Meet Anti-Racism Writer, Dana Brownlee
And learn how she's using her platform to make a difference
Hello friends, it’s been a minute since we had an interview, but I’m pleased to say they’re back! And who better to kick off our 2022 interview season than Dana Brownlee. Her Forbes column has become one of my must-reads. Please, meet Dana.
Dana, what made you start writing about anti-racism and racial equity?
Like many others, I was moved by the killing of George Floyd and the Amy Cooper Central Park incident. That day - May 25, 2020 - was so remarkable but yet not really remarkable (for many Black and Brown Americans) at the same time. When I saw George Floyd all I could think of was Rodney King - being a Spelman College student watching the protests and cars burning in the streets of the Atlanta University Center complex. I thought, "Wow, it's almost three decades later, yet we're still here."
With the Amy Cooper incident, I thought about the fact that she wasn't some KKK grand wizard or staunch white supremacist (to my knowledge). She was a random White woman violating the leash law and at the mere thought of being checked by a Black man chose to weaponize her white womanhood in a split second. I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that she was probably someone's boss - many people's boss over many years.
I thought about how Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin represented the extremes of racism - Chauvin representing the extreme, overt racism much less seen these days (though still there certainly) and Cooper representing the much more nuanced, less obvious "racism 3.0" as I like to call it. There are so many Amy Coopers that we interact with every single day - teachers, probation officers, doctors, pharmacists, bankers, judges, realtors, accountants, editors, engineers - who are significantly impacted by racial bias, and they make racially biased decisions every day (and some create toxic work environments).
Like so many others, that day changed me and I decided to dig into anti-racism to try to make a difference.
What anti-racist cause are you most passionate about, and why?
I'm very passionate about the fact that antiracism isn't just for DEI professionals - it's everyone's business. I think that our clear lack of progress on racial equity (still no Black, female governors, only 5 Black Fortune 500 CEOs, white median household wealth 8-10 times that of Black households, etc.) over the past 30+ years shows that traditional DEI (the way most organizations implement it) simply hasn't resulted in real progress.
I think there are many reasons for this (beyond the scope of this response), but one key realization for me is that if we're to make real progress, equity must become a central focus that the entire company/organization is engaged in - marketing, finance, sales, engineering, supplier management, logistics, research and development - not just one siloed organization (DEI) that is often under resourced, underfunded and largely ignored (until Black History month or some highly publicized race related incident). In my LinkedIn Learning course Supporting Allyship and Antiracism at Work, I provide specific, practical tactics that all leaders should use to root out racism and build more equitable workplaces.
I know you have a regular Forbes column. How did that come about?
I was a Forbes Careers Senior Contributor well before becoming an overt antiracism advocate. I've been a speaker/writer for nearly two decades and before 5.25.20 was just like all those other people doing their regular job - certainly opposing racism - but not really seeing it as "my job" to do much about. After 5/25/20 I consciously started doing what I'm asking everyone else to do. I decided to figure out how I could start working against racism daily.
My message is simple. Don't change your job to take a full time DEI role (unless you feel called to do so). Leverage your expertise in your field to figure out how you can really fight racism given your unique expertise and insight wherever you are in the organization. If you're a physician, lawyer or accountant and you see first hand how racial discrimination leads to disparate outcomes, speak up and figure out how you can help make a change. I recently wrote about Chidiebere Ibe's black fetus medical illustration that went viral.
Months earlier I wrote about a realtor who learned about the racism behind some of the street name changes in Atlanta and developed a video about it to educate the broader community about the legacy of racism. I wrote about a retired attorney who had worked on the trials of some of the most brutal racial killings and then decided to channel his trauma into art with an exhibit titled "Heartbreak and Healing." Like them, I decided to try to find some small way to really advance antiracism on a regular basis.
For me that takes several forms. One of my first actions was to write blunt pieces in my Forbes column about how white people can actually advance antiracism. After George Floyd's killing I felt like many white people felt embarrassed and surprised (they shouldn't have been), but I sensed there was a lot of handwringing that would likely be followed by a lot of inaction. While education is absolutely critical (because most of us have such dreadfully low levels of racial literacy), I wanted to make it quite clear that attending a book club is not enough - not even close. So, I wrote two pieces "Dear White People: Here Are 10 Actions You Can Take To Promote Racial Justice In The Workplace" and "Dear White People: Here Are 5 Uncomfortable Truths Black Colleagues Need You To Know."
What response have you had?
After my first two articles, I had a great response. First, I was pleased to find my first article on Forbes' front page for awhile shortly after I published it. I had clients reach out to ask me to speak to their organization. At the time I'd already authored a course for LinkedIn Learning about team collaboration, and my content manager reached out to ask me if I'd be interested in authoring some antiracism focused courses (because they were in the process of building out a more robust antiracism library) so it led to the development of two workplace antiracism courses.
Initially, it didn't seem as intuitive for me because I didn't have a traditional HR/DEI background, but the more I thought about it, it made so much sense. My expertise areas include facilitation skills, managing up - speaking truth to power, business strategy, team development, leadership skills, process improvement, etc. so my courses view antiracism through that very practical, action oriented lens. Of course, I received tons of positive feedback on social media as well. Yes, I've been trolled here and there, but not nearly as much as I would have thought. I usually either ignore or respond back, "God bless you."
In terms of anti-racism content, which are your top three articles?
The articles cited above were my top viewed. Beyond these, there are many others that I think effectively analyze the root causes of our current stagnation around racism and equity. One favorite is:
I also love these two because I find so much performative action (and inaction) out there that really needs to be called out.
5 Disturbing Signs That You Might Not Be An Antiracist After All
Discussing the Undiscussables: Too Many White Progressives Believe In Animal Farm Equality
Share one anti-racism article written by someone else that really made an impact on you.
My #1 is always Dr. King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." I listed it as #1 on my list of 10 recommended resources for antiracism allies. It's so deep and rich and absolutely relevant for addressing our biggest barrier/stumbling block today - the inaction/silence of the white moderate (and some Blacks as well truth be told).
In relation to racism, what is your vision for the future?
I so try to be hopeful. Observing my kids' generation is motivating, but I'm not so naïve to assume that time alone will just fix things. As King said, "Time is neutral." We absolutely have to keep our foot on the gas. One of my favorite quotes is Margaret Mead's - "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has." For me that's the good news. We just have to believe it and take action.
Folks, I hope you took away as much from Dana’s interview as I did. You can catch up with Dana Brownlee on her website, Professional Matters, Inc, on Forbes, and on LinkedIn.
Thanks for reading,
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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
I am so thankful for all of the knowledge both of you share. I had read, but never *studied* the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I found Dana's recommendations for learning about race and anti-racism across different types of media incredibly valuable - several books, articles, historical letters or speeches, and TV shows. In this interview, the point of leveraging our expertise in what we are naturally called to do brought me to a moment of clarity. Thank you.
Write On, Dana!