Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: Real healing — of our society and environment — is only going to come with changing the habits and routines that are contributing to the challenge. It’s faster to click a link on Amazon.com than to go to your local pharmacy or hardware store. It’s easier to make assumptions about someone’s background and experience based on the color of their skin or their gender than it is to shed your bias and really get to know them. It’s more exciting to book a plane ticket to go to a conference in Paris than to join the livestream. It’s these habits and indulgences that are harming our world, and if we all individually commit to allowing a little discomfort in in the name of large scale change, we start to heal our country.
As part of our series about 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Holly.
Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to meaningfully contribute to making their communities thrive. She is the CEO of Common Impact, an organization that brings companies and social change organizations together to create meaningful change through skilled volunteerism. Recently recognized in BuzzFeed for one of the “30 Big Ideas that Can Change the World,” Danielle has led the social sector movement to channel individual talents and superpowers as a force for good. For the past 13 years, she has helped Fortune 100 companies shape their community engagement and investment programs, supported nonprofits in effectively leveraging service for strategic ends and built the industry-leading tools that enable companies and nonprofits to work together effectively. In addition, she hosts Pro Bono Perspectives, a popular podcast currently in its second season that highlights the careers of cross-sector leaders. Danielle is a contributing writer for Nonprofit Quarterly and has been featured in Stanford Social Innovation Review. She is a member of the NationSwell Council and serves on the Board of Directors for Women in Innovation and Fan4Kids. Danielle has presented at major industry conferences including 3BL Forum, bbcon, the Points of Light National Conference on Volunteering and Service and Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Nonprofit Management Institute. Twitter: @dholly8
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?
I had a classic NYC childhood. I was born and raised in NYC, as were my parents who were from Queens and Manhattan. I grew up with a lot of New York pride, and rooted for all the city’s underdog sports teams (being a Mets and Jets fan has been a tough ride…). I left the city for about 7 years, living in Boston and New Haven, but I knew that I wanted to raise my kids in the city, and allow them to be surrounded by the incredible cultures and opportunities the city offers.
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?
Right now, I’m listening to How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ve read the book before, but the author himself is the narrator on the audio book and it’s incredibly powerful. He shares so many stories and examples of how deeply racism is embedded in our society, and that it exists within all of us — even the author himself. It has reminded me to constantly check my assumptions and biases which has been challenging but critical work.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have a little book that I keep on my desk entitled “Quotations of Martin Luther King, Jr.” that I pick up and thumb through when I need inspiration. My favorite quote is, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enermies, but the silence of our friends.” MLK was an incredible social and racial justice leader, but he was also a champion of community service. The organization I run, Common Impact, is focused on activating individuals into service, and his life philosophies provide a constant north star.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’ve been privileged to be surrounded by leadership every day, and it takes all forms. The leadership that inspires me is so rarely formal leadership and the folks that are in the top seat, but those who choose to lead informally. Right now, in the midst of COVID-19, I’m seeing leadership everywhere. Crises like this strip away the pretenses and constraints that people tend to feel, and allows their leadership and values to come through. I’ve been on the phone with philanthropic leaders, who have been holding back tears as they have to stop funding the organizations that have built partnerships with for years. I’ve been on video calls with nonprofit executives who have gone from leading rapidly growing organizations to shutting their doors within the span of two weeks, and are figuring out how to stay strong for their teams and families. I’ve seen my own staff — at all levels of the organization — step up and figure out how to stay connected to each other while we’re all in separate spaces, how to name when they’re feeling overwhelmed, and how to lift each other up when they know they need support. It’s been incredibly inspiring.
In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?
My father. He’s fighting a hard battle with cancer right now, and I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how much he’s informed who I am today. When I was growing up, I watch how hard he worked to provide for our family and to give us as much opportunity as he could. He would quietly recognize what I was good at and push me to achieve goals that felt lofty or unattainable. The drive I have and my sense of responsibility to help serve others comes from watching him do it every day as a child. Now, watching the joy and care that he is able to have while he struggles with his illness has been incredibly inspiring and a powerful lesson in resilience.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
It’s so hard to choose, partly because all of the crises we’re seeing are interconnected. But, I’ll focus on the intersection of COVID-19 and racial justice, since this pandemic — not unexpectedly — is hitting BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) communities the hardest. Nearly every single crisis our country faces disproportionately impacts communities of color — housing, homelessness, food access, climate change, the digital divide, economic recessions. Right now, our country and the world is being faced with extreme crises across all of these dimensions.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I was speaking to Ami Dar, the founder of the popular nonprofit job and volunteer website Idealist, yesterday on Common Impact’s Pro Bono Perspectives podcast. We were discussing COVID-19 and some of the unintended but positive outcomes of this crisis. He said, “Now people understand that real change is possible.” He pointed to climate change advocates that, for years, have been telling us that humankind needs to change its habits and routines (like air travel and the farming industry) and we’ve been unable to make the changes we know are right — largely governed by inertia and a lack of creativity to see a new normal. That’s how these crises get to a boiling point. We see the symptoms, we talk about change, but most crisis require more fundamental change than we’re willing to entertain unless something forces us. That’s the opportunity of this moment.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
Common Impact has been supporting nonprofits that are impacted by what we’ve been calling the double pandemic of COVID-19 and racism. These organizations typically don’t have access to the same level of funding or resources that other nonprofits have, particularly for some of the core functions that make an organization run effectively — technology, operations, leadership development, strategic planning. We’re supporting those organizations with our various skilled volunteer programs — getting corporate professionals to roll up their sleeves and support capacity building projects — and with Skills for Cities, our annual citywide skilled volunteer event.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. 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.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: Real healing — of our society and environment — is only going to come with changing the habits and routines that are contributing to the challenge. It’s faster to click a link on Amazon.com than to go to your local pharmacy or hardware store. It’s easier to make assumptions about someone’s background and experience based on the color of their skin or their gender than it is to shed your bias and really get to know them. It’s more exciting to book a plane ticket to go to a conference in Paris than to join the livestream. It’s these habits and indulgences that are harming our world, and if we all individually commit to allowing a little discomfort in in the name of large scale change, we start to heal our country.
- Talk to your Racist Uncle: Speaking of being uncomfortable…We have all been guilty of being a part of a conversation where a friend, family member or coworker says something that shows their bias and we let it slide. We look away or move on because it’s easier than confronting someone we love. We know Uncle Nick is a good person, so if he says something demeaning to women once in a while, well — that’s just Uncle Nick. Or when Carol from work said she just “had a hunch” that the black candidate in our hiring process was less qualitied, we assume she’s got a good reason. We need to stop looking the other way. It’s our responsibility to call out these biases– each and every time. Sound exhausting? It is. It’s also necessary that we live our support for diversity and our goal for an equitable world in every facet of our lives.
- Create space for BIPOC voices: It’s time for white people to take a seat. While the groundswell of support from white leaders from companies, nonprofits and the community for #BlackLivesMatter is necessary and long-overdue, the fastest way to heal racial injustice is to amplify BIPOC voices, the vacate board and leadership positions to allow people of color to step into decision making roles, and to sacrifice your privilege to give it to others.
- Talk to Strangers: We need to inject the humanity back into our world. Technology has enabled us to connect with people from all corners of the globe, but we’re losing the connection to the people that live down the block. When was the last time you struck up a conversation with someone on the grocery line? When was the last time you asked the clerk at the dry cleaners how their family was? One of the many things that COVID-19 reminded us is how incredibly connected we are, and how much protecting and caring for others impacts our ecosystem.
- Mind your Tech: In our current way of living, it’s not often practical to completely disconnect from technology on an ongoing basis. Tech Sabbaths (where you take a day away from your smart phone and screens) are restorative, but fleeting. We need to figure out how to healthily engage with technology by really thinking about why we’re engaging with technology. I have a two -year old son, and he’s at an age where he’s learning about how to engage with people and technology. So, I’ve been very mindful of how I interact with technology in front of him. When I look away from him to pick up my phone, I say “I’m looking up directions”, or “I’m going to read a message that my friend sent,” or, “I’m looking up a recipe for dinner.” That habit has allowed me to observe my own behavior and has prevented me from mindlessly picking up my phone out of habit. Who wants to say to their kid, “I’m not focused on you right now because I’m scrolling through Instagram looking at what people from my high school that we no longer know are doing with their afternoon.”
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
[Hope this is answered in the above!]
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
What this crisis has demonstrated is that real change is possible and, when motivated, we can all work together to heal the world. I observed my hometown of NYC — which is full of individuals who take obnoxious levels of pride in doing their own thing their own way — band together to fight COVID-19 and move from the epicenter of the virus to stability. I heard the clanging and clapping for health care workers every night at 7pm. I saw people put on masks and get out onto the streets to protest safely. Yes, there were hard, unfair moments, and there are people who demonstrated a lack of care. But, overall, a massive city of more than 8 million people banded together to create change. That proved to me that anything was possible.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
When Former President Barak Obama made his high school commencement speech in May, he included one of the most powerful calls to action for young people that I’ve heard.
“No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path. “
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. 🙂
Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s a hero of mine, and her famous quote. “Do one thing every day that scares you” is on the wall above my desk as a constant reminder to push myself. She also seems like she’d be a fun lunch date, and that we might just roll our eyes at the same thing!
How can our readers follow you online?
Twitter: @dholly8 | @CommonImpact
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!