Mo: Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to this week’s everyday inclusion and belonging where we talk about everything under the sun diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I am so excited to have Michelle Witherspoon with me today.
Michelle, we’ve been trying to schedule this since the start of this series like a year and a half.
So welcome, introduce yourself and that could take the full half an hour you all.
Michelle: No, no, no. I want to keep it really simple. I’m Michelle Witherspoon, I’m our Chief of Operations, people and culture for Cisco Systems. That’s what I do today along a variety of other things but I’m going to keep it that simple. Go to my LinkedIn if you want to know more.
Mo: Michelle and I have collaborated on projects for probably four years now. It’s been a really hard week.
Michelle: Yeah. Yeah, it’s been really hard. You know Maureen I’ve had to take a different approach. It just feels like every day, every week, there’s something traumatic. And so, from a from a mental health standpoint, and as an inclusion and diversity leader in this space, you got to take it in because you got to realize how are you offering safety and trust and all that for the employee populations in which we work for.
But also, you have to protect your own mental energy. Yeah, mental health I think is just so key right now. So yeah, it’s been hard.
So, how are you? How are you doing with everything?
Mo: I told you yesterday I hit, I hit a wall and I had a conversation with Andre last week where he was talking about you know, sometimes it’s like not today, not now, and I just I hit that wall. And I’m white.
Michelle: What, you are? I never noticed that in all the years that we’ve been friends. It’s like I have a really good friend of mine here Steve, he’s one of our vice presidents here, and he’s a white gentleman who’s been started off as a midterm sponsor and our friend and I asked him to be our leader for Cisco Black Employee Network. He said, you know I’m white and I was like oh yeah, that part.
Allyship In the Workplace
Don’t worry about that part. We’re going to come through it.
I do think it’s important, sorry to cut you off. I want to come back to it, but I think it’s in, I think you need to have allyship right now. I think it is a mandate that we need. For me speaking as a black employee like we have to have it.
Mo: Absolutely, and I think you and I have a history because we worked together for four plus years of checking in with each other.
I don’t ever have any expectation that if you and I have a meeting or you and I have something happening and there is yet another…
Michelle: You know something.
Mo: As an ally I have to check in and say, do you have the capacity for this?
Michelle: Yeah, you actually are so good with that. I mean you’re amazing with it.
I think right now, you and I were having this conversation that in today’s world as a business leader in the inclusion, diversity space, your silence is complicit. Like we, you cannot do that today like you just cannot do you can’t, you can’t operate in that lens.
People have to feel there’s a sense of safety and trust, they have to know that you’re paying attention, they have to know that you’re doing something about it.
Companies have to be brave and bold and deliberate with their actions.
Mo: Well, and I think, and I think you know, I think about some leaders that are in companies where maybe their executive leadership is not doing that. It’s still on you. It’s still on you as an individual leader with your team to be bold and brave, and to be an ally.
You know I was asked the question Michelle, I was on a panel and I was asked a question about what company is doing this really well.
Michelle: And you said Cisco.
Mo: Actually, what I said was, that’s like asking me who my favorite child is, and I said they’re in every organization.
There are pockets where this is being done really well. I don’t know truly of any organization that you can say blanket this organization is doing great because there are individual leaders who are not.
And then there are lots of individual leaders who are, so it’s really looking for the pockets.
Yeah, because when you think about culture, when we think about inclusion and belonging and culture, that’s almost down to the team level.
How many employees does Cisco have now? 100,000 or something, right?
Within that there’s a whole range right. Leaning toward because you all have such a deep commitment and you put resources you walk your talk.
Overall, Cisco is way better than most and within that incredible pockets of excellence.
And I think that’s something that people can miss. What am I doing as an individual in my leadership role?
What am I doing as an individual quite literally every day to show up and behave in an inclusive way and to understand my impact?
Michelle: Individuals make up the people, make up the culture, right? That’s what culture is. It’s made up of how people are acting when they show up at work every day, and I think that the companies that are doing it right allow that latitude of learning right?
And so, I’ll just speak from my perspective, is that you always have people. I say it like this. There’s a journey. Right, you always have people that are still like, some people aren’t even in the stadium like they don’t get it, they don’t. They’re like they’re not even in the stadium to begin that. They’re not even there, right? And sometimes I just don’t spend a lot of energy on that.
Mo: You can’t spend it on that 20%.
Focus On the People In the Stadium
Michelle: But for those people that are like I’m in the stadium at like the starting line, I’m trying to raise my awareness. I really want to do that to drive some level of action so that I have some type of sustainable long-lasting result. What do I do, like where do I start?
I just say start with Googling it and then you’re like, no, there’s so much underneath all of that. And then I said OK, what and then I know a couple of years ago you’re like I’m creating an app. I’m creating this Everyday Inclusion App and I was like oh my God, I’m so excited right?
And as you know, I was on it like at 1:00 o’clock this morning like sending something so I was like sorry I’m sending this to you so late.
Uhm, but the app is great because it gives vetted information. It’s microlearning. It’s easy to go in there and like I will tell you, I don’t know if I told you this, I was searching for Ramadan information. Am I saying the word right Ramadan?
So, I was searching for Ramadan information on there. I was like I know it’s in there when did it start and then I went to the app I was like oh there it is. Right, the date was in there, the information was in there and it was really easy to get to. That’s the easiness of it.
Mo: That’s the individual responsibility. I mean, I will tell you, I was not running and skipping and jumping and saying let’s create an app. It was really hard. It was really hard, but there’s so much bad information out there. I tell the story of this and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
It was a CHRO that said he had one of his leaders coming to him fairly devastated because their child had just shared that they were transgender, and they went and they searched Google and it led them to a YouTube video of a fundamentalist Christian group telling him that their child was an abomination of God and going right, that’s what you can get to with Google.
Michelle: That’s true.
Mo: Right where I could say I’m a heart surgeon, right? And if I know SEO, I could be first for being a heart surgeon and when it comes to DEI, this stuff is complex.
Michelle: It is complex, but it’s also the action that an individual can take that meets them where they are.
I love the everyday inclusion app, you can put it right on your phone.
But also, I love that you can go on Netflix right now and then you can look into categories and you can watch 13th or you can watch them, or Crip camp.
So as a black woman I wanted to watch it to support it, but the micro and the macro…I was triggered.
Let’s just say I would watch it and then I would have to stop and that would get triggered and I was like this is what this is what I’m dealing with sometimes. This is what other people deal with and so only bring it up because I think with learning sometimes here’s what I say all the time, if you can stay in your lane as a person that is not of color or a man because you know, let’s just take it women, regardless of race or dealing with stuff, right.
So, you can stay in your binary lane and never learn. Some people never have to come out of their lanes. They can stay in their binary lanes. Nothing affects them and they don’t learn.
But if we want to be better as a company, as a human race, as in the world, then we have to start to look outside of that.
That’s why I love to talk about it through a journey map experience.
Mo: Absolutely, and the idea that we are quite literally never there.
I mean I learn, and I learn, and I learn, and I make mistakes and I learn and learn some more, and I shift.
And oh my gosh, I thought it was this but now it’s this and oh, by the way, what you what might be inclusive for you might not be inclusive for Denise.
That’s right, yes, yeah, yeah, because we’re learning along the way.
Michelle: I mean, you and I were just talking the other day and I was telling you about my daughter when we go study, go live in hostels.
Yeah, yeah, and you’re like, oh yeah, this is a great experience. I was, I was so nervous about it. I’m just taking that as an example as something that I didn’t have experience. I think you’re like, oh yeah, I’ve done this before, this is my experience, and this is the lens in which I saw that through.
And you know, I’m a big fan of going outside the country, but I was also like what is this?
Mo: That’s where I said boy, like you are experiencing people from all around the world and you’re all making your toast together in the morning.
Michelle: But it’s a good example of inclusion through a totally different lens, and I think sometimes people think, oh, I’m going to take an unconscious bias class and then I’m going to do a check mark and I’m inclusive now. Or I’m going to go and read an article on you know AAPI or you know whatever that is and what I try to say is that you want to have. That’s why I like the name of your app, Everyday Inclusion because it’s every day that you’re learning.
I am certified in inclusion and diversity. This is what I do, and I am constantly learning and learning through every experience.
Mo: And that’s the piece, so I think we’re never done. And then this idea Michelle that I’ve seen a lot of organizations where they do try and focus on the people that aren’t even in stadium yet.
And that’s not how you’re going to change your culture. You’re going to change your culture by the 60% that are what we call NBC, nice but clueless.
Michelle: Never heard that before, I’m writing that down, seriously.
Mo: Because that’s really who, right it’s the nice but clueless who want to move from being having good intentions to having an inclusive impact.
It doesn’t matter what somebody’s intentions were if you feel excluded.
If you feel like you don’t belong, who cares what their intention was, or is it on the person that’s in the dominant group too.
I hope we’re seeing a shift from diversity equity that’s systems level, that’s leadership level inclusion belonging that’s you and I all day long.
And I hope we’re seeing a shift in organizations balancing the two of those.
Michelle: I think we are, do you not see that?
I was speaking to an external organization the other day and I said, when I first started in this space when you said inclusion and diversity, we didn’t use all the other words, equity, collaboration, justice, you know, all this stuff.
I sometimes get lost in what is the acronym right today or you know what’s the word?
Mo: You and I were talking about Jedi.
Yeah, it’s like people said, that sounds sexy right, and for those of you who don’t know, it’s justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. And everybody wants to be a Jedi, right?
Michelle: But when I started in this phase it was really focused when you said inclusion.
Diversity is really focused on the gender lens.
Mo: Yeah, absolutely right.
Michelle: And so, it was like we’re going to focus on gender. That is where we’re going to put our dollars, resources, time, and energy right? And we made some progress there. Along the way I think we forgot about some of the others.
Mo: Well, and I think we may, and the data bears this out it’s not like any women are making it yet right? And when we focused on gender, it benefited white women at the expense of women of color.
Michelle: Yeah, preach. Full stop right there.
Focus On All Diversity Topics
Mo: Anytime our approach is focused on one aspect or one dimension of diversity by virtue of doing that, you are excluding other dimensions of diversity.
You have to really think about OK, right now if we’re really focused on hiring African American and black employees. And I’m not even going to say bipoc, because a lot of organizations right now are not focused right on indigenous, they’re not focused on API, right?
Michelle: An API maybe for those who don’t know, you want to say.
Mo: Pacific Islander. If we do that, it will be at the expense of people with disabilities, API, right?
So, looking and saying full spectrum diversity, how are we bringing people in? Like looking at you right, you’re like the poster child for intersectionality.
Michelle: I agree with that so much and I think and that’s why I’m so open to speaking about the full person of who I am Michelle. I am a black woman uhm, you know that lives with a with a disease, I have multiple sclerosis, everybody knows it here and outside of here and I speak very freely of it and I didn’t grow up in the United States came back in here.
So just culturally how I see the world through this lens. And I think this intersectionality of which one is it today? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m a person of color? Is it because I lost my ability to speak and not too long ago and now, I came back? Am I being judged?
How do I show up as my full being and then how do we think about those communities that are on the margin?
Mo: There has to be the environment for you to show up.
Michelle: Yes. Addressing, we have something we call here called addressing the insecurity of being.
Right and so how do you make sure that those communities, we fundamentally look at the human needs of all right? And that insecurity of being, and so that we want to make sure that everyone feels safe.
And those that are that are really right now the target of hate and violence are the African American Black community, the Asian community.
My aunt, my real aunt not to pretend one, like my real aunt is from Hong Kong and she was at a store recently where two gentlemen said some very inappropriate things to her just because she’s Asian.
Mo: Michelle, you were at the gas station.
Michelle: Oh, you remember that?
Michelle: Remember, I will tell this story really quickly. I won’t go into the details, but was it after the election or right before?
Mo: Right before the election.
It was right before I came before the election.
So, you were shook and you should have been. And that’s an example of, is Michelle supposed to go and run this meeting after the hearings?
Michelle: I won’t go into all the details, but I’m in a sorority AKA I got my pink on today and also in my car, my license plate has it on the front of my car and I was pumping gas and a gentleman made a very inappropriate comment to me.
I won’t say it on this live, and I didn’t even think he was talking to me. Honestly, I was ignoring it.
Yeah, our Vice president of the United States She’s also an AKA and so he made a derogatory comment around that and I didn’t think he was talking to me, but then he started walking toward my car and so happened.
Allyship In the Community
And this is why allyship, and just because I think allyship does not mean you’re passive. You have to be active sometimes in the moment and the gentleman that was on the other side of the gas pump. He saw the guy walking toward me, he came around and it was a white gentleman, both of them were white gentleman, he came around and he just stood there.
He looked at me in my eyes and his eyes, he was like I got you don’t worry about it and when he saw that the other gentleman turned around, I was so upset I forgot I called you and then I was heading to a session that I had to go then talk and I had to get myself together.
I was scared I was hurt. I’m about to get teary eyed thinking about now. Although my allergies have been acting up on this call. But yeah, it was hard. Imagine your employees, with that insecurity of just being, I was just being, I was just pumping gas, right?
Mo: Right and then and then having to walk in. I think this constant check in right everything I do and how can I say like do you need support? I don’t want to pretend to be some kind of savior.
Michelle: Ooh pause right there for a second. That’s so powerful what you just said. Let’s lean into that just for a second.
Mo: Let’s go there, let’s go.
Michelle: I try to be very open minded with it but people of color whether you’re African American Black or Asian or someone with a disability, my son is autistic, he’s never looking for someone to come in and be his savior.
Mo: My daughter who’s a little person, and she says dwarf, my daughter who’s a dwarf, she is not looking for you to save her. And in fact, it’s super annoying when somebody does try to come in.
And she’s like no, I got it like I appreciate it.
So, let’s talk about this and how because we all have the opportunity to be allies all the time, right?
Depending on like you know, whatever it’s always like, hey, spend your privilege. So how can you spend the privilege that you might have situationally or systemically.
Michelle: How do you do it Maureen? Give an example. I can name some that you’ve done with me. But how do you see yourself in that light?
Mo: It’s always centering on you, not centering on me. What do you need? Do you need anything? How can I support? Do you need support? Not making the assumption but I guess it’s recognizing and articulating, like that guy right where you looked at him.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah, he didn’t even say anything because I look and then at the end when he’s like are you OK?
Like do you feel safe? That was what he said right before I left, and he said are you OK?
And you know some other stuff that happened, and I was like, OK, yeah that’s good but then he sat there. He sat there. He watched me pull off, right. He sat there and that’s what I needed at that time. I needed that action and needed the action.
Mo: I think it’s that too and I think it’s OK for all of us to check in with our allyship too. I love it Michelle because you and I had a conversation once where you’re like, I don’t ask me right now how I am because you’re making me relive. Ask a different question. And sometimes it’s not just a question, it’s acknowledgement of, I’m here.
Michelle: Yeah, just thought there’s a safe space. Here’s the thing that I think people struggle with. Here’s the thing that I think is really important.
Sometimes both parties are uncomfortable. I think that we’re in this space that people think black, black people, I’m going to speak from my experience as being a black person, right.
I think some things are like oh well, you tell me, teach me, I really want to learn, you know, teach me and I’m like you. Not my job, not my job.
And then sometimes we can both be uncomfortable in this space, but here’s the reality. I say this all the time to women that are women of color regardless if they’re African black or Asian, Hispanic, Latina like women, women of color, and then there’s a certain level of this sort of women at all. I’m going to speak specifically for women of color. We’re magical. Like I say this all the time.
There’s an amazing book called Black Magic which talks about black leaders in in corporate America. Once you can navigate through the experiences that I have literally been in the room where I have been overlooked.
Women experience this but been overlooked marginalized by several different components. Once you get through that, there is nothing you can’t do.
Yeah, there’s literally nothing. We have the magic of navigating through all these experiences, so don’t talk to me about political correctness. Let’s have a relationship where we’re both learning.
Give Up the Privilege Of Comfort
Mo: Well and again people that that watch this series. One of the things that I talk about all the time is giving up the privilege of comfort.
Michelle: Hmm, that’s good, that’s good.
Mo: I mean that is a privilege to stay comfortable.
Michelle: And you know what? It’s also social economic like let’s talk, Let’s get real, really quick.
I know family, friends that my privilege because I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Like my car messes up, I go get it fixed. I was just saying the other day, were you not talking about this? I was like Oh my gosh, I can never not know how much of a gallon of milk is or loaf of bread.
I never want to get that far removed and I literally don’t have to worry about it. Honestly, I could just go in and pick up what I want to put in my basket, I don’t even think about it. I never want to feel that comfortable.
Mo: Right, right, right. Yeah, like how much is a gallon of gas.
Michelle: Because I think that proximity for me to make sure I’m still looking through the lenses of inequality, injustice for a variety of things, that’s one of the reasons why I really don’t have to continue to keep using Instacart right now, but I get my groceries delivered and I tip really well, because I know right now that’s the only for some.
Allyship Is Supporting Others
Let me tell you something, the amount of diversity of people that come bring my groceries, I was telling my daughter this the other day, has been a much older generation majority of the time. These are like my parents dropping the groceries off or and very rare, you know. That’s been the majority of and many times this husband and wife team. Teams, I’ve had so many husband and wives come to drop it off and so I’m always like oh my gosh, I tip them more.
You know, I’m really, I’m really paying attention to the inequality and the injustice of just what Covid has impacted us with and everything else.
Mo: And that’s such a good example of everyday allyship.
It’s the little things that we’re doing all day long. There is no, there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one thing that an organization or a leader can do, but it’s the choice, right?
I’m going to keep ordering Instacart, and I’m going to tip really well because I know that there are people that are so deeply economically impacted by this, right?
Michelle: Yeah, and I can do it. Yeah, and if I couldn’t do it, I would find a different way.
So, for those who are like I can’t find it like you have to make this commitment as an organization and as an employee to justice.
It doesn’t have to be political right in a matter of fact, when you think about your organizational work, it should be apolitical, right?
You shouldn’t lean one way or the other. So, you want to ensure that you are focusing in those communities at the margin. What would that world look like if it was just for all and you have to be very specific with your actions in which you do that.
Mo: Well, and I think if we use the disability community as an example. You want to talk about a group that Is hyper marginalized? If you’re not following any disability activists, you absolutely should be.
Because the intersectionality there on race, class, gender, and then the outsized impact that Covid has had on that community, and we have laid bare inequity when it comes to disability.
So, it’s one of those, I don’t even know where I was going Michelle, just in terms of this. People with disabilities don’t fall in one political right.
What I found to be interesting again is we were talking about like all the acronyms right now.
I’m seeing companies get better at diversity, better at inclusion and they’re talking about equity, and they’re talking about justice.
Make sure then you’re actually doing something about equity, and if you’re using J, make sure you’re actually doing something about Justice.
Michelle: I know you’ve seen this continuum, it used to be we would talk about diversity. Right and then so diversity meant, what are your numbers looking like? How many people of color do you have? What are your ages? You know all that and then it was like, OK, now we’re going to move that video now.
We’re going to really think about OK, now we have diversity.
How do you think about inclusion, right? Are they being included?
You’re bringing people in, but they’re you know, musical chairs. They come in and then they have trimmed out.
Mo: I still see that Michelle, I mean our numbers haven’t changed because we haven’t taken care of inclusion and belonging and equity. There has to be such a balance.
Michelle: Also, today Maureen, I’m sorry to interrupt you, Is that social justice that used to sit out here like not even on the margins like they weren’t in the room like there was a social justice and it was like Oh yeah, that isn’t really affected companies today. The belief system has to be joint with your DI.
You know it’s funny when you look now, just Google companies and are they using inclusion, diversity, equity, belonging?
Mo: What order is it? It was diversity inclusion, and then, I’m seeing inclusion and diversity.
And if you’re going to, if you’re intentionally going to use that letter there better be action behind it.
Michelle: That’s the point I was making. When you have your plans, when you put it together the most important thing is to be really clear on your purpose right?
What is your purpose? And then underneath your purposes then OK, now what actions are we actually going to take as organization? Doesn’t matter if you have 100 employees or 100,000 employees like employees want to see action and that needs to be built around a framework of what that looks like and we use words like it has to be bold and brave and deliberate, and then inspiring action across all levels of communities, right.
And so right now we need to have a double click focus on the African American Black Community and our Asian community.
Like for you just to say we’re going to take care of all. Yes, we do, but now you need to double click into actions around those two communities.
And Hispanic Latinos in there as well. But the communities that are being, that have the insecurity of being right now is the African American black community and the Asian community.
Mo: And again Michelle, hyper marginalized people with disabilities.
The health impact of Covid on them right and the oversized people that are losing jobs, right? That community has lost jobs. They are seeing people daily take actions that put their lives at risk.
It’s puzzling to me how we keep missing that in terms of who is there?
You know the everyday right? Let’s not forget them in this conversation right now.
Michelle: My son is autistic, and you heard me say earlier and he was working at a library and where he is and coming in and it shut down.
But there’s nothing there and he hasn’t been able to find anything else that meets him around his ability in the way he shows up with Asperger’s with another organization or group.
Mo: Exactly, and so that’s there’s and again, like quite literally, because of immunocompromise being immunocompromised, or because of fragility in health, whatever it may be.
Imagine you know, watching all these people that are Putting their health at risk. So, like that, talk about not feeling like you’re included and belong like this is not even like that’s justice work right there. That’s equity works right there.
So, I think that’s the don’t miss that there’s. And again, this is where intersectionality and every single day. What’s the thing you’re doing?
And again Michelle, there’s an oversized impact that leaders have, but every single one of us.
Michelle: I think that’s the takeaway. Like don’t look outside of yourself to do something.
Mo: This is your truth bomb stuff! Give it to me, Michelle.
Michelle: I feel that with everything deep down in my soul. You know, it’s like just the you know first of all, right now we need people that have radical candor, right tell us, say, don’t get hung up on the political correctness.
If you want to understand somebody, just use your empathy, your vulnerability, and ask the question.
And then do it after you’ve taken some time and energy to do some stuff yourself. Like when I don’t understand something around, I don’t know, I just asked somebody this, I guess Ramadan is a good one, right?
It’s like you know, what can I do? I’m always learning. So, go to the everyday Inclusion app because I’m going to plug that 100 times over and if you don’t like it, I don’t care.
Then, but then there’s other things like Amazon Prime has click, look here Asian API stuff, black communities, Netflix and then read a book, listen to a white paper like talk to a friend.
Have people like Maureen in your life.
Mo: Have people like Michelle in your life.
Michelle: And also, by the way, let me just say sometimes when we’re going through this, I’m like I need a glass of wine right now, what about you?
Mo: So, you could see why I was excited to have Michelle on and Michelle thank you for all that you do, not just for Cisco but you share so generously in the DEI community with best practices, you share so generously in in all of your communities.
And I so appreciate that because the ripple effect that you have is really extraordinary.
Michelle: Ah, thank you, it’s for people like you to help us. It helps with the journey, so I appreciate you and Moxie and everything you guys have done.
You’ve been an amazing partner and developed friendship and oh my gosh, we can talk forever. So, let me just stop talking, right.
Mo: Thank you all. Thank you Michelle, we will see you next week on everyday inclusion and belonging. Cheers get out there and do the next right thing.
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