S1E7: Erik Smith on Listening, Learning, and How to Talk About Race

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Erik Smith and Andi Graham
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There is power in listening. It can broaden perspectives and be a fundamental step towards understanding and atonement. Erik Smith knows; he owns a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultancy (Inclusivity LLC) and he’s been helping organizations understand their role in systemic racism for most of his career.

Conversations about race can no longer be considered taboo or tiptoed around in America. They must be had and addressed, head-on. In this episode, listen as Andi asks some vulnerable and maybe embarrassing questions to help us all learn what we can be doing, now, to address system racism in our organizations and personal relationships.

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Erik Smith:                    In this flashpoint that we have, where there’s a number of people that have lost their lives and now people are in an uproar, let’s make a decision not to go back to business as usual.

Andi Graham:               Hey there, everybody. This is Andi Graham with Walk The Walk, a podcast for entrepreneurs running values-based businesses. And today, we are going to talk about something hard, and that’s what we do as entrepreneurs who walk the walk, is we deal with difficult issues. I’ve had a hard time thinking about how to articulate the pain and anxiety and questions and confusion around what’s going on with the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, but I really wanted to talk about it and I wanted to talk about what that means for cultural and racial diversity in our organizations, because I think it’s something that, as a values-based entrepreneur, we need to be addressing. And I think that I’ve been, myself, pushing these things aside because I’m small. My business is small. I don’t have to think about these things. Of course, we’re diverse and we will naturally have a diverse staff. But it doesn’t happen by accident, just like our own cultures and our own beliefs don’t happen by accident. They are intentional and I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways of this interview with Erik Smith, who runs a diversity, equity and inclusion, DEI, organization.

Andi Graham:               Erik came on and really talked to me frankly about the hard stuff that we’re dealing with right now. He’s the managing member of Inclusivity LLC, an organizational development and marketing advisory firm, and they specialize in cultural competence, community relations and cross-cultural marketing. And they are very active in the Tampa Bay area. Just finished a two-day conference on inclusion and diversity. And I went to Erik. We know each other personally, and I went to Erik and said, “I have some uncomfortable questions that I want to ask.” So, what follows is our conversation. There are no minced words and I feel pretty vulnerable in some of these questions and I hope that you do too, because I think part of what we’re doing here is trying to make ourselves uncomfortable and do the hard work so that we can be better advocates and sponsors, in his words, and allies to the folks who need us, and to make our organizations better and stronger.

Andi Graham:               So, without further ado, this is Erik Smith.

Erik Smith:                    [inaudible 00:02:44] People ask me, “How did you get involved in the diversity space?,” and I chuckle and I say, “I’m not trained in it.” This came from lived experience because being… And the kind of percussion that I play is traditional African and Latin percussion, so it’s very much so trained on being proud of my culture and understanding it and learning about it very early. So, as a part of that, I was always kind of on the edge of driving things so that it’s balanced and proportionate and equitable for all. So, in a private boarding school… So, you can imagine the demographics of that in the Northeast. I started the first minority organization in the school’s history. That still exists today, which is amazing.

Andi Graham:               Wow.

Erik Smith:                    When I went off to Duke, Pan-Hel, that was set up for all Greek letter organizations… Well, we set up a separate one for black Greek letter organizations because we really weren’t represented well in Pan-Hell, and that still exists today. So, these are some of the kinds of things that I did. So, to get to the… To make a long story short, after I got done with marketing and came here, I did a project with Valpak and basically explained to them that if they were looking to broaden their base of customers, they really are struggling on how to relate to them. So, that birthed everything. Essentially, doing a project, they asked me to kind of lead the project that I created, which led into me becoming the diversity officer. As a result of that, I began to lead the effort for the company that we reported into.

Erik Smith:                    So, it kind of started from there, but really, it was… Honestly, it was basic marketing principles. Who’s your audience? And instead of… The product now is people as opposed to a widget. So then, it was, “Okay. To make yourself attractive to people, you have to look at yourself internally.” So, that kind of started a process, and of course, I became self-taught after that. But honestly, it just, to me, was logical. It was kind of like, “This is not that difficult. This is not rocket science.” But if inherently the systems that you have and who you are doesn’t subscribe to that, then it becomes a very challenging proposition.

Andi Graham:               You know, we talk about marketing, and marketing is… For us, the way that we market, it could be contended that good marketing all does this, but it’s based on empathy and it is based on really understanding the people that you’re talking to, and it’s incredibly difficult to get out of your own head, to not be your targ… You are almost never your target market and I can’t just market to white moms in their 40s, you know? I have to market all the different products and things that we sell, and so, there’s an incredible amount of empathy and research and understanding that has to happen. But when it comes to personal relationships, we never take that step. We don’t go that far, do we?

Erik Smith:                    Yes. Right. It’s become… When we think about it, some of the things that we ask people to do personally, they do in a business all the time. You have an actual methodology about how to build relationships in business, and we depart from them once we close the office door. As we start going into our personal relationships, we gravitate to who we’re most comfortable with, which nine times out of 10, are folks that look like us. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s not like you say, “Hey, you know, I’m going to talk to that person that looks nothing like me, that speaks another language, that I have no idea who they are.” No. I’m going to talk to someone that, “Okay. We kind of dress alike. We kind of sort of hang out in the same spot, so I can grab… I can play golf with that person. I cab grab a beer with that person. I can go hang…”.

Erik Smith:                    I mean, so, it’s normal. That’s how we are as human beings. The challenge with it is that what’s… And this is probably jumping into something that’s further along, but what diversity, equity and inclusion asks you to do is to lean into the opposite by which you naturally gravitate towards. So, it requires building a different set of muscles. I’m sure, because we’re CrossFit buddies, when you first got into CrossFit, you were using muscles. You were like, “These actually exist? What is that?”

Andi Graham:               I still… Seven years later. Seven years later, it’s still happening.

Erik Smith:                    Exactly. You’re still like, “Ow. Didn’t know that muscle exists.”

Andi Graham:               Yeah.

Erik Smith:                    So, we’re asking people to build new muscles that they’ve never built before and that creates paradigm shifts, and sometimes those can be realizations that are extremely painful.

Andi Graham:               I think you’re totally right, and that leads to my biggest questions. I’m so happy to have you on this podcast because I get to ask all the questions I’ve been wanting to ask people, so…

Erik Smith:                    Take the gloves off.

Andi Graham:               And I may screw up, so, yeah.

Erik Smith:                    Take the gloves off. [inaudible 00:07:19]

Andi Graham:               All right. All right. So, why is it so hard… I don’t want to keep going back to it, but why is it so hard for us to talk about race? I’m reading the book White Fragility right now, so I have a lot of insight into why it is, but a lot of it… There’s so much shame and fear. Is that it?

Erik Smith:                    Right.

Andi Graham:               Do you think that’s it?

Erik Smith:                    So, shame and fear… So, it’s so many different things. When people say, “Why is it so hard to talk about race?”, it’s because you’re taught… You’ve been taught for so long not to talk about it.

Andi Graham:               Yes. Yep.

Erik Smith:                    You’ve been taught, “Okay. The things that we don’t talk about at work is race, religion and politics.”

Andi Graham:               Religion. Politics.

Erik Smith:                    And that you are overtly taught, told, no religion, no politics. It’s an undercurrent you don’t talk about race.

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    It’s an undercurrent that when you look at your organization, you look at the top of the organization. It’s primarily white and male. You don’t really question that. You’re like, “Okay. There’s a glass ceiling. Whatever.” And for people of color, they’re like, “Well, there’s a concrete ceiling because I can’t even see above me to where it goes to.” So, I think the challenge with talking about race is that if you talk about race, you have to talk about slavery. You have to go back that far. You have to talk about what has been quoted as the original sin of this country and you have to talk about those things that are very, very difficult. You have to talk about the fact that, and most people don’t know, the first civil rights legislation was filed in 1866. There’s still laws on the books, on the books, that have be ratified. The right for black people to vote, it’s not like it’s a right and it’s done. Like in the sovereign movement, women’s suffrage movement, the law [inaudible 00:09:02]. They don’t have to ratify that every so often, but they have to ratify that for black folks. Well, why is it? Because it’s a system.

Erik Smith:                    So, the reason why race is so difficult to discuss is because when you’re in a position of power and privilege, why do I want to discuss something that impacts me and essentially requires that I now have to acknowledge something that I’ve never had to acknowledge before in my lifetime? When we start talking… When I bring up the big S word, slavery, it’s like, “Okay, well, dude, that was 400 years ago. That’s not me. My people… I didn’t do it.”

Andi Graham:               Yeah.

Erik Smith:                    “So, and I’m not racist.” But you are, by being quiet or by being a part of a system that subjugates people and you’re benefiting from that, then you may not be overtly a card-carrying member of the KKK, but you are benefiting from a system and not challenging it when you know that other people are taking a hit as a result of it, and then go through the process of blaming the victim, so to speak.

Erik Smith:                    So, it becomes difficult because it’s a contentious conversation and if you’re having that conversation with a person of color, it’s even more intense because they’re the ones that are dealing with it on a regular basis.

Andi Graham:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Erik Smith:                    So, that’s where a lot of the challenges come, and people of color just… Sometimes, I have to point [inaudible 00:10:16], “You know, I don’t want to be your teacher. That’s not my role, is to sit here and help you process through your white guilt, your white fragility. That’s not my role. That’s not my problem.” Just like for white people, it’s not my problem that you’re in the situation that you’re in. It’s not my problem that I’ve benefited from being white all my life and being in a position of power and privilege.

Erik Smith:                    For example, there’s folks who, when we started talking about race, that want to bring up that they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. And when I say, “You know what? I am totally supportive of that. I’m an ally. All about it. But nine times out of 10, you have to tell somebody you’re a part of that community.”

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    You know, and I hear this from my Jewish friends as well. “Well, I’m Jewish and it’s similar.” I said, “No, not really, because honestly, for most of you, unless you have some kind of physical characteristic that you’ve allowed to occur or that you wear, I wouldn’t know that either, unless you tell me.” You cannot mistake. I am a black man. So, because of that… I think Ice Cube said it in a movie. My skin is my sin. So, I can’t… There’s nothing I can do about that. Can’t get around that. You see it every day.

Erik Smith:                    And the responses that come from me just being black, man and larger than average, it creates a situation. I can’t tell you how many times women have clutched… White women have clutched their purses, have stepped aside, locked doors. And I’m like, “There is nothing that you have that I want. Nothing. I have plenty of my own.” But the idea of it is that, “Okay, this guy’s not smiling. He’s big. He’s black. I’m scared.” And so, those kinds of things make it difficult. It makes it difficult in corporate because you’re being told in corporate, “Smile more. Relax more. Be more like us and we’ll let you in the door.” And so, any person of color that’s in corporate has had to give up some part of themselves in order to be there, especially if they’ve climbed the ladder.

Erik Smith:                    I gave you way more than you asked for, but I hope that you kind of get the idea.

Andi Graham:               No. I like that and my business partner is Vietnamese, and so we talk a lot about the assimilation that’s happened. He’s first-generation and so he’s flipping back and forth between Vietnamese and English all day, but is very well… Very assimilated, and so it’s interesting thinking about how much has to be shed of that sort of native… Just all the mannerisms, all the language, all of the things you’ve grown up with, to become something that fits into this box and what this box is. You know, it’s definitely not something I’ve had to do. I grew up with not having to do that. I grew up in white bread Wisconsin, so… The smallest little white town you could imagine. Yeah. I actually lived on the most diverse block in our community. We had an Indian neighbor and there was two black families, but we were just on the side of the tracks that went to the elementary school went to, so…

Erik Smith:                    Wow. Okay.

Andi Graham:               But it’s a different life and it’s something that I’m learning to deal with in my… And learning to talk about, I think. It’s hard. I think, also, coming from this meeting of my Vistage group this morning and it was… They’re all white. They are mostly male. I think there’s maybe… It’s about a 75 percent male to female ratio in the group and that’s because our chair, the woman who runs it, is a female. But we like to hide behind the words diversity and not really talk about the systems that we’ve built that encourage or discourage diversity. We like to talk about inclusion. But I think those words, even though they’re important, they’re, I don’t know. Sanitary? They’re very… They feel comfortable to talk about and they don’t sound difficult. We can just build a policy for that or we’re going to start posting our jobs in this job board, too. Something like that. So, [crosstalk 00:14:09].

Erik Smith:                    [crosstalk 00:14:09] Those things aren’t… They have… They’re technical solutions.

Andi Graham:               Yeah.

Erik Smith:                    So, we can figure it out this way. So, that doesn’t require me to think. That doesn’t require me to feel. That doesn’t require me to have to really identify with what’s happening. We can create a technical solution, do this and that should fix the problem. And so, that’s the way it becomes, is that we’re being prescriptive and saying, “Okay. This race thing, it’s a problem.” That there’s a prescriptive, single magic bullet, silver bullet that can handle it. No. There’s not. This is actually… And again, I’m not subscribing to the idea of dismantle the system. That’s not what I mean. But I’m saying if you have a system that is designed for certain people to progress and other people not to, then I ask a question all the time. How do you expect to do the same thing over and over again and get a different result? I think somebody that was pretty intelligent said that was insanity.

Erik Smith:                    So, the idea of it is that for the system to give a different outcome, something within that system has to change, and that’s where the challenge becomes because the idea of it is, I have to give up something in order for that system to produce a different outcome, and most aren’t willing to do that. The idea is that, okay, if we have this… And again, as a diversity officer in my past, as these initiatives take place, the first people that feel eliminated from the process are white men. And part of it is, “No, that’s not the case. You’re an ally. You’re one of the most important people in these processes.”

Erik Smith:                    But the other part of it that I… I sit back and when I just think about it, I was like, “You’ve had all the privilege all the time, so why is it… Why is this particular moment that big of a deal?” And it’s the realizing or relinquishing any amount of power is challenging. So, it’s a zero sum game. If you win, I have to lose. It’s never about the idea of the pie can expand and it’s [inaudible 00:16:12]. It’s not about supply-side economics. It is about, if you win, I lose, so I’m not giving this up, so what we’re going to do is put this program in place that churns a lot of people at the bottom of the organization, and all these companies with these great diversity programs, you rarely see movement at the top because there’s still massive resistance. It goes back to your first question. There’s still massive resistance to understanding the implications of systemic racism.

Andi Graham:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Andi Graham:               And it’s… You know, to me, and I am… I fully recognize this in myself. I surround myself with people who look like me, and I even talk about when we hire… I have five employees here. We all have kids the same age, we hang out together, we’ve been friends forever and we all look like each other, and it’s a problem. And so, now, our hiring for the past few years has been, “We need somebody who doesn’t look like us because we all have the same perspective. We all have the same voice and that’s not good marketing. We need more voices in the room to do better work and to be more creative and more innovative.” But it’s tough because we don’t surround ourselves with people who don’t look like us, and so finding those networks and finding people becomes… That’s what we’re working on right now. We’re hiring right now. It’s hard to break out of our bubbles that we’re so just insular in.

Andi Graham:               And then, I think the bigger piece of it is that as soon as we acknowledge our role or acknowledge that these things exist, then we feel that guilt of, “Now I have to do something.” And I don’t have time to do something, Erik. I work. I own three businesses and I’m a mom and I’m a busy entrepreneur and I don’t know… So, what is my… What do I do?

Erik Smith:                    So, I think that… So, part of it is… One is that acknowledging is not enough. I’m going to say that.

Andi Graham:               I like it.

Erik Smith:                    Just to acknowledge it and not do anything about it, that’s not enough.

Andi Graham:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Erik Smith:                    However, to acknowledge it in the moment and say, “You know what? I acknowledge this. I really can’t do anything about it right now, but I’m going to do something.” That’s still okay, too, as long as that something does happen.

Erik Smith:                    The other piece of this is that only one… The smallest percentage of change within an organization is making that new hire. So, you say, “Okay, I’m going to hire this person of color because we need those perspectives in house.” Is your house prepared for those new perspectives, or is the house going to shut them down and find a number of reasons. “Oh, they just don’t fit in. Oh, their ideas are just not where our brand is going. Oh…”. And then, it’s the plethora of excuses, and really when it comes down to it, is that you really can’t handle the fact that this person, looking the way that they do, with the perspectives that they have that you said that you wanted, that you’re really prepared to hear.

Erik Smith:                    So, that’s why the process that we take companies and organizations through is to prepare the organization for what they want, because the knee-jerk reaction is, “Let’s go out and hire.” And what ends up happening is that that first hire could be great. That first hire probably will be challenging, and it’s going to challenge the organization because the organization wasn’t prepared. It’s the idea of, “Okay. You know what? I live in Cleveland, Ohio and I’m going to buy the best orange seed on the planet and I’m going to till up the ground, I’m going to throw them down there and we’re going to grow oranges in Cleveland, Ohio.” No, bruh. You’re not. The environment is not conducive to growing anything tropical. You might get away with some apples because they can kind of handle the cold, but you’re not getting oranges in Cleveland.

Erik Smith:                    But I think that’s one of the challenges and why these things never work, or when they do work, there’s reasons why they work. There’s a specific process to go through for them to work, and that’s why many of these things that start, fail, because, “Okay, we’ll just make a hire.” That’s not going to happen. It’s not going to work that way. And the struggles that you’re having, even in that regard, is because the initial step wasn’t taken in terms of building authentic relationships outside of your normal circle.

Andi Graham:               Yes.

Erik Smith:                    So, for example… And again, this happens all the time. So, it just so happens that I learned this early, and I had to make a decision, especially when I came here almost 10 years ago, is that I wanted something different. I wanted a different kind of life experience, so I consciously built relationships across the board, regardless of race. So, when my first son was born two-and-a-half years ago, it was a veritable who’s who, but also, it was like, you’re not [inaudible 00:21:07] at my house. Because there was a… I mean, whether there was someone in politics or a CEO or someone who cleans rooms for a living. Whatever it was, there was… It was every level of person because that’s my community. But that was an intentional build because I wanted a different experience, because experiences that I’ve had have been somewhat homogeneous, and I said, “You know what? For me to have the kind of experience that I want, for my children to be able to have the kind of experiences that I want them to have, they need to see something different than what I’ve seen.”

Erik Smith:                    And so, there was a reason, a very conscious reason, to do that. But that took work. That took work. That took a level of discomfort to be able to have friends that say very interesting things and I have to be like, “No, that’s not going to fly with me.” And so, then it fosters the conversation. So, all those folks in the room, we’ve had different levels of conversation. So, it’s just, if you want a different outcome, you have to do something different and that involves your personal life. There’s really… There’s no, “Well, this is my business life and this is my personal life.” No, not really.

Andi Graham:               No. Yeah. Especially as an entrepreneur, it is all one.

Erik Smith:                    Absolutely.

Andi Graham:               A hundred percent. So, how do I do better? How do I surround myself with people who look differently than I do? Where do I go?

Erik Smith:                    Well, one… And I’m not trying to be funny when I say this. You’ve started by talking to me.

Andi Graham:               Oh.

Erik Smith:                    So, you don’t stop at just, “Okay, we get a cool interview. We’re going to hang out and maybe do some business [inaudible 00:22:38].” You build a relationship. How would you build it in any other situation? You build it authentically. You don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do normally. It’s that when you get to the mental roadblock… Because this is going to be more of a mental, maybe even a cultural piece of, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” We CrossFit. That’s a normal entrée point. You know, we have kids. That’s another normal entrée point. So, you continue to build a relationship based upon who you are and who they are. There’s going to be natural points of disconnect. Just like the five people you told me about, have kids the same age, you look the same, blah, blah, blah. There are certain things that you do that are going to be totally opposite, but you build that in because that’s just the nature of being in relationships with people.

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    So, the idea is opening yourself up to those different relationships, because they’re there. You just haven’t engaged. So, it’s to take the chance and say, “You know what? Let me try something different. Let me just be open.” This is not about, “Okay, I’m going to grow one off and do this.” It’s, “How about [inaudible 00:23:38] just be open?” So, as opposed to the next person saying, “Hey,” say, “Hey,” and run away… “Hey. How are you? What’s your name? What do you do?” Same thing you normally would do.

Erik Smith:                    But part of this is doing that, but here’s what I would do, if I were really… You asking yourself this or wanted to do this. What stopped you in the past? And this is my interview, but now I’m now flying it back. So, what stopped you in the past from doing just that?

Andi Graham:               I am a very bad networker. I do very poorly at events when I don’t know people in general. I always gravitate towards the people I already know. And then also, just being a business owner and the events I’m at, I’m usually in a room full of mostly white men, and so I’m gravitating towards the people who look like me just because I’m so uncomfortable. So, it’s not the men. And I actually get shunned a lot, pushed to the edges of the room, just being a woman. And I can think of a number of events in the Tampa Bay area that have been horrific in that regard and some that were better. But I… Yeah. I just try to find somebody I can connect with quickly and form that, start those conversations.

Andi Graham:               But those conversations don’t… Most of them are not lasting things, and so… I’m not in groups. Like the group I’m in this morning, you know, 17 white folks, and the world that I’m in, I just… I think I’m just in some of the wrong places. I just need to put myself in different places.

Erik Smith:                    So, one of the easiest ways to do… And I figured this out kind of just by, when I was in corporate doing that, was volunteering [inaudible 00:25:21].

Andi Graham:               Yeah.

Erik Smith:                    That’s one other thing I cannot add to my [inaudible 00:25:25].

Andi Graham:               No, we’ve… We do, our whole group does… We do lunch pals every week, where we mentor folks, mentor kids. And we do some. We do a fair amount of it around here, but, yeah.

Erik Smith:                    So, look at… So, when you look at the areas and spaces that you do your volunteering, is there a space or a place that you can volunteer for an organization of color? That the organization itself are people of color, they’re focused on people of color and they have a board that allows you to engage in a different manner. I think what you’ll find is that there are plenty of opportunities like that. It’s just, it’s a process of uncovering them, and clearly, we could talk about it. I could give you a bunch of opportunities to do stuff like that. But not to overload you, but again, it’s being intentional. And I guess this is… If there’s one word to take away from this entire conversation, it’s intentionality. That process that my group of folks… There’s a very clear formula by which my circle looks the way that it does. It’s because I became intentional about changing it.

Erik Smith:                    So, if you are looking to change things, if you’re looking to be an ally, if you’re looking at any of those things and those are serious for you, the first thing to do is to do that thing that most of us do not like to do, which is look in the mirror. Ask yourself some hard questions and then set a plan with a level of intentionality and understand, yes, you’re going to be uncomfortable. That’s normal.

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    You go to all kinds of networking events like, “Oh my God. I do not want to go here.” But you’re looking at the benefit. The benefit is that I might make that one connection. I might make this happen. I’m building relationships. It’s the exact same thing. The challenge with it is that culturally, you’ve been told these folks don’t want to be around me, one, and two, I don’t want to be around them either, because they don’t have anything to offer me. And I hate to be… I hate for it to sound as crass as that does, but that’s the culture that you’ve been taught.

Erik Smith:                    And so… Because the culture that I’ve been taught is that they’re not going to give you anything, they don’t want you around and stay at home. Stay with your own. So, I think part of this is, in this flashpoint that we have, where there’s a number of people that have lost their lives and now people are in an uproar, let’s make a decision not go to back to business as usual. Let’s make a decision that those days are dead and gone and we are going to come with a new equilibrium. Not a new normal, because normal still says I’m going to back to business as usual. But a new equilibrium that we do things differently and allow the process to work, and that means, you know what? I’m going to take a chance on this person that does not look like me to either come into my organization or for me to build a relationship with because I want to do something different because I can no longer stay in this bubble that I’ve been living in.

Erik Smith:                    And that’s going to be an important piece, especially with you as a business owner, and as we’ve talked about, because of what you see and you’re like, “You know what? I want to do something different for my business. I feel like I need to do something different.” So, there’s other reasons that are associated with it and those are fine as well. But you’ll find out that even if you did it from a business perspective, you’re still going to build some authentic relationships that are going to open your eyes, and that’s when things start to change. You realize, “You know what? I’ve been living under a rock. It doesn’t make sense for me not to have these relationships, because they’re valuable. They’re incredible people.”

Erik Smith:                    And so, I think that’s going to be a big part of it because you’ll see value. You’ll value people in a different manner once you allow yourself to do that.

Andi Graham:               I appreciate that. I’m going to… Real talk. Part of my fear of making intentional choices is the risk of being seen as the white hero and getting the sort of… You know, there’s all the talk of not drowning out black voices, and that sort of position. And so, I’m curious, and this is something we’ve actually had some really good conversations in the office around, is what is our role in speaking right now? What is our role in sharing our experience or our feelings and supporting our community, supporting the black community in what’s happening? And there’s people who are taking very different sides in our office, in that some of them say we need to remain silent and stay in the shadows right now. It’s not our place. And me, I mean, this is…

Andi Graham:               Again, I don’t like the feeling of… It’s not my place to be the loudest voice in the middle, but right now, I sat in a room full of 17 people this morning and presented the idea of let’s have a hard conversation about race in our next meeting. Let’s all talk about why the 17 of us look the way we do and how we can change the makeup of this and what we’re doing at our companies and what’s working and what’s not. And I don’t know. Is that… That’s where my voice belongs? I feel like it does. Somebody has to have that conversation in that room, but…

Erik Smith:                    That’s really an amazing thought process and I applaud you for taking even the time to consider that, because that’s still tough. But I think the things that are interesting about what you said is, “Where is my voice? How should I talk about this?” So, the one word that I didn’t hear was listening.

Andi Graham:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Erik Smith:                    It was… And when I thought I was going to hear it, it was like, “Well, maybe I should be silent and be in the shadows.” And I’m like, “Okay.” And I think that’s the challenge that the white community struggles with, is just listening.

Andi Graham:               You are right, and I should correct because the person who was presenting this argument was very clear that it was about listening.

Erik Smith:                    Perfect.

Andi Graham:               So, that is definitely my inclination, because I’m very vocal.

Erik Smith:                    But, I mean, but that’s also part of a process. It’s a part of a process.

Andi Graham:               Yes.

Erik Smith:                    For example, when you’re building a relationship with a client, you’re listening. You are active listening. You are listening for certain keys. You’re listening for certain cues. You’re like, “All right. Where’s the pain point?” You’re going to ask certain questions. You’re going to probe. You’re going to be active listening. It’s an engaging conversation. It’s not possible to have an engaging conversation if you’re scared. If you’re scared, you’re going to sit in the shadows. You’re going to be quiet. You’re not going to speak up.

Erik Smith:                    Some folks, when they’re scared, can’t stop talking because they’re just nervous.

Andi Graham:               Yeah.

Erik Smith:                    So, the idea of this is, can you sit still and just listen to someone else talk? Can you sit still and listen to someone else’s perspective? And so, the part that you mentioned around empathy is huge, but that requires a level of understanding someone else’s walk. Especially in this situation, I think one of the first things that, if I was talking to a group of allies, which I intend to do very soon, or folks that want to be allies, I’m saying, “Why don’t you listen? Why don’t you do what my mama said? Why don’t you look and listen twice as much as you talk?” That’s why you have two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Listen. Understand. Try to understand as best as you can the perspective and the walk of other people that you want to support, because the perspective that happens a lot is, “Okay. Relax, little black person. I’m the almighty white person. I know better than you. Remember, I’m in power and privilege, so let me tell you what you should have, and this is how it’s going to work for you and you’re going to be better for it.”

Andi Graham:               Yeah.

Erik Smith:                    So, that kind of prescriptive parental thing is a holdover from slavery and having a master that told you what to do and that knew best for you. So… And in many of those cases, that becomes resenting. You feel like, “Okay, so you’re just going to tell me what to do and you’re not going to listen to me. You’re going to be prescriptive and you’re not going to listen to me. So, you know everything. I know nothing.” And this is my experience. Okay. That’s just not going to work. Even if you have the best intentions of, “Well, look at where you are and look at where I am. Let me help you.” And I get that. We do that with our children all the time. We’re like, “Listen. If you jump off the bed…”. I have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old, so I’m at that point. “If you jump off the bed with a swan dive, you’re going to fall and it’s going to hurt, probably.”

Erik Smith:                    So, it’s having these kind of conversations, where you are being a bit prescriptive because they really don’t know, and in some cases, when you’re educating folks, those situations do come up. But if you understand adult learning, you don’t tell an adult what to do. You ask permission to engage in a conversation to better understand their needs and then move forward.

Erik Smith:                    So, there’s a lot of core business practices that we do, especially on the sales side, that’s just around understanding people and understanding situations and building relationships. You can’t build a relationship running your mouth the whole time.

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    You build a relationship by listening and saying, “You know what? What I heard you say was mindfulness, all of those good things. This is one of those times to engage, where you’re actually listening.” And not listening to respond. You’re listening to understand.

Andi Graham:               I appreciate that. Should we have been marching?

Erik Smith:                    That depends. That depends on who you are. If you are the power to the people and that’s what your thing is. I’m not marching. I made that decision a long time ago. I’m going to be doing what I do. I’m going to be talking to leaders. I’m going to be in the board rooms. I’m going to be looking to change the system from within. My role is not to march. I’m going to have a lot of strong relationships with marchers, though. People that are protesting, I call them the rebels in the room. I’m going to be right there with them. I’m going to be more on the reforming side, dealing with policies and things like that. That’s more my wheelhouse. But believe me, I’m going to have relationships with those on the front lines because I need to understand what’s happening, need to understand their perspective. Just because I’m not there doesn’t mean I don’t care and I’m not going to be supporting them in the ways that I can through the means that I have.

Erik Smith:                    But will I say should you protest? That’s a personal decision. Do you feel like you should be on the front lines? Do you feel like that’s your space and place? And I’ve had a couple of conversations with CEOs, white CEOs that have asked me similar questions of what should they do. And I’ve said that you have power and privilege on your side. You’re a CEO. You set the tone. You are the leader. People are following you all the time. So, you can set a different tone. You can do something different. You can take the chance on that hire. You can do some things that put you in a better position to be able to have a more diverse team. You can look at some of your policies, practices and procedures to ensure they are actually equitable. You can do a number of different things that can shift the trajectory of this conversation based upon the place of power and privilege.

Erik Smith:                    So, another example is that in your group of CEOs, you can step up and make some decisions, make some suggestions and say, “This does not make sense. Why are we, in the midst of all of this, with the understanding from a Census data perspective there are going to be more of these people than us?” If we understand that the births of whites have been on the decline for years and the births of people of color, generally speaking, as a conglomerate group, have been on the incline, why are we not getting in front of this? Why does this not make sense to us? Or is there is an inherent belief that they’re just not smarter and not qualified, not really at the same place that we are, so why would we bother?

Erik Smith:                    So, these are real questions to ask, but because you are now in different… You are in a level… You’ve built your business. You’ve also built your career that you’re in a position of power and privilege to be able to have those conversations in a room of people that don’t look like you. Additionally, more often than not, a person of color can mentor another person of color to get them to do the door. It takes a sponsor that’s already in the room to open the door so they can come in. You’re a sponsor.

Erik Smith:                    So, that’s where the opportunities comes as allies, is to open yourself up to becoming more of a sponsor. And again, you do these things based upon your level of comfort, your level of understanding. And the worst thing that you can do, the absolute worst thing that you can do is put somebody in a position that they’re going to ultimately fail in. That’s going to ruin your perspective. That’s going to destroy their confidence and it’s going to destroy your credibility within your organization or within the group that you have. It still has to make sense.

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    However, there’s a level of work that you can do to support someone that you know is not going to get the support. It could be that small business that could be a supplier of yours. You’re like, “Okay, listen. The way that you’re doing this is not going to work. Let me show you how to do this. Let me show you how we do it so we can get to the next level. Let me help you figure that out.” So, these are not big things. These are things you already do, but you do them for people that look like you.

Andi Graham:               Yep.

Erik Smith:                    It’s just the idea of broadening that opportunity to do things a little bit different with different people. That’s all.

Andi Graham:               I love that, and I love the word “sponsor.” I think that’s a great word. I also read a really great article this week or last week about the difference between being… And it was somebody who does DEI consulting somewhere else. But he wrote this whole thing about being an ally versus being an accomplice, and I liked that. Right?

Erik Smith:                    That’s awesome.

Andi Graham:               Because it’s somebody who’s willing to sort of get dirty and take sacrifices and do the hard work, versus somebody who’s just there to say, “Oh, yeah. You’re nice. I’m your friend.” So, I like that word, accomplice, though. It’s kind of… You’re taking the risk at some point, so, good.

Andi Graham:               Erik, I want to ask you one thing. If this crazy point in time that we’re at right now, which I can’t begin to say how insane 2020 has been from just… I mean, everything.

Erik Smith:                    Right. Everything.

Andi Graham:               From the impeachment through the virus through all of this going on is just crazy. What… You know, you mentioned just not going back to business as usual, but what does that… What’s one small thing that entrepreneurs or leaders who really want to walk the walk can do right now?

Erik Smith:                    Start leaning in. Start having these conversations inside your organizations. Start having these conversations in places and spaces when you felt it was taboo, especially if you’re a leader. And the reason for it is that these conversations are happening anyway, so if you lean in and you create the safe space for them to happen… And let me say this again. If you lean in and create the safe space for these things to happen, one, if you have people of color in your organization, they’re going to appreciate you for it. Two, it will give us space and place for something different to occur. And I think right now, we’re in a space and place of taking some chances. People take chances in business all the time. They may be measured risks, but why can’t you take that in terms of developing or evolving the culture of your organization?

Erik Smith:                    What we’re talking about right now is an opportunity to evolve as a people, as a country. We’re talking about evolution. My prayer is that we do not de-evolve and go back to business as usual, so… And I think that’s the point, is that if you go to business as usual, that’s going backwards. It’s going back to business as usual. Because we’re at a flashpoint. We’re at a point where we have hit a place where there are people, black, white, otherwise, across the world, that are pissed off about what happened. That is injustice.

Erik Smith:                    I just was taking a walk with my kids and I saw a sign on someone’s lawn that… Hold on a second. Let me… Because I do not want to mess this up because the quote was too darn powerful for me to mess up. And it’s a Martin Luther King quote and it said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And I know the family and they don’t look like me, and I’ve seen stuff like that in my neighborhood all the time, even through the pandemic. Even through the pandemic, like that’s past tense. Even during this period of time where, you know… “Love thy neighbor.” “We’re in this together.” I mean, all of these… Writing in chalk on the ground. And so, it’s these moments that we’ve been vulnerable together, and I think that set the stage for this to happen. That vulnerability of no matter who you are, what you look like, COVID-19 was taking no prisoners and didn’t care what you looked like or who you were.

Erik Smith:                    So, to be that raw, to be that scared as a group of people because of what’s happening, and then for something like the blatant murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery… To see those things when you’re already raw and you’re feeling like we’re in this together and you’re feeling a sense of community that we didn’t have before, now it’s like, you just took my brother and my sister away. No, we got to fight. We got to fight for this. And that’s why what you’re seeing right now. So, to go backwards would be a travesty right now. So, I’m encouraging everyone. Do something and if you’re not sure what to do, call me. Let’s talk about it. Let’s figure out what you can do, because the idea of going backwards to business as usual really is unacceptable.

Andi Graham:               I love it. So, if people do want to call you, where can they find you?

Erik Smith:                    You can always go to the website. I’m there all the time. Www.inclusivityllc.com. Just reach out to me there. It’s an easy way to catch me. You can email there. My name is Erik, E-R-I-K, at all of that. And just reach out to me. I’d love to talk to you, love to understand where you are, what your perspectives are and how you want to make a difference, because frankly, that’s what we’re in here for.