On Power and Privilege with Jennifer: Erin Weed Joins the Will to Change

Jennifer Brown | |

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Speaker and strategist Erin Weed does a takeover of the podcast and interviews Jennifer Brown on a variety of topics, including Jennifer’s new book “Beyond Diversity,” the importance of self-care, and the need for allyship. Jennifer also reveals what has shifted in her work over the years, the increasing awareness of various diversity dimensions at work, and shares her thoughts about the future of DEI work.

To learn more about Erin and her work visit:  https://www.erinweed.com

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

JENNIFER BROWN: When I hear power, I think I want to redefine it. I want to expand it. I want to think about different kinds of power. I want to rebalance the power, but I want those with power to be benevolent, with it, like imagine having people’s well being at the heart of our institutions, and having the source of our power be from that intent and impact. And I think that it also kind of resonated to me, because I can stand on a stage and I think show things in a certain way that feels very powerful to me but leaves people feeling empowered.

ERIN WEED: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: And we can do this together. And this is the energy, the exchange, that I always feel, which is, “Let’s revisit this. Let’s redefine this. I’m sharing any power I have with you, and I see your power.”

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, and you’re about to hear a very special episode of The Will to Change. Speaker and consultant Erin Weed does a takeover of the podcast to interview Jennifer on a variety of topics, including Jennifer’s new book, Beyond Diversity, the exploration of power, the importance of allyship, the importance of self care, and Jennifer shares her thoughts about the future of DEI work. All this and more, and now on to the conversation.

ERIN WEED: Okay. Hi everybody. I’m Erin Weed, not Jennifer Brown, and today I am taking over her podcast. Is that what’s happening here?

JENNIFER BROWN: It is what is happening. I am handing the reins over to you. Please take them.

ERIN WEED: Okay. So as many of you know, Jennifer has a new book out, and I just offered to have a conversation with her, a very real conversation. For those of you who don’t know me, I specialize in helping people to unearth their purpose and reveal a message that matters. And I am the creator of a method called The Dig, where we get into your story, we find the truth, so that we can share it and make the world hopefully a better place by what we know, believe, and have experienced.

And I had the great honor of working with Jennifer many years ago now, and we continue to work together in all sorts of different capacities and be each other’s cheerleaders, and I just want to give my full recommendation to all of Jennifer’s work and especially her new book. So maybe we can kick off, Jennifer, by you telling us about your new book.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, thank you, Erin. And yes, I want to circle back to something about The Dig, but yes, the new book is called Beyond Diversity. I hope everybody has checked it out. It’s co-authored, my first co-authoring adventure, with Rohit Bhargava. Some of you’ve heard our last episode with Rohit. Actually, it was a couple episodes ago, where Doug actually, our producer, interviewed us and talked to us about what we learned, how we were transformed in the writing of it, all the people that contributed to it, which was so many voices, and what good we hope the book does in the world.

And yeah, it was very refreshing for me as a project, because I focus, Erin, as you know, so tightly on workplace and leadership, and this book was about so many different domains that I got to wrap my head around and my heart around and think about, “How can I give different and new examples?” Like, “How can I continue to make things interesting?” and new learnings for me, because sometimes those of us in this work feel like we’re repeating ourselves because the message is not getting through as quickly as we would hope. As you know, and so we, as practitioners and advocates, need to be refreshed. Fatigue is real, and the frustration of just feeling, “I’ve said this before. Is it Groundhog Day?” Like, “I’m giving another talk, and I’m getting the same questions in chat.”

And it’s a lot. So I think it was cool to tackle something through different lenses and feel that, gosh, if this book can get into somebody’s hands who knows nothing about this thing called DEI, I think that’s the audience I really, really hope picks it up.

ERIN WEED: Yeah. I hope they do, too. And you know, I want to speak just to the general feeling of this Groundhog Day that you named, because I’ve worked with a lot of people in your profession, and it seems like that is a common theme, and one of the things that I’ve been noticing is just exhaustion, of how many times do you have to relive the same day or say the same speech. And like, just as we were about to hop on this podcast, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse came through, and I’m curious. How is that for you, for someone who works in the DEI space, and it just keeps happening, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. And we predicted it. Those of us who think about these things a lot, we kind of knew this would happen. And that’s the sadness, that’s that deep, I think hopelessness about our system being so unwilling to look at itself, and people that look like you and me, Erin, unwilling to look at ourselves, unwilling to look at our complicit role in at least not challenging this, right? And perpetuating it, which is a strong word, but when we don’t challenge something, we perpetuate it.

ERIN WEED: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: So let’s be real. And so yeah, my heart just… It broke again, reading the news, and it broke for my black and brown colleagues, loved ones, family members in particular. And I think the stirring of our heart as aspiring allies, right? It’s so important to share what that feels like. You know, I had one person in a talk we were giving say… to their senior leaders, this woman said. It was during all the stop Asian hate conversation that was at a fever pitch at the time. And she said, “I want to feel your outrage. I want to hear. I want to feel how upset and disturbed you are and how horrified you are. I don’t want your checks written to different community organizations, and I don’t want you to talk about how much money you’ve given.” Like, “I want to know how this lands for you.” And I think that that is a piece of solidarity. But it’s not created, it’s not manufactured, it’s real for people like me and you, is the horror.

And I think we have to move to action. I mean, the way I sort of get through fatigue is I try to think like, “What do I have access to right now that I can do? That I can share? That I can say?” “How can I be real in this moment?” And so, for example, when this came down for us, we’re sending out an internal note to our team saying, “This is not okay. This is something we have come to expect, sadly, and we’re working on this.”As we all know, this is our work at Jennifer Brown Consulting, to change this outcome, but we’re also so going to communicate something out in the external world about it. We’re going to direct people to something called Standing Up for Racial Justice, which is SURJ, which is a fabulous organization who has many more amazing, insightful resources than we could ever produce.

And so, in these moments, we may not have the answer, but what we can do is point people to a place to get educated, to take action, to find community, and to feel… If people want to say, “I want to hold myself accountable for being more active,” that’s a place they can go and have concrete tools. But yeah. It’s a moment. And reaching out and letting people know how much this impacts you and checking in and sharing in that outrage, I think, is an important piece of how we stand alongside each other.

ERIN WEED: Yeah. And I can see how just the almost constant outrage is probably contributing to the exhaustion.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. It’s one after another after another. I literally today just got off of a conference where it was about… the conference was about men and masculinity, and there were some things in chat going on and being said that were difficult. And it’s funny, as a presenter, Erin, you know this. I have to put my being triggered to the side and be professional. And I want to be real, but I also don’t want to derail things, and I need to do the job I need to do. And so I sort of put it to the side, but it doesn’t mean that people like me in my role, who are constantly public facing, aren’t having feelings and aren’t being impacted by things that are said that feel invalidating. And-

JENNIFER BROWN: Said that feel invalidating. And so, but it’s tricky; I think the exhaustion comes from… It is a form of covering as we always talk about, right? It’s bargaining with what’s really going on with you. And then it’s kind of making a decision about like, “Okay, so how do I kind of pull myself together?” And the show goes on and as a performer, I am scarily good at that. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but.

ERIN WEED: Yeah. Well, and it’s also like when you’re a presenter, or you’re facilitating any kind of conversation, it’s like, you have to hold the collective. You can’t just give all your energy to the disruptor.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Oh, don’t you know it. Yeah. I think that’s the responsibility to the group. It’s always these decisions in group formats, and now we’re Zooming all the time, right? So this happens a lot, which is if there are some folks who disagree or having strong feelings about maybe some speakers, or the ideas being discussed, yeah, how do you ensure that people get what they came for? And that, if it’s a majority of the conversation, we need to make sure it’s helpful, and useful, and concrete, but then we want to validate the questions and the doubts that are coming up as well. And so, it’s a real trick to hold space for the diversity in your audiences. Yeah. It’s something I think about a lot. I often find I’m a tightrope walker on that front.

ERIN WEED: Yeah. And it’s just, I think so much about being a leader is knowing how to manage energy, and making space for the hard stuff, and also making space for the great stuff. Because if we take people in, into the basement and we leave there, I mean, you can’t have a great experience if everyone leaves depressed all the time, and there’s a time and a place to be angry and just let it be. Because we’ve talked about the hard parts about especially the past few years, but what is the bright light too.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hmm. I think the bright light is I just said this today, that the joy of discovering what somebody else’s lived experiences, their gifts, their culture, how they look at the world, I just find that so illuminating. I mean, honestly I’m bored with my own story, worry, you know? I know it, right? I know my culture. I know my people.

ERIN WEED: I’m not bored of your story. I just keep getting inspired by it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. But you know what I mean? We’re so familiar with it and I think the spice of life is that sort of endless discovery beyond what we perceive, beyond what we understand, beyond what’s familiar, you know? So I don’t know why we get so locked up about diversity, and embracing it, and appreciating it, and sort of running towards the light, towards, I think the transformation that is ahead of us. It’s like we get scared, we get trapped in scarcity. Speaking of trapped, we get trapped in this like, “There’s not enough for me. If I open up my aperture to include all of this and acknowledge that it’s real, that somehow,” I don’t know why we humans do this. We think there’s going to be less attention paid to us, less resources available to us. It doesn’t make logical sense. Except that it kind of does, because our world teaches us about scarcity, doesn’t it?

ERIN WEED: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

JENNIFER BROWN: You know? And so, but switching that abundance, it’s funny, it’s not DEI, right? This is a bigger concept. It is a concept of, is there enough for all of us? Do you really believe that? And if you don’t believe that, and that’s the world, the way you experience the world, then it’s going to be harder because you’re going to get trapped and tripped up in the making room for all parts of humanity, and loving it, and relishing it, and jumping into it, and not knowing where it’s going. Maybe it’s my personality type, but I enjoy the unfolding as well. We can’t predict how people are going to respond to us, or how we’re to respond to learning new information, or being challenged or having hard conversations.

And, I find myself, Erin too, I don’t know about you, but I get scared. I avoid conflict. I’m a huge people pleaser. To do this, like, “Those of us who can’t do, teach,” is that what we say? I talk a big game, right? But I am literally talking to myself when I present. I am literally trying to help myself get more uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. The lessons I share are the lessons I’m trying to learn myself. And somehow, by speaking it into the voice, because sometimes it does feel like the void, that I’m asking for help. I’m asking for grace, and space, and room to make mistakes, or not know the answer and not do the right thing. I find that like, I think this is why I feel so close to my audiences because their questions are of my questions too, sometimes. And their hesitation is mine.

And, so if we could just name this and be honest about it, I think what’s most important. What I want to be judged on. And what I think is only fair to be judged on is our forward movement. It’s, do we choose to challenge ourselves? Do we make those choices to put ourselves in the discomfort, and to just breathe and let it go where it’s going to go, and trust and have faith that that’s the work? But, I admit constantly that this is just as hard for me, you know? And so, anyway, I think maybe that’s why audiences are like, “Okay, she gets it. And maybe she’s somebody that can hold space for me to step in.” I hope.

ERIN WEED: How long have you been doing this work, Jen?

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh. Almost 20 many years.

ERIN WEED: Wow. Two decades. Can you tell us what you have seen shift change or evolve over those two decades?

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh. So much, so much, so much. I think one of the biggest things is when I came out, I realized, “Oh my goodness, I’m entering this marginalized, endangered population.” And I mean, “Endangered,” not in terms of numbers, but in terms of our safety, but truly, and that had not been my experience because all of my privileges have and will shield me. So when I came out, it was so fundamentally different than somebody else coming out. But I didn’t know that 20 years ago. We didn’t have any of this language, I think, to understand, but looking back, I now kind of see that process differently because I see it through the other lenses of other parts of my identity, and where it was sort of a plush carpet for me, whereas as it’s a hard floor for so many others. But in those days, I was full of the fire of the marginalized, you know? I was really excited to push on institutions, and those days it was very much like we want to fight for domestic partner benefits, and being included in companies’ non-discrimination statements, we wanted them to say, “Sexual orientation and gender identity,” and they didn’t at the time. Almost no companies except for the really, really big ones that have been around forever.

And so, but what’s flipped over the years is the discovery of the significance of the other parts of my entity. And the seeing my marginalized identities through the lens of the privileges, and feeling very called to almost these days, feel I’m on the path of allyship, like every day. And that even means being an ally to the members of the LGBTQ+ community, that are technically in my community, but we know that there’s so much diversity within the diversity, so there’s allyship that we can show across the board. And there’s also allyship of, I’m a cisgender woman, my allyship to men feels very alive. The feeling I have when I stand up and I stand for, is also standing alongside those men in my life who are working really hard on their evolution too. And so, it’s a twist on the definition. And I mean, who owns the definition of a word, right? So, let’s claim these-

JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s claim these words and say how we define them, okay? Like for me, the standing alongside somebody on their learning journey is what allyship feels like to me, and that learning is happening all around us. Sometimes we’re the learner and sometimes we’re the teacher. Sometimes we’re the space-holder. Sometimes we’re the sounding board. But to me, it means wanting someone to awaken and to support them in their awakening towards equity, and that’s my definition of what the goal is. Maybe other people have different definitions. And awakening to their place as change agents. We need change agents of all identities. That’s what I also believe.

I’m now thinking about allyship as a 360 degree, a diagram, if I could draw it, is we are pointing it all directions instead of, “Oh, I have all the power and you have none, and I’m going to be your ally,” which I think was always problematic anyway. It always bothered me the way the early iterations were, that some people gave the allyship and some people received it. And yes, that was true. When I receive allyship from straight allies, when I receive allyship from male allies, it’s incredible. It’s an incredible feeling and that needs to continue, but it feels so mutual to me these days and I really want to dive into that and understand that we all can be all these things at once alongside each other. I don’t know. I like that.

I resist binaries these days. I think that’s the other thing. Intersectionality and being able to be a lot of things, I think also has undergone a huge change. And then so much has changed, Erin, like all the diversity dimensions that we now include when we think about diversity. It used to be race and gender and sexual orientation, but it’s now inclusive of mental health. It’s inclusive of neurodiversity. It’s inclusive of having been a veteran. It’s inclusive of parenting, caregiving, grief, loss, chronic illness. Thinking about the things that institutions don’t understand about us or don’t want to see, that’s my issue. It’s like that unwillingness to truly, truly enable us to bring our full selves to work. Not to just say it as a slogan, but truly.

To me, it would mean then that we are together deciding to look at the truth of people’s life experiences, and building the kind of workplace where we feel those can be seen and they are additive to how we show up, not penalized. But right now, we’re still in the penalty version of the workplace, and I really, I need that to change. I want it to change. I think it’s going to take a whole lot of all of us putting our shoulder to the wheel to change this, because institutions don’t want to change. They don’t change easily, but we must build something better coming out of this and we all need a seat at the table to build it. We have to make that happen because we’re not going to get this chance, I feel like, again for a really long time, so it feels extremely urgent to me. I’m sure you can hear it in my voice, this sort of desperation.

ERIN WEED: Yeah, I can. [crosstalk 00:21:44] Yeah, and that leads me to my last question, which is you’ve just told us about the past two decades and how things have evolved, but what do you see for the upcoming 20 years?

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm. Oh my gosh. Isn’t that an interesting question? Well, the voice of the employee right now, it’s cresting. We are being heard and we are gaining our confidence in speaking up and showing up and protesting in so many new ways, walking out or picketing. Really, we’re getting, I think, much more strategic too, about how we put pressure on institutions to change and the PR crisis that we can create for institutions, the accountability that we… I think we’re discovering our power.

Erin, you know power was my word. Everybody who doesn’t know about Erin’s process, which she mentioned, is called the dig. The dig, you and I spent two days locked in a room. We went through my whole life story. We put post-its on the wall, and Erin sits back after going through this with somebody and says, “I think your word,” and you said, “I think your word, Jennifer, is power.” And I looked at it and I thought, “What do you mean? That’s really interesting. In what sense?” I remember that conversation so clearly, and it kind of excited me. I think because when you give somebody a word, Erin, I think part of you feels seen for the first time and it legitimizes it.

But to me, when I hear power, I think, “But I’m redefining.” I don’t want it in the same iteration that it’s been shown to me. I want to redefine it. I want to expand it. I want to think about different kinds of power. I want to rebalance the power. But I want those with power to be benevolent with it. Imagine having people’s wellbeing at the heart of our institutions and having the source of our power be from that intent and impact. Then I have power. I have an interesting kind of power, and I think that it also resonated to me because I can stand on a stage and I think show things in a certain way that feels very powerful to me, but leaves people feeling empowered.

And we can do this together. This is the energy, the exchange that I always feel, which is let’s revisit this. Let’s redefine this. I’m sharing any power I have with you and I see your power, and let’s redefine this. Let’s claim this. Let’s think about how we exercise that power, and then let’s challenge the definitions of power and bring a new, kinder, more benevolent version of it, so that we can do our best work and make our highest contributions and be of service.

I do think we’re seeing institutions, too, kind of wake up to their own power and wake up to using it in the way I’m talking about, to jump into social issues, to sign publicly onto certain efforts that impact people like voting legislation and rights, but they’re holding back with other issues too. I think we’re also in this evolution of institutions recognizing the way they use their power is very significant and there will be an accountability around it by their employees, which I love. I’m so here for that, something I have wanted.

ERIN WEED: Yeah. Well, I think what you do very well is you help along the process of people examining power. Who has it? Who is it in service of? How can I claim it? Am I abusing it? I mean, you have a very exploratory way of looking at power, and I feel like that’s why you and your company’s programs have been so effective, because they’re not so finger pointing-y, if that’s a word.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, no.

ERIN WEED: It’s more like questioning, and I don’t feel like that necessarily means it’s a gentler approach. It just means that it’s an approach where people can come to realizations on their own, and all of us are human beings. We all have in common that we love our own ideas the best, usually. You know? So I think you and your company have just done an excellent job of that. Can you just tell us a little bit more about the book, and maybe also just how is it different than your other book?

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh yeah, hugely different. This is my third, and you can check it out on Amazon, by the way, everybody, and please leave us a review. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask for that. But it is this is the beginning, I think, of me-

JENNIFER BROWN: This is the beginning, I think, of me exploring a bigger conversation, which is something I’ve wanted, to bring my knowledge in DE&I into other domains, and whether that be education, whether it be government, whether it be media, whether it be other chapters in the book or things like retail.

And so the different domains like corporate social responsibility is one that I think about a lot, or ESG, which is environmental, social, and governance. What are some of the different domains? Because to me, that’s what challenges me. I love the challenge of connecting dots that haven’t been connected before, and also, being a messenger about this work that I know so much about, being an emissary, if you will, into new fields where there’s so much education needed. And I want people to get onboard and incorporate this into what they already have going on. I want to magnify this work.

And I think I love it. I seek that. It’s that next challenge for me. It is that creative abrasion that can happen between different disciplines that I love, and it embeds DEI into these other pillars of our society or academia or professional pillars, however we want to refer to that, industries.

So I’d love to get bigger, and I’d like to be on different stages. I think if I can say, I spend so much time with the choir, as we say, and it feels really good of course, and I love it. And sometimes I need that shot in the arm to say, “I’m not always on the frontier alone, tilting at windmills.” I can come back and bring my ship back into the harbor and restock and rest up.

ERIN WEED: Yeah. And there was a time where you had to go out into the open sea, get tossed around a little bit.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And I think of it too, like those ships that are icebreakers, I think about their hulls, how tough they are. How many layers that you have to … to break through that ice over and over and over again every single day, and this gets back to your question of exhaustion. It’s like, what does the harbor look like for you and for all of us, because this is a long and long journey, but I love being the icebreaker. I’m proud that I can break through it, and I’m the little ship that could. I’m the tugboat, whatever you want to call me. My hull is sound and the tip of my bow is sharp.

ERIN WEED: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It helps to think of ourselves and our role in this, but we also need to think, how do we repair ourselves? How do we console ourselves? How do we connect and feel that we aren’t the only ship out there, and that we return to calmer shores regularly. In fact, I think that radical self-care piece … Erin, you know; you work with so many change-makers … our self-care regimen has to be really robust, and I never have a very good answer for how I do it. I guess it’s probably returning to the choir, is my self-care, which is, reminding me that there’s a huge community of people that believe, that they want a better world and that we want a place in that world, and that calms me.

So I have to have a blend, I think, of these different kinds of conversations, and it’s an ebb and flow every single day, and sometimes multiple times a day. It’s up and down and up and down, but can you put your head on the pillow at the end of the day and say, “I did my best. I tried. I showed up. I held space. I felt my feelings. I restored myself and I’m ready for the next day.”

ERIN WEED: Beautiful. That’s all we can do. I am so happy that you are continuing this work. I feel so proud of you as your friend, and thank you for the contribution you’re making.

JENNIFER BROWN: Erin, thank you so much. And everybody, check out Erin’s work too. We’ll include it in the show notes.

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 live. 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.