In Episode 55, Cynthia Overton, Senior Director of Tech Workplace Initiatives at the Kapor Center, dives into conversation with Melinda about the impact of storytelling. They discuss important ways storytelling can change our perception, whether that is by advocating through storytelling, interrupting our own stories to create internal change, or using stories to build empathy and trust.
- Order Melinda’s book! How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace
- Download the The State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion
- Learn more about the Kapor Center
- Follow Cynthia on Twitter
- Download Kapor Center’s Leaky Tech Pipeline report
- Learn more about Diversity Advocates
- Discover Race in the Ranks: Investigating racial bias in the U.S. military
- Watch The Chair on Netflix
- Read A Promised Land by Barack Obama
The live show is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now and White Coat Captioning. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com
- “Stories have the power to persuade and change. It’s easy for people to be presented with important statistics. But – in the absence of context, and the absence of a story – statistics are easy to forget. When you tell stories, stories bring situations, problems, challenges, victories, all of that to life.”
- “By sharing your own failures and being vulnerable with other folks, it can really encourage people to look within themselves to think about what they might be able to do differently, understanding that they are not the only ones.”
- “When you can admit shortcomings to somebody else in a position of power, that can give them the permission to really reevaluate their own behaviors and internalize the changes they need to make. Advocating for others can involve almost like holding a mirror to people to encourage them to think about how they need to be doing things differently. People are just more receptive to stories.”
Senior Director of Tech Workplace Initiatives at the Kapor Center
Cynthia Overton, Ph.D., serves as Senior Director of Tech Workplace Initiatives at the Kapor Center, a racial justice organization dedicated to leveling the playing field in tech. In this role, she leads Diversity Advocates, a professional learning community dedicated to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce throughout the tech industry and Our Collective, a group of tech professionals working to advance inclusion for Black and Latinx talent through employee resource groups. Cynthia also serves as co-principal investigator for a research study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that seeks to expand the evidence-based understanding of HBCU STEM learning environments in which undergraduate students are most likely to thrive and subsequently go on to attain doctoral degrees in science and engineering.
MELINDA: Hey, everyone. Welcome. Today is Cynthia Overton on ‘The Power of Storytelling to Create Change.’
Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep, real conversations about how we can be more inclusive leaders in our workplaces and communities. I want to say you don’t need to be an official leader in your company to lead. We all need to lead this work.
I am Melinda Briana Epler, the Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and the host of the show. At Change Catalyst we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, coaching, and events. This is a safe space to learn here. We work to build empathy for each other, to understand tangible actions we can all take to build a better world for our colleagues, our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves.
So in Episode 53, Renzo, Merve, and I discussed our research on allyship and one finding included how people learn about the need for allyship. The number one thing, by far, that came up was, ‘I learned about a negative experience a friend or colleague went through.’ Number two was, ‘I learned through my own negative experience with bullying, harassment, discrimination.’ Number three, ‘I learned about somebody else’s experience at an event.’ The others were, ‘I learned about it through training,’ ‘through a negative experience a family member had,’ ‘I learned on social media or a book or article.’ Most of that is storytelling.
I’m excited to talk about ‘The Power of Storytelling to Create Change’ with Cynthia Overton, Senior Director of Tech Workplace Initiatives at the Kapor Center. We will talk about how we can advocate for ourselves and building empathy and shaping the narrative around diversity and inclusion. Welcome, Cynthia. So good to have you here.
CYNTHIA: Thank you, Melinda. I’m so excited about our conversation and really appreciate you having me here today.
MELINDA: I’m excited to. Before we jump in, let’s briefly describe ourselves to anybody who is Blind, Low Vision, or listening on the phone or podcast. I’m a White woman. I have long red hair. black and white glasses. I am wearing a green sleeveless shirt.
CYNTHIA: I am a Black woman. I have naturally curly hair that is up. I have on a black shirt and a necklace and there is a beige screen, and plant and wall mirror in the background.
MELINDA: And my background is just a White background.
Today our ASL interpreters are Juan and Jennifer. Thank you to Interpreter-Now for that ongoing partnership. Really appreciate them.
This is also being live captioned by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. If you want to view the captions, go to the more screen and click on live transcription. It might be different on a different screen.
Our team, Ariyah, Renzo, Juliette are all doing amazing work to make this all happen behind the scenes.
Cynthia, let’s start with your story. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be here doing the work you want to do? Why did you decide to do this work of diversity, equity, and inclusion and dedicate your career to doing it?
CYNTHIA: I would be happy to. First of all, I work at a wonderful racial justice organization called the Kapor Center, which is dedicated to leveling the playing field in the tech industry. We are based in Oakland, California.
I was actually born in Detroit and by the time I was five, we moved to a suburb for the public school system. When I entered public school at age 5, I tested higher than any other kindergartener in my class – actually, in the school – and by the time I graduated from high school, I barely graduated from high school. I was actually put in an all girls Catholic school and the nuns had to do an intervention to convince my Spanish teacher to allow me to graduate from high school. That’s a whole story in and of itself.
In terms of, ‘how does one start school testing higher than anybody in the class to barely graduating?’ I was very, very fortunate because Hampton University had a summer bridge program. And the program essentially was for students like myself. Students who had a hard time in school but if they could prove themselves they could enter the university.
So I was accepted to Hampton conditionally that I completed the summer bridge program successfully – and I did, and they allowed me to stay. That was a really game changer in my life.
As you may know, Hampton University is a historically Black college university, an HBCU, and it was just a game changer for me. I mean everybody there was treated the same. Most of us were, Black or African American, and it just did so much in terms of my self-esteem and believing in myself.
I ended up graduating from Hampton magna cum laude. After finishing college, I took a job at an insurance company and after that I started teaching. Then, when I was about 26, I started experiencing some weird things health-wise. I don’t need to go into the details in terms of the symptoms, but the punchline is doctors discovered a blood vessel that had been growing inside my spine since I was born and it finally hemorrhaged. After it hemorrhaged, it had to come out. I had spinal cord surgery and after the surgery I was complete paralyzed from the waist down. I couldn’t stand, walk, or feel my legs.
It was tough. I was 26 at the time. I was having the time of my life. I had a lot of fun in my 20s, I will just say that. And so it was a very humbling experience in terms of having your life change overnight. I lost everything. I lost my job, I lost my apartment.
I was so lucky, though, in terms of I had a very, very loving family. I moved back in with my parents. I went to a lot of physical therapy. I got to the point where over the course of a year, maybe 18 months, I graduated from a wheelchair to a cane, and I continue to use the cane today.
I needed to really think about what I was going to do with my life. I was visiting my brother – he is an attorney and he is awesome, just very nice, kind-spirited, and supportive – visiting him in D.C. We were having breakfast and he plops down a US News & World Report in front of me with the addition that has the ranking of all graduate schools. He plops it in front of me and says, ‘pick a school to go – and I need the magazine back!’
I’m such a follower, I literally went through and said ‘University of Michigan teams like a good school. Maybe I will go there.’ I applied and got in and ended up doing a Master’s Degree in science and a PhD in educational technology.
My focus was on technology and people with disabilities, particularly people who are Blind and Low Vision and how they use technology to engage with their learning environment. That was really my starting point into disability and to tell you the truth, I didn’t know anything about disability until I became a person who lived with a disability.
Melinda, literally, when I was in the hospital before being discharged, they said something about me having a disability – and it didn’t even resonate until they told me that I was eligible for a parking pass, and then I was able to accept it. [Laughter]
So, anyway, I ended up studying educational technology focusing on people with disabilities, and after graduate school, I needed to get a job. I didn’t want to get and teach in the academy and ended up working for a behavioral and social science research firm. While I was there, I noticed a lot of people were not reading the boring reports I wrote. I ended up going back to school to get a Master’s Degree in public relations and corporate communications to really understand how you make research interesting to people.
While I was at that research firm, the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion became very clear. I, along with other colleagues, really took a grassroots approach to pushing the organization on diversity.
Even really back then, it was diversity/diversity and inclusion. We were not even really talking about equity and belonging and all of that. And we started off with brown bags, where we would go and have these sessions/roundtables with different people within the organization to really understand what was going on. How were people feeling, how were people being treated, how were people feeling valued.
We gave a report to someone who read the report and said, ‘enough with the grassroots.’ We are going to institute a formal diversity, equity, and inclusion program or initiative at the organization. She participated in those meetings early on. She was part of writing the mission statement. She was incredibly hands-on and passionate about this topic which I continue to appreciate to this day.
Under her leadership, she introduced employee leadership to her organization. I was able to launch the black ERG and lead that and then after doing that for a little bit I transitioned over to lead the ERG for employees with disabilities.
Throughout that time, I became intrigued by the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech industry. Ended up going back and forth to California to be able to participate in different events and conferences and Melinda, you know this, I will ever be so grateful to both you and Wayne for engaging me, meeting with me, inviting me to participate in your conferences as panelists. Very much appreciate that.
Eventually I was able to land a position at the Kapor Center to lead a group called diversity advocates, which is a group of folks who are working in the tech industry to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. I would encourage anybody who might be interested to check us out at DiversityAdvocates.com. That’s pretty much my story.
MELINDA: It has been a long, long road that diversity advocates group went from a tiny side group to this big–.
CYNTHIA: We have more than a thousand members now.
MELINDA: Yeah, it’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that. I didn’t know all of the details so I appreciate that. When I asked you what you wanted to talk about in this episode, you said storytelling. Why?
CYNTHIA: I just think that stories really have the power to persuade and change. I think that it is very easy for people to be presented with very important statistics. But in the absence of context, and within the absence of a story, they are easy to forget. When you tell stories, stories bring situations, problems, challenges, victories, all of that to life. So that’s why I just really love stories.
MELINDA: Yeah. Awesome. And you know, and many of the people who are listening know as well, that my first 10 years in my career was focused on documentary filmmaking and using the power of storytelling to create change, to move people to take action and really motivate that culture change and systemic change through individual action. Super excited to talk about this.
I believe strongly that change happens through that combination of behavioral science, organizational science, and storytelling – so all three things put together.
I think it’s really important what you said a few minutes ago: that data can be very powerful. Research can be so powerful, but really you have to use it and create a story around that data and have people connect with that data, that research, in order to have it really be infused with the power that can create change. So important.
How would you say that storytelling can be used to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion?
CYNTHIA: One of the most recent examples that I have seen from this was a special on 60 Minutes and they interviewed the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. He talked about being in the military and how difficult it was as a person of color, as a Black man, in the military. He says even now there is not a day that knows by that he doesn’t think about the fact that he is a Black man. I mean, literally he thinks about that every single day.
He talked about his experience being in the military where he was a four star general. If he were not in military uniform, if he were in civilian clothes and if he were to go out with a group of people and somebody was looking for the general, he was not the person folks turned to. Folks turned to his colleagues thinking they were in charge and not him. For me, just hearing that one piece of the story, I thought he did a really good job just in terms of explaining how people experience things.
Then there was another general, his name is CQ Brown. He was interviewed on this special. This gentleman – actually, after George Floyd was murdered – released a video talking about racism in America and what Black folks have to go through. He was just done. He knew that people might not necessarily respond well, but he just couldn’t stay silent any longer. That video was viewed more than 4 million times.
Keep in mind, these are Black men talking about the challenges that are happening in the military even though the military was integrated more than 70 years ago. There’s still these challenges there.
There was this other guy named general Brad Webb, and he talked about how he just really didn’t know that people experienced so many challenges and hardships when it comes to race, particularly in the military.
As a follow-up after George Floyd was murdered, they actually did a survey to understand the experiences of folks. Folks said they just had no idea the situations people had to go through. As a result, General Webb now hosts on Facebook Live something called “Real Talk” where people have conversations about race and racism and inequities in order to bring these topics to the forefront.
This is a very difficult situation or issue to discuss, of course, especially if you are on the receiving end of unfair treatment. I think, though, that stories are really necessary in order to highlight a problem so that a problem can be addressed.
MELINDA: Yeah, I mean there’s people who have experienced exclusion, experienced oppression, experienced discrimination, we also have to tell our stories in order to create change which is unfair. As we have seen in our data, it is the way that change happens. It is the way people learn.
CYNTHIA: Yeah. And the whole point about I never knew. I think that there are some people who would look to that and say, ‘come on, you had to have known or storytelling won’t tell anything because everybody knows how bad it is.’
Some people might know how bad it is and choose not to do something. But I do think it is important to create space for stories, to help folks who really don’t have any idea.
Can all problems be solved? Can racism be solved by storytelling? I am not sure there is any evidence to that, but one of my favorite sayings is, ‘I can’t do everything, but I can do some things.’
Don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can do. If you can tell a story, I think it is important to try to tell a story.
MELINDA: I think that change happens with a lot of stories being told all over the world. All over, in all kinds of different ways. I actually do think that’s true.
I posted the other day that change happens one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time. And somebody responded and said we need to go beyond individual change to systemic change. If you try to change a system and forget the individual, you aren’t going to change it very much. A system is made of lots of individuals. Individuals create systems. Individuals make up systems and perpetuate systems, so we change systems one act at a time, we change systems one person at a time, and one story at a time and one word at a time and really build empathy and understanding.
Also, I would say when we’re working on organizational change, it is a combination of changing processes and the stories we tell along the way that really move people to take action and implement those processes. It really is a combination.
One of the things around storytelling that I think is really important is that piece around building empathy, and really building understanding. There are so many people that grow up – especially White people – that grow up with mostly people like them surrounding them. Friends, family, colleagues that are very much like them, and don’t have those experiences and understanding of what other people go through.
Building empathy and I think also building trust, which you mentioned to me in a previous conversation. Why are those so important to this work? Why is that trust?
CYNTHIA: When I think about empathy, stories bring experiences to life. I was literally paralyzed and didn’t think of myself as being a person with a disability. It was because of that experience that I was able to build empathy for people with disabilities. I had my own story to draw on.
Before that, I was not listening to the stories of other people. That is something I really, really regret now, of course. But the process has made me more sensitive to the stories of others. Other people particularly who are not like me.
When I was in a previous role, years ago, I remember going and having a conversation with a staffer, a congressional staffer. And her member – or the Congress person she worked for – his whole platform centered around traumatic brain injury. I was like, ‘Wow. Does he have a family member who had a TBI? Is that why he is interested in this topic?’ And she said no, a constituent told a story about TBI, and it was that story that made him become one of the leading advocates for the rights of people with TBI in Congress. When she told me that it was a constituent, one person’s story, that made him a champion – I thought that was really incredible.
In terms of the trust piece, I think that people want to know that when it comes to trust and particularly diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, I think that people want to know that they are not the only one who has shortcomings or that fails. I think that by sharing your own failures and being vulnerable with other folks, it can really encourage people to be able to look within themselves to think about what they might be able to do differently, understanding that they are not the only ones. That involves a lot of trust.
MELINDA: We also found in our research that one of the things that causes a lack of trust and part is a fear of making mistakes but part is a fear of putting yourself out there. Let’s talk about how being advocates and how do we advocate for people through storytelling?
CYNTHIA: I think that’s so important. First of all, I think there is something to admitting shortcomings. When you can admit shortcomings to somebody else in a position of power to make changes that can kind of give them the permission they need to really reevaluate their own behaviors and internalize the changes that they need to make.
I think advocating for others can involve almost like holding a mirror to people to encourage them to think about how they need to be doing things differently. I think people are just more receptive to stories.
MELINDA: Yeah, yeah, I am in the middle of reading Barack Obama’s very long book. His team picked a handful of letters, and each night before bed he would read the letters and individual stories of people that they are having and that affected him personally, and affected policy changes and big things.
Michelle Obama also picked a couple of things that were really near and dear to her heart to focus on when she came to the White House, and one was to focus on veterans’ issues because she heard stories along the campaign trail. They can be very powerful.
CYNTHIA: And when I think about learning from folks who are different from myself, I mentioned before, I did not go into academia after finishing my program at Michigan. I went in a different direction, but I have a close friend who is a tenured professor at a university. They were telling me, Melinda, have you seen that special on Netflix called The Chair?
MELINDA: Yes, yes.
CYNTHIA: They are saying if you want to know what it would have been like for you to go into the academy, any program, watch The Chair. That would have been your experience. So I watched it this weekend. I was really blown away -and I think there were only 5-6 episodes – but it did a good job of telling the stories of what happens in higher education, particularly through their perspective or the lens of people of color.
I was just like, ‘wow!’ This is really something.
Don’t you think it would be super cool if Netflix did something like that for the tech industry, Melinda? From the perspective of people of color, women, people in the LGBTQ community, people who live with disabilities, Netflix, if you are listening, Melinda and I will provide you with a list of consultants for that project. In fact, we will be consultants.
MELINDA: I would be happy too. Absolutely. I love it. Yes.
I want to switch gears a little bit, also, to talk about the stories that we tell ourselves, because I think that’s also a really important piece of this and of storytelling as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
There’s a few different stories we tell ourselves. The first one, maybe take one at a time, is the stories we tell that might perpetuate biases and stereotypes and avoidance. The stories we tell, like, ‘I don’t how to talk to that person with a disability, so I am just not going to talk to them.’
And/or exclusion and perpetuating exclusion through the stories we tell ourselves. What do you think about that? What are some of those stories and how do we interrupt them?
CYNTHIA: I think that it is very easy for a person not to bother because it is more convenient. I mean, it is just more convenient to, you know, take the easy way. But if that’s a choice that you decide to make, it’s really important to understand that you are part of the problem and you are helping to uphold unfair treatment. That’s a decision that folks have to make.
I will say though that it’s very challenging when we think about the bigger story. Like, what we have all been told in terms of, ‘people of color are inferior,’ ‘women are inferior,’ ‘people who are LGBTQ, it is OK to tease them or belittle or berate them.’ “People with disabilities don’t have value.’ These are the stories that society has told everybody.
So, one of the things I really struggle with is how do you really interrupt that narrative so that we can tell the true story and so that people can really understand the greatness behind us all? And so, I do think that that’s something that’s really important to be able to grapple with in terms of how do you change that narrative about different people.
MELINDA: Yeah, I have been thinking about this a lot lately. A couple things come to mind.
One is that we need to be careful about telling rags to riches stories. Stella Young has a great TED Talk called, ‘I am not your inspiration, thank you very much.’ She’s a woman with a disability, and she says she’s a disabled woman who talks about inspiration porn, and how people with disabilities are used as inspiration.
You have overcome this to be who you are now, rather than ‘everybody is human and has unique experiences.’ I think that’s one key piece: the way we tell stories so often is a story about someone with the framing of oppression and the framing of their oppressors rather than telling a story about that human as the achievements that they have made and starting there.
I do think, and I have been thinking about this the last few days in particular, that it’s a really key piece of storytelling, and we need to change that narrative.
CYNTHIA: No, I agree 110%.
MELINDA: I think maybe part of this is we need to be aware of the stories we consume, and what shows are we watching, and watching something that’s perpetuated stories.
One more thought; I have all these thoughts that are coming into my head right now! When we think about even just meeting somebody for the first time, we have a first impression. That first impression is our stories that we are telling about somebody else in our own heads. There’s also a need, sometimes, to interrupt those first impressions that we have of people and allow those people to tell their own story to us.
CYNTHIA: I think you’re right. That’s something I struggle with. I think about DEI all of the time. To your point: I have to stop myself and allow people to tell me who they are, as opposed to making assumptions about different people. Some of that really just involves being quiet and really just listening.
MELINDA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And sometimes asking, too. Asking and giving people the space to say.
MELINDA: OK. So I said three. The first one is the stories we tell ourselves that kind of perpetuate these stereotypes and avoidance and exclusion. The second is the stories we tell ourselves that perpetuate that fear response and keep us from taking risks, from making mistakes and doing this work.
CYNTHIA: I know you have to understand you are going to fail. I think that once you can wrap your head around failure and not allowing failure to define how good of a person that you are or what you can do in the future – I think that if you can get past that – you will be much better positioned to be able to be a good ally to people, to be supportive, to be a sponsor, and mentor.
But if you just stay silent, you’re not sharing your gifts and values. Your values are not being shared with other people.
MELINDA: I love that. Yeah. Yeah.
CYNTHIA: Yeah, and you know, I was on a panel a while back and somebody talked about the importance – and this is something I really, really try to practice – of first of all, being graceful and second of all, pulling people in as opposed to calling people out.
I think that feedback is really, really important for folks, but I think that it is important to give feedback in a way that’s productive. That will at the end of the day change behavior.
So I kind of look at it as battles and war. If I just need to get something off my chest and tell somebody how I feel,I have won the battle. Then I have done a service to the war in terms of long-term that’s not helpful.
MELINDA: Yes. Yes!
[Laughter] Thank you for sharing that. Yeah. The third piece of this, in terms of the stories we tell ourselves, is the remnants of internalized marginalized oppression. The stories we tell ourselves because others have told those stories to us throughout our lives.
You told us about when you went to college and our self-esteeym started growing. I think retelling those stories is so important.
CYNTHIA: It really is. It is so hard not to have feelings of self-doubt when you have been treated certain ways or told certain things. Those feelings are common, but any feelings of Impostor Syndrome or, you know, just feelings of ‘I am not good enough,’ they are just lies that are put in place to prevent certain people from succeeding and other people to hold on to the power.
It really comes down to, ‘are you going to believe that lie?’ I have started telling myself, ‘I have to stop being so gullible. I am not that gullible. I don’t believe those things.’
I would really encourage folks to really fine tune your mute button when it comes to people who are not very productive in your life and are sending you messages, and just tune them out – because you are the bomb!
MELINDA: ‘Untune your mute button,’ y’all. I love that. Yes!
Yeah. Wow. Question: ‘I am struggling with my confidence and Impostor Syndrome.’ That’s the number one thing going back to our research that we heard from women in particular, the number one thing they want from allies is to help give them more confidence and courage.
I think a key piece of that is we have that has been taken from us and for our lives and throughout our lives.
Jeremy Sussman spoke in the Spring. We had a conversation about him thinking about allyship as a White, cisgendered, heterosexual man, and one of the things he said is, yeah, he grew up being told that those stories of he ‘can do anything.’ And what a big contrast for many of us, right? It’s such a contrast.
CYNTHIA: Can I just ask one question? My book hasn’t come yet, so I am going to ask if you can share the thinking about your book, and the process of writing the book, as you are thinking about allyship, and empathy – did storytelling kind of play into this book at all when you were writing it?
MELINDA: Yeah, yeah. And by the way, releasing a book during a pandemic is an interesting road where the book is released last week for some people and tomorrow for others, and so that is just the supply chain issues around the pandemic.
I realized writing the book, it couldn’t just be facts, figures, and checklists. Those are there, but it also needed to have my own stories. I talk about my own path and journey to allyship throughout the book. My own kind of ‘aha moments’ and realizations along the way, because I do think that is a really powerful piece of all this.
Everybody needs to know that everybody was not born a great ally for everyone. We all have to learn. That is a big piece of this. It is definitely working together and learning and sharing with each other, sharing our own stories of learning and growth is really important. There is that.
Also, I included stories of other people all along the way. People with diverse identities all along the way that I can’t possibly represent as a White woman, so I wanted to be sure that those stories were in there, and that what people really wanted from allies was in there as well.
CYNTHIA: I can’t wait to get my copy!
MELINDA: Thank you. If anybody wants to learn more about the book, go to MelindaBrianaEpler.com.
We are now going on, I don’t know how many months of the pandemic, and many more months to come, where a lot of us are working remotely and/or there’s hybrid companies now and the need to build empathy is as important, if not more important than ever – and yet for some organizations it is harder.
They see it because you actually have to schedule time to make connections rather than just see people in the hallways, right? Let’s talk a little bit about how we can do this remotely and how we can continue to create the space for people, the safe spaces for people to tell their stories, and for people to receive those stories and build empathy and trust in the remote workplace.
CYNTHIA: One of the things the Kapor Center did is they had stories of distance travel – and this was before the pandemic – and it allowed us to understand how folks at the Kapor Center and how that got to be there. Candase Chambers led that initiative. I thought it was so nice because it produced a video to help people understand the stories and the experiences that people have faced in life.
So I think that really targeted initiatives – or, I should say intentional initiatives – can really go a long way to helping folks tell their stories. Even as we have transitioned into this remote workspace, and we are going to transition now back to probably hybrid, just hearing stories – ‘I live by myself,’ ‘I am single, not married and I have no children’ – if it were not for stories, I would not understand what it is like to have to juggle schedules and look after little ones in the background.
For me, just hearing people’s stories have gone a long way to help me be more appropriate when it comes to engaging with colleagues in the workplace. I think stories are really going to be essential as we transition, or as we think about what work is going to look like long-term.
MELINDA: Maybe part of that, too, is advocating for ourselves and telling our own stories about what we need so people understand what we need as we go back – or not going back, but moving forward into a new reality of what that remote-hybrid-whatever workplace looks like. I think we have the opportunity if we tell our stories, and we really advocate for ourselves and each other to design it differently.
CYNTHIA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, 100%.
MELINDA: Yeah, one of the things we do at Change Catalyst is every week, actually, we check in with each other about what’s going on outside of work whatever that is. The rules are you can talk about anything that’s happening but it can’t be about work.
Occasionally it comes into play because work is part of our lives, but for the most part, we don’t talk work. It makes such a difference in terms of understanding what everybody is uniquely experiencing and so important.
And, you know, you have to schedule it. You have to set aside time for it. What are those water cooler moments that you can design?
CYNTHIA: No, yeah, I agree.
MELINDA: We do have a question around examples of feedback.
CYNTHIA: It really makes me think about a colleague that I have who is so nice and kind-spirited and patient with me. My colleague uses they/them pronouns.
Initially when they started at the Kapor Center – and I would imagine there have been times where I have made mistakes that I don’t even realize more recently – but, whenever I used the wrong pronoun, they are always so kind. I usually catch myself and they have said, ‘that’s OK’ and then just keep moving on.
Even in a performance review, once I used their wrong pronoun and the way that they gave me feedback was immediate, explicit, and kind-spirited. I think that that’s just so, for me, I just appreciate it so, so much.
They also invited me to just review and give feedback on an essay on pronouns. For me, that was really helpful in terms of thinking about identifying some of the things that I should probably, not probably, that I should be doing differently. For me, it was self-reflective exercise I will say.
I consider myself very lucky that the feedback that I receive is so productive, because this is an individual who is so important to my work. I know they are going to leave me eventually and I want to be in touch with reality to go on and do something else, because that’s what folks do, they move on – but they are so crucial and critical to my work that I am so appreciative that they will give me the opportunity to do better.
So, I would say that they just give great productive feedback.
MELINDA: I love that. Could you comment on the intersection between selling a story and storytelling with authenticity? Telling a story to sell that is not authentic vs. telling an authentic story.
CYNTHIA: Thank you for that question. There’s going to be some people that operate in a way that is self-serving, and that’s kind of how I describe that. Self-serving when you are talking about using stories that are not authentic. I really am not sure what else to say about that, besides I have definitely seen that happen, and it is pretty irritating.
MELINDA: I think one suggestion I would have is to start with yourself and understand where you are coming from and what your motivation is. Make sure that motivation is serving the greater good and not just yourself. Start from a place of kindness and working toward the benefit of other people.
Well, fantastic. We can talk so long about this. I love this, obviously, I love this conversation.
Thank you, Cynthia, for taking us down this road of storytelling.
CYNTHIA: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation and really appreciate everybody who was able to join today. Really appreciate you giving us an hour of your time and I hope you enjoyed the conversation.
MELINDA: OK, everybody. What will you do differently? What action will you take? What stories will you tell? What stories will you consume differently after hearing what we talked about today?
We will see you next week where I will be talking with my husband, partner, and greatest ally, Wayne Sutton.
We will be talking about the importance of improving mental health of Black and Brown men. His trip across the country to raise awareness of the work he is doing. And we will discuss a little bit about our own interracial relationship and how we really think about allyship for each other as well.
My book, How to Be an Ally, is now officially available at your favorite bookstore. Please go buy it, go review it. Really appreciate reviews, and thank you for all of your support! You can learn more at MelindaBrianaeEpler.com.
See you all next week. Have a good week. 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.
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