The Journey of Inclusive Leadership: Jennifer joins Charlie Gilkey on the Productive Flourishing Podcast

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

You can also listen on iTunesStitcher, and Google Play.

This episode was originally recorded for the Productive Flourishing Podcast, and features a conversation between Jennifer and  Productive Flourishing host Charlie Gilkey.  Jennifer shares her thoughts about the journey of inclusive leadership, including the need for insiders to push other insiders to lead differently. Discover why leaders need to be patient, humble and transparent about their experiences.

JENNIFER BROWN: I think people are mystified and bewildered or feeling a sense of, I don't know how this is true, but I think it's true. Whether we agree with it or not, that I'm not somehow included in this. This is not my problem to solve. This is not my ax to grind, something to shoulder, something to that actually even relates to me. And that's never true. Everybody has an experience of diversity and exclusion, even if it's not direct. It's someone we love. It's someone in our families, it's someone in our team, in our community. We each have so much to contribute. And perhaps even, those who have not been contributing and being involved have that missing piece. Because I am unsatisfied with the pace of change.


DOUG FORESTA: The Will To Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier, and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now, onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode that you're about to hear was originally recorded for the Productive Flourishing podcast, and features a conversation between Jennifer and productive flourishing host Charlie Gilkey. As Jennifer talks about the journey of inclusive leadership.

And in the conversation, Jennifer talks about why we need to focus on the moral case for DEI just as much, if not more than the business case. The need for insiders to push other insiders to lead differently, and why leaders need to be patient, humble, and transparent about their experiences. All this and more. And now onto the conversation.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Jennifer, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast. I've been excited about this conversation for a while. Obviously we've been in other conversations. So congrats on putting out the second edition of this book, and thanks for joining us today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Charlie. So happy to be here.

CHARLIE GILKEY: All right, so one of the things I find really interesting about your story is when we look at where we are in the DEI or DE&I, or whatever version of those acronyms that we're speaking to today, it's been really trending over the last I don't know, six to seven years. Really getting hot after 2018, 2019. But you've been in this for a minute. So tell us how you got into it, and how the landscape has shifted in the period of time that you've been doing this work.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness. I've been in for probably two decades I think. And I was a learning and development professional, and previous to that I was an opera singer, and I had to quit singing because I had some vocal trouble. So I went back to school and studied organizational change and learning and development, and just really fell in love with the discipline, and was corporate person, and then started my own company.

But in those early days while I was doing learning development, I was also a volunteer for the whole LGBTQ, there was no Q at the time, LGBT workplace equality movement. And as such, my friends and I were all the kind of firsts at these really big companies, encouraging these companies to sell more respectfully to the community, to recognize the buying power of the community, and others that was increasing and still is. And to introduce more non-discrimination language into their corporate statements. And also to recognize domestic partnerships. Because at the time, that was a thing. This shows you how long ago it was.

And I really cut my teeth I think on those early days. And I fell deeply in love and committed to finding my voice. To becoming the teacher that utilized not just the skillset I might have studied, but also my lived experience as part of my source material, if you will. And telling my story. And over the course of these many years coming more and more out too, but the early days were definitely not out. I mean, it was opera singing and music theater and the '90s, and the aughts. And I knew I really suspected and I knew that it would be detrimental to my career.

So it's just something that I will never forget. It's something I still carry with me. And these days, I feel I carry both this identity that has been a source of challenge. But the overcoming of it, the learning from it, the way that it's transformed my own leadership is profound, and given me a voice, and given me a reason to get up every day.

But also the identities of privilege I carry. My socioeconomic background, the color of my skin joined with my LGBTQ identity is a really interesting combination. And speaking about all those things as a teacher now, is nothing that I was even aware of I would say in most of those years. And that's really been a recent phenomenon for me to say okay, I might have identified this way for all those years and fighting against, and raising up from bottom up change. And then now recognizing I have so much in common as well with those who are I think overrepresented in the leadership of institutions, and that I can speak to those folks and somehow reach and be heard in a certain way where I can be a change agent there. So it continues to evolve.

I think we find our place in change. And I think that our own tools, our toolkit, our self-awareness, we're always deepening that, and always finding where's the heat here? Where where's the need, and where can I be most resonant as a messenger?

CHARLIE GILKEY: And I love that journey there. Because you mentioned in the green room, let's say something provocative today. And I was like, "Well, the whole conversation." My perception is in this wave of DEI, you don't look like who we expect to be teaching about DEI, right? White passing, have a lot of the appearance of what we want hetero white women to look like. Those sort of things. Not hetero, just white women. So anyways, I'm going to give myself all sorts of trouble today.

JENNIFER BROWN: I get what you mean.

CHARLIE GILKEY: So Jennifer's going to have grace with me listeners. Please do the same.


CHARLIE GILKEY: So there's just been this interesting, in my experience as a Black man in this world, we've come either back around because we've had to, or because of different reasons we've come back where race has taken a much more center point in DEI.

I think it's after the colorblind era where we thought the way to be inclusive is just to not talk about race and to quote, "Not see color." There's just been that going on. So you commented on it. I wasn't necessarily going to start with that. But how is that dichotomy between your lived experience and your appearance, and what people are expecting for DEI specialist or thought leaders to be, really impacting your work these days?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it's such a good question, something I think about a lot. How do I utilize my platform for the work? And how do I use myself as a messenger that's unique and might have a certain angle that's needed in the equation? But it's certainly not the whole thing.

I think that we can't create change without involving people that look like me, I think, for lasting change, for sustainable change. Particularly when power is held so disproportionately in organizations, and where representation is so woefully unsatisfactory, to put a mild word on it. It's unacceptable.

So people that look like me advocating for the things that I advocate for, I hope role models, what that sounds like, what that looks like in practice. Because I think we need to help people see what that looks like so they can mimic it, so they can echo it. So that they can try it on and see, "Well, could I speak that way? Is there a story that I have to tell about an invisible diversity dimension like Jennifer does? Or is there a way," even I as a person of many privileges, is there a way I could be contributing to this? And I'm just trying to make that really clear. Because without that contribution, we, and I'll say we now as perhaps those who are underrepresented are going to be fighting harder, and utilizing more of our energy, and burning ourselves out carrying all the water for change as we've been asked to.

Standing up, and being the only, and educating, and doing the emotional labor, and all that stuff. But we need to equally invest in our current and future allies and accomplices, so that it's more of a relay race of change. It's the passing of the baton so that I can get a rest, so that you, Charlie can get a rest. And you can pass that to me and I'm ready to run with it. I know what to do with it because I've done my homework and I've studied, and I want to be more inclusive. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to leave it better than I found it.

So I just think people are mystified and bewildered, or feeling a sense of, I don't know how this is true, but I think it's true whether we agree with it or not. That I'm not somehow included in this. This is not my problem to solve. This is not my ax to grind, something to shoulder, something to that actually even relates to me. And that's never true. Everybody has an experience of diversity and exclusion, even if it's not direct. It's someone we love, it's someone in our families, it's someone in our team, in our community.

We each have so much to contribute. And perhaps even, those who have not been contributing and being involved have that missing piece, because I am unsatisfied with the pace of change. I don't know about you, but I was literally sold a bill of goods on, "Well the business case will improve this." And so I said, "Okay, I will lead with the business case." And over the years it's like business case, business case, business case. All the statistics, all the research. And we still find ourselves completely not where we should be.

So I have to ask the question, what is going on? What are we missing here in the way that we're thinking about who's doing what, and how, and why? Are we being specific enough? Are we being inclusive enough? Are we inviting people in? Are we equipping them with an understanding of where they fit? Are we clear around, "Here's what you can contribute"? And I think a lot of my contributions these days can come from the privileged identities that I carry. And that's that big unlock that I have discovered probably within the last four or five years, that I can then get to leaders and say, "Hey, I see you as an insider. You're an insider because of identity, skin color, gender identity, where you live, the families that you spend social time with." Whatever it is. "Therefore, you have so much that others could benefit from. And if you joined that capital with others' journeys, and rebalance therefore the workplace." Which is not a healthy place.

So if we can activate that, then I think we may make better progress. We may go further together as the proverb says, but we've got to kind of probably back up to go forward. And that's why I had the book. I want to meet people where they're at and say, "Hey, you're a part of this, and I'm not letting you off the hook." Just like I'm not letting myself off the hook.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. Well, I was working with an organization who has a DEI initiative. And when they got to their public messaging, I was just noting how much of it was centered around the business case. And I was like, "Look y'all, here's the thing." I think I might need to be out on this one because the business case doesn't work. And what it does is give people the opportunity to show, "Maybe we're doing all right on the business side of things," or maybe that promise of innovation and things like that, maybe we're good on some of those dimensions. So we don't need to do that. So the very thing that we're using to make the business case for inclusion can be used to show why the work is done. But they hadn't considered that. But it's like I think the only way we make the change that we want to make is to make the justice case, the moral case for this.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I love that we're circling back to that after many years. I mean, because I've seen that evolution. Lily Zheng, my friend, makes that exact point too. And she says she has a new book out too called DEI Deconstructed. And she says by not making the moral case, the business case turns us into a metric. It in its way doesn't see us in all of our uniqueness, and capacity, and innovation, and creativity, and all of our identities. And so in a way, it sort of invalidates I think the very fuel that we're looking to unleash when we talk about... When we say bringing our full selves to work, it's so easy to say, but it's so hard in practice. Companies don't mean it. They say it and they use it conveniently, but they really don't want to do the hard work of saying, "Well, why is this workplace unhealthy for people? Why does it derail their sense of belonging? What needs to change?" And PS, the answer is everything needs to change. Everything needs to be rethought. There's bias everywhere, in every system, in every process. I hate to say it, but it was not built by a representative sampling of humans. And so there were a lot of missed things in the design of it.

And it continues to cause harm, because it hasn't been revisited and challenged. And if you are an insider in any way, those points where you are an insider, that's when you can push on other insiders. That's where the power lies. And you can say, "We need to do this differently. We don't need to wait for somebody to tell us. We need to make this change." But it takes that courage. And that's why I want to shore up people who might have been on the periphery of this, because they have a lot to do that's really, really needed. But they need to lead differently.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Need to lead differently. And it's kind of like whether [inaudible 00:16:09] work on the characteristics of white supremacy and organizations, or whether that is, I think where people on the sideline get trapped up is the very cultural norms that are leading to exclusion and marginalizations are the ones that also limit their voice. Also are the ones where it's like, "You have your right to comfort," or you have your only one way. There's so many things that are baked into that that they're like in my experience, "I don't know how to get involved."

Which it's like when it's your own thing and someone says they don't know how to get involved, it's always exasperating. "What do you mean you don't know how to get involved? You can do X, Y, and Z." But when you flip it, they're like, "I don't know how to get involved over there." And it's like let's unpack this.

But I think it's so much of that underlying culture of there's one right way to do this, and there's a right to comfort, and a focus on hierarchy. And we wait for the leaders and the seniors to have a top-down initiative. I mean change management broadly speaking. Just as a side note, something like two thirds to 75% of change management efforts fail, especially the top-down led ones.

And so it's like let's think about this. If we know those are more often than failing and you're waiting on them to do something that failing, think about how you're contributing to the system versus being like, "Hey, I don't know what to do. Or I don't know if I'm saying this right, but have you been talked over in that way the whole time and I just didn't see it?" You just entered the conversation, "I see something that may have happened, and I don't know how to talk about it. But I want to talk about it. Let's figure this out how to fix that, because it didn't feel right." Or whatever the thing is right?

JENNIFER BROWN: You just role modeled the exact language. And people over-complicate it, and they say that it's scary, and they just avoid it. I can hear it. That perfectionism too in that white supremacy checklist is so enormous when it comes to inclusive leadership. We are willing to tolerate the mistakes towards innovation all day long. We're willing to get it wrong to get it right. And yet when it comes to this topic, it does operate that way. There is experimentation before you develop competence and confidence.

And as such, it's a winding road. And it's one step forward, two steps back. It's falling off, and getting back on, and getting feedback that doesn't feel very good, and then reflecting and saying, "Is there truth in that? Let me take that on, and let me not be fragile about it or defensive about it."

But I do think that supremacy checklist is literally something we all need to keep in mind. Because that is like you say, what has been rewarded. It is what has been socialized. It is baked into our systems. And I feel like sometimes, I'm having a very different, almost counterintuitive conversation about how we might step outside of that, look objectively at it say, "Okay, that might have worked for a period of time historically for a certain group of leaders." But it honestly has, like you just said, it's been actually toxic for people even on the inside. Even people that identify in the group with allegedly the power. When we look at men and masculinity as we do with some of the conferences that I'm a part of, the toxicity that men feel. Men of all identities.

I don't have to tell you that tension of being the human you are, but then having this man box culture that requires and demands conformity, and demands lining up, and staying in your lane. I mean that is not good for a whole bunch of humans of all identities. And then the ripple effects of harm kind of radiate from there. But the harm to men, all kinds of men is not to be underestimated.

And so if we can start there, I love starting in a different place. Because I feel like also we've just been pushing this thing, and something's not working. We're not where we should be. So where are some other places where we can locate the work, and the conversation, and maybe start from there and begin to create ripples of change? Because I know masculinity work then ripples out to enable all the stuff we're talking about around that. It's almost a core issue. I'm starting to really think about it that way.

CHARLIE GILKEY: I'm glad you went there. Because at this point, it has felt at times, not everywhere at all places. But when we talk about masculinity, we're only talking about toxic masculinity. And we can go that way. But, are we talking about toxic femininity? Is that a conversation that we can have? I want to make sure not to get too overly canceled here. But there's healthy masculinity. And what does that look like? Where's space in the conversation for what that looks like?

And you'll notice that if you go into that space, it lines up with what we're talking about in inclusivity and things like that. There's not necessarily a one-on-one overlap, because there might be places where when we talk about full expression, we need that... I'm just going to paint a character here. We need that 6'4" doughy offensive tackle from Nebraska to be able to show up how he feels authentic to show up too, as long as he's not harming other people. He needs space to have that right. We need that infantryman that's been doing that and has spent a hard life doing that work to be able to say, "You know what, I can show up in ways that let me express myself as well." Again, but how do we do that in ways where we talk about these gaps where there's you expressing yourself and being who you are? And then there's you doing things maybe unintentionally or unintentionally that are making people uncomfortable, not feeling welcome in belonging. If we're really going to talk about belonging, it does need to be for everybody,

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. That's right. And you could even argue, you're making me think about people who haven't been shown empathy find maybe it harder to empathize and take on the DEI agenda. So the men that were the boys, that were the bullied or the bullies. The lack of empathy that was shown for all kinds of boys, which then turns into the men, which then turns into the leadership that sets the tone. That's why that work is so fascinating to have an empathy conversation for yourself and for others that look like me. Before then I feel heard, I feel seen, I feel that it was named. And I wasn't okay with it, but it wasn't my choice. The culture was so strong.

So even just that like, "Wow, let me dig into my story and the baggage I have here and the harm. And let me come out of that, and then be awakened and have the capacity and the release of saying, 'Well if I don't have to be that, who do I choose to be? If I step outside of this, who do I want to be?'"

And the question that's so compelling to me, particularly leaders of a certain age and generation, is what legacy do you want to leave? And as you've led so far, is that enough? Is that what you want to leave?

Or do you even at a later stage in life where we're still growing, we're still evolving, we're still discovering untapped capacity in ourselves. I think we have so much potential to continue to evolve. What could I do differently now? Maybe I can lead differently. Maybe I can challenge the role I've played, or the silence that I've maintained, or the way that I haven't spoken up, or the way that I haven't told my story. And then like you said that 6'4", that person that sort of is this and that, and I'm this, and I'm almost also that. I also think the storytelling is so powerful to say, "Here's me."

I think of a Rubik's Cube these days. The intersectionality of people, the different squares, the colors, the things on the back of the cube, the things on the front that you see. That's true for every single human walking around. There's always something going on.

And that is what's so enriching about this work is these moments I can build enough psychological safety where somebody trusts me with what's true for them, and to be shocked and surprised in my own bias, in my own stereotyping of that person. And to have that check and say, "Wow, I just put you in that box and that was wrong. Thank you. And I'm going to carry your story, and who you are, and all of who you are with me." That's so profound.

So I think again, empathy, feeling seen. Almost like we sit here on the outside of all this and say, "Feel empathy. Care about this." But I think there's some inner work that has to happen for the folks that we need so desperately to step up to be involved to get into the arena for DEI and for this work.

But they're unable to, I think because there's a lot of stuff getting in the way. And you got to kind of clear, and reconcile, and align some things, and heal some things, so that you can have the full partnership of someone.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. I think in the philosophy of science, which is listeners know my background here, right? There's a well worn sort of statement that certainly observation is theory laden. Observation is theory laden. Now, cognitive psychology and things like that have taken that on. We talk about biases, and how we have an idea and we project that onto the world, but we've been talking about them for a long time in philosophy. And I don't think that participants in the conversation realize how many of those theories they have when they're engaging with. So it's like they're having empathy, but they're having empathy with a person that's not in front of them. Because how do you really get there?

And so I agree with you. One of the things I love being a coach, and facilitator, and mentor for folks is when I know they've dropped the performance, when I know they've dropped the mask. And they're not thinking about who they need to be.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's beautiful.

CHARLIE GILKEY: They're not thinking about what labels I might be seeing them as. And I can tell because they talk different. You end up getting much more sibling language. And there's just a relaxing that happens like oh. And a lot of my clients are women. And so you can just see a different change in them where they're just sitting back in their chair, smiling, laughing. They're just not performing.

And I don't know to what degree we sometimes recognize how much we're performing and those around us are so that we can really see the person in front of us and learn those things. This is a real tangent here, but I was reading Bell Hooks. I forget which of her books I was reading.


CHARLIE GILKEY: And she was talking about the terror that she had of her father, and how that framed how she understood masculinity and men. And I was reading this on the plane, I remember, I paused and I was like, "I've never been scared of my dad in that way." I've never been scared of another man in that way. I didn't associate it in that way. And so there's a way in which I didn't understand part of the conversation that many women were approaching thinking about masculinity. I'd never thought what would it be like to be terrified of this person in power.

My dad was an army sergeant, he was firm. And he was tough, and he could be mean. But he was never a terrorizing figure for me. No other men ever have, partially because you have to be meaner and tougher than my dad, and that's hard to do. So it's like you got a high bar. So I went through all the Boy Scouts, I went through all of military schools, I went through all of that, never associating violence in terror and men at the same time. And I was like, "How would I approach this whole conversation differently if that's the way that many women experience?"

So I had that sort of epiphany, talked to Angel about it, and then realized that she had some stuff. I was like, "I never really considered that." But then I was like, "But also, how would I approach this conversation differently if my base archetype for masculinity was healthy men?" And I didn't assume that men or masculinity equaled that sort of thing. So it just gives you a different entry point.

And it's kind of like we're recording this after the election, the midterm election,. And I have enough clients, and colleagues, and friends, and family members, and people I love who are either politicians, or who have run for office, who have done all those sort of things. So you see people, "They're politicians. And they're doing this. And here's what they're thinking." And I'm like, "I know enough people across the aisle from different walks of life, and none of them think like that." And many of them when I talk about what's going on, these are really complex issues that are hard to figure out, that don't show up in our media streams.

So what would happen if we approached politicians as these are our neighbors, and friends, and sisters? If we assume that they're those types of folks, because they're somebody's neighbor's sister, right? How might we then interpret their interactions, their platforms, their policies? So I know both of those, but I think we roll into seeing other people, those conversations around empathy, without understanding what we're bringing into the conversation, to even start to understand what's going on.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is so true. That's just so true. Yeah. I love everything you said. I'm just reflecting. I don't know if I can add to it, because it was a beautiful description of what we project on people and how we miss so much about the truth, and that there's a performance going on. And there's also the labels we give things to locate each other in ourselves. We look at the LGBTQ+ community. And all those letters I just strung together are an incredibly diverse group of people, and yet we've kind of mashed ourselves together for convenience. And also to find each other for sure, for community. But there's so many differences within, and so much bias, and stereotyping, and harm going on within communities of identity. There's so much diversity within the diversity.

I remember recognizing how privileged I was in the LGBTQ community, and putting those two things together, and carrying that, and beginning to articulate that. And then like you just said, walking in a community but actually not experiencing the same harms. Like you just said, it was a revelation to you to say, "I can do this and this other person can't." In my early immature days, I sort of lumped us all together, and now I completely don't. I see the intersectionality, I see difference. We're not in the age of I don't see color anymore, although I work with a lot of baby boomer leaders, and Gen Xers. And bless their hearts, this was what we taught. We were taught to say, to think, to believe, to practice.

But now, the differences are so crucial. Crucial. And to not sweep them under the rug, to talk about them, to name them. And then for people within each community that has been traditionally marginalized, to then recognize the positions of privilege they may hold, vis-a-vis that identity. We are so many things.

So I think a lot about any given moment, any meeting, any situation. What is the system right now that I'm in, and where is my position in the system? That's the question. And then what's needed from me? What can I bring that will be helpful, that will move it forward?

And sometimes that comes from my personal experience of fear, like you just said. Witnessing that, being authentic about that, creating an aha moment maybe for someone through my story. But then other times, it's turning the heat up on people that look like me from an accountability perspective. "We, I, you need to do more. And this is what more looks like. And I'm going to help provide that and lay it out for you. And then you have a choice. Do you want to do more?" I love Bell Hooks, The Will to Change. The will. This is the thing I think about a lot. How skills can be built, but will to be awakened.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. It probably was The Will To Change that I was reading. But I think what people have reported to me from all walks of life is when it comes to entering the DE&I conversation, after we go through some deeper conversation, what was revealed is they're having a hard time reconciling their past behavior with what they know now, and walking forward with what they know now.

And so I'm sure you've done this work much. But there's a reason why I don't do DEI work specifically. We might talk about that later. But you've done this a lot. You've done this a lot. So how do you help people in that place where they just look at all and now say, "I've done so many dumb things. I just didn't know. And now how do I start from where I am? I know now." And they just get stuck.

JENNIFER BROWN: I get stuck because I feel weighed down by the actions. I don't want to talk about them, because I fear I'm going to get canceled, which I find discouraging. Because the only way to where we need to go is through this. You can't go around it. We have to say, "Here's what I got wrong. Here's what I didn't know. Here's what I wish I'd handled differently. Here were gifts that people gave me so that I could increase my self-awareness."

I think people can story tell around that. I think they should. It's part of our healing. It's part of owning our past now. But leaders will say, "Jen, it's too risky to do that." And I understand that. I mean, I might argue it's risky not to. And I might also say-

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. I'm like, what's being risked here?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I might say, "Look, you have a lot of power. I think you're relatively protected." If you want to talk to me about risk, talk to my trans friend. Risky of showing up every day in your truth and dealing with the consequences of that. That's risk.

So I don't buy it. I try to gently say, "I'm sorry, respectfully, you're really not at a lot of risk. You actually are pretty protected in doing this. And this is growth." But I would make your journey transparent as much as you can. Because in doing so, not only are you putting the pieces of your life together, and who you are, and how you got here. But you also have an opportunity to say, "Here's what I want to be. Here's what I want to know. Here's what I'm not okay with. Here's where I am going to be endeavoring to change and grow. And what you're going to see in me as I go down this journey. You're going to hear me say this, try this."

And what you can do also in that moment, in that same breath, is you can say, "Please let me know how I'm doing." In that same breath, welcome that feedback, open that door. And I wouldn't even say, "My door is open." That's too passive. Because I'm like people aren't going to tell you the truth. You know that. Emperor has no clothes. As leaders, we are always isolated. The more senior we are, the more removed we. Are and we're removed in many ways. We didn't have the lived experience of a different generation. Nobody wants to tell us the truth. We're in I think a very place of jeopardy, honestly. What we don't know can really hurt us and our ability to lead, to succeed, to get the most from ourselves, from others. So we can't afford not to know.

But we have to humble ourselves and truly seek, not just say, "My door is open," but seek this information. Assume we are not going to know, and talk about the fact that we're not going to know. And believe me. When I talk this, this is hard for me. This is actually my vision for myself too. But for me to talk about, "Here's what it sounds like. Is this scaring you? Is it terrifying?" You don't know how it's going to turn out.

Back to your white supremacy checklist, the predictability rate in that checklist. That's what I see. I don't know if it's a word in there, but I think that it is like I want guarantees Jennifer. I want to know when I'm going to be done, and when do I get the gold star, and when am I finish the task, and when can I check it off my list?

It's all of this baggage on this very, I think, what's the word? It's a delicate process to evolve. And there are twists, and turns, and forwards, and backwards, and uncertainties, and ambiguity. And you got to tolerate and sit with those super uncomfortable feelings like you just said of, "Who was I before?"

But I want to welcome the person that was imperfect before, because that was all of us. That's not uncommon. That's all of our stories. There were moments. I am ashamed of what I didn't know, what I didn't say, how I looked at the world, who raised me, what I was not exposed to. But what matters is what I'm doing with all of that today.

And I think we need to give people chances to reconcile, to take accountability, to share the imperfections, and the regrets, and the mistakes. But we have to make space for that. And we're in such an intense, angry, polarizing time.

Charlie, I wish for grace for each other. But I also do know that it can get very messy, very fast, when people don't have the skill to navigate their way through it. And the last thing I want to do is throw people into the deep end and say good luck, good luck with inclusive leadership. Because it is a minefield, and you're going to get blown up over, and over, and over again.

I don't want that to be true because I actually don't think humans learn and improve from being shamed. I just don't believe that that's possible. But the shaming is a technique unfortunately that is commonly used. And it's almost like we have this blunt instrument of shaming and calling out. But there's so many other ways to invite change that I think we need to broaden our palette, so to speak. Do you agree?

CHARLIE GILKEY: I agree. And it's one of those things where I'm going to pull back what you said. Like you said, I don't think humans learn by shaming. I think we can get behavior change through shaming.

People will play this part, and they'll do the script, and they'll go through the motions. But you didn't say that. You said learn, or evolve. I agree. We don't learn and evolve through shame. We learn what not to do. We learn the lay of the game. But we don't have an entry point into whatever that is, right? Until we just get to the point to where we can avoid the shame pain. And it's like okay, that's what I learned. But that's not really what we're trying to do here.

And so, I wonder about that. Because again, with a lot of my clients come to me, again, I don't do this work directly. But when I see these issues popping up, I'm like, "Here's the thing, I'm not going to take the tension away. I'm not going to give some answer to where you are then able to understand LGBTQ people." That's not how this works. Each person is a distinct person, and you're going to have to sit with the tension that each person you see may need different things. They may have different experiences. And so that means every new person in every situation, and every team configuration, you might be back with this question of how do we increase belonging and inclusion for everyone with where we are? And what worked today may not work tomorrow.

So if you're looking for one answer, I can't give that. But let's talk about why you want that answer, right? Let's talk about what's underneath that, right? Because do we really want other people to end up with a simple answer for who we are, that then we're forever in that box of who we are? We don't want that for ourselves. So why do we want that for other people in other situations?

So I think that's just part of this culture that we come from where whether it's Aristotelian logic or whether it's just the foundations where it's like it's either the right way or the wrong way. And I'm like, "There's so many perspectives." And by the time you get so contextual and conditional, you'll see that actually there might have been one right way for this person in that time, in that configuration. But that river, you will never step into that river again.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's so beautiful. When I learned that point so much around 2020 and 2021, but particularly that summer. The whole question is checking in with your Black friend. It reminds me of, the key learning for me was no one is experiencing this moment in the same way. So at the same time as you can estimate a community, you can understand the sort of contours of an experience, and learn that, and study that. I always say know the top five microaggressions that people hear. You should know that. Because there's a lot in that. There's a lot of wisdom there.

And then you kind of need to throw the book away and encounter this person across from you. And every time I would ask, "What is the right answer to that?" Everybody would answer it differently. And it depends on the day. I may be feeling extremely depleted today, and I don't want to solve for your learning. I don't want to support you in your fear and uncertainty.

But then there are other days, I have a ton of energy. And I feel like I'm resourced. And there's extroverts, there's introverts. There's all kinds of thought and personality differences and diversities within each of our identity groups too.

So each of us has these different roles, different thresholds, different sort of sustainability aspects I guess, to our battery. And that exists across difference, across all of these identities that we sort of label and put into buckets that. You and I might hail from extremely different identities, but we may share, I don't know, a Myers Briggs type or something. Or you might be a Woo on the StrengthsFinder, which you probably are. So there are some things that transcend these visible differences too, that keep us apart. And I think those are really neat to explore too.

And this is why in my work with affinity groups and ERGs, I'm always looking for not just the vertical identities that we typically think of for diversity dimensions like race, gender, veteran status, disability. But I think about what crosses all of us, like mental health, or our experience of gender.

Gender is not just relevant to LGBT people and women. Everybody's having a gender experience, or parenting, or neurodiversity. Or ability and disability, those horizontal threads. So I'm always thinking about the diversity within the diversity, the intersectionality, and the things that also pull us together. And like you say, allowing for all that beautiful individuality to exist. So it is this tension, you're right. Because somebody wants the answer. They want, "Well what do all X people think? What do they want, they?"

And it's sort of like well, thank you for being interested. But the answer I'm going to give you is extremely complicated. And it's beautiful in its complexity. But sometimes as a teacher, you always want to simplify. You always want to give people an entry point that they can enter in. Something they can hold onto. So I don't know if that's what you mean by tension.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah, it is. Because they want that answer. And sometimes I'm like, "I don't know, ask them." They might know themselves better than I do. Well, yeah.

CHARLIE GILKEY: I say that. It's tongue in cheek. But we have to realize that a lot of times when we live in these systems, part of the oppression of the system is we lose access to ourselves as well. And so we may not know what we want. We may not be able to navigate that because of the system. Or we may not feel that we can speak up to it. Right? And so that's a real thing that happens as well. And so that's where I say they might know, but they might not.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. One of my favorite things Charlie, is the surprise readers of my book are going through their own journey of realizing that they are not living their truthfully, and sort of emerging. And that self-awareness and the permission that people still need to mind all of that, they may have been suppressing that they don't know themselves, like you said. That, "I don't know I'm having the experience that this whole community of people is having." And by the way, is researched and written about. People don't know that stuff. I mean, I look at it all day long. And I know it, but it's so cool to see people wake up to, "Wow, I'm not making that up. I did have that experience. I'm not alone. There's a community I can bring this to that I can feel seen and heard in," which is so powerful and so important.

And then from there, I can begin the process of deciding with my eyes open, what do I want to bring to the world? But yeah, it's the assumption that we know ourselves, and that people always have the answer, and then they're going to give you something clean. No such thing.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. I mean I half the time don't know what I want.

JENNIFER BROWN: I'm with you.

CHARLIE GILKEY: It's just one of those things. And so it's like, "Okay, how do we unpack that?" You mentioned something about us being dynamic creatures, and being up for the conversation some days, and then other days not. And that's why when we make that space there about this range of conversations, then I think we also open up that when we're not in these harder conversations, someone can be like, "You know what? I'm just depleted today, and I don't know that I can have this strategy conversation today. Can we maybe reschedule that or think about that differently? Or is there a different way to go?" Because it lets us learn that wait a second, we are dynamic creatures that maybe have different bandwidths to engage in different ways. And that's an open conversation that we can have. Because obviously when it's us and we're at our capacity, our emotional, social, cognitive capacity, many people would really appreciate. It'd be like, "Is there a way that we can not do that today?"

Now we have to be careful here because conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion, are really easy to punt, because they're hard to do in the moment to keep punting. I'm not really feeling it today. Especially unfortunately, if you're the people that have the privilege, to opt out of the conversation. "It's been a hard day. Can we talk about this whole LGBTQI inclusion thing next week? Can we reschedule that?" So it's tricky, right? It's super, super tricky.

JENNIFER BROWN: It doesn't really apply equally across the board, I think is what you're saying.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. It doesn't apply equally. It could be that I just had an argument with my brother, and I'm emotionally overloaded from that argument with my brother. And I can't process this other conversation to where I might need to be shepherding you through different people's lived experiences. And do that in a way where I have the patience and the ability to have that be a... I'm not trying to say we should always have the soft DEI conversation. You know what I'm talking about. Actually, I'll let you unpack that. But we also know that the really hard, spiky ones also don't make it go in there. So you do this work every day. So you know what I mean by the soft and the spiky ones. So unpack that for us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Spiky ones too.


JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, lordy. Yeah. What you're speaking about, it's like we're our own barometer, and we have to put our oxygen mask on first, as we say, and pick our moments. But we need to be in systems that allow for that, to make that ask.

And the stigma though, and this is mental health. This is for our own mental health, and advocating for ourselves, and raising our hand and saying, "I'm not up for this today." I guess when you're on the side of doing a lot of the labor for the organization, that's why I think this kind of applies differently depending on who you're talking about. But if you are on that side and you're being asked to educate, there's got to be an acknowledgement that historically, you've carried the water. Historically, we've overburdened folks with showing up, or leading something, or being the spokesperson, or educating everybody else, while dealing with all the stuff that's coming at them daily.

So I do think to opt out, it to me is very contextual. If I were judge and jury here, I would say, "For the person who's not enduring the daily microaggressions," I might say, "Well remember, opting out is a privilege that is afforded to some." And then for those of us who are carrying tons of water and have put all of our passion in addition to everything we do, for us to opt out is a radical self-care measure.

So I guess what I am kind of delineating, there is a tension there. And there's a difference of our criteria. But I don't know, you and I don't get to be there in that moment and make that call. But I hope that whoever's listening to this thinking about how do you take care of yourself, but how do you hold yourself accountable for change? So if you're the person that's opting out because it's uncomfortable, but you're really not exhausted on a spiritual level from having really had to tangle with this your whole life. Then it's sort of like the risk conversation we had earlier. Are you really out of bandwidth, or do you just want to avoid the spikiness and the discomfort? So I do think this is different considering who's in that conversation.

And the fatigue is real. And I worry about our community. And when I say our community, this is the practitioner community. We are having the human experience as all the things we are, at the same time as we're teaching, and we're holding space, and we're directing the strategy. And we're the ones being tortured about the business case all day long too. And not feeling like, "Hey, don't I matter enough? Am I the business case? Is this enough?"

I was with an executive team, and somebody was just arguing with how irrelevant sexual identity and gender identity is, to me. And I'm there paid to facilitate this conversation. And I'm like, "Do I say out loud how invalidated I feel like as a human right now? Do I use this as a learning moment?"

But boy, is it hard for all of us to be the teacher, but also be the human in the equation, and having to balance all those things. And yet feeling that the work has chosen us, feeling that there's nothing else that we would rather do in the world.

So it's very intense. It's an intense combination of things. And it's something I wish people knew, and understood, and knew how to support our leaders that are really pushing this boulder uphill. When we don't even to your point, I'm not sure we even know how to support ourselves.

I have a hard time answering self-care questions, because it's this magnet that pulls me forward. It's just this, "I must do this, and all else be damned." But the all else is the personal care, the boundaries, the I'm not ready to have conversation today. Especially if you do this for a living, you cannot opt out. You honestly can't do that.

So this gets to managing and leading really, really differently in organizations. I think what you're tapping into is do we make space for anybody, for any reason to say, "I'm uncomfortable. I don't have the resources today. I'm going to take care of myself." And if that means I'm not finishing that project, if it means I need some time. Leaders I think need to flex around this versus fight against it, and push it, and force it, which is what the answer has been. And that is what the white supremacy checklist would tell you to do, just push right through. And I was raised that way. I mean, there was no room. There was no room for me to be messy, not show up, not make a good impression, not complete the task, not achieve. No room.

So it's this daily struggle for me even to be like, "Hey, can I just be human? Am I allowed to be that?" And be the expert by the way, Charlie. That's the other thing. When you write the books, "Well, you're supposed to have all the answers." "Well, you're supposed to hold it together."

It's the performance of those who they consider an expert to behave as. Right? You walk in, you have the command and control, you have the answers, you have this persona. But part of the learning is to show up in the messiness and have people not say, "Well, that's not professional." Or, "She doesn't know what she's talking about because she was vulnerable."

I see some executives are starting to share about mental health challenges, and I'm like, "That is really brave." If we had more people open about that, I think that would go a long way towards where we need to be. But there's so much hiding going on, and so many untruths that are allowed to stand. And then as a result unfortunately, we think that nobody shares our story. And that's the tragedy of all this is let's not let anybody suffer alone, when they're really not alone.

CHARLIE GILKEY: You're really not alone. And for those leaders who are not talking about these challenges, it's insidious. But it actually leads to them resenting being in the conversation about other people's needs.

JENNIFER BROWN: So true. Yeah, because they're not heard.

CHARLIE GILKEY: They're not heard. It's not what's stated... So much of what we talk about in this is just the absurdities that we integrate and practice. But when we say them out loud, they don't make sense. And so the absurdity, the operative absurdity is since my needs aren't taken care of, and your needs, we just don't really take care of needs around here.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's not what we do. That's not what we're about.

CHARLIE GILKEY: That's not really the game. Really the game is you show up, and it's a hardcore culture until you use the Twitter, going on right now. And we just do the job. That's a whole four conversations. And that's just what it is. And so if they're like, "This is the game that I have to play," but they don't have to play that game, this is bullshit. And then that's where we end up having to make the business case. It's like, "Well yeah. We know that there's some moral stuff in there, but this will make your business better." "Okay, well damn." Right? Instead, we can be saying, "Really, how would we change the organization so that everyone can have space?"

JENNIFER BROWN: What a beautiful question.

CHARLIE GILKEY: And do their best, and be their whole person, including you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Including you. Because by the way, the way it's organized now, without you knowing it, it is actually toxic for you. It may be all you know, but that doesn't make it right.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. And when we really take seriously emotional contagion, and we really take seriously that energy has to go somewhere, where do you think that toxicity goes? It doesn't just stay with you. And so it's that sort of scenario.

So I'm curious. First I got to say one thing. I'm sorry that happened to you in doing that facilitation. That super sucks. What did you do in that moment?

JENNIFER BROWN: And I'm sure his colleagues were horrified, right? I love it, when you teach a lot of groups like I do, you see the group correct itself, which I love. Which makes my job a lot easier. First thing I say to myself is allies are important. This is the moment when to me, it makes the case for the relay race. That I don't always have to solve everything. I don't always have to be the one. But I've got to pick my head up and say in the moment, "I'm not alone." And that others are ready to support. They may not know how, but I would imagine, I was a long way away and they were in a room somewhere in Europe.

So I would imagine this person got some conversations. And that's where I know we're making progress. Not every problem is one for us to solve alone. And working smarter, not harder to me in D&I means that we line up our supporters, that we remember this very key moment. And reach out for help, ask for support, lean on others. Not again, back to the white supremacy checklist: individualism. So this permeates a lot of us in our warrior-ness. In our, "I'm a fighter. I have to take care of the shit that is happening."

So I was mindful of that. And in that moment, I think I probably struck a balance between saying, "You realize that what you're saying, your words, how they might land on someone that identifies as I do." And just ask it. It wasn't like, "How dare you?" It wasn't [inaudible 01:01:51] it's gentle and loving but firm. And it's a reminder to come back to heart, come back to kindness, come back to seeing a human. And I might have carried on. And then I think you go and you unpack it with other people who you can just vent with.

I think you hold it together and then you leave and you're like, "I need to really go and scream a little bit, and get angry, and complain, and just say, 'Can you believe this happened?'" And that's where leaning on others too within community is super important. And for you to say, "I'm sorry that happened to you." That's beautiful. And if you'd been in that room, I think you would have said something, right? Because you know what you know. And you've done that work, and you're aware. You've picked your head up and you've said, "I don't identify as Jennifer, but that's not going to happen on my watch. Not in the rooms that I'm a part of." And I know that you would do that, and I would do that with you.

But this means that shoring up our allies, thinking about this is why this work is so important. Because if we don't do it, we're alone. Again. And I don't want to be alone. I'm not going to survive alone. So this is why I always come back to, can I strengthen people who are on the sidelines and help them step in? And in that moment, if they know something's wrong, they may not know what to do. But they may think about it, they may raise it, either in the moment or afterwards. And they may learn a lot from that. And I think that's the best we can hope for.

And in the meantime, I try to be bamboo, not break. And just be very resilient, and very again, gentle, but firm and strong. And say, "This is a reminder also of where people are." It's just a reminder. And that's good for a teacher to know. Because if we don't meet people where they're at, we can't be effective.

So good reminder. And taking that in, but not letting it destroy me. Not over-rotating towards things also too. I think that's another technique as a teacher you have to have is just, so trust in the group to correct itself, shore up allies and continue to invest in them. Let them know when they're being helpful. Congratulate, that's not the word. Encourage someone and recognize someone when they step up. Because many times people do something naturally, don't even notice. Didn't do it intentionally, but it was really helpful. Remark on it. Tell them exactly what they did. Encourage that. That's how we build more.

And then I would say think about bamboo, think about working with, think about the information you're getting. Think about how it is happening for you as someone who, I don't know why I needed to be reminded that that is still a thing. That's still happening, that's still on people's hearts and minds. Really good reminder so that I don't get too far ahead of my skis, and too optimistic. Sometimes crashing me back to earth is good. And it's sobering, but it's necessary.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Yeah. Well knowing more context that it was for a European client, I have different ways in which I understand that. Right?


CHARLIE GILKEY: So as we start wrapping up, I'm curious. So this is the second edition of How to Be an Inclusive Leader. I'm going to use punches, even though it doesn't resonate, but it doesn't make sense. What punches did you pull or soften in second edition that you're like, "Maybe I could have said it differently or more forcefully"? Sometimes in this work you're like, "There's this way I would've done it, but I decided not to."

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. I don't think we pulled a lot in this one. I think I pulled some in the earlier edition.


JENNIFER BROWN: I think this is why you do a second edition, I think. And if there's any authors listening to this, it's a wonderfully clarifying exercise to go through, an opportunity to re-craft something, right? And make it more hard-hitting.

So I think I wasn't as deep in the work when I wrote the first one. That was five years ago. I'm a very different human. I'm unafraid where I was maybe pulling the punches or more hesitant earlier. I think I have the wind at my back of change in a very different way than in 2018/19 when I was writing the first edition. So I feel I have permission to be more honest and take the gloves off.

And speaking to white readers more directly, who are reading the book, and really naming that. And saying, "Hey, I'm talking to you. Talking to me, talking to you. We need to do more. Here's what more looks like." So I would say actually, it was a gloves off addition.

Could I have gone even further? Maybe. But I still am very aware of where people are, and what they're ready for, and what they're not ready for. Even though we've gone through this huge reckoning, and so much has turned upside down, I still am in so many rooms where it's very elementary.

So I don't want to get so far ahead that the only people I'm talking to are the 3.0 people. I don't want to leave people behind. And so there's this balancing act of I want to have the biggest audience possible, but not for sales and money. Because God knows books are not lucrative. But to reach as many people as I can is more my goal. So I had to balance the truth telling, and the ripping the bandaid off, and the insistence of the book, with the, "And you can do this. I know you can do this. I've seen people do it. It is not only doable. It's necessary." But it's this gift. It's an invitation to transformation that gosh, I hope becomes a classic.

I mean, I think whenever you write something, you hope it really changes people's frame. And you've written so much and done so much to shift people's frames too. And I know you probably agree, there's just nothing getting that email that says, "Thank you. I've never looked at this the same way again." And that's my goal.

But talk to me. Maybe I'll write even a harder hitting one in the future. I could really, really take the gloves off if that's the way I go. But I also sometimes want to go to the softer side of this too. Part of me really wants to dive into the more personal, spiritual, emotional aspect of change, and write about that. So I don't know where I'm going next.

CHARLIE GILKEY: Well, I'm excited about wherever that is. I think your book will change a lot of people, and it is a great entry point into this conversation for folks that have not found their way in through other means.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I like that. I'm very happy with that.

CHARLIE GILKEY: So as the guest on today's show, you get to leave our listeners with an invitation or a challenge depending upon, what most resonates with you. So based upon what we've talked about, what would you invite or challenge our listeners to do?

JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe a challenge. To get comfortable being uncomfortable. To learn to sit in the ambiguity, in the not knowing. And almost act as if and practice it as a new normal and status quo. Because it will hold you in good stead for all of the ways that you will need to lead and show up in the future. I mean, DEI is a laboratory for human evolution. It challenges us at the deepest level. But it's exactly the medicine. It's exactly what we need right now.

But yeah, I think that is my challenge. And it's a challenge I experience. I don't know about you. But sitting with that, and practicing that, breathing through it, moving through it with love, with grace for ourselves, and for others. And not running away, but staying in it so that we can see what's on the other side is really an invitation as well. If I can wrap that, I wanted your invitation too, so I just grabbed it at the very end.

CHARLIE GILKEY: I appreciate that. Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us today on the show.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much.


Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at 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 & Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next time with a new episode.