In Episode 54, Ritu Bhasin, Founder & President of bhasin consulting inc. and author of The Authenticity Principle, joins in discussion with Melinda Briana Epler — the human behind Leading With Empathy & Allyship, CEO of Change Catalyst, and new author of How to Be an Ally. We flip the script: Ritu hosts this episode in an intimate interview with Melinda as her new book launches! They explore Melinda’s journey to allyship, the process of writing How to Be an Ally, and why allyship matters.
- Order Melinda’s book! How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace
- Melinda’s TED Talk
- Download the State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion
- Ritu Bhasin’s website
- Ritu’s book, The Authenticity Principle
- bhasin consulting inc.
- Follow Ritu on Instagram
The live show is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now and White Coat Captioning.
- “One or two people in a company doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work cannot change it. It takes a critical mass of people working together. We are part of our company cultures, and if we don’t change ourselves, individually, and how we interact with each other, it’s really fundamentally not going to change very much. I realized pretty early on in the diversity, equity, and inclusion work that it is essential to have allies throughout our workplaces to really create that change and create that transformation.”
- “A lot of leaders struggle with, ‘what’s in it for me as an ally’ We even had asked people in our research what their biggest barrier is to allyship, and there were lots of people that were like, ‘there is nothing in it for me.’ There is something for everybody in the long run. It makes our cultures better. It makes everybody more authentic, which means they are more innovative, and our teams are more innovative, and our company is more innovative, so there’s a lot in it for all of us.”
Founder & President of bhasin consulting inc., Author of The Authenticity Principle
Ritu Bhasin, LL.B. MBA, President of bhasin consulting inc., is an award-winning speaker, author, and expert in diversity and inclusion, women’s advancement, and authentic leadership. Her Amazon bestselling book, The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead, was released in Fall 2017.
RITU: Hi, everyone. I am Ritu Bhasin, she/her/hers, President and Founder of bhasin consulting inc. based in Toronto, Canada. We are committed to helping to build authentic, inclusive, and empower workplaces.
Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship! Today is a very special episode of Leading With Empathy & Allyship. It is episode number 54, which we are calling “Behind the Scenes with Melinda Briana Epler.” Melinda is actually the host of Leading With Empathy & Allyship – but today she is a guest.
That’s because it’s the launch of Melinda’s new book, which I am holding in my hand: How to Be an Ally. A beautiful shiny book, bright orange in color. A terracotta orange that I am in love with.
We are going to spend all our time on this podcast talking to Melinda about her new book, the journey of writing her book, about the concept of allyship, and so much more, and also learning about Melinda on a personal note.
I am so excited about this. Melinda, it’s your special day. How are you doing today?
MELINDA: Hi, I am great. So good to see you. I am so excited that I am not hosting today. [Laughter] And that you are here. I appreciate you deeply for this.
RITU: Aw. Bless.
MELINDA: And I literally just got flowers – so amazing. Just before we started, like two minutes before we started the webinar. I am excited. Last night, I got an email from Amazon at 12:00 midnight that said my Kindle was ready, and so I downloaded it on my iPad and it was so cool to look at it!
RITU: Well, you are glowing. You look beautiful. You are just absolutely glowing. It is so nice to see you on your special day.
A bit about Melinda for those that don’t know about her, although I would find that hard to believe. Melinda is a TED speaker, a DEI expert, a global speaker, storyteller, advocate for change and a visionary, and now, officially, hello, an author! Very exciting.
I wanted to tell you, though, a bit about our story and meeting for those of you joining us today and listening in. It is a special story from the perspective of how we cross paths with so many people in our lives, but it is fascinating when we come together and gel and connect. I am a yoga teacher and practitioner. I think often about how yoga runs in my blood as someone whose parents were born and raised in India. I am also a DEI professional.
Many years ago, maybe 2015 if not earlier, I was at a mindfulness conference. It would have been at least 6 – 7 years ago because this is back when we were not talking about DEI often. I see on the program they had a panel about inclusion. I thought oh, my goodness, this never happens at a mindfulness yoga conference so I am going to go!
Melinda was one of the panelist and speakers. I remember being enthralled by her comments and went up to her and fangirled, and I was like, I would love to keep in touch with you. Here is what is striking: we did keep in touch. When I would come to San Francisco to speak, we would have gluten-free lunches together. Very healthy gluten-free. You will hear more about Melinda and her healthiness. We kept in touch and connected, and never did I think I would be in a place where I would be joining you for your podcast and asking you questions about your book. I think it is a beautiful story.
You know, I think for me, when I was thinking about today and doing this, I thought you meet people from all over the world because you are a storyteller and someone who literally touches the world. I am wondering, what draws you to people? What causes you to want to learn about them and hear their stories?
MELINDA: Oh, wow. I love it. Well, I’m going to get to that in a circuitous way. I have been focused on storytelling as a documentary filmmaker for 10 years, and then on storytelling to create social change ever since. I do believe in the power of stories; stories have the power to change the world, no question in my mind. And I also believe that the power of stories in that interconnectivity, the power of 1:1 stories, to really build empathy and compassion for each other. So I am a naturally curious person about cultures. Studied cultural anthropology, so it is in my blood to some degree. Yeah. I enjoy talking to people about deep things and about who they are and their authentic selves.
RITU: I love that. Of course, so much of what you said already speaks to the pillars of allyship and we will talk more about that.
Speaking of stories, today is all about hearing your stories, and so that’s what we are going to do. Why don’t we first kickoff, Melinda, by talking to you about your story. I know you have done like, let’s see, 53 podcast episodes now and you are collecting and hearing everyone else’s stories. We have heard quite a bit about your professional and some personal stories in your book and in other podcasts. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your story? Where did you grow up? Tell us about your life path, your journey to get you to where you are today.
MELINDA: Yeah. Awesome. So I was born in San Francisco, California. Grew up in Oakland. And then moved from Oakland to Seattle, South Seattle.
Both Oakland and South Seattle were, at the time, very diverse places and so I had lots of diverse friends and just didn’t think anything of it. Looking back now I feel a lot of privilege because a lot of White people do not experience that.
That curiosity, and also just being around people who are different from you, is a normal thing for me. I think for a lot of people that is a barrier because they just haven’t experienced that.
I always kind of felt like I wanted to make a difference in the world. Really change the world in some large way. When I was, I don’t know, in middle school I was like, I am going to be a surgeon and I am going to save people.
And then when I was in high school during the Cold War I developed recurring nightmares of a nuclear attack. I created a sister school in the USSR—it is Uzbekistan but at the time was part of the USSR—and we did an exchange. As kids we went to the USSR in the middle of the Cold War to build peace and that shaped me. I did a lot of traveling as a kid, my family also traveled a lot, that shaped me quite a bit.
When I got to college, I sampled lots of things from environmental studies, to gender studies, to comparative literature, and ended up with cultural anthropology because I wanted to know how cultures work and how individuals create change within those cultures. In the last semester of college, I needed to take an elective and took a drawing class and found I was good at it. I went to New York, went to art school, and then went to graduate school in art for a while. And used art as a way of creating change: storytelling to create change.
And then, I kind of moved into film as a kind of broadening of the audience more than anything in terms of social impact. So I worked in the film industry. Worked on lots of documentaries around women’s rights in Turkey – and the rights are still very much changing – and HIV/AIDS crisis, and worked on mainstream stuff like The West Wing.
I eventually found myself with my health deteriorating quite a bit because, in LA, it was very smoggy and the norm in the film industry is to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week, and I was doing a lot of editing – so sitting for 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. And also trying to create change in an industry that is really hard to create change in. I found myself fighting to make sure that change happened.
So I took a break, went to northern California and wine country and lived off the land for a year to reset physically. From there became a consultant working with mission-driven brands, working with large Fortune 500 companies to use storytelling to create social and environmental change, and ended up as an executive in a non-inclusive environment. And that’s where my book picks up, and where my TED Talk picks up.
MELINDA: That’s my story.
RITU: And here we are. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You go into pieces of your story in your book as well, which is really illuminating as it relates to your journey with allyship, but also being really instructive for others about how our life stories, our journeys that we are on, directly push us into the role of allyship or give us a platform for becoming an ally – but we may not take the leap and step into that role.
I’m wondering – allyship for you has been an anchor. In all of what you described, I can see the theme or feel the theme of allyship there. It is an anchor in your life. You have done a podcast on it, devoted an entire podcast on it, your TED Talk is on it, you have now written a book about it. I am wondering what it is from your life experiences, your childhood upbringing, from California to Chicago, to the international development work you have done, working in exclusionary environments, what is it about your story, upbringing and life experiences that push you to make allyship your anchor?
MELINDA: Hmm. Well, I think it was really when I started doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work full-time and working with companies, working with individuals to create change in those companies and realizing that it is not enough. That 1-2 people in a company doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work cannot change it. It takes a critical mass of people working together. We are part of our company cultures and if we don’t change ourselves, individually, and how we interact with each other, it is not really fundamentally not going to change very much.
I realized pretty early on in the diversity, equity, and inclusion work that it is essential to have allies throughout our workplaces to really create that change and create that transformation. And I think that the thread is actually, yes, allyship, but it is also empathy.
Allyship is empathy in action. It is really that that’s what changes the world. When we have more empathy for each other and take action on it. The root of our largest issues today is a lack of empathy for each other from climate change and environmental justice to workplace disparity to the wealth/health gap discrimination throughout our systems and institutions.
RITU: I think this is probably why you and I became connected and we gelled – because of our deep commitment to empathy, compassion, and seeing the humanity in everything. We will come back to that. I know it is a big part of your story and directly ties to allyship.
Let’s talk about your book. I am going to pick up your book. I have it in my hands. I mentioned this already. Why don’t we start with this? The beautiful orange, this terracotta orange. What made you go with this beautiful shade of orange?
MELINDA: That was actually my publisher, McGraw-Hill. They sent me a version that was a little different. The only thing I changed is it was a darker orange, and the black on the orange wasn’t accessible, so I asked them to tweak it to make that contrast a little deeper so it could be more accessible for people who have Low Vision, and also for people who are color blind as well.
RITU: Validation for how applying an inclusive lens wins on so many levels. I am all about that. OK. What led you to want to write a book about allyship? What led you to want to write a book? I have done it myself and it is no easy feat. I will bless you.
On the screen right now, Melinda is holding up her book and I am holding up my book and I am doing the same. This is a cheesy nerdy moment. Nerd alert! Blessed and thank you for that. What led you to think I am going to write a book and why write the book on allyship?
MELINDA: I think I want to kind of take it a step back to why I did a TED Talk on allyship, actually, because that started it. I don’t think I have said this on the show before, the process of getting a TED Talk is, you know, it’s not simple.
MELINDA: The TED curator saw one of my first talks in 2010 or something. It was a long time ago. He liked it and kept following me from there.
Years later, when he became a TED curator, he looked for an opportunity to bring me in. He had an opportunity and reached out and said, “I want you to come in and do a TED Talk,” and that opportunity fell through. The next year another opportunity came up and he reached out and said, “here it is.” They asked me to do a TED Talk about a different topic entirely. They were like, this is the on- time platform to reach potentially a lot of people and I want to make sure it really matters.
I was thinking: allyship was a fairly new concept at the time. The concept has been around for a while, but not as ubiquitous. It is kind of this intangible concept and I want to make it tangible and actionable. That’s how the TED Talk came about.
RITU: You had an ally. Beautiful, and highlights the concept.
MELINDA: Speaking about authenticity, it is about being in tune with what’s important to you and making sure you are advocating. I had to do that throughout TED and throughout publishing the book. Making sure you get your own authentic voice in there.
RITU: You did the TED Talk and it clearly would have opened up so many different doors in terms of sharing more and more about allyship, because in just under 10 minutes you talk so much about some really important concepts. I am referring to Melinda’s TED Talk that people must have said I want more. Give me more. Is that ultimately what led you to be in a place to say I am going to put this in a book?
MELINDA: Yeah. Actually, yes. And because you can get concepts in there but there is a lot of deeper stuff. I was starting to do training around allyship as well realizing that people really do need to go deeper and learn more and that there is a lack of understanding, a lack of skills building, and then also, a fear that a lot of people have where they kind of get stuck in learning and don’t take action. I wanted to, you know, deepen the actions that people can take and also deepen the learning and deepen the action.
I will also say another ally stepped up a couple months after my TED Talk. My TED Talk ended up in the first 24 days hitting a million views.
RITU: Which is amazing. Good for you.
MELINDA: I had no idea that was going to happen. So, it got a lot of exposure. A literary agent reached out to me a couple months later and said, “saw your TED Talk, I think you should write a book. Are you thinking about writing a book because you should, and I want to represent you?” I interviewed other agents but came back to him just because he really got it.
RITU: He understood. He saw you.
MELINDA: I also thought it would be good to work with a White man because, you know, a White man who believed in me because I think that input was going to be important. I thought that input would be important.
RITU: Writing a book is no easy feat. For you, what was the hardest part?
MELINDA: Getting out of my own way.
RITU: Melinda, I think you dropped a really important bomb. I got a thought bomb and I am like, I would like to flush that out. So many people want to write books and they are afraid and don’t do it.
MELINDA: It is that fear.
RITU: This is an allyship moment for you to them. Can you tell us a little about what you mean by being in your own way?
MELINDA: A lot of us have internalized oppression from our lived experiences over the years. I certainly do in lots of different ways. I am still working through that; therapist, executive coach all of it to work through that.
I am not sure if the TED Talk or the book were the hardest things. The book took longer so maybe ultimately but both of them called up so much of my Impostor Syndrome, so much of my fear of putting things out there that might not be perfect, and I had to get over that, get through that, get past that. Maybe not totally over it but past it enough so that I could, you know, make it happen.
When you have that fear response, and I will say during the pandemic, there were whole multiple levels of fear during the pandemic and I learned that hey, when that happens, when fear happens, when depression happens and anxiety happens, it is harder to be creative. So I really struggled.
After I created the proposal over a year, then Mark put it out there in the world and within a week I had multiple offers and then signed, you know, in one month. Not signed but had a handshake in that one month and then the pandemic happened.
It took six months to actually sign the contract. I was not ready to write a book when business was pivoting, when the world was hurting, and in so many ways hurting this year and last year.
All these things. All these things played a role in waiting until the last minute to write it. I got to maybe July of last year and realized I needed to push back my deadline and pushed it back five weeks and just did a marathon of writing to make it happen over about three and a half/four months.
RITU: Good for you. Here we are.
MELINDA: And in some ways I would say if you want to write a book, do it, but you have to make the time for yourself to do it.
MELINDA: I found I couldn’t sit at my desk all day every day at work and then do the same on the weekends and nights writing. I had to go outside of that, whether that was out in the wilderness or that was, you know, just out in somewhere green. I wrote most of my book outside. [Laughter] And so wherever gets that creative juice flowing for you do it and make it happen and make that space for you.
RITU: I know, Melinda and I are Instagram friends. We are real friends and friends on Instagram which makes us actually real friends. I am always checking Melinda’s Instagram stories and I know from being your friend that on weekends when you were writing, you would be in beautiful environments, and I was thinking what a beautiful space. It is hard to be creative on command. I know this from writing my own book, The Authenticity Principle, but when you are in beautiful spaces it can be inspiring. It is so great you did that.
Another question I have for you is I found when I wrote my own book, The Authenticity Principle, I didn’t expect it would change my life as much as it did. How has writing How to Be an Ally changed your life?
MELINDA: Well, I think because I had to dive deep into what’s holding myself back, that has made a big difference. I would say I was writing a book and covering pieces of my identity. I am bi and it never occurred to say much about that or put it out there. I wrote it in the book, and I was like, that’s kind of big. I haven’t written it down before.
RITU: Can we have a personal moment for the billions of people who will be listening one day? I didn’t know that about you until I read your book and I am your friend. I was reading the book and I was like oh, I didn’t know that. Fascinating.
MELINDA: Well, I think it is one of the issues, not issues but complexities about being bi is people assume. If you are in a relationship with a woman, people assume you are lesbian. If you are in a relationship with a man, people assume that you are straight.
RITU: That’s what I assumed.
MELINDA: That is one of the issues. Without putting it out there, nobody knows. I sort of realized I feel like I have a responsibility to do that so I will be talking more about that in the future too. That’s one. Working through all the anxiety and fear around it has helped me to get to a place where I could write.
Also, this has gotten me further and really embracing who I am and I took and do consider myself a writer, but I took a long break from writing. Years. Years of not really writing very much.
RITU: I have said this to you before and I am not blowing sunshine for the sake of it. As a DEI practitioner and someone who reads a lot of DEI content, I thought your book was excellent. I was struck by how practical it was, and how much data is in there.
In your allyship report as well. We linked to Melinda’s allyship talk and there is an excellent allyship report filled with data we can link to that talks about the data you have collected in the workplace. Your book is practical, it is data driven, it is filled with stories, it is very personal and practical. All of it.
I am so glad you have written this book. At a time when you mentioned this earlier, the concept of allyship has been around for many years – but a rightful spotlight was shown upon it last year after the murder of George Floyd, and other Black Americans in particular, and there is so much more being said about allyship.
Your whole podcast is dedicated to allyship, so I am not going to get into core concepts. You have 53 other episodes you can listen to, including one with me, where I talk about authenticity and allyship and more.
What I want to do is talk to you about some of the things that perhaps have not been explored in other podcasts. We are coming behind the scenes with you, Melinda, and sharing.
First of all, reading the State of Allyship Report, I can’t help but wonder – and I say this as someone who deeply cares about empathy and compassion and vulnerability – if some of the attributes connected to allyship that the report and you discuss feel ‘hippie dippy’ for corporate leaders.
For those who understand why empathy, vulnerability, authenticity and compassion are important, for those that get it, we see the direct line between leadership and wellness. We get it.
For a lot of left-brained, highly analytical, hardcore corporate leaders, this feels like soft, squishy, ‘hippie dippy’ stuff. How can we bring hardcore corporate leaders who are like, ‘this is too squishy,” onside?
MELINDA: I would say that the ‘hippie dippy’ stuff as you call it is what changes hearts and minds, ultimately. So creating a space for those hardcore leaders to be, you know, where they can explore the squishier stuff is the key, honestly.
What we have learned in our report and research is that most people learn about the need for allyship through a 1:1 story, whether that is the top learning from their colleagues or friends, right? That means all of us, unfortunately, because it can be traumatic – but we need to tell our stories to help create that change. Your colleagues, friends, partners, you know, whether that is your significant other, or that is a work partner. That, you know, that’s the empathy and building that empathy. Yeah.
I think there’s a few things. One is: we need to create those safe spaces to have those conversations for those leaders to be vulnerable, authentic, and explore and build empathy for each other, for the people that work for them and with them.
And then the other part is the accountability piece. The understanding of what needs to happen and the accountability piece. That is less squishy – collecting data and analyzing data, and seeing what’s happening in our company, and seeing you have high turnover rates for women, for people with underrepresented identities across the board, seeing your Black population is very unhappy and feels unsafe in your workplace and then, you know, once you collect that data you know you need to do something to create change. That’s really doing some strategic planning and taking action, looking at the data; what does the data say you need to do?
It is a combination of both. I do a lot of leadership training, and a lot of leadership coaching, and most leaders start with this barrier of ‘I don’t know what to do. This is beyond what I can do. I am focused on this business.’ But their business is not where people are motivated to create change. It is the inner personal stuff. We need to get them to the place of finding motivation, finding the connections, building that empathy and that takes training, workshops, safe conversations, and 1:1 coaching often to go deep over time as well.
RITU: Yeah. Well, your report, the State of Allyship Report, does a really good job of connecting the dot between allyship, experiences – like the humanity behind lived experiences in the workplace – and then makes a business case for why it is that leaders actually tune into that ‘hippie dippy’ stuff. I am using air quotes to refer to it because it is everything!
I want to talk to you about mindfulness in a moment as it relates to your story and journey; but one thing that struck me, and there’s a few things you already said, is that you have really stepped up as a White person in taking an active role in the context of antiracism. So interrupting racism.
I am wondering, how is it for you, over the last year or so, in the thick of this racial justice movement, how has it been for you as a very vocal visible advocate for allyship to be an ally as a White person in this moment?
MELINDA: Yeah. I will say that I think about it a lot. I really make sure that I am approaching anti-racist allyship deliberately, authentically, and also intersectionally.
RITU: Right. Yes.
MELINDA: I spend a lot of time thinking and checking in with myself, checking in with any biases I still have. And then I have a power and a platform to really make a difference. So I use that opportunity to push people to change. I will also say that last year we had so many companies and individuals reaching out to us wanting to do antiracism training and I just decided I am not going to do explicitly antiracism training. I am going to refer them to colleagues who have that lived experience of racism, because I think that’s important. There are so many folks that do that work amazingly and so I don’t take that work. I refer people.
Having said that, I also embed antiracism into all of my work and it’s a core piece, whether it is inclusive leadership training, or empathy and allyship training, or it is my executive coaching. I am really embedding that into everything.
I think the other piece I have learned is my own self exploration is important too as a White person. I worked hard to put some of these instances in my book: different areas of learning experiences, like when I graduated from college and still thought we were in a post-racial world and didn’t think systemic racism existed. So there was an ‘aha moment’ for me there in my first year of college where I listened to my fellow students and kind of ‘ah, whoa, wait. What is happening? Why did I grow up that way and what can I do about it so the next generation doesn’t grow up that way and what can I do from here to change things and to make it better and to help the collective healing that needs to happen?’
RITU: Sure. You are referring to your personal experiences from childhood. You are in an interracial, romantic relationship and I am wondering how that helps to inform your experiences with allyship in the context of antiracism work?
MELINDA: Oh, it’s amazing. Sad in some ways because I have learned so, so much – but I will say that Wayne and I are doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work together. He is also my business partner.
RITU: I know this because I am a friend and follow you on Instagram. Could you just give us a little background about Wayne’s culture? Racial culture?
MELINDA: Sure. Wayne is a Black man.
RITU: A very important detail we should share.
MELINDA: Wayne is a Black man. We actually met when I was an executive and then once I kind of had that horrible experience and wanted to do something about it, kind of systemically, Wayne has been working on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a long time and we decided to come together and change the tech industry.
While doing that, and continuing to explore our own relationship, and navigate the world as an interracial couple, I have learned so much. I have learned a lot about his own lived experiences daily. I see it with my own eyes.
As an interracial couple, I think it was maybe our second year of dating, we went to Paris together. We were a few days in. We stopped and were eating dinner and I was like something is different. I didn’t realize it when we lived in San Francisco until we were outside of San Francisco in Paris, that in Paris people are just treating us like any couple. It is different. There is resistance still here in the United States. It is really subtle.
I had a big ‘aha moment’ in college where a friend of mine moved from Seattle – she is Black – and moved from Seattle to Atlanta. What she said was that it is refreshing in Atlanta because at least you know that people are racist and that’s overt, and not the underlying little racism that you experience when you just don’t know.
RITU: The racial microinequities.
MELINDA: That’s right. On the surface level, a lot of people aren’t racist, but when you go deeper and get those little microaggressions that you can’t articulate all over.
In the South, people stare at us as an interracial couple. It is clear and overt. In San Francisco it is less so. Little things, like people will sometimes will only talk to me and won’t talk to Wayne. Sometimes they will only talk to Wayne as a man and won’t talk to me, whether that’s in a business setting or that is at a restaurant.
The other thing that we have noticed is that a lot of people touch Wayne. A lot of White women especially touch Wayne. I think it is a combination of ‘I am trying to get over my racism,’ right here in some ways a kind of discomfort. Maybe we will call it discomfort with the underlying tone of racism in it.
And there is also a kind of trying to build connections with people that you don’t regularly experience connections with, I think is the other piece of it. But, you know. We have had many conversations, dinner conversations, breakfast conversations about how I navigate the world as a woman, how Wayne navigates the world as a Black man, and it is so powerful. I have learned so much more as a result and also been incredibly disappointed with the world in so many ways. Wanting to take more action as a result.
RITU: It goes back to something you were talking about earlier, like when we are moved by stories and people’s experience – either hearing about them or seeing them firsthand and being part of them – this is what drives hardcore corporate leaders to pay more attention and to be driven to change. And certainly it sounds like your relationship with Wayne has provided you with the front row seat to lived experiences.
In a moment, we are going to dig deeper into your personal background and stories before we start to wind down. One question for you in the context of allyship and antiracism – which I am deeply passionate about and which is why I am focusing on my questions there – I often get asked in my allyship sessions about white saviorism. For White people who want to serve as allies, the fear that’s held around overstepping the line and moving into the territory of White saviorism.
How can White people who want to serve as allies know the difference between allyship and being a savior? And sometimes I wonder: is that belief just an affirmation of racism because it becomes a reason or justifiable reason for why not to act? I would love to hear your thoughts.
MELINDA: Yeah, I think and there was an instance and I will not say his name because it has been dealt with in the world. There was a man in the tech industry back in, I think, 2016/2017, that I think called himself an ally and certainly saw himself as an ally, and wrote a book on women in tech and it was interviews with women and so it was arguably their own stories in that book and then he started speaking about women in tech and using his platform to talk about the experience of women in tech.
MELINDA: And became a go-to person for men to put on stage to talk about women’s lived experiences in tech and made a name for himself. Enough women said that is not OK because you are taking the space on that stage from us to tell our own experiences. I will say that was definitely cancel culture that completely brought him down, and he has done something completely different from there on, so I think there is a problem with cancel culture in that I don’t know he is an ally because he was taken down so hard. There could have been a different way of learning perhaps. I don’t know if he would have been open to that. That is an instance of not white saviorism but saviorism and stepping into a role of speaking for rather than, you know, elevating the voices of people with lived experiences.
So I would say that for a lot of people, a lot of leaders, they struggle with, you know, what’s in it for me as an ally. We even had asked people in our research what their biggest barrier is to allyship and there were lots of people that were like there is nothing in it for me.
There is something for everybody in the long run. It makes our cultures better. It makes everybody more authentic, which means they are more innovative and our teams are more innovative and our company is more innovative so there is a lot in it for all of us but individually don’t look for those rewards.
RITU: Right. Right. Yes.
MELINDA: That’s a long way to say it’s not charity. Allyship is not charity. Allyship is not like stepping in and helping people and you know rise. Yes, it is helping people rise – but it is not about their defects.
RITU: Not about fixing them. It is not about fixing the person but it is about fixing the system. I often say people are not broken, it’s the system that’s broken. I am so with you on that. There are so many nuggets on how to effectively be an ally in your book, so I will leave your book as a fantastic, fabulous resource for people after today.
As we start to slowly wind down, and I will turn the floor back to you to officially wind down, before we wrap up, let’s spend a little bit more time on Melinda. I mentioned this earlier. I talked about how I first met you at a mindfulness conference. You are very open about your commitment to mindfulness and yoga and you have fabulous yoga arms. You and Michelle Obama: love! Great compliment to be put next to Michelle Obama and her arms. I am all about it.
Can you tell us about the impact of yoga on your journey of being an ally? The impactful of mindfulness and being an ally and the work you do in this space?
MELINDA: I think it also delves into authenticity. Mindfulness, because it has helped me so much to better understand myself and really get to know myself and I do believe that is a key piece of being a good ally: knowing myself, checking in with my own experiences, and that is a piece of it. I started meditating in 2010, 2011. Really meditating pretty much every day in 2012. I meditate every single day. I do yoga multiple times a week. It is that combination that’s the beauty of it. The asana to get the body flowing so you can be healthy so you can sit.
RITU: Yes, the union.
MELINDA: Especially when doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work that can be toxic and you need to move that through your body and mind. Meditation has helped me kind of slowly remove the layers of trauma and also Impostor Syndrome – also anxiety, also depression – and really find out where they are living in that body and move through them. I will say after meditating and doing yoga for a couple of years, suddenly, I had no chronic back pain. I had chronic back pain for years. It has been gone since.
RITU: Me too, by the way. It is not just I am a Brown girl that got me into yoga. It was the back pain.
MELINDA: There are lots of other chronic health problems that aren’t as bad as a result. I think it is that trauma that lives in your body. I will say also one thing is that when I was an executive, and I realized I was in a toxic environment, and the company was not ready to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion or even talk about it, even like talk about the fact that people were being treated differently because of their identity because women had high turnover rates and underrepresented minority populations and Black people in that case.
They were not ready to talk about it. What else could we do? Worked on emotional intelligence with the leadership team and developed a mindfulness program to kind of build those empathy skills and eventually open people up more to seeing each other’s world.
RITU: I think you connected the dots: how being inclusive, empathetic, and compassionate go hand-in-hand. We are almost out of time.
The last thing I want to do is something that’s inspired by listening to Brené Brown’s podcast, the Unlocking Us series. She does rapid fire questions at the end of the podcast. I am going to ask you a few questions quickly and you are supposed to just give your automatic answer and first thing that leaps in your head and I will not question it. Intuitively what comes to you. This is getting to know Melinda behind the scenes, everyone. So good. OK. What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?
MELINDA: Well hm. I don’t know the answer to that question but I will say last night I had salad and ice cream for dinner.
RITU: Perfect. Sounds good. Cats, dogs or another animal?
MELINDA: All of the above.
RITU: Because you love nature and the whole animal world. The best place you have been to in the world?
MELINDA: I love a lot of different places for a lot of different reasons, but I will say writing the first couple of chapters in my book in Bali in the same town where Barack Obama wrote his book. In this beautiful place. It was both nurturing and just, yeah, I will never forget that.
RITU: And I can imagine why that would be idyllic. Last question. You could have dinner with any person living or dead, who would it be?
MELINDA: Nelson Mandela.
RITU: What a beautiful place to stop and end. So, first of all, I just on a personal note wanted to say thank you. Thank you to everyone joining us today. Such a pleasure, honor, blessing to have you here with us. Melinda, from me to you, thank you for inviting me to be part of this important special date and part of your journey. It is such a gift and a blessing to be able to be part of this story of yours. I am so grateful. Thank you.
Now I am going to turn the floor back to you and to wind down episode number 54, “Behind the Scenes with Melinda Briana Epler.”
MELINDA: Thank you so much, Ritu, my dear friend. Appreciate you and our friendship, and the allyship and the transformational change that you create in this world.
So, just a quick wrap. Join us tonight. Ritu is going to be emceeing my launch party and a part of the discussion. Please join us tonight in celebration. We will be joined by Rachel Williams and Tiffany Yu and my greatest ally and partner and husband, Wayne Sutton, as well.
I will ask that if and when you do purchase the book, if you would consider giving it a review on Amazon, on Goodreads or wherever you purchase it. That would mean a lot and it would definitely help spread the word and bring in more readership which I think will make a big difference in our workplaces and our world.
See you tonight, and see you next week where we will talk with Cynthia Overton and “The Power of Storytelling to Create Change.” Thank you, all. Appreciate you. Thank you, Ritu, again.
RITU: Thank you so much, Melinda. Thank you, everyone. Be well, be safe, be whole. Bye.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.
The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.
I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.