Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst, and Jeremy Sussman, Senior Product Manager at Google, explore “An Allyship Journey As A Straight, White Man.” Jeremy shared why becoming an ally is so critical to seeing real improvements in diversity, equity, and inclusion at work, and the role of allies in ERGs to actively create change.
- Give and Take by Adam Grant
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- Reggie Butler, DEI Consultant
- “The Technology 202: Software company Basecamp restricts talk of politics and social issues at work” by Cat Zakrzewski
- Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man YouTube video series by Emmanuel Acho
Other Items on Jeremy Sussman’s Reading List
- The Fire Next Time and anything and everything by James Baldwin, especially Another Country or If Beale Street Could Talk
- The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
- White Like Me by Tim Wise
- White Rage by Carol Anderson
- Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
- Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (hat tip to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)
- “Lift as you climb. The idea is, as you move up you help somebody behind you…. I think the idea of showing others your path and lifting them as you are climbing is a really important, good thing.”
- ‘Ally’ is not a label, persona, or something you become. Allyship is something you do, and the more you do it the more you get a reputation for doing it. And you can do more of it.
- “If you are really sorry, it requires more than saying the words ‘I am sorry.…’ It is really about the other person. It is really not about you. Allyship has to be about the other person. You have to be in a place where your desires come down to helping the other person, and it is not about you. If you can’t get there, you are really not being an ally.”
Senior Product Manager at Google
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Here we have deep, real conversations about how we can be more inclusive leaders in our workplaces and our communities.
I am Melinda Briana Epler, the Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst and your host. At Change Catalyst, we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting and events. This is a safe space to learn, build empathy for each other, and understand tangible actions we can all take to be better allies, better advocates, and better humans in the world for each other.
Today we have Jeremy Sussman joining us, Senior Product Manager at Google, for a conversation on allyship and an allyship journey as a straight, White man. Jeremy, welcome.
JEREMY: Thank you. It is good to be here.
MELINDA: Awesome. Glad you are here. Glad you are here. If you will join me, let’s describe ourselves for our listening audience – anyone who is Blind, Low Vision on the live show and also for anyone listening on the podcast too. I am a White woman with long red hair wearing a blue shirt and black and white glasses.
JEREMY: And I am a White male, brown curly hair, brown eyes wearing, I don’t know how you describe my shirt, a very colorful Hawaiiian style shirt I guess I would say. My wife makes me shirts so I had to wear one today.
MELINDA: Oh, nice.
JEREMY: And I wear headphones when I am on Zoom because it makes it easier for me to hear.
MELINDA: Awesome. Cool. On screen we have two interpreters and thank you to Interpreter-Now for the ongoing partnership there. Really appreciate you. This is also being live captioned by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. You can turn on captioning by going to the bottom of the screen and clicking ‘closed caption’. You might have to click the ‘more’ button depending on what the screen looks like and you can adjust the settings there.
Our team, Juliette and Renzo are here doing amazing things to make this happen. And also, they are in the chat and the Q&A so if you have questions, they will be there for you. Please engage with us in the chat. Appreciate you all already doing that and keep doing so. It really does make a difference in us learning what resonates for you and what’s working and what’s going on and in your brains that we can react to and share more around. If you have specific questions, please, use the Q&A function for specific questions you would like us to answer. We will spend some time at the end doing that.
As I mentioned earlier, we have a code of conduct. Just be radically inclusive and kind and share with positive intent. You can learn more about our code of conduct at tcin.co/COC. Jumping into “An Allyship Journey As A Straight, White Man.” Thank you, Jeremy, for joining us. Could you tell us a bit about your story, who you are and how you came to do what you do?
JEREMY: Yeah, I can try. So, my story. I was born and raised in the suburbs of New York City which is where I live now. So, I guess my whole life with brief sojourns in other places. Middle upper class upbringing. Nothing terribly exciting, but I guess when it comes to how I started to help other people – I try not to call myself an ally. One of the things we talk about a lot in the circles I run with is you don’t declare yourself an ally. ‘Ally’ is not a label, persona or something you become. Allyship is something you do and the more you do it the more you get a reputation for doing it. And you can do more of it. I will talk a lot about how you get there. It is hard to say when I started doing this. I was thinking about that since you prepped me you were going to ask that question and I am like: I don’t know how to tell the story of how I got here because I don’t know where I am. I am not anywhere. I am doing things and learning things and continue to try to learn more and do more. We can talk about some of the flash points along the way I guess.
MELINDA: Yeah. I think for a lot of people working to build more allies it is really interesting and important to know how people get there. And then also for anybody who is on their allyship journey, I think it can help to learn what are some of the moments where you were like: I need to do something more. What was it that kind of pushed you there, or pulled?
JEREMY: Again, there are so many different little stops along the way. One that was kind of transformative to me – this is a few years ago. Probably like five years ago I would say. I have a friend from work and he is a Black man, and that’s relevant to the story. He had a child. I have two kids. Two college-aged children, a son and daughter. He has two boys. His boys now are probably now 7-10 I would guess.
At some point we were talking about being a father and how important it was to us. He told me the story – he asked me if I remember when my son was born. Of course I do. It was one of the most magical moments of my life, and I asked him why and he told me about when his first son was born. He said the moment his son was born was a mixture of joy and fear. And that was – I didn’t feel that. I felt nothing but unrequited joy and he said – because he gave birth to a Black male – the moment that child was born he was worried about what would happen if that child was ever pulled over by the cops. That was literally one of the first three thoughts he had when he caught his son, and for me that was literally earth-shattering, to know someone could take a moment that I know for me was again one of the most – there is nothing but happiness in the room when I got my son. And for him it was mixed with literal fear.
And when he told me this he was being honest because he and I have a very strong relationship and he can talk to me about these kinds of things; that changed my outlook in life. That was one of the times I remember thinking God, life can be so different depending on who you are. That’s an example of things that have occurred and just made me think: there is this thing called privilege that’s out there, and if you have it you should use it for other people if you can.
MELINDA: Any other moments you want to share?
JEREMY: Um, yeah.
MELINDA: Thank you for sharing.
JEREMY: Yeah. You know, there are a lot. I guess another one I think of is I remember – these moments tend to be really personal and really deep. I watched the Justice Kavanaugh hearing in the hospital. My mother suffered a heart attack and was having triple bypass surgery, coincidentally, that day. So, I sat in the hospital watching TV. Normally I would have been at work that day but I was not at work.
I have a lot in common with Brett Kavanaugh. We are the same age, we have kind of similar backgrounds, a lot of stories he told I could tell you the same. The people would be different names but the same kind of thing. It really made me think a lot about things I took for granted and thought about when I was younger and whether they were appropriate or not. We all do things we regret in life and if you were older you might not have been that way. But listening to him tell a story made me think about things I went through as a kid and again it just opened my eyes. The expression when you are a fish you don’t recognize the water you are swimming in – that is one of the number of times I found myself realizing the water I was surrounded by.
MELINDA: The water of privilege.
JEREMY: The water of straight, White, male, cis, upper middle class, and well educated, etc., etc.
MELINDA: And what motivates you to kind of – those are kind of stories of ‘aha’ and thinking about how you have been treated differently in your life. What motivates you? There is another step, though, in terms of taking that step to create change for other people. What motivates you? What is that motivation for advocating and for allyship?
JEREMY: That’s a hard question. I guess fundamentally, I just have a fundamental desire to help other people. I read a lot. We will talk about books. I read a lot of books. A book that was eye opening to me was called Give and Take by Adam Grant. It is basically the story of how some people are transactional and want to get as much as they give. That’s not a bad thing. Some people are takers and that is a bad thing. And some are givers and, fundamentally, my philosophy – my natural being is one of giving. When I help someone else, I don’t expect any recompense. I know people that do and I don’t judge them. I think that’s normal. I get great joy out of making other people happy or giving – it satisfies me. There is a natural tendency toward me when I see other people who are not getting things. I was thinking when – I thought ‘Why is that? Can I help them?’
I have been a mentor for people since I was way too young to be mentoring people because I didn’t know what I was talking about, not that I necessarily do now but I did even less then. I think seeing people who I felt were getting less than they deserved. The opposite of privilege. I define privilege as having power and having things happen in the positive that you haven’t earned. They just happened because of your situation, who you are, and what you are. Seeing the reverse of that ignited in me a fundamental disease, unhappiness with that. I always wanted to change that and make that different. I think that’s how I came to be seen as someone who was willing to help people who might have needed help, I guess. Yeah.
MELINDA: Awesome. Let’s talk about some of the things that you think about when becoming an ally. I realize all these questions are hard. The questions I ask all guests are hard, honestly, and we go deep. So, can you just talk about some of the things you think about when you think about taking action? Allyship is more than thinking about it and it is about taking action. What are some of the things you think about?
JEREMY: Allyship is fundamentally about action. That’s exactly right. I think the first thing I would say is you have to be careful. Especially as a straight, White male. You have been trained your whole life to be the hero. I think a lot about literally from the day I remember, how you always have this light shined on you that you can do anything, you could be anyone. You are puffed up growing up as a White male. Maybe true for other people but definitely true for White males. There is this natural tendency to try to fix things and be the hero. You always want to be on your White Charger coming in to save the damsel in distress.
One thing I think about when you ask about action is making sure not to do the wrong thing is almost harder than doing the right thing – than doing something. Be careful with what you do. One of the things I have studied a lot for my own benefit is reading about how to – the idea of centering other people and not making yourself the center of attention, of not making it about you. When action – the act of doing something is bringing attention to yourself and figuring how to do that in a way that doesn’t bring attention to you is not for your own benefit. You are looking to help someone else by something you do. That’s a fine line to walk.
You have to be careful but you can’t be so careful that you don’t act because that’s worse. You have to be willing to make mistakes or else you are never going to do anything. But you don’t want to make mistakes where you are doing damage. I think to me that’s been the fundamental thing I think about the most and the thing I try the most to learn. The readings I do, the training I have taken. I think fundamentally for me it is always about – it is not so much having the courage to act but I got plenty of that. Few people on the call know me and you don’t have to check my ego. Knowing how to act in a way that’s helpful to other people. That’s the thing for me that has always been the struggle.
MELINDA: And I know that you do a lot of reading. Do you want to talk about some of the learning that you have done? Would you talk about some of the learning you have done and how you –
JEREMY: Yeah, and you know we will talk about reading, but I have had the fortune at Google to be in a number of classes from people who are amazing teachers and that’s why I have gotten probably the most quantum leaps in my being able to do things for other people. I took a class with Dr. Robin DiAngelo who wrote White Fragility and she is an incredible mind around how to help people. As a White person, she invented the phrase ‘White fragility’ which describes so much of what a lot of allies struggle with.
I took a class with her and Dr. Myosha McAfee and they force you to understand what this means. To put yourself in other people’s shoes, to see things through other’s eyes and, again, to not center yourself. One way to do that is to think well, if I were that person watching me do what I am doing, how would I feel if I were that other person? How would this affect me? Being able to take a step back and saying: who is this really about? Why are you doing this? Are you doing this in a way that helps them? Are you listening to them? It is fundamentally always about listening. It really is about watching other people.
Another person from whom I have learned a tremendous amount in my life – there is a man named Reggie Butler who has a company called Performance Paradigm. He taught a number of courses at Google. I have had the fortune to experience his teachings 3 or 4 times. He is just a master at breaking down your assumptions, breaking down your reasoning and forcing you to see things through a different prism where you are not thinking of it as: here I am, the hero White guy trying to fix things, but here is a person who I might be able to help. How do I help them in a way that’s helpful for them? How do I really do things for their benefit and not for mine?
I think that’s where I think I have made the most – learned the most from people like that who are willing to open up about their lives and their thinking and their experiences and all three of the people I mentioned none of them are White males. They all forced me to not think about how it would be if it were me because I had to think about what they were telling me and listen to them and say: they are telling me their truth. I can’t ignore their truth.
MELINDA: Andrea in the comments talks about How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. Definitely a good one. And there is no ‘not racist’ – I can’t remember the exact quote – there is no such thing as not racist. You have to be anti-racist.
JEREMY: That is a book that I absolutely loved. A book I read last week or two weeks ago that is top of my mind right now is a book, and I will mess up the words because I do not speak – I think it is pronounced Dear Ijeawele. I think that is how you pronounce the name. It is written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I’m probably messing her name up too. It’s a book that she wrote. She actually wrote a letter to a friend. She was raising a daughter and asked how do you raise a daughter to be a feminist? And Adichie wrote this really, really long letter and made it a book. It’s that long of a letter. It is a very quick read, but amazing. I love her writing and it is amazingly clear and crisp, but she forces you to think about – it is very much an anti-racist book.
MELINDA: Allyship is little actions you take. You talked about those and some of the bigger things like mentorship. Can you talk about the other ways you have kind of activated your allyship?
JEREMY: One of the things we often talk about in being an ally is you have to be comfortable with making mistakes. I will flip the question and tell you about a mistake I made recently. I am thinking about things that happened really recently. I think this was like two weeks ago or less. I was in a room at work, a virtual room obviously. Now we don’t have rooms. One of my colleagues, she is female, I would say that the person talking to her was being at least aggressive if not abusive. I jumped in and actively diffused the situation, so we continued to make progress on the subject matter we were trying to make progress on. I was doing it consciously because I could see she was feeling some distress and things were bad. I needed to jump in and I did jump in. I was a little proud of myself for jumping in.
Then later, she said to me – I don’t know if the person on the other side of the ledger was being misogynist or not but it was definitely a horrible situation for her. She said, ‘I noticed you jumped in and diffused the situation,’ and I thought she was thanking me, and she proceeded to tell me I did the wrong thing. Because while diffusing the situation helped, I should have confronted the person for his actions more strongly and pointed out that he was being misogynist and not made it so we could continue to make progress.
To me it is like the anti-racist thing. I was being a good person and I was able to make us have progress and fix the situation, but anti-racism is about going that extra step to fight, not just to get to a good place but to push the bad place away. I don’t know if that’s the right phrasing. To actively change things that are bad and while I got back to neutral, I didn’t actively push back on something that was bad.
MELINDA: Yeah, and I would say that maybe you didn’t fix it ultimately for everyone.
JEREMY: Right. And I had an opportunity to. These things are all hard. Anyone who is telling you it is easy is trying to sell you something. It is never easy. I really appreciated that my friend was willing to point this out to me. That’s a big part of it. One of the things we talk about a lot is feedback. Or one thing I talk about a lot is feedback. You have to be open to feedback and ready for feedback because, again, we talk about making mistakes. You are going to make mistakes all of the time. If you are not willing to acknowledge them, hear them and try to do better next time then what are you doing?
MELINDA: Yeah. You are a member of a couple ERGs. Right? Can you talk about that? What do you do?
JEREMY: Yeah. So I am on two steering committees. One is for the allyship steering committee and I am actually on the women’s@New York [ERG]. Google has ERGs for the whole company and local chapters and things like that. Because I’m up here in New York, I am on the women’s New York City steering committee and one other person from that steering committee here on the call so she can shout-out if she wants to. Those are the two I’m actively on the steering committee.
I also pay attention to the BGN, which is the Black Google Network, and what is now called Pride which is the LGBTQ+ ERG and a little bit to all the Spanish ones. That’s the order of my participation because I only have so much time in the day. I try to be involved in as many of those as I can. What does being involved mean? To me it means paying attention. Reading what they say. Going to events if possible.
What has been interesting to me is being on the women’s one I found that the easiest thing for me to do there is just volunteer for the garbage work no one wants to do. This is one of my top tips. If you want to get started in allyship, the easiest thing to do is go to a meeting where they are planning stuff and just take on the garbage work. For example, I always volunteer to be the person who stands at the door and reads badges. We have a badge reader so we know who is going to these events. It sounds really silly. I am taking an hour out of my day once every few months to swipe people’s badges. But what I realized early on was, if I am the only male in the room and don’t volunteer to do it, one of the women in the room is going to volunteer to do it. This is an event by women for women and that woman who would be standing by the door badging gets to sit in the room and appreciate the content. So I chose to go to the door and not go to the room and appreciate the content. So one person – I’ve now made that person able to enjoy the content.
It seems silly, but it’s amazing how if you do this over and over again, people start to rely on you to do it and don’t have to worry about it. It relieves them. It is stressful and they don’t have to think about who will do this, because they know I will. It is one more person in the room. I can hopefully get other people to do it as well. I think it is little things that actually make a big difference if you are willing to do them. Then it gets you started. You do these things and all of a sudden you are in the rooms and people are talking to you about things and open up and tell you things that are more important and it starts to snowball. You build trust by taking out the garbage and sweeping the floors. That’s my little tip of the day, I guess
MELINDA: Can you talk about the allyship ERG – what that looks like and what is accomplished during that? I think that would be interesting for our folks to know. An ERG is an employee resource group, sorry I don’t think we said that for anybody who doesn’t know.
JEREMY: That has been an interesting little journey. The allyship group was formed – I would guess around four years ago. I am probably off, but I am guessing. I was picked as someone who could help form it because I had a reputation by then. We wanted to be really active and to train people to be allies and get the troops ready to go into battle to make things better. Eventually we realized we had to rethink it because it didn’t work that way. You get bursts of energy that would not be sustained and it is just, again, and we said you can’t just declare yourself and do things.
One thing I don’t think you can do is to go out looking for action. Because, one thing I have learned is you have to be patient and make yourself available and you have to keep your eyes open. If you are looking to help other people, you are pushing your agenda on them. If you are waiting for them to need help and acting at the moment they need help, then you are actually helping. What do you do if you are this group that gets together every week or every month and talks about the stuff you will do, but what you should be doing is just waiting. What it eventually became is more of a learning and training type thing where we would talk about all the books we read and things that have been influential in our lives and share those with each other so you could do your own work. We talk about the burden should be on you – don’t ask underrepresented people to tell you about their lives. There are fewer of them and if they start talking to us, you are making their lives worse. Read and watch movies and listen to podcasts, etc. A lot of it was just sharing books and resources and having conversations among us on what we could do.
Second part was training. We have things like the uncomfortable conversation and unconscious bias and all these trainings that can help you recognize yourself and learn how to act when the time appears. It eventually became clear to me that an ERG is about teaching other people. To be frank, I am not that interested in that personally. I love that fact. I think it is extremely important to support the other people in my cohort who that’s what they want to do. But, I learned really quickly that I am not interested in training. I would rather help non-White males than training other White males. Call me prejudiced or something. I help that group and I talk to that group, but I am much less actively involved in that because so far that is a teaching and training group. That’s not where I want to spend my personal time.
People – this actually happens more frequently than I would expect – people from other locations will reach out and say, 5-6 times, we are forming an allyship group in Chicago, what should we do? I finally came up with my story. I say concentrate on teaching, concentrate on learning and concentrate on training is what you should do and then tell people to sit and wait until an opportunity arises and then they can do things. But you can’t meet as a group and figure out what to do because then you are making it about you and there might not be anything to do for the month of May. Maybe in June there will be a thousand things to do. That’s not on you. That’s on the people that you want to help. Let them come to you when they need help. Put yourself in a position when they ask, going back to what I said earlier, you won’t make too many mistakes. Maybe a few but you will reduce the reality of your likelihood of doing something wrong.
MELINDA: That’s interesting. I don’t see it that way as waiting for something to do. That’s interesting. I think there are moments for sure where you have to wait and, you know, those individual moments but I do think also that we can all kind of work daily to work against systemic racism, systemic sexism and work to redesign our systems you know, there is also work to be done there.
JEREMY: I don’t think you are wrong. Maybe the way to tie these together – you are actively doing something. You have a podcast. You are taking actions to actively teach other people and other things. I have a job – have a full-time job that is not in this space and that takes up most of my time, so the best thing I can do is be ready. I think we need both kinds of people. I think we need people who are actively trying to break things down and people who are helping them. I think that especially, for me, as again, a cis White male, et cetera, et cetera. I think I would be a bull in a China shop if I tried too hard to be active. It worries me a lot about making it about me. For me, it is about sitting back and waiting, not to be asked because that’s too long, but to keep my eyes open. It is not waiting to be asked to do something, but waiting to notice something needs to be done and jumping in.
MELINDA: Got it.
JEREMY: It is not purely passive but it is reactive more than proactive, for me.
MELINDA: So, I will say there are some amazing comments, you all. I am seeing all these comments. You know, Maurice quoted Audrey Lorde. ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’ Oh, Rachel is one of your teammates. ‘Jeremy is modest. He isn’t just listening or doing the scut work. He is also shaping our ERG as an ally. He’s also connected us to other men as allies, who can also help support the ERG.’ Maybe we could talk about that a little bit. How do we bring more White men into this work? White cisgender men who are not disabled into this work?
JEREMY: That’s a really hard question, right? Because I don’t know. You started with my journey and I don’t know how I got here – I don’t know. I have conversations with friends of mine who are of the same mind and we think, what do we do? One thing is, you can’t move them too far from where they are – but you can move them a little bit. The person who’s interested, you can make them a little more interested. A person who wants to be active, you can make them active. I think you can move someone one step to the correct direction, whatever that direction is. I guess, I think, being very open about what you do and why you do it might help. Maybe people see something in you that resonates with them.
So an example of this, since Rachel said I am too modest, I’ll tell my modesty story. A number of years ago I won an award in the New York Chapter for citizenship. I wasn’t the only one. There were a number given out. I was proud of it, of course, but whenever anyone would ask me about it I would say: I don’t understand why I won it. I don’t do anything. I just talk to people and I share my feelings, etc. It might have even been Rachel. I don’t remember, but someone I am close to, a woman, said, ‘You have to stop being modest,’ and I said ‘Why? Modesty is a virtue.’
Because I was saying this isn’t a big deal, I was downplaying that this was important to me. And it was important to me, I really did care. It was false modesty. I am very proud of the fact I got this award. I work hard at it. By being modest, I was belittling the fact I cared about helping women and Black people and Spanish people and the disabled and everyone else. It is something I am very proud of and by being modest, I was in some sense hiding how important it was to me.
Instead what I learned that day was I should be proud of this and I should talk about it. Not like blowing my own horn and saying how great I am, but rather why I am passionate about it and why I do it and why I think it is really important. There might be someone who is really reluctant to do this who feels the same way I did and is not putting themselves out there. And them knowing I am proud of what I have done might make them think: I can do this too. That was a lesson for me.
There are people out there who want to do a little bit more and don’t know how to get started, and maybe hearing me be proud they will come up and ask me for a book. I will say: what do you want to learn about? I know this book or that book. Here is something I think. Here is an easy book to read. Here is a hard book to read. Here is a podcast to listen to or here’s a movie to watch. There is this concept I recently heard but I haven’t heard a label for it: lift as you climb. The idea is that as you are moving your way up, you help someone else behind you. It is used in many different ways. I think the idea of showing others your path and lifting them as you are climbing is a really important, good thing. That’s something I think a lot about now and I am trying to do more of that.
MELINDA: Awesome. We’ll jump to questions. I see them coming in here. If you have questions, please, put them into Q&A so we can find them easily. You kind of talked about somebody who called you out or called you in, I am not sure. Maybe called you in, in that case, when she wanted you to do more as an ally. What do you do when you make mistakes? How do you kind of handle that?
JEREMY: One of my big lessons in life is the idea that all feedback is a gift. In one of the trainings I do, I lead a training at Google. We talk about feedback and I say the first thing you should say when you get feedback is ‘thank you’ – for two reasons. One, because all feedback is a gift. When you get a gift you say thank you. But it forces you to take a beat by saying thank you, you have then taken a breath. It is like counting to 10. Say thank you and you will realize you should be thankful and that will force you to think about it more as opposed to being defensive.
I do get defensive when I hear negative feedback as does everyone. But I might be worse than most as far as I know. But by forcing myself to always say thank you I am pushing myself to a place of trying to be receptive. I honestly believe feedback is a gift. The story I like to tell is: if my wife has spinach on her teeth I tell her. Why? Because I love her – and I don’t want her walking around with spinach in her teeth. So you are doing them a favor. It is a gift. You are being nice to someone when you tell them they are doing something wrong because they can fix it. If you don’t tell them they will continue to do it wrong, but if you do tell them they can fix it. Therefore, feedback is a gift and you should say thank you. That’s one part of it.
I think another part of it is, what do you care about most in the world? What’s the one word you want people to say about you? I was asked this once in a class I was in and there is a process where you write down 10 words and come up with a synonym, and cross out the ones that don’t really matter. The word I eventually got to and actually surprised me was ‘kind.’ I want people to think I am kind – and I don’t know if that’s something necessarily early on I would realize that’s what I wanted to be. If I want to be kind, how do you be kind by helping other people? Maybe you want to be a hero and hopefully all that is helping other people, no matter what you want to do. I think that’s another thing. To really think about who it is you want to be, and how you can be that person.
MELINDA: Awesome. I am going to jump to a few questions, and then if we have time I will circle back to a couple more I have as well. Ryan asks, and you know if you saw what Base Camp announced yesterday – they have banned, essentially banned, societal and political discussions on workplace tools which is kind of the idea that they are not safe discussions so we should not have them at all. I personally think it is pretty problematic. You need to find a way to create that psychological safety in your companies, but do you have thoughts about that? They are not the first or the only company that has done that.
JEREMY: I think every company has probably done it to some extent. Probably not the extreme of Base Camp. I am unaware of the announcement. I think these are very important conversations. I think if you can’t – I understand that work is supposed to be a place for work but we spend more time at work than almost every place other than sleeping in our lives. If you can’t try to figure out how to be a better person during the hours you are at work, then you are not going to become a better person.
I get it. Every time you have these conversations someone feels attacked or abused or misunderstood. I don’t want to get into politics at Google because I am not representing Google on this call but, you know, we have had our ups and downs in conversations too. I think banning discussions is a really bad thing. I think figuring out how to have discussions in a way that is polite and meaningful and open and honest is a blessing. Not figuring it out and banning it is a disservice. The former is hard and the latter is bad. I think most companies probably stumble around to try to figure it out.
MELINDA: Yup. Agreed. And Ryan, if you had any thoughts too, please, share in the chat. You might have had some thoughts as well. I see Karen says Base Camp disbanded their DEI committee. The person that spearheaded their DEI council explains that they formed in February and were going to have their first official meeting on Friday and were disbanded before they even had a chance to start. Over a third of employees joined the council. A couple years ago, Deloitte, I guess, disbanded all their ERGs and in place have one inclusion ERG for everyone. Kind of a similar act. Yeah.
JEREMY: I will say that the one thing I have read and I try to avoid using the word proven because scientific studies don’t prove things – they give indications on what we think right now. I have read about how unconscious bias training actually don’t have the positive effect people hoped they would have. I don’t think that is right to think that we know any really good answers. I am not in any way defending what either of the two did. But I think it is important that different companies try different things or else we will never find the best. There is a concept of hill climbing. I won’t go into it too much. You have to be on different hills to find the answer or else you will find local maxima. I don’t think any company should claim they got it right. We can argue Base Camp got it pretty wrong, but I don’t think any of us know what the answer or the right thing to do. We have to try different things until we make more progress.
MELINDA: Jennifer asks, ‘Are allies who are White, cis, gender, heterosexual, men the best recruiters for getting more of the same to become allies?’
JEREMY: I have no idea. You know? I am sure there are – I know there are people whom I have recruited so I can say I have at least been successful more than once. I would not be surprised if there are people who think I am a complete fool and don’t listen to me at all and they are not any less right than the other ones.
I don’t think there is any silver bullet here. I don’t think cis, het, White men are the best recruiters, but I don’t think they are the worst also. I think it is a matter of, hopefully, you find someone who inspires you and changes your mind and, again, makes you see the water, and if that person is another cis, het, White man, great. If it is a Black, trans, whoever it is, it is all good. Let’s all try to make it better and whatever works, great. Let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.
MELINDA: Yeah, just to add, maybe for some, you know, for some people it might be and for others, no. We all have different kinds of access points to allyship. We all have different journeys and I think that that is important too. Not everybody responds in the same way.
JEREMY: I think speaking as a cis, het, White male – I can tell you there are some people like me who could only open up to women – they would never cry in front of another man, but they would a woman, so someone like that. I think a cis White male would be the worst person to recruit them because if I were to show them my empathy, they would be turned off by it because I would not be acting like a man. So in that case, I think it would have the reverse effect. Whereas some people would see this and say I want to be more like them. White males are no more generic than anyone else is generic. I think different people get their inspiration from different people.
MELINDA: Dr. Jeff asks, and maybe we can kind of talk through this question a little bit. ‘Any advice for those of us who live in less supportive communities? Less supportive geographically, broad cultural generalization? ‘
JEREMY: I live in West Chester County, which is mostly more liberal than not. It is, you know, tends to vote Democratic. I am in my bubble and with Google I am certainly in my bubble. I know him very well and I know why he is asking. He lives in a very different place than I do. That’s a really hard question because obviously you can do things virtually now. You can listen to podcasts and be in calls like this, and you can break out of your bubble virtually.
MELINDA: You can read.
JEREMY: And of course, you can always read. But I think he is asking more about what do you do, how do you change people who don’t necessarily want to change, and this goes back to the question before about how I think you can move people a little bit – but it is really hard to move people a lot. I don’t know. I guess, to me the best thing I guess is find something you have in common and slowly build. Trust takes a long time to build up and empathy takes a long time to build up and honesty and openness takes a long time to build up. You can’t change the world in a moment. You have got to take your time and just stay true to who you are, I guess. It is a very hard question.
MELINDA: Agreed. As somebody who has worked on behavior change my whole life, I can say it is easier to change someone’s behavior if they are starting to move in a direction and a lot – and a lot harder when there is inertia and inertia is one thing, but when they are going the other direction it is really hard to bring people back. My suggestion would be to focus on the people that you can budge, that maybe are already starting to move and just need more, and need a nudge and direction. They need help getting further along. There are always things you can do as allies and advocates. In any community, there are lots of organizations. No matter where you are there are organizations working to create change and you could always get involved with those.
MELINDA: An anonymous attendee asked, and you shared one moment but maybe you have another one: ‘What is the most memorable feedback you received as an ally and opened your eyes to something you never thought about before?’
JEREMY: I can think of another good feedback story. This is not about being an ally, this is about being a husband. Advice I got from my wife early on in the relationship. At some point she taught me how to say I am sorry. I used to say I’m sorry very differently than I do now. Most of my apologies went like ‘I am sorry but’ and I would explain why I did what I did. I thought what I was doing was explaining why I did what I did so it would be understandable. I think I learned it was an excuse. We can look at all the cis White males in politics who do not know how to apologize and talk about that for more than an hour.
But anyway, you should never follow an apology with the word ‘but.’ It should be ‘I am sorry’ and that should be it, or ‘I am sorry and here is what I will do differently next time.’ Or ‘I am sorry and here is what I learned from what I did wrong.’ My wife taught me this lesson 30 years ago. The question opened my eyes. It opened my eyes to the fact that while I was apologizing because I was generally sorry, I was still being defensive and still trying to make myself whole rather than the person I was apologizing to make whole. That took a while to get it right and see how she was apologizing. That was eye opening to me because it changed my approach and attitude in thinking about other people.
MELINDA: That is the key. When you make a mistake, apologizing and sometimes it is more than the apology that makes that person whole too. Sometimes you have to take action to make that person whole.
JEREMY: Even if you don’t take action, you have to own it. That is the key – you have to own it. You made a mistake – own it. Like I said, fixing it might mean action or fixing it might mean changing who you are – not who you are, changing what you do and be better next time. But it starts from literally owning it or else you are not apologizing. You are just trying to get away with it. If you are really are sorry, it requires more than saying the words ‘I am sorry.’
I think that, to me, I guess I tell the story because it bridges to all forms of allyship. It is really about the other person. It is really not about you. Allyship has to be about the other person. You have to be in a place where your desires come down to helping the other person and it is not about you. If you can’t get there, you are really not being an ally. If you do everything for yourself and you are helping others that’s not a bad thing. I think you will make more mistakes if that is the way you approach it. You really have to think: ‘forget about me, what can I do to help this person? It is not about me, right?’ Easier said than done. I always – we have these conversations and I like talking about it but I don’t do things as well as I talk about them. I have superpowers and one is to talk a lot.
MELINDA: One more question from the audience and I think I have time for one more question from myself too. From Andrew, you did make some suggestions here, but what suggestions do you have for us to be allies in the workplace? Obviously it is much harder when we are all working from home. What do you suggest folks do in the course of the day that can help people from marginalized groups?
JEREMY: The number one thing I am doing and the first time I did it, it felt really difficult. But, I am trying to do as much as I can – just reach out to people. I don’t think you can help people at scale working from home. I don’t know if you can do anything at scale working from home. I am trying hard to reach out to people and just check in with them because we all feel isolated. We all are struggling and just, especially in these times like after the recent API violence. Reaching out to people who are Asian. You don’t have to reach out and say there has been a lot of API violence and I know you are part of that community and I want to see how you are doing. You just reach out and if they want to talk about it they will and that’s great, but if they don’t that’s great too. That’s what they want. Keep those connections alive.
I have jumped on calls with people a lot lately and I have found 20% of the time, as a random number, they have got something on their chest they need to get off their chest. Normally you might bump into someone in the hallway or read their face and see they need help. You can’t do that when you are working from home because you don’t bump into anyone. I think just take a little extra time to reach out to people you care for and just check in with them. I think that’s the biggest thing we can do right now. I would love to be doing more but that’s what I am doing.
MELINDA: If anyone else has thoughts, please do share. And over the last few episodes we have certainly talked about what people can do as well. Even White men have allies, how have allies helped you in your life?
JEREMY: Yeah, you know – I was thinking about this the other day. There is a long story I could tell. When I was at camp, all my friends turned on me and one person who I didn’t know came up to me and said you look like you need a friend and ended up being my only friend at camp that year. I had the one time when I really needed an ally. But more than that, recently, my friends who talked to me about what we are doing and who can discuss, you know, these deep conversations. When you actually, you know, you call it getting real.
When I have a conversation with someone and we cut through the noise and talk about what matters and whether it is about allyship and what we are doing and why it matters to us, or anything of that sort, I think the real meaningful conversations are what I cherish and I think anyone can do that for anyone. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are in the privilege spectrum. When you reach out to someone and you touch their soul and have a deep, meaningful conversation with them, to me that’s the best thing you could do for someone. Doesn’t matter who you are. We all have fears, we all have needs, we all have desires and things that aren’t working out and just to me that’s – I like to think we are all in this together so if someone shows me they care about me that’s all I want.
MELINDA: Awesome. Yeah, and I always want to point out something you said earlier on in our conversation which is you have the confidence, people have told you, and given you that over your lifetime and one of the top things we have learned in our research around allyship is that one of the top things people want is people to give them confidence so that is another one. Building confidence and trust is another one. So, really, you know, there are so many ways that people from marginalized, underrepresented, discriminated against communities face. So many repercussions of being marginalized, of being discriminated against, and a lot of that destroys their confidence in so many different ways. I think that’s a huge thing we can do.
JEREMY: There are too many out there to tear other people down to make themselves feel bigger. Why not build other people up to make yourself feel bigger? Going back to the book, Give and Take, I mentioned a long time ago. That’s what the book is about. If you help other people, the world is a better place and you are better for it. If you tear other people down, I don’t get it. Make other people confident by saying good things to them about who they’re and what they do.
MELINDA: Well, thank you. Thank you for this discussion. Appreciate you being here and sharing your journey.
JEREMY: Thank you for having me.
MELINDA: Thank you, everybody, for all your amazing comments. Really appreciate you. People are saying great things in the chat too. I appreciate you all contributing and I saw some books were mentioned and resources were mentioned and we mentioned several here as well, so we will put that in a link on the website when the podcast comes out next week.
Continue the work of change. My question for you all is what is your next big step in your work as an ally? How will you take action on that?
Join us each week and please share this with our colleagues. Share this far and wide. Keep our community growing and our community of allies growing. You can find previous podcast episodes at changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries. Please find this episode or your favorite episode on a podcast platform and like it so we can continue to grow more of an audience. Thank you, everybody. We will 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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