Trudy Bourgeois, CEO and Founder of The Center for Workforce Excellence, and author of the book Equality: Courageous Conversations About Women, Men, and Race to Spark a Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough, joins the program to discuss her own diversity story of growing up as an African-American woman in the segregated south in the 1960s. Trudy shares her journey of going on to break the glass ceiling in the consumer goods industry by becoming the first African American woman to rise to the level of VP, and eventually founding an organizational cultural change, training, consulting and coaching company. Discover an alternative way of thinking about allyship, the need for those with privilege to support marginalized groups, and what is needed to move from rhetoric about diversity and inclusion to true transformation.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Trudy’s diversity story of growing up in Alabama in the 1960’s (2:45)
- The need for white women to support women of color (13:00)
- A divide within the African-American community (16:45)
- The conversations that need to happen to create real change (19:30)
- The key questions we need to ask ourselves moving forward (25:00)
- A celebrity who used her privilege to empower an African-American colleague (26:25)
- Why Trudy prefers not to use the term “ally” and an alternative perspective on allyship (33:00)
- Why white male leaders may become more insightful about diversity and inclusion (41:00)
- The “moment” that people need to experience in order to awaken (45:45)
- How to move beyond rhetoric and help people experience an emotional connection (51:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Trudy Bourgeois, welcome to The Will to Change.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Thank you, Jennifer. It’s nice to be with you here.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m happy to have you here. I know that people think you and I were, in unexpected ways, separated at birth when they hear us present on stage and going about our business.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: So true. So true.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, they feel a real kinship between us. And as I’ve gotten to know you, it is true. And, yet, our lives have been so different.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it when that happens, and it’s such an honor to have you on here. My audience, I think, will be incredibly interested in all of your books, all of your thought leadership. Most importantly, which we’ll get to today, how you’re feeling today in our world and what you’re pondering, what’s in your heart, change drivers, all the things that I know that our podcast community is obsessed with.
We will get to your wisdom in a little bit, but first, we always start The Will to Change by saying that everyone has a diversity story, sometimes it’s what you would expect, sometimes it’s not. What would you share with us about how you awakened to this work and your personal story?
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Thank you for the opportunity just to share. It’s interesting, this has been a part of my life really since I was a kid. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t seek it, I think it sought me.
I was born in 1959 in Mobile, Alabama. So I was born into segregation and lived that life and knew very personally of the inequities and I had the strong desire since I was a kid to figure out how could I get accepted for who I was. How could I be a catalyst for helping other people to do the same? The pain was so real growing up in the deep south. I know what it feels like to be spat on. I know the fear of not being able to play in the yard or the playground by yourself, because your parents were worried that the Klan would come and potentially lynch you. You know, they would actually go through the neighborhoods looking for kids that were unsupervised.
So this level of deep appreciation for what we now refer to as “bias” has been a part of my journey. I wanted to get out of the south as quickly as I possibly could.
JENNIFER BROWN: I bet.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: But I didn’t get away from diversity and inclusion. I didn’t get away.
JENNIFER BROWN: No. Thank goodness for us.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: It just kept coming back up no matter which way I turned. I eventually graduated from college and went on into the corporate world, and I spent the lion’s share of my corporate career actually in the tobacco industry. As you might suspect, I was the first African-American female to own a number.
Again, we didn’t have the vernacular today around bias and inclusion or diversity, but it was difficult. So that whole buy-in to equality just continued to come at me every which way.
There were challenges. But as I sit here today, I am grateful for the experiences that I had because I couldn’t do what I do today. I don’t know that I would be in this position where I’m publicly advocating for justice and equality had I not gone through some of the challenging experiences that I have had since the time I was a kid.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m curious about your resilience. Do you think you were born with it? Do you think that your parents instilled it in you? Do you think you consciously made a choice about how you were going to protect yourself and advocate for yourself at the same time? Are you a fighter? How do you cope with those headwinds? We all take this in differently. I’m curious what your internal process was in terms of becoming a fighter.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I’ll respond by telling you a story. I remember when I was in third grade, shortly after my sister and I started at the Catholic school on the top of the hill. We lived at the bottom of the hill, and that’s where people who had very limited resources lived.
After one of my first experiences of being spat on and called the “N” word, I came to my grandmother. My mother, God love her, who did not drive, came to get me because the nuns did not know what to do after this little guy spat on me, and I was having a tumult.
They called my mom, she came and got me and brought me back down to the house. And we lived right next door to my grandparents. There wasn’t like a street that separated us, it was a yard. And people who grew up in the south know exactly what I’m talking about.
But my gram was waiting for me at the top of the yard when we pulled in. I got out of the car, I was extremely emotional—not just a little whimper of a tear, it was that deep, heartfelt, “I’m going to throw up any second” kind of tearing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, heaving sobs.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Heaving, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: We called my grandmother “Di.” And I said, “Di, these people spat on me and we’re going to go back, I’m going to get Andre, I’m going to get my brothers, we’re going to go back and we’re going to do something.” And she said, “No, you will not.” I was like, “What?”
She put her arms around me and pulled me into her chest and she said. “You know what? There are going to be lots of times in your life that you’re going to be the only one, and what you have to remember is it’s not what you’re called, it’s what you answer to.”
And those words changed my life. She went on to say, “We’re going to pray for those people, you’re going to forgive, and you’re going to move forward.”
Now this, Jennifer, is coming from a woman who was the product of a slave and a slave master, whose life had been robbed. Even though she appeared white, she was not afforded any privileges that were associated with being white because she had that eighth of a percent of black blood in her. So the power that she had to forgive really sowed a seed, a root that took hold in my life and I draw on that even today because, even as an almost 59-year-old woman, I still go places and I’m still the only African-American female in the room.
I really have to draw on the faith and the belief that the right thing is going to happen and something good is going to happen, no matter what.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And I’ll bet that was further tested in corporate America in the tobacco industry. And I’m doing the math, that must have been in the ’90s.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: That’s right. And the late ’80s. That’s right. That’s exactly right.
JENNIFER BROWN: So just the issues for women, let alone women of color. Was your resilience tested in a new way in those days? I’d love to hear not just by maybe the male-dominated environment, but also with other women. I know that’s such a huge and deep part of your scholarship now is the relationships we have with each other as women.
I wonder, what was it like back then? I think a lot of us are curious. I think we have an understanding of what we felt like, but tell us what it was like.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: There weren’t a lot of women. And the women who were there, the organization actually tried to pit us against each other. I see this even now.
JENNIFER BROWN: Indeed.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I was tested in such a powerful way. I want to share this piece because I was really focused on management. I wanted to be in management. I left a manager job before I came to the tobacco company, and I went to my manager and said, “This is my career aspiration.” God love him, he said, “Well, you need to get in line and wait, because I’ve got two male reps that I’ve been grooming, and I can’t help you until I get them promoted.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Stop it! Oh, God love him.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Okay. So there weren’t women until later on, and it certainly wasn’t the olive branch being extended.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, when we can get to you, we’ll get to you.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: When we can get to you. And then when they got to me, they actually gave me Watts, Compton, South Central, and Skid Row. At the time, this was in the height of the highest gang activities in history.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: And I’ll tell you, the challenges were daily. Literally, I would go to work in the morning and I would watch dead bodies get covered and be chalked.
JENNIFER BROWN: What?
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: This was my—yes. I was in South Central. I was involved in shoot-outs where I had to lay on the retail floor.
I thought, okay, after all of this, I’m going to really be resilient. And then I went into the corporate office and it was like, “Okay, who are you? You’re a black female, you’re too loud, you want to have your opinion heard.” And I thought, “Well, isn’t that why I’m here?”
JENNIFER BROWN: I just want to do the work. (Laughter.)
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: They had some different perspectives. One of the hardest experiences that I had that really led me to open a new door was being left at the Kentucky Derby. My husband and I, we had gone to the Kentucky Derby as a part of the executive team. I was a VP at this point, and we were the only two African Americans on this bus. There were about 50 people on the bus.
We enjoyed the Derby, we enjoyed the morning. We told the meeting planner that we were going to go get some trinkets and trash for our kids, some hats, some stuff like that, and we’d be back to the bus 15 minutes early.
Of course, we did get back to the bus 15 minutes early, and we were on one side of the coliseum and there was no bus. And then we went on the other side. I said to my husband, “Well, it must be my fault, we’re on the wrong side of the coliseum.” And he said, “Okay, well, let’s go to the other side.” So we did, and of course, unfortunately, there was no bus.
I called the meeting planner and I said, “Brenda.” And she said, “Trudy.” And I said, “Brenda.” And she said, “Trudy.” And I said, “Okay, yes, it’s me. Where are you guys, I can’t find you.” She said, “Oh, hold on, Mark wants to speak to you.” She passed the phone to him and he said, “I don’t know how this could have happened, but we left the coliseum, we’re about five miles out.” And I said, “So you’re gone?” And he said, “Yes, we’re gone.”
My husband was beside himself. He’s a really calm guy. I was having a tumult, the overwhelming sense of rejection. Not only on that bus were men, but there were also women. There were women who could have asked, “Hey, where’s Trudy?”
And this is why I’m saying now to women, we don’t know each other across differences. We don’t know and understand each other’s experiences. White women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action, and yet they don’t even know it. They’re not even aware that this is how they’ve been afforded all of this opportunity. Certainly, at least in my experience and the research I’ve done, they have not been intentional in turning to reach back for their sisters of colors. And you know the numbers, Jennifer, as the expert that you are, they validate that to the ninth degree.
The challenges still came. Actually, Jennifer, the challenges still come today as a black female entrepreneur. The door to that chapter has not been closed.
JENNIFER BROWN: No, I think it won’t be closed for a while. No. I think some white women have awakened—some of us—and there is much, much more to be done. But starting, perhaps, with the election, probably the “ah-hah” moment around women believing such vastly different things about things that impact us. I remember the critique of the Women’s March by some women of color saying, “I don’t feel comfortable participating. I don’t feel welcome, I don’t feel included.”
That was a big, crucible moment. There are so many others, but I’ll pick another, which was Tarana Burke, who coined Me Too many years ago.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: That’s right. And then everybody forgot about her, she gets no credit.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And then the second it becomes an issue for white women, it becomes a national headline.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Were those the crucible moments, you think, the last couple of years? Describe the awakening that’s happening. I still see a lot of women struggling with acknowledging the pain of intersectionality, the pain that my experience is not your experience, even though we’re supposed to be in a sisterhood. How is that? You just mentioned you still feel it. I’d love to hear, if you’d be willing to share, how does that show up? It’s subtle, it’s overt, it’s all of the above?
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Jennifer, when I first started my business, and I’ve been in business for 18 years now, I was in corporate for 18 years. When I first started my business, I reached out to a wonderful lady that I know who was at Proctor & Gamble at the time. She said, “Let me introduce you to a couple of folks.” I said, “That would be wonderful, I would really appreciate it.”
One of the ladies that she introduced me to was black, and one of the ladies that she introduced me to was white. And when I reached out to the African-American female, she said, “Look, I went to the school of hard knocks, my information is proprietary, I suggest that you strap yourself in and go to the school of hard knocks.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh! (Laughter.)
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: This is another black female. And the white female said this to me, she said, “Well, I think the only chance that you’ll have any success with is to focus on your own African-American population, I don’t think whites will accept you.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: This is how my business started. Now, these are women on both sides. And I share that because the divide is not just among the differences that are visual, white/black, there are divides among African Americans. That whole community, our community, still struggles with how to represent ourselves without feeling like we have to represent the entire race.
And, of course, the divide across racial lines for women, I think that that is still very pronounced. You happen to be a woman who has had her own awakening and your awareness is super high. You are intentional about leveraging your privilege to help for the greater good.
But I can tell you, in the research that I did for my most recent book, Equality: Courageous Conversations About Women, Men, and Race to Spark a D&I Breakthrough, we interviewed through a survey over 25,000 people. We asked the question, “Where is diversity and inclusion on your radar screen? Is it a part of your leadership agenda?” More than 80 percent said, “It’s not on my agenda.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. Oh!
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Yes! Yes!
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s like pushing a boulder uphill. This is the validation of why we might be so tired at the end of every day.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Correct. Correct. It’s unthinkable. The split gender-wise was more pronounced for females in that survey.
But this goes to the point that you’re making. This notion of, “What’s going to awaken us?” When can we start to have the kind of conversation that you and I are having this morning where we really touch the truth and we talk about the fact that we as women need to clean up our own house. We need to stop pointing our finger at white men or any other men and blaming them because the cultures aren’t inclusive. We have power seats, we’re just not using them for this effort. We need to become unapologetic about the focus that needs to be placed on leveling the playing field.
My goodness gracious, the most recent report says that for women and economic empowerment and parity and things of that nature, a report came out from the U.K. in December of last year. It said, “If we continue at the same rate on the same course that we’re pursuing right now for equality, it’s going to take 214 years.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That is how many generations?
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Oh, my gosh!
JENNIFER BROWN: Ten generations? That’s unacceptable.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Oh, my gosh!
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s just unacceptable.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: It is unacceptable, but it is never, in my opinion, going to change if we don’t take the conversations and put them front and center and have the dialogue and feel, from a position of empathy, the different journeys that we’re having. And then really come to a place where we’re not blaming each other anymore, but we’re aligned to co-create the future.
We can leverage all that’s happened, right and wrong, and we can use it, I think, to accelerate more positive results. But we need all the women of power—Melinda Gates, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and on and on and on—we need all of them talking about this conversation. We need women in the business world championing equality publicly and not being apologetic. There is so much opportunity for us.
That’s not to say that we have not, obviously, been the recipients of all kinds of racism and things of that nature. But I would rather focus on what can we do to change the course of action. I think one of the first things that we have to do is we have to pull over, slow down, look each other in the eye, and accept the truth that we’re not supporting each other the way that we should be.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. You and I talked about how we don’t have the basic skills to start looking at each other honestly and dialoguing. I’m seeing a lot of clashes online between white women and women of color about various things. A lot of times, there are issues around cultural appropriation. It’s funny, white women business owners, for example, may be trying to reach a broader demographic, realizing—rightly—that their audience is not as diverse as they want it to be.
They’re stumbling through those efforts and, unfortunately, things get messy. We’re trying to figure out each other, learn from each other, and be in dialogue where we haven’t been in dialogue before.
There is a bunch of—I don’t want to say “collateral damage,” because it’s important, but it’s messy and hurtful. As we learn about these things, people feel defensive. Certain people feel they have to stand up for themselves and say, “This is how your advertising made me feel.”
I’ve been watching particularly my white women business owner friends try, but inelegantly. And then there is the learning and tough conversations that happen and a shift that comes out of that.
Are we destined to stumble through this with each other? I feel like it’s intuitive and simple, but I am trying to imagine what advice you might have for women who are just awakening to this and get some feedback that really hurts. Even to look at the apologies being made is so instructive, too. You hear a lot of emotion in the apology. There is genuine regret. There is openness to learning. There’s defensiveness. It’s a soup of a lot of things.
I appreciate it because I think this is the tough stuff we’ve got to get through with each other. I don’t know what my question is, it’s more asking about your reaction about how we’re learning together. Knowing that it’s difficult, how can we do this in the kindest way and the most efficient way? By the way, we don’t have a lot of time to waste in conflict with each other.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: No, we don’t. The question that I really hear from your heart is: How do we move from our current state to the next state? How do we bridge that gap?
It starts with us, obviously, acknowledging the truth, but again, not looking at the truth from a position of blame. What we need to acknowledge are the biases that we as women have against each other. Some of that came out in the election. You talked about the election. It was white women who put Donald Trump into the White House if you look at the statistics.
As a population, we have to come to grips with the fact that, because of our biases, we don’t see each other as leaders. We’re just as guilty as others who use labels and stereotypes. We have to own that bias, okay? All of us want to say, “No, I’m not biased,” but you and I both know, and the research is very loud and solid, that of course we’re all biased. The question is: Do the biases have you, or do you have your biases?
I think the opportunity is to extend an invitation to each other. And the invitation is to look at history to learn, not to blame. What’s done is done, right? And then to combine our powers to say, “What do we want to create not just for ourselves, but for generations and generations to come?”
It’s incumbent upon us to recognize that there is a sense of urgency. We don’t have one second to waste. And then to lean into the fear. You know what really stops people from having the conversation that we’re having today? It’s fear. People don’t want to step in poop, they don’t want to get messy, as you said. They’re afraid that somebody is going to label them as a bigot or a racist or whatever.
Yes, we’re going to be afraid, but we’ve just got to do it in the midst of being afraid. The payout is so tremendous if we can really seize this moment. With the Me Too movement and with the Time’s Up movement—I mean, there are so many movements out there—the CEO Pledge—there are a number of initiatives. I feel like we’re at that tipping point that, if we really lean into this opportunity, we could change the course of history.
I see women doing that. I see people like Geena Davis and other stars talking about changing the perception that the media is shaping in the heads of the world of what women can and cannot do. I see women being more bold saying, “We want to have equal pay.”
I’ll tell you, when women come together—and you just reminded me of a couple of stories that I would love to share about the power of women coming together. I was thinking about Billie Jean King and Venus Williams.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that story.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: And how Billie Jean King—yes, she had been trying to drive pay parity for decades. When she partnered with Venus, and Venus used her privilege. She used her power. They, together, were able to transform what the payment was for men and women in the tennis industry. And now women are at parity.
That’s just an example of very low-hanging fruit. Historically, if we look back and look at women who have found their voice and have had the courage to recognize that they are privileged and they should embrace their responsibility to use that privilege to open the door for others, we see people like Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. It’s one of my most favorite stories.
As I was doing the research for the book, I found out that Ella Fitzgerald’s career was actually born through Marilyn Monroe, at least on the national basis. The way the story goes is that Ella could not get into the clubs to perform because she was a black female. Marilyn found out about it and not only did she move to do something about it, she made it a part of her agenda. It became so personal that she went to the producers of these clubs and said, “Look, if Ella can’t sing and do her performance, then I don’t want to do mine either.” These people were, like, “Are you crazy?”
But this is what come with being an innovator, a disruptor. And she said, “No, I’m not crazy, I’m serious.” She said, “I’m so serious that I will commit that I will be in the audience in the first row on the evenings that Ella performs. I’m going to guarantee that you get a full house.” And the rest is history.
JENNIFER BROWN: Huge.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: History.
JENNIFER BROWN: Huge! I love that. I love that, Trudy!
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: My goodness gracious, I mean, if we could feel that kind of power. But the secret sauce is, it’s got to become personal. If you don’t have the pain, then it’s very easy for the journey of someone else not to be on your radar screen. We’ve got to raise our heads and acknowledge the reality of what’s happening. We’ve got to come to the table and really leverage our power seats and acknowledge our privilege and our responsibility to those whose shoulder we stand on, to make it better than when we showed up.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I want our listeners to notice that you said it was Venus, right, with Billie Jean King?
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Yes, Venus.
JENNIFER BROWN: You said she leveraged her privilege. It’s her socioeconomic privilege, it’s her platform.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s her position. Often, we associate privilege with white people or with men. I love that you used that word with her. I do think all of us are intersectional, obviously, and we all have an element of privilege no matter what we look like or what our identity is. Even though we might have some stigmatized identities. You know, being an LGBT person, I recognize in almost no circles does that give me privilege. However, if you look at it, you can say the gifts of being an outside develop your resilience. The struggle bestows you with these leadership skills.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Do they come from a painful place? Yes. They originated there.
We do this exercise in the program we run for LGBT leaders at Wells Fargo called The Gifts of Being LGBT.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I love it.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so beautiful. It’s a transformative moment because we make a list of everything we’ve learned because we were LGBT.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I love it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Words like emotionally intelligent, adaptable, putting others first, tuning in and being a great listener, being empathetic, being resourceful. A lot of those came from dire situations for some of us where we weren’t sure if we were safe. Very similar to many situations you’ve had in your life.
What’s amazing to me is people don’t look at it that way. This is true, also, for white leaders and male leaders. Maybe they think privilege is a bad word. Maybe they don’t want to talk about it.
I put mine right out there. If I’m cisgender, my life is easier because I don’t have to sit there and make some decisions every day about how I present my gender, or decisions that I’m going to have to make about modifying my body to match my sense of my gender.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Being cisgender is a level of privilege. That is one thing that I don’t have to carry with me and figure out. I’m not a member of the community of people with diverse abilities or disabilities, but knowing that a third of us will have a disability at some point in our lifetime, it’s something I’m tuned into as an ally.
Now, I have a way of talking about the mix of what I am and who I am and the different levels of where I need allyship and where I also provide allyship. That gives me a lot to do. I will never not have things to do. There are so many ways, I need people, they need me.
Do you feel like an ally? Who are you an ally for right now in your current work?
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: It’s funny. I use a different word because, over the years, I’ve heard people talk about being allies, particularly using that word around white men being allies trying to support an acceleration of diversity and inclusion. I think that we’re all participants. We’re all equally on the journey.
Now, do some of us have privilege that we should be able to leverage? Yes. That is a part of being leaders in the world. Maybe I’m too stern, but I’m not giving anybody extra credit because they’re doing the right freaking thing. I’m sorry.
JENNIFER BROWN: You know what they say? Trudy, they say, “No cookies for the allies.” I read all these funny posts. Being an ally to get the kudos or check the box. I know.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I’m over it! I get it. This is about doing right for humanity. You don’t get a trophy or to wear this halo over your head, “I’m special because I’m an ally.” Hey, look, let’s all level-set—we are all walking wounded. I love what you are talking about, the leadership capabilities that come as a result of being at the short end of the stick.
We do something similar in the program that we’ve done for Intel for more than a decade. We say to people of color. A lot of these people will come from Africa and come to the U.S., they’ll have multiple degrees, PhDs, and yet not be able to speak English. They’ve been able to navigate, to adapt, to change, and do things that others would say, “I can’t do that.” Do they need support? Yes. Do they need champions? Yes. But does that make someone who provides that special? Not in my book. It makes you a leader.
JENNIFER BROWN: It makes you human.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: It makes you human, exactly. Exactly. When people talk about white men as allies, it gives them another trophy to put on their mantle. In addition to everything else, I’m going to get this ally trophy.
I’ve changed that vernacular for the last few years. I said, “Look, we’re all participants, we’re all in this together. You know what? The decisions that we make are going to shape the future for our children and for our children’s children.” Let’s get beyond ourselves and let’s really get all in to making it right for the future generations.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love being challenged by my guests to use new words. I love it. I love it. You’re right. You’re pointing out a troubling part of the whole ally concept. You’re only an ally when I say you’re an ally. We have a lot of people putting the badge on, showing the signals that they’re an ally, but not doing the harder work of scrutinizing yourself, your story.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: The deep work, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Deep work. Deep work. And, yet, to our point earlier, we don’t have a lot of time to spare. I’ve noticed about men in particular in the organization, they watch each other and they watch—especially men with relatively more power—they are being emulated all the time. I’m always in this sad state of mind where I say, “I’ll take what I can get.” If one man sees another man leading and saying, “I’ve been invited to introduce the Pride event,” for example. And this is a white, straight man. And he goes and he puts himself through what might be an uncomfortable situation or position, but is showing leadership.
The deep work I want them to be doing, but I also love the optics of leadership, too. I love it when somebody’s uncomfortable. No matter what comes out of their mouth, just putting yourself in a room that you’re not comfortable with that’s new for you. Maybe you say the corporate talking points, or maybe you share a story and you don’t quite have all the pieces together. You’re feeling awkward, you’re maybe the only white person in a room at an event. I love those stories because that’s part of the journey and the growth. But I don’t think you get the badge.
What are the ways we can encourage people to get into this conversation and put themselves in uncomfortable places? Particularly at a time when there’s a lot of fear that’s been generated by Me Too. Some male leaders are taking that and interpreting it to mean that they need to pull away to protect themselves. It’s exactly the opposite of what we need people with power to be doing right now.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Absolutely. They’re just using that as another excuse, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: I agree.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: That’s another piece of protection that justifies in their mind, “I don’t need to learn, because I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the company.”
You know, the people who got called out in the Me Too movement, they deserved to be freaking called out in the Me Too movement. They were wrong! They were guilty as charged.
This is another example of the need to really have the courageous conversations and touch the truth because we don’t need men now swaying to the other side of the pendulum. And I see this happening every single day. Why don’t we talk about how humans should be treated period, right? We all want to be respected, we all want to be valued, we all want to be heard, seen, and loved. That crosses every boundary that we’ve ever known to mankind.
It’s incumbent upon us to hold up the mirror. I keep on talking about this truth, and the reason why I do is because I think that we have, for too long, danced around the components that we really need to talk about like race, like sexism, like sexual misconduct.
CTI is doing some research, and I was just talking to them about what’s happening with even women becoming afraid, even more so, to come forward and reveal their own truth at a time when we should all be ready to do that, but there are still so many emotional triggers that we haven’t discussed and haven’t gotten to yet. All I know to do is continue the dialogue because, when you have the dialogue, then you can at least tease out the truth.
I think it’s not only a tipping point for women, but I also think it’s a tipping point for men, particularly white men. White men are growing more and more resentful every day about the emphasis that’s being placed on women and people of color and they’re getting concerned because the train has left the station relative to the demographic shifts. They feel like their power is being taken away.
I feel like, for the first time, maybe the empathy to understand what it would feel like to be on the outs is actually coming to the world for white men. Some people get really disturbed when they don’t have a justification to be at the table talking about being a minority. I humbly disagree. If we stay in that position that white men are guilty for every sin that ever happened, we’re never going to move the needle forward. We just have to accept, yes, there were some horrific historical developments that were caused by humans, upon humans. Yes, the vast majority of them were white men, but at some point we’ve got to draw the line in the sand and say, “We’re either going to win together or we’re going to lose together.”
I think the future of the United States of America, not to be overly dramatic, but I think our country’s future hinges on this ability to address this intersectionality and blow up all of these myths that we hide behind as justification for not really getting to connect across differences.
JENNIFER BROWN: That was really beautiful. I’m taking notes frantically.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: You were taking me so deep! (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Trudy, that’s so good! It’s so good! I need to hear that a bunch of times and soak it in. It’s one of those pieces of wisdom. It’s not too dramatic. We’re at this crucible moment. Even doing this work for ten years, you and I can relate. Many, many years, there is a huge opening. The door is open right now. The fear is there, but at least we know what we’re dealing with. At least there is more honesty. While it’s concerning that men are pulling away from those professionally intimate relationships that we desperately need—”we” meaning anyone who’s underrepresented—and maybe even women are still afraid. That doesn’t surprise me.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re getting through it, it’s painful, it’s messy. We need to do it together. I love that you, like me, have so much grace that you’re able to hold the sins of history, but not personalize it to certain groups today.
I feel sometimes I’m holding the middle and I’m getting pulled apart by both sides, and you must feel like that, too.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Oh, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? I’m not sure where the negativity is going to come at me. If I say everyone has a diversity story and I look at the men in the room, in many ways, they are feeling seen and heard for their own hidden stories for the first time. It’s a jaw-dropping moment for me to sometimes hear what they have to say to me. They whisper and tell me privately, and I’m sure you get the same thing.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a check on me, too. I could walk into that room and say, “Nobody in this room understands me. Nobody knows who I am. Nobody’s going to embrace me.” And realizing that you just don’t know who is sitting across from you ever. It’s been sobering for me as a practitioner, again, realizing your own biases, trying to pry your own heart and mind open and keep it open, no matter what your own personal experience has been with a group of people, what you think you know, there is no such thing as a group of people in a way.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Right. This notion of making it personal, but choosing to see it through a lens of possibility is something that we all have to work towards.
For me, besides my own personal journey, God picked my husband and me to have a special needs son. We have a 35-year-old son who has Down syndrome. I know the injustices that I have to fight for him. We have a beautiful daughter who, hallelujah, we married her off last year and she married a wonderful man, and he happens to be Caucasian.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: My grandbabies will be bi-racial. My nieces and nephews are bi-racial. My heritage is a mixture. I’m Creole, and so I’m a mixture of a lot of different bloods.
There is so much pain to go around. There’s no shortage of pain. Everybody’s got a story, okay?
JENNIFER BROWN: For sure.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Like I said, we’re all walking wounded. We have a choice to make, and the invitation that I’m extending to people is, you know, let’s choose to do something different. There’s the wonderful Einstein quote about not doing the same thing thinking that you’re going to get different results, that’s the definition of insanity.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I’m done with that. I’m done with having the same old diversity and inclusion workshops. I don’t even believe in traditional D&I workshops because they’re all about “check the box.” What we need is a heartfelt experience, a moment when you actually feel sick in your stomach, that it reaches the core of your soul. And then you say, “Oh, my gosh, is this what’s happening?”
Jennifer, whatever we can do with our gifts and talents to give people that moment in which they see that we’re, as humans, hurting other humans, if we can get it down to the most basic, fundamental element, if we can give people a line of sight into that emotion, it would trigger all kinds of positivity.
I’ll tell you one last quick story that really convinces me of this. I remember when I first started my business. The president of a company called me and asked me to coach a gentleman who was an SVP of sales.
I went in to coach this gentleman and used all the data in the world. I love research. I love data. I just threw at him the changing consumer and the buying patterns—
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we know it well.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I threw all of that stuff at him. And I got a big, fat zero. I made no progress. (Laughter.)
So I’m sitting in the office. This gentleman’s name is Wayne. He gives me permission to tell this story, but I’m sitting in the office in St. Louis with Wayne. I say, “Lord, please give me something.” I’m blowing it. I’m bombing here, right? This man is very open. He said, “I don’t want to do this with you. I’m only doing it because I have to do it, so let’s just do it and get it over with, right?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: That’s how he came at me. He was totally transparent. At least he was honest.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I was sitting in the office and I noticed on his credenza, two pictures—one of two beautiful, blond, looked to be young adults. And then, of course, one picture that I thought immediately, “That’s his wife.”
And so I said to him, I leaned forward and I said, “You know, Wayne, I’d just like to ask you a question.” And he said, “Okay, sure. Ask me a question. Go ahead.” He was sort of in that pompous, “What else you got?” kind of mindset.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’ve been there. (Laughter.)
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I said to him, “You know, that picture, I can’t help but notice your beautiful children. Are those your babies?” Chest big, he says, “Oh, yes, those are my girls.” And he started telling me about how this one was getting ready to graduate from college, getting ready to come into the workforce. And he was so excited about her future.
I pause and I said, “Can I ask you another question?” And he said, “Yeah, go ahead.” And I said, “So what if your daughter wants to work in sales and she comes home and she says, ‘Dad, I want this job in sales, but the gentleman who heads up the department doesn’t think that women are capable of being successful in the industry.’ What will you tell her about that?”
This is the God’s honest truth, he took off his glasses, he put them on the table, and he finally started leaning in. And then I said, “That next one, that little one that you say plays soccer so well and she’s going to be getting ready to come into the workplace.” I said, “What are you going to say to her when she comes home and says, ‘Dad, I just found out that I only make 78 cents for every dollar that my male counterpart is making and we’re doing the same freaking job’?”
And tears came to his eyes. And it was only in that moment that I could see that he got it. Because then he said, “Is that what I’m guilty of?” And I said, “Yes, sir. That’s exactly what your biases are doing.” And he said, “Oh, my God, I don’t want to do this.” And I said, “Okay, then let’s do something about it.” He went on to be the biggest champion for gender equality at that organization. He became the sponsor for the women’s employee resource group, he went on just a tear because he felt it. It became personal.
If this work doesn’t reach that space that I’m talking about in the depth of your soul where you’re sickened because of injustice, you won’t do anything. You’ll say a lot of things, and we have a lot of leaders pontificating and saying things that sound like healthy and positive rhetoric. But at the end of the day, we have to be willing to do the work. This is the hard work that you talked about. We’ve got to go search our souls and admit our own biases. And we’ve got to wrestle with that until the biases no longer have us, that we have those biases and we’re choosing not to allow the bias to cloud the way we see somebody who’s different than ourselves.
JENNIFER BROWN: That was such a good story. What I hear in the story is that in order to be an effective advocate, we’ve got to have patience with people, we have to have tools at our disposal. We have to be able to shift our approach. You illustrated that so beautifully. When you get that “ah-hah” moment, it is so rewarding. We live for those moments in our world. It is so precious. To see that the biggest resister can become the biggest champion is another favorite thing that I tell our clients. This can happen. I’ve seen it happen.
It requires that we continue to extend humanity to people, to continue to meet them where they’re at, as we always say in consulting.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: We need to hold that door open, and be loving in spite of the fact that we may be feeling really uncomfortable about the fact that they may be discounting or really insulting what we’re there to actually do.
To talk about where we started with resilience, that ability to get up another day and to have many of these conversations—over and over again, and to see yourself in those conversations and your story in those conversations. It can be really difficult, but character building. That’s what makes you such a beautiful human being. You’ve hung in it and you’ve figured out how to be loving and not angry through it all.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Yes. I really credit my grandparents and my parents. On the days when I am low, and all of us have days when we say, “This fight is so big.” I just think about the people who had to die and would never taste the fruit, they would never know what it would be like to walk into a restaurant no matter your color. They would never know the freedoms that so many of us know. I’m not trying to be Pollyanna. I know and live every day all of the negative that’s in the world, but I choose to honor the people who gave their lives, not knowing what I know, not experiencing what I’ve been able to experience.
This is why I want to appeal to people to understand—we have a sense of responsibility. We, as women, didn’t get here just because. Wake up. Look at your history book. Look at the people who sacrificed so that you and I can have this open dialogue right here today.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a treat.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: The choices that we make are not just for us, they’re for us and many, many generations to come. If we can’t find the courage to do this for ourselves, then just look at those babies that are around you. Just look at your loved ones and think about what your decisions will mean to the opportunities that they have. If that doesn’t stir your soul, then I’m not sure you can be stirred.
JENNIFER BROWN: Then we’re not sure. (Laughter.) Yes.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I’m not sure you can be stirred.
JENNIFER BROWN: Unfortunately, that’s true. Luckily, I think that’s a very, very small segment of the world.
Trudy, thank you for joining us today.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: My pleasure.
JENNIFER BROWN: I want to give all your books a shout-out, but the most recent one for everyone is called Equality: Courageous Conversations About Women, Men, and Race to Spark and Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough.
Please pick up a copy. You can listen more and read more about Trudy’s thought leadership. I appreciate your voice so much today and every day.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I so enjoyed it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: I appreciate you. I really do. I appreciate you, I appreciate your courage, and I’m grateful that you have had your awakening. Keep on keepin’ on, my sister! We’ll see each other one day in the winner’s circle and we’ll talk about all the lives that we were able to impact and change, okay?
JENNIFER BROWN: Trudy, thank you! It’s good to know you’re out there.
TRUDY BOURGEOIS: Thanks so much.