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“Balance optimism with reality.” With Jason Hartman & Dr. Halima Leak Francis

I am very optimistic and expect to see resolution in my lifetime. However, I am by no means naïve to the challenges we are going through right now. In trying to balance my optimism with reality, I have asked my parents about how this compares to the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. They believe […]

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I am very optimistic and expect to see resolution in my lifetime. However, I am by no means naïve to the challenges we are going through right now. In trying to balance my optimism with reality, I have asked my parents about how this compares to the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. They believe that from the 60s to now, that there has been some progress, but they feel this time the urgency and energy of this moment is different. It is complicated and for them this moment feels more intense, perhaps because of technology and media. My parents have shared with me their sadness and disappointment with where we are today, but they have also shared their hope and joy. They are happy to have seen the progress from the segregation of their youth to their daughter earning a Ph.D. and a faculty appointment at institutions like NYU and Tulane respectively. They are happy to see masses of diverse faces standing in solidarity for social justice. Their lens gives me perspective for sure, and most importantly a strong sense of optimism.

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 Halima Leak Francis, Ph.D. Program Director, Professor of Practice, Public Administration at Tulane University School of Professional Advancement.

Dr. Halima Leak Francis holds nearly 20 years of experience including work in the non-profit sector, higher education, and philanthropy. An accomplished educator, practitioner, and scholar, her expertise is primarily in the areas of organizational capacity building, strategic planning and sustainability. She has a proven track record of successful relationship building, leadership and program development — all of which have been critical in her work in promoting the strengthening of communities through meaningful collaboration, public service, and philanthropic investment. In her role of Professor of Practice and Public Administration Program Director, she is responsible for the development, implementation, and management of degree and certificate programs in fields related to Public Administration for the School of Professional Advancement at Tulane University.

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?

Growing up my family was pretty close knit and I have many good memories from childhood. My parents and older brother were my biggest cheerleaders, always telling me that I could do or be anything. My Dad jokes with me now that challenges did not bother me much. I remember being pretty confident in being able to solve problems. Education was also a big value for my family. My parents did not go to college, and they sacrificed to make sure that my older brother and I went and finished. They made sure we understood the value of education for the Black community and that generations before us sacrificed greatly for equal educational opportunities. I think that is one reason why my brother and I both attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities as undergrads. He attended North Carolina A&T and I attended Hampton University.

When I first became aware of racism, as a child it was particularly difficult for me because it reflected ideals that were the exact opposite of all of things that I knew my family and other Black families to be. Inequity was also troubling for me because I believed (and still do) that everyone should have the chance to be their best self and have joy. The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean a lot to me and I has struggled to reconcile this with the fact that society does not always support these ideals for all people. With all of this, I suppose that it makes perfect sense that I ended up on the academic and professional path that I have taken in life.

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 several books that stick out in my mind but Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell is always the first to come to mind when someone asks me about a book recommendation. I was fortunate to meet Bell earlier in my career and his commitment to equity made a major impression on me. My appreciation for this book comes from both my admiration for Bell’s activism as well as how it presents the depth and breadth of inequity within our society. Combining Bell’s legacy of activism together with the themes explored in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, I recognize that seeking an inclusive and equitable society is ongoing. It is not the job of any one generation, leader, organization or group of people. To build systemic equity, it takes commitment from every person at every level.

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

“Speak your mind even if your voices shakes.” — Maggie Kuhn

I am an introvert and speaking publicly takes a bit of energy from me. There are times I can actually remember my voice shaking while speaking from uncertainty. I found this quote at time when I was transitioning into more public-facing leadership roles and it really helped me with finding confidence with my voice. As time has gone on, I have found that I speak and work most effectively when there is meaning in what I am doing. I am compelled to speak up because I know that my voice makes a difference. Often speaking up for what is right requires vulnerability and moving out of a space of comfort. Kuhn’s words encourages me to “show up” and bring my best even when I am unsure.

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

There is a lot that goes into leadership, and I think listening is at the core. If you are going to effectively understand issues, develop solutions, guide vision, and everything else that comes with leadership, you have to hear what the situation calls for. Listening to diverse voices is also key. Many times leaders, regardless of sector and setting miss the mark here. The best leaders I have seen and worked with are curious and attentive listeners. Yes, leaders should be accountable and have answers, but they should be thoughtful and informed. We have expertise indeed, but there are usually blind spots that listening can uncover.

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 would like to build a consistent exercise regimen to relieve stress, but music is very helpful for me. I have a few play lists that take me to a motivated, hopeful and happy place. This is one of the reasons why I think artistic expression is so important. I am big on active listening so breathing and quieting my mind to keep me present in the moment is also key for me. When I am preparing for anything, research and doing my best to understand the possible contexts and individuals involved relieve the stress of just generally being unprepared. I put a lot of effort into this. Oh, and I smile. I feel ready when I smile. It is like I am telling myself, “you’ve got this”!

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 has been a long time coming and America has a long, ugly history with race, diversity, equality and inclusion. We have policy, practices, and systems that were designed based on inequity. Historically, progress has seen peaks and valleys. In some regards, the nation has been in a bit of a “one step forward, two steps back,” rhythm and there are parts of our history that we have not come to terms with, much less made amends for. Add to this, an era and generation oriented towards social responsibility; the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting public health disparities; revelations accelerated by innovation in technology; and you have the what we are seeing today. We did not get here overnight and I am happy to see the collective push for equity.

I question however, how to make sure that the progress made during this time is sustained. It would be disappointing to have this same conversation 20–30 years from now. It is great to see efforts being made to intentionally operationalize equity within business and civic settings. I really like how the CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity frames this for leaders and organizations. If we are going to make true progress, present — day leaders and those with power, influence and resources will need to be intentional about promoting equity in values and in practice.

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 have been in the nonprofit sector more than 20 years and it feels like promoting diversity and inclusion has always been a part of my professional and personal life. I am a founding co-chair of a Black Women’s giving circle called the HERitage Giving Fund. I was Dallas Public Voices fellow, an initiative of the Op-ed Project serving to amplify diverse voices within media and thought leadership. I also worked as a part of the host committee for Dallas Faces Race, and initiative designed to help organizations strengthen capacity to advance racial equity.

Right now as faculty and Director of Tulane University’s Public Administration program, I am working with faculty and school leadership to build and grow a Master of Public Administration program that prepares students for careers in today’s civic sector. This is a tremendous undertaking because the issues and opportunities our communities are seeing today are complex and span across government, nonprofits, and corporate settings. Valuing diversity and inclusion is imperative for leadership in these spaces, because this has an impact on our civic infrastructure and ultimately the well-being of people on a global scale. A major part developing this of this program involves helping students to gain the skills needed to put diversity and inclusion into practice. We are working to help students to understand what it means as a leader to cultivate work environments that have equity as a part of organizational culture; policies that promote inclusion; and business practices that reflect these values.

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?

The obvious cannot be overstated. Having diverse leadership is simply the right thing to do. Exposure to diverse experiences, identities, and viewpoints strengthens emotional intelligence and this is an underestimated yet essential skill for executives and decision makers. A diverse executive team helps to grow this skill because it brings multiple considerations into view where they may not have been before. Another significant business case for diverse executive teams is alignment with market diversity and values. Particularly with today’s movement for racial justice and equity, there is a stronger call for businesses to have top level leadership that reflects the diversity of their clientele and society overall. Consumers are demanding that companies not only articulate diversity values but that these values are demonstrated in practice. Customers are questioning recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices. They want to be assured that their resources are benefitting companies that align with their values, so there are bottom line implications for representation and diversity in leadership.

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.

This is a big question and to be sure, there are certainly more than five steps that we need to take to create and sustain an equitable and inclusive society. However, my top five would be:

  1. Ongoing investment of resources — In order to open doors and support the shifts that we need to see in leadership we have to make diversity and equity a fiscal priority. To this end, education is one of the most critical areas we must invest in.
  2. Commit to the long game — I mentioned earlier that the challenges and frustrations that we are seeing are did not happen overnight. Many have committed their life’s work to advancing equity, inclusivity and justice. If we are going to sustain progress here, we have to be just as committed to long-term monitoring, evaluation, and course correction when needed.
  3. Change culture and practice — We live in a society where things like inequity, bias, and various injustices are systemic and deeply imbedded in our very identities. While very difficult, changing this from a cultural, policy and practice stance is necessary if we are going to create an inclusive and equitable society. I think as the conversation has turned to being “anti-racist,” we are headed in the right direction here. Ibram Kendi, author of How to be Antiracist clarifies the concept, “To be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.”
  4. Open the door and share the stage — This is about sharing power, opportunity, and influence. Too often diverse voices are muted, resulting in one-sided dialogues that are not representative of the most heavily impacted communities. Sometimes opening doors to advance diversity means actively seeking out expertise and skill in spaces where we might not typically look.
  5. Face the difficulties with hope and optimism — Make no mistake, what we are facing today is difficult. It is heavy work and the emotional labor is real. To get through the tough times, it is important to remain focused on the goal which is a thriving society where everyone is valued and equity is the rule not the exception. We are not aiming for a utopian ideal, but instead an attainable reality. Tapping into the creative potential of building equitable systems reminds us of why the labor is well worth it.

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 and expect to see resolution in my lifetime. However, I am by no means naïve to the challenges we are going through right now. In trying to balance my optimism with reality, I have asked my parents about how this compares to the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. They believe that from the 60s to now, that there has been some progress, but they feel this time the urgency and energy of this moment is different. It is complicated and for them this moment feels more intense, perhaps because of technology and media. My parents have shared with me their sadness and disappointment with where we are today, but they have also shared their hope and joy. They are happy to have seen the progress from the segregation of their youth to their daughter earning a Ph.D. and a faculty appointment at institutions like NYU and Tulane respectively. They are happy to see masses of diverse faces standing in solidarity for social justice. Their lens gives me perspective for sure, and most importantly a strong sense of 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. 🙂

Wow — out of all of the questions to ask, this one is so unfair! Beyoncé immediately comes to mind; she is on that playlist I mentioned earlier. ☺ Seriously though, if I could I would be thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. I met him briefly through one of the places where I worked while I was in graduate school. It was really difficult to balance work and school, and meeting Stevenson motivated me to not to ever give up. I was so happy when his book and later the movie Just Mercy came out. When I think of committed leadership, Stevenson is one of those people who immediately comes to mind for me. He has fought some of the most difficult battles in the world of diversity and equity on behalf of those who everyone else has walked away from. Stevenson’s work has inspired me and if our paths ever cross again, I want to thank him.

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