Dr. Omékongo Dibinga of American University: “Interrogate”

Interrogate. You have to learn to be introspective. Only you can decide to take a hard look at your environment and society and realize that something just doesn’t feel right. You have to realize, as Brian Tracy said, that your comfort zone is your danger zone. When you do that, you will start to attract […]

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Interrogate. You have to learn to be introspective. Only you can decide to take a hard look at your environment and society and realize that something just doesn’t feel right. You have to realize, as Brian Tracy said, that your comfort zone is your danger zone. When you do that, you will start to attract the types of resources and people that can aid you in making the areas of society where you have influence more inclusive, representative, and equitable.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Omékongo Dibinga.

Dr. Omékongo Dibinga is a motivational speaker, trilingual poet, TV talk show host, rapper, and professor of cross-cultural communication and faculty affiliate to the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. As the UPstander, his life’s mission is to inspire all across the globe to take a stand when they witness injustice, no matter how small or large. His Urban Music Award winning work has best been described by Nikki Giovanni as “outstanding, exciting, and new while being very old.” His book, From the Limbs of My Poetree was described by Essence Magazine as “a remarkable and insightful collection of exquisite poetry” He was one of 5 international recipients to win the first ever “CNN iReport Spirit Award.” Omékongo’s writings and performances have appeared in O Magazine, as well as on TV and radio from CNN, BET, and the BBC to NPR, Music Choice, and Voice of America in millions of homes in over 150 countries. He has also written songs for major motion pictures as well as organizations such as NASA and the Enough! Project. He has spoken before the United Nations, partners with the State Department to conduct youth leadership training overseas and speaks to leadership and youth student conferences across the country. Omékongo’s music and writings have appeared alongside artists such as Sheryl Crow, Angelina Jolie, Norah Jones, Damien Rice, Angelique Kidjo, Don Cheadle, and Mos Def. He has shared the stage with Wyclef Jean, OutKast, Sonia Sanchez, Dennis Brutus, Emmanuelle Chriqui, The Last Poets, and NFL great Aaron Rodgers. Internationally, he has shared his work in over 20 countries on 3 continents. Omékongo has studied at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown, Morehouse, and The Fletcher School, where he earned his M.A. in Law & Diplomacy. He earned his Ph.D. in International Education Policy at The University of Maryland (UMD) where his dissertation centered on the global hip-hop phenomenon and Jay-Z. At UMD, he also worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Diverse Students Initiative.” He worked for four years as the lead Teaching Assistant to Dr. Michael Eric Dyson at Georgetown University. He provides leadership, educational and diversity empowerment as a consultant and motivational speaker for organizations, associations and institutions. He has featured/lectured nationwide in venues from TEDx and Harvard to Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit and the Nuyorican Poets Café. His rap mixtape series “Bootleg” promotes positive hip-hop with remixes of songs by Tupac, Notorious BIG, Jay Z, Nas, 50 Cent, and others. His 1,000,000 Youth Campaign has directly impacted more than 100,000 youth across the globe to date. He has also partnered with Intel on its campaign to make their computer processors free of minerals that come from the war in the Congo. Omékongo has published and produced 7 books, 7-fusion music and motivational CDs, and one independent DVD. His motivational book G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness! 10 Steps to Living Your Best Life has received praise from great motivational speakers such as Willie Jolley. His most recent book “The UPstander’s Guide to an Outstanding Life” is a life balance book for students.

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?

As you can tell by my name, I was born in a faraway place called Boston, Massachusetts. More seriously, though I was indeed born there, I never felt as a kid that I was from there. My parents are Congolese (former Zaire) and settled in Boston after leaving Congo. Because of our names, we were bullied heavily in school, physically and psychologically, and sometimes even by our teachers. Those experiences led me at a young age to be a bridgebuilder between different groups, starting with African Americans and those born on the African continent. They led me to study international affairs and do this work across the globe. This idea of finding common ground in uncommon times has always driven me whether I’m doing work with a corporation, government group, or school. The mission is the same.

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?

There are so many books to list! I would have to go with Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro. This book was so powerful to me because it speaks to how a people can be psychologically enslaved decades after their physical enslavement ends. When he wrote that when you control someone’s mind, you don’t have to worry about their actions, I was floored. Though the book was written in 1933, it will resonate forever. I speak often about how we have lost the ability as a society to think critically and how we go online to our favorite news source looking for affirmation instead of information. Because of our ability to tailor our own sources of information, too many of us are being programmed instead of being educated. Almost 100 years later, his words have never rang more true and we’re seeing it play out with often dangerous consequences. In order to change this, we must learn to diversify our sources of information (including from our friends, coworkers, and social media sources) to broaden our knowledge.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Donna Ford once said “The less we know about each other, the more we make up.” This quotation is so powerful to me and always draws a song response from people who participate in my trainings and keynote events. The Washington Post reported a few years ago that 74% of white people had no non-white friends. If this is the case, where did they get their information from about diverse groups and was that information accurate? This is how stereotypes and biases form. I have walked into rooms and been called a pimp because people only “know” black people through misogynistic hip-hop videos. I’ve been accused of being a reefer smoker or “weedhead” because of my locks. I’ve had a police officer drive up next to me on the highway, flash a light in my car and then pull me over after seeing I was black and then try to convince me that I was drinking when I’ve never had an alcoholic beverage before. The list goes on and on with experiences of “If only these people would have gotten to know me first…” Unfortunately, in the case of a Tamir Rice, Jamar Clark, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd, these assumptions can often have deadly consequences.

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

“Learn Everything And Do.” If you “Learn Everything And Don’t”, you’re not a leader. What I mean by that is that many people (politicians, businesspeople, etc.) learn the effective skills needed to be a leader for everyone but choose not to apply them. They choose to appeal to the group that either agrees with them the most or is most similar to them. That does not foster inclusiveness. That does not create a culture where everyone feels celebrated and not just tolerated. Most issues we face at home, work, or in society overall do not occur due to an absence of resources, but more to an absence of competent and capable leadership. Learn Everything And Do!

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 make sure to listen to something motivational or workout (or both) before a high stakes meeting, talk, or a decision. My philosophy is that you have to set your intentions so that other people or circumstances don’t set them for you. once I set my own intentions, I am fortified for whatever happens. Example. One day, I was booked to do four different speaking events in one day in upstate New York. I had never done that many speeches in one day and I was already nervous because each venue was a brand new audience for me. I woke up, played something motivational, and worked out all while telling myself that I have been here before, that this is what I do, and that these people were coming to see me, not the other way around. It aided me tremendously and the events flowed masterfully. It was one of my toughest days as a speaker but one of my most rewarding. You can’t go with the flow as a leader. You must BE the flow.

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?

This crisis evolved because we were afraid to have an honest conversation followed by reconciliation about race in America. Other countries had truth and reconciliation commissions, created reparations programs, and created curricula that took into account the full breadth of history. In America, we still deny the full experience and history of nonwhite people, specifically Black people. We have a Eurocentric system of education designed to reinforce white supremacist narratives. We’re the only country I know of that builds monuments to losers of wars like the Confederacy. This country has never fully reconciled with the fact that non-white (and non-wealthy white people) simply want this country to acknowledge its past, and build a country that is as good as its promise — for everyone. Now people are tired and because so many people are home, they are witnessing tragedies like the George Floyd killing or the COVID death disparities on full blast and they’re tired of it. Until we get to that point, we will never have unity or true inclusion in this society.

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?

I live for conversations and work centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I have worked with corporations, government groups, as well as public, private, and charter schools on DEI issues. I have partnered with the State Department under both the Obama & Trump administrations on DEI in countries overseas, even conducting week-long trainings speaking French in countries like Mali and Niger. DEI takes many forms! One thing I learned is that you have to really work to get all hands on deck because if people feel ostracized from the beginning, your efforts may be sabotaged. I was brought in to get a conversation started on race in a school in a wealthy part of Maryland. The principal told me that I had to get the head of the math and social studies department on board before I did anything. That made no sense to me but I listened. He said these two older white people (one male and one female) had been there since the beginning of the school in the 60s and so people see them as basically assistant principals. If they didn’t agree to the work, I would’ve failed. I had great talks with them and they were very enthusiastic about the work and we were ultimately successful. To be successful with DEI initiatives, you have to engage all stakeholders privately before you start to do any work publicly. Don’t embark on grand initiatives until you can get as much buy-in as possible!

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?

Well first of all, it’s important to understand that diversity does not just mean race and gender. There are of course those two, but diversity also encompasses things like age, socioeconomic status, religion, physical abilities, sexual orientation, and of course diversity of thought. So many companies and organizations have become a hashtag for the wrong reasons because they did not incorporate diverse opinions. But rather than have diversity in the room to avoid embarrassment or checking a box, it has to be done because it’s the right thing to do. Report after report has shown that companies that have diversity are more profitable and schools that are serious about DEI get better performance from their students. If an organization is serious about being successful in a country that is getting browner by the year (which is basically the case in any country that is still majority white), then it has to start embracing diversity in an honest and meaningful way.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. 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.

  1. Interrogate. You have to learn to be introspective. Only you can decide to take a hard look at your environment and society and realize that something just doesn’t feel right. You have to realize, as Brian Tracy said, that your comfort zone is your danger zone. When you do that, you will start to attract the types of resources and people that can aid you in making the areas of society where you have influence more inclusive, representative, and equitable. Example. Many people were shocked into the reality of police misconduct and brutality when they watched the killing of George Floyd by former officer Derek Chauvin. I heard story after story of people who said things like “Now I get it” or “I had no idea this was true.” This is what led us to a point where at one point this summer the top 2 New York Times Bestseller books were about racism and antiracism. People began interrogating themselves and started taking action.
  2. Listen. We have two ears and one mouth. We have to use them in proportion. We have to commit to doing more listening than we do talking. You don’t know everything! Listen especially to the voices who usually don’t speak up by creating multiple ways to receive feedback that isn’t public in case people feel reprisals. Example: I once attended an event where a transgender woman was speaking. Rather than prepare a speech about the topic, the woman walked up and said “I’m transgender. Ask me anything.” At the she was still in the stage of taking the medication needed for the process. The “speech” must have lasted over an hour. I do a lot of work in the field of DEI, but my knowledge at the time of transgender issues was not strong. I learned so much by just listening to her story. The longer it went, the more personal the stories became. It was truly amazing and an experience that taught me a lot about how to be an effective listener.
  3. Educate. There is no point in listening to your co-workers if you are not going to learn more about what they share with you. In the last two years, so many words have entered the DEI conversation on a mainstream level: antiracism, microaggressions, cisgender, systemic racism, #blacklivesmatter, etc. Can you speak intelligently on these issues and so much more? If not, you have to take real time to surround yourself with real experts or at least engage in discussion groups and book clubs where you can educate yourself on issues you don’t know about. Example: As I said, I live and breathe DEI but there is always more to learn. I recently saw the word BIPOC and thought it meant BIsexual People of Color! Turns out it means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Completely different group! What if I just said “Oh I got this” and acted arrogantly on the idea that it meant Bisexual People of Color? I would have become a hashtag for all of the wrong reasons!
  4. Advocate. After you have listened and educated yourself, you must become an advocate for the causes you claim to understand are important to your co-workers. For example, saying that you’re not racist is no longer acceptable in today’s social justice climate. You must be antiracist meaning that you’re actively working to dismantle racism in all of the arenas where you have influence. Another example is the term “All Lives Matter.” The phrase itself is an idealistic sentiment for many who state it but the more important question from an advocacy perspective is what are you actively doing to ensure that all lives matter? Are you speaking up when you see police brutality? Are you condemning anti-Semitism when you witness it? Are you sharing petitions to help those in our LGBTQ+ community who experience violence? If there is a gender pay gap and you are the CEO are you actively working to close it? This is what advocacy looks like.
  5. Decide. Once you commit to the actions above. You have to decide to keep your commitment to your commitment. As I said, to lead is to Learn Everything And Do. If you learn everything and don’t, you’re not a leader. Deciding not to decide is a decision. You have to decide that in the face of all challenges, you’re going to stick to your core values. Example. I was once invited to speak at a school in North Carolina where a student cut out an image of then-President Obama and hung it. The principal didn’t expel the student but didn’t allow him to cross the stage. Rather than have the child take responsibility, the parents pulled their other children out of the school and did everything to get him fired and blocked many of his initiatives, including an initiative to bring yours truly back to campus for a second visit! The principal stuck to his values that he decided on from early on and still sticks to these values years later. Some parents had to decide that they wanted their children in a school that wasn’t antiracist and transferred or never applied to his school.

By the way, the 5 steps spell out “I LEAD.” ☺

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

I am very optimistic about the future. Why? Well the fact of the matter is that as much as we are going through now, we have been through worse. Slavery, Trail of Tears, internment camps, the Civil War, women’s rights, LBTQ+ rights, a flu pandemic 100 years ago, and so much more. It’s not that every issue has been resolved but there are self-correcting principles embedded in this country. 100 years after women got the right to vote, we have a female Vice President — a black Vice President who is also of Asian descent. Anything is possible if we dare to dream, commit to fight, and never ever give up. It is in the DNA of our common humanity to overcome obstacles. Unfortunately, it never happens fast enough but it will never happen without optimism!

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 like to have a private breakfast or lunch with JAY-Z. I went from pretty much despising his lyrics as a rapper to putting him #1 on my top ten list. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him and I was recently writing a book on him. I teach a (very popular) course at American University on him. I have been so impressed and inspired by the person he has become as a child of the Crack Epidemic. I really also appreciate his youth initiatives because I am also passionate about youth and would love to work with his Shawn Carter Foundation on their programs. I want to work with him on his next book. In my most ideal world, we would collaborate on a song! I’ve already remixed some of his tracks for my private music library. ☺

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on Twitter @omekongo. Also, more information can be found at www.upstanderinternational.com.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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