Equity at the Center with Author Minal Bopaiah

Jennifer Brown | |

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This episode features an interview with Minal Bopaiah, author of Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives and  founder of Brevity & Wit, a strategy + design firm that combines human-centered design, behavior change science and the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility to help organizations transform themselves and the world. Discover how human-centered design relates to diversity, equity and inclusion, what leaders can do to design a more equitable organization and what communicators need to know about addressing DEI issues.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

Doug Foresta: Hello, Will To Change Listeners. Want to join the Beyond Diversity book insider family? It’s easy to do. Visit JenniferBrownSpeaks.com, and go to the tab that says books, click on that. You’ll see a drop down for Beyond Diversity. That will take you to the landing page, where you can enter your details to join the book insider family, and get early access to exclusive updates and invitations to launch events. Again, that’s JenniferBrownSpeaks.com, go to the tab that says books, and the drop down that says Beyond Diversity to sign up prior to the book’s launch on November 9th, 2021.

Minal Bopaiah: We’re talking about identities that have been historically centered and historically marginalized. And so, my question is, what happens if we actually put those identities that have been historically marginalized in the center of how we design organizations, right? What does that organization look like? And that’s why it’s really important that we get down to the practical stuff. Not everybody is going to want to have a one- or two- or three-hour conversation about these abstract topics. And it’s sort of like how not everybody wants to understand all of medicine in order to get treated for diabetes, right? Like you as a doctor, you have to be able to translate these things into concrete behaviors that people can practice to live a healthy life.

Doug Foresta: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs, as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now, on to the episode.

Hello, and welcome back to the Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. Before we begin, I want to remind you that the next round of the DEI Foundation’s six-week online course for inclusive leaders begins on October 12th, and if you’d like to learn more and register today, you can text DEIFoundations, all one word, to 55444. That’s DEIFoundations to 55444, and use the coupon code “podcast” for 20% off.

This episode features an interview with Minal Bopaiah. Minal is the author of Equity: How To Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives. She is the founder of Brevity and Wit, a strategy and design firm that combines human-centered design, behavior change science, and the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility to help organizations transform themselves and the world. She has written for the Stanford Social Innovation Review and the Hill, and has been a featured guest on numerous podcasts and shows. And in this conversation, Minal and Jennifer discuss how human-centered design relates to diversity, equity, inclusion, what leaders can do to design a more equitable organization, what communicators need to know about addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. All of this and more. And now, on to the conversation.

Jennifer Brown: Minal, welcome to the Will To Change.

Minal Bopaiah: Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you so much for having me.

Jennifer Brown: I’m just so excited. We’ve known each other for a while, and we’ve been in this wonderful and challenging space, albeit in slightly different realms of it. So, we’ll get into that in a moment, but I actually, I get energized and jazzed when I get to kind of parachute into your world, because you bring this amazing marketing lens, and some of the other lenses to DEI work, and to equity, which we’re going to talk about today, as well as being an amazing speaker and expert in your own right.

I would love you to introduce yourself to our audience. We always say that each one of us has a diversity story or stories, plural, some visible, some invisible. And so, what would you like to tell us to contextualize why you do what you do, why you care so deeply about it, and why it’s an enduring kind of important for you?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I mean, I think I have, like anybody, have a very intersectional identity, with lots of dimensions of diversity. But as I sort of, I think the easiest way to sum it up is I grew up on Staten Island, which I describe as all of the aggression of New York with none of the arts and culture.

Jennifer Brown: That’s good.

Minal Bopaiah: And I was a clever, sensitive brown girl growing up in that world, and I think I just sensed from a very early age that the world was not rooting for me. And it took me a long time to be able to put language to the ways in which the system was pushing me and the people I loved to the margins, and I think a lot of my career and adult life has been trying to find the language to describe that. But those experiences, while they were heartbreaking, were also formative, and were… How do I want to say this? That they were coupled with a very strong sense of self that I had, that I had worth, and that I wasn’t going to participate in my own gaslighting.

And since then, I’ve had enough experiences to know that I can’t change everything, but I also know that I’m not happy unless I’m working on changing these things that I can, which include these oppressive, huge systems, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, and that it’s allowing me to then create a community of people who are rooting for me, and me for them. And so, that’s really…

Jennifer Brown: Wow, that’s something we talk about a lot, is to have both folks in your corner, and then be in the corner for others, and doing all of this at the same time, it’s a both/and. I don’t know, sometimes we think we can’t have it all, or we can’t do it all, or we can’t be it all, but to your point, we have so many pieces of our identity that carry with them certain implications for how we need to be supported and how we support. So, I love that you just described it that way. It’s something we talk about a lot on the Will To Change. As an LGBTQ+ woman, I say I need allies and accomplices, and I can also be that ally and accomplice. So, that really resonates.

So, do you consider your view and definitions and your practice, if you will, if DEI to be unique? And I guess, how would you describe your particular angle on it, and how did that evolve?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I mean, I think, I have an approach and it is, I think, somewhat unique, but not probably proprietary, so people are invited to come in, right? At Brevity and Wit, which is the firm that I founded, we are a strategy and design firm. And so, we combine human-centered design and behavior change science with the principles of what we call IDEA, inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, in everything that we do. And that can be anything from full-service graphic design, to strategic marketing and communications, to organization design.

And what that approach really allows, in my opinion, is particularly human-centered design and behavior change science isn’t about being pragmatic. It’s about working with human nature, because I think the DEIA world can be very aspirational, which isn’t bad, but we need to be able to translate that into something practical for it to really take, and for it to scale. And so, the human-centered design approach and the behavior change approach really works on putting our ideals into practice.

Jennifer Brown: I love that, Minal, because I do think sometimes the conversation is a bit mysterious, and you can tell that we’re not making it practical, because when we teach it, the reaction we get back is, but Jennifer, what do I do? Give me concrete actions, right? And I know you get asked that as often as I do, and perhaps it annoys you a little bit. I will be honest, sometimes I resist wrestling something down, and also spoonfeeding people. However, I know that if we don’t make this practical, imminently practical, that progress isn’t going to be made. And so, it’s just what we’re dealing with. It sort of reminds me of the difference between the moral argument for why DEI is important, but then the business case. And we need both. But I love your practical focus.

So, tell me… You described human-centered design. Can you just go a little deeper into what that is, and how you learned about it, and how you think it should be placed in the context of DEI? For those of us that don’t know about it.

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. There were a couple of ways in which I was exposed to it, but the really sort of formative one was hearing Rajan Patel speak, who is a friend of mine, who runs a nonprofit in Baltimore called Dent Education, that actually teaches human-centered design to Baltimore high school students. And he’s also, he was trained in Stanford d.school, and he’s taught design thinking workshops all over the world. Design thinking is the other name for human-centered design. They’re sort of used interchangeably.

But when he was an undergrad at Stanford, he was on a team of students who went to India to really come up with, to use human-centered design to approach the problem of premature births in India. A lot of babies are born premature in India, and then die because of hypothermia, fundamentally. And a lot of mothers are giving birth in their homes. If they’re in a hospital, sometimes the hospital will have an incubator, but then they won’t have electricity. And then, when they started to really talk to the mothers, they found that even if a mother was able to get to a hospital, and able to get an incubator for their baby that was safe and plugged in, the mother was completely in distress, because she’s like, that’s a big machine, and my baby’s in it, and I’m separated from my baby right now.

And so, Rajan and his team of colleagues, of students, really centered the mother’s experience, right? That she doesn’t want to be separated from her baby in order for her baby to survive. And what they created was this product called the Embrace Warmer, which if you ever Google this, there’s a photo of it. It looks like a swaddle unit, and there’s like a wax pack in the back that keeps the baby at the perfect, ideal temperature.

And there was a lot of thought that went into the creation of this product, and what I love about that is that, whereas some people might parachute in with a savior complex of being like, we need to build an electrical grid for all of India, and make sure that there’s incubators for all the hospitals, and we need to make sure that there’s an FDA to make sure that they’re safe, and if the patients are resistant, we just need to educate them. Instead, they said, no, we’re doing none of that. We’re going to create a product that works for this context. That centers the experience of Indian mothers.

And that is a radical way of looking at things, right? And that’s really what the DEI work is about, right? Because we’re talking about identities that have been historically centered and historically marginalized. And so, my question is, what happens if we actually put those identities that have been historically marginalized in the center of how we design organizations, right? What does that organization look like?

And that’s why it’s really important that we get down to the practical stuff, because like you were saying, not everybody is going to want to have a one- or two- or three-hour conversation about these abstract topics. And it’s sort of like how not everybody wants to understand all of medicine in order to get treated for diabetes, right? Like, you as a doctor, you have to be able to translate these things into concrete behaviors that people can practice to live a healthy life. We have to be able to… We can’t just say that, oh, you’ll learn this if you read this really long reading list of ours. That can’t be the precondition, right?

And I’m just like, that’s not a scalable solution, because people are taxed with bandwidth. They’re trying to just manage their families. They’re not… There are people who say, just tell me what to do, because they’re being defensive, or whatever. But for the most part, and I actually even start the book this way, about my husband’s a firefighter, and they sent three captains in the fire department to some diversity conference years ago, and one of the facilitators used the term LGBTQ, and one of the captains was like, “What does Q stand for?” And the facilitator was like, “Queer.” And the captain was like, “Are you kidding me? I literally got called on the carpet 10 years ago for using that word.”

And I’m sure the facilitator explained how that word had been reclaimed by the queer community, and things like that, but it doesn’t matter, because he went back to the station house, and was that completely lost, because he told the whole house, “Guys, we can say queer now.”

Jennifer Brown: Not the takeaway!

Minal Bopaiah: But like, that’s their takeaway, right? And my husband was like… Because I remember somebody once saying, we don’t want just behaviors, we want people to engage with this. And my husband’s like, well, congratulations, because now you have neither. That’s what that did, right? Now people are even more badly behaved. And so, what are you doing? And I can feel empathy for that captain who was literally putting out fires while the world changed around him, right?

Jennifer Brown: Literally, yeah. I mean, how do you square that? Oh my goodness. I think we lose… You’re right. We lose so many people in, I don’t know if it’s like a failure of language. I don’t know if it’s too much information. I really, totally agree with your point, that it’s almost like we’ve thrown all this information that’s pretty advanced into already overwhelmed people, and then said, you need to become expert on all of this. And Minal, I get this question in my keynotes when I sort of talk about 12 different main identities that, to me, often constitute our conversation about DEI, and I people just get overwhelmed. They say, where do I start, and what do I focus on, and how can I take one bite at a time and digest it?

And then, really what we want people to do is digest it, have time to digest it, and to really then embody it and move it from a mental construct to something that you understand in your heart, right? That your empathy is awakened. I mean, really, to me, the cycle we need to go through is the piece of knowledge, the contextualization, the taking that in in a real way, and then the, I think, hopefully it generates the empathy, which generates the action. And so, to me, that’s sort of all the puzzle pieces lining up.

But I don’t know, the way we’ve been approaching this conversation though, and even in the past year and a half, I’d love to know, do you think we’ve been doing this better or worse, in terms of capturing the right kind of attention, the erit imagination, the right hearts and minds? I don’t know, have we been… have we discovered some new ways of being effective with this in the last year and a half, or are we sort of repeating the mistakes of the past that didn’t get us where we needed to go?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I think that’s still out, because we haven’t been able to really measure. But I do think that there’s… Here’s the one thing. In the behavior change sciences, there’s a real maxim that information is never enough to change behavior. If it was, everybody would floss every day, and exercise three times a week, and not have credit card debt. And whenever I ask this, there’s like one or two superhumans who do all three of those things, and then the rest of us have to hack our lives and work around human nature. We have not accounted for human nature in our approach, right?

And part of it is also, if we really think about this very deeply, part of this is… Let me back up. What they have found is one of the biggest obstacles to diversity, equity and inclusion is a belief in rugged individualism. That we can go everything alone. And so, part of what we’re doing is actually playing into rugged individualism, when we’re like, oh, no, you need to understand critical race theory at the level of a PhD. That’s like saying to somebody that if you want to retire, you need to understand how to invest at the level of a financial planner. Which we kind of do now, right? We’ve put the burden on individuals to make all of these informed decisions about their finances, about their health, about their marriage, about so many things, and what that has done is, the reason we do that is because we blame the individual for any failure, and we have eroded public trust in institutions, and in people who are supposed to be professionals, right?

And so, I’m of the mindset that if you are a DEI practitioner who does this for a living and gets paid to do it, you need to preserve the public trust in you. That it’s not your job to make everybody else a DEI practitioner. That can’t be the approach.

Jennifer Brown: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And yet, I feel like there’s so much frustration on our part that things aren’t moving faster, right? And so, you can kind of feel that. I’m sure you’ve felt it, like why are we not getting it? Why haven’t you been paying attention? Why are we here? Why aren’t we further? And it’s frustrating, because you don’t want to own it for people, and it’s impossible to own it for people.

Minal Bopaiah: You can’t! Yeah. You can’t. And I think it’s maybe because my parents were physicians. It’s like being a doctor or a therapist. It’s like, listen, I can inform you about what are best practices. I can sort of help coach you if you’re struggling. But I’m not doing the squats for you. You have to do those, right? I can’t exercise for you. It doesn’t work like that, right?

And I think actually, what the problem is, I think sometimes DEI practitioners don’t have a good sense of boundaries. I think our hearts are so big that we don’t understand really where our capabilities have limitations, right? Like what is ours to own, and what is not ours to own, and being really clear about that, even as we partner with organizations.

Jennifer Brown: Minal, were you always good at that, or is this something that you discovered and practice now the hard way? I’m curious.

Minal Bopaiah: No, I’ve not been… I was not good at that when I was younger. What I was good at is being strict. I’m good at being strict, and just really clear, but I don’t… And I think particularly, growing up cross-culturally, the concept of boundaries is really different in Indian culture versus American culture, so that also confused me, right? So, I was really confused about that, and didn’t really come to it probably until my 30s.

But in doing so, I see how important it is. And actually, to be honest, it is also something that I learned very much at the feet of Dr. Cole, my mentor, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, who wrote the forward for the book. People miss this about here, because she is so large-hearted, and I think she is able to take on more than most people, but she actually has a very healthy sense of boundaries, and what she will do and what she will not do. And seeing somebody of that caliber exercise good boundaries made it easier for me.

Jennifer Brown: Yeah. I want to ask you, do you think those of us who are in not a majority culture, in minority culture, in marginalized identities, have a harder time with boundaries, and why? What is the role of, I don’t even know, perfectionism, right? Sort of overworking to keep that seat at the table, right? That sort of scarcity mentality that I think drives us to feel we’ve got to do everything for everyone, because we’re going to miss our shot.

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. To be honest, I think that that is more gendered than anything else.

Jennifer Brown: Agreed.

Minal Bopaiah: I don’t see that necessarily as much in men of color, or in gay white men, as I do… I think that is a gendered phenomenon. And Kate Manne has this book called Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and she talks about how in a misogynistic, patriarchal society, there are human beings, and there are human givers. And women are often expected to be the human givers, to allow men to be human beings. And what I don’t think women know how to do very well is how to be a human being. Like, you’re allowed to just be. Your worth is not tied to how much you give, and I don’t think there are many women who are able to internalize that and really believe that.

Jennifer Brown: Well, what is the role of ethnicity in what you just said, when it comes to women? Do you have any opinions?

Minal Bopaiah: I mean, it gets so complicated, because it gets so… Actually, the way in which it gets complicated, though, is that I actually think white women were raised more consistently with this message that they have to be nice to be liked, than women of color. I was not raised that. Particularly my father was like, no, you need to be honest and study hard. Being honest and smart was valued. I was not expected to make everybody comfortable. And so, I’ve had a lot of friction with white women who I think are annoyed with me because I’m not playing that game, and they can’t understand why I’m not, right? I come off then as abrasive. But I was like, your expectation of me as a woman is based on white womanhood.

And this is sort of why I’ve really loved watching Kamala Harris as vice president, because I think she very much identifies as a Black woman who grew up Indian. I can see her Indian upbringing in how she does things. The fact that she’s just unapologetically brilliant. She never pretends to be less intelligent to win somebody over. She never pretends to not know her shit when she’s in the room, right? That whole thing of pretending to not be smart to win people is so foreign to me. I couldn’t even believe that there were women willing to do that. My father, and my mother also, would have been just absolutely appalled if that was ever in the repertoire of things that I did, right?

And so, I think that’s how, I think when you’re a person of color and a woman of color, you’re raised with a certain sense that you’re going to have to fight, and if fighting makes people uncomfortable, it makes people uncomfortable. Whereas I think if you’re a white woman, you don’t have as much of a fight, so you’re sort of raised to not fight. There’s such conflict avoidance, in my opinion, in mainstream white culture, that is not in, I think, cultures of color.

Jennifer Brown: I agree. I feel so seen, by the way. And no, I completely, in being in a relationship with you, this all resonates as very true, and your theory is my theory also. And having grown up in that culture, breaking those shackles and that socialization is such an intense journey. And in our sisterhood across difference, it can play a role, I think, in terms of our not being able to support each other, even understand each other. And then also, I might even say the word, sort of an envy of the ability, any woman, to be able to feel comfortable using your voice, and to know how to do it, is so aspirational for some cultures of women.

But it’s a wonderful kick in the butt, also, almost to be mentored by that culturally, to say… I mean, I have sort of found my leadership style through mimicking, and taking things on. I mean, I remember in the LGBTQ community, I was the only woman in the room for years and years. And nobody seemed to notice this, and I’m not sure I really noticed it for what I see it as now, and we can go into that. But I used to study, I suppose, the men in the circles of advocacy, and notice, how did they do this? How did they network? Really, how do they use their power? I thought that was the most fascinating thing. That was something I was completely unfamiliar with. How do they open doors? Who do they do things for? Do you have to ask? And this sort of inside support that people were giving each other, and how they added their capital to others, including me, actually. So, I was a recipient, but I was also noticing the science of it.

So, I think too, we can all kind of look across difference and take a page from different identities, and be very inspired, and be very… mimicry, whatever it takes to sort of do that Jedi mind trick of saying, okay, this is my socialization over here, but I see these women doing this, and I know that that’s possible for me, and I’ve got to break through. And I just wanted to say, and share some of my experiences of white women. I had a woman on my team say, Jennifer, perfectionism, that’s a white woman thing. And I always thought it was fascinating. At the time, it was years ago, and I didn’t have the white supremacy checklist.

Minal Bopaiah: Laminated, next to me?

Jennifer Brown: And I thought, oh my goodness, is this true? And it’s something I battle, battle, battle every day still, but at least I can see it now as part of the socialization, and I can combat it in myself, and I can also talk about it.

Doug Foresta: Hello, Will To Change Listeners. Want to join the Beyond Diversity book insider family? It’s easy to do. Visit JenniferBrownSpeaks.com, and go to the tab that says books, click on that. You’ll see a drop down for Beyond Diversity. That will take you to the landing page, where you can enter your details to join the book insider family, and get early access to exclusive updates and invitations to launch events. Again, that’s JenniferBrownSpeaks.com, go to the tab that says books, and the drop down that says Beyond Diversity to sign up prior to the book’s launch on November 9th, 2021.

Minal Bopaiah: I will say that I think Indian culture is very perfectionist.

Jennifer Brown: For sure, yes.

Minal Bopaiah: Like, very, very. But that’s also a result of colonization, that envy of… Because colonization is really kind of intricate. It’s not conquering. Colonization is going into a country, and the British telling Indians, you are now British citizens, and so therefore, you should aspire to be British citizens, but you fundamentally can’t, because you’re not white. So, it’s a complete psych ops, right? And so, it left the culture constantly aspiring to this thing that it could never be. And that is what perfectionism really is, right? It’s not excellence. It is pursuing something that is completely unrealistic out of a sense of scarcity.

Jennifer Brown: Whoa, that’s a sound bite. That’s good. I’m sorry, I’m just pondering that. Oh my goodness. I love this rabbit hole we’ve gone down. Well, I think it’s really important, the intersectional sisterhood. We’ve got to connect ourselves to each other in a different way, and be that outlet, and generate allyship amongst each other. And there’s such a big opportunity there, but I guess there’s a lot of noise between us, because of these cultural norms and the history, and also trauma. Trauma at the hands of white women, I’d say, right? And we talk a lot about that.

And what does the way forward look like, so that we can be stronger together, so that we can be in solidarity with each other, but also acknowledge how different our experiences are? And I think this is what makes it so complicated. When I think of, I coach executive leaders who are typically straight white men, and I try to make this point, and I’m curious how you would make this point: They can’t coach everyone the same. They can’t be in a mentoring relationship the same with every woman. We have different needs and different norms, different socialization. And so, I want them to have their eyes open, but it almost feels like endlessly complex to say, you need to be intersectional in the way that you demonstrate your allyship.

And then, the question is, how do I possibly learn all the different identities of women that I need to be in support of, and all the different… For example, even microaggressions. Like, Minal, you’ll hear different microaggressions than I do. So, we’ve got to somehow explain this to others, and then receive support in a knowing way, in a way where that supporter is educated enough about the differences in our experience that they’d have a different conversation with you than they’d have with me, based on that lens of the cultural experience that they have studied, have learned about, hopefully know, in terms of being in relationship with you versus me. But it just feels like, when I make that point, I know it’s the right answer, but I feel like I’ve sort of ground to a halt before we even get started, because it’s just an endless amount of knowledge that people need to have.

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of interesting. I mean, I really like the phrase, and I got this from Shilpa Pherwani, who leads IBIS, which is another DEI firm, that no one is a diversity expert, because humanity is far too diverse, right? You’ve got to start there, that you just won’t know things. But then, with the mentorship thing, I try to flip it on its head. I think mentorship is great. I think it’s great if white people, particularly leaders in organizations, want to mentor people who don’t look like them to rise in the ranks. But there’s a power dynamic there that we’ve all been socialized to accept, that really needs to be subverted.

And so, what I often advise people is, before you go and mentor a person of color if you’re a white person, I want you to go find somebody in your field, not a DEI practitioner, somebody in your field who is a person of color, and you need to become their mentee. Because if you think that this is always, I’m going to help them, what you’re going to do is just try to assimilate them, right? Until you are humble enough to admit that you as a white person have something to learn from a person of color, you’re never going to be able to mentor a person of color appropriately.

And then, if you can do that, if you learn how to flip that power dynamic and be humble, then that gives you a better chance of mentoring through an intersectional lens, because I’ll always remember what Dr. Cole told me when she took me on as her mentee. She’s like, listen, this is a two-way street. I expect to get as much out of this as you should get out of this. Which I think is an oversell, but it’s Dr. Cole. But nevertheless, she had that humility of this is a constant exchange of ideas, right?

Jennifer Brown: Right.

Minal Bopaiah: And that is very different than thinking that you’re saving somebody, or you’re teaching them how to be. And so, I think you have to get at those sort of root mindsets.

And then, also, you have to know when you’re the right… A lot of this stuff, even employment, is about compatibility. You’ve got to know when you’re the right person, and honestly, I think there are a lot of DEI practitioners that I admire. I think only Dr. Cole could have been my mentor, because I knew one, I needed a woman of color. I couldn’t have learned what I needed to learn. And the case in point is when I was really struggling at some point with conflict and stuff, and my husband, who’s a white male, was giving me advice, Dr. Cole kind of said to me, she’s like, listen, Chris is a white male. He can move through the world in a different way than you can I can. And you have to just accept that reality. And she’s the only person who could have said that to me. If any white male leader or white woman leader tried to say that to me, I would have been utterly resistant, right?

So then, the question becomes that you need to understand, that’s why we need diverse leadership, because it fundamentally can’t just be done by white men, or white women.

Jennifer Brown: Hear, hear. Yeah.

Minal Bopaiah: So, that’s the actual solution, then.

Jennifer Brown: Right. And I even love reverse mentoring, like you just said. I might ask, who are you the mentee of, and intentionally seeking those relationship, because by the way, you can’t just wait for them to drop from the sky. Or I might argue, you can’t wait for HR to come up with a program to pair you with someone, right? This is not… I mean, we’re going to be waiting a long time, and those initiatives, while wonderful and great, are limited and a little clinical. But I do think we need to have much more widespread reverse mentoring, and really embrace that flip of who has the power, who has the knowledge, who’s teaching.

I did a whole paper write-up on Bank of New York Mellon was doing a reverse mentoring program, and had the executive mentees and the millennial mentors, and the CEO and the entire C-suite was participating as mentees. That was powerful. That was, telling that story, digging into the value proposition that was going on between them, how that felt for both parties, what it represented, in terms of particularly a challenge for the executive mentees, which I relished, as you can imagine. I thought, get used to it, because everything power, and I know you write about power in your book, is fundamentally changing and shifting.

I wanted to let you sort of describe, do you agree with that, and how do you see power shifting, and what does that mean for DEI in the future?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I mean, I’ll say that I haven’t… I sort of shy away from calling what I recommend as reverse mentoring, because if you’re a white executive and you want a person of color, that person has more power in the industry than you, right? It should be somebody…

Jennifer Brown: Right.

Minal Bopaiah: So, understand that this is not a fun little experience with an entry-level person, right?

Jennifer Brown: Got it. Good differentiation.

Minal Bopaiah: This is somebody of caliber in the field that you should be admiring, right? So first, there’s that. But then, I think the best book I’ve red on power ever was Cindy Suarez’s book, The Power Manual, and she talks about supremacy uses of power and liberatory uses of power, and how supremacy uses of power are all about taking more than one needs. Taking more than one’s share. And liberatory uses of power embrace difference and work in relationship, so that they’re mutually beneficial.

And that changes everything, because if you really embrace that, that changes how you even do employee negotiations. You don’t try to get the most out of all of your employees at the cheapest cost, right? That is fundamentally a supremacist use of power. And so, once you can get to that, then you can… that understanding of power is what really shifts mindsets.

Jennifer Brown: You know, what you’re talking about is extractive. It’s getting as much as we can grab, with no consequences, when nobody’s looking. Yeah. And this must inform… I mean, you call your book Equity, right? You are, I know, because I know your work, you and a few brave others are trying to define this E in DEI that I think is poorly understood, not understood, but to me, equity and the connection to power, and abundance… abundance but fairness, too, right? There’s this interesting… there’s also the scarcity mentality that I think if I share my power, there’s going to be less for me, which is sort of one of, as you know, the top 10 resistances that we hear in the Q and A whenever we speak.

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah.

Jennifer Brown: So I guess, what needs to shift… Define equity for us, and then, what does it mean for power, like how we have to identify it, how do we… who has it, who needs it, how is it utilized to build more equity?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I mean, equity really, the building blocks of equity are power, money and time. And so, I often have to explain equity in relationship to equality. Equality is when everybody gets the same thing. Equity is when people get what they need to participate fully. And equity is not afraid of difference. It leverages difference to allow people to contribute their strengths, and to thrive in a society or in an organization.

Now, that doesn’t mean that equality is always bad. In the case of marriage equality, when civil unions were sort of all the rage, the LGBT community and activists made a clear decision to go for marriage equality, rather than civil unions, which could be a measure of equity, because it wouldn’t have really protected them and given them all the rights that they were seeking. But what equity does is, it gives you differential resources, so that you have equal access to opportunity. That’s how equity feeds into equality.

And then, it comes down to power and money and time, because fundamentally, we need to, particularly in organizations, we need to understand a couple of things. First of all, the first management manuals didn’t come out of the industrial era and the assembly line. They came out of slavery, and this idea of squeezing the most productivity out of a person for the lowest cost. Secondly, most of our companies were designed with the prototypical straight, white, able-bodied, Christian male in mind from the 1950s, and in that model, people were commuting from the suburbs, where most of them were married to somebody who picked up all of the emotional and cognitive labor for free. They got to go drive home to a healthy homemade meal, and one income allowed them to save for retirement and buy a home and pay for their kids’ college education.

Almost no one lives that life right now, right? So, the emotional and cognitive labor of the home has increased. Most people need two incomes. And then, what we’ve also seen is that that model was also detrimental from men, because it cut them off from their heart. They did not get to engage in their community or in their marriage, or be the husbands or fathers they wanted to be, and that they seek to be now. And so, what that also did was then create a culture of overwork, right? Where we said, women, you can go to the workforce, but you still have to do all of the emotional and cognitive labor at home.

And so, this is not now a sustainable system, right? And what employees and employers need to understand is that when you hire someone, when you pay them a salary, you are renting their talent for 40 hours a week, because time is actually the most finite resource. It doesn’t matter how rich or powerful you are, you cannot make more time. We all get 168 hours in a week, and so we all need to be able to work 40 hours in a week and not have to work the other hours, right?

But we somehow think, and employees play a part in this, we think that if somebody gives us a salary, they own, they are entitled to more of our time. That we have to work nights and weekends, right? And that model will not scale anymore. We’ve run out of planet, fundamentally. People are burnt out after this pandemic. That is not putting human experience at the center of that design, right? That is putting profit maximization at the center of that design.

And not that I’m an anti-capitalist, but I like Edgar Villanueva’s phrase, like how can we use money as medicine? Because right now, I believe we use money as a weapon. We use it to emotionally blackmail people. We use it to make people think that we own them. We use it to instill fear that you’ll get fired if you don’t give us more for this certain amount of money. And so, that power, that is how… money is a mechanism of power, right?

But it can be a mechanism of power that’s used in a more liberatory manner, where it’s a measure instead of how much we trust one another, and how can we use this money to heal one another, and to heal our society, and still meet the financial needs that we have? I think there is a middle path, here. It is not one or the other. But it requires a lot more wisdom and thoughtfulness, and it requires thinking, not just outside of the box, but thinking in ways that are different from how we’ve been socialized to think. The assumptions that we make, the things that we hold to be true, are not really true.

And that’s where the fear comes in. This work… Equity, more than anything else, I think requires courage, because you’ve got to be willing to question everything you’ve been taught to do it. And that’s scary.

Jennifer Brown: It is scary. It often feels like we’re the bearer of bad news about the definition of leadership, and being a good… Being an equitable leader, an inclusive leader, a good leader, really, because those are good leadership characteristics, is asking people to abandon what got them there. And then, we’re basically delivering the message that, by the way, you’re not going to be able to utilize those frameworks, that thing that always works for you. And even just fundamentally the way you look at problems and challenges, and saying your lens is so limited that it’s actually a liability. Pointing out to people that the way you solve problems, your go-to, right?

And at an older age. I think too, there’s this other element of… I know now, at my age, we question sort of how much changing, how resilient are we, and how brave, like you just said the word, courage, to literally question everything that we’ve counted on, everything that we thought we’ve known. Even just the process of opening our eyes to different people’s lived experiences, and coming to terms with not resisting the truth of that, but saying that is true. You do not need to say it again. I believe you. I believe you the first time, and now, what are we going to do about that?

And I just think, I wish… But we cling, and it’s our ego, it’s… Gosh, the ego, I think about a lot these days, the way that we protect ourselves and what’s worked for ourselves. How do we… Because Minal, we’re talking about a wholesale, hard look at why we’ve done the things we’ve done, how wrong we’ve been, what we’ve missed, what we haven’t seen, the harm that we’ve caused. It’s a lot, and I want to accelerate that process, but I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of it.

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. It’s definitely overwhelming. I don’t think we have a choice anymore.

Jennifer Brown: That’s true.

Minal Bopaiah: This is probably where the strict part of me… I was like, this is it, folks.

Jennifer Brown: Yeah. No, there’s no other choice.

Minal Bopaiah: Evolve or die. It sucks. I’ll agree with you that it sucks. I’ll commiserate, but we’re doing this, because we have no choice, right?

Jennifer Brown: Right.

Minal Bopaiah: There is no real choice anymore at this point in human history. And so, that’s where I’m like, we have the ability to do hard things.

Jennifer Brown: We do. We do them in a lot of other realms. So, why is this any different?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. And I think part of it is also realizing that if you can’t evolve, if you… The beauty of equity, I think, is that you get to be flawed. If you allow for differences, and you allow people to be different and play to their strength, then you’re allowed to be flawed and say, this is not my strength, I’m going to pass the ball to you on this one. And that’s what, I don’t think people realize the relief that comes from saying, I don’t know, and I’m not good at this. And that doesn’t mean I need to stop being CEO, but I’m going to stop pretending that I have all the answers, or that I’m good at everything, and I’m going to let somebody else run with the ball now, and it’s going to be great. It’s going to be fine. They’re going to like me more as a leader because I let them do that. I’m going to trust them more.

I mean, this just happened on our team, where we were talking about some client thing, and I came up with this metaphor, and one of our consultants, Paige Robnett, who’s wonderful, who I call the Ted Lasso of DEI. She’s like, you’re so good at metaphors! And I was like, yeah. You know what’s stressing me out? Trying to schedule this BD call with another client, because I can’t work people’s schedules. It drives me… I can’t. She’s like, that would take me three minutes to do. So she’s, I will do that. You just keep coming up with metaphors for these clients, and we’ll be fine, right? But I need to be able to be like, yeah, I am terrible at scheduling, and time zone things. This is not my follow act, here.

And it’s okay for me to be a leader and say that. And so, I think that’s what people need. And really, at the end of the book, my favorite part of the book is the acknowledgements. I am grateful to my husband, and I wrote this line, that what he really taught me is that there’s no love without affection for imperfection. Not acceptance of imperfection, but genuine affection for it. That how you’re flawed is adorable. Go sit down, because [inaudible 00:49:39] for this, because we know you’re flawed. But it’s adorable, and it will get taken care of.

Jennifer Brown: I love it. That’s the difference between tolerance, acceptance, and valuing, right? I don’t just tolerate this. I have to relish it in myself and in others, right? If we could “norm,” quote-unquote, which I don’t love that word, but like you said, the genuine affection and the celebration and the recognition of imperfection, and the humanness of that. I think you’re right that if you just let that go… But it’s a trust fall. For leaders, it’s a total trust fall, to say, you will be caught, in this climate where people are like, no, I won’t. That’s definitely not what’s going to happen. I think that’s the tricky part, as you and I issue these big ideas, is people are like, I just don’t know what the consequences are going to be. And there has to be so much faith.

It’s very powerful, speaking of power plays, to be, and I don’t know how it feels for you, but when I say we don’t have a choice, so let’s get to work, right? Like, this change is happening. The train has left the station. I don’t even care. Jump on the caboose. I’ll reach my hand out to you, and I’ll try to get you onto the train, and then maybe you’re in the caboose for a while. You know what I mean? And you crawl your way up, and you sort of say, okay, I’m now, at least I’m moving. And then you sort of work your way. I love that metaphor. I think about that a lot, because I think about my role, like am I the one that’s reaching out the hand? Am I the one that’s driving the train? Am I a passenger? I don’t know. There’s fun ways to kind of think about how change is happening, and how it’s speeding.

And I say to leaders, I know you want to continue to be relevant, and you want to continue to be effective, and you also want your own personal evolution. I believe that. We all crave being a better human. I do think that. I mean, I don’t know, that just could be… That’s what gets me up in the morning. But I think that if we can speak about all of this in the way we have during this conversation, as this transformational opportunity, I wonder if we could capture hearts and minds and imagination, and the potential in people, to feel seen and heard in a new way that you just said, it would be a relief, and I love that. What if this felt better? What if this is not you losing, which is how it’s traditionally looked at, but there’s this add that just, you cannot even expect what will happen?

And I guess that leap of faith is where people get stuck, and you and I and others say, you kind of have to trust me on this. This is the work you need to be doing. This is the direction you need to go, and there are so many unexpected things that are going to happen, and let me open that door and sort of hold the space for that to happen. It’s really an amazing process.

You have been, as impressed as I always am, with listening to Minal’s way of mapping and charting where we are right now, which is so powerful, Minal, and so, I always find your perspective so unique, so fresh, so motivating. Her new book, Equity, please pick it up. It came out September 7th, so we’re a week in, and how is this feeling for you? Are you exhausted, excited?

Minal Bopaiah: All of those things. Yeah, all of those things. We saw it in a bookstore, and that just about blew me right down. That was pretty special.

Jennifer Brown: That is. So, what is the URLs, so people can sign up and get on your mailing list, all the good stuff?

Minal Bopaiah: Yeah, you can find out about the book and sign up for our mailing list at TheEquityBook.com.

Jennifer Brown: Beautiful. Elegant. Simple. Powerful. Thank you, Minal, and we will track your progress, and I hope you get a lot of new fans out of this episode following you, but you are definitely one to watch, so thank you for joining me today.

Minal Bopaiah: Thank you, Jen. I feel the same way about you.

Jennifer Brown: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website, over at JenniferBrownSpeaks.com? You can also subscribe, so that you get notified every time a new episode goes life. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

Doug Foresta: You’ve been listening to the Will To Change: Uncovering True Stories Of Diversity and Inclusion, with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit JenniferBrownSpeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.