Zach chats with Michelle Kim, co-founder and CEO of Awaken, in this episode centered around effectively creating inclusive leadership cultures. Michelle shares her journey into social justice work with us, including what led to the creation of Awaken, and she explains why she and her organization prioritize the needs of the most marginalized people in the room.
You can read Awaken’s Medium blog by clicking here.
Click here to read the Salon piece mentioned in the show.
Zach: What’s up, everybody? It’s Zach. Yes, again, it’s me. Your boy, your host, your friend, your co-worker–maybe your co-worker, I don’t know. If you work with me you know that I have this podcast, and, I mean, hopefully if you’re checking it out, you know, hopefully you’re having a good time. Shout-out to you. I’m not gonna say your name, but you know I’m talking to you. What’s up? Look, you know what we do. We serve to amplify the voices of black and brown people at work, and we do that by talking to black and brown people in a variety of spaces, right? So these could be executives, public servants, activists, creatives, entrepreneurs, anybody, and we try to have these conversations in approachable and authentic ways, centering black and brown and otherwise underrepresented experiences and perspectives at work, and today we have with us a very special guest, Michelle Kim. Michelle is the founder and CEO of Awaken, a firm that empowers leaders and teams to lead inclusively and authentically through modern interactive and action-oriented workshops. Prior to Awaken, she had a successful consulting career working with C-suite and VP-level executives at high-performing companies around the world, helping them set ambitious business goals and align their teams to achieve them. While working in management consulting and technology start-ups, she experienced and validated first-hand the urgent need for modern, up-to-date education that empowers leaders to be more empathetic, agile, and culturally aware. Come on, now. Culturally aware. Pay attention. Michelle’s experience in organizational change management, strategic goal setting and social justice activism set the groundwork for Awaken’s multi-disciplinary and action-oriented learning programs. As an immigrant queer woman of color, Michelle has been a life-long social justice activist and community organizer. Michelle, what’s going on? Welcome to the show.
Michelle: Hey, thank you for having me. I’m so honored.
Zach: No doubt. It’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure.
Michelle: Those are the sound effects that you told me about. [laughing]
Zach: Yes, yes. So for those who are newer to the show, I have a soundboard. I have all types of sounds on here, you know what I’m saying? You know, we add a few things from time to time, and, you know, just enjoy yourself. If you’re new to this space, sit back, grab something to drink–it doesn’t have to be alcoholic, you know? I respect your choices, your boundaries. But enjoy the soundscapes that are gonna be coming to you in this episode and many more to come.
Michelle: I love the production.
Zach: You know what? We gotta add a little bit of razamataz, just from time to time. So let’s do this. You know, I gave a little bit of an intro, but for those of us who don’t know you, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
Michelle: Sure. Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me. Thanks, Zach, for the intro. I think you covered a lot in my intro, but I think something that some people might be familiar with is actually my writing. I am an [?] writer. That’s how I communicate my thoughts and perspectives to the world, in addition to facilitating workshops and doing speaking like this one or on stages all over the country. My passion is in really closing the gap between how we talk about social justice in our society today and how, you know, quote-unquote diversity and inclusion gets done, and quickly. So I think that there’s a lot of work that we can do to help bridge the gap in understanding and awareness of how we communicate with each other. And also a fun fact about me is I’m a Virgo.
Zach: Shout-out to Virgos. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. You said you’re a Virgo?
Michelle: I’m a Virgo.
Zach: Man, shout-out to the Virgos one time. I’m also a Virgo. [air horns sfx] You know what I’m saying? They don’t know about us like that. But please, tell us about your Virgoness.
Michelle: You know, a lot of my friends who know me closely know my tendencies to be highly critical, but I also think that’s what–I think being critical gets a bad rep, but I actually think that being critical is what makes me decent at my job. I also think that I have perfectionist tendencies, which I don’t think is healthy, so I’m working on that. I like being organized. I am a huge fan of to-do lists. And I love–my love language is acts of service, so I think that also aligns with me being a Virgo. So I tend to, you know, go overboard when it comes to supporting other people, sometimes to a fault, ’cause I need to prioritize self-care and boundaries and all of that, but I’m not. I’m not perfect at that stuff.
Zach: I just feel so–I feel so seen in you talking about yourself.
Michelle: [laughing] Good. I’m glad, I’m glad. Virgos unite.
Zach: They do. And honestly, like, you know, here we are, two people who over-extend for others sitting down, having a conversation that really helps to amplify one another. Isn’t that something? [look at us sfx] Not me, you know what I’m saying?
Michelle: That’s right.
Zach: [laughs] You were about to say something.
Michelle: I said “Do you know who else is a Virgo?”
Michelle: Beyonce’s a Virgo. So whenever I feel like I need to be [?] about being a Virgo, I look to Beyonce for inspiration.
Zach: I’m right there with you. I mean, if she can do it, certainly I can do it. And, you know, my dad’s a Virgo, so shout-out to my dad. He was born on the 6th, I was born on the 4th, and, you know, we’re a lot alike. Okay, so yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about your inspiration for social justice, and I really want to–’cause social justice is such a broad term. It’s often even, like, used as a pejorative these days. So, like, when you say social justice in, like, your history, what does that look like for you?
Michelle: That’s a great question. My journey into social justice work really began with the lens of being a queer person. You know, I think my journey really started with my coming out. So I came out as queer and bisexual when I was 16. So I was in high school, and I was really confused. I didn’t know about, you know, any social justice issues beyond–I think what people were talking about then were women’s rights, and, you know, now I understand that to be white women’s rights, but we’ll get into that more. But when I came out as queer I didn’t have a lot of resources, so I was really actively searching for community and support to make sense of who I was [and what I could do about my identity.] I was really fortunate to have found a great support group within my high school that was kind of an underground support group, and through that I found out about this program happening out of UC Santa Barbara where they were doing youth activism summer camp kind of stuff for LGBTQ young people. So that was my entryway into social justice work, and that’s where I learned how to organize, how to, you know, stage protests and knowing my rights as a student activist, and that’s where I learned about social justice activism and writers who wrote about social justice, like Audre Lorde. So that was my entryway into understanding social justice, is through the frame of my being queer and learning from queer trans activists, also young people, and that’s also where I learned about the intersections of being queer and also being a person of color and all of the nuances of the different identities and the intersections of different types of marginalization and oppression and how often times they all come from the same root and source of, you know, patriarchy or white supremacy. So, you know, I’m throwing a lot of [?] here, but really at the end of it, for me social justice is about, you know, understanding that we’re all in this struggle together, and in order for us to achieve equity and equality and justice that we need to have solidarity in this frame of social justice.
Zach: And so I’m really curious, right? Let me talk to you a little bit about my perspective, it being singular and limited, right? So I don’t believe this is the way it is. This has been, like, my perception as I look–a cishet black man, Christian black man, looking across this, like, D&I space, right? Like, I’m seeing, like, different camps and groups, right? So I see this group that is largely white and who–like, they’re invited to a lot of the fancy things, but they’re not necessarily credentialed other than being in a certain social strata, but they’re not really credentialed in any type of lived experience, nor are they credentialed in any specific level of education, but they’re credentialed in, like, certain experiences from, like, again, just being in certain spaces, right, that are afforded to them because of their class and race. I then see another group of people that are very much so, like, activists. Like, they’re on the street. If they’re using social media, it’s to mobilize something tangible. It’s to affect a change in some type of grassroots community level. And then I see, like, another group that is kind of–like, they’re in the corporate space and they’re doing a few things, but they’re not necessarily really, like, enacting anything beyond whatever the company needs them to do to kind of mitigate litigious risk, but I think–I’m kind of seeing, like, tensions against each of these groups. I’m curious about, like, your perspective, considering your social activist background and the work you do today. Do you see similar camps in the space, and, like, if not, what are you seeing? Do you think I’m oversimplifying kind of, like, the various camps and groups, or, like, what’s your perspective on that?
Michelle: I don’t think you’re oversimplifying per se, ’cause I do see what you’re saying. I hear you in terms of there being different–because identities [are?] also a different approach to doing diversity and inclusion work inside the workplace. I think–a couple things that I want to clarify in terms of my beliefs is that I don’t think anyone can truly call themselves a D&I expert. I certainly don’t call myself a D&I expert, because I believe fundamentally diversity and inclusion is about lived experiences, so it’s all about how we make sense of our lived experiences in relation to the systems that we inhabit, so I think everybody’s an expert in their own lived experience, and I can’t ever claim that I’m an expert in your life, right? So I think that’s one belief that I have, that we all are experts in our owned lived experiences. And then another belief that I have is that, you know, social justice activism isn’t just about being out in the street and marching and protesting. You know, there’s a lot of activism happening inside of workplaces today as well through corporate activism, but also just daily acts of survival for a lot of folks, especially black and brown people, underrepresented people of color and trans and queer people inside workplaces. I think what they’re doing, just by mere survival and speaking up when they can, is an act of activism. I think there is a greater sense of responsibility that I’d love for D&I professionals to have, whether they’re inside or outside of the workplaces, in really making sense of how change happens and pushing the boundaries to serve the most marginalized people in the room. I think that’s where my criticality comes in, when you start to talk about mostly white–I think I’ve seen a lot of white women take up the role of head of D&I. That’s where I start to question whether, you know, are they understanding the positionality of being a white person, doing this work inside workplaces, holding a position of power? And, you know, I start to question sort of how change is being [assisted?] inside companies while prioritizing the needs of the most marginalized people. So I do think that people without the social justice frame, as in–you know, I think the root of my education and the foundation of my social justice education that I’ve gotten from, you know, activists who were organizers at the community level, what they’ve taught me is that in order for us to enact change, we need community, we need solidarity, and we need to approach everything through the lens of centering the most marginalized people and their needs, ’cause then everybody in-between and all of us will rise together. So that is sort of my approach when it comes to education or policies, whatever organizational design we’re talking about. If we can center the most marginalized people, then everybody else will benefit. So that’s the social justice framing that I use to approach all of my work, but I think I see some D&I people in the corporate space doing D&I work as if this is a new discipline that’s not tied to social justice at all, right? That this is–in a vacuum, this is just about recruiting the most, you know, diverse set of candidates, that it’s about retaining those people once they get there, but it’s sort of in a vacuum without the understanding of systemic issues and history that has fueled D&I to exist in the first place. I think that’s my biggest sort of criticism about how D&I gets done in the corporate space today.
Zach: And I get that, right? It resonates with me, which is why I was so excited, because I really enjoyed–like, I’ve read some of your written work, and of course I follow you on social media. I love what Awaken is doing, right? And really, based on what you’re sharing, I’m curious, how does that translate into the work that Awaken does? Because everything you’re saying, I’m hearing it, right? But I guess I’m trying to understand–how does that effectively translate in majority-white spaces in the work that–and I’m making an assumption that the spaces that you engage are largely white. If they’re not correct me, but from what I’m looking at it seems like the spaces are largely white, and it seems to be that when I talk to other D&I professionals, the subtext of a lot of the work, and even some of the, like, backhanded critique that I’ve received–because I’m often times received as “Well, you’re passionate, but you’re not really credentialed, right?” Like, “You’re a person of color and you have a certain lived experience, but, you know, you don’t have the same foundation that I may have as a quote-unquote D&I expert, so your point of view only goes so far,” or it’s only limited to the black experience. There seems to be, like, a subtext of “Let’s not make people too uncomfortable,” but the work that you’re talking about in centering underrepresented or the most marginalized, that–I feel as if the argument could be made that you’re automatically making other people uncomfortable. So again, just what does all of that look like as it translates into your work with Awaken?
Michelle: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’m also so curious about these credentials, right? [both laughing] ‘Cause I see these credential programs or certification programs. Like, what are you certifying people for? I’m so curious. I think there are absolutely some skills that we can learn, whether that’s facilitation or curriculum development or policy design, that we can get better at, but in terms of understanding other people’s lived experiences and the identities that folks hold and the complexities that come with that, I don’t know if we can truly ever be credentialed enough to be, you know, discounting other people’s experiences and opinions. So that’s my perspective on it. And in terms of how our approach translates into our work, you know, I think we can talk about sort of the founding story, why we were created in the first place. So, you know, after having done organizing work when I was in high school and college, I decided to pursue a career in, you know, the for-profit space because I needed to make money, let’s be real, and I was told actually by my activist mentors, who have gone onto pursuing social justice careers as career organizers and non-profit folks, that they were also experiencing very sort of similar harm, because even non-profits are predominantly led by white people, right? So I think the issues that we think are non-existent in progressive–quote-unquote “more progressive” spaces, they continue to exist, while folks are not making enough money to make ends meet. So–
[straight up sfx]
Michelle: [laughs] I love the sound effects. Knowing that and knowing my situation as a–you know, I grew up low-income, and I needed money to support my family. The advice I got from my mentors was “Hey, you can create change in certain spaces.” They warned me about the toxic culture, but I went in sort of ignorant about what I was getting myself into. So I also really am grateful for my journey, having started my career in management consulting and in tech. I think I have experienced a lot of different things that I wasn’t ready for but I’m grateful for nonetheless. But when I entered in those spaces, I was exposed to and I searched for D&I spaces, right? Because I thought that that was what I knew to be social justice work. So when I joined an employee resource group, I was, you know, disappointed at the level of conversations that were being had around what it means to be inclusive, what it means to be a diverse place, and I was surprised and disappointed and disillusioned by what companies were talking about as D&I was quite surface-level and marketing-oriented rather than real actionable behavioral change or cultural change that were being modeled by leaders of the company. So, you know, I was going through different workshops and trainings and just kept feeling like I was not seeing the level of conversations that actually needed to take place in these spaces, and it felt really safe. It felt safe. It felt white-washed. It felt diluted. As, you know, somebody who was just sitting in the room and constantly challenging the facilitator, I felt like I was doing all of the work. [Zach laughs] And after the [?] is over, you know, unfortunately the burden of re-educating other people who went through the workshop who now thinks that they are quote-unquote “woke” or who say that they checked the box, right? “Okay, we went through this unconscious bias training, so now we’re good. Now I’m back to being a progressive person who cares about this issue.” [Zach laughs] You know, [it was?] a challenge to really think differently, but the burden of their action, their unchanging behavior, their unawareness, and they’re now feeling like they know what they’re talking about, falls on the most marginalized people in the room, and I think that was a frustration that kept coming up for me as I was going through different types of trainings, whether that was done by external vendors or internal people, that people weren’t pushing people enough, and I genuinely felt the need for a compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations, and that’s our mission statement, to create a compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations to developing inclusive leaders and teams, and the way that we do that is by centering the needs of the most marginalized people, meaning we don’t pat on ourselves on the back when a workshop goes well from the perspective of a bunch of white men saying that that workshop was great, you know? That may be true, but if, you know, the one black person in the room says that that workshop wasn’t good while a bunch of white people say that the workshop was great, we don’t pat ourselves on the back for that, right? But if we can support the most marginalized people in the room, you know, in tech and also in many other spaces as predominantly black and brown folks, trans, queer, people of color, if they give us the stamp of approval, if they feel like they were seen and heard and lifted and that they didn’t have to do all the work, that’s success for us, right? So by designing our curriculum to speak truth to them and to, you know, have that frame of “Can we lessen the burden on people who are the most marginalized in these spaces by saying the things that they can’t say because there are too many risks and repercussions that they fear?” That’s our job, and I don’t think enough D&I practitioners out there are taking that approach, because, you know, if they’re internal, their job is at risk. I get that. So I think as a third-party, we coming in–we have a different level of risk that we get to take because we don’t have that kind of repercussion that we need to worry about, besides not being able to come back to that place again.
Zach: Right. And, I mean, at that point that, you know, they don’t let you back, I mean, you already got the bag anyway, so… [cha-ching sfx] You know?
Michelle: [laughs] Well, and usually we can come back, because we don’t often take on one-off workshops. I think that approach is pretty harmful, and, you know, companies come to us and say, “Hey, we just want to do a one-day, like, [?].” We tend to say no to those engagements because we really believe in delivering impact and working with people who are genuinely interested in real change. So, you know, I think the mistake people make is thinking that meeting people where they’re at needs to be done by diluting the message. I don’t think that’s true. You can meet people where they’re at with compassion and criticality. So you don’t have to coddle people, but I think you can be compacted and make your content accessible for folks that they understand and they can move along the journey while feeling and embracing some tension and discomfort that comes with challenging their beliefs.
Zach: So it’s funny, because you see, like, even in, like, our current political tone and tambor today from, like, mainstream media, it’s still around, like, the idea of respectability and quote-unquote kindness, kind of pushing against this idea of, like, call-out culture or just, like, keeping it real, like, just saying how things are, and it’s interesting, and I hear what you’re saying about, like, coddling versus accessibility. Do you have an example of what it looks like to effectively call something for what it is while at the same time making it accessible for folks to actually grasp and understand. Like, I don’t think there’s enough work that you could do to cater to or mitigate against fragility, but I would love to hear, like, kind of what Awaken does and, like, what that looks like for you.
Michelle: Mm-hmm. Hm, let me think of an example. I think that’s a great question, and I’d love to be able to contextualize it just a little though with an example. I think–I don’t know why this example keeps coming up in my head. I think it’s because we’re designing a curriculum right now around inclusive interviewing practices, and one of the common questions that comes up is this idea of not lowering the bar and hiring in this sort of notion of meritocracy, and I think, you know, one way to approach that is really sort of making the person who said that feel like they don’t know what they’re talking about and, you know, calling them racist and all of that… I think is one way. [both laugh] I think another way could be really helping unpack why meritocracy doesn’t currently exist, even though that is an ideal that we can strive for together, and how people who are currently in companies today may not have been hired purely based on merit.
Zach: And how do you prove that though?
Michelle: How do you prove that?
Michelle: I think there’s a lot of data that actually backs up the claim around how meritocracy doesn’t exist. I mean, what we often talk about is that, you know, meritocracy is a concept that was created as a vision that we can all work toward, but we falsely believe that right now there is sort of meritocracy in a sense, but there’s lots of data that shows that actually there’s a lot of biases in the hiring process, whether it’s from the referral stage or, you know, the interview stage or the deliberation stage. I think there’s a lot of data that actually shows discrepancies in the ways that we make decisions, and I think, you know, calling that out specifically I think is really helpful. I think the harmful alternative of sort of diluting that fact of, you know, not having meritocracy is that I have sometimes heard, you know, folks explain that to people in a way that actually equates hiring people of color or women as lowering the bar and that being sort of the, you know, unfortunate short-term solution. Like, yeah, but we need to hire more people of color and women, so, you know, we want to make sure that we are getting that quota filled. So I think there’s, like, a lot of weird ways of people explaining difficult concepts to make people feel comfortable, because the discomfort in this conversation is the fact that you may not have been hired based on your merit, right? I think that’s the tension, is that if we debunk meritocracy, people who have these jobs in higher-paying positions, they are feeling attacked because they feel like they warrant–they didn’t get to where they are purely based on merit, and recognizing that they’ve had privileges that weren’t afforded to another demographic groups, I think that in and of itself is the discomfort, and I think a lot of folks have a hard time calling that out, because we’re then directly sort of highlighting the fact this may be an awful position that they’re in. And I think talking about privilege in general is something that’s really difficult for people. It’s not an easy topic for any of us to really grapple with, but I think if we can’t have those tougher conversations where we are directly highlighting and shining light on the fact that, you know, there are–“Yes, we worked hard, and there are struggles that we didn’t have to go through to get to where they are.” I think if that conversation doesn’t happen, it would be a huge miss.
Zach: You know, Michelle, when you and I first spoke, you know–we do our thing, we try to get to know each other first, and then we do the episode. A little bit of background behind the scenes for y’all, but anyway, when you and I first spoke we talked about people of color and that term, right? And we had conversations about Living Corporate and how, you know, we don’t really use the term “people of color,” we say black and brown. And then you and I had a conversation about how you don’t really consider, or you don’t count, Asian-American or, like, that space, East Asian, in the “people of color” category. Can you talk to me a little bit more about that?
Michelle: Yeah. I think that’s a great question. So I think, just to clarify, I do count Asians as a part of the people of color community, but I think there’s context that we need to put into place whenever we’re using the term. So I think the term people of color is a useful term when we’re talking specifically about non-white people in the context of talking about white supremacy and how that impacts all people who are not white who experience racism and other forms of oppression because of their race. Where I don’t feel comfortable using the term people of color is when we’re discussing specific issues that impact black and brown communities. For example, when we’re talking about police brutality or the murders of black trans women, I think it’s really important for us to be specific about who we’re talking about, because as an East Asian person, I don’t have the same type of fear or risk when I’m around police. I think that is really important for us to specify, and I think that understanding around how there are very specific forms of racism, like anti-black racism. I think that clarity is so needed in having this conversation in a more effective way, and also for, you know, Asian-American folks to be able to show up in solidarity with folks who are experiencing very specific forms of marginalization.
Zach: I just… you know, one sound we don’t have on the soundboard is, like, finger snaps. [snapping fingers] But I’ma put these in there. Yeah, I love it. And it’s interesting because, you know, we’re moving at the speed of the Internet when it comes to a lot of this stuff, right? And certain things become trendy or become–I don’t know. They kind of just catch fire, and I think the term people of color, it has a place, and I’ve seen it be used interchangably when people are just talking about black folk, right? It’s like, “Why are we using that term right now when–” If we’re really talking about something targeted for black Americans, if we’re talking about something that’s targeted for Latinx trans Americans–these groups, as niche or as just unique or small as they may seem to you, these represent actual human beings. So I think it’s great that we’re using them, but sometimes for me–it sometimes almost gets used as, like, a catch-all, and you end up erasing a lot of identities and experiences and points of view.
Michelle: Totally, and I think if we can’t be specific about the actual issue, then how can we solution around it, right? If we can’t name what the actual issue is? It’s not police brutality against all people of color, right? It’s [?] against black and brown people specifically, you know? People who are seen as a quote-unquote “threat” to cops. I think it’s really important for us to get specific around that so that we can solution around it, because it wouldn’t make sense for us to do–you know, to solve for all people of color experiencing police brutality because that’s not true. I think, you know, when we talk about black maternal [debts?], that’s not happening to Asian-Americans that it’s happening to black folks who are giving birth. So, you know, I think specificity is important for solutioning the right outcomes, and also, like you said, it doesn’t erase people’s experiences. I think tech is starting to incorporate more of the term around underrepresented POC, because, you know, Asian-Americans are overrepresented in many tech companies, but, you know, Asian-American also, similar to POC, is a very broad terminology, so I’d love to be able to see some dis-aggregated terms that we can use to also talk about underrepresented Asian-Americans. But yeah, I think specific language is always helpful in most cases, and I think there’s also purpose to the term people of color when we can really mobilize and build a coalition across all people of color.
Zach: I think it’s just so interesting. I do think a function of white supremacy is, like, keeping things as surface as possible so that–because the more surface you can be, like, to your point, the less specific and targeted you can be in your solutioning, and if you’re not targeting your solutioning, then you’re not really gonna be able to affect true change. ‘Cause, you know, and the last thing about this in terms of, like, just keeping things general and grouping people all together is, like–I know that in Europe there’s a term that’s called… it’s black–it’s like people of color to the max, right? So it’s called “BAM,” black, Asian, and Middle-Eastern. Like, what is that? Michelle, like, that’s–that is nuts. You can’t–huh? Like, when someone told me that–like, I just learned about this maybe, I don’t know, like, a couple months ago. Like, a colleague told me, and I said, “How is that possible?” Like, those are thousands of identities and experiences and cultures and languages and histories. Like, how are you just going to just lump–so you’re just gonna take all the non-white people and put ’em in one big cluster? Huh? Considering the history of, like, colonialism and, like–oh, my gosh. Like, that’s nuts. You can’t do that. And so, anyway… okay, okay, so from this conversation, what I’m hearing, I don’t think that we always give, like, members of the majority enough credit in their ability to have an honest conversation when it’s framed effectively, right? I think a lot of times it’s kind of like, “Well, we don’t want to bring that up because then that makes people uncomfortable,” or “We don’t want to bring that up because then they shut off,” and it’s like… eh. I mean, yes, people are fragile, but, like, come on. We’ve got to be able to have some type of–some level of authentic conversation around something. So that’s–
Michelle: Yeah. I wouldn’t go as far as giving them credit. [both laughing] You know? I think there is a reason why–you know, why people are hesitant to have that conversation. I think it’s because of the backlash. It’s because of the fragility and it’s because of [?] and also frankly the repercussions that people face. So I think while we sort of finesse the way that we deliver certain messages without losing the criticality but also having compassion and being accessible, what we also need to be doing is building the resiliency on the part of the dominant or the privileged group so that we can receive that information and check their fragility or check their defensiveness, and I think that education needs to be more prioritized than the other stuff.
Zach: I agree, and thank you. Thank you for pushing back. [laughing] I do think there’s a low level of fluency and stamina, right, when it comes to these conversations, and it’s interesting because I just read an article, and it was published on Salon, and it was called “Diversity is for white people: the big lie behind a well-intended word.” Have you read that yet?
Michelle: I have not.
Zach: Yo, I’ma send this to you. But it’s just interesting because it’s really this conversation in a really tactful rant form just around, like, how D&I is often phrased today, and it’s, like, phrased with, like, white comfort in mind as opposed to the perspective and experiences of the marginalized in mind, and so I just find that very interesting. Okay, so look, you’re the first East Asian-American person that we’ve had on the show, and so first of all, you know what I’m saying, shout-out to you. [air horns sfx] You know, shout-out to you for that and just being here, you know? [coin sfx]
Michelle: Thank you for having me. I’m honored.
Zach: Nah, I’m honored. I mean, I’m excited. I think there’s this–like, despite civil rights history and all of the work especially done, like, within California, L.A., Oakland, in the ’60s, and of course, like, during the era of the Black Panthers, there’s this stereotype that Asian-Americans don’t really care about social justice. Like, have you heard this before, and, like, why do you think that that is?
Michelle: Yeah. Yes, I have heard that before, and I continue to hear it quite often. I think something that I hear when I meet people for the first time and I talk about what I do and we get to know each other a bit better, a weird sort of form of compliment or they think it’s a compliment that they pay me is this fact that, you know, I’m one of the unique ones, right? Like, “Oh, wow. I’ve never met another Asian person who is like you,” or “I’m so glad you’re doing this work, because we need more Asian people doing this,” and I have mixed emotions about that, because while I appreciate the acknowledgement of the work, I think that there’s also this continuing erasure of the historical work that different Asian-American activists have done, whether that’s the labor movement that was led by Filipino activists or folks marching [?] or even current activists working as prison abolistionists who are Asian-American racial justice organizer or disability justice organizers like [?], queer trans [?] activists. I think there’s a lot of folks who are doing really radical work who continually get erased, so it leaves sort of a bitter taste in my mouth when I hear that because I think that with that simple sentiment we’re erasing so much of history and current work that’s being done. I also think that some of that comment is valid in that, you know, I do see a lot more work that can be done on the part of Asian-Americans specifically. You know, East Asians in tech is sort of the reputation that I hear about where people can be more active in doing D&I work or social justice work, and I think there’s a real sort of lack of awareness or even the sense of solidarity amongst Asian-Americans in what their place is, like, what our place is in this conversation around social justice activism. So I think it’s a complex topic. I do think that we can do more. I think all groups can do more, and I think there’s a serious lack of education around Asian-American history and sort of–even the current facts around, you know, the struggles that Asian-Americans are going through, that if more Asians knew about that and if more Asian folks found commonality between our oppression and other marginalized communities’ depression that we may be able to build a coalition to do more amazing work.
Zach: One, thank you for–that’s a really thoughtful answer. All of your answers have been very thoughtful. It’s almost like you’re very… awake. [haha sfx] What’s really interesting, to your point around just, like, history, is as much as the Black Panthers–I really think that the way that we think about–and when I say we, I mean just, like, Americans, right? Like, the way that Americans categorize and think about the Black Panthers has to be, like, some of the most effective example of American government propaganda, right? Like, we think of Black Panthers as the equivalent of the KKK, like, the black equivalent, like they’re these terrorists and that it’s just full of these angry black people, and we don’t think about the fact that Richard Aoki was–he was a founding member of the Black Panthers, right? Asian-American. And he’s not, like, this ancient figure. Like, he passed away in 2009, but we don’t really talk about that, and I’m really curious as to–’cause, like, the Black Panther Party, and, like–not the new Black Panther Party, but the initial, original Black Panther Party was not, like, hundreds of years ago, and so it’s just so interesting how we are uneducated, right? We’re uneducated just on civil rights history, and we’re certainly–I don’t remember in high school or in college hearing anything about Asian-American participation or engagement in the civil rights movement. That was not anything that I remember being taught, nor do I remember that being something that was, like, readily available for me to learn, you know?
Michelle: Right. And I think that lack of education is within the Asian-American community itself, right? I think I feel like sometimes I know more about, you know, black history than my own sort of Asian-American history here in the U.S., and I’m an immigrant, so I think I grew up with a different set of history lessons. So there’s a lot of catching up for me to do as well, and I think that the–I mean, even in the school system, I’m sure you’ve been talking to your guests around the lack of real education around what really happened in history too, right? Not just for Asian-Americans, but for, you know, black Americans and, you know, Latinx Americans. I think there’s a lot of, you know, untrue history that’s being taught to our youth, which is problem #1, and I also think there’s a lot of internalized racism and oppression that exists in the Asian-American community, and there’s a lot of complex topics that I don’t know if we have time to get into, but things like the–
Zach: Well, pick one. Let’s go. I have time.
Michelle: You know, the myth of Asians being closer to white people and the sort of model minority myth, and that’s a very prevalent stereotype, and I think there’s a lot of interrogating that we need to do when we talk about those things around, “Well, who were the initial group of Asian-Americans that were allowed to come to the country? What were the ramifications of that? What are some of the current statistics that we can talk about, even in the workplace, around Asian-Americans being the least likely group to advance to senior leadership positions even though they are overrepresented in industries like tech and, you know, [?] in an analyst position?” “How does that impact the continuing stereotypes and narratives around Asian-Americans?” Being good at math, and, you know, I think there’s a lot of complex, intertwined stories that we tell about our people, Asian-Americans, and also we’re combining an entire continent when talking about Asian-Americans as this monolith of a people when if we were to dis-aggregate that data, there’s actually a ton of lessons to be learned around who’s actually marginalized within the Asian-American community, right? I recently learned that 1 in 7–I think that’s the stat–1 in 7 Asian-Americans are undocumented, and they’re the fastest-growing population that’s undocumented in the United States currently, but we don’t hear about that, right? We don’t hear about that narrative, and I think the way that white supremacy works is this sort of untrue and erasing of different stories that make the people of color the collective question and also not able to work alongside each other, and I think that’s the–the most difficult thing that I see in the sort of solidarity that we need to be able to move the needle on this work is that there’s so much of a lack of education on everyone’s part, including myself, that we need to do a lot of work to be able to, you know, truly practice that solidarity with each other.
Zach: Man. You know, and, like, Michelle, you’ve been just casually dropping just bombs, like, this whole conversation, right? So I just gotta give you at least one. [Flex bomb sfx] ‘Cause it’s been ridiculous. But one thing you said–and it brought something back to my memory. So I’m not gonna say the consulting firm. If y’all want to look on my LinkedIn, y’all can make a guess as to where this was. It’s not the one that I’m at right now, but I’ll never forget, Michelle, I was at a team dinner–this was some years ago–and we were talking about… so, you know, I’m at the table, and then there’s senior leaders, and then there’s, like, super senior leaders, and there’s me, and I was, like, a junior-level person at this point in time, right? This was, like, five or six years ago. And so I’m a pretty junior person, and there’s somebody in there talking about this one particular employee, and they said, “Oh, Insert Name Here is the perfect little Asian. He just does exactly what I tell him to do. He does his work and then he goes home.” And I remember I was just eating my dinner–I literally stopped, I looked at the person who said it and was like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe you just said that.” And she looked at me, and then you could tell that she, like, quickly averted her eyes and was kind of, like, “Oop–” You know, like, she got caught, but just that idea of this subservient just worker bee that just does whatever I tell them to do… that just stuck with me forever. I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” Like, that’s not–I’m still flabbergasted by that, as you can tell, and I told my coach. I said, “Hey, this is not okay,” right? I said, “This is what happened.” And they were like, “Oh, well, you shouldn’t have heard that.” I was like, “No, no, no. It’s not about me shouldn’t have hearing it. Like, they shouldn’t have said that, but beyond them saying it, they shouldn’t believe that.” So yeah, I just wanted to share that. Like, I’ll never forget me hearing that. And, like, they were talking about the person like they were a–you know, like a resource, and, you know, they call talent that in consulting, resources, but in a genuine, like, piece of property [way], right? And it makes you just question, like, “Well, damn, okay. You felt comfortable enough to say this at a team dinner.” And it was a white woman, by the way. But, like, you felt comfortable enough saying this in, like, a mixed group at a team dinner. Like, God forbid, what are you saying about me, what are you saying about other people, what are you saying about this person in, like, more private settings, you know what I mean?
Michelle: Right. Well, the scary thing though is that sometimes that kind of trope or narrative is almost seen as a compliment, as if we should be celebrating that. “Well, you know, why is it so bad for us to say Asians are good workers or Asians are good at following orders?” And what have you. I think sometimes that trope gets weaponized to divide the people of color community even further, which is–you know, I think we saw that divide also in the recent affirmative action case, right, where Asian-Americans–there were arguments on both sides around how Asians are being discriminated against for getting good grades and all of that kind of unfortunate, annoying [?], but that’s a conversation for another time.
Zach: No, you’re absolutely right. And to be specific for our listeners who may not be abreast, recently that was the affirmative action case that went before Harvard, correct?
Zach: Yeah, and so it was interesting–so, like my perspective, as I was kind of, like, reading and understanding it was, like, some people were saying–so I’m on this app called Fishbowl… this is not an ad, but Fishbowl is, like, this anonymous posting app for consultants and other, like, different industry professionals, and people on there were talking about the case, and so basically the commentary was, “Yeah, you’re excluding us and you’re letting in these black and brown people who aren’t smart enough to get in, but you’re trying to fill in these racial quotas.” And I was like, “Wow.” I don’t think that that’s the point, and I think the data showed that the people who are the most advantaged by this current system of applications and acceptances were legacy students, right? It was people that–but again, like, to your point, then you’d see people arguing, then you’d see black and brown people arguing with Asian-Americans about, you know, “Well, we deserve to be here–” Again, I think that’s–white supremacy is winning again when we start having those types of… when it starts devolving in that way, you know what I mean?
Michelle: Right, exactly. And I think it also comes from the fact that a lot of people don’t understand the point of affirmative action and why it got started in the first place. It’s almost like people think that we’re just trying to fill quotas or, you know, have diversity for the sake of diversity, but I think this is where the concept of D&I falls short ’cause we’re not actually ever talking about justice and correcting past mistakes or historical oppression. So I think there’s a lot of conversations that we need to have that we’re not having right now around this concept of justice and sort of historical wrong-doings being corrected with some type of mechanism, and I think similar conversations, you know, are being had in tech and other industries where they’re focused on quote-unquote “diversity recruiting” where folks are talking about that concept of, you know, lowering the bar for the sake of diversity and, like, all of that stuff I feel like are interconnected and they’re just happening in different spheres, and I think for me it’s always coming back to the lack of basic communication around history and social justice concepts and people not understanding how all of these struggles are connected. I think there’s just a lot of room for improvement in how we’re talking about these issues.
Zach: You know, we gotta have you back to talk about the connection–like, to really talk about justice in diversity, equity and inclusion work, because, like, I have all these questions, but I want to respect your time. [both laugh] So let’s do this. First of all, let’s make sure we have you back. We definitely consider you a friend of the pod.
Michelle: Thank you.
Zach: Yeah, no, straight up. So thank you for being here with us today. Now, look, y’all–now, I don’t know what else y’all want from me. I’m talking to the audience now. You know, look, we come at y’all, we bring y’all some amazing guests, you know, we’re having these really dope conversations. I mean, [what more do you want from me? sfx] what more do you want? Like, I’m not even trying to martyr myself. I’m just saying, like, “What do you want?” And when I say me, I mean Living Corporate. Like, you see this guest. Michelle Kim is a beast. Like, thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. Now, look, before we get out of here though, Michelle, I have just a couple more questions. First of all, where can people learn more about Awaken?
Michelle: You can learn more about Awaken at our website, www.visionawaken.com. You can also follow on Twitter @AwakenCo and our blog. Please check out our blog on Medium, www.medium.com/Awaken-blog. I’m all on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn. You can follow me. I also have an Instagram. So all of the social media platforms there’s gonna be me or Awaken, so please follow us and subscribe to our newsletter.
Zach: All right, y’all. Now, look, she said all the stuff. Mm-mm, hold on, ’cause you’re probably driving or you’re doing something, you know? You’re in your car or maybe you’re typing something up on your phone, but what I really need y’all to do is I need you to stop… [record scratch sfx] and check out the links in the show notes, okay? Make sure y’all hit up all those things. I want y’all clicking on them links like [blatblatblatblat sfx]. You know, check them out, okay? We’ll make sure we have everything right there for you. Now, Michelle, any shout-outs or parting words before you get out of here?
Michelle: Well, I think we’re living in a really interesting time right now. There’s a lot going on in so many different communities and our society, so my shout-out is to everyone who is doing their best to survive and to thrive to take care of themselves, to stay vigiliant, to educate themselves, and to be in community with people that care about you. I think that’s so important in this climate. One last shout-out I want to give is to this new initiative that I’m a part of called Build Tech We Trust. It’s a coalition of different CEOs and tech leaders who have come together to say enough is enough around white supremacy spreading online on social media platforms and other tech platforms. It was founded by Y-Vonne Hutchinson and Karla Monterroso of Code2040, and check out our work. We’re doing some really important work to build coalition around this issue of radicalization happening on tech platforms. So Build Tech We Trust, and I can send you the URL so you can link it.
Zach: Please do. Y’all, this has been–first of all, Michelle, again, thank you. Great conversation. We look forward to having you back, because we will be having you back. If you would like to come back–it’s not a directive, you have agency.
Michelle: [laughing] Of course. I’d love to. I’d be honored.
Zach: Okay, super cool. Listen, y’all. This has been the Living Corporate podcast. You know, make sure you check us on Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod, Instagram @LivingCorporate, and then–now, the websites. Now, look, y’all hear me rattle off all these websites every time – livingcorporate.co, livingcorporate.org, livingcorporate.tv, livingcorporate.net, right? Livingcorporate.us I think we even have. We have every livingcorporate, Michelle, except livingcorporate.com, but we do have living-corporate–please say the dash–dot com. Now, if you have any questions or any feedback for the show, just hit us up. We’re at email@example.com. Hit us up on DM. All of our DMs are wide open for your convenience. That’s right. We take on the emotional labor of keeping our DMs open so that you can reach out to us, okay? So you hit us up and you let us know if you need anything. If there’s anything else, just Google us, right? Type in Living Corporate on your browser. We’re gonna pop up. We’re on all the different streaming mediums. Make sure to tell your momma about Living Corporate, your cousin, or your weird uncle, or your racist uncle at Thanksgiving. So you make sure you–come on, shoot the link over. We got all kinds of stuff on there, so we out here, okay? What else? I think that’s it. Shout-out to Aaron [thank you], shout-out to all the listeners, and God bless y’all. Or, you know what I’m saying, bless y’all, ’cause I’m not trying to offend anybody, but bless y’all, okay? And what else? I think that’s it. This has been Zach. You’ve been listening to Michelle Kim, founder, educator, activist, public speaker, and of course CEO of Awaken. Catch y’all next time. Peace.