15 March, 2021
Episode 04 — It’s about time we commend civic engagement
Joelle Williams is community activism personified. Hear how her experiences growing up in New York, attending college in the south, and her family roots in activism and faith culminated in a multi-dimensional career spanning business, design, and inspired her to effect long lasting change through social justice and equity work at IBM.
“Activism was an everyday occurrence, talking about race relations, conversations like that. That was our, if you will, sport around the dinner table. We were very much so active, not only in the church from a civil rights activist point of view, but also in the music we were listening to and hearing and infused throughout our lives. I would say that is the bedrock, the foundation of my childhood into adulthood.”
Transcripts are edited for readability and clarity.
Nigel Prentice: Today, I’d like to start with a few inspirational words. What always comes to mind is the creativity, energy, and inspiration that I always received from well-written poetry and inspirational characters. We heard just a few weeks ago, Amanda Gorman, the young woman who recited at the 2021 inauguration for the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration, and the world was amazed. While she was, in fact, fantastic, a personal inspiration of mine has always been Maya Angelou. As I thought about today’s recording, I thought about some of her words. “You may not control all the events that happened to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.“
Another one, “I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.“ And finally, “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.“ It’s those words that lead me into introducing my guests today. This is a person who embodies many of those words, if not all of them. The kindness that she has. The truth that she’s not afraid to speak to authority. Her generosity, leadership, guidance, counsel, and honesty always shine through. Join me in welcoming Joelle Williams:.
Nigel Prentice: Joelle, how are you?
Joelle Williams:: I’m pretty good, Nigel. How are you?
Nigel Prentice: I’m doing quite well. Always a pleasure to connect with you, and chat and talk, and I’d love for you to introduce what your role is here at IBM.
Joelle Williams:: Absolutely. My role, much like my background, is a hybridity of functions. I came into IBM as an Offering Manager, and I currently sit on a design team leading adoption and impact for one of our internal tools and platforms. So, I call it a hybridity because I’m on the design team; I’m technically not a designer. We could talk about that later. However, I’m doing work that drives business outcomes as well. It’s the intersection of design and business.
Nigel Prentice: That’s right, and I want to decode a few terms for those who might not be familiar with internal IBM jargon. When we say Offering Manager, we mean the Product Management function, and that’s how I came to know you. Here in IBM Studios Austin, we’ve worked on teams together. We’ve helped roll out programs that primarily helped bring early career designers into the profession, into the company. You were and have been our trusted Product Management - Offering Management expert. You help guide these early-career folks and even guide us all of us across all the teams on how we can adapt and be better collaborators. That is a theme that I think transcends even what you just said, the hybridity - the hybrid aspect of design and product. And you know, I would say honestly, Joelle, and maybe I should ask it in this way. You know, how have you enjoyed working so closely with design? Because I’ve got a way of saying that you are a designer and I’ll share my thoughts in a minute.
But in the last several years, how have you found that? How has it been working with designers so closely?
Joelle Williams: I enjoy working with designers. I do. I do consider myself to be a designer, a designer of programs, designer of processes. As a matter of fact, I have an MBA in Strategic Design which is the intersection of design and business. Therefore, I often look at it with multiple lenses, understanding multiple sides of the coin. It’s great to have those diverse viewpoints and have people who have a strategic view in terms of looking at actions and just that holistic experience of anyone going through a product or program’s lifecycle.
Nigel Prentice: I’m glad you said that because that’s where I was going as well. You have designed quite a few things. Whether they’re artifacts or programs or services or experiences for colleagues, you certainly feel the boots and fill the role of a service designer, if not more. It is important to point out that we all are designers when we are doing what my friend, Adam Cutler, always says, rendering intent. What I love to do is get a little bit of your background, and just quickly understand where you’re from, where you grew up, and give us a start there.
Joelle Williams: I grew up in New York State, and I realized that that’s a broad statement considering the size of New York. Well, I say it that way because I lived throughout different sections of New York State. Born in Westchester County, moved up to the capitol, Albany area, and then settled within the central part of the Hudson Valley area of Newburgh, New York, which is not too far from one of our main campuses in Poughkeepsie. So that’s where I grew up. What made me do all those moves? My father was a minister. The moves were correlated with different churches that he was pastoring and leading at the time.
Nigel Prentice: In terms of your father’s work, I know that many times our parent’s roles in the world play a big role obviously in children, and therefore us. I’m curious a little bit about your parents and was hoping you talk a little bit about each of them and their impact on you.
Joelle Williams: My parents had a huge impact in terms of, I would say, how I live my life today. So, with my father being the preacher, my mother being a teacher, but what’s most important from that is that our lives were very early planted in civil rights, social activism in all aspects of our lives, and that stems from my parent’s interest.
My father worked closely with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), a still-functioning organization with a heavy hand in civil rights. He worked closely with Wyatt T Walker. He led marches within our city in Newburgh, New York and other events throughout New York State. He was a known leader. It was a conversation that we would have around dinner tables, lunchtimes, or marches that we would go with him to and participate.
My mother - we have a family photo from the early sixties. My mother being arrested and thrown into a paddy wagon for protesting in downtown Brooklyn. Activism was an everyday occurrence, talking about race relations, conversations like that. That was our, if you will, sport around the dinner table. We were very much so active, not only in the church from a civil rights activist point of view but also in the music we were listening to and hearing and infused throughout our lives. I would say that is the bedrock, the foundation of my childhood into adulthood.
Nigel Prentice: Wow. So, you have memories of growing up marching, is that right?
Joelle Williams: Yes, definitely.
Nigel Prentice: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. There is a famous photo of your family in the middle of one of those marches. I’m curious, do you know the story around that and who was in that photo?
Joelle Williams: I believe the one you’re referring to is from Tawana Brawley. My father was doing a lot of work with our church. His church in Newburgh, New York, was a headquarters, if you will, for rounding up any people and what was happening at that point in time. There were a few marches, and one of them was led by Reverend Al Sharpton, along with my father in Wappingers Falls.
Nigel Prentice: That’s right. That is the one I’m referring to, and how did that relationship come to be between the two of them? Reverend Al Sharpton and your dad.
Joelle Williams: It’s a funny story. So Reverend Sharpton is a minister. He started very young, and one of his first sermons, I would say his first sermon was at my father’s church in Tarrytown, New York, and I believe Reverend Sharpton was somewhere between 9-12 years old, within that range, and meaning that he was a child and that he was sure. For the congregation to see him over the pulpit, he had to stand on a box. That was the beginning of that relationship between Reverend Sharpton and my father.
Nigel Prentice: That’s amazing. You don’t get to hear the stories of folks who are in the forefront of these movements to this day- kind of their origin story unless they’re telling it. You were sometimes, you know, a fly on the wall and got to see some of that Reverend Sharpton on a box at a young age preaching along with your father, and your father gave him a little bit of a break into the pulpit. That’s interesting.
Looking at some of the things about your mother as well, do any stories come to mind? You just teased us a second ago with this interesting - being thrown in a paddy wagon. I can’t imagine very many people have a more interesting story about a civil rights mother being arrested. That has to be impactful on you.
Joelle Williams: I’ll tell you what that picture was taken in 1963. There was a construction site in downtown Brooklyn, and there were no Black people a part of the project. That’s what led my mother to downtown Brooklyn to start protesting, and she was, as I said, arrested, and she was very stylishly arrested.
That picture pops up at any point in time, but what’s even crazier is that my mother just turned 80, 3 weeks ago. She showed us pictures of her on the side of the street and protesting what was happening around the inauguration and protest. 1963, she’s out there protesting. 20 and 21, she’s on the streets protesting with fines as well.
It was a rampant part of my life and in my DNA. It started from birth until today is where it goes. It wasn’t just for protests. It was about everyone that was within our community. When I reflect upon the impact that my father and family had on the community, I never went to school on Martin Luther King’s birthday, even though it was not a recognized holiday in the state or nationally.
My father created weekend-long events celebrating Martin Luther King and got permission to take students out of school, Black students out of school. We didn’t go home. We were still in classes with all-day services,
recognizing, and lessons around, not just Black history, but specifically the work of Martin Luther King and those that supported him as well. That was something that was for the entire community, that’s how social justice work and activism should be. It’s not just what was happening within my family, but it was the impact and making sure that it was known in areas that may not have had the opportunity would have been in school not recognizing the day. He was able to make that happen; my father was.
Nigel Prentice: That’s an incredible story, and lucky to have a dad like that who was such a role model and took such action. Took an orientation of action towards what was important. We know that the United States did not celebrate MLK Day until very recently, really in the grand scheme of things. To be in the 60s and 70s and early 80s fighting for that and recognizing it and doing something about it is special.
I’ll be honest in my bringing. You know, I was in the South at the time. I was already in Texas, having had moved around, but it was in Texas by this time. My first memory of MLK day was different. It was; it was a lot more awkward. My family and I went out to celebrate as a family, and we got all kinds of stares and why are these truant kids not in school, and all sorts of dirty looks from those of us those around us in Houston.
It could have been just that it was a new holiday and people weren’t used to it, creating more questions for me than answers. All right, moving forward a little bit, let’s kind of get into Joelle growing up and coming of age. Where did you end up going to college? Let’s talk about that a little bit. Where’d you go to school?
Joelle Williams: Sure, I went to Fisk University, an HBCU college, and one of the rules within my family is that all of us, I have an older sister and a younger brother, and a cousin who was raised with us, had to attend an HBCU. That gave us 117 colleges to choose from; my sister and I both are alumni of Fisk University.
Nigel Prentice: That’s fantastic, and Fisk is one of the most historic schools started right at the end of the Civil War. What was that experience like for you?
Joelle Williams: It was an interesting experience. “Why did my parents set that up for us?“ We grew up in New York State. We grew up in the North end, so therefore there were many instances where we were not the majority. Being Black folks, we were not the majority, and my parents wanted us to experience not being considered the minority but being the majority: Black teachers, administration, your students, your classmates, all of that.
You know, it was a welcoming experience. I pledged there, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated; thank you very much. My mother and sister are members of AKA as well, and lots of fond memories and friends that I keep in touch with to this day. My line sisters and I have a monthly call and accountability partners that we check up regularly, so, you know, lifelong friendships.
Nigel Prentice: That’s deep. The history of Fisk is quite amazing with W.E.B. Du Bois being in the first class. Booker T. Washington, being an educator, and Ida B Wells. You share the sorority and sistership with our Vice President, Kamala Harris, also a soror of ours. My father and I are both members of Alpha Phi Alpha and several uncles as well. The Greek tradition lives on, and I’m proud to say that my Skee-Phi Sister.
Joelle Williams: Skee-Phi!
Nigel Prentice: There you go. All right. What did you study at Fisk?
Joelle Williams: I was an Economics major. If there was a fail there and that experience, it would be choosing economics as my major. It just wasn’t - I didn’t love it. I didn’t love it. I was a French minor as well, but Economics, there you have it. Regardless of my major, I still knew the direction that I wanted to go, which was helpful from a business standpoint.
Nigel Prentice: Was it a place for coming of age with you? It feels like you had so many opportunities to have already done that, with the parents you had, with the SCLC. I’m sure as a preacher, your father likely had other preachers come over, and being the first family, there’s a lot of opportunities to experience the world around you with eyes wide open at an early age. So that all was maybe an influence on you. Did you also have a coming of age at Fisk?
Joelle Williams: I like that question. Did I have a coming of age at Fisk? I did have a coming of age at Fisk, and I would say the backstory, the backdrop that you just laid out, is very accurate in terms of all the interactions that I had leading up to Fisk, right. And then I guess my coming of age at this was really - you know, I said, I went to school, I lived up North. I went to school where it was integrated, and we were not the majority meaning Black people, so there were many classes where I was the only Black person or that type of a thing. I would say that the coming-of-age experience was, “Man, I’m not the smartest Black kid here anymore, seriously?“ All of you are just as smart or smarter than; usually, it was smarter than, to be honest, but it was like, oh my goodness.
That was a humbling experience, quite honestly, for me. The same thing in terms of HBCU’s don’t have, especially Fisk at that time, didn’t have huge funding. So, there were things that you lacked, right. But then, quite honestly, when you think about it, does it truly impact your learning, or is it nice to have?
I would say it’s nice to have because the learning was that you don’t need all of the bells and whistles that you have at much larger institutions, but it’s the community that’s built and long-lasting friendships, not just with your classmates, but with your professors as well. I can think of one very fondly, Dr. Papousek, my calculus professor. She’d holler across the yard, “Williams? Williams? Your sister did this. Why aren’t you doing that?“
Nigel Prentice: Leave it to a calculus professor to intimidate you across campus. If you cannot escape. Did you have any preconceived notions or even stereotypes about the South before you went, you know, with Fisk being in Nashville, Tennessee, you coming from New York, did that open your eyes at all? Was it exactly what you expected?
Joelle Williams: I had experiences with the South prior to getting there because my sister did attend Fisk, so that was in the South, but also my father’s family was from the South. Though both of my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn; we did visit the South.
I always talk fast, and I’ve slowed down quite a bit now. I had silly, you know, thoughts about folks from the South. I had some preconceived thoughts about people who said y’all all the time. Now I’m living in Texas, and I catch myself saying it, and I was like, okay, I guess I’m there now. Right? I had preconceived thoughts about people who were just talking really slow: just silly things, silly things.
Nigel Prentice: I like it. I like it a lot. All right, and so you have done something that a lot of folks have not done, and I respect this part of your story quite a bit. It’s this idea of engaging in a career trajectory that might be considered non-traditional, and you’ve, you’ve been able to build multiple successful careers. I’d love to ask you a little bit about that and talk about some of your early accomplishments and what’d you do right after Fisk.
Joelle Williams: I went to Fisk knowing that I wanted to be a Buyer, and I went through a few training programs, one specifically with Bloomingdale’s, and went into their executive training program. I followed that career path for quite a while—a couple of decades. From being a buyer, going to retailing, meaning store operations and within stores, and I loved it quite honestly. I would say I loved it up until the point where it’s like, “Okay, I need another change. What’s going on here?“ I left that career, tangentially, bridging into an area that I could bring my past work and experiences.
I was an Adjunct Professor at Fashion Institute of Technology and LIM College, both in New York City, and I started teaching what I had been doing for those past two decades. I loved that experience for a lot of different reasons. One is because my career had been primarily within department stores, and now teaching retailing; I had to put my head up and understand the entire breadth of retailing. It was almost like a learning experience for me as well, especially when you consider the fact that I didn’t major in fashion merchandising. I was an economics major. That was a wonderful learning experience for me and to also be able to just teach it with passion and understanding and share those real-life experiences versus what was in the textbook as well. But I also knew that that was a short-lived time for me because I really do vibe off fast-paced work, and I needed something different. I also knew that needing something different meant I needed to skill up.
Deciding to skill up for me looked like going to grad school, Philadelphia University. I commuted from New York City to Philadelphia every other weekend for two years, where I got an MBA in Strategic Design, which allowed me to take in other opportunities. The opportunity that came my way was IBM.
Here’s something you might not know is that I first applied to IBM to be a designer. Many people don’t know this, but I did, and I got a very kind email that said something like: “What wonderful experiences you have blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and they’re like, but designer? No, we don’t think so. Thanks so much.“
A great mentor friend at the time said, you know what? I heard about this Associate Offering Management program or early career Product Management Program, I heard they’re doing that. Try that! I threw my hat in the ring for that program, and that’s how I entered was an early career Professional Product Management Program that we have.
Nigel Prentice: Right, right. Okay. Yeah. You’re right; I didn’t know that. That’s awesome. As I say, quite often, when I speak with folks, you know, we all come to this place whether it’s career as a design or IBM or, or even other places, we come tangentially, we come from parallel paths, and that is all right. You know what I mean? And then, so getting that MBA is, is really, is really special.
You know, is what we’re starting to see is you weave together all of these elements in your life. The undergraduate studies, graduate school studies, experience, and what I would imagine as cutthroat high stakes, you know, New York fashion industry, retail merchandising—helping to run and manage Bloomingdale’s there in New York City and now to a Big Blue. That’s quite impressive, and it speaks to the breadth that you bring to your work. Whenever I’m working with you, and I hear you speak on topics, it’s clear that you’ve got a perspective that’s, that’s broad sort of born of experiences. You back it up with some facts, some knowledge that’s learned from a book as well. I now see where all of that comes from with you. We got to know each other even more as 2020 unfolded, and it became clear that there’s some work to do with regards to social justice and racial equity right here at our company and beyond. I want to take you back to spring of 2020 last year as the George Floyd murder happened at unfold in front of all of our eyes on television and beyond.
What was it at that time? I remember some calls for some meetings and some heartfelt sort of story sharing. Some of us, you know, we’re able to do that and, connect and you were right there as well. What was it about that time that motivated you to bring your time and talent into the racial equity and design conversation?
Joelle Williams: I would say it started with knowing I wanted to do something. I needed to give something back and not knowing what that could or should look like. I would say that it probably started from a place of being numb if you will—just taking everything in, hearing the stories, hearing what we were doing as an organization, meaning IBM. I was also working with another Business Resource Group called Texas Rouge was working on some learning experiences to share with the broader IBM community. I decided that I wanted to be a part of something that could be long lasting and that I can contribute my voice and work to—sometimes when I speak to people, I call this my “after-school project,“ if you will. I think it’s really important to, especially for what’s happening in this time, in our lives, for us to do something. Oftentimes when we think about doing something — I shared with you, that protesting was very much, so a part of my life growing up from a child up through adulthood, but I wasn’t in the mood for protesting. Today this time, period. I didn’t want to be out on the streets this time. Quite honestly, I didn’t feel I needed to be in the streets.
It’s time for our allies to step in and step up and speak out for the inequities that are happening. There’s no time for people to be silent. I felt that it was all right for me not to be out in the streets, and I could do more work and have impact working with a group of people with shared desired outcomes and impact IBM internally, as well as work that we’re doing, that will face the external communities as well.
Nigel Prentice: And why do you think this is needed? What happened here? From the fifties and sixties with our parents? My father also marched, and my mother was Angela Davis’ roommate. So our parents had that moment in their youth, and then they shared some of those lessons when we were young, and they were adults. Here we are as adults, and the venues may have changed; some of the language may have changed, but we’re still at it. We’re still fighting. There’s still the worry, the concern. What feels sometimes like a never-ending effort for understanding to drive towards understanding.
Why, why do we still need it? Why hasn’t it already gotten better?
Joelle Williams: Well, let me say this first. There has been change, and there has been improvement, but obviously, there’s much more to be done. Whereas there are times we do feel, and perhaps we still are talking about a lot of the same issues that we’re confronted in the fifties and sixties. It looks and feels different. There is a demographic of folks, Millennials, specifically who demand more. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were going through a pandemic, and everybody was on house arrest, mandated to stay at home. Telephones going, every screen in the house going non-stop. I said to a colleague, “Thank you for COVID 19.“ Thank you for COVID-19. It’s a thank you because if we were all home watching the news to wait for something to happen, to change in regard to the pandemic, then the world would not have seen the death of George Floyd. Due to the pandemic, we were all under house arrest; no one was running to soccer practice, basketball, dance classes, our classes distracted by a board meeting or anything.
We all had one mission. How do we get out of the house? I’m going to wait and watch it on the screen but what they saw was a horrifying show. A show that we, Black folks, had known an experience for lifetimes. Strange Fruit, right? Lynching’s, Billie Holiday. Where people said it wasn’t true, that doesn’t happen any longer. The truth was it does, and it happened in the streets of Minneapolis, and it got recorded, and it kept on showing up in their streams.
That’s why I think today is different. That’s why we all have to do our part, and when I say we, that’s what I’m talking about, allies. Allies can’t stand by and say, well, we didn’t know. You know now. You’re put on call. Do something, speak up. Do not accept it. It’s time to acknowledge and address your implicit bias, the microaggressions. It’s time to unlearn what you may have been taught inadvertently by your parents. That’s fine. Recognize it, accept it, and then relearn and that’s the work they need to do, along with the work that we’re doing as well. That’s what’s changed, in my eyes.
Nigel Prentice: Right, right. Time for it’s about time for allies to take those actions.
Looking at it from multiple angles: geographically, New York, Texas; discipline-wise, fashion, design; and now enterprise design offering design within IBM, I wonder about the lens that you have brought to this and looked out and observed coworkers, bosses, managers, executives, and stakeholders. Has it always been the way it is now at work? Have you seen any improvements, or is it just more of the same? We know the streets and what’s happening outside in the world. I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot. Wonder about the workplace. What are your thoughts there?
Joelle Williams: It varies by organization, and my past lives, store to store what’s important. What gets stand out, what gets called out, you know, the business aspect, you know, you pay attention to what you’re measuring, right? So, if you’re not measuring it, if you’re not talking about, if there isn’t a place or a person to, to call it out to, then it’s not going to be worked upon.
I often considered myself to be an internal instigator if you will. Calling things out and not in the loud, I’m putting on a protest or anything like that, but I build relationships with people. When the time is right, I’ll say something in terms of, do you happen to notice that all of your executives look like Susie Q? Is that strange to you or whatever the case may be, whatever the opportunity that presented itself at that moment. You could see how some places respond, and others don’t. When you’re thinking about the fashion industry in general, there’s a lot of abuse and oversights and neglect. Just a lack of recognition there. Absolutely.
Nigel Prentice: I wonder about that, and especially interested in this idea of the internal instigator. Do you think that you would have been viewed as an internal instigator if you weren’t a woman or if you weren’t a Black woman? Meaning what’s what about being who you are, has made that role more difficult at times?
Joelle Williams: Sometimes, I wonder if I say too much at the peril of my own career development. Then there are times when, which is most time, where I’m just like, I just have to be true to myself. If I’m muting myself so that I can advance, then I’d rather not advance. Let’s be clear; I am ambitious. So not where I’m coming from. Well, what I am saying is that I have to be true to myself. I have to be authentic. In order to be authentic, I have to speak up. I don’t have, and I can do it behind the scenes. I can say something. I can mentor people. I can talk through instances and speak on behalf of people, if necessary. I’ve done all of that, and I’m comfortable in lending my voice.
I recognize and appreciate that because of the way I was raised, the foundation that my parents gave me, I’m very comfortable lending my voice and speaking up.
Nigel Prentice: I wonder what techniques have you used to do that? You mentioned a few of them. Lending your voice is something you’ve done on behalf of the community, on behalf of coworkers. What techniques have to walk that line? You just talked about not putting your career in too much peril but still being authentic to the passion and needs you must address. What techniques have you used to walk that line?
Joelle Williams: I’d say the techniques I use are more strategic and crafting the story or the narrative that I want to be told or needs to be heard. I use mentors and friends, and family members. I am very passionate about things, and I know sometimes people think that I edit or some things close out so nicely. It’s because I’ve had to think it through because if I say the first thing that comes top of mind, it might come across as too aggressive or attacking, or it’s not well received. What I’ve had to learn is how do you craft the message? What’s the desired outcome? How do you craft the message? How do you deliver it in a way that it can be heard and received?
I would say that’s a life lesson that I’ve had to learn along the way. I can nail it now more so than I could before. But even now, sometimes I mess it up. C’est la vie!
Nigel Prentice: I hear you. I wonder what lessons others around you could take on? Just as you are introspective on this point and have created a life lesson out of it. That’s a very optimistic and positive take on this interesting point. To me, it begs the question: well, what about everybody else around you? Communication isn’t a one-sided activity. If communication is messed up, the sender isn’t the only one at fault. There’s a context that everyone is operating in, and that’s the systemic part around communication that we often have to solve at work, and that’s across the board. When it comes to ethnicity, gender, confrontation, I think we still have some work to do. so that women and especially Black women are not marginalized just because they have something important and uncomfortable to say. Would you agree?
Joelle Williams: I would agree, and that goes with the curation of the conversation that you want to have. Not only am I thinking about the message I want to deliver. But I’m also thinking about who am I delivering it to? What do they need to hear? What are the words, and what do I anticipate their response to be? That will help me understand how I want to start the conversation. If I want to be folksy, if I need to bring some stats into the conversation if I need to start with a buffer. A buffer such as “I need you to hear me out. I’m going to say some things that might be a little shocking with jarring, but let’s just get through the end.“
We can agree to disagree, but let’s talk this one through as much as we can. There are different ways to approach a conversation where you’re anticipating how the other person may respond. So, therefore, you can get the most out of it. And a lot of that is preparing for uncomfortable conversations, right.
I’m going back to thinking about our allies. They, too, need to think about how do they address uncomfortable conversations today. I use that technique that we have suggested for allies; I use that in many of the conversations that I have with teams and behind closed doors.
Nigel Prentice: Well, I think there you are being a designer again. You’re thinking about the intention that you’d like to communicate. You’re thinking about and having empathy for your listener. You’re thinking about a journey to get to that outcome you’d like to have in your communication. Kudos to you for being able to articulate that because I think that’s important. Honestly, I don’t see enough of that. I’m both encouraged to know and to see you practicing that so successfully, but I’ve got to admit, it’s also a little frustrating that you have to do it that way because I go back to the point: I wonder how much self-censoring you have to do that others don’t. Those who don’t have your same skin tone. You see what I mean?
Joelle Williams: Oh, definitely. Definitely. It’s draining, right. It’s draining. There is editing and facial expressions that have to be monitored, so you don’t come across as being the “angry Black woman.“ I started using the phrase: “If you see me getting excited, it’s my passion.“ I started borrowing that phrase from a former CEO of Bloomingdale’s because I knew that the way I was delivering certain messages could be attacking to people.
I also understood that if it was someone else delivering the message, meaning a white woman, that it would not be received the same, but my passion would be construed as an angry Black woman. And so, yeah, definitely think about that all the time.
Then if you are focusing on gender when people say, “ you’re such a pretty woman when you smile, just smile.“ I’m working, you know. Are you going to say that to your colleague, your male colleague sitting next to you? I wish you would smile more. I don’t think so.
Nigel Prentice: I’ve heard that plenty of times with regards to women, but not men for sure.
Joelle Williams: It’s gender; it’s race as well. So playing multiple cards at different times, and then I would say the specifics to IBM is being new. Me, being new in this industry and understanding and learning new cultures within a different industry, a different type of organization. It’s a lot to manage.
Nigel Prentice: It is a lot to manage, and I hope the work we’re doing can help mitigate this tax. We pay sales tax for every dollar spent; we send a text to whomever for everyday work. There’s a tax on certain folks that others don’t have to pay, and that’s an example of both inequality and inequity. Not only are multiple groups not experiencing the same work world at the same time, they might be occupying the same time of space, but it feels like we’re occupying different places of psychological safety. That’s the work that we’re doing.
You know, I’m proud of our work and, I’ll reference a couple of things here for folks to take a look at if they have a chance to; this allows me to give you some shine and some spotlight as well, Ms. Joelle. If you are listening to this podcast in the spring of 2021, you could go to ibm.com. and see Ms. Joelle Williams: representing the racial equity and design initiative right there on IBM’s homepage or go to www.ibm.com/design, the racial equity design work will always be featured on the design page within ibm.com. This is a permanent home for two pieces that we feel are important are our call to action; the values that inform racial equity and design at IBM that we think are important for us to consider right now and, more importantly, to adopt inside and outside the company. Secondly, the field guide is an important piece that a lot of people are getting a lot of value out of right now. The official name is Advancing Racial Equity in Design: A Field Guide for Managers and Leaders. We highlight that it’s important to do the thing, Joelle, that you had to learn over a career. This idea of communication, this idea of safety, and creating your own space to communicate a message. We’ve boiled down lessons learned through research, contextual inquiry, and academic research to develop this field guide for managers and leaders so that we can help share the load and share the burden. It’s not just up to the person who feels a certain way to sensor curtail or code-switch. It’s our shared belief that it’s up to everyone who creates the reality in which we live to participate in these enlightened conversations and hopefully the world, and this is all open to the public. We would love for folks to take advantage. Joelle, I want to thank you for your work on those pieces. I know you’ve had a hand in all of our work as well.
Would you agree that those are a couple of places for people to get started?
Joelle Williams: Absolutely. Embedded in there, we share resources where they can dig deeper on certain topics. It’s a great place to get started. And I would like to thank you, Nigel, for inviting me to be a part of this body of work because that’s how I got to the group. It started with you and me sharing with me what was going on. It’s been a huge, humbling time for me to be a part of everyone’s talent that’s contributed and given so much to that work that now can be shared externally.
Nigel Prentice: Of course, of course. Glad to be arm in arm with you, Joelle. Over the last few minutes, we’ve talked about how it can be exhausting and how there’s this constant tax, maybe upon some of us more than others. I want to flip that idea on its ear a little bit because I have a hunch you’ve been able to master the converse of that. What I mean is, how do you replenish? If you’ve had a tough day, a tough week, a tough year, maybe even, but just what are your go-to things that allow you to replenish your reservoir of energy and passion so that you could show up again and be authentic the very next day? Why do you replenish Joelle?
Joelle Williams: I have a few key people that I go to when I need to vent for five minutes. I try a lot of different things. Recently, I’ve been trying to set up specific times that I’m cutting off my workday. For a little while, I cut off my workday and then went outside and walked around the block as if I was coming home from work. I’ve done that sometimes. I am an avid Pilates participant. I do a lot of days, about three to five times a week, that helps me physically and mentally. I’ve been listening to several books on Audible, both fiction and nonfiction. I am a firm believer in getting a reset by having a five-minute dance party.
I’ll turn on some house music. I have a five-minute dance party and dance it out. I’ll go to the other extreme and have a five-minute meditation session if I just need to quiet things down for a while. So I’d say I have a few levers that I pull out from time to time-based, according to if I have an evening or if I have 15 minutes in between the meeting, whatever is going on.
Nigel Prentice: I like it a lot. Joelle’s five-minute dance party, I like it. Final question. We’ve covered a lot of ground in your life, Joelle, and we certainly appreciate you sharing the life story and the story arc. What would you say to the younger Joelle back in Central New York who is looking out at the world, seeing her parents doing what they’re doing, and probably asking yourself what’s next for me? What am I going to do for myself? Where’s my Mark going to be made in the world. What advice would you give to that younger version of yourself?
Joelle Williams: Slow down. Be comfortable with not knowing the answer. That it’s okay to say, I don’t know. I think being authentic. I think I spent too much time trying to fit into other people’s expectations. So being authentic and being all right, with just being yourself.
Nigel Prentice: Thank you for that. That’s advice for a young Nigel as well.
It draws a great end cap on this conversation because those two concepts you just shared: comfort and authenticity, connect to each other in interesting ways. It’s hard to be authentic if you’re not comfortable. It’s very easy to see when someone’s not authentic because there’s a ton of discomfort and how they might present themselves. We have a lot to learn on that theme from you, Joelle. This idea of courage and having the courage to be someone to travel cross country, or at least New York to Tennessee for university. To take on graduate studies, retail management in a high-stakes environment in New York and move to Texas. To go into design, go into Offering Management, change careers. That takes a ton of courage, and continually bringing authenticity and seeking comfort in oneself while also showing courage makes me think back to the very first idea of the hybrid approach you bring to your life. So I’ve learned quite a bit today, Joelle; I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this conversation. Very meaningful to me. I’m going to take these lessons almost for myself personally, and I’m glad we could share that as well. Joelle, thank you so much for this conversation.
Joelle Williams: Thanks for having me Nigel. It’s been fun.