Jonathan Mahan: “I wish someone had told me the truth about the history of racism and white supremacy both in the US and globally. Scale, science, systems”

I wish someone had told me that the struggle for racial equality wasn’t the Black community’s fight, but rather our entire society’s problem to solve and that it would take all of us to undo the wrongs that we inherited from generations before us. As part of my series about young people who are making an […]

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I wish someone had told me that the struggle for racial equality wasn’t the Black community’s fight, but rather our entire society’s problem to solve and that it would take all of us to undo the wrongs that we inherited from generations before us.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Mahan.

Jonathan is a sales professional based in Colorado who spends his time outside of work doing what he can to make the world a more anti-racist place. While he considers himself to be “late to the game”, now that he’s seen and learned everything he has he refuses to sit back and let the systems of white supremacy continue to dominate our world. Since June of 2020 he has been a consistent content creator and event organizer around topics related to anti-racism, and at the end of 2020 he founded a volunteer group, called Privilege Against Racism as a way to get more white people actively involved in the struggle against white supremacy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in a small city in upper New York State with 3 siblings who introduced me to “nerd culture” from a young age (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc). I’ve always been drawn to the thrill of understanding what was once mysterious and thus always enjoyed school and have continued my journey of lifelong learning even as an adult. My free time then was spent much as it is now, exploring the natural world around me. Although now I get to do that in the mountains of Colorado instead of upstate New York, which is a considerable upgrade.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much? I was an active member of the Boy Scouts for most of my teen years, even achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. I believe that is where I got my first taste of leadership and where I learned to just take action even when I felt like I was in over my head (which has become a defining characteristic of both my personal and professional life since then).

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

When I hear “making a difference” I just think about the world being better off for my having been here. In particular, the type of difference I feel called to make in my life is fulfilling the role of a catalyst in people’s lives. In chemistry a catalyst is used when all the necessary “ingredients” for a reaction are present, but nothing is happening. For one reason or another the potential change that could happen is being blocked. A catalyst is then introduced which reduces those barriers so that the potential reaction can finally take place. All around me I see people with untapped potential, and I know that the world won’t change for the better if we don’t get more people moving, more lives fulfilled, and more hearts rekindled.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

The social systems and unconscious narratives of white supremacy have been dominating most of our planet for 500 years and have caused nothing but pain and suffering for the majority of its inhabitants (including a good number of white people). Our group is called Privilege Against Racism and is dedicated to activating white people in the fight against white supremacy.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

The events of the summer of 2020 opened my eyes to the fact that there’s more to this “systemic racism” thing than I had previously been aware of, so I started reading, learning, and opening my eyes in a way I never had before. Once I learned the history of white supremacy and anti-Black racism as well as the current ways those systems still operate, I couldn’t look away and I couldn’t do nothing.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Haha, there really was no such moment for me. I had a conversation with a white woman I met on Linkedin and we shared the same mismatch in our lives where we felt a ton of passion but felt like we had very few ways to convert that passion into action. I thought to myself “I wonder if there’s anyone else in my network who feels this way” so I made a simple Linkedin post asking if there were any white people who felt the same way. I only expected a handful of people to raise their hands and thought we might setup a group text message or something to share ideas and support each other. A few days later over 50 people had reached out to me and I realized I had something different on my hands altogether.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I don’t have any clue how to do it well, I just did it and we got something in between a perfect outcome and an abysmal outcome. The way I see it though is that any outcome is better than if I had not started the group at all. One thing I will say is that due to the nature of the work and the well-established history of well-intentioned white people just making things worse, I did spend the first week after the post talking to half a dozen Black professionals and DEI consultants in my network to get their guidance before I even spoke to any of the white volunteers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

There is a Black woman many of us are volunteering with who started up a business as a DEI consultant last year and we’ve been able to help her save time on many of the operational aspects of her business, develop a strong social media plan, perfect her sales pitch for new clients, and even got her booked as a guest on 3 different podcasts so she is now in a much better position to be able to continue doing her work and having impact on organizations across the US and Canada.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

At first we had very low engagement amongst our members because it wasn’t clear what people should be doing, we’re still working on that but now have a system in place where each person has one specific item they’re responsible for at minimum. The lesson there is that if you’re working with volunteers you need to make it easy for them by making it simple, clear, and direct what they can do instead of burdening them with figuring out the best way to help.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I made the decision as soon as I started the group to diffuse responsibility for and control of the group to a handful of people who had expressed interest is helping the group run more effectively. From the beginning there’s been about ten of us leading this thing which is good because I know my strengths and sustaining a large group over a long time is not one of them, so we’ve all been a part of keeping things moving.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

That woman I mentioned earlier with the DEI consultancy business, and we’re getting ready to start working with a few others as well who are doing great work in the area of anti-racism.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Eradicate racism from our school curriculum, especially the history we’re taught/not taught.

Start representing POC and especially Black people more positively in all forms of media

Remove public policies that are still having a disproportionately negative effect on POC, for example stop funding schools with property taxes

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

I’m going to take “first started” back to my youth.

  1. I wish someone had told me the truth about the history of racism and white supremacy both in the US and globally. Scale, science, systems
  2. I wish someone had told me that the struggle for racial equality wasn’t the Black community’s fight, but rather our entire society’s problem to solve and that it would take all of us to undo the wrongs that we inherited from generations before us.
  3. I wish someone had warned me of the lingering effects that segregation and white supremacy would have on the social norms and behaviors of myself and those around me so I could have made more of an effort to form relationships with Black people during my college years when I was on a campus with a 50% Black population.
  4. I wish someone had told me that I didn’t have to wait around for purpose and meaning in life to find me, that I could and should go out and find purpose and meaning through trial and error and consistent action.
  5. Growing up I always felt like there was a certain “type of person” who did great things, and that I wasn’t one of those people. I wish someone had told me that everyone can be one of those people if they just care enough about something to be willing to fail at it, and then take their shot.

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?

As humans we are wired to be able to experience the most happiness and push through the most adversity when we feel like our life and our actions have some meaning or purpose beyond just surviving for one more day. However, our modern world is truly terrible at providing that to us, which is why most of us feel emptiness, exhaustion, and melancholy so regularly. Believe me when you start to dedicate yourself to some type of higher cause you will find you suddenly have the time, energy, and resolve for it and that your overall happiness in life is lifted as well. It may take a few tries to find “your thing” or you may move between “things” with time, the important part is to just start doing SOMETHING and see where life takes you.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Brene Brown hands down. Her work changed my life and is exactly what so many people today need to start living their own lives to the fullest. I will be forever indebted to anyone who can help me get a conversation with her!

How can our readers follow you online?

Linkedin is the best way to contact me and to keep up with what I’m doing. Please connect with me there and be sure to DM me if you are interested in joining the anti-racism group I mentioned.

They can also check out my podcast, Courageous Conversations, here:

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

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