Chris Williams: I first met Brenda Leaks when she applied to be the middle school head at the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington. I was on the board of the school and Brenda’s interviews included a group session with a couple of board members and a number of parents.
It was in a long, narrow room wedged into a corner of the building with two sides that were nothing but floor to ceiling glass windows. With no air conditioning, the room would bake in the sunshine. In the middle was a long conference table with more seats than were probably appropriate. The room was packed every seat at the table taken with additional seating around the outside walls.
The board members were there in search of a good leader for half of the school. The parents were mostly there on a mission. They didn’t like how this or that was done. They wanted to know what the new head was going to do about it. Everyone was there to get their two cents in.
And at the end of the table facing this gauntlet set, Brenda. The previous interviewees had been a lackluster white man in the late Middle Age generally eager to get along. Their responses were the interview equivalent of soft serve vanilla ice cream, expected, plain, and well, … boring.
Brenda was none of that. The only candidate of color, the only woman, easily the youngest. She simply owned the room. Her answers were thoughtful, deliberate, and decidedly not just what everyone wanted to hear. She pushed back directly yet deftly. She showed a level of caring and vulnerability you don’t see much in interviews. She even said “I don’t know” more than a few times. Just three years out of graduate school with only one heads job under her belt, she was clearly a leader.
When it was over, I left that room and immediately called the board president. I told her that if Brenda left campus without a job offer the school was crazy. Not long after was the beginning of Brenda’s tenure at overlake and our friendship. And that’s what this is all about.
This is Leading Smart the show about managing in the brain power age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace.
I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.
This episode we visit with a woman who develops the next generation of leaders, mostly by being an outstanding one herself. This is Episode 213, My conversation with Brenda Leaks.
Today Brenda Leaks is the Head of School at the Seattle Girls School. It’s an independent school in the inner city with a goal of helping girls find their voice and develop into future leaders.
Brenda recently wrote an editorial for the Seattle Times entitled, We must have difficult conversations with our children”. A reflection on the world her young son will face, it’s a powerful discussion about the state of racial justice in the country. It was so powerful that I knew I wanted to visit with her.
We touch on that subject, certainly. But what Brenda has to say about leadership in general, and equity specifically, was also very thought provoking.
Brenda comes by her understanding of race in America from a very early age.
Brenda Leaks: Yeah, I’m from Philly. Yep, and my, I come from an extremely large family. My dad is one of 14 children. And those 14 children had 42 children of their own. So I’ve got a large number of first cousins, and then my mom’s side is also large. When, I spent most of my life in Philly, but when I was in fifth grade, I went to live with my aunt who lived in Allentown, just outside of Allentown, in this little town called Slatington. On the Appalachian Trail was just behind our house like that’s how it was out there. My first experiencing a live bear, you know, like and lots of other live animals because I had grown up in Philly.
Also my my first experiences with kind of overt racism, or in those early days, I was the only person of color for, you know, for grades below me and three grades above me. The school that I went to just started celebrating MLK Day and I graduated in 95. So they have just started celebrating MLK Day, maybe three or four years before I got there.
So yeah, one of my earliest memories of being in this little town was us being at a park gas station, and there was only one in the town. We’re in the gas station and a woman comes up to me and my aunt who I was with. That’s who I was living with, with mom. And she said, Oh my goodness, my daughter told me that your new student and she would love to have a playdate with you. So this woman at a gas station in this town, thought, there’s a black girl, that’s probably the black girl that my daughter mentioned. And she was right. Like, that’s how small this town was. So I went to school in Alatington and had lots of, you know, really amazing and really challenging experiences that led me to go to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, which is a small women’s college in Baltimore. Um, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.
CW: Yeah, and no pressure there.
BL: Well, you know, I don’t some of my perfectionist tendencies may come from some of that pressure, but you know, it was good. And then after that I was I taught for a year in Baltimore public schools. That was not for me, the bureaucracy of it, the kind of top down heaviness, that the exact opposite of why people teach in independent schools like that was a huge experience of that for me of just having my lesson plans reviewed, having people pop into my classroom with an eye towards finding out what I was doing wrong, not towards growth, or empowerment or support, but like checking boxes. I was out of there one year, and then I worked for a program called Summer Bridge. And that’s how I found out about independent schools through that program.
CW: So what drew you to teaching in the first place though? What was it about teaching that was interesting?
BL: Yeah. Teachers have always been powerful in my life. There I have a teacher in elementary school, my choir teacher, Mrs. Barnes who she was someone who connected with me and found space for me the librarians when I would you know, hide out at recess because I was awkward. As an elementary school student, I didn’t make friends easily, back then. I kind of didn’t come into myself until middle and high school on my aunt who I live with. And Slatington was she’s probably, you know, as far as teachers go, she’s not educated as a teacher, but she’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.
And then so many people when I was in middle school, the drama teacher whose name I cannot remember, I was feel bad about that. The drama teacher who she would tell me because I was so tall, so tall, and I would kind of hunch in on myself and she would say, Brenda, take up all of your space that she kind of opened her arms up and she’d do this when I was walking down the hall and she’d see me hunched and she and I would I would sit up and take up all of my space. She saw something in me and being in drama classes, being in debate classes and all those opportunities. That’s what helped me get to, along with my aunt at home, helped me come into myself.
CW: Brenda saw role models in her teachers and she knew early on the teaching was what she wanted to do. But she was also a leader from the start. I asked her, where did that come from?
BL: Oh, I’ve always liked being in charge. That’s a thing. And I actually, it’s something that I try to own as often as I can because particularly for women, there’s this feeling of the need to be to be humble, like, Oh, you know, someone tapped me, someone. No, women often have to say, I am ready and I’m going to step forward for this. So I every teaching job I was in, I found myself in a position of leadership in some way, whether it was leading the student council, my very first year in Baltimore public schools or being on the diversity and equity team or being a great team, a grade Dean or something. There was always a step towards leadership.
And I knew I wanted to be a principal. I actually think when I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to be a principal before I decided I wanted to be a teacher and Then I said, Well, I guess I’ll teach Spanish because Spanish was my most boring class. And I thought I could do better than that. So I became a Spanish teacher who eventually became a principal. But yeah, I I’ve always been ambitious in that way.
CW: Was there something before that, what something about your family life or your family or your aunt or your that that made you this? This strong person this, this gonna take charge kind of person? Where did the modeling for that come from?
BL: I definitely think my aunt is was it still is a huge role model for me. Um, she is the oldest of the 14. So firstborn of my dad’s might, you know, his brothers and sisters, and she took care of her siblings. For most of her life. Her mother was pregnant, including she had her first child when she was married within two or three weeks of her having her 14th child. Imagine being pregnant at the same time as your mother.
So she, she was always in a position where she had to care for others had to organize others. Her mother was not always able to be to care for the kids and to hold things together. So she figured out systems and structures and all of those things. She also is a person I think, who taught me how to be a listener.
She did not graduate from college before I did, but she eventually went back to school and graduated from college and became a social worker. She’s one of those people who, you know, if you’re sitting next to her, the next thing you know, you’re telling her your whole life story because she just she pulls you in with her warmth and her openness. And I think that’s a huge part of how I lead and how I connect to people. That’s that’s definitely where that came from.
And from the moment I went to live with her, I don’t know how overt it was, if I had to think back on it, but there was always this feeling of this is with … two things she would say, faith and hard work. Right so you do your best and then trust that the rest will work itself out on and then the second thing is that she would say is, you always want to take your next best step because it sets you up for the step after that. And so like this drive of doing the best that you can be whatever that looked like it was not a you have to get the best grades, you have to win every competition, but it was definitely I expect you to do your best and that drives kind of got ingrained in me.
CW: After Columbia, Brenda’s first leadership role was as the middle school head for an independent school in Austin, Texas. She spent three years there before family ties drew her young family to Seattle. It was there, we had that fateful interview, I asked her how she was able to find the ability to communicate so effectively in that room.
BL: There’s a term that is used. It’s called code switching. I got really good at code switching. I got really good at on kind of reading the room and figuring out how I needed to show up so I could connect with people. And that’s some people feel like code switching means you’re being inauthentic. And for me, that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about figuring out how I’m going to best connect with people. Right? So when I would go home to Philly in the summer, I would spend a whole summer with all my cousins and you know, with my brothers in Philly, right, I’m running around and I’m talking like everybody else was talking and then when I went back to Slatington, tighten it up a little bit, because I knew that that was the way like, it would be a distraction from my goal of connecting and communicating with people.
And sure, there’s a part of me that always felt like people should have a broader perspective that a lot not that does not make me be in a position where I have to decide to code switch or not. Um, but that’s the world that we live in.
There’s a, the where identity becomes a part of that. And, you know, there’s there are the layers that get added on. Right. So I have to figure out as a black person, as a woman, right, all those other things, right? I don’t have to think about and this is, you know, the part where equity comes into question because your code switching to the majority culture generally, right. So I as a heterosexual person, I don’t have to think about how do I show up as a person who is LGBTQ+, I don’t have to think about how I show up. You know, I’m also Christian, I don’t have to think how I show up. What do I bring my Muslim identity into the room with me? Right. So I think identity adds a whole nother layer on how you and how you code switch.
CW: but being able to talk to the room and being able to win over a room are two different things. She clearly did the latter. Her first day at overlake gave some clues as to how.
So you walk into that school the first day. And there are there’s a whole bunch of things that are sort of stacked up against you, you were being you’re replacing someone who had been there for 15, 20, 25 years, right? He was in many ways below. He was, however, incredibly pliable, so he had just gotten away with all kinds of stuff that needed to stop. You had a faculty working for you some of whom who had been there since before you were born. Or if not, pretty darn close. Um, you had a highly entitled parent community. Talk about the first few days. Were you nervous? Were you scared? How’d it work?
BL: Yeah, no, I was nervous, of course. But I wasn’t scared. I wanted to make a good impression. My very first meeting was a leadership team meeting and I’m like, Okay, this is ma team, okay, you know, we’re in there with Frank at the time.
Um, but yeah, I recognized. I think the biggest challenge that I perceived coming into Overlake was complete contrast to my previous school. It was a deep culture. And sometimes deep culture means we’re awesome. And we don’t need to change. And I was really that was what I was worried about, and that that came to be true, that that was the reality in a number of cases.
But in terms of me connecting with the community, I knew that the first people I had to kind of get to believe in me and to trust me, were the teachers. And so I did what any good teacher does: I planned the hell? Can I say hell? Sure. I plan the hell out of my first meeting with those teachers. It was a lesson probably, I don’t want to say it was the best professional development experience they’ve ever had. Because, you know, I don’t know all the things they’ve done. But I thought about groupings. I thought about engaging them at different levels. I thought about the timing, the flow. At the end of the meeting, and we spent maybe a half a day together. So many teachers were like, that was amazing teaching. And so really quickly, they came to respect me as an educator, as a teacher. And then we were able to have a conversation about all the other things that needed to happen.
And I still approach any meeting, any professional development opportunity, anything that I run, as if it’s a lesson plan, and I think about what are the objectives? How do I engage my audience? How do I help them connect to each other? How do I connect help them connect to the material, connect to the learning goals, like I approach everything as if it’s a classroom. And that that definitely helped me there. With those with those teachers that helped me with kids. It’s helped me with parents, as well.
CW: The concept of treating every meeting like a classroom experience got me thinking. Does she do that because she’s a teacher? Or is there a lesson here for all leaders?
BL: A lot of people make assumptions about how people are going to connect and engage. And if you made fewer assumptions and ask more questions, like a teacher does, then I think people would be more effective. I mean, how many means Have you sat and then you’ve thought, why am I here? What is the point of this meeting? This could have been an email, right? Because the people planning that meeting, we’re not thinking about how do I help people engage with the most important questions, which is what teachers do.
CW: Some of the first things you notice when you meet Brenda is her enormous smile. Her wonderful laugh her magnetic nature. This got me wondering how she approaches new relationships.
I’ve been unable to decide whether you go into relationships with people wanting them to like you, or whether or not you are just the kind of person that people always like. Do you go into relationships trying to be liked?
BL: No. I mean, first of all, we can’t, I can’t control how other people feel. And so again, I can only show up as myself. And some people like me, but plenty of people don’t. Let’s not confuse the issue here.
Um, yeah, so I don’t … no. I don’t approach a new relationship hoping or wanting someone to like me, I show up as me and um, … I think I create space for people to be themselves I also another I think element of my leadership is that I create space for emotion. And I think a lot of people really, they don’t they don’t experience that. And I don’t know if that’s a gender thing. Part of me feels like it is. I’m comfortable saying, this moment feels hard. I’m experiencing, I’m feeling your anger. Are you angry? And I want it. I’m sorry. I see apologizing as an act of leadership. Right? I’m not apologizing to take responsibility. I’m apologizing, so that because I recognize that the person sitting across from me need someone to to hold part of that with them. So I think when I’m when I’m in relationship with people, they feel safe. And that’s part of it.
CW: I think that’s one of the things that I noticed about you very early on. when you were at Overlake. And I think one of the things that drew me to you was your ability to be vulnerable, your ability to be real and honest and open and I don’t See that a lot, particularly in leaders. They try to want to put on a face a mask of a veneer or a shield or whatever. Do you think that’s where do you think that comes from in you is… is that the gender thing? is that?
BL: I think part of it is, and I you know, that I don’t want to stereotype and make an assumption that there are no men who can or you know, gender non binary people who can connect in this way. That’s not true.
But I feel like there’s a misperception that you have to have trust in order to be vulnerable. When in reality, being vulnerable is what creates trust. And I think that’s … early in my life. I had many opportunities growing up where I was vulnerable, being in that school district where I was the only person of color for me many grades, having to lean on people trust people, and share who I was so that they felt like they could lean on and trust me.
And I think some of that is because I’m often the only black person in the rooms that I’m in. I’m not saying this whole quote, but there’s a quote from a black scholar, a woman from the, she was born in the late 1800s and died like just at the start of the civil rights movement. And she would say, when and where I enter, my whole race enters with me. And I think I experienced that growing up in my small town. I experienced that in college, once I started working in independent schools and definitely as a leader in these schools. For many of my students, I have been and will be the only teacher of color they’ve ever had. For many of the people I’ve led. I have been and will be the only leader of color they’ve ever experienced.
And for me, that feels like not a weight in the sense of like it’s heavy, but a weight in the sense of Like, I have an awareness of it, and I, I don’t represent every black person or every black woman. And so it’s important for me to … like vulnerability is a part of that. Right? Because I, I, that’s that part is me. And I want every single person who I interact with, to have a sense of my authentic presence. And not just Oh, she’s a great, you know, black woman and she’s a leader. Yeah, and it’s more than that.
CW: But vulnerability requires immense strength. Vulnerability, is just, it’s it is so associated with weakness that I don’t, I think one of the first things that people think they need to do as a leader is reject the vulnerability.
BL: That’s so interesting because I feel like the further along my leadership journey, the more comfortable I’ve gotten with my own vulnerability in any moment, and with the fact that because I’ve become a model that other people are like, I invite vulnerability into my office, right? Into my leadership relationships and into the relationships I have with parents and students and teachers, because I modeled that for people and I, but I really feel like it helps create a sense of community that is real and deep and honest, and I don’t know that I’d know how to do it any other way.
CW: But vulnerability is hard. It takes strength, surely, but it’s also hard to get started. What’s the best place to get started as a leader when you want to dip your toe into the vulnerability waters?
BL: I honestly feel like “I don’t know” is a great place to start. Because leaders and teachers teachers are knowers. That’s often one of the other challenges of teachers like when you talk about those people who are teachers before I was born, they have, like built their whole career on knowing things and then sharing that knowledge with other people. And so being in a position where you say, “I don’t know,” like that’s a, that’s a dip of a toe in into the waters of vulnerability.
I also think sharing your emotions is also a small step towards vulnerability, right? I’ve had meetings where I start by saying, I’m feeling sad about what we have to talk about today. Or I’m really frustrated with you. And I feel like oftentimes leaders feel like they have to bury their emotions, to leave space for the other people maybe or because they just feel it’s unprofessional or because they’re just scared to put it out there. But I think naming emotions is a step towards vulnerability too.
CW: I think. I think there’s another facet to it. There is a feeling that If I’m a poor leader, I’m a poor representative for my organization if I am not strong.
BL: Well, I think there’s a balance. I don’t think it’s true that if you are vulnerable, that means you’re not strong. I think that’s where the, you know, the false part of that statement is.
And I’m not crying all the time, right. So there’s a balance of expressing emotion. And there are moments when, you know, I have cried in a meeting, particularly, the moments when I’m more likely to cry is when I’m feeling immense pride in my team, like it makes me tear up right now. Like, they work so hard. They love their kids. They love our mission. And I just, oh, yeah, you know, that’s, I need them to know that and I need to know it’s real. So yeah, sometimes I get a little emotional when I talk about my people and our mission.
CW: When Brenda left Overlake to come to the Seattle Girls School she and I talked about whether she should take the job.
When you went to do that, I specifically remember telling you not to take this job.
BL: You sure did. You and a number of people
CW: But my reason for doing it. I mean I understood many of the reasons why you wanted to take this job. But a part of the reason why I said you shouldn’t was because I thought he, you could have almost had any job in the country and you went to a struggling little girls only school in you In virtually downtown Seattle, tell me where that all was that was that choice made on mission?
BL: Yes, full stop. And actually, I applied for a job at Seattle girls school when I was at Columbia. Those headhunters, who came, one of the jobs that was on the table was an assistant head position at SGS. They ended up hiring internally. So the day after I submitted my materials, I got an email back saying we’ve we’ve made a hire so sorry, that person who they hired as assistant head eventually became the head of school a few years later, and he’s the person who I succeeded.
So yeah, I fell in love with that mission back in 2006, and then I was in Austin, and then came to Overlake. And I was happy at over like, I could have stayed there for many more years than I would have I felt like I had more work to do. I felt like I had more to give and I had more to learn. Matt had just arrived and I was learning from him. Right I was, I was happy I was in a good place in terms of being my leadership.
And then Seattle Girls School came open. And there was no there was no decision to be made. I won’t say that I was stalking that school, but I knew that that’s that there was not a mission that I have seen and a program and a community I had seen that I would love and like feel within myself more than I did that school.
My cover letter actually, it started with the word Yes. And then, you know, yes, this school and, you know, for all these reasons, yes, me like, I am a student who needed Seattle girl school, in my life and I’ve had an amazing journey with lots of blessings, lots of luck, lots of opportunity and lots of hard work. And I can only imagine what that journey would have looked like if I had gone to a school like this.
CW: What was it about the mission that was so compelling?
BL: Hmm. I think the focus on the voice of girls, which actually isn’t in our mission, but it’s inherent in our mission about helping kids find their voice, helping them have value, see the value in their voice. I really feel like a lot of my journey was me figuring out what what my voice was and where it where I could use it or how I could use it. And to to, like, have this school that that’s the whole program is wrapped around this idea. It was it was powerful. It continues to be powerful.
The SGS mission starts, we aspire to develop… I just messed up our mission. We develop and inspire courageous leaders. And what I love about the mission is that we don’t, the word “create” is not in there, we assume that every single student who comes to us comes with innate leadership ability. I don’t know that people made that assumption about me when I was growing up, you know, this black girl from Inner City, Philadelphia, who jumped into this really white small world pond in Slatington, Pennsylvania. And like, we we just know that about our kids, and then we help them know that about themselves as powerful.
CW: What does leadership mean in that context?
BL: I think the first part of leadership is about knowing yourself. And so we do a lot of work with our kids. A lot of that is based in anti-bias and identity development. I who am I we talk to kids about about race. We talk to them about their values. We talk to them about privilege. We talk to them about, like, how they learn how they work in a group, their bodies, like all of these conversations that I think, in coed environments, and you know, kind of in more traditional school environments, you there are things that you don’t talk about. We talk about all of those so that our kids can say this is who I am. Right. So the first part of it is them knowing who they are.
And then I think the second part for us is about giving them real opportunities to lead. And that looks like everything from all of our students are assigned to greet people when they come in, to them creating their own leadership experiences.
My favorite, favorite favorite SGS story is about Tofu, the hamster. So we have a student constitution that they made the first year the school was opened. And in this constitution, it says that they have a right to have pets, not just like a school pet, but a class pet one per class, they have a right. And this right has been dormant. Nobody’s noticed it. And then a couple years back, a couple of students were like, wait, it says right here we have a right to have a class pet. We want to exercise that, right.
So the kids came to me and they said, We want to have a pet. Like, okay, well find a teacher who wants to sponsor it. Off they went, they came back with two. Okay, well, we people have allergies. So I don’t know. They went off, they put together a survey, they downloaded the results in an Excel spreadsheet. They had spoken to each person who had an allergy to figure out what specifically their allergy was, and then they were trying to mitigate that they have the solutions there.
Okay, okay. Great. You did that. Okay. How are you going to pay for this thing? Well, they went out and they had big sales, they wrote letters, they got things donated, my favorite side middle school, so Middle School it because of, you know, punctuation and grammar. It said hamster bake sale. And I said to this students, “what role did the hamsters play in this bake sale?” So they raised the money, they got things donated. So who’s going to take care of the hamster? Well, they formed a hamster committee. And that committee created a calendar of who would be feeding the committee, all these things.
Finally, we got the hamster. Right? It was the week after spring break. And really quickly, we realized that this was going to be a failed experiment, because the hamster did not enjoy being a pet for 140 people. And so the hamster ran away. But got out of the cage. It hit in its little, you know, enclosure, it didn’t want to engage. The hamster committee was like, Oh, my gosh, Tofu is overwhelmed. Right. They’re trying to figure out a visitation schedule for the hamster.
So a couple months, like it was probably the end of May. I said, let’s have a meeting with the advisors and the hamster committee. Kids. I’m sitting down with the advisor. We had a pre-conversation about how we were going to break the news to them that they couldn’t have this hamster. These kids walk in the room. They say, “this isn’t working. This is not working for Tofu. It’s not working for our group that’s leading this and it’s not working for the school. We don’t think Tofu is the right, the right pet for the school and we found a home for Tofu.” And like I had this moment of like, that’s leadership. Like, they didn’t need me to say it. And they didn’t need like, they didn’t like the need to like gnash their teeth and, you know, have all this upset. They used their voice, they got that that hamster in there, and then when it didn’t work, they were the first people to say it’s not working. That’s what that’s what my school is about.
That’s why I work here.
CW: Why is single sex so important?
BL: there’s a reality. There’s plenty of research about it. But there’s also a reality that boys and girls learn differently, and they show up differently in educational environments. You know, one of the common ones that you may have heard yourself is about wait time, right teachers are trained to wait a certain amount of time when they ask a question because oftentimes, boys have their hand up before the questions even done. And when teachers don’t have that training or they’re not keeping that in mind, they call on the boys.
Boys are more likely to step forward into leadership opportunities, whether they feel and this continues on into adulthood. Right there men are more likely to apply for jobs than women are women feel like they have to check off 95 plus percent of the attributes before they can apply it. And it’s more like 40 to 50% if that, right. And so all of those things become a part of why girls begin to step back.
Add to that all of the societal imagery all of the messaging around what girls should do and shouldn’t do and how they should show up and shouldn’t show up. I mean, if you do an examination of magazine covers for girls magazines versus boys magazines and the girls ones I remember reading one that said “wake up pretty”. What? Where the boy magazines are like, you know, explore your passions, you know, think about this career, that it’s just the it’s all
So our single gender schools are working to counter all of that. And to help girls be in a position where they don’t have to say I can’t do that because they had to do it. They had to run the the leadership had to take the leadership opportunities, they had to be the captains of the teams and the clubs. They had to, you know, do all the things because there are no boys to do them. So that’s, that’s one of the most powerful thing about an all girls school.
CW: Brenda wrote a wonderful op ed piece for the Seattle Times about racial tension, equity, and how to best make progress. On an individual basis. I’ll include a link to it in the show notes. The piece begins with her watching her young son Jackson as he slept, and noting that in a few short years, many people will see him as a threat.
Did you worry about sharing anything about Jackson?
BL: Oh, that was the only part I did worry about. And what’s interesting, like I said, I originally wrote this letter to my community. And so, you know, in in that it was actually longer and even I would say a little bit more personal. In that letter to my community, we cut back a lot because I was, that was the part that felt hardest to me about that. But that’s also the part that’s the part about, that’s the vulnerability, that, that’s how I entered this is watching my son sleep and thinking about the life that he’s going to have. And you know, thinking about that for my cousin’s all my students. I mean, all of them. So I couldn’t leave Because then it wouldn’t have been real.
CW: Yeah, it would have sounded a little finger waggy. Yeah.
The vulnerability was, it was, as they say in writing, it was the hook. Right? It was the thing that makes you think about it in in a different way.
I mean, I’d like to think I’m a reasonably sensitive human being, but I cannot imagine looking at my, you know, eight or 10, or whatever it is your old son and thinking that within, you know, five years, as you said, people are going to walk the other side of the street or assume the absolute worst of him. Just based upon what he looks like.
I asked Brenda, how should leaders talk about these difficult topics?
BL: Um, I think that leaders play a huge role in, particularly when you’re leading a whole organization or department or even just a small team. In creating space for people to engage them feel like it’s safe. One, I would say everybody needs to be doing their own work. I work at a school where we do this, we do professional development, we read together, we do all, you know, we have conversations. And still every year I say to my team, if the only work you’re doing around equity is the work that we do here in our building, you’re not doing enough work. Everybody has to be thinking about and examining their own biases, because it shows up differently. And no PD or workshop that’s put on by your employer is going to cover it all for you. So that’s the first thing I would say everybody needs to be doing their own work. We’ve got this great thing called the internet. And you can search up just about anything. Right?
And so I think people of color get frustrated when they are asked to be a live Google. So that folks who are trying to learn and genuinely trying to learn cat it’s still a shortcut. Right? Let me just ask this personal color this question instead of me figuring it out for myself, reading a book, reading an article watching a video or doing something. The resources are immense. So that would be the first thing I think all leaders need to be doing their own work.
I also feel like when you engage in the conversation, it’s about coming at it from a place of curiosity, and that curiosity has to start with you amplifying other people’s voices. Right. And so, you know, here we are having this conversation. This is you using your platform. I don’t know that this was your I don’t believe this was your intention to amplify my voice, but you are. And that’s, that’s a an opportunity that you have given the platform that you have.
I think leaders have the same opportunity to look at their team members, ask them what their experiences are, create space where they can share those experiences, and where they can share what they know. I mean, there’s been a lot of, again, a lot of research done about the ways in which women help to amplify each other’s voices. Because when they’re in situations where there are more men in the room, their ideas are co opted or dismissed, right. And so, oh, I want to circle back to what Susan said, because this point, felt really relevant to this conversation, right? doing that for your employees of color. Because sometimes the same thing happens to them. They say something and it feels like what they said just got dismissed, or overlooked, or co opted by somebody else. So I think that’s something else that that leaders can do amplify the voices of people around them on.
And then I work with some amazing people. And one of the people on our staff goes out and does outreach work, helping schools around the country, engage in an equity conversation and anti-bias work. And she uses a metaphor of two that I think are relevant here. One is, you know, learning and growing in your cultural competency is kind of people think it’s like flipping a switch, like great. I’ve got it. That’s on And it’s more like going to the dentist or caring for your teeth, right? But you brush every day, and you’re trying to make sure the plaque doesn’t build up, you floss. But every six months or so you have to go into the dentist for deep clean. And you know, hey, if you let it get really bad, you might have to go in where they put you under and they really like get underneath your teeth, right? Anti-bias and cultural competency is more like that. It requires some constant vigilance and constant kind of input of information and experiences.
And then the other metaphor that she uses that I think is really powerful is when you step on someone’s toes because inevitably you will, right you’ll make a mistake, you’ll say something you’ll be and again from even if it’s coming from positive intent, you’re trying to learn you’re trying to practice you’re trying to grow you, will still make mistakes. And this is not just white people or people in majority positions. You know everyone does because everyone depending on how what your identity and what intersectionality looks like you’re in a place of privilege or a place of being a majority culture in some area of your identity.
And she shares this metaphor of, you know, when let’s say you, you’re driving your car down the street, and you don’t see somebody step into the street, and you hit them and you let you run over their toe, let’s say, right? You get out of the car. What you don’t say is “why were you even there? You should have read the signs that I was driving first.” Right? You don’t sit you don’t make them feel guilty for their own experience. You say, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry. I did not mean to do that. I’m going to work on being a better driver pay more attention. Is there anything I can do for you?” Oftentimes, when we come into these situations where women or people of color or you know other people, with with a non majority identity say “Ouch, that that hurt me or that impacted me negative” We say, well, that’s your problem. You need to figure that out. And I think leaders can model and create teams, where that’s not what happens when we stop and say, “okay, obviously, I want to know, I’m need to understand I’m coming at this from curiosity. I did not do that on purpose. Can you please explain to me so that I know because I never want to do that again.” And I need to understand so that I don’t. And sometimes the person who you’re asking that have may say, “No, I don’t feel like it, you know, but, you know, there’s plenty you can read on Google about what just happened, or go talk to someone else.” But I think one of the first steps is us not blaming the person who’s having an experience of bias, or microaggression. And I think that that starts with leadership.
CW: How do you suggest people respond to the “touch my afro” problem. If I’m a leader, and I see some behaving in that way, what should I do?
BL: Well, I feel called given the example to start with what I told my son, which was, people are curious if your hair is different than their hair. And it’s awesome. Is this big old puffy thing? It looks soft. They’re curious if they touch it, will it spring back? There’s so many questions about that afro, right.
So first, I encourage my son to accept people in that way. That has been part of my survival, right? To not to not assume that people are exoticizing me or right in that way, but that that they’re coming from a place of genuine curiosity. Unless I see different and then I shut it down. But and then to be clear about your boundaries, and just say As a Jackson, it is completely okay for you to say, “Sure you can touch my hair” or “no”.
And I told him that when I used to wear an afro, I would I was a teacher at this point in my life when I had an afro, and students would ask me all the time, and I would say, you can touch my hair on Fridays, at the end of the day, because I wash my hair on the weekends, right? Like black people don’t need to wash their hair as much because of the different texture and a different ways in which the coils blah, blah, blah, right? So no, you cannot touch my hair on Mondays, because my hair is clean, and it will be for the next five days.
So right like I empowered him to set his own boundaries. And, um, I think, you know, leaders need to check in with their people and they need to call things out when they see it. Right. And that, that that can look a lot of different ways. Right, so I’m thinking the one that took top up in my head is gender pronouns, right? Do not let it slip if somebody on your team miss-calls someone based on their gender pronouns, Doesn’t have to be a huge “Hey. Those are not that person’s pronouns.” It can just be a soft. “Remember they use they them pronouns,” or, or just even saying the next sentence,
CW: Right? It’s just gonna say,
BL: as soon as he was saying they, right like I keep saying Susie, that’s my different examples. And then sometimes it calls for something that’s a little bit more direct. And in the moment because it’s important for the rest of the team to see the leader doing this. Sometimes leaders want to I think in an attempt to avoid embarrassing, the person who has kind of made a gaff, they want to pull you aside. But then what happens is the rest of the team does not witness you standing up for that value of the organization or the person’s rights and experience.
And so doing it in the moment and saying, I think we need a pause. I just want to acknowledge that this just happened. We’re going to need to unpack that. I want to redirect whatever whatever the word is, when I was a teacher, what we practice saying was, this is an environment where we want to make sure everyone is safe. And what just happened. I’m worried that it made some people feel unsafe. And so I’m going to stop us here. And we’re going to move on to this. And then so everyone got the experience of having, you know, see something being acknowledged, students in this case. And then as a teacher, it gave me a moment to think about, like, how do I want to respond, I didn’t have to have the right words in the moment. And then I could follow up with all the people who needed to be followed up with to connect and check in and see what they needed so that they felt whole.
Because that’s another thing sometimes when you insert yourself, you’re that’s based on your assumptions about what’s happening, not about what the person is experiencing. And so sometimes leaving space of, “I’m not sure that what’s happening right now is okay, I want to press pause so that we can come back to this I want to check in with a few of you. I just want us to move in this direction because I’m concerned about where this conversation is going” or “this interaction doesn’t feel right to me”. Or some of our teachers use word funky with when they’re with kids. Like if they pass kids and something’s happened, they might say this feels a little funky. I just can we just pause, and let’s redirect, and then we can come back to this. So it doesn’t have to be a, “I’d like to give a dissertation around equity and injustice right now, because I just saw microaggression that was happening between two people on my staff.” No, it just has to be that people cannot see you as a leader, let something go. Because you think it’s one time or you’re going to follow up on it later. But what they see is, it’s okay to treat someone in a way that they might that they feel is not is not right.
CW: Yeah, one of the things I find is incredibly helpful is to remember that if, if you as the leader have seen it, that means that it’s almost assuredly happened 100 times before you saw it.
BL: that’s that’s a great point. Definitely.
CW: Um, I’ve taken way too much of your time. This has been absolutely wonderful.
BL: I don’t get a… I don’t I don’t get a chance to have this kind of conversation in my leadership. We have other conversations, but just to kind of talk and reflect. Thank you.
CW: Thank you.
CW: When I asked Brenda to be on the podcast, she asked me why? I told her it’s because she has always seem so strong to me. She laughed and wasn’t sure about that. I am. And I think now you can see why. I want to thank her for her time in just the second week of a highly unusual school year.
Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my website, CLWill.com.
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That’s it for this episode. The next episode returns to the studio to wrap up this series on diversity. We’ll talk about the trap of meritocracy. It’s called “Merit Badge”. I hope you’ll listen.
Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.