Neil opens a space for Gillian Egan to reflect on her experience observing the insurrection unfold on January 6th in Washington DC. Gillian Egan is an attorney who lives in New Orleans with her husband and three sons. She has worked in multiple careers (including as a naturalist, as an actor, and as a Human Resources Manager), has lived all over the world, and strives to repay the many blessings she has received from communities of color through imperfect, humble allyship. Listen to Gillian’s journey in the conversation from her inner world of emotions to her outer world of actions, and into relationship development.
You can connect with Gillian on LinkedIn.
File Name: TLR Gillian Egan [1-25]
Duration: 32 minutes
Neil (00:11): I am Neil Edwards, and this is The Leadership Range, where we elevate the voices of black and Brown coaches, leaders, and allies, and have soulful conversations about all things at the intersections of leadership, relationships and teams, wellbeing, and equity. Here, I offer deep insights and practical tips for work and life. Today, you are going to hear the first in a series of four conversations I had with people after the alarming events in Washington, D.C. on January 6th. I wanted you to get a sense of how these people experienced the events in their own words, and what it means for them in the context of allyship. What I love about this conversation is the permission, intimacy, and give and take between us. You are going to hear from Gillian Egan. Gillian is a mother, she’s 42 years old, an attorney, and she lives in a diverse neighborhood in Louisiana.
(01:07): Listen, as Gillian navigates our emotions in real-time, while demonstrating remarkable, reflective, and responsive skill. There are two doorways I want you to notice in the conversation as you listen. The first, the doorway aspiring allies might need to walk through to go beyond actions and performance. The second one, the doorway of invitation for both aspiring allies and those who are marginalized in some way. Where I am pointing you is in the direction of the call to unity. That is in the public discourse right now, on how allyship is one way to create that unity. Enjoy.
Neil (01:50): So Gillian, here we are. Thank you for being here. I really appreciate your time on short notice to join in this conversation. It’s been an amazing week. We can choose so many words to describe the week, but I’m just going to go with amazing for now. Everyone has had their own experience, and I’d love to hear about yours this week through a couple of lenses. One in particular, around allyship. And the other is just through the lens of your own eyes and your life. And so, this week we had, what I’m going to call an insurrection, an attempt at something, went on in the U.S. capital. For you, Gillian, what hits you the hardest about being one of the millions of witnesses to the events this week?
Gillian (03:00): Well, it’s been a difficult week where everyone in the country, I think, and I’m still processing what happened and what I saw. But the initial raw sort of thoughts that I had as I saw it happening. Was a bubbling up of the same rage that I have felt periodically for the past four years. And it’s the rage of someone who feels powerless, I suppose, because whether that’s true or not, that’s the feeling that I’m having right now. So speaking, I’ll start with my own eyes lens, speaking from my own eyes lens. I’m a 42 year old professional woman. I’m an attorney and I’m a private, civil law firm is where I work. And that’s a predominantly male white male space. So definitely, not universally, not every white male, not even close to every white male, I encounter, is a mediocre person who maybe doesn’t deserve the position that they’re in. But a lot of them are. I find it very often, certain judges, certain people at the law firms where I’ve worked, certain opposing counsel are just not. They’re occupying positions that I think perhaps if this was a less sexist and racist world, they wouldn’t have. And so, a lot of that rage is something that I experienced this week, because I know that a lot of what we’re going through right now, is because an incompetent white male was placed into the job of the presidency, that he did not deserve.
(04:47): And then speaking through the lens of allyship, the first thing everyone noticed, and it’s been all over social media. And what everyone has said is, how painful it is to see how differently these people are treated, and spoken about, and encountered, than the black and Brown people and their allies, who were protesting earlier in the summer. And the obviousness of the difference in treatment. And yet the inability to have this thing that we see with our own eyes on cameras that is undeniable. The inability to have that evidence ferment, some sort of change. There’s still so much resistance to change, even now that we can’t tell ourselves that it’s not happening. For the ally piece at best, I suppose that experience has been one of despair. I guess.
Neil (05:46): That’s fair. I feel a bit of a sinking as you say that, because honestly, you’re a white woman over there. And you mentioned sexism, patriarchy and racism. And I go, my God, here is this person I see, to whom I believe to have some power, some privilege, some rank in this system that is feeling powerless in this moment. And I sink in my chair a little bit about with some sadness when you hear that. So thank you for sharing that truth right away. But I want you to say a little bit about what allyship really means to you. What impact did this week have on that meaning given what you’ve just expressed?
Gillian (06:53): Sure. Well, allyship to me, it means action, I guess. So I have felt an affinity for a while with people more vulnerable than me. And you’re right, I do have, in a lot of situations I have power that’s conferred on me by my race, for sure. I’m one of the least threatening looking people. I’m a white 42 year old mom. And that buys me a whole lot of privilege and a certain type of treatment. And so, we live, actually, my street is predominantly African-Americans. We live in a very socioeconomically, and racially, and age mixed neighborhood, which I like, and this is by design. And so, I look out for them and occasionally, police will come and knock on the door. Usually, it’s about, bunch of unpaid parking tickets or something like that. But I’m a lawyer, I’m not a criminal lawyer, but I still, I try to go out there and be the white mom. Hey officer, what’s going on? Can I help you? Is my neighbor having some issues? And so that’s a little bit about allyship for me. Just inserting myself sometimes into situations.
(08:06): Maybe they don’t want me there. I don’t know, but I feel like if I can be of help, I just want them to know that I’m there. And another piece of allyship is in my firm and in the work that I’ve done. For example, we have an African-American babysitter who’s maybe 28, 29. She’s been working forever to get her degree. And she finally got it in HR, and I’m trying to find her a job. I’m trying to use my connections, or my law firm, and what that’s gotten me through my community, to see if I can get her put in front of some people to have some interviews that she might not otherwise have. And I’ve also done that for lots of other lawyers who, if we were a purely merit based system, they wouldn’t need my help. But since we’re not, I just try to shove them in spots that they might not otherwise get to be. So they have opportunities to then, prove themselves there. So that’s that.
(09:01): And then, after this week, it’s still pretty raw. I’m still trying to figure it out, but this was just added to the sense of urgency that I have about [inaudible 00:09:09] and about just elevating the position of African-American people, or the Latino people, or whatever around me, so that they don’t need me anymore. I want them to find themselves in a position of their own power. So then, they can do the lifting up of their own communities, and they don’t need white saviors anymore. And so, this has just added to the urgency of that.
Neil (09:36): Yes. Let’s go with this notion of it. Bacause ,I love that you are spending your equity inserting yourself and say, I’m going to be the white mom on the block. I’m going to have that conversation with the police. And I love how you just slipped right into that persona, the way you did it. It’s a little bit of an act.
Gillian (10:07): Yes, [inaudible 00:10:07] done.
Neil (10:07): And being an advocate, not just being an advocate for, but including people you care about, black, Latino, whatever in positions where they can gain access. Where they may not otherwise have that access. And then, you mentioned this notion, you’re helping them, sort of this white savior. Here’s my question. Have you had conversations with any of these people that you help? Have you asked them how you could support them? Have they come to you and asked you for something? What happened there to draw you into this? Or was it all something internal for you that compelled you to do what you said, which is, take action?
Gillian (10:54): I think it’s more internal. I do have one particular friend I’m thinking of, who I’ve had pretty open conversations with. Actually, I have two, probably. They’re both former colleagues, both black women, really good lawyers. And we’ve had some really open conversations about these kinds of things. And I feel really comfortable talking about it and they do too. One of them is senior to me and she’s helped me with stuff. And then, one of them is a little bit junior to me. And I put her in the positions, like I was talking about. But most of it is driven by my experiences. And here’s why, because I’ve been in numerous situations as a female in a predominantly male space. Where something was done. One particular time, something snide was said about an upcoming maternity leave, and how only weak people take maternity leave. Stupid. But I was sitting in this room full of men, white men, who I know respect me and are my colleagues. And none of them said a word.
(11:56): And later they spoke to me, one-on-one, Oh, we’re so sorry. He said that he’s so dumb. We hate him. I said, okay, great, fine, whatever, but say something there. Don’t be such a wuss, spend some of your political capital in this room, to show everyone in the room. Not just me, the other woman in the room who may have a baby one day and the other men in the room who may see something like that one day. To show them that this is not okay. And that was a really dumb thing he said, and he’s not going to be able to say that. That’s just one example. But things like that have happened in the past where someone had an opportunity to be in ally and standup and they didn’t. And then they told me later that they disagreed with what happened. And I just thought how much more powerful it would have been, if they had joined me in the moment, in front of everybody and just done something. It’s not that hard. It takes a little boldness, but we’re lawyers. We fight with people all the time. Why can’t you do that?
Neil (12:50): Do you have an example where you’ve done that in the moment?
Gillian (12:57): Well, no. If I thought for a minute, I can think of a couple of examples where I wasn’t as brave as I wanted to be.
Neil (13:08): Would you share one of those?
Gillian (13:11): Sure. So I worked at a bunch of law firms, this is not my current law firm. It was a previous one and it was a good old white boy law firm. The easiest way to put it. And we were in the break room, a whole bunch of us, including one of my mentors. Who’s a black man. I would jump over a cliff for that man. He’s just a wonderful lawyer and a wonderful mentor. And some of the older white men in the room were talking about the blacks. Oh, you know look at… This is… He was in there and there was another black attorney in there. The only two in that office. They said, so this is looking like a black lawyer caucus or something like that. We got a lot of blacks here now. Which was a really, it’s not the most offensive way to talk about black people, but it was just weird. It was, Oh, clearly you don’t see these as people, you see these as black people. There’s the black people and there’s just people. And I made a comment, but it wasn’t as strong as it should have been. I said something like, we call them blacks is that…? I tried to diffuse it with humor, but in the moment, I wasn’t brave enough to say, what is wrong with you? That’s not a word we use in 2000, whatever year it was.
Neil (14:26): So you said, what you said out loud, however you said it. And then, you were saying some things, [inaudible 00:14:32] to yourself internally?
Gillian (14:33): Yes.
Neil (14:36): And you were experiencing it internally?
Gillian (14:38): Yes.
Neil (14:39): Tell us about that.
Gillian (14:41): Well, I felt a twist of anxiety that you can feel sometimes when you’re, okay, this is a time when I could do the right thing and possibly get myself in trouble. Or I can be a little sneakier and try to keep myself out of trouble. Because the black man who was my mentor had lived with us for years. But the black woman was a brand new lawyer. And I didn’t want her to think that I was going to let that go or that was an okay thing. And that was something she was going to have to live with for the rest of her career. But I also didn’t want to get in trouble because I was pretty aware myself. So this is all the internal things that are happening. And then also, I was just so sick of working with these people. I just can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be around them. I don’t like, this is a waste of my energy feeling this rage for the way they’re behaving.
Neil (15:31): So I want to lock in on something, because I make up that there’s something in here that’s true for a lot of white people who, arew aspiring allies or allies. Which is how much personal risk am I willing to take?
Gillian (15:46): Yes.
Neil (15:47): And that you were not willing to do in that moment.
Gillian (15:51): Not enough.
Neil (15:51): Yes. There was a line. And we are quick to judge ourselves. So I’m going to stop you right there, around the not enough. Because you did something. Yet I believe that that’s something to notice, that, what is my personal edge? What is your personal edge in that moment? And to dig into that. And in the context of allyship, you want to, so little time and so much to dig into. And I really appreciate you for sitting in this with me.
Neil (16:26): We talked about taking action, and most of it coming from the inside, internal. So I want to make the request, but I have to ask your permission. May I make a request of you?
Gillian (16:43): Okay.
Neil (16:44): Okay. Because you get to say, no. You get to say yes, you get to reflect on it, to ask me more about it. What if, in some of the relationships that you have with black people, other marginalized people, you get into a conversation and you’re asked, can you give some examples? And you say, what would you expect from me? If I am your ally in this type of a situation? And design that, so that, if a situation like that came up again, you would know what that person, you are trying to support expects, and you will understand what you need to do. And you would have made some agreements. How might that be different? I want you to do that. That’s my request. How do you react to that?
Gillian (17:41): Well, so I think that’s smart. Glennon Doyle Melton talks a lot, not about inrace specific situations, but just about practicing things. If you want to be brave in a situation, brave enough to do something that’s uncomfortable. It’s a really good idea to practice. Even say the words a couple of times, so that you’re ready. So that when you’re nervous and in that situation, you’re ready. And so, I like the idea of asking someone what would be the most helpful, and then I can practice it. And then I’ll have confidence that it’s right, because I’m also very sensitive to not make it worse for them. A lot of the black people that I’ve worked with. And it’s largely, African-American just because of where I live, Louisiana. If I lived in California, I think there would be more Latino and Asian folks that were dealing with this.
(18:28): But a lot of them sort of want to skate by too. They don’t want to be a shining light on them, when something bad happens, they just want it to go away. And so I want to be able to feel confident that I’m doing what they need from me. The other thing though, and I’ll be honest, it makes me a little bit nervous about it is I’m thinking of two friends in particular, who are just really good friends. And I would never say the words, I don’t see color because I think that’s not a great phrase.
Neil (19:03): It’s also, bullshit.
Gillian (19:03): And it’s not a value. You want to see people for who they are, all that they are. But true, honest, of course they see color. And of course when we’re together and we’re friends, we’re hanging out, and we’ve spent nights in hotel rooms together. We’re really close. That is always there, the fact that I’m white and they’re black. And it adds this little tiny layer of distance, which I don’t like, but it’s there. Because I’m afraid that there’s going to be some cultural touchstone that we don’t have in common, that’s going to make it hard for us to communicate. There’s just a lack of affinity, I guess, in certain things that we’re not going to be able to overcome. And so, the thought of asking them that, makes me feel a little bit worried that that gap would grow a little bit bigger. Because they would think that I see them as black first, and friend second. And I don’t have any coherent thoughts about that. That’s just what comes to my head.
Neil (20:00): Yes. No, I appreciate that. And some of my friends know this, and some of my white friends, some of my friends from various Asian countries know this about me. But when you’re in an interracial friendship and you pretend like race is not there, the friendship is less intimate, and less powerful, and less connected than it otherwise could be. Because there is no denying the fact that it is a interracial ratio. So I just want to throw that out there. I believe that there is potential for strengthen the friendship and the relationship by having that courageous conversation. Then, taking that step action alone, which is wonderful to relationship and hold design action, and creating it with them. And so, you did something that I didn’t ask you to do, but I want to give it a name.
(21:13): And that is, you spoke about the unspoken in your relationship. So thank you for that. I believe that there are a lot of people, a lot of white people and perhaps a lot of maybe I make up more white women. Because women are generally more relational and intimate. Carry what you carry, the fear to have that conversation and not say what you know is there, but you want to. What is lost, I’m going to tie this back to the events from this week in those friendships, in those relationships. When you see what you see in the world, like you saw this week, and you don’t name those things in those relationships, what do you think is lost?
Gillian (22:07): Well, definitely an opportunity for deeper intimacy and honesty. But also so much. I think of racism and sexism and patriarchy and all the isms has to do with this sort of invisible barrier that’s just culturally baked into us. And a lot of it we don’t even see. And so, I think maybe when you do see it, it becomes more imperative to name it. And particularly with the people who suffer most from it, so that they know that you see it, and you see them. And so that, if I’m brave enough to have those conversations, and they are still friends. So, I certainly can, perhaps I can make them feel less crazy. I think sometimes you can feel a little bit crazy, like [inaudible 00:22:54], I see this. This is obvious, doesn’t everybody see this? But they deny it again, and again, and again, or they don’t bring it up. And so I might, that might be an opportunity for them to feel supported, I guess.
Neil (23:06): Because if they listen, then they’ll know what you’re thinking.
Gillian (23:07): Yes.
Neil (23:07): You haven’t thought of that.
Gillian (23:12): Oh, well, how talented. They would, if I asked them today [inaudible 00:23:16].
Neil (23:17): Yes. That’s the simple question, what am I not seeing? What if you asked them that, what am I not seeing? And give them permission to say, imagine what’s possible there? Anyway, I’m going to thank you again, because I did end up asking you, with permission, some coaching questions and offering you some things. So that I didn’t know, but didn’t intend to do any of that on call, that’s just where we ended up. So thank you for dancing and playing with me on that. And thank you for your time today. Is there anything that you want to say, from your learning this week, and from your just lived experience? Anything you want to say to your peers, who are white women, men, or to anybody who experiences some form of marginalization? What do you want to leave folks with?
Gillian (24:15): I have built up some social capital and I have some things to spend, I guess. And so, I would ask how I can spend them in your service? If there’s a thing that I can do for you, that you think is helpful? And that can include learning from you, not even necessarily spending my social capital, but just listening to what’s important now. I’ll reach out to you, but I would love for you to reach out to me too. Because I felt it is imperative to take more action than I have been, and I want to do it right.
Neil (24:52): So there’s an invitation to reach out to Gillian, because she doesn’t have all the answers. So you might need to just tell her, but I also heard a commitment from Gillian that she will also ask in her existing relationships. Yes. Okay. Thank you Gillian for your time and appreciate you for being here.
Gillian (25:15): Thank you so much. It was an honor.
Neil (25:21): Thank you, Gillian. A courageous step in a crucial conversation. First ask, what am I not seeing? What I would say, folks is be prepared to listen with an open mind, and open heart. Rage and powerlessness what do you do with that? I have certainly felt some combination of both of these emotions. And Gillian said these right out of the gate. My yeses, many people have felt some version of it. Gillian also described the deep sense of despair when she was seeing what she saw. And we see, essentially, no movement toward a change in spite of the clear evidence in front of our eyes. For me, that sounds like a place of running out of gas, no energy left to do anything. This is exhausting work folks, which is why last week, I encourage everybody to pay attention to well-being. I say it is exhausting work.
(26:22): And that is true for aspiring allies. What I will also say is it’s exhausting for many, because it’s essentially every day at the office. For people who can see their own marginalization, where others cannot. And the structure and systems are designed not to see it and to offer protection to the maintenance of status quo, rather than fermenting meaningful and lasting change that results in equity. Gillian talks about the work she has done through actions, pushing people forward, getting people interviews that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to get. And inserting herself into situations in her neighborhood to provide cover, and support for her neighbors by using her privilege. Basically she is spending her equity to create equity for others. Those things are great, and they are needed. What I love most though, is what I did not hear.
(27:22): Unfortunately, it is the approach of many corporations. Gillian didn’t take the perspective that the people she was helping were not smart enough, skilled enough, or not yet deserving. A lot of corporate programming takes the point of view that underrepresented minorities need training because there is a competency gap, that is mostly false. There may be a cultural gap, which is also problematic when the idea is to lead everyone into a particular cultural frame, defined by the majority. Rather than moving toward cultural integration across differences in an equitable way. When I asked Gillian for an example of where she spent that equity in a bold way that she expected from others. She admitted, she didn’t have an example, but recognized where she had the opportunity and didn’t act. I have to acknowledge Gillian again for saying that out loud, most people are unwilling to admit that fact, especially on recording for the whole world to hear it. So thank you Gillian for that.
(28:36): Anyway, if you are an aspiring ally, you know what your inner voice is saying? There’s no question about it. You have an inner voice that’s running almost all the time. Now, I’m not suggesting you go around blasting everybody. You should not try to blast yourself either for the failures. What I do invite you to is a new kind of allyship, where you have the conversation you need to have with those who you want to support. And ask them how they expect you to support them. In that conversation agreements get made. And as Gillian pointed out, you will become more confident at supporting the people you care about, and are in relationship with. But not only that, you will become more skilled at doing it in general and can help more people you don’t even know. Your own avoidance, and silence as a person in a position of rank, power, and privilege is like please a greater impediment to producing small and large changes in the workplace, and the world that you say you want.
(29:48): When I asked Gillian what is lost in not having conversations across differences? Her response immediately was, intimacy. If you’re familiar with the work of the Trusted Advisor Associates, then you might be familiar with the trust equation. In it intimacy is a crucial element, often missed in the workplace. It’s a crucial element for developing trustworthiness according to this trust equation. And I would venture it is measurably more absent when working across cultural and racial differences. Intimacy in the trust equation, comprises empathy and transparency, something that is sorely lacking in the workplace. But it’s a crucial element of building allyship and building trustworthiness. Conversations across differences is really the ultimate test of inclusive leadership. How to go about having those types of conversations is a skill that requires learning, practice, feedback and competent support. There was so much to gain out of this conversation. I encourage you to listen to it again.
(30:58): Meanwhile, I want to leave you with a notion that comes out of the work I and other practitioners do in relationship systems intelligence work, created by CR Global. It is an idea that begins to open the door to conversations across differences, and it can perhaps be used as a bit of a mantra. Here it is. Curiosity casts out fear. Curiosity casts out fear. When you can embody curiosity, not just talk about it from a place of powerful pontification, but when you can become it, across differences that make you the most uncomfortable. Then you may be on your way to seeing through the clouds of your own shadows.
(31:42): Thank you again for listening to The Leadership Range. Join us again next Monday to listen to another voice, sharing their experience of the one six insurrection on the United States government. If you haven’t done so yet you can find me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/nedwards07, or Instagram @neil_edwards_coaching. Your feedback is always welcome. If you have ideas for future topics. Or know a leader whose voice you think ought to be on The Leadership Range, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next week, this is The Leadership Range.