232 : On Death, Life, This Work, and What’s Next (w/ Zach Nunn)

Our very own Zach Nunn steps in for Latesha and Amy today and delivers a powerful statement regarding the recent deaths that we’ve been forced to engage and encounter. He also implores white diversity, equity and inclusion leaders to ask how they can decenter themselves in their own efforts, stating definitively that “You should not be the face of your diversity, equity and inclusion work.”

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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and yeah, it’s a Saturday. I’m here, uh, talking to you. As you know, Living Corporate exists to amplify and center marginalized voices at work. I believe that we’re one of the few spaces that does that in a consistently intentional way by having black and brown voices, including my daughter who’s in the background. As y’all know, she’s a new cohost of the pod. [laughs] Oh, man. Keep it in. Keep it in, keep it in, ’cause we’re talking about life actually. Typically you hear Latesha Byrd with Link Up with Latesha or you’ll hear Amy C. Waninger from the See It to Be It series, but I wanted to 1. give our team a bit of a mental and emotional break this week and do a bit of a, like, a state of the pod and, like, more of a current events type episode today, so I’ma be rocking with y’all for just a little bit, not too long, as I seek to really get some mental restoration myself. So let’s get started with just, like, the recent deaths that we’ve been forced to engage and encounter through social media or through closer circles. So we have George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and then of course Breonna Taylor, all senselessly murdered by the hands of the state, and, you know, it’s just another set of black bodies brutalized for no other reason than just existing, right? Like, brutalized by the state and/or killed and then covered up and then supported by the case, to be clear, because Ahmaud Arbery was not killed by police, but the legal system failed and was forced to come back to the table after being pressured and shamed through social media. You know, it’s challenging for me to do this work, and I think it’s challenging for us just black folks. Like, we talk about black–some people say “Being black is exhausting,” and that’s true in that being black is exhausting in the fact that we have to deal with white systems that continually oppress and harm us, and for the white systems that are harming us or the white folks who aren’t being maliciously intentional about it, then you have a whole ‘nother set of people who are just being complicit in that they are too lazy to figure out ways to engage honestly and openly about the problems. You then of course have a portion of people who are really engaged in seeking to be allies, and I’m gonna talk to you guys in a minute as well, but, you know, when it comes to George Floyd specifically, I knew of George. I knew of George because George, he was a part of a church plan that came out of a former mentor and colleague, and we had very similar circles, ministry circles, and so I recall helping them set up a church service because George was very active in the community. He was a man of love and peace. And I remember seeing him. I remember seeing him at that church service, because he was helping with the chairs and he was talking to the people. I mean, again, he was a man of the community. He was in his community. And so knowing that he was so–the degree of separation is just so small. Not only that, but he was murdered in Minnesota, and my father and my step-mother and my siblings and my step-grandmother and my–and I have cousins and aunts who live in Minnesota, and an uncle too. I have family up there, like, very close, very, very close to where George was murdered, and so, you know, I’m seeing a lot of folks question the rioting that’s happening and, you know, what I want to do, what I really want to do, is talk about the systemic challenges and reasons as to why people riot, and as you look at just kind of, like, the system of oppression and why these things continue to happen, but instead what I think I’m gonna do is I’m going to actually read this piece, this excerpt, from King. You know, a lot of people have been saying, you know, “The riot is the language of the unheard.” Like, they take a piece of King, of that quote, and like many times, like we mostly do with King, like, we’ll, like, boil down these beautiful pieces of what he’s saying into something like a sound bite. It’s disrespectful to his legacy. It’s disrespectful to his genius. I want to read it in totality, and then we can kind of–we can go on from there. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots, but in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It’s failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay, and as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” And so I think what people miss the most about King–because a lot of folks, they just use King as a cudgel to shame and shut up black voices as they grow discontented with the reality of America, and what I think–what’s the biggest challenge, right, as it comes to, like, this DEI work is that there’s a bunch of folks in this space for reasons that have nothing to do with black equity, that have nothing to do with justice, that have nothing to do with actual equality, but it has more to do with creating false peace and, in so doing, they recenter themselves. They recreate or they reestablish the very systems that silence and mute and discourage black thought and black and brown voices, and they create, unto themselves, fiefdoms of thought leadership that have really nothing to do with anything tangible. We are in the middle of a racist cold war, and it has everything to do with white America’s reluctance to face itself. It’s neglected itself, it’s neglected its own humanity in as much as it’s neglected its black brother and sister. It’s coming to a head, and it’s gonna continue to surface. I mean, the fact that I’m able to quote a quote that’s over 50 years old. He said this in 1967, and yet it’s just as pertinent now. I think what we have to ask ourselves is what does it really look like to create and pursue justice, and those words are scary for white people in the context of race. Despite our obsession with justice in media, right–we love Law and Order, Criminal Intent, Elementary, NCIS, like, the list goes on and on. Cops. We love justice when we are on the dispensary end, but no one wants to rush to be on the other end of justice, and the fact that white America is so terrified of justice really is an indicator as to the extent and depths of their crimes. And that’s what makes this work hard, being a black person, being a black man, and, like, even being a cis, hetero, black, large, Christian man makes this work challenging. We’re at a crossroads though where esoteric language that really isn’t approachable or doesn’t mean anything just doesn’t–we’re just past that, right? Like, we’re coming up on a national election, and the likelihood is that there’s gonna be another black or brown person, a woman, a trans woman, a trans man, a cishet man, black man, body, there’s going to be someone else who’s gonna be brutalized by police this year. The statistics show it. And so we’re at a fever pitch, but things have to change, and so with that being said, I want to talk about white response, right? So there are folks who listen to this podcast regularly who consider themselves allies by various measures. I’m not here to really judge the voracity of your claim. I will give you points of advice though as you ask yourself what it is that you can do today. I’ll start with this. I’m seeing a lot of things on social media around checking in on your people of color colleagues. I’m gonna say don’t do that. It’s an unpopular position I’m sure, but don’t do that. If you’re listening to this and you and I are friends and you are white, don’t check in on me. I have people who look like me, I have my family, I have my friends, I have my daughter, I have my wife, I have my parents, I have my cousins. Like, I have people that can empathize and support me in a unique way because of their joint shared lived experience, and I’m not really looking for your words right now. And I say that with love. I’m not mad, right? I’m just trying to be honest that I’m not looking for your words right now. I’m looking for your actions. So what you can do and who you can check in on are your white colleagues, your white family members, your white friends, your–again, I know I said family, but parents. Like, check in on the folks that you know don’t understand, don’t engage, and don’t listen and/or believe the reality of black and brown people in America. Check in on your boss, the people who actually have access and power. If you actually have access and power, check in on yourself. Ask yourself “What are you doing to help improve the experience of the people that you work with?” “How can you leverage your voice and your power, the power that comes with that voice, the political capital that comes with your skin, to advocate and support others?” My frustration kind of, like, when I think about this space is that, you know, we talk a lot online–but, you know, online gives a bit of a mask, and I’m not gonna say the person who said this, but I recall I wrote something. I wrote something about white welfare. I wrote it on Martin Luther King Day. And the person who I was speaking with shared that, you know, they thought it was good, but they felt it was a little uncomfortable and that it would alienate their audience. Their audience is predominantly white people. But what they would do–while they wouldn’t email it to their newsletter or promote it on their website or promote it on LinkedIn, they would tweet it, because they could “get away with it,” quote-unquote, on Twitter. That’s not what I’m looking for, and that’s not what black and brown people are looking for. We’re not looking for you to figure out the lowest stakes possible. We’re looking for you to actually commit something. We’re looking for you to say something. We’re looking for you to do something. We’re exhausted. And frankly, like, a lot of these efforts to reach out to people of color, to black and brown people, is often times an exercise in your own ego, in guilt. I’m not looking to assauge or to comfort or stroke your ego or massage your guilt. I don’t care. I don’t. I genuinely don’t care, and I’m giving you this as a gift, because the people that are in your circles probably won’t tell it to you like this, but I’m telling you as a favor. So you’re welcome. So that’s white response at, like, an individual level, but let’s talk about it at an organizational level. So there are a lot of organizations right now that feel stuck and paralyzed at figuring out what it is that they need to do, how they need to respond. Again, the 45th, 65th email, if you’re the kind of company that sends these out often, is gonna really create, I believe, more frustrations than it will relief. I would ask, if you’re an executive or someone in a position of, like, organizational power, like, you manage a P&L or something like that, just ask yourself what systems exist today that harm and disenfranchise the folks on the margins. Ask yourself what new policies need to be erected to protect those who are most vulnerable, and ask yourself what are you doing as a leader to drive equity within your immediate team. You know, these are the types of things that we have to get to. It’s about taking your own medicine of accountability, and the funny thing is because of the way that white supremacy is set up, if you do it right, you can do all of this and still be hailed as a hero, right? Yeah, you’re gonna lose some relationships, because there’s gonna be some folks who don’t want you to do this. I’m talking to the people who actually care. But for the organizations that care, if you do it right, you can market this and be a hero. There’s a lot to think about right now in this time. Folks are exhausted. There’s all types of implications and things that we’ll continue to talk about on Living Corporate regarding, like, just the mental health implications and the–[sighs] I mean, we didn’t even talk about the reality of coronavirus and how it’s been disproportionately impacting and killing black and brown people. I can tell you that while no one in my immediate circle has died, I’ve had some friends who have come close. It’s just a tough time, and we’re at a crossroads with diversity, equity and inclusion work. You’re either going to kind of toe the line and continue to alienate and drive away black and brown folks–and maybe that’s what you want to do, you know? Like, maybe this is, like, a long play for you to say, “We tried,” but it’s easy for you just to not do anything. You can say that nothing’s changed, but you tried. So maybe that’s–you know, maybe that’s the route you want to take, but if you’re looking to really engage this future workforce and retain talent–and not only retain them, but keep them at their best–there are some things about the way that you think about this work, that we think about this work collectively, that’s going to have to fundamentally change. My ask is if you’re a white diversity, equity and inclusion leader, you’re listening to this, ask yourself how you can decenter yourself in your own efforts. You should not be the face of your diversity, equity and inclusion work. You shouldn’t. I know, it’s a wildly unpopular position, but you shouldn’t. Think about ways you can empower the folks that don’t look like you to drive change. They know better than you what it means to be equitable and inclusive. So with that, I am wrapping up. Lower, different energy podcast today, I recognize, but I hope that the folks listening to this, my black and brown brothers and sisters, that you take care of yourself, protect your peace at work, take off time, communicate to your diversity, equity and inclusion leader, whoever that may be, about your mental health. Take the time off that you need. Trust me, companies are incentivized right now to not deny you time off, if you’re in such a blessed position to have PTO. ‘Til next time, y’all. This has been Zach. Peace.

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