Shaping Seattle | Devi and Shireen discuss Racial Equity in the Workplace and at Home

22 min readApr 7, 2021

Devi Johnson: [00:00:00] I know that these conversations aren’t easy as well. I’ve had conversations with my family around: yes, you had a hard life, but it’s been exponentially easier than the experience of someone who’s black within the US. Even if you grew up poor, in a large family, in a small town.

[Shaping Seattle is a podcast that highlights the work of Seattle Shapers and other local impact leaders in the greater Seattle area. In our fifth episode of Shaping Seattle, our very own Devi Johnson and Shireen Tabrizi talk racial equity in the workplace and at home.

Devi Johnson is currently a project management consultant helping companies navigate large and complex projects. Devi focuses on driving impact and positive change in her workplace and in her community. She is leading her (mostly white) office as their diversity, equity, and inclusion champion and has worked with multiple community non-profits. Outside of work, Devi enjoys cooking, hiking, and reading. Find her on LinkedIn and PointB. Books she mentions in the episode: The Courage to Not Know — Brené Brown, How To Be An Antiracist, Showing Up for Racial Justice

The host, Shireen Tabrizi, loves herself some structural and systemic change. She also likes to talk politics, both national and hyper-local, and stay engaged with her community. Find her on LinkedIn]

Episode 5 | Racial Equity in the Workplace and at Home with Devi Johnson

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:00:26] Hi everyone. My name is Shireen. I’m a member of the Seattle Shapers Hub and I am here with Devi who would like to welcome to the podcast to have a fun conversation today about racial equity. Welcome to the podcast Devi.

Devi Johnson: [00:00:41] Thank you, Shereen. I’m happy to be here.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:00:44] Thanks for being here. As you know, because I wouldn’t surprise you with this topic at 10 in the morning, we are here to talk about racial equity both in professional and personal capacities. and just have kind of a conversation between the two of us about, uh, what it means to you, what it looks like in your life, the ways that you have grown on your journey to become more anti-racist and maybe some tips and tricks for anyone listening. Not that we have all the answers, but that we can potentially share some of the things that we’ve struggled with ourselves. So, I first want to start by asking about your experience in the workplace, working towards issues of racial equity. If you could speak a little bit about that generally you don’t have to get into too much detail about specific instances or employers.

Devi Johnson: [00:01:37] Yeah, thanks Shireen. So, my experience directly working with racial equity in the workplace has been really focused since the beginning of COVID when I took on a role working as our kind of diversity, equity and inclusion lead. And it’s been quite a journey if you think of it from starting, when COVID was beginning and budgets were being slashed and there wasn’t a lot of focus on racial equity, diversity, equity, and inclusion to George Floyd’s martyr and all of the different protests that took place over the summer, leading us to where we are now.

And it’s really changed the way that we interact within our company too. But a few things that I’ve found that have been really interesting within it is the company that I work at, and I feel most kind of larger companies within the United States, have this perpetual challenge between people who feel like we’re not doing enough and people who think we’re doing way too much already. And why are we doing this at work? And does it have a place at work? And it shouldn’t necessarily be a part of those conversations. So, it’s been something that continually over the past year I’ve been working through and having conversations with different leaders about what that looks like, how to have those conversations and how do we make sure that we’re bringing along everyone within those two spectrums?

Because what we’ve tried to emphasize has been, even if you aren’t fully supportive of the work that we’re doing, you still need to be aware and understand why we’re doing it and what we’re hoping to achieve, because there’s lots of different reasons that we’re pushing this work forward from a business perspective, as well as from an employee’s perspective and broader community perspective.

So the one piece of my experience and I think the other piece has been kind of around more logistical of some of the work that we’ve been doing has been around creating a sponsorship program for BIPOC associates at my company, as well as helping to make sure that we put the money into these people in these roles.

It hasn’t been something that we’ve always had those dedicated resources for. And we’re also working on launching or continuing and building out a responsible sourcing program as well. In addition to focusing on environmental sustainability, focusing on making sure that we’re supporting businesses that are owned and run by people of color within the broader Seattle area.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:03:53] Thank you. That’s really helpful. Cool to hear some of your experience in that capacity. What do you think in working on some of these things in the workplace, what do you think some of the biggest challenges have been? You talked a little bit about needing to bring people along. Are there other challenges that you’d like to talk about or strategies that you’ve come up with in order to overcome those challenges?

Devi Johnson: [00:04:16] I think there has been multiple challenges. One there’s always been this tension of not wanting to say something for fear of not getting it right. And then further offending someone. And so, we’ve had a lot of conversations around how do we make sure we’re continuing to drive work forward? But in a way, and we’re having conversations, but in a way that does not require specific groups of people to be the main point people to explain things.

So, we’ve been trying to support different communities of people who want to have conversations and talk through things that they’ve realized themselves, that somebody else might have already known for years or for their lifetime. So, helping to have that space. I think another challenge, something that I touched on before has just been the resources for it.

I’ve seen a lot more companies, post roles within racial equity, diversity and inclusion, but I’m curious to see how that will all play out. I know within my company, it’s a whole bunch of people who are doing this on the side, and while we are paid for our work, it’s on, in addition to whatever work we have on top of our normal day to day work.

So, it’s a challenge of if we truly want to drive this work forward, how much are we willing to invest in it? And I think that varies from a small company to a large company too.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:05:32] Something that you mentioned about learning and having conversations without burdening those most impacted by the issues that you’re talking about, particularly when it comes to race. I think that’s something that I want to pull out and segue into generally how we can work towards racial equity as humans, both in the workplace and in our lives, in any groups that we’re a part of or other communities that we’re a part of.

So I think this is a really good point because it’s something that I think a lot of people in particular white people struggle with because, we don’t grow up having the language to talk about these things. I think particularly in the United States, we’ve taken more of a post racial colorblind sort of let’s all get along mentality and we don’t really talk about systemic, structural, institutional racism in the ways that we need to, to really overcome it. Something that I want to talk about is maybe strategies to work towards building these communities where you can have these conversations. And so one strategy that I think has been helpful for me in my professional capacity in different jobs, but also in any volunteer roles that I’ve been in where the organization is working on racial equity in a pretty substantial way is the idea of caucusing which folks may be familiar with, but in case anyone listening is not the idea that you get together with people by race to have conversations like this. And I think particularly for, for white people, it is really helpful to talk to other white people specifically about our role in race and racism and how that looks different than people from other racial groups. And I think some workplaces are doing that. I know my partner works, works for the County and that’s something that they’ve taken up, I think in the last couple of years, but something that my partner has found very helpful in the workplace.

And it’s also taken the burden off of particularly black people, but folks of color in general, to continue being the people who are tasked with explaining sharing experiences , being vulnerable and in some ways, kind of emotionally exploited for our benefit. So I think that’s something that works really well, not only in the workplace, but also in our own personal lives to find the one to three people that maybe have a more similar experience to you when it comes to racial equity work and have conversations with those folks to avoid tokenizing someone with these kinds of questions.

Devi Johnson: [00:08:18] That’s great. And that’s something that I’ve definitely tried to do within work and personally as well. Thinking about within my own work context, my company has a lot of older white men. And so, it’s been interesting. They’ve used me in the position that I’m in to have a lot of those conversations and they’ve gone through their life where they haven’t realized the role that systemic and structural racism has played within their life and impacting how they’ve gotten to where they are today. And when they have that light bulb moment and want to talk through it with someone, I’m happy that they talked through it with me. Their experiences are so divergent that it’s not worthwhile or beneficial to anyone to have those conversations.

So, it has been something I’ve been trying to encourage. And I found helpful myself to have a few people that I can go to, to ask questions and talk through issues with who are on different, who have different levels of knowledge than me to, in order to help challenge what I’m thinking. If it’s not fully accurate, or if there’s another way that I can frame something.

I know that these conversations aren’t easy as well. I’ve had conversations with my family around. Yes, you had a hard life, but it’s been exponentially easier than the experience of someone who’s black within the US. Even if you grew up poor, in a large family, in a small town. It’s hard for people to understand how diverse and vast the experiences across the US are.

I’ve grown up in the Seattle area, my entire life. So, I’m not nearly an expert in any of these, but I know there’s value in having some of those conversations. And it sounds like you at work and at home, you’ve done a great job of setting that up too. And having those conversations with your partner as well.

And then your partner taking that to his workplace conversations too.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:10:01] Yeah, it can definitely be challenging, especially when you grow up and are sort of socialized to not sort of, you are socialized to see the world in a particular way. And then you find out that. A lot of that was untrue or not the full picture at the very least. So, it can be really uncomfortable.

And I think sitting in that discomfort is a very large percentage of what racial equity work looks like. And having people talk through that with that you’re not burdening with your emotional journey through this work.

Devi Johnson: [00:10:39] Yeah, I knew one thing that’s been interesting for me is within that. And my dad has been very much from the experience and what his parents taught him of: it’s hard work, you pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and that will get you through. And so, I’ve tried to challenge him on that and have hard conversations on that topic for better or for worse, not always successful, but to help him and to show him the different ways that our experiences take place, where sometimes hard work doesn’t make an impact nearly in the same way that he thinks it should.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:11:10] Yeah, exactly. And that’s because of these structures that we don’t learn about growing up and that are so normal to us that we don’t really analyze the ways in which they have systemically, oppressed, particularly groups of people, particularly black people in this country. That’s again just a really difficult truth for folks to digest.

But I think something that was eye opening for me in my journey along the racial equity spectrum. When I first started learning about systemic racism, heard that phrase for the first time, was this idea that you’re not supposed to be in this work or working towards racial equity because you feel bad.

I think guilt can be a really good motivator to get you in the room to start having these conversations or to get you online, to start reading the things or in front of Netflix to watch the stuff. Because those are all really good ways to learn but operating from a place of guilt is not going to get you all the way through, and it’s not going to be what actually dismantles these systems that are working against so many people, including ourselves as white people.

So, I think something that’s helped me understand my role in all of this is the idea of collective liberation and of the fact that we will all benefit when those who are furthest from opportunity or those who are most oppressed by these systems and structures are focused on and centered.

And I think that’s something, you can find several examples where this is the case. I think a good example that I heard when I first sort of was awoken to this idea, is the idea of like in the disability space having curbs with access for folks with wheelchairs. If there is a kind of an entry point along the curb for folks with wheelchairs, that also is nice for people who walk on their legs and don’t use a wheelchair to enter the curb as well. It makes it easier if you’re like pushing something, rolling a suitcase.

I mean, it really is something that benefits everyone and realizing that centering different groups who are most in need of attention on particular issues, whether it’s something like that or whether it is something in housing or something economic. It really does benefit everyone.

I think the quote is something like our liberation is bound together, or there’s variations on this quote, but I think that was something really eye opening for me and makes you think differently about your position in all of this as well. Something I to share from my experience.

Devi Johnson: [00:14:05] I think the other way that I think about what you were just saying is it’s not a set pie. If something’s directly as taken away from you, there’s other things that you’ve experienced your pie is so much larger than say somebody else is. And if it’s not fixed, it can continue to grow. And your direct experience, it might feel like something is being taken away, but there’s this broader work and structure around it.

That little bit that might change in your experience makes someone else’s experience so much easier and everyone else’s experience so much better that it’s worth that gentle shift in power from one person to the next.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:14:42] Yeah, that’s a really good way to frame that. The idea of limited resources and this whole scarcity mindset is what we’re socialized to believe to pit one group against another and to pit ourselves against each other and kind of keeps the whole system going.

So I wanted to ask, you know, related to what we were talking about earlier, about how to have these conversations how to find space to learn and grow when it comes to racial equity, without burdening folks of color. What are some ways that you have and able to incorporate that time and space into your daily life, whether it is through conversations or through learning and other ways or practices I’d love to hear from you on that?

Devi Johnson: [00:15:30] Yeah, I think there’s so much within that too. I think to tie back to one of your earlier points killed for me, I think was a good starting point in getting me moving in this direction. And then it’s slowly become a part of kind of everyday things that I do. So, I think there are a ton of resources out there and it can be overwhelming if someone’s looking for one thing to find or to start with.

A few things that I’ve found helpful have been specific podcasts. Kimberle Crenshaw has a fantastic podcast, um, on intersectionality matters. That’s I would wholeheartedly recommend there are daily, weekly, et cetera, different emails that give background and context to specific current events going on or broader structural inequalities and racism that you might not know.

And it. They are able to share specific things in a digestible format that you can easily consume over an email. And for me, that’s been really helpful. The other piece that I try to do and acknowledges we live in a social media bubble, too. It’s the people who I follow Instagram and Facebook give me more people who look like that.

So, I try to also acknowledge what I’m saying, and I value the people who I follow on social media, but I’m curious to expand that and not just only keep my focus on that 100 people who I tend to engage with. And so, they put those to the top of my feed. That’s been some ways I’ve done it. I also have a few friends, I think like we talked about earlier, who I go to when I have specific questions around different topics. And I have one friend who’s really interested in community organizing and community engagement. So, she’s given me a ton of ideas of how I can get involved more directly within Seattle instead of the broader topics that are nationwide or across so many different facets of the way that the country is organized. So, I think those are a few pieces that have been really helpful for me. Another piece, I know it’s past Christmas, but maybe for next Christmas or the next round of holidays, there’s been so many different lists and good collections of black owned businesses that I try to go to, or even if I’m looking for something.

If I find it on Amazon and I see the manufacturer, like why don’t I go to their website to buy it instead of buying it on Amazon. So little things like that, where I’m trying to diversify the information that I consume and verify it and diversify the people that I talk with about it. And then just the things that I shop and cook and eat, et cetera, trying to put a little bit more intentionality into that on a daily basis.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:17:59] Yeah, that’s great. Thank you for sharing all of these strategies. And I think you talking about both the ways in which you learn and consume information, as well as are applying the things that you learn is really helpful because I think you have to start first with the learning. And I think that can feel a little bit funny.

Like you’re not doing enough or you’re just, you know, sitting and reading articles or listening to podcasts, but I think it’s an essential first step to then approach, like you said, with intentionality, the ways that you can actually apply these ideas to your life so that you’re not just throwing the words around and not putting the right actions behind them.

Devi Johnson: [00:18:42] And I think one other point is it’s not that everyone has to do everything. Like I’m a gigantic introvert. So, for me, that learning and consuming of information is what I enjoy doing and what I focus on. And then I apply a lot of that within say, like my small group of friends and I’ve had to do more of it at work, in the position that I have working with leadership and working within our office.

Something that I enjoy and feel comfortable doing is having those smaller conversations and bringing in that information. It’s easier for me as a person to do that, understanding that there are all of these different roles that need to be filled. And I value the people who are good at filling some of the other roles at the same time that I can feel some of the other pieces that need to be done as well.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:19:24] Well, I appreciate you being on this podcast, given that you’re an extreme introvert. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have guessed. I think one other thing that I want to mention on this note of learning, consuming information, processing, all of that is this quote that I think is from Brene Brown that is essentially like we should be doing all of this, doing this learning and consuming of information and even applying these principles to our lives in order to have the goal of getting it right? Not necessarily because we want to be right. And I think that distinction is really key. So I think in my mind, that’s kind of the difference between doing it for performance sake or to look a certain way on social media or maybe in front of your friends or colleagues having the right language and knowing all the things versus like really actually doing it for the right reasons.

So I think that is something that I try to keep in mind as well. Am I really doing this because it is the right thing to do or because, I want to demonstrate that I think it’s the right thing to do. What are the motivations behind your actions?

Devi Johnson: [00:20:40] And I think the other piece that too is, as you go about learning and having conversations, it’s important to remember to keep your mind open and to absorb the information that’s new to you instead of automatically having a strong response against it. If it’s not something that you fully agree with or have been exposed to or believe in.

So I that’s where I keep that in mind too. It’s I’d rather learn and take the information in and eventually get it right. Instead of focusing on being right within the moment and saying, no, you’re wrong. That’s not true. That’s not your experience. And what do I know about your experience or what you’re saying, or I’m not an expert in this and you are, so I should be listening to you.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:21:22] Right. Or this idea that sometimes folks don’t want to join conversations because they don’t have all the information or language or experience. And that can feel. Paralyzing. And I understand that I’ve been there for sure myself. But I think this quote applies to that as well. And it’s connected to what you’re saying that you’re not going to be right all the time.

There will be things that challenge your worldview and that’s not just for racial equity work, that’s really for everything. So, I think it’s a good principle to to be willing, to mess up in a way that hopefully doesn’t burden anyone else but with the goal of eventually learning from that and getting it right. I think we have had a nice full conversation, unless there’s anything that you would like to add. I have a few kind of rapid fire questions that I’ll ask you, but just wanted to present the opportunity for any final thoughts on this topic.

Devi Johnson: [00:22:18] So Shireen and I also wanted to ask, I know you’ve been really involved in driving racial equity work within the Seattle Shapers hub. So, I’m curious if you could share more about what you’ve been doing on that and how that looks, and if you have any recommendations on what people can take away from that, either for their own hub or for their workplaces, et cetera.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:22:38] Yeah, thanks for asking. Yeah. So, in the Seattle Shapers Hub, we’ve had a lot of conversations about racial equity throughout my time in the group. There’s a lot of interest in ensuring that we are applying racial equity principles to our community engagement work. Well, we didn’t exactly have a shared definition of what racial equity even was, what that looked like, what that meant. And so particularly over the summer when there was so much information floating around and, if for those on Instagram, if you’ve seen those sorts of pure results of information that people were sharing, like 10 ways to apply racial equity in this space or that space, like just so much information floating around. I thought it would be helpful to take the time to actually sort of spell out what that looks like for members of the hub, what it looks like at least to be striving towards anti-racism and make sure that we’re all on the same page and committing to that as members of this group. Because I think that’s a really essential part of any community engagement or organizing work.

One tactical thing that I and others in the hub decided to do is put together a pledge, an individual member pledge around anti-racism principles and have everyone sign that and commit to that as a member of the hub. So, I definitely did not invent these ideas myself. There’s so much information online.

For anyone interested in doing something similar for their group, I pulled most of it from Ibram X Kendi’s book on How to Be An Antiracist and then showing up for racial justice is another site that I pulled a lot of the information from, but there are many other places. And I think it this kind of a pledge may look different for a volunteer group versus the workplace versus being an individual just walking in the world.

So, I think there are a lot of ways to approach, something like that, but that is one concrete thing that I, I hope can be a helpful example to other groups, other shapers. And then one other thing that you have been involved in , so you can chime in if you’d like is , I was also interested in getting a baseline assessment of where our Hub was at with these issues and related to something that you said early on folks come at this from very different perspectives, experiences , backgrounds , and it was important to me to figure out how everyone was showing up to this work and use that as a way to have a conversation about how to best cater resources, whether it’s a spreadsheet with a list of links that are sort of catered to what people want to learn more about, or have less experience with or if there’s certain language that maybe is newer to people. Can we flesh that out a little bit as a group, but just basically trying to figure out where everyone is at so we can all get a little bit closer to being on the same page. So that’s something that’s in the works now that you have been helping with as well. Something that I also pulled from many other different, much more talented experts in this space that there are several different kinds of assessments like that, that you can do in the workplace or as an individual to at least get an idea of a starting place and figure out sort of where you need to go from there.

So hopefully that information both that I shared about what we’re doing in the Seattle hub, but generally a lot of what Devi shared about what she’s working on at her workplace and the ways that, her and I are thinking about racial equity in our personal lives.

Hopefully, there’s something that folks can take away from these conversations. And now I’m going to move us into some very unrelated, rapid fire questions that we’re asking everyone on this podcast. So, Devi, can you tell me what book or author you’re reading or following today?

Devi Johnson: [00:26:54] So in general, the book I’m reading right now is called Midnight in Mexico by Alfredo Corchado. And he’s a Mexican born journalist who moved to the US when he was a young child. And then he moves back to Mexico in the nineties as a reporter. And he talks about just the challenges that Mexico has gone through going from one political party for 70 years, to finally when the opposing political party is elected and how his role has changed as a reporter and the impact that organized crime has had on his job and the impact in sharing a lot of the stories coming out of Mexico, it’s been really interesting to read and hear about.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:27:34] I’ll have to check it out. What leader are you looking up to right now?

Devi Johnson: [00:27:38] I think there are so many people right now, and I’m so grateful of. Social media as bad as it can be for allowing so many people to have a platform. Obviously, there are a lot of people who have important voices that need to be heard, who we haven’t given that platform or attention to, but some people, but I’m really following and listening to you or Ibram X Kendi who you mentioned earlier, um, Austin Channing Brown, and then I’m always impressed with Brian Stevenson and his ability to tell stories and share specific messages in a way that really helps people to understand what’s going on and to try to action.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:28:16] Those are all excellent leaders. Thank you for sharing. How much sleep are you getting these days? Especially, you know, as we start the year and it starts a little bit chaotically, I’m curious, how much sleep are you getting?

Devi Johnson: [00:28:30] Yeah, sleep for me is I am super controlling of, and I will not compromise on my sleep. I try to be in bed for at least like eight or eight and a half hours a night, because if I don’t, I get really emotional and I’m just not a happy person for me. Sleep is super important and I there’s another book on it called Why We Sleep that I think is fascinating.

Just the importance of sleep and our dreams and how it impacts our memory, et cetera. So, I would recommend that for everyone as well, it’ll change the way that you view sleep and make sure, at least for me, tell me, prioritize it more than I have been.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:29:05] I need to channel some of that energy in my life. If there was one wish that a genie could grant you, what would it be?

Devi Johnson: [00:29:13] I think right now in the world that we’re in probably the first thing that comes to mind is having a vaccine that we could get out fast and furious to everyone. I think COVID has taken so much from our lives and caused so much loss and grief that just having the vaccine and having it, people who are vaccinated, I think would just allow us to lift that burden that’s been on our shoulders for the past year and take a deep breath and look around and think through, okay, we made it through and what are we going to do now?

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:29:45] Yeah, that would be a dream. What are you most grateful for today?

Devi Johnson: [00:29:52] I think my family and our dog. We’ve been together for the past two weeks. And it’s been really nice.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:29:57] That sounds lovely. One final and very important question. What is the best way to reach you?

Devi Johnson: [00:30:03] Probably on LinkedIn. I’m not very active on other social media platforms, but I try to keep up to date on LinkedIn.

Shireen Tabrizi: [00:30:11] Thank you Devi for joining the podcast today, hopefully you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did and hope that listeners did as well.




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