Self-Care as a Strategy for Belonging: A Fireside Chat with Joel Brown and Rhodes Perry

Jennifer Brown | |

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In this episode, originally recorded at the Belonging at Work Summit, Jennifer Brown is joined by Rhodes Perry, founder of Rhodes Perry Consulting and Joel Brown, Chief Visionary Officer of Pneumos, as they discuss the importance of self-care. Discover how to develop sustainable self-care practices and increase your resilience.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How dominant groups can deal with moments of fragility (22:30)
  • How to measure success when it comes to DEI work (28:30)
  • How DEI changemakers can avoid burnout (32:30)
  • The positive aspects of the present challenges (35:00)
  • How to maintain optimism even during tough times (38:00)
  • How to build a support network  (42:00)
  • How to deal with microaggressions (46:00)
  • An important aspect of resilience that is often overlooked (52:00)
  • The importance of community for personal growth (55:15)

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

RHODES PERRY: So with that, let’s jump into the questions. So Jen, I’d love to start with you. And in your talk you mentioned that there is a lot of emotional labor, stress, and fatigue that comes with serving as DEI leaders and change agents, for ourselves working as consultants, and also for folks inside large and small organizations. So considering all that is asked of us when we’re doing this work, I’m wondering, just as a personal check-in, what kind of obstacles are you facing right now in your own work, and how are you feeling about those obstacles right now?

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Rhodes, so much has changed, hasn’t it? Yeah. Thank you for asking. I feel … Well, my own learning curve is steep. As a white person, I’d be worried about any white person whose learning curve isn’t steep right now. And so as such I’m building the plane as I’m flying it, which is often the sensation we have as those of us who are asked to be helping organizations in their journey when we are in fact on that same journey. And so that’s a really interesting experience and sensation. So being patient with ourselves, being transparent about where we’re comfortable and where we still have work to do, I think is really powerful, actually, too. One of the things we talk about is being vulnerable around what we don’t know. And we encourage leaders to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s one of our core teachings. And so I try when I can to talk about my learning and my discomfort and to be authentic and transparent, while at the same time saying, “Let’s figure this out together.”

With the clients who know less than I do, often, thankfully, right? That’s the secret of consulting, you just have to be a couple steps ahead. So I think that I feel so, though, energized right now, and I know some of my energy comes from the fact that I walk around the world with relatively more privilege and ease and comfort and safety. And so I think a lot these days about fragility. I love that Robin Diangelo gave us that word, but regardless, feeling a fragile moment is for many of us not another identity feeling, unsafe, disparately impacted, very upset, obviously. And so for us to equate the pain is not the point. And so I just have been really deep on that in myself and in reflecting on that. And I think my clients, my white clients in particular, I think they’re resonating with trying to understand what role the fragility plays in their own developmental process. Because we have to witness the fragility but we need to not get stuck in it. We need to move through it and we need to come out the other side with the right learning.

Brene Brown did a wonderful podcast on shame versus guilt recently. I would encourage everybody to watch it and listen to it, because it was really helpful to differentiate some sort of helpful and not so helpful reactions and to define things for ourselves so that we don’t get paralyzed and stuck and be overwhelmed. And particularly in the shame, which is not a great place to be able to be creative from or to be in community from. And so yeah, I just feel I’ve worked so long for this moment, actually. I’ve been studying and preparing and I feel more called than ever to explore my aspiring aspirational allyship, because I like to say you’re only an ally if somebody in an affected identity calls you an ally.

And I love how you just said allyship is a contract we renew every day. So it’s not a destination, and it’s something we earn. And so every day my focus is on earning that. And particularly as an LGBTQ woman, it’s an interesting, perhaps a surprising take on allyship. Because I need allies so much. As a woman I need male allies, as a queer person I need straight allies, but I am also the accomplice. I am also the person that can have the conversations and challenge things. And I think that my theory is we’re all underutilizing aspects of what we’ve been given. We didn’t earn it. We were born with much of this, and we’ve been underutilizing it. And we’ve been putting all the burden on others to do the heavy lifting, and that has never felt right to me. So I am really supercharged and I’m actually on a sort of mission to understand, what are all the ways that I can enact what I have in order to make a difference?

RHODES PERRY: Yes, I really appreciate your honesty, Jen, I think that that is a … That’s really key just to know where you are in this right now in your own learning, and I think you’re offering a great example for a lot of folks that are entering the summit and feeling overwhelmed of how much they’re learning right now. So I think that that’s good, especially for this day, which is about self-care. And I’m glad that you named white fragility and Robin Diangelo’s work and the harm that that does cause in the workplace. And Joel, I wanted to go to something that Ida Mondelay says in their talk today, which is really naming what community accountability is. And they say that it’s about creating a workplace culture that can not only address harm, but also helps prevent harm. Knowing that harm will undoubtedly happen, it’s about mutuality. It’s about interdependence. It’s about all of us taking care of each other.

And I really love that definition and I want to relate it to, with the large scale racial justice uprisings it seems that more CEOs, business leaders are recognizing the centuries of harm that have been inflicted upon black, indigenous, and people of color broadly all around the globe. And in your executive coaching practice I know you work with a lot of business leaders. And I’m curious, are you finding yourself being asked to coach and support some of these business leaders as they begin to confront and address some of these harms that their workplaces have caused and that they may have personally caused? And if so, how are you encouraging them to start? And what’s the work ahead, not only to address harm, but also to proactively prevent harm from occurring in the future? And I know that’s an enormous question, so you can take it in whatever direction you want.

JOEL BROWN: Wonderful. Well, first of all I just want to say thank you for the invitation. It’s always good to see you, as rare as it is. I also want to say it’s a pleasure to be here with my cousin, Jennifer Brown, and all the panelists from around the world who are here. I also want to acknowledge that I’m sitting on Ohlone lands. So any time that I speak I like to do indigenous acknowledgement, not only acknowledging the people who helped settle this place, but also those who are my forefathers and foremothers as well. So with that being said, I would say to you, whether it’s consulting or coaching, sometimes some leaders don’t ask for coaching. And I provide it anyway, because I think what’s really important in this time is to think about, we always do the work inside out. We always say you have to go within to go beyond. So what do I mean by that?

It means understanding, what is your personal stake here? What are your personal developmental opportunities? What might be the gaps in your own learning? Really understanding, what is your intrinsic motivation? Because I’m going to be very candid, there are a number of organizations, there are a number of businesses, not all, not a majority, but some who are not quite sure why they’re doing the work. It certainly is something that, there’s a tension, there have been flashpoints, there has been a lot of discussion. But ultimately if you’re not doing the work … I always measure my success with organizations and we as a team measure our success by whether those who are marginalized and underrepresented, have been disadvantaged, whether their lives have been transformed. If that’s happened, then I know that the engagement’s been successful. If it does not happen, then I will say that the engagement has not been successful.

And so for me it really is a simple conversation to say, “Why is this important to you?” And I’ve had conversations with CEOs and EDs and directors and whatnot where they’ve said, “Well, I know that this is important,” but it’s intellectual. And what I would love for people to start thinking about is to approaching this from the head, heart, and body perspective, and to really get into the heart to understand, we’re talking about human rights, we’re talking about spiritual work. I will call it that. I don’t necessarily say that all the time with my clients. But ultimately when you think about what is spiritual work, it’s about being able to see the connection and the humanity in other people and to disavow this illusion of separation, because that’s how racism and sexism and heterosexism and all the other isms have maintained themselves, is that we have supported this narrative that what happens to you doesn’t impact me and that what I do doesn’t impact you.

And that’s just false. That’s a false dichotomy, that’s a false narrative, and it’s faulty reasoning. And so I want people to understand that this is something that impacts the tilt of the planet, our progression as a species, and is something that’s important for all of us to grow. And so I really want to understand from an individual perspective why this is important. Because if the CEO, the leader, whomever has not connected with that, then I can also tell you, and if I could pick that up, their employees, their stakeholders are also going to pick that up too. And it’s going to tell me in no small measure that they’re not fully invested. And we want people to be fully invested. That doesn’t mean perfection, but they have to really understand why they’re doing this work and why it’s important.

So those are the things, that’s where we start. And it’s a very humble place, because people are thinking you’re going to come in with charts and plans and whatnot or some grand scheme, but it really, to me, starts with a simple question of why. And why is this important to you? And I think helping to reframe that is helping us to then get started on the right foot. Because the work is hard, and if you don’t understand why this work is going to be important from a humanity based perspective, then you’re going to forget about that when the work does get hard. So you need to be able to understand what that is and understand why this is important on a broader perspective. So that’s where we begin.

RHODES PERRY: Yes. Thank you. I think just repeating that question again, why is this work important to you? And it relates so well to yesterday, which was all about locating our own diversity stories. Why are we entering, why are we doing this work? And really being able just to speak it in our own words, rather than repeating a diversity and inclusion statement that feels very hollow. I’m sure we’ve all heard leaders do that. And it’s like, “Ah, if you connected to this story in some way, it would feel like you are just as invested, you’re taking ownership of doing the work.” And I really appreciate that. And I think that that’s … I encourage folks listening right now to check in with yourself. Why did you spend this week here? Why are you here? What’s the story that you share after this week?

So I appreciate that. And we do have a little diversity storytelling guide that some folks will be getting on Saturday so you can get started with that work. So I appreciate that. This next question is for both of you all, and this is just to recognize that many of us, when we start out in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space it’s because of our own personal experiences of being othered or being excluded. And while these lived experiences can be a source of our passion, it can light us up, wake us up every day to keep going. If that passion does burn too brightly, burnout can happen. And we’ve got a few speakers today that discuss what burnout looks like and how we can mitigate it. So given the threat of burnout, what are some ways that DEI change makers need to be intentional and proactive with their self-care, and how can more seasoned leaders like you all support our colleagues in this field in this space?

JOEL BROWN: Cousin Jen, did you want to go or should I go?

JENNIFER BROWN: Why don’t you go and I’ll follow you.

JOEL BROWN: Okay. Self-care, this is a wonderful time to entertain this question and to model it and to also call ourselves in to practice it more. There’s a lot there in your question, Rhodes. So there’s a lot there about, number one, managing… or not even so much managing, but being clear about your own story and also about your own healing. I think I first just want to say to people that you do have a right to heal. Sometimes we can carry our pain, our trauma as a badge of courage, but we think that we have to hold onto the anger, that the anger has to continue to serve us throughout the course of our lifetime. Of course there’s that book that, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

And I want people just to understand that there is a different fuel that you can take, that you can transmute to get you to a different place. And so I remember, for example, I’m a storyteller, I’m a poet, I teach as well. And I would say for the first 18 years of writing poetry, some of it was very much venting. Some of it was very much about connecting with negative emotions, but then I realized at some point there’s a lot of beauty out there. And so you can change and transmute that pain to consciousness, which doesn’t mean that you set it aside, but it just means that you use it in service of. And so I think that’s a really important thing to remember. And I can’t remember if it was James Baldwin or Richard Wright who also said too that the key for the Negro, and I’m using the language of the time, is to simmer and to stir but not to boil over, because boiling over leads to paralysis. It leads to inaction.

And so I’ve always been a person who’s really taken that to heart. When I had to have some conversations in college and people said to me that, “I’m worried about you because if you continue to go at this rate and you continue to be so fervent with what you’re doing, you’re going to lose yourself and you’re going to lose sight of other people’s humanity.” So I encourage all of us to simmer but not to boil over, even in this particular time, because when you simmer you’re still allowed to act. As to the self-care piece, I think you have to do what fuels you, and you have to sometimes take time away from, I would say probably a lot of time away from news and even from these discussions, just remember that the world is really full of beauty. I know that we’ve seen a lot of ugliness over the past four years, but I think ultimately even in this moment, what’s the positive aspect of it?

The positive aspect of it for me is that the world is growing up. And so my medicine, and I’m just going to be very transparent, is green space, is movement, is art, is connection, is rest. It’s me taking care of those things in meditation. And when I don’t do those things, I didn’t do them today, for example, I didn’t do my meditation. So I’m knowing that at some point I’m going to need to do that to get myself back to where I need to be. Incorporating that into your practice and being very intentional, because it can be very easy to let the day get away and think, “Oh, I’ll get back to it.” But making sure that that’s really key, whatever that might be.

And I’m not here to tell anybody what their prescription should be, but just recognizing that that’s the basis from which your power comes forth. And to constantly refuel yourself and not think that you don’t have the opportunity or the right to take care of yourself because you do this work, or because, many of us see ourselves as front line respondents to society. You’ve got to take care of yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be good for anybody else.

RHODES PERRY: Yes, yes. And on the meditation, you’re my inspiration to meditate every day. So occasionally, you’re making me feel a little bit better when I don’t do it every day. So I appreciate that. Jen, sorry.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s okay. Joel, you’re my inspiration about green spaces, because I see you online taking your long walks, and this whole pandemic has been about long walks. I’m in New York City, so it’s just been incredible to see the city move through all of these different permutations that we’ve been through and continue to go through. And just being present in this movement here in New York has felt very all kinds of things, nourishing, frightening at moments, super inspirational, like you’re at the center of this nexus. So for me self-care is plugging back into why I’m doing this in the first place. Sometimes with client work, Joel was talking about defining ourselves in conversations a lot with people you’re not sure why they’re there. And I think it’s really exhausting in invisible ways to be in those conversations over and over again.

It depletes us. It makes us work harder than we should have to, because the reason for this should be obvious. So now, everybody wants help now, everyone’s in a panic. And our phones are, Joel’s and mine and Rhodes’ phones are ringing off the hook. And it’s like, this is not a new thing, but you didn’t choose to look at it before when you were shown. And maybe you weren’t shown. Okay. But I find the self-care too is not descending into cynicism about that. And honestly, some days I don’t know where I get the optimism to continue to do this work. I don’t know. It’s a deep spring. I feel like it’s solving an original wound. And it’s probably goes back generations for me, I don’t know, but epigenetics. And I’m here to do this job and it feels really deep.

So I guess the ways I buttress myself is I think … So passion isn’t enough to do this work. So think about the skill set, I’m going to get real practical. Think about the skill set you need to do this work. There’s a lot that’s not D&I related that you need in your toolkit. You need to be able to express ideas, to be confident, to utilize power, to understand organizational change, to understand personal development and leadership and emotional intelligence, the dynamics of disclosure. So when you’re a teacher like I am, you get to study all this stuff and you get to learn that the student becomes the teacher, and you practice it on yourself too.

And so just staying centered to me in the worlds that we have to walk in means that we’ve got to simmer, to Joel’s point, simmer really in a savvy way. It feels to me like we’ve got to be looking around corners and anticipating things. And to me, the skillset of that means that I’m equipped with a lot of options to navigate any given situation away from a dangerous place or away from harm or towards something productive. And to me that’s this beautiful challenge of this work, is managing our own emotions in the room, but also managing and holding everything that’s happening in a group. And it’s one of the most profound things that we get to do, I think you all would agree, is having a group of people or leaders in their most vulnerable trust you.

So it’s a very sacred role that we get to play. And to me, that trust fills me up. It definitely replenishes me and reminds me of why I’m here. There’s something, there’s a dot that I can connect for someone. And so I would also tell you community is tremendously important. When we are ready to kind of drop all that that I just talked about and just be real and be frustrated and be angry, you’ve got to have people in your life that you can just be that with. And just say … On my calls with DEI people there’s a lot of conversation about, “I want to quit this work. I want to quit. I can’t take it anymore.” It was hard before, and now it’s really hard. But we also have this tremendous opening for change now.

And so it’s like we’re sort of battle weary. We stumbled into this already weary. And so the other point I wanted to make is that when you’re weary, work through your allies. Leverage people. You are not alone. Remember, we got gay marriage and a lot of rights through straight ally, accomplicing, and mobilization, and somebody speaking up for us when we didn’t feel that we could. And one of the beautiful things that’s happening right now is there’s so many, if you’re in a relay race, imagine being able to pass the baton to somebody and say, “Could you run with this for a while?” And having them reach back and grab it and having you be able to take a break. And the way this is supposed to work, we are not doing all the work ourselves.

We are not the fly against a screen door. That’s not efficient and it’s not sustainable. But that means we’ve got to be really savvy about, who is my crew? Who are my people, who are my cross identity relationships, who are my same identity relationships, and who can I really be real with, and who can do things alongside me so that I don’t feel so alone and so I don’t exhaust myself? And I think D&I leaders are often the one or the two in the organization serving 50,000 people. I’m not making that up. Literally I can think of a client, two people on the team serving 80,000 people. It’s an impossible proposition. And so you’ve got to be really smart, all of the things we’ve been talking about. But I think that help is all around us. It’s sort of, water, water and not a drop to drink. How do we connect ourselves to that help? So that’s something I’m sitting with.

RHODES PERRY: Yes, yes. And so something that popped up yesterday, and it relates to your talk, Jen, is the piece on meeting people where they’re at. And so this is one of the strategies that you speak to, and it’s awesome in the talk, so I hope people watch today, about meeting clients where they’re at when dealing with a difficult person or a situation where microaggression or an unexamined bias occurs. And so you actually talk about, there is a beauty, this is your quote, so, “There is a beauty and a humility in putting aside our own emotions so that others can learn from our experiences.” So what helps you in these moments put aside your own emotions and to turn towards difficult people in situations with curiosity? And I would love to hear from you and-

Difficult people in situations with curiosity. And I would love to hear from you and also Joel on this, because this is a big one for a lot of folks in this space right now where things may have been said, and you’re holding something for entire communities, and you’re also feeling it yourself.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is the true walk. Yeah. I always, how I … and Joel I’ll love to hear your answer to this is focusing on the bigger dynamic that’s going on. That you are a vessel in that moment. you are a pass-through for what needs to happen and your emotions can … I think Joel said it’s fuel, so it’s not something to be denied but I think that modulation, the ability to modulate and to understand when does this emotion serve me? And if I’m here to be in service of what’s happening around me, how can I calibrate to that? And maybe I process that later, maybe I put that to the side, but I hate to say that, too, because so many of us, our anger hasn’t been acceptable.

I know, Joel, you’re going to say that. It hasn’t been okay to say, “No, wait a minute. I’m having a hard time with what I just heard on a personal level.” And that takes a lot of courage to say. And yet we know we live in a world where we’re penalized, I think, for showing strong emotions. Some of us who are not straight and white and male and cisgender, the question will come up, “Well, that wasn’t professional.”

So, we’ve got to walk into rooms and know that that is a risk that we are taking. And then, we need to make strategic decisions in those moments. And then, later on, we can crumple into a heap, we can process it. And so this is that amazing thing. And I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m recommending not being authentic, it probably depends on the room. Sometimes I, I have said, “You know what? I just answered that in a really kind of surface way. Let me go back and re answer that from my heart.”

And what that really felt like for me, so that I can be sort of simultaneously the teacher, but also the human being, because I’m still a human being, you cut me and I’m going to bleed. And I’m not going to try to spare you from that, but I’m always mindful, though, of being in service and honoring ourselves while honoring the group at the same time. And that is the art of this work. I mean, it’s a tremendously beautiful challenge.

RHODES PERRY: Yes. And Joel, on this dealing with your own emotions when dealing with difficult people, microaggressions that impact you.

JOEL BROWN: Yeah. I’m going to build upon what was said. I’m going to be a little nuanced here, which I think you both would agree with. I don’t want people to set aside their emotions. I want people to fully embrace their emotions. Now, understand what an emotion is. An emotion is a signal that a need has not been met. And if it’s a strong emotion, it is a signal that tragically a need has not been met. However, for the need to be met, we need to be able to communicate in a way that’s effective. And so, if I give you raw energy, that’s not going to be effective. And so, if I want that need to be met, or if I want to be protected, or at least to avoid it, I need to figure out a constructive way but sometimes that doesn’t have to be in the moment.

And so, I’ve been very clear with underrepresented groups, people of color, LGBTQ, that it’s not always our jobs to necessarily be the politician in the moment, because I feel like that’s been one of the ways in which racism and other isms have been so insidious is that when we deal with injustice and when we are cut, then we have to manage our response and act in a certain way to make the other person feel comfortable while we’re sitting there bleeding out. What I’ve said to people is, “If you feel uncomfortable or if you feel impacted, and I’ve been in those situations, walk away, pause, go someplace else, maybe go to a corner, let that emotion out, talk to an ally. But then when you have the opportunity, then come back so that you can have that constructive conversation.”

And I would also say too that you have to bring a lot of humility to this work. There’s a reason, for example, I don’t call myself an expert, not because I don’t have experience, not because I’m not practiced, but I’m always learning. And so in those moments, when I feel like I’m being micro-aggressed and I had been dealt with a micro insult, I also have to remember those times where I might have committed those things myself. I’ve been privileged enough, for example, to have been in almost 50 countries thus far in my life. And I can guarantee you that in traveling to 50 countries, even going North of the border or South of the border, countries that are our neighbors, I have done or said things that perhaps have not been culturally intelligent, I’ve committed cultural faux pas. And what always is interesting to me and wonderful is the grace that I’ve been shown in those moments.

And so when people are being earnest, I want to make sure that I’m also extending that same level of grace, when someone else has being earnest with me, or when someone even is saying something that I find in politic or improper because once again, we have to understand the nature, for example, of racism. Racism is … we live in a container where we live, breathe, eat, sleep it every single day. So in some ways, and I’m not saying this to be patronizing, when I hear things I have to think to myself, “Well, why would I expect that person not to have thought that way based on the system in which we live?” But now since you’ve come across my pathway, if I feel the strength and I feel the desire, then I’m going to have a conversation with you. And if I don’t, then I don’t, but I also trust that there are the Rhodes and the Jennifers and the other people out there across the world, because it’s not just me. This is a movement. This is a movement that came long before me and will sustain itself long after me.

So, I trust that someone will address that and it will be handled and it will be taken care of. And so I think we have to, going back to self-care, pick and choose our battles. And I would say though, at the same time, recognizing that at a given time, we all have privilege and we all will have at some point a situation where perhaps we have done something that perhaps has been injurious and that humility allows me to extend grace to other people.

RHODES PERRY: Yes. Yes. That’s so good. I want to dig in a little bit more around the microaggression piece and looking at ourselves in this work. Just from my own perspective when I’m on the receiving end of a microaggression, someone says something transphobic, right? It’s not always in service to my health. And Joel, you kind of got to this in your statement here, it’s not always in the service for us to be the one that brings in the micro aggressor to answer from the heart, as you say, Jennifer. I mean, sometimes it’s kind of like, “Oh, I am not the one to do this right now.” And I think there’s folks on this call right now that can relate.

So in thinking about your own experiences of navigating microaggressions that impact you, who is someone that you see as a trusted ally or a colleague that you call on when a situation feels too personal or causes you distress? Maybe not in the moment, they’re not in the room with you, but someone … what’s your strategy around that, if there is someone in your life. And any guidance, as folks are listening, that might be able to help other people when they find themselves in these situations.

JOEL BROWN: Cousin Jen, you want me to go or …

JENNIFER BROWN: You go ahead, Joel.

JOEL BROWN: Okay. All right. This is a family affair, so… I call my mom. My mom is my biggest ally. You’re talking about a powerhouse, a lady, you’re talking about … I can’t say her age, but decades of wisdom. So I call in my mom to say, “Here’s what’s happening. Here’s what I’m seeing.”

I call my brother and my sister. Those are my road dogs, those are the people who have my back. I call them my friends. I can call on anybody within my network at some point, if I need to, just to say … and I say, network, excuse me, community. It’s still the middle of the workday for me, so apologize for that, but I can just call in people and just say, “Can you believe, did you hear?” And one of the wonderful aspects of resilience is humor. And I don’t think it gets talked about enough. One of the wonderful ways in which I can definitely say Black people, but also I think I can say queer people … One of the ways we deal with microaggressions is through humor.

We deal with it through art. We deal with it through just normal conversations. I remember for example, I’m in the People’s Republic of San Francisco, but I’m also a member of the Oakland Federation, so I represent both sides of the Bay. And I remember when there was the latest incident of someone calling the police on a black person, that was a white lady who did that. And I remember there was … I guess, a black man who was trying to barbecue. And I think maybe the next week or two weeks or after we had the big cookout, so we all went over to Oakland and there was a big cookout just to say, we’re not going to be stepped on and we’re not going to be pushed aside. And we’re going to turn this into something beautiful.

And so, that’s something that in my space that we make use of a lot, because if you don’t, then you can look at all these things, some of these things can be pretty crushing, but also I would say too, it’s okay to make space for crying. It’s okay to make space for … sometimes I have my, I call it my hip hop moments while I’m in the car. I’m like, okay, I’ve had a rough day and the music helps channel what I’m feeling because they’re talking about some, excuse me, some of the same things, but I can do that with anyone in my network, but I would also say that when you tap into art, you’re talking to other members of your network who just lived in a different era who’ve been through similar things.

So I can read Audrey Lorde, I can read Langston Hughes, I can listen to Tupac Shakur, I can read about Ida B. Wells. I can think about Mary Ellen Pleasant here in the Bay area. And they give me strength. I remember all the time I’m here because someone else fought. That allows me to continue to move forward. And then I do have my family, my friends who we’ve all been there.

Those of us who are talking about this are not the only ones who have experienced it, and so I can channel and tap into any one of those groups and communities and we give each other strength, we hold space, we affirm each other’s humanity. We love each other up, we give a virtual hug at this point. And sometimes that’s the best thing you can do just to make sure you can get through another day and to then put a smile on your face and move forward.

RHODES PERRY: Yes, yes. The humor is huge and we were so lucky this week to have … we had Mara Keisling and Jess Pettitt that were, I mean, I try to channel that. I tend to be pretty serious, but I appreciate the humor. Jen, on this one, your thoughts here.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I might speak about this in terms of my journey of whiteness. And back to fragility, an incident might happen where maybe I’ve micro-aggressed or maybe I’m associated with something and somebody is getting called out and I tend to write everything, freeform, very privately and then I literally share the document with people who I think are sort of further along than I am. And I have them go through and basically do like the BS monitor, “No, no, no. Okay. This is valid. No.”

I don’t think we can see ourselves very accurately sometimes, many times actually, in terms of where we’re sort of coddling ourselves and where we don’t yet have the best language. I don’t like using the word right, but where we don’t have sort of an evolved understanding yet, but that takes a really loving community to take the time to go through that and comment and teach. And I have some amazing white teachers that … our multicultural, multiethnic teachers that have had a really interesting experience in many worlds that I think I also can find a lot of solace with and also sort of be grounded with, but also sort of kick my butt when necessary.

And that’s the way I process through and learn where I’m still missing it, where I’m still not really internalizing what I need to know and what my appropriate response should be. And so it’s really interesting, like, Joel speaking, from that perspective, I wanted to bring this perspective because it’s where I … honestly, I feel like I live there right now. I’ve been out and member of the LGBTQ community for 25 years and that community and that experience shaped me and taught me so much and gave me just my story and my courage and my resilience and my emotional intelligence. And it’s so fascinating for us in the LGBTQ community to realize we might still be white. We might still be cisgender. We might have all these privileges. And so the intersections are what’s so interesting to me now, and it’s where I do my best learning, is in that conversation where we’re multihyphenate people.

And I think queer people in particular have a really … queer women in particular, I have found a tremendously deep source of community, I think because of the intersectionality and I’m really just inspired by that community in particular. So I try to, to Joel’s point, I try to read, I try to fill my ears with that voice because my battle is not just around being seen and heard as a queer person, but it’s as a cisgender woman in this world, which is still honestly my sort of most towering challenge. For me, that’s kind of what I walk around thinking about the most and struggling with the most.

RHODES PERRY: Yeah. I really appreciate that in what you’re sharing around the community that you’ve been able to form. And if you had good intentions and the impact went sideways centering whiteness right now in terms of impacting folks of color, being able to write out, as you said, the experience of it, trying to process it and having other folks in your community to review it, to be like, this is defensive, this is defensive, this is this is good, this is real … Like Jess Pettit yesterday kind of broke down intent and impact in our own experiences of where we have privilege with certain identities and where we have disadvantages.

And I thought it was really helpful because she said the intent is usually where our dominant identities show up and that’s where defensiveness lives and the impact is how you justify the defensiveness of saying, “Well, I’m trans, so I can’t be racist.” It was a really interesting way of looking at the complexity of who we are and taking the concept of intersectionality and adding words that are a little more accessible, I think. It was interesting to see how people responded to the way that she described that.

So, folks who are watching right now and you might be asking like, “What’s the context of this?” That was in yesterday’s Q&A session. It was really good. I thought that that was really helpful. And I think you also just provided a good example and also a way that you’ve developed an accountability structure by just leaning on your community, which took probably a long time to build those relationships and to build that trust, which seems to be coming up in this conversation. So I appreciate that.

I wanted to go to community accountability and transparency. So for leaders, we all agree that it’s not enough for them to just care about diversity, equity and inclusion. We talked about the hollowness of just reading a statement, right? And we know that they need to make the importance of belonging, diversity, equity, inclusion, justice known publicly, and hold others accountable in a meaningful way by sharing their own stories and connecting to the work. So your perspectives, why do you think people with privilege must be held to a higher standard? Why is accountability a necessary move on the path towards building a sense of safety, trust, belonging working towards our diversity equity and inclusion goals? There’s a lot there and you can take it whatever direction you want, but whoever would like to go first.

JENNIFER BROWN: Want me to go, Joel?

JOEL BROWN: Please.

JENNIFER BROWN: I have some strong feelings on this one. People with power, because of a lot of reasons, therein lies the responsibility and the accountability. And when things are easier for you to do on a day to day basis and you have the ability to make it so, and you have the platform and the influence and the voice, and you look a certain way, that right or wrong, I’d say wrong, is assigned authority in our workplaces, in our society, it is incumbent on those of us that carry those identities to visibly lead on this stuff.

And I think it’s the most confounded group right now in terms of understanding what they need to do. They are overwhelmed, all the calls I’m getting in conversations, you can hear the fear in people’s voice. This is so treacherous, or they think it’s very treacherous, and in a way it is. And I wrestle actually, with … I don’t want to soothe anybody and say that you shouldn’t feel tremendously uncomfortable right now and worried. Worried about your job, worried about your livelihood, worried about your economic stability.

And I hate to say this, and I try to not say very often, but in my mind and my heart, I’m thinking, welcome to everybody else’s experience, that one moment of discomfort, that one moment that you’re uncomfortable is a tiny speck in the discomfort of so many that I’ve been studying for so many years, including myself. And so, just like getting people to understand the proportionality of that. To say, let’s get you comfortable being uncomfortable because we’re not going to put you into comfort again. And that if you go back into comfort, you’re not going to do the work that’s necessary.

And it’s tough. I mean, I make the moral argument, I make the business case argument. I try every which way to lead the horse to water. And Joel knows this, both of you know, it’s exhausting because you have to get so creative because every single person is different. Every single person is going to have their a-ha moment because of some little thing you do or say or a story they hear or a statistic you give them. I mean, it’s so unpredictable. I actually love that challenge of thinking about what’s going to unlock things for this person. You talked about meeting the client where they’re at, like, what’s going to achieve that?

And I think to take that emotion out and just sort of look at it and say, “How do I awaken them? Or how can I be a part of that awakening?” That’s all we can do. That’s all we can do, but I think that the onus is on leadership and they need some serious mentorship right now, as they are learning awkwardly and stumbling. They are going like a baby bird, they’re dependent on the parent for a while. This is not a familiar skill, it’s not something they know how to talk about. And so I think maybe white leaders, like myself, have a lot of energy for that conversation because I am from that community. So I talk a lot about the messenger and the message. And I wonder when we say get your people, go get your people. I hear that in social media a lot.

And to me, that means I take responsibility for being in that room so that that learning process is not yet another microaggression against somebody. And that learning process doesn’t cause more harm because it’s going to hit me in a very different way because I know what I’m looking at. I know it because it was my family. I’ve been developing skills like this for years and I can sort of be the shock absorber of that so that you, Joel, do not have to be, or you Rhodes, do not have to be … And by the way, you both can absorb shock for me that I don’t think I should have to do anymore and I would love the help. I think it’s so mutual between the messengers that look in all these different ways that I think we each have a role to play.

And I’m here for that. I really enjoy that complex, like what are we going to do with this generation? Because they’re going to be around for a lot longer, they’re not going anywhere. So we can’t just say, “Generation Z, take over, it’s your workplace to design the way you want.” We’re still going to be working with them and we’ve got to get them on board because we can’t create change right now led by a few of us. We must … to make this sustainable, we’ve got to try to bring everybody along.

And I know that that hurts and it’s hard and some people probably don’t agree with me. Some people want to build a separate thing and say, “You know what? There’s no improving these institutions, they’re too broken.” And so we have to just tear it all down and burn it all down? I mean, I’d love your thoughts on that. I mean, there’s sort of two schools of thought, but I do enjoy thinking about what would change look like given the circumstances that we’re faced with and it can still be pretty radical.

RHODES PERRY: Yeah, absolutely. I want to give Joel thoughts on privilege, leadership, accountability.

JOEL BROWN: Yeah. I’m going to do two seconds of pause, which I think is important because there’s so much of this we have to immediately answer without thinking, and I want to encourage that for myself and for others. The fundamental question that we have with this work is, how do we get people to be invested and to be self interested, especially if you’re coming from a place of privilege? So what I’m basically asking you to do, if you are white, if you are male, if you are cisgender, if you come from money, if you’re able-bodied, if you’re native, is to be uncomfortable to leave your place of comfort and to be uncomfortable, so I can share with you my story and if we have a good connection and there has been a powerful story that may work, I can sell you on the business imperative. And for some people that might work. I can talk about the legal aspects and from a compliance standpoint, that may work.

Ultimately what I have found to be the only thing that really helps for this to be sustainable is to help people to realize that their work, their personal development and their own healing is tied up in this struggle. That’s the only thing. So, for example, you all know me as a storyteller. I remember being … I went to University of Virginia, anybody out there from UVA? And I remember this guy stood up, I was at a Black film festival and this guy, who was white, stood up and said, “I get it. I understand that you all have been wronged, I understand why you’re angry.” And I remember saying to him, I stood up after him, and I said, “But the question is for you to figure out why you’re angry.”

The question is for white people to understand why they’re angry, and for men to understand why they’re angry, and for straight people understand why they’re angry, and for able-bodied people to figure out why they’re angry. And once we attend to our healing, then it’s not about allyship is about you doing the work for yourself, because this is about our collective liberation.

And that’s been part of the problem, is allyship and a lot of this work has been framed as you doing the work for me, and that’s good, and that’s comfortable to an extent, but it’s really about you doing the work for you. I don’t need you to do the work for me because I’ll be okay. My people have been okay, but I need you to do the work for yourself. I need you to really get into what’s happening with you and to undo all the learning that you’ve had and all the socialization and indoctrination that you’ve had. So when I do workshops around white supremacy and anti-racism… And we were doing this well before George Floyd, that’s the central question that we’re asking people. Is to figure out how and why they’re in so much pain and how they need to heal. So that… And knowing that by them healing, then you won’t be on my neck. You won’t shoot me and question whether I’m human, you won’t question whether I have the right to be married. You won’t talk over me in a meeting. You won’t think it’s okay to sexually harass me. Those are the fundamental questions. It’s really about humanity coming back to itself.

And that’s why right now, as much as I’m disgusted by the needless deaths that are taking place from COVID, what ultimately I think is happening is that society is being asked to look at itself and say, “We don’t have it together, this is who we’ve become.” But the good thing is we get to become something different once we decide to take on a different action and to elevate ourselves to a higher level of consciousness. So I’ve become much more comfortable starting to talk about spiritual stuff in my work. Because once again, I’m not talking about it from a religious standpoint or a pedagogical standpoint, we’re really talking about, we’ve got to get back to the business of humanity, because guess what, if we don’t, we’re all going to face more adventure than we faced in 2020. It’s called climate change, it’s known as massive disruption.

And so this is the time for us to really start thinking about these things critically. And this is for me, the fundamental work that we all must do, which is getting back to healing and recognizing our own humanity, and recognizing the humanity of other people.

RHODES PERRY: Absolutely. I’m so happy that you mentioned spirituality. And it reminds me of Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, who trained as a lawyer and ended up going to Harvard Divinity School because she felt that that was the space that she needed to go in, in terms of doing social justice work. So it was… It’s interesting, where we’re at right now. And I appreciate both of your thoughts here and being with us for the hour a minute after. Jen, I know you have a hard stop. So I want to give you the opportunity to share with everyone online. Where can we find your work? Where’s the best place to find you? And Joel, likewise.

JENNIFER BROWN: This has been wonderful. Thank you both, and thanks everybody for coming on. I am, let’s see. @jenniferbrown on Twitter, and jenniferbrownspeaks.com is my website. And my two books, the second one is called, How to Be an Inclusive Leader. I also have a podcast called The Will to Change, which I bring some of my favorite folks on, Rhodes. And yeah, that’s where you can find me and please reach out to me on LinkedIn, feel free to join our community. We’ve been doing weekly calls for the DEI practitioner community on Thursdays at noon. And people are just loving coming together and sharing stories exactly like we’re doing here, holding space for each other and processing these many hats that we wear. And also our self care and making sure that we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. So please consider joining us for that.

RHODES PERRY: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here and Joel, where’s the best place where we can find you online?

JOEL BROWN: So, first of all, once again, thank you to everybody. I can stay a little bit extra longer if necessary, maybe another five minutes. You can find me… Our internet presence, website presence is www.pneumos.com. That’s a Greek word, so I will type it here. You can find me on Twitter @joelabrown7. You can also find me on Twitter @lasthomosexual, which is previewing a book that should be coming out fairly… Well, later on this year.

RHODES PERRY: Yes.

JOEL BROWN: You can find me on LinkedIn, at I think Joel Anthony Brown and gosh, and if you’re listening to us from overseas I am an adjunct professor at the IESEG School of Management. So come hang out with us, take a course. I’m looking forward to hearing from all of you, because this work is really about building community. So I don’t want this to be something where people say, ” I’ll come and listen to you and I can’t talk and engage.” Engage, that’s how you can learn and that’s more importantly how I learn, because we’re all students and teachers in this and I want to learn from you all as well. So it’s been a pleasure.

RHODES PERRY: Thank you so much, Joel. This is the first I’ve learned about your book. So you said it’s called the Last Homosexual. Is it memoir, what’s it about? I’m just… While we have you here.

JOEL BROWN: Well, it’s about recognizing the gifts that queer people bring to the planet and how to harness those more effectively within the workspace. So it’s based on my doctoral research and it’s something that is long overdue. So that’s one of a couple of children I’m birthing in the next year.

RHODES PERRY: That’s awesome, that’s so cool. For folks that don’t know, I have a podcast called The Out Entrepreneur and I interview… Joel, you were one of the first people I interviewed and there’s now 200 episodes. And over time, it was really interesting because we started talking about… Because of our lived experiences and the resiliencies we have, we started calling them LGBTQ superpowers. So I love what your book is about, and I will definitely get a copy and share many copies with other folks. So I appreciate that, and I appreciate you being here today.

USEFUL LINKS

Pneumos