Language and storytelling have to power to change the world. But finding your voice and the right words to make the impact you want can be challenging. In this episode, Tramaine Chelan’gat, social impact strategist and award-winning storyteller shares her journey to finding her words. In doing so she found her calling as a Social Impact Strategist. Tramaine is inspired and inspiring, and in telling us her story, in confidently giving us the words to frame who she is and what she does in the world, Tramaine opens the door for all of us to consider our own stories and to reintegrate all of our compartments into a single, beautiful whole. Stay tuned, you’ll be challenged, you’ll be motivated, and you may even find the space for a good laugh.
Welcome to the positive turbulence podcast stories from the periphery here, we journey to the edge to talk to turbulators about their experiences creating positive change. Hi, I’m Rob Rodnick.
And I’m Karyn Zuidinga and sharing these stories, these perspectives on innovation, creativity, change, and leadership. We hope to generate some positive turbulence for you.
Many of us have slightly different selves depending on the circumstance. We have one persona for work, another for home, maybe another for social situations. And every time we change our job or move, we adjust those compartments to fit.
But what if you didn’t do that? What if you had one persona, your genuine, authentic self meet Tramaine challenge get empowered and self-defined social impact strategist .Tramaine is a Kenyan-American born and raised in the American South who has been based in New York city since 2004. She harnesses innovation that advances social justice, education, cultural and economic progress.
She works to enhance the exchange of ideas and expand comprehensive strategies to accelerate social bridging and human development.
Tramaine’s medium is language and through storytelling, she has consistently propelled organizations forward during times of transition and help pioneering leadership roles. She is an award winning writer and has worked in several African nations. Tramaine has served as a humanitarian emergencies consultant with UNICEF. She also spent five years with StoryCorps, a cultural and media, nonprofit, where she served as director of diversity strategy and community engagement.
Tremaine is inspired and inspiring. And in telling us her story in confidently, giving us the words to frame who she is and what she does in the world. Tremaine opens the door for all of us to consider our own stories and to reintegrate all of our compartments into a single beautiful hole. Stay tuned.
You’ll be challenged. You’ll be motivated and you may even find the space for a good laugh.
But before we begin, let’s take a moment to acknowledge our supporting organizations.
The positive turbulence podcast is brought to you by AMI an innovation learning community that is celebrating 40 years of supporting innovation and creativity for organizations and individuals learn more at aminnovation.org.
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What’s your role these days?
I’m still consulting and still focusing on working in different parts of African development the arts, social justice. Still working in the realm of storytelling and being a creative. Social impact strategist is what I’ve been defining what I’ve been doing for the last several years, even before I started working as a consultant and working for myself is just really figuring out how am I creating pathways and strategies to be able to make a positive impact in the world and whether that’s through education, health, socially.
I love that phrase, social impact strategist. Talk about positive turbulence. It sounds like your entire consciousness and job is to create positive turbulence. It sounds like a lot of fun. What are some of the things that a social impact strategist can do or does?
Just help unpack that for us a little bit.
Sure. I feel like that term for me was birthed over five years ago. Even before I was working as a consultant, because I’d work at different organizations and I’d have the title of, okay, you’re the director of community engagement or you’re the director of strategy or you’re the program manager of this, or you’re the media manager of that.
And I’d, introduce myself, I’d be in, in different settings, whether it was professional or not, it was like, Oh, so what do you do? And who are you? And all this, these things. And I felt like if people would ask that question, and if I gave them, Oh, I work for X, Y, and Z company.
And I’m the director of this, it felt like I was just giving them a role and not who I am. And I just felt like so many parts of me. And everything that I do is how I’m making a positive impact. Even when I’m not working and I’m just living. And so that to me became a way of life.
You’re working on a strategy to have a social impact. And I’ve learned through a lot of experiences, but definitely through the personal experience of finding my father that really showed me how my actions really do have a ripple effect on other people, even when you don’t realize it.
And so social impact to me and in strategy, just converged because it’s like, how am I creating pathways? How am I taking a set of existing things and rearranging them to create something else that I want.
Positive turbulence that’s really where I see the connection is like, how am I creating different ways to be . And if I’m doing that what is the outcome? And I think sometimes when people think of impact particularly like finance or something, they’re like, wait, what’s your return on investment.
As a social impact strategist, it’s not so cut and dry it’s what is the quantitative value that you’re receiving? It could be qualitative. And some people don’t value that as much as the quantitative. But for me, it’s just about both it’s quality and quantity.
And that impact to me is what is the change? In thinking about turbulence and that momentum and moving from one state to another, what does that change? And I think the strategy part of that is what is the vehicle you’re using? And because I have different background as media maker or community organizer, or storyteller, or teacher educator, whatever that avenue is, that’s the strategy that I’m using to create that impact.
That social part for me is about those connections. How am I connecting to people? How am I building relationships and partnerships and how am I moving in the world? To me, social impact strategist felt really great. And I still sit in it and stand in it and I will always be that way. Even as I evolve into different roles traditionally within organizations or even different roles in my life or different stages, I’ll always be thinking what is my strategy for creating social impact and change?
It’s almost like you can’t not do that. It’s just something that always is coming forward.
As I was listening to you talk about choosing to describe yourself as a social impact strategist and where those threads came from. I started thinking two thoughts. One was how terrific that you have a phrase to describe yourself, because people ask, what do you do?
And sometimes it’s hard to describe it, especially as you have pulled from so many things. Storytelling social activism et cetera, et cetera. So you’ve pulled from all these things, and now you’ve come up with a phrase. And I’m curious about the the confidence with which you’re holding that space.
Yes, this is who I am. This is what I do, because that’s not easy. And two, where do you think. Those pieces– I understand the individual puzzle pieces that come together to create the phrase, social impact strategist– but where do you think the threads in those puzzle pieces lie?
How did you get to this place? Because it ain’t easy coming to decide, Oh, here’s how I’m going to talk about myself in the world. I personally am still struggling how to figure that out. So you’re miles ahead of me. So how did, how did you get there and what, maybe what epiphany, what stories influenced that? How did you find that phrase?
I was at a conference one year and somebody came up to me and said, Oh what do you do?
I had gotten a little frustrated by that question because I felt like people will judge you based on different parts of you. In a conference setting, if someone says, what do you do? They’re asking you about your job. But if you’re not in a professional setting and someone says, what do you do?
That could mean anything. Someone at that conference said, let’s think about when you ask someone, instead of asking someone at the rest of the conference, what do you do? Ask them? Who are you and why do you do what you do? When I started really ruminating on that and really meditating on what does that mean?
I was like, Oh I’m not this role that I am in this organization. That’s a part of it because I bring different parts of me to this role, whatever that title is. Those threads came from, and that confidence came from knowing I am bigger than just this one thing. So even if I say Oh, I work for X, Y, Z organization. I work with this company. Yeah, I do, but that’s a part of me and I bring something to that and I take something as I move forward in different places. I just got really excited about naming myself, defining myself. I believe it was Audrey Lord who says, if you don’t define yourself, someone else will.
I had to do it. I have to define myself. I have to say that. And then when you say Oh, I’m a social impact strategist, then it opens up like, it’s Oh, okay. So let’s talk about different things and you might have something in common with someone. That might not necessarily have anything to do with the specific role or organization that you work in. That really excited me is to be able to look at the 360 of who I am.
I think those threads have come from when I was in high school I did this program for students who wanted to be doctors when they grew up. And my grandfather, he worked at the hospital, he was a handyman at the hospital.
And we would hang out all the time and he, one day he said, Oh, there’s this program for, students who want to be doctors okay, great. I’ll do it. And I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I had one of those Fisher-Price doctor sets when I was a kid and then I got to college after completing that high school.
Prep program to be to put you on the right track, to be a doctor, got to college and took a biology lab and was like, maybe I don’t want to be a doctor. And then I had an English teacher was an eight o’clock in the morning English class because it was the only English class I could get.
And it was a visiting professor who only taught at the school that one semester. And I got really lucky. She was really changing my life and a lot of ways and saw like this talent that I had on the creative side. So I went from thinking, I’m going to be the scientific person that really crunches numbers, and thinks about healing people in one way.
I was like, Oh, I can heal people in a different way. It doesn’t have to be as a doctor. When I started opening up my mind to the idea of there are different ways to touch people and reach people and the creative side, I think that’s when the wheels started turning. What impact do I have in the world?
And I didn’t have the language vocabulary, that I have now to know okay, I’m a social impact strategist, but I knew early on I want to make some changes and I want to do something positive. And for a long time, I felt that in order to do that, I had to work in a nonprofit organization and struggle.
Through my career I realized that is a very specific structure of organization, but that’s not necessarily the only way to make change, but for a long time, fresh out of college, It was like, go work at a nonprofit. You want to change the world, you want to be positive. And so that was the language that I had.
I finished college. I moved to London, England, right after college, I worked in public relations. It was so fun. I got to do a lot of organizing events and parties for different companies, corporations. And I realized when I got back to the States and I moved to New York, right after London went straight to London, to New York.
And I was like, wow, I really love talking to people. I really loved writing. I really loved engaging with people and setting up events and managing partnerships and all that visual stuff. But I didn’t like necessarily the different companies we were promoting. And so I said, Oh how can I do this in a different way?
And so that’s where the nonprofit train started rolling for me. I thought that in order for me to use my skills, to make a change, I had to do the nonprofit world. And so the training and the education that I’ve had and the experiences working in nonprofits has been amazing. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
But that’s how I started. I started in that cycle of change in different ways and working at different organizations who have different values and different structures. It showed me ways that you can work and operate. Not always the best. But if I didn’t have that, then I wouldn’t understand you know how to be disruptive. If you want something to change, if everything’s great, then you know what’s the purpose of changing. I started working, doing the education work in marketing and then talked to one of my mentors at the time. And they said, Oh you should work at the Harlem Children’s Zone it’s a really great place to work.
And it sounds like, you want to do arts, when did you media, but you still want to write and things like that. So why don’t you go there? I got my resume and I started emailing the media arts program. Because the Harlem children’s zone is huge, but they have different programs in different schools. And so I looked into their media arts program. And nobody emailed me back for a month. And so I found the address and I literally went up to, the media arts place one day after work. It was after-school program. And I said, hi, I’m here to give my resume. No one’s been calling me. I really want to work here. I really want to volunteer. And at that time it was about volunteering. Because I had a job, but I wanted to volunteer. So I said, I really want to work here and volunteer. And the receptionist said, okay, here go find the program coordinator and, talk to her.
But nobody was really looking at me. It was like a lot of movement. It’s really busy. And so I found the program coordinator, I said here’s my resume. I really want to like volunteer and work for you, no, one’s emailing me back. I live right down the street and she said, okay if you want to help us, we have an event that’s coming up in a couple of weeks.
We really need someone to help us organize it. We have this many children and high school students who are we’re working with it’s focused on Moja Media Project, which means unity and Swahili. And it was all about connecting African-American and African communities living together in Harlem. And I said, Oh wow, it’s a media project, it’s African-based, let’s do this. I really want to do it. And she said if you really want to do this, she was like, you can go in this room over here. And there’s a table of students working in there and you can help them with their project.
And I literally started volunteering that same day. And about a few months later the program coordinator who I met that night with leaving and she was like, you know what, I’m leaving. We haven’t really found anyone. Why don’t you apply? And I applied and ended up working there for three years.
And it turned into me writing a proposal to the founder and president Geoffrey Canada, and saying, Hey, I would like to take a group of students to Senegal, because if we’re talking about building these connections with African-American African students, we need to go to the source.
And that is where the tenacity of how I’m making a change, really pushed me. If you want something, you gotta do it. And I think that’s where a lot of things started and it was like a great incubation space for me working in that environment.
And then from there, going to grad school where I focused On more of the international management, intercultural management, international development work. And then from there moving to Kenya, Working in the health and communications field, and then, deciding to move to Kenya after grad school, because I was like, Hey, I want to go try to find my father and I know he’s Kenyan, so why don’t I move to Kenya and see if I can find him?
And people thought that was crazy, but yeah, I did
It’s big. It’s big. And like what?
know it’s big. I know it’s crazy, but I promise you that, I was sitting in my room one night in grad school and I had one plan, but I felt a voice, a very strong voice say it’s time to find your father. And I have never heard that voice. I had never thought I was going to take a journey to Kenya, never in my life. And when I heard that voice, I said, okay. So I started applying for jobs in Kenya, and then once I, I got it and I moved there, that’s when I said, this is going to happen. And the time that I was in Kenya in 2010 was such a pivotal point in that country.
It was the first time that they had a new constitution post-independence from England. So it was a really pivotal time in the moment for Kenya as a country. But it was also a really huge time for me personally.
This whole social impact strategy it kept coming up in different jobs that I had and different experiences of like, how am I making a change, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. Even though my work in Kenya was very specific to health and policy and African development. I still had to think about what is the change that I’m trying to make. A lot of the women that we worked with who had HIV or different health problems whose husbands had died and they become widowed pre the change of the constitution were not able to have their ancestral land when her husband died. But now this new constitution allowed them to be able to do that.
I was able to help facilitate not only this helping them, supporting them with what they needed health-wise, but also helping to change the trajectory of their lives. Being able to communicate that to people, because if you don’t have information, how do you know? And a lot of people just didn’t have information. The social impact strategy has always been there. The thread has been there in different ways. It’s just manifested itself differently, depending on what role I was, doing or working on.
You named a lot of tools in your toolbox and I’m particularly interested in a couple of them, but could you tell us a little bit about story, the power of story the intentional use of story, and maybe some examples where that was the tool that you pulled out to create the impact or to create the turbulence or the change, here a vignettes.
That’s Interesting way to think about it. I would say that sharing my own story when I was in Kenya, helped to really propel my own understanding of storytelling as a vehicle for change personally, socially, and and globally. When I was in Kenya I had placed a really small one-line anonymous ad and newspaper looking for my father. I didn’t say I was his daughter. I didn’t say who I was. I just said, I’m looking for this person.
And I was able to find him, within 24 hours of sending that email, he replied back.
What, wait. Wow. I just have to take a here. It’s one thing to say, Oh, you know, I’m going to try to find my father. It’s another thing to say I’m going to move to Kenya to try and find my father. That’s a big leap. It’s another thing then to courageously put this ad in the paper and then it worked!
And I had been looking for him before. I went to the college cause he came to the United States and met my mother in college. And that’s how it happened. As as a, track student really smart really athletic and came here to do that.
I went to his college, where he went to where I was calling people and I looked up different articles about him in America running. And I found Kenyans who went to school with him. So one was in America, one was in Kenya and I called everyone and they were like, Oh, I’m so great to hear from you.
How’s your father. And I’m like no. I don’t know him. I’m asking if you do. And nobody knew where he was. And so I tried through connections, but then I had remembered growing up and always running into different Africans sometimes Kenyans just in my everyday life and they’d be like, Oh, you look African and you have an African name, but I didn’t have the family connection. And they’d always say if you want to find your father put in the newspaper, because everyone in, Kenya reads the newspaper. And so I did it and it worked. And when I called him I said Hey, this is, your daughter. And he was completely shocked. And once I verified that it was him, my mom said ask him, what was that song that he used to sing to me? And when he could say it, I was like, okay, this is him. And so there were other ways we verified it was him, but once we did, I called the newspaper and thanked them.
I had originally wanted to put a full page spread, but I couldn’t afford, as a fresh out of grad school, I couldn’t afford to put a full page. So it was a one-line ad. So I said, thank you so much for, that one line ad in the newspaper. I found him, I found my father and they’re like, what?
Okay. They’re like, okay come down, come, we’ll you can meet him at the studio as a safe space since you’ve never met him. And so I went down there and there were camera crews there that just so happened to be following us. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but people were taking pictures and you hear about reality show people being like, Oh, the cameras are there, but you don’t know.
But I really was so in the moment of meeting him, but I didn’t think, Oh, there’s cameras like taking pictures of us. And later on that night I got a phone call from the newspaper and they said, Oh, in the morning ask, as a, someone’s in your complex, bring me the paper or something, ask someone to get a paper newspaper for you in the morning, because we’re going to write an article about you.
And I said, Oh, okay, cool. Me and my father it’s cool, a little article. And then I got the newspaper and in, in Kenya, when you look at the news, the front cover of the newspaper, it’s two things, it’s sports or it’s politics. And when I got the copy of the paper, it was a picture of me and my father on the front the, of Of the daily nation, which is the largest publication in East africa . And I was like, Oh wow. So my story was out there.
Can, can we just take a pause here Adid your father know about you? Did he know you existed? What is that feeling like? That call! I can imagine if it was me, I would be flipping terrified. I would be so afraid, I think.
And then this all happens and bam, you’re, you’re on the front page of the biggest daily in East Africa. Talk to me about those moments, those feelings.
So the first question did my father know, and I was about to say that the story, and this goes to the storytelling. The question of Rob was asking in those brief moments at that news station my father talking, us talking. They still got the story incorrect and it wasn’t accurate. And I can understand how the news media will spin a story, how they want it to be told.
And so there were some parts of the article that said that my father didn’t know about me, but even the journalist who wrote it, if they had read their article, they would have known that he did, because I talk about and my father talked about how he gave me my Kenyan name. How could you not know about me if you gave me the Kenyan name?
It also propelled me to you know what, I have to tell my own version of the story. I did write a short story that was published and award-winning for the experience of finding my father, but I knew I had to be the one to tell that story.
But yeah, my father knew about me. My mom she was a freshman in college. He was a senior. And she said, I really want my daughter to have a Kenyan name as well as an American name. So she’s connected to her Kenyan side. And so he did give me a name. So he absolutely knew about me. One of the things that I mentioned earlier was we wanted to verify that it was actually him.
And so he emailed me a picture of me when I was five years old. And so it was confirmation that even though they lost touch after I was born because my father, after he graduated from college he left, he disappeared. And my mom didn’t know like where he was, what happened.
His Kenyan friends on campus were like, pretty hush about it. And so it was always this big mystery. Like where did he disappear to? What happened? Where did he go? But my mother had always wrote letters and sent pictures to his friends in hopes that it would get to him.
So he didn’t know about me. And when I met my sister from my father in Kenya, she said that, that she didn’t know about me, but she had heard rumblings there may be those American child. So yes, my father didn’t know about me. And what was that call like?
I would say that the, it was, I was very much in shock that it was 24 hours. I was like, Oh, maybe he’ll get back to me. I was like, Oh, I’ll give it a week. I was like, if I don’t hear from him in a week, then I will, do a Kickstarter to get money for that full page ad. I will figure this out.
So it was really a miracle. It really was a divine intervention. I really do believe. And so when I spoke to him on the phone, I said, Hey, this is Tramaine. And he was like, who? And I was like, this is Chelan’gat, the Kenyan name that he gave me.
And he started crying and he was like, Oh my daughter and my daughter he then knew that it was me. So for him, it was very emotional and he was crying. And for me, I was like exuberant. I was like, yes. And any tears that I had cried or been sad about before that moment we’re gone. As a kid looking, wondering who my father was, because I was so happy that I had followed that voice that told me it’s time to find your father.
And I was just happy. I was just so excited because I was like, wow, me coming to Kenya really is fruitful. And in terms of the effects of it I didn’t even realize it at the time, but like my roommate in Kenya her mom came to take us somewhere one day. And so we were driving the car and her mom, we were like, Oh, what are you going to do this weekend?
She’s Oh, I’m going to go back to my, ancestral home my village and go, Try to find my father and I said, Oh wow. I was like, that’s interesting. And this was an older woman in her sixties who had children and a life and a career. And I said, Oh so what now we’re going to make you try to find your father after all these years.
And she said I read this article about this American woman who came to Kenya and found her father. And I said, Oh, was it in the Daily Nation? And she’s yeah. And I was like, Oh, that was me. She was like, what. I realized like what an impact that had.
And even when I was in Kenya, I had asked my father to meet any siblings or any family. I have a younger brother from my father and a younger sister. And my brother was estranged. My father was actually estranged from all of his children, but I finally came to find out, but my brother contacted my sister and said, Hey, why is dad on the cover of this newspaper with some American woman?
And it really opened up the door for a lot of family healing didn’t know, needed to take place. And the day that I met my brother and sister, which was the day after I met my father. I see my sister walking one way and my father walking the other way. And they just, pass each other.
And then my sister spoke to me and I was like, Oh, this is weird. I wonder why they didn’t acknowledge each other. And I found out that my sister and my father, hadn’t seen each other in over five years and my sister brought her husband to come meet me and her son, but my father had never met my sister’s husband.
And to this day they’re, they’re great. They reunited, they’re there and have a great relationship. It just showed me again that, that idea of like social impact, how your existence, your very being and the things that you do really can have an impact on other people, whether you want it to or not.
You are a part of that positive turbulence, even intentionally or unintentionally, subconsciously or unconsciously. So I feel like the effects of it. Definitely for myself personally, when you asked me earlier about confidence, like where is this confidence coming from? That was such a life-changing moment for me that I felt like if I can find my father by placing a one-line ad a newspaper in Kenya, not even knowing if he was alive or even there, what can I not do?
Yes, I have limits because I’m a human. But it just really gave me the sense of courage for myself to just go for it and just see what happens.
The positive turbulence podcast is brought to you by AMI and not-for-profit innovation learning community. Here’s AMI member and CEO of the second harvest food bank of central Florida. Dave on the power of story to end hunger.
We created a new position at the food bank, two, three years ago, a full-time position, called mission storyteller. And this gal, she’s a writer, but full-time, she’s interviewing people who are receiving the food, the food pantries, volunteers, staff, financial donors, food donors, and capturing those stories in terms of blogs or short videos.
And we’re changing those stories weekly, on our website. We did learn from research that you could talk about a million people that are starving. Okay. But it’s so overwhelming to folks. But there’s, science behind this, that if you could boil it down to one story, one individual, you will capture people’s attention and it works.
Am I as proud to announce that we now also offer virtual meetings. We pack in all the goodness of the in-person meeting in a two-hour virtual convening. Find out more at aminnovation.org.
Batteries fully charged at that point, right? . When did you realize and, I see the Genesis of the story, but that this storytelling and it can be a tool to really put, to use in some of the things maybe that you’ve done with it since returning to the U S.?
Tramaine Chelan’gat: Exactly. That goes into the evolution of that. When I was in Kenya I was approached by a Kenyan publication that worked with all authors and writers from the entire continent to write a story. They’re like, Oh, we’re having this contest and, you should apply. And so I wrote a short story, a non-fiction about finding my father and won the competition and was able to be published. And so it was like, okay you have keep telling your story and keep figuring out ways to help heal your own past family traumas, but also help others or even just entertain them because the way I wrote it was sorta funny. When it was time for me to finish my one year term, because it was a one-year term in Kenya specifically to support me writing my thesis. When that one year was over, I went back to New York and I started working for StoryCorps. I was really drawn to StoryCorps because I felt like I really want to find ways to support this idea of storytelling. Because I just saw how much it impacted my life in changing my life.
And I, began working there on one specific project that was around education and it was around low graduation rates. My job for that first year I was at StoryCorps was to travel around the country working with PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and convening these different town halls with different moderators. It was all about bringing together educators and students, but really focusing on teachers and telling their stories to understand the low graduation rate crisis and what was happening in public schools specifically across the country. Bring the teachers there and tell their stories.
And in the model of StoryCorps, which is a conversation between two people who know each other sitting down recording audio it was in that way that I was seeking out teachers. So I would research schools and different stories and teachers, and then I’d go to these different locations. We’d do the recordings and then we’d have these town halls to highlight what was coming out of these stories and teachers and students and parents and communities and school districts were able to utilize the stories in whatever way they wanted to.
They could use a story to do a celebration of a school. They could use it if they felt like maybe this particular story was going to help drive some sort of policy change and education or maybe it was to support having somebody in local government to put a face to the story, to put that qualitative data to the quantitative. If we know we have this many students that are not graduating, why? That’s an example of how storytelling is really used to drive at impact for change. Because stories that you listen to have an ability to really change your heart. They can also possibly change your mind because your heart strings are pulled. And working there really was the moment where I think the storytelling for me really came out even stronger.
And I realized after working that one year and I, and coming back to the office, because I had been on the road so much, but then I said, okay, I’m back in the office. And I was like, wow, we’ve got some things to change within the organization. I haven’t been here, but now that I’m in the office, like what’s going on?
And so my role shifted and I created a position for myself there. That was an evolution of what had been doing to work more, it was still working within community engagement, but it was working internally. One of the lessons I learned on the road working with the teachers project was, this narrative of the high school dropout, and that narrative kept coming up.
And I was like, okay, we’re not going to, as an organization we’re not going to refer to this as the dropout crisis. We’re going to talk about low graduation rates. Because when you think about dropout, it really is a deficit-centered way of thinking and you put the focus more on the student and not the whole system and all the different players. And so I was able to bring that back within the organization and look at the department I was in, which was called Community Outreach at the time. And I was like, maybe we should think about calling this Community Engagement because outreach is really transactional and it’s one way. We shouldn’t just be thinking about checking off boxes and saying, Oh do we have a story about an African-American? Do we have a story about, someone in the LGBTQ+ community? It’s not about checking off boxes. It’s how are we having this mutual dialogue in conversation and exchange and possibly making an impact both ways, not just outside, but also inside.
A lot of the work that I was doing internally was to help us as practitioners, as editors, as producers, as community organizers, as writers, as tech people, as all the different people that, that it took the to make that engine run. How are we doing our work better? That, again goes back to the social impact strategy.
It’s one thing to think about what are the strategies for getting communities to record their stories? But how are we equipped to be able to go out and work in these communities as an organization?
I sat up straighter when you said checking off boxes. I live and work in the world of technology building and designing apps. And so many times it’s make sure we have pictures of diversity. There’s a lot of checking off of boxes. I’m thinking about social impact. And I’m thinking about if I’m someone listening to this podcast and I’m like, yeah, I want to stop checking off boxes. I want to have social impact. I want what I do to really drive change. What can we do?
The English major in me, the writer in me, but I go back to language and there’s different forms of language course. We speak different languages. But when I’m talking about language here, I am talking about vocabulary and defining things in meaning. How do we understand things?
I’ve had different shifts in my life where I’ve stopped using certain terms, because I try to understand what they mean and the connotations behind them. When it comes to buzzwords like diversity equity inclusion I don’t subscribe anymore to terms like inclusion because inclusion sets you up to check off a box. Because you’re like, Oh, we’re inclusive. We’re including everyone. Oh, did we get our woman check? Did we get our Africa-American check? When you think about inclusion and the history of different institutions and organizations you think about who traditionally was there, and inclusion is still framing it as if the people in power who are traditionally there are allowing people to come in and are bringing people in and saying you’re included in this. And not only are you included in this, but you’re included in the way that we are already thinking about. And so this is where positive turbulence comes in because it’s like you can’t just think about come in to what we already have, because we’re including you. But think about what do people have that are not in this organization or not in this institution have that they can bring to help us change and shift the way we think, or maybe do it in a different way. I feel people should consider thinking in that way. Don’t be inclusive. I’m not saying to exclude people, but I’m saying , don’t just think about Oh, I’m including someone, but I’m going to listen to you. And you’re different from me and so I feel that I value what you’re bringing in because this is really important to have different opinions, different perspectives, different backgrounds. I feel that if we can start looking at, when you’re thinking about checking off boxes and move away from that, by really seeing the value in perspectives and people in their totality, because they are different things. And that goes back to me saying , I’m a social impact strategist, not just an executive director of XYZ organization, because I’m bringing in all of the things that I’m, that I’m bringing to the table.
To borrow an AMI concept that I feel like you’re doing is look for the gift in the individual. And be present. Those two, those two things on either side of it, be present for that person and look for their gifts rather than defining them as a…
And that is important. Identity is so important. And I, for so long have worked, especially with the nonprofits work in organizations where you’re sitting at a table to strategize or put a plan together for doing different community engagement. And they’re like, okay. So we want to reach out to the African-American women and I’m sitting in the room and I’m like, the African-American in the room, I’m the woman in the room.
And so it’s okay, they’re talking about me as if I’m not here because they’re saying, Oh, we need to do outreach to them, to those people. And so when I started being like, I am them, I am this, but in different ways, you can’t separate necessarily your identity. So I’m not saying that people should not recognize their identities, that they bring.
But how does your identity inform these gifts that you have the gifts that you’re bringing to the table and how do they shape them?
It had me thinking about the use of story, the use of language, the way we frame. And I’m seeing this pattern that, maybe exists for us. And maybe it’s the way the world really is that you talk about it, people start to share their language pretty soon, their beliefs begin to align, and then eventually you start seeing different kinds of behaviors. And then the world really does start to change at that point. But if you don’t take that first step, everyone sort of retreats to their spaces. And so to bring people forward, I’m getting it now, this use of language and the use of story to just really reframes and can change things on the grand scale. I love that. So thanks for the insight there.
Absolutely. I feel the urgency of it too. It’s time to start changing that piece of language. Talking about them, those people. We do it all the time. Start changing that language, start talking about we. So powerful.
When you talk about the big changes that I’d like to see and where my attention is, honestly, I really feel that there is a lot of sickness and disease as in dis ease in the world in our community in our homes and in our families. I feel like the root of some of this is lack of mental health, mental stability, physical health, spiritual, emotional. My attention is on really working with, friends, family, colleagues, everyone and checking in with how are we supporting each other in those areas.
Because if we can have, this big idea, we can have this like million dollar budget to do this big project, but if we’re not bringing our ourselves, our authentic selves, our genuine selves, our healing in progress selves, then you’re going to see the results at the end of the project.
You’re going to see how those shifts or those challenges you have in your life are brought to what you’re actually working on. So I find myself, even when I’m having zoom calls, working on a call or something, if I’m the one facilitating the meeting for work starting it with Hey, what’s your soundtrack of life today? What song really encapsulates how you feel today and it just opens up. It just opens up. Not only do you get like a great new playlist, cause you’ve heard all your colleagues favorite song or listening to, but you’re like, Oh, okay. This is how you feel. This is how you connect.
And it goes back to words and storytelling because stories are it’s language, it’s words, it’s emotion sometimes instrumental. So you’re listening to music, but, and that’s just an example of how I really feel like just, I just think my attention is like, how are we centering ourselves? And being gentle with ourselves, being patient with other people because it’s really, it’s, we’re living in very different times, very challenging times. And I feel like that’s really how I’m operating and living my life. Professionally as a consultant, I work on different projects. I would say that the projects that attract me and that I focus on now have been different forms. They’ve still been in the realm of the arts in the creative industries in development just so many different areas that I have experience in, but the connection there is am I going to be working with a team, an organization who values the people who are executing the work that they’re doing. And so that’s really where my attention to is. And that’s what I’m focused on right now.
It’s tough to be an innovator. It’s tough to be a change agent. It, it takes a lot out of us. As we do that especially long-term change, it feels like you’re fighting a system that’s never going to be, it’s never going to relent and it’s going to stay forever. How do you recharge your batteries? What do you do? Where do you go? How do you come back fresh to take on another big thing? What works for you?
One way is laughter. It’s almost like exercise. You’re using your abdominal muscles of course. One of my closest friends sent me a video. It was like a two minute video of a compilation of memes. I literally laughed so hard. I was crying. I was choking. I was like, Oh my God, this is hilarious. And I called her and after she texted it to me and we were both laughing again because she picked the phone laughing, I answered the phone laughing. And so we’re both like,
you’re making me
you’re making me laugh. And then when it was done, I was like, Oh, I felt great.
I was like, Oh my God, I feel really good. And I was like, I really have to do this more. Like one of those, like gut deep laugh and there’s different types of laughs. There’s like memes on the internet of like your hahaha or your chuckle where you’re, there’s different types of laughs that you have and your laughs, you both have beautiful laughs, right?
I desire to infuse more laughter in my life that is not making fun of people. It’s not making fun of any in anything, but it’s sometimes you might laugh. If you see a video of somebody falling, I’m not talking about those videos or a blooper real like somebody, doing a Daredevil stunt and then falling crashing.
I’m talking about genuine, good old laughter like calling up my grandfather. And being like, remember that time when you, we were, we went peach picking and with all the grandkids and we were itching because it was, we were peach picking and it was just so fuzzy. Cause you get itchy from the peach fuzz. Remember that time when we were so hungry, you stopped on the side of the road popped up the hood of the engine and cooked the hot dogs on the stove because all the kids were so hungry. It’s like that it’s like that. And then the storytelling again, like just having, sharing those stories. I really recharg from that. That’s been a big thing. Walking I’ve been doing tree meditations, just, breathing air looking at the sun, looking at the trees spending time near water looking at plants, just connecting with the senses. Connecting with the senses has been a big thing. Having a good meal, having a good laugh, listening to a good story.
I think we surely need a little bit more laughter in the world right now.
Hey Tremaine, we’re almost out of time, which I cannot believe so fast.
Karyn, create more time for us
I wish could. I wish I could. I, you know, I I’ve so enjoyed this conversation, so thank you. Thank you for that.
I totally enjoyed this conversation. I always love and enjoy talking to my AMI community.
And I just want to say thank you so very much.
Awesome fun. Wow. That was great. Yeah.
Hey, lovely listeners stay tuned for this episode’s positive turbulence moment coming right up. But first a huge thank you to AMI who have nurtured us in developing this podcast as the source of so many of our guests. And of course the founders, Stan Gryskiewicz is also the author of the original book and dare I say… the William Shakespeare of positive turbulence.
AMI is a pioneering nonprofit organization comprised of committed individuals who foster and leverage creativity and innovation in organizations in society. AMI identifies leading edge innovation, shares experiences, sponsors, research, and recognizes innovation and creative processes. Find out more at aminnovation.org.
And here’s our positive turbulence moment.
Would you mind just giving me a little bit of grounding in what you’re doing right now?
What I’m doing right now is, I am really focused on what are ways to enhance and preserve, my health, that spiritual health, physical health, mental health social health, relationships with family and really taking this time that we’re living in to make assessments of where I am and just continue, growing in that way and being, being a better, person being a better community member, being a better mother, being a better colleague being a better partner, being all these things that I am. I feel like this time for me is it’s like taking that to a whole other level of what this, new normal is looking like
It’s just amplified it. Yeah. Yeah. I hear that too. Everything got bigger all of a sudden. Yeah. Yeah. What what I really meant ask them to thank you for that that response, because it was so thoughtful was what are you doing for work these days?
If you want to share a positive turbulence moment or otherwise comment on what you’re hearing, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome your thoughts.
Be sure to tune in next episode for a conversation with Kelly Erhart, a social entrepreneur, applying creative strategy at the intersection of climate and regenerative business. She is co-founder of Project Vesta, a project to sequester carbon dioxide by putting a type of green rock on some beaches. It’s an amazing hopeful episode. We hope you’ll join us.
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