Brandyn Campbell: “Empathize”

The hard truth is that in situations where your worth as a human being is disregarded, the divide may never be bridged. This is an important reality we have to understand. That said, there is hope. But it requires vulnerability, humility, and the ability to actively listen. All of those elements are key, but there […]

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The hard truth is that in situations where your worth as a human being is disregarded, the divide may never be bridged. This is an important reality we have to understand.

That said, there is hope. But it requires vulnerability, humility, and the ability to actively listen. All of those elements are key, but there can be no healing without truly hearing each other. We’re not great at doing that as a society — we tend to listen to respond. We need to practice listening and truly hearing the thoughts presented by this person we care about. We have to care about people and have interactions that reflect that.

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 Brandyn Campbell.

Brandyn Campbell combines her passions for communications and diversity to help businesses build and articulate their commitment to racial justice. The founder of Brandyn Campbell Communications, she has worked with clients including the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL. Drawing on 15 years of experience focused on education and cultural competence, Brandyn’s Antiracism Consulting helps organizations identify opportunities to infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout their communications and cultures.

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. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up as an Air Force brat and was well-suited for that lifestyle. Until I moved to Philadelphia as an adult, the longest place I had ever lived was for four years. That experience fostered a lifelong love for travel and learning about different cultures. I was born in Guyana, and lived in Japan and England for a substantial part of my childhood. These experiences led me to study politics and international relations for my undergrad and graduate degrees and are a clear path that led to the work that I currently do.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

There are two inspirations in the work that I do: my mom and my children.

My mom was a single mother who raised two girls on her own while taking us around the world, and added a third master’s degree and a Ph.D to her already impressive list of academic qualifications. She was a teacher, and that passion for education is present in every aspect of my work. Though never a classroom teacher like she was, I know that, through my experiences as a trainer and presenter, I am indeed a teacher.

I’ve always had a strong sense of self, and I credit this to my mom. There was never any option for “I can’t,” so I grew up knowing that anything I wanted to achieve was possible.

The decision to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in my work was inspired my wonderful children: my seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. Very simply, I don’t want them to have to have “The Talk” that every Black parent has to have with their kids with my future grandchildren. I want this world to change quickly to allow kids the ability to remain children as long as possible. Every child deserves to have the comfort of knowing that they are not only free, but safe to be themselves however they look or identify.

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

The real blessing with my work is that every project is exciting. I work with people and organizations who strive to build more inclusive workplaces to help build a better world — that’s pretty incredible. My networking calls are often with other DEI practitioners who are leaders examining and refining ways to facilitate change. The push for positive change surrounds me, and I love it.

I’m currently in the midst of two long-term projects with organizations to help them become more inclusive from top to bottom. I’m creating a new workshop for universities to help students navigate issues of diversity and inclusion as new members of the workforce. I’m also wrapping up a couple of inclusive marking consulting projects.

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?

My sister Paige has been my biggest cheerleader in adulthood and entrepreneurship. We are similar in a lot of ways — she is also in communications and an entrepreneur. Her opinion means everything to me, and there are times when she’s helped me realize the progress I was making when I was stuck chasing an ever-changing goal.

There are so many examples, but one story is our practice of having business brunches. We catch up, talk shop to help us problem-solve issues in our businesses, and celebrate our wins. As women, we do not take enough time to acknowledge our progress! When we began doing these brunches last year at the start of the pandemic, it was to help us see the many bright spots in the work we were doing and pursuing.

When I get stuck overcomplicating things or nitpicking successes, Paige stops me and chides me in the way only a big sister can and makes me stop in my tracks. She helps me get outside of myself and appreciate when I’ve hit my goals. She is the absolute best!

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?

Before I ran my business full-time and did freelance writing, I made the mistake of not having contracts in place for every assignment. I had no issue with that — until I did. My biggest client at the time, a local magazine, began paying me more and more sporadically…and then the payments stopped completely.

There were excuses and unanswered emails, and no progress was made. Then I decided to sue them. I went to small claims court in Philadelphia and submitted my paperwork. Here comes the fun part: within days, I was receiving UPS and FedEx letters from shows like the People’s Court, Judge Mathis, and even — wait for it — Judge Judy! They have staff who scan lawsuit filings around the country and try to recruit them to be their next guests.

I didn’t follow through with any TV appearances, but I am proud to report that I got all of the money I was due. Because of that hard lesson, I have agreements for all projects, no matter how small. That is the best way to protect everyone involved.

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?

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X in 8th grade, and it had such a profound impact on me. It was one of the first autobiographies I ever read, and perhaps the first time I was presented with a broader context to the many lessons and stories my mother taught to me about Black history, race, and racism in the United States.

Reading his words about his life helped me critique depictions of him in textbooks and the media. I remember doing so much of what is now my practice: consuming information from a variety of sources through a critical lens.

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?

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” -Maya Angelou

I love this quote for so many reasons. So much of what women are taught is about being passive and to politely accept and endure. That has implications in areas like how we’re treated in relationships or the compensation we receive. If we want change in our minds, lives, and worlds, then we need to claim it and go for it. Change isn’t a bad word. It’s empowering to set your boundaries and know what you will not accept.

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

Leadership, like anti-racism, is a practice. A leader is not made simply by virtue of a title. A leader cares about those in her or his charge and builds trust and relationships that move a collective toward a common goal. Caring about and cultivating the people in your care requires humility, vulnerability, and wisdom. True leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable, which is ultimately a sign of strength.

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?

We’ve been taught to run away from hard things. Fundamental human rights issues are labeled as political. And of course, you can never talk politics! So the cycle of burying things that need to be addressed continues.

So when do we get to speak openly about the things that really matter? The things that are wrong?

That’s what’s happening now. And it’s long overdue.

As a society, we have never acknowledged the uncomfortable truths of the creation of this country and the ongoing impact on our existence. Conversations about genocide and systemic racism are hushed and swept under the carpet. We’ve literally white-washed history, and now we have generations who can’t separate fiction from inconvenient truth.

All this is the backdrop of the racial justice protests of last summer and the reality that the white majority will become a minority in 2045. Gen Z is 48% BIPOC. Change is here. We’re seeing the foundations erupt because people are no longer willing to stay quiet about racial violence. And that fact is threatening to the very foundations of American society.

When we can acknowledge hard truths, we can begin to heal.

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?

As James Baldwin says, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” The attempt to dodge difficult conversations in America is couched in the damaging social “norm” that we shouldn’t discuss politics. When issues like your right to wear your hair as it naturally grows out of your head are topics of legislation, there is no ability to be non-political. I don’t have that privilege.

I am married to a white man, and my children are biracial. I am fortunate that I have not had to deal with issues of racism with my immediate in-laws. But the past four years have revealed some ugliness in the extended family.

I was a political science major in school and can talk political theory all day. However, there has been a dangerous blurring of lines between fact and fiction.

If your opinion is verifiably false, then no, you’re not entitled to hold onto a falsehood as your flag. If you voted for Trump, then racism isn’t a deal-breaker for you, which means that my life and my children’s lives don’t matter to you. As Ibram X. Kendi says, there is no non-racist middle.

So the extended family that voted for Trump twice are those no longer in my circle. They no longer get cards, calls, or visits. My safety and that of my children doesn’t matter to them, so there is clearly no love or care there. That’s not something I will negotiate on.

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

The hard truth is that in situations where your worth as a human being is disregarded, the divide may never be bridged. This is an important reality we have to understand.

That said, there is hope. But it requires vulnerability, humility, and the ability to actively listen. All of those elements are key, but there can be no healing without truly hearing each other. We’re not great at doing that as a society — we tend to listen to respond. We need to practice listening and truly hearing the thoughts presented by this person we care about. We have to care about people and have interactions that reflect that.

It takes a lot of practice, and it requires a desire to listen more than to speak. But if we can do that and understand that discomfort is a necessary part of life, we can begin to cross the bridge toward healing.

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?

We have to be careful in what we characterize as partisan, and what is in fact discriminatory. We learned about the workplaces of many of those involved in the Capital Insurrection on January 6. There were CEOs and politicians and bosses who now face criminal charges.

Those are not partisan divides that need to be repaired. That is white supremacy that needs to be addressed and removed.

We have to have workplaces that care about people as humans. We need to allow employees to bring their full selves to work so that they can feel safe for both the person and the community to thrive. It’s another example of needing to face hard truths for the benefit of healing.

A general example is the shift we’ve seen in many workplaces cultures due to COVID. The American workplace has been the same since its inception, designed to serve white men who had unpaid labor to take care of children and the home. As women and marginalized populations entered the workplace, there were never changes or updates. We had to duck our heads and try to fit into these structures that were never built for us as best we could.

We have been long overdue for a shift to the way we do business, and the pandemic forced us into that. Mothers could no longer hide their parenthood as children barged into home offices during Zoom calls. Anyone’s status as a parent shouldn’t have to be hidden, but again, businesses were not traditionally built to care about those balancing career and parenthood.

For the first time in many corporate cultures, we saw managers talk about feelings and create space for their teams to come as they were. It happened again at many organizations last summer after George Floyd’s brutal murder.

Ask your people if they are okay, and care about the answer. Make that a practice. We are not machines and shouldn’t be expected to be. Make time to connect as humans in your check-ins. Building professional relationships that value humanity first are the way that we will heal divides and begin to create inclusive cultures.

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?

This was certainly the case during the election cycle, and the cult of personality that developed around some candidates helped this reality remain beyond the election. We have to look at each other as family, friends, and labels and not political opponents. We have to want to heal and address the damage that this division has created in order for this to happen.

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?

The problems we see on social media are a symptom of the wider problems over the past several years. Ultimately, it’s people who are behind social media. It’s the way that folks act on social media that’s the challenge. Sitting behind a keyboard and being anonymous emboldens people to say things they would never say in person. It’s not just divisive, it’s dangerous. I’m glad that social media platforms have finally started to moderate comments and accounts making clear threats.

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

So much goes back to how much we undervalue as a society. We need to value education. We need to value independent thought and critical thinking skills. We need to be able to critique the information we’re fed to identify misinformation. Clear lines need to be drawn between fact and fiction. Falsehoods should have no role in our political discourse and should be called out wherever they appear.

It also points to the importance of sustaining independent journalism. Our media landscape has completely changed by the decentralization of our news. News is big business, and being loud and bombastic gets ratings. What do we want to stand for as a society? The challenge isn’t for the pundits. It’s on each of us to consider, live, and advocate for our values.

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”?

There are some long overdue changes need to our political system, that’s for sure. I can’t pretend to have the answers. I think the divisiveness prevents some of the best leaders from pursuing public service, which is a problem that impacts us all. Perhaps that challenge alone can spark change on some level.

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.) Listen. It’s time to return to fundamental communications skills. Practice active listening — don’t just hear, but listen to understand what’s truly being said.

Example: Conversations are a two-way street. We listen partially for content, and also to know when it is our time to respond. To practice active listening, do only one of those things. Don’t plan to interrupt every few seconds with an “mmhhmm” or “uh-huh,” or with your objection to what is being said. Stop and stay silent until the other party has completed their remarks. Nod to indicate that you are present and paying attention, but let someone else fully have the floor.

2.) Learn. To heal the divide, we need to adopt a learning orientation in all that we do. We have to learn more about our family, friends, and colleagues. We have to understand more about ourselves, including how we react to conflict. Then we must be willing to learn about the facts at the heart of our disagreements by reading from reputable news sources and, in some cases, making a concerted effort to learn about history.

Example: When we get into arguments, we don’t care about facts or nuance. We just want to be right. We generally don’t have information to cite to support our stances in the moment, but this is where differentiating between fact and falsehood is critical in discussing our opinions. We must be willing to learn and challenge ourselves. If we find that our arguments are verifiably false, we must then be willing to adapt our views.

3.) Empathize. A large part of the divide we’ve seen is that we’ve slowly dehumanized our opponents. Instead of friends and family, it’s blue or red, patriot or socialist, and on and on. Stop with the labels and remember that you are speaking to people first. We are long overdue for heart-centered interactions where we not only recognize the humanity of those with whom we have conversations, but also try to put ourselves in their shoes to understand their perspective and experience.

Brene Brown puts it so well: “In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how we imagine their experience to be.”

Story: I once had to address a pattern of microaggressions and disrespectful treatment with a former boss. When we discussed the incidents, there was no opportunity to hear each other’s experience. Instead, her approach was, “I re-reread the emails and you’re wrong. Here’s why.” Then it was my turn to do the same, and nothing was resolved. Instead, it made the situation worse.

Taking an entirely different approach and creating space for each of us to feel heard would have been an entirely different experience that may have marked a turning point in our relationship. The conversation may have started with, “I understand that you’re disappointed, and I’d like to better understand where you’re coming from. Can you talk to me a bit more about what you experienced after receiving my emails?”

After I shared, there would have been an opportunity to acknowledge the obvious truth — that I was very hurt by what happened. Her reply to this could have been, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I better understand why that was so upsetting, and how my reaction contributed to your feeling hurt.”

Particularly when there is a power component at play, it’s up to leaders to take extra steps to understand team members to determine an appropriate, empathetic response. In our personal lives, we must consider that it is a person and not an object or enemy that we are talking to who is making themselves vulnerable to try to be heard. At the very least, let’s respect the trust they’ve put in us.

4.) Love. This is a really hard one to embrace when we’re angry. With family and friends in particular, think about why we care about them in the first place. Has hate helped the situation? Probably not. Then why not try another approach?

Example/story: When having challenging conversations with someone I love, to keep my anger in check I think about and try to picture the word “love” during the interaction. I think about the reasons this person is valuable in my life and know that it’s easy to risk all of that with words of anger. That happens so easily when look at the problem and not the person. Center the human and focus on the relationship you’d like to have to try to heal to guide you through your interactions.

Act. If we want to heal relationships, communities, and our country, then we each have to take action. Each of the ways outlined here requires action, focus, and reflection. If you are committed to fostering healing, what will you do to get there?

Example: In an argument with a friend who you found out was not on “your” side on an important political issue, you say something extremely hurtful and inappropriate to them. You feel awful about it. But that feeling alone isn’t going to change anything. You have to take ownership of what you said, and reach out to apologize. If it’s a line you don’t want to cross again, what is your plan to make sure that you don’t get to that place again? There is a list of action steps presented to you here. You can read and forget them, or you can start thinking about how to use them to repair relationships and divides in your life. Which will you choose?

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

Fortunately, there are many things we can do. Start out by just picking one of the 5 things listed here.

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

I am hopeful. As in our personal lives, there will always be hills and valleys we experience as a society. We are most certainly in a valley, but we’ll climb back up.

We have faced Civil War and survived as a country. In 1918 a pandemic was experienced alongside a world war. That must have felt like the end. But it wasn’t.

If we are willing to learn from this experience individually and collectively, we won’t just survive, but we can emerge as a stronger nation. If we learn to listen to and value each other as friends, family, colleagues, and community members, there is a path forward. But we must take the time to reflect. We have been forced to be still during COVID-19, which revealed many uncomfortable truths hiding in plain sight. Let’s not bury them under the carpet again.

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?

Be true to yourself and be kind to others.

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. 🙂

Oh my goodness, there are a few, but my daughter would kill me if I didn’t say Michelle Obama. My little girl loves Michelle just like her mommy does! When I put on one of her PBS Kids Read Aloud videos that featured Michelle with President Obama, my daughter was visibly annoyed and said, “Who’s the boy?”

I admire Michelle Obama so very much. Her hard work, leadership, kindness, and vulnerability under immense scrutiny were awe-inspiring. The honesty with which she raised issues about the challenges of being a Black women in America in her career, and then the added challenges of being a mother. Though I don’t know her, I feel like I do. Her authenticity and genuineness in the face of immense fame is astounding.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can visit my website at, or follow me on Instagram at @brandyncampbellcomms. I’d love to meet you!

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!

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