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“Don’t judge the differences.” With Michael Sidney Fosberg

Don’t judge the differences. Flip the script; instead of allowing the differences to create a wall between us, start by finding a mutual interest, then embrace the differences after all, if we were all the same, we’d be bored. It’s the differences that make us stand out as people, and it’s the differences that make […]

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Don’t judge the differences. Flip the script; instead of allowing the differences to create a wall between us, start by finding a mutual interest, then embrace the differences after all, if we were all the same, we’d be bored. It’s the differences that make us stand out as people, and it’s the differences that make us unique in the marketplace.

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 Michael Sidney Fosberg.

Chicago native Michael Fosberg has spoken at nearly a thousand high schools, colleges, government agencies, corporations, law firms and not-for-profits since 2005, utilizing his award winning autobiographical story, told in the form of a one-man play as an entry point for meaningful dialogues on race and identity. He has collaborated with a number of professional diversity practitioners on programs to foster deeper dialogue in corporate settings and at educational institutions. His work with groups such as; The Boeing Company, United Way Worldwide, Holland & Hart LLP, PNC Financial Services, Proctor & Gamble, The U.S. Dept. of the Treasury, and The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency is reshaping the way organizations talk about race, identity and diversity.

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? 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?

If there is one thing you should know about me, it’s that I have a very difficult time “playing favorites”. Asking for my favorite or most influencial book is like asking a parent who their favorite child is. There are far too many great, influencial books for me to name one. Reading was always emphasized when I was growing up and I tend to read a lot in a wide variety of styles and genres. In my latest book; Nobody Wants to Talk About It: Race, Identity and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations, I begin and end each chapter with quotes from inspiring books about race and identity issues. There are quotes from books by James Baldwin, Mat Johnson, Dr. Cornel West, Nelson Mandela, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I will share one interesting story about books however; When I was growing up and thinking about being a writer, my mother said to me, “Well you know, a writer must be able to write about themselves…and I’m not sure you can do that.” My first book, Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race & Self-Discovery was my memoir about growing up not knowing who my biological father was because my mother had kept it a secret! And the BIG secret was that my biodad is Black and I had grown up thinking I was White. So writing a memoir in which my mother plays a big role sort of came back to haunt her!

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 will name a few, since one won’t do; Be the change you wish to see in the world. This quote directly relates to the work I do. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. This quote is so important in regards to showing respect, empathy, and compassion…also a lot about the work I do. And finally; You get out of it what you put into it. My step-dad said this to me when I told him I was entering a 12-step program for drinking in my early 30’s, but it applies to everything in life!

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

I don’t really consider myself a leader…although I guess that is really what I am, a thought-leader. I just do what I do cause I LOVE it, it’s important and changes people’s lives and perspectives. I would say that I definitely embrace this role and am honored to lead these conversations. In short, I lead by example utilizing the life lesson quotes from above.

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 have practiced meditation twice daily for going on ten years now. Helps create balance, relieve stress and contribute to a general overall healthier mind/life. I LOVE what I do so I rarely feel stress about it. I might get a little nervous about presenting at a particular place of distinction, but I jump into the fear and again LOVE what I do. Who else can say they get to travel around the country, perform a one-man play about their own life, make people laugh and cry, then engage them in a meaningful dialogue about race and identity?! I’m pinching myself!!

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?

In short, we have never had a racial reckoning since our founding on the backs of slavery. Reconstruction was a failure as all the benefits were quickly reversed and turned into Black Codes, Jim Crow laws and carried forward to our mythologizing of what the Confederacy was and stood for. The Confederacy stood for slavery (it was in their constitution) and was against the union of the states. Why have we chosen to glorify that? This founding has been underneath everything in our country whether we acknowledge of it or not. That has persisted and will continue until we have that reckoning. This may be a boiling point, but as to whether it will be the tipping point, we’ve yet to see. There are still too many folks spouting racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic trash to know if we will move forward with significant change. And still too many — excuse my political reference — Republicans in denial about what is really the underlining cause. (See my book about the politics of race.) Race, identity, diversity, equity and inclusion are all human issues, that have been exploited by both sides of the political spectrum, but most especially by Republicans (again, see my book).

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 involved in DE&I work with corporations, government agencies and schools for 15+ years now. The main focus of my work is helping folks have better conversations around issues of race and identity by offering them tools that can help navigate these uncomfortable conversations. Utilizing my personal story in the form of a one-man play, I open the door on what is known in academic circles as Intergroup Contact Theory — which is that by sharing our personal stories between majority and minority populations we can breakdown the prejudices that exist between us by discovering we have more in common than different. It is one thing to create a diverse environment in your workplace or educational institution, but once you begin to do so, how will folks from vastly different cultures — whether they be nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, age or disability — communicate and find space to collaborate? I try to help people uncover the places where we share commonalities. The new book; Nobody Wants to Talk About it: Race, Identity and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations is a compilation of stories about my travels across the country to try and get folks to talk about race and identity despite how awkward and uncomfortable it makes people.

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?

Creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces realizes multiple benefits; whether it is to increase the bottom-line in adding profit, to better serve your clients’ needs, to open yourself to new perspectives, to create space for challenging conversations, to build a deeper level of trust, create opportunity for new dynamic leadership, or simply because it is the right thing to do, creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workspace provides benefits for all. Most importantly of all…if the example does not come from the top, then it is not authentic. People respond more positively to leaders who model behavior. If executives want to benefit from what I describe above, then they need to model the behavior in an authentic manner to achieve greater results. In an effort to reach more people within businesses and organizations — aside from the executive teams that are usually offered the opportunity to attend one of my presentations — I just finished putting the final touches on an e-learning training program that again uses my play as the entrée into discussions about race, identity, stereotypes, unconscious bias, passing, covering and more. I broke it down into six twenty-minute lessons which employees and staff can watch over a week, a month or more. We included metrics to measure impact, and analytics to track use and completion rates. This program — unlike any other training program — is engaging, informative AND entertaining. It can add to the tools for those executive leaders and help foster more inclusivity.

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.

Sorry, I’ve got seven!

  1. Tell your story. Open up and listen. By sharing our personal stories we discover commonalities.
  2. Don’t judge the differences. Flip the script; instead of allowing the differences to create a wall between us, start by finding a mutual interest, then embrace the differences (after all, if we were all the same, we’d be bored!). It’s the differences that make us stand out as people, and it’s the differences that make us unique in the marketplace.
  3. Recognize there isn’t any one way to have a conversation about identity and race. We all have different experiences and therefore bring different points of view to the table — this is actually the strength of our collective spirit, our diversity.
  4. We can disagree, so long as we’re not disagreeable. Take responsibility for the language we use — Freedom of Speech carries responsibilities.
  5. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  6. Understand there are realities outside your own experience. Just because we may not have experienced racism, sexism, homophobia, age discrimination, disability indifference or other forms of discriminatory treatment, doesn’t mean those are not realities for other people. Listen with empathy.
  7. Practice forgiveness. It has been described as the hardest work you will ever do, but the most rewarding.

I grew up in a working-class white family in the suburbs of Chicago raised by my biological mother and a stepfather who adopted me when I was four. My mother never told me anything about my biological father and I never asked questions … until I was thirty-two years old and my parents announced they were getting a divorce! It wasn’t until then that I pressed my mom for details about my biodad. She told me his name and mentioned she thought he last lived in the Detroit area. This was the early ’90s before the age of the internet and I found myself at the Santa Monica public library reference section digging through the Detroit phone book under his name. I discovered five listings, raced home, nervously dialing up the top number on the list. It turned out to be my dad!

At one point during the call he said there were a couple of things he was sure my mother never told me. One was that he had always loved me and thought about me. And the second was that he is African-American … a detail unmentioned by my mother! Each one of the tools above is applicable to my life-changing story, and can be used to help foster meaningful conversations about race and identity.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain? Well, are we talking about the racial protests, or the pandemic?!

Within the issues of race and racism, there are a vast number of problems that need to be addressed. But on top of all this we are failing miserably in our country to contain a global health crisis. People are scared, out-of-work and divided by our current administration which has exacerbated the situtaion rather than carefully formed a plan and rallied us behind it. Racially we are seeing a lot of protest and sympathy/empathy, but my concern is how much will actually transform into ACTION. Talk is cheap…we’ve done that many times before. Most recently after the riots in the ’60s and the Kerner Commission Report which laid out carefully the problems and possibile solutions, we didn’t enact the recommendations then. Will we do so now? Racism touches so many things; education, jobs, health, home ownership, wealth accumulation, justice, policing, power, politics and even our economics. Are we willing to look DEEPLY at each of these areas and see the inequities?

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. 🙂

Okay, this is going to sound a little like Hillary Clinton’s answer to the question of what is her favorite book…she said, the Bible! But truth be told (as my Black father used to say!), former President Barack Obama. I have been told by so many people that he would really appreciate not only my story because of similarities, but also what I have done with the story by using it as a tool to help forge meaningful conversations about race and identity. I’ve tried so many times, so many ways, with so many people to get to him, but to no avail. Let him know I’m looking to talk to him!

How can our readers follow you online?

Well … I am not on Facebook or Twitter. Facebook is the devil. It’s true. They have made themselves indispensible, but also have done more to wreck civility, respect, decency and our election system, than perhaps even FOX. They allow hate speech and white supremecists to proliferate on their platform and publish false and misleading information under the guise that everyone can figure it out for themselves. Not everyone is equipped to do that, nor has the time and wherewithall to do so! Twitter is an angry mob. You can track me on Linked In, which is a business platform, or visit my website, incognitotheplay.com for info on speaking engagements (probably not until 2021!)

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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