Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of StriveTogether:
Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s webinar. I’m Jennifer Blatz and I’m the CEO of StriveTogether. And I’m very excited about today’s conversation with Cecilia Muñoz about her new book, More than Ready: Be Strong, Be You and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise.
The last few months, especially over the last few weeks, have been extremely difficult for our country. We are in many ways facing two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and especially the black community has been incredibly stark. And this health crisis has unmasked inequities that have existed for hundreds of years. And in the midst of all of this, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and so many before and after have laid bare the racial injustice that persists in America.
[1:10] We need strong leadership more than ever. And that’s why it couldn’t be a better time to have this conversation with Cecilia and a few of our women of color on the rise from the StriveTogether Network. As I was reading Cecilia’s book, I started thinking about the first time that I met her. And in some ways it’s a case study on what we as women leaders need to do in order to lift one another up and make connections that matter. Cecilia talks about this in her book, but I was visiting the New America offices for meeting with Tara McGuinness, who is a lady leader extraordinaire and a policy superstar in her own right. She asked me if I’d ever met Cecilia, and I had not. And I was a bit of a superfan and very excited for this opportunity. And so Tara took me to Cecilia’s office and we met, and she was so incredibly genuine and supportive.
[2:05] We chatted a bit about our work and she told me to let me know how she could be helpful to our work. And she’s continued to do that ever since, from keynoting our annual convening last year, to writing an op-ed, to helping me recruit a new board member and to writing this book. And now I know this book wasn’t written specifically for StriveTogether, but leadership and talent is one of the critical key capacities that we are working to build to advance our work with communities, especially lifting up leaders of color in our network, of whom there are well too few. And given that women of color make up fewer than 20% of our network leaders, we have a lot of work to do. The lessons in this book are more important than ever.
So welcome Cecilia, thank you so much for joining us today to share advice for women of color and their allies. You and I are going to have a conversation about the book first, and then we’re going to be joined by some incredible women from the StriveTogether Network. So if that sounds good, we will go ahead and get started.
Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for public interest technology and local initiatives at New America:
[3:16] Sounds amazing. I’m really honored to be here. And I should just say that you know I came to know the StriveTogether Network when I served in the Obama administration, because you had so many fans among people that I worked with and admire and love. And I now understand why. You all do really legendary work. It’s extraordinary, and it couldn’t be more important, especially now, so I’m just thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
[3:42] Thank you. Great. Well, can you start by just telling us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and really what you hope that women of color can take from the wisdom that you share in the book, especially now when we’re in these really challenging and tumultuous times in our country?
[4:02] Yeah. So, I did not leave the White House thinking that I was going to write a book. I did, frankly, what what a lot of women do, right? I found work that I could do that would hopefully be useful to the world. And I kinda kept my head down and focused on that work. I work at New America and several women in my life really pushed me, including Anne-Marie Slaughter, who’s my CEO. And they kind of didn’t let me off the hook. So they encouraged me to think about what I might have to say and who I might have to say it to. And I, again, I did what many women do — I sort of thought, oh no, who am I to write anything about my own story? And what would I really have to say that would be of value to anybody? And these women, including Anne-Marie, really didn’t let me off the hook.
[4:50] And it finally hit me that, you know, I do a lot of speaking. I keynoted your convening last year. I do a lot of speaking around the country and especially to groups of people who are early in their careers. And invariably, you know, I tell stories from across my career, and I try to tell the ones that I think will resonate, especially with the people of color in the audience. And invariably someone comes up to me afterwards, and 100% of the time that person is a woman. And most of the time that woman is a woman of color. And she’ll say something to me like, that story you told about that time when you were the only one in the room or that time when you were afraid or that time when you doubted yourself — that was me. Thank you for telling that because I thought I was the only one.
[5:38] And so, I finally kind of put myself in the presence of those women and realized I do have something to say. In fact, I say it all the time and I was kind of getting in my own way, which is a thing we do. And so once I gave myself permission to remember that I had something to say, I knew exactly what was going to be in the book. I knew exactly what stories I was going to tell from my own career. I interviewed seven women of color in preparing the book and found that, you know, we’re obviously all very different. We come from different backgrounds and have different experience, but there is a lot of commonality. We’ve all been through the experience of being the only one in the room. We’ve all been through the experience of doubting ourselves. We’ve all been through the experience of being aware when other people doubt that we belong where we are, and we developed similar strategies for dealing with that.
[6:30] And so I think part of the challenge is we all confront the same things, but we don’t talk about it very much. And that stands in the way of us becoming or being recognized as the leaders that we already are. And so the book is really about helping women, but women of color in particular, understand ourselves as the leaders that we already are, because the world needs us. I mean, I felt, you know, a year ago when I finished the manuscript, it was clear to me that the world needs us. And I have to say the events of the last several weeks and several months have just only further convinced me that, you know, the world needs what we bring, especially now.
[7:17] Absolutely. I’m so grateful that Anne-Marie really encouraged you to write this, that Anne-Marie and others encouraged you to write this book, because it is absolutely what is needed right now. In the book, you write a bit about overcoming doubt and being discounted. And you share examples of several women who you’ve worked with and gotten to know, and some of those whom you interviewed for the book over the years, experiencing these moments of overcoming doubt or feeling that they’re discounted because of the color of their skin or because they’re women of color. What advice do you have for women who have that experience of being doubted based on the color of their skin and how did you overcome your own moments of self-doubt throughout your career?
[8:07] Yeah. This is such a common experience. I tell the story from my own career of my being promoted at the White House, and one of the chiefs of staff that I served under, when he left the White House, revealed to a couple of journalists that he was disappointed that I got that, that I became the president’s domestic policy adviser. I served in that role for five years. And he suggested to those journalists that I was an affirmative action hire, that maybe I wasn’t qualified for that job. And that cost me a couple of years of confidence in that job. And Tyra Mariani, who I work with now, she’s an African American woman — she’s the president of New America — recounts in the book being told at the ripe age of 23, as she was doing an internship at a firm, that they didn’t see her as management material, which is extraordinary because Tyra is probably the most talented manager I’ve ever met.
Deesha Dyer, another African American woman who I interviewed for the book, a former colleague of mine from the White House, recounts being told when she was, again, very early in her career, that she couldn’t really take the management development courses because they didn’t see her as management material. And she went on to become the social secretary at the White House, which is an extraordinarily demanding job working directly for the first lady. So it’s a very common experience. And all of us said the same thing about our strategies.
The first is that we compensate for whatever doubts we see other people as having about us and our own doubts about ourselves by over-preparing. So my book is called More than Ready, which refers to the fact that, as I said, the world is kind of more than ready for what we bring. But it also refers to the fact that we over-prepare, that we deal with our own kind of stress about what other people might think about our presence in the room by making sure we know our stuff, by doing our homework, by being ready, by trying not to make a mistake. Because a mistake isn’t just a mistake when you’re the only one in the room. It ends up standing for whether or not everybody like us has the capacity to do what we’re doing.
[10:25] So doing the work is one strategy. The second strategy is to relentlessly ask for feedback, which I did a lot, including in the White House. And I didn’t do it of everybody, but I did do it with people that I knew I could trust to not hold it against me, that I was, you know, admitting that I needed help or that I wanted feedback. You know, people for whom it felt safe to say, you know, boy, that meeting didn’t go well. Can you help me see what I didn’t see or where I went off course? Valerie Jarrett was one of those people for me. So I could go into her office and close the door and know that she would tell me the truth, whether or not it was easy to hear. And that helped me up my game. So asking for feedback among people that you can trust is a second strategy that I recommend.
[11:17] And then building a network of folks who will tell you the truth is a third strategy. When Tyra was told that they didn’t see her as management material, she says, I wish that there had been a group of people that I could sit down with and process that with, who could have helped me see that it is ridiculous to tell a 23-year-old what their trajectory in life is going to be before they’ve, you know, got very much experience under their belts. And she said, you know, not having a cadre of people who could tell me that that was a ridiculous thing for them to say to me at that stage, she said cost her several years. So building a network, again, not of just cheerleaders, but of truth tellers, people who will help you see how you can strengthen your performance and strengthen your confidence is that there’s a third strategy.
[12:07] Those are great strategies. I know there’s a chapter on heroes, and you talk about some of these incredible people who have been sort of those heroes who have helped you, but also being your own hero. And I just think that some of the strategies that you’ve shared are so critical as leaders are building in their careers. Another theme that struck me from the book is related to having the courage to be disliked and experiencing setbacks. And you know, I did feel — I joke with you — I felt like I was reading this incredible book to get all of this wisdom, and also what it’s really like to be maybe in a real-life episode of the West Wing, is often how I felt. And so having lived through and read so much about the administration and hearing about some of the setbacks, from your perspective, it was really incredible. But in all of these cases, you know, leaders have to make tough decisions and will experience setbacks. And you talked about having a clear North Star. So talk a little bit to me about how having that North Star has helped you to lead, despite what others might think about the tough decisions you have to make.
[13:14] So I think having a clear North Star really is everything. So that if, in your work where you’re trying to go or in your life where you’re trying to go — you know, I applied this decision, the notion of having a North Star, to make a tough policy decision. But also, having a clear North Star was vital in making end-of-life decisions that my family was making for my father. In each case, knowing what’s most important helps you steer. So, in the chapter about daring to be disliked, I make the case that if being liked is your North Star, if that’s the thing you’re trying to accomplish, you will make a set of decisions that are aimed at making sure that you’re liked, but they may or may not have anything to do with getting to whatever the objective is in your work.
[14:26] So instead I make the case for having a clear North Star and making decisions that help you get there. And it doesn’t mean you have to be unlikeable. You can be the likable person who has clarity on the goal and who can have the difficult conversation with a coworker. Again, if the North Star is clear, you can say to your colleague, this isn’t about whether or not I love you or respect you. This is about whether or not, you know, we are achieving the steps that we agreed to take in order to reach the North Star. And if the North Star is clear to you, and it’s clear to the people that you work with, then that gives you clarity and following the steps on how to get there. And being liked doesn’t have to be one of those steps.
[15:13] And if achieving your goal has those kinds of consequences. And, you know, as a public official, I took a lot of heat from the outside and some of that heat came from my own community. You know, I can’t say that that wasn’t painful, but I can say that knowing what my North Star was and having my own sense of integrity about it really helped me weather the times when, you know, people said mean things or even truthful things about their disappointment in what I was able to accomplish. It was important to me to know that I was going to walk out of the White House after eight years and be able to look at myself in the mirror. You know, having that kind of internal clarity can make an enormous difference, especially when there’s a lot of chatter and a lot of noise coming from the outside.
[16:03] Yeah. So much about reading this book during this time for me resonated, but this idea of holding the long view and knowing that there will be setbacks along the way, and especially in the work that we’re trying to do to really transform systems in the StriveTogether Network felt that that was something that was core to how you led, how the administration led, is holding the long view and knowing that there would be setbacks and knowing if you have that North Star as your long view, it’s critically important.
[16:39] Well, maybe in this moment — because we’re having setbacks, right. Severe ones, huge ones, epic ones, but you know, part of having a long view and having a clear North Star is recognizing that if you have a setback, you have to try to use it to make the change that you need, right? The North Star in your network is clear, you know what the equity fight is, that’s the thing that you’re trying to achieve. One of the features of this moment is that we can see things that not everybody could see before. Our job is to use that in service of the North Star. And to recognize that the pain of this moment has to, it has to contribute to getting us somewhere that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I mean, otherwise I don’t know how to make sense of it.
[17:33] That is how we feel. And in a minute we’re going to invite our panel of women of color leaders from the Network into the conversation. And I know they’re going to share some incredible examples of how they’re thinking about how to really create opportunity from this crisis that we’re experiencing right now and holding the North Star that the mask is off. Something that we’ve known for so long around, you know, the inequities that we see in communities and the systemic racism and oppression that has dominated our country’s founding is coming in full view of the world, of everyone. And so in some ways, as painful as it is and the trauma that’s being experienced across the country right now, as we weather through this is creating opportunities to really create — “new normal” is so cliché, so I don’t want to use it, but we’re not going back to normal.
[18:45] And so figuring out what that looks like is how we’re thinking about the work. My last question for you that I have to ask — and then we’re going to bring in our panelists to have a conversation — is, you know, you talk a lot about your mentors throughout the book and so many different individuals supported you and helped you find opportunities. And I found it really interesting that so many of your mentors that you mentioned in the book along the way were men. And so the question that I have for you is how can men be allies for women of color in this work, and speak a bit about your experience in that.
[19:28] Yeah, I mean, in fact, all my mentors were men, and in part that’s because I’m older. I’m in my late fifties, and there weren’t very many women in leadership positions in my field — very few and very, very few women of color. But I did work with some men who were very deliberate in bringing up the people who were coming up after them, including, and especially, women, and I benefited from that greatly. And I appreciated that they were being deliberate. So I give the example of Wade Henderson, an African American man who at the time, he was a deputy director of the Washington office of the ACLU. He went on to lead the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights for many years. He’s a civil rights icon. Wade brought up legions of younger colleagues, including me, and at pivotal points, you know, would be sitting next to me and would sort of say something to encourage me to establish my leadership in the room.
[20:31] And in some ways I knew that I had established leadership when he came up to me and chided me for not being supportive enough of a Latino colleague. You know, this was somebody who I felt was not kind of pulling his weight in the coalition. And Wade said to me — he took me aside, he didn’t embarrass me in front of anybody — but he took me aside and said, “So do you think there are so many Latinos in leadership positions that you can afford to be doing anything other than lifting this one up and helping him succeed?” And that made a huge difference to me, and I now recognize how important it is to pay that forward. But I will say, and I make a point of this in the book, you don’t have to be at a senior level to be a person who is making way for others.
The very first time I testified before Congress, there were two women in the back of the room, again, legendary themselves. And my boss wasn’t in the room and they made a point of calling him to say, “You know what? She did a good job.” And that helped me realize they didn’t have to do that. These are women who were trailblazers themselves, and they recognized part of their job was to help blaze the trail for other women. And I realized anybody at any stage of their career can be the person who is sitting at a table and watches somebody shining, and sends a note to their boss saying, “You know, you weren’t there to see her shine, but you got to star there.” That stuff makes a big difference.
I heard from a colleague that I worked with at the White House, that I made one call to share her awesomeness that helped her land her next job. And she said to me, 100% of the times that she’s moved up, it’s because a woman of color spoke up for her. We need to be doing that for each other, and we don’t have to wait until we are managers and at a senior level. You can do it at any stage of your career.
[22:29] Yeah, absolutely. I remember that story from the book and I think that is such a good reminder for me, a good reminder for any of us, that we have to look out for those examples and make sure that we’re lifting women as we climb throughout this work. And that is a great segue to bring in our panelists, who are brilliant women leaders. I have the privilege to get to work with and learn from these amazing women who are a part of our StriveTogether Network. So, welcome, Carlisha Williams Bradley, who is the executive director of ImpactTulsa, Tafona Ervin, the executive director of Graduate Tacoma, and Lisandra Gonzales, the chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Cradle to Career. Carlisha, Tafona, Lis. It’s so good to see you and so grateful for all of you, for being with us right now.
[23:33] Thank you for joining the conversation with Cecilia and I. So the way I’m thinking about doing this is just asking a few questions, maybe some targeted questions. I know you’ve all enjoyed Cecilia’s book, and I’ll target the questions to each of you. And then if there are others who want to chime in, we’ll definitely do that as well. So I’m going to start, Carlisha, with you. You know, if you’ve been listening in, and I know we talked about in the book, Cecilia writes about, you know, the discomfort and the doubt that comes from being the only in a room. And I would love to hear from you about what’s experience been like for you and how you overcome that discomfort and doubt, and what strategies do you use to manage those moments of self-doubt?
Carlisha Williams Bradley, executive director of ImpactTulsa:
[24:24] Thanks for the question, Jennifer, and it’s such an honor to be on this panel and to have read Cecilia’s book. So much of it resonated with me and lived experiences, especially when we talk about being the only — I have oftentimes been the only in rooms thinking about, you know, being black and young and a woman. And there have been times in my career where I’ve been paralyzed with the thought of “What are people thinking of me?” and really needing to push past that point of “What are they thinking of me?” to, “What am I at this table to do?” And so it was almost having this talk with myself of what’s the story I’m telling myself, and what is the outcome that I want to move myself from that space of self-consciousness and doubt to that space of, I want to create an outcome by being here and having a seat at this table.
[25:15] And so I think first, it started with me being able to continue to have those conversations with myself, the pep talks before I get in the room, whether it’s turning on that song, telling myself a story, meditating, praying, but really arming myself mentally before I go into those spaces. I think another component of that was building my own community of women of color leaders to go back to who shared in those experiences as well. I think that there are times where, even as we can pep-talk ourselves, there’s also a sacred space for community, and Cecilia talks about this in the book. And it was so beautiful towards the end, thinking about the intergenerational group of women who came together to support each other. And I’ve found just the sacredness of that space and community for me as well as a woman.
And I think that the last piece that’s really helped in pushing me past being paralyzed in fear to move towards action is having my values at the center. Like what is my vision for this seat that I’m taking and occupying as I walk into this room, and keeping in mind that it’s not enough that I’m the only in this room, but how am I pushing to not only get another seat at this table, but to transform and build a new table, right? And allowing for that privilege to be used as a way to lift up the voices of community and to bring other women of color and community members into those seats as well.
[26:44] Thank you, Carlisha. Tafona, Lis, anything you want to add there, any strategies said that you would add to the list that Carlisha provided?
Tafona Ervin, executive director of Foundation for Tacoma Students:
[26:57] No, I think that was a really great summary, and really appreciate being able to hear from you, Carlisha, as well, particularly around being young, black and a woman in spaces. It’s hard to feel as though you are confident and worthy enough, especially in a room that may be older, more white, much more experienced. And so I appreciate your words and certainly Cecilia’s book, and just the underscoring of valuing the data that we hold within our lived experiences and using that to help guide the conversation is what I’m currently practicing. So I would say that is what is helping me to say, if I’m the only, if I’m the youngest, if I’m the blackest, let me use the data of my lived experiences, because that’s what’s going to help correct and address some of the inequities that we’re facing. So super appreciative of both of those comments.
[27:50] Tafona, I’m going to ask you the next question. I’m actually going to read a quick passage from the book, which is, “Whether you know it or not, just by virtue of being who you are and making your way in the world, you are creating ripples. Women of color make the economy go and determine the results of elections. Women of color knit communities together and heal them when they’re damaged.” So, we have talked a bit about what’s happening in the world right now and how there have been many setbacks. Communities are suffering even more because of COVID-19 and because of the continued racial injustice that’s happening across our country. Describe your role and the role that other women of color leading communities can play during these types of crises. And how are you approaching this crisis as the leader that you are?
[28:48] Sure, thank you for that question. You know, I’m going to approach it in two different ways. One is a Tafona-ism. As some of you may know, I think there’s this concept in the black community known as the big mama of the family, big mama is the house that you go to, is the person that you call, it’s the cooked meal that makes you feel better when everything seems to be going just awry. And it feels as though America, but certainly here in our community of Tacoma, Washington, um, we’re looking for someone to be that big mama, someone that says, “Let me wrap my hands around this issue, let me say that it will be okay,” but also provide guiding strategies and real practical efforts that are going to improve the outcomes for the disparities that we see, whether it’s in our academics, if it’s in race and systemic oppression, or if it’s even in the wake of a pandemic. There are so many compounding issues that are facing our community right now.
It’s been interesting from the perspective of how the Foundation for Tacoma Students has stepped up and the Graduate Tacoma movement has really mobilized to action. It was just doing without asking for permission and banking on forgiveness if we’re doing it wrong. And as an organizational leader, that’s one of my models. I certainly appreciate guardrails and guidance and historical practices and policies. But if I waited for processes and policies to tell me that it’s right to do certain things, we would be stuck in the same place. And I think that that’s where our organization and our community has moved a bit more quickly than we have in the past.
[30:33] But also I think there’s an interesting dynamic that’s happening. And I go back to that concept that Cecilia talks about with using your experience, your lived experience, as valid data. Because what we are trying to address in our communities are issues of oppression that if you’ve never experienced them before, how can you honestly have solutions or strategies to address it? If you have no understanding or concept of what it means to be marginalized or oppressed, what it means to have to think about sacrificing one thing over another, or making decisions that have significant impact, then how do you actually do the change that we’re seeking? As a black leader in this organization and in this community, I’m grappling right now with how much do I step up and how much do I speak out? And I shared with a few of you before, I just had an executive committee board meeting, and I’m not sure that that folks are ready for that type of approach.
[31:34] And I think it’s important for leaders to be willing to risk it all which I’ve joked, and I will say it again, if I lost my job, then my husband is prepared to take on and worry about us. That’s not going to happen, but it’s one of those things where you have to be willing to take that risk. And I think that’s what we need in this current climate of our society, is risk it all in order to advance outcomes for most marginalized. So, I’m living in my own positionality, through lived experiences, through the intersectionality of being a black young woman and am really hoping to see progressive change in our community as a result.
[32:14] Thank you, Tafona. I want to make sure Carlisha or Lis or Cecilia, is there anything that you want to add to what Tafona just shared, which is so, so relevant right now?
[32:35] Thank you. I mean, that is visionary, courageous leadership. It is exactly what the country needs and I consider it, I mean, it’s not just that it’s essential. It’s also really deeply generous to the rest of us. So I just want to acknowledge that. And this notion that your lived experience counts as data, right, that I think sometimes we forget, I know this is true of me. And especially the times when I’m the only one in the room, I think, “Oh, these are all people who know stuff that I don’t know.” And maybe they do, but they also don’t know what I do, and that counts. But it’s taken me a long time to internalize that. So it’s just, I have a deep, deep gratitude for hearing you say that and for seeing the way you’re all asserting the kind of leadership that you’re asserting in this moment.
Carlisha Williams Bradley:
[33:24] I think one thing that deeply resonated with me that Tafona shared was the aspect of having a seat at the table and even being a black leader in this space and in this time. And what does that mean to elevate your voice in a way to be heard, to speak on your lived experiences and this nuance of finding the balance of being impacted by what’s happening in the world, but also being charged to lead in this work and finding that space to speak your truth, to care for yourself and to push forward the work. And I feel like, similar to Tafona, if now isn’t a time to speak boldly and to be willing to risk it all, to be willing to cash in on those chips of privilege to even be at the table — this is the time.
And I found myself this week having conversations with funders that — the door would have never been opened, you know, weeks ago, but it is open now. And so what does that mean again, to stand on those values, to have the long game in mind and knowing that this is for something bigger than myself and being willing to sacrifice. So Tafona, I just really appreciate you sharing that. And it definitely resonated deeply with me.
Lisandra Gonzales, chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Cradle to Career:
[34:35] I agree with you, Tafona, as well, and I’ll say for me with privilege comes responsibility. And so in the pandemic and the crisis that we’re experiencing across the U.S. with systemic racism, I really see that the position that I’m in and the influence that I do have comes with an immense of responsibility to act and to speak up and to do something. And that’s not always easy when we’re trying to support a community to move, not just based off of what you’re saying, but evidence and data, and have them come with the ideas that change is needed. And so just like you, Tafona and Carlisha, I’ve just found myself really having to embrace uncomfortableness in a way that I’ve never had before through COVID and into today.
[35:20] That’s great, Lis, thank you for that segue. I mean, first I want to acknowledge Rocky Mountain Cradle to Career — as has ImpactTulsa and Graduate Tacoma — made very big pivots in terms of how to respond to the current context. And that is bold, courageous leadership in a time of crisis. That’s what we’ve seen consistently across the Network, but I know in all three of your partnerships, we’ve seen that type of leadership. And, you know, we’ve been having this discussion about making courageous decisions and speaking out. Cecilia literally used her elbows to penetrate a circle of male colleagues, in a story that she wrote about in her book. And I’m curious, Lis, what tools have you used to be included in the inner circle of information sharing and decision making that so often women and women of color are excluded from?
[36:22] So the short answer is swagger. But before I elaborate that, I want to say we had an opportunity to connect with Cecilia prior to the panel today. And the first thing I said to her was, “I wish I had your book 20 years ago,” but I’m especially appreciative that I have it now because so many of the lessons, the wisdom that she shares in that book, I still find myself grappling with. And when I say swagger, I chuckle because Cecilia referenced that your mentor Charles Kamaski had a lot of swagger. And when he would walk into spaces, he would command a room and was really able to be the center of these critical conversations that were happening, that were necessary for moving work forward. To today, I still find myself in spaces where they’re predominantly men making decisions.
[37:14] And oftentimes those decisions are not just happening in boardrooms, but outside of boardrooms as well. So imagine a younger version of myself with children. I had a lot of things going what you might consider against me in terms of time, ability to be in those same spaces with them — first of all, even being able to be a part of the conversation. And so very early on, I would do the pep talk, as you said, Carlisha, and prepare myself to walk in with, at that time, what was really sort of fake swagger. And as I’ve been able to grow in wisdom and experience, I still walk in with that same swagger and just kind of elbow my way in and say, “Hey fellas, what are we talking about now?” and starting those conversations. But I’ll also say that in addition to that, I do a lot, a lot of homework.
[38:02] I find out who’s in the room, who the players are, what the potential connectivity or relationships are that I might have with them. And I start making those phone calls way in advance of any session. And it’s not just those work, you know, boardroom sessions, but also those social settings that are often work related as well. So being prepared with knowing who’s in the space, pushing my way in there and really positioning myself to say, “I have a lot of information and things that I can contribute here. They just don’t know about it yet.” So I’m gonna make sure I put that out on the table so that they have a full deck of cards.
[38:39] Awesome. Anyone else want to respond to that question about elbowing your way into the room or tools that you’re using to get into those conversations?
[38:50] It’s interesting that you say swagger because my version of it — and this was, you know, 30 years ago, but I think it’s still relevant — also entering a circle that was very, very male — as you know, I’m five feet two inches tall, so I just don’t take up a lot of space. And I felt like I needed to compensate for whatever I was lacking physically, that if I walked into the room, people weren’t going to see toughness. They weren’t necessarily going to see smart. You don’t associate the way that somebody like me shows up physically with the qualities that you expect to see in a leader. So I felt like I had to compensate and I quite deliberately — and this is not a recommendation, but it’s an illustration that we try to assume what we think of as male forms of leadership.
[39:40] So I taught myself how to swear, because I thought that, I think probably correctly, that the guys would take me more seriously if I behaved the way they did. And it just shows you that our models in our heads of what a leader looks like and sounds like and behaves like are shaped by generations of male leaders that came before us, and they were overwhelmingly white. And we’re just reaching a point where we’re starting to accept, actually, I don’t need to sound like the guys in order to be taken seriously. You know what? I should be taken seriously because I know what I know. And my presence in the room is valuable. And especially if I’m the only woman in the room, especially if I’m the only woman of color in the room. They may or may not know that they need us in that room, but they do. And as long as we know, then we can bring what it takes.
[40:34] True, so true. So I know that Bridget is gathering questions from our audience. And before we do that, I want to ask one more question. And this is for any of you or all of you, because, so I’m very rarely the only in the room. In fact, our sector is overwhelmingly dominated by white women. And one of my mentors or coaches recently told me that a white woman who is not aware of her power is very dangerous, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And so what I would ask of you is, we talked about men as allies for women of color. In this sector that we’re working in, how do you view white women or women in general as allies and what does that look like? Because I would guess that of the more than 300 people who are listening on this webinar, there are many of us out there. We dominate the sector. And so I think if you’re willing to share some advice or guidance, especially in this time, it would be incredibly valuable.
[41:54] Yeah. You know, it’s tough to answer that with a single response. I think there are many ways in which white allies in general, but white women allies, can play a role, especially as we think about social justice and the work that we’re doing. My staff and I have taken at least the last two weeks, 30 to 40 minutes, not nearly enough, but enough time to have one-on-one dialogues with one another — whites with blacks and Latinas or Latinos with Asian Americans and so on it goes, in order for us to have a cross-cultural dialogue. And I was paired with a woman who I admire so much in my community. Her name is Wendy Holcomb. And she’s on us on this call and she’s a white woman of privilege. And she recognizes that.
[42:45] But she is probably one of the most giving, selfless women I have ever really met, particularly in the work of education and in our community. And she talked to me a bit about how she’s been having difficult conversations with her peers in her circle group, and how she has seen real challenges with acknowledging, in that group, their privilege and their power to help lead change and where she’s stuck. And I think that ongoing dialogue, the conversations, there’s a body of research under the tenet of critical race theory around interest convergence. And while I have some critiques to it, I think that understanding that you have to give, to get and/or see where there is common ground amongst the two groups that you’re describing is where you can start to get that allyship to realize their position or their place in this space.
[43:37] But if you come at this from a deficit of always sharing, like, “This is where the challenges are, and this is where we have to create change, and this, this, this,” they don’t see the benefits for themselves. It’s hard, especially when they are very far down the spectrum. It’s hard for them to want to jump on board to do that work. So I think the more that we can dialogue about where there’s mutual grounds and benefits for us all to play in this space, the more that we can help leverage that white allyship.
[44:04] I agree with you, Tafona. I would also say don’t be afraid to get it wrong and to have the tough conversations. I think there is a fear of paralysis that comes with, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to support as an ally or an accomplice in the right way. I’m not sure how to be a support here.” Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Let’s have those tough conversations. Let’s figure it out together. I also don’t know how to support moving in the right direction. We’re in a major, major deficit here in the United States, and it’s going to take being able to fail forward together. But as long as we’re having those conversations and making progress, I think that’s what we have to keep our eye on.
Carlisha Williams Bradley:
[44:50] I agree. I think that there’s the emphasis on progress over perfection, and that we keep moving in this space and continue to push ourselves into spaces of discomfort. I’m really grateful for our team at ImpactTulsa and the way that our white allies were able to show up, even when our staff members of color needed to step back emotionally just to have space to heal. I think it’s important also that we keep in mind the impact, the feelings and the emotions, and how with white allies, it might automatically be a “Well, what do I need to do?” or “Tell me what to do next.” And you’re putting that emotional burden back on team members of color. And our team was really great in showing up in that space, elevating their voices and leaning in, knowing, “Hey, I might not get it right, but I’m going to jump in and do something, say something.”
[45:38] I also think that as we think about allyship and beyond, the conversation is, you know, how are white women as allies not just speaking on the experiences that they heard about of women of color or people of color, but bringing them into spaces and allowing for their own stories to be told. As data-driven organizations, we rely on data and numbers a lot, but as Tafona said, lived experiences — that’s data too. But not just us capturing it and talking about it and telling that story, but allowing for people of color to tell their own stories. And so I think that there’s this journey. There was an article that said, you know, “When black people are impacted, white people join book clubs.” And I think that the book club space is a necessary space, but there’s also a space of action and giving away power to elevate the voices of community. And now is the time more than ever for that to be done.
[46:38] Thank you. So I know Bridget, we have some questions I believe that you’ve identified from the audience. Do you want to share those with us?
Bridget Jancarz, chief of staff of StriveTogether:
[46:47] Yeah, we’ll start with the first one, which feels incredibly relevant in the midst of combating two pandemics. So panelists, Cecilia, as women of color, how do you balance being more than ready and self-care? Many women of color overwork to prove that they’re good enough but sacrifice mental and physical health in the process. So how do you balance both of those?
[47:18] So I guess I’ll start. I find it very hard. I will confess to not always being very good at it. It is essential though, because the problems that we’re trying to solve are not short-term problems. This isn’t a matter of, I’m going to spend the next five years of my life solving structural racism, and then I’m going to, you know, and then I’m going to move on, and have my vacation. It helps to have systems for yourself where you are scanning when you are overwhelmed, when you are exhausted, when you have the capacity to lean in and when you just don’t have it in you anymore. We’re not gonna win these battles if we’re operating on fumes. So for me, giving myself permission to watch out for myself has been a struggle, but I think it’s necessary.
And also it’s, you know, the same strategy as with other challenges, building a circle of people who help remind you, “You know what, you look exhausted. Can you create some space to step back?” Do that for each other in the workplace, model it for your colleagues. I have a CEO, I work for a CEO, who is the first one to say, “You know what, I’m going to be off this weekend. And I’m really going to be off,” or she’ll start a weekend email with, “Please don’t respond to this till Monday.” Like she, she walks the talk. And so if you can be the leader, be the colleague, who makes room for others to do it. Modeling the behavior is tremendously important.
[48:55] This is going to sound terrible, but I am terrible at it, too. And I schedule it. I literally block off time on my calendar and my team is very clear on “not available”: “This is my workout time. This is my time to do what I need to do.” And then we’re also really good about shutting it down when we can come Friday early afternoon and really having, first of all, fun together as a team, and then being able to go out and enjoy our families for the weekend. But I have to schedule it. Otherwise it would be, and it often is, 24/7, around the clock, especially when your social world is your professional world as well.
Carlisha Williams Bradley:
[49:32] I agree. It’s a challenge. Scheduling has helped. Also having a child has forced me to become more mindful of this space, the demands at home. But I also, you know, really think about the opportunity, A. to block it off on your calendar, to build a culture within your team that celebrates the space of knowing that if we are pouring from an empty cup, we can’t give, especially when this work is so personal and so deeply connected. But I think as a woman of color, and especially as a black woman, you know, we’re taught that you have to work 10 times as hard. You have to be strong at all times.
And my coach recently has been helping me to unpack, like, how are you truly defining strength? A couple of weeks ago, a strength for me was being able to lean in and tell my team, “Today I’m not okay.” Like, I need you all to step up so that I can step back and to have a space to heal and to be able to lead with a clear vision, understanding everything that’s happening in the world, thinking deeply about raising a black son in America. Those were things that were personally impacting me and my cup was just not full to pour. And after that week, I was reflecting on this and my coach was like, “Well, what are you taking with you?” And that space of vulnerability and redefining what it means to be strong and redefining how you actually lean into networks and allow for other people to step in, to fill your cup in times where you’re weak. And it’s just helping me to constantly challenge this narrative that I have about what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a strong black woman, and creating space for myself to be vulnerable and to have access to that healing time as well.
[51:12] I’m not going to offer anything more. In fact, I’m thinking, Carlisha, we need a happy hour, girl, cause I’m listening to everything that you’re saying. And I’m like, yes, yes. And I’ll be honest, just for me, I don’t have a good answer for it. I’m still learning and growing in this space. I am 100% of the background where you don’t have days off. Like my family grew up, there was no days off, there was no such thing as time off. And so I recognize that particularly with my staff — I have a bit of a younger staff in general, and they continue to push and elevate those things.
I’m working, I feel like I’m working more on trying to be understanding to what that looks like, to cultivate that. But then I also think about, you know, there’s 365 days a year and there are ebbs and flows of when you have to think about prioritizing work, when you have to think about prioritizing self, when you have to think about prioritizing family. And there’s never a good balance, and when that makes sense for everyone in the organization. And so I go back with this practical lens of when and where and how, but also recognizing it’s important, and still struggle. So I will continue to listen to you all because this is really helpful for me.
[52:22] Bridget, do we have time for one more question?
[52:28] We do. So I’m gonna read the full context of the question because it’s brilliant and important. “In these times it is hard to be black and lead in a world that seems to only want us in charge if we are willing to apply white-centered ways of leading. How do we bring our full, authentic, nonwhite ways to the work in ways that don’t lead to folks to seeing us as not likable, which does seem to matter right now, and not lead folks to see us as threatening or non-palatable leaders. How do you bring that authentic sense of self to the work or to your leadership role?”
[53:10] Wow. So there’s a lot of layers to that question. It is — especially these times. It’s so funny because this was always true, but it feels so much more true now. And it’s interesting to have written a book before this moment that feels like it might have some resonance for this moment. It couldn’t be more important to allow ourselves to be fully who we are and to let go of worrying whether or not that’s gonna go down well.
There’s a chapter in the book about kindness and it’s there because I think it’s actually a very important leadership skill. And I think it’s undervalued as a leadership quality, that we think we need toughness and we need it expressed in certain kinds of ways. And I think kindness can be part of that, but I will also say that some of the women that I spoke to in preparing the book — and they were both African American women — said that they felt they had to be careful about showing kindness because they thought people would walk all over them. They thought that, and I’ve had this experience too, in my own career, people mistake kindness for weakness. And, you know, I heard Carlisha say, you know, that you’ve been kind of trained to have to be strong all the time.
[54:35] So we wrestle with all of these dimensions, but at the end of the day, in order to be leaders, people can tell if we’re not being authentic. And, you know, I feel like I’ve had to modulate a lot in the course of my career, just to be able to explain things in a way that I thought people were going to understand.
As an older woman, I’ve been sort of trained to try not to take up too much space in the room because you might rub people the wrong way. And then you might not be effective. My daughters, on the other hand, are like not having it, you know. They are prepared to be fully who they are and if it doesn’t go down well, they are okay with that. And at some degree I think that that represents some progress. I mean, I think as leaders, part of our job is to bring people along with us, but not at the expense of not stating the truth, right? Not at the expense of not revealing who we are and what we know.
[55:37] Yeah. Again, not a very well-scripted response here. I think it’s hard to actually show up as your full, black, authentic self. I’ll speak as a 30-something-year-old woman. I’m still learning things about my blackness that I hadn’t known before. So when I learn about what that looks like, either from family who remind me a bit about where I come from, or from history, there are these things that I begin to grow into and begin to want to own that I didn’t realize I didn’t possess before, but then how do you do that, which is different than who you’ve been for the last 30-something years? So there’s that piece.
I also think there’s this piece of — I’m not sure this, this is Tafona’s opinion — but I’m not so sure that some people are ready to hear, authentically or even candidly, about some of the truths that perhaps I as a black woman lived experience in Tacoma, Washington, have. I think it would challenge a bit of the people, particularly white individuals, who may have never known or seen that.
[56:48] And so then I fear whether or not I separate our ability to continue this collaboration and advance the work that we’re trying to do, because then they feel perhaps attacked or they feel like I’m blaming them or whatever that case might be. And so I will tell you again, I struggle. I’m still trying to find this. And part of it is with experience, but I don’t know that I can be my full, authentic self just yet. Do I think I’m growing into it? Yes. I’ve cried probably more these last three months. And I think it’s the first time my team has ever seen that and I can’t even control it. And I’m like, “Tafona, girl, what is going on? Stop.” But it’s, you know, it is coming up because there’s so much happening right now. And I haven’t taken that space.
So all to say, I think it’s important to do pieces of it, but I also think it matters about who the audience is and how you’re doing that in order to ensure that that table is ready for what you’re going to give. Especially if you’re trying to advance outcomes.
Carlisha Williams Bradley:
[57:47] I think Tafona’s point is spot on. And in thinking about this work, and especially as an executive director, how do I create this space within an organization for my team to show up as their authentic selves, but also knowing that in my seat, I almost wear these two hats, right? I’m leaning into a funding community where I’m trying to get access to continue to move forward the work. So there’s work to be done in a whole lot of spaces for people of color to be able to show up as their authentic selves.
I think about at a young age, like for many black people, code-switching was just a way of doing business. It was a way to navigate in this world. And so even as an adult woman, how am I unpacking those things that have allowed for me to arrive at this seat and to cash in on those opportunities that were granted to me to show up as my authentic self and to continue to move the conversation forward? It’s a question for me of, how do I move forward the mission while also sharing my truth, while also being able to create this space and loving the space that I have within my team? But knowing that the world does not look like ImpactTulsa, right? And so I’m still on that journey of figuring out how do I do both/and.
[59:03] Thank you, Carlisha, Tafona, Lis, Cecilia. We are at time. I know we could go much longer with this conversation. It’s been an incredible conversation. I am so grateful to all of you for joining us. Cecilia, thank you for writing this beautiful book that is so meaningful, especially in this time, in this context. And really appreciate you for joining us for today’s conversation, and Carlisha, Tafona and Lis, all of the incredible work that you’re doing leading your communities, and to the audience for all of your questions that we didn’t get to answer. Thank you for participating. We will post this webinar on our StriveTogether website, and I’m sure I know I will go back and listen. And just really grateful for the time with all of you today. So thank you all and be well.