My racist coworker: a true story

not a picture of my racist coworkerYes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my black friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.


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Trumpocalypse & the Reverend Doctor Barber

If there’s anything positive emerging from the Trumpocalypse, it’s the increased visibility of the Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II. The man is a preacher and a thinker—in my experience, the two don’t always go together. He’s also an excellent writer.

The Reverend Doctor Barber in 2013
The Rev. Dr. Barber at a rally in 2013. Photo by twbuckner, CC BY 2.0

Now, the Reverend Doctor Barber may have been plenty visible to other people, but he first hit my radar at the Democratic National Convention last summer. After that, I started following him, um, religiously. And yesterday he published a delicious indictment of his fellow clergypeople. You know, the pious souls who laid hands on Trump this week and prayed for him in the Oval Office.

The photo the White House released only shows the central figure from the back, but I would have loved to see the expression on his face. Was he bored? Preening? After all, it was a whole lot of attention and we know he loves attention. I’m sure the one thing he wasn’t was the one thing he should have been—humbled.

But let’s leave him aside, the man with the yellow weave, and turn our attention to the marvelous Rev. Dr. Barber.

He begins his “open letter to clergy who prayed with Donald Trump” by noting that he was arrested last week, along with other clergy and “people with health issues.” What was their crime?

“…reading the Word of God and attempting to let the Spirit speak its ancient truth through me into the present.”

Specifically, doing all of that scripture-reading outside Mitch McConnell’s Senate office. Praying on government property—essentially the same thing the clergy were doing inside the White House. One group got photographed; the other got carted away in handcuffs. Hmm. What, do you suppose, were the differences?

Reverend Doctor Barber does not mince words

Still, he tries to make common cause with the clergy who crowded into the Oval Office:

While we may differ on Biblical interpretation, we do share a common effort to understand God’s Word and discern God’s will. I have noted your doubtless sincere public statements in recent months that such gospel proclamation is needed in America.

Finding common ground is the first step to resolving differences. The Rev. Dr. Barber continues:

The nation needs our prayers, and no doubt the president does, too. But the Scripture cautions us to lay hands on no man suddenly, lest we become a party to his sins. (1 Timothy 5:22) We cannot simply p-r-a-y pray over people while they p-r-e-y on the poor and vulnerable among us.

I hope you love that last sentence as much as I do. Not every speaker or writer can get away with that sort of wordplay, but if you can—go for it. Back to the Rev. Dr. Barber:

The teachings of Jesus are clear about caring for the poor and the sick, and we are called to share His message; we cannot simply serve as chaplains to imperial power. If we pray for a person engaging in injustice we must offer prayers that lead to conviction, not prayers that further embolden them in their wrongdoing. And since faith comes by hearing, we must speak prophetically and truthfully to them about using political power to inflict public pain.

No minced words there.

An image everyone can grasp

…I am troubled by your silence and lack of guidance as the president and his political allies in Congress attempt to deconstruct America’s health care system. If Jesus did anything, he offered health care wherever he went — and he never charged a leper a co-pay.

Jesus “never charged a leper a co-pay.” That may be my favorite line in the whole letter. It’s so immediately accessible. It’s an image everyone can understand, a concept you can grasp instantly. This is persuasive writing at its finest.

He returns to the scripture, calls out the clergy who prayed over Trump as hypocrites:

For decades you have insisted that the Christian political agenda is a “pro-life” agenda. You have taught millions that the image of God is stamped on each of us — no matter the color of our skin or the money in our bank account — and that each and every child of God was knit together in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. And yet, in this moment of crisis, when our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are at risk, you say so little. You have been so loud in the past. What spirit has silenced you in this moment of truth for the ethic of life?

And he quotes Frederick Douglass. Remember him? As Trump said this February, “…he’s an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” I wonder if that’s why the Rev. Dr. Barber quoted Douglass?

I remembered what Frederick Douglass said about our faith after our denominations splintered over the moral question of slavery and the nation stood on the brink of Civil War:

“Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

The Reverend Doctor Barber — “redemption is possible”

And he is not letting anyone off the hook:

I also write to you in faith and in love because I know that redemption is possible — we all raise our voices and sing the words penned by a reformed slave trader, “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” I have watched the sons and daughters of slaveholders work alongside the daughters and sons of enslaved people to build a new and vibrant moral movement. I have prayed with people who decided to follow Jesus when they heard you preach years ago but are now following Jesus to jail because they know this is what faithfulness requires. I write because you have celebrated your unprecedented influence in this administration and the time has come to use it.

He signs off “in prayer and hope.” Hope is in short supply this year. But if anyone can conjure it in the face of the Trumpocalypse, I believe that person will be the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Hope, and some direct arguments made from a deep well of unshakable values.

I hope I get a chance to hear him speak live some day.


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Uncomfortable conversations and the invisible asterisk

It didn’t start out as one of those uncomfortable conversations:

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.”

That’s a sentence I might write to any of my writers at any time. But I wasn’t responding to one of my writers. I was responding to a black woman I’d never met, who’d posted on our mutual friend’s Facebook thread about the casual racism of a five-year-old white girl on a playground in my old hometown of Maplewood. My beautiful, mostly diverse, so-proud-of-its-perceived-inclusiveness Maplewood.

we need to have uncomfortable conversations about raceThe little girl told a black boy her age that he couldn’t play on the playground equipment: “Whites only.” When the boy’s father reality-checked this with one of the other parents present, the white man dismissed the comment: “That’s not her personality.”

This friend of my friend, a woman named Jan Abernathy, commented on the Facebook post:

“I would definitely say the ‘it’s not her personality’ sounds accurately reported and happens because we believe that bias is for ‘bad people’ versus part of a system in we all participate because it’s all around us.”

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.” I typed, and pressed Post. And in the next second I thought, Did I just tell a black woman “you’re very articulate”?

I pressed Edit. My fingers hovered over the keyboard. Of course that wasn’t what I meant. My sentence was complete as it stood; no implied “…for a [fill in the stereotype here].” But she didn’t know me; would she understand that? In the end, I added a completely unnecessary “That’s so true” and clicked out of the edit window. Let the chips fall where they may.

Yes, I was uncomfortable. And that’s not a bad thing. Because Uncomfortable is a stage we have to pass through on the way to Inclusion. We really need to get there, as many of us as we can. And that will involve having some uncomfortable conversations.

Uncomfortable conversations — do think twice

My mother always told me to count to ten before I spoke. No one who knows me will be surprised to hear I never took that advice.

But if I think twice, or even twenty times, about my reactions when I’m dealing with someone who is unlike me—especially someone of another race—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because I have grown up not thinking, not questioning the system, as Ms. Abernathy wrote, “that is all around us.”

Because I am a white woman, that system has mostly been no more visible to me than the air I breathe. As a “lipstick lesbian,” I have encountered it from time to time, not often enough to truly remember it exists. It wasn’t until the results of the most recent presidential election came in that I felt it. Because for the first time I was on the wrong side of the system—as both a lesbian and as a woman. My white skin will not save me from the Trumpocalypse.

Now, I won’t presume that what I’ve felt for the last eight months compares in any way to what a person of color feels from the moment they become conscious of the system we live in (for the child in the story, that sadly seems to be about age 5). But it has opened my eyes—eyes that I didn’t even realize needed to be opened.

I’ve been writing about diversity and inclusion for my clients for a decade now. I always thought I “got it.” I think I’m closer to getting it now. But I also know how far I have to go.

The invisible asterisk

Last week, I wrote about the subversiveness of the Declaration of Independence. Well, yes. But there’s an unexpected bit of punctuation in there, an invisible asterisk. That is, the asterisk is invisible to most of us, but for those who do see it…I imagine that sometimes it’s pretty much all they can see. It grounds the otherwise subversive document firmly in the mainstream of its time—and, sadly, of modern times, too.

When our founders wrote the Declaration, everyone understood that the phrase “…all men are created equal” actually meant

*white men of certain socio-economic standing.

Definitely not women. Definitely not people of color. And although the founders didn’t have words like “homosexual” or “transgender,” definitely not those folks either.

In the couple of centuries since our country’s birth, many of our laws have grudgingly caught up with the errors of omission and commission in the Declaration and the Constitution. But the inequality that those foundational documents enshrined—that invisible asterisk—remains rooted in our culture. And not just in the South, home of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, our present Attorney General, who seems hell-bent on rolling the gains of the Civil Rights movement back to, oh, about 1932. We in the North have our own bigots; just ask Philando Castile, who lived in Minnesota.

You can’t get much less “South” than Minnesota. You also can’t ask Mr. Castile anything; he was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer. And that police officer was acquitted by a jury of his Northern peers, just as surely as the all-white Southern jury set the killers of Emmett Till free more than 60 years ago.

I’d like to believe such attitudes would never see the light of day in my town. But as long as we live with the invisible asterisk—as long as we remain silent about that damning piece of punctuation—those attitudes have room to flourish. And apparently even five-year-olds are not immune.

Allies: learn to have uncomfortable conversations

So, really, it’s not enough just to be for inclusion. It’s not enough to be a silent ally, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago in a post about a gay football player. And it’s certainly not enough to let a black father stand alone in trying to correct the situation produced when a little white girl says, “Whites only.” Any of the other adults there could have spoken to the girl. To her mother. Better yet, to both. Because all of us should be outraged that—whether she picked it up at home or at school or somewhere else—a five-year-old can casually spout racist language with no consequences.

We need to have conversations—even uncomfortable conversations—about whether we want to live in a system founded on an invisible asterisk that leaves out so many. And if we don’t want to live with the asterisk, what do we need to do to change our country and ourselves?

Thanks to my new friend Jan Abernathy for giving me permission to quote her in this blog. As it turns out, she works in equity inclusion at a small independent school I know quite well. I would write more about her, but this post is already too long so I’ll save it for another day.

I also want to thank Brittany Packnett, whom I haven’t met except through my phone as I listen to the always eye-opening Pod Save the People. Ms. Packnett has taught me more about what Ms. Abernathy calls the “system we all participate in” than perhaps anyone else.

Educating people is hard—especially if the people you’re educating think they already know all they need to. So thank you both for your work, and thanks to everyone brave enough to engage in uncomfortable conversations.


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Start on common ground

How do we find common ground?
Is it even worth trying?

These days, the most prevalent answers to these questions seem to be:

Who the hell knows?
Probably not.

The political scene in the United States in 2017 looks more like the battlefields of World War I circa 1917: Two sides dug in firmly. Neither of them willing to give an inch; neither of them gaining any ground.

Yeah, that last sentence concludes with a bit of wishful thinking. I don’t count Mitch McConnell out as of any fight, but I certainly hope the GOP doesn’t gain any ground with their deadly “healthcare” bill.

And that—right there—that’s the problem. It seems like the best I can hope for is stasis, paralysis. Is this any way to run a country?

So how do we find common ground?

The answer—well, one answer—came from an unexpected place this morning, as I was preparing to lead my advanced writing class. I re-read a passage from Seth Godin’s book All Marketers (Are Liars) Tell Stories in which he outlines the qualities great stories have in common. The final quality in the list:

Great stories “agree with our worldview. The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.”

That explains the entrenchment, right? The Republican side listens to Fox News and that awful, racist website whose name I can’t bear to repeat and parrots their talking points (see last week’s post about Ana Marie Cox interviewing people at a Trump campaign rally in Iowa). The Democratic side listens to Rachel Maddow and reads The New York Times. The same New York Times that our president has branded as “failing.”

Having a self-appointed media critic as president only heightens the divisions. As he succeeds in sowing distrust of media outlets (“fake news CNN”), his supporters become even less likely to accept any objective reporting they may stumble across. How can we reach them with the truth?

Maybe we need to start with their worldview. Instead of fighting it, slip into it for a moment. Not all of it—of course, some of the president’s supporters have reprehensible views—but the worldview of the average person on the street. Or, in my case, behind the counter at the dry cleaner.

The Dry Cleaner & the Humpback Whales

A couple of weeks ago, I went to retrieve a jacket from the dry cleaner’s. The lady working the counter was listening to a talk radio show host rant about womyn’s studies—”spelled with a Y”—and dying humpback whales. The bit about the whales featured mournful background music, like one of those movies where the teenager finds true love just as the deadly disease claims her life. It was way over the top.

And I got offended. I felt disrespected. I mean, listen to whatever you want on your own time, but when you’re working in a public-facing role in a business, don’t make your customers listen to it too. After all, some of those customers might care about endangered species. Or be “womyn.” Okay, back in the late ’70s I too mocked “womyn”—but that’s not my point. Or maybe it is.

Common ground—there’s common ground, if we just care to look for it. Now, I wouldn’t have engaged the dry cleaner’s salesclerk in a discussion of male privilege and language. But I could have said something more constructive than what I did say—basically, that I thought they did great work but I wouldn’t be coming back because of “that crap you’re listening to.” Nope, no common ground there.

Opportunity Lost

As soon as I got back to the car I realized I’d missed an opportunity. I could have found something we’d both agree on. After all, the Congressional Budget Office had just published its score of the Senate’s healthcare bill. Millions of people would become uninsured, and those of us with insurance would face drastically rising premiums and drastically reduced coverage.

I wish I’d talked to her about healthcare. Maybe said something like, “Why are they talking about humpback whales on your radio show when the Senate is ready to vote on a healthcare bill that will affect everyone in the country?”

Or that’s probably even too partisan-sounding. Common ground: “Man, there sure is a lot that needs fixing in this country. Do you think whales are really the most important thing to talk about? I’m worried about my healthcare. How about you?”

Maybe I’d open her mind a little, get her to think for herself. Maybe the next time I saw her, we could find a little more common ground. That’s how cultural change happens. In one-on-one interactions, millions of them. Every single day.

common ground, literally
Literal common ground. An artist’s reconstruction of the Christmas Truce by A. C. Michael – The Guardian [2] / [3]Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915., PD-US

Time for a “Christmas Truce”

One Christmas Day in the middle of World War I, opposing soldiers stepped out of their trenches and rediscovered their common humanity. No fighting, just eating. Some drinking. Singing. An improvised game of soccer. Small gifts.

One British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, said: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

Can we take it upon ourselves to stop the verbal assaults? Stop the mudslinging? The politicians won’t stop on their own. The media won’t stop either; even the more objective outlets cover politics like it’s a blood sport.

But we can stop, individually.

Let’s fight the politicians with every argument we can muster. But when we talk to each other, let’s choose to look for common ground. It’s pretty much literally the least we can do.


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“Bring enough for everybody” — healthcare and chewing gum

“Did you bring enough for everybody?”

I can still hear the disappointment in my first grade teacher’s voice when she caught someone chewing gum in class. Of course the offender didn’t have 20 sticks of gum, just a pack. But we all knew the rules: either everyone had it or no one did.

The Republicans in Congress apparently never learned that lesson. They voted yesterday to take  healthcare away from millions of currently ensured Americans. And even to gut the provisions requiring employers to provide healthcare. But they kept their own plan intact. Members of Congress and their staffers will remain safely insured, pre-existing conditions and all.

They certainly brought enough hypocrisy for everyone.

I could point to about a dozen abominations in the new bill: the “Pro-Life” party cutting insurance for babies who need care in a neo-natal intensive care unit—and insurance coverage for pregnancy, too. Domestic violence and rape become pre-existing conditions—which will no doubt result in fewer women reporting them.

How, exactly, does that make America “greater”?

Apologies for the short blog today, but you don’t want to hear the words I have in my head today.

Curses? Oh yeah, I’ve got more than enough for everybody.

Difficult conversations, tough realizations

I wrote this post about “difficult conversations” two weeks ago. But it was late and I was tired and it’s such an important subject I didn’t want to publish it before I had some sleep and re-read it. I found it in my drafts folder today; turned out it didn’t need much cleaning up at all. And, sadly, the subject remains relevant So here you are.

I’ve been resisting Anna Marie Cox’s new podcast, Friends Like These for a while. She advertises it as being about the “difficult conversations” we have with one another—or, more accurately, don’t have often enough. I’ve heard her talk with a pastor whose flocks (he has churches in two different counties of some midwestern state I’ve forgotten) both voted for Trump. And she draws heavily on the expertise of her colleagues at MTV News, which brings more people of color to the microphone than the white bread podcasts run by her colleagues at Crooked Media (yes, that’s the company’s real name).

But the podcast I listened to today—already a couple of weeks old—got me thinking in a new way. Part of it focused on conspiracy theories. Cox and her guest Adam Savage contended that while the crap that’s going/has gone on with Russia is clearly important, our pursuit of the conspiracy at least partly serves to distract us from the even more depressing thought of the millions of Americans who needed no outside persuasion whatsoever to vote for Velveeta Voldemort.

That’s the real scandal here. We have turned into a country of intolerant people.

No—it’s a more difficult conversation than that:

“We have always been a country of intolerant people, but it’s no longer possible to ignore that.”

For many educated white people like me, who have been living in a Disneyland Shondaland where Diversity and Inclusion seem to increase daily, this comes as quite a shock.

Lava pools of racism and sexism, religious intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia have been bubbling beneath the surface of our society for decades. It was only a matter of time before they burst to the surface, like the volcano that lurks beneath Wyoming. There’s a volcano underneath Wyoming? Yes, according to yet another podcast, Stephen Dubner’s highbrow trivia contest, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.

Difficult conversations with myself

Anyway, the bubbling lava pools of intolerance shocked the hell out of me, and a good percentage of polite society, when they burst out, seemingly ten minutes after the election results were announced. I said “polite society,” meaning the kinds of people who don’t go around creating swastika-covered cupcakes at birthday parties. But really “polite” is not the right word, though it rhymes with it:

White.

Yep, even though I like to think of myself as “diverse”—y’know, because I married a woman and all—I have had no freaking clue what’s been going on in my own country to people whose skin are, as Oscar Hammerstein put it, “a different shade.”

Oh, I haven’t been living under a rock: I know about the black youth killed by police, the unrest. I know Black Lives Matter. And Muslim Lives. And Trans Lives. I know we can’t disappear them into the seemingly tidy package of “All Lives Matter,” because one of the things that matters about Black and Muslim and Trans lives is that they deserve to be visible.

But the daily drumbeat of unconscious bias, the kind of stuff you’ll find under the Twitter hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork—really, I thought we were past all that.

We’re not. Take a look at some of the tweets collected in this Essence article:

difficult conversations

Every problem looks like a nail

Someone said “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

My particular “hammer” is communicating. But, really, wouldn’t that help? If we all learned to speak our truths, if we had the guts to call out people who behave like this, and the tools to make our case forcefully—wouldn’t that help? Would they be difficult conversations? Sometimes, you bet. But the alternative is allowing these unconscious biases to stand. And that will not end well for anyone.

We allies have a responsibility to speak up. Grab that word-hammer and use it. Even—especially—when the conversations get difficult.


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Teaching Feminism to Business—Beth Andres-Beck

feminism & the business world, through the eyes of Beth Andres-BeckI’ve been writing about Diversity & Inclusion for my clients for over a decade, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone in business mention the F-word (to be clear: Feminism). So I was delighted to hear it bandied about with such ease at the business conference I spoke at last week. That shouldn’t have surprised me–it was the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, after all. But, then, I’ve been away from campus for a while.

One of the high points of the conference for me turned out to be  Beth Andres-Beck‘s presentation “Teaching Feminism to the Business World.”

I admit I was skeptical at first. How can you teach feminism to a business world that doesn’t even say the word aloud? It seemed an impossibly optimistic goal.

Did I say “optimistic”? That’s if she worked in an industry that kind of “gets” this inclusion thing. But Andres-Beck works in tech. Which makes her seem less optimistic than delusional: the Donna Quixote of Silicon Valley.

But she’s not crazy; she’s a visionary.

And she’s also not tucked into a female-friendly (friendlier?) corner of the tech industry, like marketing or PR. She’s a freaking coder: in the trenches with guys all day, every day, often the only woman in the room. And currently the only woman programmer in her company—but at least the tiny start-up has achieved overall gender parity. Her side gig as a speaker and teacher is, I suspect, her effort not just to drive demographic change in the tech industry but, more importantly, to drive inclusion.

Feminism, confidence, and humor

I’ll start with an “of course” moment from her talk. Want to solve an intractable problem? Reframe it:

“It’s not about women in tech. It’s about the behavior of men in tech.”

Are you slapping your forehead? I was. She also reframed the dreaded Impostor Syndrome many of us face:

“Impostor Syndrome is a rational response to insufficient feedback.”

I had talked about Impostor Syndrome in my presentation at the conference, but I framed it as something that’s a natural part of life (heck, even Lin-Manuel Miranda has felt like a fraud sometimes). But of course businesses can mitigate this doubt by offering their people more frequent and more useful feedback. My clients seem to be moving in this direction already. Let’s hope it helps.

Andres-Beck refuses to believe she’s alone in her quest to see the tech industry become more feminist:

“Out of any audience, some of the people already agree with me. They just need someone to give them a label and a team.”

And so

“Instead of coming in with the assumption that people are going to attack me, I come in with the assumption that I’m right. Which is at least as true. And when people hear what I say, they hear my confidence and how sure I am that this will help the problem we’re dealing with.”

I added the emphasis above. Does it seem arrogant in print? In person Andres-Beck delivers the line with unquestionable sincerity—and a great sense of humor. Like all successful speakers, she recognizes that humor plays an essential role in the process of spreading an idea.

Win people’s attention and you earn their trust:

“If you tell them something about themselves that’s true, they will believe what you say about other people because obviously you are an insightful person.”

And then you can tell a story—take your listeners on a journey. Andres-Beck says she starts with “an obvious example people will agree with,” and moves from there to something they can apply, then something they can relate to, and then “to the most radical” suggestion. Some will follow her all the way to the end; others may drop off along the way—but Andres-Beck’s technique assures that almost all of her listeners will move away from their initial position.

Maybe it’s time for lightning rods

“We create our own social environment. Whatever we have is something we’ve bought into and we’re reinforcing it by showing up every day.”

As we speak up and create change and try to create a social environment in which everyone can thrive, do we risk becoming lightning rods for criticism? Beth Andres-Beck says, “I use my sincerity as a shield,” so people who want to attack her have to “violate a bunch of social norms.”

Still, the self-described “science fiction nerd” reminds us that lightning rods can be useful:

“If you don’t build that lightning rod, how are you going to reanimate that corpse?”



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The Speed of Democracy Unwinding — “Pod Save the World”

the 3/8/17 episode asks about the speed of democracy unwindingYesterday I caught up with the latest episode of Pod Save the World, a foreign policy-focused spinoff from the folks behind Pod Save America. (You may remember I wrote about Pod Save America just the other day.) The guest, Mike McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, offered some sobering thoughts about the speed at which one might see democracy unwinding.

McFaul and the podcast’s host, Tommy Vietor, were with the State Department during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010. Vietor noted that while many of his colleagues felt optimistic that major democratic reforms might take place, McFaul had been cautious—noting that democracy requires generations to take root.

The obvious question for the Ambassador today—and I found myself holding my breath when Vietor asked it—is, given that it takes generations for democracies to established…

“…do you feel hopeful or not hopeful about the speed with which democracies can unwind?”

The first words out of the Ambassador’s mouth:

“Honestly, I’m worried.”

[Gulp.]

Democracy unwinding — don’t acquiesce.

Ambassador McFaul noted some similarities between Putin—who also never ran for elected office before becoming Russia’s leader—and the Republican now occupying the White House: both pledged to cut taxes and both declared the press the enemy. Putin followed through on his promise to cut taxes, and took over the state media in relatively short order.

“And in that period people were like, ‘Well, we need law and order. We had this tumultuous period. Let’s give him a break'”

Ambassador McFaul says he talked to some Russian friends recently and they identified two major mistakes in their approach to Putin:

“We were too quick to acquiesce to what he was doing and we were thinking it would all taper out. And we didn’t resist when we had the power.”

More ominously, they added:

“And then later, we didn’t have the power and we tried to resist and it was too late.”

I added the emphasis there, although I probably didn’t need to.

The good-ish news here is that we are resisting. Yes, the Women’s Marches were planned weeks in advance, but the airport protests of the first attempt at a Muslim ban sprang up almost instantaneously. If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that Americans are more engaged and vocal than we’ve ever been before.

Our long-term relationship with democracy is in trouble. I guess it’s like any relationship—get too complacent and one morning you wake up with divorce papers on your pillow. Maybe you can patch things up, but it’s much better not to let the estrangement get this far to begin with.

The U.S. has a solid foundation

Still, our current situation is not completely analogous to Russia’s at the dawn of Putin’s reign. Ambassador McFaul pointed out:

“Our institutions, our opposition party, our U.S. Congress, our press, our courts, our federal system, our elected leaders at the state level are way more robust than Russian similar institutions back in 2000. And our society seems willing to push back…in a way that Russian society was not willing to do. So I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Optimistic—as long as we don’t slip back into complacency, we might stop democracy unwinding.

“I’m optimistic in the long run,” the ambassador repeated:

“But I think vigilance now in the short run will help us avoid these more difficult times.”

I pray he’s right.


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World-changing story-telling starts with your truth

For some people it’s easy; for others it’s much harder. But telling your story—your true, unvarnished, straight-from-the-heart story—may be the most radical act any of us can commit. World-changing story-telling starts with each of us.

world-changing story-telling on the Naked & Inside Out podcastListen, changing the world was just about the last thing on my mind when I sat down for an interview on the Naked & Inside Out podcast. The podcast tells stories of LGBT people in various careers—a lovely idea—but it was early December 2016, less than a month after the election, and my head hadn’t yet stopped spinning. I could talk about my past, and maybe that would help someone. But the future? I wasn’t sure we’d have one.

The podcast finally dropped yesterday and it sounds surprisingly coherent. The host, Janine Toro, asks me about how and why I do what I do, and I tell the stories I often tell—though I don’t often get to tell them from an explicitly LGBT perspective.

It was interesting to revisit the bad old days of sexist ’90s-era Wall Street, when I felt daring to have a photo of my partner on my desk…even if 75% of the picture focused on my cat and the irises in our garden. That’s an old story—or is it? The clients I work with are well past that stage—they’re champions of diversity and inclusion, for real. But in more than half of our states, it remains perfectly legal to fire an otherwise stellar employee just for being LGBT. And that was true even under the Sainted President Obama. Who knows how bad it will get now?

And that’s why the last five minutes of the interview really made me sit up and take notice. Janine asked the question I’d been dreading—”what about the future?” and, man…

World-changing story-telling — action we can all take

Remember, this was back in December. Things felt pretty bleak back then, before pussy hats and millions of (mostly) women marching. Before Indivisible (find a chapter near you and get involved). Before we had a rallying cry:

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Back in December, we had no way of knowing—really knowing—that anyone would have our back when we needed them. That we wouldn’t just be living through a rerun of Martin Niemöller’s Nazi-era lament:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

And then I remembered: We don’t have to just sit there and wait to see what happens. We don’t have to wait for other people to tell our stories. In fact, our stories become much more powerful when we tell them ourselves. Our stories can change the world. I know this because it’s happened before. When LGBT people came out of the closets and into the sitcoms, into the offices, into the schools and churches and the Scout troops—when we found the courage to be ourselves in the world, people saw who we were. And for the most part, they embraced us.

That’s world-changing story-telling and we need it again. So listen to the interview—and then tell your story. Tell your story of courage and hope. Talk about the pain the Republican administration’s policies are inflicting on you. Let people see your humanity and I have to believe they’ll respond in kind.


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Gone fishing – critical thinking matters

The kind folks from @UNDP_Danmark tweeted out this handy infographic on critical thinking last week:

critical thinking matters

Not exactly as compact as the original fish proverb. But these days, when people seem so primed to disagree with each other, maybe we do need to spell things out. Details make a story sing.

Critical thinking and frames

I’m trying to pay attention to how I frame stories these days. Because, as political linguist George Lakoff has been telling us for decades, the words we use to construct our frame can either draw people into the story or push them away.

If we have any hope of salvaging our suddenly fragile democracy, we need to choose frames that draw people in. So let’s see how we do with the fish tale, shall we?

Give someone a fish, and they eat for a day. But help them become self-sufficient by teaching them to fish and they can feed themselves, their families, and maybe even their communities. 

When we invest in maintaining the purity of our water, we get clean, healthy fish that nourish us. If we stop protecting our environment, our food supply becomes impure and we put our families’ health at risk.

When we invest in our educational system, we strengthen our economy. We provide greater opportunities for our students, who become our workforce. Investing in education makes people better able to make wise decisions to keep their families, their communities, and their country safe.

I wrote those words and they sound like complete bull to me.

Using “families” to justify anything implies that families are somehow the highest, most valuable unit of society. I don’t believe that for a second – it completely invalidates my own existence, and that of many other people as well. But that’s how red voters see the world.

“Protecting” resonates more with them than “regulating.” And the focus of that protecting – their families – resonates more than something more nebulous like “the environment ” or “future generations.” Investing in education will make students more effective bread-winners.

I hate that this stuff works. But we need to use what works.

So let’s not let them talk about rolling back environmental regulations. They’re eliminating protections.

And let’s not let them talk about “protecting” people with the anti-transgender bathroom laws. No, no – what they’re really doing is creating unnecessary regulations.

And while they’re fighting “fake media,” we need to do all we can to #ProtectTheTruth.