This takeover episode of The Will to Change features a conversation with Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law and Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law. Kenji interviews Jennifer about the 2nd edition of her best-selling book How to be an Inclusive Leader. Kenji and Jennifer cover a variety of topics, including the generational shift that’s underway, gender identity as a continuum, and the need to hold space for each other on our learning journeys.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Things are so high, like the pressure's so high, the righteous and right anger, fair, totally deserved anger at the system, at the people who've been participating in the system without knowing, the people who've been asleep and not involved. All of that anger and frustration, I feel that. I feel that as somebody who's been in the movement for LGBTQ rights for so long. Gratitude for allies, but frustration around being seen as less of a person and not having the degree of allyship that I really want and deserve and not having male allies to the extent that I want and feeling so vulnerable in the world. What I wish is we could hold space for each other graciously and with love for the learning journey that we're on.
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. Now, onto the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. This takeover episode of The Will To Change features a conversation with Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Professor of Constitutional Law and director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law and Kenji interviews Jennifer about a variety of topics, including the second edition of her best selling book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader. They also discuss the generational shift that's underway, gender identity as a continuum and the need to hold space for each other on our learning journeys. All this and more, and now onto the episode.
Hello, everybody. My name is Kenji Yoshino. I'm the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, and perhaps more importantly for these purposes, a faculty director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, inclusion and Belonging. I'm so honored to be taking over Jennifer's podcast today and to have as my guests an imitable Jennifer Brown. So great to be with you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Kenji, thanks so much, and everyone who knows and watches me speak and listens to every talk I give, I evoke your name and I evoke your work on covering and it has resonated far beyond I think what even you can imagine. Everybody who knows, this is such a treat for me to speak to you and just do a pulse check on this moment that we're in with one of my favorite voices.
KENJI YOSHINO: Thank you so much. I should say that this is a joyous reunion, kind of occasion of it is really the publication of the second edition of your book. It's How to Be an Inclusive Leader, your role in creating cultures of belonging where everyone can thrive. I believe the second edition just came out on October 4th from Barrett Kohler and I couldn't be more excited for you. I mean, I understand that the first edition was just published in 2019, so it's quite a coup that has had such legs. I take our charge today to talk a little bit about the book, but also to have just a wide ranging conversation about what has happened in the time since we last talked in public and just to catch up as friends. Does that sound good to you?
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that's great. I can't wait.
KENJI YOSHINO: Wonderful. Let's begin with the book, which again is so excellent and I really encourage everyone to read, even if they've read the first edition. I was really struck by how much you had updated it. Can you tell us a little bit about what the original book was about and then what the updates are?
JENNIFER BROWN: It's funny, Kenji, I came up with the four part model literally on the back of a napkin. I remember maybe five years ago or six years ago, and I began to teach it and I learned through teaching something and I'm sure you can relate, but it didn't have a lot of flesh on the bones when I was beginning to teach it. I remember it being kind of clunky and I don't know if you ever have this feeling, maybe you don't actually, of not knowing what you're going to say next.
KENJI YOSHINO: Oh, constantly. I'm having it right now.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think our learning process as teachers is really interesting. It's not something to be ashamed of, but actually it's remembering how you came to understand something is so important then when you go back and you try to teach it and remembering where your audience is. But simply I'm a geek for models. I love every model. My favorite ones are the Johari Window, the ladder of inference, the Maslow, the conscious incompetence model in particular I really loved when I was building this, because ... you know that model, right? It's unconscious incompetence and then it's conscious incompetence, I know what I don't know, and then it's conscious competence, which is, "Okay, I'm trying to know and it's awkward and I'm having to be very conscious about my consciousness." It's not second nature.
Then we have unconscious competence, which means I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can hopefully not ride the bike and text at the same time, but I can do it, I think, more naturally, more natively and not have to grind the gears myself. It's something that comes naturally. So the four part model, but the genesis of it was that. Then I also thought about allyship, honestly. I thought about going way back, Kenji, you and I share the LGBTQ+ identity and community. Back 20 years ago when I was on equal board in New York, we created what's called the Advocacy Frontier, and we created four or five different sort of rings, concentric rings of naming the progress. Like what would progress look like? What would we achieve as a community if we went from so what is the next step and then the step after that and the step after that. In the advocacy frontier, we populated it with things like domestic partner benefits. These were early days, right? Pre-marriage equality.
Then we imagined a day when companies would be leading on this and what would leading look like, what would the ingredients of leadership really look like? It was such a formative process for me to think through the stages of advocacy, the stages of maturity or progression, and then to relate it to, honestly, my own journey, learning that I'm not just LGBTQ and cisgender woman, but I'm also white and exploring the socioeconomic details of my life, how I grew up, what I had access to, those tailwinds I always think about that sped me along in achieving whatever I've achieved, the plush carpet that is underneath me at all times and how that shifted and changed now in hindsight, understanding my coming out process, the way I was in a way very protected.
The more we've learned around the most marginalized amongst us, the most difficult identities to carry in the world and the implications of those, you begin to realize, "Well, I might be this, but I'm also all these other things." I really wanted to update the book with that nuance because I think we talk about privilege in this really unproductive way, which is, "Well, I either have it or I don't," which is not true, "It is bad that I have it. I'm a bad person because I have it and I can't add anything to the effort because I'm incapable." I can't abide that because I know in my own journey that is the biggest calling that I feel right now and it's so available to me. It is leverageable, it's so actually in a way very concrete.
These days, I just wanted to make sure I imbued the pages with this new understanding that I have over the last couple of years, which is, well, I was the activist, I was the one that wasn't hurt, I was the one that was full of the fire of equality and fighting for that, for my own community. But then flipping it around to say, "Wait a second, I have to go get a different group of people now. Something has shifted in terms of who I'm going for." My people aren't just LGBTQ people. My people are also white people, they're also white men. They're the men that I've been grown up in relationship with most intimately because that's my culture. This whole concept of getting your people is thrown around, but for me that is very profound. Who can hear me explain something that reaches them in a way more efficiently, more quickly, more directly because of perhaps the unearned whatever it is?
Earned, unearned, it doesn't matter. The credibility I have to be heard and listened to, I'm going to use that. I think that's a whole different ... I describe this, Kenji, and I'm still finding the words honestly, because I feel I'm trying to pull a thread of something very new in our conversation because it is new in me and it's a new understanding connection point. Then it's like, okay, so could we possibly invite people off the sidelines in a different way using different things from what we possess? I know I possess those things. I know I use those every day, but I've been in this work for 25 years. But how can I then explain that to people and teach it as a way to support this from what we have, not who I'm not. Not that I'm a bad person and I have to overcome that. I don't think learning and action and impact can happen from a place of shame. I don't think that works for any of us humans and so we have to go another way.
But I'm still charting that path. You can hear me trying to bush whack my way through the forest of this because it feels very like a thicket of bad feelings and bad assumptions and I'm a bad person and that doesn't get us anywhere where we need to go.
KENJI YOSHINO: I love that, and that's actually a privilege to watch you in flight in that way, so thank you for sharing that. These four stages, just to review, are unaware, aware, active, and advocate. I think that what you've just given us is an explication of how you yourself are constantly on this trajectory as we all are. Then what I would love to draw you out on are a couple of things. The first of them is what do you think has changed that led to the shift in your perspective? Because I notice it too. A colleague of mine said to me the other day, "When did we become the man?", in the sense we're now the establishment. People look at us and they don't look at the scrappy young activists that we still ... at least I still conceive of myself to be. They look at us as authority figures who control the levers of power and need to be of cajoled along.
It's an astonishing mindset shift. I think about it as how much of this is A, I'm just getting older and more senior in the profession. B, same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. It may be endangered after the Dobb's decision, but many of the core legal battles that were about our fundamental equality have settled in our favor and they're now newly endangered and I don't want to minimize that, but there's a sense in which it's like that canon has closed. Then the third one is really just awareness of just through our own maturational processes, through what we're seeing in the culture, this notion of the great aw awakening. The thing that's different, as Matt Iglesias says, about this moment is that white people are going to Black Lives Matter movements, that men are going to the women's march on Washington, straight and cisgender individuals are being allies to the LGBT community. Allyship is now the word of the year according to dictionary.com.
There may be that element too of we're just becoming more aware that we have multiple identities as you say, and we need to think about the privilege side as well as the non-privileged side of the ledger. Obviously all of these could be true, but I'm curious to draw you out on which one of those explanations resonates the most with you in terms of your own shift.
JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, what you just laid out is precisely ... the first thing that occurred to me was the generation that we're in and where we are in our careers and how we've matured in many ways age-wise out of these conversations that I can't even sometimes relate to. I don't know if you have this experience of feeling like we are the oldsters. It's a weird feeling to have worked so hard, I guess, to build a movement or be a part of building that movement and be a voice in that context and yet to wonder if you're relevant still.
I get asked the question sometimes as a white cisgender woman, "How do you view your role in this conversation?" I think that the question underneath the question is relevance. Then I get it a lot sort of backdoor messages in social media, for example, to say, "Jennifer, I would love to know because I get a lot of pushback on using my voice because of the way that I identify and I wonder how you cope with that." I never really have a good answer for that, Kenji. I think that my exploration of privilege is one of my answers to it and my exploration and strong memories of being in the LGBTQ community and being the only cisgender woman in the room. My experience of exclusion within the community that I'm a part of is also really interesting.
I think intersectionality is such an answer. It's a place I go to try to pull a lot of different voices towards what I've built and then share the platform and make sure that those voices are centered to share their lived experience so that I'm not doing that for anyone unless it's needed and I'm the one in the room, which we all know we need to do, we need to represent. But viewing myself in the system and where I fit and where I don't fit, where I'm an insider and where I'm an outsider, where I can perhaps speak truth to power in a different way or with the rooms I can get in, what is the responsibility I have once I'm in there? Also, I also think cynically, do we just wait for this whole generation to pass through and leave? Sometimes I wonder who am I going to rescue and get on board and am I just fighting ... Is it a quixotic battle of ultimately the one thing that's going to change all this is a generational shift that's already underway?
Sometimes I feel is it worthy for me to put all my energy towards making sure that those with power are deploying it for the purposes of inclusion inequity? Or do I wait for these massive sea changes to happen because there is no teaching a certain generation. Are we sort of baked at some point? I'm arguing against my own business model, honestly, and the audience that I want most to galvanize, but I guess I have these moments, and I don't know if you do as well, the questioning of, "Am I fighting the right battle? Am I utilizing what I have access to now? Am I pointing it in the right direction? Am I deploying it in the right way and will it be fruitful?"
I don't know. I don't think I answered your question, but I'm asking you how do we decide where to put ... we've built and built and build and we've become what you said your friend said, when do we become so establishment? But what do we do with the position that we've achieved now? Where do we point our efforts and our energy and what we've created? Where can it cause the most good? Where can it have the most positive impact? I'm sure you probably have many constraints in your role too that force you to frame your efforts in a certain way. I don't know if I have more freedom or less freedom in terms of how I deploy things. Probably as an entrepreneur I do, but this is a question that occurs to me, where do we deploy our voice?
I mean, you have a book coming out in February of 2023 and I guess that's a question for you. When you wrote that, where did you feel you could have the most impact? Did it surprise you? Are you skeptical? Do you wish maybe there were other books that you had had the opportunity to write and for different audiences? Because in looking at it, there's so many different directions to point ourselves. This is such a question I sit with every day, I think, and at some point you have to land the plane and you have to choose and you have to pick a lane. But I think that you and I are both very expansive thinkers. We're very curious. I think we could do a lot of different things. Let me point it back to you.
KENJI YOSHINO: No, that was wonderful and I think you did answer my question because I really took you to be saying this is largely a generational thing where we've become establishment and now the question is how do we actually leverage that? I think our books are really in deep conversation with each other in that this book that I've written is also attempt to say, well, I am going to speak much more to the would-be allies in the audience, right? Because I feel like that is my competence of, as you say, if I am in all the rooms where a lot of the decision-making happens, what would I say to my colleagues about their privilege that they would never hear from somebody who doesn't share that privilege? As a man talking to other man or what have you, they're all forms of privilege that I can leverage in these conversations that I think I could not have done or would not have thought to do at earlier stages of my life.
This book is really a book for allies and I think I'm a little bit more sanguine.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, please.
KENJI YOSHINO: Because I think that ... a couple of things. I mean, one is, and this is not particularly optimistic, but if you're looking to the generation down from us, I realize that there are so many hopeful things and like Stu Friedman says, it's like the younger generations are unionized as the generation around the things that we most care about, so work life balance or purpose driven lives or what have you, or diversity and inclusion. That's wonderful, so I totally endorse that, but when I look at the legal landscape, putting on my constitutional law and discrimination hat on, we're definitely going backwards with the Dobb's opinion, with the endangerment of, frankly, Obergefell versus Hodges I think freshly endangered now.
I don't think that we can take for granted that the world will only spin forward and the passage of time will mean that sort of rising generation will bring into fact all of the ends that you and I have fought our whole lives for. But that rather pessimistic assessment of we can't assume that this wiggish narrative of the world will always improve I think makes our role more important of saying whatever the status of the world is, we are the ones who are currently in power talking to the generation that is in power so we can actually leverage that. I actually would love to throw back to you because you said something that I thought was really powerful and intriguing earlier about thinking about how the shift from the first to the second iteration of this book being owning your privilege more and then leveraging it to talk to other privileged people.
I try to do that too, but I guess my question back to you is those conversations can feel like the most fraught conversations. I even want to drill down to the word itself. I've had endless, and I'm sure you have too, debates over whether even to use the word privilege in these conversations. When you are actually getting somebody to acknowledge something that has never struck them, and that is also not necessarily to their immediate advantage to think about, namely their own privilege, how do you approach that question? Do you use the word, do you not use the word? When you use it? What kind of a wrapper do you put around it so that they can actually hear what you're saying?
JENNIFER BROWN: It's so tricky. It's like you've got to go in and neutralize the bomb. I'm having this visual of saying, "Okay, we're going to have this conversation, but I promise it won't hurt." But acknowledging that it has hurt in the past and there's a deep fear. You talk about covering. Covering of privilege is a really interesting thing. It started to come into focus, Kenji, as I is teaching your concept and people will come up and say, "I have a PhD and I don't talk about it with my colleagues." I started to fill in the blanks for my own understanding of like, "Oh, okay, so this covering is occurring across the board." I have not been super honest about or very open about the way I grew up, so I have to apply these principles equally. You know what I mean? We can't just put parts of us in play and hide other ones away, particularly when somebody needs to see me speak this and do it authentically and naturally and comfortably.
Role modeling is so much a part of our teaching. Somebody that looks like me, and these are the words I use ... I mean, sometimes, I don't know about you, Kenji, honestly, sometimes I'm like, "Here's a script, just say this. I'm trying to give it to you." When they're not taking notes, I'm like, "Take notes. I'm giving you the way to say it," because people get so stuck on, "I don't know how to begin these conversations. I don't matter. My experience doesn't give me any clues of how this feels, so therefore I feel like I'm incompetent." Anyway, I think we have such an important role to model these things and to literally fill in the language for people. I mean, I sometimes feel like this is very ... I don't like to call it spoon feeding because that is so condescending.
Look, I get to look at this all day long. I have figured out some things. Would it be hard for me if I were that middle manager trying to start these conversations? Absolutely. Absolutely. I want to always say, "This is hard." It's learning a new language. It's literally being in a foreign country and not understanding the signs and being lost. I have felt lost for sure. The ways we sort of neutralize the bomb, I say privilege with a small P, I try to give a list of different privileges so that we can look at them and say, "Well, hold on a second, that's something I'm really proud of," or, "That's something I really worked hard on," or, "That's something that was hard, but now I sort of consider it a differentiator." I don't know. It's okay.
We go into these bad/good binaries. That also just is such a pain point for me because people ... so many arguments I find myself in are about right and wrong and agree and disagree, and I'm like, "Hold on." I think of the non-binary gender identities, and I think about the way that me as a teacher, that I had to get my head around gender identity as a continuum and sexual orientation as a continuum. Our community taught us that, but so many people are walking around not having an understanding of that and not seeing themselves constantly putting things in a binary. What a beautiful learning and what a beautiful gift from our community to understand that in so many things, in all things, that binary is not often true and not helpful and it derails our ability to look at ourselves in the context of a system and be this and that, or be a little of this and a lot of that, or have it shift over time.
I think to tolerate and expect the ambiguity of identity and to be able to speak, to be many things, and to have those things perhaps be contradictory in the eyes of the world, but to redefine that as is not contradictory. I am this and I'm that, and I'm going to talk about all of that. Anyway, I think I try to give language, I try to demystify and de-weaponize. I try to expand the definitions and the ways that we have been told to think about something. Then I think making things actionable is so key. You and I work in this maybe academic world for you, but also business world. You know people love the task list. They love to hit the marks and say, "I've accomplished this," and so I give people a list of things they need to do with the different levels of access, advantage and yes, privilege, but maybe we call it different things, things to do with that. If we point our ... I don't say want to weapon, I hate using that word, I want another word for the tool we have to create a reaction in the world.
If we point that towards a certain place and say, "Every single day I'm holding myself accountable for how did I take what was a tailwind for me and share that with someone else. How did I put that into play? How did I champion? How did I open a door? How did I challenge something? How did I hold myself or others accountable? How did I speak about my journey? How did I talk about my imperfection and all the things that I don't know today?" I think if we could give people that playbook, I think we'd see a lot more leaders of certain identities show up and be able to do this more comfortably, more authentically. But I think we're at the very, very beginning stages of this. By the way, Kenji, you know we got to make space for people to learn. We got to make space for all of this that I just described to happen.
But unfortunately, and I want to know your thoughts on this, things are so high, the pressure's so high, the righteous and right anger, fair, totally deserved anger at the system, at the people who've been participating in the system without knowing the people who've been asleep and not involved, all of that anger and frustration, I feel that. I feel that as somebody who's been in the movement for LGBTQ rights for so long. Gratitude for allies, but frustration around being seen as less of a person and not having the degree of allyship that I really want and deserve and not having male allies to the extent that I want and feeling so vulnerable in the world. I think what I wish is we could hold space for each other graciously and with love for the learning journey that we're on, and to not demonize each other and to not discount what we can add and what we can contribute and to not criticize how we show up without the answers and how we talk about that.
But that feels like such a fantasy world because of humans and because of the polarization that is being, I think, pushed on us by a lot of these external factors. Because I don't know if we would be as polarized if we weren't being the pawns in these massive technology schemes, and that's a whole other podcast, but I don't know if we need to be this polarized. I don't believe that we do, but we've got to be extremely clear-eyed about what's pushing us to be polarized, what's pushing us into the agree/disagree binary, what's telling us that this world is binary when it's not, and how can we break through that and lead differently. I think that's what I wish people would really understand.
KENJI YOSHINO: This reminds me a lot of my friend and colleague who also has a book coming out, Dolly Chugh, who writes in her first book, the Person You Mean to Be about how we think that shaming somebody is a way to educate them, but it's actually exactly the opposite, as you know well as anybody, which is to say Carol Dweck, among others, has shown that the less you shame somebody, the more likely there are to be open to learning. I think all of us worry about being too easy on somebody and then therefore not holding them accountable, but that kind of grace and that kind of accountability actually go hand in hand rather than being in conflict with each other according to her research.
I've always found that to be extraordinarily powerful. But I want to sort of drill down and ask you a really specific question because I so rarely get to ask people I respect who are in the field dealing with these issues that I have to deal with in my own terms every day, which is, all right, so an organization comes to you and they say, "We're not contesting the content, but we just don't want you to use the word privilege because it raises too many hackles. It's a buzzword." What do you say back to them?
JENNIFER BROWN: I try to convince them I'm going to talk about it in a different way and I'm going to deescalate that term. That would be my first answer and I would honestly walk them through, I would help them ... I think for organizers of events and learning, they're also your client, they're your first blush of the learner. So just tactically speaking, we always do run throughs. I do videos sometimes and send them ahead of time for somebody who's concerned about a certain word. Remember, Kenji, we couldn't put white in our PowerPoints forever. I don't know about you, but I've had clients say, "You need to take this ..." For years, people have wanted things taken out.
I think that we as teachers have to meet people where they're at, but I also think we have to push grace and accountability. You just said it, right? Will I refuse to do the work if I can't say a word? No, absolutely not. Because I think that you can warm an engine up, you can pre-pre-pre socialize something, but sometimes the biggest resistance is in the form of the client that's hiring us who doesn't think their people are capable of going where they need to go. They're like gatekeepers. It's really interesting. I don't know if you've encountered this, but your biggest thing to navigate is the person that wants to hire you, but you have to get them comfortable with what you're then going to show up and talk about.
KENJI YOSHINO: Right, because you're essentially a representative of them.
JENNIFER BROWN: Indeed.
KENJI YOSHINO: So if you go in there and you crash and burn or you get canceled, then they canceled themselves. But that was actually the follow on question where you said I don't think we need to be as polarized as we are now. I actually find that that is true and with most organizations when you say, "I have this shame-free approach of how to be an ally," the dominant reaction is just relief.
JENNIFER BROWN: Gratitude.
KENJI YOSHINO: Is that what you're seeing? I think it really shows this kind of spectrum that you're describing where most people are in the middle right on this, and they're just terrified to articulate a position in the middle because they're worried that they'll get hammered from both sides.
JENNIFER BROWN: Both sides. Like you said earlier, it's so astute, how do you introduce accountability and push just enough so that you don't lose an audience, create a discomfort so that growth can happen? Because growth doesn't happen without discomfort, ala Carol Dweck. But deliver it in such a way that people are actually excited about it and the potential of it to give them a gift of understanding, to transform them, to make something easier to ... all the things that people want that at least hire me. They want to accelerate this in their organization and they're getting stuck and sometimes they get stuck on the wrong things. They get these angry emails from a very, very small group of people and yet over rotate on it. Sometimes your job there is to put that in context and help them understand. Because when you deliver as often as you and I do, you and I know the truth because we've just lived it. We just know it.
It's just this intuition of experience, which is such a gift to intuit where organizations are, what they need to hear, what they need to understand. There's nothing new I hear very much anymore and I know how things are going to go and I know the way that I can reach people, but I think that middleware here of the person who is, like you say, responsible for creating an experience for people and moving things forward as opposed to hurting them. The choice of speakers and voices is so important for these folks and different messengers ... One of my clients described this as heat and light. There are teachers that work through heat and there's teachers that work through light. I said, "Which one am I?" and she says, "You're light," and I said, "So what works best here?" She says, "Light."
Kenji, I think you're light also, but we went through and said ... Because different cultures want and need to hear different things in different ways and different messengers and different packages. I loved that because I do feel light. It's funny, I get off the stage and I feel ... I don't know how you feel when you get off. I feel very ... those are my favorite moments usually. It's when I feel most connected and aligned and I did something helpful and I reached people and I had this sort of transcendent experience too, I hope. Usually I live for that. That feeling is wonderful. I wish I could hang onto it forever and then reality comes back in and I sort of get back to earth a bit.
KENJI YOSHINO: I totally identify with that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Does that feel like that for you as well?
KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah, absolutely. Also this notion of feeling like you need to know what your specific competence is. One of the most useful things I've ever encountered in my life is actually a Louise Gluck poem, the Nobel laureate, where she's talking about the happy heart identifies with the leaf and not the tree. It's like if you feel like you're the tree and you have to hold all of these contradictions and all of these positions and you're just responsible for the whole thing, that's a very, very different kind of burden than feeling like you're just a leaf, which is to say there are lots of other parts of the tree that are just as relevant and you don't need to denigrate them, you just need to hold your own truth in that.
Oftentimes my biggest fear is getting hit from the left of just people saying, "Why are you doing this? Why aren't you pushing harder?" In my legal work, I actually do push quite hard, but it's always that question of when to empathize and when to smite somebody. In my DNI work, I never smite and I'm always the light, rather than the sword of trying to strike people down or to push them to do things in ways that are not ... We all need to be uncomfortable, but not in distress, so to speak.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that's a good distinction. I like that, in distress. Then we go into fight or flight, then we go into that defensive posture and protection and no learning can happen in that place. But it is interesting, Kenji. I think like you just said, are we doing enough? Those of us who work with light I think will always have that question.
KENJI YOSHINO: I think that's where the Gluck insight helps me so much, which is to say, when critics come and say, "I'm a heat person, why aren't you more of a heat person?" I just think of it as I'm a light person and we're both stronger together. We're amplifying each other's work. I'm going to reach people you're not going to reach, you're going to reach people I'm not going to reach, but our objectives are aligned with each other and so can we make common cause around that?
JENNIFER BROWN: That's really beautiful. I'm going to look up that poem. Thank you for sharing it with us. Maybe we can read it in the intro later on. Thank you. Thanks, Kenji.
KENJI YOSHINO: Yeah, this has been such a delight. I want to make sure that I get this last question in before we hit time. Even as we've been talking, I've been thinking like, "Wow, Jennifer's so amazing. How does she do it all?" and then experiencing a wave of fatigue that all the kinds of decisions that we have to deal with and the kinds of arguments that we need to have and the kinds of arguments we have with ourselves in terms of the self doubts that we have. You mentioned actually in the book that the work of inclusive leadership can sometimes feel frustratingly slow and then you add in your inimitably personal way, it's hard not to feel fatigued and wonder if you're making a difference. Can we talk a little bit about allyship fatigue? What do you say to listeners who may be experiencing these feelings, which I think we're all feeling right now, and what keeps you going so that you can push through them?
JENNIFER BROWN: I think a lot about resilience. I love that word. The growth mindset piece is, again, very relevant around the flexibility and the humility of moving with and, again, to the light. It's not moving against, it's moving with and moving with actually takes less. It's Jujitsu. It's taking the force of something and turning it back around and not having to put a lot of your own force, but knowing how to steer, how to catch something, how to repurpose it. It's a very gentle process, interestingly. I think that perhaps my advice might be working with is not going to be as fatiguing and working with means ... I picture allyship as a relay race where we're handing the baton, where we share the load, where many hands make light work and where I want to be. My job as an ally, if I'm putting that hat on, to many communities is to be ready to grab the baton and run.
I want to be rested, I want to be ready, I want to be focused, I want to be available, I want to have the bandwidth. I want to have the clear channel and the clarity to run. To me, that is what solidarity means. When you are ready, when you need me, I am there and I'm ready and you tell me how fast, where, and I'm not making the decision. Also, I love that too, which is yes, am I forward as an ally and am I proactive? Yes, absolutely in certain environments, but it's not always ... I'm also here to be steered. I think that that is ... to your leaf, when I'm picturing the leaves, how beautiful they are on the tree and it's fall right now and they're gorgeous, but that each of us is one of many. I think that my resilience comes from recognizing that I'm not alone, that I have help, that that help is standing by and connecting into those helpers to be reminded of that.
Because again, that binary tells us we're alone and our society is very individualistic. I think we can be forgiven for tending towards this, "Oh my gosh, I have to do it myself, or it's not going to get done," or whatever. I need to suffer in silence or whatever. It's not ever true. Coming up through employee resource groups, I know how restorative community is. I just know, and I know how strong the LGBTQ community is and how beautiful it is and all of its activism and accomplishments. I think we've got to have a discipline around leaning on each other, telling each other how we can get the kind of support we need, asking for support, remembering I'm the Trojan horse. If I can get into the castle walls and I have the army inside me. We are a part of each other's journeys and are part of each other's paths.
However you want to remind yourself that this exists, that we are ... MLK's quote in the book, Kenji, I have, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I put a little footnote on that in the book and I'm like, "I love this quote. I wish it were true. I don't know if we can assume that this is true." I used to think in my youthful idealism that that was kind of the inevitability of progress, but now I think we know very differently. Bending the arc and jumping on and bending it and putting our shoulder to the wheel for that to me feels like the restoration of our humanity. The fight against individualism to community is ultimately restorative, is ultimately restful. Then the ability to hand up a off and to take a break and to rest and to know that others are running with it.
I think this is how I envision ... my vision of allyship truly experienced and realized is the carrying of the water by so many of us. Anyway, I come back to that and think, "Did I do my part today towards that?" I also remember how many others are doing this alongside me, even if I never get to see them like you and I never get to share a stage with you, very seldomly, but I feel it. My advice is to remember all these pieces and to do what we can every day and then to forgive ourselves all of the ... expect the imperfection in ourselves. Also, the self forgiveness around grace, the grace for ourselves. We talk about grace we need to extend to others in the learning journey, but one of the very first things I say is, "Are you being super hard on yourself? Are you berating yourself for not knowing or not doing or not somehow ..."
We are in our bubbles and therefore our world is geared in such a way that we are homogenous, we are protected, but this isn't good for us. This is not the good kind of protection.
KENJI YOSHINO: That's so powerful. What I take away from your point about the relay race and community is that allies need allies too. I think [inaudible 00:45:25] captured in this space.
JENNIFER BROWN: Ooh, that's beautiful.
KENJI YOSHINO: I'm thinking a couple things. I mean, one is that if you're an ally, you cannot seek help from the person that you're trying to help. That's sort of allyship 101, I think. You can't say to somebody who you're trying to help, "You need to educate me about your group," or, "You need to take care of me emotionally because I'm actually here as your ally." But I think too quickly we move from that very correct premise to the incorrect conclusion of, "Therefore I cannot seek help from anyone," which is manifestly false. It's like I can't seek help from the affected person, but that doesn't mean I can't seek help from you as a fellow ally as long as you're not the affected person in that context.
Susan Silk has that wonderful model where she has those concentric circles radiating outward, and we've tried to repurpose it, but she originally came at it not from her academic work, but from her experience with breast cancer where she was in the hospital and her friend said, "I really want to come see you," and she said, I don't really like hospital visits. I really appreciate the sentiment, but can you wait till I'm released from the hospital?" The friend said, "This isn't just about you, Susan, I have the right to visit you. I'm worried about you," and she was like, "Well, wait a minute. I have cancer and this somehow isn't all about me, it's somehow about you." But not a really long term, as you reflected on, a very compassionate response, which is I think the response I would want to have receive as an ally, which is to say, "Yeah, this actually was inappropriate what you asked of me, but I hear you."
What I want to model out, and we both love models, is this notion of you cannot seek comfort from me, but that doesn't mean you can't seek comfort. She asks us to populate a series of concentric circles where the person who's most affected and in crisis is in the middle and the ally is one circle out. But then there are other circles beyond that of the ally's friends and family or the ally's colleagues and acquaintances and so on and so forth, and their premise is comfort and dump out. So when you're looking inward, you should only be directing comfort in, but other people are always going to be further out from the crisis than you are, and they should be attending to you. No matter what position we put ourselves in this, I think it works so that you're getting the kind of sustenance that you need so that you don't get burnt out from trying to be an ally to the persons at the epicenter of the crisis.
This was a revelation to me because I did have this superhero model of allyship where I just had to keep taking it on the chin and no matter how hard things got, it was completely impermissible for me to say, "Oh, I'm exhausted." Because I've seen all the snarky ridicule that people give about allyship fatigue of I posted one thing on Facebook and then I took to my [inaudible 00:48:18] as an ally. It's like, "Oh, I don't want to be that guy."
JENNIFER BROWN: So snarky.
KENJI YOSHINO: But honestly, allyship fatigue is a real phenomenon. I think that your insight of where we find solace is in community is really well articulated because I think that we just need to understand that we can't go it alone and we shouldn't expect to.
JENNIFER BROWN: And the right degree of shame, guilt ... I love Brene Brown's distinction of shame and guilt. Guilt is I didn't do the right thing or the most optimal thing. Shame is I'm a bad person. Guilt can be motivating because guilt can be I regret. I regret not saying something, I regret my history or how I was raised, or what I was not exposed to or what I didn't know. That's helpful. But to not rest in it. I think if I could have a magic wand, it would be like what's the right amount or proportion of this that is helpful, that is useful, that is fire, that is fuel? But not too much so that I become stuck and not able to move towards growth as uncomfortable as it is. I do think some of that leads to the fatigue because allies feel it so differently.
It's a different kind of regret. Regret is not a strong enough word. I mean, it can be anger, it can be resentment towards all of these ways I think that we realize how not in community we've been. It can be anger towards our parents, it can be anger toward our culture. Very angry. Very angry towards, I'll say, the white male patriarchy. Spent many, many, many years angry at my own culture very directly and still am. That takes the form of different people in my family and it's close to home for a lot of us who are trying to employ allyship so it burns particularly hot. I think that's something we don't talk about that much, because then we're trying to be that outward ally to other communities and other lived experiences but there is a real pain internal to a lot of us, which orbits the way we were raised, and the accountability and the frustration and the broken relationships that we may be experiencing.
We have the holidays coming up, but it's always a reminder of how fractured we've become from how we grew up, what we were taught. It can feel like you've cut that off and you're floating and then, like you say, we're not allowed to talk about what that feels like. But that's actually part of the equation and then I think we need to ... I don't know what kind of space we need to convene to talk about that, but toxic whiteness as a white person impacts me. Patriarchy impacts me directly. Those are my loved ones, my community, my culture. It's exquisitely painful in a very unique way and that's a whole ... I'm very much in my infancy of trying to understand that and begin to talk about it. I don't want to be afraid to talk about things, but I do wrestle, like you said, with the criticism and the snarkiness around, "Well, you're allowed to talk about this, but you're not allowed to talk about that." Or, "You're allowed to explore this, but you're not allowed to explore that."
That's not helpful. I hope that that pendulum swings a bit. I don't know if it's swung the last couple years and we find a different center where all of this is productive because self understanding is always productive. It's always important as we put the pieces together, or back together in some cases, of who we are, how we learned the things we learned, what we don't agree with, and finding our voice within our cultures is really, really important. There has to be space for that. Otherwise, we're working from an incomplete foundation.
KENJI YOSHINO: Well, I could talk to you for hours. It's been an amazing conversation. I just want to articulate just some of the themes. The optimal level of guilt is something I'm going to be spending a lot of time thinking about. I'll be thinking about the moral arc of the universe not bending unless we bend it. President Obama reminded us of this as well during his presidency. Opening up these binaries so that they accordion out into spectrums, and then thinking about, most importantly, I think for this second edition of your book, of reconciling yourself as a person who has many identities, some of which are privileged, and then leveraging those privileged identities in order to become a better ally. The book is How to Be an Inclusive Leader and the second edition just was released on October 4th, and the subtitle is Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive. Jennifer, it's such a delight as always to speak with you. Every contact with you is a pleasure. Thank you so much.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it so much, Kenji. Thank you and I cannot wait to turn the tables when your book comes out February, 2023. February 7th with David Glasgow, your co-author. It's called Say the Right Thing, How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice. So we will be meeting again soon, my friend.
KENJI YOSHINO: Wonderful. Be well.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to The Will To Change, uncovering true stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next time with a new episode.
- Influencing the Systems We’re In, with Egon Zehnder's US Head of DEI Dede Orraca-Cecil
- Trust in Action: How Inclusive Leaders Can Create a Better World with Author Jim Massey
- Designing for Identity, with Author Jessica Bantom
- Amplifying Diverse Voices at Hearst Television: ERG Business Impact with Elfi Martinez and Yasmine Osborne
- Meeting the Moment: Navigating DEI Challenges in 2023 and Beyond with Jennifer and JBC's Elfi Martinez