Nivi Achanta of ‘Soapbox Project’: “Take stock of your home”

Take stock of your home. I don’t just mean your literal home; I mean your sphere of influence and your own habits. Where do you get your information? How do you ensure you’re not spreading disinformation? When Twitter rolled out its “Want to read the article first?” feature, I realized how much commentary I was […]

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Take stock of your home. I don’t just mean your literal home; I mean your sphere of influence and your own habits. Where do you get your information? How do you ensure you’re not spreading disinformation? When Twitter rolled out its “Want to read the article first?” feature, I realized how much commentary I was sharing on headlines alone, though I considered myself to not be “the disinformation spreading type”. We must think deeply about our own habits first; it’s impossible to be perfect, but it’s necessary to be self-aware.

As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nivi Achanta.

Nivi Achanta is the Seattle-based founder and CEO of Soapbox Project, a platform that makes social impact easy for busy people by sending them bite-sized action plans. Prior to starting Soapbox, she worked as a tech consultant at Accenture and spearheaded a cross-industry disaster response program in their San Francisco office. In her free time, she takes circus classes, doom scrolls on Twitter, and experiments with new recipes.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

When I was younger, I thought I had no passions (seriously). Everyone around me wanted to become a doctor or an engineer. I wanted to be a teacher, but it didn’t seem financially feasible.

I got accepted into UC Davis for college and pursued a double major in managerial economics and statistics because I was told it would help me “get a good job”. At Davis, econ was super easy and stats was super hard, but I had smart friends, so I floated through almost four years of college feeling like I had no passions.

Everything changed my final year when I founded a chapter of an international non-profit called Net Impact, dedicated to social and environmental sustainability. It was my first time starting a venture like this.

Our Net Impact Davis team (who became the inspiration for my career) accomplished SO MUCH in less than a year. One of our teams even designed and secured funding for a culturally competent sustainability seminar that I believe still runs at UC Davis today. In this 2017 article from our student newspaper, we actually addressed the importance of cultural competence in an increasingly polarized world.

I finally found something I was passionate about: connecting people with impact.

When I graduated from Davis, I got my wish of securing a high-paying corporate job at Accenture, where I worked as a tech consultant for three years. I learned a lot, but there was this daily nagging thought: I found my passion, so why am I not pursuing it?

Ultimately, in September 2020, I went full-time on my startup, Soapbox Project that makes social and environmental impact easy for busy people. Now I’m here, showing up for people, causes, and communities I care about every day!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One of our main initiatives at Soapbox is Changeletter, our bite-sized newsletter that helps people fight climate change in three minutes each week. As I said earlier, I never felt that I had a “passion” for sustainability. I just realized I have a knack for distilling complex information and convincing people to do stuff. So each week, I write these action plans, and I try to make them as concise, fun, and non-judgmental as possible. The climate movement can be so polarized and overwhelming, and that deters people. It deterred me for YEARS until I found that I, too, had a place in it without needing to be an expert.

This work is helping people feel like they belong. We help people feel like they can channel their climate anxiety into action. We help people feel like they can find meaningful and local solutions for a global problem.

Something else exciting in my life is serving on the board for Disaster Tech. I’ve been sporadically working on disaster-related projects since my volunteer work in the 2018 Camp Fire and observed how fragmented the disaster management space is, especially with data governance. Once again, my superpower is communication and connection, and I’m excited I get to bring it to Disaster Tech, literally helping out in the effort to save lives!

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

In 2017, mere months after starting my consulting job at Accenture, I was already mid-existential crisis. I felt that my work was purposeless. I could NOT figure out where to go or how to channel my talents of “making stuff happen”.

I reached out to a friend and former supervisor, Michelle Murakami. We worked together for a few years at Camp Galileo, an innovation camp for kids, which was the best job I’ve ever had.

Michelle and I sat down at a coffee shop on a foggy San Francisco evening. I think I ordered an overpriced lavender latte. We talked about the 2016 election and how frustrated we were to not be able to do anything about it.

During that one conversation, Michelle affirmed and validated everything I was feeling. Most importantly, she spoke as if she had no doubt whatsoever that I could communicate complicated political issues to my friends, family, and people who’ve never met me, even persuading them to take action.

The farther I get from that conversation, the more I understand how pivotal it was to have someone be 100% on your side. It’s hard, especially as a woman of color, to not be constantly doubting myself. I’m so grateful I sat down with Michelle that evening and she told me, without question, that I could make a difference.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

While I was at Accenture, I was on a project working for a national sports team. We spent about six weeks on the project, and every week, the director in charge of leading the work had “other engagements” come during our meetings. My teammate and I had a bunch of questions to clarify the scope of the work, but the director never got around to answering them.

We went from an 8-slide executive deck to a ~100-slide technical walkthrough based on our middle manager’s recommendation. My teammate and I disagreed with this approach, but neither of us knew how to push harder for our director’s time or to get more meetings with our client.

The end result was a total mess! Despite having done most of the work, I was left out of the client call since I was “too junior”, but I heard that we’d misunderstood the request from the start. I heard there was lots of yelling.

Here’s what I learned from that experience:

  1. Ask as many questions as you need to. Over-clarify if you must. It’s better to sound stupid in the moment than to mess things up down the line.
  2. If middle management isn’t doing their job, be courageous and take initiative. Demand your leaders’ time.
  3. Never assume employees are “too junior” if they’re meeting or exceeding expectations. I’ll never leave my future employees out of important meetings just for optics. If I was on the call that day, or trusted from the beginning to liaise with our clients, I’m certain I could have ensured a different outcome.

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?

A book I read recently that shifted my worldview is The Color of Law. It’s about how the government segregated America through housing legislation.

It made me realize that many of the problems we have today don’t come from accidents or “bad people”, they come from exploitative systems that fully intend to produce discrimination and other adverse effects, for the sake of wealth protection for the wealthy.

I learned that even something as universal (now) as highways were a means to exercise racism — they were openly declared as “slum clearance” tools to remove “less favorable” individuals from metropolitan areas!

The book that first blew my racial consciousness wide open, and a much more manageable read than The Color of Law, is Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett, former Seattle Seahawks player.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“All that you touch/ You Change./ All that you Change/ Changes you.” — Octavia Butler

I came across this quote recently as I was reading All We Can Save. It resonated with me because it shows how dynamic change is, and how everyone has a hand in the outcome.

I’m mulling over how we can be more intentional about what we touch — not only thinking about what we’re changing, but thinking about what all we’re letting change us.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, a leader is someone who can organize people’s interests and skills into positive outcomes.

In our society, we have this idea of a “charismatic leader”, someone who speaks loudly, boldly, and with confidence. Someone who acts on their vision at all costs. Someone who’s always in the spotlight. We’ve seen this in recent politics; whatever you think of either of them, this applies to both our previous presidents.

I disagree with that notion.

Leadership can be collaborative, and it doesn’t have to be one person’s voice above the noise. Some of the quietest people I know, in my opinion, have made the best leaders — they thoughtfully communicate their ideas, actually listen to what team members can and want to do, and use that information to chart the best path forward.

When a leader listens actively and leverages people’s skills, they are far likelier to protect their team’s best interests and prevent burnout. These are the people that inspire hope and keep movements going!

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

My view is pretty straightforward, having learned a lot in the past few years on political and financial incentives:

  1. Social media encourages polarization. Companies like Facebook and YouTube get more clicks on clickbait-y content (hence the name). That content is often filled with misinformation, which, when spread, can have violent outcomes.
  2. Politics is finally a dinner table topic. I remember, growing up, you weren’t supposed to discuss politics or religion in casual conversation. After the 2016 election, all bets were off. Our political leadership has never been perfect, but with our most recent president openly putting down women, Mexican immigrants, and other historically marginalized groups, many of us felt like it was finally our responsibility to speak out. This put a voice to the things we used to think are better left unsaid. Speaking out about oppression inevitably leads to polarization in a society accustomed to denial.
  3. Politicians have no incentive to create unity. As we’ve been learning, there are no consequences for driving wedges between groups of people. In fact, many politicians learned that appealing to extreme bases helped them win elections. It doesn’t help that we have no truth commission in the United States.

The polarization we’re seeing isn’t about simple issues like disagreeing on whether or not fries taste good dipped in ice cream. They’re about people’s rights and dignity. Our humanity shouldn’t be up for debate or for auctioned off for ad spend. Unfortunately, our lives are being used as such by politicians and media companies alike, because of the way our economic system’s incentives are set up.

I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?

One of my roommates and closest friends, let’s call him John, comes from a rural town in California. When I first met him, our political views were diametrically opposed. In the four years of knowing him, much has changed — he attended a large public university, met people with different backgrounds than him, and had more conversations about issues his family ignored.

It’s a completely different story with his family. His mom is a conspiracy theorist. She gets all her news from Facebook and trusts it more than mainstream news sources (because it’s based on “real experiences”). After a child died in their detention facility, his extended family posted on social media about Trump’s greatness, not once sharing concern for the child.

John has had to end relationships with his extended family. His relationship with his mom has become increasingly strained during coronavirus times, since she’s against masks, likely won’t want the vaccine, and doesn’t believe COVID is “that bad”.

When I’m around John, I feel like I’m watching the world’s trickiest balancing act — how do you truly love your loved ones when their actions actively cause harm to people around you?

In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?

Going back to John, there was a point in our relationship where he mentioned that he didn’t support abortion, and I couldn’t get past that. Many fights and tears later, we got to an understanding. The conversation process sucked. It required me being vulnerable about my experiences and not giving up on him. It required him being open and listening actively.

The end result was worth it, especially because of how close we are now. This process, which is similar to deep canvassing, is very effective. But we don’t do it because it can be triggering and demands so much energy from us.

I think some form of deep canvassing/active listening is one approach for people who have the capacity to ask questions, share trauma, and listen. A far simpler (but equally important) solution is promoting media literacy and having conversations about separating fact from fiction. The Factual and Tangle are two places to find news that people across political beliefs can align on.

How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?

I don’t have an example of fractured relationships in the workplace, but I actually have a positive story to share: in the summer of 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Accenture put on a company-wide event that invited Black employees at the company to share their stories and experiences if they were willing.

For the first time during my career there, I saw genuine emotion from company leadership. It was absolutely wild to see how people who were 50+ years old, well-educated, with great experience in the workplace, were realizing for the first time what privilege actually means.

The racial justice proposals that followed the call seemed more promising than empty words. Accenture leaders proposed data-based solutions from hiring to inclusion to promotion and more. I don’t know what they’re up to now, but I do know that holding space for authentic, honest conversations is critical to bridging divides.

It’s much easier said than done. I don’t have a simple solution — the event I described necessitated emotional labor from our Black colleagues and it also required that our non-Black leaders listen without being defensive. I think the solutions are unique to each company, but building a culture that prioritizes employee safety and inclusivity is a good place to start.

I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?

Actually, millennials and Gen Z are turning farther away from political affiliation as a self-identifier. In our two-party system, many of us feel disenfranchised and disillusioned, like none of our candidates have our best interests in mind. I think that is a net positive — we’re ready to fight for a new system and demand structural change, not duct-tape solutions.

Another really positive trend I’ve been seeing is the bias towards local action. Sunrise Movement has likely been a driver, as well as the rising knowledge that you can do a lot with your vote locally vs. nationally or even statewide. I think the more we affiliate ourselves with keeping our communities happy and healthy, the less we have to rely on party labels. Engaging on a local level will likely lead to more healing, agreement, and even consensus when done right.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

We must have tech ethics standards and invest in humanities educations for all. As a society, we’ve over-indexed on STEM educations at the cost of the humanities; at the cost of critical thinking. We shouldn’t give people the tools to build the most powerful thing in the world (software can model the universe!) without giving them the tools to know how to wield it in the right way.

We all know Facebook was started more or less as a toy; as a game for college boys. Now it’s one of the most powerful platforms in the world. Facebook, and other tech companies, will NEVER internally govern. Because they have no reason to. I started a Tech Ethics Coalition to meet other technologists, academics, journalists, and leaders thinking deeply about these issues. I don’t have the solution for what tech ethics standards would look like, but I know we need cohesive solutions with cross-industry and government buy-in. We also need technologically competent government officials.

Investing in the humanities, and raising generations of youth who ask questions and think critically, can keep us from being divided as easily. The typical American public school does not teach us how to deeply reflect upon our values, use dialectical thinking, and navigate conflicting ideas.

I love social media for all the good it can do. In many ways, it’s brought me closer with people. But there’s a responsible way to do it, and we must demand that companies don’t repeat the same mistakes of their predecessors, like Clubhouse is already doing, with no significant investment in trust and safety.

If Mark Zuckerberg, in his dorm, had thought deeply about what his website would mean and the implications it may someday have; if he built Facebook prioritizing safety over speed, I believe the world would look different.

What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?

On an individual level, we have to take stock of where we’re getting our news. Nothing is unbiased, so we should take note of our biases as I mentioned with The Factual and Tangle. We have to ensure the people we’re getting news from are diverse and reflect the experiences of our world.

We can also do better at calling people in, rather than calling them out. We have to shift our focus away from wanting to be right to actually finding solutions to heal our communities. I also wish that every internet user would act online as they would in person — people are unnecessarily mean!

I won’t drag this point out again, but we really have to change our structures and systems if we hope for a less partisan media. Instead of focusing solely on our own habits and reactions, let’s think about this together: what industry-wide incentives can we come up with to encourage pragmatism and truth?

Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?

Yup. It seems that we’re increasingly pitted against others. At this point, it’s not just Democrats vs. Republicans, it’s also the left against the moderates and much, much more. I can hardly keep up with who’s “on my side” anymore, and it really does feel like there’s way more room to be wrong than there is to be right.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is how increased civic engagement could offset these “high-stakes elections”. Politicians use heated rhetoric and “us vs. them” campaigns because they know it gets voters’ attention, especially if those voters are only paying attention every four years. It’s much easier to pick a party and vote accordingly than to stay civically engaged. Politicians know this.

If Americans were more civically engaged — if we held civic engagement as a cornerstone of our society — we would have a far better shot of coming to our own conclusions about candidates. We would fight for values, not parties. We’d keep voting as an important tool in our democracy toolbox, but not as a standalone, hardly-used weapon.

I’m seeing some exciting innovations around civic tech and outcome-based donations. It makes me really happy to see tech being leveraged for social good, especially when it creates a bridge between our daily lives and the politicians who actually represent us — not just in Congress, but in our local courthouses and city legislatures.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Take stock of your home. I don’t just mean your literal home; I mean your sphere of influence and your own habits. Where do you get your information? How do you ensure you’re not spreading disinformation? When Twitter rolled out its “Want to read the article first?” feature, I realized how much commentary I was sharing on headlines alone, though I considered myself to not be “the disinformation spreading type”. We must think deeply about our own habits first; it’s impossible to be perfect, but it’s necessary to be self-aware.
  2. Be an active listener. I struggle with this; it’s easy to go into a conversation already knowing what I want the outcome to be and wanting to be more right than the other person. Active listening may not always lead to agreement, but it’s helped me find common ground and truly understand others’ points of view instead of pushing through with pre-prepared points.
  3. Think structurally. When we’re thinking about our polarized nation, we can’t put all the burden on ourselves to simply “be better”. Of course, we have a responsibility to increase our media literacy and find a path to unity, but this polarization has been intentionally pushed on us by corporations and government alike. If we hope to proactively heal our country, we have to focus on the problems that actually led us here, not band-aid solutions.
  4. Act locally. Democracy isn’t a one-time process that happens every four years. It’s stunning how few of us exercise the power that we have — the majority of us don’t go to town hall meetings or serve on city committees even though that’s where real change happens. One easy step: go sign up for your city’s Chamber of Commerce email list or attend your next town hall!
  5. Try deep canvassing (if it’s for you). I don’t recommend this to everyone, because deep canvassing requires us to engage with radically different viewpoints. When the other person’s viewpoint threatens your rights and your safety, it can be triggering — which is why, though effective, deep canvassing isn’t always used as a tool for change. If you want to learn more about what this means or how to do it, here’s a good resource.

Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?

I disagree with the premise that we need to be nicer to each other, at least in real life. I think the reason so many tensions have festered un-dealt with for years is because we prioritized “niceness” over accountability and real change. People shouldn’t be jerks, but we should focus our energy on building equitable, inclusive solutions, not worrying about other people’s feelings.

(I’m not saying feelings don’t matter. I do think that delivery is important — how we deliver the solutions we come up with will play a part in how they’re perceived and accepted — but our emphasis on “niceness” has made us over-index on sugarcoating. One example of how niceness can be the enemy of progress is the pervasiveness of tone policing, especially during discussions of racism, where we may dismiss people of color as “too angry” instead of asking ourselves how to learn from our past and create new systems.)

I do think we must be nicer on the internet. If we hope for societal healing, acting online as you would in person is SUCH an easy way to start. Nowadays, social movements can begin and gain momentum digitally, especially after the onset of COVID-19. And an easy way to shut people out is by being mean online. I see this a lot with the climate movement. Someone will celebrate making the switch to beef from turkey, but be labeled a Bad Person because they’re not vegan.

This negative online energy sucks. It’s draining, discouraging, and divisive. I believe we must all find ways to be kinder to each other, state hard truths in gentle ways where possible, and stop being mean on the internet. The last part is the easiest to do.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Kind of. I don’t think this is something that gets “resolved”. Humans have been in conflict for longer than any of us alive can remember, but the way that manifests has evolved over time.

I am optimistic that we will make significant progress on the issues facing us. I feel that to do socially impactful work, you have to be optimistic — hope is the fuel that keeps us going without knowing the outcome.

I also know that people much smarter than me, including many technologists, ethicists, academics, journalists, and some government officials, have been paving this path for a long time. We’ve had courageous women of color like Ifeoma Ozoma and Timnit Gebru stake their reputations and jobs on calling out dysfunctional and unethical leadership at massive tech companies like Pinterest and Google.

Many argue that these women calling out those in power is divisive. And it is, but only because some see it as “us vs. them” instead of wanting to fight for more equitable corporate structures. My optimism comes from the support I see for these difficult, powerful movements; from the increased emphasis for unions at large tech companies; from executives resigning in protest; from people doing what’s right instead of what’s profitable or convenient.

I’m optimistic that we’ll hear more stories of courageous people like Ifeoma and Timnit, but in the future, instead of staking our reputations or losing our jobs, we’ll make equity, inclusion, and accountability the new normal.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?

I don’t think young people need to be sold on the “why”. Gen Z has realized far more quickly than most of us that, in order to be successful, you don’t have to get a job in Corporate America, doing damage on behalf of a company that doesn’t fulfill you.

I would tell young people to not let others make them jaded. People are quick to poke holes in idealistic visions of the future, but we need these visions to dream of a better world — a world we can deserve if we work for it.

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. 🙂

AOC, without a doubt. There are about a zillion reasons why, but one of the things I admire the most about her is how well she communicates complex political processes with millions of people, like on her Instagram Lives. I would love to know what her vision is for a more accountable and unified country, and how we could put that into practice.

How can our readers follow you online?

For better or for worse, I’m online all the time — oops. I’m @niviachanta on most major social platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram in order of preference. I’m also very responsive over email for my free newsletter readers.

I love making new friends who want to have conversations like these, so I hope people reach out!

This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thanks so much! I loved this thought-provoking conversation and I hope we can all work together to build a better society.

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