Nima Novak of ‘Living in Empathy Institute’: “Don’t leave money on the table!”

Our goal is to create a community of white people who recognize their immense power and responsibility in fighting racism. We want to connect them to the truth that racism affects BIPOC in every area of our lives. We want to inspire them to commit to a life-long anti-racist mission. If or when they fall […]

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Our goal is to create a community of white people who recognize their immense power and responsibility in fighting racism. We want to connect them to the truth that racism affects BIPOC in every area of our lives. We want to inspire them to commit to a life-long anti-racist mission. If or when they fall off course, we are here to reconnect them to the ultimate truth of why we all need to keep persisting. Our community is here so they can stay connected to each other and ignite each other to move into action consistently. We plan to build and maintain an anti-racism empire to create a better future for the youth and everyone (and you too, reader).

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nima Novak, Living in Empathy Institute.

Being an Indigenous woman growing up and living in America, Nima Novak is an expert in racism from her lived experience. She facilitates anti-racism work groups for her company the Living in Empathy Institute. She is also a compassion-based, trauma-informed speech-language pathologist, artist, storyteller and intuitive healer. To teach resilience and empower her clients to take anti-racism action, she focuses on evidence-based practices and empirical research which serves to bridge the worlds of healing and science, worlds which are often relegated to different categories.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

After the heinous murder of George Floyd, we felt the urgency to take action to stop racism at its root, within the heart, minds and actions of white people. I am Nima Novak, a compassion-based Indigenous speech language pathologist, artist, storyteller and healer. My business partner and co-founder is Erin Matthews, a brilliant Black licensed clinical social worker and an all-around badass.

Together we realized that the surefire way to fight racism was to go to the source. We knew this meant working directly with white people who were asking themselves how they could be more active in the fight against racism, but also didn’t have a clue what to do. We knew that the accidental harm caused by this well-meaning passivity was completely unknown to the white people we wanted to connect with. We also knew that if we could tap into this resource and help guide them to do the work that needed to be done, we could mobilize an entire community to begin to do their own work and to embrace their power to be part of the change.

We create a safe space emotionally and somatically, for people to show up where they’re at in their anti-racism work and get the guidance they need in an appropriate space. As an Indigenous woman, I know white people will talk about race when there isn’t a room full of people around. I know this because white women do this with me at the water cooler, in my Instagram direct messages, over email, over text, and after a few glasses of Chardonnay when they’re feeling emboldened. We wanted to bring these conversations out into the open where they could have an impact, instead of being one-off moments of subtle validation-seeking that ultimately cause harm.

Essentially we thought, “What if we created a place where people could actually engage emotionally in the work? What if we could call in white people to connect with their empathy in a way that creates a real opening? What if we created a safer space for white and white passing people to open up to the truth about racism and learn about action-based anti-racism work with deep transformations and vulnerable conversations led by experienced BIPOC facilitators?” This is why we created the Living in Empathy Institute.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’re overthrowing the world of old-school ‘diversity training” which realistically hasn’t done anything notable to actually address racism. What it has created, is this weird false sense of “doing the right thing” for companies and institutions, without having the intended effect. Most of us usually receive diversity training of some kind in school or at work. Most of us also cringe deeply at the thought of attending these uncomfortable, well-meaning but misdirected trainings.

Some of the questions that we started asking ourselves were:

  • Have diversity trainings and consultation worked to really make systematic change to stop racism? No.
  • Who really wants to talk about race with people you work with and don’t trust? Approximately no one.
  • Who’s online shopping at Target during the trainings? White people.
  • Who’s raising their hands and participating in the trainings? BIPOC folx.
  • Who’s afraid to say the wrong thing about race at work? White people.
  • Who’s ultimately dealing with the ineffectiveness of these trainings, coupled with the way that their presence on the roster only serves as something for people to point to and say, “See? We’re doing the work around here. This is not a racist environment.” BIPOC folx.

The Living in Empathy Institute does not provide check-the-box diversity training. We offer small work groups for 10–12 people, where white people learn the truth about whiteness, address unconscious racial bias, uncover blind spots and ask the embarrassing questions BIPOC people are tired of fielding out in the world, but in an environment with no judgement and no shame.

We take the work into a deeply personal place through the sharing of our personal stories. We really ask that people show up vulnerably so we can address the fight, flight, freeze response that often keeps people stuck. We incorporate somatic work to ground them so they can move into a place of openness and acceptance that allows for daily action. The shifts that people experience in our groups allow them to transform without unnecessary discomfort.

We go beyond the surface work that, at best remains intellectual, and we enter and create a space for the reality of whiteness to be addressed and for true transformation to begin. It’s surprisingly much more comfortable to actually go to that level than it is to sit in the strange nebulous ineffectiveness of traditional diversity trainings. Let’s be real, no one is comfortable in those spaces.

In our groups, we are seeing instant moments of deep recognition and paradigm shifts that have the very real potential of having a major ripple effect in white people’s conversations and the actions they take to address racism in their communities. We’re seeing huge growth and quick transformation in participants as evidenced by their report of their weekly actions, testimonials and beta data study (please see our website We’re seeing heart-centered, responsibility-taking and action-based change instead of awkward surface conversations that only serve to reinforce the divide.

Our curriculum is backed by research including the content, small group discussion and mind-body exercises. The groups meet weekly for four weeks on Zoom instead of the traditional one-shot meeting. We require weekly micro and macro anti-racism actions but we invite people to start slow and work their way up. It can be as simple as thinking about where your money goes and supporting BIPOC owned businesses. We’re not asking people to lay down their lives, at least not in the first four weeks.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we’re networking for The Living in Empathy Institute with people or meeting people for the first time, they’re often dysregulated and in fight/flight/freeze mode because talking directly about racism is uncomfortable for them. Sometimes those conversations get really derailed because people tend to go off course and ramble when they’re nervous. The mistake we made at first was not putting a hard time limit on these conversations. So in the beginning we ended up sitting through some really drawn out conversations about how amazing whale vomit smells, conspiracy theories, how meditation cures racism, and how one woman felt it was important for us to know her pet wasn’t racist.

Through this early oversight, we learned that it is important to protect our own time and energy. In these interview meetings, we are also interviewing the potential clients to see if it’s a good fit for us.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Erin Matthews (IG @erinmatthewslcsw), my business partner and co-founder has been a great support and mentor to me. She has given me permission to tell my own personal story of being a modern Native woman and stand in my own truth. She is a role model in the balance of entrepreneur life and balance of self-care boundaries to prevent burn out. From the start she has believed in me, been supportive, she has helped me to be more insightful, to be looking at future paths and to be lighthearted. She keeps me grounded when I’m dysregulated, always keeps fun front and center and she’s a really good listener. I can’t imagine doing this work with anyone else.

Corinne Rice (IG @Misscorinne86) is a Mohawk/Lakota Auntie who has helped me as I explore deeper layers of what it means to be a modern Mohawk woman. She is very open in conversations about identity and self-worth. Her personal stories inspire me to keep on pushing forward despite the world’s perception of Native women. She is also an inspiration in self-care and healing for the highest good of ourselves and for everyone.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

We see disrupting the existing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training model as extremely positive because the current model is not working. The number of BIPOC CEO’s, professors and people in leadership positions continues to be low. We still see systemic racism flourishing, unintentionally at all grade levels, from kindergarten to grad school. These systems that reinforce racism aren’t going to change with time or surface measures. We need to disrupt these systems to keep people alive. We can all see this is life or death for BIPOC people.

If you are white, your family is not tragically affected on a daily basis. It’s not enough to stand around and say that it’s awful, when people are dying. It’s easy to fall into performative allyship with social media by saying you’re broken-hearted. In order to create a better future for our children, we need white people to join forces to rework the current systems. We see DEI training failing doctors and medical students as the COVID death rates are still disproportionately rising for BIPOC individuals. Medical professionals are starting to be trained to see racism as a “Social Determinant of Health”, but still don’t see themselves as responsible or skilled to take action to close the gap in outcomes for BIPOC folx.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. “Don’t leave money on the table!” We do our own version of “Money Church” (nod to Rachel Rodgers) with our business and mindset coach Katie Owen. She intuitively guides us through questions to reflect on our self-worth, how that affects the rates we charge, our time in service (working for free) and creating a sustainable marketing, business and self-care plan moving forward at each fork in the road where we can level-up.
  2. “Hold nothing back!” This comes from our personal trainer, Dave Sandoval of DMS Fit, that we both see to manage stress. Working with him twice weekly, he has been with us every step of the way on the good days and the tough days. He encourages us to hold nothing back when weight lifting but also when we are pitching to new potential clients and coaching the groups.
  3. “Content is King!” Semaje Bell is our web guy who does it all. He sees and hears us. He promotes positive collaborative conversations, encourages us to continue to be creative, understands our work on a deeper level and he creates content that is perfectly aligned with our mission of building an anti-racist empire. He captures who we are and makes it work for us.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We’re currently working with Northwestern University on a pilot project with their medical school. We’re setting our sights primarily on medical schools because we know that the impacts of racism in healthcare cost BIPOC people their lives. Bias causes errors in clinical decision making, which costs people their lives. If we can bring awareness, empathy and an active commitment to anti-racism into the medical school curriculum, we can look forward to a future where physicians can identify and correct their own bias before they cause harm.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

We both look to Resmaa Menakem for continued guidance. He does not mince words and he’s the ultimate disrupter who’s not signing up to sugar coat the issues. In his podcasts and trainings, he’s vulnerable and tells his own story, which gives us strength and hope to help us keep us strong and keep going.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We didn’t come this far to only come this far!” I first heard this from Jesse Itzler, but now I’ve even seen it everywhere, even on protest signs. This is my personal daily mantra because of everything and everyone I am up against in this country. My ancestors have endured so much pain and destruction, I feel indebted to them for making my life possible.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our goal is to create a community of white people who recognize their immense power and responsibility in fighting racism. We want to connect them to the truth that racism affects BIPOC in every area of our lives. We want to inspire them to commit to a life-long anti-racist mission. If or when they fall off course, we are here to reconnect them to the ultimate truth of why we all need to keep persisting. Our community is here so they can stay connected to each other and ignite each other to move into action consistently. We plan to build and maintain an anti-racism empire to create a better future for the youth and everyone (and you too, reader).

How can our readers follow you online?

IG: @livinginempathy, @nima.novak, @erinmatthewslcsw

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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