In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Dax Devlon Ross, non-profit executive, equity consultant, and author of several books, including his latest work, Letters to My White Male Friends. Dax talks about his experiences growing up in Sheppard Park, DC, attending the mostly white Sidwell Friends school, and playing basketball in downtown DC. Dax speaks candidly about the scourge of racism and its impact on all of us and why he is committed to social justice and bringing about positive change.
-The sacrifices of his father so that Dax could pursue his passion
-Dax Devlon Ross shared how learning to operate in different environments has impacted his views on racism.
-Dax Devlon Ross on the stories and reasoning why people say “I don’t see color”
-Dax Devlon Ross on encouraging his white friends to visibly and publicly participate in conversations about race and racism
-On allyship and moving beyond just words in combating systemic racism
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More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited to be welcoming Dax Devlon Ross. He's the author of several books, The Nightmare and The Dream, Make Me Believe and now Letters to My White Male Friends.
He was in New York City teaching fellow turned nonprofit executive. And now as a principal at a social impact consultancy Dax Development and Third Settlements. Both of them focusing on designing disruptive strategies to generate equity in a workspace and education space alike. After years in New York, being a native Washingtonian, Dax has returned to live and work in the Greater Washington DC region. I really enjoyed this conversation. I'm sure you will too. As well as enjoy reading Dax book Letters To My White Male Friends.
I also love hearing from you email@example.com. Keep your comments coming. There is a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast. That way you will be sure to get notified of releases Tuesdays with Changemakers from the greater Washington DC region, and then Thursdays with authors, primarily of leadership books.
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Now here's my conversation with Dax Devlon Ross.
Dax Devlon Ross. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am absolutely thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Dax Devlon Ross:
And I'm beyond thrilled to be in this conversation for so many different reasons. Not the least of which was that it's centered around or at least we're based in, I'm here in DC so it's just nice to have a local conversation. And I'm excited to be part of it.
It's great to have a real thought leader in space, move back to DC. So I'm really excited to see that. As you know, Dax, I start all of these conversations with people about their upbringing, because I do think our upbringing has a big impact on us. And your upbringing is a basis for a lot of what you have written, including in your book. So I want to spend a little bit more time on your own upbringing here in the Greater Washington DC region. But before we get to that, you use a picture of your father and you do a beautiful job of describing the world through your father's eyes and the impact that had on you. I would like to first start with that before then getting into a little bit of your own journey.
Dax Devlon Ross:
Thank you for asking that. My father has been gone, he's not been with us for 16 years, but there's not been a day that he is not intimately involved in my intellectual life, my spiritual life. And I feel like in many ways I hope that if he's able to see me, he sees that I'm living out a lot of the things that we talked about, things we planned for, the seeds that he planted in me.
My father was born in Richmond, Virginia, 1941. So you think that this is middle of the war so he is not a boomer. He is a member of what is called the silent generation. This is this in-between age that people often don't talk about as much. So he's born at a time in a city, I think that is still living through segregation and the vestiges of the era of Jim Crow. His father and his mother, two very determined people. My grandparents, my father, my grandfather owned a body shop and he used to work on cars and he had his own potty shop. And I remember going, I could still smell the paint. I have to say, unfortunately he died of emphysema. And I think a lot of it had to do with inhalation of paint over all those years.
But it was still a really profound experience as a young person to go to Richmond and have a grandfather who was his own man. He worked for himself. So I think that in many ways affected my father growing up because his own worldview was being shaped by even in the midst of living in the south, being shaped by having a father who was his own man and was able to determine his own life in many ways, by being his own boss.
And so I believe in many ways, my father's aspiration growing up was very much the same. To be a man that could make his own way in the world. So he grows up in the 1940s and the 1950s. And ultimately as I've been told, and information has been passed down to me, took one of those standardized tests at the time and did really well.
Apparently he wasn't the best student at the time. He was a good student, but apparently did off the charts in this test. So well that he was awarded a scholarship to the University of Virginia. But Howard that be at the time, he's going to go to Howard university.
And so his move to DC I think is in many ways, the Genesis of my life, because he had arrived in DC at a time when a number of folks arrived in DC. I think that ended up becoming and creating a generational shift. Because as I'm growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I'm surrounded by people in Washington, DC, who were his peers, his colleagues, friends, my mother's friends as well. And these were mostly black folks who had gone through or been in some ways impacted by Howard University so much so that I tell people when I grew up I would mistake Howard and Harvard. Didn't understand that there was this other place called Harvard, because the only thing that seemed to matter was Howard and being on the yard.
And everybody I knew had these really rich experiences there. It didn't even occur to me that it was an HBCU, the concept of it and being an HBCU was fun. It just was, and it was just part of a DC that at that time, when I was growing up, was a majority black city.
I try to tell these stories, cause my upbringing in many ways was like an inverted experience inside this little bubble, in particular, moment in time.
And my father being implematic of the men of his generation being a first. First in his family to go to college, first to graduate and able to pursue this professional career in these traditionally predominantly white spaces and him being able to then send his children into these predominantly white institutions for their education as a choice was major.
I would say that my father has said to me, when I decided I wanted to be a writer and no one in my life had been a writer and I didn't know anybody who was a writer. But he had this sentiment and I remember either he wrote it to me cause he would write these letters, these handwritten letters to me we'd have these long conversations, especially into my early twenties when I was still figuring out my life. We'd have these deep, long conversations well into the night. And then I'd get a letter in the mail a couple of days later where he's been ruminating over we had talked about. And typically there was a book along with it with certain things that have been highlighted for me to read. Nothing hard. But I like to say that my father viewed his grandfather's life as one in which he was a mechanic, he worked with his hands. My father became an engineer. He was working with his mind. And he also recognized that he had to make a choice in a very practical way. I think he wanted to be an artist himself. And he also recognized that as part of the generation, that was a first. Didn't have that luxury. You really needed to make a practical choice. And engineering was a very practical choice that he could merge to get at some of the artistic desires and some of his aspirations.
And so that I come along. And in many ways, although I do go to law school and have the set of formal education, when I decided that I wanted to pursue my career as a writer, he says to me that in many ways, I've done these things and made these choices so that you can make the choice that you're making right now.
If there was anybody in my life early on, when I was starting to write and I was very clunky and still figuring it out and didn't know what I was doing, who supported me, it was always him. I never had to feel like I needed to justify the choices that I was making about my life, because he was proud of them. He admired it. I think in some ways he reveled in the notion of that his son could do this, could try this thing out in the world. That means a lot. And I carry that with me because it feels like at some times when I've decided, when I've wanted to not pursue the things that I want to pursue. He is like, "How dare you? How dare you not pursue the things that people have broken down barriers, walked through the door and stood in the gap. They made the bridge for you to do this thing. And so what if it's hard or if it's just a bit of a struggle? Get to it."
I have a boy who's going to be born. And I have a beautiful daughter, too. She's the best thing that's ever happened to me. And I have a son who was actually supposed to be born on my father's birthday. And that was a mind-blower. We found out for his due date was my father's birthday. I was like, oh, he's here, but he'll be arriving in a few days from now.
And I keep thinking that because of all the things generationally that have happened to me, I get to then allow him to think big, broad, bold about what he wants to do with his life. So what that next thing might be for him. I'm so excited. And for my daughter, of course, as well. For them, I'm really excited, but that's the part of the legacy. That's the legacy I'm proud of. And I think it's a legacy sometimes that in our country we don't have enough of a language to really talk about and explore. And such that I felt compelled to tell my story and talk about this story. Not that it's special, but that it's uniquely unremarkable in the community I grew up in. I am uniquely unremarkable relative to the friends in the neighborhood and the city that I know to be the one I grew up in.
Dax, what a beautiful way of describing the sacrifices and the groundbreaking that your father did that gave you the opportunities, because I see a lot of desire in you to make a difference in a world around you, for your daughter, your son, my daughters of the future. So in addition to your own thought leadership, there's almost a sense of responsibility that I can sense you have to your father and to your grandfather for the sacrifices they made to afford you the opportunities you've been able to take advantage of.
Dax Devlon Ross:
Responsibilities, I guess, at the best word that we have for it. I'd even go so far to call it a debt. And I would include my mom centrally in that as well. I feel like in many ways there was a certain erudition and a certain discipline and a certain fortitude that my father exemplified.
And then I think, the social justice responsibility to one's folks. Whatever those folks might be, whoever those folks might be that actually explicitly comes from my mother. And my father was the one who was symbolizing it through his actions. But then my mother was definitely the one who was verbalizing it in her words, like, knowing who you are, who raised you, who supports you.
And I'm very conscious of the fact that often in my work I center my father. And I think about his journey. And, I feel the need, especially as I get older and I recognize part of it has to do with the fact that my mom's always been here. And because she's been here for the last 16, 17 years, than my father had. I could just call her, I could drive to see her now. She's a part of my life. And I don't feel like I maybe give as much voice to the honor that I have for her to the choices that she made.
I always say that my parents divorced when I was nine years old and everyone expected my mom to just close up shop and just go back to Virginia. Because at that point she had been the domestic space, in our house, in our home taking care of us. She didn't do that though. She went and she found and made a career for herself. This is a woman who didn't have a college education, college degree, but she found and made a way for herself in the world in such a way that she's widely respected in the city, in DC. And I find out all the time when I go around, she's done a lot of work for small businesses to help small businesses. And that's where she expresses her responsibility.
So you talk about this word responsibility. It's endemic to who I am. And I think to my own intellectual formation, so separate from my father or my mother, if someone were to ask me, "Who were the writers that inspired you? And what made you think about becoming a writer?" I don't think I ever felt like I had the luxury just to write. I felt like the writing that I would do therefore the thinking that I would do needed to be connected to social change, social justice, social action. I just didn't see it any other way. That was my impulse. And also the models that I was reared around about the holy Trinity of a Baldwin, of Ellison and Wright. Add into that mix of course you know, you have Toni Morrison who is incredibly important. Alice Walker. That work is really incredibly vital to why I wanted to become a writer. And then therefore, what kind of writing I continue to do in the world. And it's responsibility work, it's debt work, and it's work knowing that nobody else is going to do it. So you better do it because if we don't do it, then I can't expect anybody else to do it. If I don't honor my histories, I don't tell these stories, then I can't expect somebody else to.
So Dax you have that sense of responsibility. You had that model in your father and your mother. You also had a very unique upbringing in that you had to navigate three very different worlds, a world of growing up in a middle-class black family in Shepherd Park in DC, a world of Sidwell friends. One of the most exclusive, if not the most exclusive high school in the entire country, imagine primarily white. And then playing basketball with friends in downtown D C. Those are three different worlds. How were you able to navigate those three worlds?
Dax Devlon Ross:
And that triangle, it just didn't occur to me until I was much older that that was how my life was patterned. And in many ways that pattern formed so much of how I experienced and showed up in the world.
It was really hard because when you're 14, 15, 16 years old there isn't a language to articulate the things that you feel like you're experiencing, because it's not as if my parents could talk. Then also what's happening in a very specific geography at a specific time. I say the basketball piece was there was a desire and a hunger for me, to be in the absolute best basketball environment possible. I knew growing up uptown as it was, I was like, this ain't the best basketball but if I really want to do it, then I'm gonna have to go here. I gotta go to the hood. And it never even crossed my mind. There was no fear. That's where I got to go.
And I think on some level the Sidwell experience and Sidwell has changed dramatically. It has become, I think, even more of a sort of symbol of privilege than even when I was there in the eighties and nineties. I think people knew about it. It was a school in BC, but it has become something else now. But nevertheless when the opportunity came, I think similarly, the challenge seemed to be really exciting, even as a sixth grader going that thing.
I want that challenge. I don't know what it is, but it seemed an amazing opportunity for an education to the extent that one kid at 12, 13 years old, I wanted that. So I think the connective tissue, even why I moved to New York for 20 years and lived in the city and moved to Brown. And I am one who believes that you throw yourself into the fire. I feel like that's how you, how your metal is formed.
So part of how I did it was I had this constitution personally, that I can do anything. You put me anywhere. I'm going to find a way to succeed, whatever success could look like and how I'll define it myself. But I have firmly felt, and I think so much of it was formed in that neighborhood, Shepherd Park.
So that's the origin, that's the culture in which the formation took place. So that I could go out to these other two worlds, two very different worlds, one downtown DC in the 1980s. And one, of course, this very prestigious school and feel as though I could find a way to belong in both those places.
Even though I had a lot of pushback in both those places, because there was something central about the home. It's this community that has given me a clear sense of who I was. A sense of confidence about myself, that I could do it. There was no environment in which I couldn't be successful. And I hold that to this day.
There is both a clear sense of identity Dax, and an ability to empathize with and connect with people in different worlds that I see in your writing and in your thinking. And it's really important for us to understand as we want to bring more people along in the conversation around race and the systemic racism that is assisted.
So I think from childhood, you were able to operate in these different environments and learn how to engage and connect. I'm curious, also you were in ninth grade when the Rodney King beating happened. So ninth grade going to Sidwell friends and your best friend growing up who became sort of the reason for you writing the Letter to My White Male Friends later on was also your friend back then.
As a young black boy in a school like Sidwell friends. Were there ever conversations, were there things going through your mind that you didn't share with others? What was going through your mind at that point in time? Do you recall?
Dax Devlon Ross:
I think in many ways at that point in my life, I felt my job was to make and to be the best in that school, and that environment was to be accommodating to white people. Meaning do not make it uncomfortable for them. I think there's something that happens to people, specifically, people of color in white dominant environments where you are socialized to capitulate and just to accommodate because what happens in that environment is that you're fed this narrative of your exceptionalism. And I'm gonna speak in the first person that I didn't feel like I had a valid way of entering conversation around race because I had this privilege of being in that environment.
And I think in some ways, unfortunately, even white people who were my peers in that space would inadvertently and unconsciously, and without meeting intended it to be malicious, would look at my blackness as a qualified blackness, as a different than other people's blackness. And I think in some ways I actually came to never embrace it, but to accept that.
And so when Rodney King happens it's horrific to watch it. I think it's different only insofar as he was a grown man. And so what we've seen in this more modern iteration of police violence has been these younger bodies that have been acting..
And so what I knew to be true in 10th grade was that obviously that was wrong, but it felt so foreign to me, into my experience that I don't think I had this. And some people in my school did. Some of the black kids in my school did. They got out, they were involved. And it wasn't until I'm in 11th and 12th grade in which I start to actually have, I'm gonna have a driver's license. And I started to actually experience police violence myself, specifically in 12th grade. I do have these very intense experiences that begin. And I tell people, I would say from the ages of 17 to my early thirties, I had at least one encounter a year with the police.
So just think about that. I would say for almost 17 years of my life, there wasn't a year that went by that did not have an encounter with law enforcement. So I was still a little pre, I was still in a cocoon. The cocoon that my family had built for me had persisted in some way. So even though I played in the hood and had those experiences, even then there's still a protectiveness because I was playing basketball. And I will say if you're a good basketball player in any city in America, I think it is almost like a get out of jail free card. People look out for you, they protect you. They don't let you see certain things. They guide your places you get taken care of from a very young age. If you demonstrate any kind of skill or expert or talents, I was one of those kids who was good enough at that sport that I had adults around who were steering me away from or shielding me from things that I didn't have to. So even if I went to a basketball court that was in Southeast at the time I was coming into that space with adults and people who were looking for things that I wasn't even thinking about. I honor those people because they were protecting me, but I had to come ultimately to my own awareness of these things. My own experience with these things, because they can only protect you for so long.
So you had come to that awareness out of your cocoon for years. And at a certain point in 2020 June, you decided, you know what, it's time for me to speak the truth to my well-meaning well-intentioned friends. So what initiated that first Letter to My White Male Friends of a certain age that you sat down and you wrote.
Dax Devlon Ross:
I mean, I tell people, I had taken some real time off of writing. There was a period and I said you know, I'm just going to put the pen down. I've been kind of going at it hard. And something said to me that I needed to do some other things, get some other experiences, change my relationship to writing in ways.
I felt like I was forcing things and I think what that letter, what was underneath that was, I spent some time in quiet. I had done some quiet time work of reflecting on what do I really want.
In that period in the time I turned 40 and I started to go into, so I think I was leading up to that moment without any, knowledge that that would happen, but I had done a lot of digesting and processing and really doing what I think we could do a lot more of in this country, which is observe, take note, being a listening space, a learning space. And I think at that moment it was almost like this is a jumble that had been working its way through me that finally straightened itself out. It stretched out. And it became this very clear and crystal expression that I wanted to put into the world that felt authentically what I always wanted to communicate as a writer and how I wanted to always communicate as a writer.
And I felt like I both had the experience and to be quite honest, I had done the humility work that could allow me to communicate in a way that I think was, has been received as empathetic as you've already used that word. But I also just encountered, interacted and gone through and done enough work with institutions that are led by well, meaning liberal white folks. And I was just frankly, tired. Just really tired of the ways of which the stories about black folks, people of color get told in this country and who gets to tell those stories. I'm just tired of it because I feel like you're telling a story that is self-serving.
I worked in the nonprofit space and a lot of my work continues to be, but I felt as though there was still an attended to be a kind of condescension that permeates patronizing ways in which issues around race can be talked about, issues around systemic injustice can be talked about. And it can be talked about that way.
And because the people who are often talking about it are not physically threatened by, or do not have to feel as though their lives are the ones that are ultimately at risk. And so it was a point in which I was like, and especially with my friends and people that I was connecting to, I was like, "Guys, we're here now. This is it. There is no practice. These are the moments that will define your life." And the people you will look back on, everyone will look back on and say, " Where were you? How did you show up? What are you waiting for?"
If you really have this belief, don't just tell me in the bar and we're having a drink. Don't just tell me in a whisper or send me a side text message. I don't really need that actually. I'm good. What I need, if you actually show up, is to show in a public way. And I think that's hard because there's risk involved in that. Just because of how I present in the world. I don't have the luxury of doing certain calculus around risks that I will and will not take. There's course. There is some calculus I can take. Absolutely. and I do it all the time, but when it comes to that thing to the sort of racialized violence that we're seeing both the physical, the emotional, these times demand us to have a more honest reckoning and not just a reckoning on the terms of the people to have tended historically to have power.
What has frustrated me historically as I've done my own research. So part of what I was doing when I was quiet in my listening is I was reading a lot. One of the things you encounter and you understand is that, this isn't the first this country has cycles. And the cycles of unrest. But who gets to decide when the unrest is done? Who gets to decide when we're no longer going to have these conversations? Who gets to decide when we've gone far enough with that initiative? It has typically historically been the very same people who have always had power, which are white folks.
And so my challenge in this thing, and this in my work is what if we said that you don't get to decide all the terms of this? You don't get to decide how it looks. You could be in the part of the conversation. You can be at the table, but you get to sit at the head of the table automatically. Just because you happen to have the resources shouldn't mean you get to dictate the terms of the discussion.
So I wanted to start that and wrestle with that. Let's have a round table instead of a long boardroom table. A round table means that we can all be at it. And I think about my civil experiences, and I'd write about it in the book. One of the things that was really powerful about the way in which many of my classrooms were set up was that sort of circle. A learning circle. Whereas we see everybody's face there and the teacher and the educators, part of that circle, not above that circle, that outside that circle, it's part of that circle.
So I believe those things they encoded themselves and then in many ways, show up in the ways in which I talk about how I think we've all needed to show up in these conversations. And not just in the conversation and then work that has to follow the conversation.
Dax, in most instances, we want to only blame the system and there's a lot to be blamed in the system. However, our thinking, our questions, our labeling things have a real impact.
Dax Devlon Ross:
Real impact. I love the way you just said it. Our labeling of things.
A decade and a half ago, we saw these resume studies that were done around what happens if you have a name that might in some way, indicate that it might be racial. And we know, same resume. And if you were to ask the people who were looking at those resumes, are you racist? They would say no. They would deny, deny, deny it. So we've got all of this information we've learned in the last two decades around implicit bias and still people think that they can gain the system.
I think we're focusing to understand is that you can't gain this thing. That's how deep and pervasive it is that we are all implicated. And unless you're doing some work in some capacity to unlock, undo, reframe, and rethink, there's a high possibility, perhaps probability, that you are infected by some of these latent beliefs that live in our society. These are labor beliefs that have been woven in over hundreds of years. It's not like you didn't create them. I didn't create them. We're born into them.
And we all have to accept that in order to be able to improve on it Dax. I had an interesting experience about a month or so back where I got lobbied by authors that want to be on the podcast. And this was an author, their PR agency with a best-selling book. And I asked a simple question. All the examples were nine white men, one white woman. I said, weren't there other examples?And the author was really insulted and said, "I don't see color."
So the stories would tell the things we do is first, we need to recognize that it's in everything we do. It's in everything we say, it's how we view the world. So we have to reframe it in order to be able to understand the world differently before we can address it. We have to understand the problem. And in many instances, the problem begins with us, with me.
Dax Devlon Ross:
That's so much of this sort of structure of the book. The book begins in part one. That's why the memoir exists. I use my journey and the social political context in which it was taking place as a way to invite people to do some of their own reflection around their journey and the social political context that was in place, because we are all raised in context.
In many ways that author might have been raised at a time in America when the right and proper thing to say is that I don't see race. Many of my peers have come to me and said, "Dax, I'm confused. When I was growing up, everyone was telling me not to see race. And now I'm being told I should see race."
There's two things going on, who was telling you not to see race? There's a way you got to ask the who question, because it was probably people who were most uncomfortable with the idea of race that were telling me not to see race. And contextually speaking we had just come out of this really, really hard time in America. The sixties and fifties, sixties, and seventies were so intensely volatile. I think that just, there are points in which a culture does need a cooling off period, just cool, chill out a little bit. I get that. Not to say it's right, but I get there's fatigue and I think we're experiencing and moving into a fatigue period right now as a matter of fact.
I think there's fatigue upon us. So just knowing who the source of that information and what was the purpose for which that information was being delivered to you. And also being recognizing as a lifelong learning, being open to the notion that just like anything else that you feel like you care about and are invested in your learning is always happening.
I think what people would like when it comes to conversations around difference, race, sexuality, gender identity, is that they could reach a static point in which they have figured it out so they could move on.
I had a call yesterday, running a session with a leadership team for, with an organization with the company as a matter of fact. This was the end of a three hour session we had done. We had done multiple three hour sessions of learning with the group. And his last session was really working on some theme of allyship and how to build some of the themes like the theoretical frameworks, and also build some of the practical skills and the CEO's last remarks where it's like, "This is just too long. We needed to be able to do this in a much shorter fashion." And I just feel like that is, a.) It is really problematic to say to a person of color this takes too long. I can talk to you about some things that take you too long. If you want to talk about things taking too long, your entire senior leadership team is white.
Let's talk about some things that take too long. But then beyond that, underneath that is just give me the tools. Just give me the thing so I can have it and I can use it. And I can be done with this.
And I always say to folks just like you and I have done in this conversation, there's actually a joy in this work. If you allow for it, there's laughter in this work, if you allow for it. But you got to work to that place, meaning develop the competency so that you can see this thing for what it is, which is absurd actually. Which is actually ridiculous. Which is that we've created this sort of tribalism. And then we facture it when we've built this sort of factionalism and undergirded with these ideas around physical difference in appearance as a way to distinguish between people in the whole have and have not.
For a civilized society that we do this to one another it is both disturbing and you must find in order to survive and get through, you got to find some levity around it because it's ridiculous. But that's what I want people to think. If you only approach this as arduous labor, and of course you want it to be done, but if you impose, it is like, this is my opportunity to maybe connect deeper with myself, connect with others that maybe I've not connected with to build relationship and community.
And maybe even to interrogate some of the things that I have come to believe, need to be true about my own idea of, I think I see a lot in sort of the ways in which people attack themselves very deeply into rationalism. The end all be all for any kind of discourse. Why have we allowed for people who have different ways of knowing and thinking about the world? Why don't we put them and assume that those other ways of being in knowing are less valid than rationalism?
Now I went to law school. I'm a believer in rationalism. But I also believe that we have to find and find space for other kinds of knowing. Intuition has a space in our world. Spirit has a space in our world. Love has a space in our world. Some of those things can't just be rationalized. You can't find the formula for all that stuff. It just is. And so I will also, part of what I'm getting at is I want folks to get better at getting closer proximity and better relationship and more in touch with some of that stuff too, because life becomes actually more joyful when you don't drive through a neighborhood of color and think that you're going to be robbed or there's something's going to happen bad to you, or that you see a community that is maybe not as well to do as yours and assume that the children don't have fathers and assume that they have a bad education and assume all these things.
Part of what you've allowed yourself to believe is that physical space as a definer of all the things about those people inside of those space, without recognizing their structural impediments, those structural impediments don't get in the way of love. They don't block intelligence. They don't mean that people aren't trying to work hard and get themselves into different life conditions.
Which is why I think Dax your book is a great way of how I see you tackling some societal issues with some personal stories and some political elements that we all need to think about and address. Now you start your book and I would love for you to tell this story about you watching a square dancer in South Africa.
Dax Devlon Ross:
Yes. So yes, for 20 years. I've been trying to find a way to tell that story.
You did. It's a great way to start your book.
Dax Devlon Ross:
Yeah, it's in there. I'm in South Africa, studying law, enjoying life at the bar with my friends. I look over and I see this guy. He's moon walking, he's just moonwalking in a club. People are dancing there, he is moonwalking around the perimeter of the dance floor. It just struck me. So at first amusing, entirely amusing.
First of all, this guy, he must've completely drunk. What is he doing? Who moonwalks in the club by himself? But then I'm intrigued. I remember just looking down and watching this dude go round and round. And he was having the best time. And I thought in that moment, there was a certain liberation that I was drawn to, that I didn't feel in my own life at that time. And I think what we often do, we see those kinds of peoples as a ridicule. Ridicule and we let that be the end of it. When, if we do some deeper inquiry and investigation, we see that maybe there's something that they're doing that we wish we could do. I didn't want to go moonwalk, but there's something metaphorically that I saw in that liberation.
And I think even from me, I've come to deeper understandings about the meetings, that scene and relationships, book, as people have interpreted what I'm up to in this project and this story, and this book that I'm writing, I've heard folks say, “Well, you know, bless you almost for having this kind of empathy or fact that you have hope is great. Or, I think you almost let white guys off a little too easy.”
There's this thing that I think people have in their mind around how a black person's supposed to express their feelings about white people. In particularly, for me, it's my white friends. And I talk about as it is in the opening, my journey has been one that has really been rooted and steeped in a post civil rights America.
And I've had opportunities and privileges that have put me in proximity to people who become deeply important to my life. It wasn't an event. It wasn't an opportunity or relationships, set of relationships my dad could have. And I say, could have, because I think it really enriched my life that I have these friendships.
And so for me to grand stand now and act as if those people aren’t important to me, those friends don't mean something to me that I don't love them and they don't love me and that we don't have each other just because I see that there's room for them to grow, for me to cancel them. I won't do that. I'm going to create new narratives. A new narrative that includes them and me and all the other weeds out here who don't feel included.
I'm not going to do the popular thing that might be happening on social media, which is X, Y, and Z. So I can get some claps and some thumbs ups. That's not what this is about. I have to do it true. And so therefore there's some liberation that I saw that person. Not that there's an indifference to others, because you had to be aware of people's spatially, who around him. There isn't a decision that I'm not going to allow other people's ideas about who I should be, how I should show up, who I should be friends with, who I should care about, or how I should think about these things to determine my choices. And if you align with that, cool, this book is for you. If you don't then hopefully you'll find something in there that you'll at least understand that I'm authentically telling my story, not doing this to get kudos. I'm doing this because this is my truth. This is my experience. It's the world I grew up in.
And in many ways I refuse to allow for the world even here in Washington, which wants to paint the picture of it being to dominate and permeate. I actually think it is much more nuanced than that. We are much more bound together than is allowed. And we are allowed to have a narrative around the punditry that permeates our culture and that dominates the narrative that operates at these sorts of polarities. And so therefore you cannot get enough. You don't get the opportunity for nuance, to be something that we engage with, grapple with.
I say, as long as you're going to sit down, I'm going to sit down. As long as we're going to be in the conversation, I'm in the conversation. I don't need you to be already there yet because you know what, it takes time and you haven't done the work. But what I need you to do is to make some kind of commitment and hold yourself accountable and be visibly and publicly accountable to that.
And that nuance comes across in your writing Dax, which is why I think one of the best things that leaders can do is to read books like yours. Again, part in understanding your experience, but part because you interject a lot of social and political elements that is also really important for us to have conversations and dialogue around, to continue to expand our own understanding. Now I wonder, in addition to your own book, what resources do you recommend to leaders as they want to go on this journey?
Dax Devlon Ross:
I'm talking to my leaders in the nonprofit space, I actually say that there's a book that they should probably start with themselves, which is called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. It's a grassroots book that came out a number of years ago. That series of essays that really explore the unvarnished in an unvarnished way is sort of the sector. And I think it's really telling some alternative origin stories, alternative narratives that were enlightening for me and helped me understand many ways why and how the field, the sector, operates and navigates itself. So I think there's a book like that. I always say it's a really important read. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.
There's a book that I keep by my side and I read it quite often. It's called Adaptive Leadership and it's a very practical text that I'm sure that folks in Leadership Washington, Greater Washington, maybe have some familiarity with the work about Adaptive Leadership.
I feel the work that I do, it melds adaptive leadership with the DEI frame. I bring those together because I feel like adaptive leadership without saying as much in perhaps, it is ultimately work that is if done in the right way, it’s about systematizing equitable practices in a variety of ways.
I think about the words, this sort of values of recognizing and honoring the voices from below. That's one of the central tenets. Protecting the voices from below. That's what's happening right now. We have a lot of people who don't have positional power and authority who are speaking truths to us about our organizations and corporations. And because they're the ones living this stuff, then we could decide to block them out, shut them down, fire them, or we could listen to what they have to say. We could protect that voice. We can find the truth in that.
And I think similarly, this idea of giving the work back to the people for them to do that work, people always tell me, I empower my people to do their thing. I think it's not. It's more than just empowering people. I think you've got to create the container for them to do the work into. The creation of the container is really critical and holding the container for people. Don't just give them the work and say, I'm empowering you to do it. People need more. The leader does create some important boundaries, important structures, so important rules of engagement so that people can do the work that you want them to do. So adaptive leadership is really a foundational, informational text that I use.
There's this book, by this woman named Adrian Marie Brown. I read this book probably three or four years ago and it made me want to write again. The way this woman is structured and constructed this narrative. The way she talks about her own journey as a leader and what it did to her and therefore why she needed to transform the way she led, but also what leadership looks like and decentralizing herself.
I would say some of those echoes are in the ways I write about my experiences as well. Because I think, and I'm thinking about this a lot more what I am hungry for and what I really am drawn to is a radical kind of honesty that is that leaders are able to practice in a public space and in a public way with their people that trust their people to be able to hear the truth of something and still believe in the thing that we're up to.
So I think what I mean is that I feel like some CEOs believe their job is to tell people that everything is going to be alright. It's to protect people from hard truths. I think we're past that now. We're just not in that space anymore. People are not responding to that. We just lived through a pandemic. We can deal with it. People can deal with some truth. So I think what they're hoping for is when folks and leaders can really open up and examine moments in their own leadership lives, where they've fallen short of their own expectations, what they've wanted to be in the fear that will turn people off or that they will lose people I think is misguided.
What I find is that it brings people in more. That vulnerability, that willingness to sort of reflect in a public way. I admire when those kind of leaders, when leaders can do that kind of work. I actually do think what I hope to be doing more of, I need to be doing more for a period of my life. I was a huge fiction writer and a reader.
And in more recent years, I've gotten away from doing and spending enough time in the fiction space. I think I need to be back in the fiction space because fiction isn't that it's not true. Instead it explores possible truths.
So I encourage people to think about not just reading non-fiction, but really engage with fiction in the ways in which it can expand the mind. It can play with language and terminology. And so therefore to that end, what I do, I read comic books. I read comic books, Mahan. And I call them complex, not graphic novels because when I was a kid, my literature was the Marvel universe.
And in many ways, my understanding of origin stories, the importance of origin stories, the importance of the hero's journey, the journey that people go on, the importance of friendship across differences. There's a whole story behind these two and it's rooted in the Holocaust. And how they were both formed through the experience of the Holocaust when Xavier comes out of that experience and he is determined to bring humanity together. Magneto is so embittered by what happens and what he observed in the Holocaust that he has given up on humanity. So he's not a bad person, even though what he does in the world, it's harmful. And their entire dynamic is around that relationship. It's a very Malcolm and Martin story in many ways.
And I think there's a reason why the Marvel universe has become so much more popular in our recent years. It's dealing with archetypes, myths, symbols that give us a way to grapple with some of the things that are happening in our concrete world. So I invite people to recognize that some of the best writing that I'm seeing is happening in that universe and network.
I go to comic bookstore. Is it just me? And it's a bunch of nerds in there. Bunch of dudes who are absolute nerds, maybe one of them, just absolute geeks. They're talking about this, and there's always this dark cavernous place but there's a richness there in that universe. And there's a truth seeking that people are doing. It's not escapism actually. Don't believe it's escapism. I believe that actually it's a deep engagement with things through metaphor because that's how we can bring life to things that are unexplainable. We don't have a word that sort of terminology to grapple with in the quote unquote real world.
I tell people, Mahan, I hope someday I get to write some comics, Mahan. It forms me. It means a lot to me. So those are some important texts that I find myself engaging with right now.
But definitely, Emergent Strategy. Definitely, Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Definitely, Adaptive Leadership. And right now I'm reading this comic book series called The Universe X. It tells the story of a future earth and a future universe in which everyone has mutant powers.
I know I'm getting kind of nerdy, right now. And I'm nerding out, but it's a fascinating thing for me. I read it in the mornings. As a matter of fact, it's a fascinating thing to think about because it ultimately is about leadership. It is about how do you make choices? The biggest choices you can make which are about humanity and the species and the survival. How do you reckon and wrestle with people who've been your enemy your entire life, but you need them now in this moment, you need them because everything is on the line right now. It doesn't get much deeper than this stuff.
That's one of the superpowers you have is similar to Leonardo DaVinci. One of the incredible things that made him a polymath was the ability to use the deep understanding in one area to transfer to other areas, and that really gave him a superpower. So I see a super power in you with your ability, whether it is in gaining the hero's journey or some of the storylines from the Marvel comic books to some of your own personal life experiences in drastically different worlds to your experiences as a black man in America that has had a gun put to your throat in high school.
So you're able to capture and bring relevance from lots of different worlds and add value through your content, through your writing. And I am really thrilled that now we have you as a leader back in the greater Washington DC region. So you can add to the conversation, you can ask the questions and you can help all of us learn and grow together.
I really appreciate this conversation and your taking the time for it. Dax Devlon Ross,
Dax Devlon Ross:
I'm grateful to you. I'm grateful to you for doing the work that you do, for inviting me to be part of this. I know you get a lot of people who want to come on your show and be part of a conversation like this. So thank you for choosing me and for allowing me to be part of it. I can't wait to meet you in person.
Same here, Dax. Absolutely.