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Wit and Wisdom: The Personal is Political — Ongoing Conversations of Race, Class, and Gender

Kate Seely is the Director of Field Operations with EPIP. She is a leadership development enthusiast, a believer that honest communication and authentic leadership are the underlying keys to any sustainable change we endeavor to effect in this world. 

Me and my amazing Dad, summer 2012.

Me and my amazing Dad, summer 2012.

As I have grown in my career over the past 10 years, I have thought a lot about what it means to make change and have learned what I feel are a few valuable lessons. The part that I’m interested in is the personal part, that part that we so often push below, which is so crucial to how we each approach this work. We come at this work with different backgrounds, identities, upbringings, beliefs, inclinations, all of which color how we approach our work and whether we feel fully invested in it. The research on generational shifts shows that work has become more personal with our generation, with individuals feeling committed to causes as opposed to a certain organization or company.


Nakisha Lewis and Alfonso Wenker at the EPIP People of Color Gathering, February 2013.

EPIP has always placed value on creating a safe space for people of color to talk about identity. Moreover, we believe that we should cultivate space to authentically discuss how identity relates to an individual’s impact, both in the larger world and within our workplaces. As a white girl interested in racial dynamics, racial equity, and deeply engaged with cultures other than my “own,” I have always sidled up to the conversation, not knowing exactly how to engage in the conversations, but wanting oh so badly to do so. Growing up with the privilege of being born white was not something that I understood how to address, and I still don’t, as this is a lifelong conversation. I believe the important part is the trust that I have in my own authenticity around the potential discomfort, which leads me to a first lesson: embracing and acknowledging that these conversations can be uncomfortable, and trusting that others will meet you there and hold your hand through it. 

Beth Herz and Nakisha Lewis, my co-conspirators for our two EPIP conference sessions.

Beth Herz and Nakisha Lewis, my co-conspirators for our two EPIP conference sessions.

Recently, given my role with EPIP, the comfort that I feel in taking risks in our network with people who have become my friends and allies, and the relentless need to embrace and promote a more authentic approach, I started talking with two colleagues from our network, Nakisha Lewis (EPIP Boston Co-Chair) and Beth Herz (Member, EPIP Board of Advisors). I wanted to create space to have the conversation about what it means to be an ally and advocate for racial equity as a white woman, and to explore what being an ally means for all participants, not just people of color, not just white people, not just gay people, to explore how we can all engage in advocacy together.

Both Beth and Nakisha are deeply committed to social justice, and have extensive experience developing and participating in conversations about identity.  Feeling safe with them was important, which leads me to my second lesson: find your tribe, those who you can have the hard conversations with, the conversations that matter. Start now if you haven’t already, since individual transformation can lead to collective transformation, and we can be part of creating a world in which our desire for impact and clarity means we push with more fervor, together as allies invested in each others success and ultimately, the success of this precious planet and every living thing on it.

Together, Beth, Nakisha and I developed two sessions for the EPIP National Conference in Chicago: Pursuing Social Justice Through Philanthropy and The Personal is Political*: Ongoing Conversations of Race, Class, and Gender. Together, they looked at how to approach social justice through our work and how our own identities color our approaches.

Just one part of my EPIP tribe, our staff team.

Just one part of my EPIP tribe, our staff team.

My heart and mind were on fire with the attendance and the quality of conversation in the Personal is Political session, the session I more intimately designed with Nakisha. The room was packed as we discussed the first time we remember having a sense of race in the world. We also discussed other identities that are more hidden to the naked eye and we explored how hard it is to have these conversations consistently with colleagues and partners.

What I felt most, amongst a group of about 50 people all who brought different backgrounds to the table, is that we I am not alone in my desire to have these kinds of conversations among colleagues, yet it is so easy to feel that solitude when space is not made for them. So many of us want to cultivate allies across identities to accompany us in this journey. We can have these conversations with our friends as we choose those communities more intentionally, but honoring our real stories within our intersectional lives, every piece of those stories, enables healing, not only in ourselves, but in our compatriots as well. Leaders that embrace an authentic approach encourage similarities in those around them, enabling everyone engaged in the process to more wholly commit to challenge at hand. This leads me to my third lesson: create space for these conversations with others who are ready to have them. Listen and speak deeply, work to be honest and authentic, and truly hear the stories of those with whom you are engaged in social change work.

Create space for reflection.

Create space.

As a generation, we are deeply overwhelmed. And there’s a lot to be overwhelmed about. Immigration, guns and death, political disenfranchisement, climate change, poverty. We must band together if we are to rise up. My request, therefore, of you is that you continue to make space for these conversations, to encourage your own colleagues, including your bosses, to speak and listen deeply. Because that is where the real transformation takes place. It may seem small, but this type of caring for one another resounds deeply and ripples out from us, creating the necessary trust so that change and impact can occur, both in ourselves and on this planet.

*Read more about the Personal is Political, a term coined by Carol Hanisch.

Wit and  Wisdom is a blogging collaboration between EPIP and JAG. Featuring a monthly entry from individuals within our networks, it highlights thought leadership about philanthropy, racial/social equity, and multigenerational change. Its lightening-hot interviews, essays, and case studies aim to provoke insightful discussion.  We hope you will engage! 

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