What I Learned the Week of April 22, 2022

From a Podcast – Struggles with Empathy

We Can Do Hard Things – Glennon Doyle – Interview with Ocean Vuong

Ocean is both a poet and novelist with multiple awards and accolades for his work. Ocean was born in Vietnam and at the age of two, he and his family arrived in a refugee camp in the Philippines before achieving asylum and migrating to the United States. He is a big part of the LGBT culture in New York City and is openly gay.

Listening to the interview I was struck by Ocean’s quiet fierceness. His words were very powerful and did not hold back on challenging subjects, which I loved. I particularly appreciated his observations on how we, the privilege, often do not see the marginalized until they are in pain. His example was how when there was a rash of Asian women being victimized/murdered in the US there was a rise in book sales about Asians. The specific reflection point for me was his question “What is it that white people struggle with empathy until they read about others?”.

I doubt this is a white people’s struggle as much as it is a privilege struggle. And I am not convinced that the struggle with empathy is initiated by something shocking which occurs that compels us to be more curious and/or the act of reading about it. The shocking event might evoke curiosity. The reading might create more understanding of the struggle. However, I would say it is our willingness to connect with the pain and suffering we see is our challenge. Can we pause long enough to connect to others pain? The reading or listening to other people’s stories is one way to create that connection. To appreciate the shared humanity of pain and suffering. 

Living in Canada for the last 20+ years I have become aware of the Indigenous people of Canada within a few years of arrival. I most notably recall visiting a few cities for work and the locals telling me to avoid certain areas of town because there would be a lot of homeless Indigenous there who would be drunk. Interestingly, it was not until almost twenty years later that I bothered to take the time to really learn about the Indigenous people, leveraging many tools including reading several books by mostly Indigenous authors. During that passing time there were plenty of events that should have had me take a more serious notice. And it was not that I took no notice. I listened/read the news of terrible events, would occasionally be in conversation with others and speak as if I knew more than I really did. I wanted to be seen as someone who cared and to care you should be educated. Yet I had barely scratched the surface of my education. 

I did not know, for example, that alcohol has a different impact to Indigenous people which can lead to increased alcoholism. I did not know the full details of how Canadian government stripped them of their land and resources. It was not until the uncovering of bodies from reservation schools that I began to read multiple pieces of literature, mostly written by Indigenous authors, that provided the knowledge that I had loosely understood but never really invested in gaining.

Why so long? Certainly, I had distractions such as raising two twin boys of my own, working ridiculous hours to move ahead in my career, and doing my own self-discovery work. Hence, I would say it’s not so much about that the level of horror had to increase to a state that caught my attention as much as my level of comfort had to increase to a level for me to really see how privileged I was. When I was exhausted and burned-out, I could barely take care of myself and my family. I was experiencing my own pain and any chance I could use to escape that pain I did. Which meant I certainly was not using my free time to read about other people’s pain.

This is not about debating Ocean’s point that “white people struggle with empathy”. I absolutely believe there is some truth to the challenge of “privilege” struggling with empathy. I’m just not sure it is tied to horrific things happening and/or the reading of books. And more to their own willingness and capability to reflect on something other than themselves and be with pain. 

From a Book/Article – How to be an Anti-Racist Organization

Really great “how to” article by James D. White, former Jamba Juice CEO and author of Anti-Racist Leadership. From my own corporate experience focused on employee engagement and wellbeing his seven steps are absolute musts for any organization to implement. Everyone is on the journey somewhere, and your organization may just be starting. But start you must.

Seven Steps are discussed in more detail in the article: listening to and learning from colleagues across the organization; enlisting senior executives to the cause; auditing the culture; documenting what’s already being done to foster diversity and inclusion; establishing benchmarks for measuring progress; building “action learning teams” to spearhead the effort; and developing and communicating an action plan.

My POV, as a past employee, is that it is key to have full transparency on where you are at, your goals and progress. That cannot be over communicated as no matter how much you communicate it there will be a large group of employees who are not getting the message – for good or bad. I loved the concept on the “action learning teams” which can be a tremendous catalyst if there is genuine executive sponsorship to support. And a great place to allow leaders at various levels to grow.

From Social Media – Leveraging Empathy to get Creative

story from the CBC found on Twitter of civilian led mobile mental health crisis support. Great example of leveraging empathy when designing mental health support systems

From Others – Never Judge a Book

A few years back I was asked to speak at an event that was sponsored by the House of Beautiful Business. The “house” is a mission-driven global network of business leaders, economists, policy-makers, technologists, scientists, artists and activists to reinvent your organization and yourself. With the pandemic the local chapter in Vancouver had to cancel and adjust how they proceeded with future events and this year I was able to attend once again. 

These events always seem to have a bit of mystery to them in that they are not your typical business event. In this instance there were 15 strangers brought together for an intimate evening of dinner, drinks and “3 Toasts”. Each participant was to bring a toast to 3. The “3” could be anything they wanted it to be. The location was not revealed until the last moment. The rules for the evening were very few. 

I was certainly excited for the overall evening and what new personality I might meet. As we stood gathered amongst the “laughing men” sculptures on Davie Street waiting for all to arrive and learn where would be our final resting spot I stole glances at the other guests while chatting with the individual who had given me my invitation. I could quickly observe many interesting characters based on a mix of characteristics including their clothing style, hair, and initial behaviors. I wondered who I might end up sitting beside and put together a mental list of preferences. 

When we came to our private dining room, I scooted across the table in the middle hoping to increase my chances of being able to engage with as many interesting characters as I could. And then the person who sat down beside me was someone I had not even noticed earlier as their appearance was so non descriptive. I might have even assumed they were not even part of the group as they were so demure. I will admit I had a moment of disappointment to not have one of the more extroverted individuals claim that spot. Regardless, I started the typical niceties of introductions. And the slow reveal!

Yes, you may have guessed already that I had the good fortune of sitting beside possibly the most interesting person there that evening however at first glance and even in the first few minutes of introduction nothing stood out. And then moments before we were summoned to begin our toasting performances, I learned an intriguing fact which had me turn in my seat to give her my full attention. And then when she gave her toast and answered subsequent questions after that I learned so much more about her rich past of adventures and intellect. 

We know the adage to not judge a book by its cover which seems appropriate here. But what I also learned is that I wasted time with idle chit chat because of my presumption instead of holding the assumption that this was the most interesting person in the group sitting beside me and what question could I ask her that would release the stories! 

From Myself – Ask for what you want

This past weekend I went snowboarding with one of my sons and my husband. At the start of the day, we could tell it would eventually end up being a nice spring conditions, however the first couple of hours we would be on hard packed and sometimes icy runs. As we were going up our first lift my son and husband were talking through what part of the mountain they wanted to do first. I normally would go along with whatever they wanted, which often would mean I would struggle through something I didn’t really like for the sake of harmony. And then if something goes wrong, like I take a major fall on a patch of ice, then I pout and declare how much I hate icy conditions and never wanted to go on it in the first place. Not that helpful I know but fortunately it’s not that often we are in this situation.

However, that day I decided to let them make whatever plan they wanted if one condition was met. The trail needed to mostly be in the sunshine. This was neither particularly hard nor easy in terms of finding a run to meet that condition but one that required thoughtful choice. And on the first run we went on it had very little sun. And I was super cautious, which is not enjoyable for me in the least. But since I made my prior condition clearly known I felt no shame in declaring, with a bit of humour, that the run sucked. In the past I would have pouted about the run, which I think was both a mix of shame (“I’m not good enough to do this run”) and/or guilt for not simply asking for what I wanted and taking care of me. I would make a fuss and pout instead of apologizing for not being clear in the hopes of getting sympathy. Their sympathy, if given, would never make me feel much better. It just fed the shame. 

Yeah, for asking for what you want. Yeah, for the possibility that what they wanted that day could also align with what I wanted. Yeah, for sunny ski days. 

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