In Episode 108, Dax-Devlon Ross, Founder / Principal of Dax-Dev and Third Settlements, joins Melinda in a reflective conversation about the changing landscape of DEI work over the years. They look into systemic shifts in communities and organizations, including the pushback to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They explore what Dax-Devlon calls the BIPOC savior syndrome, an issue that incoming BIPOC leaders often face. Dax-Devlon also shares his experience navigating the DEI space as a Black cis man and how we can reflect and set goals to support DEI initiatives moving into 2023 and beyond.
- Learn more about Dax-Devlon’s work at Dax-Dev
- Read Dax-Devlon’s book, Letters to My White Male Friends
- Read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go from Here: CHAOS OR COMMUNITY?
- Watch the movie, “King in the Wilderness”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “A lot of times, the folks who are in selection roles— whether it’s the board of trustees or the board of governors, those who are in senior roles— don’t understand… that there are different levels of identity…, affinity…, conflict…, trauma that leaders of color have to navigate in relation to people who they share identity with…. And so you assume that just because I’m dude…, I should be the… Black male savior. And what ends up happening is I burn out… because… that’s just not reality or sustainable, and also, it denies the complexity of the history that we’ve all adopted.”
- “We have to be aware and mindful that as humans living in a hyper-competitive society in which people are often commodified, we can be vulnerable to someone having the same risks in the DEI space… which is essentializing folks, stereotyping folks across the space on presentation. We are… always exposed to the various harms and toxins that are affecting the society at large, so it stands to reason that they could be affecting our relationships even within our… DEI communities.”
- “There is a prevailing sense that when [underrepresented] people enter the opportunity that other folks have…, they get it when… either nobody else wants it…, when it’s been diminished in value, or, in some way, it’s been compromised. And now you are being charged with both being as effective… and doing healing work at the same time— that’s the syndrome…, the issue. And… as a society…, we’re addicted to looking for… people of color and folks who are… non-dominant identities to, in moments of crisis, go in there and get it right, fix it.”
Founder & Principal of Dax-Dev & Third Settlements
Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of six books and his journalism has been featured in Time, The Guardian, The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Nonprofit Quarterly, The Washington Post Magazine and other national publications. He won the National Association of Black Journalists’ Investigative Reporting Award for his coverage of jury exclusion in North Carolina courts and is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at Type Media Center.
His most recent book Letters to My White Male Friends, published by St. Martin’s Press in June 2021, is a call to action and a reflection on race. Dax details how racism has harmed Black people for generations but has also hurt White people by robbing their lives of fullness and meaningful relationships.
A New York City teaching fellow turned non-profit executive, Dax is now a principal at the social impact consultancies, Dax-Dev and Third Settlements, both of which focus on designing disruptive strategies to generate equity in workplaces and education spaces alike. His clients have included The National Urban League, UnidosUS, Amnesty International, Results for America, iMentor, Fund II Foundation, Vera Institute of Justice, the ACLU of New Hampshire, and many others.
Dax received his Juris Doctorate from George Washington University. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Alana, and their young children.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
Let’s get started.
Hello, everyone. Today, our guest is Dax-Devlon Ross. He is the Founder and Principal of Dax-Dev and Third Settlements. He’s a Puffin Writing Fellow at Type Media Center, and is the author of six books. We’ll be talking about the changing climate around DEI in the last couple of years, and now looking into 2023. We’ll also talk about the growing trend of BIPOC savior syndrome and what it looks like to navigate the DEI space as a Black cis man.
So I’m excited to have this conversation with you, Dax. Welcome!
DAX-DEVLON: Thank you so much for having me, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation. I think we’re going to get a chance to touch on some topics that I don’t often get to talk about. So I’m going to be in a bit of a risk-taking space with you today, and you maybe take care and hold me as well, as I try to step out and share a bit of what’s really deep in my heart and as I think about the work. But appreciating just being here with you right now.
MELINDA: Will do, and honored to have that trust. So to start, Dax, would you share a bit with us about your story? Where you grew up? How you ended up getting here doing the work that you do now?
DAX-DEVLON: So I identify strongly as a Gen X, post-Civil Rights baby born in Washington, DC. The end of the Vietnam War, in the middle of a transitioning and changing America, that was experimenting with this idea of integration, in the years immediately following Dr. King’s assassination. Growing up in a city, I always say DC is a southern town masquerading as a northern city. But it was a chocolate city, to grow up in a city where it was predominantly Black folks in positions of power and authority, and in my entire life, I was surrounded by Black folks who were thriving in a variety of ways.
It was later in life, later into my early teenage years, having some real close exposure to a different Black America experience. I would go to the South and see my family in Richmond. But I think what really was a turning point for me, and I think it’s connected to the work I do now, was through basketball. I started to travel around, first the city, then around the country. I got to both see and be in community with a different American experience; an experience that was more viscerally directly linked to oppression that was experienced through a lot of my friends on my basketball teams I played with.
A lot of that was a complicated space to be as a middle class kid in that context. Because I grew up in an America where, despite living in a very thriving Black community. I couldn’t always turn on the television or find diverse models of a Black male identity in the world. So in sports, there’s always the joke in Black communities. Not just Black communities, but communities that are seeking opportunity, I should say. But it’s like, you can play ball, you can rap, you can do these things that are very, very specific. I had a bit of an expanded universe perhaps, insofar as I had people in my life who I could look to: lawyers, doctors, whatever else have you. But I still felt that there were these archetypes that were presented to me around what Black identity is supposed to look like and supposed to be in American context.
As I was pointing out, just encountering and being close to friends who had a very different lived socio-economic experience, it created a lot of questions for me about my own identity. I’m sometimes provoked by just us being charged with not being really fully Black because I wasn’t living in poverty. Quite frankly, there was times where I would question the authenticity of my experience, because it didn’t reflect a lot of what was being processed and presented to me about Black authenticity. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Black authenticity was often being presented to me through the lens of my music and the culture, and that was celebrating a different lifestyle; a hood, ghetto, whatever you call it. To not be from that place created questions for me around identity. So whether it was basketball or popular culture, I found myself on a journey to really identify and claim my Black identity.
That led me through, I think a politicization in my college years; a political awakening around how that had come to be. I grew up in a city like DC where the downtown was decimated, and I didn’t understand why downtown was decimated. But then I started to understand the riots that had happened in the 60s, and I understood then deeper from that, like what was going on in Black communities, and the social unrest and what was driving that. Then you start to get more awareness around things like COINTELPRO, and the various means by which American society is taught to marginalize and continue with the oppression of Black folks. That awakened me politically.
Then I go to law school, and in law school, I think I get some development and awareness of the ways in which power operates, in the ways in which power sustains itself, in the way in which law is used as a weapon or as a shield. That I think was powerful for me. But realizing I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be someone who was engaged in intellectual work. So through my journey from law school, going to New York City to become a writer, I also became a teacher and an educator and a youth worker. And as a youth worker, and as an educator, I was working in East New York and Harlem, and the Bronx, and the Lower East Side, I’m interacting and working with young people from all these different backgrounds. It was both edifying for me, but enlightening to me. Because I could connect with them. I discovered that in that work, I could communicate, and I could translate across difference. Some of that having to do, I think, with my experiences growing up; playing ball, being in different world, and was able to bring that to bear.
I think I’ve developed really strong interpersonal skills, which I didn’t know were the roots and foundation of DEI work. I didn’t think of it as, this is the work that you need to be able to go and work with people from diverse backgrounds. It was just me as an educator working with young people. So I never went to get a DEI degree, or I never went to get these things. I had some pedagogical background, intellectual curiosity, and some lived experience, that I think conspired to put me in a position to do the kind of work that I do now, with some level of capacity at multiple levels. I can do analytical work, I can do strategic work, but I can also do interpersonal work. That I think has allowed me to have a really unique work experience that I’m really proud of.
But that’s my journey, my story. If I were to tell you more, I’d tell you about my father and my mother and these amazing folks that created the foundation, and my grand folks from the South, and all the deep friendships that I have across difference and across generation, whether those who I’ve met or known, or the people who I read and find solidarity and kinship with. All of those have been the stew in which I’ve been stirred.
MELINDA: Yeah, thank you for sharing. Can you also share a little bit about the work that you do, so folks know what that looks like?
DAX-DEVLON: Yeah, sure. So I identify as a multi-hyphenate, and a multi-hyphenate meaning I operate in the world and think of myself as a writer, at times a journalist, and I do work as a practitioner, and I think that these two feed one another. The practice work, it presents and shows up in the world as doing work with organizations and people to help them. The word I’m using for it right now is the one that I learned from Ossie Davis, I was listening to an interview with him recently. But I’m helping people get clear on their moral assignment. And what I mean by that is, I think that we are socialized and raised and educated in this society to become really good at our jobs and good at those sorts of things that are rewarded. Then at some other point, whether it’s when we’re in school, or later in life, in a relationship or an organization, we discover that we need other things to be successful; we need to turn on other aspects of ourselves.
So the work I do tends to be around helping people. It comes under the rubric and the guise of DEI or equity work. But it is, helping people connect with their story, helping people connect with their deep aspirations, their humanity, and helping people really connect with the ways in which they’ve been disconnected from one another and other human beings. So that’s sometimes coaching leaders. To help them really understand how they need to lead and can lead with empathy and with a broader set of tools in a new and changing workplace, where leaders who’ve been historically rewarded for just being productive are now being asked to be more than that for their people, and to guide with a different and broader lens. It can sometimes present as doing workshops and trainings and retreats for staff. Sometimes it’s oriented around the concept of leadership, which I think is a broad bucket of things which are ultimately about: how do you show up, how do you guide people? How do you do it with vulnerability and humility, but also do it with courage? Sometimes it’s doing strategy work, where I’m working on a strategic plan with an organization. But still trying to use equity as a compass really, so that we don’t just make decisions that are based on XYZ, but are taking a broader set of voices into considerations through our strategic planning process.
Sometimes it’s designing new pilot programs and projects. One of the things I’m really excited about recently is working with organizations that don’t have historical relationship, but have decided they want to come together to do some work together. So we’re really trying to help them identify what does it mean to be a partner with someone and not just think about it at a superficial level of in a transaction? But what do we have to change about ourselves; what kind of things do we need to talk about, what kind of decisions that we need to make?
And do all of that in a spirit of not doing more harm, and also addressing and undoing some of the harm that’s been done in the ways we’ve organized structures and institutions historically, whether it’s about how power tends to be situated in very small pockets and other people get excluded? How do we design something that disrupts that? Or it’s about like, how do we become more of an environment that is one in which we don’t just bring people in because we want to get diversity, but we know how to actually activate that perspective that those folks are bringing, and we’re willing to allow that to help change who we are, and even the work that we do. So it’s not just like, come straight into my environment and be the Black person here now. But it’s like, bring all your full self and experience, and let’s evolve this organizational entity with you in mind, and you as part of and a steward of this work as well. That’s the work.
MELINDA: That’s the work, every day, all those conversations, all those actions, and it’s one action at a time too. So both of us have been working in diversity, equity, and inclusion for a while. I talked to a lot of people. I talk to a lot of people my in job, as you do too, I’m sure. And there are a lot of assumptions that diversity, equity, and inclusion fundamentally shifted in 2020, after George Floyd was murdered. There was a collective awakening in a way that I have not seen before, and there’s an assumption that that kind of awakening fundamentally shifted everything, companies and so on. I do think that in some companies, there’s more and deeper change happening, and there’s new companies that are coming to diversity, equity, and inclusion for the first time. There’s a new level of companies feeling a sense of accountability, I think, and more individuals working to create change overall. And, it’s not quite the wave that I think a lot of people assumed or hoped would happen. Change of course doesn’t happen overnight, either.
So where this is leading is, where do you see the changes that have happened in the last couple of years, from 2020, 2021, and then 2022 where we are now? Yeah, let’s start there.
DAX-DEVLON: So I try to track the news and try to track the ways, and really, I try to use history as a guide. A book that I go back to quite often is Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? This book was published a year before he was assassinated, and is reflective of what I call the period. There’s a great film about this called King in the Wilderness, which I think I watch it probably every year, around the celebration of his life. Because it catches the last year of his life. The whole purpose of the film is to tell you what was it like for King after 1963? What was his life like after the high water moments of 1964 and 1965, through voting rights legislation and of course the accommodations legislation, that were transformative in many ways. But at the same time, it raised questions for him and for others around: well, what is your utility now that we’ve done this? Now we’ve passed these laws, we good, right, now, King?
But he of course had a broader vision for where the work needed to go, and to globalize that work. To make that work not just be about civil rights here, and in these public accommodations and in voting. But it needs to start extending to an internationalist view, and so he started to talk about Vietnam, we all know this. That’s when he started to see the turn against him, and that’s when he started to see the pushback. In that last book, he writes about what he calls “the white backlash,” and he talks about it as a normal and consistent feature of change in America. We saw it in Reconstruction, we see it every time that there is a moment. Whenever there is this perception that people of color, and specifically, Black folks, are getting too much or getting too far, there’s a pullback. So I already knew that that was coming. It’s not a pessimistic view, I have to prepare myself for that.
So the preparation means in 2020, I burst through that door and do the work. But I also understand that in 2021, that energy was going to shift, which it did, and I started to see it. That shift, to some extent, started at the White House, with our then President, Donald Trump 45. The way in which he started to target critical race theory, and then he was able to use the executive order powers to start to shut down conversation at the federal level. Even though Biden came in and lifted that up, it still gave people a signal. So you started to see Florida with its bills, and you started to see teachers being monitored, and you started to see Virginia with this hotline or this anonymous website or email that you could send, to snitch on teachers who were maybe possibly teaching things that were not part of history. So this sort of pushback started to really catch momentum throughout 2021. I think what we started to see in the work was that some people, it was understood that was going to happen. But some people, it really shook them.
Then you connect that with the challenge throughout 2021 to bring people back to the office, and the work-from-home tug of war that was happening around CEOs being like, come back, and people being like, no, I don’t want to come back in. So there were a lot of tensions that were, I think, inflaming, and keeping the work both present, but also creating a set of questions.
There was another feature, I think, that is really relevant to what was happening in 2021 in particular, was these mass conversations within organizations that had been initiated also stirred up a lot of organizational chaos. You saw a lot of organizations’ power dynamics being shifted and challenged, racial identities being challenged, power being contested. Terms like “white supremacy culture” became sort of ubiquitous. So anytime anybody did something that might have been perceived to be white supremacist, it was getting called. Like, there was a lot of tension, and I think there was harm caused in some of those spaces.
I think that what we fail to recognize, and what I try to own, is that even as a person doing DEI work, I have to continue to be doing my work; my own healing, my own restoration, my own learning. I think what I experienced was, in some places, DEI work became like a blunt object, and it wasn’t being deployed in such a nuanced way. So that gave ammunition, it gave power to those people who were seeing the social messaging and the pushback, and they were already feeling the sort of tensions. It allowed, I think, for some of the real momentum to erode.
That said, again, I think that there were quite a few people and quite a few organizations that have continued to persist. I would offer that 2022 has been a hard year for me emotionally, to watch the pullback. Like, people don’t respond all of a sudden, things get cancelled all of a sudden, and no one wants to give you an explanation for why, or all of a sudden, the resources that were there a year ago are no longer there. It’s not about loss of money, it’s about loss of will, and it pains me. To the point that you made earlier, like for me as a generation, this was the first time I saw what was happening, the first time I saw this sort of mass opening. But of course, I think MeToo was also kind of cascading into that, and to see that shutdown, to see that pull back, to see that being sort of erased by some people or some folks, is hard.
But I am also clear that we are not going back to where we were before. Even if there’s a rollback, it’s not a rollback to what it was prior to. I think there are some folks who are still struggling with that, that there’s a new reality. That new reality is, we see the resurgence of unions. Not to say unions are the answer all the time, but it is the resurgence of the mobilization of people who recognize that they have a shared interest. And I think that’s connected to the kinds of conversations that were being initiated in the George Floyd era. I think we see people really starting to flex and imagine their own work-life balance, and creating healthier boundaries, and making sure that those boundaries are held. That wasn’t something that we saw before. We see organizations being more aware of health and wellness, and being able to put resources toward that. Because there’s a recognition that that actually has a bottom-line implication for us as an organization.
So I see a lot happening, and I see the continuous areas for growth as we go into 2023. But what are you seeing? I mean, you’re asking me all the questions. I’m curious about your perspective, what are you seeing?
MELINDA: Yeah, I do. I’ve definitely seen, and we have seen it seems overall, that there’s a shift. There are more people that are aware of the issues, without question. And also, I believe that just like with American politics, that there are some legitimization of those folks that are pushing back, in a way that there hasn’t been in my life. Well, I mean, I was born in the 70s, so that was the time; words became unacceptable that now people are suddenly able to say them again, and sentiments are able to be expressed. And when people start to express those sentiments, then they start to believe them, and more people believe them. So I think that there’s this unfortunate thing.
As a result, like you said, and I think that’s really an important thing, that when companies are bringing folks back to the workplace after this, some polarization has happened. That you put people back in the workplace with that, and you get many explosions happening in the workplace. So diversity, equity, and inclusion has, for some companies, become more about, how do we get back to inclusive conversation? How do we just have a conversation about this, and how do we start to build empathy for each other? How do we rebuild some connections that maybe were lost; maybe we thought they were there, and they weren’t actually there?
DAX-DEVLON: That’s the thing. I struggle when people say, how do we get back? Like, I don’t think we ever were there. I think what we had was a sense that we could say things that were probably maybe reckless or irresponsible, and then folks would maybe have a side chatter, but they wouldn’t come back and confront you about it. So what people are uncomfortable with now is that you can’t just say the thing, and somebody at least doesn’t say, so here’s my experience of what you said.
Now, what I think we can all continue to work on and develop is, if my goal is to help someone grow and learn and move forward with it, how do I give them the feedback in a timely enough fashion, and in a tone and texture, that both conveys my truth and that they can still hear and take action on? I think that sometimes gets tough. Because things can be triggering, and when I’m triggered and emotional, things might come out different than if I’ve really gathered.
That’s why I think when I look at the DEI work that I want to see people do, it’s engaging them in practice. Like, don’t just dump information on people, folks need situational work. Because as we say with anything else, you don’t expect anybody to show up and know how to deal with anything without having practice doing it. Somehow, we think that’s different with DEI work. Like, well, I took a training on this, so I therefore know. No, you don’t know how to show up in that conversation when it happens. You choose silence sometimes. You go off the camera, and you leave. Because you’ve allowed the fear of what the worst thing that can happen is, to overcome the beautiful possibility if I step into this with some courage and grace. Now, the conditions have to be created for that; there needs to be some safety in there, and there needs to be a recognition of some grace in there. I have encountered that as long as people believe that your intentions are true and real, and that you’re in a learning posture, there’s a lot of willingness to work with folks and learn with folks.
But my concern is, for those who are pushing back and who are anxious about DEI work, and just want to get back to the inclusive thing, is that, A: what that means is you want to go back to a place that’s comfortable for you, and you’re okay with everybody else being uncomfortable. B: it just feels like not a reality, given the fact that we spend so much of our lives and times in workplaces now. Because of our society, we have to work, and whether it’s in an office or out of offices, it’s with people. So therefore, we can’t expect to have these clear lines between personal and professional that we once maybe thought we could enjoy. There’s a lot more interplay there, like I bring myself to work. Now we can talk about, do I need to bring my whole self in all contexts? We can have that conversation. But either way, some aspect of who I am is here in the room. So when I hear something or see something, you can’t just ask me to act as if it didn’t happen.
So I’m of the belief that, to go to your point earlier about inclusive conversations, inclusive conversations is a good place to be and to sit. But I’m more interested, personally, in conversations that allow us to speak our truths, hear those truths, and challenge us to be courageous. I mean, inclusive is cool, but courageous is what we need. I see what you’re seeing, though.
MELINDA: You can have courageously inclusive conversations, where you’re being courageous, you’re putting yourself out there, you’re taking risks, and also, you’re thinking about how that language that you’re using is going to impact somebody else and all of what is happening here.
DAX-DEVLON: That takes time. That takes practice, and that takes messing up sometimes, and that takes getting it wrong. But what I don’t want inclusive to be is a euphemism for safe. I think sometimes when I’m encountering it is that we need to make it safe for White people; we need to make it safe for White men. It’s like, that is how it’s always been. So if that’s the goal is to get back to that, then I think what we’re suggesting here is that that’s who we’re censoring, and that’s the only people in the experience that were censoring. And that’s a problem, I think, and I think we know that that’s a problem. That’s not to problematize any individual or any group, it’s just to suggest that we have to broaden the center and we have to make the center wider; we have to expand the center. To not use the term inclusion as a euphemism in a way to actually signal that we’re doing something that’s for all, but really, it’s for the comfort of only a certain group of people.
MELINDA: I think that’s important, there’s a distinction between safety and comfort. Those are not the same thing.
DAX-DEVLON: How do you explain it to people? Because I think that’s a really powerful distinction that I’m at times trying to make sure that I’m not being insensitive when I try to draw that distinction for people. How do you distinguish between safety and comfort?
MELINDA: The first thing which just came to mind, that I think is important to say, is that sometimes you have to get quite uncomfortable in order for everyone to feel safe. That safety is, you create a safe space, especially around diversity, equity, and inclusion, so that we can get uncomfortable, so that we can learn, so that we can grow. So we’re creating this space where it is okay to make mistakes, as long as you’re correcting those; you’re recognizing, apologizing, and correcting those mistakes. It’s a safe space to make mistakes, and it’s also a space where all of us can learn and grow about ourselves, about each other as well, when we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Yeah, I want to get to some other things that I know are on our minds. The first is the term bipoc savior syndrome. Can you talk about what that means?
DAX-DEVLON: I don’t even know if it’s an official term. Like, we throw savior syndrome onto a lot of things. But I think that it’s appropriate to attach it to the bipoc experience that I’ve encountered over the last couple of years, especially as it relates to senior leadership. Because when I think back, one of the outcries in 2020 was situated along the lines of representation in senior leadership, whether it was in corporate America or the nonprofit space or in public sector. That was like a flashpoint, whether it was Fortune 500 leaders, foundation CEOs. Looking at that and seeing, here is something that’s presenting to us in 2020 that is highly problematic. If we really are a pluralistic, diverse culture, how do we explain these disparities? I think we were clear at that point in time that there are some systemic injustices that have resulted in a picture of us in leadership that does not represent us and does not reflect all of us.
So one solution to that was to find people of color and women, and if you can find a person of color who is a woman or who identifies as a woman, even better, and qualified of course, absolutely. And situate folks in leadership roles. Now, these are people who, quite frankly, have probably already been qualified for a very long time. It was never a question of qualifications. It would be some kind of explanations such as experience, or some reason might have been conjured to explain why they were not elevated and given the opportunity to lead, in the ways in which their resumes and even all their glowing reviews and everything else should seem to indicate and dictate. But from what I’ve gathered, I do not have the data in front of me, but we saw the transformation. I looked at my LinkedIn feed, I saw it happen there. I saw it happen there in 2021.
And what I started to also see, both in the work I was directly doing with organizations and leaders, was a lot of these folks were walking into fires. They were walking into places that were a hot mess. They were walking into situations that were cauldrons for conflict. So they were then being asked to do two jobs: be the bipoc face that is now demonstrating symbolically how we are different as an organization, and be effective in your role. Oh, by the way, this is going on, you’ve got to fill this position, etc. So it was like, be super Black, or be super Brown, or be the super woman. And what I think started to begin to emerge was also, I think a lot of times the folks who are in selection roles, whether it’s the Board of Trustees or the Board of Governors or those who are in senior roles, what they don’t understand is that there are different levels of identity and affinity, and conflict and trauma, that leaders of color have to navigate in relation to people who they share identity with.
So I used to tell when I was a teacher, I used to get really frustrated. Because people would think just because I was a young Black man, that every young Black teenager or a middle school student is going to identify me. Like, nah, that’s not true. Because some of them have really traumatic relationships with the males in their lives, some of them have really fraught histories. So you assume that just because I’m the dude, I should coach the basketball team, I should run chess club, I should do everything. I should be the Black male savior. And what ends up happening is I burn out. Because A: that’s just not reality or sustainable, and also, it denies the complexity of the history that we’ve all adopted. That played out, I think, for a lot of Black leaders and leaders of color as they entered organizations, where all of a sudden, they were getting pushback that the predecessor wasn’t getting. All of a sudden, the funders that they were seeking were asking questions that the apprentice didn’t have to answer. All of a sudden, they identified they didn’t have some of the resources from which to draw, whether it’s board members and/or supporters. But they’re still being held to the same standard of accountability and the timeline. All of that, I think it’s the quiet challenge and pain that I think a lot of folks felt, which was like, I got here. But now that I’m here, it’s like, is this what I really wanted, and can I stay here?
So the syndrome is something that I think we as a society, it’s like the old joke about Obama. Obama got to be President when the economy was in the tank. It’s that same idea that we get to get a new black Supreme Court justice, and then the first Black woman, she’s a Supreme Court justice. Oh, but she gets to enter into an environment where incredibly, the deck is stacked against him. So you never get to go in, and I don’t say never. But there is a prevailing sense that when people enter the opportunity that other folks have and have historically had, they get it when either nobody else wants it, or when it’s been diminished in value, or in some way it’s been compromised. And now you are being charged with both being as effective, if not more effective, and doing healing work at the same time.
That’s the syndrome, that’s the issue. And we’re kind of addicted to it as a society, quite frankly. We’re addicted to looking for people of color and folks who are sort of non-dominant identities, in moments of crisis, to go in there and just get it right, fix it, fix it. Then when everything smooths out again, as we see, that things start to kind of cycle back; we start to see people leaving and not being replaced with another person of color, and we’re going back to the status quo. Again, I want to be clear, I’m not saying that folks who get the role are underqualified. I know you guys are qualified, I’m not questioning or talking about qualifications. It’s just about just dealing with and reckoning with that reality and that history, and that ongoing and enduring challenge that we seem to encounter and never fully figure out and work out and talk out.
MELINDA: Well, in diversity, equity, and inclusion historically, maybe even more, we have historically asked one person to change everything. And we know that doesn’t work, it is all of us that have to do the work of change. Can you share a bit about how you navigate this space as a Black man, and what are some things that you experience personally? How is that experience?
DAX-DEVLON: So I think I should also qualify by saying that I’m navigating the space as a Black man, who also has a terminal degree, who has some measure of connection, who has had some privilege, educational background, and experience. I think also, I know I’ve become adept at being able to navigating spaces true to myself, but in ways that I think, nevertheless, allow others to feel some level of comfort. That’s not about me soft-towing or soft-pedalling, but it’s just something about my disposition which has allowed me to navigate a lot of different spaces, and to do so in a place that I think I’m able to build relationships with the community, do it authentically and be effective.
That said, I’m not in any way under the illusion that the country’s relationship with Black men is eternally fraught, at least up to now, maybe not in the future. But eternally, in my experience, it has been very fraught. If you look at every statistical category, we try to look at racial equity issues, whether it’s around education, job access, criminal justice, interaction, even life expectancy. I had this one session I would do, where I would look at the lifecycle and show how disparities show up across the entire lifecycle of people in this country. But if you will get into the data, you know Black men, and I never exclude Black women from this conversation. But as a Black man, one of the things I identify is, we are trending in the wrong place in so many of these categories, whether it’s education access, whether it’s jobs, all sorts of those data points.
So in one sense, we are the problem that needs to be solved in this society, and we’re the problem that people are always trying to solve, and people are very comfortable with us in that role. How do we deal with mass incarceration, which is of course an issue around race? How do we deal with violence, which is an issue that implicates community violence that implicates Black men? And what I think that creates is somewhat of a disposition in our society, where folks are very comfortable with Black men in the role of being served in these institutions. I encountered this a lot in the nonprofit space, where there’s a comfort in us as, again, a problem to be solved, a group to be supported, in some ways to be helped, and there’s a lot of demographic data in history to explain why that’s the case.
So what I find connected to that in my own experience is that, to some extent, and I’ve had people actually say this to me is like, there’s a surprise when they encounter me doing the DEI work. Insofar as sure, of course, it would make some level, but they’re much more comfortable if I presented as and was a Black woman, or if I was an identity that was not Black cis male who does the work. I think I had a lot of folks who work with me, I have a lot of clients, I have a lot of folks who respect what I’ve done. But it’s been harder. It’s like, there’s a lot of doubt, I think invariably, and I think it helps to have a lot of agreeing on some things. But there is this question around how sensitive can you actually be, how attuned can you be to other people’s marginalization?
It’s like, there’s a sense that I encountered, maybe I’m inaccurate in this, that my perception and analysis is limited to Black people. I can’t have a perspective about anything other than that very specific group and experience. I had a client reach out to me recently, I had done some work with him around race a couple of years ago, and they’re like: Listen, hey, we’re trying to find someone to do a workshop on gender, do you know anyone, I might be interested? That they would never presume that I could do anything having to do with gender. I think there’s something about the assumption that men, and particularly cis men, don’t have anything to say, or don’t have any aptitude and awareness of how patriarchy operates, and our role in patriarchy, or a sensitivity and awareness of how to navigate and negotiate the issues that are gender issues.
It’s interesting, in part, because I often find that it’s the case that, specifically in the nonprofit space, men are the minority. Particularly Black men, actually, we are the minoritized group, and yet, there’s a perception that we don’t have a gender. So that experience that I’m having as a Black male in those contexts isn’t a gendered experience. It’s still a racialized experience, but it’s not a gendered experience. So there’s some ways in which I feel like there’s been an erasure, or at least an unwillingness and inability to see the complexity of us; the complexity of Black male identity.
That’s not always on everybody else, it’s also on us that how we’ve allowed ourselves to be presented. Because I think we’re also often closed off to vulnerability, closed off to allowing the full spectrum of ourselves to be seen. A lot of my friends who’ve been successful in the corporate space have had to let go of certain things, or at least have had to tamp down certain aspects of their personality and identity in order to be successful. So they don’t bring certain things into the workplace, because they know that the lane in which they can be successful and operate doesn’t allow for them to really bring the complexity of their identity into the space. They can be Black up to a point, and you’ve got to know where that line is. If you don’t, then you won’t make it to partner, you won’t make a decision.
So it’s a fraught thing, and I think I can see those things, and I’ve been successful to some extent in my work because I’m able to negotiate those things. But I do find that that is this unspoken, and often unseen, dynamic that I experience, and others who I connect with and who identify similarly also experienced. It’s not a negative thing. It’s just one of those things that I navigate, and it’s my experience.
MELINDA: Yeah. Well, I will say, navigating diversity, equity, and inclusion as a White woman, there are a lot of assumptions that people make about me as well. So I think there is a really important, maybe it’s work within the diversity, equity, and inclusion world that needs to happen too, where we’re really questioning that more, and we’re really opening more. I’m not sure, what are the solutions?
DAX-DEVLON: I will suggest that I think that we have to be aware and mindful that as humans living in a hyper-competitive society in which people are often commodified, that we can be vulnerable to some of the same risks in the DEI space that anybody else can be. Which is to say, centralizing folks, stereotyping folks across, just based on presentation. We are products of, and we are always exposed to the various harms and toxins that are affecting the society writ large. So it stands to reason that they can be affecting our relationships, even within our communities, our DEI communities. There are broader conversations happening around what’s going on in progressive organizing spaces and progressive movement spaces, some of which I alluded to earlier on how organizations are dealing with sort of the combustion. A lot of that’s connected to generational stuff, like if you identify as a Gen X or a Boomer, somehow you don’t know what’s going on. There’s generational tensions that I think are intersecting with this.
So I think that the encouragement, and I don’t know if I would call it advice, but like, the things that I would ask for consideration is, to what extent our people, those of us who do this work that is called DEI, the broad headline of it, sometimes it’s called emancipation work, it’s anti-racist work, whatever you call it work. It’s like, are we continuing to do our own work, are we continuing to make sure that we’re doing step-backs and doing reflection points around how am I showing up? If I’m consulting, or if I’m leading DEI in organizational space, who am I here showing up for? In the consulting capacity, for instance, am I here for the people, or am I here only and exclusively for the people who are writing the check or signing the check? It’s like, who and how, and to what extent, am I pushing myself or continuing to challenge myself to remain open to where my own gaps in learning and understanding are?
I’ve recognized, more recently in particular, whether it’s becoming more acquainted with understanding the trans community work, work in the disability rights community, I think that there are growth areas for me in the work. I have some of the baselines, but I think there’s just more work for me to do. I think that we should be okay, even as experts, naming that we have our own work to do. And not think that just because somebody presents us as expert, that the only way to be an expert is by espousing expertise; sometimes it’s asking questions, sometimes it’s acknowledging that you don’t have the answer. Because that’s part of what the work is as well is like, how do we help people know that presenting as certain all the time isn’t actually helpful and healthy? So I embody that too at times and say, I don’t have the answer, or I know somebody else who I can bring in who maybe can help us do this, or I should do this work alongside other people. That is, I think, really a challenge for DEI workers in an environment such as ours, that can often pit us against one another, that can essentialize our work, that can create scarcity mindset around whether it’s going to be available next year or next month, and can draw us away from what I believe are the civil rights and human rights roots of our work.
I call this work civil rights, and I said a couple of years ago, it’s civil rights work in an organizational context. Just like anybody who does that kind of work, you can lose your way. You can lose your way. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means that you’re operating in an environment where any number of us, any one of us can lose sight of the goal, and we might just need to be stewarded back to our center and back to our core. So the way to, I don’t want to call prevent that, but the way to sort of be on the watchout or the lookout for that is, to have a community that holds you accountable. Have people that hold you accountable, that’s part of staying in your work. Not overworking yourself, so that you’re constantly and only and exclusively just working, and not pausing and processing and reflecting and taking time. Taking on and putting yourself in challenging experiences and environments, not just being a hardline about who I work with. Because there can be some things that are surprising and that will be nuanced around those who think you understand and know, and there could be some learning that happens there as well. Those are some of the things I think I would offer some insights and considerations on.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Dax, I feel like we’ve scratched the surface, there’s so much more here. I want to end by just asking, this is action-oriented; we want people to take action. They have to listen to it or watch the conversation, and really take action, and folks who are listening and watching are looking for those action items. So what action would you like people to take coming away from our conversation?
DAX-DEVLON: I think it’s the action of, after these last couple of years, as you do some end-of-year reflection on, or an inventory on like, did I lose five pounds this year? Like, as you do whatever your inventory looks like, also just do an inventory around how you showed up in whether it’s these conversations or in this work? As you set your goals for next year for what you want to achieve next year, have something that’s connected to this. If you’re a manager, is it about your own learning or about how you’re advocating and advancing others? If you’re an individual contributor, is it about your learning, is it about how you contribute? If you’re a senior leader, is it about how you can ensure that you’re continuing to make sure that the conversations are not just conversations, but that you’re moving towards operationalizing and implementing?
So those two things. If it’s you’re an end-of-year reflection person, do some inventory about how you showed up in this last year, and where you feel like you know how you present it. If it’s about goal-setting, as many of us do in January, at the top of the year, it’s putting a goal around this work; whether it’s your learning, what you’re going to read, who you’re going to expose to, who you’re going to do, how you’re going to lead your team, whatever it is. Put something to it, check back on it, and be accountable to it. Also tell somebody else, don’t just keep it to yourself. I tell people something that someone told me years ago, and I do deeply believe, that we’ve got to be accountable. We can’t just say I’m reading books. You can’t just tell me you read, you saw, you listened to such and such, you listened to Dr. such and such give a talk. That’s cool, but it’s more I want to know what actions you’re taking. Because sometimes, it’s your ability to show up in the moment that really, really matters. The only way you can really show up in the moment is if, I think, you’re more actively engaged in learning and reflection, then only allowing yourself to be in a learning stance, and believing that that is the only action that you should be or need to be taken.
So that’s what I would leave with. Thank you for asking that question. I didn’t know that that would answer that way, but that’s what I would offer. It’s the benefit of doing the interview kind of work. It’s like, I can just frame it all around recaps.
MELINDA: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Where can people learn more about you and your work?
DAX-DEVLON: I’m at Dax-Dev.com. I’m really terrible at social media, and I’m just really honest about that. I guess it’s just not the medium that I’m really comfortable with, I tried for years and years. I have a Twitter handle at Dax-Dev. But I’m going to be really frank, I don’t really spend much time on it, especially these days. I’m good on email. My books, everything is available. You can just type my name, and you’ll see stuff. I try to get back to people and be in conversation with folks. But I like to tell people, I’m out here. I am not hard to find, I’m out here.
MELINDA: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for being here, and more, thank you for doing all the work that you do. I really enjoyed this conversation. I appreciate you.
DAX-DEVLON: Likewise, thank you for having me. Thank you for reaching out and creating space for people like me to come on and to be in conversation and community with your audience. So for all of you out here who taking some time to listen and to watch, whatever it is, just appreciating that. Because I know there’s a lot of ways we can spend our time, and hopefully, there’s some nuggets in here that I’ve shared that is a value to you. So appreciate you, appreciate you, appreciate you.
MELINDA: Yeah, all right everyone. Please do take action, it is that one action at a time that really does make a difference, and changes our culture, and changes the world. We will see you next week.
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Leading With Empathy & AllyShip is a show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at change catalyst.co. So let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world.
Thank you for listening.
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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