In Episode 84, Nisha Anand, CEO of Dream Corps, joins Melinda in a reflective conversation about how we can make unlikely allies and find common ground to create large-scale change in our organizations, culture, and legislation. They share their take on the Supreme Court’s draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, its impact on abortion rights across different communities, and the power every individual can have in pushing for an inclusive piece of legislation. Nisha also provides practical steps for creating common ground in communities and workplaces by learning how to have hard conversations, listening to understand, and finding commonalities that can help drive change forward.
- Learn more about Nisha Anand
- Learn more about Nisha’s work at Dream Corps
- Read CNN’s article, “CNN poll: The Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade hasn’t shaken the midterm landscape” by Jennifer Agiesta and Ariel Edwards-Levy
- Learn more about the First Step Act or FSA (Public Law 115-39)
- Download the infographic report on “The State Of Allyship Part 3: How People Become Better Allies” (PDF file)
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “Wherever we have common pain, we can find common purpose… In the ‘common ground’ work I do, I always try to start with that: where is the pain? Where can I relate to your pain? You can relate to my pain— from that place [on] can we move forward.”
- “The first thing is we have to be willing to work with people who aren’t exactly like us… When I make the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion…, I take it a step further and understand it as this is how you build solutions that actually work. It’s not just that it’s a good way to work to be inclusive; it’s that it is absolutely necessary and it’s the only thing that does work. And you can understand that in business. If you build a product where you only talk to people who look just like you, the product is only going to serve a certain part of the population. We understand that that’s a problem and so you have a lot of companies that work to diversify, maybe for the bottom line reason… It’s the same in legislation… If we try to make legislation that only works for one population, you’re going to get a solution that leads people out. And it’s usually the people who are traditionally left out and left behind… So I believe [that] to build a piece of legislation that works for the most people…, you’ll have to build an inclusive table from the start. It might be working with senators who I don’t agree [with] on 99 of 100 things. But if there’s one thing we can agree on and get it done, I feel like it’s my civic duty.”
- “The tool which we learn in kindergarten (and we keep learning over and over again) is about listening… Listening not to win an argument…, but listening to understand because we all have different motivations. If we don’t understand each other’s motivations, we won’t be able to find a common ground. So listen to understand. And I always ask if I don’t understand it: ‘tell me more’, ‘wait, I don’t get that’, ‘tell me why you think that’…, just to get the background of them coming to a conclusion different than I.”
- “I would love for folks to engage in one of those hard political conversations with that person in your life you’ve been avoiding; you don’t want to talk to them about vaccines, masks, or Roe v. Wade… Have the conversation, listen for understanding, and find a place— just one place— to agree. It will open up something else. Find out why they think that. Most people aren’t unreasonable, there’s a reason why.”
CEO of Dream Corps
Nisha Anand is the CEO of Dream Corps, a nonprofit organization that brings people together across racial, social, and partisan lines to solve our toughest problems. She is the Political Director of Rebuild The Dream, an organization fighting for an economy that works for everyone. Nisha leads a diverse group of people who are learning, like her, the value of unconventional relationships. Her journey from punk-rock protester to common ground champion is documented in her widely-viewed TED talk, The Radical Act of Choosing Common Ground. With her team of storytellers, organizers, and policy experts, Nisha focuses on criminal justice reform, green economics, and tech equity to create a better future for all.
Previously, Nisha served as Chief of Staff to Van Jones, CNN commentator, and NY Times Bestselling Author. A veteran fundraiser and consultant with decades of experience in nonprofit development and management, Nisha has also served as Director of Development for The Ruckus Society, a national direct action training organization, and for San Francisco Women Against Rape, the city’s rape crisis center. Nisha is a senior trainer and consultant with GIFT, the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. As a certified coach, Nisha is a pioneer in the field of “fundraising coaching”–providing a unique blend of coaching people through their issues around money.
In 1998, Nisha was arrested while passing out pro-democracy leaflets in the military dictatorship of Burma and was sentenced to five years in jail with 18 other international activists. Her arrest put her on the international stage, delivering speeches at numerous events and conferences and interviewing for TV, radio, and print. In 1999, she received her Masters Degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from the American University in Washington, D.C. Nisha plays soccer and is the mother of two teenagers and a great dane.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another and to take action to be more inclusive and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity Equity and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor.
You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right. Let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today, our guest is Nisha Anand, CEO of Dream Corps, a nonprofit that brings people together across racial, social, and partisan lines to solve our toughest problems. Political Director of Rebuild the Dream which is an organization fighting for an economy that works for everyone.
We’ll be talking today about how to make unlikely allies and find common ground so we can all create change, whether that’s in our organizations, or we’re looking to create large-scale change in culture and legislation. So welcome, Nisha. Good to see you.
NISHA: Yes. Thank you for having me on today.
MELINDA: I’m really excited to have this conversation with you. We are recording this on the day that Politico published a leak that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs. Wade. During a time when the vast majority of Americans don’t actually want it overturned that CNN survey showed recently that only 30% of Americans want Roe versus Wade overturned.
It seems like a very good example of where we can find common ground and perhaps pass legislation to change the outcome. I want to ask you just how are you doing? What are you thinking about today?
NISHA: Today is a really hard day. I feel like usually, people can count on me for giving an optimistic take on things. I am an optimist. But I’m a determined optimist. I don’t think I’m naive. I usually am optimistic because I’ve seen the world change. I’ve seen progress. I’ve seen that if you work for an outcome, it can be achieved. I’ve seen enough things change in my lifetime to believe it. So, I don’t think I’m a naive optimist. I think I’m a determined optimist.
But today, I called my leadership team on a call as we tried to figure out what should we say, what can we say, what’s the right thing to say in our voice? And I didn’t have an optimistic take today. It is devastating. Some days are just hard. And this feels hard. If this is the final decision that comes out, it will have long-lasting ramifications for whole communities.
We know we have to be real that this will impact certain communities more than others. It’s the people that are already struggling that are not going to have access to safe abortions. We keep hearing this. You can’t ban abortions. You can only ban safe abortions. That’s been true in history in every country that has tried to ban it or has an active ban. It only increases the mortality rate for the pregnant folks. That is documented. It’s fact. It’s science.
But the ramifications for entire communities. I don’t know why we are not talking about it. No matter how much that 30% of folks who believe that Roe should be overturned, should not be celebrating today. Even if you try to take into account where they’re coming from. There is no option for what you will do for the women who will be hurting first and worst when this changes.
How are you going to increase help? Right now, we’re struggling with childcare. We’re struggling to make ends meet for the families we do have. Let alone the families we don’t want to have or aren’t planning to have. There is no safety net right now. And we are actually going to throw more people into that insecurity at a quite insecure time. So, it’s pretty horrific. Today, I don’t have a lot of good things to say.
I did ask myself. Well, I always try to find common ground. I try to find the Unity take. And the best thing I have for you today. And you know, this is very new. For the listeners, this just happened. It is very new for us when you listen to this episode. The Supreme Court as an impartial arbiter of justice, that we can say went away today. That should scare absolutely everybody. That is a place where we should be able to find common ground. Absolutely.
There are some rights that must be protected by the country as a whole and not state by state. That’s why we have the federal and state split. Surely that can be a place of common ground. But I also think this is a moment to push an actual human rights agenda in both parties. Call Democrats to really make a stand for codifying the rights that they worked so hard to get. Make sure those stay and they last and they are durable. That means making sure there’s bipartisan support when they happen. We can’t have the overturning of these rights like we’ve been seeing. The Voting Rights Act as another example.
And for Republicans who usually are avid human rights protectors, please where’s the love, and where’s the empathy for the women who will be impacted first and worse? It is not the rich women who’ve always had access to this healthcare. We need that love and empathy that is supposed to be part of the compassion side of the Republican Party. And so, I do think there has to be human rights call to action in both parties. That’s my quick take.
My personal take is being a mom is the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s the biggest joy of my life. It’s also the hardest thing I have ever done. I have teenagers. For those of you with young kids, it gets harder. For those of you with teenagers, I feel you. For those of you who have grown kids like me, that put your parents through absolute hell, I’m sorry because I was that kid.
No one should be forced into motherhood. No one should be forced into parenthood. If you are not ready, you are not ready. And so, my personal take is I feel as a mom. I feel for what some parents are going through.
MELINDA: Yeah. It’s been hard for a lot of us today to get into work to do our work to think anything else because I think in addition to all of what you said, I think the other piece of it you started to go into a bit is that it has potential long-term implications, not just this, but a future potential decisions as well. Which is, in addition to all of those other emotions can be really scary for a lot of people. And anxiety and mental health struggles as a result of this as well. So, I want to recognize all of that.
If you are struggling, talk to somebody and reach out. You’re not alone. In that, you mentioned that we should all be pushing for our senators and representatives to move on legislation and to really drive change from their perspective. How would you suggest that we do that? What are some ways that we can make a difference there?
NISHA: I think that we are in an era where there’s a lack of faith in our political institutions. I’m not sure in history how often this has happened in the United States. But we have with the election results last year and a portion of the country believing that they were fake or false or that there was voter fraud happening in undetectable ways widespread throughout the country. There is a lack of faith that our institutions are there to help. I think that leads to a lack of action, a lack of wanting to act.
There was a time, at least when I grew up, that I was raised understanding there’s a civic duty every person in this country has to make the country better. We’ve lost that right now. I don’t think it has lost forever. I think it’s lost right now in most folks. There’s a bit of trauma that we’ve had over the last decade with the pandemic, with the Trump administration, with a lot of the things that were presented to us. I think a lot of my kids, teenagers who this is what they’ve seen in their life is the norm. There’s a, I don’t want to say apathy. I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s more a lack of roadmap, no pathway to success.
It is hard to say your dreams can come true if the last 10 years you lived where these last 10 years. There’s not a lot of hope. I shouldn’t say that. There have been some hopeful moments, which I hope we can turn into something significant. Out of every place where there’s pain, wherever we have common pain, we can find common purpose. I really believe that.
In the common ground work I do I always try to start with that. Where is the pain? Where can I relate to your pain? You can relate to my pain from that place. Can we move forward? The pandemic is someplace that laid that out pretty clearly on day one. It was that we were all going to experience pain. Not in the same way. Not equally. Some people experience it worse than others. But it was a known factor that was going to impact everybody. We understood how interconnected we were. We had this new framework of essential workers that we had never heard before. We understood how frontline workers bear the brunt of this. There was a whole host of issues, people understood how interconnected we were.
And for a brief moment, there was that spirit of we’re all in this together. We had Nextdoor, developing an app of how can you help your elderly neighbors who can’t go to the grocery store. How can you pick up what they need and bring it to him? You had every sector of society trying to figure out how to cooperate for the greater good of the whole for a moment. And it passed.
I think when I ask people what we can do is to remember that spirit. It’s possible. We have to work to make that culture of interconnectedness of hope and love and care for our communities. That has to be more inspiring than the division and the hate and the fear that is also being pumped out into the ethos right now.
And so, I do think my being an optimist is a choice. I think it can be all of our choices. Your desire to fight, not fight against, and fight to point fingers and fight to point blame, but fight to improve what is necessary. It’s for progress. That’s the kind of fight we can all choose each day. On days when it’s too hard, stay in bed. Take care of yourself. There are days where you can’t fight. And I think we have to appreciate that too. But in terms of what can you do, I think it’s that. Make the choice every day to bring us closer to that dream of a country with liberty and justice for all. We’ve never lived up to that dream. That’s always been for some and not others. But if that’s the dream of the country, like let’s live into it. Let’s build it. Let’s be unrelentless in making that happen.
If this decision does come to pass, which it looks like it will, that can’t be possible in the future we’re building. It won’t be a future where you love. I say this often, but I firmly believe it. You cannot lead a country if you don’t love the country and if you don’t love the people in it. I think that’s what both sides hear a lot is “Oh, the left. They’re not patriotic. They don’t really love the country.” No, we do. We absolutely 100% do.
And on the left you hear, “But they don’t love the people in the country because why would they do A, B, and C.” We have to be able to love both all of the people in this country and this country as a whole in order to lead it. I don’t think you’re a good leader otherwise.
MELINDA: I live in San Francisco on high floor in a tall building. And so, I see all the tall buildings in San Francisco and during the pandemic. A lot of the tall buildings made through their windows because nobody was in the buildings, they made a shape of a Purple Heart in those tall buildings. That lasted for months. Slowly, one light would go out of one of them and one light would go out of one of them. And then eventually they came down.
I think the same thing happened with all of us where we at the beginning we were clapping for essential workers in the evenings, right? We were connected in all of these different ways even though we were in our homes and couldn’t leave. We were watching people in their homes across the world and their experiences as well. And so, bringing that love back, those purple hearts, back and remembering that that still is there, that love we can bring forward. Yeah.
NISHA: If you remember what it felt like. And this is for everyone out there. If you remember what that felt, like that is the spirit that has to be sustained longer, and we have to demand to not live without it. That actually is something that’s hard to do every day. To say I’m coming at this from a place of love versus a place of blame and shame, and, you know, fear. t’s a hard thing to do but it actually does change. It’s infectious. It can be. And not in the way that COVID is infectious. But once we make it irresistible, and we make people need and yearn for that, I think we have a different country.
MELINDA: And the pandemic is one tipping point. You talked about these as tipping point or potential tipping points, right. Pandemic is one, George Floyd’s murder, another where we had this real movement at the beginning, and then it’s slowly passed to is again, is that reminding ourselves. I think it is a reminder of those human connections that is a piece of all of this. So, how do we do that? How do we find that common ground? What does that look like?
NISHA: Well, I think the first thing is we have to be willing to work with people who aren’t exactly like us. It’s interesting, because from my end, and if people haven’t figured it out, I definitely identify as left and far left and progressive. So, when I make the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion, a lot of people hear this is just like fairness. So, you know, it’s about equity or equality or fairness or something like that.
I take it a step further and understand it as this is how you build solutions that actually work. It’s not just that it’s a good way to work to be inclusive, it’s that it is absolutely necessary. And it’s the only thing that does work. And you can understand that in a business. If you build a product, where you only talk to people who look just like you, the product is only going to serve a certain part of the population. We understand that that’s a problem. And so, you have a lot of companies that work to diversify, maybe for the bottom-line reason. Hey, we might serve different communities or we might have a better product. They kind of understand that they’re still grappling with how to do it.
It’s the same in legislation. I think if we try to make legislation that only works for one population, you’re going to get a solution that leaves out people. And it’s usually the people who are traditionally left out and left behind, especially when you look at the makeup of our Congress. That’s not what they’re looking for. So, I believe to build a piece of legislation that works for the most people because I believe in radical inclusivity. As many people as possible should benefit from the laws of this country and the laws of this land. Absolutely.
Well then, you have to build an inclusive table from the start. It might be working with senators who I don’t agree on 99 of 100 things. But if there’s one thing we can agree on and get it done, I feel like it’s my civic duty. I owe this to the people I say that I want to fight for represent, be part of make progress for champion. It’s my duty to work with those folks to get it done. It means I might fight them on a hundred different issues but if there’s one where they can help me get something passed, I will do it. I am so serious about progress for my people that I will work with anyone to help get it done.
But that’s not the climate we’re in right now. Right now, it’s only if you vote with me on a hundred of the thing, will I work with you on anything. And when we do that, we get nothing done. Who suffers? Not the people that are in the halls of Congress or the folks that are trying to influence the halls of Congress. Were largely above the fray of getting hurt by it. It’s the folks we’re trying to serve that get hurt.
That was the choice that came to us when we were working on a piece of legislation that got passed under the Trump administration, which was the First Step Act. We had started working on bipartisan criminal justice reform during the Obama administration. And I should tell you, when we told people that we were doing that, they all thought we were completely living on a different planet. That that wasn’t possible. Those two words didn’t go together—bipartisan and criminal justice reform. No one could think of it. Now, everyone’s like, “Oh, that works on criminal justice, but it would never work on climate.” So, I’m kind of reliving this moment.
We started off during the Obama administration. We got pretty far but not far enough. We had a decision. I run an organization, like you mentioned, Dream Corps. It was founded by Van Jones. Van Jones came to us and he said, “All right, Trump has been elected. A lot of people want us to not pursue this law that will bring people home from prison. They don’t want us to pursue it because they think in a future administration we could get more. We could get a better outcome. We could get a better piece of legislation if we wait. But I’m turning to all of you today and saying the people inside cannot wait. They do not care who’s in the White House. They want to come home to their house.”
He asked us all if we were willing to work with the Trump administration to do it and Republicans to do it because it’s a Republican Congress. A lot of people on the left didn’t want us to, but we did. And we passed this law 87-89, either 87 or 89 senators voted yes on the First Step Act in a Republican controlled Congress. And today, almost 20,000 people are home because of this law. They got rid of some horrible things that were in the federal criminal system.
Twenty thousand people. Could we have gotten a better piece of legislation if we waited? That’s a question they asked. At first, I could say, we were right to do what we did. Twenty thousand people are home. But now I can say we were right to do what we did because if we had waited, we may have gotten nothing. Because I see that happening with Bill Back Better. I saw it happen with Voting Rights Act. Nothing. We waited. We have a Democrat controlled House, Congress, Executive. Nothing.
George Floyd is the one that hurts me the most because in that moment, an issue of police brutality and police regulation and police accountability had never been a mainstream talking point. It was always a third rail issue. Nobody could touch it. And for a moment, everyone wanted to do something on it and we waited. And now we’ve got nothing. And that breaks my heart.
And so, for me, in order to get something done in this country strategically, yes, get some votes from the other side, find out what motivates them. On criminal justice reform, we weren’t there for the same reasons. I was there for justice for laws that have always targeted low-income communities, Black communities, specifically other communities of color. That’s why I was there. I saw injustice that was racist from the start.
But the Republican counterparts were there for different reasons. The fiscal conservatives were there because they didn’t want taxpayer dollars going to pay for prisons, tax reasons. You had Christian conservatives and their religious right that believe in second chances and redemption, and are generally anti-death penalty. They didn’t like what they saw in the criminal justice system.
You had libertarians, who by and large do not like any kind of overreach from the government complaining about our drug laws and marijuana laws. So, they were coming at it for different reasons. But that’s where I think allyship can come into place and why I think this is important when we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, which I think is actually what got me talking to begin with, is it’s also that diversity. I can count on them to bring other viewpoints, which actually makes sense.
We don’t have to agree that it’s racism and that’s the number one reason to do it. I can bring the race framework to the table. They can count on me to do that. I will always think about that. I mean, I have to walk in this world as a woman of color. I will bring it to the table. We’ll talk about it. And I can count on them to bring the tax implications or the fiscal responsibilities or the individual liberties. I don’t always think about that.
That’s what that type of diversity can bring. You will have a better piece of legislation, if you also build a solution that’s inclusive. So, that’s a long way of answering the question, but it seems I think, I’m just really heated right now, given the news of the moment, so I’m pretty passionate that we have to start doing things that work instead of doing things to prove points.
MELINDA: Yeah. I’ve been working on behavior change my whole life and around social impact. That’s kind of how I ended up with diversity, equity, and inclusion as what I’m doing now. It’s really important to know that we are all motivated for different reasons. And that motivation is not where we need to align. That motivation is where we often try to align.
I think on social media when we’re not aligned on motivation, there’s often a barrier that happens. But we did a study on allyship called the State of Allyship Report and one of the things we’ve looked at is what motivates people to be allies. It’s different. We’re not all motivated for the same reason. Some people are fairness and justice. Some people want to be a good leader. Some people want to give back or pay it forward. Some people are doing it for the next generation for their kids or their grandkids. Right. And it’s important to know that we have those different motivations and that there’s different ways into through that story. There’s different ways into the ultimate outcome that we were driving toward. I think that’s so important.
NISHA: I didn’t think about that. I actually wrote it down. I took notes. I’m like, aligned around motivation. That’s actually a factor. It’s an interesting way to put it. I haven’t thought of it that way.
MELINDA: Yeah. The outcome is the key, right? How we get there, we start to converge and move forward together but we come at it from different angles. Yeah. I want to take a step back. I also am definitely activated today and thinking about what’s happened in the news. And the question I always ask at the beginning I did not ask, which is, tell us about you, about where you grew up, how you came to do the work that you do today? What drives you?
NISHA: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I was in Atlanta at that time. I was born in ’77. So, most of my youth was in the 80s. In the 80s in Atlanta, it was very much a divided town. It still is, to some extent, very Black and White. And so, me, an immigrant child, who lived with my father, a divorce kid of the 80s. And I end up with my dad. So, I was already immigrant in the south where I didn’t fit in, living with my father. I was always a misfit. I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I struggled with that.
I think that there was a way in which I had to be both upset about it. Sometimes I feel like, “Oh, poor me. I’m excluded. I’m left out and left behind.” I know that’s why I have a passion for fighting for those who are left out and left behind. But I also found a little bit of a superpower in there. I could be the literal translator for my parents between the old world and the new. I could serve as that bridge that helps them. It also helped me. Right? Like, if I could translate for them, I could get more of what I want as well.
I very much learned how to fit in in any community I was part of. I thought it was my duty as a first-generation kid. But I also saw it as my superpower. If I could fit in with every group, I could create my own sense of belonging. And I think that’s really important. That sense of belonging is so important. I’ve been fighting for my whole life. I think I fought in different ways at different times. I was a young activist who was very much like in your face. I usually use the term Hellraiser. I don’t know how appropriate that is here. It’s very radical.
I’ve been arrested over a dozen times for civil disobedience actions. I always led the groups at my schools to seek change. It was really important I did it. What propelled me into the spotlight was in 1998. I went to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, and to part of this international action where I was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail. I was deported the next day. And after a week, a little more than a week in prison with 18 other activist and when I was deported, it was an international news story. It was everywhere.
An American representative who’s Representative Chris Smith from New Jersey. He was on the Human Rights Committee at that time. He’s still in Congress. He’s a Republican from New Jersey, flew across the country to try to get us out. There were six Americans of the 18th. I thought it was my duty as an activist to sit next to him on that plane on our way home, so it was a long ride home from Thailand getting deported. And to really, you know, pitch him, and convince him about all my ideas.
I was also Captain of the debate team. So, I do love to argue. I do love to win. I mean, I’m not going to say I’m always common ground. I can listen to every viewpoint. I’m certainly a persuader and I like to win. So, I had that hat on on our way home. But there was a moment in which he turned to me and asked me about where else am I concerned about international human rights. And we had a conversation that lasted a long hours and hours about areas of common ground where he was passionate about some human rights issues, I was, and I saw things from a little bit of a different perspective.
I think of that as one of my formative moments. I don’t know that right then I changed how I was doing activism, but it really sticks with me to this day, that there are people out there, all different places in every different sector, that want to help and want to do the right thing.
We work a lot with corporations on DEI work. There are people there in what I used to think as a young activists, “Nisha, this is the evil sector that want to do things to make the world a better place.” And that’s really what it’s about. It’s not about winning and everyone seeing the world exactly how I see it. It’s about making this world better for those left out and left behind. So, I can look back now and tell the whole story of my life is making sense. It certainly didn’t feel that way. I certainly felt more misfit than more superpower but I can choose that other angle and I think it really helps get stuff done.
MELINDA: Thank you for sharing your story. I think that is so important. I do the same. My story certainly sounds a lot better when I look back and tell it than it did when I was in it. It’s like, “What am I doing now? Okay, I’m going to do this.” And now, it all makes sense, right? You can put the puzzle together afterwards a lot better.
We’ve been talking a lot about legislation and a lot about large scale change across countries. I know a lot of folks that are listening are interested in that and also interested in how can they create common ground with their colleagues, how can they create common ground where they’re their team if they’re a manager, how can they create common ground as they’re moving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion forward in organizations? What are some practical things that we can take from what you’re doing at the legislative level and bring it in the activist level and bring it into the workplace?
NISHA: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a great question. And one, I’m sure you’ve answered from your area of expertise a lot. So, I certainly want to defer to you. Is this being more in your wheelhouse than mine? What I do know about is hard conversations, that we have to have them and embrace them and learn from them.
I think the number one thing for me in these rooms that I go into where I know I’m going to be seen as this and I do come across usually to most people as being a lot younger than I am. So, here I am, a young-looking CEO, woman of color, walking into a space sometimes where there’s senators and businessman and Republicans who have been in fiery opposition to everything I do.
And one of the most important things that I have always is to bring my whole self and my authentic self, but to allow them to bring their whole selves and authentic selves too. That’s how we actually build partnership. People ask me, “Oh, are you selling out when you do this work with Republicans in this type stuff?” That doesn’t ever come up for me. I don’t ever feel like I’m selling out if I can be authentic, but I have to allow them to be authentic too.
And so, the tool which we learned in kindergarten, and we keep learning over and over and over again is about listening. And about listening not to win an argument, which I do like to do often, I’ll admit it, but listening to understand, because like you said, we all have different motivations. If we don’t understand each other’s motivations, we won’t be able to find common ground. So, listen to understand.
I always ask. If I don’t understand it, “Tell me more.” “Wait. I don’t get that.” “Tell me why you think that.” Sometimes just to get the background of them coming to a conclusion different than mine. “Wait, can you tell me why how you got to that?” And I try to do that a lot.
My father who’s a Republican loves to talk politics. We used to fight and argue all the time because he likes that heated passion, fiery talk. He’d like to get me going. I’d like to get him going. We never change each other’s mind on anything. And then in the last 10 years, which were probably the hardest years to have a father who you love be a Republican and he proudly voted for Trump twice. So, you can see my persuasive skills, you know, I don’t know. What can you say about me? But I have to say I threw him completely off balance the first time I agreed with him on something. And I think that’s really important.
If you are in a conversation, where you pretty much disagree on the final thing, there still will be a place of agreement. I find this like with parents on masks is the issue that I think proves a point really well. I live here in the Bay Area. I do believe masks protected us from some of the most serious outcomes of this pandemic. I think you should wear masks. That’s where I am. In a conversation with a parent who’s very against mask and this was most of the kids on my son’s baseball team, I could talk and say tell me more. “My kid is getting pimples all over.” “They want a girlfriend and can’t find one.” “They can’t breathe doing their exercises and they need to get big to get the scholarship for college.”
I could say, yes, yes yes to all of that. “Pimples suck.” “I know they want a girlfriend. They’ve been isolated for so long.” “I know you need that scholarship or you might not go to college.” I can say yes to all of that and it’s still not diminish, my belief, that there’s a scientific reason to wear a mask. That changed everything for my dad, when I looked for the place of agreement first, and I said, “I agree.” It through him completely off balance, because he was used to no matter what it was, I was going to argue the opposite. We’ve gotten ourselves into that pattern.
There are places for agreement, if you can find it. Listen to understand. Listen for agreement. Say out loud that place of agreement. Ask probing questions. I think the last thing is my favorite phrase, which is, “I see it a little differently.” If I can’t get to a place of agreement, I just say, “I see it a little differently.” That’s my perspective and that’s okay. It allows them to see it a little differently too. That is a much better place where we’re acting like your belief is the death of me and my community. I mean, sometimes it is when we look at a decision, like last night and what might happen, but that’s not everything. It’s very few things have that dire consequence.
MELINDA: I think when people have conversations like this, we hold on to our beliefs without listening for understanding, without opening up and really finding a yes. Right? And also, I think the other thing that comes into play in conversations about hard topics from masks to abortion to racism is fear. And also, cancel culture too, which I think, there are some overlap there because people have a fear of being cancelled if they say or do the wrong thing. How does that play a role in how you think about moving conversations forward, moving change forward?
NISHA: I think fear and shame, it’s a really big problem right now. Absolutely. I think it’s why you don’t have some brands speaking out like they were in the moments after George Floyd. Because they tried, they did. And then they were celebrated and then criticized. We have to meet people where they’re at in order to make change happen.
Until we can show that love and being together in belonging is more enticing than the fear, the division, and the hate, it’s going to be an uphill battle. So, I guess this is someplace where I don’t have a ton of optimism here, either. I don’t want to paint some picture of like, oh, yeah, you know, if we just do. It’s hard. And so, I’m striving to really find a way to make love outpaced that hate, to make love outpace that fear in terms of what’s an attractive quality in the world.
There have been times when that has happened. And so, I know it’s possible. That being said, I think we have to be willing to have those hard conversations. My son’s a junior in high school at Berkeley High, and there’s a lot of talk about safe spaces and what you can and can’t say at school, what is and isn’t allowed. He has been grappling with this a lot because by nature, he likes to troll. He likes to find the oppositional angle. With me, at least. I think at school, he pretty much argues the good left politics of it all. But with me, he likes to troll.
And there’s this idea of safe space. I think everyone should be safe physically. I think with the decision last night, we’re actually looking at a world where you’re not safe physically. That is really critical. In terms of safe space, I’m all for that. Safe Space politically or philosophically, I don’t agree with that. I grew up a debate nerd. I had to argue every side of an issue. It made me better. And if we say I can’t hear your viewpoint, and I can’t talk about it, and engage with it and argue it because somehow it is not a safe space, we’re weakening ourselves. I see that a lot.
I see that sometimes people say I’m against. I mean, voting rights, right? On the left, we don’t want Voter ID laws. We’re like, ” I can tell you why.” Right. Like for a lot of folks without IDs and access, it makes it really hard if you have a voter ID law. We understand that access part. But if you ask somebody else who wants to pass a voting rights bill, and you say, “Hey, the main opposition from the right is they just want a voter ID law because they’re worried about fraud. Why don’t you want a voter ID law?
So many kids have no idea. So many folks that are on our side can’t answer that question. You lose that because you haven’t argued it. You haven’t battled it out in the great battleground of ideas. We need to do that. We need to be strong. We need to also think about where our arguments have holes. Other folks can point that out in ways that we can’t. And so, we have to make it permissible to have disagreements. I don’t know how you show that online, because that’s where really a lot of this comes down to.
If someone says something you don’t like, and immediately it’s like, this person is now not part of the in group. They’re the other. They’re out. They are part of the people we’ll never work with again. I don’t know how you change that. I think enough of us showing it’s permissible to have these debates could help. When you find out how we can do that, how we can show that you can have productive, not just productive conversations, but arguments and battles of ideas, what will make that possible online, I would love to know. If you have a guess, it’s like, here’s how you do it, tell me. I need them.
MELINDA: I think also, there’s something about conflating safety with discomfort, safety and comfort. I think that that is an issue that we’re seeing that turns into legislation actually, right. That discomfort because people are saying they’re feeling unsafe, but really, they’re uncomfortable.
And so, I do think that we need to break apart those two terms. What is safety? What is comfort? Do we need to be comfortable? No. No. But do we need to be physically safe? Mentally safe from harm? Yes.
So, this show is about moving from learning to action. So, we learn and then we take action, right? So, what action would you like people to take after listening to this conversation?
NISHA: I would love for folks who engage in one of those hard political conversations with that person in your life you’ve been avoiding. You don’t want to talk to them about vaccines or masks or Roe vs. Wade. I would say have the conversation and listen for understanding and find a place, just one, place to agree. It will open up something else. Find out why they think that.
Most people aren’t unreasonable. There’s a reason why. So, I’d say have that conversation. And then, I am trying to build out of Dream Corps, a place where anyone who wants to solve some of our toughest problems can come together.
We put together these beautiful coalitions of unlikely allies who are willing to work together to get stuff done. It’s what we did on the First Step act but I think there are millions of other places where that’s possible. And so, I’d say for anyone looking for that home where you can be for progress without being for polarization, you can definitely join Dream Corps.
MELINDA: Awesome. And so, my next question is, where can people learn more about you, about your work?
NISHA: Yeah, both things are hard to spell. So, our organization is TheDreamCorps.org online. TheDreamCorps.org online. And then, my name also is NishaAnand.org.
MELINDA: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you. Thank you, Nisha, for this conversation and also for all your work to really move positive change forward.
NISHA: Thank you. It was great to have this conversation today.
MELINDA: Yeah, yeah. And I hope you have time to find love today. Because it is a hard day for a lot of us and it is, you know, those of you who are listening or who will be listening after today and it will still be hard and super important to still find that love within and also find it in each other.
NISHA: Thank you.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship was a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today?
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. I appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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