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Deep Listening with Jennifer and MJ

MJ Mathis joined Leverage to Lead as an Associate Coach this past March. You’ve already seen her voice added to our biweekly newsletters, and we’ve been busy with corporate trainings and DEI work across many different spaces. In July, we’re offering a session called Reframing Uncertainty. We hope you’ll join us.

In this article, we’re inviting you to join us in a different way. MJ and I sat down recently for a conversation because right now there’s a lot to talk about. And we recorded it to share it with you. It’s a wide-ranging, vulnerable, and real exchange between MJ and me, moderated by Melody Gee.

The conversation began around the horrors in the current news cycle. How we’re seeing, yet again, that it is unsafe to be Black in America. In addition to the challenges and devastation of COVID-19, we now know the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Christian Cooper. We see how you can’t be in your home, out for a jog, or birdwatching while Black. You might not be familiar with Tony McDade and Nina Pop but we need to know their names as well.

White people are expressing their shock and appall. They’re asking, “What do I do now? How can I help? What’s my role in fighting anti-Black violence across our country?” These questions are natural and come from a place of good intent. Yet, they risk pushing the responsibility for action onto Black people, who are already and endlessly called upon to reassure, teach, mobilize, and reconcile.

Today, we’re changing the conversation. Between two colleagues and friends, the question isn’t, “What should I do as a white person?” And there are no prescriptive answers. There is so much more to say, and we hope to continue talking with each other and with you. This is just the beginning.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Melody: Can you share with readers how this conversation started?


MJ: At a recent daily check-in, Jennifer said, "I'm doing great." And I said, "I'm not." In reality, as your employee, you're paying me to listen to you. But it makes me think of our relationship, too. Jennifer, there are many times when you are speaking from your own experience and your perspective. And I just sit there and say, okay, there's no response for me to have because my job in this moment is to listen. To hear you.


Jennifer: I found it comforting when, a few weeks ago, we were writing the article about COVID-19 and what’s happening to Black people now, and it was just such a hard moment for me. I still feel really impacted by what's happened, by the blatant disregard for Black life. It’s just kind of killing me. But the first time I brought it up to you, what helped it become an article was that you just listened.


Often in bringing up a conversation about what's happening to Black people in America and what it's doing to me, there's always this justification when talking to white people about it. They say, "Well, maybe it's not that bad," or, "Are you sure?" When I made the connection between the country opening up once we all knew it was Black people dying, you didn’t say, "Are you sure?" or “Well, let's look back." You just were like, "Oh, isn't that some shit?" And in that silence that followed, there was such a relief that I had the right to my feeling. I didn't have to explain to you why I felt that way. There's a value in knowing that your silence is acceptance of how a black person feels. It’s one of the most important things that you could actually do.


MJ: I am definitely not immune to thoughts or questions that pop up, like not wanting to believe the system is working that way. There's a comfort in not having to make it better for you. Because I can't. All I can do is hold a space for the pain to be there. And I have to push aside my ego that tells me, "Oh, I should be able to fix this," or, "It's my fault because I'm white. I'm part of this culture." No, that's not my role in that moment.


One of the best ways for me, as a white person, to learn is to just listen to what black people are saying, what people of color are saying on their own platforms, in articles, in writing. What I can do is elevate those voices by sharing their content.


A big thing is to actually pay for that content. There's so much content out there and we feel entitled to take what we want for free. But when we can, it's important to do things like subscribe to Patreon or buy a person's book. I know Sonya Renee Taylor just posts her Venmo handle and says, "Pay me for my time and my emotional burden."


Jennifer: Black people continue to be subjects in this country, and this idea that you don't have to pay them for their knowledge is part of the state that we're in that no one's actually naming. We fall into the default of having to serve, whether it be with the knowledge or understanding. I realize no one pays for my content!


Melody: MJ, is part of the work on your end to do some de-centering?


MJ: Oh yeah. The default is I am the center. This means something about me. Recently, my friend Joy posted a challenge to her white friends on social media. There was this hashtag, #IRunwithAhmaud, and a lot of white people were running in support. In a way, it might be comforting to his family to know there are so many supporters. On the other hand, for a white person to go for a run is not putting themselves in danger. It is not an act of protest. It is not in any way similar to what it means to be a black person taking a run.


And so, my friend challenged white people to drive to a black neighborhood and go for a run. To get their end-of-run drink from a Black-owned shop. To say hi to somebody on the street and to experience being the “other.” That's what black people feel all the time. But when black people feel that way, their lives actually depend on making sure that white people feel comfortable, even when they're fearing for their own safety. White people are not fearing for our safety when we're the “other.” I battled with myself around whether I should re-post. Would it be showing off by saying, look who my friend is and look at what she's talking about. I ended up not re-posting it.


Jennifer: I appreciate that you don't make it my worry. It's not my job. You and I don't actually talk about your battle with it.

Melody: MJ, where do you find a safe space to talk about that battle?


MJ: I took a course by laura brewer on how to hold whiteness responsibly. That’s where I started to learn how white supremacist cultural values are still very much functioning in my life. Because, of course, they are. It’s the culture we live in. When I first began that work, which was literally a month before I met Jennifer, it was incredibly important for me to have that space with other white people to grapple with all of that. I was in the midst of my own experiment around noticing when those values were popping up and what I was going to do to interrupt them consciously. Now, after over a year of work, I don't need that space like I did before. It's becoming routine for me to notice when it's happening. I'm lucky that my closest white friends are also grappling with similar things and we talk about grace constantly.


Jennifer: You know, I still find it hard to believe. Not that I don't think you're telling the truth. Just conceptually, do white people really care? Really? I find myself asking and doubting. Because there's so much that you would, in the balance, give up. As a black person, I still honestly find it hard to believe that there are altruistic white people. I'm just going to say that out loud.

I don’t walk through the world saying, “What does she want?” It's not conscious. But people are taking on this discomfort because they want to? It’s just so hard to be Black. I think of the discomfort I carry so often in white spaces, how challenging it is, how on guard I am. This might be a false comparison, but when I think of the discomfort of a person choosing to not center themselves, I can't understand what it's like. It's inconceivable to me. It’s not my experience of pain and the challenge of discomfort.


MJ: For you to engage in this work with me—it’s so much more risky than for me to engage with you. At any moment I could throw you under the bus in some way. The possibilities are endless. History has shown over and over again examples of white people building relationships, getting on the inside, and then totally fucking people over.


Jennifer: If my business was about working with white people in corporate, helping them do diversity and inclusion work, I think that would worry me too. But because working with you is an expansion and growth, it's a new challenge for me. I feel a sense of agency. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, right? My safety, my life, my livelihood, my reputation, who I am in the world—they’re not at risk by doing this work with you, MJ. I don't feel worried with my client base either. I don’t feel like there's a risk of you or my clients taking my business down.


The truth is, I'm hopeful. I feel extraordinarily positive and hopeful and optimistic that we're going to make this work.


Melody: How does your work together foster that kind of trust and hope you’re talking about?


Jennifer: One of the things that's different about how MJ and I work is we actually talk about our feelings every day. Every day. Is it a good day, not a good day, are we uncomfortable, how does it feel? We created this relationship where talking about how we're feeling and showing up even if we're uncomfortable, whether it's around race, our personal lives, whatever it might be, those feelings are absolutely part of the work. You don’t set them aside or suck it up and get to work. You feeling bad today is going to impact our work. So, let's talk about it. I'm comfortable having this conversation because we have these conversations on a very regular basis. So, I know where you're coming from. I know that it's not simply that you're altruistic. I know you're trying to do the right thing and it's not always easy. If I'm mad at white people, I can tell you without worrying if it’s going to be awkward. We're building a relationship where we clearly see each other's humanity and there's compassion for each other. It’s not letting anyone off the hook, but just a sense of compassion. Because racism is really all kinds of fucked up, and there's no way that racism is not going to be part of the dynamic. We just have the capacity to name it when it comes up.

Melody: Looking back, when do you think this working dynamic first started to develop between you two?


Jennifer: I know what it was for me. It was that damn agenda! MJ started every meeting agenda with “How do you feel today?” She would say, “If you want our clients to actually build the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, then we have to change how they meet.” And so she put together these meeting agendas that I thought were so touchy-feely. I was like, "Oh my God, I cannot go to my clients and say, so how does it feel?


Melody: MJ, what was with those agendas?

MJ: It's from the National Equity Project, and it's based on the experiential learning cycle. It's something that I used previously in my facilitation of adult learning. It really just centers humanity, which if we're going to do DEI work, we need to do.


Jennifer: I’ll admit that I knew that if I was so reviled by this, if it made me slightly nauseous, then it could actually be a growth point for me. I knew that maybe I needed to lean into it a little bit, maybe I’d learn something. So we would start our meeting with, "What are you grateful for?"


MJ: "What are we celebrating!"


Jennifer: Yeah, what are we celebrating. And then we get to the heart of the meeting. Then, after the meeting, we'd have to tell each other what we were thankful for. I was like, "Are you kidding me?"


MJ: When we were first starting to get to know each other, you knew that I was working other contracts with other companies, so you consistently asked me, "Does this feel right to you?" Or, "How are you feeling in terms of more commitment down the line?" That helped build trust because you didn't make any assumptions about who we were to each other.


Jennifer: That's also my belief in agency. Sometimes we do things because we should. Then we feel this obligation. I do this even with my clients. I ask, "Is this working for you? Is it still comfortable? Does this make sense to you? How do you feel about it?" Sometimes you ask people, “Does this make sense?” because you're trying to validate yourself. But I ask that question so people feel a sense of agency about making a decision. Because I actually don't want to work with anyone who doesn't feel they get to show up the way they want. Corporate environments never say that. But I know what it's like as a black person to not have agency. It's the most important thing. That freedom to say yes or say no, to know why you're making a decision or not.


MJ: We work in ways that align with the values that we hold. For example, we believe that innovation and creativity happen when diverse perspectives come together. If I come at something from a totally different perspective than you, I may not feel safe to actually bring it to the floor. But you welcome that, you demand it of me because when it happens, we elevate an idea to something new, something different we never could have imagined on our own. That’s the safety in bringing our difference to the table.


Jennifer: Showing up is important because that is the work. There was a woman I met, she’s lovely, African, and I wanted her to be my attorney. I was going to make her my attorney. But, I’m not her client type. And it was hard, I was so disappointed because I wanted to make it work. But it’s neither good nor bad, it was no reflection of either of us. I’m clear now that I can't have people in my life who aren't ideal to work with, who don’t challenge me, who don’t want to do this hard work together while being authentic and vulnerable. That's what I ask of everybody in my life.


MJ: Jennifer, is there work that you have to do to show up fully with me?


Jennifer: Yes and no. Back in 2016, I decided that I was showing up with my imperfections and everything. It's the only way I can call out bias and move on. It’s the only way I can live without so much anxiety. I'm not trying to figure out how to have the right conversation with you or how to do it the right way. So, yes, it's work because I have to decide to be this way. But also no because I decided years ago that I was never going to be the most uncomfortable person in the room. I made a commitment to myself that if I'm uncomfortable, we will all be uncomfortable together. It took me probably a year and a half before I actually had the capacity to say in the moment, “I'm uncomfortable and this is why.” I practice this. So now if I'm uncomfortable, I name it and then we have to resolve it. If we can resolve it, great. If we can't, we know where the other stands, and then we decide to have a relationship or not.


Melody: MJ, you said recently that it’s a privilege to decide when and how you engage. Can you dig into this thought a little more?


MJ: As an example, when Trump got elected, I said I'm not watching any of his speeches or the news anymore. white people said they were moving to Canada. In the cases of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the privilege shows up in saying I'm not going to read about this or I’m not going to watch the news. I think what white people are mainly avoiding are the emotions that come up, because we don't know what to do with them. And it’s a privilege to be able to escape from those emotions.


Jennifer: Yesterday the news was on and my 13-year-old daughter watched the video of Mr. Floyd being murdered. She was horrified. I could see the tears in her eyes. It was horrible. I said to her, "You have to decide what you're going to do about that. You have to understand why that's so troubling to you, why you're so hurt. As you get older, what are you going to do to make a difference? You don't have to change everything. You don't have to take on the whole world. But your responsibility is to find the thing you can do really well and make an impact. If everyone made an impact where they could, the world would be a different place. If I didn't do this work, things would be a lot easier if I still worked in law. But this is the one thing I could do, helping other black women and women of color have agency. It doesn’t stop Mr. Floyd from being murdered, it’s my impact.” It's fascinating that white people can choose to do this or not. Black people are teaching their kids at 13 that they cannot turn away.


MJ: If I have one ask of this entire conversation, it’s that white people have that same conversation with our children. It is imperative that the ones who are benefiting from this system of oppression are dismantling it.


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Do you want support creating a work culture in which conversations like these can happen and, as a result, enrich the work? Get in touch with us atsupport@leverage2lead.comor sign up for our upcoming online program,Reframing Uncertainty.


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Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If this article was sent to you by someone else and you would like to receive her articles directly in your inbox, please sign up here.


MJ Mathis is an Associate Leadership Coach and Facilitator at Leverage to Lead. She facilitates adult learning in a way that centers our humanity and creates opportunities for building relationships that foster more positive and productive work environments.

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