Desiree Adaway, DEI consultant, trainer, coach and speaker, joins the program to discuss why anti-racism efforts ultimately benefit everyone in an organization. Discover how to move beyond performative allyship and the need to pay attention to power dynamics. Desiree also shares her thoughts about the recent executive order regarding DEI training.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Learning about executive orders and implementation (6:00)
- Community members can also be our coworkers (14:00)
- The “black tax” navigating white benefitted spaces for survival (22:00)
- Getting started in DE and I, what are people ready to talk about? (30:00)
- Supporting young leaders as entrepreneurs (40:00)
- You are only an ally when someone else calls you one (46:00)
- Inventory of privilege that is not just white and male (51:00)
- Undoing self-interest in favor of acknowledging abundance (57:00)
- How do we sustain the energy and make sure the learning lands? (1:06:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Desiree, welcome to The Will To Change.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Thank you for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am so glad you’re here. It’s my honor to bring you and your work to my audience. I’m not sure you’re deeply on their radar screen, so this was really an important introduction for me to be able to make. I’ve learned so much from you in listening to you and observing how you’re navigating in the world, and particularly this year as you’ve come on my radar screen more and more. You’ve had such a big impact on this year, I think, in terms of how we’re understanding 2020, if we can even understand it. There’s so much.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah, true.
JENNIFER BROWN: I wanted to invite you because we do start The Will To Change with diversity stories. Take us back to what you would like to share with us about how you grew up. You are big on socialization. I know it’s a big theme and something that you teach a lot about. So what would you like to share with us about those early years and anywhere you’d like to take us through earlier in your career that led you to … Congratulations on your ten-year anniversary with The Adaway Group.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, all that led to that. So take us back there.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah. I am a 54, almost 55-year-old Black woman and I was born and raised in the South Side of Chicago. Although I was born and raised in Chicago, my family, we have deep historic and kind of familial roots in the South in Alabama, outside of Montgomery, Tuskegee, in that area and so in the heart of where the civil rights movements were born. My family were sharecroppers and they worked on land. That is at the core of who I am. I describe myself as Black when I identify, mainly because for me it holds a lot of cultural, social, and political significance. It connects me with the diaspora and other Black folks around the world.
I was raised by my parents in Chicago and they were both laborers. My mom finished high school. It’s debatable whether my dad did or not, but they got jobs, good government jobs and worked hard all of their lives to take care of me and my sister. Neither of my parents attended college. They both were laborers and I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. I was also the first person in my immediate family to own my own business. We were solidly lower middle class. So when I went and got jobs in corporate America and in the nonprofit and in philanthropy, I didn’t have anybody in my family to kind of guide me and tell me what to wear or how to navigate management or bosses. All of that I had to learn on my own. I actually had to figure out my student loan paperwork on my own, my parents had no idea how to do that.
I think at a young age I gained this skill of navigating white spaces and learning what I needed to learn and know for my survival and for my family’s survival. When it was time for my sister to go to college, my mom sent the FAFSA stuff to me to fill out, because they didn’t fill it out for me. So me learning how to navigate these white-dominant spaces were absolutely for my survival and benefit. We were solidly lower middle class. Job security for my family was everything. Living paycheck to paycheck, watching us have to borrow money from other family members to help fill in those gaps are all what I bring to my work. That is, I live at the intersections of race and class and gender and I understand what it means to be incredibly privileged, as also always knowing that I’m a Black woman having to navigate white America.
JENNIFER BROWN: Can you describe the fatigue of the learning process of navigating? I know you talk about how white people can navigate the world without ever having to learn about other’s experience. And then you say, “I had to know everything about how white people operate.” What did that feel like in your energy, your potential? It sounds like it fueled you, but it probably was a tremendous burden as well and you had to carry all of that as you grew your career.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yes. I call myself the white person whisperer because I make white people … I could walk in a room of white people and make them feel incredibly comfortable. I know how to talk to them. Yes, I’ve traveled. Yes, I’ve gone to Greece. I’ve lived here. I’ve done these things. I’ve lived abroad. One of my defining moments, when I was 16 I actually lived in Germany by myself for a year. I left home. My parents were kind and generous enough to give me that opportunity, even though they were scared for my safety every day. I came home later and found out my mother cried at work every day while I was gone. It’s because she was worried about sending her young Black child over to Europe by herself.
I got that tool. I knew how to walk into a room and not be too Black. I could be outwardly Black, but I couldn’t act it. So there was a huge price I paid. There was a price of never really showing a lot of spaces who I was because they didn’t want to see that. As long as I made them safe and comfortable and they could connect with me on things like, what are we reading or music or any of those things, then I had opportunities. I was invited into rooms. And yeah, there was definitely a price to pay. There is this, I call it the Black tax, this absolute extra amount of labor that I had to put forth to be able to just survive in workplaces.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. When did you know you’d had enough of all of that? Did it creep up on you? I think about the death by 1000 cuts all the time. Did it accumulate? Did it hit you one day? Was there an incident? What was your moment of deciding to change and go out on your own like?
DESIREE ADAWAY: Well, I think it first hit me, and I didn’t pay too much attention to it, in my early 30s when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I know that part of that was that stress. And then, again, I learned to adjust and manage. It happened 10 years ago when I quit my job and started The Adaway Group. I was working for a major nonprofit and I was one of the highest Black folks, Black women within the org and I was virtually ignored by my bosses. Literally, I managed million-dollar programs, did all these things. I remember asking if I could get some professional development and was just told no.
I realized that I mean they would never care about my growth and development. They didn’t care about me, period. They didn’t see me. They didn’t understand me. I was a single mom raising two kids at the time, one daughter in college and one on her way. My 17-year-old daughter looked at me one day and said, “You don’t like work anymore do you?” I thought, “Jesus, if a 17-year-old kid who’s actually only interested in her own life can see this then everybody, I think.” One day I was … I’m sorry.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s all right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: One day I was hiring for a new staff member and wanted to promote someone inwardly who’d done a really great job and put them forward. HR came back and said, “Well, you know …” Well, anyway, it was my boss. “I don’t really want to give her that position with that title. We can give her the work, but we won’t give her the title.” I’m like, “But we’re willing to bring someone in from the outside and give them that title.” And they said, “Yes.” I said, “I quit.” I quit without knowing. I didn’t have a plan.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so true for so many of us.
DESIREE ADAWAY: I was going to work for myself.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: The universe provides. Two days later, a consultant that I’d done with before sent me a message and said, “Hey, I got this big project and I need somebody with your skillset to handle this piece of it. Are you interested?” I said, “Yes,” and that was it. That was the beginning of The Adaway Group.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s fantastic. What a gift. The universe made that happen so that you could have the voice for the last 10 years that you have. That was kind of the same time I went into business for myself in this field. So much has changed, but take us back to the conversations at that time. You worked on that project. How would you describe for some of us that are new in the field, newer, what were people ready to talk about?
I know I’d love to ask you next what has shifted in terms of our tolerance for certain topics, our interest in certain topics, our fluency, et cetera. But what was it like back then in your teaching? I’m curious if you had to kind of continue to cover your identity in a way as you got in the front of the room and endeavored to teach on these things.
DESIREE ADAWAY: It’s really fascinating. My background is I used to be an activist years and years ago prior to having children. What I found myself kind of doing, in addition to consulting, was I found myself kind of coaching and supporting all of these current activists. Some of my clients were folks who were on the streets in Ferguson and who were in Baltimore with Freddie Gray. I have this connection to all these really young, on-the-ground activists. I’ve always used the term, white supremacy, in my work. I’ve always used that. Five years ago, let us be clear, six years ago, I would use the term, white supremacy talking and people would get up and walk out of the room.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
DESIREE ADAWAY: They’d get up and they’d be like, “You just called me a white supremacist.” I was like, “Yeah, actually that’s not even close to what I just said.” They heard white supremacy and they immediately was like, “You just called me one of them, a white …” I’m like, “There’s white nationalists. There’s white supremacy, the hierarchy.” There was a lot of education around that. And then I always tell folks, “There’s before Mike Brown and after Mike Brown.” I think that’s when it changed, especially online. That’s when you started hearing more words like white supremacy, white dominant culture. That’s when you started seeing more folks talking about prison industrial complex.
For me, it was really great because what happened is that it opened that space for these activists to be online and to bring a language to the world, these academics as well, to bring language to the world that was not normally used. I don’t use the term racism. I use anti-Blackness. Racism, when you’re talking about what happens to Black people in this culture, it really de-fangs it. It’s not truthful enough. It is anti-Blackness. It is that disregard, that disdain for Black people, for our humanity. I mean the world has absolutely changed. We’ve seen all those uprisings happen. There’s been a whole lot more education that happened and this summer, everything that blew up.
But I’m working with a CEO of a Fortune 50 company and I’m going to tell you, he’s talking to his people about anti-Blackness now and that’s huge.
JENNIFER BROWN: You never thought that you’d see that day, right?
DESIREE ADAWAY: Never.
JENNIFER BROWN: Huge.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Never thought I’d see the day where a CEO of a huge tech company is talking about anti-Blackness to their 10,000 folks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Incredible. Incredible. Oh my goodness. I know. I just get goosebumps thinking about the opportunity we have right now. I am so curious to know, well, so many questions for you. So let’s put a pin in that and go. I’m curious about your partnership. I know you teach a lot with a white woman, Jessica.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah. Jessica Fish, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so curious. Yeah, Jessica Fish and she’s incredible in her own right. So I’m curious, when you thought about your consulting, I’m big on the concept of the messenger matters sometimes as much or more than the message. I wonder also what has shifted for you in terms of whom you teach with? You are in the room and you’re at the table to be able to work with that CEO. You have, sadly or not, become expert at playing a game so that you can get into that room which is, let’s face it, the most important thing.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah. So I tell people all the time, “I’m transactional with capitalism. I’m transactional with systems of oppression. I am totally transformational with people.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell me more.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Well, I know how to play the system. I can charge money to a certain client so that then I can give money. I can work with these activists for free. I can work with smaller grassroots people. I understand how capitalism uses Black bodies for production and uses us up and throws us away. We’ve all read, Andrea Smith’s, The Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, and the first one is Blackness and capitalism. So I can be transactional with systems and institutions, never with people or communities. That, we always have to be in right relationship with folks.
So Jessica came to me because about, I don’t know, six years ago I was doing these free calls. I would just have calls with strangers on race, class, and gender, 30 minutes. I’d ask four questions and people would share these intimate stories with me around their fears around race and what they know and don’t know and what their parents taught them. Jessica was one of the people that I interviewed. Jessica was one of the only white women, and I’ve done hundreds of these, probably close to over 1000 at this point. Jessica was one of less than 10% of white women when I asked them what identities do they use to navigate the world, who actually said, “I use my whiteness to navigate the world.” I was like, “Okay.”
Then after that her and I kept in touch. There were some small projects that I knew she had a skillset that I could utilize. So I said, “Hey, do you want to do a couple of these smaller projects with me?” She was teaching in Vermont and actually had been organizing white folks around racial equity issues. What came from that is … This is when I knew that this was a partner that I wanted to work with. We were talking about all the things you do when you’re talking about a partnership like, how do you like to communicate? What do you need? This is what I need. We were going through all the logistics and she says to me, “At some point in time, my whiteness will betray me with you. How are we going to deal with it when it happens?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa. What a statement.
DESIREE ADAWAY: I was like, “No, it is.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
DESIREE ADAWAY: For anybody’s listening, if you are partnering with any people of color, if you are working with teams of color, I need you to literally go in there and say that to them, “At some point in time my whiteness will betray me. We’ll be moving too fast. We’ll be doing these things and I’m going to say the most inappropriate thing. How are we going to get past that?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa. That is beautiful and I’m getting full body chills on that one.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That’s when I knew this was somebody I wanted to work with. We just started working together and she’s my lead consultant. She does her own work as well, but has been a really great thought partner and head consultant to really help do this great work. She can say things to white folks that sometimes they’ll listen to when they don’t hear me. She’s really, really good at supporting white women on their journey in this work. That’s one thing I do not do. I will teach white folks. I will coach. I will consult with them. What I do not do is help them process their feelings around and their emotions around race.
I save that for me to work with Black folks, Black indigenous people of color. I give them that energy. I do not give that to white folks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Jessica does that, and she does it really well. We also have another friend who has her own consulting company, Ericka Hines. Ericka is really good at bringing in the research and doing some in-depth research. She’s doing one around what does it take for Black women to thrive in the workplace currently. So I’ve been very fortunate that these partners that I’ve found, I’ve found some really younger skilled trainers, Black queer folks who are out there doing amazing work who I’m happy to mentor and help them think about how to start and run their own business.
So for me, that’s been a great gift to be able to support them as they’re starting their own company and their own steps into entrepreneurship for themselves, giving them all the advice, pay your taxes, get a good accountant, all those things that we learned the hard way when-
JENNIFER BROWN: We did learn the hard way. Oh yeah.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That I learned the hard way when I first started out. So yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: So many mistakes, right?
DESIREE ADAWAY: Mm-hmm.
JENNIFER BROWN: So many. I want to ask you sort of two questions from now. I want to highlight for our listeners what you just said, which is that you spend your energy and your emotional labor in a very intentional way for some things and not for others. So I want to put a pin in that, because I think there’s something there that’s really important and we need to build into that much more. But before that, going back to Jessica, she said, “My whiteness will betray me and betray you.”
I wondered if you could give us an example of that happening in real time. I’m picturing you teaching together. I’m wondering what do those moments sound like in terms of how you two process it in front of the room? Because I think that’s a tremendous teaching moment. Or do yo process it in private? And then I also wonder when she’s given the eye contact or you notice that you are being listened to differently, I wonder if you teach from that? I wonder if you name it in the room?
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah. We call it out. Yeah, we call it out.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Perfect.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That, “It seems like you … ” Yeah, there have been times where we’ve called it out that, “Y’all seem to be responding more to this white woman saying the same thing that I’m saying.” Or Jessica will call it out very clearly like, “You don’t come around me. You take that to Desiree. This is Desiree’s company.” It is. It’s very fascinating to see how that works. I think we’ve come, over the past five years or so, to a really good rhythm around being able to notice those things and call those things out. When I say that that’s not where I put my emotional energy, I only have so many. We only got so many spoons that we’re able to use and this is where I choose to use mine.
I think that for a lot of people it’s like, “I get to make that choice?” I’m like, “Yeah, we all get to make that choice. Who are we going to show up with and for and how?” I always tell this story too of a white guy that I know who’s a really good friend of mine who’s high up in the healthcare field. When people come to him for mentorship, he’s very clear. He’s like, “I don’t mentor white men. Y’all got enough.” He’s like, “I only mentor folks that probably don’t.” He’s like, “Women of color.” He’s like, “Men of color, folks who are gender-nonconforming.”
He’s like, “Yep, but do not bring me a white man to mentor because I will refuse to.” So we all get to decide how we’re going to put out the privilege that we have, how we’re going to share that with the world. I choose to share mine with Black women.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I know if I could wave my magic wand and mandate that, I would, in terms of whom you mentor, whom you share social and professional capitol with.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I would literally require every single executive to not give extra time to anyone that looks like them if they’re a straight white man. I just would say-
DESIREE ADAWAY: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: … “You need to mandate this and if you don’t, what’s going to happen is …” Of course, those of us who feel relatively more comfortable and confident in the workplace will knock on that executive’s door and say, “Hey, do you have time for me?” If that executive doesn’t have that lens, they’ll say, “Sure, come on in.” This is how people end up making time for people that look like them without any sort of deeper understanding.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Well, and who’s sitting in those rooms? Exactly. Actually, this is very interesting. I’ve seen this pop up with some employee resource groups, and you may have seen this as well. Say there’s Black folks, non-Black people of color, and there may be a white one. And then they’re like, “Who’s sitting in the white resource group?” The CEO, the CFO, the ED. So now, again, all these white folks are getting access or building relationships with other white folks. I’ve seen this pop up a few times. I’m like, “Oh okay.”
I’m always like, “If you’re at C-level suite, that’s some work that as white people y’all should be doing together with your peers.” Because I think that what it does do is it’s giving white folks more access to leadership in a way that nobody never saw that happening. But that’s exactly what it does. And then sometimes I see because they’re sharing these really intimate things around race and class and their lives and their identities, that there’s this kind of bonding that happens that, again, is giving people deeper access or more access to this.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. It’s such an interesting dichotomy, Desiree. I always feel like allyship, as we say, it can be performative. It can be superficial. We can put the pin on and say, “I’m an ally.” I think what we’re learning now is it’s got to be earned and it’s deeper. You’re only an ally when somebody says you are. I wonder though when we get our ally energy up and we’re like, “I’m going to learn, I’m going to do,” but then in our eagerness and in our awkwardness and lots of imperfection and mistakes, we cause harm because I think we didn’t gather in like community and say that is a group of perhaps dedicated to white allyship, just for purpose of this.
The model that I would envision, and I wonder if you agree, is that we’ve got to do our own work together out of harm’s way, meaning where’s the space to sort of say, “Okay, I’m thinking about this. I’m going to do this. I’m going to try this. This is language I’m using. This went well. This didn’t go well.” And then when we enter space, we are so much more prepared. To me, that feels very, it feels kinder. It feels that it’s not perpetuating harm. It feels that we’re not kind of showing up so messy and sort of not formed at all and therefore, just perpetuating and not really helping.
So it strikes me there’s this middle piece that we’re missing from … I think about this in terms of that.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Well, I know. I agree with everything you said. I think it should happen that way, but we always have to pay attention to power lines and power dynamics, even in those all-white spaces or all-Black spaces. There’s still power dynamics that play that we got to acknowledge that, yes, they’re in this room and they’re doing this work of allyship and, yes, it does mean that these people are probably getting two or three extra hours a month with leadership. How are we going to balance that out for other folks? That’s all I’m saying-
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: … is acknowledge that the power is never not at play, ever. Where is it at play and who’s getting access and who’s not? What are we going to do to make sure that that’s more equitable?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, what do you think? I mean how is that balanced out then? So say you’re designing this in an organization and you’re trying to create space simultaneously for work to be done. What is the balance? If you had to build that, what would that look like?
DESIREE ADAWAY: I guess just off the top of my head, I was thinking I would have as the ED or the CEO or whoever of C-suite, there should be a special mentoring networking program for BIPOC folks in your organization.
JENNIFER BROWN: For sure. Yeah. You know what I talk about a lot is reverse mentoring. I think that we need to flip that around. I mean that I have found just annoying and, I think, troublesome the model of the most knowledge lives at the top of the hierarchy. When it comes to the future of our workforce, the most knowledge actually lives amongst our emerging talent. So I wrote this paper on reverse mentoring where the mentors are the Millennials and, by nature, they are wildly diverse.
They’re the most diverse in visible and invisible ways and they are mentoring the executives. I loved that because you talk about power rebalancing. It literally creates one-on-one time on a regular basis for that connection to happen and for that executive to be in a learning … humbled to all the things they don’t know and positions these young talent as the future of our workplace and also so much intelligence about our future markets and customers and all that bottom line stuff that you and I are so good at arguing.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s…
JENNIFER BROWN: So I thought that was a really good way.
DESIREE ADAWAY: No, I agree. I just think we have to be aware of power. That’s one thing. I always ask people, “How many of y’all grew up where y’all talked about power, where y’all acknowledged it?” It’s so few people. I think something that happens in particular is there are folks who have power and don’t want to acknowledge and that’s the worst thing that you can do in these situations. It’s clear. I know you got power. I know you got social capital and all these things. When you don’t acknowledge it, it feels like this relationship we’re in is a lie.
So I think if we spend time just acknowledging power, where is it at? How are we using it? I think we’ll go far. For me, that’s when it takes away that performative piece.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yeah.
DESIREE ADAWAY: It’s when you come in the room and you’re like, “I’m just like you.” It’s like, “No, you’re actually not.”
JENNIFER BROWN: No, you’re not. We want you to talk about that openly and own it.
DESIREE ADAWAY: We want to talk about that. You’re not like me and own it. And own it. So yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Own it. Yeah. Gosh. I have so many straight white male executives that I work with. We talk about privilege. I try to stretch our understanding of privilege beyond perhaps the white male privilege, which is where everybody goes. We have a bunch of different kinds of privileges which, to me, mean the ease, the permission, the access we have, the ability to speak the truth without so many consequences or any consequences. So I try to coach them to, say, inventory the things that have made your life easier, the things that you have the ability to influence and the power. It is. It’s the power you have.
It’s all kinds of power. And then I would encourage you. My coaching to them is to name this and talk about it and then say, “Here’s my commitment to growth is to be open about who I am, things I don’t know, things that I can do, and how I can activate around that power.” Because, to me, there’s an acknowledgment and an understanding and then there’s the activation around it. I feel like this isn’t rocket science. I mean literally you’re putting what you have been given, maybe you’ve earned it, but a lot of times we’re just given it.
You put it in play for others in a strategic way that rebalances the outcomes. I just don’t know what’s so hard to understand about this. But it’s like they just had never … I don’t know if permission needs to be given to say, “We want to hear you talk about this because it builds trust when you are authentic about this and you name it and then you tell us what you’re going to do with it.” That’s what I would like to hear leaders say.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Well, this is really interesting because I said I don’t use the word, racism, and I don’t. But Dr. Ibram Kendi has a definition for racism, which it is political, social, cultural, and economic self-interest. It’s self-interest. So that’s what we’re telling people is you are making these decisions the way you vote, where you live, where your kids go to school, the jobs you have, who you hire on your team. All of those things are about your self-interest.
JENNIFER BROWN: How do we get people to be less self-interested?
DESIREE ADAWAY: It’s ultimately about sacrifice. So there’s two pieces. I think it’s Dr. Livingston has a framework, I think it is in the last Harvard Business Review. There’s a framework that talks about there’s awareness and then there’s this root cause analysis and then there’s empathy. I learned this stuff. Do I care about the people that it’s impacting? And then it’s action and then it’s actually sacrifice. What am I going to give up to change this? Which means, “Guess what, y’all? Three years from now, it cannot be an all-white C-suite, period.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Nope.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Somebody’s going to have to go. You have to move out or take another role. This is what it boils down to. What is the sacrifice that we’re willing to make for this?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I might say that people don’t like to think they’re going to have less of the pie. So there’s also-
DESIREE ADAWAY: Exactly. Because this is the deal, it’s abundance. There is actually-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it is. It is.
DESIREE ADAWAY: … enough pie for all of us.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. Exactly. I like to say like-
DESIREE ADAWAY: White supremacy … Go ahead.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s giving up and sacrifice, but it’s also sharing. I feel like intentionally sharing the power that is abundance and transferring it over and proactively putting it in others’ hands and putting that tailwind behind someone. Even just doing that, I feel like would be the one plus one equals three that we’re all looking for, that … So I’m trying to hold leaders in this conversation who always push back with the, “Well, what you’re saying, Jennifer, is there’s less for me. People hate requirements. They hate quotas. They don’t like being told that they’re not an effective leader.”
They don’t like being, I guess, when HR comes down on them about their hiring practices and their slates and their promotions. People are really pushing hard on that and I try to say, “You want to be a great leader for now and in the future and you want to be able to lead across difference. You’ll get more done and you’ll engender more trust if you get good at enabling the path of others as quickly as you possibly can and keeping them in the organization and removing obstacles with the power you have.”
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yes. You’re nicer than I am, Jennifer. You’re nicer than I am.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m super nice. I’m too nice.
DESIREE ADAWAY: No, I tell them, “Don’t change, white man. Don’t change at all. You’re be irrelevant in five years.” No, I tell them that.
JENNIFER BROWN: I wish I could say that.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Five years, you’ll be irrelevant. Because guess what? You won’t get the best talent.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: These young folks that are coming up, they have the analysis.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
DESIREE ADAWAY: If you or your managers don’t, they won’t work for you.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’ll be out.
DESIREE ADAWAY: I’m like, “Don’t change, but you’ll be out because this is the skillset of the future.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s the risk.
DESIREE ADAWAY: So you can sit here and you can fight this all you want. There are 20 more folks behind you who got the skillset and they’re going to take your job. People hire on this now.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Time is not on your side. Yeah.
DESIREE ADAWAY: So I’m like, “Don’t change. Stay exactly the way you are.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Go ahead. Go ahead.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Go ahead. Your company will be irrelevant and you personally-
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it.
DESIREE ADAWAY: … will be shorting your career. I don’t fight with folks about whether or not they should do this. I can’t make you care enough for other humans. I can’t do that for you.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. It’s sad.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Do you not care that there’s some really great folks who are wanting to come into your company and want to do their best, but there are all these obstacles for them doing that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Like, “Do you care?” How could you not care? But then we can spend our energy being like, “Oh, whatever.”
DESIREE ADAWAY: But this is it because white supremacy has taught us that I did this all by myself. I worked hard and got this. They can too. Nobody gave me anything. So this is the self-interest.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: I’m like, “There’s an abundance.” What white supremacy has taught us is that there’s not enough. I’m like, “There’s more than enough for all of us.” We got to feel a collective care. I have to care for the collective as much as I care about myself. So I can’t just vote in the interest of my family. I have to vote in the interest of the collective. I can’t just think about a policy and how it impacts me. I have to think about the collective. White supremacy has taught white folk that you are your own little individual unit and that you’re not part of the bigger collective.
That’s where they miss so much. There’s so much richness and goodness and history and love and connection that they don’t get. I find it the saddest thing about all of this.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is and it hurts white people deeply in ways that they don’t understand, so deeply.
DESIREE ADAWAY: So broken, so hurt.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. You just saw the Wells Fargo CEO mentioned there are not enough Black talent this week. It just strikes me what if he had said something like what you just said? To say, “There’s such an abundance and we’re not seeing it because our lens is so limiting.”
DESIREE ADAWAY: Right, because our lens is not there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. That’s the problem.
DESIREE ADAWAY: We’re going to change our lens so that we can get access to all of them so that we have so many to choose from. But no.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s available to us, but we’re not there yet. We have a long, long road to travel. Desiree, this work and this conversation is under attack by our government, by our president, that just this past week we have a second executive order that is much more specific about what we are allowed to teach and not teach.
DESIREE ADAWAY: About gender and race, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. So can you bring us up to speed in a nutshell? What’s going on with that? What is going to happen next in terms of your … And what already has happened actually as a result of some of these messages coming down in terms of our ability to do our work, our clients who are trying to do the work? What’s going to happen with this?
DESIREE ADAWAY: I always talk about how I … I don’t talk about doing DEI work. I talk about doing racial equity work. Just so we’re clear, racial equity, we define it as the condition when race does not determine or predict the distribution of resources of opportunities or burdens for groups. It is that active process of identifying and eliminating racism and racial biases within our systems and structures and policies and practices and attitudes so that power and resources are redistributed and shared equitably.
The far right has always been coming after academia, teachers, and folks who teach critical race theory. Critical race theory, in the 70s and the 80s, was created by a group of lawyers and activists and legal scholars as a way to recognize that needed new framework to look at racism and oppression in America. They blended all these concepts from critical legal studies and radical feminism with influences from Black power communities and Chicano movements of the time. It was referenced as legal scholarship first, but then it became used across different fields and disciplines.
What it teaches, it teaches real history. So the president and his executive orders really are basically saying, “You can’t teach anything around identity. Anything around racial identity cannot be taught.” So critical race theory really asks us, “How can we transform our relationship between race and racism and power and work towards liberation of people of color?” Which we know this current administration is really not down for. I know of some consulting firms that have lost contracts. They were doing work with museums or different … EPA, different departments. They’ve lost their contracts.
A lot of folks are organizing, connecting, trying to figure out how do we continue to do this work. Because let’s be clear, ain’t nobody going to stop doing this work because he signed an executive order.
JENNIFER BROWN: True, true.
DESIREE ADAWAY: This is the work. This is the work that gets us free. I always say, “Black liberation is not just for Black people. It’s for humanity.” Nobody’s stopping this work because of this man or because of this order or this administration. So the reality is folks are going to continue to do it. They may call it different things, but that’s not going to change. I’m sure that there’s some folks out there who are trying to pull together some kind of legal dissent. I wouldn’t doubt if that was happening, as it should happen.
This is a legitimate way of learning and connecting and building more equitable workplaces. So the reality is if we can’t talk about identity, if we can’t understand them, if we can’t understand how we’ve been socialized into these super prescribed roles because our socialization into whiteness is killing all of us.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: The way we’ve been socialized has led to this bullying, this collusion, us being fearful of one another because we know limited misinformation, limited information, and no information about each other, about how we connect because we don’t understand how to really build trust across differences. This is our work. I know it’s out there happening. For me personally, I’m not speaking for anybody else, they’re going to have to come and arrest me. I’m not going to stop teaching.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. Maybe we can hope it doesn’t have teeth. Maybe we can hope it’s an election strategy. I don’t know. But I can’t see institutions changing their-
DESIREE ADAWAY: I mean it’s this. This is where we are.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. This is where we are. This is where we are and it’s coming-
DESIREE ADAWAY: If we look at history, I was going to say, we can look at history. This is what happened in Nazi Germany.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. We have to keep pushing. At a time when, I think Jessica was sharing with me in our prep call, the apathy is settling in after the summer. The interest is dropping 15 points, she shared with me. The question, have you taken any action to learn more about racial injustice? Only 30% of white Americans said yes. How do we sustain the energy and make sure the learning lands in a meaningful way?
We’ve had a summer of awakening. But to me, now is where the real work starts. I wrestle with that, to say if we squander what we’ve been shown this summer, it will be the greatest tragedy. It will cause 100 times the harm. I’m concerned about that. I guess what do you want to say to those of us who are pushing into the fall and into next year because we’re battling the I want to go back to how it was, I’m uncomfortable, all of this kind of retrenchment that we do as humans? We don’t want to be uncomfortable every single day, but that’s what this call’s for, so that we can grow.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Every single day. A couple things, every summer we do a program called Whiteness at Work. We usually have a couple thousand people join us. This year, because of the timing, we do the first webinar for free. We had 16,000 people register for the first webinar.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness.
DESIREE ADAWAY: 5000 showed up. We only had room for 5000.
JENNIFER BROWN: Amazing.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Literally, the first second the room was filled. Our summer program opened and we had over 10,000 people take it. Because of this, we kept getting requests for it. We actually just opened it up this week again.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent.
DESIREE ADAWAY: So Whiteness at Work is available on demand. So as for me, it is we’ve got to stay educating ourselves. We’ve got to do our own work. Even if our companies aren’t going to do it, you yourself have the ability to do your own work, to find a group that will support you. Where’s your community who will help you continue to question? There’s people you can follow on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. There are books you can read. But you have to be committed to running this race.
You have to be committed to knowing that every day we can show up and we can do better. I would just ask for folks to know and understand I don’t know what’s going to happen on November 3rd. But I do know that before Trump was even here, we had Black folks being killed by state violence. That’s been happening. That happened under Obama. We’ve got to do our work and really begin to change the system. That happens on a personal level, on an interpersonal level, and then on a systemic level. So I just would really push out for folks to be brave, be brave and do your work because, again, this work is not just for Black folks. It is for humanity.
We get free together. We get to live our best lives together and it is no way we are living our best lives when every one of us are underneath the chain of racism and sexism and heterosexism. It is no way we get to live the life we’re supposed to be living.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a great call to action, Desiree, and a historical perspective. What I heard in that is an encouragement to have the long view of this and not get perhaps distracted, caught up in what’s right in front of us. But there’s no substitute for the work we all need to do ourselves. It reminds me too of what you said, transactional with capitalism, transformational in relationships. I do think while we are in organizations, we can’t wait for organizations to do this, not even perfectly but even at all.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Even at all.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re working on that, you and I. Even at all, but we can be in different relationship with each other and that’s where it starts.
DESIREE ADAWAY: What this work does not need is perfect people or people thinking that they have to show up perfectly. We all make mistakes. Last week I made a big one.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh really?
DESIREE ADAWAY: Yeah. We do it all the time.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. We do.
DESIREE ADAWAY: We do it all the time. We scheduled a training. We worked with our partner. We scheduled a training. It was on Yom Kippur, the holiest day. We immediately realized that and rescheduled it. I sent a public apology to everybody. I got plug-ins on my computer that tells me what the holidays are. There were eight of us at that table to assist.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you studied this.
DESIREE ADAWAY: And we still do it.
JENNIFER BROWN: How did that happen?
DESIREE ADAWAY: So we still make these mistakes. Did we cause harm? Yeah. Did we apologize and did we move on? Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. We had space and grace for you and for all of them.
DESIREE ADAWAY: We have grace. We have grace.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful.
DESIREE ADAWAY: How do we show up with each other with grace in these moments? Because I know I’m going to fail. I’m going to fall down. I know I’m going to come up short. So I give grace. I tell people all the time, “I give grace so I can get it.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: I’m not looking for perfect people on any level. I am just looking for people who are willing to do the work. It’s hard, deep work and people are here for the long term.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. Perfectionism, if you don’t know that that’s one of the hallmarks of white supremacy culture, if you’re listening to this, it would behoove you to look that up. It’s right at the top of the list. It’s something, as a white woman, has been pointed out to me. It’s something I explore and something I have to reiterate over and over to say, “Your allyship is a journey and it is going to be imperfect or worse. It will be awkward. It will be stumbling. It will be clueless.”
DESIREE ADAWAY: And that is not reason enough to quit.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That’s not reason enough to stop it. Yeah, this is it. I think that’s where the patriarchy intersects with white supremacy which is the way, I think, perfectionism hits white women in a very particular way.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it does. Yes, it does.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That’s part of the journey is letting that go which is why I’m like, this frees us all.
JENNIFER BROWN: It does.
DESIREE ADAWAY: It frees us all.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it does. Yes, it does. Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of years shaking those chains off. Desiree, you’ll appreciate this, but coming out as LGBTQ when I was 22, there was so much in that that was liberating for me, the ability to architect my own life, my own path. It was so much bigger than who I would then have the agency to love, but really it was I think the beginning of my journey of my own liberation. It was wrapped up in patriarchy, absolutely. For me, the personal is political. That’s always just-
DESIREE ADAWAY: Always.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. So there was a part of me that coming out was a liberation and it was so much more than who I wanted to affiliate with and spend my life with and felt romantic or sexual attraction to. It was a feminist choice. It was a choice to honor my path and make sure that if it could possibly be clean for me and authentic and powerful that I didn’t feel I could do that in the context of at least the way that heterosexual norms had been presented to me and also my role as a white woman in white culture, which that was what I was groomed to succeed in.
It’s just been tremendous. So I think the white woman question is a deep one for me, one that’s on my heart and mind a lot. I had that opportunity because of the decision I had to make, that I had to reject and find something different that allowed me to step outside of the way I was socialized and start to see it for what it was. It’s led to, gosh, so much freedom. Freedom is so critical for women. Freedom is critical for all of us. Freedom for white men in the man box is so critical.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Oh my God. White men are the worst.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. They’re in is prison.
DESIREE ADAWAY: What does it mean to be a white man? They’re in a prison. No, they really are.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know.
DESIREE ADAWAY: I’m just like, “Wow.” When I say we get free together, I mean all of us.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
DESIREE ADAWAY: That’s what happens. Once we push back against the status quo and the way we’ve been socialized, the way we’ve been taught to think about ourselves, the way we’ve been taught to think about each other, once we push back that, we can get to question and reframe. We get to be on a new path. Yeah. That’s the path to liberation.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right, Desiree. All right. Recap for us resources, programs. Tell us where to follow you, find you, support you, where can we study with you, all that good stuff.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Okay. Website is adawaygroup.com. You can learn more about Whiteness at Work, which is a self-paced racial equity grounded in anti-Blackness online course that you can take for individuals and for companies. We have it set up in a beautiful portal. We show you how you can work together and process as a team. So all of that is there and if you have questions, you can reach out.
You can find me on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter. I go on Twitter to fight, so just so you know that, @DesireeAdaway. I use my name for all my handles. Yeah. Just know that if you want to do this work, there are plenty of people here to support you in doing it and I just ask you to think about what is it that it’s going to take for you to get free. And then go out there and get it.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Thanks so much, Desiree, for bringing your voice and your heart and your grace and your love to me today and to all of us. This is going to ground me in a beautiful way today and remind me what we’re all striving for, and that is collective liberation. So thank you for what you do every single day and how you’ve navigated the world to make it an easier place for all of us to thrive and to feel joy and to really do the work that needs to be done.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Love, love, joy should be at the center of all the things.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Thank you, Desiree.
DESIREE ADAWAY: Thank you so much.