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In this special episode of The Will to Change, you’ll hear a conversation between Jennifer Brown and DEI consultant Kay Fabella, as they reflect on Kay’s recent episode of her podcast, Inclusion in Progress, titled “My Top DEI Lessons from 2020.” You’ll also hear a segment of Kay’s podcast, where Kay outlines the top DEI lessons from 2020.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The need for compassion in inclusion work (16:00)
  • How to have productive conversations about all that’s transpired in 2020 (18:00)
  • The need for a middle or 3rd way instead of “cancel culture” (25:00)
  • How to build momentum for inclusion (34:00)
  • What we need to be aware of when it comes to using social media (39:00)
  • The limitations of “call-outs” (41:00)
  • Why we should strive towards compassionate collision (43:00)
  • The need for “genuine listening” (44:00)
  • Why we need to move beyond binary ways of thinking (46:00)

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

JENNIFER BROWN: Hello, all of my listeners on The will to change. I am so glad you’re tuning in today. We are going through some really intense change as a country, and on the topic of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which is my passion, and I know probably yours too. If you’re listening to The Will to Change, there’s so much to learn and so much to flex around that’s occurring, and so I wanted to make sure that everybody knew the kinds of support that we are providing.

We are providing something every week on Thursdays at noon Eastern, which we called the DEI Community Call, and it is a free hour-long call, people have called it the DEI spa, because it is known to restore us, to connect us with each other, to remind us about the critical importance of our work, to remind us of the strength of our community, and that we aren’t alone at this moment, and the beautiful diversity within our community of people doing this work, whether it’s folks who are doing it as their paid job in organizations, folks who are volunteering their time, folks who write about and podcast about the topic, and people who want to do this work, which is more and more all the time.

We hold these calls on every Thursday at noon, and I wanted to make sure that you have the text, you can send a text-to to get on the RSVP list. And once you’re on that RSVP list, you will always know about the upcoming calls, who the guests are, what the topics are, and also you will have the opportunity to listen to the replay, which is really important, because sometimes we just can’t make that call at noon Eastern on Thursdays. You could also read the chat, which is really interesting in these calls, really vibrant, full of ideas and resources and links and offers to connect and offers to meet up offline, and I know that much serendipity has been introduced into the world because of the connections that have been made on the chat alone for these calls.

So, I really encourage you to stay close to us because we were constantly pivoting in this changing world, we are constantly doing our head and our heart and our hands’ work, to figure out, how do we create change amidst so much uncertainty and chaos and countervailing forces and polarization? So, if you would like to get on this list, you can text DEI Community to 33777. So if you put 33777 into your text-to field, and then write all one word DEI Community, it will prompt you to provide some information, which we will guard course, and keep safe, but it will you into the mix and onto the list, and you can download a calendar reminder, and you can join us and feel all the things that I described.

I just have to say, we’ve been doing these since March 2020 every single week, and they have kept me going on a personal level. The checking in with the community reminds me of the magnitude of the work, but also the brilliance and the intelligence and the creativity of this community of advocates, and I know for me, it’s been a touchstone. So please consider joining us, and now on to today’s Will to Change.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s now up to each one of us to turn those conversations into concrete actions for change, to go from where we are, to where we want to be in DEI or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We have to meet people where they’re at, to invite them to take that next right step. Our job long after 2020 ends is to sustain this work, to keep encouraging people to stay engaged, and hold one another accountable on the road to equity for all.

Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will to Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs, as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion, and now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown. Hello, Will to Changers, this is Doug Foresta, and I wanted to explain to you what you’re going to hear in this special episode of The Will to Change. You’re going to hear first a conversation between Jennifer and Kay Fabella as they talk about Kay’s podcast, the Inclusion in Progress podcast and specifically an episode called My Top DEI Lessons from 2020, by Kay Fabella. Let me say a little bit about Kay so you know a little bit about her before we get started. Kay Fabella is a DEI consultant and remote team strategist, she has worked with companies including the IMF Phillips and Pepsi-Co.

A Filipino-American in Spain since 2010, Kay draws from her own lived experiences as a multi-hyphenate woman of color, a daughter of immigrants and an immigrant herself. To build bridges for a belonging, she believes that more inclusive workplace culture start with sharing non-linear stories to expand worldviews, navigate cultural perceptions, and increase connectivity and collaboration. She now helps companies translate their DEI initiatives intersectionally across cultures and countries to create equitable workforces, where diverse teams can thrive. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and Thrive Global. And again, you can listen to her insights and expert interviews on her podcast Inclusion in Progress. But now we’re going to go to a conversation between Kay and Jennifer, talking about Kay’s reflections from her episode entitled My Top DEI Lessons from 2020. Enjoy.

JENNIFER BROWN: Kay, welcome to The Will to Change.

KAY FABELLA: And thank you so much for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: This has been a long time coming. You and I have a multi-hour conversations, usually on the weekends, to unpack the intense existence of being DNI practitioners, and it’s been so restorative for me, and just to know you are halfway around the world from me to sit in Madrid, Spain, but there are so many fascinating intersections in our stories in the way we approach the work, and I’m just thrilled to do something a bit different today for The Will to Change.

We’re going to actually contextualize for some minutes here at the opening, Kay’s year-end message from 2020, which we will subsequently play and re-air after this conversation between the two of us. So what this whole hour or is going to feel like for those of you who are listeners to The Will to Change is that we’re going to get… This is my ’80s child speaking. We’re going to get the behind the music version of Kay’s process of preparing a message like this, and also the good nuggets within the message, and then we’re going to air the about 20 minutes of her year-end message itself, which I thought was just so… It just hit me right between the eyes.

It was so concise spot on, needed, I think connected a lot of amazing dots, shared some I think new resources that helped me, and I’m sure helped many, many others in your audience, again contextualize the tensions that we are all navigating right now, and which promise sadly, sitting here in the second week of January promise to get a little more intense, not less intense in 2020.

KAY FABELLA: Agree, agreed.

JENNIFER BROWN: Agreed, agreed. So anyway Kay, first of all we always start with how we identify, and I wanted to give you a chance to share your multi-hyphenate identity, as you call it.

KAY FABELLA: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Jen again, it’s so funny. We have had so many conversations over the last year, and it was such a bright spot to be connected the way that we have, it’s almost like this is what pen pals look like in 2020.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, again dating herself.

KAY FABELLA: Yeah. Which is wonderful. Now I’m really happy to be here, and to answer your question in terms of how I identify, I term myself a multihyphenate because I always feel like all of the boxes from when I was very young never fully applied to me or I never fully occupied them. So for context, my parents are Filipino immigrants, naturalized U.S. citizens, which makes me a second-generation American, having been born in the U.S. and I like to joke that immigration is a genetic thing, because I have now since moved to Spain myself, where I’m going on the start of my 11th year here, I’ve been here since 2010. And so I’m this Filipino American Spanish hyphenate, and those who know me or have followed me or connected with me on LinkedIn know that I have three flags after my name, which became a really easy shorthand for my story.

And I remember somebody commenting and saying like, “Oh, your flags are really cute.” And I said, “Well, actually it took me a long time to fully own that I was all of these three things.” And I think that what I’ve come to realize that used to be a point of, I would say difference, and even just a feeling of outsiderness for me for a long time, I think when people don’t really know where to place you, especially growing up in Southern California and being somebody who we’ll say has a non-European looking face, people are trying to contextualize where you are. So you always get the second question of, “Where are you from?” being the first, and the second being, “Where are you really from?” And so there’s this preemptive storytelling, almost like it starts quite defensively, I think when you’re younger.

You realize that if you don’t speak up and contextualize yourself for the other person, they are going to assign you an identity without you wanting to, and I think as my chapters have evolved over time, I realized that all of those places, whether it was going from West Coast to East Coast, and then East Coast to Spain, and then being here in Spain and being American, and being somebody who would be considered white passing in several U.S. contexts that I grew up in, but here is considered, and sometimes in a derogatory way, as an Asian immigrant and all of the context here that’s associated with being here in Spain.

So I never am fully in one box. And I think as I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve deepened my practice and gotten into this work, I’ve realized that that’s actually been a huge advantage, that I have all those different hyphens to my experience, because I’m always able to very quickly see either both sides of an argument, or at the very least hold space for two or more truths at once, because I’ve seen all of those different things in all those different ways. And so, that’s how I identify and move through the world. I try as much as possible to speak to this idea of being multihyphenate, not just from my own experience, but also because I genuinely think as I meet people on different teams, as I see even my niece’s generation being Generation Z as having just turned 18, teaching me things about TikTok and nonbinary gender identity, and all of the things that I still have to learn, we’re seeing all of those identity boxes that we still use to report and do a lot of measuring and DEI disappear and fade away.

And so I really think my passion is trying to figure out how we can really break out of those boxes, and acknowledge the different intersections that each of us have, where there’s both advantage, and blind spots or biases in our experiences, so that we can hopefully use those hyphens to bridge understanding. So that’s a little bit about me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hmm. I hear so much in that. There’s so many things I want to ask you about, but I feel I need to push forward to have you explore with us then, how we can be our own worst enemies within the community that is trying to do this work. And you chose to do an end of year message that I think was a very bold move for you, because I know you personally, and so you recorded a podcast episode as a roll up, the way I heard it is, these are the things we have to wrestle with, that are fundamental to our ability to move forward together in an inclusive way, and I think, honestly, that part of your message spoke to what I might call, for lack of a better word, the purity testing that we do, meaning, who’s allowed to do this work? Who has permission? Who has the moral authority to do this work when you are multihyphenate? When you identify in certain ways and not in others? Does it disqualify your voice or your teaching?

And then frankly the harshness with which we deal with each other. Which is so ironic, because it is the furthest thing from walking the talk of inclusion, and yet you and I have shared and deeply dived into the fear we have on a regular basis of being not the right kind of messenger, I suppose, from an identity perspective, as if there is such a thing.


JENNIFER BROWN: And so you I think crystallized that so beautifully in this, and you found an article that you share in the episode, which I encourage everybody go and read, which I felt also came from somebody with tremendous moral authority, to really tease apart this moment we’re in where if we don’t come together and appreciate all of the voices that are doing this work, which by the way are necessary, we may not move forward together in the most efficient way, the most powerful way, the most sustainable way because we will be infighting. And I think it’s fascinating. I’m always fascinating about the huge mountain of work ahead of us, and the fact that we would turn inward and criticize, and make anyone feel that they aren’t enough to contribute. And so it’s something I personally do battle with in the field, but also in myself. I get those comments too.

And I know that you probably got some interesting responses, and have gotten some interesting responses to the way that you hold the middle, if you will, the way that you live in the hyphenate, it is a really tough place to be, and so I just want you to elaborate a little bit on that and let listeners know what led you to really want to do this, and did you feel fear? What do you feel about putting a stake in the ground and sending out that message that was like a clear call to action, and also a reminder about what’s important?

KAY FABELLA: Yeah, there’s so much to unpack there. I want to zoom out very quickly and honor the fact that I think, as you mentioned at the top, we have similar approaches to the work around holding space for, not just containers, we’re doing the work of inclusion to create containers for not just collaboration, but also compassionate collision. And I think that’s ultimately what we’re trying to get to. We’re not looking for every single voice to fit all the time, we’re not looking for every single voice to be heard all the time, and to have it then turned into this cacophony of voices where nothing gets done, we’re trying to create spaces where ultimately they’re environments where people feel they can show up or not show up as who they feel they want to be in that moment.

I think very simplistically, that’s what I feel this work is. And then to your point there, I definitely felt fear because, even just within the last year alone, there was a lot of pushback for me personally around whether or not I am “allowed” to facilitate the anti-racism conversation as a non-black woman of color, and as an American who’s no longer residing in the U S. And so there’s just all of these different places of not enoughness, that I’ve had to straddle when I’m just trying to do the work and do it responsibly and do it with integrity, because the work is not about me, it’s about creating the space for others. I’ve long reconciled myself to the fact that this work, and what I’m striving for everyday will outlive me, or I may not see this work realized in my lifetime, and I still get up and do it anyway.

For me it’s not about the packaging of how I present to the world, it’s facilitating the conversation. And as I say in the podcast episode that I shared at the end of last year, and I went back and forth about whether or not I was allowed to even share some of these things, because I sat in on the beauty of being, or the intrinsic nature of being in the middle is that you’re always seeing multiple sides. I sat with, for example, a group of white allies who were just beginning their journey and seeing the effects of systemic racism for the first time, with everything that happened in 2020. I also sat with other non-black people of color, to help them unpack and process what this meant for them, and maybe their anti-black attitudes or prejudices that they had also imbibed.

And either way, it felt like, “Well, should you be leading this work because you’re not Black?” Or, “Should you be leading this work because as an Asian, you’re a privileged model minority?” Or, “Should you be engaging in this conversation because…” Depending on who I was speaking to, “As somebody who’s now physically based in Europe, you’re focusing on so much with this U.S. lens versus what I need to hear as somebody who’s based in such country that’s not the United States here.” And that was something for me that I really had to sit with because I realized that all the conversations that I was privy to, I wanted to hold space for, and I wanted to honor the feelings that needed to be processed in that moment, but I also realized because I saw how much confusion there was, and how much lack of awareness, or even really just so many blind spots, because we’ve been avoiding this conversation for so long, I really wanted to make it public in some way that honored the confidentiality of the work that I do.

Again that was a big fear piece for me of, “Am I doing the work right as a practitioner by sharing some of the things that I’ve heard?” So that was a piece that I was definitely fearful of. I think there was another piece that I was fearful of in terms of, I’m always very similar to this podcast, trying to weave in my personal stories because I think it’s much easier to see somebody who’s going through the multiple hyphens, and the competing forces that sometimes are at play, when you have the face, or in this case, the author or the voice who’s sharing that happening in real time, but this was really peeling back the layers for me of, “Here’s what I think about it.” And I’m allowed say this because I’m a Millennial, but I think that we have a desire to… Because of who’s come before us, and because of what we’ve seen happen in the workplaces before us, we saw what it cost Boomers, Gen X-ers to try and fight to be fully seen in the workplace.

And so, we’re trying to take up the mantle and that torch for that conversation, and the way that we know how to do that is through holding people accountable. And I think that because we’re also the social media generation, as I shared in the podcast episode, that can tend to fall into the very same things that we’re trying to call out, performative allyship. You’re trying to find “the right word” instead of the right way forward. And I think what I’ve seen happen, amongst other practitioners, and again, this was the other reason I was very fearful, the public opinion of the work of what you felt should be done, sometimes bordered on prescriptive and flattening everybody against your standard of what the work should be.

And I think that’s to your point Jen, that felt just as dangerous and just as harmful to me, as somebody who for a long time didn’t feel like she could add the conversation to the work and still face this push back daily. Because what was it going to feel like for clients of mine who wanted to roll up their sleeves and contribute to change in the organization, when they’re looking outwardly for their first step or their next right step, and everywhere they’re looking, they’re being measured against this standard of, “You do this, don’t do this.” “You’re being a bad ally because of this.” Or, “This is your privilege that you shouldn’t look away.” It just felt overwhelming. And for somebody who is beginning their journey, or is starting to learn and really needs to not just look outward but inward, that could also be, I think, a dangerous obstacle to the work if all they see is outward confirmations, or outward examples of what they should and shouldn’t do, and I thought that was also harmful.

So I wanted to again, contextualize it with… I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, you know this from our conversations, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. And I remembered an article that I found, I think it was shortly after it came out, it was published in August 2019. I think I found it in September on accident, because I was trying to contextualize what I felt for one of my earliest podcast episodes on wokeness and cancel culture. And I found this article by Loretta Ross, and I just thought, it so brilliantly for me captured this idea that if we are holding other people to these standards of purity, and not honoring that everybody has a journey to go on, with the caveat obviously, if they’ve done irrevocable harm, we’re also flattening the very humanity that we want to be seen for, as practitioners of this work, and as people who are defending and taking up their rights and rights to be seen within workplaces as the populations that we feel most connected to, which is why we were prompted to join this work.

So there’s a lot in there, but for context I think that I wanted to add a voice to the conversation that I hoped was not prescriptive, that was not scolding, that was not measuring everybody against a flattened horizontal standard of what I felt was potentially going to push us back, or hold us back in moving this conversation forward around inclusion in 2020 and 2021 and the years to come, but I also was hoping that the middle way or this third way that I was trying to approach, would be accessible to somebody as another option. So that was all of the things that I was thinking about behind the episode.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hmm. This is perfect. This is the missing piece I wanted folks to have underneath what we’re going to share next. What really shines out in all of what you’ve said is compassion for self, honoring ourselves within the work we’ve committed to doing, and trusting that our voice is needed in all of its richness, which is the opposite of the flattening of identity that you’re talking about, and holding the middle, and welcoming, ensuring that the doors stay open to welcoming people to come through and come into a new paradigm for themselves, and do that awkwardly, imperfectly, hopefully not in a harmful way, but the tremendous, I think awakening and a want for so many people to do something more and differently, is such a wind at our backs, coming into 2021, 2020 gave us these tremendous gifts of momentum.

And I know that your approach and my approach is to say, “Hey, you might be really late to the party, but you’re needed and welcome and let’s learn together, let’s support each other, let’s have a full and holistic and accurate conversation and a nuanced conversation, and let’s name all the complexities, but certainly let’s not narrow the number of voices that can help, because that’s the wrong direction. We don’t want to go in that direction.”

But I know that that’s courageous for you to talk about, and when I talk about it, I feel like I’m inviting some criticism too. I know that the listeners to The Will to Change will totally resonate with this, I know that many of you listening to this are like, “Gosh, this is like soul filling to hear this named.” So I want everybody to know, following somebody like Kay and Kay’s work, you will get more of this, and I think it will equip you through the hard times, wherever those hard times come from, because like you said, it is the privilege of a lifetime to unpack all of your identities and figure out how we can be of service.

There is nothing more profound than that. And so while you can be fearful and maybe tone policed, maybe fearful of being called out from the left and the right and everything in between for all sorts of reasons, I also just want to say, what I hear and how you talk about your work is integrity, Kay. And integrity to me is not about the flattening and saying, “Well, I’m right, you’re wrong.” Or, “I have all the answers, you have none of the answers.” It’s not about that.

Integrity to the work is that we want as many of us to evolve into being stronger, more equipped, more competent, more confident, more inspired, and feeling that, “Hey, I know what to do, when to do it, I know what will have the most impact, and I’m going to do it regardless of my identity.” So, thank you so much for coming on here. And I want to know, where can people find you, so that they can follow your work?

KAY FABELLA: Yeah, absolutely. And I know this is a longer conversation, so if you want to engage more with what I’m seeing from my lens as somebody who is seeing the world through all those different hyphens and outside of U.S. context as well, I am also speaking on the Inclusion in Progress podcast, which you can find pretty much everywhere. Podcasts are available as well as on my website, kayfabella.com, and for those of you who are listening to this in a car and don’t have a pen, my last name is Fab-ella. So you can find me there.

JENNIFER BROWN: Fab, being the operative part of that. Thank you Kay, thank you so much for your work and everybody enjoy this portion of Kay’s year-end message.


KAY FABELLA: Without further ado, here are my lessons and reflections about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at work from the year 2020. So, let’s dive in. The first thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is this idea of meeting people where they’re at. Now in addition to my role as a strategist and keynote speaker, I’m also a workshop facilitator. And as a facilitator, it’s my job to help you achieve the answers on your own, and come to conclusions on DEI in your own words, in ways that will stay with you long after our time together has ended. And it’s a very strange privilege of being not white and a non-black woman of color, that I get to hear people speak with me so candidly in ways that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise, but are just as important. And I’ve heard and guided many conversations this year. Case in point, I facilitated several listening and allyship circles with people horrified by George Floyd’s violent murder back in May.

But I also found some of the answers I heard from well-meaning individuals to be quite interesting. The reason that I call these listening and allyship circles safe spaces, is because I would rather people get it wrong with a facilitator that could gently challenge them, rather than getting it wrong outside of the circle that is a safe space by, retraumatizing a historically excluded group. Now, bear in mind there might be some triggers here for people listening, so remember I’ve anonymized and tried to amalgamate a couple of different people and participants to, as much as possible protect them, and give you an idea of what exactly I was listening to, without trying to paint things in a broad sweeping way. All right? Now, when I was facilitating these circles, from some of the white allies who were beginning their journey and seeing the effects of systemic racism for the first time I heard things like, “I get he shouldn’t have died that way, but if anyone should be the face of this anti-racism movement, it should be Breonna Taylor. She did nothing wrong when she was murdered by police, and he was a criminal.”

Or I heard things like, “One person scolded me for calling them African-American, and another scolded me for calling them black, which one is it, so that I can get it right every time and stop getting called out? I’m just trying to be a good ally.” Now, I also hosted circles that I ran with non-black people of color, also grappling with the anti-racism movement. And there I heard things like, “Should you even be facilitating this conversation about anti-racism, as a non-black person? I mean, you’re Asian, so you’re basically white anyway.” Or, “I’m a…” Insert race here. There’s no way I can be racist towards black people when I experienced racism myself. Now, bear in mind, these were things that were said to me at the start of the conversation, not at the end. Which shows you just how far we have to go in changing hearts and minds, to create equity at work.

Because if these are the entry points that people have about their own levels of bias and privilege, we’ve first got to increase the awareness, and give people a place to actually ask these types of questions, instead of avoiding the conversation altogether, because they’re going to be accused of saying the wrong thing. Now it’s easy to fall victim to cynicism and say, “Well, why don’t you just listen to marginalized groups in the first place? Why did it have to take even more deaths of innocent people, for you to wake up to the reality of systemic racism.” Or to folks who are just joining this conversation for the first time, “Why don’t you just know this already?” Listen, I get it. I share your frustration. You can tell by my voice. I had to fight my own mixed feelings, while continuing to lead this work. Listening to answers like the ones that I’ve just shared with you here, the anger that you feel, the anger that I feel it’s valid, it’s merited, and we have every right to feel this way.

But creating inclusion isn’t just about one person receiving validation or vindication for their experiences, even when it’s been denied over and over by those around them. What inclusion is built on is, volume of actions, not just volume of words. We build momentum by encouraging more people to join our movement and commit to effecting change in their daily lives. And we can’t achieve this by belittling them, or forcing them to sit in the shame of their privilege or indifference, thinking this will magically bring about change.

If there was one bright spot in this year, with so many of us forced to shelter in place at home safely, we were also forced to engage in conversations of systemic injustice and inequality, and catapulted out of our comfort zones. Families and friends, coworkers and colleagues alike were forced to reflect and have uncomfortable conversations about bias and privilege. But it’s now up to each one of us, to turn those conversations into concrete actions for change. To go from where we are to where we want to be in DEI or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We have to meet people where they’re at to invite them to take that next right step. Our job, long after 2020 ends is to sustain this work, to keep encouraging people to stay engaged, and hold one another accountable on the road to equity for all.

Now, this isn’t going to be a tougher one, but the second thing that I want to address in my reflections today is that canceling or calling out won’t move the cause forward. I’ve shared quite a few of my thoughts on the idea of cancel culture early on in this podcast, way back in episode four actually on wokeness, cancel culture and inclusion, long before the US-based Black Lives Matter movement extended worldwide this year. I’ve also come to learn in deepening my own anti-racism journey, about the origins of wokeness within the black community, and how it became shorthand for solidarity within the BLM social justice movement, before it became this fiercely politicized thing and used as a measuring stick by both Liberals and Conservatives alike. Looking back on the episode now, my thoughts remain largely the same, as they were when I first recorded it.

And I stand by what I said about cancel culture being more harmful than productive in creating inclusion. Every social justice movement, starts as a disruption of a status quo that prioritizes power over, instead of power with. As people began to protest the quadruple whammy of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor, that Amy Cooper video in Central Park, and of course, the George Floyd video, we saw the anger of a nation, and eventually a planet ravaged by a pandemic, spill out into the streets. The outrage at how, even in the midst of coronavirus, we could still see such obvious signs of systemic racism and lives lost as a result. But because social justice now also has social media, the forward momentum of this movement quickly turned from demonstrations to an all out manhunt.

Brands were canceled for coming out in support of BLM in a tweet that was read as too insensitive or not sensitive enough. Leaders were canceled as staff members came forward to share their very real experiences with racism and microaggressions at work, as well as from strangers who then came to show their support by dogpiling on these leaders, hurling insults and threats of violence. I saw this social media justice play out in the workplaces I was hired to come into as well. Clients and colleagues, especially non-black folks who genuinely wanted to do the right thing and begin their anti-racism journey, shared how they were afraid to step one toe out of line for fear that they’d be canceled or publicly called out next.

Others tuned into the shame storm of a social media feed that was berating them for being complicit for not looking away from racism, because that was a sign of their so-called privilege. Not only that, I also experienced micro doses of this cancel culture myself. Folks from differently abled or disability advocacy groups shamed me for not talking enough about their community as a DEI practitioner. Folks from Europe who said my anti-racism content skewed too heavily towards the U.S. conversation, without taking to account their own social and cultural context. Worse yet, people from the Asian community that I identify with sending me private messages at 10:00 PM telling me I was being a “bad ally” for continuing to offer my services as a DEI expert, without focusing on just highlighting black voices.

Listen, I think social media is a powerful tool for connection and raising awareness of social justice causes. But whereas social justice is focused on putting public pressure on leaders and systems to inspire widespread change, social media justice seems to be more focused on measuring your standard of purity in word, thought, action and belief against someone else’s. A person who wrote this so much better than I could was reproductive justice theory expert, and black feminist, Loretta Ross in her New York Times article back in August 2019. She wrote, “We can build restorative justice processes to hold the stories of the accusers and the accused, and work together to ascertain harm and achieve justice, without seeing anyone as disposable people, and violating their human rights or right to due process. And if feminists were able to listen to convicted rapists in the 1970s, we can seek innovative and restorative methods for accused people today that also applies to people fighting white supremacy.”

Loretta Ross goes further to say, “Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others. Or for powerful people beyond our reach, effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice, but most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe that they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analysis. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity. Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic mar of the cancel culture. Shaming people for when they “woke up” presupposes rigid political standards for acceptable discourse, and enlists others to pile on.

Sometimes it’s just ruthless hazing. We can change this culture. Calling in is simply a call-out done with love. Some corrections can be made privately. Others will necessarily be public, but done with respect. It is not tone policing, protecting white fragility, or covering up abuse. It helps avoid the weaponization of suffering that prevents constructive healing.” I’ll be sure to link to that entire article in the show notes because it was so powerful and so brilliantly written and puts into words why I believe canceling won’t move this cause, or the larger work of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in work places forward. We must continue to challenge systems that were designed for the few and not the many, and do so without polarizing the very same people who we need with us in this work of inclusion in progress. Finally, another thing that I’ve been reflecting on this year is the title of ally, and how it’s earned, and not given.

So whether you attended some type of facilitated discussion on anti-racism this year, like the ones that I hosted, whether you got your hands on Dr. Kendi’s brilliant book, or your earbuds tuned into a podcast like this one, it’s important to understand that allyship is an ongoing journey, and one that’s shared all of us. And that in your journey to becoming a better ally, intent and impact, aren’t always the same thing. What we say and do, regardless of our intentions, can impact people in so many ways, especially when we’re not aware of the social implications. Micro actions and decisions all build up over time, and all of them can either bring us closer towards interpersonal trust, or further away from it.

The goal of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion isn’t to have some sort of kumbaya-like harmony every day, all the time. The goal is and should be, striving towards compassionate collision. We will collide because we are human beings, but we can collide in a way that moves away from outdated binaries and towards accelerated understanding. So, here’s what to do when you find yourself colliding with someone on your allyship journey. So for those of us, with good intentions who have inadvertently caused harm to someone, we have to remember, we cannot dictate how someone will react to our responses.

Every one of us reacts to the world differently based on our social identities. For my mostly straight able-bodied cisgender white, or white passing friends, who are eager to continue their role as allies and advocates at work, remember that no historically excluded group is a monolith. There are no hard and fast rules about how to talk to people based on their racial, ethnic, gender, or social background. If one person tells you, for example, they prefer to be called Hispanic and another person tells you they go by Latinx, embrace this as a teachable moment. One that adds more subtlety and nuance to your capacity for understanding, rather than forcing you to give up at the first sign that you got it wrong. If we’ve offended someone, our immediate reaction shouldn’t be to armor up and double down. Challenge brings change if we let it. And it makes us better colleagues and leaders.

Lastly, remember that genuine listening and a willingness to apologize and own your mistake doesn’t make you a bad person. Forgive yourself for not knowing. When better, commit to doing better next time with the lesson you’ve learned from that collision. Now, for those of us who are impacted or on the receiving end of exclusionary behavior, remember one of my favorite mantras, budget your outrage. Every day this year, if I wanted to, I could have gone looking for confirmation that the world was ugly or hurtful. That applied to the media, [inaudible 00:45:17] as well as my day-to-day interactions. I’ve already shared in our 2020 white paper on The Future of Work Culture, which you can download at our website. How I experienced pandemic motivated xenophobia as someone Spaniards, physically identify as Chinese. But if I got angry at every one of these injustices, real or perceived, macro or micro, I would be unable to sustain myself in this work.

So if someone has hurt you, as long as they aren’t threatening you with physical violence or severe psychological harm, ask for clarification, or repeat what you heard before responding. It can be obvious when someone explicitly and intentionally says or does something harmful. Other times what’s being said or done, isn’t as clear to you or the other person. If you have the mental and emotional energy, it can be helpful to clarify what someone was trying to say. This can provide an opportunity for the person to realize that they might’ve said something inappropriate, or allow you to understand where they’re actually coming from. From there you can think about how you want to respond.

Another thing to remember is, if you are in a marginalized or underrepresented group, we can’t expect to disrupt a long-held system of inequality, using the same binary power dynamic playbook, that’s held our own communities back. As Audrey Lorde wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As tempting as it is, let’s move away from these us versus them narratives of racism, supremacy, and patriarchy, and remember, it’s not just about what we gain, but rather what we all gain, if we’re all at the table working together to dismantle these long-held systems.


JENNIFER BROWN: Hey, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now, to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together, and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You’ve been listening to The Will to Change, uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.


Kay Fabella