Approach others with respectful curiosity. Rather than assuming you know someone based on appearance and your own biases, remember that every person is a unique individual with unique experiences through which he/she sees life. One way to move forward toward healing is by asking others about who they are and what they have experienced. When you approach others with respectful curiosity, you can have a meaningful conversations even about the most sensitive topics.
As part of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Ely. A former practicing attorney, Kathryn Ely, is an Associate Licensed Counselor, National Certified Counselor, wife, mother, and the host of the popular Imperfect Thriving podcast. Through counseling, consulting and her podcast, Kathryn guides others to recognize their limiting beliefs, determine what they really want their lives to look like, and the actions that will get them there.
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?
Thank you for having me. I lost my mother at age 4, but I was fortunate enough to have a father, sister, and two sets of grandparents to love and take care of me. As a child, I was definitely a tomboy. I spent my afternoons and summer days outside playing football, climbing trees, riding bikes, and playing around the creek with all of the neighborhood kids. But I was an anxious and serious kid. I always had to finish my school work before I let myself enjoy any play time and not because anyone else required me to do this. I put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed. It was not until I went back to school at age 46 to obtain my masters in clinical mental health that I realized how anxious I was and how much this anxiousness affected my thoughts and actions. I am a different person now in so many ways. Now instead of striving to be perfect and fearing failure, I embrace stretching out of my comfort zone and growing from the imperfect actions I take daily.
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?
Yes, definitely. Well it is an article, not a book. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, had a profound effect on me. It was the first day of class of my very first class in graduate school. I was 46 years old and scared to death. Everything about school had changed since I graduated from law school 21 years earlier, especially technology. This class was called “Cultural Diversity”. When I walked into the class, our professor began with a class activity. The activity was “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. If you have not read this article,
it lists a number statements, and you must stand up anytime the statement applies to you or your life.
Here are a few of the statements listed in the exercise that any professor called out in class that afternoon:
“I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.”
“I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.”
“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”
We completed this activity in a room with thirty something students, none of whom I knew.. These students were male and female, black, brown, and white, and of different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities.
I stood up for almost every statement, which revealed just how much privilege I had. I felt embarrassed and ashamed because until that day, I had never appreciated all of the privileges I enjoyed in my life, not the least of which was being white. That experience changed me. I now see what privilege has done for me that it does not do for others and how much easier it has made my life.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Yes. “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming after all is a form of planning”- Gloria Steinem. For the first 46 years of my life I did not allow myself to dream. I instead focused on what I thought I “should” be doing. I followed very strict rules that I created for myself based on what I thought others wanted or what was the “right” thing to do. I was fortunate and blessed in so many ways but I was not letting myself enjoy the life I had. Now I see that allowing myself to dream opens up my world and allows me limitless possibilities. My mind tries to limit me every chance it gets. Dreaming allows me to think big, get past these limitations, and take bold actions toward my dreams.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, good leadership is guiding by example and without coercion. An effective leader is someone you want to follow, not because you are forced to do so, but because you want what that person has. If you focus on valuing yourself and being clear on what you value in every domain of your life then you know exactly what action to take to live those values every day. When you live your values, you are satisfied and fulfilled in your life. Whether in your job or career, at home, or in your community, if you live this way, others will notice and follow your lead.
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?
For many years, I have been inspired by Maya Angelou. She is truly someone who lived her values. Whether through her written word as an author and poet, or spoken word as a professor at Wake Forrest and as activist, she is someone who knew what she believed and was not afraid to stand up for it. She once said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”. She didn’t follow the rules. She knew who she was and how she wanted to live and she did it. This is how I attempt to go through life. Her words and her example are the reason I started my podcast Imperfect Thriving. It is my way of trying to help others let go of rigid rules, get in touch with what matters most to them, and go out and live it, like Maya.
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?
I want to talk about the lack of equality in our country. We are still no where near where we need to be. Racial inequality has been in the forefront of the news because of unfathomable acts. But this is not the only inequality in our country. There is a lack of acknowledgement of privilege and what it means for some people and what a lack of privilege means for others. This lack of privilege can be felt by anyone in a marginalized group. The recent tragedies experienced due to racial inequality have been a wake up call to me that I need to do more. I need to continue to educate myself, ask questions, listen, and find ways to take action.
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?
This is such a sensitive and raw topic. And yes, a huge one. But, based on my own experience, I think one reason we have evolved to the boiling point is that a majority of those with privilege do not recognize it.
When your life is easy, when you can walk in any store and be greeted with respect, when you present a credit card and are not asked for ID, when you live in a part of town where you see only skin that looks like your own and when you do not fear being pulled over by the police, you do not recognize the ease with which you are going through life. And most with privilege do not recognize the difficulty that others without the same privilege experience in every aspect of their lives. It leads those with privilege to think they have earned everything they have and that those who have less made the wrong choices. That is simply not the case and it creates a huge divide and disconnect.
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?
Inequality is something, as a licensed counselor, I must recognize on an individual level and systemic level. Everyone has biases that are based on our own upbringing and life experiences. No one is immune. The key to handling biases is to be aware of what your biases are so that you can minimize the affect these biases have on your thoughts and actions. I do this by approaching each client with a respectful curiosity and without assumption. I have male and female clients. I have clients who do not identify as either. I have clients of color and who are white. I must remind myself daily that each person experiences our world differently, as a part of different groups, and as an individual. Recently with the unrest and turmoil we have been experiencing as a country, I have asked each of my clients how they are experiencing the current events and what they are each feeling. My experience is that we can have real discussions about who we are and how we feel if we know the other person in the discussion is not assuming he/she knows who we are or what we have been though, but instead just asks.
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.
1. Vote. The climate of our country is directly affected by the leaders we have in place at every level. We need to elect leaders who realize there is much more work to be done with regards to equality in our country. We need to elect leaders who want to bring people together rather than pit us against each other. Use your voice by voting.
2. Turn Inward. We all have biases that we bring to the table, every single one of us. These biases make it easy to generalize instead of seeing individuals. Do the work to uncover exactly what your biases are and how you experience them. Become aware of your privilege or your lack of privilege in the different areas of your life. I highly recommend White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack By Peggy McIntosh. Awareness is the first step toward growth.
3. Turn outward. After learning what you can about yourself and your biases, it is time to learn more about others and how they experience life. How do other individuals and groups experience a lack of privilege or experience privilege differently than you. Read publications by authors who are a part of these different groups. Understand that it will be easy to generalize with your new knowledge. See step 4.
4. Approach others with respectful curiosity. Rather than assuming you know someone based on appearance and your own biases, remember that every person is a unique individual with unique experiences through which he/she sees life. One way to move forward toward healing is by asking others about who they are and what they have experienced. When you approach others with respectful curiosity, you can have a meaningful conversations even about the most sensitive topics.
5. Let go of judgment. I don’t just mean judgment of others. I mean judgment about yourself as well. It will not help anyone move forward if you get stuck beating yourself up for who you were or how you lived in the past. It will not help to judge others on their pasts either. We need to acknowledge the past and learn from what has not worked well. Take lessons from it. Then move on without judgment.
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?
The key to make these ideas a reality is education and conversation. Education is necessary so we can be clear on how much more there is to do before our country can really experience equality. We need to bring groups living such different lives in our own country together for roundtable discussions. Local leaders, spiritual leaders, and community advocates can facilitate these conversations. Peaceful protests can be effective in getting a large group’s opinions noticed. But we also need to take these opinions and discussions to the next level for real change to happen. When we come together for serious discussions, we can bridge the divide, and make it possible to determine what actions will be necessary for change.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Absolutely. Unfortunately rough periods are necessary for big change. There is no motivation for anyone in power to change the status quo when everything seems to be going well or at least in the direction they want it to go. Unrest causes those in charge to take notice and it forces their hands. I am optimistic that we as a country will be in a better place because so many are using their voices to force change in a positive direction.
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?
Change for the better doesn’t just happen. You have to create change. Change is caused by one really loud and powerful voice or by many voices coming together to be loud enough to be heard. Let your voice be heard. Be loud enough on your own or unite others together in loud peaceful ways to get your point across to those in power. Or even better, consider running for office and creating the necessary change from within the system.
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. 🙂
There are so manybut if I have to narrow it down to one person, it would definitely be Bill Gates. He is a man of wealth and white privilege but he uses this wealth and privilege for the good of the country and the world. He has so many causes he contributes his time and money toward. Through his and his wife’s foundation, they advocate to change public policy and empower the poor through quality healthcare and education. He brings people together. I think there is so much I could learn from talking with him.
How can our readers follow you online?