Tanya Odom, global consultant, writer, and diversity, equity and inclusion thought leader, joins the program to discuss the shifts that she is seeing in the conversations about diversity and inclusion. Tanya reveals the qualities that leaders need to cultivate in order to be effective and discusses the difference in generational attitudes and expectations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and beyond.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How Tanya got involved with DE&I work (2:00)
- The importance of bridge-building (6:00)
- The shifts that have occurred in conversations about diversity and inclusion (8:30)
- The need for employees to talk about events happening outside of the workplace (11:30)
- The conditions under which people can do their best work (16:00)
- An important aspect of belonging (23:00)
- How leaders can help reduce emotional labor for people from marginalized groups (30:00)
- The importance of vulnerability and humility for leaders (32:00)
- The expectations that the emerging workforce has about DE&I issues (40:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Tanya, welcome to The Will to Change.
TANYA ODOM: Thank you, Jen. Thanks for inviting me. I’m glad to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I’m glad to bring your story to our audience. You and I first met way back when, working in fashion of all places. We were at Tommy Hilfiger. Remember?
TANYA ODOM: I do remember. I do remember.
JENNIFER BROWN: My goodness. I think you were aligned with the philanthropy arm of the business, and then I was in the HR team, but we made this instant connection, I think, and saw each other for different things that would subsequently unfold in the intervening years.
Since then, you have been teaching and training in something like 40 different countries. You speak for a living, just like I do, and we literally live and breathe this work every day. So, I just can’t wait for this conversation, because I know you have a lot to share with our audience about the kinds of dynamics that you’re seeing and what you see for the future. So, we’ll get to that in a moment.
But first we always start with our diversity stories. Tell us a little bit about … There are probably many moments for you that led you to this work, but what would you share as those sort of formative moments and experiences, a-ha moments, crises of the soul? I know I’ve had those. How did the topic of diversity sort of grab you and not let you go?
TANYA ODOM: Well, that’s great. Yeah. I’ve had many crises of the soul and spirit. I don’t know if it connected to this work or what pushed me here. I’ve said this to you, but I think this is always a hard question for me, because diversity has always been an intrinsic part of my life, being biracial, growing up in a multiracial family, having a sister with a disability. As I know we’ll talk about in a little bit, for the first seven years of my life, growing up in a very unique situation where I grew up around 50 people, different types of people of different types of backgrounds. So, I don’t know that there was always one moment there.
I think the pivotal moment for me in terms of when I saw that all of this passion and the interest about issues of equity, around issues of access, around issues of hearing people’s voices and supporting people’s voices, I was in college and doing this work in different ways on a college campus. The dean at the time, who … I was very active on the college campus. I went to Vassar College. I’m a huge Vassar cheerleader. I was active in many different ways, in clubs, in doing fieldwork, doing service, in leadership positions. I would go into his office, and we would talk about diversity on campus and would talk about what needed to change.
At one point, he said to me my senior year … He said, “You need to get paid for that mouth.” This is funny, because it’s been this quote now that’s quoted everywhere, and it was said … He wasn’t being sort of … When I say it, it could come of sounding a little flippant, and it wasn’t. Our relationship was that we would banter back and forth, and it was so interesting, many, many years later, we got to in fact work together both here and abroad doing diversity work. But he was at that point connected to a civil rights organization, and he recommended me to them. Then I went through there training the trainer, and then it all sort of, I believe, snowballed forward.
I do believe in serendipity, so I think there were so many other factors that enabled me to get to be where I am, but in terms of saying this could be a career, it was definitely Ray Parker at Vassar College who was what we would call now a sponsor, because he was showing me something that I hadn’t thought about or seen. So, I always thank him publicly when I can. And I tell students on college campuses that this was exactly how I learned about this as a career.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, those people are so priceless. I always envision it as holding a vision for you that you don’t even see yet yourself-
TANYA ODOM: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: … and sort of saying, “Hey, by the way, you could be this, and I see you doing that.” Just that seed that is planted, whether we mean to or not, we start to foster that seed I think.
TANYA ODOM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it’s so wonderful. So, go back. Your parents were really unique people in the community, and I want you to go back to those first seven years of your life. Tell us about what kind of environment you grew up in and what your experience was of loving care and what community means and also activism and what that means in community from your very early days.
TANYA ODOM: Yeah, so, my parents … Again, my dad is African American. My mom is white American, Irish American. It’s interesting, having lost my dad a year and a half ago, I’ve been saying this publicly, but I keep saying the tense of is black versus was black. I keep saying, “No, no, he’s still black in Heaven,” so it is that he is black, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
TANYA ODOM: That in itself was unique, right? But they both were interested in issues of social service and advocacy, and they started a program … Literally got grant-funding for a program which was around drug rehabilitation. It was a very unique model at the time. It was a therapeutic drug community. We lived in an old, converted convent in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We had our own floor, but many of our meals were sort of shared with the other residents of the house. It was our house, even though it was this huge convent.
At the top floor, we would eat meals at any given point with 30, 40 people, and those are really strong memories of my childhood as are going to meetings, community meetings where there were tons of different types of people, as are us going on trips where there were tons of different types of people. I don’t think that I realized how some of … I mean, I knew it was important. I knew it impacted me. I knew that. My mom used to say really early on how there weren’t bad people; there were just people who did bad things. That’s a message that she, as a sort of social worker for decades, instilled in us. I hear that all the time when I think about some of the work that we do.
But I think, more recently for me, the importance of community has really been something that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and what happens when we feel like our community is divided, whether that be our neighborhood, our city, state, country, world, because I did grow up in communities for the first seven years, and I didn’t know anything but that. I didn’t know anything but tons of people.
Even when people would do things wrong, quote/unquote, there was a process by which someone would be asked to go sit on a stool and read the rules of the house. Again, the way this program worked is not done anymore, but I used to go up to people and say, “What happened?” Literally now as an adult, people will come up to me and say, “That was really hard to try to explain to a five-year-old.” But my ability to talk to different people, to be a bridge-builder, to be in community with people, and also to just see people that others have deemed as outsiders or other started really, really young. That I know is part of who I am and what I do now.
JENNIFER BROWN: You used bridge-builder, which I think about so much. I feel the same. It’s hard work. It’s gratifying work. It’s confusing work sometimes, because we are often thrust into these conversations where bridges need to be built and there are certain voices that aren’t being heard. Then perhaps, on the other side of the equation, there are voices who feel either defensive or resistant, I think, to seeing and hearing and listening and sort of in denial of how change is happening all around us. So, you coming from these different worlds, I’m sure these seeds of being able to listen neutrally and love across all the difference from those very early ages allows you to really walk into rooms and hold the space so that people can become less polarized.
But I know what you mean, and I would love to hear what you think has changed recently in the conversation around diversity and inclusion, as somebody that is in so many classrooms and is speaking to so many leaders all over the world, not just the US. Where are we now that we weren’t even a year or two ago? I mean, have we really … Or maybe, where do you put the marker in terms of has there been a big shift, and what accounted for that shift? How are you responding to that in your teaching?
TANYA ODOM: It’s a great question. I think you and I have talked about this, and I know you’ve spoken about this. I think the one thing I would add in the bridge-builder space is also, oftentimes, using our voice and whatever privilege, power, influence, access we have to also share the voices of others, share the opinions of others, share the blind spots that some people might see. So, that would be the one thing too that I think is important to the bridge-building role that we have in the work that we do.
I think the last couple of years … And I just want to say that I say this all the time. I think sometimes we myopically think that, when I talk about the last couple of years, that we’re talking specifically about the change in administration in the United States. I actually am not talking about that. When I was thinking about this podcast, I was thinking about when did I notice the shift, in terms of my work, in terms of some of the stretch that I feel and stress sometimes in this work. I have to say what keeps coming back to me is, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, and after the decision about his killing, I remember literally being in my apartment and just crying. Seriously. Having this breakdown of like, “Wait a second. This isn’t supposed to happen. That’s not fair.” And knowing that you and I do work and that people experience unfairness, and this was unfairness at a very large level.
So, the reason I bring that up is because my work has changed particularly around race but in general around different groups of people and bringing groups of people together with things like the Trayvon Martin decision, with things like the killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the Dallas police officers, with some of the positions around the separation of children at the border, with the Brexit decision. I mean, all of these things have had a direct impact for me at least with the Me Too movement on how some of these conversations are being had in classrooms. I think you and I talked about this on the pre-call.
That has meant for me … There’s more pain than I’ve seen before. I think our skills around, one, creating a safe space, allowing all voices to be heard and making sure people realize that we’re really listening, has just been something that I’ve really seen change, that it’s not … For me at least. I moved away from doing traditional diversity and inclusion in front-of-the-room training several years ago, because I felt like there are more people who can do that work. After over two decades, my skills were better utilized in terms of strategy, in terms of leadership sessions, in terms of doing some of these courageous conversations or challenging conversations.
What I’m seeing, and I think a lot of us are seeing this, is, one, a need for people to talk about some of the issues that are happening outside of the workplace. I think we’ve seen this sort of research from Weber Shandwick and the trust barometer research from Edelman saying that, in fact, there’s an expectation that leaders will address some of these issues. So, I’m seeing that. I think where I’m sometimes brought in, and I’m sure you’re brought in and some of are colleagues are brought in, are when people are looking for someone who can hold that space, who’s a person who’s okay with conflict.
I have to say, and we talked about this on the call, I’m a person who understands the systemic nature of these things, that it’s not just one incident, but actually oftentimes people who have lived experiences of exclusion are having this incident connect to many, many others both in their personal life and potentially in the workplace.
So, I’m seeing more need for this space. I’m seeing people expecting leaders to speak up more about these issues. Definitely polarization, I’m definitely seeing. There was some recent research from Deloitte, I think it was, about how many people believe they’re an ally–it was called Everyday Biases–but that there often isn’t action attached to it. That has just stayed with me, because that’s what many practitioners we’ve been talking about that how do we help people get away from this sort of frozen state of “It’s overwhelming, it’s really difficult, I don’t know what to do” to “Here, let me be an ally. Here are some specific things we can do.” I know you talk about the ally continuum and others talk about that, and I still think we have work to do there really around creating a little bit more … A more robust dialogue about what actions people can take and what are the things that people can do to make it better for others.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tanya, everything you just said is … I agree. I’m seeing a lot of the shift in … First of all, there is some anger and some truth being told that I don’t think we’ve gotten to, that we’re now getting to. You know? We’re starting to dig deeper. There is a conversation and data that you just mentioned, some great resources. It’s a quantifiable part of employee engagement, if you will, to be able to bring your full self to work.
When your community is experiencing angst because of something that’s going on outside of the four walls of the workplace, and then you’re expected to come into work and kind of sanitize all of that, it’s heartbreaking that any of us, that our colleagues sitting next to us, would feel that that’s something that they need to do because it doesn’t have a place in the workplace.
So, I love this research that’s starting to be really looked at to say, when we say bring your full self to work, are we really meaning that the full person, and everything that may be going on for their community, is welcome here, it won’t be silenced here, it’s something that we will be comfortable speaking about? Because workplaces are microcosms of society, you know? In order to do our best work, we sort of need to feel, I think, present and bring our life experience but not be distracted or hiding something, because that takes energy away from our productivity, our presence, our colleagueship, et cetera.
It’s similar, I think, to the Pulse Nightclub shooting. I was very interested to watch which companies said what, which companies remained silent, which said, “You know, I feel like if we say something about that, then we need to say something about all of these other things, and so therefore we’re just not going to say anything.” I know what your response would have been to that, which is mine, which is that’s not an answer. Silence is a message as well that somebody doesn’t matter, that their experience doesn’t matter, and that we don’t care who you are outside of this sort of workplace and this economic arrangement that we have.
Those days are … They’re gone, I think. But companies are in major denial about how to actually do that, and leaders in particular. Like you just said, you work a lot of with strategic conversations. You’ve probably been privy to a lot of angst around what do we way, and when do we say it, and how do we make diversity something we talk about all the time, and be inclusive of all the things that are going on in this very diverse world of employees that we work with every day and what’s happening in the outside world.
So, I wonder if you have any stories or best practices to say here’s the barometer I give them, or here is some language that I encourage them to use, so that their employees don’t feel that their life experience is being ignored on a Monday morning.
TANYA ODOM: Yeah. You said so many important things. So, let me … You talked about the Pulse Nightclub shooting, and I think, for those who are listening in the US, this is an incredibly important sort of chronological … The chronology of Pulse Nightclub shooting, and then literally months later, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police officers, and I am still living with, meaning I spoke at a conference recently and someone brought this up that many companies spoke about Pulse Nightclub shooting but didn’t speak out to that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, exactly.
TANYA ODOM: So, then you have all this notion of like, are we sort of taking these historically marginalized groups of the LGTBQ+ group and then people of color, particularly men of color, and then how are we … Who are we speaking for?
I think what happened with me was, and I’m sure with you, that I was being asked to craft communications where I know these companies in particular … By the way, I think this is important, because you and I talked about this in the prep call. There is and was a distinction between the way some private sector corporations handled some of these conversations, communications, dialogues, and the way oftentimes not for profit NGOs handle this. I think what ended up happening is people who were paying crisis communicators lots and lots of money realized that their crisis communicators didn’t know what to say-
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
TANYA ODOM: … and realized that they didn’t have the language of diversity and inclusion. This is a story that I sometimes tell, but that literally at one point when people were saying to me, “What should I say? What should I not say?”, I got a message from NYPD into my email box, because I’m involved in my community and I was on the community board. So, I’m on the list, and I get their emails. It was like this very simple message, which, if you go back and find it in sort of the archives, it said something like, “We need to come together.” Right? I’m just paraphrasing, but that was the bottom line.
I found myself sending this New York Police Department statement to CEOs and chief diversity officers are the United States just thinking it literally comes down to basic, in my world, in my framing, compassion and emotional intelligence and to think about what you just said, that it really is not easy for someone to have emotions based on what’s happening in the outside world to come into work and think that that’s not going to impact them.
I don’t think it’s been worked out yet. I’ve seen protocols shared with me where communications have said, “This is how we’re going to handle these things,” and the chief diversity officer was left out of sort of the path or flow of what was going to happen. I’ve seen them say, “Will we respond when it’s in the US, versus will we respond when there’s something that happens in Paris or Abu Dhabi?” There are all of these questions, which I think are really valid. I don’t know that people have had that language enough or had those conversations enough.
I will say … You talked about statements. Just interacting with some CEOs, I think there are some CEOs who had employees internally say to them, and this I know from two clients I had been working with at the time, “Are we going to talk about this in the town hall?” Are we going to sort of, in my words, put the agenda on pause because we’re human beings and we have human emotions and we are feeling something right now?
The one thing I say about authentic self, about bring your whole self to work and authentic self … I’ve heard this language being used much more now, this authentic self and part of ourself. I’m not sure we’ve ever going … I don’t know. And this isn’t a cynical part. This is just I’m not sure that bringing my whole self to work is my goal or that that can happen with so much diversity and so much intersectionality that we don’t always acknowledge. I do think though creating spaces where I feel that I could bring aspects of my identity, who I am, my story, my lived and life experience, and not feel like I’m going to be judged or valued or devalued because of that.
I think what happened around some of these incidents … And, by the way, I still think it’s happening. There are stories of women going to the women’s march, and what people saw on social media, and people being concerned because of different political ideologies. I think what’s happened is we’ve really … We’re really being challenged to look at people as more than just the person that sits next to us or the person in the office.
What’s interesting to me is, in the belonging research, that’s one of the pieces that comes out that really touches people, which is having people know me beyond my role. If you’re knowing me, then you’re knowing that I may have a child who I’m worried about coming home from school, or I may be a person who has, and you and I talked about this, but elder care issues or childcare challenges. That’s part of who I am. It’s not something that should be hidden but actually should be a conversation, because, to what you just said, it does impact me wanting to be here, me wanting to work, me wanting to be a team player, be creative, and give my all to where I work.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I think what you’re talking about is normalizing and making it more comfortable and more overt to speak about things, because I think that’s the first step to normalization. Then it can be around building policies and protections. But it requires a lot of courage on the part of a leader who is the first to try to normalize something. I think about fathers and normalizing the taking of parental leave. My friend calls it leaving loudly. When you leave the office, and you’re not going to make up a lie and say you have a conference call. You actually say, “No, I’m leaving. I’m taking time. This is my parenting role. And yes, I’m a man, and I’m doing this.” So, it’s a big example, I think.
It starts to shift, particularly when people do this that have a level of power or privilege. To do this in an overt and public way … It makes it safe for a lot of other people to see that behavior and then hopefully emulate it. Then it kind of … The normalization can happen. So, the courage really needs to start amongst some people who are pretty comfortable, honestly. I feel like sometimes the ask you and I make is “Hey, can you be uncomfortable? We need you to lead. We need you to do something more publicly that’s going to put you out of your comfort zone.”
It may mean you’re a white male CEO, and you’re talking about the police violence. You need to learn about what happened, even though maybe it didn’t affect your community, but it did affect your community. It affected your employees. Because it’s affecting them, it’s affecting you. So, let’s talk about … And it’s, by the way, affecting your customers. You talk about customers wanting brands to address some of these things, to say, “Well, where do you stand? If I’m going to spend money with you, I want to know where you stand on these things.” More and more, we’re going to see that kind of accountability and transparency between the world of customers and the brands and companies that sell to those customers.
So, yeah, it’s really … I try to encourage the folks to step out, do something, learn about what’s actually happening that may not affect them from an identity perspective, and then learn how to authentically communicate, and why it’s important to communicate, on behalf of an organization, because this is the definition of leadership honestly. It should be uncomfortable. That’s why some people get the big bucks.
TANYA ODOM: Right. It you truly are aware of systemic issues and the history of some of the ways that people have been marginalized, then you realize we can’t leave it up to the people who have been carrying the toll, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
TANYA ODOM: Whether it’s carrying the load, whether we call it the additional tax or whether we call it the invisible labor, which is, on the university campus, that’s how they define it.
It’s sort of also about really equalizing things, because we can’t keep saying to people, “It’s your job to talk about this, to do this.” I think you said something that I really believe, which is that that is pretty clear that we live in pretty segregated worlds, that we live in worlds where, even in the places like New York City and coastal cities or cities that really celebrate diversity and embrace the diversity where we are, but we still haven’t sort of gotten to a place in our societies where we’re constantly mixing with different people.
I think, with the advent of social media, we’re seeing that. We’re seeing that I can see a story within communities of color on Twitter that’s really literally like most people on my Twitter feed of a certain background, of a certain group, with a certain interest are talking about something. Then I see sort of a whole bunch of people in another part of my stream that aren’t talking about it at all. I agree with you completely that these are members of our community.
It’s interesting when you hear people say “I handed my CEO this book or this blog post to let them know that this is what people are talking about” … Those stories are always intriguing to me. You know, the CEO that’s open to reading that book that they didn’t know existed or to hearing about something that they hadn’t thought about before.
One of the stories after the election that happened … We got a call from a company, and basically the bottom line was the CEO literally said they didn’t know how divided the country was and how divided society was. I think people internally were just startled, because it’s not like this started right now. It didn’t start with one election, or it didn’t start four years ago. It was this very strong awakening, I think, for the CEO but also for the company culture in terms of how connected leadership can be to what’s going on.
JENNIFER BROWN: And disconnected it has been, right?
TANYA ODOM: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know for me a big wake up moment was the women’s march and learning that women of color … And this was in 2017, I believe. That women of color, many, didn’t feel comfortable being at the march. That’s the kind of exposure that some of us need to have, and we need to be told, but then we need to take the mantle and educate ourselves about who … In these places where we might be comfortable, who is not feeling comfortable and taking ownership of that and learning and apprenticing yourself to a cultural reality that isn’t yours, and then becoming and finding your voice alongside that community from wherever you find yourself. Alongside, behind, underneath, wherever.
The important thing is to lend the voice in the right way once you’ve done your homework and you’ve really learned, and I think … I agree with you. Twitter is an amazing place to see the disconnect between our cultures, because, you’re right, you can see one community is freaking out about something. You can jump into the feed and see it and not know anything about it. So, as a leader, to me, that would … A leader of a diverse employee base. I would come into the office and say to myself, “That is a microcosm of what’s being felt here in this company, and what am I going to do about it?”
So, the questions become, like you said, who writes my communication about it? Sometimes you and I have to write communications, I know, for people who really haven’t done the work themselves. We have to kind of sail in and save the day and give them all the right language and almost in a way sort of let them borrow our empathy. It feels really kind of bad. I mean, on one hand, you’re glad that they want to do something. On the other hand, you wish they had been organically able to speak to something from a place of knowledge, having …
I always tell leaders prepare for the crisis before it’s a crisis. Start to learn about diversity before you’re in a position where you are called on to rise to the occasion in an authentic way. And you don’t want to lean on anybody too much. You don’t want to cause that emotional labor you were talking about. I think that’s the definition of true allyship versus paper allies, to say, “Hey, I do know something about this. I am ready to write about this. I just need some tweaks here and there, but I can get it started because I know that this is a thing. This isn’t the first time that I’m being exposed to the fact that it’s a thing.” You know?
But sometimes … I don’t know if you’ve heard this … Sorry I’m rambling. I have so many thoughts, but there’s so many communities and identities to learn about that it can feel like an overwhelming amount of knowledge, and I understand that. I hear that a lot. When you haven’t really paid attention to anybody’s culture but your own for your whole life, well, that’s the definition of privilege, number one. But then how do we help leaders learn enough about enough communities of identity that aren’t theirs that they can have a degree of confidence and not cause too much emotional labor on others? So, what is your solve for that? Where do leaders start that are well-meaning but sort of feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount that they need to learn?
TANYA ODOM: Yeah. Well, I think you said in a lot ways. Well, a couple of things come to mind. Two words popped into my mind. One is vulnerability. The other is humility. I walk in the world knowing that I don’t know a lot. I think sometimes we expect leaders, or there’s an expectation that leaders will have the answers. But if we acknowledge that a lot of us are in positions of privilege and grew up, work, socialize, worship, with many people like us, which is what we tend to see, then we have to acknowledge that there are going to be some blind spots. There are some things I didn’t know.
I think when you said sort of the solve, part of it … Although we’re not going to ask the people to do the full lifting and only the lifting, because I do believe in self-directed learning. I do believe in taking ownership for doing as much of my learning as possible. But I think we have to … And, not but. I think we have to create an environment where people can give us that feedback, where people can say, like some of these employees did to the CEO when they were going to have a town hall, “Are we going to put this on the agenda? Because it’s important.” And the CEO saying, “Oh, okay. I didn’t think about that.” Or that AT&T CEO who talked about when he was talking to a friend about race and hadn’t had that conversation, and he was vulnerable. The video went viral and him talking about-
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I love that video.
TANYA ODOM: It’s amazing. But I think there was a level of vulnerability. Like, “Wait a second. I didn’t know this.” I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown, and the more I listen to her and the more I listen to her within the context of leadership, that is going to be … When we talk about what’s next or what are some of the skills or solves, it is this combination of vulnerability, humility, and the last one is, for me, curiosity.
I love some of the research on curiosity that’s coming out and how what we do to children in terms of … We literally sometimes take away some of their curiosity, because … You know, I remember one of my first experiences in corporate America where … This is the humility conversation, but … Ever since I was little, I’m a curious person. I ask questions. I’m always sort of learning different things. I think that’s part of my work.
But I remember being with a client early on in my corporate career. My backgrounds in not for profit, very different. I remember somebody asked me something. A client asked me something in a session, and I said, “I don’t know.” Which to me it’s just honest. I don’t know. I’m not going to make it up. I will never forget. Before I even got back to the office, senior person in the-
JENNIFER BROWN: You had a voicemail.
TANYA ODOM: They actually called the senior consultant, my supervisor, my boss at the time, to tell them that I had said that I didn’t know. It was this really … Those are the types of things we do that sort of, I think, create this sense that having the answers, even if they’re not accurate or even if they’re not complete or even if they’re not full or cross-culturally competent, that we’re just going to say things. That’s how we inculcate people with that message, if you think you have to have the answers, versus “I’m not sure about that. I can get back to you,” which I’m sure is something I might have said or added. But to expect us all to … You’re right. Know all of these things, no. But to expect us to be able to provide an environment when people realize that I am open to feedback and you can help me understand or learn that, that’s completely different.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s why I love your approach. We share this philosophical attitude towards … Well, it’s the bridge, right? I’m not sure the person on the bridge always knows how folks are going to get across or understands how to pass a message from one side to the other. It’s sort of this moving target, and yet I think you and I we really enjoy the process of learning how might I do this. That’s such a beautiful question. How might I be of service in this moment with this disconnection or this isolation or this anger one side, frustration on the other?
You’ve worked at many colleges and universities. You were telling me in the classroom you work with a lot of young people. There is so much bubbling up from this generation that’s going to be really interesting, as Generation Z kind of is starting to emerge into the workplace and their presumption around language and inclusivity and, sort of, values, generational values, if we can say that those exist.
You’re listening to that on one side, and then you’re doing this like corporate work. You must feel like you’re having this 3.0 conversation about identity and inclusivity and language and everything, and then you’re the translator in a way, letting business leaders know what’s coming. Because there’s like a tsunami of this that’s coming. So, for all of our beloved leaders who are in denial that this is a phase or “Oh, whatever, this diversity thing. Whatever. I’ll check the box.” No. It is at your doorstep. Right?
So, can you share a window into the kinds of things you’re hearing from that generation in the classroom, the questions they’re asking, the way they see this whole topic? Do you get concerned or excited or maybe a little bit of both about their entrance into the workplace?
TANYA ODOM: So, a couple of things. One, I want to say in the vein of humility. I think you and I have both done a lot of generational work. Generations in the workplace, cross-generational dialogue. I have to say, several years ago, I kind of felt like, you know what, this just doesn’t feel like it’s as weighty as I would want. I literally remember deciding not to do as many of those conversations. I would always include generational diversity as an aspect of diversity that I spoke about and obviously include it from an intersectionality perspective, but I remember because we weren’t feeling what you’re calling this tsunami, this real wave, and this push. I wasn’t feeling it then.
Now, talk about saying, okay. Now I see the research in action, because I’m like seeing it versus just you and I being the, quote, subject matter experts about it. I think that … Everything from the expectation around an awareness of pronouns and pronouns that people would like to have used and to be asked about that. Gender neutral bathrooms. Expectations of racial literacy. Discussions and … I mean, literally a student said to me recently, in a session.. said, “You know, I think we do really well with diversity but maybe not inclusion.” I said, “Well, tell me more,” and they literally just said what you said a couple of minutes ago. They said, “We want people to be aware of who’s in the room and who’s not, who’s speaking and who’s not.” I mean, they’re literally talking about inclusive leadership research.
This is what we’re sort of teaching people who are much, much, much older. So, there’s just a push. I also think, and we spoke about this, there’s some frustration sometimes that they might have gone to a university or college where there was a tremendous amount of dialogue, social activism, awareness about identity, awareness about intersectionality, and then they’re in a company and they don’t hear that dialogue, or they hear that there’s a diversity and inclusion session and they’re sort of saying, “Okay, but what are we covering there?
JENNIFER BROWN: “I could teach that,” they’re probably thinking.
TANYA ODOM: Right. How is this going to go? What’s not being talked about? Are we going to address the issue of history? It is a 3.0 conversation. However, there’s a real rub, I think, that we’re going to continue to see, particularly because of the current social/political climate as well that many young people are saying, and many young people in the workforce are saying, “We really haven’t seen this topic of diversity and inclusion, equity, belonging move forward enough that we think we need to maybe do something different and do this in a different way.” I think that is something I’m seeing. Again, I admit to being wrong. I did the work, but I was just sort of not seeing the power at that point. And now it’s here in front of us, and it’s very, very salient.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think we didn’t understand perhaps the … Because you and I grew up maybe in the diversity and inclusion realm. Generational differences was … It felt very superficial, and it was something that people could, I think, joke about a bit, right? It was kind of a safe stereotype. We say ageism is the last acceptable ism. So, we could laugh about it and you could look at it as a gateway into the deeper conversations that needed to be had. But it also could kind of be viewed as letting certain people off the hook from the conversations that really needed to be had.
I think what you’re saying is we’re starting to have the conversations that need to be had, but I wonder whether corporate is really ready, because this whole … The equity conversation seems to be moving along in a very structured, accountable way in nonprofits. I know you work with like museums and all sorts of interesting non-corporate environments where they’re very much holding themselves and their own feet to the fire. Then I don’t see that lens being applied in corporate. I wonder, is it just the difference between kind of the nonprofit world, the for profit world? What accounts for that, and why …
In corporate America, you’d think, with customers being as diverse as they are and who owns the power of the purse and the level of transparency with products and accountability, that companies would also be kind of keeping pace, but I definitely don’t think they are. So, why do you think that is? Is it just a matter of time before the conversations that are being had in philanthropy, in the arts world, in that academia versus corporate? Is corporate just falling behind? And I think, how can you get people in corporate to talk about these kinds of things? Because I feel like even bringing up diversity and inclusion causes a certain level of resistance, eyes glazing over, rolling of eyes.
TANYA ODOM: Right. All of it.
JENNIFER BROWN: The body language. All of that.
TANYA ODOM: Yeah. I was thinking about this a lot actually today in preparation for this podcast and our conversation. I think that, when you are working in social service, when you are working in communities, when you’re working a museum where you’re working with community to engage community, when you’re working in the middle of a community, I think in many ways we have created some corporate cultures and structures that are very separated and apart. So, there may be people who work on the philanthropy end or maybe people work in diversity. There may be someone who’s dealing with partnerships. But in general, in mass, we don’t have people connected to some of these issues. Thus, you have these very different levels of awareness.
I remember after Katrina, I went down to New Orleans to do some work with youth, with Mal King, who’s an incredible civil rights leader and mentor and teacher and friend. I remember coming back to New York and having a meeting actually downtown, financial services, and walking in … Having to put on a suit, having just been in New Orleans where we were just literally like casual. I remember walking through these buildings in almost a state of like “You must be kidding me.” I just was working with young people who’ve been traumatized, who’ve lost people. I’ve worked with a city that’s been decimated, and here I come to New York, and it wasn’t being discussed. It was so distant and so far and apart.
I remember those moments in my life where I do have these sort of feet in many and multiple industries, sectors, worlds, and they’re very different in terms of the awareness of some of these issues. I think corporations can do a better job. I recently worked on a project where they were looking to see how in fact the philanthropic arms of companies can make sure they’re also embedding diversity and inclusion in that work and in the framing of that work, which is really important as well, because otherwise there could be real power dynamics and privilege dynamics that work out. So, I think that we need to sort of do a better job of really making sure we’re hearing the people that work internally, if we’re talking about corporations and private sector, because they’re involved in community. They’re part of communities.
I remember that article from years ago, Leadership in Your Midst, where they talked about women and people of color outside of the workplace doing things in their churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, or leading afterschool programs… Doing all these things. But yet their skillsets weren’t seen in the same way. Well, I think of the same thing when I look at some of these people who were involved in volunteering, doing after-work things, things on the weekend, meetups, that I’m not so sure that I can generalize and say not everyone’s aware. There are people, but I don’t know that they’re always seen as a pathway into the workplace where they can share some of that information, share what they’re hearing and learning, share what might be of importance to leadership. I think there’s sometimes a bit of a disconnect.
I think what we’re seeing from young people … And, again, not all young people, because I think, to your point, it’s kind of why I became a little concerned about the generational work was that, as a Gen X-er who people often identify as having a lot of boomer traits, it was sort of like this … It became jokey, right? It became this thing of like, “Well, you act like a millennial,” and it just didn’t feel like it was weighty enough. I think now we’re seeing it’s not just … Is what a lot of people say. It’s not just the expectations of the work. It’s the expectations of the workplace. It’s the expectations of the culture. It’s the expectations of leadership. It’s the expectations of learning. I think those are all being challenged right now, and I think in a good way. I think it’s helpful dialogue for us to have.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is. I always say I think this is the conversation I think a lot of us secretly wanted to have. Right? But we just … We couldn’t. We didn’t have the generational might. We didn’t have the voice. We didn’t have the confidence that we would be heard and listened to or perhaps the expectation that we will be heard and listened to. So, I think it’s a great message to say … Far from using words like entitled to put this generation in a box, let’s actually listen, because this is the future. These are the clues that we’re going to need to evolve our organizations and our own leadership in order to resonate with current and future talent. So, they are messengers from the future honestly. If we look at it that way, then perhaps we lessen some of the resistance that I feel like you and I spend a lot of energy navigating and holding the bridge for, so to speak.
Tanya, we are out of time, but this … I mean, gosh, we could talk forever. I just love what we spoke about today, and I think it’s all about leadership and accountability and ensuring that things are talked about that we’ve been silent about in the past and acknowledging everything that’s going on for folks and acknowledging that humanity. I love the vulnerability, curiosity, and humility are three competencies you talked about for inclusive leadership. I couldn’t agree more. In many ways, they’re things that we need to return to, particularly if we are executive leaders, because those things are not in the typical executive leader skillset. Maybe they are, or maybe we don’t talk about them. So, I think we’ve made a big case today for approaching our leadership in the way we show up for ourselves and others with those in mind.
Let our audience know. Where can we find and follow your work? I know you’re big on Twitter. You and I go back and forth all the time. So, where can people get in touch with you and listen to you and learn from you?
TANYA ODOM: Yeah, thank you for that. Definitely @TMOdom on Twitter. LinkedIn, I post but not as much as I use Twitter. I have a professional Facebook page where I tend to post a lot, particularly after I … Either before or after I’ve done a session, just some of the resources that I’ve used for that. Website is in process. It’s up but not where we want it to be totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: Woo! Exciting.
TANYA ODOM: You know what that’s like.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I do.
TANYA ODOM: The wonderful marketer … I’ve always told Jen Brown this, her whole entire career. I’m like, “Yeah, I really don’t want a website,” and you’ve been so gracious all the time like, “Well, maybe …” So, finally we’re doing that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Good. I’m glad.
TANYA ODOM: So, all of those different ways. It’s really easy to find me. So, thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome. By the way the book that Tanya is mentioned in is called Disrupters by Dr. Patti Fletcher. So, there’s a chapter about Tanya’s experience but all these other amazing stories as well. Please pick that up and support the telling of all of our stories. Thank you so much, Tanya. I appreciate it.
TANYA ODOM: Thank you, Jen. Thanks so much.
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