In this minisode, Jennifer discusses the importance of being able to reach out and meet people where they are, and how to compel allies to take action. Discover how to have difficult conversations in a respectful and productive manner, and how to balance the need for in-group experiences while still being welcoming of allies and accomplices.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Why meeting people where they are is crucially important (1:20)
- How righteous indignation can close the door to change (6:15)
- How to compel allies to take action (8:05)
- What ally and accomplice behavior looks like (10:00)
- How to have difficult conversations in a productive manner (17:00)
- How to give feedback to allies (21:00)
- Why exclusive groups are still necessary in the workplace (26:00)
- The need to include more men in the change process (28:00)
- Why bridge building can be a radical act (31:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta. Of course, Jennifer Brown is with me. First of all, Jennifer, welcome.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.
DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Today, as a departure point, I’m going to start with a question for you.
You know, we’re in a time right now where there’s a lot of righteous indignation—and understandably so, because the pace of change has been slow for many people.
And at the same time, you and I were chatting off air last week a little bit about the importance of meeting people where they are in order to bring them along in the process of change.
At the same time, you know, I’ve certainly met people and come across people who said, “Well, that’s a cop-out. You know, this is not the time for these half measures” or something like that. So my question to you is: Tell us, what do you think about that, the idea that anything less than meeting people with righteous indignation if maybe they’re not as evolved in their position on diversity and inclusion, do you think that is a cop-out?
JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t think I would get anywhere if I believed it was a copout because, you know, every single day I find myself trying to communicate the importance of diversity and inclusion and the commitment to that to teams of leaders, right? We all know, I hope everybody on The Will to Change knows that that group, if they’re at the C-suite, which is typically where I find myself, doesn’t have a lot of women in the group. It doesn’t have a lot of people of color, out LGBTQ people and people of other diverse backgrounds.
To believe it’s a cop-out I think would mean that I’m saying it’s not worth it to try to invite, cajole, convince, compel, inspire people to understand, A, what the problem is; B, how do we tackle it; and C, what’s your role in it?
It’s the whole dynamic or dichotomy when we choose how to be activists. We can either build a separate and parallel world, we can do that and we can put our energy towards that. But I fear the train has left the station in terms of capitalism and business and the way institutions are. You know, we’re dealing with a reality that is inescapable. And while I would love to be able to build something separately because it might be easier to say, “I don’t want to have to try so hard,” or do the, quote/unquote, “emotional labor” that is required of me as a consultant, as a woman, as an LGBTQ person of entering those spaces. Where, by the way, I’m really uncomfortable, too. I mean, I’m not comfortable.
So this is not easy for me. However, I have my eye on the prize all the time with change. I want those in power to wake up, to know what the problem is, to feel that they understand how they can contribute and why. And I believe human behavior, we respond the best when we’re not attacked, not defensive, but we’re acknowledged as human beings with flaws, that we understand our flaws, and then we as leaders and as human beings step forward and say, “I want to learn, I want to be better, please help me be better.” Without over-relying on me to teach you everything you need to know. We need people to do their own work—and we’ve actually talked about that on another minisode, Doug.
If we opt out of those discussions because they are too uncomfortable or we’re too fatigued because we’ve had them so many times or we just feel righteous about not having to do this again and again and again, we are also, I think, depriving the current situation of the greatest teachers. And all of us are the greatest teachers. Those of us who have experienced the pain of stigma or being the “other” in some way or being in the minority, underrepresented, not understood—or worst case, experiencing bias. We are the best teachers in this moment, and we have this great opening to lean into that.
It is about energy management at this point, too, and noticing how fatigued we might be from having the same conversation over and over again and feeling like it hasn’t been listened to in the past.
I might tell all of our change agents in The Will to Change community that now may be a very interesting time where there’s a real opening for us to actually be heard.
DOUG FORESTA: I wonder, too, about the idea that righteous indignation, perhaps, also could close the door in some ways to allyship that’s needed for change. I can talk about my own experiences with that, but what do you think about that? What about the impact, as well, that if we just bring this indignation and understandable frustration, that that could potentially close the door to allyship?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Well, we always know that when we study social movements or any movements that finally succeed in shifting our consciousness or our legal system, it has to touch more of us, right? It’s got to go beyond what we call “the choir”—the true believers and the people who have always understood that this is important, and reach everyday people who don’t think this is their issue or who don’t share the identity in question.
If we can get that group to care and to vote accordingly or support things in their companies or to lend their weight to it, that’s when we really break through.
So, you’re right, opting out and saying, “Well, I’m not interested in engaging, and I’m going to have a separate and parallel conversation,” while that might make us feel better because we are I our own positive echo chamber in terms of being reinforced by our friends and other people who believe as we believe, you’re right that the harder work and the really important work is the bridge-building work. That’s the work that is looking at people who don’t think this is their issue, who don’t know why they should care, who don’t feel the pain of it on a daily basis.
While they may be feeling pain in other ways, how do we compel those folks to step up and say, “This is my issue, too, just in a different way. How can I use my voice to weigh in on it on behalf of others or alongside others?”
We talk a lot about being an ally and also an accomplice, Doug. We’ve been playing with that word and how interesting it is.
DOUG FORESTA: I love that word, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s juicy to me right now. If I’m an ally, I’m aligning with you in private and as a support for you and I’m standing up for you. An accomplice is someone who, in addition, may be tackling the systemic inequality and inequity within our systems, within our organizations, that are baked into—if you just take the workplace, for example, an accomplice might tackle pay inequity and might say, “I want to make that a priority, and I’m a leader who has power. I’m not a woman leader, I may be a male leader, and this is important to me.”
That’s accomplice behavior. That is somebody who’s putting their shoulder to the wheel for a systemic problem that I think only those—not only, but especially those with power can change alongside us as we are doing the hard work we’re all doing to raise the awareness of the issue and help get people on board.
I don’t mean to overwhelm our potential allies with too many roles to play, but I find it instructive to think about the bigger problems that led us to this point were systemic problems. So we’ve got to tackle things on multiple fronts in order to change them. That allyship and accomplice behavior are two lenses or hats that every leader could be putting on right now.
By the way, I feel like I’m an ally and an accomplice. I feel maybe my accomplice behavior is running a diversity and inclusion company that tackles strategies that helps to build those so that more people feel they can become allies because someone is tackling the changes that need to happen on the systems level. That’s where we live, as you know, Doug, in our work.
So I’m being an accomplice, but I’m also being an ally to the women of color in my world, for example. You know, that feels very important, very significant for me on a personal level and on a one-on-one level.
So while I’m talking about all these issues using my platform, which might be more accomplice behavior because I’m trying to influence a lot of people to pay attention to how this is all baked into our systems.
So if we had more folks thinking in that way, I think we’d get further faster and in a deeper, more sustainable way because we’d be actually tackling the root causes of the problems of the bias that’s baked into our systems.
DOUG FORESTA: So I wanted to share with our listeners and, Jennifer, you and I were talking about this as well just about my own experience, and get your reflections on this not just for myself, but the larger implications of it.
I definitely have had people say to me, as I’ve tried to be an ally or accomplice myself—and I know you can’t decide to be an ally, you’ve got to be asked to be an ally. But as I’ve just gone about my way in the world, let’s put it that way, people have said to me more than once—one was a female of color—she said, “Doug, I really appreciate what you do, but I have to be honest with you, it’s hard for me because you look like the people that have hurt me the most. Although I know that your heart’s in the right place, I know that you want to help, I know that you want to step up, it’s hard for me sometimes for you to be in those spaces because you do resemble these other people who I haven’t had the best experiences with.”
I’m just curious about your thoughts about that, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Well, when I walk into rooms full of what looks to me like white, straight, cisgender men of a certain status in organizations, I literally have to tell myself intellectually that each of them has many aspects of who they are that I am not seeing in that moment.
But my visceral response and we could call it the primal “fight or flight” response that we all feel. As a woman in a room full of men, when you’re the only woman, all sorts of alarm bells are going off.
A lot of this is grounded in reality, and it’s not to deny it, right? It’s been something that those of us who look at people that look like you, Doug, I think it’s becoming aware of your biases. This is why bias is shared by all of us.
DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Bias can go all ways, right?
DOUG FORESTA: That’s exactly true.
DOUG FORESTA: I’ve been surprised in getting to know men who look like you, quote/unquote, so many men—I wish more, frankly. But I know they’re out there because I’ve done so much work and I’ve had so many people come up to me now and share in a very vulnerable way with me who they are and what’s not visible about their lives and how they connect interesting this D&I conversation, and how they feel that they are still sitting on the outside of it and want to get more involved, but feel maybe welcomed on paper, potentially, but kind of viscerally feeling like they’re not welcome because maybe they’re picking up on exactly what your friend told you. I love how honest she was to you.
DOUG FORESTA: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It was as if she was saying, “I want you around, but I kind of don’t.”
DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s a thing. We do a lot of work with employee resource groups and the gay community, interestingly, has been very pro-ally for a long time because that’s the way that we achieved so many important milestones—through the involvement of straight allies.
It’s interesting because straight allies or straight people in general have been, theoretically, the oppressor, right? The person who has hurt us in the past. Those are maybe our parents who threw us out, they are that kid in school who bullied us. So we have somehow as a community embraced allyship, and allies have stepped forward to meet us in a really unique way.
I don’t quite understand, but it feels like if we could replicate that dynamic somehow in these other conversations across difference, whether those are gender conversations or race and ethnicity conversations, if we could see through how we’ve been viewed historically and people that look like us have been viewed historically, and if both sides could say, “Let’s put that fight or flight response to the side and see each other more accurately, more deeply, and explore what we might have in common.”
I think that’s the way forward. It’s really difficult. Doug, I wonder how it feels for you to hear from someone as well intended as you are—more than well intended. I’ll identify you as a straight, white, cisgender man.
DOUG FORESTA: Thanks.
JENNIFER BROWN: As someone who’s along the journey I’m walking as my podcast producer, friend, sounding board, I feel you’re deeply, deeply listening to everything we talk about.
DOUG FORESTA: I do listen enough to know that being well intentioned can go very awry. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. You have been listening, that’s good. (Laughter.)
DOUG FORESTA: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Being well intentioned is not enough.
DOUG FORESTA: No.
JENNIFER BROWN: She said to you, “I look at you, I feel uncomfortable, all separate and apart from who I know you to be in your heart, intentions, and actions.” So where do you go from there?
DOUG FORESTA: Well, maybe because of my background of being a therapist, too, that’s something that I spent a lot of time working on. To me, the correct answer is: Thank you for sharing that with me. Thank you for feeling comfortable enough to be honest with me about that.
Is it a little uncomfortable for me? Of course. Is there some part of me that wants to say, “Well, but I’m such a good guy”? Yeah. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course. Deflection, deflection.
DOUG FORESTA: Right. But what I’ve found is that if you can get to a place where you’re having an honest conversation, if somebody feels like they can tell you something like that, then really the correct answer—the mistake is to feel like somehow I have to fix that. I really can’t fix that. It’s not about me convincing her that, “I’m not like the others.” It’s more about acknowledging, and like anything else, in the acknowledgement it takes some of the power out of it. That’s my experience.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Not defending, not trying to explain your way out of it or justify your way out of it, but just saying, “Thank you for being vulnerable and trusting me enough with that information.” And even that lets the air out of the balloon. Perhaps you can move forward.
In that relationship, just to play it forward a bit, once you do that and reach that new threshold of honesty about the weight of history that you both are bringing to the interaction, which is true and can’t be denied, then what do you hope happens? Or maybe as somebody who’s trying to go beyond good intentions, then what do you do as somebody who wants to continue to create a safe space for you to actually step up?
DOUG FORESTA: I think it’s continuing to check in and really have a dialogue about how you’re both feeling and being able to continue that honest conversation. And both things can be true.
I think the problem is, if somebody says, “Well, you look like someone that hurt me, and therefore I don’t ever want to see your face again,” that would be a problem to me because then I might really be able to help that person, you know?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
DOUG FORESTA: Maybe they want to start a podcast. In this case, I did help this woman start a podcast, and she has a podcast for women of color who want to eat healthier and be healthier. And I feel like in some way, hopefully helping her start that podcast empowers other people. Hopefully, I have some part in that, right?
But if she had been, like, “Well, I’m uncomfortable with you, so I just don’t want to see you anymore,” I think we would have lost something good that would have come out of that relationship.
I think, though, for me, as someone who is not—let’s be honest—personally affected most of the time. As a cisgender, white male, I don’t feel that pain as much. It’s intellectual, right? But nobody is stepping on my toes all the time. I have to remember that I can’t just expect someone, then, to say, “Okay, I acknowledged it, is everything better now?” It takes whatever it takes, you know? If it takes 20 years, that’s what it takes. Hopefully it doesn’t take 20 years.
I think the other mistake would be to say, “All right, I did everything right, are you comfortable now?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. (Laughter.)
DOUG FORESTA: I don’t think that’s fair, either.
JENNIFER BROWN: No. One and done. Yes, check the box, right?
DOUG FORESTA: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s like what you said earlier. Ally is a journey, it’s not a destination. And we are only allies if someone else deems us to be allies, right?
DOUG FORESTA: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: So it’s something to strive for, but it is work that’s never ending. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a cool journey. If you are lucky enough to have somebody who cares enough to shepherd you along on that process and be honest with you as you go and maybe make mistakes and give gentle feedback, I know you, Doug, it would take much to say, “Doug, that word you used may not be the right word, here’s a better word.”
DOUG FORESTA: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Or, “When you did that, here’s how it made me feel.” And you would immediately say, “Thank you so much for pointing it out.”
DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, I’m so sorry, absolutely. I’m so sorry. Yes. Unfortunately, I think in some spaces there’s not even room for that. I think we’re going to miss something. I want to hold the idea, like I said, I fully acknowledge that I don’t feel that pain all the time, so I can’t, in a way, say, “I know what it’s like.” I don’t know what it’s like. I have my own diversity story, for sure, but I wouldn’t equate it with somebody else’s experience.
But at the same time, yeah, I really think we miss something if we don’t at least open the possibility. So like you said, I don’t think it’s a cop-out. Otherwise, how do we connect with each other? How do we ever bridge that divide?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. There are not many folks who are challenging, but there was that Deloitte story that went viral maybe six months ago or so. Deloitte is a big professional services firm, for those of you who don’t know, and there was a big article about how they were getting rid of their diversity networks, meaning their employee resource groups.
Whether that was true or not or just for the headlines, it caused this widespread—I don’t know if panic is the right word, but widespread response because these groups are a lifeline for so many underrepresented people in the workplace. They need community, they crave having a seat at the table and trying to understand, “Why don’t I have a seat at the table.” They’re critical groups that help guide companies through a very diversifying world from a consumer and customer perspective.
Yet, Deloitte was saying they are essentially too siloed, that they are full of one kind of identity, and they’re not, therefore, building bridges sufficiently. So they were going to shift their strategy and go another way.
We were all worried. I think our response was, “Oh, my goodness, is this the tip of a coming iceberg? Are all companies going to question whether we need a women’s net or a black/African-American network? Are LGBT people so integrated that now we don’t really need to have a group?” It’s a classic question of exclusion for the sake of inclusion.
DOUG FORESTA: Right. Which we did a minisode about, actually.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we did. You’re absolutely right.
DOUG FORESTA: People haven’t listened to it, they should go back, right.
JENNIFER BROWN: They should. They should. I am not on the fence, I wouldn’t say that, but I am aware of holding these two truths at the same time. I am aware of men, for example, men who really want to do more, want to learn, and want to apply whatever they can apply toward progress may not be feeling like it’s even appropriate to enter a women’s space. It’s uncomfortable on so many levels. It takes a very rare man to come into that space.
By the way, it also takes a woman or two to shepherd that man into the space and vouch for him. We may want to think about “bring a male ally.” I like that whole concept of mentoring your allies, mentoring people across difference. Usually, we think of mentoring as a hierarchical thing, but I’m thinking a lot these days of mentoring as a 360-degree process all around me. I mentor up, I mentor sideways, I mentor people who share my experience, I mentor people who don’t, and in all directions. It makes me better, but it’s also making sure other people know my experience so they can carry that truth forward and be allies for me. Also, I can learn what they’re experiencing so I can carry their story forward and make sure that I’m constantly looking at things through that lens as I go through organizations, diversity groups, conversations, and noticing who is in the room or not in the room.
I think that the opportunity of that allyship to be two-way, to be lateral, to simultaneously be somebody who needs allies, and also be someone who is an ally using whatever advantage you have defined in any way. To me, that would be a paradigm shift.
But then we need to look at how we silo ourselves from each other. We need to look at how comfortable we are with “the choir,” quote/unquote. We cherish those in-group experiences, and we can’t lose those. Those are transformative for so many of us who are just trying to find our voice. Until such time as that’s not a huge struggle for so many people, we still need those exclusive groups in order to build inclusion.
I know that might make some of our heads hurt, but it’s where we’re at. And I hope Deloitte didn’t cancel the groups outright and say, “This is just not working.” Working according to whom?
We’re living in a time, Doug—just to take the LGBTQ community—50 percent of us are still closeted at work. 50. Five-zero. And these are statistics that came out just this past year or the year before.
We are afraid and we have to take a baby step organizationally to just find each other and feel that power and strength in community, to feel seen and heard, before we then fling open our doors and say, “Okay, now we’re welcome to all. We want tons of allies to come in, and we’re ready for that conversation.”
If we think about that as communities of women, how are we welcoming men? And are we just welcoming them on paper? Are we checking a box that says, “Oh, by the way, did you invite men to your next meeting, yes or no?” And then one or two guys show up. That’s where we’re at. I wish that weren’t true and I saw a sea change in terms of the number of men who are showing up, but I’m not. Somehow, there’s a failure. That’s a challenge that we need to take apart and really think about.
Just one funny story. My friend works at an insurance company. He told me a story about how they’re a very, very forward company. They are doing really cutting-edge work. They were celebrating women’s history month, and they released this big campaign saying, “Welcome to women’s history month.” And one of the headlines was, “Calling all men.” The senior women were so angry about this. They descended on the diversity team and said, “What are you doing talking about men when it’s women’s history month?”
I was struck by that because right now we have to reexamine everything that we’ve assumed is true about how we talk about these things, how we market them, how we are truly inclusive of all. Do we really want other people jumping in and helping? What is the model for that?
What if we get pushback and people aren’t comfortable?
DOUG FORESTA: What do we do with that, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: What do we do with that? I don’t have any magical answers, but I do think that as long as we can all check ourselves, and by the way, push people around us to be inclusive to an uncomfortable point. I do think we need radical solutions for radical times. I’m not sure the way we’ve been going about it has worked because, like we started this episode, we haven’t really engaged everyone that could be helping us.
I love what you said, Doug. “I’m a potential ally, I need to know what to do.” And if you say to me, “I can’t even be in the same room with you because looking at you just reminds me of my oppression,” my heart breaks when I hear that. I understand it, and I know it’s deep-seated stuff, but if we stay there, and if we let that stand, and then we build all of our strategies from that, we are missing a huge opportunity to engage many, many people whose help we really need.
That’s just me being incredibly practical and saying, “I can feel a lot of things, and all of those things can be true, valid, and I can actually share that I feel those things,” which was so beautiful about how honest she was with you.
And now what? You know? And that’s really where the rubber hits the road.
DOUG FORESTA: Well, we’re still talking, so that’s a good thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is, yes. We are. We’re trying to hang in there, on the bridge. (Laughter.)
DOUG FORESTA: You know, maybe to be more radical and go back to my first question about being a cop-out, perhaps instead of being a cop-out, working to struggle with these questions, for which there are no easy answers, in order to find the way to bridge that divide is the more radical thing, rather than solidifying into extremes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think it is radical. The hardest thing in the world to do is to be triggered by somebody’s very presence and to still walk into that interaction and be loving, gracious, and generous. Honestly, that’s what consulting work feels like for me. I’m having all sorts of feelings. As a person, I’m having a lot of negative feelings and a lot of defensiveness as I walk the rooms that I walk. The ability to hold that space in spite of that and to focus on meeting the client where they’re at, start with the end in mind, know that change is difficult.
We’re the “walking wounded,” as Trudy Bourgeois said. We’re all the walking wounded. Maybe it’s just knowing that we’re all the walking wounded, we have a huge community. We might all be tired, but remember that when you have the opportunity to bring your story with you into rooms and you have the opportunity to spend time talking with people about your story, their stories, teaching people something they didn’t know—you’ve been given permission to try to shape hearts and minds.
That’s why sometimes we have such a “good tired” on my team. We are being invited, and that’s a good thing. That is a good thing.
I would encourage people who feel tired from the work, we should be tired, we deserve to be tired, but can we persist? And can we feel the feelings and do the right thing with those strong feelings and still be agents for change and still be gracious, kind, generous, meet people where they’re at?
That’s why every day feels like this amazing challenge to hold that. If you need to yell and scream and be angry and you need to be in community and you need to complain and talk about how your heart is broken every day by what you hear, that is where the in-group support is so important. And you need to have that group to be there and know that you can be heard and you can be as ugly as you want to be, you can be as angry as you want to be. We all have to have those moments where you’re so exhausted by being inclusive and you just need to vent. I have those moments, but the next day I’ve processed it and get back on the horse.
We’ve got to keep doing that. Our work needs to get easier, and the only way it’s going to get easier is if we enlist more people to throw their weight by it, and those are people like you, Doug.
DOUG FORESTA: Well, thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
DOUG FORESTA: So much to process in this episode. It’s interesting, too, that I’m interviewing you, but I’ve got two roles in this.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know.
DOUG FORESTA: Do you know what I mean? I’m the subject as well. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. This is a really important topic, and I’m glad for you to share your perspective on it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug. And thanks for being a space-holder and continuing to come to the conversation, even when you hear things that might put you off. That is such an important first step, and probably half the battle.
DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Thanks, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.