July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Leading Content + Design

Written by Leading Content + Design

March 1, 2021


Hello, thank you for being here. My name is Sara and I'm recording this from the unceded territory of the Lenni Lenape people, now known as Philadelphia.

Today, we're going to be talking about content and design leadership. But this is not going to be a talk about becoming a manager or building a team. It's gonna be a talk about becoming a leader for change. Someone who's willing to boldly move themselves and the people around them toward equity, toward inclusion and most of all toward justice.

Now, I can't do that right now here in July 2020, without also talking about the state of the world. So we're going to have some conversations today that touch on police violence, anti-blackness, and most of all white supremacy. So please take care of yourself. If you're finding any of this triggering, particularly to any of the black audience who's listening today. And for those of you who are fellow white people I'm going to tell you that if you're starting to feel uncomfortable, I'm gonna encourage you to keep listening. Stick it out it might be helpful.

So let's start with the obvious. It is a difficult time to talk about our careers. At least it has been for me. This is a scene from my City, Philadelphia on June 1st. The police trapped a group of Black Lives Matter protesters against a fence at the edge of a highway. Surrounded them on all sides so they couldn't leave and tear gas them. That's that same day, June 1st later in the evening, just about two miles away from this massive gassing. 100 white men with baseball bats, shovels and hammers roamed the streets saying that they were protecting their neighborhood. They beat a journalist up they screamed racial epithets at counter protesters. And they were not tear gassed. Police post for smiling photos with them. The protests have been ongoing in my city since then, including just south of me a few blocks from where I live. Another group of armed vigilantes guarding a Columbus statue in a park for days and days, a couple weeks ago, until they box it up and decided that they were going to finally get rid of it. These guys stood out there harassing and menacing people.

And so that's been my backdrop, months into a pandemic holed up at home, trying to write this talk. And it forced me to stop and it forced me to think and it forced me to sit with some very hard questions about what really matters now, and also about what space I am going to occupy. How do I fit in and where do I not fit in in this particular moment? And also, how can I take greater responsibility, greater responsibility for the ways that my work perpetuates white supremacy, even when I don't want it to. The way that my work allows these guys with bats to exist, even when I wish they didn't. I'm still figuring that out. And I bet a lot of you are to wherever you are, whatever your particular backdrop is in your city. This is a moment where I think we can really come together and start to focus on how do we figure this out? How do we look at all of that chaos? How do we look at that sadness? How do we look at that injustice? How do we look at the overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done in the world and choose to lean into all of those feelings and choose to lean into the discomfort and not look away from it? And in the process, show up as the kind of leader that we need right now. A leader who can actually make change in our organizations.

So I wanna talk a little bit about leadership. What even is leadership in this moment? Well, I think we seen a lot of brands trying to show up as leaders in the past month trying to lead on racial justice issues. The results have been instructive. Take Amazon, this is the Amazon homepage a couple days into June. That high value real estate at the top of the page devoted to Black Lives Matter, not the latest Alexa product. Amazon stands in solidarity with the black community. Which is interesting because of course it's not so simple because at the exact same time that Amazon was standing in solidarity on their website, they were also denying black employees safety measures during a pandemic. They fired a man named Chris smalls a black man after he organized a walkout.

Well, the demands of that walkout were this. People in the facility the warehouse that he worked had tested positive for COVID-19. What he wanted was for them to sanitize the facility. After that says staff are tested positive and to be paid while they were doing it. So for that organizing that walkout, he had that retaliation. And at the same time that that was happening, Amazon was also launching a new product called neighbors. Neighbors is a neighborhood watch social network that's based off of Amazon's ring home surveillance system. So what neighbors does is it encourages people to share ring videos showing suspicious things happening in their neighborhood, right? So you have a ring video from outside of your doorstep. And you would share that around and be like, look at this guy stealing packages, for example. But the result is a little bit different because the result is that neighbors is turning into a space where white people report people of color just for existing. And speaking of ring, did you know that as of last year ring had partnered with at least 200 law enforcement agencies 200 of them in the US. And what they offer to police is this law enforcement neighborhood portal, which allows local cops to see a map of all of the ring cameras that are located in a neighborhood and to request footage directly from camera owners.

So who is it exactly that Amazon has solidarity with? Is it the community that's most likely to be low-wage workers? Is it the community that's experiencing the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths? Is it the community that's most likely to be targeted by nosy neighbors? Is it the community that's most likely to experience violence at the hands of police? I don't know what black community they thought they were in solidarity with. But what I do know is that this is empty. And you can compare that to something like IBM.

Now on its face this is also a pretty empty message. On its face this social media post doesn't even say Black Lives Matter. It says very little. But there's something else that happened at IBM. And it wasn't a social media post. At IBM, they chose to actually shut down a whole line of business facial recognition. Because facial recognition software is increasingly used to surveil black people in ways large and small and to criminalize black people. And so IBM said, we're out, we're no longer going to pursue this whole line of business. They even released a statement from their CEO Arvind Krishna, that went to Congress, asking specifically for Congress to take up this issue, so it wasn't just an IBM issue. They wanted to talk about their opposition to technology, facial recognition technology that offers surveillance racial profiling violations of human rights and freedoms, and what they wanted to have a conversation about whether this technology ever made sense and how it might be used, and they weren't going to contribute to this product line in the process. This is not IBM's largest line of business. I will tell you, I'm not valorizing this corporation, but I want to say here is just that this is IBM making a choice and not a statement and it's a choice that cost them something. It cost them a product line. It costs them investments in r&d. It costs them comfortable relationships with law enforcement. It costs something. And that is how I wanna talk about leadership right now. Leadership that is aiming for anti-racist work. We need to talk about leadership that cost something.

I listened to a talk from Rachel Rodgers, an entrepreneur recently, she had seen her white women peers posting black squares and benign statements all over their social media. And she was fed up, and she posted this rah searing video where she talked about how being an anti-racist is not convenient. If it doesn't cost you anything, it's not enough. And so I've been thinking about that it's been rattling around in my brain, and I hope it rattles around yours. What is my anti-racist work costing me? Have they let it be too convenient? So what's it costing you? As we go through the rest of this talk, I invite you to consider it.

Now, as some of you know, I've been talking about things like bias and tech products on our teams for a few years now. And what I know from that experience is that it's usually around this point where people have not along and all of the examples where they said, "oh, yes Isn't it terrible, these companies doing these sexist things, these racist things, these ablest things?" That's awful, but then they stop and they go, but you know, I'm not Jeff Bezos, I'm not even a director. I don't have a seat at the table. How can I do anything about this? I don't have any power. I can't stop a product line. And the seat at the table becomes this thing, this impasse, right? We cannot move past it. And in fact, we need a seat at the table. That has been a massive complaint across design and content for years now.

If you Google content strategy seat at the table, you will find tons of tweets and talks, all kinds of things about it. In fact, I looked at the 2019 design census from AIG and Google, which is this huge survey of thousands of designers. And what they found was that in 2019, similar to past years, they did the survey, designers said that one of the most important issues facing design was having a seat at the table. In fact, the only issue that they labeled as more important was lack of awareness of designs impact. Which I would actually argue is really the same thing. Because the seat at the table and awareness of designs impact are both concerns about people not valuing us enough. We're not perceived as valuable enough. So there's this argument that we don't have a seat at the table. And then Meanwhile, there's this huge shift happening within design. Where, according to McKinsey Design Index. In the past five years, 40 of the world's top 100 companies have moved to having a chief design officer. And it's not just in these top companies. It's not just in the huge companies. I don't think any of us can do than in the last five years, we have seen an increase in design leadership conversations because organizations are building in deeper layers and building out their teams. We have seen an endless amount of new sub-specialties crop up in content strategy in UX rating. And we have seen so many different teams forming to tackle all kinds of different work.

I will tell you as somebody who's been in content strategy, particularly for a long time, that the amount of different types of specialties and the amount of different sort of focus areas, the way that that field has fractured and grown has been amazing to watch. We don't have all the power but we are not just getting seats at the table. We are actually changing the size of the conference room that is needed. So as I was looking at this whole concept of design and a seat at the table, I ran into this post from Daniel Burka.

Daniel Burke is a longtime designer. He's known for his work with Digg back in the day and for working with Google Ventures. And he's now left to work on a non-profit called Resolve To Save Lives. And in April, he wrote an article that likened this moment to 2003 when George W. Bush stood in front of an aircraft carrier, and boldly proclaimed mission accomplished, that massive sign behind him in the Iraq war, and then we went on to continue involvement in the Iraq war for another decade. He said, "I think of this image every time I hear a designer say we finally have a seat at the table," or "everyone understands the value of design!" We designers think we have accomplished something meaningful when all of the serious work is ahead of us. He goes on to talk about how oftentimes designers seem to move directly from I need a seat at the table, to resting on our laurels, patting ourselves on the back, happy with our large salaries, happy that we're respected.

So I look at these examples and I think which story is true? Do we have a seat at the table or not? Well, I'm here today to argue that it's actually the wrong question. Because when we frame it that way, what we're really asking is, are we the victims? Those poor content folks underpaid, relegated to tiny teams, those poor designers not valued in the same way as product or engineering? Or are we the heroes? Have we made it? Have we finally pulled that Aeron chair up to the table? And the truth is, we will not create a more equitable world or a more equitable team if we start from either of those perspectives. Because when we are victims, we cannot be responsible for perpetuating white supremacy in our workplaces, and in the products that we build. And when we are the heroes, well, we're done. We've already vanquished the opponent who tried to keep us down, mission accomplished. And when that happens, when we have to be the victim or the hero. Then that means everyone else has to become the villain.

That's what Kim Crayton talks about. She talks about in the context of whiteness, that in the whiteness narrative, whiteness is always the hero or the victim and everyone else is the villain. And you could replace white design culture with whiteness there, and the sentence would work perfectly. Because the thing is, every single time we fall back on binary thinking, either or yes no, right wrong, good bad, hero victim, we uphold white supremacy. We uphold white supremacy because we uphold the status quo as kad Smith who runs a leadership organization called CompassPoint says. He wrote either or thinking as a habit of white supremacy because it often preserves the status quo and stops us from imagining new ways of being and doing. It creates dynamics of gridlock and stalemate. It forces us to take one of two sides and pushes us into team dynamics with us versus them. And I wanna home in on those words gridlock and stalemate, because these are the words of being stuck. And that is what binary thinking does to us. It keeps us stuck in one place. It doesn't allow for possibilities. It doesn't allow for many things to be true at the same time. Binary thinking keeps us so stuck, that we cannot see the options, we cannot see that there's a myriad truth in any moment.

It's only when we can acknowledge that many things are true the same time, that I for example, and this is white woman with lots of power and resources. And I faced harassment and I faced pay inequity and I faced challenges in my career. When I can acknowledge that I am stuck at home in a pandemic, and it's hard and I'm extraordinarily lucky. It's only when we can allow many things to be true at once that we can start seeing options. We can start moving forward, we can start making change and imagining those new ways of working in new ways of being that we need.

So I wanna talk about stuckness for a bit because it's something I've been spending a lot of time thinking about. Because you see, you may know. So I wanna talk about stuckness for a bit, because it's something I've been spending a ton of time thinking about and working on over the past year because, you see, I went from running a content and UX consultancy, to starting a company focused on professional development for people in tech and design. And as part of that, I went to a leadership coaching program, went to a whole training program for five months. And in coaching, it is all about getting unstuck. It's about helping people see new possibilities to find paths forward toward their goals to get over whatever it is that's hanging them up and move forward even when moving forward is imperfect. And to stop sort of getting in our own way and spinning around, and instead be able to get more in tune with our values, get less alienated from our hearts and our guts, and be able to show up with more courage and more conviction in our lives. And in my practice, it's really working with people in their work lives.

And so I've been spending so much time talking about stuckness and thinking about stuckness that I started thinking how I could thing... That I started thinking how I could bring the things that I know about from coaching, to helping people get unstuck and start showing up as leaders for justice at work too. So the first thing I wanna say about stuckness. The thing that I know about stuckness is that it is miserable. It feels bad, but it is also very, very comfortable. It is comfortable because it allows you to stay in one spot. You don't have to do anything. It's reactive, right? Things are happening to you and you're just cowering in place. You don't have to take any risks. You just live within the misery that you know. For example, feeling like you don't have a seat at the table, it's unpleasant. You might feel powerless at the whims of everyone else. You might feel frustrated, like you keep trying to speak up and no one is listening. You might feel unvalued like everyone is ignoring your brilliance. But you don't have to do anything with any of that. You can just throw up your hands and sit.

But leaders don't hit a dead end and give up. If they do they're not really leading us anywhere, right? Leaders find workarounds and to find those workarounds, you have to get to a place of possibility, a place where you can ask yourself, what can I do from right here from this place that I'm sitting in right now? Let's talk about an example. You've probably seen the move to replace racist language in our software coming from a lot of different corners. For example, master and slave. That's a big one that's been coming up. Even GitHub has decided to change it within their entire product line. Many organizations are also Looking at the way that anti-racist language shows up in other places, other types of issues. One of them is my friend, Andy Welfie. He's a content strategy manager at Adobe. And he's been looking at racist terms and their products. And he quickly hit what could have been his stuck spot, because he realized his team did not have the power to simply fix this. He realized that in a centralized team sitting within another centralized team within a 25,000 person company, he didn't have the power to make all of the teams change their content. To just go to them and say do this, right? But instead of allowing it to be a stuck spot, he looked at it through a different lens, and he looked at it through the lens of what's possible. And he found that there were actually many places where he did have power. He realized that his team was primed to look at all of the products holistically. He realized that they could add a more nuanced point of view because they have expertise in words language, right? And he realized that he has clout he is an author within the content and UX community. And that all of those things were things that he could use to move forward. And what that led to is a number of different actions, many of them are now much bigger than just Andy.

Internally at Adobe, it means a few things. There's a language audit underway that goes far beyond just master and slave. There's some point of view and guidance work that is going into the design system documentation. Because while they can't necessarily fix every product out there, they can change the documents that product teams rely on. And they're starting and stewarding ongoing conversations with the C-level. And that happened because enough people were interested in the topic and the Slack channel got enough prominence that the CPO showed up and was interested in this conversation. And then it's not just internal change, right? It's also what can we do outside our organizations? What can we do across our industry? For example, in the content in UX Slack, which if you're not in, it's a really popular slack that's excellently moderated, check it out. They're sharing all kinds of different language challenges in solutions they're coming up with at their companies. People are sharing resources, links, and people are kind of talking one another through the process. What worked for you? How did you approach this? How did you go from this feeling really overwhelming across a huge organization to something that you felt more manageable about something that you could actually do? And so all of that work, all of that work of creating space where people can ask questions where people can come together, all of that creates momentum. And it also creates shared tools like this collaborative document that's being passed around now, where people are discussing different terms and discussing alternatives to those terms.

And these are not big massive fixes it does not like completely solve anything. But what they do is they make space for change, they create more power, they get more people to decide that something is possible here. Every time we make a small shift, what we do is we change people's norms and their expectations. We are telling them that this matters, that this belongs in our workplaces, and that it's possible to speak up. And when we do that, we don't just make space for change. But we also make space for more people to become changemakers. We make space for more people to say, "oh, yes, I can do that. "I can find some courage. "I can see what's possible here." And so that's what I wanna ask you.

What's possible in your practice right now? What would be possible if you stopped looking at it from a binary perspective? I have power or I don't. And you started looking at it from what can I do from where I sit? And what's stopping you from moving toward that? What's keeping you from moving toward the things that could be possible? And this isn't just a rhetorical question. This is something I actually recommend sitting with, thinking through spending some time here. Because in working with lots of people in content and UX, I will tell you a few things crop up over and over again, that keep people stuck, unable to move forward, whether it's toward their personal goals or in their justice work. These are ways that I've been stuck to. And so I'm gonna share a few of them with you. And I'm gonna leave you with some questions, questions designed to help you reflect and kind of coach your way out of that stuck spot. So you can get back toward making action.

The first one is getting stuck in old stories, old stories are the things that are true about yourself, that may not actually be useful or helpful here, and that keep you focused on a past version of yourself or just one facet of yourself. And conveniently, it's a facet of yourself, that's unable to make change. It's the part of yourself that feels powerless. And I see that perpetuate inequality in our field all of the time. Here are some examples.

The first one is that story of feeling small. This one is really big in tech. We're nerds we weren't cool. We were bullied. And so what happens is that even after that stops being true, that story remains the dominant story that people tell themselves. I'm sure you've heard it from a literal CEO. And when we do that, when we focus on that story that was true as a child, that may not be true now, we choose not to see the ways that we now have power over others because it conflicts with the picture of ourselves that we have in our head.

The second story is the story of bootstraps. You've probably heard it as well. I got to where I am by working hard. I grew up poor and I work for every single thing I have. No one gave me anything. My parents didn't help me. I paid my own way. I built what I have. When you scratch at those stories just a little bit who's gonna read underneath the surface what you often realize this is somebody did pay their way, at least a little bit, right? Somebody paid their tuition to a private college, or somebody paid their rent while they pursued an unpaid internship in an expensive city, or somebody had money they could borrow so they could start a business, which assumes that you have family with resources with assets available just for borrowing. So bootstraps is often not totally true. But even if it has truth to it, even if you did work very hard and build very much up from scratch, focusing on that leads us down a path where two things happen. One, we often justify inequality for other people, because things are hard for us. So rather than considering that maybe no one should have to do what we had to do, maybe no one should have to go through what we went through. We start thinking, well, I had to do that you should too. And it's punitive. Or the second thing is it makes it easy for us to assume that what worked for us is going to work for somebody else, that if those other people just tried as hard as we tried, they would get where we got. And so it completely erases people who face systemic discrimination, systemic biases, people who face racism, for example, that maybe you did not face.

And then the third, the third is the story of feeling marginalized. I'll call this the white feminism story. If you're part of a group that is discriminated against such as women, and you're also part of a group that is dominant, such as white people, then only focusing on the parts of your story that are about your marginalization is a huge danger. Because when you do that, when I've been harassed, I've been underpaid. I've been talked down to. I've been treated like the secretary. When you're so focused on all of those things, you can easily head down a path where you can't see yourself as being capable of perpetuating harm against others. Or you can end up in a place where you think you understand what another group that you're not part of has faced. Because you think you face the same type of discrimination, when actually you didn't. You faced maybe a piece of it, you faced maybe something that is similar in some ways. And there's this whole chasm that you can't cross because you're not willing to see where you sit in the sort of mix of both privileged and non-Privileged.

And what you can see in each of these stories, what they all have in common is that they move us back to the binary. They're saying, "oh, well, if I'm oppressed, "I cannot be the oppressor. "If I had it hard in one way, "I can't have had it easy on others." And every time we move back to that binary way of thinking, we reinforce the status quo and that status quo in our industry right now in frankly, the world right now, is the status quo of white supremacy. And so how's your thinking about this? What I want you to do is start asking yourself, look at those stories that you tell yourself, the ones that you believe are true about you. Acknowledge that they have truth to them but ask what parts of that story aren't true anymore? What are other truths that that story leaves out? How might you see the situation you're in differently? If you let go of that story right now? That brings me to fear.

Fear such a massive way that we get stuck in all kinds of situations, and particularly fear of loss. Because you see, when we start talking about white supremacy, we start talking about racial justice, like we said at the beginning if it doesn't cost you anything it's not enough. You cannot create more justice in your organization without it costing something without risk. But humans have a such a strong aversion to loss. It's a deeply human fear. In behavioral economics, they call it loss aversion where people are much more motivated to not lose $5 than they are to gain $5. The gains have to be so much greater than the risk of loss for people to do something, because loss is such a powerful fear. I mean, just look around at the fear-based rhetoric that is particularly popular in places like the United States right now. It's all about loss. Those other people, they're trying to take away your freedom. Take away your jobs, take away your white cultural norms, take away your haircuts. Tapping into people's fear of loss is a powerful way to manipulate them. So we all have fear of loss, and it shows up often when we start to try to take anti-racist action. Sometimes it's being stoked by those manipulators who wanna tell you that resources are too scarce to share. That you will lose out on something if somebody else gets it. But when I hear more often, especially in tech, they wanna hear maybe most often. Isn't just about losing something because there's not enough to go around. It's about losing something because you stuck out and you spoke out and then people took access away from you, losing future opportunities.

Ian Bogost wrote about this in the Atlantic earlier this year specifically about the Silicon Valley based-tech industry. But I think that that really permeates so many of our organizations even when we're that's not where we're centered. He said all workers worry about their future, but the ambitious people drawn to tech are almost pathologically reticent about foreclosing future opportunities they don't even know about yet. Pathologically reticent about foreclosing on future opportunities. People have become so used to thinking about their next next move that they are terrified of becoming unhireable or unfundable. Or they've gotten very comfortable at a very cushy organization. And they're terrified of making waves because they don't want to lose out on the comfort and the power that they get within a big company.

And so what I want you to think about here, and I want you to ask yourselves what are you really scared of? Because your fears are valid and that that's a real feeling and you can acknowledge that you feel scared. Taking anti-racist action is taking risk. It has to cost something. But we've often magnified our fears into these worst case scenarios. Like if I speak up, I'm gonna lose my job, and I'm never gonna get another one. Now, the more marginalized you are, the more often that might be true. But for many of us much of the time, it's not likely it's not actually the likely scenario. And so when you pair this fear, with an old story, like how you felt as a less powerful version of yourself, like let's say a junior designer, thankful for a foot in the door, what ends up happening is you can start to act as if you don't have power when you do have it. And you can start acting as if you actually have way more at stake than you do. And so, what we need to do is needed to move out of that stuck place and back into action by taking a look at what it is that we're really afraid of here.

Oftentimes, we will tell ourselves story that we're afraid for our jobs, right? We will tell ourselves the worst case story that we're afraid we're gonna lose our job, but what we're actually afraid of is having awkward conversation that hurts our feelings. We will tell ourselves, we're afraid for our financial stability, but it's actually a lot more about our pride. We'll tell ourselves it's about safety, but it's about sense of status. Sometimes we'll tell ourselves that it's about not wanting to alienate our community. But what it really is about is having access to elite people, elite resources and elite spaces. And so ask yourself, what is it that you're really afraid of? Are those fears actually as big as you've made them? What's underneath them? Are there some of the things that are actually underneath them things that maybe you should let go of? Maybe elite access isn't where the priority should be anymore. And when we stop sort of catastrophizing, about what might happen if we step up, and we start being worried that like, oh my gosh, I'm losing my job and I'm never gonna get another one, then we can look at our fears directly instead of running away from them. We can kind of hold them in our hand and turn them over and think about them. Then we can start making realistic choices around them.

There are things we can say, you know what, that fear is a real unjustified risk, and I'm going to need to manage that. That fear is an ego-driven thing and I'm gonna decide to let that go. And that is how we get back to making possibilities and thinking about how we're gonna move forward and not stay stuck in one spot. So spend some time on this. Ask yourself, What are you afraid of losing? Pocket it, unpack it? And then what would you do if you weren't scared? What might be possible if you let go of some of those fears If you did it anyway? Get comfortable with some of those ideas, test them out, take some little risks, see what happens. Build that muscle. As you do that, as you take some of those little risks, you may end up getting a place of shame. And shame is such an important thing to talk about when we talk about doing justice work, because shame gets in our way all the time. It keeps us stuck and it keeps us from showing up as leaders.

And I wanna be really specific here when I talk about shame, 'cause I'm not talking about guilt, necessarily. Guilt can be helpful. Guilt is related to others, it's about harm. When we feel guilty for a harm that we cause we can acknowledge our actions we can take responsibility, we can perhaps even repair it. But when we're focused on shame, we are not reckoning with harm. We are hiding from it. Because it's too painful to look at directly, because it makes us feel bad about ourselves. And it makes us wanna hide our actions from others too, because we don't want anyone to see us as the bad people. We in our shame have decided that we are. When we get stuck in shame, shame over our past actions or shame over our past inactions. We cannot move forward with justice work. We get stuck in our feelings. We recenter the conversation on how bad we feel and how sad we are. And we don't do the work that needs to be done. The work that our teams and our peers and our communities need us to do.

So this is the point of the talk, where things get real. Because now we're gonna talk about me. So two years ago, I was touring around speaking about my book Technically Wrong. It's about sexism and racism encoded in tech products. And I thought that I was getting pretty comfortable talking about race because I talked about it in every conversation. One day, I had a conversation with an attendee after a talk a black woman. It did not go the way that I had hoped. And it didn't go the way that I had thought. Because you see, just last month, two years later, I received a long direct message from her. Here's a little bit of what she wrote to me. "Your words cut to the core! "You didn't realize you completely "diminished me a black woman. "I was so incensed angry that you felt "that I a black woman cannot have the space "to talk about this issue. "Deep down you believe you own a space "as a white woman and I don't."

I am horrified, horrified to share this with you. I almost didn't. I don't want you to think less of me. I don't want you to think of me as a racist after all. That's the worst thing you can call someone, right? Except it's not. That's my shame talking. I am ashamed to have made someone feel this way. It is painful to try to reconcile the person I see myself as the person who would make someone feel like this. And yet that is what she experienced. This is real for her, so it is real. I have to live with that. And so what I would love to do right now, of course is to explain it away. I would love to explain to you the context of the conversation. Explain how I was actually misunderstood. And I'm not gonna do it. I'm not going to do that because every second I spend explaining this and explaining how I was misunderstood it's time that I am wasting, making myself feel better rather than learning rather than taking responsibility rather than repairing harm, rather than using this as a moment to help me explain the importance to other people of getting out of our shame and getting out of that binary thinking.

Because you see, binary thinking is so seductive in these moments, is so seductive for me to think, well, this woman thinks I'm a villain but she's wrong. I'm a victim of a great misunderstanding. And if I do that, and I paint my story just right maybe by the time we'll end this talk, you'll identify with poor me. Maybe you'll even call me brave. I could be redeemed. I could be a hero again. You see how that works? That is white supremacy in action. And so I am not here to be absolved. I am here for accountability. I want you all to know that I screwed up. It is not the only time that I've screwed up. It is not the last time that I screwed up. It won't be the last time I screw up. And I won't go into all of the details about how I screwed up here because I wanna protect her privacy. But what I can say looking back is that I was too quick to offer advice and insight, instead of understanding what she actually needed from me. And in that moment, me jumping into advice and insight mode. That led me down a path that I harmed her. I was not just unhelpful. I hurt her, hurt her enough that two years later, when she saw me tweeting about racial justice, she thought of that conversation and she summoned energy to write me and tell me about it. That was a big hurt. And as painful as it was to receive this message, and trust me, it sucked. It was also a gift. It was a gift to get this feedback to know that I had hurt her. And then to be able to look back on myself and think about that and think about what the hell do I do with this now.

And so as much as it pains me to share the story, I decided I want you all to know about it. I wanna complicate the image that you have of somebody who does anti-racist work or is willing to talk about anti-racism. Because if you wanna make your workplace more just if you want more white supremacy to be confronted in your workplace, if you want to make change, you will screw up too. And it will suck. You will probably want to hide from it. You will probably want to retreat and never risk speaking up again. You will want to get stuck back in your fear, too scared to try. Don't make waves.

So I want you to know that you can be called out and live to tell the tale and you can be called out and choose not to live in that space of just feeling like a bad person. You can also live in a space where you're not trying to redeem yourself and claim good person status again. You can simply be a person, a person who is trying and who is accountable when they get it wrong. And so the more that you think about your own accountability now, the more that you are prepared to be accountable, the easier it will be for you to get out of that shame spiral, that shame spiral that helps no one and back into action, action of repairing your harms where you can, educating yourself, moving forward, turning that into a moment that propels you to be better. Not that pushes you back into yourself. Because you see, when we don't do that, when we just retreat back into our work when we retreat back into our figma files when we retreat back into our tickets or copy strings or air tables. White supremacy loves that. We are allowing white supremacy to keep happening. Because white supremacy knows that when we are exhausted, we remain obedient. And when we're overworked, we tend to stay quiet it rewards us for our silence for not pushing back for not questioning.

That is from a powerful message I got from Desiree Adaway from The Adaway Group. White supremacy loves it when you keep your head down and you stay focused on the tasks. And I don't wanna the work of white supremacy anymore. And I hope that you don't either. In fact, I'll assume if you're still here listening that you don't want that, I assume you care deeply about building an anti-racist practice, that you care deeply about being the kind of leader who can make change.

And so in my last few moments with you, I wanna say "let yourself be okay with things being small." Let yourself be okay with the smallness of the change that you make. Because once you have accepted this massive scope, that is white supremacy, once you have accepted that it is structural that is upheld at every level in every system you interact with. It is so easy to become overwhelmed. It is so easy to feel like nothing you do matters. And that overwhelm takes you right back into binary thinking. It bumps you right into wealth. If I can't fix it, then nothing I do matters. Everything, nothing gets us nowhere.

So we have to be able to get okay with the idea that we're gonna make small actions, we're going to screw up, and we're going to keep working. Because small actions are what get turned into big actions. This is from a book that I love by adrienne maree brown called Emergent Strategy. She says small actions and connections create complex systems patterns that become ecosystems and society. We love patterns, we love systems, right? Who here doesn't love patterns and systems or designers and content strategists? How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. Until we can think about the small scale until we can think about all those small possible things that we can each do. We cannot think about the large scale, we cannot make change at that level.

And all of it starts with being able to say, this is not a binary. I'm not a hero or a victim. It's not a right or wrong. It's not a good or a bad because that's what's gonna keep us stuck in place. Afraid, immobilized, we have to get out of the sense of the binary and to start saying what is possible right here, from wherever it is that I'm sitting, whether I'm at a table or not.

And I hope that you'll think about that, what's possible for you, thank you so much for listening today. Again, my name is Sara and I'd love to hear from you.

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