Ordinary Employees Pursuing Racial Justice in the Workplace - Maya Adolf, Jamie Sturm (Podcast Ep. 22)
Guests Maya Adolf and Jamie Sturm started an employee-led educational group to foster racial understanding in their workplace. By combining learning curriculum and discussions, they got honest with each other about their differences, their experiences at work, and how to move forward together.
Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. (NRSV)
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (NRSV)
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (NRSV)
Additional Resources Referenced
Black Lives Matter Journey Group Curriculum, by Maya Adolf and Jamie Sturm
White Fragilty, by Robin DiAngelo
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace. I’m Mark Roberts.
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
The work of racial justice can feel so big, so overwhelming, that many of us don’t know where to start. We don’t know what we could possibly say or do to chip away at racism, and the last place we want to have these difficult conversations is in the places we work. If you’re a person of color, you may think: I don’t want to be responsible for representing all minorities in my workplace. Maybe you fear being fired or labelled as a troublemaker. Or you may be angry or sad and feel that you just don’t want to hear one more insensitive comment about race from one of your colleagues. If you’re a person with privilege you may think: I don’t want to feel uncomfortable in difficult conversations with my co-workers. Or you may be afraid of saying something offensive. These understandable fears keep many employees on the sidelines, waiting for leaders or other people to do something. Our guests Maya Adolf and Jamie Sturm pushed through these barriers and started an employee-led educational group to foster racial understanding in their workplace. By combining learning curriculum and discussions, Maya and Jamie’s group got honest with each other about their differences, their experiences at work, and how to move forward together. And they’re here to tell us more. Maya and Jamie, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.
Jamie Sturm: Great to be here.
Maya Adolf: Thanks. Really excited to be here.
LA: Thank you guys. So I wanna hear about this discussion group at your workplace, and how that came about. How did it get started?
JS: Maybe Maya, you could talk about leading up to the... Kind of setting the stage, and also the email you sent with the resources in it, and we can go from there.
MA: Yeah. So this was early June, and this was right after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent riots and protests around the country. And I think that was a Monday or a Tuesday. One of our leaders set up a call and said, "Hey, we need to talk about racism," just very frankly. And I had no intention of speaking up on that call. I was just very frustrated, hurt, angry, all of the feelings that... It was just a lot emotionally on me, and...But throughout that conversation, there were different comments and different viewpoints that didn't necessarily sit well with me, and so I spoke up on that call. And afterwards, I sent out a list of resources, so... Because one thing that I've been hearing or had been hearing at that point was, "Well, I don't know where to go to get resources," or, "I don't understand what the Black experience is in America," or, "I don't understand racism," or, "I can't be racist because," fill in the blank. And I sent out these resources, there were books, there were podcasts, Netflix documentaries, YouTube clips, literally whatever your learning style is, whatever your attention span is, "Here's something that you can grasp onto, to get a better idea of what is going on and kind of understand why people are so upset and unsettled right now." And even, I think before that email, Jamie, I'm not sure if you reached out to me before or after the email, but...
JS: It was after.
MA: It was after. Okay. And Jamie just being the great person that he is, just was like checking in with me, and then also we talked a little bit about the resources. He said that he was gonna read some of the books and then asked if it was okay if he could touch base with me on them later, which he did. And we talked about... Jamie, I think it was White Fragility, was that the one that you read?
JS: Yes, that's the one.
MA: Okay. And we talked about that and then he asked me about what were my thoughts on creating a group to discuss this, like a Black Lives Matter discussion group. We parsed out this content, get the team engaged and see where it goes. To which I hesitated a little bit, but I was like, "I do think this is something that we need to do." My only condition was just that, "I don't want to be the voice of the Black community, and also this is a lot for me right now, I'm not okay, so I need your help on this." And he completely honored that. This was a full-on partnership. I personally feel like he did a lot of the heavy lifting with setting up the discussions, and I'll let him talk more about some of the things that he did, but that was pretty much what we did. We put together a quick proposal, talked with leadership about it. They were on board and then we went from there. So, your turn, Jamie.
JS: Yeah, that's a really good set up. And thank you for walking us through that 'cause... Yeah, so I'll pick up where Maya... When she sent out the list of resources, it was a very robust list of books, documentaries, like she mentioned. And about that time, it was one of the mornings I was about to go to work and I was having a time of prayer, and I remember hearing one of those nudges, and you've heard these before, it's like the thing that you don't wanna do, but you feel like it's, God's telling you to do something. And for me that morning, was to start a conversation about this in the workplace. And I felt utterly unprepared and ill-equipped for such a conversation. Especially as a White male, I was afraid I would do more damage than good. But I went straight to Maya's email and I was like, "Man, this is such a great list of content." And so I approached Maya, and we had a good rapport at that point from working together just in a team building and general collaboration in the office. And so we had trust, and I said, "Would you be willing to do this group with me and make this an actual discussion, a formalized discussion in the workplace?" And one of the things that we used to underpin this discussion, this group, was the notion... And our VP had said this, he said, "If you're trying to make progress towards ally-ship, then you wanna start with gaining understanding. And then understanding will lead to a point of view, and a point of view will lead to action." And so the thought was, what better way to grow towards ally-ship than to start with this understanding piece and let it lead towards the point of view and the action? And so the idea was, well, if we're all gonna be growing towards ally-ship in silos in our own homes, in our own kindles, then why not just do it as a group with our co-workers? And so Maya said, "Yeah," she agreed to do it and we set up the curriculum.
LA: And what was the response from your co-workers like when they heard about this opportunity?
JS: Well, we emailed out and very quickly got a lot of excited emojis, I think is what I received, and a lot of supportive encouraging messages from people saying, "I'm so glad there's a forum to talk about this," because it is kind of an awkward topic in the workplace, to talk about race. It's kind of up there with religion and politics as a very sensitive workplace topic. But from my perspective, I received a lot of good feedback, and Maya, I'm not sure if you felt the same way, but I thought there was an energy towards doing something like this.
MA: Yeah, I would definitely agree. I got a lot of those messages and even when people weren't able to make it, they would send us notes. Jamie, I don't know how many you got, but I definitely got a few, almost like they felt bad or guilty, and I'm like, "It's fine, go to your doctor's appointment. I'm not upset."
MA: But that did mean a lot that it's like, "Hey, I do care, I don't want to seem like I'm just blowing this off and I wanna let you know that." So I appreciated that, because that wasn't always the case. There were some... We did see some drop off in the group over time by a few people and so you wonder maybe what happened there, but I did like that people were reaching out to us, either just with the excitement or like, "Hey, I can't make it, but I'm still gonna read the book or try to watch the movie."
LA: Now, Maya, Jamie said he got a nudge in his prayer time to start this group. Did you need a prayerful nudge yourself, or did your faith have any play in you saying yes to leading this group too?
MA: I think for me, I had a lot of... There was a lot of anger and hurt, if I'm being completely honest. And my prayer time was really devoted to, "How do I channel this productively? Because I'm upset." And I think that I felt inspired to be bold and speak up against it. And I'm like, "I need to do something, but I don't know what. And I don't know what's gonna be most effective." And so I feel like the nudge was Jamie coming to me, it was like the answer to my prayer of, "What makes sense, what should I do?" was leading this group with Jamie. And so that opportunity was presented and I latched onto it.
LA: Now, Mark, I wanna bring you into this conversation, you lead a team in your workplace, and you're often leading people through difficult conversations. And that often feels like the burden of the boss in some ways, to bring forward difficult conversations to your team. Have you ever had something like this happen in your workplace, where team members have gotten together to launch a difficult conversation?
MR: Well, yes, in somewhat of a similar way, actually. We had been... We periodically have talked about race and issues like that even before George Floyd and other, because we have a diverse group and we have people of color who are on our team. And those of us who are White also feel like, "This is something we gotta talk about." And so we had done things, but with all that was happening in the last six months, it really seemed like, "You know, we need to do more than that." So my colleague in leadership, Michaela, and both she and I are White, but we got some folks who helped us as a whole team have a couple of conversations about race and they're both women of color. So it was... It was really hard. It was really good, it was really good. Touching, but was so hard. Partly because we don't wanna hurt each other. Partly because there is so much hurt about this. Partly...A couple of our colleagues shared some really, really painful things that... Not about not me or... But just things that have shaped them that just were so painful to hear. Now, I'm so glad I heard them. I mean, it was so important and they trusted us with really precious things, but I would say really, even though we are all more or less on the same page about a lot of things and really care for each other, those were probably the hardest conversations we've had in our workplace. They weren't conflictual, it's just hard because this stuff means so much. And there's just so many lives, especially the lives of people of color, history of just hard, hard, awful things. And when you talk about that, if they're gonna be honest, then it's gonna be a really painful, hard conversation. So let me just say, part of what was really helpful, and it sounds, Maya, Jamie, you folks have sort of done this internally, but was just to have some people lead this who wasn't me. And so that was really important and helpful. But as I say, it was really hard.
LA: There's this... As you talk, all of you, I'm thinking of this proverb, it's in the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 27, verse 17, it says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." And that's often... I think of that in my workplaces, my co-workers sharpen me 'cause they're driving me to do better in my own work. But in these difficult conversations, it can feel really painful to get sharpened by another person. I mean, it would be really painful to be sharpened by iron as it is, but to be in conversation with one another, hearing hard things, as Mark said from his experience, is very painful. Maya, what was the experience like for you of these conversations in your work?
MA: For me, they were really therapeutic, honestly. They helped me process through a lot of what I was dealing with, and I think of, I think it's James 2, at the end of James, but, "Faith without works is dead." And when these things happen, I think we oftentimes just resort to, "Oh, pray about it. Let's hope that it gets better. Let's have faith that it gets better." And I didn't see things getting better, and when you go into the history, things have not necessarily gotten better. For everything that has changed, something else has gotten worse, or it's come back in a different form in terms of racism and oppression. And it's like, what can I do? Because just praying about it, prayer is great, but how can I actually move in that faith that we can change? And I don't even know that I knew at the time that Jamie was a believer. But we ultimately got to that point in just the conversations that we had, but it was good to have someone to have these conversations with, to see his genuine heart and also move away from being angry and hurt and... I found myself being able to be a bit more understanding and compassionate and just these feelings that were not sitting with me at the time of all of this happening. So, in terms of iron sharpening iron, I think that maybe Jamie softened me a little bit, softened my heart, but I think that that was what I needed at that time to be able to think and see clearly in order to, again, just carry out good works and move forward in helping to educate people on this very important topic.
LA: Jamie, what was the experience like for you?
JS: Well, first of all, it was terrifying, if I'm honest, to walk into a workplace and talk about race when you're... I think it's never said, but I think in White culture it's often implied you should not talk about your own race or the race of others, it's just kind of minimized. And so it's kind of like throwing a firecracker. It was a bit scary to do that, but once I got through that and kind of broke through the ice, with Maya's help and with her partnership and encouragement, I'd use the word "mind-blowing". To really dive into this content, this history that is soaked in privilege and lack of equity and harm and just sit with those issues, was very mind-blowing. So it was very opening, mind-opening to think about what role my people group has played in this issue and what role I have played in this personally. And so there's... So for me, it was a learning experience. And as I think about the fruit of it, I'm part of the fruit, 'cause I have changed. And Maya and I discussed this a lot during the group, is that even as we change as people, that is part of the solution. And so I feel a lot of... It feels really gratifying that I've moved forward in my own allyship just through reading these books and through watching these documentaries, and through talking about them with people of color. So, that was my experience.
LA: Can you give us a little context of what a sample meeting might have looked like? JS: Sure. So, the first one was on a book called White Fragility, which is the idea that White people are often... Well, the definition of this term is the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation brings about. So, it's just, it's hard to talk about race because those muscles have not been exercised. And so for this first meeting, we came together and did an intro and really first set some ground rules. We decided on some rules together, of how to have a respectful conversation, of how to listen to opposing viewpoints and not start lambasting people and start calling out broad statements. So we kind of set a culture of what this group believes in about respect, and about growth towards allyship as the framework for it. And then we started diving into questions, and so we would go back and forth and ping-pong and so Maya would ask me questions, I would ask a question, on the different books and things we read and watched. And so we'd say for example, "Let's talk about aversive racism. What examples have you seen in your life where people have paid lip service to being... To promoting equity, but then they've also talked in coded language, coded racist language. What examples have you seen in your life about that or in the workplace?" So go through questions and at the end, we'd have breakouts on Zoom, so we'd get into groups of three to four to five people. And the magic with the breakouts was, and I'm curious Maya, what your perspective on this was, but in the groups that I was leading, people would speak up who maybe didn't speak up in the larger group of 25 people, people who were very self-conscious to put themselves out there would speak up in these breakouts and then really get a bit more... Give a bit more of how they were processing these issues, and then close out with a few announcements.
MA: Yeah, and that was my experience as well with the breakout groups. Just as Jamie said, people were a lot more vocal, and I can understand it being... I was nervous as well, as I guess, one of three Black people on the team, and I think maybe total like five people of color. So the experience was nerve-wracking, so I can understand being nervous to speak up in a large group, not being sure of saying the wrong thing. So people were a lot more vocal, and because of that, we decided to make the breakout groups a little bit longer at the end, so that people had time to voice their opinions and continue that discussion. And after we would do our announcements and close out, we would hang out for another 10-15 minutes. So if you have time and you want to discuss more or you have questions, we're here as a sounding board. Or if there's something you didn't want to share with the entire group, here we are, and we can talk to you more about it.
LA: And I imagine that this group is not just for people of faith, it's for all employees of the company. But did you feel like you were leaning on your faith in some ways as you led this group? I'll let you go first, Maya.
MA: Oh yeah, I would pray... So we would have a pre-game before the actual meeting, just to do a run of show. And then... But before the meeting, I would just take a minute to pray, meditate, gather my thoughts, and just compose myself for whatever was about to happen. And it was always such an amazing exchange. It was never as crazy as I thought it would be. It was almost the exact opposite. I definitely think that that was God like, "Hey, you're good, and all the things that you're worried about are actually not an issue because it's not gonna happen." So yeah, just praying and really connecting with Him before going into that conversation. Because it almost feels like you're going into the lion's den, especially that first meeting because I didn't know what to expect or how things were gonna go.
LA: I love you calling out that story from Scripture, of Daniel going into the lion's den. [chuckle] I don't know if that... Whether Mark, if you get some resonance from that, but I'm thinking, you know, Daniel was, also took kind of a political stand in his life and that threw him into that den of lions.
MR: For sure. There are other biblical characters that have done that, Esther comes to mind. People who took great risks for righteousness and justice. And Jamie and Maya, I think, although of course, your personal experiences are really different because of who you are. You know, Jamie, what you said earlier about sort of feeling kind of fearful because you're a White man, and this is such a tricky issue, and boy, and I felt that and feel that. And yet, you took the risk. And Maya, although you haven't said this, you sort of alluded to it, but I have several Black friends who are just so tired of having to interpret things for White people, it's just exhausting. I don't know if you were feeling that at all, but I get there was a lot of courage for you. So I guess part of what I recognize is that both of you, and it sounds like your faith really helped you here, chose to do something that was risky, it required courage and trust. I just think that's so much a part of what has made this work. But it's easy for me to say, 'cause I'm not in the middle of doing this. But I think we need people who, because they believe in God's justice, are willing to take risks to, as you say, not only talk and build understanding, but do things that will really work for justice, and that can be a scary thing to do.
MA: Definitely. And to your point about just... I think that as Black people, when you talk about racism and you talk about discrimination, oftentimes it feels like the onus is on you to explain, undo all of this mess that was created intentionally, not... Like, we didn't decide to be oppressed. But it feels like the onus is on you to fix it. And Jamie and I have talked about this, and one of the things that we did with the group was really stressing the fact that, "Please read the material and dive into this before the discussion. One, that's what we're here for. So please... And this is what you guys have, or at least some people have asked for, so please engage with the content." But also it's kind of like an accountability thing. And going back to Jamie's point earlier of, are you saying that you're against racism, but you're not really doing the work to figure out what you can do to change things in your community, within yourself, etcetera? So to lift that burden and not feel that level of exhaustion is just like, "Hey, you guys really have to read the content. Here are the questions ahead of time for you to think through, and... So that we can have a more productive conversation." And I just think you get more out of it that way versus just coming to listen.
LA: Jamie, can you tell me, have there been any... Have you seen any effect on your workplace or on conversations at your job outside of this particular group?
JS: Sure, I can talk about that, but I also have one comment to going back to the question you asked previously about how my faith helped me throughout this group. And I just wanted to say that for me, this was an issue of obedience. And so it was a pretty clear like, if I don't do something, then I feel like I've neglected to do what God has asked me to do. And therefore it was like, "Well, God, it doesn't have to be perfect, I just have to take a step forward in obedience and give it a shot." I don't think He's gonna sit up there in heaven and say, "Well, the group wasn't up to my standards, so you know, this is a fail."
JS: I think taking that step, and I was trusting Him to deal with the results and have it lead to good fruit. So, that's what helped me sustain me throughout the weeks we did this, 'cause Maya alluded to this too, it's a lot of work. It was a lot of stuff to read, a lot of things to think through, a lot of management with other people. And so it did get tiring, but that knowledge that we were doing the right thing was powerful. So, you asked a separate question too...
LA: So tell me... Yeah. Well, I'll ask it again. Have you noticed... After you ran this group, have you noticed any change in the place where you work, either in conversations outside of this group or in corporate culture, or have you seen an impact of this group in any way?
JS: That's a great question. Issues like this are... It's like, how do you measure progress towards anti-racism? This is a fantastic question. And so Maya and I actually sat down together after the group and came up with a survey to try and encapsulate some ways, some metrics to put around this and say, "Was there any fruit? Was there change?" And so our measurement tool was people's attitudes and beliefs. And we had a set of questions, it was about six or seven questions of, "Do you see more racism in our society? Can you point to it? Or can you point to something that you've done to fight against it?" Things like this. And we had about two-thirds participate in the survey, and the majority, the vast majority showed a marked move towards that new mindset of allyship and of anti-racism. Not just saying, "I'm not a racist. I'm okay, I'm clean, I'm good, I'm not a racist." But it's saying, "I wanna fight against racism." And so we did see movement in the survey. I think beyond that, it's really just opened up the conversation in the workplace. Before, it was kind of a taboo topic, and I think between the deaths that happened this year, with people of color at the hands of police, and between that and just the group that we had, I think it's opened up this whole conversation. It's no longer such a taboo or a weird thing to talk about in the workplace.
LA: Maya, has your relationship with your co-workers changed as a result of this group?
MA: Yeah. I think that there's just a little bit more humanity. I think that my direct leaders, people that I work closely with, there were a lot of people who were checking in with me and having real conversations and even asking, "How can I support you better? Or are there things that I've done that have made you not feel supported?" And I'm like, "Actually, I have a laundry list." [chuckle] "Remember when this thing happened? Yeah. This is the type of stuff that I'm talking about." And to see that eye-opening to these situations and to see that shift and, "Hey, you know what, that wasn't nothing. I'm gonna make sure that either I rectify that or if it happens again, I'm not going to let it slide," type of thing. And in terms of the broader organization, I've gotten or I have gotten emails from other groups within our department and even just other divisions at the company who had heard about the discussions that we were having, heard about the curriculum and were asking for those resources. Or wanting to get an idea of how we were running our groups because they wanted to replicate something else similar in their department. So, that's not you know as quantitative as a survey, but anecdotally knowing that other groups are saying like, "Hey, this team did it, and it was led by individual contributors on the team, not that it was mandated by leadership. Let's do the same." And hopefully, like Jamie said, hopefully these conversations become more normalized. It's not taboo. And really, if you have... If you are a person of color in an organization where there aren't a lot of people who look like you, it's humanizing for these conversations to be had. Because I was telling Jamie and I've told other people this, George Floyd was not the first. And for years, these things happen, you come to work on Monday and you have to act like it didn't happen. And maybe if you're lucky, you have a safe space, you have trusted co-workers that you can talk to about it. But by and large, even as a Black woman, you just, I just come to work and act like it didn't happen, and for whatever reason, I couldn't do that at this time. So, tearing down those walls to have these conversations and to say, "I see you, I understand that you're impacted by this. Maybe I'm not impacted in the same way, but I respect you as a person. I respect you as a human, and I understand that you're hurting right now. And I understand that there's more that I can do and that I shouldn't just ignore it." Because I think that that's been the solution. Like Jamie said, White people don't like to talk about race. I feel like racism is this wild, crazy elephant in the room that's destroying things, it's hurting people, and we're just like, "What elephant?"
MR: Part of what I love about what you folks have done is that it's very local, it's relatively small. You didn't start a national organization, not that it would have been bad to do that. But I think sometimes, I think for some, because the elephant in the room is so big and so scary, even people who might not acknowledge it, I think they sense, "This is so big and so scary," there's a tendency to think, "Well, I can't make a difference. We need national change, we need legal change, we need things that are so far beyond my capability. So, even though I'd like to see a change, I just, I can't deal with that and it's beyond me." And so it'd be easy to say just to back away. Whereas I actually think, obviously we need bigger change, but I also think it's gonna happen in individual workplaces and teams and people who on the mustard-seed level are saying, "Hey, where we are, let's work on this." And I love that you did that, and that others are picking it up. Because few of us will have an opportunity to make widespread impact for justice, but in terms of our own work environments, we actually have an opportunity to really make a difference. And if enough Christians and others, but enough Christians actually start doing that, there would be a strong net effect. So I love it that you didn't just feel overwhelmed and throw up your hands, but it's like, "No, where we are and in this context, we can do something that matters."
JS: And Mark, I loved what you said about...You brought up the politics and the legal side as well, like the legal reform and broad societal reform as well, 'cause that's something we discussed between Maya and me, just to ask what is gonna be the scope of this group? Is this going to be a group that's talking about high level change and political change? Or is it gonna be more skewed towards individual growth? And so we did have to frame it and we chose to pursue the more personal side.
MR: Yeah. And I know you would think there's a place for the other, and it's crucial, and it's essential...
JS: There is, there is.
MR: But in that context, it felt like you were helping people to change and grow, and the impact would be primarily in your particular workplace and team. And that's good, that's not not dealing with the problem, that's dealing with it when it's in your house, and that's part of where we've gotta take it on.
LA: Maya, do you have a last word of wisdom for people who might wanna start these kind of conversations in their workplaces, but might be scared?
MA: I would say, just do it. Honestly, be bold in your faith. And I think that as Christians, the second Commandment is to love your neighbor, love your neighbor as you love yourself. So if you see things that are not right, if you see things that are not equitable, call them out. And it is scary, but I think that the climate has changed as such, that even in the past, if you might have been seen as a troublemaker or you feel like your job might be on the line if you bring these things up, I think that should not be the case anymore. And honestly, if you do... I'm not telling anybody to do anything that would cause them to lose their job, but if speaking up on these issues causes a problem where you are fired, that's probably not a place that you need to be working. So don't be shy, be bold, be brave and ask the Lord for guidance on how to do that and to just direct your steps on that journey.
LA: Yeah. Maya brings it home for us by quoting the Book of Mark Chapter 12, this is in Verses 29-31, where some people asked Jesus, "What is the most important Commandment in the Bible?" And Jesus answers, "The first one, the first most important Commandment is, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind." And then He says in verse 31, "And the second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other Commandment greater than these." So those are fantastic words to close with. Maya and Jamie, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today, and thank you so much for the work you're doing.
MR: Yes. Thank you.
MA: Thank you for having us.
JS: Thanks for having us.