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On this episode of Dare to Lead

Aiko Bethea is a friend, colleague, and diversity, equity, and inclusion expert. We discuss empathy, accountability, and the power of listening and believing (including a very real role play). We also dissect the differences between transactional leadership and transformational leadership and why courage is a prerequisite to lasting, meaningful change.

About the guest

Aiko Bethea

Aiko Bethea is a leader, builder, and connector. She successfully navigated leadership roles in government, philanthropic, and corporate sectors, and in each sector, she created and served in inaugural roles to meet growing organizational needs and visions for evolving. Aiko is the principal and founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, a consulting practice focused on coaching leaders and organizations to remove barriers to inclusion.

Aiko also co-leads The Daring Way and the Dare to Lead communities of Brené Brown Education and Research Group, serving as Senior Co-director. She partners to oversee development and implementation of the overall strategy for the facilitator communities, as well as the specific diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategy and oversight of the global 1,000+ member facilitator community.

Prior to this, Aiko served as Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Fred Hutch Research Center. And for over seven years, Aiko was with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she served as a Deputy Director. Aiko has served on several boards and provided pro bono support for nonprofit boards, and she is deeply engaged in community-building.

Aiko earned her B.A. from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and her Juris Doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a graduate of the Hudson Institute of Coaching at Santa Barbara and is an ICF professional certified coach. Aiko is a Certified Diversity Professional and is licensed to practice law in Georgia. She is highly sought-after as an executive coach and consultant.

Show notes

An Open Letter to Corporate America, Philanthropy, Academia, etc.: What Now?” by Aiko Bethea

The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, by Sonya Renee Taylor

Brené with Sonya Renee Taylor on The Body Is Not an Apology Unlocking Us podcast episode

“The work of anti-racism is becoming a better human to other humans.” —Austin Channing Brown on Brené with Austin Channing Brown on I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness Unlocking Us podcast episode


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast, and I’m so excited today because I get to introduce you to someone who has been such an incredible teacher for me, a friend, we’re colleagues, we work together, and she has really fundamentally shifted a lot of my thinking on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work, and I just can’t wait for you to meet her because her ideas are so grounded in courage and empathy and connection, it’s just the medicine we need right now, and so if you’re trying to figure out, “How do I do this anti-racism work at work? How do I show up? What do I need to be watching for? What do I need to be listening for? When do I need to pull back? When do I need to step up?” All those questions that all of us are asking ourselves on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, I just don’t know a better teacher than Aiko Bethea. So Aiko is, she’s a leader, she’s a builder, she’s a connector, she has had big leadership roles in government, philanthropic organizations, in the corporate sector, she is a Principal and Founder of Rare Coaching and Consulting, a consulting practice focused on coaching leaders and organizations specifically around removing barriers to inclusion.

BB: Aiko is also a senior co-director at our organization, the Brené Brown Education and Research Group. She co-leads the Daring Way and the Dare to Lead facilitation communities. She partners to oversee development and implementation of the overall strategy for these facilitator communities, and by facilitator communities, I mean folks who are trained in my work and go out and teach people. And she also helps us identify and address specific diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategies. And she helps really build, teach, and nurture our global facilitator community, which has close to 2000 facilitators. Prior to working with us, she served as the Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Fred Hutch Research Center, and for over seven years, Aiko was with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where she served as a Deputy Director. She has served on several boards and provided a lot of pro bono support for non-profit boards. She is deeply, deeply engaged in community building. She’s got her BA from Smith in North Hampton, Massachusetts, her Juris Doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she’s a graduate of the Hudson Institute of Coaching at Santa Barbara.

BB: She’s an ICF professional certified coach, and she is also a certified Diversity Professional and licensed to practice law in Georgia. I just feel so lucky to work with her every day. I feel so lucky to learn from her, and I feel really grateful that I get to share her insights with y’all. These are the questions that we’re all asking ourselves and organizations right now about how to do the next right thing. Alright, so first, Aiko, thank you so much for joining me on the Dare to Lead podcast.

AB: Thank you for having me. Super exciting.

BB: I have to say that you have brought so much wisdom, experience, depth of understanding to not only our organization, but as a Dare to Lead facilitator, as someone who headed up our initiative on diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, our co-creation group, you led that amazingly. So I guess I’m just really excited that you’re here and excited that I get to share what you’ve taught me with a big audience.

AB: Thank you, well, I’m excited to share and I’ve learned so much more from you so, likewise.

BB: Alright, so let me start here, you wrote an article on Medium. Was this after George Floyd’s murder?

AB: It was.

BB: It was, right. It was the end of May that you wrote this, right?

AB: Yeah.

BB: And the title was “An Open Letter to Corporate America, Philanthropy, Academia, etc.: What Now?” Like what’s next? And I want to read part of this article. You and I both work with leaders of organizations, from small businesses to Fortune 20 companies who are many, wanting to do the right thing around anti-racism work, wanting to do the right thing around equity and inclusion work, but are scared and don’t know where to start. And this was the best thing I’d ever seen.

AB: Thank you for saying that.

BB: Yeah, so let me read some of this: “The fact that some of the leadership of organizations were awake just a bit, are impacted enough to recognize that they should respond to this national crisis, offers a tiny glimmer of light. For many of these CEOs and companies, this was the first time a statement about racism or the trials of Blackness was ever publicly acknowledged. Now we ask you: Do you know what comes next? Do you know that sending that letter to the public and to your employees does not end with a period, in fact, there should not even be a comma. Keep moving. There is work to be done inside your company, in your leadership teams, among people who are making decisions, all too often the focus is on white men, but there are also people who look like your mothers, daughters and wives. There is work for everyone. And here are some steps you can take now, for those of you who penned letters that reflected how soul-crushing this week has been and dedicating support to Black employees.” I just have to say I felt some fire reading this, did you write it with some fire?

AB: I did. This article took 30 minutes to write. So it was really feeling it in the moment, so… Yeah.

BB: So those were inspired.

AB: They were, they were.

BB: And they took 30 minutes. Yeah.

AB: Absolutely.

BB: I want to start from the beginning. And if you’re listening right now, I’ve already said this in the intro, but I’m going to say it again, my goal is to give you tangible actionable calls to courage around these conversations. So I want to start here with, can you lay out some terms for us, diversity, equity, inclusion. What exactly do those mean?

AB: Sure. So diversity, of course, we hear it meaning every characteristic trait of people. You hear it meaning things like difference in education, and of course just all the protected class identities as well, and when I’m talking specifically about this work, I talk about it in terms of diversity that matters, that actually creates a difference, that creates disparities. So otherwise, you get in this slippery slope where people might say, “Hey, we have diversity, because we have Stanford class of ’70, Stanford class of ’71, and Stanford class of ’72 on the panel,” but we’re talking about diversity that makes a difference in terms of disparities. And we know in this country that a lot of those have to do with the one start in the protected classes, and I actually, with clients, I share that, if you’re not talking about and you’re not including protected classes, then you’re not really talking about the diversity that matters, those have to be included.

BB: And so protected classes, you’re talking about race…

AB: Yes, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, national origin, different abilities in some states, I think, and it’s necessary to also say LGBT, our LGBT community as well, even though there may not be protections under our constitution or federal laws, definitely our states, several state laws have recognized any groups that are marginalized and historically marginalized, they should be included in that first and foremost, when we’re talking about diversity in the context of diversity, equity, inclusion. And of course, we’re talking about mental health, right, and differences in that way as well.

BB: And then tell me what is the difference between diversity and inclusion?

AB: So you can actually have… You can have diversity and not have inclusion, so you can have a collection of a lot of different people, but if those people don’t feel included, you’re not actually going to leverage the power of that diversity. You’ve just collected a lot of different people who are in the room or in the company together. Inclusion is actually creating a space in an environment where people feel like they can actually express dissent, where they can bring their ideas to the table, and it’s not a matter of just feeling welcomed, but also valued, “What I say matters. The perspective that I bring matters, my lived experience matters,” and that’s the diversity and the inclusion together is what harnesses when you get innovation, when you get psychological safety.

BB: Got it.

AB: So you can have diversity and not have inclusion, but I don’t think you can have inclusion in terms of harnessing the outputs without having diversity.

BB: Helpful. How does equity fit in here?

AB: So equity, I see it as intimately connected with why we even talk about diversity. Diversity started being introduced in corporate America based on wanting to have integration, right? And so when diversity was introduced in that context, it was really about equity and about who was not included, so now we intentionally say equity because now you can talk about diversity and talk about… Just like I was saying, a lot of groups that are homogeneous in terms of privilege, so now we intentionally say equity. It’s about also recognizing people who have systemically and historically been excluded, are marginalized, so now you have to think about that as well, and then intentionally.

BB: This is something that you’ve taught me, you think it’s important for organizations to define these terms, and that it’s dangerous when you’ve got a group of people within an organization that all have different ideas of what these words mean and the importance of them and what they provide. What happens when you just start saying, DEI, really fast, DEI… DEI… And you don’t stop and explain and operationalize what that means, and people are operating from different beliefs?

AB: Yeah, so it’s just like any kind of business initiative, right? So organizations introduce values, and you know this about values, if you don’t define them, if you don’t talk about what the behaviors are that complement them as well, or define them, you just got a lot of random words and everybody thinks that they’re talking about same thing, but they’re not. It’s also when you don’t define them, how do you also hold one another accountable, how do you actually measure that you’re making progress, and how do you make sure that you’re aligned even on the philosophy and the intention underneath it? So you have to make sure you’re all talking about the same things, otherwise, people don’t even know how to show up around those words.

BB: Okay, so we say to each other in an organization, “This is important to us.” We define the terms. What happens when we have varying levels of commitment around the importance to begin the conversation?

AB: So I think that it has to be incumbent upon one, the leadership to really talk about why this is important to them, and not just harping on the business case, but talking about why it’s important to them as individuals, and oftentimes we talk about, this is the head and the heart. And this is when we’re talking to our leaders about “What’s your personal narrative around this?” and why this is important, and this is also when you intertwine or integrate it with narratives and storytelling, and those are the things that people remember is Why… Why was this important to Brad? Why was this important to Cathy? And there’s a different type of accountability too. When you look at studies around what makes an organization’s culture change, especially around these types of issues, it’s not about the business case, right? It’s really about social accountability. So that’s me looking over at you and saying, “Hey, Brené, that thing that you said, can we talk more about it?” It’s not a confrontation, it’s asking you and holding your feet to it to say, “Well, what did you mean by that?” And I think there’s so much importance now about having those conversations, understanding what that means in terms of getting the stick-to-it-ness, that’s what actually brings people on board to be dedicated and loyal to a cause, not just the business case.

AB: When we talk about operationalizing it, there are other things, right? Oh, I’m going to do really well in my performance management, so we’re going to include it in performance management, because now people are accountable, right? We’re going to include it in our values, we’re going to include it in our job competencies, all these ways to operationalize it, but if you only do it in that way of operationalizing it, then it becomes transactional. It becomes a lot of rules and things that you’re being graded on and it’s almost compliance-driven, but if you’re doing it in a relational way, in terms of the storytelling of why this was really important to Brené, and why this is really important to my co-worker right over here, there’s a different motivation to want to do something different and want to show up differently, and it doesn’t have to do with your compensation doesn’t have to do with, this is what the rule says and we’re supposed to… how we’re supposed to show up. That’s the difference, I think, between transformational change and transactional, and one has a much deeper depth of sustainability and culture shift, and the other one has more of measurement and counts and making sustainability in a way of measuring progress, but not in terms of depth of difference in culture. Does that make sense?

BB: I have goosebumps, and I’ll tell you why this is so important. God, this is so important. It takes me back to this professor, I studied under, Karen Stout, and she studied femicide, the killing of women by intimate partners, and I was one of the first qualitative doctoral students, and she really championed me, although she was a quantitative researcher, and she told me one day, she said, “You know what, when it comes to women being killed by intimate partners, I wish all we had to do is put numbers in front of people, but we need the stories as well,” and then she said, “And it’d be nice if we could just tell them stories, but we have to have the numbers as well,” and she said, “So this conflict between qualitative and quantitative, the conflict that you just brought up between stories and measurement, and the stories and accountability, it’s a false dichotomy that just doesn’t exist.” And I want to play back what I thought I heard. Is that for deep transformational change around diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, can’t just be transactional, it has to be relational, it has to be people’s stories and their narrative, it has to be not dehumanize, but re-humanize the stories. Is that what you’re saying?

AB: Yes, and you said it so much better than I.

BB: No, I didn’t.

AB: Yeah. And I do want to say that the other part about this is that when people think transactional and transformational, they don’t understand, you have to be really explicit that transformational actually still includes the components of transactional, you’re still measuring, you’re still looking at data, you’re looking at data that matters beyond the numbers, what are even the stories, like, quantitative and the qualitative, right? But you’re so much more intentional about what’s underneath it and you’re disaggregating it in different ways and understanding it in different ways, right?

BB: God, yes.

AB: So it’s not that transformational excludes data, it’s not that it excludes the components of transactional, you’re just making it much more holistic and you’re centering people instead of just numbers and sanitized data, right? You’re centering… Its people-centric and is also introspective. You can be transactional, making changes, but you never have to be introspective, right? That’s a difference between the two, I think.

BB: Yes. And I have to say in my experience, I’m telling you right now, this frame of transactional versus transformative, just the words make me think compliance versus in my bones, in my breath, just in my body, that’s what I hear and it’s such an important frame because the story I make up and you tell me whether it’s true or not, because this is your expertise, right. The story I make up is that transactional only attempts to change culture around diversity, equity, and inclusion, lead to a lot of resentment, lead to a lot of shaming and blaming and create more division than more togetherness?

AB: Yes, I would say that or it doesn’t create anything, it’s just a lot of numbers, right?

BB: So it’s nothing.

AB: It’s a lot. Oftentimes it can be, I think though in the operationalizing it, it is putting pressures on people, but they might not understand exactly why, they may not be totally sold on it, and they’re just counting widgets, right? But the aspect of transformative work, it is creating connection, it requires empathy, it requires actually hearing stories from one another, and I will tell you about that aspect of being a learner when you’re in the transformative part, it’s not just changing the culture of the work it’s changing people. So what actually goes beyond the work atmosphere, and one of the reasons why I used your model about courageous leadership with the DEI work is one, what’s in the article that… DEI work is leadership work, period. But the other aspect of it is that it provides space for people to actually become… Have changes, transformative. So I think about leaders and the people who want to do this work who are leading companies and what some of those barriers are, and you introduced the language of shame, right? And for a lot of people moving forward in DEI work, and you’re doing this transformative way, it requires introspection, which can be really painful.

BB: Yes.

AB: And those are the moments where you’re thinking, “Oh man, I remember when I said that thing… Oh man, my grandfather. Yeah, he was a racist. Oh man, my church…” You start, it’s almost like the scales are lifted and it’s really painful, and so it’s not only moving through shame, but it’s… And having to experience empathy and share these stories of people, right? So that you can move beyond that, but then it’s also that, followed right afterwards by grief, because there’s a loss… There’s a loss of innocence and seeing things as you once saw it, there’s a loss possibly of community. “Maybe I don’t want to go to that church anymore. Man, I realized I was raising my kids around just all white people and I want them to see something different. Oh man, my spouse always saying that thing, I’m not going to tolerate it anymore.” So there is a grief in the change of your relationships, seeing yourself differently, your community, and that is tough, but if you want to get through transformation, those are two of the barriers I talk about often with leaders, is that… This is why it’s hard, is not because you don’t want to, it’s not because you’re not sucking it up, right, when you think about the language like white fragility, it makes people feel like, “You know what, I just need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and I need to suck it up.” Which you and I both know just means more armor versus let’s lean in to this, it’s hard.

BB: Wow.

AB: There’s shame. There’s grief, let’s move through this together, and that’s where you can get transformative, not telling people, “You’re just so fragile, suck it up and put your armor on basically, and move through it.” It’s “Let’s explore this. What are we learning about ourselves? What are we learning about this?”

BB: Man. Yeah, this is hard work. This is such hard work, you’re having to challenge where you’re from, where you go, what you do, who you hang with, and it’s so crazy, because in Dare to Lead, we talk about daring leadership, the importance of creating a culture where armor is neither rewarded or required. So what I hear you saying… I’m just having like… It’s like you and I work together almost every day. And I’m just… You’re freaking me out here Aiko, because you’re just giving me language around new things, because how do you create transformative DEI work where armor is not rewarded or required? That is shame work, that’s grief work. That’s vulnerability work.

AB: It is, it is. And it’s creating that space for it, which we traditionally think about the work for, so the workspace is not a place for that. And you think about right now, there’s been this effort to try to provide a clearing or space within workplaces so that the hurt of people of color, particularly Black people in the U.S. at this time, where there’s space for that in the workplace. But at the same time, it’s, “We’re going through our own grieving, and I don’t know if I would venture to say that there’s a healing right now in it, but there is a grieving and we have learned how to carry that grief, and for many people… I have a lot of workshops that are just only centered on people of color, it’s a matter of, “Hey, the script has been flipped,” now I’m going to work, and they’re wanting to talk about race, they’re wanting to talk about these things, and that’s painful for me, and I’ve done really well at compartmentalizing where I go in, I do my thing and I leave, but now there’s an expectation that I need to talk about this stuff. And they want to talk about it.

AB: So part of doing this work in organizations is also saying, “Well, who’s it serving?” Is it serving the people who are already the most harmed right now in society, and as an assumption of, “It’s time to talk about it. It’s past due. It’s urgent.” Well, guess what? It was urgent yesterday. It was urgent before George Floyd. Who are we serving by doing this work and how… And are we being intentional about it? So there’s this weighing of, yes, urgency, but recognize that for many of us, this was a daily day-to-day. So thinking about what is the innate privilege there of corporate America or others waking up and saying, “Now, I want to talk about this, now I’m ready,” but recognizing that there’s always been blood in the water, right?

BB: Yeah.

AB: So thinking about the intentionality of how you’re doing this work too.

BB: Do you think to address the centering of white timing around this work, that this work should always be co-created and co-led by people with the lived experiences…

AB: Absolutely, and I think it’s a matter of extending that invitation and being willing to be led by, and that means also thinking about our action bias, our pacing, all these other things I think you often talk about horizon conflict, right?

BB: Yeah.

AB: In terms of who’s timing and who’s pacing, so I think that that’s a required balance, but I think our systems, especially in the US, and even our governance structures are not built for that, our systems are to go, go, go, and we listen to who the leader is, versus this idea of collaborative and group learning and moving forward for the better of the whole in this way, we’re not wired to do that, our systems aren’t wired to do that, I should say.

BB: Yeah, our systems are definitely not wired to do that, and our systems like I guess the culmination of our need to produce, produce, produce, or at least meet those. And one of the things that I want to break down a couple of words that Aiko is using, because they’re terms we use in the Dare to Lead work, so horizon conflict, when Aiko and I are both standing on a cliff looking out at the Sea, and her binoculars are pointed straight down and what she sees, and mine pointed out at a ship that I see sailing maybe a mile or so out, but then the person standing next to me is looking past the horizon, and then we get into a conflict because we have different concerns, different timings, different senses of urgency, but it’s not because we don’t have shared goals it’s that we are taking different responsibilities for different horizons, and so that’s one thing. The action bias, I want to break this down for a minute, because you’ve taught me a lot about this, and I thought I was a good teacher around action bias, because it came up in the research, so action bias is the need to fix, fix, fix, fast, fast, fast, and let’s just take it out of the DEI realm.

BB: So for a second, just to define it and then bring it back to the DEI realm. So action bias is, ” Oh God. We’ve got to get this shit done right now.” The thing that drives action bias is discomfort and vulnerability. I see a problem and it makes me uncomfortable and I feel vulnerable so I’m going to rush to solve it, even before I’ve defined the problem, which goes against all of our better data. So we know Einstein, my favorite quote, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, that would save people’s lives, I’d still spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.” So one of the things we’ve seen and that you’ve taught me is when we have a new lens and we’re like, “Oh my God, Black Lives Matter. Oh my God, there is racism. Oh, let me fix it. Let me fix it. Let me fix you. Let me fix everything.” And you are always telling me personally, and we’re always telling leaders together, “Slow down, listen.” Tell me about that. Tell me about the slow down and listen as opposed to rushing and applying your sense of urgency as kind of an act of privilege.

AB: Well, if we talked about it in the sense of privilege, we can even talk about specific incidents where many of us don’t have space to slow down, right?

BB: Yeah.

AB: You have to keep moving and you’re thinking almost with the quickness in terms of 20 different ways from Sunday of what could happen in this situation and the risk associated with it. So that’s just one thing about having to consider and think about a million perspectives just in order to survive. So that’s one aspect. Another one is just thinking about… And this actually came from you is “What’s happening in the space between each moment?” When we were talking about even with empathy and the steps around it, and not even that it’s just somebody wanting to jump to action to fix something, but first you have to be present, which means that you have to slow down, you have to listen, which means that you can’t rush the other person, you have to hear what they’re saying, and sometimes you have to see what they’re saying, and then you have to wait. What is the hardest part in between that… And this, I loved this language that you use was believing them.

AB: So in terms of getting to a place of believing somebody, where we are in this country now, it’s usually not automated when you have completely different lived experiences, so you actually have to stop and understand and actually hear all of the arguments that are being told to you and being whispered to you about why this perspective can’t be real, why you shouldn’t believe this, what does this mean if you actually believe what this person is saying? You actually have to engage in that conversation so that you can understand when this person has said, “Yeah, when I was in this meeting, I was the only woman, or I was the only Black person there, no one made any eye contact with me the whole time, even though it was my presentation, and then they started asking Brad for all of the answers.” And you have to stop yourself and say, “Why would I not believe this?” And get yourself to the point to believe it, so that all of this takes time… All of this takes time.

BB: Pain. Pain is why, yeah, I don’t want to believe it because of pain.

AB: And what does it say, what does it say about the society that I’m living in that I never saw this happen? What does this mean about me because I’ve actually done that before? There’s a lot of process that’s happening between that, that you don’t capture if you’re going from one thing, zero to one hundred, but that’s where the introspection is happening that we talked about for transformative change, that’s when being people-centered happens, and then asking the person, “Well, what do you think is needed in this moment? What can we do?” Versus jumping to action, because now you fixed it, because you have all the answers. So that takes time, that A to Z right there. Otherwise, we’re jumping in, we fixed it, and now we feel great, but we didn’t see the person, we didn’t assess ourselves, there is no space for us to transform or change or to actually elevate our own existence and learning. So I think that that’s something we have to think about in terms of action bias and why we really do take the time.

BB: So role-play with me. I’m going to ask you, so Aiko, “How did your presentation go?” And I want you to be the person that says, “No one looked at me, it was my presentation. No one made eye contact with me.” I want you to do the whole thing. So Aiko, how’d your presentation go?

AB: It went okay.

BB: Why just okay?

AB: I stayed up all night and had been planning for this. This is was my big moment.

BB: Yeah.

AB: And it just didn’t go… It just didn’t feel right.

BB: So I’m just saying to y’all right now I made a decision tree, so my decision tree is… “I’m sure it was great. Hey, what time is our next meeting? I’m sure that’s in your head. I’m sure you did great, we all kind of question ourselves,” or I can say, “Say more, help me understand what didn’t feel right, you really busted your ass putting this thing together. So what felt weird?”

AB: It almost felt like I was just talking to myself. I’m glad that you asked me that. I felt like I was talking to myself and no one was even looking at me or making eye contact with me at all, it was like I could have been in the room by myself.

BB: Okay, so decision tree off-ramp from pain and discomfort is, “Yeah, sometimes we feel like that when we give talks, so I’ll see you at noon at the next meeting,” or okay, so that’s the off-ramp, then the on-ramp is, “Wait, are you saying that you gave this presentation that you’ve been working on for two months and you felt invisible in there like no one looked at you?”

AB: Yep Brené, that is exactly the word I would use is invisible. I know that, of course, nobody in the room looks like me. But even as I was making the presentation, no one asked me the questions, they looked over at Brad instead of me and I’m giving the presentation. Afterwards when people said, “Good job,” they were saying it into the space and to each other, and not me and I’m the one who just gave the presentation. So I was really deflated, and I’m still trying to figure this out.

BB: This is my off-ramp, “Well, it sounds like you might be a little sensitive. And it sounds like… It sounds like maybe you wanted a lot of credit, but this is a team, and so I think… I’m sure you did a great job, and I’m glad that everyone else felt included, and I think I get silly and sensitive after a big moment.” Again, that was an off-ramp, that shit happens a thousand times a day. I’m tapping out.

AB: Yes, or “I think you’re exaggerating that, or blah, blah.” So all of the dismissiveness, the “I don’t believe you.”

BB: Yeah, so let me go the other way, “Okay, so I just want to play this back to make sure I’m tracking here, you gave this presentation, no one made eye contact with you, they asked Brad the follow-up questions and then they didn’t look at you genuinely. That’s bullshit, I’m going to call those people into my office right now and we’re going to have a CTJ baby, we’re going to have a Come to Jesus because no one treats people on my team like that. And you know what? I’m with you, my sister.” So let’s explain the pain in that.

AB: Yes, so now you haven’t paused at all to ask me, “Hey, well, what do you need?” You went straight to fixing, and now you feel great.

BB: I do.

AB: And you’re the savior, and you’re just with it, and I’m still there with not really fully being heard yet.

BB: And now I’m like, “I’ve sprouted my white girl halo, I’m the ally now, look at me, I’m in the ally.” So this is actually probably what I would say, “I think invisibility is one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and my gut is, we need to address this, but I want you to take some time and think about what support looks like for you in addressing this, and how we can do this together, or maybe more importantly, how I can support you doing it. And that support can look like whatever you need it to look like, but I’m sorry that happened because I know how good that work was, and I know how hard you worked to put that together, and it’s not okay.”

AB: Exactly. And now I feel completely seen, I don’t feel disempowered, I feel heard, and now even the shame or humiliation I feel has dissipated to an extent, and that is so empowering, completely different way, but it took time and took you to be introspective. Even that pause, I’m thinking about your power and privilege in the moment and how can it be used in concert together, all of those steps, which oftentimes we don’t see happening.

BB: And I have to say that one of the things that we talked about yesterday, you and I, in the empathy pause is I am examining, as your leader and as a leader, maybe of Brad and the other people in there, I’m examining… I have a part in this. Maybe I didn’t build this culture, but I’m running it now, let me tell you though, I had five off tap out of and discomfort moments that I had to circumvent. Those are real for people, and those are not just real for white folks, those are real for everybody in a situation with empathy. If someone that you love, who looks just like you, who has a shared lived experience, calls you and says, “This is the hardest shit thing that I’m going through right now.” Every one of us has tap out of empathy opportunities. The difference is, I think… And this is white supremacy, is, we don’t have to pause as long around the believing with people who are more like us.

AB: Yeah, and we have to also just recognize that that is part of human nature, right? Is likeness in group? And it’s a matter of now we need to exercise this kind of transcendence in the area of ways and gender very intentionally, and to do it that way. So I think there’s something else you just said too, which is that, “Hey, I didn’t create it, but I’m a part of it now and I can do something about it.” And that is another distinguishing factor that a lot of people don’t see, they see this, all of these systemic things as individualistic, “Well, my ancestors didn’t own slaves.” Well, I didn’t say that, but this idea of seeing a system and recognizing we all are impacted, and how do I address the system? That’s the thing I can do. How do I address the system? That’s my role. Right?

BB: Yeah. And for me, one of the things that was very changing for me probably, I don’t know, at some point in my social work career, is I had a teacher, Jean Kantambu Latting, she taught systems theory, it was very difficult class in structural functionalism, like just a study of systems, and she used to say when systems are in place, you are either actively supporting them or actively dismantling them, there are not any neutral behaviors. Do you believe that?

AB: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a lot of the premise of a lot of Kendi’s work, right.

BB: Oh, Ibram Kendi, yeah.

AB: Yeah, yep, yep. So the other part too, is even in working again with just people of color, it’s the same thing, a fish doesn’t know it’s in water. We’re swimming in it too, as people of color, you’re swimming in white supremacy also, and there’s a risk that you’re perpetuating it, when we talk about the cheap seats, or we talk about where is the inner critic coming from, for people of color it’s repeating things that a white supremacist system has told you about yourself and now you’re repeating it to yourself. So we also have to extract ourselves actively in order to support ourselves and see ourselves separate from what the messages are that we’re being told everyday that, “You don’t belong here. You’re not worthy. You’re less than. Who do you think you are that you’re in there?” And it’s different, a lot of people can play impostor syndrome as the same for everyone, but when you’re in a system that’s designed to tell you that you’re less than and for everyone to believe it, that’s a hell of a different kind of impostor syndrome and inner-critic voices that you’re hearing than others.

BB: Oh God, yes.

AB: And us doing that work constantly to have to elevate ourselves in a way that’s totally counter to what the system would be telling us about ourselves, right?

BB: Yes. And that is the entire field of study of internalized oppression, that is… I think of our friend Sonya Renee Taylor, it’s like her work.

AB: Yes, amen to that, amen to that. Yes, and even that… Yeah, just her as part of a closure process, I often talk about her three pieces.

BB: Tell us.

AB: But that idea of not feeling like you have to understand everything. Her three pieces about your body, they are exactly what we need in order to make us stop, reflect, and make sure we’re not internalizing. So it’s the same steps we talked about before about racing to action bias when you’re dealing with somebody who has an experience different from yours and assessing your privilege and what have you, it’s the same for us in terms of, “Hey, what am I thinking? Why am I thinking that about myself? Okay, whose message is that?” And then reclaiming a message about yourself that’s true, that tells you that you belong, that tells you that you’re worthy, and that means that you have to slow down to be able to do that. You have to slow down and reflect all of those same steps that we talked about for other people, we have to do it ourselves. I don’t think anybody escapes that, right?

BB: No, no one rides for free on that one, for sure.


AB: There’s not much in society that gives us space to just slow down unless we take it. It’s definitely something that we have to take. So I want to say that making peace with not understanding, making peace with difference, and making peace with your body, those three pieces that she talks about.

BB: Those are Sonya Renee Taylor’s three pieces?

AB: They are, they are.

BB: Say them one more time.

AB: Making peace with not understanding, making peace with difference, and making peace with your body. In her work, it is so powerful in terms of using it with in-group, I use it often, yeah.

BB: She’s got a great book called, The Body Is Not an Apology, and I also did an Unlocking Usepisode with her.

AB: Yes, and anybody who has not listened to it needs to, and if you have not gotten the book, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, get it.

BB: As you can tell, Aiko and I are fans. Okay.

AB: Yes.

BB: I’m going to have to ask you this. Can we do Part Two of this?

AB: Yes.

BB: I think we have just blown my mind, shored up my heart, grounded my feet. I just loved you so much going into this, and now it’s even more, if possible.

AB: Thank you for having me, and I will just say that the work that you’ve put out there has been so instrumental in the work that I do and DEI work with leaders, and also with in-group communities, it’s been super powerful, the language and experience of shame and grief, they’re universal, and I think really for us to get to this transformative space where we appreciate ourselves, our experiences, and one another is core to it. It’s core.

BB: It’s core. We are just the innate need to be loved and seen, and to love and see others, maybe we end up with another person whose work we both… We appreciate Austin Channing Brown, who said anti-racism work is the work of being a better human being to other human beings.

AB: Yep, yep.

BB: Alright. We’re going to come back, we’re going to… If you’re listening, you can access Aiko’s Medium article on the web page for the podcast, and then we’re going to come back. I think this is just the most unexpected and powerful conversation, and then we’re going to come back and do a Part Two to this with tangible next steps.

AB: Oh, we didn’t even get to that. [chuckle]

BB: But you know why we didn’t?

AB: Why’s that?

BB: Because we didn’t succumb to the action bias.

AB: That’s right, you’re right. We took our time, we had a conversation. [chuckle]

BB: We had a conversation that was transformative about transformative, and we didn’t go straight into the list of things for organizations to do, and I saw your heart in this conversation, and I think this is where change starts because someone named Aiko taught me that.

AB: Oh, you made me warm and fuzzy, oh no. We need to end it now because now it’s now like… [laughter] Thank you for saying that.

BB: Thank you. But Part Two, are you… Can I commit to all of our listeners here there’s a Part Two?

AB: Yep, I’m down with that.

BB: Alright, before I let you go, we’re all warm and fuzzy, but before I let you go, we’ve got to do the rapid-fire questions, fill in the blank for me. Ready? Vulnerability is.

AB: Everyone.

BB: What is something that people often get wrong about you?

AB: That I don’t have a sense of humor.

BB: That is definitely wrong. Okay, what is one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable, you need to share it with us, or so crappy that you need to warn us?

AB: Terrible is make sure you’re seen. Wonderful is, I love when people say, “Why did God give you two ears and one mouth?” That’s the best. That’s a church lady, giving me that.


BB: That’s the best. Okay, what is one stereotype or myth of leadership that we need to let go of?

AB: Well, that’s the last person in the room.

BB: Say more.

AB: Leadership is the person who’s in the front of the room.

BB: Yeah. So really the leader is the last?

AB: Yes, absolutely.

BB: Okay, what would you say to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a leader or leadership material?

AB: Everybody is a leader. Don’t believe the lies.

BB: What’s your best leadership quality?

AB: I love stories, I love listening to stories.

BB: What’s the hard leadership lesson that you have to keep learning and unlearning and re-learning, that lesson that the universe just keeps putting in front of you?

AB: You can’t fix everything, and you shouldn’t fix everything, everything’s not there for you to fix.

BB: That felt aggressively attacking of me.


AB: That’s mine, for sure.

BB: Yep. Okay, what’s one thing you’re really excited about right now?

AB: Georgia turned blue. I’m super excited about that. Georgia turned blue. I’m so proud of all the people who made it happen. Stacey Abrams, Natasha Brown, these folks who I love and I’m just, I’m so proud.

BB: Amen. Tell me one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now.

AB: My boys. Wes and Ben.

BB: Wes and Ben. Ages?

AB: 12 and 11. Now ask me, sizes: 6 feet and 5’8″.

BB: In order? Is the 12-year-old taller?

AB: Yes.

BB: Got it. Wow, those are big boys.

AB: They are. With big hearts.

BB: So we asked you for five songs, you can’t live without. You gave us seven and we said, “Okay,” because you’re Aiko and we love you. You did make a note on number one, which is “Lift Every Voice.” That this is the only one that you really can’t live without. The others are “Baby, I’m a Star,” by Prince. “Stand Up,” by Cynthia Erivo, from the Harriet soundtrack. “Keep on Going,” by Vivian Green. “Blessed.” by Jill Scott. “I Choose,” by India Arie, and “Freedom,” by Beyoncé. In one sentence, what does this mini mix tape say about you?

AB: It says that I’m hopeful, it says that I love my heritage, and it says that I’m looking forward to my legacy.

BB: Thank you, Aiko Bethea for joining us on the Dare to Lead podcast. You’re making a difference.

AB: Thank you for having me Brené.


BB: Man, do you see now why I’m so incredibly grateful for Aiko as a teacher, as a friend, as a colleague? She just has a deeply human way of helping us understand our own humanity, if you want to follow her on Instagram, it’s @rare_coach, Rare is R-A-R-E. She’s LinkedIn Aiko Bethea. Facebook is And her website is Really appreciate you listening to the Dare to Lead podcast. My goal is to take on the issues that we are all up against, that we’re all facing the real questions, we’re going to have Aiko back, we’re going to dig into some more tactical, practical steps, not for transactional change, but for transformational change, but I love that we started with the conversation and the narrative. Thank you so much for joining us on the Dare to Lead podcast. This is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music is by the amazing band, The Suffers.


© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, November 9). Brené with Aiko Bethea on Inclusivity at Work: The Heart of Hard Conversations.  [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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