My top lessons for how to integrate social justice with self-improvement and speak up for the ideas, issues, and people who matter most to you

Integrate Social Justice with Self-Improvement

Alexia Coaching, Communication, Leadership Leave a Comment

I believe we, as a society, must dismantle the white supremacy that is entrenched in our institutions and in our conscious and unconscious beliefs and behaviors.

We must elect and promote leaders who will lead us in this charge.

And we must also use our voices to become the leaders we are waiting for.

How we choose to use our voices, as coaches, consultants and business leaders, however, need not look the same for each of us if we want to play to our strengths and have lasting impact.

I’m deeply concerned that the social pressure to get our statements and ongoing messaging “right” is going to paralyze too many of us from speaking up (and, more importantly, continuing to speak up) about racism and the many complementary issues that demand our attention.

So, I am writing to invite you into a different conversation – one that emboldens you to speak up, your way, from right where you are… and never to stop!

In my career, as I have worked at the intersections of social justice and self-improvement, I’ve also had an on-again, off-again relationship with my own voice.

And yet I know, with absolute certainty, that the pain of staying vocally paralyzed is always worse than the pain of using my voice, garbling my words, or even making a mistake and needing to take responsibility and correct it.

Here are some of the other top lessons I’ve learned that I hope may be helpful to you.

  1. My best leadership happens when I can discern when to step up and when to step back.

In my twenties, I wore a lot of different hats.

As a college women’s studies major, I started and led a nonprofit girls’ empowerment after school program. In graduate school, and for several years after, I worked my way up to leading professional development for a nonprofit arts education program that showed educators, nonprofit leaders, and activists how to use theater-based strategies to talk about difficult and important issues including racism, sexism, healthy sexuality, violence prevention, and incarceration. And, in the early years of growing my consulting business, I simultaneously was an adjunct professor who taught public speaking, theater, and courses on the intersectionality of Gender, Race and Class.

The only thing as challenging as facilitating the kinds of conversations that frequently trigger very emotional responses from people is doing it when you feel so bloody uncomfortable with your own voice.

For years, I second-guessed every statement I made and every question I asked.

To say, during this period of my life, that I also was frequently the most privileged person in the room would be an understatement.

I learned through a mix of making mistakes and developing my self-awareness that when my race, class, sexual orientation, and various other identity markers put me in a place of privilege, it was a good idea to listen a whole lot more than I spoke.

As a teacher and facilitator, even though I was in a role of leadership, it was critical for me not to hog the microphone even as I was learning how to stand in my power. Instead, I needed to center the voices of those with firsthand experience of the various injustices we were discussing.

I know that’s what I’m called to do right now too. I know that I am NOT an expert on race, anti-racism, white privilege, and white supremacy, and I want to keep pointing to and spotlighting those who are.

However, this lack of expertise does not mean that I’m not going to talk about these issues. It’s never stopped me in the past, and it won’t stop me in the future.

With that said, I always want to be extra careful when I’m outside my zones of genius to do as much homework as possible before I speak, highlight the voices of experts, and increase my education in these areas so that I can keep doing better.

  1. I want to make it easy for people to engage in daring conversations, spearhead change, and experience minimal fallout when they inevitably mess up.

My work is about showing people how to step into their moxie.

I can’t be a stand for people to increase their communication confidence and competence and then freak out on them when they use their voices in a way I perceive to be imperfect – especially when they are attempting to speak up about challenging subjects.

When somebody doesn’t release a statement fast enough (more on this in #3) or makes a mistake (even if it’s an egregious one), I don’t want to delete the person from my community or shame them for their missteps.

We can ask others to do better AND treat them with dignity in the process – especially when they have shown themselves to be advocates and on the right side of history more often than not.

Recently, a Black activist offered valuable feedback on one of my social media messages. Her response was the embodiment of moxie. She addressed me with kindness and compassion, explained there was a better way for me to phrase something, pointed me to a video that gave me more context, and she made it simple for me to self-correct with my worthiness intact.

While it’s rewarding for me to develop the voices of the marginalized, it’s also important to me to work with people with privilege, especially leaders, and support them to correct injustices for their people.

In my experience, I’ve found that when leaders feel like they are going to be attacked by their communities or employees if they mess up, it only perpetuates them staying mum, disengaged, and maintaining the status quo.

Most leaders I’ve encountered in my work want to do better, and it’s my responsibility to make that path easier for them.

Therefore, while I’ve “seen some things” over the years, I usually save my critiques for those who are consistently standing in the way of progress and stand with those who are trying to do better – while constantly illuminating what I believe to be the path to get there.

  1. I don’t rush into high-stakes conversations where I’m likely to offend or alienate.

As a highly-sensitive introvert, it takes me time to formulate coherent statements when my emotions are belly dancing inside of me.

I believe much of my perceived shyness in school, during my early years, was really my inability to raise my hand as fast as my classmates because I was still trying to sculpt what I wanted to say.

When asked how long it would take to file charges against the other police officers complicit in George Floyd’s murder, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asked for patience.

He said that while he knew there would be charges, which there were about a week later, he couldn’t rush them because he only had one chance to get them right.

While, fortunately, most of us don’t only have one chance to get our words and actions right, it’s important for us to be able to take the time that’s needed (and let others take the time they need) in difficult situations.

  1. I want to be clear about the various audiences in my community and speak directly to each of them.

I have read a lot of emails that assume I am white, and no spoiler alert here, I am. However, I don’t think everybody reading the emails was.

I know that in my community I not only have people of different races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations, I have people from a variety of different professions.

I have coaches, consultants, and experts. Trainers and HR leaders. Senior leaders, rising leaders, and independent sales professionals.

You may be in an altogether different professional category.

In order for me to reach you, and each of my audiences, it’s important for me to be clear on who I am speaking to. I want to be as inclusive as possible, give you examples that are going to resonate, and ensure that when I’m calling you to action, I’m doing it in ways that are relevant and going to work for you.

Especially when I’m talking about issues where opinions may differ and emotions are likely to be higher than a skyscraper, I strive to imagine all the different ways people may feel about a topic. Then, I strive to communicate with clarity about where I stand but also have compassion for those who see things differently.

While I’m no longer interested in using my precious energy, time, and resources to change the hearts and minds of those who outright disagree with me and my perspective, I also don’t want my voice only to resonate with people who see through my exact same lens.

I’ve found my greatest impact comes from connecting with those who see things a bit differently from me and are still open to conversation and change.

  1. I want my communication and actions to be on brand.

I can speak up about injustices that need my attention with the same voice, and with the same kind of language and style, I use to communicate about other, less charged topics.

When I care deeply about something, I also want to keep myself from over communicating.

I would rather evaluate the quality of what I share, and its impact, than measure success by the sheer quantity of my communication.

Also, and this is a biggie for me, I’m unapologetic about what my work is – empowering people to use their voices their way.

My work is not specifically about dismantling racism and white supremacy – although it absolutely can (and does) support me and those I work with to speak up about these and other important social injustices.

I want my communication and messaging to seem like an ongoing, authentic extension of my personal and professional core values, mission, and vision – not like a reaction to socio-political pressure that has me contorting myself into who I think others want me to be.

I don’t want to act like I’m competing for the Most Woke Award.

You don’t need to know every detail of how I’m working to be anti-racist – what I’m reading, the courses I’m taking, where I’m donating money, and how I’m talking with my daughter, husband, and extended family.

I’ve always dripped highlights of what I’m doing in these areas as I strive to be helpful and show how I’m learning and taking ongoing action.

And before I share anything, I ask myself if my sharing is because I’m worried about looking like a “good white person” or whether it’s really to be of service and illuminate pathways forward for others.

I’ve unintentionally performed my activism before, caring way too much about how I was perceived, and I don’t want my discomfort with being judged or disliked to prompt me to act from my ego – even when I’m engaged in doing good work.

Brand strategists, like my gifted client, Juju Hook, proselytize that the best brands are super clear about how they make their audiences feel when they interact with them.

I want people who interact with me and my business to feel safe exploring dangerous topics.

Whether you are a private client, participate in one of my programs, listen to a podcast episode, or attend a free training, I strive to lead spaces where you can always come, admit what you don’t know, ask questions, and gain clarity on how to communicate what you want to say in all the areas of your life.

One of the greatest compliments I have received came from a male audience member a few years ago – after one of my presentations on how companies can champion their female employees post #MeToo.

He said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, that I was the first female leader he felt he could be vulnerable with because I made it clear during my presentation that all questions were welcome and encouraged.

He mentioned a prominent female leader (who I won’t name) who had spoken earlier at the event and said, “As a man, you know if you are harassing women. So, guys, don’t be an [expletive]. Just do better.”

The gentleman confessed, “I really don’t know if I’m being an [expletive] when I compliment a female colleague on an outfit she’s wearing. Am I?”

(In case you are curious how I answered, I recommended he have a vulnerable conversation with the colleague in question – that he let her know he respected her work and her friendship and admit he genuinely wasn’t sure how his compliments made her feel.)

In my experience, the best way for me to create advocates and allies has been to encourage people to ask questions, to resist judging them for what they do or do not know, and to show them how to use their communication and power to do better and be better.

I recently had the privilege of being in a virtual book club event with Valerie Jarrett, Former Senior Advisor to President Obama and New York Times best-selling author of Finding My Voice: When the Perfect Plan Crumbles, the Adventure Begins.

She shared a lot of wisdom that I’m sure I’ll reference in the future. One of the things that has really stuck with me is her response to a question about when she decided to take her voice seriously.

(It’s worth noting that in a group of about 50 diverse, female leaders, including Lieutenant Governors, fellow bestselling authors, and CEOs of major corporations and national nonprofits, many women asked for guidance on finding and using their voices.)

Anyway, Valerie Jarrett said that when her daughter was born, she asked the question: Who can I be to make my daughter proud of me?

I know that question well. It’s one that has guided much of my behavior and business development over the last six years.

If you happen to be a parent, you may also want to ask: How can I model the vision for leadership I want my children to see and adopt?

If you are a parent, how can the answers to these questions be what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and move through the inherent discomfort of using your voice more boldly?

Now, whether or not you are a parent, how can you ensure that you also keep speaking up for the ideas, issues (and people) that matter most to you – even when the “sexiness” of a topic fades?

Short, easy to digest sound bites are great for interviews and most emails.

But real change, and certainly justice, are hard won – long after media (and most people’s) interest moves on.

My commitment to you is to keep showing up for the tough conversations and sharing ideas and insights to make your journey easier.

I’ll strive never to tell you what to do – for that kind of teaching rarely sparks transformation.

I’ll tell you what I think, and I’ll do my best to overshare my mistakes – for I make many of them.

I want to help you chip away at fears you may have about what happens when you step into your moxie and, from time to time, it doesn’t go the way you want.

And I ask that you keep showing up too – keep showing up to address issues and participate in conversations and experiences that challenge and, as a result, shape you.

As I say at the end of every episode of Moxielicious, please remember – when you step into your moxie, you give others permission to do the same!