Dr. Christy Pichichero of George Mason University: 5 Steps that Each of Us Can Take to Proactively Help Heal Our Country
We can achieve so much if we put our minds to it and commit ourselves to making change. You are far more powerful than you imagine. Be the change. Be the progress.
For my series 5 Steps that Each of Us Can Take to Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christy Pichichero.
Dr. Christy Pichichero is an author, activist, and professor of History and French Studies at George Mason University with more than twenty years of experience in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and anti-racism work. She is a thought leader and influencer in higher education through her diversity consulting, her internationally-recognized publications, and her work as the President of the Western Society for French History — the first African-American woman to occupy this role. An alumna of Princeton University (A.B.), the Eastman School of Music (B.M.), and Stanford University (Ph.D.), she serves on several editorial and scholarly boards including the Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
My family’s story is an American dream come true. My Afro-German mother immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and my Italian-American father was a military brat, constantly moving around the country and world. They met their senior year in high school during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She was a cheerleader and he was a basketball player! As seventeen-year-olds, they made a pact to overcome differences and help one another go to college, earn advanced degrees, and build a better life. She became a community college professor and he became a doctor. Their vision of hard work and passion for service to society are the fabric of my upbringing. Little did I know that navigating different histories, forms of racialization and discrimination, languages, and cultures in my own home would allow me to cultivate essential skills for my career as an educator, diversity professional, and now president of a national society. They are also key skills for healing our country.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite quote is by Toni Morrison, who was a spectacular person from multiple perspectives and one of my mentors during my undergraduate years at Princeton. “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” The middle portion of the quote is nearly a daily mantra for me. Gaining expertise and authority involves years of hard work, stress and struggle. But in this process, we must not forget the power — and responsibility — that each of us has to open doors and uplift others.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My vision of leadership centers on the concept of human resources as a kind of cornucopia. People — with their diverse experiences, talents, training, energies, and ideas — are the greatest asset of any enterprise. When I am doing my best work, I see myself as a conductor of a big jazz ensemble. Setting our musical roadmap and creating the final piece is an entirely collective endeavor. Each musician and each section of instruments brings strength, directionality, and brilliance. My role is to make room for creativity and for individuals and groups to shine, all the while envisioning the whole and how the constituent parts combine to make something unique, meaningful, and effective.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
One of the greatest crises — and opportunities for progress — in our country concerns racism and its antidote, antiracism. This is a subject impacting all industries. The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others have engendered an unprecedented awareness of racism and its multiple forms: structural, cultural, interpersonal. In staggering numbers, people are engaging in conversations about White privilege and cultural dominance, racial violence and trauma, and intersectionality in exclusion and discrimination (these have exponentially negative effects when axes of discrimination combine — gender, sexuality, religion, immigration status, etc.). We have inherited a society rife with these problems and for the first time in decades, individuals and communities of all backgrounds are making a commitment to end silent complacency and complicity with discriminatory structures and practices. There is a sense that ignorance is no longer an excuse, that it is incumbent upon us in our workplaces, communities, and households to actively make change. There is no quick fix to this magnitude of a problem and many people feel unsure about how they can participate in pushing our society forward. Yet there are steps that each of us can take that will make a difference within our respective industries and communities.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
The problems of racial and intersectional discrimination are centuries old. While the founders of our nation championed “liberty and justice for all,” they excluded many groups from this promise — among them Native Americans, women, and the masses of enslaved people upon whose backs the prosperity of this country was built. Even when slavery was abolished in 1865, the discrimination against African Americans was far from over — we are still living the afterlife of slavery. My husband and I recently listened to the audiobook version of Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide and learned more about the shocking and devastating structural racism from the Reconstruction period after the Civil War into the twentieth century. In one chapter, Anderson writes about housing covenants that kept Black and interracial families out of certain neighborhoods. As a young married couple, my own parents were told they could not live in a certain neighborhood due to such a covenant, and this was a path-changing moment in our family’s life. More and more Americans today are learning about these types of structural racism and those who have suffered are speaking out. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have ignited outrage at excessive violence against Black bodies in policing and in shocking pursuits of “vigilante justice,” from lynching to gunning down a Black jogger or a teenager in hoodie. People of all ages and backgrounds are rising up to call out injustices and leaders in all industries are opening up about former mistakes as well as their plans to make meaningful changes.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
As Ibram X. Kendi writes in his book How to be an Antiracist, “the opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist,’ it’s anti-racist.” Antiracism as an approach to the problems I’ve described is, by definition, active. It’s not just an attitude or moral stance, which most often leads to complacency or armchair liberalism. With this in mind, here are my 5 steps:
1. Proudly take on your role as a change-maker. Each person has something unique to contribute to antiracist change at home and at work, in our local communities or global presence. What is special about your company or project that can be used to participate in antiracist progress? How can you center antiracism as you approach your products, your team, your consumers, your volunteer or philanthropic activities, your media presence, and your corporate and personal relationships with Black or minority-owned businesses? We have the privilege of pursuing this work. Antiracism is not just something we have to do, it’s something we get to do.
2. Build and exercise your cultural competency. Listen to audiobooks while you exercise or commute. Offer diversity trainings on different subjects — equitable recruiting and hiring practices, microaggressions, etc. — to your leadership and staff. Build an internal diversity resources page to support your colleagues of different backgrounds and make sure they have the resources (mental health and other) that they need. Survey your board, partners, clients, and staff regarding experiences of racism or other forms of discrimination so that you can learn to do better. Such efforts have incredibly positive effects on your business, projects, teams, and industry at large.
3. Construct diverse teams. Research shows that diverse teams make better decisions and firms with gender-diverse leadership are more likely to outperform others. The same holds true for ethnic/cultural diversity. In diversifying your leadership and staff, it is important to aim for critical mass rather than a “one of each” model. The latter most often leads to tokenizing and painfully awkward moments in which, for example, people turn to a Black colleague asking them “What do Black people think of this?” Also, make sure to set up strong mentoring and support structures so that employees of all backgrounds can thrive.
4. Cultivate your tolerance for discomfort and your ability to apologize. Work in antiracism and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) can be quite bumpy and involve uncomfortable moments. It can be difficult to talk about structural racism, white privilege, and cultural dominance. Our society has long taught people to avoid speaking about these subjects. Yet as times have changed, we must take courage and try. You and those around you may struggle or falter and mistakes will be made. Find the strength to acknowledge those mistakes appropriately and to apologize. These actions go a long way in building strong relationships and a healthy, happy professional culture. You can try all of this at home as well, with your partner, children, extended family, and circles of friends.
5. Hold yourself and others around you accountable. Collect data on your company and your peers so that you can set measurable goals and chart your progress. Ask other authorities in your industry how they are approaching antiracism. Adopt their practices, partner with them for greater impact, or share your own resources and plans. Try to integrate antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion into all parts of your professional work and also into your private life. Do this in ways that are sustainable and authentic to you rather than trendy or performative. Change will take time and change depends on you.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
As you pursue the 5 steps outlined above, remember that you are not alone. Many people around you are undertaking similar endeavors, have similar questions and quandaries, and are searching for solutions. Many people feel unqualified, helpless, or in some way ashamed when they think about racism and discrimination. Other people from historically underrepresented groups might feel invisible, taxed or traumatized. Hire a diversity consultant or a chief diversity officer to help you with this work. A diversity professional can assist you in creating surveys, running trainings and workshops, and staging conversations with people so that their experiences and concerns can be heard.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The march of history was not ineluctable. It was the result of people’s decisions and actions. We are the creators of our present day and we write the blueprints of the future. We can achieve so much if we put our minds to it and commit ourselves to making change. You are far more powerful than you imagine. Be the change. Be the progress.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I have wanted to sit down and talk to Michelle Obama for many years. Given her career and advocacy as First Lady, I am interested in her perspective on key inflection points where antiracism and DEI work can make the biggest impact, from early childhood education onward. I would like to share ideas and strategize with her on the axes of national change. Then I want to get to work!
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