“If you want to journey with me in this transformation work and this work of social justice, then for me, the prerequisite is your earnest desire to change” - Michelle MiJung Kim
Welcome to the first episode of the podcast Diversity & Inclusion: Revolution or Reform? We are honored to welcome and delve into Social Justice work with Michelle MiJung Kim. Through our conversations we are introduced to Michelle’s start to diversity work, her biggest struggle within D&I work and her truest D&I confession.
Michelle is the co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a published author of her newest book, The Wake Up (coming this September y’all!), a writer, speaker, entrepreneur, and lifelong activist. To Preorder her book The Wake Up visit https://www.michellemijungkim.com/wakeup.
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Episode 1 - Waking Up With Michelle Kim
Alright. You all, we are super thrilled about our guest for today. Michelle Kim, because, well, I and Michelle, we go way back and we haven't actually seen each other in real life for over a decade, but have stayed connected through social media where I have been just kind of following, maybe stalking her for years. So a little bit about Michelle is that she is the co-founder and CEO of Awakened. She is also a recently published author of her newest book “The Wake Up”, which is coming this September you all so make sure you get your pre-orders in. I know I did. She is also a writer, a speaker, entrepreneur, and a lifelong activist.
I know Michelle for over a decade ago and knowing her then, and now she is all that and so much more and Michelle, what I got to say to you, looking at you right now is what I appreciate most about you is how you do things in public, right? How you learn in public, how you grieve in public, how you account in public, how you love in public, which I know takes a lot. So I really want to appreciate that for you as we get started. Thanks so much for being here, Michelle.
Thank you so much. This is so kind and I am thrilled and grateful to be here and what a lovely intro.
We try, we try. Only the best. We always get started by asking our guests to share their lineage or their roots in D&I work and diversity and inclusion work. So where did this get started for you?
That's a complex question. I can start by talking about my linear. Which is still, I think I'm uncovering a lot as I start to delve into my family history, my own people's history, both the diaspora, as well as folks in South Korea. So I'm Korean and I'm an immigrant to this country. So I was born and raised in South Korea and immigrated to the states when I was 13, and came to California then. And that really started my journey of learning about my own identity in the context of the U.S. culture, history, and the way that the U.S. history and people see Asian Americans.
So I would say that definitely jump-started my understanding of my racial identity, but really my work into DEI or Social Justice at large, began when I started being curious about my own sexuality. I came out as queer when I was in high school and that was really the beginning of my politicization. And then once I started learning about what it means to be queer or what it means to be in the liberation work with other queer folks, that's when I started, incorporating different types of analysis, whether it was around racism or, you know, ableism, all the other things kind of came after I started learning about the queer and trans folks liberation work.
So that's my sort of journey in discovering myself and how I understood my life and who I am as an immigrant, as a Korean American, as an Asian American, but also as a queer person, as a queer woman. And then my work in DEI really began when I decided to pursue my career in the corporate space, right after college. A lot of people ask me why did you decide to go into the corporate world after graduating from school because I don't know Connie if you remember when I was at Berkeley, I was a very active and vocal grassroots organizer, youth activist. Doing all the things, causing all the trouble, calling everybody out. And I was the last person that I thought would be going into the corporate space, which felt so counter to my beliefs and I held a lot of shame and guilt when I jumped into that world. Frankly and very honestly, I needed the money and I needed to bring my mom over here from South Korea at the time. And immigrating people here isn’t cheap, you know? So I started the process when I was in college and found myself needing more money to be able to establish myself financially and to be able to bring my mom over here through the very cumbersome immigration process. And I chose to work in consulting, not knowing anything. And I chose a company that I wanted to work for based on this list that the HRC, Human Rights Campaign always puts out every year around the best companies to work for, for LGBTQ employees and that company was on the list. So I thought, well this must be an inclusive company.
And I ended up joining and realizing what in the corporate world, what they meant by Diversity and Inclusion and what they meant by LGBTQ Inclusion. And what ERG’s really do. Which then was all about socializing and happy hours, you know, things like that. Which was so different then my work in activism and doing grassroots organizing. And so that was the start of my dissonance, the cognitive dissonance, that I felt, the harm that I experienced. And trying to make sense of what this is in the corporate space that felt very very different than what I knew Social Justice to be.
And that experience continued when I jumped from consulting to Tech and I continued to feel this cognitive dissonance between what companies were saying they were doing and they were committed to, which was DEI and the actual experiences that I was having. And on top of that, being very frustrated by the experiences that I had with external consultants, who would come in, who are often white and white led firms, presenting DEI as this very much diluted and co-opted corporate speak that did not actually hold true to the values of Social Justice, which I understand DEI to be and that should be but my experience was not that. So that's why I started my own company and there's a whole backstory to that, but that's a long-winded summary of my journey. You know, I feel like I've been in a lot of different spaces, whether that was organizing space when I was in college or when I was in high school or in the corporate space and tech space and now as an independent consultant, having seen so many different spaces trying to grapple with these issues. So that's a little bit about my backup.
That's amazing. Michelle, I want to say that I remember you did choose a business consulting route in college and I was a little bit shocked. We had a sociology class together and I think it was like so white where we were constantly like what in the world is happening in these conversations, these breedings, and thank you for sharing, why you ended up choosing the business consultant, because I didn't know that backstory and I think that it is so important to also lift that up, right?
Because there are just so many sacrifices, right? That sometimes we have to lift as communities of color thinking about families and the way they were rooted in a village of like, how do we protect the people that we care most about and really ensure their dignity and that they can be with us and safely and I didn't know that and I really appreciate you sharing that piece because I do think in D&I or in Social Justice spaces, right, if we make money where somehow villainous, right? Like, oh, do you actually care about the work if you're trying to profit? But sometimes it's not about profiting, but really about abundance, right? How can we have that spillover effect for the people in our lives? So I just wanted to say thank you for sharing that.
And you have been in this space for so long, we're curious, you know, what are you currently wrestling with in D&I, knowing that you have, you know, started Awakened because you are wrestling with things back then, but what are you still wrestling with, right. Where are tensions that you're moving through? What are you grappling with? What are lingering questions when it comes to the D&I?
Yeah, that's a great question. And I think it kind of links back to what you just said about the sacrifices that sometimes marginalized people make and the choices that we make in order to survive. I think the tension that I grapple with a lot these days, and I think as a community, as a collective, we are grappling with, I hope we're grappling with is the line between doing things for survival and complicity and accountability, right? At what point am I a sellout? And at what point am I just trying to survive? At what point are we making progress incrementally? And at what point are we giving up on radical change?
And I think that is, especially for people who are working inside, very toxic systems that are exploiting people. Which I will say is every system, to be honest. I think people often think that the corporate space is the only, or the most evil place, but as somebody who has been inside the toxicity of the nonprofit, industrial complex, as well as the academia in different ways and non-profit and the government sector.
So I've been in these spaces externally, as well as in close proximity to marginalized people, navigating them. I want to say that it's not just a for-profit space that needs to be interrogated in terms of the ways that capitalism, White Supremacy and all of the different oppressions manifest, right. So I want to just name that. And I think for people who are working inside these systems, trying to create change from within and with existing members of the systems, I think that question around what is truly aligned with our values and our integrity and when we veer off of that, how do we know and how do we actually take accountability for it? And how do we celebrate the kinds of progress that actually gets us to where we need to go versus premature self-congratulatory type of indulgence that sometimes I see in this space.
And so that's what I've been grappling with for multiple years now doing this work. And I think it's something that as people who are doing change, work inside systems that everybody needs to be very conscious about. And I think that is the tension that's filling over into the discourse right now where a lot of the critique that's happening around DEI is that it's it's work that is actually supporting or giving excuses to the bad actors or the harm that's being caused. And DEI is nothing but a blanket to kind of cover that up and a tool used by those people in positions of power who are just exploiting it.
So I think just acknowledging that that is there and there are some real valid critique because I've seen how that work manifests and, you know, I'm trying to be very cognizant of how we are doing our work and how my team is doing their work, but, you know, being vigilant about it, I think is, is really important for all of us to keep in mind.
Yeah. I think about how I am, you know, a little bit younger in the game from you and you have built a team, right? And in building a team like you're creating systems, right? And as you are teaching this work about, diversifying workplaces, being inclusive, creating equity, how have you struggled to, and I imagine it's a struggle, so it hasn't been a struggle you can push back on that, but have you struggled to, create systems, create relationships within your context as you are both teaching, but then also modeling the work in your day-to-day interactions?
That's such a good question. And, you know, building a team and actually having navigated the system as an entrepreneur, as a small business owner, I've learned a lot about how our systems are actually designed in order to make Equity and Inclusion and Justice more difficult, and accountability more difficult. Even something as simple as providing, maybe not simple because it wasn't simple providing health insurance for your employees. In the early stages, I couldn't provide health insurance benefits to people who wanted to join the company. So then I have to make trade-offs and sacrifices. Do I hire people who don't really need health insurance? But what does that mean for the kinds of people that I can actually bring in, right? Because then I'm certainly negating a whole bunch of people with marginalized identities who depend on having health insurance in order to be able to work. So things like that, right? Like if we think about who we're actually excluding because the systems have been designed to make it really difficult for us to incorporate all the people that we want to incorporate and all the people that we want to work alongside. I think that was the biggest learning and the biggest tension for me to grapple with as I was building the business. And it's, it's a continuous struggle, right? And I'll tell you, I've been in the midst of transitioning our business model.
So I realized that it's really difficult for me to stay in alignment with all of my values and take care of my own needs as a human being, while building a traditional sort of company structure, where there is sort of the seniority and the hierarchy and the payroll. And, you know, in order for me to be able to ensure that people are getting paid on time, that I have to do a certain number of hours of work in order to make the sales. And I have to pitch to certain businesses. Like all of that is a machine that you build and you become entangled in, once you get going.
And I realized early last year that that was really killing me inside and physically. So we're changing the business model where I am now just referring a lot of the businesses to the folks who were facilitators with us because they all own their own consulting businesses. So that I am no longer in the center of operations and I am no longer sort of the person who is, you know, in charge of everything, but rather it's more of a, you know, decentralized model. So that's been a pretty big shift after three and a half, four years of running the business as a pretty traditional model of a corporation in terms of the way that it was set up. To now just looking to deepen the partnership network of people, who I get to share work with and who I get to partner and collaborate with. And that's been a lot more freeing for me as a now back to being almost a solopreneur, being more focused on the actual craft of developing capacity and developing curriculum for people to be able to utilize.
It makes me think a lot about how you're in some ways. And I don't know if this is the right way to describe it, but you're really shifting into a interdependent network, abundant model, which I really love, because we don't think about that when it comes to building businesses, right?, launching and being entrepreneurs. And I think that it's interesting because there's this mythology around if you are...and I think you're famous. I don't know if you consider yourself famous.
Famous is a really weird word, but like you have a published book. You do keynotes, you are invited to speak, like people crave the things that you say. Which I think is just like such a privileged place for me to like, be able to bear, witness your journey, but the mythology around this is that like, you don't need to be taken care of, right. Because you're the strong person that's got it all down. You're leading a company, you've launched a company. And even when you're talking about, you know, that line where you're constantly thinking about and grappling through, like when do I cross a line? When do I shift the line? What boundaries do I set? Like, how do you, this is a really big question. Like, how do you kind of navigate your own self and community care being so public, you know, like, which is a gift to all of us. Right. But it's so public. And I can imagine it just being taxing on you. Like how do you manage your self care, support, your own learning, your own accounting.
Yeah. It's tough. I will say that I am not very good at it. And I think that I need a lot of reinforcement to remind myself. So I go to therapy every single week, which has been hugely helpful. But I think it's, for me its been truly a journey in understanding my own self-worth tied to care. Like, do I deserve care? Do I deserve rest? Am I worthy of rest? Am I worthy of inaction that is often the kind of lens that I use to see rest, you know. Rests being equal to inaction or being useless or being idle versus a place and time for me to recharge and to love myself and to care for myself. And I think for a lot of folks who have had to experience survival in different ways, right?
I grew up low income and I grew up in a pretty busy family, where my mom was a single mom working in South Korea with a very much stigmatized level label of being a divorcee. And my dad was undocumented for over a decade in the U.S. and he's had to really struggle through a lot of different challenges here. And so understanding those struggles and understanding the kind of love and parenting I received. I've always equated love and the degree to which I deserve love with my ability to serve other people. And I think that is something that's been really difficult for me to untangle. So if I'm not serving somehow, in some capacity, and if I'm not getting the validation that what I'm doing is useful, then that becomes a really difficult self-worth, challenge for me.
And I think that is inherently taught to us in this capitalist system, right. That we always have to be producing. We always have to be doing something productive in order for us to gain respect, in order for us to enjoy abundance, in order for us to be cared for. So I don't think that this is uncommon, especially in people of color, especially for women of color and especially in the Asian diaspora. And it's something that I'm actively trying to unlearn. So for me, self care, it's a fine balance between, you know, community care also being a component of self care, right? Cause I don't believe that I can just care for myself and that being enough for me to heal from all the things that are happening in the world and to me, because so much of my trauma is collective trauma. And so for me, the only way for us to actually start to heal is through collective healing. And so in thinking about that, but also carving out time for myself to be able to heal. I think the biggest thing for me has been understanding that all of our inherent worth is inherent. It's not earned, it is not bought, it is not worked for, but because we exist, because we are simply in existence as human beings, that all of us are worthy of love, dignity, respect, belonging, and abundance and care.
But it's something that is so easy to forget for all of us and especially for ourselves. So I am always relying upon my support system, which includes my therapist, which includes my friends and family who remind me that I deserve to rest. I deserve to be loved unconditionally. So I'm really grateful for them.
I love that and it makes me think about, you know, going back to DEI and D&I, a lot of it, as we're seeing now is all about producing, right? What event are we putting on? What are we doing? What are we marketing instead of the question of like, how are we being? How are we being together as humans that are radically like all our full, messy selves? So I love that connection there and also that tension with how in the DEI space, it can feel like what actions are we taking, which is important, of course. And also sometimes like we need to do that healing first, before we can get to the action.
You know, I feel so humble, I think is the right word to say, humble and grateful to be able to bear witness to people's journey and evolution and especially yours. And what I've witnessed is such an evolution in you. And I kind of want to like tell it to you and have you correct me or tell me about where I might be off or, you know, maybe what internally doesn't match up with the external, you know, story that is being told. Right. So I know that you're a lifelong activist. I also know that you're a creative. I remember at Berkeley, you were an amazing Hip Hop dancer and I used to go to your shows and watching you and cheering you on. I don't know if that's public knowledge, but we can strike that if it isn't, but you were an amazing dancer and a creative.
And then as we talked about earlier, you eventually took the route of business and consulting and then fast forward a couple of years, I remember you launching Awaken. And I was just like, oh my gosh, this is amazing. I'm so glad that someone like Michelle is actually carving out space and DEI to do work that is rooted in Equity and Justice. And I'm sure Awaken itself, as you've shared, has had its own evolutions, but from my initial kind of remembering of Awakened, it was really focused around unconscious bias allyship, and you know, so much has happened from then until now. But what I really see you as grounded in your practice now is around abolition, transformative justice, collective healing, which are quite different than just allyship or unconscious bias.
Is that evolution accurate or is there something's off with the internal story? I'm just wondering about the catalyst and how you kind of got grounded in Transformative Justice and abolition.
Yeah, thank you for naming that. And that, let me go first by correcting the dance part, because I feel like maybe I used to be an okay dancer. I would say now all I can do is Zumba So let the record show that I am not claiming any artistry in the field of dance.
So I think it's important for me to maybe go back to talking about the Awaken philosophy and our principles and the values that we had as a business that we continue to practice as a business. It was really important for me to stand out based on the kinds of things that we were teaching and how we were teaching it. And I really wanted people to understand how to talk about certain topics in a way that is critical. In sort of the historical context, that's often missing in these conversations.
So when we started Unconscious Bias training, as it is now, was sort of the go-to thing for most corporations. And it kind of became for a lot of people, the one-stop shop to solve racism and oppression in the workplace, which we all know is not at all sufficient. So the way that we chose to do Unconscious Bias training often was in having that be in a sequence of different types of workshops that we were doing. So, number one, we were really clear about being a company that really focused on education experiences. So most DEI companies that you see out there will claim they do everything from assessments to training, to strategy work, to focus groups, to policy work. And just end to end everything, which I think very few firms are really successful and excellent at all those things.
So from early on, what I wanted our company to be known for, is we do a really great job at educating people on certain things. While acknowledging the limitations of what a one training experience can provide. So in our conversations with companies, the ask often was you need to have a broader plan for how this education program fits into your overall strategy for creating a more equitable and just workplace.
What we can deliver is a very specific sliver of the pie. But if you are needing to have needing to actually bring transformation into the workplace, this is not going to be the only solution, nor will it be sufficient. So I think that is important context for people to know. And I think part of the reason why it's really difficult working with businesses is that they often saw us as the check the box sort of tool to get through the moment. And so there are a lot of companies after talking to us said, actually, we're not going to commit to your whole thing. And we also don't have a strategy company that we're working with and we don't have all the things that you were saying that we need. So we're going to go to a one-stop shop who can provide all those things to us in one sitting.
So I think part of the challenge for us was picking the right companies to work with. Knowing that they are being held in different ways, by different people, so that they are not just using us to check boxes because that's the last thing that we want to do. And I think sometimes the critique is valid, but sometimes it could paint a really reductive picture. What should exist, what shouldn't exist. So when people dunk on Unconscious Bias training, I understand the critique because of the way that Unconscious Bias trainings have been implemented and how that has led to so much harm both inside the workshop as well as in the aftermath.
But I don't think it's actually useful for us to just say all Unconscious Bias trainings are bad. Because when we think about management trainings, just because somebody delivers a really shitty manager training, you don't do away with the entire thing, right? You look for more thoughtful ways to incorporate things that's going to actually make an impact. And is unconscious bias an important topic for people to understand? Absolutely. But should it be taught in a, 30 minutes lunch and learn session with no action items and commitments that is going to be made, in a systematic and institutionalized way? Absolutely not. Right. So all of our workshops with one topic, we're spending half a day, at least, talking about the ramifications of these things and tying it to institutional policies that will actually see change in the aftermath.
But I think it's people understanding the limitations of one training. And understanding exactly what it is that we need to educate people about. I think that's usually where things go south really quickly. So in the wake of Summer of 2020, George Floyd's murder and the uprising that happened, a lot of people came to us for our Unconscious Bias training. And in that moment, the right solution wasn't Unconscious Bias training. It was talking about White Supremacy, right? It was talking about White Supremacy culture. It was talking about Anti-Black Racism in a very particular way. In a historical context. In also a way that ties what we're seeing in the streets back to the workplace, right?
[00:29:15] Michelle (she/her): The Anti-Blackness that happens in the streets is happening inside the workplace too. The type of policing that we're doing for Black folks and Brown folks is happening inside companies, too. That's a conversation we need to have not something about the types of biases that we have, right. Because that's too broad, that's too generalized and that's not the right solution to the problem that we're dealing with.
So I think that's also something that I talk about in the book. We need to be very specific about the issues that we're trying to solve in order for us to offer more precise solutions to the hurt. And so we have those sort of fundamentals that we did for a long time. And now we continue to do that are my, partner delivery folks are, you know, using the curriculum that we developed. So those are still happening. I think those are still important when talking about the fundamentals of identities and privilege, power foundational, right? That a lot of people still do not have. And I think that's something that we forget very easily, especially when we're in the social social media world. And we're curating our feed to follow people who are keeping up to date with what's going on. Who have the language who have access to the knowledge that we got from Berkeley, for example. Step into the corporate space with people who have never heard of anything related to DEI who have not had any interest in talking about it. I think the gap is much larger than people even think.
And I think that is something that I constantly need to remind people who's doing change work. Is we actually need to calibrate. In real time where people are at so that we can actually make a meaningful change happen without causing harm into marginalized people in the room. Who's going to be taking care of the aftermath once we leave. Because we can go in here and I can talk about all the things in the most critical ways using the most up-to-date jargons and, you know, throwing in all the theories. But if I'm not actually making any sort of effort to meet people where they really are in a way that's not going to cause additional resistance onto the folks in the room. Then for me, that's irresponsible and I've also seen harm because that way. Where people go in and do their 30 minute keynote and then they bounce and now marginalized people in the room have to do the cleanup because there's a lot of resistance that happens naturally. And there hasn't been proper sort of set up of the responsibility and how we think about educational burden and emotional labor in order for us to actually move the needle.
So I think that's a tricky balance to strike and I think when people talk about being super, super critical, I think that's really important. And I want to also implore people to think about how we actually do that without just burning everything down. You know, I mean, because I'm all about burning shit down, as long as that burden of fire, doesn't always just fall on the marginalized. Because that's what happens right. When we go in and the people that we're really trying to solve for, we're not trying to educate the most privileged, most powerful white people for the sake of educating them. We're trying to lift the burden off of the most marginalized people in the room, right? That's a very different perspective and different goal that we have going into these rooms, right? We're not solving just to educate people in positions of power, but we're doing that in service of the most marginalized people.
So I think sometimes people conflate, you know, being compassionate with being diluted. And I don't think those are synonymous. I think that we can be compassionate without having to dilute or whitewash what we're saying. I think we can be very, very direct, but I think we do need to be thinking about, in what ways are we potentially causing more harm than good for the facade of progress, right. And for the facade of being you know, “critical”, but without really understanding how change happens inside these very archaic systems and cultures,
Educational burden and emotional labor, that really stood out with me when you slept that. And I also want to thank you for calling it, calling me in so graciously because I have my beef with Unconscious Bias, but I think that, like what you're saying, um, just shines a lot of light in terms of like how we can use multiple layers around strategies in the eye and how we can be multiple layers.
I have another question that sparked from that a reflection. I'm just thinking about I was facilitating a training and I don't do DEI. I don't identify with those words. I talk about Restorative justice and I think that is a step above. Like if people don't know words around Racial Injustice or White Supremacy, they're definitely not going to know Restorative Justice in that way. And so in this training, I was talking about a time when I caused harm by, excluding people by painting a gender binary. Right. And you know, when people come to my workshops from the public, they already are in some ways aligned and aware, right. But when I go into a space where people haven't really thought about, gender pronouns, right. So much of their discussion was. What are gender pronouns and why was this wrong versus like, I was trying to get you to identify like the feelings and needs caused by my harm. And so to your point about measuring where folks are at in the room, there's definitely calibration that practitioners, facilitators need to do about, your audience in any given moment.
Now I've got the segue to that question, Connie, which is, you know, sometimes folks who aren't as aware, think about Diversity and Inclusion simply as like representation. I don't want to just read from your book, but you did share an excerpt last week on Instagram talking about the limits and benefits of representation and when it's beneficial and when it is not enough. And I'm curious if you want it to give people a sneak peek into the book that is coming out on September 28, pre-order (link in the description).
Yeah, absolutely. And I think the term DEI has gone through such an evolution. But in some ways that hasn't either, because I think now there's such an allergic reaction to the term DEI. And I wonder if I need to just stop using the term because it's just no longer useful. Or what I've been trying to do is just re-define or define it in a way that actually holds true to the integrity of the work that needs to be done. Right.
So when we say diversity, it is about representation, right? What we're saying is we want different types of people in the workplace. Where are people I think fail around that understanding is the need for representation in the first place and how historically there has been categorically excluded groups of people because of systemic oppression, who for them wasn't, it was an impossibility to hold positions or hold positions of power. And therefore we need to have a concerted effort and strategy to then undo that historical harm by creating access for people to exist in these positions. And that is what diversity is supposed to be doing. But instead people have misunderstood that or dropped the entire historical context to thinking this is just about collecting different types of people for the sake of having a good looking careers page, right? There is no substance to that understanding or a deeper why behind why representation is an issue in the first place. And there is no sort of a desire to understand the historical context around the inequities of representation. So I think that is something that's important for people to just understand, because I just, this morning saw a report that came out from BCG Boston Consulting Group that was titled “It's time to reimagine DEI and their assertion.” I thought it was going to be, we need to reimagine DEI to be closer to Social justice, but instead it was around, um, DEI needs to be encompassing of all people and not just selected groups of people who've been historically women and people of color, blah, blah, blah. We need this to be more reflective of all people, right?
So it read very much, like all lives matter to me, to be honest. And they included some valid identity categories I feel is important to create an intersectional movement, but they also included identities that weren't historically systemically oppressed right. People who are introverted, for example, and to me, that just signals to me that still people are not understanding the historical context of why we're doing this. And also the systemic issues that marginalized people have had to endure for centuries that we're now trying to correct versus this is being interpreted as how to be nice to all employees, right? How to make people happy, how to engage our employees better, how to motivate them so that they don't feel excluded that's to the extent that people are understanding DEI, which is highly problematic.
So I think representation goes to that sort of bucket of things that people celebrate prematurely as the end goal of what we would understand as a broader Justice Movement and Liberation work, right. And I talk about this in the book where, representation itself is important. I don't want to negate that. And I think again, just like Unconscious Bias, sometimes super, really dunk hard on representation, right? Like representation as that is not the answer. That's not what we're looking for. And I, I don't want to, again, eliminate that as a yes and possibility, right? Like we need representation period. And representation as a goal in itself is a valid goal. In terms of people being able to see, you know, folks who represent at least their external identities or even internal identities in a way that hasn't been done before historically, right? Whether that's media representation, representation in positions of power, I think that in and of itself, but I think we need to acknowledge the limitations of that. That having people of different identities in seats of power or on screen itself is not enough for us to celebrate any type of milestone attached to justice and liberation, right?
And there are multiple reasons why one is that internalized oppression is real and I've had to work through my fair share of dissonance with working with people of marginalized identities, being the gatekeepers of the work that needs to be done, right. Being the gatekeepers to decisions that need to be made more boldly or to barring access to real sort of people in positions of power. And that's a really painful thing to experience, right? The times that I've been really let down the times that I've been cynical the most is when I encounter clients who are People of Color, Women of Color, people who hold multiple marginalized identities saying, “oh, you know, we’re not there yet, or we're not quite ready for that conversation. Can you drop the words, White Supremacy from your conversation?” Right? Like those are the requests that I've gotten from People of Color, right? Because they are proactively and preemptively trying to protect the fragility of their leadership. And I'm all about incremental change in certain contexts, but that type of preemptive lowering the potency of the work we're trying to do, I wouldn't call that pragmatism. I would just call that complicity.
And I think that's distinction we need to be making. I think we need to be able to really build our capacity to discern “What is the difference between complicity and pragmatism?” because there is a difference. And I think that's part of the reason why I'm not always about representation and I'm wary of people only calling for our presentation as the celebratory milestones. So internal oppression. And also, I think the second thing that I go into it's a little bit more nuanced, I think is it is a real thing for us to expect marginalized people in relative positions of power. I think there is this expectation that we have of them that we place on them even when they are not in positions, where they are outwardly committed to DEI that we placed that burden of doing that work just because of their representation, just because of their identities right. Versus do we, do we place that kind of expectation on white people, white men in positions of power. But I think there is such painful disappointment that comes from people who look like us, who stay complicit, who want to just reap the benefits of being proximate to power, because they are not aligned with our values. And sometimes I need to check myself in sort of checking my own expectations that I put on those people, just because of their identities and how I might be perpetuating the undue burden and the imbalance of labor that we're asking marginalized people to do because of their proximity to power. So I've been thinking about that as well in terms of representation. It's a complicated topic, right?
Yeah. I was going to say, that's the snippet y'all. You got to buy the book for the rest. There's so much more to unpack and I want to make sure that people are giving it the time that it deserves. I'm also aware that we're running up to time here and so we have a couple of questions that we always ask on the way out. And this one kind of gets to the whole umbrella of this conversation with D&I. Is it revolution or reform?
Michelle (she/her): I think because DEI is often a discipline that is practiced inside systems, I think it's more often understood as a reform tactic. However, I think that there are ways that we can influence reform type of changes in order to get to the revolution that we want to see. And I think about that in the context of Abolition work and how there are different policy changes that people are pushing for that are going to be closer to us getting to the ultimate goal of Abolition versus that's going to steer away from Abolition, right? So when it comes to policies like cops wearing cameras, many people, many Abolitionists leaders are saying that's actually not the type of reform that's going to get us to Abolition because it's putting more money towards the institution we're trying to abolish, right? We're giving more tools for them to play with.
And that historically hasn't led to more accountability or less violent versus defunding is a reform tactic that could get us closer to Abolition. So that's the framework that I'm thinking about when it comes to DEI? I think there are things that we could be doing that gets us closer to revolution. And I don't know we might be having all different types of definition around what that, what that looks like. But when I think about revolution in the context of the work inside workplaces, I'm thinking, truly, different types of ways that companies exist and operate where it's not about the most profit based on the definitions of capitalism, but is there a world where we can see companies working in a more interdependent manner with our workers. Where we are doing a way where some of the toxic things that are inherent in the system. So that requires us to actually abolish the whole thing, to just uproot the entire thing and re imagine it from scratch.
And I think right now, DEI sounds so blah, right. Like, whenever we talk about DEI, it just sounds like there's like a faction, like DEI faction is like, y'all are sellouts. Y'all are corporate versus like, you know, anti-racist trainers or anti-oppression training. It's like, okay. But like, let's actually look at the contents of what we're doing, right. Cause I think sometimes we get bogged down in like the labels and we end up losing the criticality of actually looking at the work that's being done. So I'm much more about like, can we actually get to the foundation of what it is that we're trying to do? And do it thoughtfully, do it critically, do it with accountability.
So I think it's a yes and. I think it's a yes and, and my hope is that we, as a collective start to have more conversations about what revolution actually looks like, because I think that's where I feel my own limitations of being able to imagine outside the paradigm that's been given and taught to me. And it's especially difficult to imagine outside of what is for things like the workplace, because it just feels so vast. And I'm just grateful for folks who are leading the way in the re-imagining of, you know, the prison industrial complex, or just doing away with that and redefining what safety looks like, redefining what community looks like, redefining what accountability looks like. And re-imagining the entire world. I think that is such a powerful practice and muscle that we have not been taught by the system. And it certainly, I think for me, I really think that that imagination also can only come from people who are most impacted by the systems and the oppression that we need to undo. So I feel like that's the ongoing conversation when I want to be a part of that. I want to be listening to. That I want to be learning from, and being in conversations with other practitioners like this.
So, this is my experience in college, where you ask Michelle apretty kind of like yes or no question and she gives you the most like complex nuance, multidimensional, and full of intersectional analysis by like, I love it. I just, I love it. Right? Like we were just like, is DEI revolution reform and you went on this like beautiful, expansive explanation that really grapples with that question that maybe has an answer. Maybe it doesn't have an answer.
We do have one more closing thing that we love to do with all of our guests. And it's essentially called a DEI Confessions. So you can think of it like being in a confessional. This is where you can share something funny that you think back on where you're like, man, I can't believe I used to do that or say that or something that you made a mistake about as a practitioner early on, or even not early on, like even now, because I definitely still make mistakes here and there. Or maybe even something that feels like you're ashamed of, like, it's a hard truth, a shadow that you're still working through. You can go as light as you want, or as deep as you want. It's up to you. I'll give you a second to think about it. David, do you want to kick us off with yours?
Yeah. As a facilitator, right? I was doing things in person over the last couple of weeks. And I have to say as much as like, you know, as the restorative relationship for some specific, oh, it's so good to be back in person getting to see people. I really miss the Zoom. Not just because like it's my, my desk is, you know, 20 feet from my bed, but also the ability to cut off conversations and breakout rooms and eavesdrop really well into conversations. Like I really missed that. So, you know, as much as it's good to be back with people. I do miss my Zoom. I miss it so much.
I hear that. I hear that. Do you have one Connie?
I do. And it's about Berkeley. So in Berkeley and also, probably after I graduated from Berkeley for a few years, I in the DEI spaces and Social Justice spaces I moved through, I definitely threw around Berkeley and the fact that I was an Ethnic Studies major and Peace and Conflict Studies majors for clout in Social Justice work. It was kind of like, oh, I'm so woke because I went to Berkeley where there was all this protest and activism and, you know, I think back on it now, and I'm just like, what did all that mean? Like, I think that what spurred this is actually recently in thinking about Abolition, where, you know, in Berkeley a decade ago, I had read all this work about, and from Angela Davis about Abolition and I thought I got it then, but I feel like I'm just walking through the door that she opened then now. Right. So like, I'm like 10 years later and now I'm walking through the door to really get it in a different way. Um, so that was me. I definitely threw around Berkeley like it was like a badge. What about you Michelle?
Oh, I feel like there are so many. I actually share a lot of my own mistakes and vulnerable moments in the book. So there's another plug. If you want to learn about all the mistakes that I've made in my life. I mean, it's an ongoing thing. Truly. It's such an ongoing thing and I find that as I do this work year after year, it illuminates more of my, uh, I don't want to say blind spots cause that's the word that I'm trying to replace, but my gaps. And I think that makes me want to be more thoughtful about my words and what I do and what I share, what I don't share on social media and things like that.
Cause I think when I was in the corporate world right after college, the way that I thought I stay true to my values and the way that I stay true to us and the movement that I came from was to be hyper-critical without thinking about change, like context or progress. That's what I held on to, because I felt so ashamed of being part of the system that I was so loudly condemning. That I thought the only way for me to not be dirty like those people in the system was for me to just call out shit left and right. And to actually make other people feel ashamed.
So I think I did a lot of finger-pointing. I think I was a much louder of an advocate when I was in Tech and when I was in the corporate space internally, but not necessarily in the most effective way to drive change. And I sometimes think about like how many people I shamed out of this work and, and out of what out of my own anger, which is totally understandable. So I don't want to say that was bad or wrong per se, but I also wouldn't call it the things that I did, the way that I tried to change things, I wouldn't necessarily say that was, um, productive or strategic for the end outcome because nothing changed. It's just people checked out and I became very cynical.
And I think that is probably he worst place for change agents to be is being stuck in cynicism.To believe that change is actually not possible that people can't change so what's the point? Systems can't change so what's the point. And I think that's a really dangerous place for people to be. That was for me. And I think I became very, very cynical working in that toxic culture where I was just, I just gave up on other people. And usually that also means that you're giving up on yourself right. So I think I was so deeply entrenched in my own shame that I was projecting that outward in all kinds of ways that ended up making me the kind of gatekeeper that I talk about these days. I'm curious about what I could have done. Because I was so hurt. I was in a lot of pain when I was going through that experience and because of that, the workplace was so toxic, I don't know if there was any other sort of way, like, you know, for me to actually do the change, work from inside, which is also another topic.
I don't actually think that people inside these systems, unless it's their job, I don't think that it's fair for us to expect marginalized people to take on that emotional labor burden to be compassionate or to educate people right. That's not their job. So yeah, I would say that's like the time period that I think about often in terms of having both compassion for my younger self navigating the toxic systems and also wanting her to not be so cynical about the capacity for people to choose.
Thank you for that again. Like, what I most appreciate about you is just how you do things in public. Sharing here and also excited to read the book and check out the book. I got the pre-order. So I'm waiting for the day it drops. I got to hype you up.
To the last, last question we already know the answer, but how can people support you in your work, in the ways that you want to be supported (pre-order pre-order).
Oh my goodness. It is such an uncomfortable thing though. I'm not even going to lie to ask people to do things for you. I think that's part of the unlearning that I'm trying to do is to ask for support. Oh, it's so hard. Y'all
Well, for sure. Who is this book for? Who is this book for? Tell them why.
Oh, that's such a good question. I wrote this book for people who genuinely want to change. And that includes people like me and this is yet another binary question that I always try to like weasel out of, which is the intention versus impact, right. I think that's sort of right now, the sort of this course is around like intention doesn't matter. It's all about the impact, but I want to be more complicated. I want to complicate the narrative a little bit and say that I actually think that intentions do matter. I think intentions for people to want to change, I think matters in how we repair the impact.
Cause I don't think that one can really practice accountability unless there's willingness. And I think intention in that case is everything right? Do you actually have the intention to change and to repair harm that you've caused? And I think that's the prerequisite that I write about in the book is that if you want to journey with me in this transformation work and this work of Social Justice, then for me, the prerequisite is your earnest desire to change, not the performative virtue signaling being the goal or trying to get away with farm that you've caused, but that genuinely, you believe that transforming yourself as possible, along the way to transforming the world.
So those are the people that I'm trying to target. I'm not trying to get this book into the hands of folks who are way far from my values, right? People who are just determined to continue the structures that are violent, but I'm interested in working with people who have the intention of transforming themselves in earnest and sincerely and genuinely. So those are the people that I'm trying to reach and getting people who are interested in getting the foundation solid before rushing out to doing things in a performative way.
You heard her y’all. Yeah. If that's you, if that's someone in your circle the pre-order link is in the bio. Thank you Michelle so much for your time, your stories, sharing your experiences. It was really a privilege to get to hear from you here in this space.
It was definitely not enough time.
It never is. It never is. I love being in conversation with folks. Thank you so much for hosting and for creating the space for us to be able to unpack things in a complex and nuanced way.
That was such an amazing conversation. I'm so glad you were able to connect with Michelle for our very first episode of D&I: Revolution or Reform. How do you feel?
So I honestly feel a lot of energy buzzing because there's that personal connection and having not seen her in real life for over a decade, but also I as always learn a lot whenever Michelle is sharing and just it, I don't know, telling and weaving in stories of her personal experience with her professional experience. I definitely felt that kind of weave in that conversation. What about you?
Yeah. Well, I was going to say, let's start with you because you did have more of a background where there were what were some of the highlights from your learning?
Yeah. I, well, I think that I was pretty surprised in the story to share about why she chose to go into business and consulting when we were having that conversation. What I really appreciate is how she shared that cognitive dissonance she had when she went into a company, thinking that they were doing Diversity Equity Inclusion work because of whatever slogan or mission or PR the company had but then actually being there and living through that experience, it wasn't that way. And I know for myself, I felt that when I was working, um, and I also know that when I work with clients and organizations on almost any spectrum of DEI, they also express that. So it's a common theme that I think that just shows up a lot when we're talking about DEI
Yeah and you and I have had conversations about, you know, what can we actually expect organizations, companies, corporations to do. What needs can we ask them to meet? On some level, I think a lot of DEI work results in more compassionate capitalism, or in other words, more compassionate like overlords, um, and like people are trapped in the system. And as we think about our practices of Restorative Justice and Healing Justice towards collective liberation, it's important to make sure that we still have that in mind, but we need to leave on-ramps for people at the low risk levels. And I know low risk is relative, but if we have an on-ramp for people to address Unconscious Bias, um, that's probably easier for someone who hasn't been exposed to these ideas than to say, like let's dismantle White Supremacy right off the jump, right?
Like we need to attack the problem at all of the levels, but we can't just expect people to be where we are. I think for me, there's this acknowledgement that I didn't always have this consciousness of systemic oppression in my complicity, even as a person of the global majority in that. And so, like, it was a really great reminder, from Michelle that we need to be doing this work at all.
Yeah. Yeah. I really actually appreciate that reminder cause I have a lot of feelings about Unconscious Bias trainings, which I also shared but her call in about people. Everyone has to start somewhere and we need to meet people where they are at is an important reminder for me. Though I will confess here that it is very hard for me sometimes to meet people where they're at if there is fragility or if there is something else happening. And so I think part of what I'm excited about for you and I, is that Restorative Justice and Healing Justice can provide a little bit more of a container where we can meet people where they're at, because it is so much about the relationships. It is so much about the community connections. It is so much about healing and repairing some of the harms that makes it hard for us to meet people where they're at. Which I know shows up for me. Cause I have been harmed before and I think that shows up in ways where it makes it hard for me to meet people where they're at, but something that I'm also working on myself.
How have you overcome that in any situation that you're comfortable sharing right now?
Yeah, that's a really good question. I think to be honest for me, less so now, because I think I've done a lot of practice and discipline in trying to see people as people and less so as cogs in a machine where when I was working within organizations on the inside, I was very much into this like kind of like people are labor and less so that people are people, if that makes sense. But I think that part of my expansion is understanding that people...like when I'm interacting with someone, like if I'm interacting with you, I'm not just interacting with you, David. I'm actually interacting with you, David, who has been socialized within all these different systems and structures and conditions. And sometimes that's not your fault, right? There's no malicious intent. It's not like you chose to be socialized in this way. So having that understanding around like, oh, it's David, who has been socialized by all these different structures, right. That's who I'm actually interacting with. And gives me a little bit more expansion in generosity to connect and meet you where you may be at, if that makes sense right? Like that's something that I've been thinking a lot about is just like, it's more than just a person. Like you're a human experience and identity is really important and you're not in a vacuum. So that's kind of like one way for me. Anything for you?
Well, I like what you said there, right? It doesn't excuse the harm. It doesn't excuse the impact of the harm, but it does allow you to humanize the person. On the other side, I'm thinking about situations where I've caused harm and being socialized by patriarchy, right? I'm a CIS dude and how that's caused harm. And while that was not my intent, I want to be in good relationship with the person that I harmed. Like that is what happened. And so it is okay for someone to harshly call out that harm. And I'm never going to judge someone for the way that they call out harm. It's easier for me to get to that point of like, not being defensive and wanting to repair when someone's like, I've been hurt by this. And like, these are the ways that I've been hurt. And these are the reasons why I think it is helpful for them to assume that, you know, I'm a human who's trying to do my best.
And I think like this acknowledgement that while it might feel personal, it's not right. This is the way that like we've been socialized. And people are really just trying to do their best. I know you and I had this conversation yesterday. I think it was yesterday about like, it was something to the effect of like, you know, are humans like inherently like good or selfish and, you know, I think one of the things that we agree on is like, people are just trying to do their best to meet their needs. And the stories that they've been told in order to get to meeting those needs have different impacts. So how do we see the human as well as the stories and then, you know, be able to move from there.
Yeah. I love that. And I think that last thing about Michelle's that came to mind as you're talking. I think Michelle's conversation with us and how she weaves her. Pieces of her life into the work that she does is that we don't lose focus on how at the center of DEI work, right, whatever that DEI work is actually humans, right? Like human connections and humanity and not just the metrics or the quantitative data or the fancy buzzwords. And so, yeah, I just, I love that there is that focus on centering of like, what is the human experience and how we can lift that and ground into that and anchor into that when we are able to actually do some DEI work together.
Absolutely. You know, we are at the end of our very first episode, having a human experience, but, you know, we've had this conversation with Michelle. We've had this conversation with each other. We also want to be in conversation with you all. So if you want to be a part of this conversation, you can definitely comment and like and view and share on social media, on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all those things, but you can also email [email protected], thoughts, feedback, questions. And if you want to be featured here on the podcast, sharing one of your D&I confessions, you can send us a voice memo and you might be featured on the show.
Yes. And this is our first episode. So I am celebrating that and celebrating. Thanks everyone for tuning in and we'll see you next time.