Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

Supporting Indigenous Power, Leadership & Community with Vanessa Roanhorse

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with red hair and glasses, and Vanessa Roanhorse, a Diné woman with hair pulled back, glasses, and a floral top.

Join Change Catalyst Founder & CEO Melinda Briana Epler with Vanessa Roanhorse, CEO at Roanhorse Consulting to discuss Indigenous Power, Leadership and Community. In this episode, we talk about Vanessa’s path to leadership and helping entrepreneurs access capital, what’s happening with Native American tribes during COVID-19, what Power really means and why it’s so important, and how allies can help repair the deep inequities created by years of colonialism and marginalization. Vanessa also talks about her own path as an ally and advocate for other people.

Take Action:

  1. Learn more about, and support, Vanessa’s work at Roanhorse Consulting and Native Women Lead.
  2. Donate to Native American Community Response Fund (also a great resource to continue your learning).
  3. RELEARN American history from the point of view of Native Americans. History is usually told from the point of view of colonizers, we have to relearn what we’ve been taught.
    1. Recommended Reading List from FirstNations.org
    2. Reclaiming Diné History by Jennifer Nez Denetdale
    3. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  4. Read more about the COVID Crisis and take action:
    1. “The risk to Native American nations from Covid-19” by Kent Sepkowitz (CNN)
    2. “10 steps to save Native Americans from Covid-19 catastrophe” by Van Jones (CNN)
    3. “Navajo community left to fight COVID-19 with limited resources” by Matt Gutman, Robert Zepeda, Tenzin Shakya and Allie Yang (ABC News)
    4. Navajo Department of Public Health COVID-19 Resources


We began with Vanessa’s story as a Diné woman from the Navajo Nation, and her unexpected path to entrepreneurship and leadership, where she works locally, regionally and nationally to put power in the hands of the people while honoring the Earth.

Currently Indian Country and the Navajo Nation in particular are severely impacted by COVID-19 and the financial crisis. 500 years of colonization, lack of infrastructure, structural inequities, historical and racial injustice, relocation and broken treaties, plus denial of economic opportunities have led to a lack of basic public health, water, food, roads, and internet. As a result COVID-19 has had a devastating affect. Vanessa and her women-led team has been working to connect resources to the people and organizations that need them (capital, opportunities, diapers, whatever is needed).

We spent some time talking about data. Data can create harm – from being part of data collection without permission, to invisibilization (eg, asking someone to click an “Other” box), to simply being excluded from data collection (eg, the Census). It’s important to approach data collection through the lens of data sovereignty – involving people in their own data collection, allowing them to own their own data, and to tell their own stories through that data.

Power was a key piece of our discussion: “Power is the ability to self-determine,” to be the person you want to be, to have an intention and have the power to fulfill it, and to not be held back by other people who have power over you. For underrepresented people to have power, people with privilege must dismantle current constructs, and help rebuild relationships and communities. Collectively, we are all responsible for each other. Building at the speed of trust.

We then talked about allyship as part of this repair. Vanessa introduced the idea of reciprocal allyship, mutual love and respect. And at the same time people with historical power sometimes must also step and take the hits for marginalized people. She had these asks of allies:

  1. Learn, do your homework to understand who was here before, who Native people are
  2. Try not to ask Native people to bear the burden of developing relationships for you
  3. Learn how Tribal government works, and its relationship to the US government
  4. If you want to give, give – don’t make it complicated or ask people to jump through hoops
  5. Check in – emotionally and spiritually, check in with people to see how they are doing
  6. Offer grace for marginalized people because they may be going through a lot, it may be difficult to be fully present

“I don’t want to be the kind of person who only knows Native American issues. I want to be the kind of person who thinks about making sure we have ASL folks and making sure we have people who are providing closed captioning. I want to be the kind of person who can share the statistics of what’s happening to our undocumented community. I want to be that kind of human being that never forgets we are all here and we are all living beings, and without that respect none of this matters and we are just repeating the same harm.” – Vanessa Roanhorse


Listen on your favorite podcast platform text by searching for “Leading With Empathy & Allyship”

Available on most podcast platforms, including:

Listen on Apple Podcast  Listen on Spotify Google Podcasts
Available on Stitcher
Listen on Soundcloud

Guest Speaker
Vanessa Roanhorse, a Diné woman with hair pulled back, glasses, and a floral top

Vanessa Roanhorse
CEO at Roanhorse Consulting

Vanessa is an inclusive solutions-driven problem-solver committed to liberating all peoples and delivering impactful mechanisms for social, environmental and economic change. Roanhorse Consulting works with unheralded communities, businesses, organizations, and individuals to achieve and aspire their self-determination through forging communities of practice, strengthening indigenous evaluation methods, creating equity through entrepreneurship, and encouraging economic empowerment from within. RCLLC co-designs wealth and power building efforts that directly invest in our leaders, support meaningful data collection informed by indigenous research approaches and helps build thoughtful community-led projects that enforce values that put people at the center. Vanessa is a 2020 Conscious Company Media’s World-Changing Women in Sustainable Business awardee and is a 2020 Boston Impact Initiative Fund-Building Cohort fellow. She is a retired member of the ABQ Living Cities leadership table and is a Startup Champions Network member. She sits on the boards of Native Community Capital, Zebras Unite and the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers. Vanessa is one of 8 co-founders of Native Women Lead, an organization dedicated to growing Native women into positions of leadership and business and she is a mom of one, living with her family in Albuquerque, NM. Vanessa is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.


MELINDA EPLER: Welcome, everyone. We will get started in a few minutes. Feel free to introduce yourself in the chat and tell us where you are from. It would be great to see where everyone is coming from. 

MELINDA EPLER: We will just give a few more minutes for people to join, but please, introduce yourself in the chat and tell us where you are from and who you are. 

MELINDA EPLER: All right. Let’s get started. Welcome. Hello, everyone. Welcome. My name is Melinda Epler and I am the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst change. I am the host of Leading with Empathy & Allyship. We build inclusive innovations through training and consulting events. This week, Leading with Empathy & Allyship goes deep and real. We provide tangible actionable steps you can take to be better allies and better advocates for each other and everyone. All of us are allies. It is important for each of us to learn, to grow, to step up and to create change together. 

         Just a few logistics before we get started. We are extremely lucky to have amber, an ASL interpreter on the screen. It is sponsored by Interpreter-Now. This is being live captioned by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. To turn on captioning, go down to the bottom of the windy and click on the closed captioning option. If you are on a computer and want to adjust the size, you can go into the Zoom.us preferences in the top of the browser and click references and then accessibility and you can change the size there. 

         I want to thank our team. They will be monitoring the chat and the Q&A throughout the time. Please be kind in the chat. Be inclusive with your language and make sure you adhere to our code of conduct. Lastly, just use the chat for chat, for anything that comes up, any wows, any that really hit a point for me, any ideas that come up along the way, and then for the Q&A, we will be going to Q&A after we have a little discussion so drop your Q&A directly in the Q&A box. 

         Today we are discussing how to support Indigenous power leadership and community. I am so excited to be with one of my favorite humans, Vanessa Roanhorse who is the CEO of Roanhouse consulting. She wears many hats and does a ton — a ton of things to make the world a better place. 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Thank you. Can I just give a huge shout-out to the fact you have ASL interpreters and closed captioning available. I don’t know how many webinars I have been on — sorry. I am in a house and my husband and son are running around. I just wanted to say it is incredible to see you have done this. It is just one of those easily forgotten things as we continue to try to, you know, make these types of engagements the new normal and not-normal but yet somehow we still forget to include those types of things, so I want to say this is massive and this is how we should be doing this, so thanks for inviting me today. 

MELINDA EPLER: Thank you. Thank you. Let’s jump in. Can you tell us, briefly, what’s your story, how did you get to where you are now? How did you get to what you are doing right now? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Thanks. Sure. So, I am Vanessa from the Navajo nation and grew up in the Nation. I live in Albuquerque. The thing I have been sharing with people is becoming a small business owner was never part of the journey I thought I was going to be on. I have an unusual background working in the film industry, I worked in real estate, I was a butcher for a hot minute. And while I was living in Chicago, which is where I met my husband, I found myself working for a not-for-profit and in that not-for-profit I was able to engage with this idea of what is power building and system of lens really mean when we are talking about not only climate change but also for those communities who have to bear the burden of climate change, what are we doing to actually lift and really focus on the fact that the truth is that those closest to the problem have the greatest solution. I got to do a lot of really great things. I had my first and only child. It was hard for me to imagine leaving my half Navajo son in Chicago without being close to his grandparents, his aunts and uncles. My husband and I moved back to the southwest and when I moved back here I tried to find work dag something similar like I was doing and I was unable to find it and because of my strange background I wasn’t hirable. People looked at me on my resume and I just didn’t tick off the traditional boxes. I don’t have traditional education or background regardless of the fact I was working on multi-million initiatives. 

[Phone ringing]

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Sorry. Apologies. With all of that, it was just really disheartening to come and find out even though I have this wealth of experience and what I would assume bringing a diversity of skill sets to the table should make me highly desirable. I wasn’t. Living in my sister’s living room, I was able to find one contract and I needed to separate my personal and business financial and that’s when Roanhouse Consulting was built. Since then, we have grown to a team of about five and we are primarily an Indigenous women organization. We work local, regional and national. We are really focused on how do we build initiatives that put power in the hands of the people while still honoring the fact we live on a place called earth and there are other living beings. It has been a crazy trajectory. I never thought of myself as a leader or someone running a company. I still have problems with it but I am immensely grateful for the community that I have found like Melinda and Wane and other folks. That’s a little bit of my story. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Awesome. Cool. For those who aren’t following, or haven’t seen the news, Albuquerque was my second home growing up. The land and the people are really dear to me and important to me, so I have been following the news. For those who have not, the Tribes, in particular the Navajo Tribes, have been hit really hard by COVID-19 and the economic crisis. Vanessa, can you talk a little bit about what’s going on and what you are doing? All the amazing things you are doing. 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Absolutely. I think one of the things I always try to start with for folks who may not be as familiar with Indian country and the history of this place is that like what we are seeing playing out with COVID-19, particularly on our Native American Tribal Reservations, is sort of since the 500 years of colonization our communities have effectively been denied economies of opportunities. Where this has led to is we have had developing world issues in the United States from day one. It is really frustrating because a lot of the disparities that we are seeing kind of coming into play that’s actually supporting COVID-19 on its rapid growth on some of our tribal and rural lands is part of the deep historical racial inequities we have encountered. Where we are focused right now is obviously trying to support and build connective resources and conversations across multiple stakeholders from grass root leaders who are doing the hardest work with no institutional support all the way up to the secretary of Indian affairs and large and small philanthropy. The challenge is the lack of just infrastructure. I am talking about public health, water, food, roads, internet. That’s just a simple lack of infrastructure that exists where I am from in the Navajo Nation. It is almost like playing into this concept of wow, those communities should stop hanging out with each other. They should be listening to the news. Why aren’t they following what’s going on? People forget that as Native People we are communal. How we get through all things is through family. We don’t have great aunts or second cousins. They are just grandmothers, aunts, cousins and family. The other part is that with some of these inherent lack of infrastructure that, you know, Indian Country has been demanding for hundreds of years, which by the way the United States is supposed to provide that as part of the treaty that they signed hundreds of years ago, all of that is contributing to and compounding historical and racial injustice and equity. We are seeing folks in my community, where the majority of my family lives today, they are experiencing. You know, I really have to like talk a lot about how hard it is to have these conversations when we are unable to even recognize that these issues existed before and just because of what’s happening with COVID-19, all it has done is just shed a light on a very, very dark part of American history that’s very modern, very much today. You have got like the most incredible people putting their lives on the line. 

         When I was consulting my company, we recognized we are not the frontline workers. We are hoping to bring resource conversations and community together so we can move dollars, capital and support but really my workers are those doing the day-to-day work. This morning, I was trying to put some phone calls together to find diapers. Just move diapers. I think that’s the hard part from my perspective. How do we continue to push for equity and allyship and conversation when we are not willing to just be honest with ourselves that where we are today, we have a lot more work to be done and that work can’t be carried by the black and brown people. 

MELINDA EPLER: 100% agree. I think this happens in both the Americas across both continents and all the regions where there are Indigenous people. We forget the Indigenous people were the first and the people that are from this place and through colonization we have done all kinds of things structurally — well, I mean from enslavement and the stolen lands and relocation to broken treaties to government infrastructure failings consistently that have marginalized native people and the colonization and disease from the beginning and this is all — that’s not sitting lightly with me right now. I think that’s really important for us all to remember. That history is also the presence as you said. This is all a piece of the present that we need to work on together and fix. 

         What are some of the things you are doing right now? What are you focused on? What does your work look like right now? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: I forgot about that part. I like to say we sit at the intersection of for-profit, nonprofit, government, and philanthropy. We have to be willing to take the hits and be sitting at tables that we can expect a lot of people who are doing their hardest work and folks who are just tired have to do. It is a job we don’t take lightly. As a result, we spend most of our time kind of moving from how do we look at solutions through the lens of not only our Indigenous lens of knowing, but also looking at solutions because we know the solutions are being created. What they are missing is oftentimes the connection to resources or opportunities to help lift and amplify the work, right? Before all of this, we were working to try to really create and encourage New Mexico and the native population to participate. We know we have to do that because data has been one of the most powerful tools used against us as Native People to not tell their stories and also to put us into the category of others. For us, census became one of those if we are serious about the next 10 years and we really want to be able to get the resources we need being a state with 26 recognized tribes and Albuquerque is number five in highest population of urban Native Americans we have to look at the census as being a starting point. We spent a lot of time working on that. 

         When this came to, what I will say is I am so grateful that we, as a team, approached it from a community-based lens, so for us, we were not just talking to urban native organizations but we were talking to tribal leaders and grass root organizations across the state because as Indigenous people we move seamlessly between rural, tribal and urban because that’s just who we are. Oftentimes when people ask me how do I shape Indian Country into the regions I am saying well, we didn’t have borders. We try to use that with the census work and now we have using that knowledge and network to connect on the COVID-19. That’s just an example of how we build which is always in community and collective but more importantly continuing to kind of invest in that culture of relationship. 

         Another initiative we are very excited about, because of COVID-19 it has been able to be utilized and pivot, it is a character-based lending initiative in which we partner with credit unions and are offering 0% interest loans of $5-$10,000 and they don’t need credit or collateral. We are hoping to use this so we can have particularly undocumented immigrant and Native American businesses be able to get the relief they are looking for. We are able to pair it with grants which I don’t know of any lending organization that’s offering grants to businesses. That’s something we have been working on for the last three years because, for us, the financial banking institution is broken and we have seen that play out right now with the CARES Act. From my perspective, it is like we need to be looking at these types of innovative products that are moving to a place in which we found ourselves which is things that don’t have relationships with people. People have relationships with people, so let’s invest in those organizations that invest in people and the base can be the financial institution. Those are some of the nis  initiatives we have been working on. We are doing a lot of other stuff but I feel like those are two efforts that are kind of about the power building values that we have as an organization but also are highly focused on that really hard piece of work which is, and I am not the person who said this, but it always rings true. You can’t build anything. You have to move at the speed of trust and that’s what we are trying to do here with Roanhouse Consulting. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. A word that you have used multiple times is power and I want to talk a little bit about that and what that means to you. What does that mean? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: For me, power is the ability to self-determine. Power to make the decision on when you wake up and you have your prayer and what your intention is for the day and you have the power to do it. That we are not held back by things that are arbitrary, made up, and really about other people putting their power on you. You know, from my perspective, power is the movement forward or the movement to create something that you want. Instead power has been turned into a tool of harm and so from what we really think about… about power building is it is not about taking someone else’s power or having power over somebody else. It is about having the power to be the person you want to be and in order for us to do that we have to dismantle the current constructs. And also, help our communities, who, the systems of what’s in place, it is really taking our confidence away. It is taking our belief in our ancestry and it has taken away our connection from the earth so we are lost. We have to rebuild those relationships because we have always been powerful as humans and I think a lot about all folks from ancestry but for me, with my family and my community, there are stories where we talk about how in our Navajo families poverty didn’t exist. It didn’t exist because everyone had a place. Everyone always came together to ensure there was food, care, shelter. To me, that’s like the most powerful thing I can think of. What would this look like if we were able to find the power within not to get too, like, self-help book-y but what if we were to reconnect with this earth and reconnect it to our responsibility to all living beings. Money stops being really important. 

MELINDA EPLER: For me, allyship and advocating for each other is a big piece of that. Us working together to help each other, to lift each other up, to support each other, to step back and let other people’s needs and really create change together. What does being an ally mean to you? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: You know, I have been thinking about this since we spoke because I think we talk about allyship a lot. I know we do it in our work with Native Women Lead which is another organization I have had the privilege to work with. Allyship is one of the pieces we see as part of the repair of relationships but we also see allyship as kind of it goes both ways. If you are an ally, you come to my aid when I need it but vice versa. So like the term of allyship has been just like — it is really about reciprocity of love and respect and so when I think of allyship I think of the fact that like right now we are in a time and we have been in this time for a long time. I just feel like we are finally giving it names and being real about the failure of the darkest parts of capitalism and there failure of greed and all of those things, right? Right now, the allyship that is most needed and we know the reciprocity will come back, is really for those have had historical power in the United States to step up and take the hits for the rest of us as we move forward. I feel like that’s some of the most powerful allyship we are looking for. It isn’t to say we don’t want to be able to provide the reciprocity back but many feel it is exhausting. I look a lot at our native men and say you need to stand up for us. We need our Indigenous men to come alongside us. We also need to help them heal but we can’t help them heal if we are not here. I think about access to capital and I think about those who have been able to get Harvard MBAs and are able to work in the financial institutions, I need those folks to stand up and demand better and give back and share the knowledge of how these systems work. And then, you know, I am married to a white man who I love very much and I need him to stand up and do the things that I can’t because sometimes it is exhausting. For me, allyship is all of those pieces. For me, as an Indigenous woman who has a company and who has a voice, how do I bring my allyship to you, Melinda, to the work you are doing, to increase the microphone of why Change Catalyst exists and why Tech Inclusion was started. It is not a clean answer but that’s how I have been thinking through allyship. 

MELINDA EPLER: Thank you. I really like — and I do think it is complex, right? We are all navigating and I am still navigating as an ally. I really like the piece about reciprocity and mutual allyship. That it is not one-way. We can be there for each other. I think that’s a really important piece. Thank you. 

         What can people with privilege and with power, leaders, and companies do to make a difference to create positive change for native people? And how can we all be better allies? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Thanks for the question because I think that’s the part I am trying to figuring out — how do I accelerate to those places sooner? Part of it is just because there is so much work to be done. You know, this isn’t going to be new for a lot of people but if you don’t understand the history of how this country was made, also wherever you are, particularly in the United States, if you don’t understand who the people were that were there, that’s step one. What’s really complicated is Native Americans in the United States are less than 2% of the population meaning we are invisible consistently over and over again. There was a recent report in the New York Times where I think they were talking about cases of COVID-19 and mind you COVID-19 is hitting Native Americans 40 times harder than any other community. We were still in the “other” category which means you couldn’t extrapolate who was being affected. We were just “othered” again. It is really important folks do that historically just like I have done my homework to understand American history. It is important to understand folks do their homework. Know how this place was built. 

         The other thing I think is really important is that like oftentimes as sort of someone who people are seeing more regularly as Indigenous women who works with entrepreneurs and whatever space, people are always calling me to sort of say, hey, I have this idea, what should I do with it or what Native American organization should I be supporting and the answer is like, I can definitely share what my knowledge is, however, what are you trying to do? What’s the impact you are trying to raise? And start there because hands down there is incredible work happening where you are from being led by native organization and Native People and find out what’s in your neighborhood. Like what’s happening because there is a lot there. I think what happens is I have to bear the burden too often of having to be the bridge to build relationships which isn’t a real relationship. It is just a quick way to feel like you have a relationship versus doing the research and the work because there are a lot of incredible native people and they are in your backyard. So I would say that. 

         The other thing is I understand the way tribal nations work is that you actually — we have a Nation to Nation state with the United States. We are not a municipality. We are literally like Paris is to England and because of that nation-nation relationship, the reason we talk about sovereignty and self-determination is that is what the United States was told was going to happen with our treaties. It is really imperative if you want to invest, support, or do any kind of work on tribal lands that you understand how that nation’s nation relationship works and why it exists because there is a reason why it is hard to invest in Indian country. A it is on trust land. We were denied the ability of the taxable economy because we cannot own the land. When we want to invest and treat the complicated issues. That is another part of how people want to work and invest and if we don’t understand why the pieces aren’t working or how they work, we can’t move resources and support in a way that helps long term. I would probably say this for anyone working on the front lines. Don’t make it hard. If you want to give, give. Don’t turn it into an application with a million measures of impact metrics and the worst logic model that you have to follow. You know? If you have the privilege of working in a place in which philanthropic opportunities exist then give the money. Knowing every dollar you invest in Indian Country is an automatic impact because going back to the systemic and historical inequities we have right now you can see it playing out in real-time. Those are just things I want to share with folks. These are things I have to talk about on a regular basis. 

MELINDA EPLER: One of the things I think that could be helpful is you talked a little bit about data and the census. I think a lot of people working internally are also working with data. Can you talk about how to change that? How to approach data in a way that is more inclusive of people? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Yeah, I think this is probably inclusive of all people who have been harmed by data collection, being part of a research project when you didn’t know you were part of a research project. Something that’s happening right now particularly with Indian Country is the sovereignty, tribal data sovereignty. The idea that the information, because you know, we are always being asked to fill out surveys and always being asked to fill out information on how poor are you, how many kids do you have, do you have education. The amount of stuff that gets thrown at us with no compensation, no recognition of the historical inequities which is why we diabetes is so high, why we have horrible rates of cancer. Well, we are in a food desert, we can’t grow our food, mining king and coal decimated entire reservations. And so all that to say is like data sovereignty has become huge for us and that’s because the way people use data is usually to make money in some long-term goal. It is to either prove the money they got is meeting the impact they said they were going to, it is either taking the data and selling it to third party by selling us stuff we probably don’t need, or it is to take information from us and tell a story from their lens not the narrative that is about us. Data sovereignty is about how do we work with communities that have been pushed out, overlooked, and over data to recognize these are human beings with real lives, and children, and mothers and fathers, and they deserve dignity and this data that everyone else is making a ton of money off of whether is getting research grants or what, really belongs to them. We are really pushing locally to ensure that when folks want to interview, survey our native communities that we approach it in that A, the tribe owns the data/the people own the data and they can pull the data whatever they want it. However you are collecting that data it better be owned by the community. Two, the community should be able to have support and access to take the same data and tell their own stories. And three, if this community says we have not going to use this data, you can’t use it, then you can’t use the data. I think that’s really important and not just for tribes or government but really long-term, the question of why are we collecting this information particularly when it is upon folks who don’t have the traditional access to power or opportunity. You know? We have to rethink why those data points are so valuable because they are valuable to you for a different reason than why they are valuable to me which is I would love to be able to one day tell the story the value of the Native American [indiscernible]. No one is collecting that so we have to build that data ourselves. Nobody recognizes that we are part of driving America forward. 

MELINDA EPLER: I think that’s really important. Thank you. One other thing that came up when we were discussing, we had a conversation earlier, is that data can also be a form of erasure and marginalization and invisibilization. When you have that box that somebody has to click that says “other” how does that impact somebody? Especially, not exclusively, but especially Native People from this land and to have to click that other box is ridiculous. 

         You are an incredible ally and advocate. What motivates you to do the work to create change for other people. Part of this allyship and this work that we all do is about building allies and growing allies and growing advocacy and accomplices. What is your motivation? What keeps you motivated to do the work that you do and to be there for other marginalized people? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: It is probably similar to everybody who is trying to do this work. It is like it starts really like every morning looking at my kiddo. My little beautiful boy who is half Navajo, half German-Irish and wondering like, you know, what are his kids going to be left with? That’s one. You know, there are a lot of other things that drive me. I have my own personal experience of racism, of being humiliated and overlooked and all of those things. That pisses me off, don’t get me wrong. I get rage-fueled but I will say picturing other people. In some cases, one, I am not going to lie there is a little bit of fear. I mean, if I don’t do this with the community, if I don’t have other people to connect with and link arms with, it is really hard out there. So, for me, it is a little bit of self-preservation in what I want to do is be able to like work alongside folks who learn the more I learn, the more I feel like the clearer I become about my why but also it means that I start to like — my world view expands. That expansion ensures that what I screw up, which I do, that expansion is reminding me and I can reground myself and I can connect back into the network of allies and partners and colleagues and friends to say, you know, keep me accountable, make sure that like when I do this work, I am doing it with the right foot forward, with the right prayer, with the right intention. Knowing that we are all not going to be successful every time but it is like I don’t know. I don’t know if it is like I just need people but I do know I do this work because I am inspired and I don’t want to be that person who takes away. I want to be the person who leans in, who digs in every time, however I can do it. I also think that’s just the nature of who I am and where I come from. I am just so grateful. I will be completely honest. When I started this company four years ago, I didn’t know anything about a lot of things that I talk about today and part of that is because of the incredible network of people that I have been able to meet and work with. I don’t want to be the kind of person who only knows Native American issues. I want to be the kind of person who thinks about making sure we have ASL folks and making sure we have people who are providing closed captioning. I want to be the kind of person who can share the statistics of what’s happening to your undocumented community. I want to be that kind of human being that never forgets we are all here and we are all living beings and without that respect none of this matters and we are just repeating the same harm. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Thank you. You are getting cheers in the chat. [Laughter] I have a couple more questions and then we will get to some Q&A so if anybody has questions, please, put it in a Q&A function so that we can easily see them. 

         We talked about allyship and how to be there for each other or how people can be there for native people and really step up and what do you personally need from allies right now? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: [Laughter] personally, like as Vanessa Roanhorse, what was so nice to just talk the other day with you and just be able to be like I am so tired. And like have that ability to just be like holy shit. This is hard. So I think having that grace, allies offering me personally that grace. In terms of, you know, moving between, and I think this is for everybody but the emotions are just super high, super low, and just having grace for sometimes my inability to be fully present, you know, I was on another call earlier today and my kid got a bloody nose and I had to log off quickly. He was fine but, you know, they were texting me because they were worried and that made me feel really good. I am like I am OK. Everybody is OK. I think it is just like checking in on each other. Giving each other a little bit of grace before running late. We forget things. We haven’t read something. You know, remembering time is a bit of a construct and isn’t really a positive thing and allowing us to maybe be a bit more free form in how we think about what’s most important versus least important I think is really important. I think the last one from my allies is I am going to get emotional on you because I am highly in what’s going on right now and it is really scary not only on like a professional level as a small business owner but emotionally, culturally, spiritually, you know, like I said, the majority of my family is back home in the Nation and I can’t go home and see them. It is really hard. I would say that. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for being you and for doing all that you do and I feel it too and I also feel it is really difficult to feel and to do all this work and to be there for other people and at the same time it is a lot that we are dealing with as well. Love, love, love to you. 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Thank you. Appreciate it. But, yeah. 

MELINDA EPLER: Where can people learn more about you? About your work? Where can they go? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: You can go to our website which I would love one day for someone to help me build a better one. Roanhorseconsulting.com and another place is nativewomenlead.org. Those are two organizations that I am deeply invested in and working really hard to sort of increase the opportunity and capacity as well as tell the narrative and the story of that work. Thanks for the opportunity to share that. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, of course. 

         I am going to jump into some Q&A because there are some really great questions here. Linda Lee who is from the EEOC, equal employment opportunity commission, asks do you have advice on how organizations and agencies can ensure that we are including Native Americans in our planning and responses? What mode of communication do you recommend and what bodies do you trust with the Native American communities? Just, you know, the EEOC focuses on employment discrimination so they are working with employment right offices. She is looking for specific suggestions there. 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: It is a good question, Linda, and I am so glad you posted. I almost want to be like can we just chat on the side? 

MELINDA EPLER: I am happy to connect you two. 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: I think I will just give a really general response because all the questions you are asking I think, again, are just part of the inherent challenges of like finding the right Native-led organization, grass root organization, and right native leaders who are pushing and driving this work because oftentimes they are not in position of power and voice because their day to day grind is so real. On the other side, you know, a lot of native folks and tribal communities are very distrustful of these things getting fixed. So trying to build the right relationships it takes time. And so, you know, how do you engage with organizations and agencies to be able to include more native people in planning and response? Um. There are a lot of good networks, however, it takes — it is like the maze with the cheese at the end. You just kind of have to keep hitting your head against the wall because part of that investment is how people who aren’t in power are always watching and saying are they serious about these solutions? Are they serious about the support? And I am not saying we want to see you running through fiery hoops but we are also wondering how committed you are to building that relationship. All that to say there are good organizations and I can definitely try to connect you to some of those but I think, ultimately, it is rephrasing the question which isn’t about how do we find the organizations. It is where we ask the right question and are we willing to do their community investment to have the conversations and if you can do those, I guarantee people will come. I hope. Maybe not guarantee. [Laughter] 

MELINDA EPLER: But you make a space for it to happen. This is a question I am sure you have thought about. I apologize if I get the pronunciation of your name wrong. How do you work with men if you have a women-led organization? What partnership model can you use? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: My company is unique because we are all women but none of our work is women-only specific. We actually do work with a lot of men. Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and actually, we find ourselves in some cases because of the kind of work we want to do, spending more time trying to understand motivation and opportunity around gendered issues. But I wouldn’t say that like we — that we don’t work with our men or with men in general at all. On the Native Women lead side I feel like this applies more. It is focused on supporting Indigenous women in positions of power and CEO and leadership. We are trying to figure out, the reason we created this is Native American women are two thirds of the breadwinner in the United States and we make 68 cents to the dollar and one in three of us will experience incredible violence in our lives and Native American women have been starting businesses at 201% to our counterparts of non white Hispanic women of 114%. What that means is that we are Indigenous women and this is similar to African-American and Latina women. We are paying the bills, making the most money, ensuring our kids are fed and a lot of us are doing it on our own, so we knew we needed to invest hard in our Indigenous women. However, we are recognizing what is going on the Indigenous men? What has happened? Right now we are in deep discussion on not only toxic masculinity or how this disrupted the harmonious ways of our people which were all people had a place and were part of the decision making. Somehow in the design of this country, we have moved to the idea that there is a patriarchy. I am a Navajo woman and we are a matriarchal society meaning all the decisions go back to the woman’s bloodline. We are asking what happened to our Indigenous men and what they are holding on to? That power hasn’t been a good thing for them. That’s the question we are in deep discussion on. I don’t have the full answer but I think it is important to recognize that our men are hurting just as bad as our women in a totally different way. 

MELINDA EPLER: The same person asks another question that I think is really important too. There is a lot happening in the black population around COVID-19 in general and a lot of structural and historical marginalization, discrimination, and racism there experiencing similar issues but not the same. How can we work together? How can black communities and Native communities work together to create change? 

VANESSA ROANHORSE: Yes, oh my, God, yes. To one of the things that happened not too long ago was, I was meeting with some credible black leaders particularly working in New Orleans and I was out there for something and we were having just a moment, talking about colonization and community and culture, and I was sharing with them that native Indigenous slavery also, we were also slaves particularly in certain areas in New Mexico has a complicated history. When we started talking about the similarities and origins, another person, not to say this is for all black people, but they were like all of us Indigenous anyway. And I think, sadly, and this is my opinion, we as people of color have been pitted against one another. I know my community, you know, because we were so pushed down the pond, we would push down upon others who were like us to feel better. I feel like that is something we as communities of color, I hope, are actively trying to rectify. If you came over and were enslaved in the United States, you were Indigenous and our brotherhood and sisterhood is more documented than we are willing to recognize. My hope is that we start to break those down more effectively and how can I work more. We are trying to do more to strengthen partnerships with our undocumented and black community and figure out what does a strengthened partnership look like? I am in. It is a lot of work. We are all trying to focus on the realities we see in front of us, but I think that intersectional, cross-generational, cross-cultural that is how we are the majority and that is how we shape not only the next economy but I think the economy that represents culture and like family-first. I don’t know. I don’t have a better answer but I am in. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. That was great. We are running out of time so we won’t get to all of the Q&A. Vanessa, thank you for being you and all you do. Really appreciate everything you do. I think it is really important right now to check-in with each other and to, you know, just be there, however you can, for each other. I think that’s really important. Also important to, you know, we have spent an hour talking about these issues, keep this going, everyone. Keep the conversation going. Keep the learning going. Be brave. Be courageous. Be vulnerable. Take a new action. Take action. Learn and take action. Take action, take action, take action. Thank you, everybody for joining us today. Join us each week. Yeah. Thank you, everybody for joining us. Thank you. Join us each week for Leading with Empathy & Allyship. Sign up to attend live with audience Q&A or you can check the podcast and video by going to changecatalyst.co and sign up for our newsletter. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on most of the major channels and on our YouTube channel. See you next time. Thanks, Vanessa. 

>> CART PROVIDER: Thank you!

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.

In The Press

Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

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.


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.

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.

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.

Virtual Training, Consulting & Coaching Solutions
If you’re looking for a way for remote teams to continue their learning and professional development, we’re now offering virtual allyship, inclusion and leadership trainings. We’ve also continued our consulting practice virtually. AND we now offer hourly coaching. Let us know if you’re interested in learning more!
Connect With Us
General Info
Related Articles
“How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace” is now available.Order Today!
Send this to a friend