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Alexis McGill Johnson at ComNetworkV

ComNetV Keynote

Alexis McGill Johnson is a social justice leader, political organizer, and a tireless advocate for reproductive rights. She’s also the co-founder of the Perception Institute, a consortium of researchers, advocates, and strategists who translate cutting edge mind science research on race and gender into solutions that reduce bias and discrimination, and promote belonging.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or read the transcript.



Sean Gibbons:

Hi, everybody. Welcome back to my basement. Hopefully — and the day’s not done, but hopefully you learned a lot in the course of the day. I know I have. Here’s a little bit of wisdom I can share. Over 1,500 people have been with us from around the globe over the course of today, tuning in live, which is frankly astonishing. Last year, we had about 950 people with us in Texas, which is amazing and our largest gathering ever. But we had just about 2,000 people signed up and virtually everybody turned up, which is astonishing.

I have a surprise for you. During our breakout sessions, we try to get started at 3:00, but as I told you yesterday, we’re probably going to make a few mistakes, and we did. We tried to put a lot of electricity and wires together, and you’ll occasionally find a gremlin. So thank you for your abiding patience and good cheer and grace. I’m glad all the breakout sessions were successful. Hopefully, it didn’t create too much hardship for you that we started late. Thank you for your forbearance and for all the teams and everybody who has been contributing across the span of today. Hopefully, you get a sense of what an amazing community this is.
Now a special surprise. It’s my honor — you know who this gentleman is. He doesn’t need an introduction. It’s my privilege to introduce somebody who I love and think of as family. But he’s an American hero. … Dr. Clarence Benjamin Jones. He wrote the Dream speech along with Dr. Martin Luther King. He smuggled the letter from the Birmingham jail out of the jail and traveled alongside Dr. King across the span of a decade. He’s joining us for a couple of minutes, a quick reflection before we have Alexis and Kristen with us at the top of the hour.

Sir, how are you doing today? Thank you for making the time for all of us.

Clarence Jones:

I’m delighted to have an opportunity to attend. I know many of you know who I am, and we’ve met in person, and we know the affection and respect I have for your work and for you individually, even though I cannot see all of you.

Now, these are — It’s an understatement to say extraordinary times. And super-extraordinary times, ironically, for those of you who are in the skill set of communications and the skill set of being communication officers on behalf of nonprofits and foundations and different organizations.

And your skill set is being really challenged. You have skill sets being really challenged now in a way in which you have to be certain that what you see and hear really is what you are seeing and hearing. And that — and that you live in an environment, an overall environment which is not too complicated. It’s called environment — a fact-based environment, where I know there’s a new kind of philosophy now called alternative facts.

But in communicating information, there are alternative opinions. But there are no alternative facts. The facts by definition are facts. One can have an opinion about the facts. And why do I say that? Because I cannot remember — I mean, I can remember very turbulent times in our country. But this is one of the most challenging times I have experienced and I’m living through.

And this is especially challenging for those of you who are communicating specialists in which your objective should be and sure is to try to transmit — to first gather and collectively transmit information to the appropriate persons in the respective organizations for which you work so that those organizations can make a decision based on the additional information that you have provided. Many of your organizations are foundations and nonprofit organizations, and they may have a general organizational commitment to try to make things better, but in the confines of the limited charter and geography where they live.

But in order to do that, they have to know that they can communicate accurately what you have been telling them. And so there’s a very high bar now that you face, how to be the very best that you can be and how to not be trapped in this new alternative universe — which by definition I think is inappropriate. That is, the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. Things have been established.

And this is important because if you don’t adhere to your responsibility of being superb communication specialists, you will, as agents of the organizations that you serve, you will undermine the capacity of that organization to be credibly accepted. You undermine your organization’s ability when they make recommendations or take appropriate actions to be credibly accepted and listened to, because those who — there will be persons who will say, how can we acknowledge the problem is A, B, C, D, and E? But for some reason, you have not told us or communicated to us the information we need to hear.

Now, that’s sort of the objective skill set. Now, behind that objective skill set, we’re all human beings. And we all are subject to anger, passion, maybe some feeling, some hate, and so forth.

But I’ve learned from Dr. King, you have to love the people you serve. You may not respect everything they say or do, but basically, you have to love them as human beings, which means that it presents a very high bar. You have to want to accurately communicate what you see they are doing and saying that is opposed to what your organization that you’re representing seeks to do.

But you cannot, in the process of doing that, throw over what you see a lens of presumptive disrespect, a lens of they don’t know what they’re talking about and how can they be saying that? They cannot be saying that.

They can be very serious. And they can be deeply committed to what they believe in. But your challenge as communicators is to find a way. After all, what are words? They are just words. They form the language. You have to find a way of using your skill sets of reaching them.

And if you’re unable to reach them, guess what? The burden is not on them. The burden is on you because that means that something you are doing made impossible for you to communicate to the person you’re seeking to reach. And sometimes, that can unconsciously arise from a lack of appreciation.

I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m talking about you have to love and care about the people you serve. You cannot start off with the presumption of they’re scum. They’re not as good as we are. If they would only listen to what we’re seeking to do, we’d be able to offer some grant money. No, you can’t do that. You have to give your opposition a level of respect that would enable them to respect and genuinely accept you as persons, really not in word, but in deed care about their interests.

Sean Gibbons:

Thank you, sir. I know you’re going to be back with us over the next couple of days. And hope you are thrilled as we are for the award that’s in your name, the third time, the Clarence B. Jones.

Clarence Jones:

Yes, I’m impressed. Wow, what an extraordinary organization and woman. It’s unbelievable.

Sean Gibbons:

Speaking of extraordinary woman, I think you can agree that our friend Alexis is an extraordinary woman throughout her career and the work she’s yet to do for all of us. We’re grateful to have her and Kristen Mack with us. It’s a chance for us to both say goodbye to our friends for now. We’ll become audience participants, and we’ll get to watch Kristen and Alexis take it away in just a moment.

Clarence Jones:

Thank you.

Kristen Mack:

Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us this afternoon. I am Kristen Mack, and I’m so grateful to have you here and more than happy to be joined by Alexis McGill Johnson. Alexis, welcome this afternoon.

Alexis McGill Johnson:

Thank you so much for having me, Kristen. It’s great to be here.

Kristen Mack:

So you hold many titles. I’m just going to name a few of them. You are a social and justice racial leader. You are a mother, a political and cultural organizer, an advocate for reproductive rights and accessible, affordable health care, and you are the second Black woman to serve as the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Tell us what led you to this moment.

Thank you. I think the most important right now is homeschooling a 6th grader and relearning my 6th grade math. So I appreciate all of that introduction.

I am — you know, what led me to this moment, I think, is just for many of us just a deep desire to be engaged in such a critical and urgent time. And I think at a moment when we are in the middle of a pandemic, we are in the middle of fierce and unrelenting attacks on sexual and reproductive health care, we are in the middle of one of the most extraordinary racial reckonings that our country has had since the time when Dr. Jones was organizing and writing. And we’re in the midst of, obviously, a critical election. And I think it was just a moment to step in.

I’ve been a board member and interim president at Planned Parenthood over the last year, a board member for a decade. And I think there was a moment where all of the things I had been engaged in over my lifetime, from my political scientist background to my organizing of hip-hop heads during the Vote or Die campaign to co-founding Perception Institute to knowing how we speak to the unconscious bias and my service with Planned Parenthood, it felt like it was a moment where I can bring all of those pieces to bear and help us in a critical, urgent time. So I’m grateful to be here and talk a little bit about that, those experiences and what we see.

Kristen Mack:

So it’s one thing to say yes to interim service. It’s another thing to say yes, that you will do it on a permanent basis. What was that transition like for you when you said yes in June, OK, I’m in, I’m going to do this for the long haul?

You know, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I really did feel like I could make a serious contribution and that it wasn’t — I really had to speak to my quiet self and sit and reflect on the work that I had done for the organization over — particularly over the last year in my engagement with the staff and the team, understanding how critical the mission is even now, obviously, as we await the fate of Justice Ginsburg’s seat.

But it felt like a moment where we were also grappling with the death, you know, of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, whose murderers were not charged in her death today, to George Floyd. It felt like that race reckoning and the need to jump into those conversations and really drive a conversation around equity and our work and our ability to see that through the lens of Planned Parenthood patients and how we could organize. It just felt like a calling.

And so, again, I’ve never felt more urgency [than] in this moment, and quite frankly, quite as free as possible to do the work because I know that the fate of my girls, my community, our families depend on how we show up in these fights in these next few decades. And it’s going to be — we need to continue to lay the groundwork and build on that foundation.

So it just felt like leadership, sometimes you find in everyday experiences. Sometimes it calls on you. Sometimes, you just see some really important fights and you want in on them. And for me, it’s been a combination of all of that.

Kristen Mack:

When you think about all of the work that you have done, is there a throughline in your service? Is there something that connects everything that you have done in all of your work?

Yeah, absolutely. Look, I think that I keep coming back to this theme of freedom and trying to interrogate, what does it mean to really feel free? What does it mean to really show up? And understanding that our — that the movements that we are engaged, that are actually intersectional, how do we manifest, operationalize that intersectionality? For me, working on primarily racial justice through my career, I think this particular moment that we’re in is the throughline. When I think about the movement for Black lives, they’re asking the same questions at Planned Parenthood. Are our bodies our own? Are we seen? Loved? Are we celebrated, have control over our own bodies? Do we have freedom when we get into our car and drive down the street, much less our own bedroom? If we have the control over our bodies, that’s the key to self-determination.

I think it’s important to kind of connect the dots between the movements and ensure that when I think about reproductive rights or racial justice, that they’re intersecting and overlapping in ways that really are about a fight for imagination, for our ability to actually just, you know, think that through.

I am somewhat of a math major. I was kidding around, the math work with my daughter. But I actually do think about movements as well in sorts of equations, and I’ve been saying a lot that freedom for us equals access times power, and that freedom, that ability to just define our own agency, to stand unapologetically in our identities, who we are, make decisions about ourselves, our bodies, our future — that is critical.

But that access, right, how do we create that access? Are we creating that through our health centers, telehealth, online education? All that is great, but we have to create that policy in order to get access. And we need to create power. That power that is critical for all of our movements is really important, and how we intersect and how we build the infrastructure that will help sustain that. So that throughline around freedom is important. How it plays out in these movements and comes together is, I think, the kind of mental equation that I’ve been working on in various parts of my career, just to figure out how to both communicate it and also how to build it, the infrastructure, so that our — both the kind of heart, mind that we do in communications is backed up also by the power of our bodies showing up at the polls and in our policy fights.

Kristen Mack:

How is Planned Parenthood being received as you take that intersectional approach to movement organizing? I mean, it’s always been an organization that has been at the forefront of fighting on behalf of women and making sure that women’s rights are at the forefront of movements. But this is a different approach. So how is it being received under your leadership in taking that intersectional lens?

Well, look, when we look through the lens of our patients, people who come to us for reproductive health care and sexual health care, but they themselves are not — that’s what they come to us as, patients. They themselves are living fully intersectional lives. They are worried about ICE showing up at their job. They’re worried about their children, worried about driving down the street and getting pulled over. They’re worried in this moment about, you know, the economy and climate and all of these other things that are kind of intersecting with their lives.

And so to me, it makes perfect sense to think about how do we — how do we show up with the centering of our patients, showing up for them, knowing we are fighting in every way. I mean, to me, that is the essence of how we build — not just build power for us, but also build power and community and also build power in the movement to push these conversations further.

So you know, there are many folks inside of the federation who see it and understand exactly why this is so critical. And I think knowing that, you know, it doesn’t diminish the access for reproductive rights. In fact, it expands and helps us. Our fates are linked in a way that can only help us all grow stronger. I think you have to operate from a theory of abundance, and that power and access are not finite, and that actually allows us to step into these conversations much differently.

Kristen Mack:

So I guess I should not have been surprised that on Friday, and it made sense that you — and the organization made a statement on the evening that Supreme Court justice Ginsburg left this earth. And she was a feminist icon and a champion of women’s rights and reproductive rights. And we didn’t really take enough time to honor her legacy.

But you said that night — and I’m going to read the statements that you issued. You said, “Tonight, we honor that legacy. But tomorrow, we are going to need to get to work to preserve the ideals that she spent her life’s work defending because this is not an understatement. The fate of our rights, our freedoms, our health care, our bodies, our lives, and our country depend on what happens over the coming months.”

So what do you intend to do to honor RBG’s legacy?

I mean, it was a blow on Friday. I think we’ve — we’ve all been talking about canceling 2020; right?

Kristen Mack:

Seriously [chuckling].

It’s been one thing after another. And somehow, we keep getting up and we keep putting one foot in front of the other and we keep trying to figure out what more we can do, what more we can leave unveiled. And to me, that’s the best way to honor her legacy. Let’s remember who we’re talking about.

You and I, you know, even as Black women, would not be sitting here if not for RBG. The right to sign a mortgage without a man. The right to have a bank account without a male co-signer. The right to have a job without being discriminated based on gender, a right to being pregnant with kids and still work. Those are things that are still core to who we are as women. And then when you layer on the really important kind of civil rights and racial justice work that — of which she was a part of in the courts, it just feels like we really have to hold that freedom and hold that fight in a way that does honor her legacy and also that we pass that out, pass that along.

I got to meet her. Crazy story, but a couple of weeks before I actually got to go to the Supreme Court for the first time to hear the June medical decision about provider admitting privileges in Louisiana. There was a dinner at the seminary and Bill Moyers, an extraordinary communicator that he is, did an interview with her, about her faith and how it really showed up in her, you know, opinions and her sense.

First of all, I think just because sitting in the communication space, the fact that she’s such a cultural icon and she got who she was, she walked out on stage, she had this little canvas bag with a bedazzled notorious RBG on it.

Kristen Mack:

I love it.

She just put it right next to her. Yeah, I see you seeing me. You know? Totally felt it all. But she — you know, but she talked about her dissent. She talked about how important and how carefully she worded every single dissent because there were multiple meanings. And she didn’t want anybody to be confused. So she would read her dissents so people understood exactly what she meant when she was writing them.

And Moyers asked her at one point of all of the horrific acts of the Trump administration, particularly over the last few years, and he said, How do you grapple with the fact that some of these things are becoming laws? Some of these policies of, like, separating families at the border, how do you grapple with that?

And she said, you know, she quoted Thomas Jefferson, and she said, When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. And that clarifying kind of statement in that moment, that permission from a justice, from a Supreme Court justice, to defy and to dissent and to resist in a way, it just felt like that is the way we’re honoring her right now, that ability just to resist, knowing that just because we’re given a certain position doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to fight and make sure our voices are heard.

So it is, the fights that we’re in front of right now are enormous. There are 17 cases that are, like, literally a case away or a step away from the Supreme Court that are related to access to abortion. The entire ACA is at risk this fall. Millions of people can lose their health insurance.

So when I think about what that means, that kind of injustice becoming law and what our role is in this moment, to really honor, not just the justice but also John Lewis, who we lost this year, you know, to honor Breonna Taylor, it just feels like it’s really important to continue to fight and to resist.

Kristen Mack:

Yeah. You touched on this briefly, but I want to talk about this both at a macro level and at more of a micro level. But when we think about systems change — because that is something that is at the forefront of what we think about in philanthropy and what people are talking about at their kitchen tables right now. People are talking about systemic racism, systemic oppression, and how systems need to change. How are you thinking about systemic change through the lens of Planned Parenthood?

Yeah. And you know, I think that — I’m so glad that the conversation is around systemic change, because I think that for decades in philanthropy and in the nonprofit world in particular, we’re trying to elevate people to understand how structural racism operates. And in doing so, it’s a call to actually have a structural or systemic solution. It’s not about individuals or groups of people. But it’s about structures and systems that have pulled people into these situations, how we actually come through with a systemic solution that also gives us opportunities for individuals to act within that agency or at least transform the interpersonal dynamics.

And so one of the things that I think I was most excited to bring into Planned Parenthood — and I had been doing this work for a long time as a board leader, but to really kind of, you know, be steering the ship, thinking about, like, what equity really means, how we develop the right thought leadership of the equity of Planned Parenthood. Particularly because we are such a critical part of the public health infrastructure, when we think about the ways in which we want to show up in community and how we center, it means something different for me.

I think a lot of the times, the resistance that people feel when we have conversations around equity prompts them to want to, like, let’s have a conversation. Let’s figure out what equity really means for us. Let’s … come up with a shared definition of equity. And I’ve been saying, you know, equity actually has a definition.
Merriam-Webster and others, right? It really means — it means, you know — there’s actually two definitions. The first one is around ownership, to have a stake in something, whether you have equity in a company. And the other is to reduce disparity. And I think it’s important to bring those things together, because ownership of how we are creating freedom together — that, to me, is the essence of belonging. And how we benchmark ourselves, how we build the right work that will help reduce disparities, is the other piece of really building that ownership.

So our strategy to kind of move our organization forward is not to debate what equity is. It’s actually to ask ourselves the hard questions as to what does it really mean to respond in that moment? What are we really willing to give in order to expand equity for all? Are we really willing to sit in the kind of pain and the discomfort as an organization so that we can sit silent and learn from our partners, from our communities, about the kind of work that we need to do?

And so I’m really spending a lot of time internally around these questions. I think we also are, like, very quick to move to tactics and strategies. But I think without doing the work of asking those questions of, like, what is equity really worth to us? What are we willing to give up to live in an equitable world? If we think of it more than just an outcome but rather have the series of conversations, I think the strategies flow from that, but we have to be aligned on what that aspiration is. And that’s the work that in this particular moment feels the most urgent, because we really have to set ourselves up for a long road in order to build the right strategy that will be sustainable.

Kristen Mack:

What do those uncomfortable conversations look like?

You know, I mean, there’s a lot of racial anxiety. There’s a lot of — you know, I really appreciated what Dr. Jones was saying, because I think it’s something I kind of… throughout my career… we can’t really reduce opposition or ambivalence to prejudice. That’s not how our minds work. Sometimes it’s just processing the anxiety and trying to stay still, trying to figure out how to ask those questions.

I think it’s important in our communication strategies as well. How do we create this space to — and the permission to — be uncomfortable? The permission to be raggedy, as some of my members say. [Chuckling] In a moment that really will lead to those breakthroughs, those ahas.

It is hard. I think, you know, because I’ve been a practitioner in this space, I have a healthy ability to compartmentalize and appreciate the irony of that. It is hard to be in a space where you’re watching your colleagues and team members and friends come to realizations that you’ve had for a long time, lived for a long time. And how we create spaces for that to happen separately, internally, the kinds of circles that help us get there, is also really meaningful work.

And part of the intent that you have to set is to create this space to practice. Right? I mean, we don’t — we talk all the time about failing fast is leading to innovation. But we almost never teach what it means to fail fast around issues of race so that we can, you know, live in the discomfort, but also pick ourselves up and not let that prevent us from doing the work. So that, to me, is the hard and heart work of the moment.

But again, I feel like without wrestling with that, we will keep coming back to these wounds, you know. And particularly for people of color who have been holding it in predominantly white institutions, at least, it feels like we can’t keep coming back to that well because it’s quite frankly traumatizing.

Kristen Mack:

It is indeed. So you’ve hinted at the work that you have done as co-founder and former co-director of Perception, where you bought together researchers and advocates and strategists who translate this notion of the mind sciences, which is research on race and ethnic and gender and other identities, where you’re thinking through solutions that promote the idea of belonging.
I want to spend time breaking down what all of that means [chuckling]. And if you can just explain in everyday terms the concept of mind sciences, and I think you have a little game here. A test for people.

I want to tell you about unconscious efforts. And then I’ll ask you to do a little bit of a test with me.

Perception was founded in 2009. It came out of the 2008 Obama campaign. We were worried about how race would show up if we had a Black president. Would we be able to have these conversations? What would it look like? And all of the conversation about how bias operates in the brain. We live largely in the academy. And strategists studying how our brains and bodies process race and gender and other identities became the foundation for the Perception Institute. And it’s premised on the idea that we have strong values of equality and fairness and equity. And yet, the ways in which our brain operates because it’s been primed for so many years around issues, it causes our brains — our bodies to behave in ways contrary to our values. And we want to understand how that showed up. Largely, it was an exercise in our communication strategy that we wanted to inform.

And then we found out that the interventions could be applied, or we started working with the interventions in a number of sectors.
But before I go deeper into our unconscious networks, and I know everyone has heard the term implicit bias, but I want to use this slide to give us a quick cue about how we can collectively experience our bodies and brains at the same time.
So is it up? Can we see it?

Kristen Mack:


Oh, I guess I can’t see it. Maybe I’m the only one who can’t see it. [Chuckling].

So if you can see it, what I want you to do is just really quickly read the word — read the text out loud to yourself very quickly. Sorry, state the color of the text very quickly.
Can you see? How about you? Why don’t you try it? Kristen, why don’t you try the colors of the text. See if you can —

Kristen Mack:

Oh, now you’re going to embarrass me. Let me see. I had it up on my screen over here. All right. So I’m going to do it.
Blue, red, green, black.


Kristen Mack:

[Chuckling]. Green, black — this is where I get tripped up. Red, green, red, blue, black — and then I’m going to stop.

All right. You demonstrated in real time what it feels like and what it looks like. And we can send it around. But the notion is I asked you to state the color of the text and when the colors matched the words, it was a lot easier for you to do that. But when the word red was in the color black, it just totally tripped your brain and it became harder to do.

And that’s not a surprise because you all as communicators know that ever since you were, what, 3, 4, 5 years old, you started to learn that letters, when strung together, they actually create words. And then buried in those words is meaning, and our brains are constantly searching for meaning. And so it becomes really hard to disrupt a process that you spent your entire life perfecting in order to build knowledge and to really understand kind of what’s operating at any given time.

The reason this test is so important is because it shows us that, you know, that experience of our unconscious brain, our brains process somewhere upwards of 40 million bits of information in the same amount of time, and unconsciously [rather] than consciously. How our brain learns to process information is to essentially put things into categories, into schemas that then — and those schemas, we give them meaning. And again, they help us build knowledge. So I don’t have to learn, you know, what a chair is. I’ve known how to sit down, you know, largely my whole life. But seven months ago, I had to learn to go on Zoom and get myself off mute. I had to learn about all the ways in which I was going to navigate virtually. And like I said, I had to learn to teach myself 6th-grade math. All these things in our brains, we use them regularly and they become helpful ways for us to navigate. And we have to relearn them, then it becomes exhausting, tiring.

So what I loved about what you did, Kristen, when you were reading — and you obviously knew the trick, having done it multiple times before. But when you got to the point where — I’m going to stop, your brain was, like, you know, I don’t want to process information that is inconsistent anyway. If I’m forced to do it, it’ll cause anxiety and I’ll just shut down.

We think about that with respect to how our brains process race and gender, you know. When our brains are essentially trying to understand categories of people. Those schemas, stereotypes that — we all know what a stereotype is, a trait about a particular person — that stereotype is actually a schema that our brains have developed about people.

And you know, when we know that the ways in which we show up in media, whether it’s people of color or women or LGBT communities, the ways in which we show up become imprinted. That’s the lens through which we’re processing things. And oftentimes the ways we try to disrupt those processes can reinforce, unintentionally, the very messages that we’re trying to disrupt.

Kristen Mack:

It is so beautiful in its simplicity. And I think even for those of us who think that we are not susceptible to any of this and we think that we have, you know — that we are socially and racially conscious that — to do this in 10 seconds, and I just displayed for everyone how, you know, this works. And I remember — I should just say that the MacArthur Foundation works with perception, and when you all showed this slide to us, it was — it was illuminating and telling and, at least to me, it was clear that we needed to work with you to help us get to a place where we could work through all of the things that you talk about as an organization.

And primarily to really get to a place where we could have a sense of belonging for people, both inside the organization and with the people who we serve and work with, because I think if you don’t have that internally, then it’s impossible to do it with the work that we are called to do as a foundation.

You know, again, I want to be conscious of what we’re talking about. We have a room full of communicators here, and we’re word people at the end of the day, that we like language and stories and creating narratives.

When you think about the work that you do with data and how that, at the end of the day, informs the narratives that are created, how do you marry the two when you think about data and words shaping narratives?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great question. And I think that for most of us, if we are in the social justice space in particular, our job has been to document disparity because that actually helps make a case for funding. It helps make a case for, you know, where we have to focus our interventions, our strategies. If we are literally trying to, you know, get to equity, it means that we have to really understand, and we’ve got to research and study where our deficits are, just literally where it is unequal. And the challenge is in which the ways we often talk about disparities unintentionally, we think it’s actually creating empathy but in fact it’s remarginalizing the very people that we’re trying to get more resources to. And that has a lot to do with, again, the way our brains process facts and information as it relates to stereotypes and groups.

And particularly in this moment where we’re talking about an intersection of all these groups, how do we start to unpack that? So I think when you think about a group that has already been marginalized and you add a layer of, you know, perhaps other things that they can’t access because they’ve been marginalized, we are — we’re actually dehumanizing them. We’re burying them further down the racial hierarchy in our brains. And I see it a lot in foundation documents. I see it when you actually do a scan of kind of the ways in which their investments of upgraded equity, I see it a lot in the ways our folks have — even the ways in which we are talking about the impact that will happen to millions of women, you know, and folks who are seeking abortion should be overturned.
So I think for communicators, I think sometimes it’s being more conscious of the fact that our brains don’t process data in the same way, that they — that we need narratives to help us kind of through an arc of a story, through the humanity of a subject that creates possibility and hope and — possibility there. So I think it’s really understanding that and also understanding how you disarm anxiety in the process.

Part of what I love about the bias research is that it allows us to afford humanity, particularly implicit bias. Explicit bias, we know what that is. Our brains have a process for that. We have a process for understanding when, you know — when multiple things happen at once, like, the weeks between Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, it was successive killings and you felt like you can understand in that moment how structural racism is operating, but it’s the implicit that often gets explained away. So we often need messages and narratives that help us put it in frame, but then help us structure a response that does not — that allows people their humanity and that allows people to understand that they can hold a sense of fairness but in many ways, their very fairness — the way they’re taught to practice fairness — is incorrect. So really working through that process so that they can marry their sense of fairness and values with their humanity is really the complicated work of communicators.

Kristen Mack:

So when you think about creating these sort of narrative frameworks and you have — the perception, at least, has a focus on conversations and not confrontation, what does it look like in practice when you are, you know, trying to compel people and make an argument to bring them to your side and make a case for your work?

Well, I think that a lot of the ways in which — and again, I’m talking about a universe of people that are in a persuasive category. They want to align on values — I want to distinguish that because a lot of the work we started was really about implicit or unconscious bias in the era of a Black president. We’re living in a totally different world right now. The explicit is free and running wild, and it is harmful, and it is giving cover for very bad policy.

And I don’t want to end messaging. So I want to distinguish those two things. But even still, I think that the goal still should be to try to figure out how we have the right conversations in order to — in order to give people that deeper understanding, and that starts with how we disarm with messaging. I think learning for us, teaching about — or having people learn about racial anxiety, which is our brain’s unconscious response in many ways to having conversations around race, out of fear that, you know, they will uncover that discomfort of what it means to have it — having had privilege and white supremacy for their existence, that’s the kind of thing we have to disarm in our language so people can see themselves connected to the system but also separate from the system in order to actually have a response that will help them shift.

And so using the disparity language or the shaming language doesn’t necessarily help us cover that. And in fact, for many people, as I said earlier, sometimes our best messages can reinforce their best defenses. And so it further marginalizes their own experience. It doesn’t allow us to have a conversation.

But if we do things like — we came up with this theory around what we call ACE, which is leading with a collective aspiration, bringing them into the values conversation, talking about either the collaboration or healthy competition that can get us there and then offering the evidence of how we could do it, it just brings your brain on a different journey that isn’t set up for defensiveness.

So taking, you know, race and gender out of it, it could be something like the aspiration is going we’re going to the moon. Right? That is an amazing — Mars, wherever we haven’t conquered. Maybe we’re going to Jupiter. So we’re going to either have some healthy competition with another country to get there and that’s going to inspire some national identity, or we’re going to collaborate together because what we can achieve together is going to be greater than what we can do alone. So getting that energy of — and I think they’re motivating in the same way or hitting the same part of your brain, to kind of motivate you toward an aspiration and then coming up with the evidence. How we’re going to do that is we’re going to take all of those, all the manufacturing factories that are sitting idle right now, we’re going to repurpose that and build the right vehicle for that.

I could have said that about coronavirus, right? We’re going to solve COVID, you know, right? We’re going to create the vaccine. How we’re going to do it is we’re going to come together with all the greatest scientists in the world. And the way we’ll do that is have all of our leading vaccine companies come together and share their best research, and as countries, we will subsidize that and that’s how we’ll get it done. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t push us into, you know, we don’t care about who’s dying of COVID because those folks don’t look like us, so it’s probably not our problem.

We went down a totally different spiral, when we could have actually created a different level of aspiration and really thought through how we might solve this, you know, deadly pandemic and challenged us, you know, in our own thinking, in our own community.
One is otherizing. When we think about Howell and all the work he does, one strategy of talking about COVID put people in otherized categories. Whether you had preexisting conditions, whether you’re essential workers, whether you’re people who were more likely to die because you were aging or a person of color. And by the way, age bias is actually in many ways stronger than race bias. So you know, we are tapping into all of those things in the conversation versus something that actually brought us into the belonging, brought us — expanded the ways in which we saw ourselves as a beloved community.

And every time we take the road that otherizes, you see the policies and institutions moving [toward] marginalization and we are more vulnerable. When you take the path that really leads to that aspiration and that collaboration and asks our brains to really search for the right evidence toward solving that problem, it takes us in a totally different, more wholistic situation.
And I know that feels maybe [indiscernible], but it feels that the ways in which those narratives take us totally transform the kind of policies we see, the kinds of institutions and the kinds of solutions we see that are so powerful.

Kristen Mack:

I hope that if people only take one thing away from today — and there have been many lessons learned — but I hope if you only take one thing away, it is ACE: Aspiration, Collaboration or competition, and Evidence. I think that is a beautiful model for people to use if they had not thought of something like that in order to motivate and inspire people.

And to your point, it can be used for policy. It can certainly be used for communication.

So you know, another theme that has become omnipresent in communications and especially in philanthropic communications is a renewed focus on centering the communities that we serve and respecting and reflecting the wisdom and experience of the communities we serve. And sometimes, that is referred to just as our audiences and the people that we work with.

So I’m interested in hearing, you know, how you think of your audiences at Planned Parenthood and how you are centering patient experience, how you’re centering the reproductive justice partners or any other audiences, and how you’re thinking about bringing them into your work and giving them a seat at the table with you.

Yeah. It’s such a great question. I really appreciate it. In some ways, because we are actually a health care provider, the person is ever present in the way we think about the work. But the difference between them ever present and also actually centering them in their experience in how we develop and deliver our own policies and strategies around that, you know, I think part of that shift is what I was talking about with respect to the intersectionality. And what I’m focused on is how to build the infrastructure around, to operationalize intersectionality, that we have a theory of the case that is, you know, if we — in broad health care, it would be, like, if you can heal the whole person, not just the one procedure, but how it integrates into their own bodies and their lives, it helps them live their best life.

And I think part of the work that we have to do, because we’re both a health care provider and an advocacy movement that fights for that, is to think about how we think about that whole patient and their daily lives and experiences, so that we are, you know, transforming equity in everything that we do.

A really good example would be something like, as soon as we started to shelter in place in March, probably within a couple weeks’ time, we were able to stand up our telehealth service. Work that we had actually been working on for almost the last decade. And when the policies shifted, we were able to step in and really start to meet the needs of our patients, many of whom we had not been able to see because being forced out of Title X last year, particularly those low-income rural populations.

So in doing that, it actually forces a different kind of conversation around, you know, not just telehealth, which on the surface feels like you can see people more regularly, but then you recognize that not everybody has equal access to broadband. Not everybody has equal access to, you know, a computer or a tablet or a way in which to see the patient. And sometimes they’re more comfortable being in a bricks and mortar in their experience of what health care looks like. So it raises questions.

How do we show up? We’re trying to provide a health care service, but on our advocacy side, should we be thinking more about broadband, thinking about how to ensure access in the ways people will see us? And how do we build partnerships? How do we grow our alliances to do the work better? And I think some of that has to do with a theory of power that — where we can use our platform and power to really grow power and support and center communities in doing that work. We don’t always have to show up and be the one to say, you know, we’re going to lead on Black Lives Matter. We don’t need to do that because there are extraordinary leaders, Black- and queer-led and extraordinary women. So how do we show up in a way where we’re also not afraid of what we look like in the fight for equity? — because we have created a different experience of belonging for ourselves and that we can show up and support leadership.

And I think particularly for a national organization to, like, think about the ways in which we look and feel and show up, that kind of interrogation, public interrogation, is really important work for us to do. And I know you’ve probably experienced that as a foundation as well, and others on the line who are, you know, leading in these moments in thinking of how to actually do it together, because there’s so much work to do and so many problems to fix [chuckling] that if we don’t do it collectively and in collaboration with that aspiration, then, you know, then we won’t solve them — and we need to be able to do that in our lifetime.

Kristen Mack:

Absolutely. I want to open up the floor and hold space for questions. So if you have any questions, please send them through because I could sit here and talk to Alexis all day. But you mentioned power a couple of times. And I think this notion of sharing and shifting power is new to a lot of people in philanthropy in the spaces that we work.

Again, I’m just interested in hearing you say a little bit more about — especially from your vantage point — how you are received when you walk in the room as an organization and what people expect of you when the conversations are around — are around power and around lending your voice to issues in the space.

You know, I mean — again, power has a definition. Right? It’s the ability to get somebody to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do. I think it’s important, there’s a lot of ways power shows up. It can show up in force, persuasion. It can show up in our ability to communicate and reconcile one’s values with the behavior that you would like to see it be in alignment with. So I think there’s lots of ways in which we show up. But I think for the work that Planned Parenthood traditionally advocated for, which is largely reproductive health, it’s important to have built the kinds of power along with our partners in the SRH movement — because we’ve seen time and time again in coalition that when we get power, one of the first things that always falls off the table is protecting sexual and reproductive health. We saw that in the ACA fight. We had to fight to push to get birth control covered under ACA.

And so things that shouldn’t be controversial — but when you are making these asks and these demands, putting the muscle of an organization like Planned Parenthood and other partners behind it really, really matters.

But I think now, we are at a point where we have 16 million supporters. I’d like to say that’s three and a half times more than the NRA. But even still, there are 17 cases, that I said, that are one step away from the Supreme Court, which we now know is going to radically be transformed in its makeup in a way that will be hostile to sexual and reproductive health. So it’s going to be really important for us to think about not just how we show up stronger in a coalition. It is, how do we actually build the infrastructure at the intersection? — because coalitions by definition are temporary. They come together for a moment. They come together for a policy fix or they come together for an election, and then they fall apart and they go and figure out some other way to lobby or organize.

But when you build infrastructure at the intersection, not only does it require for us to do that hard work — some of it is sitting in that discomfort and me asking my partners: I need you to be really comfortable talking about later-term abortion, because that’s how we’re going to get hit and how it’ll bring the coalition. Here’s the research, the messaging. We’re happy to do the training. But if you’re going to stand with us, you actually have to stand with us.

And sometimes that means showing up for us to say how we’re going to engage with the hashtag “defund the police,” because we follow the leadership of the movement for Black lives. We know this is a critical issue. When we put the patient at the center, it means they are the ones who come to us, and they get pulled over as soon as they leave our offices. We use our public health voice to talk about how municipal budgets are created and carved up, and why police officers should not be in the place of having to be public health and mental health experts. And how can we engage in that conversation and use our power differently? So power, again, it’s the notion that it is completely finite — how do we actually take those moments of power building and really actually expand? Because the fights, they are linked, intersecting. So we need to carry each other’s water, both from a communication standpoint and how we show up and using muscle in the policy fights.

Kristen Mack:

This has been just a learning and educational for me, even today. So I appreciate you spending time with us. And my final question, I just want to ask how you think about how our brains crave community and how communication requires community and trust.

Yeah. You know — and again, my mentor, John Powell, who is the chair of the board of Perception Institute, is so instructive on this and building on so many others. We are social creatures. Right? Even those of you all — because I’m definitely not introverted [chuckling]. But those introverts out there are also social creatures. They have to understand how they’re connected to the community to make a choice to not draw their energy from community.

And I think that so much of the work that we need to do to really expand community is to identify the ways in which our brains have been taught to otherize and dehumanize, based on where people sit within a hierarchy. And you know, I haven’t said this yet, but I think it’s really important because I think about this a lot. My kids are 8 and 11. Between age 2 and 5, kids are learning how to differentiate, you know. Your hair is brown. My hair is yellow. Your skin is brown. My skin is this. You’re tall, I’m not. You’re here, I’m there. Naming differences. By ages 5 and 8, they’re assigning meaning to that difference. They understand a little bit about what the implications are that are the grounding of hierarchy. And between 8 and 10, those hierarchies start to get rooted in our brains, meaning the stereotypes and hierarchy are formed by age 10. And from 10 to 100, we are literally asking people to unwire our brains after all of the foundation has been built into the institutions, into the infrastructure.

Thinking about what we need to do to unwire our brains between 2 and 10, maybe younger than 10 is really the critical work of creating belonging. It is making sure that at every turn, we are trying to identify ways to build and expand and show difference in our brains, so that we are able to translate that — so that we feel uncomfortable when we’re in a community that doesn’t actually have a measure of diversity or difference, that it makes us feel like this is really weird, what’s going on here? And I think those are the things that are really important for us to start thinking about, both from our, again, policy work, but also how we message and how we create a frame for what should be normal, what should be a standard of belonging and what isn’t now.

Kristen Mack:

Well, thank you, so much, Alexis. I think you have given us a lot to think about, and you have encouraged and inspired us to think expansively about the work that we do as communicators to create a sense of belonging for everyone with the way that we share and talk about our work.

I think — I guess the real final question I will ask is what keeps you motivated? What keeps you committed to the work that you do every day?

You know, I said this to you earlier in our kind of pre-chat. And it’s something that I’m really trying to hold on to. I feel motivated by the urgency of the moment and the time, and I feel like that urgency has also unleashed a level of freedom in me. Right? A level of, like, you know, I’m going to lay it all on the line. I am not going to compromise, you know, what I believe is right for this work and for my people without, you know —under any circumstance. And having a level of just unapologetic identity … not feeling like I have to code-switch, not feeling like I have to shrink myself to make others feel differently, just feeling like I can lay it on the line because I’m so clear that our service is our power. And if we don’t grow in that service and that urgency in this moment when we are literally on fire, our world is literally on fire in so many different ways, then we all just need to call it in, because this is the work. This is the moment to do the work. And it is so critical that we stay as fierce and as urgent and as hopeful as possible. I just feel like we owe it.

Kristen Mack:

You’ve given me hope today. And I know you’ve given our audience hope. So thank you so much. And thank you, everyone, for joining us this afternoon. Blessings.

Thank you.

Kristen Mack:



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