“Start with yourself” With Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated & Bridgid Coulter

Step number one, start with yourself. Recognize your own biases, acknowledge them, and learn about them. Pledge to yourself that you are going to learn and grow. For instance, me as a black woman, I have to learn as a multicultural black woman where my blind spots are. As part of our series about ‘5 […]

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Step number one, start with yourself. Recognize your own biases, acknowledge them, and learn about them. Pledge to yourself that you are going to learn and grow. For instance, me as a black woman, I have to learn as a multicultural black woman where my blind spots are.

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 Bridgid Coulter.

Bridgid Coulter is an actress, interior designer, and founder of Blackbird House, a coworking collective for women of color & allies. Blackbird House provides an inspired gathering place with access to workspace choices and communal office amenities and a focus on exclusive programming that is diversity-centric and equally tailored for suits, creatives, activists, and nourishers.

Since the pandemic hit, Blackbird has pivoted to a virtual membership and offered an inspirational Instagram series of interviews and content to help everyone nurture their mind, body, and spirit while sheltering at home.

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 Berkeley, California in a multicultural family of hard-working people in the creative and medical fields. My grandfather was a blues singer. He and my grandma lived across the street from us. Thanks to my grandfather, music was always echoing throughout the house and the environment was very vibrant. There was also a lot of good food because they split their time between Louisiana and California. My parents both worked, my dad worked in the health department and my mom was a nurse, so they were both in the medical field. This meant we had this kind of duality of medicine, service, and creativity. It was just a really unique place to grow up. In a way an inclusive, open experiment of society. Diversity and open-mindedness was just ingrained in the culture and my education. The Berkeley schools were always doing experimental teachings. One year, “we could teach kids to read by doing this,” and then another year, “okay, I think we can teach them art this way.” I was part of that exploration and it really fueled my growth and resilience.

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?

Sure, there’s so many! I do know that I was quite struck by Sula by the incredible Toni Morrison. I think it was partially just having my mind blown by a book that was written from her perspective. She’s a novelist who writes with exquisite detail and utilizes beautiful, pictorial imagery, and the subjects are about black women. That book was really about relationships and it was kind of about friendship and good versus evil. It was so good. At that age when I read it, I was really young and impressionable and examining right and wrong. It was incredible, deep, and haunting.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One that I was actually given by an acting teacher many years ago was simply “be bold and trust your instincts.” To this day, I always think about it when I have to make a difficult decision and there’s no one else who can make it, but me. I have to just go inside, kind of drop into my subconscious, and trust myself. I think about what my inner voice is really asking of me. That intuition, instinct that never really steers you in the wrong direction. When you can connect with those inner thoughts. It simply rings true. It feels like the right path. Then the boldness comes in because you have to just like walk into that unknown space even when it’s scary.

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

I think that it is an evolving construct. For me, I’ve always been impressed by leaders who lead with compassion, who could look at the perspective of everyone on the team, and values each person’s input no matter what level of hierarchy they fall into. I also believe a good leader guides, builds, and brings everyone together to achieve that common goal.

Just being an honest and compassionate leader, to me, is impressive. For example, I don’t know the company culture in Patagonia or Southwest Airlines, but you meet people who work with those teams — and they’re huge teams yet they’re still like, “I love my company.” When you read about what Southwest Airlines did for their employees during the pandemic, how they made sure everybody was taken care of, that to me is admirable. I think knowing that you are only in that leadership position as a guide is so important.

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?

When I know I have an important meeting, I need to focus, or I’m going to do a talk, breathwork is my go-to or dream work. Dream work is work that I do with Kim Gillingham, who is an amazing coach and works with a lot of creatives, artists, leaders, and writers to drop into their subconscious and really come into these spaces with your best self, as opposed to coming in already like wound up and then no real solutions can happen. If I take deep breaths where I do some drop-in work, where I just sort of check-in with myself on a deeper level, take that nap or a walk or whatever it is then I can walk in and aim to be that compassionate leader that I recognize in other people and am impressed by.

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?

Well, I think because we were faced with a pandemic, we had to stop and really assess the whole as a globe. I think because of the pause and the quick revelation of what, as a black person, I’ve always known was happening, the criminal injustices with police, microaggressions, the biases, the opportunity disparity. Another large component of it is that we are recording it. The revolution is actually being televised. We saw over and over again, these murders, these horrible incidents where a person without trial is being executed by the people who are supposed to protect and serve. Our attention was focused. There were a number of sentiments ranging from “I’m fed up, I’m tired, I’m hurt,” from people of color and then there was “Oh my God, I had no idea that was just happening,” from people who were not awake to the realities.

Liberal or conservative, you cannot deny that the atrocities that are happening are untenable. I’m not the first person obviously to say this, but I agree with the consensus that those two things together (us being on pause and the use of digital media) combined with the fact that we cannot overlook how connected we are as a people, as a world, and how much we need each other. On top of that, we have a lack of leadership in the White House that is trying to divide us by category and group and economics and immigration status. It’s just such a horrible, inhumane way to lead. There’s just no way it couldn’t boil. You put all the ingredients in the pot, turn on the fire of divisive words and the soup came to a boil. So that’s not brief … but I’m not sure it can be because it’s a profound time…

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?

It’s so interwoven in what we’re building with Blackbird. There is no division. We stand in diversity and inclusion. Pre-COVID and pre-uprisings, saying to people, “Oh, I’m creating this space for women of color and I’m welcoming allies to come and support us, but this is who we’re centering it on,” was a very different conversation than it is now. So two years ago, when I told the first person, a black female lawyer, friend of mine in New York, she was like, “girl, I get it!” Then I proceeded to tell a lot of people because when you have an idea, you have to tell everybody you know so you can see if you’re onto something that is resonating. In the first groups that I was telling, there were sometimes questions of “well, why do women of color need their own space?” or “why would you need to divide?” I’d say “no, we’re not dividing, we’re centering.”

Now the diversity inclusion people that I’m talking to in the virtual world are inundated with like ”Oh my God, we didn’t realize we needed you.” So my diversity & inclusion is working with how do we keep the story centered? And then how do we allow allies to be of support to us, to come into the house respectfully and bring something to the table to help bridge the opportunities?

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?

Yeah, it’s, it’s so obvious to me that I want to scream, but I appreciate the question. I’ll start with this because companies care about their bottom line, right? Many studies and research are now showing that a diverse executive team and a diverse company culture is more profitable than companies that aren’t. Secondly, it’s important to you because we’re a diverse world. We’re a diverse country. If you don’t understand this and you don’t have someone in leadership who does, you end up with those embarrassing ads and stories of companies that put things out that don’t have that diverse perspective. Do you want to provide your products and services to everyone, or do you just want to be near a particular group? Lastly, it’s just the thing to do. It’s reparations. It’s your way as a company to start to repair the inequities and recognize the talent that is driving a lot of your revenue or profit.

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.

Step number one, start with yourself. Recognize your own biases, acknowledge them, and learn about them. Pledge to yourself that you are going to learn and grow. For instance, me as a black woman, I have to learn as a multicultural black woman where my blind spots are.

Step two is to define your purpose and identify your lane. What part of society can you serve? What are your talents? Go for those! Work tirelessly on those.

Three: include diverse voices in your mission. So whatever it is, you’ve worked on that you’ve identified for yourself, what you’re passionate about. Where you think you can be a part of change, bring unique voices and diverse perspectives in to help further that. Whether you are starting a community, leading a Fortune 500 or operating a small business.

Four, is being civic-minded and politically active. Beyond voting, which should be not even an questions — it’s just what you do. You should engage with and understand that your representatives work for you and are supposed to be representing you. So make sure you approach them, which now is virtual, but they still have office hours. Ask the questions you have. Don’t wait for somebody else to ask them because somebody else may not ask your question and your question may help a hundred thousand people. So reach out to your representatives, make them work, and lobby as an individual. Lobbyists have all the money and the voices out there, lobby as an individual. If enough individuals are lobbying for the same thing, you create your own lobby group where they can’t deny that 10,000 of their constituents are asking about the same issue. Because the leaders of black lives matter were bold and stayed their course, they now have this voice, this incredible message, and the experience.

Then five, promote it in your family & friend groups and on your social media and be bold and trust your instincts. Tell that personal story that may be embarrassing or it may be beautiful and uplifting. Share your perspective. Everyone can access social media now. Say you have a hundred followers, if your hundred followers hear from you, a perspective that they didn’t think of, it may help them look at a candidate or look at an issue in a way they didn’t see. It may not happen overnight but you plant that seed and have someone think “maybe there’s a different way to think about that issue because I really respect this person and they shared a really personal story.” Then together with all of those, we are all planting our seeds and we grow a beautiful forest of inclusivity and representation in a global society.

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

I am cautiously optimistic that this rough period can be navigated. I think it is a long road, we have four hundred years of shameful history in this country even with the important, but incremental changes every era. We have had amazing progress over the years where we moved the needle forward with each movement. Now the door is ajar, we have to kick it open and put the doorstop on and let the movement of opportunity flow. There’s no time anymore to just let a few people through and think, “look we’re good, we’re doing it.” We can see now that equity doesn’t happen unless we fix the system which at the core is just so biased.

Every story you’re hearing starting from 1619 with farmers who couldn’t buy land because they were cut out of the pipeline for being better at farming than white farmers, to today with the criminal justice system predominantly targeting people of color. Stopping things like this from a governmental level down is going to take it some time, but it can be faster. It goes back to voting and electing representatives who are going to listen.

My optimism only lasts if we change leadership in the White House right now, you know, because it’s devastating to any progress to have a bully who’s a misogynistic, a xenophobe, and a malignant narcissist in charge. Anyone who supports that, they’re just a coward too. It is racist tolerant to not stand up for what is right and humane; instead safeguarding one’s own bottom line, even while people are hurting so bad. Until the socioeconomic solutions are really ingrained and opportunities are changed, it won’t change but I think we’re going in that direction. I think there’s so many really great smart educators, activists, politicians, economists, and civic leaders who are pushing open the door. If we keep our foot on the gas and don’t let up we can make it there. It’s important to live in the current discomfort because it is getting us to the other side, which will be incredibly beautiful.

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. 🙂

Michelle Obama! First of all, who does not love her? She is amazing. She’s inspiring. I would just want to be around someone with such integrity who was able to hold her head high through a lot of difficult times and just maintain dignity. She managed to raise a family in the public eye in a way that was inspiring to us and encouraging. Not only that but she also just showed us a way to be part of a couple as a team, but also have your own perspective and strength. She never shied away from that, showing motherhood in the most powerful way while also just being her own exquisite self and told her story with truth, honesty, vulnerability, and humanity.

How can our readers follow you online?

IG: https://www.instagram.com/the.blackbird.house/

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/the.blackbird.house

TWITTER: https://twitter.com/blackbird_house

WEBSITE: https://www.blackbird.house/

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

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