In which Jesse and Peter discuss their relationship to systemic racism, as individuals, as leaders, and as members of the design and UX communities.
Peter: Welcome to Finding Our Way, the podcast where Peter and Jessee welcome you to their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. I’m Peter Merholz, and with me is Jesse James Garrett.
Jesse: Hello, Peter.
Peter: Hello, Jesse. What are we going to talk about?
Jesse: Well, yeah. I mean, I think there’s an elephant in this room that is getting larger by the day. And, I think it would be useful… What we hear, what I have heard, what I have read from people of color about the conversations that need to happen about race in this country. One of the big things that I have heard is, “Don’t come talk to me about your racism. Go talk to each other about your racism.” So I think it would be great for us to talk to each other about race and how race has played out in our careers and how we see race playing out, all around us. But especially, you know, you and I are in a position where we have, quite a history of choices to interrogate as designers and as collaborators and as design leaders. And I think that all of those are topics worthy of exploration.
Peter: I agree. The subject has come up with some of the people I work with, where, particularly, the white men don’t quite know how to navigate this conversation with their teams. They’re like us—they’re middle aged white dudes whose hearts are in the right place, but, almost don’t know where to begin.
Which is frankly kind of where I am, okay, when it comes to this.
I gave a presentation yesterday to UX Waterloo, a local IXDA chapter in Waterloo, Ontario, which is about an hour outside of Toronto. And during the Q and A, it came up, you know, basically asking, “What should we be doing during these strange times?”
And, I don’t have a good answer beyond, “Listen” at this point, still, though. It’s probably time to start turning that corner from listening to acting. I’ve been thinking about how I could act, but then I allow myself to get distracted ‘cause it’s hard. And, there’s, you know, any number of things competing for my attention.
And I choose to deal with the things that I feel like I have a handle on.
Earlier this week, I took part in San Francisco Design Week. Every one of their sessions has a link to the Inneract Project. I N N E R A C T, which is a cause to support bringing more Black and Brown folks into the design field, going into schooling and then supporting them all the way into joining the profession. So getting involved with Inneract, I actually signed up to conduct pseudo job interviews for early stage Black and Brown designers.
Jesse: Like practice interviews for them to sharpen their skills. That’s awesome.
Peter: A link had come across, in one of the community Slacks I’m part of, and it was really easy to sign up and say, “Hey, I’ll do this.” And here’s the time.
Those are small ways, but it’s not something I’ve really sat down to work through. I know that you are going through these coaching classes and are developing a toolkit or an approach to tackle and work through some more challenging stuff. And I’m wondering whether from that or stuff you’ve learned prior to that how you are thinking about this, what tools you have for yourself and perhaps for others you’re working with to ddress these challenges.
Jesse: Yeah. This stuff intersects, in that the work that I’m doing is about how leaders show up day to day and how they navigate these more flexible, more fluid, more challenging kinds of situations. And this stuff actually started coming into play for me in my role at Capital One.
Peter: You say “this stuff,” specifically, matters of diversity and inclusion, racism. Yeah.
Jesse: Well, yeah. I mean, diversity and inclusion, I think, is the nice corporate frame that we put on what we’re actually talking about, which is systemic racism.
Peter: Yeah, yeah. D & I became this initiative that we have a director of it. So we’re doing what we can…
Jesse: Yeah. I mean, it’s an easy way for an organization to flag, you know, this is important to us. We’ve heard you. And so we have appointed a person, and I ended up as that person for the team that I was supporting. I was coaching the leaders of a group of teams that were all under one umbrella that was collectively about 80 people.
And as coach to the leadership team, I was charged with thinking about, as we’ve talked about, these holistic systemic issues going on across the team that were impediments to the team success. And this bubbled up, it really was something that the staff took the leadership to task basically, and said, “We don’t feel like you guys are taking this seriously enough. We don’t feel like the answers that we’re getting are satisfactory, and we don’t feel like we’re seeing cultural change in the ways that we want to see,” in terms of, especially, whose voices got heard, how recognition happened, and then ultimately, obviously, how, power and authority get distributed in an environment like that.
And the leadership turned to me and went, “Well, you’re our holistic systemic problem solver. Here’s one.”
Peter: ”Can you, can you solve racism for us? Can you model it?”
Jesse: Well, it wasn’t exactly that. It was like, we know that this is not how we want to show up as an organization, and, we want to be the vanguards of this change. We don’t want to wait around for somebody else to tell us how to create it or tell us at a corporate level what the official approach was going to be. We felt we needed to generate something of our own. And so we jumped in with both feet, and set out to create some safe spaces for these conversations to happen.
And I would say we got very, very mixed results with that.
In fact, I would say that the people of color on our team probably would say that “mixed results” is a generous assessment of how that went.
Peter: What were the obstacles for, what were the barriers?
Jesse: I think the major mistake that I made was not fully understanding what, creating these formalized structures, what position that put the people of color on the team in, in terms of having the spotlight put on them and their experiences in a way that they may or may not be ready or willing or eager to share, or the feeling that they are going to be put in the position of having to explain systemic racism to a room full of white people and that they are going to have all of this extra stuff put on them, this extra emotional burden of having to talk through their past traumas,
Peter: Right. “It’s not bad enough that we’re subject to the systemic racism our entire lives. We now have to educate you about it.”
Jesse: Right. And in an effort to create a sense that the leadership was actively engaged in this process, and actively engaged in listening, we had our leaders facilitate these conversations and our leaders did not have the skillset to facilitate these conversations, first of all. And secondly, we did not, I did not, really fully appreciate how the power dynamic in that room, when you have the leader facilitating the conversation, was going to skew things. And so, there were a couple of really fundamental misunderstandings that I had of what I was doing that led to that whole approach not working for us.
Peter: Yeah, there are times when leaders should be playing the role of facilitator in an effort to quiet their voice and elevate others. And sometimes it’s the right solution. But I think when it’s charged, if there’s an emotional tenor to it, even if they try to be as dispassionate or blank as possible, just the fact that they are the leader colors this, and you need, probably, ideally someone who has almost no context, no agenda that they could be accused of falling back on.
Jesse: Well, and I think part of the reason that I was tapped for that role was that I was not a leader of a team. So I was not in that same position, but I wasn’t facilitating sessions.
But yeah, honestly, and this was the reason I had to get out of Capital One altogether, I was, at the end of the day, embedded in the power structure. And could not play that outsider role to the extent that I needed to in order to be successful as a coach.
Jesse: So what we did after that, then, was we went and got some help, and we hired a consulting group out of Oakland called Circle Up. And they do consulting and workshops around helping organizations have these kinds of difficult conversations. And they led us through a process that was very helpful and enlightening to us.
And we were just starting the process of engaging with them to actually train up leaders, to have better facilitation skills around this stuff, at the time that I left the organization and handed that work off to others.
Peter: Right. How do you get people to expose themselves? Candidly, honestly, frankly, in an environment like that, where even if it is a safe space, there’s a fair degree of risk. Whether you feel risk based on your employment status or just risk in terms of exposing your own ignorance. I have to imagine that no one is being open and honest in these conversations. Were you able to get there?
Jesse: It’s challenging. It is tremendously challenging. It comes back to the stuff that we’ve been talking about actually, which is that when you have a high trust, high interpersonal connection environment, these kinds of conversations are easier. When you have people who are habitually, practicing things that we’ve talked about. Non-judgment. People who have practices of curiosity in their work. If these are your cultural values, then it’s going to be easier to get there, but still it is touchy stuff. But it’s too important not to do. And so I think that as leaders, we have to be willing to acknowledge what we don’t know and acknowledge that this is a problem that is not going to be solved in our lifetimes. And so we can’t ever craft what we as designers always want, which is that perfectly honed, eternally right solution. It is all satisficing what we’re doing right now. It is cobbling together little bits of things and making mistakes and learning from them. I do think that relationship as a frame is really important for this because when you talk about leaders as facilitators, what I’m thinking about are all of the relationships that that leader has with each individual in the room and how all of those dynamics get piled up on top of each other.
And the effectiveness of that group environment in a lot of ways depends on How is the leader doing in their relationships with their people individually? And are there things that are unsaid in those relationships that have been bottled up waiting to come out? If that stuff is all there and then you ask that of people in a group environment it’s going to be really hard.
So one question that I would put to leaders is how are you one-on-one’s going?
Peter: So a project I’m about to start, there’s a leader who is extremely eager to get going and solve a problem and dive into the mechanics of solving the problem. And based on my initial assessment of the situation, I feel like the people who would be engaging in solving this problem, many of whom are direct reports of this leader, will not bring their full selves, if it starts with problem solving, and I’m like, “I need to have one-on-ones with all these individuals and try to get at some of the underlying stuff. ‘Cause I think there’s basically relationship stuff, relationship baggage, et cetera, that is affecting people’s abilities to act in their fullest. And if we don’t acknowledge the relationship stuff, yeah, we can kind of muddle along and talk about some solutions and probably, make things better, but the ultimate effectiveness will be blunted. And there are times, and this is one, where it’s not about great design. It’s about how we are engaging with one another. We have to resolve that and then we can get to the great design. But if we just start with, let’s just make design great, without acknowledging the underlying relationship stuff, you will never actually get to great design.
Jesse: That’s right. That’s the premise of my whole everything I’m doing right now.
Peter: Something you said though, you’re talking about power dynamics. One of the things that has occurred to me, as we’ve had these conversations about leadership, and which has forced me to just think more intentionally and reflectively about leadership at all times, is that I don’t think many leaders recognize the responsibility that they take on as leaders. That their actions have all these knock-on follow-on consequences. They don’t receive it as a responsibility beyond, “Let’s make something great. Let’s get to the next place, I am leading us towards something.”
Jesse: It’s almost as, as if all of their sense of responsibility is directed upward in the organization, their responsibility to their leaders, rather than their responsibility downward toward their teams.
Peter: Right, right. Yes. You know, there’s the line from Spider-man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I think a lot of leaders don’t recognize that the power they wield has these impacts on people throughout their organizations, intentional or otherwise, that they should be responsible for, but it’s not often seen as a responsibility.
I think people assume to be a leader is to do good things, is to take us to good places, and through all of my actions, that is what will happen. And like, on all this stuff I ever hear about, or read about, or am thinking about, when it comes to leadership, there’s this lack of a recognition that your actions will affect people, and might affect people negatively.
And that just doesn’t resonate. And I don’t know why we hold our leaders accountable, but we don’t hold them responsible, and…
Jesse: They’re accountable when things go sideways, right? When a team blows up, because this stuff came into play in a bad way, then it’s like, “Oh, leader, you should’ve known.” But until that happens, the organization is happy to pretend that none of this stuff ever exists. And I think that you’ve hit on something really important, which is that leaders are not just there to perform and deliver. Leaders are cultural stewards for their organizations and have to cultivate cultures that do not harm the people who are in those organizations.
Peter: That’s right. I think that’s exactly right. You know, in prior episodes we talked about the distinction between management and leadership. And I think with management, there’s this recognition, because you have direct reports and, part of your job is to grow your team, that management has a responsibility, in this way.
But somehow we don’t use the same language or the same frame when we talk about leadership. But I think, to your point, successful leaders, because they are these cultural stewards, because they become models within the organization, often have a greater impact on these factors than the managers do.
But again, they don’t see that as part of their responsibility. And something that I’m starting to come to terms with.
Another theme that’s emerging for me is that I want to discourage most people from embracing leadership, because not only is it hard, it has these outsized impacts that I think most people assuming leadership are not ready for. And are not aware of and are not cognizant of, and, because of that, it’s the baby with the gun. They’re wielding this influence and not doing so, appropriately.
Jesse: Right. But, with these issues, I feel that an overabundance of caution represents a different kind of harm.
Peter: Well, it’s a challenge that I feel personally. I am over-abundantly cautious when it comes to speaking about racism, systemic racism, my privilege. I will defer to, “Let’s listen to the Black and Brown folks.” ‘Cause what could I have to contribute as a middle aged white guy? And partly that’s true. I haven’t had those experiences. Idon’t want to take the stage away from others who are better suited to address it. But part of it is I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing. I am abundantly cautious because I have had a career of speaking my mind, and getting into trouble often for it.
But the trouble is around whether or not everyone is a designer or the trouble is around information architecture versus visual design, and subjects that were not truly charged in the same way that this is. And, a fear I have is that, with all good intentions, I will put my foot in it and get called out and I’ll get canceled or whatever, right? Because I’ll say the wrong thing. And that is what I’m seeing happening with some of the people I’m working with. Middle-aged white dudes running these sizable teams who are paralyzed when they’re at their all-hands.
They’re just like, “Can I just have the person of color, who’s maybe one of my directors, talk now because that’s the right thing to do, right, is to make a space for them? Problem solved.”
‘Cause they don’t know how to act or what to say, because they’re afraid if they say the wrong thing, now they’re going to get canceled in some way in their organization.
Jesse: Congratulations. Welcome to leadership. Leadership entails stepping into unknown situations with uncertain outcomes and choosing a course and taking action. And it’s this lack of action from leadership that led to the diversity and inclusion initiative that I led at Capital One, that the staff were like, you guys all look like deer in the headlights here. That’s not enough for us. It’s not going to be enough for any leader to continue to show up that way.
If you want some credibility as a white guy, you have to be able to be honest with yourself about your privilege and I’m still working on this. I mean, it’s a path that never, I think, really ends, because it’s so deep and so layered and so complex. But, you and I are design leaders because of our privilege. I think I can confidently say that.
Peter: I can’t dispute it, right? Like I, you know…
Jesse: Well, let’s talk about, let’s talk about UX as a whole and the early days of UX and the moment at which you and I were engaging with this work, what we did in diving into a new medium, trying to define an unknown field that no one had ever heard of, turning around and trying to sell that to people in power, convince them that it was something that was worth paying a lot of money for, even though you couldn’t go out and get a degree in it. There were no books on the topic until we started writing them.
No person of color could have done anything like that. It would have been way too risky from the start. And they would have had enormous obstacles that you and I never faced in order to get to that place that we got to.
Peter: I’m, I’m, I don’t have anything much to say because I don’t, I don’t have anything much to add. I think, I think…
Jesse: Tell me about your perspective, like, your experience, like, where has privilege played a role in your career, do you think?
Peter: Well, it’s played a role in my entire life. I remember, it must have been an email ’cause I’m sure my dad wrote it to me. I was in my mid-twenties. Maybe I was living in New York or, after I moved back to San Francisco, and he wrote to me, “it’s great to be young, white, and have plastic,” meaning credit card, with the recognition that as a 24-year old white guy with a credit card, the world was my oyster. Society kind of existed essentially to enable me. And that phrase has stuck with me, because I have never feared materially. And, I’ve just kind of doubtless been buoyed along by privilege that I hadn’t even recognized.
And there were times when I, could pat myself on the back for certain career choices. My first full-time design job at Studio Archetype, men and women, roughly equal proportions, the senior, most leadership, the CEO is a man, but, like, women in leadership roles, women as executive creative directors.
Studio Archetype was also, being in San Francisco, gender and sexual orientation equity as well, open out gay people in leadership, bringing their partners to work…
Jesse: Studio Verso was the same way. Studio Verso had women in leadership, was led by a gay man. And we had several other queer folk, in leadership roles as well. So, yeah.
Peter: Yeah. So I was like, “Look at me! I chose a career in a field that is like super open and super inclusive!” Pat myself on the back. And it was probably not until starting to go to conferences like the IA Summit, 2000, 2001, and you look around that room, and you see a lot of women, see a lot of men, you don’t see any black people or like two, and then that’s, that’s obviously not right. But I also didn’t do anything about it. I tended to figure, you know, what, we’re an open hearted, big hearted, liberal minded, touchy-feely community. It’ll work itself out. We’re not putting up the barriers. We’re not inhibiting anyone from joining our community.
Jesse: We’re just waiting for them to show up.
Peter: You know, it’s early, so, as the crank turns, and things evolve, I’m sure it’ll work itself out.
Narrator: it didn’t.
You can get so daunted, the issues that we’re talking about obviously are deeply societally systemic, not even specific to the United States, though they’re probably greater here, but we’re seeing demonstrations around the world. And so the next question is what to do about that. Do I engage at a societal level? Do we engage in an industry level?
Jesse: I think that, certainly, there are some of us that are wired for activism that want to be and have the motivation, the interest, the acumen, the wherewithal to be active change-makers at a societal level.
And God bless those people cause we need them. We need lots of them. But there are lots of roles to play in this. And all of us, I think, have to continue to look at ourselves, continue to root out the racism in our own makeup. To notice when we are contributing toward these systemic effects.
Here’s a great example, actually. I was reflecting on my time at Adaptive Path and we did not have many people of color at Adaptive Path during its lifespan. We were much better on gender equity than we were on any other kind of equity within Adaptive Path.
But when I was at Adaptive Path, I hated the idea of myself as this creative director who was going to present all of the teams’ work to the client. And so one thing that I was always doing as a project team lead was orchestrating our client presentation so that everybody got to present their own work.
So, everybody got practice in presenting. So the person who was closest to the work, had the opportunity to speak to it. And so if you knew that you were presenting the work, you were also thinking about, how you were going to talk through your ideas. And what that meant was I was sometimes putting very junior people in front of very senior people and telling them, “It’s okay, you’ve got this.
It’s all good. I’ve got your back.”
But I was not taking into account the way that these kinds of dynamics and the past histories that those designers brought to those experiences might have affected their ability to show up and be successful. I put some people in over their heads by not acknowledging the fact that their status changed the dynamic.
It was not the same as me as a white guy, just showing up and presenting the idea, similar to the founder privilege that you were talking about a few episodes ago.
Peter: I don’t have much to add apart from, looking back at Adaptive Path and, frankly, feeling a little ashamed at the lack of racial diversity. I’m trying to think
if we had, I don’t know if we had any, at least in the design staff, Black or Brown folks, some of the
Jesse: Yeah. And that’s a trap that I think a lot of us fall into. I think it’s a very comfortable, safe thing to fall back on to say, “If my intentions are good and I stick to those intentions that everything is going to work out in the end.” And the existence of systemic racism is proof that that is false.
Peter: Right, right, right, right. Totally. There’s two things I’ve learned, which are hard for me because the ways I’ve been successful in recruiting and hiring are: I have a big network. And I a nose for talent. And two things I have learned are, if you hire only in your network, you’re not going to provide access, you’re constraining access.
And, if you rely on your intuition to guide you through choosing candidates, you are subject to your own bias. And, learning how to still tap into that, which allows me to succeed, but recognizing that I need to do it in the context of some of these structures that hopefully remove the bias that I bring to the situation. That has been a challenge. You know, I’ve gotten to appreciate bureaucratic HR recruiting and hiring approaches, which exists mostly to cover the ass of the corporation. But, done right, also should be providing fairness for candidates.
Jesse: Well, and I think that this is similar to the trust thing in that it’s something that can’t just be addressed at the level of systems and processes and all of the machinery that HR creates to try to prevent these outcomes from happening. It can’t just be about that. It also has to be about how you conduct the interviews, how you, as a leader, approach engaging with people of color. If you have a hard time engaging with people of color, you’re going to have a hard time leading them.
Jesse: And at some point you do, I think, just have to double down on it and say, this is going to be a priority.
Jesse: So at Adaptive Path, years ago, we did an event which was not an event that I had programmed, but I was attending and at the end of the day, I was speaking to some attendees and they talked about the fact that every speaker on the stage that day had been a man. And I looked at the program and I was like, what happened here?
And there were women speakers on the overall program, but they were later in the show. They were not on the opening day. And I was pretty angry, honestly, that we had not caught that. And at that point, going forward with the events that I programmed, I made gender equity on the stage of priority. Despite the fact that I had a series of event managers, all women, who would, complain about the ways in which I was slowing down the process and creating more work for them in seeking out that equity. I just felt it was necessary and worked very hard, for UX Week, for the last several years to create that, and got very good at patting myself on the back for it, and completely had my blinders on to the people of color issue. I would say, you know, it was great anytime we had managed to find a person of color to come speak. That was awesome. And, I was grateful to see it there, but I never prioritized it.
It wasn’t until the final year of UX Week that, in conversation with some of the folks I was working with on the programming, that it became clear to me that this needed to level up to the same level of focus for us as a programming team. And that last UX Week, honestly, is the brownest panel I’ve ever seen at any user experience conference.
Peter: Yes, definitely, thinking a little bit about Adaptive Path, I actually want to give a shout out to one of our co founders, Janice. So of the seven founders, one of them was Janice Fraser.
Janice wrote one of the things that I’ve taken, probably, myself more away from, and maybe it’s as a white person speaking to another white person, she’s helping me think about how I’m showing up. And, so she wrote this post on LinkedIn, June 6th, and basically what she was able to recognize about herself, and I think this is true about me as well, is that it’s easy to try to come across as an ally. You say the right things. You put a Black Lives Matter icon on your Twitter feed and you use the hashtag. But to really commit, to really make the effort to de-center yourself in this conversation can be hard.
And I think what she hits on is part of the reason about that is simply fear. She has a line here: “I was selfish because I was so, so very afraid.” And I, when I read that, that struck me to my core. I know I can be quite selfish in my practices.
Peter: I’m almost 50. I’ve got a moderately successful book. People will still pay attention to me. Yeah. People will still pay attention to me, but one of the things we have to overcome is that there seems to be a human condition, that your gain is my loss. There’s somewhere in our psyche, the zero-sum-ness. And I can occasionally find myself feeling that when I reach out to a conference organizer and say, “You’re programming your event. I would love to take part,” and they respond, “We have our fill of white dudes,” and I’m like, “But you didn’t reach out to me before you filled up with white dudes!”
And I get it. I can intellectually understand it. And if I was in their shoes, I’d probably do the same thing, much as the same way you discussed, in programming UX Week. But there’s limbic system, lizard brain, something core, that’s like, “I now feel threatened because I don’t have access to the things that I assumed I should have access to, that I’ve always had access to before. And now I don’t.” And that leads to a fear of relevance, legitimacy, and it’s something I need to overcome, to
When I’m invited to speak on a panel, to not jump at the opportunity, but, instead to be, like, “You know what, let me introduce you to other people I know who don’t get those opportunities, who aren’t the first person reached out to when there’s an opening on a panel,” and let me encourage these organizers to consider them. And that’s
Jesse: One thing that comes up on this topic of selfishness is the way that leaders behave when their power feels threatened in some way. And how that can lead them to kind of fall back on these shortcuts, try to hold onto that power, and not maintaining that level of awareness of how their choices are playing out around them.
I think that, like a lot of the other things that we’ve talked about, this has to be approached as both an organizational problem, and a problem at the level of leaders and their relationships and how they show up day-to-day. You have to be able to address it from both perspectives.
Peter: I guess I don’t want to tell leaders what to do, ‘cause I don’t know what to do. But going back to that responsibility notion, leaders need to recognize, intentionally or unintentionally, how they show up has an impact, but like, doing nothing is not a strategy.
Being afraid and being aware that you’re afraid, you might think that you’re actually contributing by pulling back. and that’s not how we get through this. Nor is it, though, that you grabbed the mic and tell everybody what to do.
Jesse: Yeah. Yeah. It’s not one or the other. In fact, I think what you’ve touched on here is one of the most critical things, which is self-awareness. It’s like, how much are you paying attention towWhat you talked about, that gut instinct, that reflexive reaction that you have, and questioning it, interrogating it, challenging your own thoughts. You know, I grew up in the South. There is a raging racist asshole in my brain. I can hear that voice, and the more I listen for it, the more I hear it. And every time I hear it, I can go, okay, that can fuck off. And the more that I do that, yes, practicing that awareness, it’s just like, noticing if you’re meeting a new team for the first time and assuming that, Oh, the young woman at the end of the table, she’s probably the admin, right? Or the junior project manager. It’s exactly that same kind of thing. Only just extending that level of awareness to all of our interactions, in all of our lives, and noticing the places where we take those convenient shortcuts, noting the places where we fall back on what is easy, what is comfortable and noticing where we can change our attitudes, change our perspectives, change our approaches.
Peter: So that about wraps up another episode of Finding Our Way. Thank you for joining us on this journey. Jesse and I grappled with some pretty challenging issues, and not come to any specific resolution, but, I think, that speaks to there’s no easy solution. This is an ongoing process. And so we thank you for joining us as we think through it ourselves, and we’ll continue to do so.
As always, we are eager to hear what you have to say. You can find us through a number of ways. On Twitter, I am @peterme. Jesse is @jjg.
You can also find us on our website, http://findingourway.design, use the contact form there. We continue to receive emails through that. We read all of them and appreciate all the questions and contributions that people are making. That about wraps it up. So again, thank you for listening and thank you, Jesse, for a good conversation,
Jesse: Thanks, Peter. Finding our Way.