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Stride 2 Freedom Speaker Series: A Safe Space to Talk About Race with Akeisha Johnson, Leadership Coach at An Inspired Story

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I had the pleasure today of chatting with Akeisha Johnson on the most recent episode of the Stride 2 Freedom podcast. Akeisha has a disarming presence. You just want to listen to her, learn from her, and tap into her good energy. And so it makes sense that her company, An Inspired Story, has impacted so many business leaders around the country. As a professional coach, Akeisha’s superpower is to help her clients write the narrative that will help them achieve their goals.

But Akeisha is just so much more than a coach. Akeisha has also been a convener to talk about the sensitive topic of race relations in our country. In 2019, Akeisha started the initiative, A Safe Space to Talk About Race, where she initially brought together non-white individuals to talk about racism against them. Eventually, Akeisha made the courageous move to open up the Forum for white and non-white individuals alike. What transpired was a level of openness, awareness, common ground and vulnerability that began moving toward a different kind of future, one that was not shackled by historical norms.

Who should I interview next? Please let me know by clicking here.                                 

 

In this Freedom Speaker Series episode with Akeisha, you will learn:

  • How racism is just a made-up construct that we can break
  • What are micro aggressions and how to become more aware of them
  • The power that self-awareness plays in helping us lead in a changing world

Listen Now
 

We are fortunate to have Akeisha available to spend time with us on this edition of Stride 2 Freedom. If there is a speaker you’d like us to interview, click here and let us know. Stay well. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

Show Notes and Links From Episode:

An Inspired Story Coaching

Akeisha Johnson Linkedin

Akeisha Johnson email

Episode Transcript:

Russell Benaroya: Hey everyone, welcome to the Stride 2 Freedom podcast. My name is Russell Benaroya, and I’m the cofounder of Stride Services, a virtual back office, bookkeeping and accounting firm serving hundreds of clients around the United States. 

This podcast is designed to help small business owners focus on growth and innovation. In other words, focus on those things that inspired you to start your business in the first place. We call it your genius zone. We do our job on this podcast when business owners feel like they have the trust and confidence to build the right team of partners around them that will help them grow. Thanks for joining. Let’s go.

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another Stride 2 Freedom episode. My name is Russell Benaroya. I am your host and as always, really excited to bring great people to the podcast that I believe are going to be incredibly adept at helping business owners get and stay in their zone of genius. Today I’m excited to welcome Akeisha Johnson to the show. Hey, Akeisha. 

Akeisha Johnson: Hi Russell, how are you today? 

Russell Benaroya: I’m doing great. Thanks. 

Akeisha Johnson: Thanks for having me.

Russell Johnson: It’s such a pleasure. Everybody knows from my previous podcast how much I enjoy having coaches on. I was really excited to have Akeisha join today not only because she is a coach at An Inspired Story Coaching, which she’ll tell you all about. But she created a really unique program in 2020 called Safe Space to Talk About Race, and has facilitated among executives and leaders around the country, a conversation about race in the workplace. 

I wanted to touch on this topic today, a delicate topic, an important topic, a relevant topic, and really dive into understanding how the Safe Space to Talk About Race program comes out in her coaching in addition to all the other great coaching that she does. So with that, shall we rock and roll? Akeisha, are you ready? 

Akeisha Johnson: I’m ready. I got the backup dancers behind my screen. 

Russell Benaroya: Yes, you do. Okay, awesome. So a couple of interesting and important questions. If you were to do a TED talk, maybe you already have, by the way, what would you talk about? What would your topic be, and why?

Akeisha Johnson: I have not done a TED talk. I’ve witnessed TED talks. I’ve helped produce some TED Talks, so I’ve seen the production behind putting them together. 

My TED Talk would be that the life that we live doesn’t have to be the life that you continue to live. Meaning, especially, I think that most people forget that the reality that we live in is something that was designed for people who came before us. There are mechanisms that we have today that didn’t exist before because someone invented it. There are ways that we live that people didn’t live like before because someone had an idea and said, “This is how we think the society should move, the society should go.” 

If we keep in mind that, really, if what’s happening in the present day is something that you don’t want to live, well, then something else can be created. Years ago, I was participating in a mastermind and the facilitator at the time said this, “The present is the future’s past. Right?

Right now, this is the past of the future. So, what are you doing right now that’s going to cultivate what your life is going to look like in the future? 

Specifically looking at the conversation around, you know, the subject of racism, I think that as a society, we live like racism is normal and like it’s something that wasn’t created. But it was created. There were groups of people who said, “Okay, this is going to be the social structure that we’re going to live in.” It happened about 1,000 years ago when it started, so it seems like it’s really old. But it’s not normal for humankind to operate like that. 

So I think it’s important. In a TED talk, I would discuss that just remember the way that we live is an imagination. So, the way that we continue to live also could be an imagination. Just what is it that you imagine that you want to live into? That’s part of the reason why my business is called An Inspired Story, right? 

We all live in stories. We don’t recognize that we live in stories, but we do. It’s the story that you tell that you live in. So when I work with my clients, I ask them, “Make your life, your experience, your favorite story. Just imagine what that could be like, and then start to operate from there and watch what your experience looks like.”

Russell Benaroya: I’ve written up before about this metaphor of you’ve got all these belief bubbles around. You’ve got all these bubbles, and you can choose any bubble you want to create the story that you want to create. Because the facts are relatively few, the stories can either lighten you up and empower you. Or the same set of facts, a different story you choose to grab, can significantly drag you down and drain your energy. It’s kind of a choice, right? What story are you going to write? 

When did you decide to start An Inspired Story Coaching? Maybe walk through your journey of getting to this place where you wanted to commit to serving other leaders to help them unlock their inspired story.

Akeisha Johnson: That’s a great question because I wasn’t someone who was like, “I’m going to be a coach.” That’s not what happened. 

My background is, I was working in higher education. I was working in higher education because I knew that as an employee of a large university, 96% of the tuition was covered. I was still deciding what kind of graduate program I wanted to be a part of, and I was taking a bunch of postgraduate classes as an employee. 

I’m pretty industrious. So I would be at work, just bored with what my job was, and I would just create things, little projects for me to take on. I started doing a bunch of personal development, work, seminars, workshops, all that kind of stuff. I’m a thorough nerd. I was working at a university taking a bunch of classes. I read about a book a week. I’ve done that, I don’t know, since I was pretty young, and I just thirst for knowledge. 

I was taking personal development courses. In one of the seminars I was in, we were given something called a community project. My background, I used to dance with a dance troupe. I did traditional Afro-Haitian dance, and I was always really fascinated with the history of Haiti. I think a lot of people really don’t recognize that the Haitian revolution is what kicked off the Louisiana Purchase. It kicked off a lot of the independence of South American countries. It was a major impact here in the world. 

Just knowing that history, I always wanted to do some kind of work in Haiti. So I started my project called The Oshun Project in Haiti. Our first project was to put a solar-generated water filtration system in a rural village in Haiti. I had partnered with an organization in Haiti. I’m not from Haiti. I didn’t know any Haitian people. I just had this feeling, really, that I wanted to do something. It was something that started when I was a kid.

When I was a little kid, I was really into We Are the World. I was like, “I want to be one of those people who helps children.” I had a sponsor child. I was all about that. I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I didn’t, but it was something that was something inside of me. So I just wanted to do something. And I had this idea like, you don’t have to be Oprah or Bill Gates. You can just do something because you want to.

I didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t know all the work that it was going to take to do it. But somehow I had organized myself to create myself as an executive director of a nonprofit. I had identified my engineering team. I built out a marketing team. I met people who were Haitian, to be interpreters. 

At the time, I was in Washington, DC. I relocated to my hometown of San Francisco, California. Because to build out such a thing, I basically left the job that I had moved back in with my parents, and just built the whole thing together. So, I had a team in DC. I had a team in Pittsburgh. I was working with someone in Boston, Miami, and then our partners in Haiti. 

In putting together that project, I put myself in a management training program to help me have the support and the skills to build out this vision that I had. That’s where I first got a coach, and I was just like, “How do people operate without coaches? This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.” I was like, “This is fantastic.” 

Then I did another year of my program, and after that, we had delivered our project. It was a $30,000 project, did all the fundraising and all the organization and all that kind of stuff. It was an idea in my mind, and bringing that into full manifestation, for me, was the most incredible feeling. I thought, “If other people knew what it was like to take an idea that you have in your mind, and then really deliver it and see how it impacts people,” because the village that we worked in, when we were there, there are a couple of hundred people who were saying, “Thank you for bringing this to us.” 

It took about two years to build the whole thing, but it services about 10,000 to 15,000 people a year now, and we delivered that in 2014. The design of the program was that we were going to collaborate with this community, and then take our hands off and have them have ownership of it because they had asked for it. 

We had worked together to build it. It was a gift. It was a collaboration to really support something that the community needed, which was potable water, especially after the cholera outbreak from the earthquake. So just in building that, I just remember thinking, “God, if other people knew what it felt like to do something like this, I think that’s how you change the world.” That was the seed that had me say, “Okay, this is something I could do.” 

Then the program that I was in, I did another year of it. The second year is where you start to coach people. You start to coach people on how to coach people. In my program, most people didn’t do a project at my scale. They weren’t working in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. They didn’t have an international team that they were managing and working with. I would say I have a style. My style, said simply, is if it’s not a party, it’s not worth going to. For me, I’m like, “If we’re going to do this thing, then let’s have a good time. Get it serious and all heavy, but so what? We’re just going to have fun.” So, it worked. 

I had more people coming to me, I’m saying, “Hey, can you work with me? Will you talk to my friend?” Then we talked to this person, we talked to that person, and it just started to get in the way of the work I was doing. I had read something. I either heard something or read something. Like I said, I read a lot. So you know how books kind of fuse together when read a lot?

It said something to the tune of, if you’re doing something for free, and it’s getting in the way of your job, that’s how you know it’s time to charge. That’s basically what had me say, “Okay, I think it’s time.” Plus, I had a couple of executive coaches looking to recruit me to work with them. 

I’m someone who believes, pay attention. Auntie Oprah says, “Pay attention to the life whispers because they’re telling you something about the direction of where to go.” I could hear the whisper saying, “Go in this direction.” That’s basically how I became a coach because people were asking me to coach them, and people were saying, “Do this.” So I was like, “Well, who am I to ignore the whispers?”

Russell Benaroya: I love that, Akeisha. Tell me about the customer that you serve today. My experience in talking to other executive coaches is that those that have a particular customer segment, they try to optimize for or focus on. It can be the characteristics of an individual. It doesn’t have to be an industry. That tends to be helpful in the execution of their broader plan. I’m curious how that works for you.

Akeisha Johnson: It’s funny, too because when I first started, I was like, “I can talk to everybody,” and I just was all over the place. It’s interesting because one of the things that I think is really important as a coach is that you are being coached. Doctors don’t treat themselves right. So coaches also, it’s important to have a coach. 

One of the coaches that I’ve studied under, he distinguished the idea behind a psychographic, and I was like, “Yeah.” The psychographic of my clients, I like to say that my clients tend to be the nice lady, the nice guy boss. They are the business leaders that if you were to ask them, honestly, they probably would say, “I’d rather be liked than respected.” 

They’re the person who are not very good at office politics because they’d rather just get along. This is the kind of person whose employees might run all over them because they want to make sure that everybody is happy and satisfied. This individual knows how to do the job, but they’re having a hard time executing because of the social structure of what there is, and how to effectively communicate and to deliver the vision to their team so that the people who they’re working with are working in concert towards a shared goal. So, that is my ideal client.

When people ask me, what do you do, I typically don’t tell them that I’m a business leadership coach. I typically tell them, what I do is create bosses to be the kind of people that others want to work for.

Russell Benaroya: That has me thinking about some of the characteristic profiling that we do for new employees that come into our organization where they take the Enneagram test. It gives us an opportunity to understand them a bit better, and to help them understand themselves. So we know how to best communicate and manage the relationship together. So I’m an Enneagram 3, so Enneagram 3 is an achiever. You’re a 5. Okay. 

And I’m a pleaser. So what I know about myself is that I like to be liked, and that can show up in some incredibly healthy ways. That can also show up in some incredibly unhealthy ways, too because we put on our camouflage and our armor to show up for the circumstance. So, we tend to mask our authentic selves. It got me thinking, “Hmm, it’s almost like you’re a coach for a certain type of an Enneagram style,” or psychographic, really in your case. Yeah, it’s good.

Akeisha Johnson: Totally. It’s so funny too because one of my coaches, and I have multiple coaches. I believe so much in coaching, I invest quite a bit in my own coaching. One of my coaches is someone who specializes in Enneagrams. So when he and I are talking, he’s always like, “Yep, that’s that 5. That’s that 5.”

Russell Benaroya: That’s so funny. Just for everybody that’s listening, we’ll put a link in the show notes to a really simple Enneagram test that you can take. It’s www.enneagramtest.net. It’s a very simple, free enneagram, but very useful. It’s cool.  Akeisha, tell me about the Safe Space initiative and how that started, when that started, and what has unfolded, and what the reception you have received since kicking it off.

Akeisha Johnson: So just a little correction, Safe Space started in 2019.

Russell Benaroya: Oh, 2019. I’m sorry. 

Akeisha Johnson: No, no, no. I just wanted to create the context of it. It started in 2019 because when I would have basic intake conversations with clients, especially my non-white clients, they would talk about experiences of dealing with microaggressions of instances of racism. What I found is, when it was over, people were upset and wondering how to deal with it. But a lot of times when it was covert, they were having a hard time for some people even admitting that it was happening, recognizing it. 

Microaggressions are called tiny cuts. If you’ve ever got a little paper cut, a lot of times you don’t really realize that you did it, and then you’re just like, “Ow, my hand hurts,” or, “My finger hurts.” And you’re like, “Hey, what’s that?” So, these instances of racism, people were impacted by them, but they weren’t really clear, like, where they were coming from, or how it happened. They felt the sting of it after the actual event had happened. 

I had had client after client talk about it. What I found is that people would go into their social environments. They would talk to their friends, their families, and they might have people say, “Yeah, that person was being a bigot,” or, “No, you’re probably over-exaggerating or whatnot,” but they wouldn’t walk away being empowered with an idea about really, how to move forward from those interactions. 

Really, a coach, said simply, is someone who takes you from where you are to where you want to be. Regarding that conversation, I just thought, “Well, why don’t we look at how we can look at this phenomenon of racism, and look at where do people want to go with it? Where do you want to move that conversation forward, that experience forward?” 

So, I just started noodling on that and then I came up with the idea of creating the Safe Space to Talk About Race, really. The acronym that I use is called SafeSTTAR and that’s for other reasons why I’ve created that. But really, I just thought, “Let’s create a forum where people can have empowered conversations around this.” 

One of the things that I found is people didn’t have power around it because they didn’t want to talk about the ugly part behind it, or the painful part behind it. But here’s the thing, unless you actually treat the wound, you can’t heal it. Part of treating the wound is identifying it. You can’t just say, “Oh, that didn’t really happen. Oh, it’s not appropriate to deal with a big gash in a body.” No one says, “Oh, I know I’m in a lot of pain. I’m oozing blood. There’s pus, it smells bad. But if I just ignore it, it’s just going to heal itself.” 

No one says that, but that’s the wound of this racism in our country. It’s painful, it’s stinky, and smelly, it’s oozing, it’s infected. And it’s creating a lot of toxic experiences, within our whole collective experience. I think what it’s going to require is that it’s being attended to. So, that’s part of what the idea behind creating the forum is. So it’s really about having conversations so that people are empowered, and so that, really, you can remove as much as possible anyway. The actual part of the wound that is infected, so that it can be treated, and then we can start to identify solutions to create another story. 

Russell Benaroya: Are you, facilitating this forum for both non-white and white groups of people? Are you bringing them together? Who’s the audience? What’s the dynamic?

Akeisha Johnson: So, the initial iteration was for non-white people only. It was mostly one because I noticed that people had some things they wanted to unpack. It took me a while to be able to articulate this, especially when I had friends, colleagues who are white, or white identified, say, “Well, why can’t we be a part of the forum?” 

It took me a while to say, “What I think white people don’t understand is that whiteness has been weaponized towards non-white people.” When I say weaponized, I mean literally, just the presence of whiteness brings forth a whole context that whether people understand it or not, says, “You are to defer to me.” 

The initial iterations of the workshops, I wanted to make sure that I gave people space to be able to say what they needed to say safely, without having to be concerned about the context of difference towards white sensitivity, or the white gaze or the opinion of, “I need to be heard. I need to be attended to.” That was in 2019. 

But 2020 did something radical because, in 2019, the initial forum of Safe Space went really well, and I had people say, “Do it over and over.” It was in person at first, and I tabled it just because of the production putting together in person forum. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is my work. Let me figure out what I need to do with that.” 

Then 2020 happened, and then of course, we saw George Floyd publicly killed. I have so many people reach out to me, so many people. “Oh, you got to say something. Hey, I need to talk,” this, that and the other, so much. A friend who’s South Asian, she said, “You got to do that Safe Space thing. You got to do that online.” I was like, “No, I don’t,” because this Zoom life, I wasn’t used to it. 

A year ago, I was like, “I don’t really like this,” and she was like, “No, you have to and you’re going to do it. And here’s my Zoom, and we’re going to do it,” and all this stuff, and I said, “Okay.” So I did a Facebook Live, just to talk about some of my musings on what happened. About a week later, I had about 4,000 views on my Facebook Live and I was like, “Oh, my God.” So, all these people started to say, “Hey, will you have this conversation for a group, for my community and for this community?” I started doing the forums, pretty much every week, over last summer. 

After doing forums for a couple of different demographics of non-white folks, I said, “Okay, I think after hearing different people’s experience, we can open up to larger groups, and groups of people who are white to come and participate in the conversation.” That is what happened in the fall. So now the Safe Space is completely diverse. 

I think it’s interesting because when people think diversity, most people think non-white people is what diversity is, as opposed to what diversity actually is, which is a collection of different people from different backgrounds and different experiences. Now the Safe Space is more diverse. For me, I look to make sure that we have different demographics represented, so that we hear different voices and different experiences. 

The thing that’s really interesting is that the more that people come together from different backgrounds, the more that people tend to seek connections, just through lived experience. People start to really see, “Oh, wow, I never really thought that a white woman would understand that the same thing that was going on with me as a Latino woman, that they’re experiencing the same feelings and the same impacts. It’s just in a different body suit.” 

Which is part of the reason why I’m looking to have the conversation so that people start to really understand that there is a different experience that people are living. But once you start talking, you’ll start to identify that thing that you feel is specific to you, other people are feeling it. It just is in a different context.

Russell Benaroya: Is your audience of participants, primarily business leaders, business owners, CEOs, or not? Who do you reach? Who connects?

Akeisha Johnson: It’s been a collection. It really depends on who the audience is that I’m coming across. One of the things that I’ve created in my business is referral-based. The last cohort of my Safe Space, we had quite a few people who were teachers. 

Russell Benaroya: Okay.

Akeisha Johnson: Actually, the majority of that cohort were educators. When I say teachers, I mean, elementary school teachers. 

Russell Benaroya: Got it. Just for everybody’s benefit, when you use the term microaggression, can you define what that is and how that shows up, or some examples of that?

Akeisha Johnson: Microaggression. It’s commentary behaviors that really inflict upon another person, ideas that aren’t based on who they are, but ideas based on stereotypes and biases of the individual inflicting the microaggression. 

Here’s the thing. Most microaggressions, and it’s funny, I just did a diversity workshop with an organization over the past two weeks. I was saying to the group, “Here’s the thing, most people don’t walk into a situation and go, ‘Oh, I want to be a bigoted, racist, sexist jerk. Yeah, I’m just going to come and do that.’ That’s not usually what happens.” 

Now, there are some people who are like, “Yeah, I’m going to show up that way. And I don’t care,” but for the most part, that’s not what’s happening. For the most part, it’s default, automated behavior that really comes from how a person was raised, and the things that they witnessed. They, on their end, are being innocent in their conduct. But inside their innocence, they’re also being irresponsible with the impact of how they’re showing up. So, that’s one of the things.

Microaggressions would be stuff like asking an Asian American, “Where are you from?”

Russell Benaroya: Totally. Yeah.

Akeisha Johnson: Here’s the thing. Especially, you’re coming across somebody who, and this is an example. This person, her name is Jane Chen. If her name is Jane Chen, and she has an American accent, the “Where are you from?” question is awkward because she has a European name. Her name is not something like Hsuan. Right? Hsuan is a very Chinese name. 

I have a friend named Hsuan. I have another friend whose name is [inaudible 00:30:17]. Okay, that’s a very Asian name, but still they have an American accent. What is it that has you thinking that this person is automatically a foreigner? because that’s where the question comes from. “You’re a foreigner. You’re not from here.” In the United States of America, you have generations of people who have been in this country. 

It’s the conversation. Here’s a microaggression, actually, that showed up in a workshop. It was a white woman, she got upset when I used it, which is reaching out to touch a black person’s hair. Especially looking at my hair right now, it’s not straightened in the natural state, and I’ve had people go, “Ooh, can I touch your hair?” and they start to automatically reach towards you. 

She’s like, “Why is that a microaggression? I just was curious.” I was like, “Because asking to touch somebody’s hair, and just reaching out and touching it is creating them as a thing to be examined. A thing as a phenomenon, and not a human being where you want to actually honor that they have personal space.” She was pretty upset that that example was used.

Here’s another one. I had a young black male who worked at Google say that one of the things that he was super upset about was when he held someone accountable, the person went to his supervisor and said, “Oh, I’m intimidated by him because he was being aggressive towards me.” How’s that a microaggression? Why wouldn’t you actually talk to the person themselves? If someone’s holding you accountable, what’s the resistance to being held accountable? 

Why, rather? Let me rephrase. Why is it if you’re being held accountable, that that person is being inappropriate for doing that? Where does that come from? A lot of times, people aren’t being responsible that there’s a historical context that says that people of African descent are not supposed to hold non-black people accountable because we’re automatically at the bottom of the social structure, which means that it’s inappropriate for you to hold anyone accountable. 

Most people don’t want to actually admit that this is the historical social agreement that we’re operating from. But most people don’t want to admit to that because it’s not spoken. Which is part of the reason why we have those conversations in Safe Space because I start to ask people questions like, “What is your understanding? What is your relationship to people who are Asian? What is your relationship to people who are Latino? What is it that your family would say about these people?” Because if you tell them the truth, we all know we have that uncle, that grandparent, that cousin that you would never take around polite company. You would not take them. 

Russell Benaroya: Absolutely. Yes.

Akeisha Johnson: It would be mortifying. Or that person probably knows not to behave like that in front of polite company, but not in front of polite company. You usually are face-palming the whole time. We all have that person in the family. We all do. 

So that’s part of what the conversation is, is to go ahead and take the shame out of that. Really, if we’re going to be honest, we’ve inherited a social structure that is rooted in racism. None of us said, “We want this.” That’s part of why, to get back to your first question, the TED Talk would be, what do we want to live into? Because we don’t want to live in the social structure that is this racist social structure. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates says this in his book Between the World and Me, racism is the father, not the son of race. There’s the human race, period. That’s it. Racism is a designed construct that creates what races are as we know it now. But otherwise, it doesn’t exist. So if this is something that we don’t necessarily want to live into, it has to be redesigned. So, that’s basically almost like the thesis of what I’m doing with the Safe Spaces. We’re going to have to redesign it, but it’s not going to just happen.

Russell Benaroya: What are you hearing from business leaders and business owners that have gone through this forum and the Safe Spaces initiative? What kind of feedback are you hearing from them and how they approach their role, their leadership, their lens, their perspective? How is influencing or impacting their ability to be more effective?

Akeisha Johnson: Well, I’ve heard different things. Some people are like, “This is tough.” 

Russell Benaroya: Yeah. 

Akeisha Johnson: That’s the stuff that’s tough is to look at the history. It’s scary to look at the history for a lot of people because it’s really ugly. It really is. It’s awful, actually, when you look at the history of it. So that’s the stuff that’s tough to look at, that what we’re living in now comes from a history of genocide and terrorism, and really, really awful brutality. It’s tough, and it’s something that we’ve all inherited. It’s not like we said, “This is what we want.” It’s just where we come from. So, that’s tough. 

Also, people, the things that they’ve taken on, they’ve said, “Wow, I’ve been able to have conversations with people I’ve never been able to have before.” I did a presentation, which was a short introduction to the Safe Space for a tech company, right outside of Seattle. One of the people, she said, “Wow, this was like a big load taken off of me,” and she just started to show up more expressed, self-expressed and being able to move a little freer. 

I had another woman, she said, “I feel like my brains are oozing out of my ears. This is so thought-provoking. There’s so many things that are bubbling up.” There’s a lot of different stuff that comes. But again, it’s very much in some ways, if I were to say it differently, the idea behind Safe Space is to kick off like a healing journey. I would say that our collective relationship to racism has been, “If we don’t pay attention to it, then it’ll sort itself out.” That has not been working out. 

We look at last year. Last year was a big year where it was Black Lives Matter. It was happening anyway, the attacks on Asian Americans. Then we’ve looked at what was going on with putting immigrants, Latino immigrants in camps and prisons, and then now we’re looking at what’s happening over in Israel with the Gaza Strip. It’s like the conversation keeps popping up, keeps popping up. So, it’s saying something like this. There’s something to be attended to. There’s something to be attended to. Us suppressing it is not what is actually having it go away or get better. It keeps popping up. So, there’s something that needs to be managed. Said differently, there’s something that needs to be transformed and redesigned. In my contribution to the conversation, I would say what I’m looking to do is have people start to think about what the redesign looks like.

Russell Benaroya: Akeisha, what is something you wish people asked you that they don’t typically ask you, but you’re interested and curious to put it out in the world?

Akeisha Johnson: Okay, here’s what’s coming up because I don’t really have any answers. So I’m just going to say what popped into my mind. 

Russell Benaroya: Yeah. 

Akeisha Johnson: Where can we collaborate together? That’s it. Where can we collaborate together? Now, I have had people ask me that. I think that that’s a question that more people want to start asking other people, rather than, “What is it that you say the solution is?” Give me a break. A solution is over there with you. It’s not over here with me. It’s over there with you because you’re the one who’s curious about it. That’s the indication that you already have an idea. 

That’s something that I charge people with, which is probably a very coachy kind of answer. But really, if you’re already identifying that there is a problem, that means that you’ve already got the solution over there as a seedling inside of you. So, really, “Where can we collaborate together?” is the question because, one, it opens up that there’s something that you have to contribute. There’s something that I have to contribute. And us coming together would potentially create some kind of innovation that the world hasn’t seen yet.

Russell Benaroya: We have a saying at work, the company that I own, which is called Stride. And we say the following that 100% of drama is the lack of a shared agreement between two parties, or multiple parties, and the lack of a plan to get there. Meaning we can drill down and say drama, conflict, race relations, workplace conflict is the lack of two parties having a shared agreement, and a plan for how to get there. 

When we collaborate, this is what came up for me as when you said collaboration, when there’s a shared agreement around where we want to go together, and we put a plan in place to get there, it is highly unlikely that we’re going to have drama. We may or may not achieve the outcome, but we’re not going to have a bunch of different stories being told along the way.

Akeisha Johnson: Totally. It’s funny because one of the questions I ask people is, “What are your definitions of race and racism?” I personally have my own definition of racism. My definition is an excuse for theft and greed. That’s what I call it. It’s an excuse. 

One of the things that is the problem with racism, is the agreement of racism is that one, it’s unsaid. But the agreement is that there is no agreement to make with the people being subjugated and oppressed. That’s part of it. You don’t get to be a part of the agreement. Your only agreement is that you go along with what I say.

Russell Benaroya: Right.

Akeisha Johnson: Here’s the thing. That’s the agreement of sexism. It’s the agreement of so many isms, that you don’t get to be a part of the agreement. You are subjected and impacted by whatever it is that I say, and the people who I’ve created as the dominant parties. That’s what it is. 

Here’s one of the things that I think is really important, is that once you have people start to admit because this is the thing that I think most people have a really hard time with, especially people who have been impacted by these isms, is to admit that at some point they agreed that they are going to be treated as less than human. That at some point, they agreed to become a thing to be subjugated. 

Once people get to the point where they say, “You know what, I realize that it was an unsaid agreement that I agreed to, and I don’t agree to it anymore,” that’s where people start to click open that freedom and empowerment because then they start to change the agreement with themselves. Then therefore, the agreement with the other dominating party has to change. That’s the idea behind.

In some ways, I understand that what we’re dealing with today and right now is really scary for people because what we’re talking about is changing social structure. It’s kind of like what happens when people have kids, and then they become teenagers. Then people were like, “What the heck happened to my kid? They’re not doing what I told them to do, all the time. They’re mouthing off doing whatever they want, and all that kind of stuff.” Because it’s a change in the social structure, and some people really struggle with that. Some people rise up to the moment. 

But if you recognize that the agreement has changed because the social structure is changing, and you can roll with it, then I think that that’s how we get to the other side.

Russell Benaroya: Akeisha, thank you so much for joining us today. This is far and away the most provocative topic that I’ve entertained on the podcast, and it is the opening of a really important conversation. Thanks for taking us there today, and thank you for being such a good guide. It is an inspired story. It is about telling the story of where you want to be. It is writing the future that you want to write and doing it in a collaborative way, and I really appreciate you. 

You’ve given me a lot to think about as a human. You’ve also given me a lot to think about as a business owner, as an entrepreneur, and what is my role and opportunity and possibility to make an impact in this world? I think that’s part of why you do what you do. So, appreciate you. Thank you. 

Akeisha Johnson: Thanks for having me, Russell. 

Russell Benaroya: Thanks, everybody for joining us on another great episode of Stride 2 Freedom. We will roll out another episode in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned for more shows. We appreciate you. Have a great week everyone. Thank you. Thanks again, Akeisha.

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