Deanna Singh of Flying Elephant: 5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
Learn how to talk about things like race and social identity. The most common reason why people don’t engage in these uncomfortable conversations is fear. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing — and they are also afraid of saying nothing. That is a paralyzing place to be, and we want to keep moving forward. That is why I give people the language and common experiences they need to allow them to breach new topics more bravely. It is much like learning a new language!
As part of our series 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society, I had the pleasure to interview Deanna Singh, Chief Change Agent and Founder of Flying Elephant and leader of the biannual DEI leadership summit How To Be An Ally. She is the author of the new American Girl book for young readers, A Smart Girl’s Guide to Race & Inclusion. Her next book, Actions Speak Louder, is a bold new toolkit for creating a more inclusive workplace and will be published in May 2022 by Penguin Random House.
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?
I grew up in a mixed-race household. My mother is Black and comes from Magee, Mississippi. My father is Sikh, from Punjab, India. My parents met at a gas station. My father was living there and my mother worked third shift in a factory nearby. I know it doesn’t sound like a very romantic beginning, but my parents are proof positive that love always does find a way. They could barely speak the same language when they met, but after three months, they decided to get married. I’m happy to say that they celebrated their forty-second wedding anniversary last August.
Growing up, I had the privilege of watching my hardworking and resourceful parents find ways to get by. There was a time when they had difficulty keeping up with rent increases, and we all ended up living on the gas station floor. More than anything, they wanted me to have a great education, so right before I was about to start Kindergarten, they moved into a house in a good school district. The house was a three-bedroom ranch with no furniture. Up until the time I left for college at sixteen, it was not unusual for us to have relatives living with us — up to thirty people, if you can imagine it. There were so many of us that we usually ate dinner on the floor.
I was the first person in my family to go to college, but my parents knew that I would not be the last. Through their hard work, they had put me in a position to multiply my blessings and opportunities. In time, I discovered that I wanted to channel that purpose by empowering people in marginalized communities.
I am blessed, but that is not to say I have had an easy path. I have failed hard and often, and I have been required me step outside my comfort zone. There were times when I wondered if I was doing enough to live my purpose. But if my parents taught me anything, it was resilience. I have persevered through the valleys in life so I could experience the mountain tops.
Is there a particular book that has made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
As a writer, I know that stories are important and powerful. I felt that power in Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred D. Taylor. Seeing someone in the pages of a book who looks like you, dresses like you, talks like you, has the same passions as you, and even eats the same food as you can help create deeper connections within yourself that you can bring out into the world. That happened for me with this book. It was life-changing for me and gave me a feeling of belonging.
When I was a little girl, I loved to read. I would hide in my closet at night with a flashlight so I could keep reading after bedtime. But until I read Let the Circle Be Unbroken in the eighth grade, I had felt invisible. I had never seen a little girl of color in a book before. I couldn’t put that book down.
I checked that book out of my school library so often that my librarian told me just to keep it. I loved it so much that I slept with it in bed. I still have it, decades later.
The girl in the story had a life that was very different from mine, but to me, just having a character who looked like me was astonishing. The world of literature has changed since then, but not nearly enough. Children of color are still woefully underrepresented. That is what prompted me to start writing children’s books of my own, such as I Am a Boy of Color, I Am a Girl of Color, Cloth Crown, and A Smart Girl’s Guide to Race & Inclusion. My aim with these books is not just to create diverse characters, but to spark conversations about race.
Do you have a favorite “life lesson” quote? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I love the quote from Maya Angelou, “Nothing will work unless you do.” It is so simple but so true.
One of the things my team often says about me is that I am willing to both build and break things to create a more just world. That is me in a nutshell. When something does not hit my heart the right way, and I can see that I have the skills to change it, it is highly likely that I will dive in with both feet.
How do you define leadership? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think true leaders are clear about their purpose. They feel it deep down and they are fully committed to it no matter what obstacles present themselves. Those kinds of people inevitably help others pursue their own purpose. Therefore, being confident in my purpose helps me multiply my blessings by helping others thrive.
This doesn’t mean that I am fearless, exactly. I just “fear less” because I am confident in my purpose. For example, one of the things I do is act as a doula and advocate for marginalized people giving birth. Even though a paper cut can make me weak in the knees under normal circumstances, my confidence in my purpose helps me show up in that birthing room and be fully present without flinching.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
One of the things that works for me is singing a little gospel hymn. It is a simple one, but it holds a lot of meaning for me. Here is its chorus:
Speak to my heart, Lord, give me your holy word
If I can’t hear from you, then I’ll know what to do
I won’t go on, Lord, I’ll never go on my own
Just let your spirit guide and let your word abide
The idea of being a vessel has always resonated with me. Being a vessel means that my body and my life are not just my own. I believe that my life will be measured in terms of my service to a higher purpose. That thought brings me comfort in high-stakes situations because it reminds me that none of what I do is really about me. It is about the people I walk alongside.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
There are a number of reasons why we are talking about racial inequities in a different way right now. Firstly, black and brown people, as well as other marginalized communities, can now demonstrate, through their own videos and words, just how unjust the status quo is. We have incontrovertible proof that demands a reckoning. One of the most dramatic examples of that was the video used in the George Floyd murder trial.
Secondly, consumers are becoming much more conscious in their buying decisions, steering clear of companies that do not project inclusive values. The way that money flows speaks volumes on its own, negatively impacting companies that stay silent on social justice issues.
Thirdly, with so many of us working from home through the COVID-19 crisis, we have had an opportunity to understand what it feels like to walk around in perpetual fear and uncertainty. It has made certain groups of people more empathetic to the challenges marginalized communities face every day.
Lastly, I think that we are successfully elevating the conversation about race, and it is happening in places where those conversations used to be off-limits, such as school, work, and places of worship.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
One of the things that most surprises people about me is how much I love the work that I do. I do it from a place of joy. I don’t say this to minimize the fact that there are a lot of terrible things happening in the world. I have watched people I am close to be killed and abused, and that is sufficient to keep me from seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.
However, I have also watched how empowering people with the knowledge of how to become an ally and how to start constructive conversations and policies surrounding diversity and inclusion sets them on a completely different path in life. Some of my favorite moments in this work have to do with witnessing breakthroughs. For example, when a person admits that they have been seeing the world in one way, and finally realizes that their limited view has been hurting others and themselves. Even more rewarding is to hear what they are doing to change that.
I think that waves of change will come from individuals taking action and only then will be supported by policies and law. It doesn’t happen the other way around.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I am glad you asked this question. In my experience, having a diverse executive team allows three magical things to happen within an organization.
- It encourages difference in thought, which is not only inclusive, but also a driver of innovation.
- It provides a clear signal to your industry and the world at large that you are inclusive and are building a culture that is reflective of a commitment to DEI.
- It allows marginalized groups to see that there is potential for a future in your organization.
I have seen those three things change levels of happiness, productivity, and innovation in organizations dramatically. It is inspiring to witness.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”?
Gladly! Here are my five critical steps:
- Recognize where we stand as individuals. Leaders are often hesitant to see DEI work as beginning with their own personal work. This is problematic because without this step, leaders can easily lapse into being inauthentic in all their future engagements around DEI.
- Learn how to talk about things like race and social identity. The most common reason why people don’t engage in these uncomfortable conversations is fear. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing — and they are also afraid of saying nothing. That is a paralyzing place to be, and we want to keep moving forward. That is why I give people the language and common experiences they need to allow them to breach new topics more bravely. It is much like learning a new language!
- Leverage the business world’s assets to move the needle faster. The business sector has distinct advantages to leverage that government and other institutions do not. For example, businesses have the autonomy to change at speed — far faster than any government entity or institution of higher learning can. Those institutions are unencumbered by lengthy approval processes, and in the case of government, the need to appeal to a whole voter base. They also have an automatically unified platform and mission. New initiatives have an instant audience and businesses have opportunities to incentivize joining them. Just spending 8-plus hours per day as part of a common venture exposes more people to the same causes, providing unique opportunities for the dissemination of ideas and a greater adoption rate for new behaviors and skillsets.
- Build up our leadership toolkit with more inclusion tools. We are often taught about products, how to manage people, and the internal systems in our organizations. Rarely do people have the privilege to receive formal training on inclusion. Inclusion is just like any other skill that needs to be taught and practiced. When you are given room to learn and practice more, you will achieve more. If you are not, you will remain stuck in the ways of the past. One comment we hear from participants of our professional DEI certificate class is, “Every leader should be required to learn this.”
- Build room into the process for continuous improvement. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is a journey, not a destination. Your goal is not to reach some saintly place where you are absolved of ever making a mistake again. That is not a real or achievable goal. People sometimes wish they could tackle DEI by receiving a massive list of things not to do, but that is impossible to generate. Your goal is to get to a place where you are constantly thinking about what you want to see more of and being a key player in making that become reality. This work is about continually challenging yourself and your organization to grow.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic that this work is making a difference. I will continue doing it until I die. I do envision a future where this work will look very different as well. Instead of wasting time convincing people of its importance, I think we will be able to focus more fully on how to do it well as time goes on.
I am encouraged that some businesses have shifted from considering DEI a “side” issue and have transitioned to it becoming central to their strategy. I am also grateful for the body of work that is being developed to help support people along this journey.
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. :-)
As a Black and Indian woman, I would love to talk to Kamala Harris. My bi-racial identity has been a major source of inspiration for the work that I do, and I know few other people of color who share the same racial identity as Kamala and me. I would love to talk to Vice President Harris about how she thinks our heritage and story can help better inform people as they build bridges in their own spheres of influence.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you continued success on your great work!