Progress not Perfection — Understand this is a lifelong commitment. So many people are afraid to jump in and do anti-racism or equity work because they don’t know enough. Like all things you learn by doing and they say it takes over 10,000 hours to become an expert of anything. Accept that you will mess up but keep trying. We need you. — Solonje Burnett
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 Daniella Macri and Solonje Burnett of The Virtue Project Business Equity Council.
Daniella Macri is Co-Founder of the brand purpose and social impact consultancy, The Virtue Project. She applies more than 15 years of experience in consumer brand marketing and a love for creative problem-solving to help clients stand for more than just their product or service.
Solonje Burnett is a community leader, humanist, co-founder at Humble Bloom and member of The Virtue Project Business Equity Council. Solonje believes that we can shatter stereotypes, structural inequities and biased business practices through culture curation and by providing strategic branding and hiring, advocacy and inclusive purpose driven community experiences. She was recognized as 15 Women to Watch in the CBD Industry in Marie Claire and Culture Magazine’s Five Cannabis Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2019. She has spoken at PopSugar Playground, NECANN and Yale Business of Legal Cannabis Conference and has been featured in publications and podcasts including Black Enterprise, Refinery29, Vogue, VICE, WGSN and more.
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?
Daniella: I grew up on a farm in rural southern Ontario (Canada), into a family of mostly first-generation Italian immigrants. I was surrounded by a lot of adults, all of them first generation Italians who instilled the values of hard work and strong family traditions. I was expected to help on our grape-growing farm, “do tomatoes” every September, something I look back on fondly, But every chance I got, I pushed back on some of the other norms placed on girls and engaged in healthy debates with whomever dared to put limits on what I “should” be doing. My parents and grandparents were my first example of how to be empathetic and responsible members of our community, and I credit their unconditional love and support for providing me with both tough love and soft place to land whenever I needed it most.
Solonje: I’m a first generation Caribbean American. My family is from all over the islands. Mother hails from Grenada, father is from Dominica, and other relatives are in or from the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad. I was born in Boston and grew up in Newton Massachusetts.
I was the eldest of three in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where we were one of a few Black families. It was instilled in me by mother from a young age that I need to be ten times better than my white counterparts to be even considered equal and that I would be singled out or held responsible for mischief due to the color of my skin. At the same time, I was challenged to explore and be curious in order to figure out what I love and excelled in. I participated in everything from ice skating, girl scouts, captaining varsity soccer, basketball, and outdoor track, traveling choir, cantoring in church, private voice lessons, teaching Sunday school, coaching little ones and so much more. She taught me to delve into myself, unlock my innate gifts, be fearless in my expression, and share my talents as a part of bettering the collective.
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?
Daniella: Shonda Rhimes “The Year of Yes”. I read this book during a turning point in my life — a time when I was learning how to embrace the evolving nature of motherhood with a challenging career that I loved. Among many of the life lessons and impactful stories from that book, the one that stopped me cold was: “Who you are today . . . that’s who you are. Be brave. Be amazing. Be worthy. Be heard.”
It’s almost too easy to look back at who you were, or ahead at what you think you’ll be — it can get in the way of who are and can be today. It’s actually the “being heard” part that feels the most urgent right now — there is no time left not to pitch in and make a difference, in any way that you can do today — not just when we have more time or when things get “easier”.
Solonje: Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. She succinctly explains the tensions and intersections of Black feminism while helping a sister add tools to her box to both bravely express our unique situation as well as find safety in understanding we are not alone.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Solonje: Throughout my life several quotes have helped to root my life work. They’ve ranged from an artist’s duty or creative activism with Nina Simone “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times” to understanding unity and diversity with Audre Lorde “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” While these among others still resonate, James Baldwin’s human centered words in the following quotes resurface repeatedly:
“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
As a Black feminist and humanist born of immigrants with no other home but the US, I can neither deny the impact of living at the intersection of racism, capitalism, sexism, and militarism nor the fact that this country is my home. It is where I hold citizenship. It does not welcome me or accept my wholeness, but I pledge to work toward healing our collective trauma while preserving self.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Daniella: I define leadership, in the context of an organization, as a privilege and a responsibility to help others learn how to problem solve, get inspired and take pride in their contribution to the team. It’s also about helping to influence the culture of an organization. Leadership has to set the stage for an equitable culture that is grounded in humanity — from the everyday interactions with your team to rising to the occasion when the pressure is on.
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?
Solonje: The pandemic has shown me that it takes dedication to self-care practice to truly regulate the layers of stress and trauma we experience as the leaders of our lives and community. We as a culture should embrace this opportunity to slow down, go inward, unlearn, release, and reset in order to reconnect and grow. I have several natural avenues to aid in continual self-assessment and recalibration.
Being in the cannabis industry has its perks. I utilize both THC and CBD for immediate stress relief as well as to aid with flow. That shows up as drops in my oat milk matcha or a micro dose puff before a meeting, speaking engagement, or meditation.
Additionally, I’ve cultivated a daily practice of focusing on the most essential — the breath. As we’ve seen from the people in the streets challenging police brutality, to be Black and breathing is a radical act in itself. While in quarantine I went inward to find peace and regulate psychological effects of the uncertainty. I started meditating daily along with dancing to quiet my fearful mind. It helped but I still was missing a key element — community.
Since April I’ve co-hosted a weekly virtual collective breathwork class at Frequency with Vivian Rosenthal that fosters courageous community connection and allows for a collective release, retune, and reset. Every Saturday at noon, we find comfort through shedding baggage, belief and boundaries together with humans joining in from East to West Coast, the Caribbean islands and the EU. I look forward to feeling vulnerable and alive with strangers who have become holders of psychological safety through a screen. The benefits of breathwork have been immeasurable during the pandemic. I’ve felt much of how I operate and approach each day shift. I’m much more aware of what triggers my stress and take steps to prevent or mitigate.
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?
Solonje: The cause is the pandemic pause, our inability to look away or be distracted by the everyday, incremental progress through exposure, the sustained amplification of oppressed communities via various connective technologies and a hyperconnected social media saturated younger generation. It’s not that watching George Floyd’s murder was different then Emmett Till’s open casket. The repeated viewing of violence on Black bodies has happened for centuries and adds to the dehumanization of our people. The portrayals of Black people by whites as less than, unworthy, savage, and dangerous from movies to the news reinforces the sick cycle. From the time we were stolen from our homes, held hostage, and tortured or murdered in American death camps to now, it hasn’t done much to shift the public mindset or the global decision to negate our personhood. Whether it was Rodney King, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin — they see us dying and turn a blind eye. Little action has been taken by the public to hold our politicians and policy makers accountable for our systemic genocide. 99% of the murders of our people by the police have gone uncharged. We talk about Blue lives vs Black lives when it’s an occupation not a race of people. Our bodies are devalued and used as political ammunition to fuel the fires of division, distrust, and dehumanization. But with this moment that could be a sustained movement for equality and Black liberation, we all must open our eyes, minds and hearts for life. It’s imperative that all citizens be fully awake, aware and action oriented. We need to move from the idea of DE&I or allyship to co-conspirators to dismantle the white supremacist patriarchal system that we’ve all been subscribed to from day one. No time for complacency. We are only as strong as the most at risk in our communities. Black Lives Matter. Let’s use this pandemic to usher in a new phase in the development and evolution of humanity.
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?
Daniella: I’ve had the good fortune to work with some incredibly empathetic and emotionally intelligent people who shared values of diversity and inclusion, but it wasn’t until moving into this role with The Virtue Project that I realized how much influence and impact we need to have to create a more equitable world. Sure, I’ve counselled teams through creating more “diverse influencer campaigns” and helping understand diverse consumer profiles so that your segmentation strategy wasn’t built solely on different types of white people (take a closer look at your old brand strategy decks and tell me what you see!) But through our work with our Business Equity Council and helping organizations lead with their purpose, we’re hoping to move beyond the tactical and create change at their core.
Our Business Equity Council offers diverse perspectives and field expertise in addition to the brand purpose consultancy we offer. This has been invaluable in providing well-rounded services that are inclusive and diverse in thought and application. It has also helped our internal team with learning and re-learning our own understanding of inter sectional identities better aligning us with our purpose.
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?
Daniella: To be impactful, diversity, equity and inclusion should be a driver of strategy and decision-making, not a specialized workstream that falls on those who likely are already being marginalized in the workplace. The perspective from a variety of intersectional identities will create more informed, meaningful strategies that help amplify an organization’s connection to their stakeholders. It also helps more people envision their future possibilities, creating hope and ambition and a feeling of affinity — that “someone like me” can ascend to leadership positions free from oppressive systems and bias. And lastly, long after the reasons for simply creating a place intolerable to racism, where opportunity is truly equitable, lies this: you will get better work. To quote the incomparable Kayla Grey — “if EXCELLENCE is truly what you are striving for as a company, diversity from top down shouldn’t be that hard of a concept to grasp.”
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.
1. Self-Awareness and Accountability
Take the time to heal yourself so you can show up for your extended human family in a real way. Wounded warriors only go so far. We live fast paced lives where productivity is revered but quiet, thoughtful and purposeful self-care is undervalued. Commit to continue learning and unlearning. Learn about other cultures and traditions. Get to know how much of society’s injustice and inequity is intentional. Hold yourself accountable for your soul, mind, and behavior expansion. Don’t add additional labor to Black people by asking them to educate, validate, or approve of your work. We are already underpaid and overworked. Congrats if you’re doing it. Keep it up.
2. Amplify Black Voices + Call Out Non-Reflective Situations
Find opportunities to transfer your privilege. Listen, apply learnings, make a statement/pledge to commit to anti-racism in all facets of your life from family to colleagues, continue the conversation, and be transparent. Along the lines of continuing the conversation, make sure to be vocal in all settings. I’ve heard so many stories of “liberals” feeling bad about not standing up for a POC coworker or friend. Being one of few or the only at work, an event, or family gathering is an isolating and heavy burden. Additionally, attending a panel discussion, conference, or any other production that doesn’t reflect the intersectional society we live in is old fashioned, conservative, exclusionary and harmful. Power imbalance is at the core of our sickness. In the transference of power and resources, may we find health.
3. Provide Access and Equity to BIPOC and Under Resourced Communities
Hire internally at all levels especially leadership, invest in our businesses, provide board positions and equity in yours. Black women’s equal pay day was a month ago. On average we make $0.62 for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Parental status impacts the wage gap, with Black mothers (80% of whom are the SOLE or primary breadwinners for their households) making just 50 cents to every dollar a white father makes. A Black woman’s net worth is less than 1% of a white man’s on average. This leads to a loss of nearly 1-MILLION DOLLARS over a 40-year career and if we stay the course BlPOC women will not reach gender parity for at LEAST another 100 years. While you bootstrap by asking your uncle for a loan. We are doing this all alone. Put your money where your mouth is.
4. Actively Dismantle Oppressive Racist and Sexist Systems
This can and should happen on a variety of fronts. Reading, following activists/educators, and watching films to be able to speak to those close to you and shift colonized mindsets. Be prepared to talk to your friends, parents, siblings, and children about racism, sexism, capitalism, how you contribute to it, and how you can work toward repairing the harm you may have caused passively or overtly. Consciously consume and distribute media. Stop sharing trauma porn of publicly executed Black people to get your point across. Check your sources. Think before you buy from major companies that don’t support us — read: amazon, facebook, etc. Get informed about politics locally and nationally. Vote and hold both politicians and business leaders accountable.
5. Progress not Perfection
Understand this is a lifelong commitment. So many people are afraid to jump in and do anti-racism or equity work because they don’t know enough. Like all things you learn by doing and they say it takes over 10,000 hours to become an expert of anything. Accept that you will mess up but keep trying. We need you.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Daniella: Right now, it’s important that we listen to the experts and activists that bring a wealth of knowledge from their fields. This may not resolve the ongoing issues we are facing with the pandemic and societal injustice, but it will lead us on a better path to overcome and better protect our communities, whether it’s by properly wearing a mask or actively listening to and fighting against injustice. We will only see change when we all take tangible action steps forward.
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. 🙂
Daniella: Such a hard question — can’t it at least be a dinner party? Here is my cheeky answer: I’m in love with Jonathan Van Ness. Queer Eye is a family show in our house, enabling powerful discussions with my children who witness humanity in action with each episode. I learn so much from his* work outside of the show on the “Getting Curious” podcast and he is the definition of a bucket-filler. He recently had on Ashlee Marie Preston, founder of the You Are Essential organization and it blew my mind right open, in particular because of our work with nonprofits. And I would love to learn more, to hear more of her story directly from her, and to help inform and elevate the work we do at The Virtue Project.
Solonje: Omg. Jane Fonda! She uses her platform with purpose to protest and connect with community on the forever relevant and unaddressed issues like environment and anti-racism since the late 1960s. She is a good one. An example of how to be a co-conspirator. She listens to and collaborates with those whose voices are ignored or berated — from her connection to the Black Panther Party, friendship with Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter and work with Gen Z climate activist Jerome Foster II. She is awake, aware, and activated at 82 years old. I love how she reflects the dynamism of her generation on the show Grace & Frankie with Lily Tomlin. She is the grandma all these Karens need.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!