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Michael Skolnik, entrepreneur, civil rights activist and speaker, joins the program to share his own diversity story and discusses how corporations are becoming more involved in social justice issues and the implications of that involvement. Michael shares the connection between culture and social movements and the changes that men and male leaders need to make in order to help facilitate positive change. Discover the importance of being honest with ourselves and others about power and privilege.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Michael’s diversity story (3:00)
- How corporate America is getting involved in social justice issues (16:00)
- How companies sometimes miss the mark when it comes to diversity and inclusion (20:00)
- What consumers are looking for when it comes to brands (21:00)
- How Millennials are making a difference (26:10)
- The connection between culture and social movements (29:30)
- How to shift how we think about masculinity (32:30)
- The importance of compassion and power sharing for men (34:00)
- How Michael navigates being one of the only men at women’s conferences (40:30)
- How women can find and use their voice (42:00)
- Why we need to be honest with ourselves and others (45:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change. This is Jennifer Brown. Today my guest is Michael Skolnik.
Michael was recently profiled in the New York Times and identified as, “The man you go to if you want to leverage the power of celebrity and the reach of digital media to soften the ground for social change.”
In his day job, he is the CEO of The Soze Agency, a social impact agency that partners with companies, non-profits, foundations and movements to create campaigns that uplift compassion, authenticity and equity. The Soze Agency is a worker-owned cooperative.
He is a respected leader in the new social justice movement, and has helped ignite conversations around America’s relationship with race, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and the Obama and Trump presidencies. He is a prolific voice on social media with more than 350,000 followers, and a regular commentator on outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
Earlier in his career, Michael spent over a decade as an award-winning film director and producer.
Michael serves on the board of directors for Rock The Vote, The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Policy Link, The Gathering for Justice, and The Young Partners Board of The Public Theater.
Michael, welcome to The Will to Change.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Thank you for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks for coming. Your life has taken you on some incredible paths and it’s almost an overwhelming amount of achievements that I find so humbling and inspiring, and we’re going to talk about a lot of them on today’s episode.
I always like to start with everyone’s diversity story and what we like to say is everyone has a diversity story, especially those you might not expect. The first time I saw you speak, you walked on stage and I didn’t really know about you and I thought, “Who is this guy?” Then, lo and behold, there was a lot to tell. Would you describe your diversity story if I asked you to encapsulate it? Where did that awakening come from for you? How do you define it? How did you find yourself in it based on your past, your family, and all of those life experiences?
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Yes. Well, I was 14 years old in 1924. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: It feels like that this year. I feel that old.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: I lost all my hair. My son tells me, “What happened?” And I said, “Trump.” (Laughter.)
I’m 14 years old and I’m working at the Delacorte Theater, which is Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, free Shakespeare in the summer. I get a job at nighttime as an usher—Section G to be exact. I’d take you to your seat.
The opening night of The Tempest, with Patrick Stewart playing Prospero. I am working the opening night party. I’m working the front entryway into the opening night party. I’m there all night and finally get into the party at one in the morning because the play—Shakespeare is long, so the party doesn’t start until midnight.
When I first got that job, I expected to work with a whole bunch of white kids who look like me and love Shakespeare. Of the ushers at Shakespeare in the Park, it turned out I was the only white kid out of 35 ushers.
Most of the young people there were black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and it was a summer job. I was just getting a paycheck of $4.25 an hour at time, which was minimum wage, and I was 14 years old. It was so late when the party ended at 3:00 in the morning that Omar Green ,who was a 19-year-old college student who lived in Harlem, asked me if I wanted to walk out of the park with him. In the ‘90s, certainly, New York City was a different place, and Central Park was a different place at nighttime. He was sort of looking out for me and looking out for my safety and Omar became a long-time friend of mine, but this was my first interaction with this college kid. I was 14, remember, and Omar walked me out of the park.
We were getting to 5th Avenue and 79th Street, the east side exit to the park or the entrance, whichever way you look at it, and Omar wanted to go home. It was so late, he decided to try to catch a cab. It was one of those cliché moments when the cabs just kept driving by Omar. He looked at me in desperation, and in this sort of non-verbal communication, I put my hand out and a taxicab stopped for me.
Omar got in the cab and went home, and I walked down the street to my friend’s apartment where I was staying on the Upper East Side. I didn’t know what white privilege was, I didn’t know what racial identity even meant at that age, but I knew that something was different between Omar and me. And it didn’t feel right.
That was the beginning of an exploration of the past 25 years into race and into my own racial identity, and how I move in this space as a straight, white man who was born in the United States.
JENNIFER BROWN: When was the moment that you started talking about yourself as a straight, white man openly and in public, and explaining or knowing in your heart why it was important to identify as such? Was there a moment when you found that?
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: It’s evolved. It’s evolved as we have been challenged to think of ourselves in multiple identities, and not just race, not just gender, not just class, not place of origin or place of birth. That’s evolved over the years as I’ve grown in deep relationship with people doing the work who say it’s also important to recognize that you are cisgendered and that comes with privilege. You were born in the United States, and that comes with privilege.
I used an analogy that I got a great hand at the blackjack table of birth. I say if you judge me by the hand that I got, there’s not much I can do, but I want you judge me by how I played that hand.
At a blackjack table, if I would get a blackjack and I’m the winner of the table, everyone sort of claps around you like, “Oh, that table’s hot. You got blackjack.” But if I’m sitting on a big pile of chips and I don’t tip out the waiter who has been giving me free drinks all night, the waitress, or if I don’t tip out the dealer who’s been throwing me great cards all night, or the guy next to me or the woman next to me who is down and out and losing all her money, and I don’t throw chips at that person, then I’m an asshole. I just take my stuff, put it in my pocket and think about me.
I’ve tried to play that hand as best as I possibly can, and not always just thinking about me, recognizing that I’ve been blessed to not have to worry about systems of oppression stunting me from, ultimately, achieving anything that I possibly want to achieve.
JENNIFER BROWN: Have you ever been made aware of moments where, because of your programming—because we’re programmed by this society—you were corrected? I’m sure you have been mentored, coached, and told the hard truth many, many times. You probably seek it, and you probably welcome it. Are there any times when you’ve said, “Whoa, I did not see that unconscious bias, ” it just floored you when you learned about it?
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Yeah. I was speaking to a group of students years ago. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, “By talking about your white privilege in the way you do, it actually reinforces that people who are white and more privileged have more power.” I thought that was a really interesting perspective. Right? You’re saying, “Well, we’re privileged, we’re special.”
In that sense, how do you not reinforce the power dynamic that race, and racism in particular, is rooted in?
I was a theater major, so I am no student of racial history, racial studies, or race studies. I’m a student of the theater. Looking at the deep, intellectual study of race, diversity, power, and gender, I’ve been schooled, educated, mentored by some of the greatest minds on the planet. That’s an incredible blessing to have in my life.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’d love to know who, of all backgrounds, have been the people you’ve wanted to emulate? We all are in “Civil Rights 2.0,” right? You have been riding that wave, and speaking of intersectionality, all the intersections of media, politics, community organizing—everything.
We’ve evolved. And I think the fact that we can talk about our privilege and advantage, and our role as allies, which we’ll talk about in a moment. Who taught you? Did anyone show you the way that really resonated with you, that helped you find yourself, if people ask you, “Who did you emulate?” Or did you feel like you were out there creating it because we couldn’t bring the past forward to be successful in this moment that we’re living in right now?
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of amazing mentors. One in particular, who’s a lifelong mentor, is a gentleman by the name of Tim Ngubeni, who I met during my studies at UCLA.
Tim was Steven Biko’s right-hand during the apartheid regime in South Africa, fighting to end apartheid. Ultimately, he was exiled from South Africa, and made his way to the United States. He led a department at UCLA for 30-plus years, and was a mentor to many amazing people who have come out of UCLA over the years.
Tim taught us the fundamentals of black consciousness, which Steve Biko preached during his time on this earth. Certainly, there was a deep race component to it. Not being black, I did not identify with that, but there was also a deep, deep reflection on how we move in this world, how we operate in this world, and how we operate with ourselves.
I consider myself a student of Steven Biko. I’ve got a beautiful portrait of him in my son’s bedroom—who’s only four years old, so he’s not exactly sure.
I find myself around many great artists—Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte—folks who have done this before, and Mr. Belafonte continues to do it in his 90s. Women, certainly, my parents, my mother and my father taught me compassion. They were my greatest teachers.
From a very young age, my mother and my father would deeply, deeply challenge me to be as compassionate as possible. My grandmother taught me to hold the door for everybody. Simple, simple lessons about how you look at someone—a homeless person or a president in the same way. A black person or a white person in the same way—with respect.
Now, I see color. I’m not color blind—I think that’s a notion of nonsense. But, how do you see it and respect it? Not, how do you see it and see the same, but how do you see it and have the same amount of respect for that person regardless of the color of their skin, the gender of their body, or the amount of money they have in their pocket?
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, the “I don’t see color” thing. We’ve got to eradicate that, but also explain why. It is a well-intended comment in so many of the corporate conversations I’m in. Usually, it’s a gentle correction that’s needed and you don’t have to hit it with a sledgehammer.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Yeah, I think the goal of people is to think of themselves as “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” People say that, but that’s never true. It’s never true. As white people, we are taught racism. I have a four-year-old child, I see him taught racism—not by me, but by society.
If you look at cartoons, the dark people are bad and the light people are good. Darth Vader was black, Han Solo was white, and that carries out, right? As my child is ingrained in these positions, it’s my job to deprogram him.
You want to believe that you have no racist bone in your body, but you do, and it’s okay, right? As long as you’re doing the work to get rid of it, then you’re on your journey. Recognizing that when you see someone of different skin color, you do have a different reaction. If you put a hoodie on a white teenager and a hoodie on a black teenager, you can do a pretty easy study and see how many people walk across the street or grab their purse as they walk by. People have a different reaction just to skin color, regardless of what the person is wearing, even if they’re wearing the same outfit.
There is richness in color and race, and beauty in color race. There is nothing to run away from, to try to hide that you see somebody who is a different skin color than you are.
So, I see a friend or a colleague of who is black, I see that person as a black person. If they call themselves African American, an African-American person. I see someone as a brown-skinned person who might be Latino or mixed race. In that sense, I want to recognize them in all their richness, all their beauty, and not try to diminish them by saying, “I don’t see your difference in skin color from mine.”
I think it’s oftentimes used as an excuse to do the work to rid yourself of that racism that you’ve been taught throughout your life, and that you continue to be bombarded with throughout your life.
I saw Black Panther over the weekend. I remember growing up and saying there were no positive roles for black people in movies, and the only one who was getting them was Denzel Washington. 20 years later, there seems to be the beginning of a pretty incredible shift. How that will affect my child, I don’t know, but I know how it affected my generation. We saw black people—many of us, but not all us—as threats to our wellbeing, our security, and reinforced by images that we saw in the media, reinforced by police brutality, and reinforced by politicians calling women on public assistance “welfare queens.” That’s the low end of it.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautifully said. I thought you’d have some thoughts—maybe you haven’t seen it, but let’s talk about corporate America sticking a toe in some of these issues imperfectly—sometimes poorly—but trying, nonetheless. Some companies get it right. I particularly think of Proctor & Gamble’s video called The Talk. Did you see that, Michael?
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: I did. I did.
JENNIFER BROWN: For those of you listening, look it up. It’s their ode to the talk that black parents have with their children about protecting themselves. It’s sad and moving.
The thing I was watching for is to understand the reaction to a company putting something like this out there. There was backlash; there was backlash to the ad. I couldn’t fathom why. It’s the erasure of the truth, the real story, the reality, and the fact that people felt threatened by that very beautiful piece that was timely, moving, and important.
That piece allowed so many people to feel seen, understood, and it let their story be told—in many cases, for the first time.
The violence with youth that you’ve studied so much is often the one way that people in the workplace can share the stark difference between their reality and somebody else’s reality. They say, “I need to have this talk with my child, and you don’t.”
I’ve heard people use that because I work with all the people who are trying to teach in the corporate environment, but this is not something that you will experience. That is what’s called “privilege.”
Anyway, I wondered what you think about the backlash towards companies stepping forward? Do you have any favorite companies or leaders right now who are really putting their corporate capital—social capital—into play, and stretching into that space in a way that you get excited about?
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Well, I think there are many. There are many great corporate leaders in this moment.
We saw AT&T’s response to Black Lives Matter. I thought just the letter and the CEO of AT&T was powerful.
Certainly, Ben & Jerry’s and the work they’ve done historically over the years has been remarkable. They’re stepping into the racial justice piece along with the climate and environmental work they’ve done—amazing.
Seventh Generation has done incredible work when thinking about the environment and climate.
I think in this moment now that we’re in today around gun violence, we saw Dick’s Sporting Goods come out this morning and not only did they change their policy, but they’re actually calling for national policy from a congressional level—the federal level—to be changed. They’re calling for assault weapon ban. That’s courageous in powerful.
JENNIFER BROWN: Amazing.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: We’ve seen many corporations get rid of their relationships with the NRA, that seems easier than taking the stronger public stance that we saw with Dick’s Sporting Goods in terms of where they stand on policy, not just where they stand with their organization. That does not have the interest of the American people or the safety of the American people.
I think there’s a shift. Certainly, there are a lot of good ads. Coca-Cola has made some phenomenal ads. I thought Coca-Cola’s commercial, America The Beautiful, during the Super Bowl two years ago was a beautiful, powerful spot.
But then there are some corporations who are a little lost. We saw that this year during the Super Bowl. That was challenging. Folks were trying to be authentic, but missed the mark.
Budweiser talks about giving away $100,000 for water, but spent $5 million on the commercial. It doesn’t feel as authentic as probably their intentions were. They may want to go back and rethink the use of their money in that way.
We’re out of the CSR moment, if you will, and we’re looking for authentic engagement with the American people and what they are experiencing in this particular time in our history. Corporations have to respond to that in a way that many of them are inept to do so internally, and so they need to look externally to some experts who we know, who we see in this D&I conferences, or we see on the circuit who are keeping folks honest.
H&M, certainly, got hit over the head—and rightfully so—for their photo of a black child with hoodie with a monkey on it. We saw the reverberation of that in South Africa, as an example, where they had to close all their stores because South Africans were just not having that.
In that sense, it’s an amazing time in corporate America because they are being challenged to the greatest moment of creativity to address the challenges this country faces—and not just because of the current president. These are ongoing challenges that are happening during a very powerful demographic and cultural shift.
JENNIFER BROWN: So much has changed. Talk to me about the practice of civil rights 2.0. The last year and a half, it feels like it’s hyper speed. You can barely take in all the activity, the activism—all the passion. Me Too has happened in the midst of it, the Women’s March –rewinding back to last year and this year.
The learning has been compressed and the awareness and the awakening for so many new people entering this and saying, “I want to do more.” It’s one of the hallmarks of our age. I really welcome that. We need everyone, and we need more than we have in the fight.
Where’s the cutting edge of organizing, activism, and impact—now aided by social media? Tell us about the front lines of that. When you say you like to live dangerously a bit, what’s the line that you walk when you think about trouble? Where are you pushing on all of that? Give us a view of what we may not see about the choices you’re making in that space.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: You’ve got to follow the young people. You’ve got to listen to young people. This isn’t a new phenomenon, young people have always been at the cutting of where culture in this country goes—especially young people of color. They have decided for generations what people should buy, what people should wear, what people should watch, what people should listen to, what people should be talking about.
I’m 39, so if I went 20 years up to 59, or 20 years down to 19—and no disrespect to my elders, I think they given me a lot of wisdom, but the conversations happening amongst 19-year-olds right now is incredible. I want to hear it, I want to listen to it, and I want to be part of it. 59-year-olds seem somewhat stuck in their ways, and think the way they’ve done it or the way they’re doing it is working. Obviously, it’s not.
I’m proud a feminist, and this is a moment that is a reaction to a president who has openly bragged about assaulting women and I think women are fed up and they are letting the world know that no longer can you stomp on them and make them silent.
I’m proud of the women who have led these movements, who lead these movements, who have stepped courageously into this moment, and have challenged us men to do better. We have to listen.
I don’t think those are revelatory in terms of what folks don’t know. John Lewis was 23 years old when he gave his speech during the March on Washington. Dr. King was 34 years old.
If Dr. King was alive today during the March on Washington, he would be a millennial. Think about that. Dr. King was the age of a millennial when he gave his I Have a Dream speech. Mark Zuckerberg was 19 when he founded Facebook, and so was Jack Dorsey at Twitter, and those tools have changed the world.
Look at the young people in Parkland and across the country who have worked on gun violence issues for a long time—usually and always led by young people. It’s no surprise that the people of Parkland are saying, “Never again,” after this horrible tragedy at their school just a week and a half ago.
I’m inspired, but I’d say this to anyone who might be listening who disagrees: To me, the key to life, if there is one that I’ve found in my 39 rotations around the earth, is that curiosity keeps you young.
My mentor, Tim Ngubeni, is now in his 70s. The reason I loved him is when I was a college student and then a young adult, he never told me I was wrong. He never told me I was too young. He never said, “You don’t know enough,” or, “I’m wiser than you. As your elder, you should listen to me.” He always listened openly, actively, and allowed me to explore, and ultimately taught me ways to be better. He was curious to know what young people were talking about. He was curious to know what we were watching, what we were listening to.
I want to know what’s next. I want to know what a 13-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 10-year-old are talking about. When I was in Washington two days ago, I heard a group of students talking about how ridiculous it is to arm their schoolteachers with guns. I was listening in on 13-year-olds’ conversations. That opinion matters to me.
When thinking about corporations, movements, and culture, that conversation is a conversation that I want to listen to and I want to be a part of.
As I have gotten older, you’ll never hear me say, “Oh, music is no good today. It was better 20 years ago.” There’s amazing music being made right now—phenomenal music. You just lost your curiosity to go find it. There’s amazing art being made right now, amazing cinema, amazing theater. You just lost your curiosity to go find it. You want it to be handed to you and turn the radio on and say, “Oh, this song is as good as the music was 20 years ago.”
There was plenty of junk 20 years ago, and there was plenty of junk 50 years or 40 years ago during the age of rock-and-roll in the ‘60s. There’s plenty of junk now, but there’s amazing stuff being made, as there was in the ‘60s.
“When the movement is strong, the music is strong,” as Harry Belafonte said. The movement is strong right now. The movement was strong in the ‘60s, and the art reflects that. I want to go find that art. I want to know Kehinde Wiley before he unveils his portrait of Barack Obama. Of course, I know of Kehinde Wiley because he is part of our cultural zeitgeist as a generation. His work already is shown in the highest museums across the land. He’s not an artist we discovered when he unveiled President Obama’s portrait in the Portrait Gallery. We know Kehinde. We grew up Kehinde. We knew how great he was. We knew Ta-Nehisi Coates before he wrote his book. Don’t get me started.
JENNIFER BROWN: This is so great. There are so many thoughts.
Michael, what I get concerned about is the journey of younger men and boys—so we’re talking a lot about generations—and the learnings and the teachings that are being passed downwards, anyway, because we always assume learnings come from the upper ages downwards, which is erroneous.
However, in organizational contexts, we assume all the knowledge lives in the top of the pyramid, and this is one of the fallacies. This might have been true, certainly, in the way organizations were structured so that the person at the bottom was kept out of the knowledge or nobody was interested in their knowledge.
We’re thinking about how broken organizations are, and we think about this behavior of masculinity and the performance of leadership, if you will, which I think is a masculine one, and that’s all what many of see in our world. It’s just dominated by that.
I had Jack Myers on my podcast and he said, “I don’t want men of older generations mentoring younger men—that’s not what we want to reinforce.” And then Me Too happens. Me Too is not a surprise to me because I believe it’s a result of a lack of commitment, action, and work around gender issues in the workplace and people not taking responsibility, basically, for as long as I’ve been around.
How do we shift how we think about being a man, being a boy, being a leader? I feel like women and people of color and other diverse identities have been pushing, pushing, pushing so hard to be heard, to be seen, to have a voice—in the workplace in particular, because that’s my lens—but we need partnership. We need true partnership.
I spend a lot of energy combating a lot of the resistance. Whether it’s in-your-face resistance or it’s apathy, it’s the invisible resistance. I want to have hope that younger men will do this better and differently. I think the young women will, but the hope to me is really on the men, because they need to stand up and be the allies. I hope that’s what you’re seeing, but I know that for this generation—millennials and then probably generation Z—inclusion is a core value for them. I don’t want them to lose that as they kind of get into this really non-inclusive world that they’ve got to make a living in. Are they going to stay activists? Are they going to find their own voice?
There is so much that’s broken in the behavior, and we’re living that reality now. I don’t know where Me Too is going. I hope it doesn’t fade away. I think there’s so much more kindling where that comes from, and I hope we learn the right lessons from it, but I think it’s a crisis of masculinity.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: And it’s a crisis of power-shifting. I teach my four-year-old son every day, “Sharing is caring.”
JENNIFER BROWN: You don’t mean the cookies and the sandwich, you mean the power. (Laughter.)
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: The power. Why do you teach your child to share, and then when you get power you no longer share? Just think about that. Think about your own humanity as a parent. They go to school and it’s all about sharing, and then once they get a little bit of power in their lives we teach them, “Well, you did it because you worked hard.” You didn’t work hard, someone helped you with the addition to working hard. Someone gave you a step up with the addition of working hard. Someone didn’t judge you with the addition of working hard. Someone didn’t question why you were in the room with the addition of working hard. So, if you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Yes!
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: I enjoy being around people who are smarter, better, more thoughtful, and more creative than I am—it makes me better. I’m not threatened by your power. I’m not threatened by the fact that you’re better than I am in things that I want to get better at. But for some reason, we teach our boys when someone threatens you, you respond with strength and violence.
Hurt people hurt people. I teach my son about compassion, I don’t teach my son about violence. My son watches Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles, he watches a lot of violent shit. He likes it, but we talk about it. I don’t know if I’m doing it right. I don’t know what happens to become that. I hope Mateo grows up to be a passionate human being, but I recognize that there is every force in the world to make him not compassionate. There is every force in the world to make him “man up”—to be a boy, to be a man.
I played football for 10 years, I know how to hit somebody as hard I possibly can. I know the strength of my body. I don’t want to hit anybody. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I don’t want someone to not get something because of me.
It’s a reprogramming of what power means. Power, to me, does not mean money, wealth, and how big my house is. Power, to me, is that my son wakes up every morning and says he loves me. That’s where I find my strength and my power is that I’ve built a relationship with my child, that he loves me in the first four and a half years of his life every single day, and that I have decent, good human beings as my friends, amazing people in my family. That’s where I find my power.
I don’t find power in watching a woman suffer in a job because people can’t respect her as a leader. If that’s your masculinity, where’s your humanity? As men, we know 70 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500s are men, and that number hasn’t shifted dramatically over the years. We know in the S-suite level, it’s diminishing and not growing.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s 6 percent women CEOs in the Fortune 500.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Oh shit, 6 percent. I’m totally off.
JENNIFER BROWN: 6 percent, yeah. It’s worse than that.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Let me take that out of there. I said 70 percent? 94 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. That should alarm us as men because we’re not creating healthy companies if we’re the only ones running them. Or if we’re not running them, we’re not creating a healthy capitalistic country that allows women to become CEOs.
So, when my son looks at Hilary Clinton on the TV screen and says, “Daddy, one day I want to be Hilary Clinton,” that matters.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, that’s really adorable.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: My son sees a woman and sees a leader and thinks one day he wants to be her.
JENNIFER BROWN: “I want to be her.” I love that.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: I want him to be her and not Donald Trump. That’s politics aside—that’s humanity.
I said this to a group of men today in a meeting that I had this morning. I said, “If you have young boys, if you’re in your good conscience, you’re not letting your son watch Donald Trump on television. You know damn right you don’t want your son to grow up like that, to treat people like that and talk to people like that. But you let your son watch Barack Obama, George W. Bush, George H. Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford—”
JENNIFER BROWN: Keep going! (Laughter.)
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: But you know damn right that man has a problem, and you don’t want your son to have that same problem.
I don’t think of myself as a human being—as a man—any differently than any other man. I don’t think I’m special, I don’t think I’m different. I do the work every single day because I don’t want my child to hurt women. I don’t want my child to sexually assault women. I don’t want my child to walk into a school with an AR-15 and kill 17 of his classmates and teachers.
I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein’s mother or Nikolas Cruz’s mother when she was alive—because she is deceased—thought when their child was four years old that their child would become a serial rapist or a mass shooter. They thought, “My son is going to be okay.”
All of those things in society that contribute to how we teach our children—especially our boys—how to be compassionate, not how to be men, how to be compassionate. My son wants to bring the homeless people into his house to sleep in his bed because he sees them and it hurts him, and it should hurt him. He’s four. He shouldn’t recognize that that person on the street has less than him and don’t look at that person with disdain, look at that person with compassion. Look at that person with love, so that when you’re 40 you’re not looking at that person driving by in your Bentley and saying, “Oh, that person didn’t work hard. That’s why they’re homeless.” You’re saying, “No, we as a society have failed that person, and we are responsible for that person living on the street.” Getting me upset.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so sorry. I know.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Don’t be sorry.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. I know.
On the flip side, you go into women’s spaces maybe as the only man, right? I celebrate so much the men who come into women’s conferences, for example, and put themselves in that room because it’s really got to be uncomfortable. And, yet, one of the things we talk about so much in my client work is, “Are women ready to welcome men in? Are men making the time and making it a priority to look at equality as a universal issue that impacts everyone, and therefore making time for it?” We still don’t see a lot of men coming to that discussion to listen, like you’ve been talking about a lot.
You’ve been in a lot of those space, and I’m curious about that. I’m sure you speak to largely female audiences maybe differently than you speak to men’s audiences. As a man who has the thoughts that you have, the passion that you have, and the knowledge, how do you counsel women and people of color and others who are underrepresented who haven’t been seeing role models ever to find their voice and to use it?
To me, it always feels like a flip in my brain, “Who’s my audience?” And then if you give me a mixed audience, I feel like I’m having two different conversations. They actually fit together really well, but they’re different because I think some of us need to find our voice, and some of us need to listen more. That’s the moment we’re in.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: I try hard not to counsel anyone but my son because my counseling usually gets me in trouble.
JENNIFER BROWN: Smart. (Laughter.)
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: When I’m invited into those spaces with great humbleness, it is a privilege to be in a room of women or a room of people of color and you are the only man or the only white person in the room. Those people in the room want you there, and they want you there for a reason.
Obviously, I learn much more from them than they ever can learn from me, but I do think it’s important to go into those spaces and to really be open.
I ask my son about compassion. I have to ask my son, “How do you love?” He says, “With your heart?” And then you say, “Well, how do you have compassion?” “You open your heart.”
So how do you walk into a space with a heart wide open? How do you walk into a space knowing that you may not have personally contributed to the history of slavery in this country, but you are a recipient of white privilege and the history of slavery of this country? The country has been set up for you to succeed. You may not think of yourself as someone who reinforces the patriarchy in this country, but you are a recipient of a patriarchal society because it’s set up for you to succeed.
I just try to be as honest as I possibly can. When you tell a person of color that you’re not racist they look at you like, “What?” You’re trying to tell a woman, “I’m not sexist. I love all women. I respect them.” “What? Come on.”
Think about this for a second—I had this conversation today. One in six women in this country have been raped, and that’s probably on the low end, sadly. One in four have been sexually assaulted or physically abused. Let’s turn that number around, and let’s say, now, how many men raped women, and how many men have physically assaulted or abused women?
Most rape is domestic. There are very few serial rapists in this country jumping out of bushes. So let’s just say it’s one in ten. One in ten men in this country have raped a woman. When you think about it from that perspective—oh, the conversations us men must have.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, boy.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: The conversations we must have, and then what we do when we have that information? What do we do when we know a friend, colleague, or someone in our family has sexually assaulted someone during their life? We find out that information.
So, when we walk into these rooms you have to be honest. Yes, my great-grandparents came here as refugees from Eastern Europe with two suitcases and nothing. But my grandfather was a recipient of the GI Bill, and was able to buy a home in the suburbs of New York City and build a middle-class family because of white privilege and the history of slavery. Black soldiers were not given those resources under the GI Bill, but every white soldier was when the middle class emerged in the 1950s. Black families were left in the cities, and the cities were torn apart, left behind, and housing projects were raised, and black families were put into small neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
White families were moved out into suburbs with the GI Bill, buying houses, and able to build middle-class lives in factories and the industrial boom, the chemical revolution, the factories were born, and the middle-class emerged. My family was a recipient of that, and black families were not. But, yet, I have nothing to do with slavery. I have everything to do with being a recipient of what slavery built for this country and gave to this country.
When we start having those kinds of conversations, I’m not guilty, I’m conscious. Very different. I have no guilt of that hand that I was dealt at the blackjack table, but I’m conscious of the amount of money that’s sitting in front of me after I’ve won three blackjacks in a row.
That’s all I’m asking of fellow white people who are listening, just to be conscious. I’m not asking you to give away your money because you’re guilty. Give away your money because you don’t need it all. Give away your money because when you die, it doesn’t go into the grave with you. Your child doesn’t need another $5 million on top of the $5 million you already gave your child.
JENNIFER BROWN: Heck no. Michael—
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: We’re out of time.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re out of time.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: You guys, don’t give away your money. Save your money. Save your money, buy a bigger house and a bigger Bentley.
Let me say this: The last thing I would say, Jennifer, is that money can’t buy you happiness, but happiness can buy you money. Chase happiness, and the money will be easy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Michael, thank you for joining me today and for using your voice in the world.
MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Thank you for having me.
Michael’s New York Times Profile
- MLK Day Replay: Intersectional Panel on Civil Rights including Jennifer and other L’Oréal USA DEI Advisory Board Members
- Cancel Culture to Coaching Culture: Navigating DEI Conversations with Author and Professor Kenji Yoshino
- Healing the Plus-Size Customer and Employee Journey with Author and GORGEous Agency Founder Kara Richardson Whitely
- Owning Your Power: Jennifer Joins the Beyond Barriers Podcast
- Cultivating a Purpose Mindset in Next-Gen Leaders: Social Entrepreneur Aaron Hurst Returns to the Will to Change