Know the difference between government and governing. They’re two different things. Everyone should know how to govern and what leadership looks like. Governing, to me, is a distribution of resources, natural resources and human capital resources. Understand all the complexities that could come up while being able to compromise and make good decisions.
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 Nikki Silvestri, a senior advisor at JumpScale, a wellness-focused responsible investment advisory firm. She is the Founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, a coaching and consulting firm bringing social and environmental entrepreneurs more impact in their work and joy in their lives. As an entrepreneur and serial non-profit Executive Director, Nikki has invited thousands of leaders and hundreds of businesses and organizations into more in-depth conversations around the intersection of ecology, economy, and social equity. Her wide-ranging career has taken her from presentations at the White House and negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency to intimate workshops with local businesses and small retail organizing. A nationally recognized thought leader and international keynote speaker, her many honors include being named one of The Root’s 100 Most Influential African Americans. Nikki serves as a Board Member for Greenpeace USA and is the Board Co-Chair of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE). She is a Faculty Member at the Food Business School (she co-designed and taught one of their inaugural courses, “Ethical Leadership in Food Business”). Nikki has a master’s degree in African American Studies from UCLA and lives in Oakland, with her husband and son.
Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you briefly tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in LA. My parents ran a foster family agency together for 25 years, starting when I was in elementary school. So, I have service in my blood! What inspired me about the environment was when I was a very small child gardening in the backyard with my grandmother. I’m also black and am deeply invested in social equity. It has been the focus of my entire career.
I remember in elementary school, there was an event where they talked about the ozone layer and how it was disappearing. There was a deep sense to me that there was something wrong. I knew the earth was in trouble but I didn’t know why and when they explained that I thought, ‘what are you talking about? The thing that keeps the sun from burning us to a crisp is going away because we use hairspray?!’ I was horrified. I think that was the first time it occurred to me that humans do really destructive things that could kill us. And we continue choosing to do these things every single day. After that, I got really rigid about recycling. We couldn’t have any aerosol cans in the house. It was my first activist thing that I did in the house when I was a kid.
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?
“Hidden Half of Nature” by David Montgomery and his wife. He’s a geologist, and the second half of the book is all about biology. It was profound for me. When I was a nonprofit executive director running a national organization, I had to be in DC a lot and people in DC do deals and make important decisions in bars! I was in a lot of bars and when you talk to a climate scientist after a few drinks, they will basically tell you there’s no hope. That was a message that I heard repeatedly. I thought, ‘why am I doing any of this?’ And I went into an existential crisis. It was learning about soil that saved me psychologically.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
There’s a James Baldwin quote that comes up for me: “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.”
Life is a conundrum. If you don’t view it as a conundrum, you’re not going to help anything and I believe that’s what leads to burnout. A big part of what our team at JumpScale does is help to identify and create treatment plans to reduce burnout for social impact leaders. Burnout essentially happens because we don’t see things as a conundrum and we don’t understand them on a visceral level. Even if leaders understand it, they don’t always know how to bring it into their work and spread it throughout their organization. What I provide clients is the ability to engage this paradox in a way that creates thriving. But this is not a problem to solve. It will never be solved, and capitalism doesn’t like that answer.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as the ability to facilitate a group of people through a passageway. It’s facilitating disparate opinions and disparate life experiences toward a common goal.
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?
Many leaders forget the very basic things about their physical needs. For example, very few of us drink enough water because we over-schedule ourselves and actually don’t have time for bathroom breaks without feeling like we’re compromising something. So, the first thing is always scheduling a five to 10-minute buffer at the end of your meeting to take care of your body. You can drink water and eat a snack. This is especially important if you’re going to a high intensity meeting.
Secondly, I wake up early to have time to myself. Before I got pregnant with my first child, I had a straight two hour morning practice that I was doing but I still wake up early before he gets up so that I have time to myself. I really advocate for this with leaders, whether you have a family or not, being able to wake up before your daily responsibilities start so that you have time to journal or just sit with yourself in an undistracted way. That level of mindfulness is the thing that helps you activate your full power when you need to make hard decisions. So much of making hard decisions is about being able to access your intuition and being able to access nonverbal cues. We’re processing so much data on a moment to moment basis and saying the wrong thing in a high stakes situation could be bad when you have a lot of responsibility.
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?
We got here because we never dealt with original sin. Frankly, this country was built on genocide and slavery, and half of the people in this country can’t say those words. So the festering of that, and the festering of all that it takes along the way to suppress that, is what got us here. It’s a relational issue. We are controlling and dominating each other on the planet. And that shows up in our economic structures and our social structures. Right now, it’s just exploding but it was bound to.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion?
My experience working on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives is that attending to this relational piece is vital. There’s a lot about DEI that’s super uncomfortable. And if you can’t deal with the interpersonal component to that, you’re not going to be able to do it well, or right.
Can you articulate to our readers why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Those in power must be diverse to understand how to hold and manage a diverse team.
With that in mind, can you share your five steps you think we must take to create an inclusive representative and equitable society truly?
- Find time for mindfulness practices so that you can tolerate the discomfort of what it’s going to take to transition from here to there and so that you can take ownership.
- Educate our children: Learn and at a young age. Elementary schoolers need to be taught more information in school about the origins of this country and its complexity so that there isn’t such a growth curve when it comes to basic data about who we are.
- Gain an understanding of systems theory and complexity theory: Humans are living systems and groups of humans are living systems, and we cannot be controlled. But we can be supported, and we can be managed, and it’s important actually to learn the difference there.
- Know the difference between government and governing. They’re two different things. Everyone should know how to govern and what leadership looks like. Governing, to me, is a distribution of resources, natural resources and human capital resources. Understand all the complexities that could come up while being able to compromise and make good decisions.
- Love: We need to love ourselves. We need to return to a place of grace and generosity and soul to do this well.
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?
Brit Marling. I think her writing and storytelling is BRILLIANT, and I would love to speak to her about her process of world-creation.