It could be a physical condition. It could be type two diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disorder. But weight by itself, not really still. And so I think once again, going back is why are people not focused on this? Because, frankly, they don't have to. And when you I touched for a moment on that list of schools and their policies against discrimination. And when you look at this list that I was looking at of schools who have policies that are focused on anti-discrimination policies against people of size, right. That focus on not discriminating against people of size. The place that, oddly enough, not oddly enough, has the most schools is Michigan. Why? Because in Michigan, it's illegal to discriminate against someone based on their weight. And so, of course, universities in Michigan put that in their anti-discrimination policies. And you also see that even quick Internet searches start to show that you have tons of law offices in Michigan that have a focus on educating companies about this. And you're starting to see the same thing with those policy changes in Washington that more and more legal organizations are really focused on educating people about that as well. Yeah. So I think that's really how it's covered is the answer is not very well.

Phil Wagner

So, Jessica, what's made states like Michigan successful in passing those laws and other states, maybe not as successful or not as motivated to pass similar laws?

Jessica Richman

It's a good question. The Michigan law was passed. I think it was passed initially with the civil rights law, and it was all passed at the same time. I don't think it was actually added. And that was, I believe, in the 70s, the only one that exists. So it happened in the 70s. The challenge that people come across is a lot of it is often people don't want to glorify obesity. I mean, I do think that that continues to come up. I think that there is significant bias as well, just people's own internal bias against people of size. But I think probably most importantly, is there is a fear that there will be significant lawsuits emerging once you start to incorporate this into the law, and companies are probably lobbying against it because they don't want to have those lawsuits. But the truth is, when you actually look at the policies that have when you look at what happened in Michigan, there were not a torrential amount of lawsuits that occurred as a result of that. It just didn't happen. The newfound challenge, I think, with some of these policies, arguably, one could say that COVID makes it even more important to institute these policies because of the bias that we've continued to kind of see in the media. There's been a lot of press around kind of anti-obesity, anti overweight publicity that's come up during COVID. And so I think there's two sides to that coin. One is you could say, well, if you put this in the policy, aren't you just making it acceptable for people to be obese and overweight in quotes, right. And I think with COVID, and the data that people continue to promote during COVID is that no one wants to be seen as promoting that. But on the flip side, when you actually look at some of the root issues of why some of the things turned out the way they did in terms of COVID, in terms of some of the outcomes for people who are higher weight, a lot of it is rooted in the fact that there really is a lot of bias, and there really is a lot of stigma. And there's an intersection with social determinants of health, with race. There are a lot of things that play into each other, and COVID has elevated some of those issues, especially with regards to the kind of medical system. But at the same time, there's still this hatred and this bias against people of size, particularly in the medical, in the medical space, and lack of education as well.

Phil Wagner

Okay, so you've gotten into a good conversational intersection here. There's the medical perspective on obesity. And we know there's a lot of literature out there on how those medical perspectives maybe aren't as innocent or as rigorous as we might suspect. And then there's the sort of social perspective, right. Where we understand at the ground level the limitation of how those medical guidelines, the BMI, have complicated things beyond their original intent.

Jessica Richman

Yeah. And it's really the spaces where we see the most bias within the field of education, within the field of medicine and within the work environment is where we see the most significant bias against people of higher weight. So it will be interesting to see how things continue to progress and what the perception is of higher-weight people, hopefully, post-COVID.

Phil Wagner

Are there any lessons from other cultures, like from a global perspective? Are there places or spaces or cultures that are sort of doing this, right?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. The one that most people point to would be New Zealand. There's a lot of kind of people studying this topic, particularly in New Zealand. But I would say that we get a lot of people referring to New Zealand for everything, basically as New Zealand does a lot of things well. We get a lot of that just across the board. I'm sure you've seen it, too, with people pointing to New Zealand lately. But in particular, this topic, I think people feel like it's dealt with better, and it's more accepted societally in New Zealand, particularly because more of the Indigenous cultures, I think, is what people would say.

Phil Wagner

I'm going to jump in and ask what happens if we don't do this work? I mean, what are sort of the emotional stressors that people of size carry with them in the world of work. And what happens if we don't address size diversity as part of our inclusion efforts? Got any insight?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. Where to start on this one? There's a lot of insight. So there are so many emotional stressors, and I'll just go through a couple of my favorite ones. So eating in public. I mean, there's so much judgment around if you're a person of higher weight eating in public in terms of, oh, well, they shouldn't be eating that that has too many carbs or that's a sweet or that's pizza. People don't look at people in thinner bodies and judge what they're eating. So I think that's one of the things people go back to offices and continue to eat in cafeterias. And just that is an emotional stressor. Judgment on kind of looks right. People's look, people's apparel. It's harder to find clothes that fit when you're in a higher-weight body, especially professional clothes. And it's getting harder. LOFT just announced that they're stopping their plus-size clothing assortment a couple of weeks ago.

Phil Wagner

Wait a minute. They're stopping because we see so many companies expanding. I mean, H&M being, like, pretty inclusive now. We see even major athletics companies like Lululemon finally opening up and including more size diverse options. It seems so much of the world is heading towards size inclusivity. But we've got brands backtracking that area, too?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. Which is so funny because I saw them first launch their line a couple of years back at this event called CurvyCon, and everyone was so excited about it and basically got bought by a private equity firm, and they're trying to optimize the business. And this goes back to what I mentioned earlier, which is kind of lack of data. A lot of people have trouble finding what are the right sizes that they need to have in stock? How do they make sure to have the right inventory? How do they not have too much inventory? And so I think in this particular case, they probably found it too difficult to manage sizing in inventory, which is unfortunate. And in this particular case, because they're being run by a private equity firm. The whole focus is to make it more efficient, right. And so, I think they maybe are not as sensitive to the need to be inclusive as other brands are at this point. But that's another conversation. Another issue that I kind of love to address is furniture. And we touched on this a bit, and it's very embarrassing to not fit in a chair at work. So a lot of chairs have armrests and chairs with armrests, not very comfortable for people who are wider. The same thing goes for desks, which may not be as wide, not very comfortable having furniture that's not built as well. Very embarrassing. It's extremely embarrassing to break a chair at work. It's extremely embarrassing to break a chair at home. But to break a chair in front of other people is next level embarrassing. There's issues around flying, right. So if you are in a larger body, do you go to your boss and say, hey, in order for me to actually get my best work done on this flight, I need to be in a seat that's going to cost more money, right. And these are the conversations that think about how each of these things would add up in someone's mind to make it very exhausting every day to exist in the world of work. Another issue would be around benefits and wellness benefits. And one of my favorite things to talk about is the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey. In 2010, Jezebel wrote an article that basically uncovered that you will get to keep the original 20% employee discount at Whole Foods, but you'll be paying more than your thinner co-workers who are going to be getting 30% off. So if your BMI is above 30, you basically get less percentage off of food. And these types of benefits, so benefits, to begin with, they exist, right. And there are BMI-based benefits and wellness programs such as how many steps can we take? How much weight can we lose as a team? They're supposed to be team-building exercises, and they're supposed to be good for wellness. But they actually really harm people who are in higher-weight bodies. And we see a lot of these challenges, people trying to institute challenges like this in the workplace. And I don't think that they understand the emotional havoc it wreaks on people. And then the same thing goes for a lot of companies not yet having insurance benefits that cover issues that may arise when people are in larger bodies. People may want to get surgery, people may want to do things, and the benefits are not kind of covering that. And so, I think that becomes another challenge. Wording we talked about wording earlier, we talked about words, the importance of words. And so, in this particular issue, I would say people still finding it okay to make fun of people, people of size, and also just comments that people don't even recognize. So I think one of the things is especially in cafeteria locations, comments on other people's food, comments on what people are eating. But then in places like the bathroom, when you hear other people say, oh, I look so fat in this or things like that, they can add up. So those are just kind of a couple of the things right now. I think one of the interesting ones that we're seeing is around with the vaccine. Is people's bosses or organization saying, can't you qualify for the vaccine now? Probably not a good idea to say that, right. These things, they're happening in real life. They're coming up, and each one of them just continues to add up.

Phil Wagner

Yes. That's such a good point. We're recording this as vaccine rollout is still a little bit wonky. So hopefully, by the time this airs in late 2021, not only will the vaccine be widely adopted, but perhaps even COVID will have met its match and gone away. Who knows? So I'm wondering how much coverage the medical community sort of provides for discrimination. I mean, the BMI is a medical assessment. BMI seems to be the standard that everyone talks about, but we know that it's been debunked, at least called into question by medical professionals. So we have this sort of standard. Either you're in, or you're out.

Jessica Richman

It is very problematic that everything focuses around that one particular measurement. And I think people are starting to call it out. But when you have 70% of a population falling into what is labeled as obese or overweight, what does that say about the number you're using to identify that percentage, to begin with? Right. And so I think looking back at kind of how that emerged and what the history of it is and how that particularly continues to affect policy in the medical space. But in the benefits space, and just words, right. It's the word overweight, and the word obese they're having specifically to do with BMI with this measurement that a lot of people really don't find useful anymore.

Phil Wagner

Jessica, in your research, you've talked a little bit about algorithm bias, suggesting that our data structures are biased against fat, too. When you talk about Instagram's algorithm of flagging images of fat people, I'm wondering, are there algorithmic trends out there that discriminate against people of size? This seems like something we should keep our eye on.

Jessica Richman

Yeah. So I think one of the biggest issues so much of recruiting right now is done in an automated fashion, right. A lot of recruiting is done with sending in a resume, scanning the resume. And the challenge with that is already from a very early point in one's career. A higher-weight person is not going to get the same opportunities, right. So if you're putting a resume through a scanner and that scanner is looking for particular roles, particular keywords. Did that person manage other people? What was their title? Right. Like you're already going to miss out on a ton of candidates because they were already disadvantaged early on. Right. So I think simply, I guess that would be kind of the closest thing to an algorithm perspective is what algorithm are people using to scan these resumes? And does it already discount significant percentage of the population who are higher weight because they have not had those opportunities? With that said, I think that human bias is really more of an issue at this point, in particular, because the research I stated earlier around implicit bias. For instance, in the case of LinkedIn people looking at images of people, maybe they see someone with a rounder face, and they assume that that person might be in a higher weight body and then they assume that that person can't really do the job. Maybe that person is not fit to do the job. The challenges is that human beings, with our implicit biases, we create the algorithms, right. So as more and more recruiting and more processes become automated, I think then you're going to have an algorithm which immediately takes out people who might have wider faces out of the pool of candidates that might be suitable. Right. So right now, it's done on a human basis. But we've seen algorithms study biases in terms of race and in terms of gender. But what we haven't seen, particularly when it comes to work as well, is what is the bias against people who have wider faces? Is there an algorithmic bias? Will there be algorithmic bias over time with so many pictures of people on the Internet in terms of not hiring those people because of the data that you're receiving back from those algorithms?

Phil Wagner

Right. Because algorithms learn by taking examples. And since most of those examples of, say, executives or people in management might show you those with not round faces, maybe. The algorithm is learning that they should not choose people with round faces for those positions. So the bias, it's certainly going to factor in it's the age-old you can't be what you can't see. Right. So the more sheer diversity. That's why diversity and inclusion get lumped. Right. Like you have to have that diversity to become inclusive. So it's really fascinating. Jessica, earlier, you noted that size diversity in the workplace has disenfranchised women specifically. And my partner and I have lost a combined 300 pounds. She's lost 160 some. I've lost 130 some. And we've really walked that fine line between fat, not fat slash, thin slash not thin for the better half of a decade. And it's been really clear to us that men and women experience fatness and size diversity very differently. Can you speak to some of those intersections? You've talked about gender? You've talked about race. How does size intersect with all those other identity elements that work together to define us?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. So I think one of my favorite kind of pieces of data is a study, and it's an old study. And once again, we need more people to study these things. I think is a key takeaway, hopefully. But between 5% and 22% of U.S. top female CEOs are overweight, and 5% are obese. Male CEOs, on the other hand, 45% to 61% are overweight, and 5% are obese. Right. And so once again, I'm using overweight and obese because that is what the study said. Those are not the words I prefer to use. But let me repeat that. So 5% to 22% of U.S. top female CEOs versus 45% to 61% are overweight of males. So we already see, and that's at a senior level, right. As the funnel continues to get more and more senior, you can only imagine how that can affect someone's career. First and foremost, gender, I think, is a real issue here. And it's very clear that men are not as affected until they reach a significantly higher BMI. Women are affected at a much lower BMI when it comes to discrimination. I think the intersection as well of race and ethnicity, and gender in terms of size is also very challenging. And I think that find that African American women who are higher weight or Hispanic women who are higher weight are at a significant disadvantage and are really discriminated against. The one that I think is quite interesting and is going to be more important is the intersection of size and age in particular because as people get older, they tend to get bigger. So then you really have two things, let's say going against you, right. From a discrimination standpoint, one of them happens to be covered, which is great, but the other one doesn't. Those are some of the kind of intersections that I spend time thinking about.

Phil Wagner

All right. So I'm wondering there's a lot of problems related to size discrimination. So I'm wondering if you had a magic wand, you could simply wave it to fix one thing. What would that one thing be? What would you do to make the world of work more inclusive for people of size?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. I thought really hard about this question, and obviously, what I would like to say is incorporate is a federal policy is having a federal policy that then encourages, or rather forces companies to incorporate weight and size into the D&I strategies. But just companies themselves at this point, I think it's really important to educate employees, not only recruiters, by the way, everyone recruits in organizations, right. Especially more senior people are very involved in the recruiting process. I think it's really important to elevate some of those implicit biases when it comes to size and weight. And I think that that's really the most important part right now of D&I in this space is getting people to recognize their own bias, getting people to see that sometimes when you hate the fat within yourself, you hate the fat within someone else, and especially this can significantly affect women. And so, I think getting people to really address their own biases is going to be the first part of this process. So just encouraging companies to really add that to some of the curriculum that they have in the D&I space would be what's on my wish list at this point.

Phil Wagner

I think that's precisely what we're here to do, or at least what we're here to explore as we work sort of at the intersections of diversity and inclusion. We have so many conversations about those themes, but they often reach the sort of same stopping point. And the goal of this podcast is to push a little bit more, ask questions that take us in a different direction, explore themes that really, truly do make the world of work a more inclusive place.

Jessica Richman

Something simple that everyone can do, I think, is sit down for a few minutes by yourself and ask yourself, what are your reactions to the word obese? What are your reactions to the word overweight? What are your reactions to the word fat? Or when you think of someone who is fat? What do you think? When you think of someone who's, and it's very easy then to see immediately biases arise. It's very rare that someone does that, and there's not a bias that arises. So these are kind of the simple things you can do to really start to catch yourself and to hopefully then inform how you treat people differently. So that's just a little exercise. I think that is very easy and very challenging at the same time.

Phil Wagner

Okay, I want to ask a tough question here. I mean, there are people out there who might say maybe even reasonably being obese is a choice. We hear that sort of rhetoric a lot. And I think we also hear things like I mean, sure, if I really care about my employees, wouldn't I want them to be healthy? How does that sort of rebuff factor into your work? And how do we reply to such claims? I think what I'm really trying to ask here is, how do you engage with critics like critics of any variety in this topical space?

Jessica Richman

Yeah. I think a lot of it sometimes comes down to look. You could pull out data that talks about social determinants of health. You can pull out data that talks about genetic backgrounds. You could pull out data that talks about how difficult it is to lose weight. All of these pieces are very compelling. I think what's most important is individual stories of individual human beings. Right. And in my particular case, I have been up, I have been down so many times, so much weight. It's exhausting. I've tried everything that you can ever imagine and think of. I've had just eating, disordered eating. And by the way, not all higher-weight people have disordered eating. I will say that. But I associate my issues around having a higher weight body with disordered eating. I would say the more people can hear individual stories of people, the more they can understand that it doesn't come down to willpower and the challenges, especially in places like San Francisco and New York, but in particular San Francisco because there's this kind of health and wellness vibe everywhere. Right. And there's also this you can do anything vibe. There's this real assumption that why wouldn't you be able to do that? It's just a matter of you not wanting it, not wanting it enough. And so that really does exist. And it really exists. Frankly, I think it exists a lot on the coasts and in some cities that are kind of considered more health-conscious cities, probably like Denver and Boulder. But it is really challenging. It's interesting. Going back to that last question that you asked, what would you like to see the world of work do. And I guess maybe one of the parts of that is educate people that this is not. People are living in higher bodies for different reasons, and most of it is not a personal choice. It's not that someone is just deciding to continue to be in a larger body. It's because it's hard. If you ask any medical professional, it is very hard to lose weight. It's very hard to keep weight off. This is why the diet industry is, I think, a $70 billion industry. So your question is a challenging one. But it is probably the number one thing that really prevents lawmakers prevents executives from incorporating these things into law and also just into their organizations and D&I strategies. Is those assumptions really are ingrained in people?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I like that framing. I think we should ask ourselves what feelings we feel when we hear or say the word fat because if we interrogate those feelings, I think we can get closer to that end goal of empathy.

Jessica Richman

And go deeper. Not only ask why but ask then. Oh, well, I think people who are obese, they're lazy. Why do you think that? What have you seen? And generally, it probably comes back to seeing a character on a T.V. show because there's so much media and this once again a whole other conversation, so much media that represents people of size as lazy and as ugly and all sorts of things. Right. And I think we just have to question, where are we learning from?

Phil Wagner

I think it takes a critical lens to really examine those spaces and that media, often those spaces that are, quote, unquote body positive spaces are not really all that body positive.

Jessica Richman

Yeah. That's why I think there's more of a movement into more like body neutrality or body liberation, which is it's no one's business to comment on what you look like. It's just no one's business. It's your own stuff. It's your own issue that you're dealing with, and no one else can comment on that. Right. So I think, look, it is really challenging. And media, the media is just so powerful. And I think that's one of the other things I didn't really talk about when we talked about how are people affected as well in the workplace, which is like even in recruiting campaigns or in advertisements, just people not being featured, people who are in larger bodies not being featured, not being seen. I'm seeing some differences occurring now with more people kind of featured in ads. There is more diversity when it comes to size, but it's another issue.

Phil Wagner

Jessica, you've given us some great nuggets of truth. We really appreciate your time and your insight. Thank you so much for being here today. We look forward to following your work and hoping that our listeners will do the same. We so appreciate the conversation today on size diversity.

Jessica Richman

Thank you so much, Phil. This has been great, and I hope that whoever is listening to this podcast feel free to reach out to me. I'm always kind of interested in having these conversations. They're very important, so thank you 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 the 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 you.

More Podcast Episodes

 Rebecca Puhl
Rebecca PuhlEpisode 7: December 6, 2021
Foundations of Size Discrimination: Size Diversity Part 1

Rebecca Puhl

Episode 7: December 6, 2021

Foundations of Size Discrimination: Size Diversity Part 1

Today on the first of three episodes dealing with weight discrimination in the workplace, we're pleased to be joined by Dr. Rebecca Puhl. Dr. Puhl is Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at UConn. She has testified in state legislative hearings on weight bias, routinely provides expertise to state and national health organizations, and has developed evidence-based training programs to reduce weight bias that have been implemented in medical facilities across the country. She and host Phil Wagner discuss how to identify weight stigma, how best to promote health at every size, what workplaces can do to be more inclusive for people of varying sizes, and more.

Podcast (audio)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes and Transcript
Show Notes
  • The importance of person-first language around weight
  • What Rebecca has found in her research on weight stigma
  • What progress has been made in how society views diverse body types
  • What laws exist prohibiting weight discrimination
  • Why we shouldn't use Body Mass Index (BMI) as the only indicator of health
  • What are some common forms of weight based discrimination in the workplace
  • How does weight stigma factor into the intersectionality discussion
Transcript

REBECCA PUHL: FOUNDATIONS OF SIZE DISCRIMINATION: SIZE DIVERSITY PART 1 TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Phil Wagner

Hi, friends. Welcome to Diversity Goes to Work. First, a simple admission podcasting is weird. This started as a labor of love, and we are super thankful for continued traction and engagement. But like any new endeavor, we've definitely learned some things along the way. There's something different about this episode because actually, it's not really an episode at all, but rather a series of three episodes. We started a conversation with three experts, and honestly, we couldn't stop talking, so we decided to release a three-part arc focusing on a very important topic, size bodyweight. This is not a topic that I think we often factor into our diversity and inclusion conversation but should. This is a topic that is inherently personal to me, as someone who's been through a significant weight loss journey, having lost over 135 pounds since 2013. I know full well just how ever-present anti-fat stigma is. I felt it at almost 400 pounds in 2012, and I feel it now almost a decade later, even though my body has changed drastically. So because this isn't a conversation, we often factor into our diversity and inclusion discussions. That's precisely why we're having it here. And I'm delighted to be able to host three prolific voices on this topic. Over this three-part arc, you'll hear from three folks who are out there doing the work of body positivity, either through academic research or boots-on-the-ground advocacy. I hope that you enjoy. 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, welcome. Well, this episode, in particular, is personally meaningful to me and not just because of the topic, but because in academia, there are sometimes these very rare moments to speak with those people who have shaped and molded your own work. And today, I'm excited to be able to feature on this episode that person for me. As I talk about size diversity as we talk about size diversity, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the incredible work that today's guest has done on the issue of obesity, stigma, and body acceptance. Doctor Rebecca Puhl is a widely cited researcher who currently serves as the Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at UConn, where she's also a professor in the Department of Development and Family Studies. Her work over the past 15 years has been monumentally impactful in addressing weight-based bullying, weight stigma in healthcare and media, and the impact of weight stigma on emotional and physical health. She's a national expert on the issue and someone I am so delighted to speak with on today's episode.

Phil Wagner

Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us for this episode on Size Diversity. As I've expressed a big fan of your work, and we're really excited that you can bring a research-oriented framework to size diversity for our focus on D&I. So we've got a series of questions for you today. We are delighted to speak with you. First things first, you've done a lot of work surrounding terminology in weight discourse. You've even published on the issue. Before we begin, can you tell us how should we talk today? Should we say fat? Do we say obese? Do we say overweight, what lingo should we use, and what lingo should we not use? Got any insight?

Rebecca Puhl

This is such an important question, and body weight is a very emotionally charged topic for many people. So how we talk about it is important. You're absolutely right. And people have very different and strong preferences and reactions to the language that we use when we talk about body weight or when we talk about obesity. So, for example, in the medical field, medicalized terms like overweight and obesity that's the language that is commonly used. And there is a movement kind of happening right now in the medical field to use people-first language in the context of obesity, which means referring to a person who has obesity rather than referring to someone who is an obese person. So that kind of approach to talking about obesity focuses on identifying the person first rather than identifying a person by his or her weight. But having said that, there's a number of people who don't like the word obesity who feel more comfortable with terminology like people of higher body weight or people in larger bodies. And we've done a series of studies examining language preferences both in adults and adolescents. And what we find pretty consistently is that people prefer neutral language when we talk about weight, especially in the context of how healthcare professionals talk to patients or in public health messaging. And so, by neutral, I mean words like weight or high body weight or even BMI. The words that have the most negative reactions are words like fat or obese. Now there are some people who embrace the word fat. And again, this is a personal preference. But the reality is that the word fat continues to have negative societal connotations and stereotypes associated with it. So it's challenging to separate this. And I think that's one of the reasons why a lot of people have a negative reaction to that word. And we're kind of at a place right now where we don't have a universally accepted phrase or word that everyone is comfortable with to talk about bodyweight. So it is important to really respect the diversity of preferences that do exist. And I think we really need to avoid using language that can be viewed as stigmatizing. So I would default to neutral terminology like body weight or people with higher weight when talking about weight. But then, if you're in a one-on-one interaction with someone, you can ask them what words or language do they feel most comfortable using in those kinds of discussions, especially when you're in that more intimate one on one conversation with a person.

Phil Wagner

I love that because, as I've expressed, our goal is a humanity-oriented perspective on D&I work, and we like rules, and we like checklists and do say this, don't say that. But I think that puts the responsibility on us to be attentive and to be present in those interactions and to maybe even ask in some situations to put that person's needs and preferences at the forefront. That's great advice. So, Rebecca, we're both researchers and academics, and researchers and academics think everything that they do is super cool, but we rarely get the opportunity to tell the world about it in sort of a publicly translatable way. Tell our audience what's the coolest thing, or maybe the most important thing that you have found in your research on weight and size.

Rebecca Puhl

There are a lot of different things I could choose in response to this question. But I do think that a particularly important finding of our work is evidence that weight stigma is not only a social injustice but it's also a public health issue. And what I mean by that is that the harms of weight stigma are very real and long-lasting when it comes to health. So if a person experiences weight stigma, it's harmful to their emotional wellbeing. It can lead to increased depression or anxiety or low self-esteem, or even suicidal behaviors. And it also impacts physical health. So weight stigma leads to higher physiological stress, like cortisol levels. It leads to disordered eating behaviors like binge eating. It actually predicts weight gain over time and also negatively affects quality of health care. And all of this is important because, in our society, there remains a perception that maybe stigma or maybe shame will motivate people to lose weight or provide them with an incentive to lose weight. But what we see in our research is the opposite is true. It's actually contributing to poor health and weight gain. And so, I think a message of this research is that we need to be addressing the issue of weight stigma, both on a social justice level but also a public health level.

Phil Wagner

That's really good. And when we think about stigma, this is a little bit of a loaded question. Do we know stigma when we see it? Is stigma that sort of shame-based fat discrimination? Or is stigma maybe in the context of work, like a wellness program that encourages a collective amount of calories lost by a group? Like, how do we know stigma when we see it?

Rebecca Puhl

So stigma is both of those things. It is both overt and it's subtle. And with weight stigma, we see both of those things in virtually every societal setting. We see this in health care, in educational institutions, certainly in the workplace, which we'll talk more about. We see it in the media. We also see it, unfortunately, in close interpersonal relationships with family members and friends. And so it can be overt in your face. It can be more subtle. It can be microaggressions. It can be exclusion. It can be rejection. With children, for example, weight stigma happens there, too. Weight-based bullying is one of the most common reasons that kids are bullied. But some of that bullying involves something called relational victimization, which is being ignored and excluded and avoided. So there are many forms that this takes, and I think it's helpful to think about this as almost a chronic stressor that many people experience in different domains of their life.

Phil Wagner

And that's so key to, I think, the world of work, too, because as an employee bringing any of those traumatic or trauma-based experiences into the world of work, you don't just get to clock in your nine and five and forget the trauma, the experiences that come with. So I think when you look at the sources of weight-based discrimination, I think the top three are family and then social relationships, and then the world of work is third, and that discrimination happens on so many levels. So it's a really great point there as it relates to size and weight. We like to think that we've made so much progress. There's people like Lindy West, and Shrill has made it big both as a book and then as a Hulu production. You've got people like Roxanne Gay, who wrote Hunger and Bad Feminist, really taking this message to the masses. You've got comedians like Amy Schumer and reality TV stars like Whitney Way Thore really owning body positivity in a public way. Have we really come so far, or do we still have far to go?

Rebecca Puhl

So this is a really complex issue, and I would actually say both. We have made important progress, but we also have a long way to go. So the emergence of things like the body positivity movement that has certainly helped to increase public awareness that people deserve to have a positive body image, regardless of how society dictates what the thin, ideal physical appearance should be. That's helped to empower people of different body sizes and also challenge societal ideals of what the body should look like. We're certainly seeing more diverse body sizes reflected in television and film, and entertainment media. And so these kinds of things are helping to challenge and kind of really dispel harmful stereotypes about weight. However, at the same time, weight stigma and fat-shaming continue to be very present and, in some cases, pervasive in our society. So fat-shaming is rampant on social media, and both children and adults continue to be mistreated because of their weight. And I think maybe one of the broadest indications of this is that it remains perfectly legal in our country to discriminate against someone because of their weight. There are no federal laws that prohibit weight discrimination. Where we are currently right now is Michigan is the only state that has a state law, and that was passed a long time ago in the 1970s. There are maybe a handful of cities across the country that have passed local laws to prohibit weight discrimination. But the bottom line is that almost everybody who has been unfairly treated because of their body weight or size does not have legal protection or legal recourse. We have been doing some research on the policy aspect of this for really over a decade, and what our national studies are showing is that there is substantial public support as much as 80% for introducing and passing these kinds of laws to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of weight. And where we see that kind of support highest is for laws that would specifically address us in the workplace. So to make it illegal for an employer to do something like refuse to hire someone because of their weight or to fire them for that reason. So we are seeing progress, but there is a lot of work to be done still.

Phil Wagner

So going to the other side of the spectrum, critics tend to rebut with, well, yeah, but you're just not healthy, and we know that that health label or health ideal has been used as a discursive tool to promote the thin ideal for decades. Does your research give us any insight into how we can truly promote health at every size?

Rebecca Puhl

We know that shame and stigma are not effective motivators for health behavior change, especially when it comes to weight or obesity. We also know that there are a lot of different factors that contribute to health in addition to weight. Whether it's nutrition or stress or sleeping habits or cholesterol levels, substance use, there's so many things that come into play. Now, that doesn't mean that a person can necessarily be healthy at every single BMI level or every size. But it means that stigmatizing people about their weight only causes harm and that other factors, in addition to body weight, need to be considered when we're talking about health, and I really feel like the goal should be focused on promoting health behaviors for all people, regardless of their body size and really supporting them in those health behaviors. The aim is to improve health for everyone. And we've done some research to look at how Americans react to kind of obesity-focused health messages and public health campaigns targeting obesity. And interestingly, what we see is that when messages focus on engaging in specific health behaviors, like maybe replacing soda with water or eating more fruits and vegetables, that people report being much more motivated to engage in those behaviors, and they have much higher intentions to do this than if the message is focused on weight or obesity or the number on the scale. So what this tells us is that we can focus messages on health and health behaviors and not make this conversation only about the number on the scale, and we can make these messages relevant for everybody, not just people who have higher weight.

Phil Wagner

So numbers play a central role in this conversation. Of course, there's a number on the scale, but there's that big number, the one that's really used a lot, and that's the BMI. Does your research speak to the utility of the BMI in conversations like these in any way?

Rebecca Puhl

I think that the best way to think about BMI is that it is one indicator. It's one indicator that is part of a conversation about health, but it is not the only determinant, and it's very important that we don't use it as the only marker of health. I think we oftentimes see messages that just want to be simplified. And we're used to seeing these very oversimplified messages. But the reality is that body weight regulation, and obesity are extremely complex. They involve multiple factors, multiple contributors, not just personal behavior, but genetics, biology, environment, agriculture. And so those are not the kinds of messages we see in society, right. We see oversimplified messages that focus on personal responsibility for weight and personal willpower and discipline. And so I think the way that I tend to frame this is if we imagine body weight or obesity, either one as a complex jigsaw puzzle. Personal behavior is one of the pieces in that puzzle. That's legitimate. Our choices our behaviors are one piece, but they're only one piece. There are many other pieces in that puzzle that focus on factors that are largely outside of personal control. And if we don't focus on all of these other pieces, this puzzle will never be solved or completed. So I think it's really easy for people to get wrapped up in personal responsibility and BMI, and we just have to recognize that this is a much more complex issue.

Phil Wagner

Very multi-dimensional, that's excellent, thanks, that's great insight. So we're focused on this podcast, specifically on D&I within the world of work. From your research or from your perspective, Rebecca, what are some of the most common forms of weight-based stigma or discrimination that you see playing out in the world of work.

Rebecca Puhl

So in our research, we find that about a third of people who have experienced weight stigma are being stigmatized about their weight from an employer. And more than half of people say that this is happening from co-workers. And what we know is that weight stigma occurs at virtually every stage of the employment cycle, from getting hired to getting fired. And research from psychology, I think it's particularly important here. So, for example, a lot of experimental studies have been done where study participants, like hiring managers, are randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. And in both of those conditions, participants will read the job application or resume of a qualified applicant that has a picture of that person attached. But in one condition, the applicant is pictured as a person with higher weight, and in the other condition, that person has a lower weight and consistently, the studies show that the participants are less likely to hire the higher weight person, and in some cases, when they kind of vary characteristics across conditions, they're less likely to hire the higher weight person even if they have better qualifications than the thinner person. So not getting hired because of weight, I think, is one of the most common ways that weight stigma exists in the workplace. And unfortunately, it's something that is really difficult to quantify because those are reasons that don't get reported right. Employers aren't saying that this is a reason why they did not consider someone for a job. Now, even if someone does get hired, weight stigma also occurs in many ways in the workplace setting. So people often face criticism or teasing, or fat jokes in the workplace from co-workers. They may be more likely to be denied promotions. There's some evidence, although it's kind of mixed, about the impact of this on salaries compared to people who are thinner. And we also know that people are more likely to be terminated unfairly because of their weight. And that seems particularly true for jobs that require more social, face-to-face kinds of interactions like sales positions. And we also see that in cases, women seem to be more likely to experience these kinds of penalties because of their weight compared to men. So the world of work is a place where weight stigma is very present. Again in some workplaces as it's more explicit and overt, and in other places, it's more subtle, but it's still there.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I think it's the subtlety that brings about some of the most complexity here.

Rebecca Puhl

Exactly.

Phil Wagner

Rebecca, you've done some great work on the intersections between weights and other identity elements that might relate to the conversations we have in the D&I sphere, like sexuality, race, ethnicity. How do you see weight scaffolding into that larger framework of intersectionality that we always involve in effective D&I work?

Rebecca Puhl

Yeah, this is such an important issue. I've heard over the years that I've done this work that weight stigma seems like it's just a white woman's issue, and it doesn't really apply to other groups. This is not accurate at all. So we know that weight stigma is experienced by people across different racial and ethnic backgrounds and across different sexual and gender identities. As one example from our work, we recently did a study with over 17,000 sexual and gender minority adolescents. And what we found it's very high percentages of these teens reported being teased about their weight at all body sizes, not just if they had a higher body weight. And we also found that teens who had these weight teasing experiences were more likely to have psychological distress again things like depression, but also more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol and unhealthy eating. And so the idea here is that when people have multiple stigmatized identities like being stigmatized for their weight and their sexual orientation or their weight and their race. This can really compound and worsen the health consequences that arise from stigma. So we really do need to include bodyweight in discussions of intersectionality, and it's an issue that often gets left out of the conversation, or it's just not on the radar. But we're really missing an important opportunity to be discussing it.

Phil Wagner

That's fantastic—such great insights. I have one final question for you, and unfortunately, no magic wand exists in the realm of D&I work. But if you had a magic wand and could wave it, what's one thing you'd like to see the world of work do to make itself a more inclusive place for people of varying sizes? What's that big fix?

Rebecca Puhl

Well, I wish there was a single big fix, but what I will say is that many workplaces have diversity training for employees, but it is rare to see bodyweight included in diversity content or in education or in messages in the workplace. And I would really like to see that change. So we need to be treating weight stigma on par with and as legitimate as other forms of stigma that we see in our society. Our research says that about 40% of Americans say that they've experienced some kind of weight stigma in their lives. We also know that two-thirds of Americans are affected by overweight or obesity. So why isn't this part of education and training in discussion and the employment setting? Diversity training is an important place to be addressing weight stigma, and by leaving it out, it communicates to employees that it's permissible to stigmatize their co-workers about weight, even if it's not okay to do that when it comes to race or gender. And I think that's just unacceptable. We need to have a higher standard than this. People need to feel like they can go to work and be treated with respect and dignity and equal treatment, regardless of what their body weight or size is.

Phil Wagner

That's fantastic. Rebecca Puhl, thank you so much for making time to speak with us. Such great insight, such great research. We appreciate it.

Rebecca Puhl

Thanks so much 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 the podcast or wherever you listen to podcast and reach out because is 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.

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 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.

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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

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)

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

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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

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.

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

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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

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)

Jeff Trammell: Politics and Hope TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

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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

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)

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

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

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

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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