You must have open channels of communication where people do not fear retaliation. Not just peer-to-peer, but up the chain. If you cannot hear the people who work for you then you are not ready for this journey because that means you don’t want to hear the answers to difficult questions around diversity and inclusion.
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 Dr. Nancy Dome.
Dr. Nancy Dome has been supporting children to overcome their barriers and supporting educators for over 20 years. She has a decorated career in education and social services where she has gained experience and knowledge around obtaining social justice and cultural competency. Today, Dr. Dome continues her important work as co-founder/CEO of Epoch Education who’s primary charge is to provide current, accessible, and transforming Professional Development for educators on the topics of equity, Critical Race Theory, and Culturally Relevant Teaching and Learning to support educators to develop the necessary cultural competencies needed to teach the growing diverse student body.
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 am second to the youngest out of five kids. I’m a twin. We grew up in West Hollywood when it was unincorporated. It was a really neat place to grow up because as young black girls in LA we felt very safe. Our grandmother took care of us when we were young but when my twin sister and I were 11, she had a stroke and left the five of us to fend for ourselves. After her death we had a family meeting and decided that it would be best to keep all of our siblings together. My older brothers took on the house bills, but my sister and I were left to provide ourselves with food and other necessities. We both got jobs at the age of 12.
I always felt safe in my neighborhood. It was one of the first openly gay neighborhoods in L.A. There were a lot of diverse people with different sexual orientations, ethnicities, and racial backgrounds. I even felt comfortable as a 12 year old girl walking home from work at 2 o’clock in the morning. It was also the 70’s and 80’s so you made sure to know your neighbors. It was really a community where we all looked out for each other. Even though we were poor at the time, it never felt like it. We had amazing teachers that looked out for us and made sure we were successful and safe. I felt loved and supported.
Coming from that foundation, I had always believed that Civil Rights had worked until
I went to college in Arizona. There I realized it only worked in my little microcosm of West Hollywood.
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?
The book that left the biggest impact on me is called Ishmael written by Daniel Quinn. It was a novel from 1992 that examines the hidden cultural biases driving modern civilization. It explores the themes of ethics, sustainability, and global catastrophe through the lens of a relationship between a gorilla and a man. The gorilla has the ability to communicate telepathically with the protagonist and ends up teaching him about humans’ place on earth. One of the statements that impacted me the most was at the end it asked, “What will a gorilla do without the world?” and in turn “What will the world do without the gorilla?” It was really this notion of us needing to be in touch with nature and with each other, allowing differences to be accepted. At first it was a spiritual book for me, but eventually I realized this was a book about racial issues through this specific lens, and that was really powerful to me.
There is one other book I would like to mention because I think it has a really important message. It led to the beginning of my conscious journey of being an equity leader. The book is called When Race Becomes Real which was crafted by a mixture of black and white writers confronting their personal histories. Each writer shares a short story that goes into their own personal telling of when race first became real to them. It was the moment they first realized race was real and not just a social construct. It showed the power of storytelling. It wasn’t written like a dissertation but more like a really personal story that was easy to connect with. This to me shows how when we talk about change, this is how we get to it, through people’s hearts. I can give you all the data and statistics about what’s wrong and how to change it, but it is the personal stories that actually drive people to change. So I think especially for people who are being introduced to this work, it is a great piece because you get to see how different people experienced race regardless of their own personal race.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite quote is “Life is not measured by how many breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”-Unknown
It’s been my email tagline for 20 years because it really reminds me to stay present and be in the moment. We spend so much time looking into the future, planning for retirement or after graduation or whatever it is that takes you out of living in the moment. I lost one of my brothers and sister-in law when I was 29. He was 35 and she was 48. I just think about all the things they had been planning for and had been wanting to do. I don’t want that to be my life. I want to know if I go out tomorrow that I didn’t need 20 more years to do what I wanted.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
When I think of leadership, I don’t think of a position but rather an action. It’s not about the role you are in or the title you have, it’s about what you do. I always think about this graphic I saw once of two different images. In one there is a person up on a pedestal with all the people underneath. In the other the person was at the front with all of the people behind them. That’s what I think of when I hear leadership. I think that is why I have always kind of rejected my title of doctor because I didn’t want people to know. When I first finished my EdD people were kind of pressuring me to use my title when introducing myself. Like they needed to know I was a doctor. I always said they don’t need to know because it doesn’t change what I am going to say or do. And if it does change something for you then that is something we need to look at because I knew what I knew before I got these letters. So leadership to me is what you do, not what role you’re in.
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?
Honestly, the number one thing I do before every engagement is pray. I pray to my spirit guides, my angel friends, to the lord, or you know whatever. The name changes, the sex changes, but really it’s just my form of meditation to ground myself. What I ask for is that my message is clear and it can be heard so that it can have an impact. I also ask that my message be positive and that it serves the person who is receiving it. I do this 100 percent of the time.
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?
It’s been boiling? It has been boiling and boiling. When you think about all of the iterations of oppression we have had in this country, there have been tons of boiling points. The civil war- boiling. Reconstruction- boiling. Civil Rights- boiling. When it comes to race there is this sort of ebb and flow of tension in this country. We have shifted to a much more sophisticated way of marginalizing people over the decades. Before we were just outright racist. Now we do it under the guise of voter suppression, under-access to resources, and red lining. Red lining isn’t even legal anymore, but we still ensure that people cannot move into some communities by not letting them get loans or setting interest rates through the roof. We have never effectively dealt with the racial history of this country and therefore it is inevitable that we are where we are right now. A lot of people thought civil rights must have worked after the election of Obama. It made moderate people feel like, okay, we achieved this end goal rather than looking at this issue like a journey that we will constantly be on until we have some reconciliation.
And we haven’t even talked about indigenous populations yet and how they are still oppressed. So I think until we can begin to have really honest conversations that will begin to dismantle these systems of oppression and disproportionality, we will continue to boil over. And this time is different because of technology and our access to information. It looks like it is going to be even bigger and more explosive than even the civil rights movement. Too many people are talking and it’s just not the right information. These generational ideas are continually indoctrinated and they keep us where we are. I feel like we are ready for an explosion and I really don’t know what it’s going to look like.
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?
So first of all, I really push against the word initiative. I think that’s part of why nothing has been sustainable in our country because initiatives come and they go when there’s no more interest behind them. They either just die on the vine or there’s backtracking or they’re just over. It’s looked at as just a status post. For me it’s upsetting we even treat equity as an initiative, what I think it is, is a human rights issue. Everything I have done in my career has been to spread the message that equity is a journey. It’s a lifetime of work.
Until we can heal all of the wounds of the past and make amends so that we can see things differently than we have before, we will still be doing this work.
When I think about the work Epoch has done with people, we always have to get past the convincing stage that this is not an initiative but a life journey first, then we can begin doing in-depth work that promotes change. Social justice is about getting to the root cause, not putting a band-aid on something.
I once was working with a school district and their leadership team for a year. One of the curriculum directors was working on adoption of a new social studies framework. They were trying to find the right textbook to use, so she decided to create a rubric for the textbook adoption based on the tenets of Critical Race Theory. She wanted to make sure the stories we were telling our kids were not promoting the notion of white power and white privilege at the expense of other contributors in history. When she first presented this rubric, her team was silent in response. She ended up texting me all worried. I told her to just give them some time because it was a lot to digest. Long story short they ended up loving it and using it up against the textbook they were looking to purchase. They ended up turning down the textbook company because it didn’t meet their standards. The company ended up contacting the director and asking if they could use the rubric to rewrite their books. It showed the power of our pockets. That was a multimillion dollar contract they lost, so it motivated them to make a change and get away from the status quo. To me that is power.
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?
Well we must have multiple perspectives. I, as a black woman, have a broad perspective but it’s still limited. Everything is still perceived through my lens and how I see the world which is based on my own lived experiences. So the more diverse of a team you can put together, whether it is an exec team, a teaching team, or whatever team it is, the more diversity you have the more perspectives you have at the table. And not just for race, but language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, all of those. In doing that we have a fuller picture so when we put out whatever product we are working on, it is naturally more inclusive rather than narrow.
One thing we really talk about at Epoch is Contact Theory. It’s this notion that in order to actually address and eliminate our biases we have to be in contact with those things that we fear. If you grow up and never have a black friend, or a LatinX friend, or a white friend then all of your beliefs about those people will be supported through what the media tells you or what you have read or heard about. You won’t be making a decision for yourself because you do not have those intimate experiences. So through contact with people you can begin to challenge those beliefs due to exposure. For example, it would be very easy for me to have an issue with police officers. When I was seven years old there was a SWAT raid at my house where they were literally surrounding my house and put a gun to my brother’s head. This all happened because someone lied and said my brother was tied up with some illegal activity. And when I look at the history of policing- not the police but policing- in this country, I have a lot of reasons to be afraid. However a lot of my family is in law enforcement. So that’s Contact Theory. All I can think about is how my nephews are police officers and my niece and nephew are in the military. So I know there are good people in law enforcement because that’s a contact area. If I did not have those people in my life then I would be afraid based on what I see happening in the news. This isn’t just about race but can really be applied anywhere. We need to be aware of how the media can affect our experience with something and strive to form our own opinions based on our contact.
Another thing is that when people are trying to diversify a team, they have to actually be open to the challenges of normative opinions that come with that. For example I was a part of a board once and they were trying to diversify. We finally got a Latin man to join, but he was having trouble showing up to the meetings. A lot of people in the group wanted to kick him off. I asked, “Well why is he not making it to the meetings?” It turns out that he worked at a bank that did not close until 5 o’clock so he wasn’t able to leave until six. Therefore of course he was never able to make it to our meetings that started at five. Many of these people were unwilling to sacrifice their comfort of having our meeting at that time to include this man. It was easier for them to remove him from the board than it was to inconvenience themselves because they held a deficit thinking about who this man was. It makes me think that these people wanted him to show up in different skin, but not in a different opinion. But it is these differences and challenges that are good for companies otherwise they stagnate.
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.
First of all I am going to say that five steps is limiting because I don’t believe that one size fits all. It goes back to the question about the diverse executive team. I believe that any organization can dig deep and remove some of the rose tinted glasses they have on. They all have the ability to figure this out for themselves. I’m not saying that you don’t need any type of outside help, but when you want to know something and are passionate about it, you will figure it out. When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, people are constantly looking externally rather than internally which almost takes them off the hook, so if it doesn’t work they blame whoever it is that helped them rather than blame themselves. So with that as the context my steps are:
1. There must be a true commitment, not just words but action. If you’re not ready for change and initial discomfort then you are not ready to start.
2. Be ready for continual maintenance. This is a journey not a destination. If your tactic works for two years but then something changes and it doesn’t work anymore, you can’t just stagnate. You must re-evaluate and figure out what needs to be changed.
3. You must have open channels of communication where people do not fear retaliation. Not just peer-to-peer, but up the chain. If you cannot hear the people who work for you then you are not ready for this journey because that means you don’t want to hear the answers to difficult questions around diversity and inclusion.
4. Recognize our dependence on roles and titles and dismantle these. Again once I got my degree, opportunities and access opened up to me. But why couldn’t I have been heard like that before I gained that title? I was the same person with the same thoughts. I’m not an expert, I have just had a lot of practice. Which anyone can do if they wanted to. With Epoch I presented to them an organizational chart that was not organized like a pyramid, but rather a soccer field. Each position is just as integral as the next and everyone has access to each other. It is not about giving up power.
It’s about building a community with the message that we all need each other to succeed.
5. Make conflict compassionate. Without conflict, nothing great is going to happen. We have to normalize conflict and change so we can actually change. We can normalize this by creating an environment where questioning is not only allowed but valued. As the CEO I am your partner in this work. I have my own roles and responsibilities of course, but overall I am here in a partnership with you.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic by what I see. I am not talking about the extremist people, but am more focused on the moderate people who have felt this was not their work in the past. It is their work if we want to get anywhere. Like some people will say, well she’s black, so she has this agenda. This isn’t a black agenda or a brown agenda. It is a human race agenda. We are killing ourselves, so I am hopeful that we can turn this into an opportunity to grow and heal. Looking at the monuments that are coming down and talking about reparations for indigenous folks and giving back a lot of California that had been taken from their tribes. There needs to be this understanding that there is no lack and there is enough for all of us to thrive. So I am hopeful. I am hopeful that we are starting to see, especially with our youth, a real merging and blending of this color line that has existed for so long. And people are really beginning to understand how this is everyone’s issue.
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. 🙂
I know Barack and Michelle Obama would be, which sounds pretty cliche. I have so many questions for them and just so much respect for what they have done in their lives. Then I also have this other side of me that wants to sit down and with someone who has the direct opposite of my beliefs but shares them in a respectful way, and that is Mitt Romney. I definitely was not in support of his campaign, but yet I support his ability to come out and say what he believes in with integrity. Because like I said before, we all have different life experiences that form our opinions about different issues. I felt like he cared about people, and so I would really love to have a conversation with him to seek understanding and to seek to be understood.
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!