Ep 6: How to Be an Ally with Melinda Briana Epler

In this episode of With, Not For, Centre for Inclusive Design CEO, Manisha Amin speaks with Melinda Briana Epler. Melinda is a TED speaker, diversity and inclusion advocate, and, being CEO of Change Catalyst, she is building inclusion innovation across the globe. She has recently released a book, How to Be an Ally, actions you can take for a stronger, happier workplace. Hear Melinda talk about her book and the practical steps we can take to become a better ally.



Manisha: So, you’re waiting in line, complaining on social media, or talking to friends about something that just doesn’t work for you. How often do we think “if only the designers had thought of this, or that?” There’s often some really easy fix that we all know would make something much, much better than it is already.   

I’m Manisha Amin, welcome to With,Not For; a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Cammeraygal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we record this podcast, today. And pay my respects to their elders, past, present and of course, emerging. We are so excited to have you all here today with us.

So often, things are designed for us. But here, we explore the magic that happens when we design with people, not just for them. Today, my special guest is Melinda Briana Epler, a TED speaker, a diversity and inclusion advocate, and, being the CEO of Change Catalyst, she’s also a leader in building inclusive innovation across the globe. Melinda has also just released a book, How to Be an Ally. It actually goes through the practical actions you can take, for a stronger and happier workplace. It is something that is much needed at the moment and I’m so looking forward to talking to you today. Welcome Melinda.

Melinda: Thank you. Me too, I’m excited to talk about this.

Manisha: And so, before we actually talk about the book itself, can you talk to us about what being an ally means? And a quick background on how you ended up in the place you are, today?

Melinda: I’m going to answer the second question, first. Which is, I have been focused on social-environmental change, all my life, really, since I was very young. And started actually as a documentary filmmaker; worked in LA as a documentary filmmaker for about 10 years, working to create change through storytelling. And then moved from that, into working with companies, and non-profits, and government organisations, around creating social and environmental change initiatives. Using storytelling as behaviour change models, and organisational change models, and found my way to become an executive, working at an international engineering firm, in the healthcare space. And it was there, that I had a realisation that I was in a very non-inclusive environment, as an executive; I was the only woman in a leadership team of 19, and the culture was not created for me. The processes, the systems, everything was not created for me, and I experienced a lot of micro-aggressions, a lot of little, everyday slights, that kind of weighed me down.

Megan Smith, the former White House CTO, calls this “death by a thousand paper cuts.” The little things that every day, can kind of, wear you down. And I had a pretty low point, where I was like “what’s happening to me?” I’ve been so successful in my life and my career, and doing great things in my work, and also feeling like I was constantly confronted by walls and barriers, and depression, as a result of all of these little paper cuts. And so, I read an article about toxic workplace culture and micro-aggressions and realised that I was very much in that, and started to see it everywhere, and realised I could create some change in that organisation. So, I worked to create change in that organisation and also looked for, how can I create bigger impact? So, after doing some work to create change in that company, I hired some people to continue that change, and I left to start Change Catalyst, to really address diversity, equity and inclusion in the tech industry.

And so, to get to the second piece of your question; is working on diversity, equity and inclusion over the last several years, I have realised that it is not enough for us to have one or two people – or even a small group of people – working on diversity, equity and inclusion; that is not enough to create change in an organisation, that it really takes all of us working together, to create change. And each of us, is a part of that culture, each of us is a part of our systems that need to be changed, and so each of us needs to do the work internally and also, step up as allies, externally as well.

So allyship, is approaching people with empathy, showing that empathy and building an understanding, and then taking action on it. It’s learning, showing empathy and taking action, at the fundamental level. It’s really seeing the person that is in front in us, seeing the person that is next to us, and also seeing – acknowledging that maybe, there should be somebody else in that room as well. And first, understanding what they’re going through, and then doing something to be there for them, to support them, to create the changes that are needed, so that, that person that’s not in the room, comes into that room.

Manisha: I love the way you say that. And I love this more nuanced version of empathy, rather than sympathy, as well. How do you feel that works when – you know, when you think about your story, it’s about a time when you would have needed an ally? And yet, there are times when we can – there are always times, when we need to be an ally and when we are an ally. So, how – do you think that you can be an ally, if you’ve not experienced the other side?

Melinda: If you’ve not experienced exclusion?

Manisha: Yes.

Melinda: Yes, absolutely. And there are lots of folks that have. So, we have released a study on the state of allyship, which is a work on – we researched kind of, what people want from allies, how they learn allyship, what they’re motivated by, and then also looked at the business case and really, how has allyship improved business outcomes? One of the things that we found, is that, when people first learn about their need for allyship, it’s usually not their own experience, it’s an experience of a colleague or a friend.

Manisha: Right.

Melinda: So, yes, I absolutely think that it’s really important – it’s important for us to tell our stories, and to tell each other our own experiences, and to build that trust to do that, and that is really, where a lot of people have that big learning moment that says “ah! I need to do something different.”

Manisha: And that’s really interesting, because you’ve been working in this space for quite a long time now, and between the TED talks and the training, and I think, Change Catalyst has had such a big impact, even in Australia, in terms of the work you’ve done with communities, and to bring up new voices, and to have a multitude of voices speak; what made you think “actually, it’s time to write a book now, on top of all of this work I’m doing?”

Melinda: Well, you know, when I gave the TED talk, it is was in 2018 and it reached a million people in 24 days, it was amazing. It was shocking, I had no idea that would happen. And one of my team members said, “It’s creating impact in your sleep!” And I was –

Manisha: I love that.

Melinda: That is why I wrote the book, right? That is why I wrote the book, so that I can replicate myself in some way, and really help people along their journey, without having to be there. And also give people a tool, give groups a tool, to work together to learn and create change together, as well. And there’s so many people who are ready to be a good ally, who are ready to be a good advocate, and don’t know what to do. And so, I really created the book to give people the skills – the understanding and the skills that they need, to really take action.

Manisha: And so, one of the things we hear a lot – and I’ve heard more and more, recently – is this idea of being an aspiring ally, so I’m aspiring to be an ally, as opposed to, I am an ally. Can you talk a little bit about that? And whether you think, being an ally is something we just do, or whether it’s a journey that we aspire to? Is there an end point?

Melinda: There’s no point at which you stop being an ally, and say “I’m done, because I’ve accomplished it,”.

Manisha: Right, yes.

Melinda: Right, absolutely. We’re all on our own journey of allyship, and we’re all – there’s room for all of us to learn more, and do more, and be better, be better humans for each other. So, I would say we’re all a work in progress and that term, the aspiring ally is, you know, you can’t really say “I’m a good ally,” myself; other people have to tell you, that you’re doing what you intended to do, and it’s effective. But you can say, “I’m aspiring to be a good ally.” And that is the key. That is what helps drive us forward, and help us continue to do this work. And it’s a consistent journey, and I would say that over my lifetime, I have learned how to be a better ally for different groups at different times in my life; for black people, for Latinx people, for indigenous people, at different times in my life, then for women, then for people with disabilities, people who are Asian and LGBTQIA+, and so on. So, it’s a constant learning journey that I think all of us are on, in different points in that journey.

Manisha: And so, you’ve mentioned so many groups there – and I think, this is the beauty and the challenge of allyship – is that, the world has been constructed in a way, that means that there are so many different people, who are missing out at different times, and different ways. And, we talk a lot about this notion of educating oneself – and I know, you talk about this a lot in the book, as well – this idea of learning and unlearning, and when people say “educate yourself,” don’t just put the burden of education, on the person that you’re trying to support. What are some of the best ways to learn about groups, without burdening them with your weight of inexperience?

Melinda: Yes, well, there’s this great platform called Google that can tell you so many different things. There are so many people that have written books, that have written articles, that have recorded podcasts, and YouTube videos, and there’s so many different ways to learn without asking someone, and putting that burden on someone.

There are some things that we can’t learn that way, as well, and I want to make sure that’s clear too. That, it is still OK to ask somebody what their pronouns are, if you can’t find that on the internet, if you can’t find that on their LinkedIn profile, which is there for a lot of people now. If you don’t know how to pronounce their name, which is also on LinkedIn now, then ask. If you don’t know how to describe their disability, ask. Ask someone. So, there are some things that we can’t learn on the internet, but the vast majority of things, we can start learning, first. And that’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book, so you give people that first foundational learning, before having to ask people.

Manisha: And you know, I’ve been thinking – the things that you’ve described, are actually things that help us to communicate effectively, with a different person, whoever that person may be. But, you’re not saying things like “tell me about your experiences; tell me about when you’ve been excluded; tell me about your life story, so that I can understand there,” and I think, that’s a really important differentiator that you’ve made. That when we learn, it’s to learn context – you can do that through Google, we can watch movies, we can read books, to understand stories.

Melinda: Yes, absolutely. And language, and what language – generally speaking – what language do you use, versus what language do you not use? What is a micro-aggression? All of those things, you can learn on your own.

Manisha: So, what is a micro-aggression? While we’re on that topic.

Melinda: Sure, yes. So, micro-aggressions are little, everyday slights, belittlements, things that make people feel unheard, unwelcome, other – little insults, they can be verbal, they can be non-verbal – that’s really important. It can be – especially in our highly remote Zoom world right now – there are so many little things that we can do, with our facial expressions, that could be micro-aggressions as well, so that’s important to keep in mind too.

We often think of micro-aggressions as verbal, but there are non-verbal ones, as well. They can make somebody feel tokenised, or unheard, unsafe and like they don’t belong, essentially. And over time, the impact can be pretty significant. In the short term, it often will – you can produce an amygdala response, where it’s the fight, freeze or flight response in someone – which, as a result of that response, you’re not able to be as creative, or innovative. When you’re talking about design, you’re not able to bring your full self into that project. And in the long term, the studies show that it has long term health effects, as well. That stress response can turn into lots of different, negative health outcomes, as well.

Manisha: And I think that, there’s something quite insidious about micro-aggressions as well. When you talked about death by a thousand paper cuts, that, for the person on the receiving end of a micro-aggression, it can seem like something quite small. And often, the person who’s saying it, says “I didn’t mean it, it was just a joke, why are you taking that so seriously?” All of those sorts of comments. And, if you’re in a position of vulnerability, sometimes we’re going “you know, I can deal with this, this is OK, water off a ducks back.” But as you say, these things do build up. So, as an ally, watching this scenario play out, sometimes it can be really hard to know when to step in, or how to step in. Especially when it’s not a blatant piece of disrespect, like “we’re not hiring that person because of their colour, their clothing, their skin, their abilities,” but, these smaller – but in some ways, just as lethal – types of aggression.

Have you got some feedback for our listeners, in terms of how they can deal with these, when they see them? Or, when they think that, that’s what’s happening behind the scenes?

Melinda: Yes, there are a few things. One is, if somebody is not intending to create harm, they’re likely much more open to that feedback. So, I think that’s really important for us to know. And it may be, that you talk with them in the moment, it may be that you talk with them after the moment, and pull them aside. I would say that, generally speaking, calling people into a conversation – and you and I have talked about this, actually, in my podcast – is that idea, of calling people into a conversation, bringing people into that safe space of exploring how that might have created harm. And in that process, you might also share your own journey, you know, if it’s something that you have done before, and learned about, that’s a great way to bring somebody into that conversation. You know, “I used to say that too, and then I learned that it actually causes harm because of this, and so, this is what I say instead,” you know?

Manisha: Right.

Melinda: Yes, so calling people in – and you know, there’s a lot more in my book that I talk about, and really talk through a process, but there are also, just lots of ways that we can quickly interrupt a micro-aggression. You know, micro-aggressions can be interruptions, somebody just caught somebody interrupting – generally a woman, or a person of colour in the room – you can make the space for them to talk, right? You can, you know “we haven’t heard from Melinda in a long time, and I know she’s been trying to get a word in, let’s hear what she has to say.” So, interrupting interruptions, is an easy thing for us to do. And it happens so much in the workplace, and it reduces people’s ability to have their voice, and perspectives heard.

The other thing, I would say, is that we forget, often, about the impact, when we’re intervening, it’s really focused on educating the person – the micro-aggressor – the person that is in the act, of creating a micro-aggression. The other piece of it, is that, it does actually cause somebody harm, and so, what do you do about that? How do you treat the impact, and check in with that person? And make sure that they’re OK, see if there’s anything else that you might do. See if there’s anything you could have done better, in the moment, as well. If they’re ready for that conversation.

And as managers and leaders, I also believe it’s very important to recognise, both the short term impact of that micro-aggression – which could be, somebody was left out of a meeting they should have been in – what are you going to do as a manager, to make sure they have the information, and they still have that presence, in moving forward? Because, there can be repercussions to their career. So, as a manger and as a leader, what are you doing to mitigate the possibility that harm is created in the first place, by educating people around micro-aggressions, and working to ensure that there is a safe space, for people to call each other in? And then, how are you treating the impact as well?

Manisha: And, I love the examples you’ve given, because they’re really practical, simple examples. It’s not like – it’s quite easy, in my view – it might not always be easy – but it’s easier in a meeting, to say “actually, we haven’t heard from this person,” and that interrupt is a really easy way of doing this, if you might not have the confidence to go up to that person, and say “actually, I don’t like the way you’ve just spoken.” Or “have you thought, maybe, this might be impacting on somebody, in a different way?”

So, I think that – one of the things that I learnt from your book as well – is that there are these easy solutions, it doesn’t have to be this big step to become an ally. That, the small, simple steps that we can do every day, can make such change, as well.

Melinda: Yes, and so many people get stuck in the learning – that phase of learning, and that early step of learning, around allyship – and, just are afraid to take the next step of taking action. And, it is really, just take one action. At least one action at a time, and gradually increase those actions, as you get more – I wouldn’t say comfortable, it’s always a little bit uncomfortable – but as you get more fluent, in allyship.

Manisha: So, one of the lovely things we did this time around, was, we asked some of the people in our community, to ask us questions as well, about allyship, because we were so lucky to have you on our podcast, today. And one of the questions that came up – and it comes up a lot, I think, in our work – is, how do you start to build trust with somebody, from a marginalised group?

Melinda: Yes, trust is a big topic. We could have a whole episode on that topic, I think, too. Because you need some psychological safety within that space, in order to build trust. I would start with, I mean, how do you build trust with the people that are now your best friends? The people that are now your closest colleagues, your partners? You had to start somewhere, and usually, it’s with a conversation. Usually, it’s getting to know them, right? So, the key – and it’s a little more difficult right now, with so many people working remotely, you have to actually build in those times, to get to know people. But build in those times, get to know people in different ways, and get to know more about who they are, and what drives them.

Manisha: And who they are, might not just be their marginalisation, right?

Melinda: Right, absolutely! We’re all complex humans and with intersectional aspects of identity, and very important to allow people to present themselves, as who they are, right? Rather than imposing on them, who they are.

Manisha: What’s the first step, when you’re working with businesses and organisations, and they say “look, we’re really excited, we’re passionate, we’ve started on this journey, we’ve started to read, we’ve started to look around, what’s the next step that we could do, to really scale up our allyship?”

Melinda: When you can go through the steps in the book, it is progressively bigger steps. You start with learning, and learning, and re-learning, and doing no harm. And then, you’ll eventually get to leading the change, and transforming your organisation, and your industry, and your society. So, these are the next steps, is how do you continue to act as an ally? As an advocate, to lead the change internally, in your company? How do you work to address some imbalances in organisational systems, and processes? How to do you work to address the biases and micro-aggressions within those? And really, most organisations are not diverse enough, so how do you work to create that change, as well? So that your company is really representative, of the community that you’re in.

Manisha: And, are you seeing a change at the moment? So, we’ve had a crazy two years, but we’ve also had a lot of conversations in the last two years, about diversity and inclusion that, we perhaps weren’t having before COVID, before Black Lives Matter, before Me Too; have you seen a change in the way organisations are tackling inequity, now?

Melinda: You know, there are different organisations doing different things. And I would say in general, we’re getting better, but not very fast. Not fast enough for a lot of us, for sure.

Working in the tech industry, which is – I’ve worked a lot in the tech industry and we’re now expanding into other industries, as well – but I’ve been able to really observe the tech industry in different parts of the world. And I will say, that the industry started with really basic steps around diversity, equity and inclusion, developing ERGs, Employee Resource Groups, or affinity groups, which are very important to build a place where people feel safe to be who they are, within their identity. And you know, the next step of ERGs is to give them the power and the resources to be able to create change. But at the beginning, it was developing ERGs and implementing unconscious bias training, and perhaps hiring one person to lead diversity, equity and inclusion. Maybe two. And that’s not enough to create change, and I want to say that in some ways, by spending so much time and focus on a conscious bias training – which has been proven to not be very effective on its own, right? And can cause –

Manisha: Absolutely.

Melinda: – more bad than good, if done on its own and done wrong – that it has set us back in a lot of ways. And organisations are now starting to – some, organisations – are now starting to work on the deeper systemic changes and also, the training and the skills building that’s needed. Because you can’t just tell somebody to change, you have to actually give them the skills to do so.

Manisha: One of the things I’ve been noticing recently, is when I look at the conversation around equity in the tech world, the things you’re talking about, and we’re talking about here, are higher order change processes. But, when I see that it’s really hard to get statistics, even, on the number of women, people of colour, in these large tech organisations, and that, in fact, some of this is not even still being counted – what do you think that’s about?

Melinda: Some of it is, legally, their counting depends on what county you’re in, as to what you can count. So, some of it is legal and one could argue that, maybe we should change that system, right? I don’t know how many people are working on it. So that is a piece of it. I think there is also – you know, I’m in the United States, where it is a little bit more normalised to ask those questions, and people are generally OK with answering those questions. But in other parts of the world – and in Australia I think – it is not as normalised, and people – especially white people, I would say, resent questions around race, don’t want to answer them. And that says to me, that maybe there is a cultural issue that needs to be solved there, that maybe it’s just new and uncomfortable, to talk about race.

Manisha: Absolutely. But do you think that – so, sometimes when we talk about the diversity and inclusion spectrum, we start with the “we need to count first, we need a benchmark,” before we go to some of the other – I guess, some of the other areas – that if we don’t know where we started from, we don’t know where we need to go to. And I don’t have a view on this, I’m just really fascinated in your view, on whether that step needs to happen for the next two or three steps to occur?

Melinda: It doesn’t have to happen. So there’s not an excuse for not creating change, not taking action, for sure. I would say that any kind of work that you do around organisational systems, organisational culture change, it’s better to create a baseline and really understand where you are first, and what levers you need to pull, to really create that change in the most effective way. So, ideally, data can help you do that. And also, can help you measure what interventions are working, what interventions are not working, as well. And where you really need to focus your time – if you can also do that measurement at the team level – you can kind of see what’s happening across different teams, or different regions as well, to really go deeper into what’s needed for change. So, it definitely is helpful, to gather data if you can, without an excuse, for not creating change.

Manisha: Right. When I think about allyship and leaders, in some ways the conversation is very different, because leaders have been taught to lead, and sometimes, allyship is not about necessarily being the voice of the leader. So, how do we work with leaders to create change? And, what are the biases that we sometimes see in the leadership sector?

Melinda: I have multiple answers to that question. The first is, that sometimes we forget that leaders are humans, and that they’re all on this journey, as well, and a lot of leaders are earlier on the journey, and so, you know, meet them where they are. You can’t force somebody to do something, where they’re really not ready yet, they don’t have the skills and the understanding, yet. So, what I have noticed – and kind of going back to your question earlier, around what is different around diversity, equity and inclusion, what has changed – is, there are companies that are now really focused on building the skills and understanding, at the leadership level.

And that starts with the similar things that we all need to learn, around making sure that we’re doing no harm, and starting there is really important, for leaders, as well. And then, on top of that, layering on top of that, what a leader’s role is, and creating systemic change across the organisation and really modelling that change. So, they have that additional responsibility of showing that it’s important across the organisation, and modelling what it looks like. Which means you kind of have to start with leadership, early, early, early in this process, so they can do that effectively and build the knowledge to get there.

And I think the other part of your question, is that a lot of leaders, kind of assume that everything is – that the status quo is OK. Status quo bias, actually, is one of the biases that I write about in the book – is that, the business is doing fine, and so we don’t need to change anything. I am fine where I am, so I don’t need to change anything. And the reality is, that isn’t setting your business up for long term success, we need diversity for innovation, right? And we also, hopefully, don’t want to build companies that are actively excluding people and creating wealth gaps in our society, and so, we do need to create that change.

Manisha: Melinda, if you think back to the work you’ve done, and if you look at the system around you at the moment, and we think about something that would be better or stronger, if it was designed with you, rather than for you – what would one thing be, where there’s obviously a failure, that would really benefit, or would have benefited, from having your voice at the table?

Melinda: Well, I believe really strongly in the power of storytelling to create change, a positive change, and also, to perpetuate harm. And so, it’s not a thing, so much as a – well, it is, I guess, an idea, which is the common storytelling narratives, that we tell – whether that is common narratives around women, which are often designed – and have been, over the years – designed by men. And that has created a lot of harm for ourselves, for our society in general. The same common narratives around black, Latinx, indigenous and Asian people, are often designed by white people. And imagine a world, where indigenous people were able to shape their own narrative, from the beginning. How different a world, we would live in, right? The same around people with disabilities, the narrative is often shaped by people who don’t have disabilities. Imagine how different – both systemically and culturally, and also, internally, for our self-esteem, for our self-worth, for our health and wealth outcomes. As well as, the systemic issues around unfairness and injustice, and a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion that’s perpetrated by some of those stories.

Manisha: And that’s such an incredible, and such a powerful way of viewing this, as well. Because I think, the stories that are told outside, get repeated inside, in a different way, and it’s normally a blame way, right? Because when we believe those stories that are out there, and something wrong happens, or there’s a schism, it’s very easy to say “well, that must be about me” or “I’m not worthy.” Rather than thinking “well actually, the system shouldn’t have been like that in the first place.”

Melinda: Right. And, it’s how we end up with imposter syndrome; it’s how we end up feeling tokenised. It’s how we end up covering, and code-switching and all these things, because we’re internalising those stories.

Manisha: So, listening to those stories, and amplifying those stories, could be something we do to – well, today really, forget tomorrow!

Melinda: Yes, absolutely. Change the narrative and – and also, I think it’s important for all of us to recognise the stories that we consume, and really pay attention to that; who is telling the stories that we consume? And maybe, we shake that up a little bit.

Manisha: Right. Well thank you so much, Melinda. That was fantastic. It’s always a pleasure to speak to you. I highly recommend that people purchase the book, How to Be an Ally, and learn more, and hear more, and read more, about this incredible topic, that I think is fundamental to anybody who wants to see the system change, and to see more people included.

Melinda: Thank you. It’s so nice to have this conversation with you, we could go on and on, for hours. And you can find my book at melindabrianaepler.com, too.

Manisha: And we’ll have it on our show notes as well, so people can access Melinda’s book from there, as well. So, thank you all so much for listening to this episode of the With, Not For podcast. If Inclusive design is something you’d like to learn more about, or if you’d like to work with us, please do connect us at The Centre for Inclusive Design, or myself, on LinkedIn. Or head to our website, centreforinclusivedesign.org.au. The links can be found in the episode show notes.  

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