Zach has the honor of speaking to Debra Gore-Mann, president and CEO of The Greenlining Institute, about tackling systemic equity. She graciously shares her unique career journey with us and talks a bit about what it looks like to manage the wide array of philosophies, motivations and personalities she engages with in an effort to shift and create systemic change. Check out the show notes to connect with Debra and for more information on The Greenlining Institute!
Interested in learning more about The Greenlining Institute? Check out their website.
Read Debra’s piece mentioned in the episode by clicking here.
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate. Man, really exciting times. I mean, exciting is a word for it, right? Like, got some concerns with the coronavirus, people working from home, new ways of working impacting marginalized folks in different ways, so definitely expect for our content to shift a little bit. So we’re talking about and sharing tips on working from home and how to work from home, dealing with managers, leading teams if you’re working from home and also dealing with managers who maybe have never had to manage you as you work from home. But all of that to say we continue to roll with the punches, y’all, and look, it’s Tuesday. We’re having another conversation, real talk in a corporate world. We do this, right? Like, we sit down with black and brown entrepreneurs, executives, CEOs–who are also executives, but you know what I mean–advocates, allies, public servants, elected officials, and look, today is no different. Like, we have a great guest, Debra Gore-Mann. Debra is the president and CEO of The Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, organizing and leadership institute working for racial and economic justice. Whoo, justice. That’s a heavy word in these diversity & inclusion streets, and here they are, and here we go. Debra, welcome to the show, ma’am. How are you doing?
Debra: Hi, Zach. Thanks so much for inviting me. I too am sitting in, you know, troubling times in that I am a decision maker on whether to work from home or whether to continue to bring folks into work, so I hear you on your opening.
Zach: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, to your point about being a decision maker, I’d love to talk about your journey, right? Like, you’ve held a variety of different roles, from investment banking to being in athletics to being a chief development officer. Like, I’d love to hear more about your path. Like, as Living Corporate, and I think as we all continue to have these conversations, we’ve been blessed to talk to people with really unique journeys, right, and it seems as if honestly the people that are making the most impact have some of the most, initially on the outset, just curious paths to getting there. I’d love to hear more about just your story.
Debra: Absolutely, and I think my journey is–you know, I used to think that is that it was unique, but the more that I’ve shared it the more I’ve realized that there were just some pivotal moments that happened, that happened to me. So in my journey, you know, I’m biracial. My mother is Japanese and my father is black, and he was in the military. And I know for some folks when you say “the military” it means–you know, it’s a significant sort of life experience to have a parent who was in the military. So he meets my mother in Japan, and so, you know, she comes to the United States. So she was an immigrant, so I kind of speak that space. And our house was very much a bicultural home. We ate as much Japanese food as we ate soul food. So it was nothing for us to have sushi and collard greens.
Zach: Y’all mixed it–y’all mixed it together?
Debra: Yeah, totally. My mom just, like, just did both, just did both.
Zach: Word? Hm.
Debra: But the one thing that was sort of emphasized in our house was education, and equally from my father’s side, you know, black household, as the Asian side. I did have a bit of a tiger mom, so people might know what that means, [laughs] you know? And education was important, and so, you know, really kind of overachieved in that space, and here was one of these critical, pivotal moments, right? So finishing high school I’m literally the number two in my class–I think they call it the salutorian–my best friend was the number three person in the class, and I’m going to apply for colleges, and the story she gets–and she’s German but white, and the story I get when we compare notes are completely different. I’m told to go to a community college. My family can’t afford to send me to college, but this would be a good stepping stone. I mean, it was a very positive conversation, and then I compared with my friend Lilly and she’s like, “She told me that I should apply to some of the best schools on the West Coast,” but in particular, ’cause I’m originally from Seattle-Tacoma, the University of Washington or the University of Oregon. Totally different story. And so, you know, we’re sort of going, “Yeah, this is because you’re black.” [laughs] And I’m like, “Yeah, it is,” but, you know, I didn’t know. I hadn’t gone to college. My sister–I had an older sister, and she went because, through the PSATs, somebody offered her a full scholarship, so I thought that’s how it happened. Well, lo and behold, her brother had gone to MIT. He comes home during that winter break and he says, “Oh, no, you guys–you’re #2? You’re #3 in the class? You guys are applying to ivy leagues.” And we’re like, “What’s an ivy league school?” ‘Cause our counselor didn’t tell us anything like that. And so I end up applying to Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Cal Tech, the University of Michigan, right? Sort of high technical schools, high academic schools. She applies to Yale, Harvard. We still apply to our local school, the University of Washington. I also applied basketball, so that’s gonna come in here. So I had some athletic scholarships as well, and ended up we got into I want to say 9 out of 10 of the schools we applied to. She ends up going to Yale and I end up going to Stanford, and that in and of itself–so if you’re in an Asian household, you know, for the daughters to leave the home is sort of “bad daughter, disobedient,” so my mother was like, “You’re not–” She doesn’t know Stanford from anything else. She’s like, “You’re not going to California? You’re a bad daughter.” So my first courageous step was to say, “I’m gonna go to this school. It’s in California,” because of my good friend’s brother who was like, “This is one of the top schools in the country. You need to go.” So that’s my first sort of, you know, accidental but intentional advice that I got, and then, you know, going to Stanford really kind of changed my life from there, opened up a whole new dialogue, really started to understand my biracialness. Now we have a term, intersectionality. At the time intersectionality was not necessarily as bright and clear, but I really started to understand that and, you know, had an engineering degree. I worked at a tech company, a material science tech company, when I graduated, then I went back to graduate school–back to Stanford–and got my MBA, and at that time I gotta be honest, you know, I was really motivated by money. We were a lower middle-class. You know, my dad was in the military. My mother worked as a domestic housekeeper, so I was cleaning houses, helping her clean houses from a very early age, so I can clean a mean bathroom now to this day. [laughs]
Zach: To this day. [laughs]
Debra: To this day, you know? You don’t want me to come visit your house.
Zach: [laughs] I might. [laughs]
Debra: “I need to clean this bathroom!” [laughs] And so it was really kind of important for me to sort of maximize my value, so I went to Wall Street, you know? I went to work at an investment bank, and even realized–well, let me take a step back. Another circumstance that happened, when I went to graduate school, I ended up being the only black female in that class. And this is, you know, 1987. But what happened–and I went to admissions and I was like, “How can I be the only black woman in my class?” There was about 25 to 28 of us who had applied, but we all applied at very competitive–so Wharton, Harvard, you know, Princeton. You know, top business schools. Wharton, Northwestern, and the rest, the other 24, went to all the other schools. I was the only one that year that picked Stanford. [laughs] So here I’m in a class, you know, where I’m the only sort of black female voice, and so in, like, every class it’s like, “Well, what does Debbie think?”
Zach: You become the representative.
Debra: I’m the representative, I’m, like, the sole representative, but I’m still identifying as biracial. I’m like, “Why don’t y’all care about my Japanese lineage?” But in any case, right, so I land squarely in that, and what really helped me navigate that was that I played basketball, and we would have these pickup games, and I would, you know, be ballin’ with the rest of the white guys who are now, you know, running companies, running venture capital, but sports was my translator and my equalizer, and so I’ve always very much leaned into sports vernacular and ability, and I think that has served me well, frankly, in my corporate leadership and everything, to be able to talk sports–and I mean, like, really talk sports–has really helped.
Zach: And what position did you play? Not to cut you off.
Debra: I was a point guard. I was a point guard.
Zach: Okay, so now how would you characterize your game? Were you, like, a combo? Or were you, like, a facilitator?
Debra: Yeah. So I was definitely a floor general. I didn’t shoot as much, but, you know, a lot of assists, played all 40 minutes, you know? Started as a freshman, all four years, last two years team captain, so I think the leadership stuff kind of developed there. Played a lot with men. I think that’s a common thread with women who really sort of want to elevate their game, you know, playing against people who are bigger, quicker, and stronger really gets your game up there. But, you know, so I’ll make analogies–I was actually talking to a coalition person, and, you know, they have a very strong coalition, and I said, “Well, you know, here’s my analogy. I’m like Kevin Durant coming to the Warriors after you guys won a couple.” [both laugh] And that frames it, right? Like, “Oh, yeah. We’re balling,” but look, I’ve got some skills, and I can come and, please, let’s just try to win some more championships. So sometimes those sports analogies, like, you know, people are like, “Oh, I get what you’re talking about.”
Zach: They put it together, yeah.
Debra: Yeah, and then you also don’t sound–you know, it’s pretty arrogant to say, like, “I’m Kevin Durant.” Like, I’m not Kevin Durant, but people understand that there’s a skill set coming into the game. And so I tend to do that. So anyways, I go to Wall Street, and that was yet another environment where I’m, you know, very few–let’s see, in that cohort I was the only African-American in that cohort, and then Wall Street is, you know, definitely–I always tell people “Until you make some money, you can walk away from money,” so I was able to, you know, buy a home, help my family. You know, my father had passed, so I was able to help my mom with her house. I had a portfolio of investments and could, you know, really speak money and capital and understanding that, but, you know, after I made some money I was like, “Wow, this is not very fulfilling. This is “What have you done for me lately? What’s your last transaction?”” And, you know, you’re constantly just pushing the rock up the hill. So at that point then I stayed in the private sector and I used my engineering degree with my finance, and in the Bay Area there’s a company called Bechtel, who is a large engineering infrastructure company, family-owned, and they have an in-house boutique financial arm, and because I had engineering and I had finance I went to work for that in-house boutique bank, and the beauty of that is it’s a global company, so I had a passport and for, you know, five years I worked out of the country. China was opening up in some of their enterprise zones a lot in Latin America, South America, and did these large, large structured finance in foreign currency. So good multi-tasking, you know? The language, the currency. It was sort of complicated transactions, and I loved that work. Like, loved, loved, loved that work, and then the big pivot was I got married and I had a child.
Zach: Congratulations, congratulations.
Debra: And for women that’s a big deal. Even for me at the time, you know, I had worked on a big, multi-billion dollar deal in Mexico, and they weren’t gonna let me have maternity leave. They didn’t have maternity leave actually. So we crafted–you know, I had accelerated some deals that I had done, so I killed myself working 100 hours so that I could take three to four months off. There wasn’t–so when people talk about maternity leave and FMLA, I was like, “Yes! Where do I sign up?” This is some of the policy work, right, that now I’m all in because I lived through a time when women didn’t have that. No matter how big my deal was, you know? I could be straight ballin’ and it’s like, “There’s no maternity leave.” And the big fear was that I wasn’t gonna come back to work, that I was gonna love motherhood, and I was like, “Maybe.” Like, I didn’t know. I hadn’t had a child. So sure enough I get my four months off and really missed working, so to the women who listen to your podcast, you know, I think that will resonate. It’s like either, you know, the maternal part is like, “Oh, I love being at home,” and I loved that too, but I really had this desire to keep working, and for me at that time then I couldn’t just get on an airplane, be gone two or three weeks, ’cause I’d come back and my daughter was, you know, talking or rolling over. I was like, “No, no, no.” So I always–I don’t know how much space or people have talked to you about, you know, “Your network is your net worth,” so I leaned into my network and I said, “Look, y’all. I need a job in the United States. Let’s keep it simple, but if it could be in California all the better,” and different kinds of, you know, opportunities came in, and it was, you know, someone in my network that said, “Hey, you went to Stanford twice, and the athletic department’s looking for a CFO,” and I had done enough structured deals, right, that we had some development companies and I had served as the financial officers in some devcos, so, you know, I said, “Okay, let me interview.” Okay, so you’ll love this, Zach. So I go into this interview. The athletic director was Ted Leland, who was probably one of the top five athletic directors in the country. The faculty athletic rep was Jerry Porras, and he had co-written the book “Built to Last,” which was a best seller, with Jim Collins, who then wrote “Good to Great.” He’s the faculty athletic rep, and then the provost is this–you know, this black professor who’s up and coming named Condy Rice.
Debra: So I’m interviewing–at the time though… come on, now, we’re in the ’90s. At the time I’m like, “Okay, athletic director, sports, small field,” right? I had been doing global deals. My deals were in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. I’m like, “[?] He’s an athletic director.” Now, Jerry Porras, Jerry Porras I’m like, “Okay, you’re kinda ballin’. You’re writing best sellers. You’re Latin. First of all, you’re a Latino male who’s a tenured professor at Stanford.” So I got a white male who went to community college and now is the athletic director at Stanford. I have a Latino male and then this African-American professor, Russian studies. I was like, “Oh.” So, you know, think about the diversity of that right there. Think of the diversity. Black woman, Latino male, white man, and they are gonna be the nucleus. So they say–you know, I talk the talk about “Okay, this is how I would do the athletic department as the CFO and how I’d run it,” and they were like, “This is great. We’d like to offer you the job.” And I was like, “Great. What’s the pay?” It was, like, a 50% pay cut, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, no.” Remember, even when I was an undergrad I was like, “Yeah, I gotta make some money, and I’m taking care of my family,” and then at this point I’m now sandwiched. I’m taking care of both, right, my own family and then my mother’s. So we’re kind of that sandwiched generation. So I’m like, “Thank you so much. Here’s my dilemma: I can’t take the pay cut. It’s too much of a pay cut,” and I thought it was done, right? So I’m, like, moving on. I’m interviewing other places. I almost went into consulting. I get a call back from Ted that says, “We want you to interview one more person,” and I was like, “But I–” And he said, “No, just go to one more interview,” and I end up interviewing with the vice president of finance, and they’re thinking that–the athletic department reported to the position in the finance office, and so he interviews me and he says, “Look, I’m gonna give you this job and this job,” so when I joined Stanford I held the position in the athletic department and then I held a position in the University, which allowed them to basically double my salary and keep me whole. So I was just like, “Wow,” you know? So another pivotal kind of–and that’s the transition. Like, the transition–I think a lot of people might have to take a pay cut or whatever, but I kind of feel like, “Well, my tool box was pretty robust. I could speak the sports language. I had been speaking the sports language through my whole financial–” So when it came to interviewing in this completely different industry, I was able to translate and transfer those skills, and then, you know, got into–so that’s my pivot into college sports and my real first exposure into sort of diversity of thought, you know, equity, what does that look like for women of color. There was a real commitment to Title IX. Stanford was one of the first schools–and I was that first generation that got the title. Literally those scholarships came out in ’81, so I’m dating myself now, and I was the first generation to get Title IX scholarship, a full scholarship. So I’ve been in this space, right? I’ve been in this equity, justice, racial, just living it, and so, you know, just fast forward. I did, you know, sort of run the gamut in athletics, and when this opportunity at The Greenlining Institute opened up, it is the single place where I have been able to unapologetically, openly talk about racial equity in all forms, and my work is to remove those barriers and to provide economic opportunity. So I’m still true to my message of “Okay, we gotta develop personal wealth, community wealth, and then remove the racial barriers,” and it’s full-stop, you know, redlining, community development, all of the things that are–you know, affordable housing, health care, all of the intersections now, and I just do it full-throated. So there I go. There it is, Zach. There’s the journey. [both laugh]
Zach: That’s incredible, and you know what’s interesting? ‘Cause, you know, you talked about dating yourself, but what I hear in that though is the fact that you’ve really lived this life and you’re doing this work, like, beyond the buzzwords of today, right? So, you know, today when we talk about diversity and inclusion or we talk about equity in a corporate context, you know, we don’t really mean making people whole, driving for just–like, creating paths to justice or, like, systemic change, right? Like, we’re not really talking about that. Like, not really, not in the average diversity, equity and inclusion conversations. We’re typically talking about some type of training and some communications, and so what I’m really excited about as we kind of get into this interview is, like, more about the work and where you see The Greenlining Institute going. And to that end, in a piece that you wrote for The Greenlining Institute announcing your arrival to the organization you said–a portion of what you wrote, I’m gonna read it here, quote “People would argue that a focus on the building of a nation through a specific lens of color and race only hinders progress. They are the people who often claim to not see race and who replaced the slogan “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” I’m not one of those people.” So let me keep it 100 with you. When I read this, right–and I recognize you work for The Greenlining Institute, and I recognize that, you know, you’ve been in places where you’ve practically drove and you’ve strived for creating equity for your constituents or stakeholders or whoever the people that you’re serving are. I’m gonna still say I still don’t see a lot of black executives who boldly engage topics of race, like, be it from a position of self-preservation or a lack of personal range, but, you know, I think about Howard Bryant of ESPN and NPR. He was on the show a while back, and he said “To advocate for black people is to put your whole career in jeopardy,” and so I’m just really curious, like, when did you make a decision to not only discuss black equity in these, like, theoretical frames, but leverage your own capital and labor to help solve for it and have, you know, in your career, have you had colleagues discourage you from pursuing this type of work?
Debra: So I totally understand what Howard Bryant is saying when he says “Black people have to put their career in jeopardy.” No doubt, right? It’s the judgment against Michael Jordan that he didn’t know political advocacy, but now, you know, a generation later, like, it’s fine for LeBron James to do it actually, and, you know, even Steph Curry or Steve Kerr. I mean, they’re openly in this space now. So I think it is the times that you live in that affect it. I constantly had people who discouraged me if I wanted to have my career ascend or be eligible for large bonuses. There was a bit of impostor syndrome that, you know, you had to perpetrate. So the people usually who were discouraging of speaking boldly into race and gender and the intersectionality that I survive in were mostly white people, right? And so they were making it clear to me of the risks. Like, “You could do it, Debbie. You can talk about this, you can talk about that, but I’m just gonna tell you what may be the consequences of it.” So I think there is some truth for sure to what Howard Bryant is saying. The flip side is so when do you have the courage then to go ahead and put my career on the line? Like, you know, “I don’t give an F. Here we go.” [both laugh] And this is what’s gonna just trip you out, Zach. So the moments that I’ve been able to do that most boldly was when I was encouraged and had the support of mentors who, you know, the Condy Rices or the Ted Lelands or, you know, I could name two or three people who were mentors who said, “Look, go ahead, speak your truth, and I got your back on this one.” So for example, when I was at Stanford–I had been there maybe four or five years, you know, and I had done the first big Nike deal–they had never done a big Nike deal–and got one of the largest campus deals ever. Pepsi, at that time the soda wars were happening in your facility, so we negotiated that. I had negotiated two very high profile coaches contracts. So my credibility on campus was pretty legit, and this new dean of the medical school really wanted to have the orthopedics department sort of be a partner with the athletic department, because think about it. The athletes, you know, at that time, Tiger Woods, John Elway. Like, we had some–and they still have some very high profile athletes there. So I had met with the chief of orthopedics and I was like, “Oh, it was a great meeting.” Very white male, very, very white. So I’m code-switching and I’m doing all the things that I do to make sure that he’s comfortable, and after that meeting he goes back to the dean and says, you know, “I think she’s gonna be a problem,” or something to that affect. So then two of our medical doctors who had been doing all of our surgeries–knees, shoulder, elbows–came back, and one who I trusted–we had a very… obviously if you’re dealing with young people’s bodies and those families, so I tended to be the person who talked to the family and said, “Hey, this is our expert.” He came to me and he told me. He said, “So this dean, they have some concerns about the relationship,” and I said, “This isn’t about the relationship. This is about me. This is this white guy who’s not comfortable,” and I sat there and I was fuming, and I went to the athletic director and I went to the faculty athletic rep and they were like, “Oh, no. We’re going all in,” right? But they had to–I probably would not have had I not had their voices behind me, and so we did. We met with the dean, and I asked some very, you know, pointed questions. You know, “Where was this concern coming from?” You know, I had the faith of the coaches, the head coaches, and the faculty athletic rep and, you know, X, Y, and Z, and where was this voice coming from? And he was just sort of, “Well, I kind of heard you–” “Did I say that?” “No, but, you know, it was–” And so I was just like, “I think this is racial. I think it’s both racial and gender.” Men with influence, this is important to your career that you sign this athletic department and, you know, it was immediately–you know, he was apologetic, and “That’s not what I meant,” and I was like, “You know, that’s fine. I’m just telling you how you’re presenting yourself and what that means to me and my career.” But, you know, I don’t know that I would have stepped out on that branch on my own, you know? I think if I had just walked that my career might have been at risk, but knowing that I had, you know, two very senior people say, “We got you on this,” was important, was important. And so the advice that I do tend to give now is that, you know, everybody, a young professional, a mid-year professional, I think everybody should have an advisory council where you have somewhere between three and five people that you have literally asked to be a mentor or who has some sort of credibility and clout who can advise you on when to make these very hard decisions. I’ve had an advisory council ever since, you know, and it’s changed depending on the industry that I’m in–and I tend to have three. I used to have five. And you want an odd number in case there’s a tie, you know? [laughs] If you have one say yes and the other say no, you need that third one to say yes or no to break the tie. But then that’ll help you temper, you know, your career advice with the steps you need to take when you have to fight the good fight. And I know now that–you know, I don’t know where he is in his career, but I guarantee you he will never–he’ll think twice, you know, about “Oh, am I doing this because I have some gender bias? Because I have some racial bias?” Like, he had been comfortable in that space and he had done his thing, and he probably had run over a bunch of black people, and he finally ran into somebody who said, “This ain’t right,” and then had other people sit in the room with me and say, “You’re not right,” you know? So those moments are, you know, sort of life-changing, but they’re done with courage for sure. My voice was quivering. My knees were shaking. But I was like, “I’m going all in. I’m going all in on this one.”
Zach: And I bet you felt all the better for it after the conversation too.
Debra: Oh, absolutely, yeah, and it made the next conversation easier, you know? Once you do it you realize that the house didn’t fall in, [laughs] or that your career didn’t implode. Now, you know, had it imploded maybe I’d have a different [?], but then, you know, now I’m able to sit in a room and say, “Well, you know, are you sure that’s what you mean? You know, I kind of hear–” and “I feel like you have some bias here,” and, you know, now I’m that voice for the whole community. I’m like, “Look, you are racial washing. You are equity washing right now, people of color and affordable housing. This is about segregation. Let’s call it what it is. They don’t want to put affordable housing on [?] in Lafayette a lot of white people live there and they want us living in segregated communities. Come on.” So I can just speak it now and say, you know, to policy makers or banks or corporations or city hall, say, “Look, I disaggregated this. We have disaggregated this. Here is the bias that still lives. What are you gonna do?” And “Here’s how we’re gonna help you do it.” So we have a whole framework that we say, “Okay, this is how you dismantle it, and this is how we’re gonna build it back up.”
Zach: I think that work–it’s just the work itself is so incredible, because, you know, even if you just look, like, from a historical perspective, right? So like, what, black folks have had the same rights on paper for, like, 54, 56 years, and so I think about the fact that 1. that’s not even a whole lifetime, right, but then on top of that, like, because of that fact, Gen X is, like, the first generation of people who were born into this country with all of their rights, and really even millennials are–still today, like, a lot of these people, myself included, are first-generation corporate professionals, and I’ve thought about that side a lot. Like, the fact that a lot of black and brown folks, this is their first time really even being in these spaces, but what I haven’t thought about until recently, Debra, is that for white people, this is their first time dealing with black people in these spaces, and when they go home and they talk to their colleagues or their older mentors, they don’t really–I mean, they’re not going to get a perspective that isn’t within a context that is formalized anti-blackness, right? So you think about, like, let’s just say if I wasn’t a first-generation professional. I talked to my uncle. He can give me context on just working in majority-white spaces, he could do that, but if I was white and I’m dealing with you in this space and I go and talk to my uncle, he’s not gonna–he very well likely is not gonna have anything to teach me or tell me about, like “Oh, well, this is how you need to be self-aware, and this is how these cultures work,” you know? So I find that really curious, and you kind of–you answered one of my questions, but I want to ask this one though, ’cause you kind of touched on it a little bit. What does it look like, right, to build relationships across the various types of circles that you have to engage in? I think about the fact that when you’re talking about policy and you’re talking about shifting and creating systemic change, like, you have–I would imagine there’s some grassroots folks that you have to engage and endear, but then there’s also corporate entities who influence the actual policies, right? Like, I would imagine you’re talking to some billionaires, but then you’re also having conversations with activists, and you’re also talking to folks in the government. Like, what does it look like to manage that wide array of philosophies, motivations and personalities? Like, how does that practically show up?
Debra: Hm. I do think there has to be this consistency in philosophy. Like, you have to really be grounded in your values, because once people start challenging you, right–so if you truly believe that there’s systemic racism, and not just in the policy but in the cultural diatribe of “Pull yourself up from the bootstraps. Poor people are poor because they’re lazy.” Like, that’s a whole capitalistic trope, and if you want to really dismantle the conversation, then you have to have clarity that that is what’s happening, because it is so easy to get on the “You can make money if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” You know, the Christian, Protestant work ethic. Look, that is a construct to keep the segregation as status quo. So when you’re, you know, either the corporate office or even the Capitol, you start to have this conversation about “Where are your values?” So if a person is leading with “I believe you can pull yourself up from the bootstraps,” I know that they have completely–they have such a long way to go before they can even have a conversation about racial equity. Like, that foundational conversation, so I start there. I start there. So, you know, let’s say–even now. So if you’re a digital [?] and you’ve been sort of, you know, raised that you probably, you know, think “Okay, I have all these online tools, and [?] are non-biased.” Okay, let’s just disaggregate that. Right now there’s more loans that are–let’s just say your car loan, right, or your home loan, it used to be about 4-5% done online. It’s darn near 35% online now. And that information shows that there is so much racial bias. Black and brown people pay 100 to 200 [?] points more. Their loan interests are higher. So the algorithm, which has been written by white men who are in that space, that algorithm has bias. “No, it’s neutral.” “No, it’s based on zip code. It’s based on spending habits. It’s based on–” You know, ’cause now they have all this big data tracking you. All of that is racially biased because it’s founded in this language of “If you work hard and you get educated, then you deserve it.”
Zach: Yeah, this idea of meritocracy.
Debra: And that is the racial construct. So we are now having this conversation about “Okay, what does wealth mean?” Okay, wealth. You know, mostly we think, “What’s in my bank account? I have a house.” Wealth is “I have the freedom to take a vacation. I have the ability to take a week off if my family is sick. I have the ability to cover a bill if it’s, you know, a health bill, an automobile breakdown or a home thing.” Like, that is wealth. So if you say–and people say, “Oh, yeah. Everybody should have the right to do that.” “You should have the right to be able to visit family,” or “You should have the right to be able–” Okay, so then you say “What does that policy look like to allow us to do that?” So I don’t really actually have to talk race. I don’t. I need to talk about a culture, a narrative. Like, we have to take command of a narrative, which is coming. This whole political race, presidential race, pivoted on South Carolina and black folk voting. Like, change the landscape. And for the first time, you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates testified with Danny Glover around reparations. Like, people are willing to say, “Wait, what is this?” And we have video now of police abuse, you know, and we’re unpacking the criminal justice system. Like, there’s an opportunity for us to walk into this space, which at the end of the day will affect your corporate life and will allow you to show up authentically, and all the data shows that a business decision made with diverse voices in the room, diverse ethnicities in the room, are going to get you better business decisions. So I can even talk to you on–if you just want to talk pure capitalism, like, “Hey, this system that, you know, your white boys built is breaking down, so you at least gotta admit you gotta consider another system.” [laughs] Like, you gotta figure out, just even from an economic basis, that what we have now is not going to persist. It’s just–it’s not. It’s collapsing on itself, and now, you know, we have–and it might happen in a generation, that we’re going to create a new landscape of what wealth and economic opportunity looks like.
Zach: I mean… you know, typically we do sound effects during the show. Like, right here I just want to drop, like, a Flex bomb. Boooooom. Sound Man, he’s gonna put it in this. Put it in right here. Boom. I mean, it’s just incredible. You’re absolutely right, and I’m really curious, like, kind of continuing along the last part that you said, you know, in January you wrote something called “The Many Reasons to Impeach Trump,” right?
Debra: The many. [laughs] Not the three they landed on.
Zach: Yeah. Not the couple. Not the few. The many. [laughs] And you wrote, “For communities of color, Trump has long since violated our public trust, and we know that a multitude of possible articles were excluded.” So, you know, we’re in an election year, right? Like, if Trump is elected for a second term, how do you anticipate Trump’s policies practically impacting the efforts of The Greenlining Institute’s goals?
Debra: Actually, the Trump administration has emboldened the political conversation. We are in more demand now because of the contrast. Before there wasn’t as much contrast. It was everybody was kind of in the grey. We were kind of all getting along.
Zach: We got a black president. There’s no more racism.
Debra: Right. You know, we had arrived, and now the contrast is so stark that, you know, everybody kind of knows “This doesn’t feel right.” And so it’s like, “So what does right feel like?” And we feel like we need to occupy that space of “Okay, here is what, you know, racial equality looks like. Here is what right feels like, and let’s redefine–” He’s offering you a model. This is what the model looks like. “I talk crazy. I put down whoever I feel like putting down. It always is racialized. I’m a model. Look at me. I’m an economic model.” And understand, it is an economic model. He does not stand on any values. He does not stand on any religious–it’s, like, transactional. “Here’s how much.” “I just got a couple billion dollars from Israel. I just got a billion here, a billion there.” That’s the model. So what do you offer in contrast to that economic model, right? And so I get that, okay, there’s this hardcore 38, 40% that’s like, “Yes, I believe that economic model,” and then there’s the “Okay, we want to be a kinder, gentler kind of space,” that I feel like Biden’s kind of walking into, but at some point you’re gonna have to have a conversation about what is that? What is wealth? What is community wealth? What does economic wealth look like? ‘Cause he’s offering you a model, you know, and it just happens to be this very racialized model, but man, we’re comfortable with that. Let me just say we’re comfortable with that racialized model, and it’s just–
Zach: And we have been, right?
Debra: Yeah, and in the absence of it I’m scared. It’s like, “Wait, but I understand that one. I can be a poor white–“
Zach: “I get this though.”
Debra: Yeah. “I’m a poor white person and I’m voting against my own interests because I believe if I pull myself up by the bootstraps,” and I’m like, “No. You’ve been disenfranchised.”
Zach: For multiple generations.
Debra: And you’re still voting for your guy. So I think that, you know, the contrast is what’s allowing our work to actually, like, accelerate. We have so much work that we cannot even get to. Like, right before this meeting we were triaging which–and I was working with my health equity person–which health equity bills could we support with our limited amount of energy and resources that we have? Because we are prioritizing how much work there is to do. There is just so much work to do, yeah. So in terms of framing what happens to our goals, I think, you know, we stay very–we’re okay, we’re solid in our goals. The work has just been multiplied and amplified.
Zach: That’s a blessing. And, you know, what I’m hearing also–and something that we don’t discuss enough, again, when we talk about, like, really creating and driving for equity, we’re talking about, like, really shifting and engaging systems. Like, a lot of times, like, these conversations, they start and stop at individuals, and, like, then we get lost in, like, the distraction of intentions. It’s like, “Okay,” and, you know, if bias are conscious or unconscious. We don’t talk about impact. We don’t talk about, again, like, the models by which these things are really, like, placed in, and how they drive inequity and disenfranchisement, so that’s incredible. We’re coming up close to the end of the interview. I want to give you a little bit of space to talk a little bit more about The Greenlining Institute, what you’re excited about over the next, like, you know, let’s say over the next year, and then I’d like to give you some space to just, like, any shout-outs or parting words you got for us.
Debra: Oh, okay. [laughs] So the next year there is a deep conversation happening nationally about readdressing segregation, that if we continue to live in segregated communities in that, you know, what do they say, on any given Sunday we’re the most segregated country in the world. There’s a deep conversation about that and about community wealth, and I’m seeing both in the academy, where, you know, a lot of research is being done, to the policy makers, to bankers. There’s a conversation about now how do we really address supportability, homelessness, because they’re all intertwined. Like, you can’t have a conversation about affordable housing without talking about health equities and social determinants of health, and you can’t talk about that without talking about access to broadband, technology, that’s moving so quickly, but almost everything–I don’t know about you, but I don’t know the last time I went to a bank. I do it all online.
Zach: My bank is on my phone, yeah, and just to that point, like, I think about–so I have the privilege of having a decent-paying job, right, so I don’t have issues with, like, using my data. I have unlimited data. I don’t have issues with my Wi-Fi most of the time, and if I do have issues, then I have the privilege of picking up a phone, demanding someone come and fix this so I can get back to going and doing it. [laughs] But when you talk about this next generation of work, and, like, we talk about the workforce of the future and we talk about this digital age, there continues to be studies showing that black and brown communities, economically-distressed communities, are gonna be left out of this age because we don’t have the access to enter, right?
Debra: Yeah. So we have technology equity in our shop, and one of our biggest campaigns right now is Broadband for All, and then another big pillar for us is algorithm bias, and that cuts across not just financial institutions but medical bias in the algorithms that are, you know, based on research on cancer. Well, guess what that research was done around. You know, middle-class white families. So, you know, the next 12 months, I think this conversation is going to start to coalesce. There are going to be some common themes on how we can change the narrative on an economic sort of wealth, redefinition of wealth. I think that’s really coming in the short term. I think the presidential outcome in November will also lay the ground for sort of that next level of work that’s happening. So, you know, 12 months, we’re running hard for sure, grinding, and then we’ll see if, Heaven forbid, Trump gets reelected or not, because that will require some activism. I think we are all–we’re gonna have to be that generation that really, you know, takes to the streets, you know, walks on the Capitol, boycotts, because if nothing else, you know, you can imagine if we all decided one day to pull our money out of the banks…
Debra: That’s trillions of dollars. That’s trillions of dollars.
Debra: Yeah, and so we might have–the activism may have to become real in the next 12 to 18 months if Trump is reelected. If not, I do think that the conversation, there’s gonna be some–there will still be a conversation about “Okay, what does affordability look like?” ‘Cause the homelessness is not going away. You know, we’re one of the wealthiest states and we are so troubled by it. So I think that that conversation will continue, and we might as well grab hold of what we think wealth looks like. And like I said, it’s the freedom to do a lot of things that you otherwise couldn’t do. Call up your cable man or your repair man. [laughs] Yeah, and I actually think that’s gonna then build community, right, in that if I know my mom is taken care of or my dad can retire comfortably, or my daughter, who does not have the American dream of buying a house–like, that’s not… she’s like, “What?”
Zach: Definitely not in California. No way.
Debra: Well, it’s not even a part of the dream, right? She’s more aspirational. “Maybe starting my own company or, you know, traveling globally.” And I was like, “Wow,” because that reality is not there for her. So to buy a home, it’s not aspirational because it’s not achievable.
Zach: Well, and when you think about, like–I 100% hear you. The reason why I reacted when you said pull out the money from the banks was like, you know, this is not, like, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” right? Like, you know, nobody’s gonna be like, “Well, your money’s at Ted’s house, at Bill’s house.” Like, no. The money–if that was the type of protest, if that happened, like, oh, my gosh. I mean, we gotta have you back on and just talk about, like, even the concept of protest, because–anyway, this has been a profound conversation, Debra. Thank you so much. Y’all, this has been Living Corporate. You know what we do. We’re having intentional, authentic, transparent conversations every day. Again, I really want to emphasize, what I really enjoyed about this conversation and what I really hope our listeners are grasping and understanding is that shifting and creating equity and really having authentic conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion has to involve engaging and tackling systems, y’all. If we’re not talking about engaging systems, we’re not doing the work. Right? So I know a lot of us, there are people who listen to this show who are, like, diversity, equity and inclusion consultants, and there are people who listen in who are trying to figure out and trying to get the secret sauce on, like, this next generation, the workforce of the future. Like, y’all, if we’re not willing to tackle and dismantle, or rebuild and, like, really think about these systems that are in play, we’re not making change, y’all. Look, you can check us out on social media. @LivingCorp_Pod, on Instagram @LivingCorporate, and then look, we’re all over Al Gore’s internet, right? For those of us who are blessed to have digital access, you just type in Living Corporate on Google and we’ll pop up, but we have all of the different domains, okay? So let me just rattle them off real fast, okay? You’ve got livingcorporate.co, livingcorporate.tv, livingcorporate.org, livingcorporate.net, livingcorporate.us. We have all the livingcorporates except livingcorporate.com, okay, but we have living-corporate–please say the dash–dot com, all right? Now, we’re all over the place, and again, we’re coming at y’all every week with this stuff. Today was a super dope conversation with the new CEO, Debra Gore-Mann, of The Greenlining Institute, a policy, research, organizing and leadership institute working for racial and economic justice. Make sure y’all check out the information in the show notes. ‘Til next time, y’all. Peace.