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Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Jen Fry.
Jen Fry runs JenFryTalks, LLC, a social justice education firm that uses conversation to educate and empower those within athletics through an anti-racist lens on issues of race, inclusion, intersectionality, diversity, and equity. They facilitate dialogue with small and large groups, athletic departments, athletic teams, staff, administrations, schools, affinity groups, identity groups, and many more. JenFryTalks uses their anti-racist lens to advise on best practices that will create equitable searches, hiring, onboarding practices, methods of retaining staff, retaining student-athletes, supporting student-athletes, staff and coaches, and community building.
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?
Iwas born in Canada but moved down to Arizona when I was a few months old and was undocumented until I was about 6 or 7 when President Regan passed an amnesty law that allowed me to get a direct path to citizenship. Growing up in Arizona, five minutes from the Mexican border directly shaped who I am, the values I feel are essential, and, more importantly, allowed me to know what real Mexican food is. I was raised by a single mom who gave me a fantastic amount of freedom and independence, which is what molded me into the person I am today. I never had a curfew; I was never told I couldn’t do things; I just had to be safe and come home at a reasonable hour. While growing up, I played as many sports as possible, was a three-sport athlete in high school, and ultimately a collegiate volleyball player. All of my head volleyball coaches were women, and in high school, the majority of coaches I played for were people of color. That shaped my views on who could coach and what it meant to have a Black female as a varsity volleyball head coach, a Latinx man as a head soccer coach, and a Black man as a head track coach. I never questioned if someone who looked like me could coach. Those coaches shaped who I become as an athlete, as a coach, and ultimately, as the educator I am today.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
This is a difficult question for me because my mom was a librarian for 14 years. I would bring home boxes and boxes of books to read and to be honest; I still have that problem. I have bookcases and books piled everywhere, yet I just keep buying them. My mother taught me to always have a book with me just in case I have time to read, which is why I never go anywhere without a book (and a few backup books). With that being said, the book that made the most significant impact on me would have to be Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Dr. Bell was a lawyer and scholar who was one of the people who created Critical Race Theory, which focuses on five tenets: Ordinariness, Interest Convergence, Social Construction, Differential Racialization, and Counter Storytelling. This book resonated with me so much because it gave me an easily understandable theory to help process my experiences as well as understand that others who looked like me went through the same thing. His method of storytelling is fantastic because it isn’t just the information, but a story that sucks you in and shows the reader how the theory and tenets work in real life.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
The quote I live by right now is: Feminist and Anti- Racist work is tough. “It requires that you be willing to devote a great part of your life to it and that you be willing to suffer alienation and self-disruption.” — Lugones and Spelman
This quote is relevant to me because of the work I do. I have to remember that doing anti-racist work is tough and that once you dive into the work of educating and destroying systems, you will always see it around you. You do not have the luxury of being ignorant any longer. I also acknowledge that it requires a lot of critical thinking about self and consistently thinking about how to become a better person. This work is challenging, gut-wrenching, emotional, and makes you look at yourself with a different lens, but it is so worth it.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
This is a difficult question for me because I tend to view the ideas of leadership with a more critical lens than we have been taught by society to view it. We have been taught by society to see leadership in a very one-dimensional way, as shown by who writes the “bestseller” leadership books, who are considered experts on it, and whose methods we are likely to follow. We have to start critically analyzing how we view leadership. I look at leadership with a more community lens, not just one person leading the charge and everyone following. Leadership is a skill in which followers decide they want to follow. Many times, people have thought of leadership as force and power when, in reality, you cannot force followers to follow the belief or tenets of the leader; you are just forcing them to “follow.” An example would be the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which is led by three female originators and, “is adaptive and decentralized, with a set of guiding principles [and has the] goal is to support the development of new Black leaders, as well as create a network where Black people feel empowered to determine our destinies in our communities.” BLM is a perfect example of what happens when organizations decentralize leadership, and instead of focusing on hoarding power, focus on empowering.
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?
I try to focus on my mind and body by staying on a consistent workout regimen, especially when traveling. It is essential that I workout in the morning before I present because exercising will get my blood flowing and put me in a more focused mindset. I had back surgery in 2011 and keeping my back and core strong helps me stand in front of large crowds with confidence. I have fallen in love with Peloton because of the number of trainers of colors who are available for me to work with. The trainers have such amazing energy and authenticity about them that gets me excited to workout with them even when I know the exercises will be hard as heck. Also, I can use the app on my computer or iPhone, which makes it easy to continue working out.
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, equality 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?
I believe people of color have always been at this boiling point. If we look back in history, we see a consistent pattern of protests, rioting, and the need to be heard. As MLK stated, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” What is occurring now is not a new occasion for people of color, especially Black people, but it feels new for White people who hadn’t realized the full significance as White people are now face to face with the violence people of color have consistently been talking about. People of color have been talking about violence and showing videos of violence for decades but have been ignored because the burden of proof that this violence was not only unnecessary but also tied to race has been excessive. The disproportionate amount of People of Color killed by COVID, the killing of George Floyd, and the treatment of peaceful protestors at the hands of the police caused everyone to reach the boiling point. However, it was White people realizing that their world wasn’t as safe as they once thought and that maybe police violence was out of control, which made the water overflow the pot.
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?
My experience has been assisting departments, organizations, companies, and teams in starting from the ground up in understanding what is needed to build an anti-racist culture. My work mainly focuses on athletic departments because my goal is to make sure that student-athletes have a great experience and assist their coaches in understanding the nuances of race and how their Black and Brown student-athletes experience it. I dive into the difficulty of anti-racist work and help others, especially White people navigate the uncomfortableness of the work by first naming that it will be uncomfortable, and also naming that the feelings of shame and guilt are normal. Many times, those things aren’t named, so when they are felt, White people feel as if they are alone. It also helps to voice that the work will be complicated and messy, with no seemingly right answer. When I present, I always start with definitions, and I love seeing people light up because they now have a language to how they have been feeling or now have words to describe problematic things occurring.
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?
Diversity means having not only Black and Brown people at the table, but also LGBTQ and people of different socioeconomic status, ability, age, ethnicity, culture, and more. The United States is becoming more and more diverse every second, with the country becoming a majority-minority country by the year 2050, I believe. Diversity is who we are, and our companies, organizations, schools, and everything else should replicate that. Having a diverse executive team means more people can see themselves in positions of power; it means that there is a multitude of different views to help gain an understanding of a situation instead of having what can be a monolithic view. As Delisa Alexander stated in her article, “Assessing for culture fit can unintentionally encourage managers to pick candidates that look like everyone else. But looking for culture add helps managers to determine how a candidate’s individuality and differences can make a company better and stronger.” In this way, it is crucial that executive teams support a culture of diversity.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Learn about Whiteness– Everyone is so invested in learning about Blackness when they should be invested in learning about Whiteness. You can’t understand how to be a great ally or co-conspirator, as I like to call them, if you haven’t learned about Whiteness, White Supremacy, or what you as a White person might be doing to cause harm to Black people. Whiteness is a word and concept that many White people do not want to talk about it, and I think it is time to start asking why that is and why it is negatively occurring when Whiteness isn’t being analyzed. When you study Whiteness, you learn about the systems Whiteness invisibly upholds as well as how people unknowingly benefit from it. You can’t change what you don’t know
- Critically Analyze Self- It is easy for people to take implicit bias courses or take courses on diversity and inclusion, but the real work is when you start analyzing where you got your biases from, how you were socialized, and what identities you have that are harming People of Color instead of helping. This work is tough, and it is even tougher when you have never thought of yourself as racialized, having biases, or being problematic. We have all been a problem in some way to someone, and it is time to start acknowledging it to make changes. You cannot do this work if you have the assumption you are bias-free or by pointing the finger at others who you think need to do more work. YOU need to do the work.
- Understand language and the power behind it– Language has so much power behind it, and we don’t even realize it. Whoever has the power to define the meanings of words has power — someone defined race and racism. Ask yourself who those people were, when did they define it, what was going on during that era, and does race have any involvement in definitions. Many times, we do not critically examine language; we assume there is a valid reason why they are defined as they are. My favorite quote is by Deray McKesson, who stated, “Definitions are a critical part of social justice as definitions are acts of power. The words we use shape the way we think about the world. The more we understand that the act of definition is always an act of power, then we realize that part of our work is to change the very definition itself. It is why we push on what is a crime and not a crime; it is why we push on how people define words because words are not simply ways to describe what is happening in front of us. Words and language use description to also decide who has power and who doesn’t.” If you are in a position of power, check your handbooks, policies, and procedures for language and words that disproportionately affect people of color or those with marginalized identities.
- Be willing to be uncomfortable– The work of being anti-racist is tough. It is painful and grueling, but more importantly, it is really uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable all the time, but I do not allow that uncomfortable feeling to control me and my reactions. It will be easy to have uncomfortable conversations, to not learn about your biases, or to stop learning. Do not allow that to happen. Acknowledge the uncomfortableness that you will consistently sit in and learn to be ok with it. The faster you become comfortable being uncomfortable, the more growth will occur.
- Be willing to challenge everyone and anyone at the hint of racism- Many times people will justify racist comments, jokes, or actions by saying they didn’t mean harm, they are good people, it’s just a “joke,” or I don’t want to cause conflict/drama/anger. The reality is that you can’t have an inclusive culture if you allow those types of things to occur. I understand it can be hard telling friends or family members what they are saying or doing is problematic, but you can’t have it both ways. If you do not say something, you are complicit in racism. Period. Again, there is no standing on the sidelines. If you want an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, then the work starts and ends with you. If you stop problematic behavior, it might help others who wanted to say something then stand up when they hear problematic things. Draw a line in the sand, be the “annoying” person who won’t allow the comments or jokes to continue and be ok with people being mad at you. Whatever you do, say something, don’t be silent.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I think the question should be, “for who are we going through a rough period now” as Black and Brown people have always been going through a rough period. Racism is ingrained in our country and will never be resolved, at least not in my lifetime. Racism is 400 years old, and it will not change overnight, but what does make me optimistic is that more and more White people see that this rough period is not an overnight sensation and, for things to change, White people need to change and no longer sit on the sidelines. White people have been sitting on the sidelines for far too long expecting Black and Brown people to do all the work when, in reality, the work can’t be done by only Black and Brown people. White people in all White circles need to do the work even more so than Black and Brown people. What makes me optimistic is seeing White people who understand the amount of work they need to do, and while it may seem daunting to them, they are starting to put more of the work on their shoulders. If White people keep doing more and more of the work, then change will occur.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would enjoy having a private breakfast with Mellody Hobson. I have enjoyed listening to her speak boldly about race, specifically about being a Black woman. Within this space, her ability to talk openly about the experiences of being a Black woman is so critical because it puts a spotlight on the experiences we have, and as she says, “the systemic issues that caused us to not be in the same place as our White counterparts.” I would love to discuss with her how she has pushed diversity and inclusions practices within the companies that she has led, what methods have been successful, and which ones have been a total bust.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can follow me on all social media platforms at JenFryTalks as well as check out my website www.jenfrytalks.com, but please be prepared for pictures of my cat named Fish or my mom’s dog named Turtle.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!