In Episode 93, Melinda is joined by visionary activists for disability and social justice, Eleanor Lisney and Eddie Ndopu. Throughout the live recording, they discuss the importance of having leaders who cultivate empathy and inclusion for global teams to work better together across different cultures, genders, disabilities, and intersectionalities. They share how we can be better allies against systemic ableism to support disability and social justice worldwide. They also explore the first step that organizations can take to align their strategic priorities and objectives with the Sustainable Development Goals and promote sustainable economic growth, inclusivity, and accessibility for everyone in the workplace.
- Read Kimberlé Crenshaw’s book, On Intersectionality: Essential Writings
- Learn more about Lydia X. Z. Brown’s work on disability justice
- Get a copy of the book, How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace by Melinda Briana Epler
Learn more about Eleanor’s work:
- Learn more about Eleanor Lisney
- Learn more about Eleanor’s work at Culture Access CIC
- Learn more about Eleanor’s work at Sisters of Frida
- Learn more about Eleanor’s work at the International Network of Women with Disabilities (INWWD)
- Learn more about Eleanor’s work at End Violence and Racism Against East and Southeast Asian Communities (EVR)
Learn more about Eddie’s work:
- Learn more about Eddie’s work as an SDG advocate at United Nations
- Learn more about Eddie’s work at the United Nations Foundation
- Learn more about Eddie’s work at Valuable 500
- Learn more about Eddie’s work at IMAGINE
- Learn more about Eddie’s work at the World Economic Forum
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- Eddie: “For marginalized communities, whether we’re talking along the lines of gender, disability, race, or any other category and all of the above, I think it’s really important that we see leadership in these communities—and not just communities that need to be folded into existing structures and folded into sort of predetermined social arrangements… We do ourselves a great disservice by failing to recognize that it is in all of our interests to have leaders emerge from marginalized communities… It’s really about seeing, really recognizing, and validating the contributions, the excellence, the brilliance, the insights, and the beauty of marginalized communities…, but it’s in all of our interests…. So, I think it’s so important to… have that deeper articulation of empathy, that it’s not just the question of feeling somebody else’s plight, or recognizing somebody else’s plight, but also being able to recognize the full humanity that people have.”
- Eleanor: “To feel that the leader is empathic or has empathy, that person [must] show that they understand where I’m coming from. It doesn’t mean that I can see that they are walking in my shoes… but in that metaphor, it’s important that you can feel that that person is willing to journey with you… Is that person willing to come with you to go where you’re going to and to understand the sort of commitments, understand the barriers that you have?”
- Eddie: “We need to shift the conversation from having allies for disability inclusion to allies in the dismantling of ableism… because ableism implicates both disabled and non-disabled people alike. Ableism will dehumanize disabled people, but ableism also strips non-disabled people of their own humanity. So, when you’re fighting against ableism as a non-disabled person, you’re not fighting for me as a disabled person. You are fighting for yourself… for a world that doesn’t reduce us to narrow conceptions of what our bodies should and shouldn’t do. You’re fighting for a world… that embraces all kinds of ways of being, a multiplicity of ways of showing up. You’re fighting for a world that is more innovative, for a world that is more loving, for a world that is more beautiful. And so, that kind of allyship that implicates who you are in the dismantling of ableism… feels like we are co-conspirators, that we’re in this together, and that I’m not being saved but that we are saving each other through a mutual recognition that this system, the society that is built on ableism, is not working for all of us.”
- Eleanor: “Being an ally is just sort of learned; I keep saying learning. And maybe it’s because I’m much more still, at this age, very much a student learning from my LGBT friends, from my friends who are from other disadvantaged groups… Often, it’s important to shut up and let them have a voice. And very often, I think, some people who think that they’re your ally, think that that gives them a right to speak for you. It’s a tightrope. It’s a balance you have to do.”
Co-founder & Director at Culture Access CIC
Eleanor Lisney is a campaigner and activist rooted from an intersectional perspective. Eleanor is a founding member of Culture Access and Sisters of Frida. She is an access and equality advisor. She is also on the web team of the International Network of Women with Disabilities. She writes on intersectional issues as a disabled woman of color and is passionate on campaigning for social justice and inclusion.
Activist, Humanitarian, & SDG Advocate at United Nations
Arguably one of the most influential social justice leaders in the world right now, Eddie Ndopu is a disability innovation pioneer, and the Founder and Chairperson of A BILLION REASONS. In 2019 and again in 2021, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, appointed Eddie as one of 17 SDG Advocates, the global body’s most high profile champions in the fight to defeat poverty and defend the planet. Eddie also sits on the Boards of the UN Foundation, Valuable 500, and IMAGINE, and is a Global Future Council member at the World Economic Forum. Eddie holds degrees from Carleton University in Canada and the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Welcome everyone to our Change Catalyst Live Event Series and the Leading With Empathy & Allyship show, where we have deep real conversations about how we can be more inclusive in our workplaces and communities.
And so, most of you know I’m Melinda Briana Epler, the host, author of How to Be an Ally, and founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, coaching, and events.
Today, our topic is creating empathy and allyship across global teams. We’ll be talking about how we can better work together on global teams across different cultures, genders, disabilities, and the intersectionalities.
I’m excited to introduce our two incredible guests today who are disability and social justice activists. We have Eddie Ndopu, who is a humanitarian and SDG Advocate. SDG is Sustainable Development Goals, for those of you who don’t know. Welcome, Eddie.
EDDIE: Thank you. Delighted to be here.
MELINDA: Awesome. And Eleanor Lisney, who is a campaigner and activist. Welcome, Eleanor.
ELEANOR: Thank you. I’m very honored to be here.
MELINDA: Awesome. So, let’s start by you each sharing a bit about your story. Where did you grow up? How did you end up doing the work you do today? Eddie, why don’t we start with you?
EDDIE: Yes, sure. So, I think the first thing I’ll say is that I think like so many folks today, I am an unrepentant multi-hyphenate so I wear many hats. I would describe myself as an activist, a humanitarian, and a storyteller but I think first and foremost, I would really say that the label I identify with the most is really a human being who’s deeply committed to change and the amplification of the voices of marginalized people who are furthest behind the line of opportunity.
I live with a degenerative condition called spinal muscular atrophy. I was diagnosed at the age of two. I was given a prognosis of five so I have now outlived myself by 26 years and counting. And really, my worldview and my advocacy is really informed by my lived experience as a Black, queer, disabled man, and really navigating the world trying to carve out a space of dignity, a space of self-actualization for myself.
I’d say the throughline of my work has always been the idea that I believe that disabled people specifically should have access to more than compliance, to more than just ticking a box. It really is the pursuit of a big life, the pursuit of autonomy, and of self-determination.
This has really been the throughline throughout my life. I started my disability rights advocacy by really advocating for myself, first and foremost, as a boy navigating mainstream education being only among a handful of disabled children entering the mainstream education system in Namibia in southern Africa.
I just really began to think about myself and to think about my life as being so much more than the awful statistics that tend to define the lived experiences of disabled African children, you know, but 90% of children with disabilities throughout the continent, where I’m from, throughout Africa, and much of the developing world have never seen the inside of a classroom and don’t have access to education at all.
And so, I made it my life’s mission to not just have access to education as a personal achievement, but really as a symbolic victory for African children with disabilities throughout the world. And so, I hold a Master’s degree from Oxford and really use my platform and my advocacy to really dismantle ableism and the ways in which ableism really intersects with other forms of social exclusion.
MELINDA: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. Eleanor, how about you?
ELEANOR: I’m trying to put it in a nutshell. I was born and bred in Malaysia, in mainstream education in a single-sex school, common school, in fact. I had polio when I was three. I was the only disabled person I knew, actually, until I went to university in the UK.
In that sense, I think as a child I grew up angry because I didn’t know why I was excluded. The kind of fights that disabled children get into I had no knowledge of because I had nobody to compare myself with. But after saying all that, I think I’m very lucky because I have parents who refuse to give up on me. I mean, people have suggested to them when I was just very young that they should put me in an orphanage and just get on and have more children.
I was their eldest and my parents refuse to give up on me. They fought very hard to get me the medicine and the kind of love that I needed. I think that is one of the most important ways that a disabled child can get the confidence to be an activist is by having people, parents, who put their trust and love you unconditionally.
I say that because they let me go to the UK on my own, although my siblings, I’m the eldest, my siblings had gone before me. And they said, “Well, if you can’t get on, just come back.” I think that’s another thing about disabled parents is being able to let go of their disabled children.
So, to keep it short, I went to the UK. I still had no idea what disability rights were. At that time, I don’t think there were that many. I did the thing that I thought I wanted very much for myself. And so, I got married. I graduated and got married. I had children very young.
To keep it short. I then started understanding about disability politics. I started working for disabled people’s publications. And then, of course, my ex-husband decided that—No, we decided—that he wanted to go to France and work there.
I can’t say I wasn’t much of a feminist but I think I did what most women would do. And there’s that you’ll give priority to your family. Even though I really enjoy what I started doing in London in some disability rights and being creative, went off to France where I didn’t speak a single word of French. I don’t know anything about anything.
I think my daughter-in-law said that. She said that it was incredibly difficult bringing up a child, you know, my grandson with my son, and the two of them. She said, “I didn’t know how you manage with two children on your own in a country where you don’t speak the language.” But I did. I can’t remember what I did but I did.
Then, I was a mother and full-time wife, a full-time mother for 10 years in which I won’t go into it. I thought I should really go back and work. And so, instead of coming back to the UK, I decided, I think because of the ADA access rights, it was more accessible in the US. I went off to the University of Texas, Austin, and did Information Studies.
By that, I already had a master’s in English literature but I thought that wasn’t much of a use when it comes to getting a job. So, I did another master’s in the States. It didn’t quite work out in the States because there’s no such thing as reasonable adjustments and things like that that I know about in the UK. It’s all about physical access in the States. It’s not about how you actually manage being a disabled person, I think, but all that is sort of politics that I didn’t quite get on in the States.
So, I came back to Europe. Lo and behold, I got a job and got offered a job in the UK and I came back to the UK to university. And very soon after that I gave that up and became self-employed, and went into disability equality. It was coined though by the government. So, it was a sort of conduit between disabled people and the government at that time. Lo and behold, we had to change the government. That was 2010.
So, yeah. So, from then till now, I am a disability advocate and I am campaigning for disability equality, and disability justice as Lydia [X. Z. Brown] now calls it, and that’s quite important to me. From very early on, I had always insisted on intersectionality because that’s where I come from. As Eddie said, I wear so many hats. I don’t believe in just fighting for access and disability because as I said, I think I’m very lucky.
That’s a thing about being your social status, your social capital, all that sort of stuff, which is important, I think. So, I won’t go on and on just to say that that’s where I am. I’m director not just of Sisters of Freda, which is a collective of disabled women, Culture Access, which is for access into all sorts of different types of culture, which includes food, and race and stuff like that. Also, one of the board of directors for EVR, which stands for End Racism and Violence Against People of East and Southeast Asian communities. Sorry. Hope that wasn’t too long.
MELINDA: That was great. Incredible.
ELEANOR: And I have two children and a grandson as well.
MELINDA: Wow. Just on top of all that, yes.
ELEANOR: The most important thing, yeah.
MELINDA: You both worked in several different regions in the world. When you think about building empathy across global teams, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? How do we activate our empathy and build empathy across global teams?
EDDIE: Well, from my perspective, I think about this notion of leadership and who gets to be a leader. I think that for marginalized communities, whether we’re talking along the lines of gender, or disability, or race, or any other category, and all of the above, I think it’s really important that we see leadership in these communities and not just communities that need to be folded into existing structures and folded into sort of pre-determined social arrangements.
I think that we do ourselves a great disservice by failing to recognize that it is in all of our interests to have leaders emerge from marginalized communities. Right? So, the empathy question, I think, is also a potential question. It’s really about seeing, really recognizing, and validating the contributions, the excellence, the brilliance, the insights, the beauty of marginalized communities, right, but it’s all of our interests. Right?
So, for me, I think it’s so important to sort of have that deeper articulation of empathy, that it’s not just the question of feeling somebody else’s plight or recognizing somebody else’s plight but also being able to recognize their full humanity that people have.
Behind all of these statistics, I mentioned a statistic that is really kept me up at night for the better part of my 20s, right, which is between 90 and 98% of disabled children across the global South not having access to education. Behind those statistics are real people with hopes, with dreams, with aspirations, with fears, with anxieties, right?
I think a more complex articulation of what it means to be operating from a place of exclusion that empathy requires that we see people beyond their current circumstances. We see people beyond poverty. We see people beyond marginalization and actually have a full perspective that sort of takes them to possibility and new frontiers of being and of existence.
And so yeah, I’d say that that becomes incredibly important when operating across borders that the vision that we have for the lives of people here in the United States, that people on the other side of the globe, whether they’re in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, that the populations of those places also have huge visions for themselves and the kinds of lives that they hope to live and impart for their children. I think that would sort of be my initial take.
MELINDA: Beautiful. How about you, Eleanor?
ELEANOR: I think I agree with Eddie. I think the SDG is “Leave no one behind.” Isn’t it? That’s the main kind of slogan. That’s why I keep saying I feel very privileged because for a lot of disabled people, especially across the rest of the world, there are lots of things that we all have as disabled beings in common. Discrimination is one of them.
But another aspect is for a lot of disabled people, it’s also just survival. That sometimes, like Eddie, keeps me awake. That’s why I always say I feel very privileged that I do have to worry about where the next accessible toilet is but then I don’t have to worry like girls in India, not having the right toilet, that they might get raped and forget it, if you’re disabled, you know. Those kinds of problems just are immense. That’s why I say survival.
I say that for a lot of us. We have very similar issues and barriers. I’m also on the team of the International Women with Disabilities. And very often, disabled women, and we can sort of agree with each other and see the differences or the similarities that are also added to a live experience. That’s one thing that I feel very humbled by.
Even though—I shouldn’t say even though because people in Malaysia are quite well-educated, I think. I never had an issue with language. Because as I say, my first degree is in English literature and I have a master’s in English literature. So, if I have any problems with that, that’s my own fault.
But when I went to France, as I said, I didn’t understand a word, I can’t speak a word. The way people look at you and treat you when you don’t speak the language is an awful experience because you’re not only belittled but you looked as though you’re dead because you can’t articulate. And that is so much that sometimes I think we take for granted if we speak the major languages in the world, whether it’s English, or French, or German, or Spanish. And for disabled people, if you can’t articulate, if you don’t have the capacity to speak, it is an awful, awful experience and an awful barrier because so much of it depends on you being able to fight for yourself.
We both say we’re advocates. You can’t advocate if you don’t have the language. That is something that I find humbling, I think is the word I can think of. I admire people who have that kind of capacity because if you don’t have language, then you lose even more agency. And, you know, the ableism is even much more there.
Sorry, I went away from leadership. And sometimes, to me, leadership, if you like, sort of the empathy part is just understanding that. I’ve been working with my colleagues on coal production. This is not so much leadership. It is co-design. It’s co-production. And then, what they do, what they say is of equal value. And to a certain extent, some people say, how do you lead? And it’s not about leading. It’s about, in a way, the right type of following. So, I can say about that.
MELINDA: That leaders need to think about following.
ELEANOR: You know, your community, what they are saying. Sometimes they say, “Well, you know, I can put out a huge CD. “I’m director this. I do this. I do that. I have gotten so much.” However, what does that prove in a way?
MELINDA: Yeah. We’ve mentioned in this conversation already the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. Can you talk a little bit about your work around the SDGs and how this relates specifically to the workplace? How does it connect to the workplace?
EDDIE: Yeah, absolutely. So, for folks who don’t know, the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by all 193 member states of the United Nations in 2015. What underpins the Sustainable Development Goals are really 17 bold, audacious targets for humanity. Everything from the eradication of extreme poverty to tackling climate change and the ecological breakdown of the planet to the promotion of gender equality, and the promotion of education. You name it.
These 17 goals really function as a blueprint and a compass for humanity that we will achieve these 17 goals by the year 2030. The truth of the matter is, and it is a sobering and heartbreaking truth is that we are veering off course in terms of meeting these goals, these 17 goals for sustainable development because of various factors.
Of course, COVID I think, really exposed what was already there before, which was deeply entrenched inequality, and everything that we’re sort of bearing witness to right now as far as geopolitical tensions, and just the state of the world has meant that we are terribly off course as far as achieving these 17 Sustainable Development Goals are concerned.
Having said that, though, it is my firm belief that the global goals are our best attempt at being able to really double down on these really important things. I think that they are still incredibly important and I have the enormous honor of being one of the 17 official advocates for the SDGs appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
I think the SDG agenda is particularly important for a conversation around how do we think about systems change? I think that that is the real conversation is that we want to move beyond compliance. We want to move beyond ticking a box. We want to do the right thing because the right thing means that we actually need to fundamentally reimagine the social architecture of the world. It really is about a new way of being, a new way of interacting with one another across borders, and a new way of imagining our relationship to the planet as well.
And so, it is a far broader vision. It is not an incremental vision that we’re talking about. We’re talking about a new vision for humanity, one that is truly inclusive, and one that really centers on the need for radical progress and transformation in critical areas. And so, I think that it’s important that organizations align their strategic priorities and their strategic objectives with the sustainable development goals.
Eleanor mentioned and I was so happy that you mentioned that, that leaving nobody behind is the principle that underpins the entire sustainable development agenda. Now, the question becomes, what does it actually mean to say that we leave nobody behind? And that’s why I open my remarks with leadership because I think it’s not just about feeling good about ourselves that we include people. It’s more than inclusion, right?
Inclusion serves a purpose. Inclusion is meant to actually transform, right? It is meant to result in systems change. It’s not inclusion for inclusion’s sake, by just sort of bringing new voices and new faces into the room. But it’s about actually saying in so doing when we sent for intersectionality, that has far-reaching implications for how we think about business, how we think about our supply chains, how we think about strategy, and how we think about every single aspect of society and life.
To leave nobody behind means that we fundamentally alter the status quo. We’re not talking about business as usual. We’re talking about a fundamentally new vision for society and organizations at large. Right? And so, I believe the SDGs, when interpreted correctly, I think could be an incredibly powerful framework for how we get to a future that is truly inclusive for all of us.
MELINDA: Thank you for that. Something that I hadn’t thought about before around intersectionality is thinking about intersectionality across different identities and experiences of marginalization and also there are intersections within the sustainable development goals as well. I hadn’t really thought about that before. That is really the key about all of that together that we really get to the next stage of our evolution in workplaces and across the globe as well.
EDDIE: Yeah, if I could just add one more thing to that because I think that’s incredibly important, is it is the indivisibility and the intersectionality of the goals, right, but I don’t think we can tackle the climate crisis without connecting it to gender inequality, without connecting it to disability justice, because at the forefront of the climate justice conversation and catastrophe are indigenous disabled women of color who are bearing the brunt of the ecological breakdown of the planet, right, until we fundamentally kind of need to reimagine the fight for defending the planet through an intersectional lens. And so, connecting the dots between the various goals becomes incredibly important. So, thank you, Melinda, for highlighting that.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. This is Disability Pride month here in the US, and it’s starting to grow in other regions as well. I want to recognize the importance of that intersectionally, specifically, social justice for people with disabilities or disability justice. I want to talk about allyship in particular. What would you like to see in terms of more allyship around disability justice globally? And maybe I’ll start with you, Eleanor. What do you think about allyship?
ELEANOR: I think you said that most people here know what allyship means. I think it is tough being a good ally. It’s an active thing because I always say that, even though I am very often with my LGBT friends, in fact, so much so that people just assume that I must be from that community. I think that I have to carefully choose sometimes where I stand as an ally and not sort of jump into, you know, oh, my best friend is such and such. So, you know, you can speak for him or her, that kind of thing. Especially for my trans friends.
And again, I just sort of very often just sit and learn being and not speaking sometimes. It’s much better as an ally, rather than sort of go into the defense because you think that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes I’m grateful when people come and stand and fight for me because it’s very often, if you are of that community, you need people to fight for you because you haven’t got the energy.
It’s so personal. For me, as a disabled woman, I’ve got a tag before that I’m being divisive because they say there’s no gender in disability. So, to have a collective of disabled women, that is being divisive. And somebody just stepped in and support me when I’m going like, open mouth, how can anybody think such a thing kind of thing.
I think being an ally is just sort of learned. I keep saying learning. And maybe it’s because I’m much more still, at this age, very much a student learning from my LGBT friends, from my friends who are from other disadvantaged groups, if you want to call it minoritized groups, whatever. Because very often, it’s important to shut up and let them have a voice.
And very often, I think some people who think that they’re your ally, think that that gives them a right to speak for you. It’s a tightrope. It’s a balance you have to do. And also, if I can add this bit, I think once in a talk I gave, I said being intersectional can be a very lonely business because it’s like you’re invited to very many tables because you’ve kind of like, you know, you’re this and you’re that.
Sometimes I get invited because I ticked so many boxes sort of thing. You’re disabled, you’re a person of color, you’re a woman, etc. I’m an immigrant and all that sort of stuff. However, very often you are invited to those tables, but you can’t actually sit at any of these tables because it’s an intersection.
Let’s say, if I’m talking as a disabled person, very often, disabled colleagues, they don’t understand the ratio, that kind of prejudice discrimination you have as a person of color. And if you are among friends who are people of color, they don’t understand your accessible needs.
And that is why I say, sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes people say, “Oh, isn’t it great because you can do this and then do that? It’s like belonging to several cultures, but you don’t exactly fit in. And that I think, what maybe is just my problem.
MELINDA: How about you, Eddie? How do you view allyship? How do you view allyship?
EDDIE: Well, I mean, so much of what Eleanor has shared really just resonates with me on a profoundly deep level. Eleanor, you made me think about the distinction between being an ally and being a savior, and how we need to be very careful that we don’t conflate those two things. Because I think it can get pretty murky where people demonstrate allyship through wanting to kind of save and co-op.
I think a way around that in the context of disability, I think we need to shift the conversation from having allies for disability inclusion to allies in the dismantling of ableism. Right? Because ableism implicates both disabled and non-disabled people alike. Ableism will dehumanize disabled people. But ableism also strips non-disabled people of their own humanity.
So, when you’re fighting against ableism as a non-disabled person, you’re not fighting for me as a disabled person. You are fighting for yourself. Right? You’re fighting for yourself for a world that doesn’t reduce us to narrow conceptions of what bodies should and shouldn’t do. You’re fighting for a world that actually is a world that embraces all kinds of ways of being, a multiplicity of ways of showing up. You’re fighting for a world that is more innovative, for a world that is more loving, for a world that is more beautiful.
And so, that kind of allyship that implicates who you are in the dismantling of ableism, for me, that feels like we are coconspirators, that we’re in this together, and that I’m not being saved, but that we are saving each other through a mutual recognition that this system, the society that is built on ableism is not working for all of us. It’s not working for disabled people. If we look closely, it’s actually not working for non-disabled people either. Right?
I think I have sort of had to make the shift for myself internally that this is not a niche thing, right? That disability justice is actually about all of us because it’s about reimagining a new world, another way of being that brings my non-disabled siblings along the ride with me, and that we are coconspirators. So, I just want to offer that.
I think, Eleanor, thank you so much for also really speaking honestly about how lonely it is sort of inhabiting a space of intersectionality. I think that is so true. That resonates so deeply. I think part of the work of intersectionality is also the refusal to be compartmentalized. I think that that is when we do intersectionality right that we say that intersectionality is not about gluing together different identities.
You take a little bit of race, you take a bit of sexuality, you take a bit of gender, you take a bit of disability, you glue them together, and voila, you’ve got intersectionality. I think that is a profound misreading of intersectionality. I think that intersectionality, which is gifted to us by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who invented the term intersectionality is a methodology.
It is a framework to be able to make sense of how we all embody not just a multiplicity of identities, but that we stand at the crossroads of different ways of seeing the world, and that that’s a good thing. That actually, it’s not a disabled table, or a racial table, or a sexuality table, or a gender table. It’s a new human table. It’s a completely new way of just imagining what a table is, if it is even a table. Maybe it’s something else completely.
And so, I think we’ve yet to fully harness the power and magnificence of the beauty of intersectionality. For as long as we compartmentalize our politics and our public policy, as Eleanor mentioned, it’s going to be lonely for so many of us, and we’ll feel really lost that we don’t belong anywhere. I think we can flip it. I think we can refuse compartmentalization, and actually invite everybody into a world of multiplicity.
MELINDA: I love that. I want to jump to questions here. When we talk about empathetic leaders, I think it is good to attach accountability to observable behaviors. What observable behaviors would you like to see from leaders around empathy? Maybe Eleanor, would you answer that question?
ELEANOR: I think it’s people who will lead us who kind of makes me feel that I matter. If I can put the “I” into it and not sort of speak in general. For me, to feel that the leader is empathic or has empathy, that person shows that they understand where I’m coming from.
It doesn’t mean that I can see that they are walking in my shoes, or, you know, in those kinds of terms, and is willing, and I’m using the word “walk” which is kind of some people say, it’s kind of ironic because I’m always using a wheelchair. But in that metaphor, it’s important that you can feel that that person is willing to journey with you.
Does that sound reasonable when I say that is what I think empathy is, is that person willing to come with you to go where you’re going and to understand the sort of commitments, understand the barriers that you have. Not as in Eddie is saying being your savior, but you know, sharing is important.
MELINDA: Anything to add, Eddie?
EDDIE: That was so brilliant, Eleanor. I think maybe what I’ll just add is that I think empathetic leadership is also about a deep willingness. I said it earlier but I keep coming back to it is to move beyond compliance. Compliance is not going to get us to inclusion. I think that empathy demands more and that we are really thinking about a new vision for how we lead organizations.
It is a system-change conversation. And so, I think that’s why the accountability piece that it’s not a nice to have, it’s not a kind of do-good endeavor or practice, it is a profoundly visionary thing to be able to demonstrate empathy in one’s leadership style, as far as inclusion is concerned.
ELEANOR: Can I add to that? Eddie has mentioned compliance a few times. And if you’re talking about globally, compliance means different in different countries. I think I just wanted to add that. In the US, you have the ADA. In the UK, if you have a disability, you have the Equality Act.
In China, in Malaysia, and the sort of, you know, whether people follow or not, it’s so different as well. You might be a client in the UK. And I have friends back in Malaysia who say, “Your laws are so brilliant.” Yeah, but the people here, don’t think so. I just wanted to add that bit.
EDDIE: If I could just respond to that. I think, Eleanor, you’re so right. I think for me, I would describe compliance in another way and maybe say, the bare minimum and the minimum threshold, right. I think there’s a reason why even when amazing policies and pieces of legislation are passed, we as disabled people still feel frustrated. We still feel angry. We still feel hurt. We still feel pain. And we ask ourselves why, right?
Because everybody will say, “Well, you’ve got reasonable accommodation. What more do you need? What more do you want?” Right? You’ve got beautiful pieces of legislation. And the truth of the matter is the feeling that we feel that inadequacy is because we need more. We need more than just the bare minimum in order to really exercise our agency as full human beings. Right?
And so, that is going to require a vision that goes beyond just the policy. The policy is absolutely necessary, and I wouldn’t minimize its role. But I think what we’re asking for is a cultural revolution and a social revolution in terms of the engagement between non-disabled and disabled people.
MELINDA: Another question, Eddie. How can we help leaders identify goals within the organization that aligns with the SDGs and measure the financial impact of meeting such goals? Obviously, a big question but any thoughts for getting to start?
EDDIE: That’s a big question. I think, again, I would say that that kind of conversation is a pretty existential one. I think businesses need to ask themselves, what kind of world do they want to be doing business in? Right? Like, how do they want to? It’s a pretty existential question.
Aligning one’s organization to the Sustainable Development Goals, I think really is a conversation about vision. It’s a conversation about a mission. It’s a conversation about fundamental strategy and product development. Are we going to design products that are inherently universally designed so that we don’t have a need to think about accessibility as an afterthought because it is already intrinsic to the way that we design our products and our services and our offerings?
So, it’s a conversation that needs to be, I think, treated with seriousness, and I think a deep willingness. It’s an invitation to imagine, again, another way of existing and doing business in the world today. Its ambitions, but I think we’re not going to move the needle if we don’t raise the level of ambition for meeting these goals.
MELINDA: Agreed. I know we’re running over time. I want to ask you both really quickly. What is one individual action you would like listeners and watchers to take after our conversation today?
ELEANOR: I realize that we’re all what we want to know. We are often in our own bubbles. If people here are willing to kind of step out of their bubble and make an effort to understand, I wouldn’t say intersectionally or whatever, just to understand somebody else with whom they might never think of being.
I’m explaining that very badly. But like, for example, for me, what it means to be a refugee, for example. What does it mean to have to lose all that is dear to you? I once thought that, and I still do that. If the house goes on fire and I have to run, the one thing I take with me is my passport.
That sort of thinking. You know, what is dear to you? What would you do? I don’t mean a refugee could. If you’re a disabled person, you can’t play the sport you want to play, that sort of thing.
EDDIE: I guess piggybacking off of Eleanor’s points, I think, again, I think implicating ourselves in ableism, that it impacts all of us. We can be coconspirators regardless of ability and disability in the dismantling of ableism. And so, my invitation to everyone here is to really think about how ableism affects you at an individual level, and then work towards dismantling it in solidarity with disabled people.
MELINDA: Fantastic. Thank you both. Thank you both for all the work you do, and for sharing your incredible insight with us today. Really appreciate you. We will continue having conversations around global teams as well because this is a frequently requested topic. So, please check out our podcasts as we go into the next few weeks.
We will have an August event so we’ll see you back in September Live. But in the meantime, we’ll have weekly episodes for the next several weeks so do stay tuned and have a great summer, everybody.
ELEANOR: Thank you.
EDDIE: Thank you.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
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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