On this episode of Unlocking Us
In his brave new book, The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves, Shawn Ginwright asks a simple but profound question, “Can we heal the world without healing ourselves?” I’ve always believed the answer is no, but I’ve never seen anyone propose a more daring solution than what’s in this book and conversation. There is so much wisdom in these four pivots. This conversation opened my heart and my mind.
Listen to the episode
The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves by Shawn A. Ginwright, Ph.D., is an activist’s road map to long-term social justice impact through four simple shifts. Despite what we’ve been told, the most critical mainspring of social change isn’t coalition-building or problem analysis. It’s healing: deep, whole, and systemic, inside and out. Here, Ginwright breaks down the common myths of social movements—a set of deeply ingrained beliefs that actually hold us back from healing and achieving sustainable systemic change. He shows us why these frames don’t work, proposing instead four revolutionary pivots for better activism and collective leadership.
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and welcome to Unlocking Us.
BB: Oh God, this conversation is so provocative and compelling and new in some really… Okay, let me see if this makes sense to you all. It’s new in very ancient ways, I don’t know if that makes sense, but I am talking to Dr. Shawn Ginwright, he’s a professor and a researcher, he’s an author of four books, including this new book that we’re going to be talking about, The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves. This whole book is centered on one question, can we heal the world without healing ourselves? And I’ve always believed the answer is no, but I’ve never seen anyone propose a more daring solution than what’s in this book and this conversation. I’m glad y’all are here.
BB: Before we jump in to our conversation, let me tell you a little bit about Shawn. So, Dr. Shawn Ginwright, he’s one of the nation’s leading innovators, provocateurs, and thought leaders on African American youth, youth activism, and youth development. He’s a professor of education in the Africana Studies Department and a senior research associate at San Francisco State University. His research examines the way in which youth and urban communities navigate through the constraints of poverty and struggle to create equality and justice in their schools and communities.
BB: He is the founder and CEO of Flourish Agenda Inc, a national non-profit consulting firm, whose mission is to design strategies that unlock the power of healing and engage youth of color and adult allies in transforming schools and communities. We’re going to be talking about his new book, The Four Pivots, and you’ll find all the links that you need to this book, his other books, where you can find them online, on our episode page on brenebrown.com. Shawn lives in Oakland with his lovely wife and is currently an empty nester, both of his kids are in college. Let’s jump into the conversation.
BB: Okay, Shawn, welcome to Unlocking Us.
Shawn Ginwright: I am so happy to be here, and so grateful to be able to talk to you.
BB: Oh, I’ve been waiting for this moment, you and have gone back and forth for, I guess, years now, right?
SG: Yeah. It’s been a minute, it’s been a minute.
BB: Yeah. And now you’ve got this incredible new book, The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves. As I told you before we started recording, love the book, book pissed me off, caught airtime, which means I was reading it and I tossed it across the room a couple of times, because I felt called out. [chuckle] So we’re going to get into it, because I didn’t tell you this, it’s a brave book, it’s a provocative book, you’re taking some positions that not a whole lot of folks are willing to take, and they’re so dangerous precisely because they ring so true.
SG: My close friend said, sometimes I sit on the fence too damn long, and I just feel like we’re at a point where our truths, whether or not they land well or not, is the truth, and my goal is just to be able to say things that I hope in some ways move us as individuals and as a society to a higher place, and so sometimes it requires that we say things that… It’s true for me, and I did take risks, and that came from my friends, man. My friends was like, “Man, say what you want to say,” I’m like, “Are you sure?”
SG: “Hell, are you sure?” So, I know you’re going to get in there, Brené, I know you’re going to ask all them questions.
BB: Oh yeah. I’m going to, because let me tell you something, the first time I wrote a book, I wrote it for my critics, and it ended up… We have a saying in Texas, “White stripes and dead armadillos, that’s all you find in the middle of the road,” but when I started writing for my friends who held me accountable for putting it all out there, everything changed, and I can tell you’re not holding back.
SG: Well, that’s a little scary because…
BB: Yeah, it is.
SG: The book just came out and I’m just getting feedback from emails and tweets and things like that, so I’m at a point in my life where I’m like, “You know what, I really want to not write for just a few academics, or a few practitioners, I want to write to a broader audience that I hope elevates us.”
BB: Yes. Alright, let’s get started, let’s start with what we always ask first, will you tell us your story? Will you take us back all the way to like little Dr. Ginwright.
SG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, my momma named me Shawn, so I tell people who know me, call me Shawn, not Dr. Ginwright. I grew up with two parents, I grew up in Riverside, California. My parents are from Jacksonville, Florida, came out to California to start a new life, and really working poor family and community. My dad worked in a factory, he used to work actually at a… Before Kaiser was a hospital, it was a steel mill, it made metal, it made the bridges, and so my father worked in a factory, he was working class, my mother stayed home for most of the time, and then was a preschool teacher, and we grew up in a working poor neighborhood, and then things started to change around probably the ’70s, and it became dangerous. And I remember the first time I saw a fight and a knife, and my father had a conversation with the family, and my mom’s like, “We need to get our boys out of here.”
SG: I’m in the middle, I have a baby brother and an older brother, and my older brother loved it, he wanted to stay in the neighborhood and fight and get into the gangs and… My dad said, “No, we’re getting you out of here.” And I don’t know how they did it, Brené, but they moved across town to a new development and a white neighborhood. My mom wanted to make sure we went to good schools, and so she moved across town to another neighborhood where the schools were better, and it was largely white, and that was my kind of first sort of reckoning with being Black, living in an all-white neighborhood. It was the suburbs, but my dad worked on cars, and so all of the other front yards were manicured, and they had all that stuff, and our house always had a broken car in front of it, we brought our working-class culture to this sort of white middle class neighborhood, and I went to a high school that was largely white and affluent.
SG: And I write about this in the book, that was the first time I was called a nigger. Then, of course, it sent my life in a different direction because it was that sort of moment of clarity where I was ashamed that I didn’t do anything, and frustrated that no one else did, and that something should be done, something… Somebody should be held accountable. I went from high school… Something happened, pivotal when I was in that high school, so I got into leadership kinds of student body president stuff, I was the vice president, I went to this camp at UC Santa Barbara, and I’ll never forget it. Most of my life is working, being with my friends and kicking with my friends and my partners, and then I went to this camp, and I got on a bus and I used to do things…
SG: My parents used to let me just go, and so I got on this bus from Riverside to Santa Barbara, UC Santa Barbara, to this leadership camp.
BB: Oh my God.
SG: And I remember the people picking me up in a Volkswagen Bug with the top down, and they were playing the Beatles… I had never heard the damn Beatles before, but it was just so magical. I was like, “Wow, this is a different world, man,” and there was like 2000 white kids, and it was a magical experience for me, and I was like, “Why am I the only one Black to experience this?” It’s such a life transformative experience for me, but there were no other young people of color. None. And so it was kind of that week that I spent there really thinking about how can we create some spaces like this for Black and Brown babies? How can we create these magical experiences where there’s connection, there’s deep learning, there’s leadership, and so when I got into college, that kind of stuck with me, there is no space, there is no places for Black young people to go.
SG: And this was during the ’80s, the late ’80s, where crack cocaine was beginning to take hold of chocolate cities, and when I was at San Diego State, I was working in a middle school. Some schools have classrooms, and then this school had bungalows in the back. [chuckle] They had the bungalow in the back and that’s where I was working, and it was with all the bad kids, quote unquote bad kids, in the school, and I was supposed to try to get them to learn, and they would send all the bad kids into this bungalow with me and my friends, and we were supposed to try to motivate them. And one of the things I learned in that moment or during that work, is that first of all, they’re not bad kids, they’re wounded, and all they need is the space, the sanctuary to tell their stories. And so this one kid, Michael…
SG: I remember, he started talking about what is college like, and he wanted to come up to college, go to college, and I had went back excited that Michael wanted to go to college. And so I went and set up a tour up at San Diego State, and it took a couple of weeks, but when I got back to that classroom, I didn’t see Michael, I’m like, “Hey, you guys, I’ve got this whole tour set up where’s Michael?” And one of his friends said, “Oh man, you did hear, man? Michael got shot and killed last week.” And that shook me, it changed my life. It was the first, unfortunately, not the last time I lost a young person that I was close to, but that one changed the trajectory of my life because at a time when had I got him up to college, had I got him new networks of friends, something could have changed him. And it was kind of in that moment where I decided I dedicated my life to working with young people, and after that, I gathered some friends together…
SG: And I don’t know how we did it, but we had a camp for Black kids up at San Diego State, and it was somehow the university trusted us and gave us dorms, and somehow, we were knocking on church doors and talking to pastors and schools, and they sent 50 Black kids to our camp that summer, and it changed them and us. It was sort of like… I don’t know if you ever seen that movie, The Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come, it was kind of like that, we just built it, and what we saw was the transformation of lives, of Black dreams, of possibilities, that not only changed the young people’s lives, but it changed us, those young adults who didn’t know where our lives are going.
SG: I really saw that when we create the sanctuary of love and care and community that’s rooted in Black delicious love, when we do that, that it can change everyone. And so from then on, I kept doing these camps with my friends who came up, I got enrolled into… Somehow I got enrolled into school at UC Berkeley in a doctoral program, which is a whole other story, how that happened. And I was kind of a working student, I was working on my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, but I had to pay for it, so I was also working in community, starting my own non-profit organization, trying to raise money, trying to work with these young people and their families, and while I was at UC Berkeley, what I learned didn’t always translate to what I saw was happening with young kids. Young kids…
SG: We were talking about things that just didn’t have currency, things that the young people were bringing me. Like trauma like, “I saw someone get shot yesterday, I’m afraid for my family,” like debating whether or not they should go walk the streets or go to school, it was some really… And so I completed my doctorate at UC Berkeley, but I began to really lean into and critique the ways that I saw the research speak to the lives of young people, and so that kind of was the basis of where I start and kind of brought me here today.
BB: You didn’t use this word, but I’ll try it on to see if it fits for you, was a disconnection between the theories of adolescents and the theories of community and what you saw every day, largely whiteness? Was it class? Was it economics? Or was it a combination of whiteness and class and…
SG: Yeah, all of the above. For example, some of the theories just did not consider the nuance and the significance and the profound impact of race, or Blackness, and so when you’re in class, and they’re talking about developmental theories, but they don’t have any discussion about Black kids’ shame for having thick lips or kinky hair, or the terms that Black young people use to degrade themselves because they have dark skin. These are deep psycho-spiritual wounds that are not even discussed in some ways, at least in the classes that I was in, they’re not grappled with intellectually, and they’re not really addressed, practically. And so even when I would go to my work in the community, it was mostly about tutoring, teaching kids how to do math better, reading English, I mean, things that were important, but it certainly didn’t deal with the fact that you had deep shame for having thick lips and dark skin, right?
SG: And so that internalized racism was an area that I felt was one of the most significant and profound wounds that our young people were dealing with and not many people were responding to or addressing, and so that’s where I kind of sort of cut my teeth, so to speak.
SG: And working with young people in communities.
BB: I think this is true, I want to think about it, so it’s not hyperbolic, but I don’t think I ever, in my Ph.D. program, read a single study that took into consideration white supremacy or inter-generational trauma, I don’t think I even… We may have gone through at similar times, but most of the populations that were studied that we were supposed to learn from and then replicate were white middle class, and so it must have been jarring to go from the ivory tower of UC Berkeley into community centers where… That must be hard.
SG: It was hard, but it was also freeing, it gave me the kind of intellectual teeth that allowed me to challenge… A lot of my students didn’t have the experience of sitting or going into somebody’s house and sitting with their parents at a kitchen table and listening to the issues, they didn’t have that kind of community experience that I had, and so I could come into class and ask questions that many of my other graduate students just didn’t have. It was mostly from the book, really good questions, but it was book knowledge, but when you ask questions about… Well, one of the things I saw was like a lot of Black kids were coming with deep shame for their parents’ addiction or deep shame, like a lot of the young brothers, they were furious that their fathers were not there or shameful that their fathers were missing.
SG: But I didn’t get that. I didn’t understand how to deal with that or talk about that from the research that I was reading, so it allowed me to ask different kinds of questions, and it also allowed me to show up differently in the work that I did, so I’m like, “Oh, I think we should deal with internalized racism and shame at these camps.” These kids are shameful that their mothers are addicted to crack. They get in fights. That’s what… We found out, that’s why they were fighting at school, because somebody said something about their mama, but they had deep shame, deep spiritual wounds about their mothers not being present because they were substance abusing, and so we… In our camps, we said, “Let’s take this head-on, let’s talk about it.” We talked about loss, Brené, right? The fact that a 16-year-old, a 13-year-old, a 14-year-old child should not have to on a regular basis mourn the loss of their friends from gun violence, like that normalization.
SG: I remember one time, I’ll never forget this, I remember one time we were in a healing circle and this young person said, “I have a shoe box full of obituaries at my house,” and all of the young people kind of said they have similar collections of obituaries. At 15 and 16 years old, you shouldn’t have that, but there was also very few spaces for these young people to deal with that, and so these are the kinds of things that I was dealing with, but I didn’t have the kind of academic or the research discourse behind it, so that’s kind of why I started writing about it.
BB: One thing that it sounds like it was born during this time, but it is certainly true in your work today, it’s one of my favorite things about your work, but also one of the hardest is you are a fan of searing questions, you really ask us to ask ourselves some really tough things, and I want to get into that. I want to start with The Four Pivots and this idea, this feels… It just feels like truth. But we don’t talk about this even inside of movements, and I’m inside a lot of movements. That we have to heal ourselves to lead effectively and achieve social change, that this wounded-ness is getting in the way, wounded-ness left un-healed is not going to be ignored. You talk about four kind of concepts, awareness… Let’s take them one at a time. Can we take them one at a time?
SG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BB: Okay. The first is awareness from lens to mirror. What does that mean?
SG: Yeah. So lens to mirror means that I use myself as an example because that’s the only place I can start with truth, and I know that I believed that my analysis of the world was sufficient enough to change it, and so the degree to which I could explain and articulate the complexities of racism, the ways in which homophobia is inbreded, the ways that patriarchy shapes our… I was trained that the lens was sufficient enough to transform and bring about and birth the conditions that I wanted to see in the world, that’s what I was trained, but I quickly realized that that’s… It was a myth. It’s a necessary tool, but it is not the complete journey, we have to have an analysis, we have to use a lens, so that was a long way of saying lens.
BB: Yeah, no, I’m with you.
SG: Is our sort of analysis of the world, but we also need a mirror, and that’s the harder damn work.
BB: Oh God, I hate this part. Go ahead.
SG: That’s the harder work, man, and that’s the work that I’ve often found that people are either afraid of, don’t have the tools to engage in, but the mirror don’t lie, the mirror don’t lie.
BB: That’s why we don’t look, Shawn. That’s why we don’t look.
SG: [laughter] The mirror don’t lie, but it is the most important part of our transformative change, and mirror work is a deeper reflection work. The best way to have a mirror is when you have a close friend, a spouse, a partner, a child, those are the people that hold up the mirror, closest to you. Your fans, they’re not going to hold up the mirror, but the people you care about, those are the ones that are holding up the mirror, and it’s harder work, but it is the necessary work because it makes us better, it makes us better for ourselves, and it makes us better for the movement. The reason I call it mirror work, is because I’ve been involved with so many efforts to change school systems, to address police violence, to… All kinds of efforts got children in prisons here in California. All are necessary.
SG: But generally, what I’ve seen happen is without the mirror work, those that are engaged in the leadership have become toxic, or they can’t see some of the ways in which their toxicity is either influencing the work that they do, that there’s unresolved issues that they’re dealing with from their own childhood that’s now showing up in the work, and mirror work is just a way to sort of step back and say, “Okay, okay, yeah, I remember this thing happened to me, let me do some reflection.” “Where am I going? How is this showing up? What needs to be healed? Where am I still harmed? What am I insecure about? What do I fear? What is the conversation that I’ve been avoiding with someone?” These are just questions. These are questions.
BB: I agree with you, 100% is not even enough, but these, are they just questions?
SG: They’re questions. They’re mirror work.
BB: Yeah, they’re work.
SG: And I think… [chuckle] But they’re questions that lead us to the work, Brené. That’s what it is.
BB: No, Amen, Amen.
SG: They’re the questions that lead us to the real work, and I’m not suggesting that the lens work is somehow less. No, I will never agree with that, we got to do lens work, we got to understand the ways that these structures shape and create suffering for marginalized people, and at the same time, we got to look at the consequences, the deep psycho-spiritual harm that those structures have had on us, as people of color, as women, as gay, lesbian, and queer, that the mirror work at least allows us to go into a space of truth telling to ourselves that allows us to actually show up in more powerful ways.
BB: Okay, I want you to respond to something.
BB: You ready?
BB: Because I’ve run up against this, and I’m curious on your take. We’ve got really serious work to do, we’ve got oppressive structures to overturn, the mirror work that you’re talking about is self-indulgent.
SG: Good question, good comment. My response to that is, “When are we going to heal? And how are we going to do it?” That’s my response to that. When are we going to heal, and how are we going to do it without mirror work? There is no systemic structure that we can transform in this society that will heal the history of harm and trauma for Black people. The conditions will be better, but the consequences, internalized racism is a traumatic experience from a legacy of white supremacy. By giving people more jobs and creating job opportunities, all necessary, by understanding the education system, all necessary, but it doesn’t necessarily go far enough to deal with the deep psycho-spiritual trauma that our young people and adults are dealing with, so my response Brené is, “When are we going to heal? And how are we going to do it?” Now, folks can say, “Well, I don’t need to heal.” But then that’s not true, right? [chuckle]
BB: You’re back to your mirror.
SG: So that’s my response.
BB: Yeah. That’s the response. Yeah, it’s so good. Okay. Connection from transactional to transformative relationships, this is one of the pivots.
SG: Yeah, yeah. And so that pivot is really about, we go about our work so much and engage in our work in ways that are efficient. We meet people, we move on, we connect, and that form, that transactional relationship, it sustains our society, we need to be able to go to work and do certain things and go to the bank and go to the grocery store, but we’re not talking about the sustaining of a society or in institutions. Let me give you an example, we’re working with an organization. Large city government, their youth division that was trying to figure out how to work with young people in their parks and recs, and they knew that a lot of them had traumatic experiences, and so they said, “Hey, Dr. Ginwright, you help us create… Build our workforce in the city to help have a better impact with these young people.” And most of what they did was count how many young people came into their youth centers, they had transactional relationships with their parents, they didn’t know them. And so my first sort of call out to them was like, well, you have to change the quality of your relationships with your parents. And they were like, “What do you mean? We have a roster of them, we know where they live, we know the zip codes.” And I’m like, “Well, do you know what they’re dealing with? Have you been to their homes?” All these kinds of things that allow us to understand the humanness of those that we’re connected with.
BB: Oh, yes.
SG: And so we began to work with their staff to be able to first see themselves as human beings.
SG: Yeah, mirror work, right? But you can’t create a transformative relationship with someone else if the team that you’re working with is transactional.
BB: You got to say that again. That’s huge.
SG: You can’t create transformative relationships with others if the team that you’re working with is transactional. You have to have transformative relationships in the organization that you’re in, in order to actually understand how to have transformative relationships with those that you want to connect with. And so we started with, just like the way you asked me, we ask them to start with their stories, and they begin to talk about their own trauma, and they begin to talk… And they begin to see each other differently that translated to more human relationships with the young people that they wanted to have an impact with in that city. And so transformative relationships are just relationships that are based on our humanity. They’re based on our vulnerability. They’re based on our ability to share. When I work with teachers, the first thing I say, and I said this when we were moving out of the pandemic and trying to figure out where to open schools, the schools were focused, Brené, on… They were focused on the sort of mechanics and the mechanistic ways of reopening schools. And one of the things I suggested that they do is, when you reopen schools, allow for the adults to tell their stories.
BB: Oh, God.
SG: About their experience. Because when you do that, you’re giving permission for people to be human with each other. And this experience… All experiences of human species together cannot be dealt with only in a transactional way. Like, how far should the desk be? How many PPE equipment should we have? What should be the school… All the important technical aspects of a school day. But then there are sort of these spiritual, social, emotional aspects of the school day that don’t get dealt with. So the second pivot, which is around our transformative relationships, is about cultivating the capacity to see the humanity in us all, having the conversations that matter, that allow us to show up in more powerful ways.
BB: This reminds me of a quote from someone we both know, Tarana Burke, that’s from You Are Your Best Thing which you wrote an incredible essay for that anthology.
SG: Yeah, thank you.
BB: So thank you for that. But Tarana said, “I’m just not interested in any of your anti-racism or diversity work if it does not see, acknowledge, and embrace Black humanity.”
SG: Yeah, absolutely.
BB: You know, which is going back to the humanity piece.
BB: Just the love, the sorrow, the shame, the joy. Just the raw materials of what it means to be human.
SG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BB: Like, yeah.
SG: And that work, I think, doesn’t come… It just doesn’t just happen overnight.
SG: I think for white folks, white folks have to work to see Black humanity and to show up and acknowledge Black humanity. And I think, in some ways, Black folks that have been harmed have to work at it as well. It doesn’t just sort of come with, like, “Oh, let me create these transformative relationships that matter.” No, it’s part of a journey of work that we all have to do collectively.
BB: Let’s go to… Oh, my God, this may be my favorite. Vision, the third pivot, from problem-solving to possibility-creating.
SG: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Whew, oof! Where do I start?
BB: Yeah. I mean, this is big.
SG: It’s a big one. When I started working in community, I started with having to raise money. And the way that I raised money was writing grants about what were the problems of Black youth. Oh, there’s violence, there’s substance abuse and… And it was so problem-focused, but I did it anyway because I needed the money, [chuckle] right?
BB: [chuckle] Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah.
SG: [chuckle] But what it did was it also began to create a way of me seeing the world, right? And the way that I began to see the world in the work that I was doing was always focusing on responding to the problems that showed up before me. And it wasn’t until we took some kids out on a camp, and these were Black kids that had just got out of juvenile hall and they had done all kind of violent stuff and they had all these other reasons. And I remember that these kids, we were up on this campus, and we let them out of a session, and they were running. These are like, 15, 16, 17-year-old kids, they were running and doing somersaults in the open sun overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And they were playing, they were frolicking in a sense of joy. And I began to sort of, like, “Hey, man, the work that we do is not always only focused on problem-solving or focusing on addressing a problem, but we also have to look at the possibilities, we have to think about the kind of world that we want to create.” And so, this notion of shifting from problem to possibility means that… One of the things that oppression has done to folks of color and marginalized communities is that it has eroded our capacity to dream and imagine beyond oppression and suffering. And so, as a result, what we do is we tend to continue to want lower amounts of suffering and call that success.
BB: Oh, God.
SG: We want to… Yeah, we want lower amounts of misery, [chuckle] right? So we call it violence reduction. Like, nobody wants to live in a neighborhood where there’s lower levels of violence, we want to live in a neighborhood where there’s peace, where the kids can ride their bikes.
BB: Right, right, right.
SG: But somehow, our focusing on problems somehow hasn’t given us the permission to dream of the things that we want to create. And as a result of that, what I have found is that movement leaders sometimes don’t spend enough time saturating their souls and their spirits about the possibilities of creation and imagination. And Robin Kelley tells us in Freedom Dreams that the most powerful movements begin with an imagination of what’s possible.
SG: And leaning into a possible future. And I have found in my work that the spaces that, for movement leaders to dream are so frail and thin that they don’t exist. Now I’ll give you money and space to strategize and money and space to build your base to do policy analysis, but to imagine and dream something that’s entirely different, those spaces are far and few between. And we also know that places like the Highlander Institute that served an important sort of thinking ground and dreaming ground for the civil rights movement, played that role. And so this pivot is, I’m suggesting, that our movements, to be transformative, will occur when we give ourselves the permission to dream beyond and dream above and beyond some of the conditions that we want to address.
SG: Now, it doesn’t mean we stop fighting, it doesn’t mean we stop confronting, it doesn’t mean we stop resisting, it means that we add to our arsenal terms like dreaming, imagination. Oppression said, “All you can do is think about me, just address me. And as long as you address me is what your job and work is supposed to be,” and while that’s important, we also have to think and be able to cultivate the ability to separate ourselves, to dream above and beyond the conditions that we see. I think that the movements in South Africa, we saw some of this with Mandela, right? And then we study his work, it wasn’t just about the ending of Apartheid, which was necessary, but it was also about creating a beloved nation, a beloved community based on the principles of South Africa.
BB: There’s a couple of things that I want to get your thoughts on. One, I think it’s so important, and I’m not sure it’s just a function of oppression that says, “You don’t have the right to dream, to think about moral imagination, to wonder to… ” I think it’s also built into the everyday realities of structural racism that is almost seen, if me as a white woman who has got some winds behind my sails says, “Hey, let’s just get together and do nothing but think and dream as big as we can and just really call each other when it feels limiting and call each other out and say, “Hey, too limiting, bigger.” It’s like good on you. And then I think sometimes structural racism says, “What are you doing, you need to be working, this isn’t work.” But then you think about not just Mandela, but I think about civil rights leaders, from Martin Luther King, I think about Barbara Jordan, I think about the poetry of Maya Angelou. These were people who cast a vision of possibility in their words, and I just don’t see how the sole focus on reducing really dangerous things moves people like casting a vision. Do you agree, or what do you think?
SG: Yeah, yeah. And we have to do both, right? We have to do both, right?
BB: Yeah, right.
SG: So Africans, my ancestors… I have a picture behind me of my grandfathers, where they grew up. Africans, who were enslaved, didn’t want an easier form of slavery, they didn’t dream of, “We want a easier form of slavery.” They dreamed of freedom, that’s what they dreamed about. And so, it is our responsibility for those of us who love justice, is to make sure that we have spaces to dream and imagine, without it, all we’re doing is continuing to fight and reduce the misery. Again, we need to do that. But our ancestors, they dreamed of the capacity for a Black man to be able to go to college, to learn, to produce and contribute ideas to the world, that was a dream. So why would I not take that as an important ingredient in my own thinking about what constitutes change. How arrogant of me that dreaming is not something that’s important when my existence came from the imagination of my ancestors. So, this pivot from problem to possibility, just says that we can’t see dreaming and imagination and play as some ancillary act to our freedom, we can’t do that.
SG: We have to begin to build the spaces, intentional spaces, for us to be together to dream and imagine. And I remember we took some teachers, some Black teachers, this is years ago, from Oakland and San Francisco and Los Angeles, we brought them up, and they thought they were going to learn about pedagogy and curriculum design and strategy, and all we did was play. We literally had Lincoln Logs, we literally played… We did icebreakers, we did healing things because they were stressed and all these other things, and we spent some time talking about learning and so forth, but most of the time was creating the space for them to play and to imagine what the purpose of their being in a classroom was about. And that weekend was so powerful that those 15, 20 teachers, they decided that that weekend wasn’t enough, and they started meeting once a month after that for about a year to do the same thing, because it was so important for their own well-being. It was a place, it was a sanctuary for them to actually be with each other, to see and remind themselves of the purpose of why they got into teaching. And I think that that type of space is important for our work for justice, and that we have to make it central and not some ancillary extra stuff that we do when we have time.
BB: God, it takes me back to that question that you asked, that took my breath away, “When and where are we going to heal?”
SG: Yeah. Yeah. And the possibility work is healing. It’s healing when you could say… I asked my students this, “If you can write three things down on a magic napkin, and in 10 years magically they would appear in your life, you’d be doing that. What would you write down?” And my students couldn’t answer that question, Brené, they could not answer that question, they couldn’t say… Well, they were like, “I want a job and I don’t want to move back home.” They define their lives by the absence of something, not the presence of something. And there’s a danger, even in the ways in which we name, as progressives, the ways in which we name the worlds we want to create. In the book I talk about the necessity of being an anti-racist, but is anti-racism a means or an end? In other words, taking an active stance against white supremacy is necessary, but what are we trying to produce? And how do we begin to use the language that cultivates the imagination and the presence of what we want in our society as opposed to the things that we want to eliminate? So, is it belonging that we want?
BB: Oh my God, yes.
SG: And so I just push people to suggest that, even in the language that we use, that we should begin and to lean into words and phrases and terms that saturate our consciousness with the world that we want. That we want the presence of something, not the absence. Health is not just the absence of illness.
SG: [chuckle] It’s something entirely different, so… I feel like I’m rambling.
BB: Oh no. You may feel like you’re rambling, I feel like I’m at church. Yes. In the best kind of church. It’s everything I want and need to hear. So, I’m blown away. So, I want to talk about this last pivot, and then I have a big question for you that…
SG: Okay, okay. Cool.
BB: I’m going to make a leap. Okay, last pivot; presence from hustle to flow.
BB: Yeah woo!
SG: Okay, presence to hustle to flow. This is a pivot that I think it resonates with a lot of people because people feel and know what it feels like to be addicted to frenzy.
BB: Yeah. Oh yeah.
SG: And this addiction to frenzy is this notion that we actually feel gratified, important when we’re busy, and we got stuff to do and our calendars are full and all this stuff happens, and that we have this sort of need to matter. And the fuller our calendars are, the more committees we join, the more things we do, we feel like we matter more. And so this notion of hustle to flow means that we first just become aware of that addiction to frenzy that we might have in our lives, and we know it’s an addiction to frenzy because it feels like we’re trying to go north and south at the same time. We’re trying to get some direction, and we… I don’t mean hustle in the sense like a lot of my students have said that, “Well, some of us have to hustle because we’ve got to work three jobs, and… ”
SG: My dad, my pops, worked three jobs most of his life. He just had the hustle to put food on the table. And I’m not really talking about that kind of hustle.
SG: That type of hustle is about a meaningful support of your family. What I am suggesting in there is that our society and capitalism generally values a human being by what a human being can earn or produce.
SG: And we eat that, we digest that notion, that mythology, and sometimes when it consumes us, it prevents us from actually engaging in deeper forms of change, and as a result, we say we could do things sooner that we can, we over-commit ourselves, we believe that we’re always supposed to be high-strung and stressed out; these are the kinds of behavioral addictions that prevent us from deeper forms of change. And so, the pivot from hustle to flow simply says that one, “What does it mean to slow down? What does it mean to make a commitment to deeper work? What does it mean to not over-commit? What does it mean…”? In one of the chapters I talk about, that we’re at war with rest in our society.
BB: Oh God, yes.
SG: We have a profound form of rest inequality that we have yet to grapple with, and I’m not talking about rest, like just how long you sleep at night, but just the quality of rest, leisure time.
SG: The things that revive us, there is a deep form of inequality in those things that matter, and so this pivot from hustle to flow simply says, “How do we actually build institutions and policies and systems in our organizations that give people the time they need? How do we build up our own self-constitution to set realistic timelines for ourselves and others?” But it’s a provocative argument because people generally respond to that like, “Stuff’s got to get done now, people are suffering. People are hurting, we’ve got to respond now.” And that is the truth. But if we are always in frenzy, the question that we ask is, are we just playing Whack-A-Mole? Remember that game?
BB: Oh yeah.
SG: That Whack-A-Mole game? And if we’re going to sort of engage in deeper, profound change, how do we have to show up differently in order for that to have an impact on the work that we’re trying to do?
BB: I think about this too, and I was reading this chapter, I think about the health indicators of rest inequality, I think about how many great organizers and activists I know who are also very sick.
SG: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
BB: Yeah, who really struggle with their health. And in some ways, frame rest as privilege.
SG: Yeah, that’s self-care. That’s why I push back a little bit on the term self-care.
SG: Because self-care presumes that this is just for me, and that is sort of separates from the community that you’re part of. My partner says, “If I’m sick, we sick. If I’m well, we well.” That’s an African notion of well-being, that if any one of us are well, that all of us are well. If any one of us are sick, that we’re all sick.
BB: Oh my God.
SG: This notion of self-care is this sort of way of… That’s very Eurocentric to sort of divorce my well-being. I could be well, but my community is sick. That’s a very western way of thinking about it, and so we have to begin to think about this notion of rest inequality, and I’ve lost at least three dear friends, dear friends who were doing amazing work here in California and in Oakland, in schools organizing and communities. They got sick and didn’t recover, and they’re not here with us anymore. And for a number of reasons, part of what my own healing from that is, is just thinking about what if they didn’t feel the pressure to go to that other meeting? What if we gave them the permission to not show up at the rally or go do the home visits, or what if we actually had a place for them to go for a month with their families to rest? What if? And so this notion of rest to me is personal. I’ve dealt with it in my own life. My partner, my wife, and I have dealt with her own anxiety issues. In fact, that’s kind of how I began to think about this issue of rest, the loss of my friends, my wife’s anxiety, as well as my own struggle. And you just get to a point where like, “Damn, there’s got to be another way.” So anyway, I think that that’s a pivot that resonates with people because they could feel that. They could feel, “I would really like to take a nap and do it without guilt today.”
BB: Yeah, for some people, I would say it goes as far as shame. They don’t just feel bad about the nap they feel less worthy as humans for napping. So, here’s my question to you. So, we talked about four pivots, awareness from lens to mirror, connection from transactional to transformative relationships, vision from problem-fixing to problem-creating, and presence from hustle to flow. I have a hypothesis that I want to run by you.
BB: I hate it, but I think it may be true. I thought about this a lot because I reread the book, and is it fair to say that these pivots, all of them depend on mirror to a huge extent?
SG: Great question. That’s a really good question.
BB: Can I tell you why I ask?
BB: Yeah, I’ll tell you why I ask. This is kind of the interesting intersection of our work that we’ve talked about before at other times. I don’t know how you move from hustle to flow if you’ve got a lot of shame wounds. And I don’t know how you move from problem-fixing to problem-creating without a tremendous sense of worth and value. And then I don’t know how we move from transactional to transformative without… So many of us have transactional relationships with ourselves. Everything from, I get to eat this if I work out longer. I get to take a nap if I get these eight things done. My least favorite thing you’re asking us to do is look in the mirror and stare down truth, I hate it. But I’m wondering if it is the irreducible part of healing.
SG: Yeah, great question. I look at these pivots as a braid. They’re braided together. They’re tightly knit together, and you can’t think of them one without the other. So yeah, like the mirror work braids together our relationships that weaves together our notions of possibilities that connects our ability to have flow, and flow also allows us to slow down to have deeper relationships, and it braids, and it creates the space for us to do the reflection, and it gives us the time to think differently and see our lives and look at the possibilities even in difficult situations. And so these are braided together. Our transformative relationships, you know the transformative relationships we have, you don’t get mirror work without the transformative relationships. You don’t get them.
BB: No, no. That’s right. That’s right.
SG: You don’t get them. So the transformative relationships, the ones that matter for our humanity, with the people that see you as a human being, those are the ones that show you the mirror. So they’re braided together. They’re braided together, and you can’t separate them really easily.
BB: Can I ask you a question?
BB: You just said something that has me confused and worried. You know why? Because do you think sometimes, we stick to transactional and avoid the deepening into relational and transformative out of the fear that those are the people that have the mirror? If I keep you transactional, then I have way lower risk of accidentally bumping into a mirror.
SG: Yeah, and this is your work. If you’re not vulnerable, the vulnerability is the portal, is the way that you get into these transformative relationships. You just don’t have transformative relationships without vulnerability. Because there’s no emotional stake. There’s nothing at risk. But when you have that at risk, when you share something with somebody that’s vulnerable, it gives them the permission to do the same with you, and in that exchange of our humanity, now we’re connected in ways that cannot be easily dismissed or disconnected.
BB: So beautiful.
SG: And it is easy to do with our families, but it’s also like… The way that I like to talk about it, it is like when you’ve been through some shit with somebody, you went through some shit and y’all was together in it, and when you come out on the other side, there’s something magical and tight and different about your relationship because you’ve been through something. That’s a transformative relationship. It’s because you cried with somebody, they saw you curse somebody out and then feel guilty about it. I know in my friends, they would get really angry at their kids, and they feel really guilty about it, you see people at their moments of raw humanity, of raw humanness.
BB: That’s right.
SG: And so this is how we get to transformative relationships, but also that’s the mirror work, is when somebody says to you, “Hey, you know you shouldn’t have said that to your kid.” “Well, he said this.” “Well, you know, you shouldn’t have said that.” That’s the mirror work that comes from our transformative relationships, and so these are connected. You can’t just do them independently.
BB: I was probably asking if I could do them and skip mirror, but [laughter] I just can’t. I just want to say, I’m grateful for your work.
SG: Thank you, Brené.
BB: I’m grateful underneath it all. I’m grateful that no matter how hard we try to ignore and run from the human need to heal, you are not having it. You are not having it.
SG: Yeah, that’s the answer. From the divisiveness that we have in our politics right now as a country, I think are a result of unhealed wounds.
BB: Oh God, yes.
SG: People are hurting right now on both sides. On all sides of our political spectrum, there are wounds, there is trauma that is un-healed and if we deal with the wounds, then we have a possibility of restoring our democracy. If we don’t deal with them, then we’re going to continue to eat away at the possibility of democracy.
BB: Oh my God.
SG: The root of it is this harm that has not been healed. Yeah, so that’s what I believe. That’s what I see. And despite what our political spectrum is, there’s a chapter in the book where I took a huge risk and interviewed a self-proclaimed white nationalist, and that was a tough, tough, tough interview. But for me, it was important to do because there was a space where I could see the humanity in what he was dealing with. And I think that the unhealed wounds that we have as a society, if we’re not willing to at least invest in healing those wounds, if we’re not willing to do that, then we’re going to continue to see this sort of erosion of this thing, this dream, this imagination we call democracy, this project we call democracy. And the only thing that I think can begin to restore it is figuring out ways to heal us, to heal us all.
BB: Yeah, there’s nothing to add there except right on, I’m grateful for you, and are you willing to do some rapid fires?
SG: Come on.
BB: Alright, are you ready? First one, fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is?
SG: Vulnerability is showing up raw, human, messy, and dirty emotionally.
BB: You’re called to be very brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
BB: What is something that people often get wrong about you?
SG: [laughter] I think people get that I’m not fun. “He is a professor or academic.” I like to drink beer. I love beer.
BB: [laughter] What else do you like to do that’s fun?
SG: Beer or football, but football these days is, that’s a whole other conversation right now, but I love sports. I love sports. I’m a Warriors fan. I’m glad Klay is back. We got a good season going on. So I love sports, beer, things like that.
BB: Last TV show that you binged and loved?
SG: So there’s this show called Money Heist, and it is on Netflix, and it’s an amazing season series. It’s about these… They don’t rob banks. They rob Mints. [laughter] I mean, it’s amazing.
BB: Money Heist?
SG: Money Heist.
BB: I can’t wait. I love a good heist.
SG: I binged on it. Yeah.
BB: Yeah. Okay, I love that. I’m going to write that down. Okay, this is a hard one, I think. Favorite movie?
SG: Well, that would be Shawshank Redemption, because I just love it. It’s the story of just deep, deep human male relationships that go through shit together and come out the other end. Yeah, that’s one, that’s my favorite, Shawshank Redemption hands down.
BB: Get busy living or get busy dying?
SG: C’mon, Brené. [laughter] C’mon. C’mon. C’mon, get busy living or get busy dying, right? C’mon. Yeah, that’s it.
BB: I know because that fits with your pivot. Imagine possibility. Get busy living.
SG: That’s right.
BB: Don’t just try to not die, get busy living.
SG: That’s right. That’s right.
BB: Yeah, I can tie everything back to Shawshank Redemption in one quote. Okay. A concert you’ll never forget.
SG: Oh, wow! Okay. I got a few, but I think the one that I’ll never forget was Rick James at the fabulous forum. I think I must have been 13 years old, and it’s the first time… I know people are not going to believe this, but it’s the first time I actually smelled marijuana, I was like, “Wow.” Maybe I was like 10 years old, maybe I was a little bit younger, but I was like, “What is that smell, Auntie?” So yeah, Rick James.
BB: You won’t forget that one?
SG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
BB: Favorite meal?
SG: Favorite meal? Oh, that would have to be… My wife makes a mean gumbo. Gumbo. Oh, her gumbo, she makes it twice a year, so gumbo with some cornbread and would top it off with a dessert of some sweet potato pie. We in the pocket. We in the pocket.
BB: We in the pocket. That’s it. Okay, shrimp and oysters? Just shrimp? What’s in it? Sausage andouille?
SG: Well, I’m not a shrimp… Yeah, yeah, sausage, chicken. This is more of a chicken and sausage gumbo.
BB: Oh, yum.
SG: And it’s the roux. She takes a day just to get the roux right. I don’t even know how she does it, but she just go, she’s just in it, she’s like in the zone, but when it’s ready, it’s on.
BB: You stay out of her way when she’s in the gumbo zone, friend. Okay, yeah.
SG: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Alright, curious question. What’s on your nightstand?
SG: What’s on my nightstand? Boy, what’s on my nightstand right now? In terms of what I’m reading?
BB: Everything that’s on your nightstand. We want to know.
SG: On my nightstand. Okay, I have a flashlight, because sometimes I hear things in my backyard, the raccoons. And so I go. There’s a flashlight there, there is… My iPad is there because I like reading blogs and stuff at night, and I have a book that I have not yet read, it’s called The Red House, and it’s about a mystery thing, and I haven’t finished reading it yet.
BB: Love it.
SG: It’s a fictional book, which I haven’t read a lot of fiction, so I’m like, I’m going to just dive into some fiction.
BB: Oh, man I just started over COVID. I tore through 18 mystery books written by one writer, because I think when your, our training it’s just non-fiction, non-fiction, non-fiction?
BB: Yeah, and I’m addicted now. Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you real joy.
SG: A snapshot of an ordinary moment is in the morning when I wake up, I have a little bit of coffee and I walk out to my backyard and I have a little pond, koi pond, and I feed my fish every morning and just think about my day, and me and my son built that pond, we dug it for months to get it deep enough for the fish to live in. And so, it’s kind of like my little sanctuary moment where I go in the morning and just think about the day when it’s not too cold outside.
BB: I love that.
BB: What’s one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now?
SG: Wow, a lot. I am grateful for this opportunity, of course, and I’m grateful for my family’s health, and I say family like extended, my friends, we’re still with each other, right? And so, I’m really just grateful for us to be able to be together.
BB: Amen. Okay, we asked you to make a mini mix tape, we’re going to put a mini mix tape together, we asked you for five songs. I’m going to tell you what they are. You gave us “At Last,” by Etta James; “Get Up, Stand Up,” Bob Marley and the Wailers; “Let’s Get It On,” Marvin Gaye; “Love and Happiness,” Al Green.
SG: Oh, yeah. That’s it right there.
BB: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, no. And Passion… I can barely talk I am smiling so big. “Passionfruit,” by Drake.
SG: I love that song.
BB: Yeah. Oh, yeah. In one sentence, one sentence, I always have to give academics the caveat, I don’t want a bunch of compound bullshit with semi-colons. [laughter] One simple sentence. One simple sentence, what does this mix tape say about Shawn Ginwright?
SG: What it says is, love and justice. [laughter] That’s what it says.
BB: That’s what it says. It really does.
SG: Love and justice, baby.
BB: I think it actually says, “Love and justice comma baby.” It does. That’s it.
SG: There it is. That’s what it said. Come on, Al Green? Come on. Yeah, love and justice.
BB: Just too good. Man, this has been such a pleasure. The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves. You are never going to let us go out of this ourselves piece, are you? You’re never going to let us take ourselves out of the equation.
SG: And it always starts with us.
BB: Yeah, that mirror. Just incredible. And I’m so grateful for your friends who just said, “Lay this shit down.”
SG: Yeah, yeah. They pushed me. I was going to write another academic book, Brené, and my friends was like, “Come on, man. We haven’t even read the last stuff you wrote.”
SG: Do something. Write stuff we want to read and disagree with you about. We have this black kitchen table in our kitchen, we just sit, drink wine, and talk shit. And they’re like, “Nah, man, don’t write that.” I was like, “Man.” So, they pushed me, so yeah, that’s for real.
BB: Yeah, they pushed you. And we are so grateful to them and so much better for it. Shawn, thank you for joining us. What a pleasure.
SG: Thank you so much. This has been fun. Thanks so much, Brené.
BB: I told y’all, this was going to be good. I told y’all I was going to be provocative. I told you like just this question, “When are you going to heal?” I mean, this is the question, and that visual about the braid and how the four pivots are all intertwined and inextricably connected… Oh, I just, I love this book. I’m grateful for his friends around that kitchen table who pushed him to write it, we’re just better off for it. Again, you can find links to Shawn, his book, everything you want to learn about him and his work on brenebrown.com on the episode page. He’s on Twitter at @shawnginwright, and on Facebook @shawnginwrightphd, and on Insta, he’s @flourishagenda. Next week, exciting news, the paperback edition of The Gifts of Imperfection, 10th anniversary comes out on March 1st. And thank you all so much for this incredible support for the Atlas audiobook, I had so much fun recording it. I told the producer, Karen, we’ve done all of our books together, and I was like, “This time I’m going to do it like I’d want to hear it because I am a huge audiobook person.” It is my jam. I do it when I’m cleaning, and I do it when I’m walking. I do it when I’m driving. I just love an audiobook. So she said, “Go for it,” and I got to do fun and different things with the audiobook. So thank you for all of the great comments and the support of the audiobook.
BB: I am grateful for all of you, and I will see you again soon on either Dare to Lead. I guess I won’t see you, but I will come in through your headphones with Dare to Lead or Unlocking Us. You all stay awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll see you next week.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil, and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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