Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

Embracing Anger As A Pathway To Empathy... And Resilience

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of Meag-gan O'Reilly; a Black woman with curly black hair and yellow shirt; and host Melinda Briana Epler; a White woman with red hair, glasses, and orange shirt holding a white mug behind a laptop.

In Episode 63, Meag-gan O’Reilly, CEO & Co-Founder of Inherent Value Psychology INC, joins Melinda in an illuminating conversation about the importance of embracing your anger and how it helps us foster empathy with one another. They also discuss how anger helps us build resilience by allowing us to recognize our own needs and boundaries and how Systems Centered Language can be the first step to dismantling oppression and marginalization.

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  • “The win-win of appropriate anger is you get to express it, you get to externalize it. Because when we internalize it, it kind of just erodes on us. You get to externalize it without it damaging the other person. That’s the intent. Oftentimes, it’s a conversation— a very direct point-blank conversation. Oftentimes, it’s a boundary ‘This could not happen again!’. And oftentimes, it’s an invitation for allyship.”
  • “On the bridge of protection or defense comes anger. I care for this person, I don’t want them hurting. They are hurting, that angers me. I want whatever that is causing that dehumanization or diminishment to end. That galvanizes the anger.”
  • “How the world works for me as a heterosexual person is very different from how the world works for someone in the LGBT community. Me as a citizen, me as a petite person, it’s very different for people without those identities. So I have to actually just take their word for it and believe their truth for just a moment— really enter into their worldview. That fosters empathy. So we listen, we enter into their worldview, and then we might be able to ask a question, a clarifying statement, or to dig deeper. I like to say psychology is more archeology; I’m usually digging new layers of history, sediments, and experiences to really get down to the core of who someone is.” 
  • “So, I like giving people anger 101, right? One, we know that anger is natural, because it’s a part of our fight or flight system, our parasympathetic nervous system is triggered when we’re when a boundary has been crossed. Two, it also is, like I said, very informative. When you’re angry about something, it’s teaching you about your interaction with yourself in the environment. And if we have been taught to suppress that, it’s really interesting that then we don’t have the data from our anger necessary to inform some type of change. And so, I think it’s, you know, interesting that anger is the emotion that women, people of color have been taught to suppress, because it’s really our gateway into what needs to change.”


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Guest Speakers
Headshot of Meag-gan O'Reilly, a Black woman with curly black hair standing in front of a wall full of ivy wearing a fitted white sleeveless dress with her arms folded in front of her

Meag-gan O’Reilly
CEO & Co-Founder of Inherent Value Psychology INC

Dr. Meag-gan O’Reilly, (she/her) is a Staff Psychologist at Stanford University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and Adjunct Faculty in the Stanford School of Medicine. While completing her Post-Doctoral Fellowship at CAPS, Dr. O’Reilly created the first satellite clinic for Black undergraduate and graduate students across the African Diaspora. She currently serves a Program Coordinator for Outreach, Equity, and Inclusion. In this role, Dr. O’Reilly co-created the Outreach and Social Justice Seminar in 2016 with the goal of training the next generation of culturally conscious and justice-oriented clinicians.

Outside of Stanford, Dr. O’Reilly is the Co-Founder and CEO of Inherent Value Psychology INC., her private practice that provides DEI consulting, workshops, trainings, and international speaking engagements. Dr. O’Reilly is a DEI consultant for companies including Google, LYRA Health, and The United Negro College Fund’s STEM Scholar Program that supports Black college students nationwide to navigate underrepresentation and discrimination in STEM fields. She also serves as the lead clinician in a partnership with Google to provide therapeutic spaces called The Gathering Space for Black Google Employees in response to the murder of George Floyd and the chronic trauma, and grief, in the Black community. Her TEDx talk: Enough is Enough: The Power of Your Inherent Value, can be seen on YouTube and is a helpful reminder of unconditional self-worth and that our lives matter to the world.


Melinda: You’re listening 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 lead the change in our workplaces and communities. I’m Melinda Brianna Adler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst. I’m a diversity, equity and inclusion speaker, author, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and order a copy of my book, “How To Be An Ally”, at www.melindabrianaepler.com. Learn more about the show and sign up to join us for a live event at ally.cc. 


Hello, everyone, today we are talking with Dr. Meag-gan O’Reilly, staff psychologist at Stanford University and CEO and co-founder of inherent value Psychology Inc. We’ll be discussing how embracing anger can be a pathway to empathy and also a pathway to our resilience. Then we’ll also talk about System Centered Language as an alternative. So, some of the current language that we use around oppression and marginalization. 

Melinda: Well, hello, Meag-gan and welcome.

Meag-gan: I’m happy to be here. 


Melinda: Yes, good to see you. So, we always start with wanting to learn a bit about you and your story and how you came to do the work that you do today. 


Meag-gan: As a psychologist, I’m a story keeper. So, it’s nice when I get a chance to share a little bit about my story. My story, like so many of us, begins with the story of others. So, I am one of three siblings, I’m actually the baby. I think birth order can be important sometimes. And I am a first generation Caribbean American. So, my parents were born and raised in Jamaica and came over in their early 20s. And I share that because that is one of the formative parts of my identity and my story. Another formative part is that when I was around four, my mom joined the air force. So, she was a nurse in the Air Force before she recently retired. And that allowed us to move around quite a bit. When I was younger, I saw it as being uprooted like I went to three different high schools, that was hard. 

But I often lived in Italy for three years, Arizona, Texas a lot of different places. And I think that started my appetite for difference for culture for just all the different ways and permutations that life manifests in all different walks of life. So lastly, tying these two together, being the baby, you know, I saw my brother go before me, my sister goes before me, and my oldest sister had depression growing up, and she would go to therapy and come back better. And I wanted to be a part of that magic. 

So that’s what led me to study psychology and undergrad and graduate school. And also inspired by my sister, I spend a lot of my therapeutic work with marginalized groups, particularly Black folks in STEM, Black women in STEM, anywhere where we’re charting a course and being trailblazers. So here at Stanford, I created the first satellite clinic for Black students across the African diaspora to really kind of lower that barrier to getting into therapy, we know the Black community might not utilize therapy in the same way at the same rates. So, I created a satellite where they cannot come into the health center, but start getting their foot in the door with therapy. So, one of the things I’m most proud of, of my 10 years here at Stanford.


Melinda: Awesome. And we have a few therapists actually on the show, specifically therapists that work with Black and Brown men and also women and in BiPAP books in general. Can you talk a little bit about your work specifically, and what that looks like?


Meag-gan: Yes


Melinda:  Yes, that would be interesting.

Meag-gan: Jumping off from the satellite clinic, I really kind of specialize in undergrad and graduate students, and who are experiencing all the other things. Grad students at Stanford are experiencing, you know the Imposter Syndrome, some stereotype threat, the transition, anxiety. But these Black students are also holding, active trauma, grief. I mean, given just last year, there’s a lot more of that heap on their plate, the post COVID transitioning from zoom school to back to in person, so they’re holding what everyone else is holding, plus the elements of their race base identity-based discrimination and trauma. 

And the kicker for me is oftentimes these students, although bright in their own fields, don’t know that they’re experiencing trauma. And so, they just think they’re failing at something or not doing something well. And so, I’ve been specializing with high achievers for a while now. And one of the things I see that’s really quite tragic is because they’re high achieving, they usually attribute what they’re experienced to themselves. And that’s usually helpful because you know, if they don’t get an A on the test, so like, what could I have done better, study more, get this helper technique, but when it comes to systems of oppression, and they’re attributing the outcome to themselves, it’s a very different experience and they go off and solving the wrong problem, which is them, right, I just need to do differently, or I need to figure this out or need to try more. 

And that’s really not the antidote to oppression. So, a lot of my job is educating, teaching people how things work, how it manifests in their life, and then how to cope, but also resist and push back on systems where they can, and also how to center joy and how to center alignment with who they are. So that has been a lot about my work, let alone the evidence-based treatments for all the other things.  But that part is where liberation psychology comes in.


Melinda: There was so much in that. When I first started working on diversity, equity inclusion, so much of the work today was around fixing women that have Imposter Syndrome.


Meag-gan:  Yes. 

Melinda: Fixing, you know, creating ERGs, which are important and important for community building, important for finding a place where you can really belong and also not the answer to fixing those systemic problems. Yes, if you could talk a little bit about resistance and resilience in there, I think. Can you talk a little bit about that resistance piece and how that shows up? 


Meag-gan: yes, I would love to because to underscore your point, I think as a culture and as a society, we love an individual problem, or when we can pose a problem in an individual, because then we can kind of disrobe ourselves of the onus on participating in the solution, like, oh, they just need to do something better. Women just need to lean in, or X, Y, Z. So, what liberation psychology really looks at, and I think it’s by design that not even I got taught liberation psychology, my graduate school is something I had to find later on and really teach myself. But so, there’s coping strategies, which helps us kind of get by, stay afloat in something that’s stressful. 

And then there’s resistance strategies, which teaches us what’s wrong with the situation outside of us feeling poorly about it, then tries to teach us what are the ways I can maintain myself and push back towards creating something more either equitable or fair. So, let’s take one of my most common, but very important experiences, let’s say you are a student in a toxic lab, your lab for whatever reason, isn’t edifying to you in some way? Coping would be how do you kind of sit still, be quiet, get the work done, show up on time maneuver, whatever the toxicity is, maybe it’s how you’re being taught to or the use of materials, you just how do you just kind of persist? Right? 


Melinda: But resist herself too much?


Meag-gan: Yes. Just kind of stay in and assimilate really. And then resistance would say, okay, what are you needing that you’re not getting? And how can you show up in the space that, one, communicates that you need that thing, two, advocates, partners with others allies, as well as other people also not getting what they need, and come up with a way to make that voiced. And a lot of times, it’s a very fearful thing for students, because there’s a lot of power in the PI and student dynamic. So resistance is a little bit more about how to actually change it for the better for myself, rather than just survive in it.


Melinda: I think that might be a good segue into talking about anger. So when we discussed what you were passionate about, before this segment, you said anger, and can you talk a little bit about why?


Meag-gan: Yes, and my relationship with anger, I’ll call it a relationship has evolved over time. Again, going back to my origin story, being first generation, children of an immigrant, part of I think a lot of our immigrant story is assimilate, accommodate, just do a good job. Don’t ruffle feathers. And inherently that also subliminally says don’t be angry, don’t have a reason for any dissension right or attention to yourself. And so, for a while I was disconnected from my anger, right, I thought that was the more palatable and successful way to be. 

However, in therapy, hypocritically tell my clients to access their anger. From that seat, I tell people that anger is the most informative emotion and I believe that it is. And so, tapping into my own anger really kind of hit during COVID. When I wrote “System Centered Language”, and started tapping into all the things that we could no longer ignore that either was affecting my life, or really, now that I’m a mother, what type of world do I want my daughter to inherit? Who’s three. And is that happening fast enough? And anger is telling me it’s not. And so my anger has really just bubbled up over the last couple of years.


Melinda: Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely some stereotypes and biases around Black people specifically around anger Black women, the angry Black woman, and also when assessing leadership skills and potential, looking often at Black people in general, and especially Black woman as being too assertive and, and too overbearing, whereas White man with a similar trait would be seen as leadership material. 


Meag-gan: Yes, that’s angry. 


Melinda: Yes.


Meag-gan: So, you get this double bind, you’re, you’re taught to suppress it, or at least really highly encouraged to avoid consequences by suppressing it. But then when you do, there’s harm to the self. And I talk about this a lot in counseling, you feel like you don’t have your own back, you’re you either start to implode, that anger and it starts to erode on the inside out. So, I like giving people anger 101, right? One, we know that anger is natural, because it’s a part of our fight or flight system, our parasympathetic nervous system is triggered when we’re when a boundary has been crossed. Two, it also is, like I said, very informative. When you’re angry about something, it’s teaching you about your interaction with yourself in the environment. And if we have been taught to suppress that, it’s really interesting that then we don’t have the data from our anger necessary to inform some type of change. And so, I think it’s, you know, interesting that anger is the emotion that women, people of color have been taught to suppress, because it’s really our gateway into what needs to change.


Melinda: Yes. I think that kind of reiterates what you said, make sure that that was really heard, that boundary has been crossed. And that is crucial to people who have been marginalized and oppressed, and to really understand that that boundary has been crossed. And that is it not going back to what you said earlier, that it is not me. It is the system. It is the people around me. And it’s the system. Yes, there is a kind of healthy anger and an anger that can fester, continue beyond I think, what is healthy? How do you work with that? How do you know what’s healthy anger?


Meag-gan: Yes, because there is unhealthy or at least unhelpful anger. And so, I like to say appropriate anger. Because sometimes healthy and unhealthy, connotes different things for different people. And everyone has an anger story. Maybe they have someone in their family who was angry. So, when they hear the word anger, they think of that person and they don’t either don’t want to be like that. So, everyone has a relationship with anger. And so, I like to say appropriate anger is the type where there’s a win-win, where you get to express what boundary has been crossed physical, when someone touches your hair, emotional, spiritual, intellectual time boundaries, yes, we can have boundaries with their time and energy, any of those domains, right. 

So, you get to express that. But it also doesn’t diminish the other person. That’s usually when the anger becomes more on the unhealthy or unhelpful side, where it’s either physical intimidation, or condescension, even passive aggressive, which is usually the more female identified style, because, again, we’ve been taught to kind of subvert that power. So, the win-win of appropriate anger is you get to express it, you get to externalize it, because when we internalize it, it kind of just erodes on us, you get to externalize it without damaging the other person. That’s the intent. Now someone might still have a reaction to your anger, because oftentimes, people that benefit from you not having a boundary don’t really like you asserting one. So that’s something else, right? But the intent isn’t to diminish, dehumanize or condescend to that other person, they can still take it, how they take it, but that wasn’t your intent. So that is what healthy anger can look like. Oftentimes, it’s a conversation, a very direct point-blank conversation. Oftentimes, it’s a boundary “this cannot happen again”. And oftentimes, it’s an invitation for allyship, like, I need this help and serve so this can be different for me, all that is appropriate and useful anger. 


Melinda: Yes, I think about when there’s a microaggression happening in the moment in the workplace, for example, that it’s important as an ally to recognize when somebody is angry, when an emotion is there, present and support that person in that moment because that means that boundary has been crossed. And also, to be aware of how a person who has committed to microaggression might also become defensive and make sure that you are there as an ally in support.


Meag-gan: Last thing I want to say here about a year is that some anger hasn’t gone away. Some boundaries are still being crossed, right? So oftentimes, I have a lot of Black students who say, I can’t do that, or I’ll be seen as the angry Black woman or the angry Black man or the aggressive Black man. Or people say “Oh, you’re so angry all the time”. “Why are you so angry?” We have to acknowledge that there’s been no closure to a lot of angering things, right? So, constant low-grade anger is a part of the Black experience as a part of a lot of marginalized experiences. And we can just think about the James Baldwin quote of “Being a Black person, and even semi-conscious is a state of anger because you can’t unknow what you know, you can’t and feel those real feelings.” So, I think there’s a low-grade anger that a lot of marginalized people feel but also needs to have made room for.


Melinda: So how does anger relate to empathy?


Meag-gan: These two feelings are usually not seen together anytime at the opposite ends of the spectrum, right? But I actually think they’re far closer together than we think. Let’s start with empathy. Everyone loves to talk about empathy. Empathy makes us feel good. Empathy is a good emotion. So, empathy is that ability to really emotionally resonate with someone else’s experience, right? To feel what they’re feeling as if it were your own feelings, which is different from sympathy, which is feeling sorry for our almost pity at times. So, empathy is that kind of equity and emotion. Now, anger, how these two are related is if I’m feeling robust and true empathy for someone, and I’m understanding and resonating with that experience, I also want that experience if it’s a negative one to end for that person, right? So, on the bridge of protection or defense comes anger, right? I care for this person, I don’t want them hurting, they are hurting, that angers me, right? I want whatever that is causing that dehumanization or diminishment to end, that galvanizes the anger. So, I actually think one catalyzes the other.


Melinda: Yes, interesting. So, working with people in companies, working with leaders and companies and working to build empathy working to build allyship, it takes some time to get them to that angry point. That is not a quick path for a lot of people. It takes a lot of really deeply understanding I think the issues and that is a key piece of it. And then also, perhaps and I think it would be great for you to share your thoughts here is going to the next step of empathy is allowing yourself to have that anger and is because that can feel uncomfortable. And it also can feel like maybe when you feel a boundary is crossed, that that’s impacting your own worldview, as well. What are your thoughts about that?


Meag-gan: I think it has to get to the worldview level. So, taking off my psychologist hat or just moving it over to the side like a beret and putting on my consultant hat. I think anger is critical. But people think anger is unprofessional. Right? So, they kind of say, oh, push it out of the workspace, right? But I really do underscore your point that if we are feeling empathy, anger soon follows. And that is going to be that motor that drives on actually pushing the policies that need to be different. We can empathize all day, right? And it’s a big emotion, but it doesn’t have the wheels that anger does. Anger galvanizes action, right? So, what I do as a consultant as I start thinking about and helping people think about, okay, if this is true, if we can enter into this other groups worldview and their process and how they’re treated, and that angers us enough to really feel that co-resonance, then what are we spurred to do? So, my favorite allyship quote is a famous one from Liliana Watson. And I think it underscores the point I’m trying to make about anger. She says, if you’ve come here to help, you’re wasting your time. But if you’re here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then we can work and walk together. So, we have to get angry enough to the point where your harm is also harmed to me. 


Melinda: Yes. 

Meag-gan: Because we are connected right through empathy are literally connected to all the systems that we share. That’s another thing COVID busted open that we are intimately connected, right. So that anger kind of helps us get an aerial view of what’s actually happening.


Melinda: Yes, and I think it is, we are bound together, right and it is affecting all of us and it is it. Getting to the point of understanding recognizing that and then doing something about it. That is the key to allyship and advocacy. I want to circle back and just ask you, when you’re embracing your anger, what anger comes up for you in this moment? What is your anger telling you at this moment in time in this place in history?


Meag-gan: There’s actually a few pain-points. Your boundaries or anger or angering spots. One is, I think there’s a deep conversation I’m having, my clients are having, my friends are having around the relationship to work, right? Remote work, losing work, being out of work has spurred a great resignation, but also a great conversation on how do I integrate work into my life? Not instead of how do I squeeze life into my work, right? And it’s really angering to me that, although we’re having these intro personal epiphanies about how we want to work, where we want to work, what we want to do for work, the systems of capitalism are still such that many of us won’t be able to manifest some of those dreams and still keep a roof over our head. Right? So that’s still very angering to me.

I just noticed some of my privileges and being able to maneuver in some ways that other people can’t. 


Melinda: So yes, I read an article recently that made me angry, it was discussing that there are more jobs available right now than there are people to fill them. And at the same time, the people aren’t currently available and out of work, aren’t filling those because we’ve had this kind of rethinking and reclaiming almost what we want work to be, and, and that people are not willing to make compromises on that right now. So, they’re not taking those jobs. And there was a quote from an executive from a company that said “Well, we’re just kind of waiting it out, because eventually they’re going to have to take the jobs.” That made me angry.


Meag-gan: As it should. 


Melinda: Yes. That is not okay.


Meag-gan: Which powerplay. We really couldn’t say starving them out. Right? 


Melinda: Right. I do hope that our collective anger and our collective like rethinking and reevaluating what work is and what we want work to be, does actually transform work. 


Meag-gan: Yes, good. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice. And then the other thing that’s continuing to anger me which is bigger than the work microcosm, is the waning in allyship, really. So, something I’ve been holding with my clients is the surge of last summer, and the wokeness, and all the statements, and then what we wouldn’t most my clients are experiencing as a drop off of that fervor of that cadence in their workspaces. There’s less resources, there’s less town halls, it’s really been dwindling over time. And that angers me, because Black lives matter. Black lives have always mattered. But it seems like in these crises, inflection points, that’s when we, you know, cyclically surge and show up and then it dies down again. So, the fact that it dies down is very angry. 


Melinda: Yes, me too. Yes, as an ally. Me too, quite angry about that. And working, obviously, here continuing to do the work to keep it in conversation, to keep the actions happening, to keep people learning and growing as allies. And I do think that there are still a lot of people that are activated, and some people need to be reminded, we talked about burnout in our last episode. And so many folks are experiencing a lot of things in their lives right now. And it is really important to keep allyship going and keep working to create that systemic change and also the interpersonal change that’s needed.


Meag-gan: And as a fairly early career consultant, DI practitioner, I had to learn the hard way that there’s some corporations that kind of want a chat box or kind of want the veneer of doing the work. And there’s others that really want to do long range consistent systems work. And I hadn’t come up with my own litmus test of who I consult with who I actually work with, because I don’t want to make a place look hospitable and then it’s hostile to people that go there. So, it was actually a very trying time I took all of last October off just due to the own my own racial trauma, just all the work and the burden and holding other people while I was going through it myself, so I gave myself a month off less last year just to just to recruit just to replenish.


Melinda: So maybe that is a good, good place to go back in because we mentioned risk distance and resilience. So, let’s talk a little bit about that resilience piece. What does resilience look like? And particularly in the work that you do, what does that look like? 


Meag-gan: Yes, Well, straight out the gate. I like to say that resilience requires replenishment. It’s not resilience when you know, whenever something comes up as a buzzword, it loses its original power and purpose. And resilience looks like now is just keep grinding. When that’s not resilience in my book, resilience, originally in the psychological literature, is how quickly are you able to adapt and bounce back to pre-impacted state, not staying impacted and just finding a way to keep going? 

That’s kind of what resilience is coded at least in really high places. So true resilience is “How do I stay backfield?” “How do I stay replenished?” Have a very radical, mechanical and use a car analogy? “How do I make sure my brake pad is thick? So, I’m not grinding on my gears?” Right? So, for me, resilience looks like regular breaks, having tried, and community who can kind of keep my perspective on the level. 

I think when you’re doing allyship and social justice work, it is angering so many times that that anger can start to I don’t want to say warp your lens, but kind of make you more anarchic than collaborative at times, right? You just want to clear down and start over. But there is a method that will get you there further than that, right. And so, tribe breaks in joy. I love talking about joy as a type of resilience and resistance. Because not all that you want to be dealing with is the hard, heavy bad stuff. You also want to center your alignment, things that bring you just sheer unadulterated joy that’s not going to show up on your resume or anything you’re doing. And it really keeps you afloat. It really keeps you engaged with the goodness of life, because that’s here for all of us. 


Melinda: Yes. And the ideal is that joy isn’t just when you stop working, Joy is within your work as well. Right. And that is something that redefinition of work. I think that is what several people in the world are looking at.


Meag-gan: Yes, right, that you’re spending that nine to five, tap, contributing and tapping into something that gives you a larger sense of connectivity and purpose.


Melinda: Yes, absolutely. I want to ask you first, actually, before we go into systems that are language, which I think is actually related, is how do we build more empathy for each other? What actions can we take to build more empathy for each other? What does that look like?


Meag-gan: It can look a lot of different ways. And not all of these are heavy lift at all. I think I know that as humans, we’re hardwired for empathy, we have mirror neurons in our brain that pick up but someone else’s facial expression is even their body language. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but you know, sitting across from maybe your girlfriend or somebody you’re talking to, and they’re using a certain hand expression, or they’re sitting like this, and eventually you’re sitting like this, like it’s in US woven into our fabric already too cohesive, and connect on this level. So, I like letting people know that it’s not something you have to download or change about yourself at the heart, the hard wires are already there. And then the one of the lowest lifts is to really listen to understand, right, as a professional listener, this is easy for me now, but a lot of our conversation is listened to respond, are listened to rebut. But a lot of us have lost sight on how to listen to just understand. And you know, when you’re doing that when you’re silent when the person is done. 


Melinda Briana: Right.


Meag-gan: Right?  you’re silent when the person is done. That means the last thing they said is still hitting your airwaves and still digesting. And then you’re starting the cognitive work of what I want to respond with. If you finished and I’m really talking that I’ve probably constructed that as you were still talking. So low hanging fruit is adding more silence and more listening space in our conversations, that could be step one, then step two is a little harder. Maybe mid-hanging fruit would be to enter into that other person’s worldview. What are the contexts and the structures and the parameters and the factors that give rise to that person thinking and feeling the way they do? 

This is hard because it asks us maybe even demands us to put ourselves aside for a moment, right? And then how our worldview how the world works for us, and enter into how it works for somebody else. And that can run us into a lot of contradictions, a lot of new knowledge, a lot of discomfort. how the world works for me as a heterosexual person is very different for how the world works for someone of the LGBT community. Me as a citizen, me as a petite person, very different for people without those identities, so I have to actually just take their word for it, and believe their truth for just a moment to really enter into their worldview, right? That fosters empathy. So, we listen, we enter into their worldview, and then we might be able to ask a question or a clarifying statement, or to dig deeper, right? I like to say psychology is more archeology, I’m usually digging new layers of history and sediment and experiences to really get down to the core of who someone is. But that’s only after listening and stepping into the world that they have for themselves. 

Melinda: Yes, I would add, because I studied cultural anthropology, that those cultural systems that impact our own worldviews are so important as well. So, let’s talk about System Centered Language. You wrote an article about System Centered Language. And we’ll link to that in the show notes or everybody can take a look at that. Can you talk about what that means and why it’s important, and how it relates to, I think, to anger?


Meag-gan: So, systems that are language, it’s related to what we’re talking about, about anger, because this article was birthed out of anger. So, if we remember, early COVID, where the CDC for the first time, started having demographic data about who was getting ill from COVID, more, we found that it was Black and Brown communities. And I just was, you know, reading articles and watching the news, of course, like we all were about how this was unfolding. And I started seeing a certain language, and I started feeling some type of way about that language, like, I was starting to feel angry, language like vulnerable populations at risk. And as an academic, with a statistics background. And when you write about research, you often use that language. But in just, you know, one day of like, lamenting about the whole situation, all the grief, all the trauma, the disproportionate loss, I just started writing down all those words at risk and disproportionate, vulnerable, underrepresented. And it dawned on me that what was irking me about those terms is that it housed the vulnerability or the at riskiness in the person, right? and made it sound like this, these groups of people were just inherently weaker, sicker, in some way. 

And so, I started writing about this and systems centered language, what it is, is a call to action to center the system to ode to the system when we’re talking about how people experience depression. So, for example, in the medical model, in the medical field, we already have a person’s first language. So instead of saying an alcoholic, I would say someone’s struggling with alcoholism, and the purpose there, and we probably felt the shift. And that example, is to humanize the person to separate them out of their struggle. So, you inherently treat them differently, right? If they’re just not this thing there if someone’s struggling with this disorder, right. And we need that for oppression. 

So, for example, instead of saying at risk of this group of people, Blacks, let next folks are just at risk for COVID, perhaps they’ve been more exposed, right? More often to be those frontline workers, right, not able to work remotely. So, they’re exposed to more harm, more likely to live near toxic plants and food deserts are more exposed and just inherently at risk. That’s a system issue. 


Melinda: Right.


Meag-gan: vulnerable. Now, this is a big one. Vulnerability in psychology is something a little different, where we have the courage to show up as our authentic self, that type of vulnerability is good. But this medical vulnerability makes it sound like a group of people are inherently Yes, sicker or weaker. So instead of being vulnerable, we’ve been systemically prohibited from healthy outlets or healthy strategies, right? So, we’re prohibited, not vulnerable. And then there’s the easy one, when people say history, that inherently makes us think of some way past time when it’s actually very current. Right? So that’s another shift. 

And then disproportionately, I believe that disproportionate findings are the signature of the system. Why is it that one group is so disproportionately affected by something? So instead of disproportionately we can say systemically? Right, there’s something at play that is causing this skew? Right, so disproportionately, systemically impacted? And then this one isn’t mine from the article, I found it out in the world. People in different disciplines have been writing to me about how this is shifting how they work from grant writers to teachers. And so underrepresented, which is something we often say I’ve said many times the System Centered Language alternate is systematically excluded. 

There are policies in place that have kept people out, right, rather than you’re just not making it in a very different powerful shift. And I believe that our language is important because one, we can all use it, we all have a seat at the allyship table. And two, it actually sends a frame that’s different and helps us actually channel the energies in the right direction, much like intersectionality sets a frame to help us hold that there’s actually overlapping in justices at the intersections of identities. This helps us find the system in any individual struggle.

Melinda: Thank you for that. Thank you for that framework, because there are a lot of those phrases or phrases that make me cringe every time I hear them at risk, vulnerable, or even underrepresented as I think people have been struggling with. That’s not really right. But what is right there isn’t a perfect name for my book, I talk about how there is no underrepresented is the closest I could get. But there is no perfect word, somebody please invent it. Systematically excluded. Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if it’s anger when I see you’re at risk, I’m not sure. Maybe there is some anger in that. It’s like you’re labeling kids as less than in some way. When you say at-risk youth.


Meag-gan: And a stereotype inherently. Yes.


Melinda: Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you want to make sure that we do touch on this topic?


Meag-gan: I guess the one thing that I always touch on because it’s kind of my perspective in life, and what I want to contribute with my life is that all these things we’re talking about allyship, anger, empathy, System Centered Language, really, for me comes from a place of inherent value. That’s why I found inherent value psychology, Inc. And really all about healing the worst wounds of oppression, one of the key functions of oppression is to make you feel invaluable and dehumanized. And that all this poor treatment comes from that. And so, the more that we can humanize each other and see our own value, and kind of reclaim that, the better off we’ll all be individually, but phenomenally conductively as well. And if we can see that your value is tied up with my value, and that when I value you, I’m also valuing me that virtuous purple is what I’m about galvanizing.


Melinda: I love that. I love that. So, I usually end each episode with a call to action. And I want to ask you, what is your call to action? After listening or watching this episode? What action would you like people to take?

Meag-gan: Yes. So, my call to action is a little bit of a data grab as well, I have an Excel spreadsheet going for the last year and a half and all the different systems centered language alternates. So, my call to action is for anyone watching listening to go ahead and read the article, get familiar with that, what that means. And then be on the lookout for a System Centered Language alternates in your own world, in your own discipline in your own families, and then send them to me, I’m going to gather them all and hopefully publish them so we can all have new terms and language that we can use to really change the frame. So be on the hunt for systems and language.


Melinda: Awesome. And my next question, which I think is: Where do people go to send them to you? 


Meag-gan: Yes. Definitely ivpsy.com, is my website, there’s a Contact Form there. And it also has all my social media handles and in case people are more familiar with the direct DM.


Melinda: Awesome, thank you so much for this conversation.


Meag-gan: Very healing, thank you Melinda.


Melinda: Appreciate you.


Meag-gan: Appreciate you.


Melinda: Alright, everyone that this episode does build on previous episodes. So, if you haven’t listened to them, do check out episode 25 with Dr. Kevin Simon, where we talked specifically about the impact of racism on Black and Brown men, Episode 14 with Dr. Angel Acosta and moving from structural inequality to human flourishing. Definitely some, some themes there that are aligned, and then also episode 8 with Michael Thomas on understanding intergenerational trauma, and its impact on the workplace. 

All of these, I think, go together hand in hand. And if you haven’t listened to them or watched them, please do you can find them at ally.cc on our website. And you heard from Meag-gan, please do take action. As you finish listening, make sure you take action.

For more learning resources about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc. And please subscribe to the podcast and YouTube channel. Leave us a review and share this episode. Let’s keep building allies around the world. Leadership is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing and taking consistent action the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action we take today, leading with empathy analysis is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training consulting events. If you’re interested in learning more about how we can help you build empathy and allyship on your team, please visit changecatalyst.co. Thank you for listening to our show and taking action as an ally. We’ll see you next week.

About the Host

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.

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Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

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Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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