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In this minisode Jennifer Brown reveals the collective wisdom that has been emerging from the weekly community calls that she has been holding during the COVID-19 pandemic. Discover what we are learning about each other during this time, the challenges and opportunities that are facing families, and the need to build new systems that are more responsive and humane.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • What we are learning about each other during the COVID-19 pandemic (3:00)
  • The risks and opportunities of speaking up  (7:00)
  • The best approach that leaders can take during this time (8:00)
  • The shift that is occurring for families (10:00)
  • The struggle that many parents are facing (12:00)
  • Why many are downplaying their needs (13:30)
  • The need to break down silos (14:30)
  • How to build more responsive systems (22:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello and welcome back to the Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and, of course, I’m with Jennifer Brown. On today’s minisode, we’re going to be doing an update to… The last minisode we did was about a month ago, and since that time Jennifer has been doing a lot of community calls, a lot of feedback from people, so you’re going to hear about that. I really think you’ll get a lot out of this episode. Jennifer, thanks so much. Thanks for letting me join you today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, thanks Doug. I can’t wait to share what I’m hearing. It’s a lot.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. You were hearing a lot. Let me just give people a little bit of context, and tell me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been doing community calls, the weekly community calls. You started doing that in March, and you’ve had what? Over a thousand registrations, over a hundred people showing up on each call. Is that right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, the chat is wild. It’s like the Wild West in a great way. I mean it’s almost too much to take in, as I also have a cohost join me every call, and then we go back and forth. Then people in the chat are having… They are interacting with us and then they’re also having their own chat. One chat I printed out from an hour, and it was 20 pages single spaced.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s incredible.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, and I make them available to everyone too. For any of you that haven’t RSVPed for these calls, please do so. We’ll include the link in the show notes. Then once you register, you will get access to the video of the call and then also the chat. I would recommend… There’s a lot of really great ideas in there.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, thank you so much. The last time we spoke, we talked about what could go right. What are you learning then from these calls, and from the chat, about what could go right?

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that question, Doug. What could go right? And also the other question, why is this happening for me or for us versus to us, to me. Not to get too mystical about it, but there’s just incredible potential and opportunity for positive change in any crisis. there’s so much that will be created out of this and there’s so much that’s being accelerated. I think that’s why we are… It’s a mixed bag for sure, and we can talk through some of those things today, but fundamentally there are also things that are accelerating right now, that are becoming apparent in this undeniable way that now I think we can’t unsee.

We are learning about each other on a deeper level. We are not able to perhaps cover as much about our stigmatized identities. We are sort of being thrust into each other’s real lives and into each other’s truths in a way that I don’t think I could have ever accomplished through years of training in the way that we do as a company. It’s just the circumstances are teaching us about each other, and they’re teaching us how to be more plainly ourselves and, I think, drop some of the protective gear that many of us have gotten really good at maintaining on a daily basis because we anticipated that… We felt that stereotype threat. We anticipated that lack of acceptance.

I feel like the whole deck of cards has been thrown up in the air and there’s new orders of hierarchy, or lack thereof, emerging. There’s a more democratic process, I think, whether it’s on Zoom calls, where people are sharing airtime, for example, more equitably, where people are coming to the fore from a leadership perspective that you don’t expect, perhaps people from places you wouldn’t normally see as sources of leadership behaviors. Whether that’s people who just really thrive in this kind of environment are coming to the fore… I’m really excited and heartened to see that because I’m always about, as you know, which voices are we not hearing, who are the unsung leaders, who are the underappreciated leaders who are lying in wait to bloom, and yet the systems that we’ve all been laboring in for so long are not conducive to enabling that seeing and that appreciating.

I really personally… That’s a piece of this very, very sad situation that we’re all in that’s frustrating and dispiriting, and really difficult for many of us and terrifying, is too that the diversity and inclusion leaders that tend to come on my calls are trying to celebrate what’s going right and also marketing that… Getting that story, those examples out, especially to any kind of leadership who have positional power to actually institutionalize some of these things maybe into this new world that we’re moving into, so that we don’t lose what we’ve discovered in this time, that we don’t forget, that we don’t go back to business as usual. But as Jim Massey said on my last community call on Thursday, he said, “I want not business as usual. I want business as us, BAU.” I loved that. Everybody in the call was like-

DOUG FORESTA: I love that.

JENNIFER BROWN: “Oh, that’s so good.” You just feel that… Yes, business like us like we matter, like us and what we want and what we’ve always needed. I think there’s some real tailwinds right now that are pushing us along. We have to know how to seize the moment though and make sure that the organizations do the right thing coming out of this. I think that’s where we have to really put our marketing hat on and think really deeply about what table do we have a seat at.

What relationships do we have? How are we strategically the squeaky wheel right now, particularly difficult at a time when I feel a lot of us are perhaps more job insecure than we’ve ever been. I mean that’s a real conundrum for me to sit here and say, “Speak up now and point out whether it’s working and fight for the voices that are finally getting heard in this new configuration also comes with risk.” It’s always been risky to be different in organizations anyway. We do find that. I would like to argue that actually difference and diversity of thought and identity and lens right now is actually what’s needed to solve these problems.

There is no way that traditional leaders are going to be able to have all the answers to miraculously solve these problems that we’ve never encountered before. These solutions are going to come from unorthodox places in the organization, and that’s what every leader should be thinking about right now, who am I listening to, where am I, what communities am I sort of consulting and including so that we can build something better coming out of this because the answers lie in those places. Those are not the traditional places, which is great news for a lot of us.

DOUG FORESTA: Let me ask you this. You talked about the danger, the risks and opportunities of being a squeaky wheel. I mean what do you recommend for DEI professionals at this time?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I think it is connecting. I think not assuming that, well, we need to wait for permission, number one. I mean I’ve had a lot of people on my calls say, “I’m just going rogue,” which I love. They’re like, “I’m not waiting for answers.” Some people are even on teams right now where their leader is MIA. We’ve got many different kinds of weird leadership behaviors showing up right now. We either have the total micromanager who expects the same output and the same productivity and is just killing people with the sort of nine to five still, even in a virtual world. Then there’s the total MIA leader where we haven’t heard from our leader in weeks and so, “What are we supposed to be doing?”, which came up on a call last week.

I think the best leaders right now are just super humble to what people need and just saying like, “What work can get done? How can we shift responsibilities around? How can we share work?” So sort of revisit how work is being apportioned and delegated and who has capacity and who’s underwater and how can we use this… get things done in a more breathable, flexible way that accounts for people’s real lives. We’ve never really approached work that way. We are still in that industrial mindset that all of us are kind of this cog and cogs are reliable pieces of machinery. When you push a button, they work in the way they’re supposed, but this whole experience is putting the final nail in the coffin of, I think, that old way.


JENNIFER BROWN: The best leaders right now are saying… or actually work for their team members to say, “What do you need from me? Where do I need to shape shift and fill in the blanks and move work from here to here or enable flexibility for the times of day when you can work and when you can’t work?” Just that whole emotional intelligence to also build that trust with your people to say like, “Tell me what you need right now.” If you can only give me XYZ, that’s fine. We’ll figure it out or we’ll change what’s expected. There’s just a lot of opportunity right now for those really honest conversations to actually truly talk about our needs.

It makes me really sad to realize too what’s being expected, for example, of parents right now who have full-time jobs and who are parenting and schooling. It’s also exposing the very painful lack of support that we have always known was true, but we sort of got by, I guess. I think we’ve known the cost that we’ve paid for not having the right structures in place, and we’ve seen that cost play out in terms of, for example… Just to use a heterosexual example. Dad’s not having time with family. Dad’s not playing their part in terms of caretaking roles and the labor of the household, the administration.

DOUG FORESTA: Some of that has had to shift.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s had to shift, yep.

DOUG FORESTA: In the midst of all this, yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yep. So that’s another positive, which is that even in cultures where… They’ve done so many studies on this, where parental leave and father leave is literally resulting in men… The shift of administrative and chores and duties and caregiving, even with a little bit of leave for dads that’s mandated say in Scandinavia, it actually shifts the balance of that going forward long term. Taking leave has been shown to fundamentally change the way people parent and the way that roles are and duties are shared. If that’s true in societies where men take more parental leave, imagine what’s shifting right now. I mean this cannot be anything but, I think, good news in that sort of heterosexual couple perspective with kids.

Those of us in the LGBTQ community, it’s always been pretty different because it has seldom been about gender roles because it can’t be. On a personal level, it’s always been something I study, but something that I don’t actually relate to on a personal level, but I can absolutely convene that conversation because it’s an important one to have. I think it’s also really interesting to think about. In the LGBTQ community, one of the freedoms I’ve really enjoyed is that lack of gender roles. It’s a community, I think, that is sort of on the vanguard of how to figure this out from a truly equitable way if there is such a thing. It’s been very liberating, I have to say, to write your own script about what works and having that be perhaps according to somebody’s likes and dislikes instead of somebody role expectations.

But on the flip side, parents are struggling a lot right now that is not news, but it’s certainly… What I’m seeing for D&I professionals in the companies that we work with is that the parenting and the caregiving networks, if they don’t exist, they’re being created for the first time. Also, they’re joining with mental health and wellness networks and efforts as well and initiatives. So that there’s this like new intersectional conversation and programming going on. These aspects of diversity are coming to the fore and becoming, I guess, normalized to talk about more honestly.

That is going to shift… We talk a lot about the Iceberg model, Doug, and what we teach? 10% is visible above the waterline and 90% is not. We sort of downplay a lot of our needs and a lot of who we are and a lot of what would I think enable us to thrive because we have to assimilate. I think what’s happening now is this vast lowering of that waterline of the iceberg and the coming to the fore of diversity dimensions that honestly have been derailing a lot of us for a long time, but that have not been named and that have not been prioritized and that have been deeply stigmatized. There’s really good reason why we haven’t wanted and felt we could just sort of get by without making these a big deal, but now this is all changing.

I think the potential for true intersectionality to come to our understanding and how things like parenting, things like mental health cut across so many different vertical communities of identity, if you will. Corporate structures and strategies have been aligned around those silos of identity, traditionally. We’ve had the women’s network, the LGBTQ network, the black employee network, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I think now we’re truly understanding the threads that run through all of us. There’s this tremendous opportunity, I think, that we can also break those silos as much as those silos still need to exist, and they do need to exist, because we need deep vertical work and learning about each community identity. We also need to focus a lot more and we have needed to focus a lot more on the horizontal shared experience as well. I think this is… Again, you talk about acceleration. I’ve been talking about this for a long time, but it’s been really difficult to get anybody to pay attention to it, let alone invest in it and kind of bake it into strategies, and now we have that opportunity.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, that part is really exciting. I mean towards that end… You’ve been talking about the tip of the iceberg for a long time. I’ve definitely heard you use that term. Anyone who’s a fan of the program and anyone who listens to you knows that you’ve talked about that for a long time. In terms of how much or little of our full selves that we bring forward in work, what do you see shifting and what’s good or what’s difficult about that shift?

JENNIFER BROWN: I think the fear that diversity and inclusion and those values are going to not be prized going forward, I think that fear is very top of mind for some of us and others of us it’s kind of lurking in the recesses of our brains and hearts because we’ve worked so hard. We were, I think, making really good progress actually. So I think there is a fear. There’s also a fear that I have of our field… We’ve always been viewed as nice to have, and it’s something we have fought so intentionally to overcome, to say this is not discretionary stuff. This is fundamental to business as us,” to quote Jim. This is fundamental to business as usual or business as unusual. I would say it’s even more fundamental to business as unusual and it will need to be something that is very much top of mind to create belonging in a work from home world that may never go back to the office in the same way.

To create belonging in this virtual world is a trick. That is, I think, a skill set that I always tell my diversity leaders and all of the diverse talent that I have the privilege to know. We do this really well. We know how to look for community. We know how to build trust across difference. We know how to build diverse coalitions and value the diversity of those coalitions. Essentially, that’s what we do when we enter a company and we’re lucky enough to have affinity group structures in place and we’re lucky enough to have perhaps, I hope, a company we worked for that values these things and puts money and resources and visibility behind them. We step into that and we become part of these very loyal, very energized communities that are all about belonging.

They’re all about… What we specialize in is already is creating belonging for ourselves in institutions that were not built by and for us. What do I do when I start a job? I go and find the LGBTQ network. If I’m an ally, I find that network and I say I want to be a part of it. It’s a community to which I can connect and with which I can connect. I think actually ERGs, which is employee resource groups… Or business resource groups, whatever you want to call them… are I think actually providing this incredible stay. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, they are maintaining that fabric of belonging and connection. If you’re a business leader that doesn’t think that’s important right now, I am very worried for you.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, exactly. Like you said, people will remember that for sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, yeah, that’s the thing. I mean people are like, “We’re watching. We are really watching and taking notes right now.” I try to impress this on the leaders that are often straight white men, cisgender men like the Jim Massey’s of the world. I really encourage everybody to go back and watch… Get on our list and go back and watch the replay of Jim’s community call on Thursday, which was April 23rd. We’ll include the link for that in the show notes too, Doug. He is an executive straight white male, cisgender male leader in pharma. He blows my mind because he’s done… So much of his work is apparent in how he speaks and the examples that he uses and the fact that he can define intersectionality and use it in a sentence.

He is what I envisioned when I wrote how to be an inclusive leader is somebody like Jim, that he got on that journey somehow, that he had the right mentorship, that he had the right support. ERGs right now and diverse talent is actually teaching leaders like Jim what they need to know in order to lead into the future. We need to see ourselves as teachers and mentors. We always have been, but there is an opportunity right now to assume that seat at the table in a really powerful way with the knowledge that the way that you’re going to be looking at this is actually unique and more necessary than ever. Those of us that have built these communities in spite of organizations that were not hospitable to us, we literally had to find our sense of belonging and create something that would sustain us and keep us in our jobs because our day-to-day jobs were so frustrating from an inclusion perspective.

This group of people hung in there with a company, hung in there, found community, created their own mechanism of belonging, figured out how that would be organized and structured and what that… Forgive me… chain of command would look like, what would that chair and co-chairs and executive sponsors, how would it all be coordinated, and how are we going to bring our cultural experience to this company and educate so that we can have a better place here someday. How can we create that because nobody else is creating it for us? Think about the initiative that that shows. What does that mean then for our leadership going into this incredibly uncertain, chaotic VUCA world? I love that acronym from the military, Doug. It’s volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous, VUCA. It came out, I think, of the army.

DOUG FORESTA: I love it.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s going to be our world, and I believe that new leaders need to take us into that world. Those leaders are not going to be the leaders on at the top of the org chart. We’ve always said that, but I think it’s just we’re in hyper speed right now. We’re like and this is that… I mean we talk about crisis as full of opportunity. It always has been. It always will be. I don’t mean to say the word capitalized because right now I’m feeling kind of really depressed about capitalism. I have been for a while.

Now, we’re seeing the lack of care and humanity in our systems. It’s heartbreaking all over again to witness what’s happening with racism against the AAPI community, who’s desperately being impacted and black and brown communities, so that it’s really not an equal opportunity healthcare crisis at all. My hope is that we’ve opened our eyes. I hope allies, aspiring allies, are paying attention right now. We are being shown a lot of things, and a lot of people who are dropping that waterline on the iceberg because they have no choice are feeling extremely vulnerable right now.

We’re feeling extremely exposed in our lives. We’re feeling that we literally cannot control what people see about our true lives and our true selves, whether that’s our mental health challenges and the fact that we have to cancel a meeting or you can’t be on a meeting because we’re struggling and we need to take some personal time through the overwhelm… Whether that’s people zooming into our home spaces and seeing our how we really live, whether it’s how my family is being impacted from the virus and getting sick at disproportionate numbers to other communities of identity.

Literally deaths and loss are impacting certain parts of our community more than others. Some of us are riding this through in a lot of comfort and some of us are experiencing total devastation… is because of diversity issues and identity. My prayer, I beseech people to learn as much as they can, notice impact, understand equity issues for maybe the first time for a lot of people because what’s happening right now is showing us the inequities. This is a concept that, Doug, it’s hard to teach. Everybody in my audience always wants to talk about equality versus equity because that’s… Particularly older generations, it’s something that we all thought we got comfortable with, like, “Oh, of course I believe in equality. It’s a level playing field. I don’t want to deny anybody.”

DOUG FORESTA: We’re a meritocracy here. Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, like, “I don’t see difference. Women have just as much opportunity as men in this organization and I work really hard to make sure that’s true.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right. “I’m a good person.”

JENNIFER BROWN: “I’m well intended. I have daughters.” Equity lens asks the question of who came to this crisis differentially, who came to this crisis with less resources to lean on or more health disparities or more risk because of systemic racism, who is afraid to ride the subway right now? My friends who are Asian are literally going through an extra layer of thought and anxiety every day right now like, “Am I safe in the city, in New York city? I should take Uber’s everywhere just to make sure I’m not… By the way, New York is empty right now. It’s funny, the crush of humanity that normally you have in New York is actually what makes you feel safe. When things are empty-

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right. The lack of people.

JENNIFER BROWN: You are definitely looking over your shoulder all the time unless you’re, I would say, perhaps a straight white man. It’s a level of vigilance and fear that we have to now normalize, we need to talk about. We need to not hide it anymore. We need to lead with this and be transparent about it and those of us who aren’t impacted are the ones that need to make sure we’re educating right now. Make sure you do your homework. I don’t want you to be mis-educating, but we need to spread the word so that people who are most impacted by what’s happening don’t need to also do the labor of spreading the word and feeling that the onus is completely on them to also point out all of these equity issues that are coming to the fore.

That is really the call to action I would give the Will To Change is like, “What are you sharing? What are you talking about? What are you educating about right now? What are you learning? What dots are you connecting in this crisis that you never were able to connect before? What words are finally making sense to you? What statistics are finally clicking? Which stories are you finally believing right now?” Because you just had to hear it a different way. Then what are you going to do with that knowledge, which is phase three in my Inclusive Leader Continuum. Awareness is phase two, which is, “Oh my goodness, I’m learning so much, and phase three is, “What am I going to do with that knowledge?”

Phase four, of course, is advocate level. “I’ve learned, I’ve acted and then some day can I really consider myself an advocate, which means that I’m asking the really hard questions. I’m challenging the structures around me. I am challenging leadership. I’m a squeaky wheel all day long. I’m not waiting for permission. I’m going rogue.” I honestly feel like that’s most of who shows up on the calls that I’ve been having is people at that level who are not taking no for an answer, who are definitely asking for what they want right now, which is time and attention on these issues that we’ve always known are persistent, but now there’s a really unique opening to walk through that door and keep that door open with our foot and make sure that others can come in behind us. That’s the work of all of us right now.