A Candid Conversation About Race: A SHE TALKS Recap

 Photo by Illyana Bocanegra

Photo by Illyana Bocanegra

Produced by #bossbabesATX, SHE TALKS is an ongoing discussion-based personal and professional development series, tackling topics from finances to intersectional feminism. Our SHE TALKS feature the perspectives of women and non-binary folks. All genders are welcome to attend.

In this session, #bbatx programming committee member Keisha Gillis was joined by a panel of community members to discuss racial representation, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The talk addressed concerns brought up in our Diversity and Inclusion Survey, as well as our first event in this summer series, SHE TALKS: Tearing Down Tokenism.

Prior to the start of this talk from 6 PM to 7 PM, our committee members Kristina Gonzalez, Jasmine Robinson and Keisha Gillis, hosted a cocktail hour to settle into the subject matter.


MEET THE EVENING'S PANELISTS:

Keisha Gillis, curator and moderator
Keisha Gillis aka “The Queen of Budgeting” is a money coach living and working in Austin, Texas. She’s passionate about helping her community, friends and family  financially thrive by educating them on proper budgeting techniques, holding them accountable for saving adequately and providing them with diverse investment portfolios. When she’s not talking money, she’s out making new connections to grow her online business directory, The Connector ATX, or sipping tea and talking collaborations with members of her women’s group Ladies in Alignment. Keisha was born in Knoxville, TN and raised in the small town about 30 miles east called Jefferson City located in the heart of the Smokey Mountains. Her father is a Marine Corp Vietnam veteran and retired Electrician and her mother climbed the corporate ladder for a large utility company before retiring to run her own website development business. In her free time, Keisha is an avid crafter and loves to crochet blankets for her family and friends.

Farah Muscadin, panelist
Farah is the current Interim Police Monitor for the City of Austin. Prior to this she served as the Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Chicago State University (CSU).  While at CSU, Farah served as the Interim Dean of Student Affairs, the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and the Board Liaison to the Board of Trustees. Prior to joining CSU, Farah worked as the Associate Director of Legislative and Government Affairs for the City Colleges of Chicago, Director of Legislative Affairs for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Farah was also Assistant Public Defender for the Cook County Public Defender's Office and Guardian ad Litem for the Cook County Public Guardian's Office.Farah currently serves on the board for the Austin Iowa Alumni Club and the YWCA Greater Austin.  She is a member of the Travis County Women’s Lawyers Association and a mentor with GirlForward. Farah holds a bachelor's of business administration from the University of Iowa and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Iowa College of Law.

Dr. Elizabeth Medina, panelist
Dr. Elizabeth Guillory Medina is a native of Beaumont, Texas, lived in Manor, Texas for over eleven years, and currently resides in Pflugerville, Texas with her husband Omar and daughter Isabelle. She holds a Ph.D., M.A., and BA in Sociology with teaching and research interests in the areas of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Social Justice in Higher Education. As a Student Affairs Administrator, she has also previously served as Director of Campus Life and the First Year Experience at Huston-Tillotson University and Assistant Dean of Students at The University of Texas at Austin where she also held a leadership role on the Campus Climate Response Team in responding to incidents of bias on behalf of the institution. She is currently the Associate Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students at Concordia University Texas where she oversees the coordination of Student Activities, Residence Life, and Mission-Based Experiential Learning as well as Diversity and Inclusion initiatives for the university. She is also extremely passionate about supporting, empowering, and uplifting other women both personally (in terms of mental and physical health and wellness) and professionally (with work/life balance/integration).

Jane Hervey, panelist
Jane Hervey is a creative producer, activist, entrepreneur, writer and performance artist. Originally from the Rio Grande Valley (956 por vida), Hervey moved to Austin to study at the University of Texas. After earning her Bachelor's of Science in Journalism and pursuing a career in freelance writing, Hervey began searching for resources and a space to ask professional questions. She hosted her first #bossbabesATX meet in 2015, hoping to foster community and connection between self-identified women in Austin, Texas. She now runs the nonprofit and its festival, BABES FEST, while managing her own production studio, Group Work, and maintaining a column on creative entrepreneurship and lifestyle design at Forbes. Her personal and professional life are dedicated to improving community infrastructure, retooling systems of collaboration and changing cultural economies to create equal opportunity for women and girls.

Alex Perez-Puelles, panelist
Alex is an Austin-based Operations Specialist with a background in Event Planning. She moved to Austin from South Florida in a desperate need for change. She likes to stay active in her community by volunteering with organizations, such as #bossbabesATX, Las Ofrendas and Laissez Fair. In her spare time, she likes going to shows, hanging out with friends and trying our new recipes. She is always brainstorming ways of collaborating with others, via photoshoots, podcasts or events.


Here are some takeaways and information to explore based on the night's conversation and the panelists' recommendations:

1.) Before launching into this recap, we highly suggest also reading the recap from the first event in this series on representation, SHE TALKS: Tearing Down Tokenism, which occurred earlier in the summer on June 25.

2.) We began the conversation by introducing some of the insights and takeaways #bossbabesATX has collected in our research. Over the last few months, in preparation for this series on representation in professional spaces, we've been exploring the practical and emotional dynamics of diversity and inclusion—as well as the conditions that lead to less racist, more equitable working environments. Here were two of our main takeaways:

3.) The panelists' discussion began with exploring exclusion. When have they felt excluded among those considered to be of their own race? Each panelist touched on the difficulty of ever feeling truly "included," especially if you come from a multicultural background, grew up in a different context from the rest of your family or had different experiences than the societal expectation for your race or expression of your race. For Farah (who is Haitian), Alex Perez-Puelles (who is Latina), Dr. Medina (who is Black American), these experiences varied and they all noted it had much to do with their own perceptions of self and perceptions of their community (as well as the perceptions placed on them by others, as it relates to their race). 

4.) We then launched into the foundational question of the night: Why does diversity matter in professional spaces and why are having this conversation at all? The panelists had a few points to offer:

  • Diversity matters for the sake of having educated, perspectives and reducing blind spots. Farah noted that you can often tell with a brand's marketing (or missteps, *cough Pepsi cough*), you can tell that there weren't Black people or people of color involved in decision-making.

  • Diversity better reflects the communities we live in. We live in a multicultural society and this is simply a reality we must embrace.

  • Diversity creates safer spaces. When people of different backgrounds, races and genders are represented, we make better decisions. We better include others and we create working environments that better protect each other from harm; we are less likely to protect abusers due to homophily.

  • But diversity without inclusion is just lip service. “It’s one thing to be invited to the party, but can I access the building? iS there food I can eat? When I look around, can i look around and see people who look like me? Am I included? Or is it chilly in here?” Dr. Medina said.

  • So, beyond representation, visibility, presence and decision-making power matters.

5.) Keisha then jumped into our next question discussing microaggressions and racism at work. Is it blatant or covert? How do you maintain professionalism (and should we? Is that respectability politics?). Panelists offered their views:

  • Jane said that, as a white woman, she has witnessed blatant racism in professional spaces in which only other white people are present. She noted that it's on white people to address that with their peers and analyze racism and exclusivity that may drive spaces they are a part of.

  • Alex said that she witnesses microaggressions often. She now checks herself and checks others—including those she considers to be colleagues and friends—because that's part of unlearning racism and bias.

  • Farah said that within her roles as a lobbyist she was often tokenized and asked to represent the Black community. She was also asked to do more work than her peers (and her peers were comfortable with this imbalance). Sometimes, she calls it out, and sometimes she plays it safe. "I get tired of educating. It wears on people of color to keep educating. The pressure of always having to be on... Sometimes I’m on duty, sometimes I’m off duty."

  • Dr. Medina shared an experience in which her boss touched her natural hair during a work meeting. She shared the dynamics of the exchange with us, explaining how much it upset her and when the woman (who was white) apologized to her that she took the opportunity to educate her on the microaggression and tried to let it go. But still she had to process. She had to take time to step away. She had to honor her anger and frustration. She iterated that when you experience a microaggression or racism at work, you are not obligated to be forgiving or kind. You have every right to be angry; you just have to figure out how to express that anger and how to protect yourself. "Our ability to decide when, where, and how we feel is our right," Dr. Medina said.

  • If you have upset someone in the workplace because you crossed a boundary (or were microagressive), seek to understand. Don’t just seek to be understood.

  • Farah added that if you cannot call someone out, you don't have to. If you don't have the time or energy to educate someone, you don't have to. If you just want to keep your job, that's OK. "To the people of color in the room, we have to think about the consequences of addressing [racism]. They are greater than those for white people. There are certain dynamics that are different for people of color. There are things that we have to consider MORE SO."

  • Jane said that for the white people in the room being an ally in these moments should mean speaking up (or not speaking up) responsibly. It requires listening. It means respecting the wishes of people of color in your workplace and not forcing anyone into a reaction to racism or colorism that they don't want to take. It means knowing how to advocate for your peers and doing the work to make sure that when you do stand up for others you are heard and it makes a difference.

6.) Next, the panelists discussed eurocentrism in professional attire and appearance. When do you embrace your culture? When do you not, and if so, why?

  • Farah said that she "played the game" until she got a seat at the table. Now that she has a seat at the table, she embraces her culture, her race and her ethnicity. She shows up as herself. She said that whether one choose to play the game or not, that decision is ultimately up to you. For her, we all have to make decisions to get where we need to go and we can't judge.

  • The panelists (and the attendees) then discussed how "playing the game" is different for everyone. It depends on your experiences. It depends on your age and your perspective.

  • The panelists also discussed code-switching and the difficult with never feeling truly "accepted" by one's own culture or by whiteness. "Playing the game is different for everyone. But it’s about self-acceptance." Dr. Medina said.

Here are a few action items FROM THE DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your stories with each other. Go to events that support people of color. Spend your dollar on businesses owned by people of color.

2.) Educate yourself and don't burden your peers with your own education. Privilege is real and we should all be conscious about it, especially if we're white. Be empathetic.

3.)  Give the companies that employ you feedback. Let them know how you feel about the processes at work that prevent diversity and inclusion; if they don't have avenues for you to give feedback in a way that leads to something actionable, that should be your first piece of feedback. (Know Your Company has some good ideas about creating feedback loops in professional settings. Jane interviewed the company's founder, Claire Lew, once about it, too: Read "This Is Why Your Boss Deserves Your Negative Feedback" on Forbes.)

4.) If you are a leader at your company, consider how you take feedback. It is your responsibility to ensure diversity AND inclusion are at-play at work. Engage in better hiring practices (i.e. pool from diverse hiring networks and get rid of habits like asking for potential employees' previous salaries). Use these stats about diversity and inclusion to back you up when you're creating policies and making hiring decisions. Attempt to better understand why your communication and/or styles of leadership may not work for a diverse group and need to be reassessed. (Jane recommended her interview with Dr. Dawna Ballard about cultural concepts of communication, time and how this influences the workplace: Read "Why This Professor of Time Argues Achieving Work-Life Balance Is Impossible" on Forbes.)

5.) Do the work! If you're struggling to understand the dynamics of racism and privilege at-play in the workplace, read these books by writers of color. This piece on white fragility in the New Yorker is a good read, too.

6.) If you are an ally, remember that racism and a lack of inclusion have real repercussions. This is a matter of urgency and in today's climate racism has life or death consequences. The fear that may be expressed to you by people of color should be treated as real—even if you yourself cannot relate. Alex suggests reading these books to expand your understanding: "Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas and "My Family Divided: One Girl's Journey of Home, Loss and Hope" by Diane Guerrero. Alex also suggests the series "Decoded" on MTV, which explores code-switching and stereotypes, as well as "The Kat Call" on mitu, which explores the dynamics of multiculturalism in the Latinx community.


MEET THE PRODUCERS, PARTNERS AND VENUE

About #bossbabesATX: #bossbabesATX (#bbatx) is an online and offline space for women-identifying and nonbinary creatives, entrepreneurs and community organizers. Through event series, showcases and personal/professional development programs, we've provided a platform of visibility, outreach and financial opportunity to 1500+ Texas-based women and nonbinary creatives, entrepreneurs and community organizers. We make space to catalyze multi-industry coalitions, share our crafts, seek help and provide each other with practical and emotional resources. There is power in our shared experiences. We were named "Best Bossy Babes" of 2015 by The Austin Chronicle, were selected by The White House to attend the United State of Women Summit in June 2016 and inducted into the City of Austin's Hall of Fame in 2017. Learn more at bossbabes.org/bossbabesatx

Our events prioritize the voices of self-identifying women and nonbinary folks. We are not gender-discriminant; all are welcome to attend. This production has been made possible in part by presenting partners Resplendent Hospitality.