Sunday Reflection – Embracing the Challenge

Joining Twitter is both an interesting and horrifying experience. There’s a lot of extremely intelligent and capable people talking about important issues. There’s also a lot of…let’s call it noise.

One thing that I find particularly interesting and horrifying are all of the discussions about race in America.

I’ve been seeing repeated instances of a person of color sharing their perspective, only to be told by many people in the comments, primarily white people, that they’re wrong and their perspective is invalid. They’re being told they’re overreacting. “He didn’t mean it like that.” “Stop being so sensitive.” “Stop bringing race into everything.”

About four years ago, I volunteered to work on a project developing and delivering diversity training at my worksite. As a part of the process, I was sent to an outside training, called Undoing Racism. The training was by an organization called The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond. And it changed my life.

I won’t go into details, because if you ever have the opportunity to take this training, you should. But I will say that there was a moment, at the end of the first day, where the trainers said something that challenged me deeply. As someone who prided myself on how much I cared about inequities, it was really hard to hear. It confronted my identity as a white woman, and my role in being a part of a society where oppression was a reality.

As we did our final thoughts of the first day, I shared that I would have to think about it some more. That’s all I could say in the moment, because I certainly didn’t feel ready to accept it.

So I went home. And I thought about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And by partway through the second day, I realized they were right. It was a painful realization. But it was a necessary one.

But the key thing was that in acknowledging that they were right, I was also acknowledging that in the end, it wasn’t about me. I’m not the center. It’s not about me feeling like I need to be seen as a good person. It’s not about me feeling hurt if I get called out for doing something that feeds into bias or oppression. It’s not about me.

We all think we're in the spotlight. But what are we missing?

So often when we hear something that pains us, our reaction is to push it away. But we have to consider who we’re pushing against. What are we trying to prove?

What would happen if we took the time to think about it? What if we embraced the challenge? Maybe in the end we still wouldn’t agree.

Maybe we would.

When’s a time in your life when you were challenged by something that you were told? What happened? Has anything ever shaken your beliefs? What was the result?

Amplifying Voices – Time Magazine & Ava DuVernay: The Art of Optimism

Normally my goal with Amplifying Voices is to look for material that may have had limited exposure. However for today’s choice, this is clearly not the case. Time Magazine is one of the most famous publications out there, and Ava Duvernay is rightly becoming quite well know for both her amazing work and activism.

But I woke up this morning feeling a little sad. It’s important to be informed about current events, but it’s also easy to get overwhelmed. Which is why I found Time’s latest issue, guest-edited by Ava DuVernay, especially timely.

The issue is called The Art of Optimism, and I highly recommend it. I love the range of voices and perspectives included, but also the reminder that art is a powerful force. To quote the magnificent Carrie Fisher, “Take your broken heart, make it into art”.

The Myth of the Nonpolitical Workplace

Shortly after the election of November 2016, the director of the organization I worked for sent out an agency wide email. I don’t remember how long the email was, but I do remember the core message – “don’t discuss politics at work”.

This is a stance we see frequently in the workplace, particularly in government agencies. It’s a stance that reinforces the concept that it is possible to be nonpolitical in the office.

This concept is a myth.

It’s a comfortable myth. Well, it’s a comfortable myth if you are a part of the dominant culture. By that I mean, if you are white, male, cisgendered, straight, and able-bodied.

Because not allowing anyone to talk at work about what had just happened in our country? Sent a very clear political message to a large number of people.

I went to a diversity training a few days after the election.  It was a voluntary training, so everyone there was invested in ideas of equity and inclusion, and eager to have conversation.  There was a wide range of races & ethnicities represented, as well as a number of individuals from the LGBTQ community.

The trainer, being a highly experienced individual, knew we couldn’t do the work unless we addressed the elephant in the room. So he allowed space for people to talk about the election.

I don’t know if I can adequately express what it felt like to be in that room. It was a safe space, and that meant that people spoke their truth. And their truth was fear. Intense, heart-breaking fear. Fear of what the future held, fear of losing family members, of continuing to be treated as less than, of increased violence or disenfranchisement.

But what particularly stood out to me was a woman who spoke of going to work the day after the election. She was devastated. She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about it. “No talking about politics”. So she stayed at her desk all day, with her hoodie over her head, to make sure her co-workers couldn’t see her crying.

I belonged to a diversity discussion group at work as well. One day, we met shortly after the news came out about two separate police shootings of young black men. One of my colleagues, himself a black man, had to force himself to leave the house in the morning. And as he shared his heartbreak with us, he said something that has stayed with me. “I had to go to work and pretend nothing had happened,” he said. He knew talking about it it would make his staff uncomfortable. He knew they would call it unprofessional. He knew they would call it political.

I taught conflict navigation classes at work, and during the class we would show a video related to having difficult conversations. The video highlighted that silence did not mean safety. That if you didn’t say anything, you were still making a choice that would impact your relationship and ability to work together. We never had a single person question this concept.

So why do so many people think that silence equals safety when it comes to politics?

It’s the exact same concept. By not speaking, you are saying volumes.

In recent years, any time a casting announcement goes out about people of color or women being in lead roles in a big movie franchise, there is a very predictable response from a large number of people.

“Ugh,” people will say in the comments. “Why do they have to make it political?”

It’s such a common and exhausting refrain. They are calling people of color and women political. And implying that the default – white male – is not.

And that’s why being nonpolitical isn’t possible. Because the dominant culture has decided that if someone who is marginalized speaks up, or even just exists in a space that has not previously been acknowledged as theirs, they are being political. If you are political by existing, than they sure as heck are political by not wanting you to exist.

Does this mean I think we need to be debating government policy at work? Of course not. There’s a good reason we can’t hang flyers for a particular party or politician in our cubicles, or walk around gathering signatures during work time.

But we live in a time when politicians are literally trying to deny or erase the existence of some of our communities. And pretending that politics doesn’t infuse every aspect of our lives is both naive and damaging. There comes a point where a line does have to be drawn. You can choose to make space and advance those who are marginalized. You can choose to support communities that are being oppressed. You can choose to be a part of an organization that prioritizes what is right over what feels comfortable.

But if you believe in silence, just know, you are reinforcing a state where dominant voices are the only ones heard. Disengaging supports the status quo. It’s a choice. And it has an impact.

There’s no such thing as nonpolitical. Not right now.

Sunday Reflection – Working Through the Fear

Professor Plum : What are you afraid of, a fate worse than death?

Mrs. Peacock : No, just death, isn’t that enough?

Clue (1985)

I signed up for a Twitter account this week. I knew it was inevitable. I would like for people to read my blog, but for people to read it, they need to know about it. And for them to know about it, I need to use social media.

But I will be honest. Social media terrifies me.

When I was a child, I learned that raising my hand in class would get me unwelcome attention. The more I spoke up, the more questions I answered correctly, the more I would get picked on. So I learned to be quiet, to keep my head down. This conditioning lasted well into college for me.

It was a huge leap for me to develop into a trainer. To actually stand in front of a room and speak. But even leading trainings seems small when compared to speaking in a platform that contains millions of subscribers.

I know my fears are mostly irrational. At the moment, I am just one tiny little voice amidst the chaos. And if I were to attract negative attention, well…that’s part of the job. There are people out there who are putting themselves on the front line to create change. I’m at a point in my life where saying nothing hurts so much worse than saying something.

I know the fear won’t go away, not completely. But I also know I can get through it. I have before.

So for today’s reflection – when’s a time in your life you faced a fear? What was the outcome? How did you grow from the experience? And has it changed your philosophy towards fear in the future?

Amplifying Voices – The Horizontals: Not All Disabilities Are Visible

I found this talk by The Horizontals very moving for two reasons.

One is the issue of burnout. People are being given the message that you need to push yourself beyond your limit to succeed, and it’s severely damaging people.

The second is the acknowledgement of how people with disability are disproportionately impacted by our current workplace norms, including burnout culture.

Disability is still hugely misunderstood in our society.

I recently saw a picture online where a woman with a white cane for mobility assistance was holding her phone in front of her. And person after person was mocking her, joking about someone being blind using a phone.

A) Someone took a picture of this woman and posted it online without her permission, exclusively to make fun of her. That’s a terrible thing to do.

B) There are people who are legally blind but still have partial vision, and phones have the capacity to zoom in on text. You can also use voice commands on phones. And yet, almost every single person seeing that picture simply made assumptions based on their own world view, and minimal understanding of disability.

This video highlights some of the difficulties for those with invisible disabilities in particular. It’s a strong reminder that we often don’t know the full story. And it’s a good reminder that working towards a culture inclusive of those with disability will make the workplace better for all of us in the end.

Controlling the Narrative

I want to talk about Tomb Raider today. This may seem strange for a leadership blog, but it’s relevant, so stay with me here.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tomb Raider is the title of a series of video games that began back in 1996. The protagonist, Lara Croft, is an obscenely wealthy British woman. She’s an archaeologist, which in video game lingo means she solves puzzles and picks up loot (hence the name). In the original series there wasn’t much depth and Lara’s design was clearly intended to appeal to a young male demographic.

In 2013 the series was rebooted. This reboot was a big deal for focusing more on realism and creating a more in depth Lara Croft. Her proportions were no longer cartoonishly rendered and she was a much more emotional character. She had more selfless motivations, often related to helping others and defeating a shady organization of baddies.

Lara engaging in the well-known archaeological practice of hiding in trees.

However, as we moved into the modern era, it was getting harder to escape the fact that Lara still broke into ancient crypts and took items (often with a good dose of destruction on the way). There was little acknowledgement of the increasing awareness of the damage done by White Americans and Europeans to other cultures in the name of archaeology.

Lara’s less savory activities were somewhat tempered by the framing of the first two games. Although clearly inspired by actual history, the first game took place on a fictional mystical island, and the second took place in a fictional valley in remote Russia. The people and cultural artifacts she encountered felt realistic, but did not associate strongly with any current real world cultures.

Last year, the third game in the series was released, with the majority of action happening in Peru.

As reported by Variety, the developers stated upfront that this game would be the first to “tackle the political tension at the heart of the series“. In other words, they wanted to acknowledge the reality of a wealthy white woman hunting for treasure in a foreign land. Narrative director Jason Dozois also stated in an interview with VG247 that the game was “about learning that archaeology is also culture, and history, and language, and that involves people.” The developers included cultural elements of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec people in their game design, and utilized historians and cultural advisors. It is clear that a phenomenal amount of work went into this project.

And the result is, to be blunt, appalling.

Lara was always the hero of the story, but now all of sudden she’s surrounded by people of color telling her how amazing and brave she is, and how lucky they are that she’s there to save the day. She roams through their villages and goes freely into their homes, picking up items without any consequence or reaction. When locals fail at important tasks, the people turn to Lara, who performs perfectly and returns successfully each time.

And when she’s in trouble and needs to hide from the antagonists of the story, she dresses in a native costume, which is apparently so very convincing that none of the antagonists seem to notice her pale skin and British accent.

Lara, mistress of disguise.

One of the best characters in the story is a native Peruvian, Unuratu. She’s the leader of a hidden village and is in conflict with her brother-in-law over the future of their people. She’s intelligent, compassionate, motivated, and a fierce fighter. She’s the key to stopping the antagonists.

Until she’s shot and killed, so Lara can step in to save the day again.

Unuratu, also known as a woman who deserved better.

So what happened? We had developers who were aware of the minefield of running a game series called Tomb Raider. They listened to previous criticisms of a cognitive dissonance between Lara’s stated goals and her actions. They brought in experts to advise them. I believe them when they say they genuinely had good intentions.

The problem? In the end, they still made a white narrative.

They put a lot of work into adding elements of Indigenous cultures, but it’s not an Indigenous narrative. Every person of color in the game exists either to help Lara, or die in service of her story.

The truth is this shouldn’t even be Lara’s story. This should be Unuratu’s. It’s her culture, it’s her people, and it’s not up to some wealthy white European to be swinging in to save the day.

Literally swinging.

This isn’t just about a video game.

This about the organizations that will hire diversity experts and promote diversity training. They will appoint a few people of color to high level positions. They will talk boldly and openly about the need to do better. And in the end, they will still reinforce the exact same message as before: the white narrative is the one that matters.

Because the problem isn’t just a lack of training or a need for different leadership. The entire system is flawed. And if you really want to change things, you have to break the system.

At this point, some people will be scoffing. “Seriously?” they’ll say. “What do you expect? Are they just supposed to implode their own series?”

Well, yes.

Imagine a developer who is able to look at their material and say, this is not the world we live in anymore.

Imagine a developer who shows their protagonist making big mistakes and being confronted with the colonialism of her actions. Who is not welcomed, but sees the anger of those being affected.

Imagine a developer who allows their protagonist to step back and pass the torch to someone else.

Maybe it would implode the series. Or maybe it would launch something much greater.

Who can be sure?  We’ve yet to see someone try.

"Here. This isn't mine. It never was."

Sunday Reflection – What Gives You a Feeling of Value?

This past week I wrote about feeling valued at work (or the lack thereof).

So for this week’s reflection, I wanted to think a bit more on the theme of value. Who or what gives you a feeling of value? How do you express value for others?

When I think about feeling valued in the workplace, I think about my very first manager in my first permanent job.

What I remember is how well she listened. She wasn’t always able to take immediate action, but she always took me seriously and listened to me with compassion. She would take the time to really hear me out.

She also became an advocate for me. My first promotion was thanks to her. She brought me to meetings with high level managers, she encouraged me to work on projects on my own design, and she gave me recognition for my work.

These are all behaviors that I work to emulate, but to me, the key has always been listening. One of my former co-workers used to frequently quote the saying, “People may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” I’ve found that truly listening to people is one of the single most effective tools in helping them feel valued. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to find the perfect words, but so often, it’s not our words that matter. It’s simply how we make them feel.

Amplifying Voices – Katherine Giscombe: Women of Color Need Leaders of Courage

I was really pleased to come across this post on the Diversity Woman website, because Katherine Giscombe writes so beautifully and succinctly about what leaders need to do to truly make a difference in inclusion efforts, in particular for women of color.

To make a real difference, we need leaders who will directly challenge both policy and behavior that marginalize people. As Katherine says, “Women of color need champions who are familiar with the obstacles they face at work—and are willing to take the risks necessary to overturn them.”

Please read the full article here.

The Power of Value

I know the exact moment that led to me quitting my job.

I didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time. But looking back, it’s astonishingly clear.

I was talking on the phone with a high level manager in my organization. We were talking about the position I was in with the training unit. It’s a little complicated to explain, but I was in something called a rotation, where I was technically still in my previous job, but was being “loaned out” to do the work of another position.

And I loved being in this rotation. I loved working in the training unit. And she was calling me to let me know she was going to be pulling me back into my former role. Now that alone was upsetting, but it wasn’t the triggering incident. What did change everything was that when I asked her why, she lied to me.

It wasn’t even a good lie, which somehow made it worse. I’ll never know if she thought I was naive enough to believe it, or whether she knew that someone in my position didn’t have the authority to question her. But it worked in the end. I got the message. I just didn’t matter.

When I decided I was going to quit my job effective the end date of my rotation, something highly unexpected happened to me. I hadn’t discussed my decision with anyone yet, hadn’t told my manager or any of my co-workers.

But within days of deciding I was done, my self-confidence suddenly shot through the roof.

For so long, I had been viewing myself through the eyes of my organization, through the eyes of management. Sitting at my desk, wondering what I was doing wrong, how I was wrong. My co-workers would give me wonderful compliments, my students gave me high ratings, and yet I still felt hollow. If my work was so good, why did I feel so awful?  I had lost all faith in my own value.

The day I decided I was done, that perspective flipped completely. Suddenly, I was sure I had value. I knew I was good at my job. This organization was going to have a major loss when I left, whether they were able to see it or not.

Because suddenly, I wasn’t looking through their eyes anymore.

Feeling like we have value is such a fundamental human need. Anyone who’s ever been overlooked or dismissed in any aspect of life knows perfectly well that sinking feeling of not being seen, not being appreciated.

Sure, logically we know that we should look internally, not externally, for our validation. And it’s so important to work on that dimension of ourselves.

But in reality? We still take in that feedback from others, especially from those in authority.

Paying attention to people’s value is one of those things that tends to fade fast in the reality of the workplace. We get caught up in the immediate crises of budgets, resources, and staffing. Whether people feel valued is easy to ignore. But when it comes due, the cost is high.

I was not the first to leave my unit feeling undervalued, and I wasn’t the last.

Here’s what I’ve taken from my experience:

  • You have to show that you value others. Again, show, don’t tell. People can tell when you genuinely mean it, and they can tell when you’re using it for your own agenda.
  • Know enough about people to show genuine and specific appreciation. If you’re giving vague platitudes, people know it’s because you don’t really know what they do.
  • Don’t lie. I hate that I even have to say this one, but I do. Because people do lie. And I don’t care if you think of it as spinning the situation or trying to put it in a more palatable frame. It’s still a lie. Don’t do it.
  • And most importantly, value yourself first. We like to believe that someday, they’ll see. But the truth is, that day may never come. I deserved better, and in leaving, I chose better. Do whatever you need to do to choose better for yourself too.

Sunday Reflection – Who Inspires You?

When we think of who we want to be, as leaders and as human beings, I often find it enlightening to think of what I admire in other people. What aspects have I seen in others that I would like to aspire to?

So for today’s reflection, think of who has been an inspiration in your life. This could be a parent, a teacher, a coach, a friend. Someone at work or someone in your personal life.

What do you find inspiring about them? What do they do or say that has made an impact for you? And how can you take what you’ve learned from them and apply to your own life?

I have a former co-worker and current friend who was in my team in the training department. She has experienced many of the same frustrations as me, as well as unique challenges of her own. And yet, through everything she maintains a level of hope and optimism that I deeply admire. She has this sparkling positivity that just shines through, even when people with power over her try to pull her down.

I’ve struggled with the level of cynicism that I’ve developed over the past ten years. Some has come from working in positions where I saw the victimization of vulnerable people, and some has come from feeling like a small cog in a large grinding system.

Speaking with her reminds me that I used to be capable of great optimism, and I’d like to get back to that. I’d like to focus more on the helpers and less on the detractors. I’d like to focus on the people making a difference and not the people terrified of change. Being with her is a reminder that we do have control over how we see the world. And I want to see it in a little bit better of a light.

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