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“Feel empathy”, Beth Chandler of YW Boston and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Feel empathy — I think the special sauce of much of our programming is that it helps people to develop empathy with others and empathy is extraordinarily powerful. Empathy means that you feel something emotionally regarding another person’s experience. Often, that emotion compels us to act. Several white women shared with me that watching the murder of […]

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Feel empathy — I think the special sauce of much of our programming is that it helps people to develop empathy with others and empathy is extraordinarily powerful. Empathy means that you feel something emotionally regarding another person’s experience. Often, that emotion compels us to act. Several white women shared with me that watching the murder of George Floyd and hearing him call out for his mother with his last breaths touched something inside of them that compelled them to really engage in the fight for racial justice.


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 Beth Chandler. Beth Chandler is the President and CEO of YW Boston. YW Boston is a non-profit working with organizations across Boston to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. Their work focuses on creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and in particular women of color can succeed. As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston is a thought leader on issues at the intersection of race and gender.


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 grew up in a small town in Connecticut called Branford. In many ways, it was a quintessential small New England town. Overall, I have good memories of my childhood, but it wasn’t free of hurtful racist experiences. My parents didn’t have much financially but made up for it with a lot of love, encouragement, and support. We were fortunate to never miss a meal, but I remember wearing a coat in the house to avoid putting the heat on in the winter. My grandmother was one of the founders of our local church, so most Sundays were spent at church.

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?

As my family would tell you, I have a terrible memory. I can’t remember the titles of books but I do know I was always drawn to stories about people who were misunderstood and/or marginalized. I think those stories resonated with me because I often felt that way as a queer black girl growing up in a predominantly white town pre-LGBTQ.

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 often say, “It is what it is”. To me, that statement is about not living with regret but trying to live in the moment. I found this very helpful at the start of COVID-19. Given all of the uncertainty, it was easy to spiral out of control thinking about all of the possibilities of what would or could happen. By focusing on what I could control, it made it easier to think about how we should move forward as an organization and also as a family with two children.

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

We talk a lot about shared leadership at YW Boston. What that means is that no one is responsible for making every decision within the organization. There are certain decisions for which I am responsible. And there are other decisions for which others are responsible and my role may be to provide information and/or to help with execution. For example, my Chief Program Officer decides our program content. My role is to help inform those decisions based on my experiences and knowledge. Sometimes the best way for me to lead is to allow others’ expertise to shine. I think an appropriate analogy is that of a musical conductor. That person’s role is to unify the disparate sounds of a group of musicians into a core sound that transcends what they can do individually. Often, when a conductor is successful, you often forget that person is there.

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?

Growing up, I played basketball and was fortunate enough to play in college and professionally in Europe. One of the biggest lessons that I learned as an athlete is the importance of preparation. The more you practice different situations and skills, the easier it is to manage them when they happen in a game. You rely on muscle memory and don’t have to overthink things. You also feel more confident knowing you had success doing it in practice. In high school, I used to visualize making the game winning free throw. In my senior year, I had the opportunity to win the game by making two free throws with seconds remaining on the clock. Instead of feeling nervous, I felt confident because not only had I practiced free throws, but I had also visualized what it would be like. I made the free throws and we won the game. Today, if I have a high stake meeting or talk coming up, I visualize myself making the speech or participating in the meeting. I visualize the audience. I write down the key points that I want to make, and I practice a lot. I also try to exercise regularly because that makes me feel relaxed as well.

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?

Black people in the United States have experienced horrors for over 400 years from slavery to lynchings, to systemic inequities that deny quality education, healthcare and the ability to accumulate wealth. There have been many boiling points over the years such as the Montgomery boycott and the March of Washington. A big reason why this past summer stands out is because the murder of George Floyd and others, coupled with the racial disparities of those most impacted by COVID-19, thrust the disparate treatment of Black people in the face of white people and forced many to grapple with the reality of systemic racism. It’s hard to say that you didn’t know once you see someone brutally murdered on television at the hands of a smirking police officer for over eight minutes. This was only confirmed by the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 where many Americans demonstrated, through violence and racist imagery, their attachment to these ideals of racial inequality.

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?

Our work at YW Boston focuses on helping organizations create more inclusive environments so women, people of color and especially women of color can thrive at all levels. We support organizations through our DEI services to make changes at the micro, meso and macro levels in order to achieve sustainable progress on DEI initiatives. We also provide support to middle and senior level managers through our LeadBoston program so that they have the tools to support DEI efforts within their organizations. And, we work on policy initiatives at the local and state level to remove barriers to inclusion as well. One of our DEI offerings is InclusionBoston. InclusionBoston brings together a small group of employees to talk about issues related to race, how they’ve been impacted, how other groups have been impacted, and how it shows up in the workplace. The group then puts together an action plan to address several challenges that arose. During one of our InclusionBoston sessions, a group of Black women shared how they were never assigned to high profile projects in the organizations. Leadership looked at the data and confirmed that few, in any, Black women were assigned to such projects. The organization analyzed how teams were created and realized that managers picked project teams. Managers often selected people that they knew or with whom they had things in common such as school or sports team affiliation, hobbies, etc. This led to Black women being left out. The organization changed the way that project teams were selected. Instead of managers creating their own teams, the department head created the teams and one of the requirements was for everyone on staff to work with different people and on different types of projects. Once people had an opportunity to work with their Black women colleagues and realize the strengths they brought to the teams, it didn’t take long for people to request that they be a part of their team. I share this example, in part, because it highlights the importance of organizations being intentional about the policies and practices they develop and the benefit of using data to track outcomes. Otherwise, we may create unintended consequences.

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?

It’s more than just having a diverse executive team. It’s about having a diverse and inclusive organization and customer base.I think one of our workshop participants recently worded it very well. He runs a large business line and said to his peers, “if we don’t diversify our team and our customers, we won’t have a business in ten years.”It’s important to emphasize inclusion because diversity is just about counting numbers. If those employees don’t feel a part of the organization, they won’t feel valued or engaged and they will eventually leave. The value of a diverse and inclusive executive team is that it leads to better decisions. McKinsey and Co. have published several reports that show how organizations that have women and people of color in leadership positions outperform their peers who do not.

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.

I wish I had a pithy acronym, but I do not. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, I think these steps are critical to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society.

Acknowledge the problem — First it’s important to acknowledge that our country is not inclusive, representative, and equitable. If you don’t recognize that there is a problem, you can’t determine how to solve it.

Educate yourself — It’s important to learn about our country’s history and how the beliefs, practices, and policies woven into all parts of our society have led to inequities for many groups in this country including BIPOC, women, LGBTQ and others. I worked with an executive who shared with me that he grew up in a racially segregated town. The part of town where people of color lived was under resourced, but he never thought much about it. When he learned about red-lining as an adult, he did some research on his hometown and realized that government policies led to the town’s racial segregation. It wasn’t necessarily individual choice. That realization led him to become a mentor to young people from underserved communities.

Feel empathy — I think the special sauce of much of our programming is that it helps people to develop empathy with others and empathy is extraordinarily powerful. Empathy means that you feel something emotionally regarding another person’s experience. Often, that emotion compels us to act. Several white women shared with me that watching the murder of George Floyd and hearing him call out for his mother with his last breaths touched something inside of them that compelled them to really engage in the fight for racial justice.

Act — People can have all the knowledge in the world about inequities and why they persist, but nothing will change unless people act intentionally to make a difference. We worked with an organization that struggled with getting diverse candidates in their hiring pools. They made several changes including revising position descriptions to focus on experience, eliminating college and advanced degree requirements when possible, and expanding the schools and organizations where they posted open positions. These actions led to more diverse candidate pools.

Give grace to yourself and others — We all make mistakes. It’s important to forgive ourselves and others when this happens because no one is perfect. Several years ago, I made an ethnic slur in a very poor attempt to be funny. Immediately afterwards, I felt ashamed of myself and for putting my colleagues in that position. I apologized for the statement and for putting them in that situation and vowed to do better. While I felt terrible for my mistake, I didn’t allow the shame to prevent me from doing the right thing or from moving forward. And my colleagues received my apology with grace.

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

As a Black woman, life constantly feels like a rough period. However, I am optimistic that we can achieve a more equitable and inclusive society in the United States, from classrooms to boardrooms to state and federal halls of congress. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I think if we continue to bend the arc, we will eventually get there.

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. 🙂

Given the moment, I’d have to say Stacey Abrams. I admire what she’s accomplished in Georgia through Fair Fight Action.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can sign up for YW Boston’s monthly newsletter at ywboston.org/newsletter. In addition to original DEI content, the newsletter includes my monthly musings as part of Beth’s Corner, where I provide my perspectives on some of today’s most pressing DEI challenges. Finally, you can follow @YWBoston on social media to learn about upcoming YW Boston events and catch future speaking engagements.

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

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