In the fall of 2015, the Berrett-Koehler community was still deep in mourning the loss of beloved BK Author Jamie Showkeir. Love for Jamie and a desire to carry on his legacy gave birth to the Jamie Showkeir Change-The-Conversation Award. A committee of representatives from BK Foundation, BK Publishers staff, and the BK Authors community created this award to honor young leaders doing work that fundamentally transforms conversations for the sake of social justice and a world that works for all. We are truly humbled to introduce you to the inaugural winners, Aeriel and Kyle Ashlee. As recipients of this award the Ashlees will be gifted tickets to attend the BK Authors’ Retreat in Los Altos, California and will receive a gift of $1,000. On a personal note (I was on the committee) this award process has been extremely moving and inspiring – all of the nominees were brilliant, exposing the power of the extended BK community. And every choice we made about the award was an ode to Jamie’s brilliant heart and mind. And Aeriel and Kyle Ashlee are remarkable. Please enjoy their interview below.
BKF: Tell us a little bit about your work.
Ashlees: Through our work with Ashlee Consulting, we foster brave spaces for bold conversations. What this means is that through keynotes, facilitated dialogues, and training sessions we create opportunities for people to engage in courageous conversations around issues like race and gender. Our hope is that these conversations will lead to coalition building, personal healing, and social justice. Much of our work happens through storysharing, both vulnerably telling our own stories and encouraging others to do the same.
BKF: When in your life did you first self-identify as a leader?
Kyle: For me, leadership is a verb… something that I do. That also means there are times when I am not doing leadership. I think I most feel like I am doing leadership when I am empowering others to be their best. An example of the first time I understood that was when I was an RA in college. I realized quickly that my residents were much more likely to be involved in what I was doing, whether it was organizing an intramural sports team or asking them to quiet down, if they were playing a role. That stuck with me and now I strive to give leadership away to those around me.
Aeriel: My mom tells stories about me taking on leadership roles as early as preschool. Over the course of my professional life, however, I have had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the title of “leader.” As a young girl predisposed to leadership, I was often called the B-word; “bossy.” In recent years there has been a social movement spearheaded by womxn business leaders and celebrities to reject this gendered and negative characterization of leadership. Relatedly, I have also experienced a number of racial undertones around the notion of leadership. Being Asian American, I have had to learn how to navigate a cadre of racial stereotypes that are held as counter to U.S. and White notions of leadership (e.g., perpetual foreigner, submissive, docile). This lived experience has very much informed how and why I do Ashlee Consulting. I see racial justice and gender equity work as very much a necessary form of social leadership.
BKF: What has been a challenge that you have faced and overcome on your path?
Kyle: My biggest challenge has been and continues to be overcoming my own socialized notions of dominance and control. As a straight, White man, I was raised in a world that taught me that others with marginalized identities (i.e. women, people of color, queer folks, etc.) are inherently less valuable than people who look like me. Growing up, my family would take trips to Flint – a predominantly Black area in Michigan – to go shopping. Each time we got into the city, my parents would instruct me to roll up the windows because they saw “those people” as being dangerous. And that was only the beginning. Since moving away from home, I’ve realized how problematic those messages were for me personally and for the broader world. And so my challenge has been working to unlearn those oppressive ideas on a daily basis.
Aeriel: Similar to Kyle’s response, many of the most significant challenges that I have overcome have been rooted in systems of power and privilege. However, counter to Kyle’s socialized notions of dominance and control given his privileged identities, I have had to overcome socialized notions of inferiority and internalized oppression. As I wrote about in VITAL, I am a transracial adoptee meaning that while I am Asian, my family is White. Growing up in predominantly White communities, I was often told by friends and family (with the best of intentions, of course) that they did not see me as Asian. This along with other media messages informed my perception of what it meant to be Asian early on, which I viewed as less than or undesirable. Working to decolonize my mind as well as helping others unlearn the pervasive negative perceptions of what it means to be Asian American and/or a womxn of color has been the central challenge and focus of my professional and academic work.
BKF: You work with students. What do you see changing in emerging generations in terms of what leadership looks like?
Kyle: I’m an eternal optimist and I couldn’t be more excited about our future and the young people who will be leading the way. They are brilliant, brave, and bold… exactly what our world needs. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter give me great hope that we are moving towards a future where we see and value each other as whole human beings. The path ahead will not be easy or comfortable, but these young folks have to clean up the mess that we’ve left for them.
Aeriel: For better and worse, I think young people today are more entitled than past generations. As a millennial myself, I wonder if this generational entitlement is a byproduct of the age of instant gratification in which I grew up. Certainly, I think there are potentially problematic aspects of the trophy culture of my childhood and I think there may be lasting implications of which we are not even aware from the rapid growth in technology during my adolescence. However, I also think that this generational phenomenon means that young people today feel more entitled to justice and equity; and as a result fired up to defend when they feel these rights are being denied or disregarded.
BKF: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself 7 years ago?
Aeriel: Seven years ago, I was a young professional living in Washington, DC. I had just finished my master’s program and was starting my career in higher education. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to enjoy the process. I spent much of my early 20s consumed with life planning, worrying how would I get my dream job and when would I meet my forever partner. I think now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I would have put more trust in myself, the process, and God.
Kyle: Let’s see… seven years ago I had just graduated from my master’s program and was about to move my life halfway around the world to live in Switzerland, a country I had never been to, and work at a school with people that I had never met before. I was scared out of my wits and exhilarated at the same time. If I could go back and talk with myself in that moment, I would say, “Be brave. Expect to get your heart broken. Remember that you are loved.”
BKF: Who was an important mentor in your life?
Aeriel: I have been blessed to have many important mentors throughout my life. Some of my first and most formative mentors were family. I have often described my mom is my life shero. She has taught me so much about the power of vulnerability and the strength of faith. My dad has also been an important mentor to me. He has very much informed my pacifist worldview and given me a deep appreciation for the importance of family. A more recent mentor has been the late author and social activist, Grace Lee Boggs. While I never had the privilege of meeting Grace in person, I have felt incredibly inspired and encouraged by her in my work for social justice. For those who might not be familiar with Grace’s life and legacy, I highly recommend her autobiography, Living for Change.
Kyle: An important mentor in my life has been my brother. His name is Blaine and he has always been a bit of a rebel, going his own way. He encouraged me early on to be myself, regardless of what society and culture expects of me. In thinking about how I express my masculinity and my Whiteness, for example, I can see my brother’s wisdom guiding me beyond the conventional expectations toward discovering my own authentic definition. In thinking about my marriage and my relationships, it has been Blaine’s mentorship that has allowed me to cherish them without agonizing over what others might think of me.
BKF: What is a leadership question/challenge that you are currently facing?
Ashlees: A leadership concept that we have been grappling with as of late (especially since beginning our doctoral program) is related to what Paulo Freire calls Praxis, otherwise often described as the tension between theory and practice. In the nine or so years that we have been doing social justice work, we have observed two distinct approaches to the work: (1) those who reflect upon and study issues of justice and (2) those who do or act for justice. Another way to think about this leadership dichotomy within social justice movements is academics and activists. We largely identify as educators who strive for equity and healing through reflection, dialogue, and research. There are others who have similar goals of equity and healing, but a different approach – for instance, by raising banners and marching in the streets. We have sometimes struggled with being insecure about our approach; feeling ashamed for not engaging in what is regularly touted as true activism. In reading Freire, however, and in building coalitions with other social justice advocates who are more demonstration-oriented, we have begun to feel more confident in our reflective approach. Our work can help to inform those who express their leadership through activism. Likewise, their action informs our reflection.
You can learn more about the Ashlees at ashleeconsulting.com.button