Leading with purpose through moments of crisis: Kimberly Seals Allers

PodcastApril 12th, 2021

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Intro

In this episode of the Decision Corner, Brooke speaks with award-winning journalist Kimberly Seals Allers. Kimberly was formerly a senior editor at Essence and a writer at Fortune magazine. She now uses her decades of media experience as the founder of the IRTH app, which is specifically designed to help mothers of color rate their doctors for optimal health. Kimberly is also the host of Birthright, a podcast about joy and healing in Black birth.

Kimberly and Brooke discuss the need for apps like IRTH and how the tragedies that gave rise to the BLM movement last year impact the communities that Kimberly serves. This episode is an important reminder of the realities that people of color face in both personal and professional environments.

Some of the topics discussed include…

  • The discrepancy of maternal and infant mortality for peoples of color, and the need for apps like IRTH.
  • The struggle that professional people of color have with ‘dual identities’, where they must separate their cultural and professional selves.
  • The trauma experienced by entire communities in response to the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd over the Spring and Summer of 2020.
  • The additional challenges faced by minority innovators, especially when it comes to issues of racism and cyber-security
  • Why society needs to acknowledge that people of color have different experiences in professional and personal environments, and how the ignorance and denial of racism is one of its root causes.
  • The ongoing struggle and the difficult conversations that are needed to start bringing about meaningful change.

Sneak Peek

Raising the Alarm About Black Maternal and Infant Mortality

“We know that racism and bias is a root cause of the Black maternal mortality crisis, and the infant mortality crisis. Black women are dying at four to five times the rate of white women during and after childbirth, and I think we can all agree that’s unacceptable. I live in New York City and here Black women die at 12 times the rate of white women.”

Why Do We Exclude the Communities We Aim to Serve?

“I found, while doing lots of research, that there’s a lot of innovation, and design, and technology created, supposedly, to help people of color, but they have not been included in the process. From ideation, they are not the ones building it. They are not the ones designing the UX. I did not want to repeat that because that is literally perpetuating a pattern of oppression. This idea that we’re coming in to save communities of color, but we don’t view them as part of the conversation for development and design.”

Recognizing Community Trauma in the Workplace

I started my presentation by saying, “I am a Black woman raising a Black male. I am in a lot of trauma. But I am here today because this deadline was not moved. So, I am doing my best for this presentation, but please know that I am working through trauma.” And I felt like I needed to say that because nobody else wanted to acknowledge that. And so, what I didn’t want to do was replicate what I was experiencing in these other predominantly white institutions and organizations, to not replicate that within my team.

Finding Solidarity in White-Dominated Industries

“I remember, literally, the day that the OJ Simpson verdict came out. I was working at Fortune, and I just knew that I wanted to be around other Black and Brown folks when this happened. The only place I could go was the mail room.”

The First Step is Acknowledgement

“I think that one of the first things we have to do is acknowledge, right? If you look at all the literature and all the tools around anti-racism, it’s about denial being at the root of it. First thing, let’s not deny that people are having a different experience, that there’s a duality, that they may not feel comfortable to bring their full selves to work. Let’s not deny that.”

Transcript

Intro

Brooke: Hello everyone, welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, Research Director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion.

My guest today is Kimberly Seals Allers, founder at IRTH and award-winning journalist. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about a very sensitive topic; leading a team of innovators, women of color, during the Summer of 2020, through the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, through the Summer of Black Lives Matter. Kimberly, thanks for joining us.

Kimberly: Thank you so much for having me.

Brooke: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re up to these days, and then I want to ask you some difficult questions.

Kimberly: That’s fine. As you mentioned, my name is Kimberly Seals Allers. I am a journalist by trade, and had a wonderful career in journalism, working as a writer at Fortune Magazine. I covered Wall Street for The New York Post, went to London to work for The Times. Time Inc. purchased Essence Magazine, and I was asked to go over there to be a senior editor. Then, like many people, somewhere along the line, I became a mother, and everything shifted for me. So I became really passionate and interested in what was going on in this country in birth and breastfeeding, but also specifically, what was happening to Black women like myself, and other people of color, around these issues. That includes the ways that policies, and the culture, and income, and race, and class impact all of these experiences.

So, that became my work. I have written five books, and continue to use writing, and speaking, and content, and now digital platforms to address and to speak to the issues that we know are going on around this spectrum of motherhood, birth, and breastfeeding.

Brooke: Do you want to just tell us a few words about IRTH itself, this digital platform that you’re building?

Kimberly: Yeah. So, IRTH, which is like the word ‘birth’, but we dropped the B for bias, so it’s I-R-T-H, is a Yelp-like review and rating platform for Black and Brown women and birthing people to leave and find reviews of ob-gyns, birthing hospitals, and pediatricians up to a baby’s first year. We know that racism and bias is a root cause of the Black maternal mortality crisis, and the infant mortality crisis. Black women are dying at four to five times the rate of white women during and after childbirth, and I think we can all agree that’s unacceptable. I live in New York City, certainly my favorite city, and I would argue ‘the favorite city’, but here in New York City, Black women die at 12 times the rate of white women.

A Black maternal mortality rate of 12 times that of white women is certainly unconscionable. So, we really want to think about how we can use technology, a community-centered design being very much a part of how I created IRTH, and really putting that power back in the people’s hands. So at IRTH, we can create transparency. We can bring accountability, as well as turning those qualitative experiences into quantitative data on the backend, that we take to hospitals to push for change.

Brooke: Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about your workforce, as well? Because I think that’s going to be relevant to the conversation as we move forward.

Kimberly: Yes. I think it’s important because my workforce composition was intentional. Again, I had a vision that this would be a truly ‘by-us, for-us’ product. I found, while doing lots of research, that there’s a lot of innovation, and design, and technology created, supposedly, to help people of color, but they have not been included in the process. I mean, from ideation, they are not the ones building it. They are not the ones designing the UX. So I did not want to repeat that, because that is literally perpetuating a pattern of oppression, right? This idea that we’re coming in to save communities of color, but we don’t view them as part of the conversation for development and design.

So my team is an all women of color team, and I’m really proud of that because I really wanted IRTH to be, like I said, ‘by-us, for-us’. So, that included my team, but also included receiving grant funding to go into predominantly Black and Brown communities along the way to test, to collect reviews, to better understand, so that we would literally build this with the communities that we seek to serve, and it’s being built by people representing the communities we seek to serve.

Black Lives Matter and Community Trauma

Brooke: So, given that situation; what it is that your team is striving to do, and who’s on your team, you published a LinkedIn article, sharing some of your very profound experiences, being a leader of that team through the Summer of 2020. So, given the people that you were working with, both your workforce and the communities, please describe what that situation felt like inside your organization, and your organization’s engagement with women of color around the time that George Floyd was killed, and Breonna Taylor was killed, and then as the situation sprouted from there into the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kimberly:=That’s a great question, Brook. I mean, it was really tough. Not only do we serve this community, we represent this community, right? I think all of us, when we think about our workplaces, we’re struggling with our dual identities. Yes, I am the leader, I am the director, but I am also a Black woman who is also raising a Black male, and has a Black daughter. So, all of these things hit us at multiple levels. It is not just something that we watch. It is something that we live. It’s something that we feel, and that we live through while being in that space.

I think prior to that time, I was primarily the leader of my organization and my team. That is the identity that I led with. But in that moment, it was very important for me to see and honor that my team did represent the communities being most affected by the things happening, and that could not just be ignored. To be clear, in addition to working on IRTH, I still do other consulting projects and I found that when I stepped into the role, in someone else’s project, there was very much a business-as-usual approach to what was happening. People were just sending me regular emails, and talking about presentations, and… I was confused.

I remember starting a presentation that was due to a large international global health organization, and I started my presentation by saying, “I am a Black woman raising a Black male. I am in a lot of trauma, but I am here today because this deadline was not moved. So, I am doing my best for this presentation, but please know that I am working through trauma.” And I felt like I needed to say that because nobody else wanted to acknowledge that. And so what I didn’t want to do was replicate what I was experiencing in these other predominantly white institutions and organizations, to not replicate that within my team. That really became the conduit for me to see that something needed to be very different about how I would lead through this moment in time.

Brooke: So, I’d invite you to unpack that a little bit. I’m very keenly aware of this distinction you’re drawing between the stuff that’s normal and this abnormal time, when normalcy just goes out the window. You talked, also, about these identities or these roles. Your identity as the leader of a technology project, leading a group of innovators, but also your identity as an individual, as a Black person, as a mother, as a citizen. So, which elements of normal go out the window? Which elements of normal stay?

Just to give one strange example of that, or maybe not so strange, when I think about the history books and, “Well, 100 years ago, everyone went off to war,” the question I ask myself is, “Well, were kids still going to school every morning?” Of course, they were. There was certainly a whole bunch of normal that was disrupted, but there were elements of normal that kept going on, as well. So, could you share with us some of the dynamics of what normal stuff went out the window, and what came into its place? And what normal stuff was still there; sometimes feeling okay, and sometimes feeling totally not okay, despite it being “normal.”

Kimberly: Such a great question. I mean, I think the normal stuff that stayed was our commitment to the project, right? So, that never wavered. Really, for me, as things got worse over the summer, I’d say IRTH was my therapy, because we knew that we were creating a tool that could be a solution to some of the things that folks were experiencing. But the normal around deadlines, right? We are a nonprofit technology company. We have grant funders, but we have deliverables. Those deliverables trigger payments. So, we get paid when we deliver, and that’s the structure of many of these grants.

So, we had deadlines that needed things to be built for us to meet them. So, I had to make a decision around keeping those deadlines, which meant us really kind of pushing through and acting like everything was normal, or advocating to change that, and for us to work differently because so much was not normal. I chose to advocate and ask us to work differently because of what was not normal. I think that, like I said, I was not going to perpetuate the business-as-usual thing. So, that thing went out the window.

I immediately just stopped all work for two weeks. I’m like, “We should not be working. I don’t know what else you’re doing, I’m sure everybody’s working on different projects, but for this project, we’re on pause.” I specifically asked folks to engage in restorative practices. To think about what they needed to do to heal. If that was spiritual, if that was connecting with people, whatever it is. I just took the hit. I remember not paying myself to make sure that everybody was getting paid through this, even though nobody was working.

Also, to be honest, I did that as an act of self-survival, right? I was struggling, as a person, and I needed my time. So, I did not want to power through, because again, that would be perpetuating something that would not honor my humanity. So, I wanted to honor the humanity of the people that work for me, and to say, “Hey, we need to take a break. Right? There are bigger things going on. We need processing time. We need healing time. We cannot continue on this project as if the world is not, right now, a dumpster fire. We are feeling the flames.”

So, that was the first step, and what came from that was people agreeing that they needed IRTH. They needed to work on this, even amongst other things that they do, because this was also their thing that felt like it was at least a way to work through and be working on a potential solution to one of the many ways that racism and bias shows up, and ends up harming and killing Black bodies. So, I think at the end of that, everybody really needed this work. So, that was a very different framework for people to return. Not that you have to, but because they actually wanted to, and it was important for them to see it through.

Brooke: So, I’m fascinated by the kind of color and richness of how this pivot in your leadership affected your team, not just as individuals. To say, “Okay, now you get to take your professional hat off, leave that on your desk, go and do the things that you need to do with your personal hat on, with your private hat on. When you’re done with that, you’ll take that hat off and come back, and put your professional hat on.” What you’re talking about here seems like it’s actually starting to break down that strong dichotomy between a personal self and professional self. That seems to be something that you have the luxury to enjoy that when you’re working on a project that is meaningful and that feels like it’s, at once, advancing your professional career, but also your values.

I would say, as well, that here at The Decision Lab, we’re very lucky to be in that situation as well. The work that we’re doing really does move our values forward, in addition to our careers. How did you see that playing out over time? You mentioned this two week period where you had closed down the project temporarily to give your staff a bit of space to do what they needed to do. What was it like starting back up once people came back? Was it a hard stop to a hard start? Was there a bit of straggling around the stop, that people still felt locked into it, and they were a little disorientated without it? What were the transitions like?

Kimberly: That’s a great question. I felt like when we came back, I really just opened up the floor to checking in with everyone and where they felt we should go from here. That’s when that conversation evolved to; “No, We need to push.” But that was really from the team. I wanted to pause. “Everyone, take a minute, and then we’ll come together and discuss, ‘Okay. Where do we go from here?'” Even the question was, “Are we ready to move forward?” I think in that space is where you hear people, and the team was reflecting that they really wanted us to continue and for us to lean into what now was the twin pandemics, right?

We were already dealing with COVID being something that disrupted our lives and how we worked, and now we had the pandemic of racism now having a particularly acute flare up that summer, and that was an important transition. Once I heard that the team was good, I was like, “Okay. Well, this is what we’ll do.” So, I think that we definitely had a lot more check-ins. I tried to lead by sharing, so people didn’t feel that they needed to show up not-affected, and it was okay. I mean, they’ve seen me cry. They’ve seen me get worried about my son. So, I think that it was important for me to be the demonstration of something new around how we were working.

That was also very intentional, and it took a lot for me to show that courage. I’m not the vulnerable at work person, necessarily, but I felt it was needed in this moment, so that everyone else could have the freedom and know that it was okay. So, those were the transitions. I think that once we got past that, everybody just kept moving. We kept moving with check-ins, again, around the election time. I gave them another time for some paid time off. It was a lot of anxiety. I mean, it’s been a year. It’s been a year.

Shifting Priorities

Brooke: You’re starting to touch on some of those elements that you mentioned in your LinkedIn piece. I wanted to call those out a bit more explicitly now, because I found it was helpful for me, and for those that I’ve discussed the piece with, to have some of those elements called out a bit more concretely. The four that you identified were shifting priorities. So, I gather that part of the shifting priorities was what you mentioned before about pushing deadlines and restructuring financing to make sure that the ends would meet, to allow for this pause, for this moment of self-collection and self-care. Vulnerability, as well.

You mentioned that your colleagues have seen you cry, and they’ve seen you worry about your son. Those are deeply human moments to be sharing in a professional space. You mentioned empathy, as well, in your piece. I gather that this pertains to these check-ins. I’m sure there are a lot of other more subtle ways that empathy is demonstrated, as well, in the way that you work. It’s not just the formalized check-in times. It’s lots of subtle stuff that happens almost tacitly and imperceptibly along the way. The last one that you mentioned was leading with why, and really coming back to the purpose of the application and the project that you were working on, and connecting that back as a way to find some sense, and some meaning, and some purpose in the wider context of this pandemic, these twin pandemics that were unfolding around you. Are there some other more subtle ways that you were bringing those things forward? I think maybe empathy is a good place to start, if you’re reaching.

 

Kimberly: Yeah. Well, actually, I’m going to start with priorities because one of our other priorities… Remember, we are people of color being personally impacted, but we’re also the communities that were being hardest hit by the health pandemic. So, we also leaned into that, thinking about, “Well, what can IRTH do? What can we do in service of our communities regarding that?” So, everybody agreed that we would create an additional survey track around capturing experiences that were unique to COVID-19. People usually have a two year window, but we wanted to make sure that we were involved with collecting data about what happened to our community during this time.

So, everyone agreed. It was not in our original scope, something that we weren’t really funded for, but everyone agreed that we needed to create a way to capture these unique experiences. So that was another priority that came from the team. We needed to not just focus on what we were doing, but make that adjustment and pivot to prioritize the fact that our communities were also being adversely impacted by COVID, and what could we capture there that could be helpful and useful? That was another work-related priority that we leaned into.

I think the biggest thing around priorities, which is connected to empathy, was prioritizing ourselves. A lot of that was simple. One of the things I have a small pet peeve about, sometimes, at a lot of meetings, is just the expectation around videos. So, we had a video off policy. There’s a myth, that is probably close to truth, that Black women are a little bit obsessive about their hair. I don’t want anybody worried about their hair. Just videos off. Videos are off. I don’t want to be worried about my hair. My video is off. So it’s just understanding the nuances of being Black or Brown that helps you think about the ways that you can provide some relief, right? Small things around that.

I think that we also reduced our meetings to once a week, and were really more working in Basecamp and using other tools that allowed people to check-in when they could. Really trying to think about how we could work differently as a priority, that could honor that people might not be okay, and then just changing our check-in process. Sometimes we made it light. We talked a lot about our pandemic snacks and what we were watching, and what we were cooking. Sometimes I’d bring food. Just really trying to prioritize our humanity, and our need for healing, our need for laughter, for joy, and to center that in the process too. Those were things that I was intentional about as I planned, to think about how we can do that in our process. When we celebrated the launch of IRTH, I had a live DJ come, because I think dancing is healing. So, I was like, “We need to dance.” So, really thinking through what those types of healing moments could be, in our work, was important for me to bring.

Brooke: Yeah. It’s so interesting how we end up, overnight, in this remote existence. It’s a really confronting moment when we’re forced to stare in the face how much of our connection with other people is through physicality. It’s through food. It’s through movement. It’s through body language. These kinds of things.

Kimberly: So true.

Brooke: It’s interesting that you mentioned having cameras off as a way to demonstrate empathy. One of my own experiences in the early pandemic, and I guess still now, is that I can tell a lot about new teams that I’m going to collaborate with by whether I jump on a call with eight or 10 people and there’s one camera on, or there are 10 cameras on. Laughter, too. If, by chance, you should ever run late into a meeting, which of course, none of us does. Right? Now that we’re all in this remote world. (Laughter)

Kimberly: No. No. (Laughter)

Brooke: But if one should end up joining a meeting late, are people just all working independently and all on camera, but more or less in their own cubicle, or are they talking to each other? Are they laughing? Are they having fun? What are they talking about?

Kimberly: Exactly. Exactly.

Brooke: Those kinds of things are such telling signals about the kind of culture that you are stepping into when you greet new teams.

Kimberly: Yeah, it was interesting because I think all of us on the team as well, were impacted by COVID. Right? We had a family member, or someone that we knew, so we were also checking in on, “How’s your dad? How’s your grandma? How’s your ‘this’?” We were all being impacted by all the things. So, there had to be a space for us to check in on those things as well. So there was lots of conversation and understanding. It’s like, “I care about you beyond your contribution to this project. I care about your grandparent, if they had symptoms, or if somebody was diagnosed.” We were sharing recipes, and healing, and, “Try the lavender!” All the things. That was a big part of the process. I think because of that, the team… I would like to think that it brought us closer together and that they understand that I care about them beyond the scope of work that they’ve been contracted to do, which is important to me.

Balancing the Personal and Professional Self

Brooke: Absolutely. Going back to an earlier element of our conversation, around breaking down the hard duality between the personal self and the professional self. How did you see that feeding back not only into the way that people were feeling as individuals, but in the way that they were coming to the work? Are there moments that you identify where you saw your team coming together as professionals, as well as individuals, to put on a collective push on something because they really felt that strong connection amongst themselves, and also to the purpose that they were working towards?

Kimberly: Yes, definitely. I, first, just want to say this duality is something that Black people live with, right? I have never been able to bring my full self to work. I will say, absent from working at Essence Magazine, which is a Black women’s magazine, I started my career at Fortune Magazine, where I was the only Black person there at many times. Sometimes there were two of us, max. So, this idea that I could bring my full self to work; never crossed my mind. It was just something I just knew not to do. I think most Black working professionals don’t have that luxury.

I think that I wanted to make sure that every person of color knew that was not about this project. If nothing else, this was going to be the place where you could bring your full self to work. So that was very intentional. I think that once we got back into the work, we did have new deadlines, and we had to push. We had a number of things holding us back. Interestingly, one of the key things that delayed us was racist attacks. We started being attacked on social media because of what we do. We had an online portal where we were collecting surveys first before our app was complete. That was hacked.

We were having virtual events to host, to have moms, new parents, leave reviews, because these reviews were being used to see the app before it launched. We had those Zoom events attacked by racists, like white supremacists, who attacked the event. So I really was like, “Whoa. We’re going to have to double down on our app security because we are already receiving these vicious attacks and we’re not even a thing. How did you find the Zoom event?” Many of them were not publicly shared. So that was definitely a key moment where the team said, “Oh, no. We are going to convalesce.” Everybody was looking for a solution. I started reaching out to other folks to come and talk to us. This was a whole other skillset that we needed to work on.

I think that really was a turning point, where we were like, “Now we get it. People are literally trying to destroy what we’re trying to build.” That just got all of our backs up. That really was, I think, a key flashpoint for convalescing around solutions. Things we could do as a starting point. We had to figure out what was in our budget. I think that was one of our key pushes when we saw that people were attempting to disrupt what we were doing. I would say that was where I felt that the ways that everyone came together was because we were like, “Oh, no. We had been working on this as our rallying thing, and healing ourselves through it. We’re not going to let you disrupt the tool that we’re building, which has now also taken on greater meaning in this moment for us.” Yeah, it was really interesting and intense, and I’m grateful for the ways that everybody came together to problem solve on that.

Brooke: That’s so interesting. I’m tying that back to a comment that you made earlier about not liking having people comment on your hair, and worrying about what people think about your hair, and what they might say. Thinking about all of those kinds of micro-moments that cost a cognitive premium. If you’re coming in to work every day worrying about five little things that might not happen, or they might happen, and if they do happen, they might not be a big deal, but they might be a big deal. Having those little niggling things in the back of your mind, just slowly day-by-day, eats away at your energy, and your creativity, and these kinds of things.

Kimberly: Absolutely.

The Premium Paid by Black Innovators

Brooke: What you’re describing here is a much more tangible, measurable premium, and therefore, it’s easier to point your finger at it and use it to illustrate the problem. What you’re talking about is a technological premium that is charged to Black innovators. That they need higher levels of cybersecurity relative to other innovators. That they need other kinds of protections against databases being hacked, against security features around Zoom meetings and these kinds of things. All of those things are a little bit more quantifiable. I mean, I don’t want to suggest that what can’t be measured isn’t important. It certainly is.

Kimberly: Mm-hmm.

Brooke: The thing about what can be measured is that it’s often a very good way to get a discussion moving forward. That if someone is doubting that it exists, having some cold, hard numbers to point to can be really, really powerful.

Kimberly: Yes. Yes. I love that language of technological premium. The higher price that we pay when you’re building, and then literally, a cost. Right? Literally, a cost. Then the emotional cost. I think I shared with you one of those very clear times when my team saw me cry was when I was on the phone with the lawyers, and they came to our meeting after we started getting hacked. I was heartbroken because, for me, if I can’t keep my community safe, then I have nothing. I have nothing. The fact that my community was being harmed at things that we organized was deeply troubling to me. It was one of the few times that my team saw me cry, and I’m getting emotional now because that was just heartbreaking, that I invited my community in and somebody hurt them. That’s not okay. So, yeah. Those were real tangible things that we had to work through with lawyers, and technologists, and security experts, and penetration testers, and all of this other world that exists out there. That was really, really important. And it was a higher price that we paid.

Acknowledging The Problem

Brooke: How do we create good cultures internally for lots of different people, from lots of different walks of life, to all work together seamlessly, to all feel a connection to this sense of purpose, without anyone feeling that they need to be paying those premiums?

Kimberly: Yeah. That’s a tough one. I mean, I think that one of the first things we have to do is acknowledge, right? If you look at all the literature and all the tools around anti-racism, it’s about denial being at the root of it. First thing, let’s not deny that people are having a different experience, that there’s a duality, that they may not feel comfortable to bring their full selves to work. Let’s not deny that. I mean, literally, I think it just became a law in several states that you can’t do hair discrimination against Black women, because they were being discriminated against. It literally just became a law, and it’s really sad that that just became a law.

So we first need to acknowledge that people are having different experiences. It may not be my experience, but people are having different experiences. I think, really at the root of it, is acceptance and acknowledging. Denial is only going to lead us down the wrong path. Then once we can accept it, I feel like that’s where the possibility lies. That’s where you could ask questions, and you can be humble enough to say, “I don’t know. Please help me learn,” and all those other things that can come after acceptance. I think that’s an important starting point. I think we also need courage.

Lots of times, I mean, I talk about these things all the time, but people are like, “Oh, it’s uncomfortable.” I’m like, “Yeah. But it’s worth it.” There are lots of uncomfortable conversations. So I ask white people all the time to be courageous, whether it’s at your Thanksgiving table or at your workplace. Take a deep breath, be really bold for 30 seconds for the sake of the work. So courage, and I think also intention is really important, right? You have to work at it. It has to be something that people think about with intention. “I’m going to intentionally try to make this environment more welcoming to Black and Brown, to my Black and Brown folks on my team. I’m going to intentionally try to think through the gender identities that may not be being honored.” All the things. But it has to be intentional. I mean, I would spend time thinking about what I could do, and what the team needed. So that was my resources being directed toward that. So I think those three things are important places to start.

Brooke: In your piece, you talk about ‘hiring for analytics’, which I gather is a nice way of saying ‘hiring for optics’.

Kimberly: Exactly.

Brooke: Beyond just hiring practices, where are some of the other key centers within a corporate organism that you think that there’s real change that’s needed?

Kimberly: I mean, we talk about hiring, but we don’t talk about retention and promotion. One of my books that I worked on was a co-authored piece around why the best and brightest are leaving corporate America. Some of the research that we did about that was talking about unwelcoming cultures. Yes, you invite them in, but there’s nothing there for them to thrive. Where are they being connected to mentors who look like them, and some who don’t, but some who definitely do? Other affinity groups, what are the ways that we’re creating spaces for folks to see themselves within our corporate structure as an up, and not just down?

I remember, literally, the day that the OJ Simpson verdict came out. I was working at Fortune, and I just knew that I wanted to be around other Black and Browns folks when this happened. The only place I could go was the mail room. I went to the mail room and sat with all the other people who looked like me to be around my community at that moment. That has happened many times, right? We should not have to go to the mail room to find people who look like us, to have that sense of feeling that, “I just need someone who looks like me right now.” So, what are we doing upstream to connect folks to those? If we don’t have those people, that’s a sign. If you don’t have the people who are above them to connect them to potential mentors or introductions, then you need to do the work.

One of the things that I also found helpful is around our recruitment strategy. Sometimes, particularly in tech, it’s all about the Stanfords, and certain schools, and certain “pedigree” that they look for. They ignore the amazing HBCUs, and the amazing engineering program at FAMU, and the computer science folks from Morehouse, or just other ways that talent is nurtured. We have to get away from the systems that we use to validate folks for hiring before we even bring them in. So those are some things that are really important. Then thinking about those cultural components. That’s usually where people are feeling like they’re not valued. What is the track for promotion? Do they see people who look like them above them, that they can know that that’s possible? And then not expecting them to answer and solve all the problems.

When I was the only Black person at different organizations, it was like I had three jobs, because now I’m being expected to help you figure out how to find more Black people. That’s not my job. Now you’re asking me what can be done? That’s not my job. Remember, I’m already coming to work with eight other things in my bag already, and now I’m expected to solve your diversity issues. But I’m a team player, so I can’t tell you no because of the power dynamics. So now I’m exhausted, and I have to go. This is what happens.

When we can be in environments where we don’t have to be exhausted, and we’re not being expected to solve the organizational issues that the organization should show the courage and intention to do, that is an important start. I think when people see that, they are inclined to help. They are inclined to stay along. They are inclined to say, “Okay. Let me work with them along this goal,” when there’s real courage and intention in the work the organization is doing.

The Real Challenges that Exist Outside the Workplace

Brooke: So, we’ve talked a lot about the workplace, specifically. But at the end of your piece, you talk about the need for freedom at the workplace, on the street, and at home. We’ve talked a lot about the need for strong leadership, and what that leadership can look like in a corporate context. What does leadership on the street, and what does leadership at home look like?

Kimberly: Those are really important things. I feel like leadership at home, for non-people of color who consider themselves to be allies, is that courageous conversation at the dinner table. It is checking in with your children and making sure that we’re not perpetuating racist ideas and system oppression. My son goes to a private school in New York City. The number of times they have incidents where the children use N words, racial epithets, all types of hate speech, it’s very concerning. Because that’s something that they’re learning from some place. So, really checking in and showing that intention around what you’re doing around your family structures, I think, would be important. I think the most important way to lead is to lead by saying, “I’m willing to talk about this.” Stand in the uncomfortable space and be a demonstration for your family; “Maybe we can talk about this. Let’s figure out a way to do it.” And not to be afraid of it being messy at first, and not getting it right, and to be okay to fail.

Leadership, for me, on the streets, is just around being comfortable in my skin. It’s difficult. One of the moments that I shared in the article on LinkedIn was around my son taking runs every day. Right? He’s an athlete, and he was trying to maintain some sort of routine, and going for a run every day was part of it. You know what? We’re on lockdown. That was his only real release. After Ahmaud Arbery was killed, I was petrified. We had to sit down and say, “Okay. Well, these are your run routes. You can’t just run. You need to run here, there, and there. I need to know your route.” I drove it. I’m looking. There’s a lot of work that’s involved with being a Black person, a Black mother.

I think that my leadership in my home is preparing my children for the real world that exists, right? He cannot be outside with his hood up, with his headphones on too loud. He cannot be out without his ID. You know like.. I have to teach him how to survive in this world. That’s my leadership at home. As well as having the uncomfortable conversations that we have to have. Because telling my son, when he was 11, about police was very uncomfortable. But I knew it needed to happen. Then on the street, I think, for me, it’s really just holding my head up high and being proud of who I am, teaching my son to be proud of who he is. Obviously, when I see things that are wrong, I speak out. I do believe that silence is being complicit. So using my voice when necessary, bringing in others as necessary, not being a bystander to violence in all the ways it shows up. I think that’s important.

And then continuing to be a voice for the voiceless, right? How do we use our privilege? I have privilege. How do I use the privilege that I have, in service of others? So when we all feel like we have something to bring to the table, then we can all be our own leaders in our own walks of life, in our own circles,and that’s going to be pretty awesome.

Brooke: Thanks very much. I think that that’s a very hopeful and encouraging note for us to end on. So I will say, once again, thank you for sharing your insights with us. We look forward to speaking with you again soon.

Kimberly: Thank you so much for having me, Brooke. This was an amazing conversation. Thank you for having the courage to lead it. I appreciate that.

Brooke: It’s my pleasure.

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About the Guest

Kimberly Seals Allers

Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, five-time author, international speaker and strategist for maternal and infant health. She is the founder of Irth, (as in Birth but without the B for bias), the first-of-its-kind “Yelp-like” review and rating app for Black and brown women and birthing people to leave and find reviews of Ob/GYNs, hospitals, and pediatricians as a digital tool to address bias and racism in maternity care and to bring transparency and accountability to the medical system.

Kimberly is also the host of Birthright— a podcast about joy and healing in Black birth to counter the doom and gloom mainstream narrative in Black maternal health, funded by the California Health Care Foundation.

Learn more at www.irthapp.com, www.birthrightpodcast.com, and www.KimberlySealsAllers.com. Follow @iamKSealsAllers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is Research Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of science. His dissertation research focused on the relationship between quantitative and qualitative research methods, and the relationship between research and other social systems such as language, history and politics. Since finishing his academic work, Dr. Struck has worked in science & innovation policy, first within the Canadian federal government, and then subsequently in the private sector at Science-Metrix. In recent years, he has been researching the interface of big data analytics with organizational decision-making structures, especially in policy-making contexts.

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