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Introduction: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will to Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, best-selling authors, and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown. Wokie Nwabueze is a sought after communication and conflict resolution expert who has taught close to 3,000 people to communicate with impact. She has twenty years of experience as an executive coach, attorney, organizational ombudsman, and mediator.
She sits on the board of The Scheinman Institute for Conflict Resolution at Cornell University and has taught courses and presented at Columbia Law School, Princeton University, and various Fortune 500 companies. She received her BA in International Relations from Wellesley College and her JD from Columbia University School of Law. Most recently she’s the founder of the Seen and Heard Project. Wokie, welcome to The Will to Change.
Wokie Nwabueze: Thank you.
Jennifer Brown: I am deeply inspired by your message around being seen and heard, and I know about your childhood and the circumstances under which you came to New York City with your family. My guess is that the concept of being seen and heard is something that resonates with you going way back.
Take us back to how you grew up, how you came to New York, and when did you discover that connection to the need to feel seen and heard on a very personal level?
Wokie Nwabueze: I was born in New York City, and I’m the first person on both sides of my family born in the United States. My parents are from Nigeria and Liberia, I have an older brother who was born in Liberia, and they came here and had me.
It was interesting. I think it had a lot to do with being seen and heard and growing up a girl because I often feel like my childhood was a bit of a social experiment. I was not only the only daughter, which means a lot culturally, but also the first person.
As my family was finding its footing in this country, they were also raising me and my brother, but me being a girl has always been an interesting experience in my family.
I would describe myself as someone who was very shy as a child. Very early on I was observing differences in how girls and boys and men and women act. The community that I grew up in was extremely diverse; it was affiliated with the United Nations so everybody came from a different country. There was one of each family in this community in which we lived, and for me it made things like culture, nationality, even race less important than gender for me as a kid. When all of those things are neutralized essentially by absolute diversity, what was left for me was girls and boys, men and women.
In my own family, my parents are well-educated, well-traveled, and so their vision of gender was different than other members of my family. I got a lot of mixed messages around my expectations for great grades, grow up and go to college, get a great job, or start an amazing career that does some life-changing work in the world; but I was also seeing women around me who didn’t have those aspirations or expectations in terms of rules.
I spent a lot of time watching boys have much more freedom, much less worry surrounding them, different kind of codes of behavior or expectations and standards than girls did in my family and outside of my family. For me, I spent all of my childhood in observation of what these things mean.
What was I supposed to do and be? How is it different from my brothers? I think that’s the beginning of when I started to feel shy. I wouldn’t say that I am shy or that I was naturally shy, but I started to walk in the world with a little bit of insecurity around who I could be, how I could act, and what kind of responses I would get because I was a girl.
In the beginning I think we’re all born expressive. I have two young children and I see that there’s not a lot of fear around expressing opinion. As we get older and start to look at the world for affirmation or confirmation of things that we want to be, or think we are, or want to experience, we get mixed messages about what our expectations are based on who we are. It caused me to pull back quite a bit.
I spent a lot of time watching boys have much more freedom @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChangeCLICK TO TWEET
Jennifer Brown: That’s fascinating because I tend to be on the more accommodating side. I’m a listener more than a talker. I was one of those girls and I can really relate to the struggle of finding your voice. Maybe you didn’t start out that way, but somehow you internalize the messages you get, and then shift how you show up in the world.
Wokie Nwabueze: Absolutely.
Jennifer Brown: So fast-forward to what you’ve created, I was reading a little bit and even pre-November of last year, all that shifted there for you. Even when you started this work you wrote about the curse of the wallflower. You actually really put a fine point on the kind of women that need to be supported to tell their stories are not the ones that are the headline grabbers, they’re not maybe the ones that are highly verbal and highly confident.
There’s a whole generation of stories that aren’t being told because girls and then women either don’t think it’s important, or significant, or they don’t have confidence to tell it. I think that’s what you really focused in on a certain kind of woman it felt like to me with your work. Is that kind of where that all came from?
Wokie Nwabueze: It’s women like me that I focused in on the most. You asked me earlier when I came into this work, or even into the own realization about my own quietness, and interestingly I started doing work around communication way before I realized that I was a person who needed to overcome my own shyness. I knew I was shy, I was always quiet, I was always more reserved, more of an observer and a listener.
I was able to go into the work of communication and conflict resolution and just leap-frogging over the real issue.
Back to my story, interestingly I was in the space of teaching people about how to become better communicators, I was mediating disputes, I was doing workshops on how to communicate, and I did that for years without really understanding.
I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not about how you communicate, it’s about who you are when you communicate.
For me, there was a moment in doing this work when I realized that I was doing it in a way that was superficial and that wasn’t really transforming women’s relationship to their voices. What I was teaching and what people usually go for is a very masculine-focused approach to how do you do it? How do you execute? How do you assert yourself? How do you get out there?
What people really struggle with, and the reason we hesitate, and we don’t communicate when we should, the reason that we don’t ask for as much, or we avoid conversations, or we even go into conversations with our guards up, or being more assertive than we might naturally be; all of that has to do with not feeling a sense of personal empowerment when you’re communicating.
So my work really shifted when I understood that for myself. When I understood that it didn’t matter how much I knew about how to communicate, how many frameworks I understood, how many conflict resolution approaches, or how many scripts I had in my secret folder. It didn’t matter if I did not feel good about using my voice, if I didn’t feel powerful, if I didn’t feel centered, if I didn’t feel like I had a right to be seen and heard.
For me in this work, that’s where my focus has shifted. So based on my own experience what I needed to do was literally go back into my life and reclaim my voice. Look at my story, look at those moments where I started to become more and more and more quiet, and to understand how that affected me and me using my voice in the world, and that’s the piece that needed to be healed. That’s what the focus had to be for me, and so that’s how it all kind of came around.
So to your question of what kind of woman, it literally is a woman who is like I was. Somebody who is sensitive, who is an observer, a listener, highly empathetic. I mean all the women I work with would fit into this description. I think it’s because when a woman is very sensitive, very empathetic, in observation of everything, you feel more, you know more, and in some ways there’s more to fear because you can assess what’s around you and you care. Oftentimes that’s what is the beginning of somebody quieting down and losing their voice in their life.
Jennifer Brown: It’s almost like you are so open and so aware that it’s overwhelming because also you’re very other focused. Your stance in the world is making others comfortable of studying others, and helping to bring the peace or understanding.
Wokie Nwabueze: Right.
Jennifer Brown: I think a lot of us, that’s our stamp in the world, and in doing that, unfortunately, you get what you invest in, and you invest in understanding others but you don’t invest in understanding yourself, so you can only kind of spend that energy one way, and that resonates.
Wokie Nwabueze: Even if you do understand yourself, you also need to prioritize yourself, and that’s a whole other layer of challenges. If you are a person who is collaborative, sensitive, accommodating, cares about other people, it’s very easy to take on roles where your own needs and your own perspective isn’t as valuable to other people. That’s just another layer.
Jennifer Brown: We do a lot of work around race and ethnicity at my company, and I feel like the message particularly resonates for white women. I’m curious for women of color, there is a lot of research that states the differences.
Not all women are a monolith in terms of how we use our voice, how we show up especially in the workplace, how we view our path to success, really how we use our voice quite literally, and it’s been really interesting to learn about that.
Going back to your story about your early days here when you realized the US tends to be all about race and ethnicity, maybe in that community more than gender, and we talked about kind of the community’s response for example Obama versus Hillary, and how surprised you were sort of parachuting into coming from the culture you do, watching how all of this plays out in the US, and the particular stories that we have here.
What is your analysis about what is different for women of color versus white women, and what’s really important for us to understand about that? I think as we support each other we need to dig into that, and be very aware of that too.
Wokie Nwabueze: Going back to my own experience and my own background, it’s interesting when I think back to when race became a central issue for me. It was certainly always present, but I think in the community that I grew up in, and the schools I was in as a little kid, there was enough diversity that it was less of an issue.
I do remember very specifically going away to college and that being the first time that I was learning about history in ways that are real. A lot of what kids learn here in social studies classes, history classes, it doesn’t really get to the heart of this country’s history, and it doesn’t speak from different voices, from different perspectives, and so we kind of learn one approach to looking at the history of the US.
I remember going to college and having both the experience for the first time being a minority really. I went to a predominantly white college and it was the first time that I looked around and thought, ‘Wow I could see fifty people before seeing somebody that looks like me.’ And I didn’t have the home base.
Even my high school which wasn’t particularly diverse, I still came home and ate my parents’ food, and I was around the same people I grew up around. But in college it was suddenly there was no anchor, there was no home base, and I was here in a community where nobody looked like me, where nobody ate the food that I ate.
And so that was it, for me that was the first time. I started to take classes and I remember reading ‘The Mis-Education of the Negro’ with one of my favorite professors from college who recently passed away, Tony Martin. He was teaching this reality that I didn’t really understand existed in high school or when I was younger. So there was this double whammy of being in this community and then learning about the truth in a lot of ways.
For me that was a very difficult time where I had to deal with so many different emotions from shock and anger; a lot of things people are even feeling now post-election. I remember having similar experiences at eighteen by reading books from different perspectives, from different voices for the first time in my life. And so for me that was a very trying time.
Going back to being seen and heard, I remember there was a period of time when I was really in the question of, ‘Wow where does my voice fit in the world here? Where does my identity fit in in the world?’
I remember graduating from college and at the time I used to wear very long braids in my hair, and I remember getting advice that I couldn’t wear my hair like that and get a decent job. There were all of these different kinds of evolutions for me around my identity but also feeling attacked and being marginalized for my identity for the first time in a way related to race without all of the sense of security that I had previously in my life.
For me, that’s when race came into the forefront in my late teens, early twenties. To the question of what’s different for women of color and white women around voices. I will say looking at my experience, which has been fairly substantial, I mean I’ve been working with people around communication for about twenty years; I don’t think that there is a difference.
I’ve worked with everyone from little kids to incarcerated people to CEOs, men, women, people from around the world, and we have the same challenges ultimately. Because communication is what it is. I think it’s a dance of connection between people. It’s a way to be seen, to express, and also take in somebody’s perspective, their voice, their expression, and we move together in this dance when we’re communicating. We all do it, we all need to do it, and doing it well is fundamentally the same for me across the board.
There are elements that have to exist for everybody, and we struggle with those elements for different reasons. It’s not necessarily based on race, but issues might come up that have to do with our personal experience which could tie to race.
So just to put that in context, for example in every conversation we have- not every single interaction, but let’s say if you’re having a dialogue with your boss at work and you want to ask for something, you need to be clear about what your agenda is, what your motivation is, what the purpose and the goal of the conversation is, and to do that you need to have a sense of your own needs and your own desires.
Women struggle with that because in a lot of ways we’re taught not to be greedy, not to ask for too much, not to rock the boat, and so we all struggle with that. But if we want to break it down and look at race, then we need to look at ourselves as individuals and begin to relate how who you are, and how you’ve had to walk through the world, how you’ve experienced other people, how they’ve experienced you, how has that affected your ability to be able to know what you want? To be able to value your desires?
So when we get to that level we can start to look at individual experiences that might revolve around race, culture, nationality, identity, all of those things because for each of us it plays out differently. Which it’s not to say that a woman of one race or another couldn’t have the exact same experience, they could. I think if we generalize, which in this case I wouldn’t, we might find that people from certain backgrounds struggle with some things more than others, but I say that our experiences is frankly very similar.
That’s what we don’t see. We assume that because somebody’s a certain race perhaps they’re stronger, or perhaps they’re more sensitive, or weaker, and I think that those stereotypes are very, very untrue.
Jennifer Brown: You’re reminding me of when we talk about diversity of thought, that’s kind of the hot new way of talking about diversity and inclusion, and we talk about introversion and extroversion for example in that vein.
I think we can also talk about the listeners and the talkers, the accommodators that you particularly like to draw out in your work with Seen and Heard, and that is almost a personality type that transcends identity.
It can be the way that we show up in the world regardless of the body and the skin that we’re born in, this powerful personality trait and this powerful internalization of how do I bring my voice to the world? I appreciate that because it’s something that cuts across difference, which to me feels like a transcendent thing to focus on for all of us.
If we can figure it out for all of us, I think that’s the right place to focus versus on what maybe makes us different. I only know that we are treated differently, though externally, or we’re afraid that we will be. If I show up and I’m out as an LGBTQ woman, I’m always going through this mental calculus around, ‘How is this person seeing me?’ They’re not maybe focusing on me as a communicator, they’re focusing on who I am.
I have to kind of gear my communication according to how they are putting me in a box or not, and I would imagine that happens for women of color differently than white women because it’s a visible aspect of your diversity, and like it or not people are seeing us through that lens. So we just have to be more effective communicators in that way.
Wokie Nwabueze: I think effective and also honest. I had a very interesting conversation about that I’ve been doing a lot of conversations about intersectional feminism and really mediating and facilitating dialogue between women across these different identity lines so that we can come together and have more understanding.
One of the things that’s come up I think is really interesting is this stereotype of the strong black woman, which I find fascinating. People so often describe me as strong, and I am a strong person, but in the back of my head, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, do they know how shy I am? I’m so sensitive, I’m such a pushover.’
People have been taught to believe that, and to stereotype, and then people begin to need to believe that. Their identity is relative to what other people are, and so when one thing shifts, everyone needs to shift their perspective and ultimately who they are and how they behave.
One of the things that came up was somebody in one of these conversations brought up this idea of this strong black woman. ‘You guys are so strong.’ And it was pointed out very quickly that there’s a difference between being strong and having to survive.
When you think about the level of health issues, mental health crises, depression, all of these things that exist in all communities but speaking specifically about black women, it’s like no there actually isn’t. The strength that makes people feel that there’s this super-humanness, where there’s no help and of course there’s no crisis, and you just deal with everything sober. It’s just not true but the vulnerability is almost disallowed for certain communities of women.
I saw a really fascinating article about when there’s a tragedy around. We went through this period where there were so many highly publicized police shootings, which I know have always happened and are continuing to happen, but you remember that period of time, about eighteen months where it was just the front page of every news story. What was fascinating was that the families of these victims were forgiving the perpetrators.
So the articles were saying things like, ‘Yes you came in and you shot our loved ones and we forgive you. We forgive you.’ And what was fascinating is that’s a form of accommodation where the grieving the period, the period to be enraged, outraged was almost nonexistent because we went straight to this ‘let’s forgive so that there’s no violence and so that we can move forward.’ Which is beautiful but is that coming from a place of real empowerment and processing of grief and rage to come to a point of real forgiveness? Or is that a cultural phenomenon, an expectation imposed on certain groups of people, disenfranchised people so that they must be forgiving in order to survive?
It’s a question, and being in that exploration of it, it helped me to kind of rethink what power looks like, what you described, our own experience of having to accommodate the way others perceive us effects the way we communicate in the world.
And so back to my point about being honest, I think being an honest communicator takes a level of courage and a willingness to deal with the risk of losing a relationship or an opportunity, of literally rocking the boat. But until we’re honest, what are we really dealing with with each other? What’s the basis of our relationships and our interaction if we are not in our truth, not expressing our truth, making assumptions about each other, and then operating in that way in order to be safe or to keep it ‘simple?’
I think it’s coming into full presence with your own feelings who you are, who you want to be, what needs to be expressed, and then having the courage and the skills to express that, and beginning from there. And that’s where things are real. That’s the world that I want to live in, and I’m not talking about doing it in a way that’s damaging, or hurtful, even though some of the things you might feel, and think, and need to say could be hurtful, but also being able to do that from a place of good intention.
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Wokie Nwabueze: Of humanity, right? And they’re not mutually exclusive; honesty, humanity.
Jennifer Brown: Yes, yes.
Wokie Nwabueze: We could do both.
Jennifer Brown: We can do both. For women that are literally though in danger, whether that’s LGBTQ women or women globally, is your message the same? Not that it’s just a matter of using and finding your voice and being true to yourself, but there are real head ones, some very real risks for some. It’s just so different for women around the world for example.
I’m always challenged with that question. We work on LGBT rights in the corporation, and in America, it’s about, ‘Do I get the same benefits as the person sitting next to me, and let’s fix that financially or let’s build in policy language that protects me.’
In other parts of the world I’m in real danger even when I’m going to work. I’m actually only safe in the four walls of my company, but not the second I step out of the walls where I am criminalized for who I am. So it’s a whole different lens. Maybe the question is what have you learned about global women, or how are you tackling people for whom the danger is more real for them of using their voice? Is that something that you focus on?
Wokie Nwabueze: One of the things that I think is most important for any woman, any person when we talk about being seen and heard, what I’m saying is it’s important to see and hear yourself; to have the ability to have honest dialogue with yourself, to know who you are, to know what you want, to know what needs to be said.
But as somebody whose work is also around conflict resolution, and I use the term conflict, people often feel like, ‘Oh I don’t mean fighting,’ but what I’m saying and when I talk about conflict, what conflict is, is it’s simply the point where two different points of view, two different values, two different needs meet period.
Jennifer Brown: I loved learning that. When I learned that, it helped so much! Take the emotions out of it.
Wokie Nwabueze: Right so in and of itself is it’s neutral. It’s how we deal with that meeting point, that point of conflict, that determines whether it’s good, bad, effective, ineffective, constructive, destructive.
So when somebody is in a conflict meaning you might have a need, or an identity, or want to express something that runs counter to somebody else, we have to think about the timing, we have to think about our safety, we have to think about our agenda, and how to best get to the outcome that we want, and we have to tap into our intuition, into our sense of empathy to understand who the listener is and how we can most effectively interact with them to get us to our goal.
So for years, and years, and years, and years, first I thought about this analogy working with kids but I still use it with adults. Whenever I do workshops, or training, or coaching I ask people, “What is an effective communicator?” And people very often think it’s being expressive, and that’s not what it is. I mean that’s being expressive. But being effective as a communicator means that the message that you want to and need to express lands with the listener the way you intended it to.
Jennifer Brown: Yes.
Wokie Nwabueze: Hopefully you’re present with your intention, and that your intention is in your best interest. I talked about with kids the idea of an airplane. If we feel like being an effective communicator or communicating effectively in a moment is just about speaking, it’s almost like saying a flight is successful when a plane takes off.
The takeoff is dangerous but the landing is pretty important too. If our message doesn’t land the way we need it to, to reach the goal that we set for ourselves, then we have not communicated effectively.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right.
Wokie Nwabueze: We can manage that but we’ve got to think about how do we get from the point of deciding, ‘I’m going to Florida for vacation’ to actually landing in Florida? There’s a process.
Jennifer Brown: What’s the ‘inflight experience’?
Wokie Nwabueze: What’s the ‘inflight experience’?
Jennifer Brown: It’s the whole way you get there. It’s the collateral damage. In communication it’s the downside of being overly expressive, is you’re not sensitive to the experience of the other on the way to the end result. Allowing that end result to surprise you, and develop in a way. Being open to that is part of the beauty of life is that it’s sort of one plus one equals three. We create something that neither of us expected because of the journey that we went on together. That’s the magic of life is really not being able to predict it, and both being shifted.
Wokie Nwabueze: I do a whole day workshop on it because it’s not just the inflight experience. It’s packing, it’s getting to the airport, it’s buying your ticket. It’s all of it, but it is about intention, and it’s about controlling what we can control, and then allowing the rest to unfold. So yes I agree with you that we can often have an unpredictable outcome. To me what that looks like is being open to possibilities.
Jennifer Brown: I like it.
Wokie Nwabueze: The idea of negotiating, it’s not that you come in and you say, ‘This is the one outcome.’ You might have one outcome that you really want, but what you need to do as a negotiator is you need to understand the party’s interests, what people want, and then you come up with a number of options that can be negotiated.
So when people think about salary oftentimes people are like, ‘I want this many dollars.’ But what if you could have more vacation days, a bigger bonus, a guaranteed promotion next year? There’s a breadth of possibilities that we can consider to get to an outcome that’s beneficial.
So I think that’s the place where I feel like we can be very open to unexpected possibilities, but to a point, we also can control what the dialogue is. We can determine what’s the best timing. We can research the other person. We can understand what their fears are, what their motivations are, and then we can build a conversation that’s more effective.
You know people and women for example in my work with coaching executive women, a lot of times people want a promotion, and they’ll say, “I want a promotion because I’ve been here a long time and I deserve it.” Which is probably true and that’s wonderful, but if you go to your supervisor and say, “I want a promotion because I deserve it,” that may or may not go over so well because is that how your supervisor thinks about the business? Versus saying, “I know this supervisor really cares about Project X, and we’re working towards Y, and if I’m in this role I can do this, I’ll have access to that, my commitment will-”
If we build the request around what the other person cares about, they’re more open to it. And so rather than saying, “I’ve been here a long time and I deserve it,” you can say that, “If I’m in this team on this role, this is what I can produce. And I also think it’s time because I deserve it.” It’s a different conversation but it requires that we see the other person.
Jennifer Brown: This is the gift of being other focused. We started our conversation talking about maybe needing to overcome some of that to find our voice, but actually I call this sort of the gifts of being the only one, is that you have to get creative in figuring out how to connect with people, and how to figure out how they will honestly come around to what you want. It’s a real interesting skill.
I think the people that are great at this are highly attuned to others. They’re really emotionally intelligent and they’ve studied and observed, they’ve mastered that. And so in a way it kind of reminds me of Susan Cain’s work when she studied the power of introverts in business.
It’s not an angle that we’d ever looked at before, and it just had never been documented. Once you learn about the particular power of what an introvert can bring to a team, or how they can navigate successfully, I mean it’s really eye-opening and I think some ways of showing up in our world get all the kudos and all the rewards, or we perceive that they do.
As we kind of revisit what leadership really needs to look like in the new age, we are bringing these other styles in and actually honoring them in a way. Whether you call that the honoring of feminine leadership for example, and I know a lot of people have complicated thoughts about that, but we know that a male dominated patriarchal style of leadership has sort of only afforded us one way in the business world, and I think that that is going to need to shift.
We all know it needs to shift, and my work with executives, it’s having the conversation around it might have served a certain point in time. It might have served for bottom line impact, or return on investment, or shareholder results, but it’s not the whole story and they’ve been missing this huge swath of different ways of leading that may not be that stereotypical maybe alpha male style that has dominated the business world for so long, and we’ve missed some really critical things as a result of that.
Just look around. Who have we not included and what has been the cost to sustainability, to our world, to our talent? We’re still losing women and people of color from organizations at a rapid clip and it’s not changing, it’s not getting any better. So we really need to kind of get down to how does fundamentally leadership need to change? And I think you have a really important message in that.
Wokie Nwabueze: I think that it’s important to also highlight in my work and I think in my people’s perspective, I think it’s important to leverage who you are. I get a lot of pushback in my work. I talk a lot about empathy, and it’s interesting. Women and particularly women in male-dominated industries are usually the ones who kind of raise an eyebrow and say, “I don’t like that.”
Jennifer Brown: “I’m uncomfortable with that.”
Wokie Nwabueze: Right, “I don’t like that.” Empathy to me is probably the number one skill of the most effective communicators and negotiators because of that very reason. They can see other people and they leverage that. This isn’t about being in a place of weakness like, ‘It’s all about them and I’m just going to-‘ No I think that it’s actually very effective as a strategy. It’s a bit of a superpower if you can see other people.
I don’t think it’s so much that we shouldn’t be observers, or collaborative. I think that that becomes damaging when we don’t stick up for ourselves, like when the scale is so tipped towards other people and being out of focus that we disappear from ourselves.
So that’s the point where I think it becomes detrimental, but if you’re in balance of having your own sense of self and then realizing that who you are, these more feminine characteristics are actually part of who you are and can be leveraged to become more effective communicators. I think that’s when you’re in the game.
Jennifer Brown: It’s so powerful. I’m curious, do you have men that have wanted to get involved in the Seen and Heard Project? I think there’s a message in all of this and some men are realizing they are not playing with the full parts of themselves as well. I know plenty of men who probably don’t feel seen and heard, and have had to masquerade towards this stereotype that they are expected to show up as. All the damage that happens to us just as human beings based on that very narrow stereotype of how they are expected specifically to show up. In a way they’re in a very harmful straitjacket in terms of how they feel pressured to show up, and it’s not true, it’s not their whole expression either.
So I wondered if you intentionally created a woman-only space? I know there’s a huge need for that too. How are you bridging, or are you bridging into that conversation?
Wokie Nwabueze: In my work, in my coaching, I have worked with men, I’ve worked with women. This is going back a couple of years but I did a workshop where there were as many men as women who were talking about this idea of being shy, of feeling like your voice was quieted, so I think that we all can struggle with this for sure. From a coaching perspective, training perspective, I think that the work is applicable across the board.
The Seen and Heard Project is very specific, and I would describe it as a passion project in addition to my regular work. The Seen and Heard Project really is a space for women because one of the things that I think doesn’t exist for women in the same way it does for me is a place where we share our wisdom, our stories, and our experiences around being seen and heard.
It’s something that resonates for women differently, collectively, and I think that our voices are quieted in the world in a way that men’s are not. The goal of the project is to have women share the stories of what they learned as young women, as girls around what their relationship to their voice and visibility should be, and sharing those stories so that women can take in their wisdom, and learn, and see themselves in other women.
It’s a little bit different than what I normally do, and it was driven by my own experience living geographically so far away from my family, and in I think a very male family. I have brothers, when I was a kid a lot of my cousins and uncles that came here for school and for work were male, and so I always felt as a girl that there weren’t a lot of women around me. There were women but not a lot of aunts and cousins, and my grandmothers who’ve now both passed away didn’t live close to me.
When my grandmother died last year, that is what hit me the hardest. That there’s this body of wisdom that I wasn’t able to connect to because we didn’t live in the same country, and I didn’t see my grandmother that often. She was in Liberia so there were a million reasons over my lifetime between the Civil War and other issues where there just wasn’t an ability to travel freely and be around each other. When she passed away I felt like, wow the loss really hurt in that way.
That’s when the project started stirring in my mind, of what if we can capture each other’s wisdom. Because my work is around voices, and communication, and being seen and heard, what if we did it with that sole intention that we would capture wisdom around our voices? I believe in the work that I did and the writing that I’m doing right now, there are things that happen to us that disconnect us from our voices, and we don’t learn that that’s happening to us while it’s happening
So we grow up, and we look around and realize, ‘Oh I’m a pushover, or I accommodate people, I never ask for what I want. Why? What happened?’ I think there are ways to raise our girls differently, and there are ways that we can be more present with our own experience while it’s happening, and therefore not find ourselves in this situation. For me as a person who’s an ‘expert’ in the field of communication, it took me five years into this work before I realized, ‘Wait a minute.’
Jennifer Brown: ‘Wait a second, what’s my story? Where does it live? Where’s the archive of me?’ I know the feeling. It’s like, ‘How did I become who I am,’ and you have to kind of dig if you even have artifacts from your early years. Where do you go to find that? In my culture, I think women, even if your mom or your grandmas are close to you physically unlike your story, they still don’t talk about it. They don’t see themselves or communicate that or pass that down, and when you try to dig for it and understand who your mom is, it’s really difficult.
Wokie Nwabueze: It’s really difficult.
Jennifer Brown: My sisters and I do talk about that because that generation particularly was even more so not about their story, or minimizing it, or not talking about it, or just not going there and that ultimately doesn’t allow this next generation to digest that and show up differently.
You know we can’t take the lessons. With no information, how can we ensure that it is then different for our daughters when I think our generation, yours and mine is trying to do the work by ourselves to try to excavate all of that and say, ‘What were my founding stories?’
It is harder for us than it needed to be, it was very hard for our mothers, and for our daughters then I think our work and your work clearly is about shortening that time and lessening the effort of keeping that ever present. Keeping their stories front and center, their truth front and center, honoring it, learning how to honor it, develop that muscle sooner in life so that that doesn’t happen again to the next generation. It just can’t.
I know as a mom of daughters I understand that this is a very pressing issue. I know we’re almost out of time, but what just got urgent for you after November, and the election, and the Women’s March? I know that things came into focus for you, and maybe in some ways became more complicated for you. Did that add fuel to your work? Did it clarify some things for you? Did it shift things for you?
Wokie Nwabueze: It basically took me out for about a month.
Jennifer Brown: I can relate.
Wokie Nwabueze: Back to what we were just talking about in terms of mothers, I’ll never forget last January I was at an event with my mother and I asked her, I said, “If you grew up in the time of women’s empowerment, what do you think would be different? What would you have done? Or what piece of advice do you have?
I was all inspired and waiting, and my mother says to me, “You know, I wouldn’t always take the burnt piece of chicken.” I was like, “What do you mean?” She said that whenever she would cook for our family if there was like a burnt piece of chicken, or the smallest piece of whatever, she would always take it. She said, “I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t assume that I should always take the burnt piece of chicken.”
Jennifer Brown: That’s beautiful.
Wokie Nwabueze: At first I was like, “What a wonderful piece of advice, no burnt piece of chicken.” Then it dawned on me that she never told me that, and that I’ve been taking the burnt piece of chicken for my whole adult life. Then I got a little annoyed, I was like, “Well why didn’t you say anything about that?”
So your point is exactly right that we don’t share, and we are the generation that’s kind of grown up post first wave. I don’t even know where we are in this section of feminism, but we’re the generation that our mothers can’t necessarily relate to. The have it all, there’s no reward for being a woman in the workplace, or a mother. We’re not at the beginning of a time when women were breaking down certain walls for the first time. There was no sense that I wasn’t expected to go to college, and go to graduate school and get a good job. I was also expected to have kids, and be parents, and somehow balance all of that which I don’t know how possible it really is frankly, but there’s a lot we’re floating.
We’re floating and I know women in our generation aren’t necessarily thriving either. I have friends that have had serious health complications from trying to balance all of this stuff. So back to your question, when the election happened, and even leading up to the election, I was in this deep question of ‘where does this work fit in? What’s even happening here around women’s voices, and how we use them, and feminism, and women’s unity?’
It just was such a confusing time for me that I actually stopped everything and just sat still for a little while to figure out what needed to happen. I think I came back to the same place I was but from a more clear and powerful place, believing that the most important thing that women can do right now is come into our own in terms of our personal power, our sense of ourselves in the world, taking all of the messages and the awareness that is being thrust upon us now whether we like it or not, and understanding the impact it’s had on our lives, and the perception we have of ourselves.
Until we take back a sense of real personal power, we’re not going to shift anything. We’re not going to be able to come into relationships even with other women as feminists or however you want to define it with a sense of wholeness so that I can stand here and I can say, “Jennifer this is who I am, this is what I need.” You say the same and we start our negotiation from there versus from a place of scarcity and fighting and feeling like there’s a limit to how much social justice exists in the world, therefore if I get, you don’t. So until we are full and whole, I don’t think much is going to shift and much is going to change.
Going back to the Seen and Heard Project, one of the biggest things that I’ve started doing even with my children is focusing on this idea of everything we’re seeing is somebody’s story, somebody’s perspective on the world. I don’t know that I’ve always walked through the world with an awareness that I was listening to someone else’s story versus feeling like I was listening to the truth. Very different things.
So with my children, even my older daughter who’s in third grade, we talk about history, and she came home one day and she said about a famous baseball player, “He’s the best baseball player ever, right?” I don’t know if it was Yogi Berra or whoever it was, and I said, “Well I don’t know.” I said, “But I know that he’s the person whose story got told.”
Jennifer Brown: There you go.
Wokie Nwabueze: I said to her, “If your sister cleaned the room with you, and came downstairs and said, ‘Mommy I cleaned the room,’ and she left you out of the story, and I went and I told my friends, and they told their friends, and they told their kids.” I said, “A year from now what’s the story going to be?” And she said, “You know that my sister cleaned the room and I didn’t help.” And I said, “Is that true?” She said, “No.” I said, “But is that her story?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “What would happen if people thought her story was the whole truth?”
That’s what I’m talking about with my kids so that they can understand that their truth is their truth and that it’s a question of finding a way for your voice to be in the mix, for your story to be part of what’s told because then you shift history. That’s how it happens, but until women have the agency over their voices until we are empowered enough to believe that, ‘Yes I deserve to be the leading character here. I deserve to be centered in this dynamic. I deserve to be a player at this table,’ then history won’t shift, and then what the next girl reads and believes about her possibilities won’t shift. And then what her daughter believes won’t shift.
For me, it’s brought me right back into the center of how important it is that women are seen and heard, and that begins with seeing and hearing ourselves and having the courage to understand how the world has impacted that perspective.
Jennifer Brown: And then stepping into the center.
Wokie Nwabueze: Absolutely.
Jennifer Brown: Boy, we all need to hear this, Wokie. I just appreciate your work, I think this is so needed by so many people. It resonates personally with me, it is my story, it is universal, and it’s going to be so good for the world to have this archive that you’re building, and the energy that is going to come of it, to the encouragement especially for that next generation of women.
It’s hard enough for us to show up to our lives and to ourselves and witness ourselves being in the generation that we’re in. But I do know that it was relatively easier for us, not perfect, but I think dedicating our lives to making it easier for that next generation is there’s nothing more holy than that. So I just really want to thank you.
Tell people where they can go to be involved and specifically to share their story for the Seen and Heard Project. How can people do that?
Wokie Nwabueze: They can go to www.SeenAndHeard.com. We just launched. We have our voice story up which is an amazing woman named Sarah who was the victim of rape and child pornography. She’s so brave, and she told her story and the way she wants her voice to be used in the world right now is to tell women who were victims that they’re believed. When she said that to me, it’s like it broke my heart open. She said that’s the most important thing is for your story to be believed, and that’s why she wanted to get involved.
So far I’ve gathered and personally interviewed 42 women, and we’re going to feature them over this year. If people want to get involved they can submit a story through the website at www.SeenAndHeard.com and they can share and spread the word which is what I want most of all.
One of the things that’s also come up, which I plan to announce to my community shortly, is that I have a very close friend who has a film production company and we’re going to be doing a few film stories in the Spring and Summer, so that’s going to come up pretty soon as well.
Jennifer Brown: Wow.
Wokie Nwabueze: Honestly it’s something that I woke up one day and said, “I want to do the Seen and Heard Project,” and it’s evolving. It is a passion project that has taken over my heart and soul, and I’m just allowing it to take me where it needs to take me. Again I encourage people to visit www.SeenAndHeard.com, submit your story, and spread the word. That’s what would be most helpful.
Jennifer Brown: That’s great, thank you. Everybody on my listenership is going to be completely enthusiastic about what you’re doing. So thank you Wokie for using your voice in the world as you’ve chosen to, or felt compelled to, and I really am excited to see everything that you create coming out of this project.
Wokie Nwabueze: Thank you, and the same for you. I appreciate you and what you’re doing in the world, I’m so glad we got a chance to do this. It’s important.
Jennifer Brown: Me too, we are alike.
Wokie Nwabueze: We are!
Jennifer Brown: We are, we are. Thank you so much, thank you.
Wokie Nwabueze: Thank you.
Jennifer Brown: Okay bye bye.
Wokie Nwabueze: Bye.