What We Owe Each Other: At the Heart of Community with Mia Birdsong

Our guest this week is Mia Birdsong: pathfinder, community curator, and storyteller, who steadily engages the leadership and wisdom of people experiencing injustice to chart new visions of American life. She has an extraordinary gift for leveraging the brilliance of everyday people so that our collective gifts reach larger spheres of influence, cultural and political change, and create well-being for everyone.

Episode Hosts: ,

Subscribe to the Show in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you find your favorite podcasts!

According to this week’s guest, “the word community has been co-opted to something that is a lie.” While we might have a shared convention of community, when we use the word, our differences begin to rise to the surface. Our language is littered with words like this — family, culture, and yes, community — words that require us to stop, reflect, and ask: “when you use these words, to whom are you referring?”

We’re talking about Mia Birdsong: pathfinder, community curator, and storyteller, who steadily engages the leadership and wisdom of people experiencing injustice to chart new visions of American life. You may have seen her TED Talk (‘The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True’), or read her book (How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community), or listened to her podcast (More than Enough), but if you haven’t, you will surely want to after listening to this week’s conversation. She has an extraordinary gift for leveraging the brilliance of everyday people so that our collective gifts reach larger spheres of influence, cultural and political change, and create well-being for everyone.

We take on the concept of community, and the challenges and lack of clarity in the words we use. We talk about how a culture of self-reliance and a system of oppression have become hurdles for forming community. We talk about the differences between independence and interdependence. We talk about the dangers of whiteness in society, and why now, more than ever, we need a new white culture to prevail.

As much as this is a dialogue about the disparity between bodies, it is also a celebration of potential. The pandemic has done much to pull back the veil on the inherent lack that exists in communities adjacent to privilege. As Mia says, while there is a pull to revert to whatever we experienced as “normal” before the pandemic, we have an opportunity and an obligation to one another to test our understanding of our language of community, of family, of culture, of friendship, all in an effort to balance the scales long tilted against color and poverty.

Our thanks to Mia Birdsong for her courage, her activism, and her time to share with us this week.

Links & Notes

Episode Transcript

Brought to you by The ADHD Podcast Community on Patreon

Carrie Fox: Hi there and welcome to the Mission Forward Podcast where each week we bring you a thought provoking, and perspective shifting conversation on the world around us. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm, and Certified B Corporation. This week’s guest is someone I have loved since the first moment I met her. She’s brilliant and funny and super insightful. You may have seen her TED Talk or read her book or listened to her podcast, but if you haven’t, I am sure you will want to after listening to this episode, I’m talking about Mia Birdsong, pathfinder, community curator, and storyteller who engages the leadership and wisdom of people experiencing injustice to chart new visions of American life. She has an incredible gift for leveraging the brilliance of everyday people so that our collective gifts reach larger spheres of influence, culture and political change and create wellbeing for everyone. In this week’s conversation, we take on the concept of community and the challenges and lack of clarity in the words we use. We talk about how a culture of self-reliance and a system of oppression have become hurdles for forming community. And talk about the difference between independence and interdependence. Oh my goodness we talk about so much and yes, we also talk about the dangers of whiteness in society and why now more than ever, we need a new white culture to prevail. Natalie and I loved this conversation and I think you will too. Stay tuned for our conversation with Mia Birdsong. Mia, thank you so much for taking some time to be with us today. I am so excited to be able to have this conversation with you and with Natalie about community. Because as folks who are listening to this season know that is what we are focused in on. And I can think of no one better to talk about community with and what that means and how we reclaim it to the book that you wrote, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, how we reclaim that community post COVID in this strange time that we are in and the opportunity I think we have to reclaim it. So, Mia I wonder if you could get us started by just giving us a bit of background on you and your work, and then we’ll get into our conversation from there.

Mia Birdsong: Sure. This is always a funny question to answer. I feel like the work that I do is about our social contracts and how we, illuminating the fact that they are misaligned and then thinking about how we realign them. And I think about social contracts, both in terms of our systems and institutions and what they owe us as citizens or residents. And then what’s required of us in terms of how we interact with them, make sure they know what it is we want and need how we hold them accountable to giving us the things we want and need. So there’s that piece. And then I think about what we owe each other as family, as community members, as neighbors, as friends, as social animals, how we are being in relationship with each other and how we be in relationship with each other in ways that support our wellbeing and affirm our humanity.

Carrie Fox: Earlier today, my daughter was asking me who we were interviewing today. She likes to listen to the podcast and try to make as much sense of it as an 11 year old can. And she said, "Who are you interviewing today? And what does she do? Or what does he do?" And I said, "Oh, we’re talking to Mia today. And Mia works and thinks about and researches community." And she said, "Oh, creating spaces where everyone feels they belong."

Mia Birdsong: Oh yes, see the babies know, the babies know.

Carrie Fox: You got it.

Mia Birdsong: Because so much of what I think about is how do we create a culture of belonging. Whether it is as a nation or in our organizations or in our cities or neighborhoods, what is required in order to create a community or a culture of belonging. That is so beautiful.

Carrie Fox: So let’s start with words because it’s something that’s important to the two of you and this word community that gets thrown around all the time. It means something different to everyone. When you think community, and you’ve already started to talk on this, but think a little bit more about what that means when you say it or when you hear it. And then Natalie, I’d love you to chime in there too.

Mia Birdsong: It’s a word that has clearly been co-opted to imply something that is a lie. When I think about community on Facebook, for example, I’m like these millions of people don’t know each other, that’s not a community. But I think when it’s used, well, it is still context specific. Community can mean multiple things and the challenge I think with language in general, and I’ll speak to English because that’s what I speak and understand is that there’s a certain amount of assumption that we have to make when we’re communicating with people about using words. Ideally the context that I’m talking in helps people understand what it is I mean, when I say community, when I say it. And I think the flaw there for anybody who does any kind of narrative or communications work, is that people are understanding things in a conventional way. And we might mean them in a different way. And I think this is like with the word family, for example. There are community contexts in which family means very different things. I know for quire folks in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, saying that somebody was family was just like a code way of saying that they were gay. I think that some people, when you say family, they think about a heterosexual couple who has biological children and lives in a house with a picket fence and a dog and all of that. For some folks, it is how we refer to our closest loved ones whether or not they are legally or biologically related to us or we’ve chosen them as family. So I think one of the things that we do as communicators and people who are interested in story and communications and narrative is try to do the both and of using words in the way that we mean them, but also trying to provide enough context to help shift the way that people are understanding them.

Natalie S. Burke: I love that. And I think it resonates for me on a lot of different levels. Even this piece around family, as a side note, my family is from Jamaica. If I’m speaking to someone-

Mia Birdsong: I’m a hipoisie girl. [inaudible 00:07:56].

Natalie S. Burke: I had this thing about you, I’m telling you.

Mia Birdsong: Yes, sistrine.

Natalie S. Burke: This thing about language. I almost asked you before we started this thing about language, there’s a thing to it that’s also very cultural. And so when people with a West Indian accent say family, they are meaning other West Indians, right? So it’s important to have context for the language that we’re using. And it’s interesting because when I have gone to work in geographic areas, it might be a county, a city, a town, the word community usually comes up within the first four minutes. And the first thing that I say is everybody stop common language. When you say community, what do you mean?

Mia Birdsong: Who are you talking about?

Natalie S. Burke: About talking about whom you’re speaking? And let’s get really clear about that because that then becomes the focus of our attention and our energy. So for me, this idea of community is a reflection of people who choose to be in relationship that elevates connection from being transactional. That’s what community is really about. And I think we’ve lost that, some because of the transient nature of our society and absolutely because of the focus on independence. I think in a lot of ways it has undermined the concept and the understanding of what community truly is.

Carrie Fox: Absolutely.

Natalie S. Burke: So for me that’s really what community is about though. It’s a choice to be in relationship that is above transaction. And that means that it’s for the long haul and it is about relating to one another. That’s a very different thing.

Mia Birdsong: Totally. And I think part of what, the way it’s been weaponized is someone will say, well, what the community wants is X, Y, and Z. And you’re like, they’re talking about a particular part of a geography and not anybody else. And it’s a way to exclude without articulating that exclusion or to include a very specific group of people without articulating that inclusion. And yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting to just think about how do we get more specific without having to re-articulate and redefine things constantly. And this is part of, again, I think this is part of the dance that as communicators, we think a lot about this, like, can I say this thing in a way that resonates and is clear, but doesn’t use too many words?

Natalie S. Burke: Well, there is a thing that I’ve spoken with a lot of groups about. And particularly when I’m working with institutions, agencies and organizations that consider themselves as "Working in the community," what they don’t recognize is when they sit and they say, "Well, when you’re out in the community, blah, blah, blah. It’s like, you’re saying those people over there."

Mia Birdsong: Exactly. You’re not part of it.

Natalie S. Burke: You’re part of it. And so my question is, are you not comfortable saying our community? Because if you aren’t, if you can’t go to "The community meeting" on Thursday at 6:30, where the food is not quite hot and not quite cold, and say from the front of the room, "Hey, our community," without people giving you the side eye and throwing shade, you have work to do because you’re not in relationship.

Mia Birdsong: Yeah, totally. And I think that so often people who are situated in a geography and are providing services or whatever, they’re doing something, they’re taking some action to provide something for a group of people in that geography. They don’t do the work of building relationship. They’re like, "I’m going to go home to my actual community. I just work here."

Natalie S. Burke: Oh my goodness. That’s one of the first things I ask people. Do you live in this zip code? I want to know you’re here saying you’re investing in the capacity of this place, so what it is. Do you live here?

Mia Birdsong: And I think you don’t have to live there, but I think-

Natalie S. Burke: You don’t.

Mia Birdsong: … but there is definitely a way to be in relationship with people and to do the work of, and this is part of our challenge too, is that I think about this in terms of conversations I had with doctors and epidemiologists about the COVID vaccine and how the lack of trust that exists for so many communities when it comes to the government or public health or the pharmaceutical companies, I mean, that one I’m fine with or just medical people. And that all of a sudden we needed people to trust those systems and institutions, but the relationships haven’t been built and I’m like, yeah, you all need to do the work five years ago. And then I was like, so knowing that we’re going to have another pandemic, what are you doing now as you are rolling out vaccines and trying to figure out how to be in relationship with people? What are you doing right now? It can’t be we want you to get this vaccine. It has to be what is it that you need from us? How can we be in relationship with you? Let me hear your story, let me hear about what your community wants and needs, what your vision is and how we can participate in that. And then actually do something. And then when there’s another pandemic and we need to take a vaccine, it’s a whole different situation.

Carrie Fox: Mia, I have used your book as a call to action for nearly every organization we work with because we just flat out ask them, we say, "How are you showing up? What does that look like? Prove it to me." Because there’s a big difference in what I’m hearing you both talk about the idea of being in community, that there is a giving and receiving, that there is a social connection being made versus the transactional charity that is incredibly dangerous and harmful to people who believe they are in community, but then truly are thinking about it through a charitable lens. Would love to hear you talk about that.

Mia Birdsong: I mean, I got no time for anybody who’s anywhere for a charity. I’m like nobody needs nobody’s charity. I mean, part of that is this, comes with, I mean, it comes with so much baggage, but I think one of the things that is missing from a charitable approach is a recognition that if your work is feeding people, like literally food that you’re providing something that people are entitled to. You’re not doing nobody no favors. And that the work you’re doing ideally is correcting hundreds of years of historical wrong. You’re not doing something nice. You’re not doing something to win points with your God. You’re doing something that is meant to balance a scale that has been off for a long time. And I think people often engage in that kind of work because they want to feel good about themselves. Let’s be clear. I wan to feel good about myself. I want to be making choices that are in alignment with my values and living inside of my integrity. That’s what makes me feel good about myself, but not in a way that’s like, I’m going to pat myself on the back because now this person has a sandwich, has one meal. That’s not interesting to me. And what it does is it actually reinforces the existing, the status quo. It reinforces the power dynamics. It keeps things as they are. It keeps people disenfranchised. It keeps people from being able to walk through the world based on their own self-determination. And it keeps people who have power. It allows them to maintain their power while making them feel good about the fact that they gave somebody a sandwich.

Carrie Fox: The issues that you’re talking about are hundreds year old issues. They are not going to be solved in the near term. You talk about it as being generationally. You’ve got to think really long-term about the actions we take now and how it will make and effect down the road. But I’m still going to ask you both to think about what have we seen in the last year that has either helped or deterred us from moving toward a more balanced community and society?

Mia Birdsong: And let me clarify. I feel like this work is generational, but the work that I’m talking about is culture shift is the eradication of white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism. That’s going to take a minute. That does not mean there are not actions that we can take immediately that have material impact on people’s real lives. And that allow us to evolve as humans and become more liberatory in our thinking and feeling and our behavior. I want to make sure that nobody is going to walk away being like, "Oh, we don’t have to do nothing now." It’s going to be in 100 years, no, no, no, no.

Carrie Fox: Right. No. We hear you. And we reinforced that, but there is a lot, that the folks who are listening, that everyone, that we can and should be doing right now.

Mia Birdsong: One of the things that I feel the pandemic did was just like Adrian Marie Brown talks about pulling back the veil, it just has made a truth about our connectedness and our independence about the inherent uncertainty of human life or of any life of anything about our vulnerability. It has made it very clear too. And there are a lot of people who that awareness was, they had that before, but it’s made it much more clear to more of us. And I think that the landscape of the pandemic was one that… when George Floyd was murdered and we’re recording this the day after the anniversary of his murder. I feel like all of a sudden, we had already been made aware of the ways in which we’re connected that a virus can travel across the world in a matter of weeks, makes it very clear that we’re deeply connected. We also were being made aware that if a farm worker can’t safely harvest food, we ain’t going to eat. If nurses don’t have the equipment they need to keep themselves safe, then there’s sacrificing their lives to take care of us. So there’s this way in which we were just made much more aware of our interconnectedness. And I feel that laid a particular ground so that when George Floyd was murdered, as compared to all of the other times that we have witnessed black death, there was a greater sense of connection to that from people who hadn’t previously felt any connection to black people being murdered. And I think that the outrage and the fury and trauma of that was felt much more widely than it would have been if it hadn’t happened during the pandemic. And I think as more of us get vaccinated, as municipalities and states start to pretend that the pandemic’s over and we can go out and go back to normal, I’m doing air quotes. I think that there’s a pull to what’s familiar. But I do think that there’s a greater number of people who are now, their eyes have been opened and they are now part of the work to create justice in this country. And they weren’t here before. And I’m grateful that they’re here. And of course it makes me sad the way that they had to get here, but that’s always true.

Natalie S. Burke: I think as I was listening to you, a couple of things really jumped out for me. I think during the pandemic, people disconnected from some things that I don’t even know that we knew we were so connected to, I think about even my clothes, the way that I would dress on a daily basis. And the fact that I now have a uniform of black yoga pants from Target, I have 23 of them now, this is all I do from the waist down type of thing.

Mia Birdsong: [inaudible 00:21:14] yoga pants, that’s what I have.

Natalie S. Burke: And there it is. I mean, we disconnected from our offices and this idea of an office and instead of being locked and tethered and connected to this space, and we’ve figured out new ways to connect. And I think some of those things are positive and some of those things are absolutely negative. And I think the long-term consequences about all of that remains to be seen, but in this, this idea of connection certainly has to do with relationship, but also connects to this piece about interdependence. So the brain scientists say that human beings are hardwired for fairness, and they believe that it has to do with how early humans lived in small groups that were highly interdependent and my survival was dependent upon your survival. And so for that part of our brain to fire up, interdependence may well be a bit of a prerequisite. And what have we done? We’ve actually designed a society that is increasingly independent, not interdependent. We’ve actually thought of interdependence as being a negative thing. We’ve put people down who choose to live in that way. And in some way, try to make it seem as though they are weak or less than. And in fact, one of the reflections I’ve had that I shared with Carrie before, during the pandemic, I’ve never been a door dash kind of person. It’s just not my thing because I travel a lot and I’m doing other things. That’s not a way for me to think of food. We’ve now created a society and a situation where I am able to have food, a basic human need without ever interacting with any human being who is involved with that food. I don’t know who owned the land where it was planted, who planted it, who watered it, who harvest it, who processed it, who supported it? Who cooked it and prepared it. I don’t even know the person who drove the car to bring it and leave it for contactless delivery on my doorstep. So we have dismantled even basic human needs and pulled ourselves out of relationship with one another. And we ask ourselves the question, why then isn’t humanity firing up for equity and fairness? So my question for you, and when I think about what you’ve written and the things about which you’ve spoken, what does it take for us to find a new form of interdependence in today’s society? And what could it look like?

Mia Birdsong: I love that so much. So I don’t actually think that, I mean, we’ve created a society that allows us the facade of independence, because as you just said in your example, you can have an entire meal show up on your doorstep and never interact with any [inaudible 00:24:20]. But that’s just because we’ve made all the people invisible. They’re still there. But you just don’t have to see them or talk to them or ask them-

Natalie S. Burke: No relationship

Mia Birdsong: … or make sure that they are okay. Any of those things. So we’ve created a society that allows us to pretend that we’re independent. And I think that part of what’s necessary. I mean, I think there are a few things that can happen, right? I mean, one is I think that we are seeing a… I hesitate to call it a pandemic of loneliness. But we’re definitely seeing a lot of mental health issues, both obvious mental health issues and then things that look like other things that I think are probably just mental health issues that are because we, as human beings are social animals and we’re hardwired for connection and we don’t have that. Our psyches are being damaged. And I think at some point, many of us are going to notice and be like, "I’m not happy." And some folks recognize that the things that our culture tells us will make you happy. Stuff, accumulation, hoarding, consumption, people get to a place in their lives and they’re like, "This is not actually happiness, this is numbness." And this is what I think is the generational work. I think there is a growing number of people who are developing that awareness. And then they’re like, "Well, what do I do?" And they’re feeling their way toward figuring out what happiness actually is. And, that like, I mean, we all know this. It’s not stuff, it’s relationships. There’s that cliche thing about people on their deathbed being asked about what they regret or what they want and they’re like "I wish I’d bought less stuff and spent more time with people." And I’m like, yeah, no shit. And it’s a cliche because it’s deeply true. So I think some of us are beginning to realize that. I think the other thing, and this is why the pandemic served as an interesting moment for this is that tragedy is one of the things that brings us together. I think about, there’s this social scientist, Daniel Aldrich, who I have been a fan of for a really long time. I met him and I was such a nerd and I don’t know how many people-

Natalie S. Burke: You face, just nerd when you said it [inaudible 00:27:07] by the way.

Mia Birdsong: I know, I don’t know how many fans he actually has. But I was really excited to meet him. And part of what he studies is social capital and disaster. And one of the things he’s found his research is that the people, the communities that recover from disasters and he’s looked at Katrina, he’s looked at tsunamis, nuclear disasters, all kinds of things. The communities that recover the fastest are the ones that have the most deep social capital. It’s not the people who are wealthy. It’s not where the first responders show up first, it is the people who know each other. And we see in moments of tragedy that people feel thrown together with each other. I mean, I think about Hurricane Sandy and I was not in New York when that was happening, but all of the pictures that showed up in my Facebook feed of people putting power strips outside their houses with extension cord so that people who didn’t have power could come and charge their phones. I think about all the stuff after Katrina, all of the stuff after 9/11, when there is disaster, we throw our lot in together and we take care of each other. And I think there was a way in which we do that when there was celebration as well. I think that people, I don’t sports, I don’t watch no sports or anything, but I think there’s a way in which people who are fans of a team when your team win, you all of a sudden with all the people on your side of the stadium or whatever, all you all are celebrating together and you’re best friends and giving each other hotdogs or peanuts or whatever. I don’t know how that works, but-

Natalie S. Burke: That’s like Mardi Gras in new Orleans, what you just said.

Mia Birdsong: Yes. Exactly. Right. Yeah. So thank you celebration, the people who are celebrating alongside of you all of a sudden are, or one of my favorites. When I lived in New York, the New York Marathon would go by the end of my block. And every year I would go out and cheer on complete strangers and I would cry because it was so moving to me that I was standing with all of these other people, cheering on strangers. It’s one of my favorite feelings to just be in collective affirmation and celebration of other human beings with a group of people. So I think that all of these ways in which something taps into what is hardwired in us, what is part of who we are as human beings. And I think the key for us is to hold onto that and is to lean into it. And is to notice that we have this longing in our hearts to be in relationship with each other, to be connected to each other, and to take the leap. Which in a society that tells us that strength and success and happiness come from doing it yourself and accumulating stuff and blah, blah, blah, to take the leap and be like, "My happiness does not lie there. It lies with other people."

Natalie S. Burke: When you say that it comes to the thing that I wanted to ask you next, which is about, and I do feel like this is foundational to all of this. It’s about how we choose to value one another, within a context of who we are and our experiences. And I’ve been racking my brain to try to figure out what does it take to shift how we value people within their own humanity, within their own identities, with regard to how they show up, because it is devaluing one another, that leads us down this path of racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and all of the other ones that you can heap onto the list. So the question for me becomes, what becomes necessary in this society in order for people to value one another at a very basic fundamental level?

Mia Birdsong: I think that it requires us to value ourselves differently. And we live in a deeply capitalistic market-driven culture that has socialized us to believe that our humanity is like our value as people is predicated on our value to the market. Because capitalism is concerned with individual productivity and that’s evolved to us just being, valuing general productivity. I think about how virtuous some of us feel when we lose sleep in order to get things done, or just the very idea that vacation or time off is something that you have to do a bunch of work in order to be, to earn it. Yeah. So we live in a society where our humanity is predicated on our productivity and we all, I think, I mean, I feel like I absolutely, even though I feel like I’ve thought about this and studied it for many years, I’m still excavating that deep belief in that deep socialization from myself. And I think that the way toward us valuing other people, and I’m going to see if I can articulate this. I think part of what happens in that is that if I value myself based on how productive I can be and all of that is wrapped up in a scarcity model that says in order for me to get what I need, somebody else has to lose. I got to win. And there’s also urgency around it. So I better hurry up and get all the things and hoard them. We can’t have none. And also if I have it all, probably you want to steal it. So all of a sudden we’re in competition with everybody. And if I’m viewing myself that way, I can’t fully value everyone’s inherent humanity until I’m valuing my own. And if I think I’m in competition with you, then I’m seeing you as my enemy in some way. And there’s a way in which I de-value you, I turn you into a caricature of a bad person who’s trying to get my share. I hope that made sense. I feel like there are a lot of layers in there.

Natalie S. Burke: It does.

Mia Birdsong: And I think ultimately all of the forms of discrimination that exists based on identity are just pathways for that thinking to manifest. And we just figure out a whole bunch of ways in which we are going to not be the other and be separate from and be part of something else. I mean, I think about how white supremacy and whiteness just as it exists in the United States. All of these folks from a wide variety of European countries came to America and bargained away their languages, their ways of celebrating, their rituals, their food ways, all of this beautiful culture, they bargained it away for whiteness and the power and privilege that comes with that. And there’s such tremendous loss, not just of culture, but of actual identity. That’s like shield and a weapon like whiteness.

Natalie S. Burke: Well, if you could have been a part of a conversation that I had earlier with a group, and one of the things that I raised for them, because they were talking about white allyship and so on. And I posed the question what’s whiteness?

Mia Birdsong: And who are you? Who would you be without it?

Natalie S. Burke: It was the moment. And I’ve asked that question and I had it turned back to me where someone said, "Well, what’s blackness." I said well how much-?

Mia Birdsong: Oh, figure out, you’re not equivalents though, they are not equivalence.

Natalie S. Burke: And my question was, and how much time do you have, because I can riff on that for the next six hours straight. I’m very clear and how those two things relate to one another and how they define each other and who I am within the context of my many identities? I’m really clear because this society and this world makes sure I’m aware of it every single day. So I’ve been processing blackness for as long as I can remember.

Mia Birdsong: And part of it is that part of the existence of whiteness was it was a way to create a culture of belonging that was specifically about exclusion and assimilation.

Natalie S. Burke: Yeah.

Mia Birdsong: So you could become white, I think the most recently is the Italians and the Irish, they were not white, 150 years ago, but became white. And all of us are capable of practicing the assimilation and giving up some piece of our identity in order to be part of it’s like, I said this to some folks yesterday, I’m like, "Whiteness is like the Borg." If you watch Star Trek or watched it. It’s about assimilation. It is about losing who you are to become part of this thing that then is just like trying to colonize everything.

Carrie Fox: My great-grandmother came to America when she was seven years old. Anunziata Nucci was her name. And the first day she went to school, the teacher asked her, what is your name? She said Anunziata. She said, "That’s far too complicated. I’m going to call you Nancy." And from then on, that was her name. So I sit with that as one tiny, tiny little microcosm of how much my family lost. And I am a white woman to then think on a much broader scale about how much culture we have collectively lost because of the fact that we have centered whiteness in our culture.

Mia Birdsong: And part of what happened for black folks, which is why there’s not equivalent. Is my black identity is largely because, I mean, I know that on my dad’s side, we’re Jamaican, but Jamaica was part of the transatlantic slave trade as well. I don’t know what part of Africa my people are from, but part of what enslaved folks did was come here and maintain culture as much as white folks were trying to prevent black people from speaking their languages, from practicing customs. I mean, hiding seeds in our braids, the drums, there are so many things that black folks fought to maintain of culture and then created American culture. So for us black identity is rich with a multiplicity of culture. We have food ways, we have ritual, we have all of these things that we have figured out how to maintain despite being stolen from our home. And that’s part of why I’m like, whiteness is not the same thing, it’s not the opposite of blackness. It’s not an equivalent. They are not the same thing. Because blackness as an identity is not an identity that is about assimilation. The diversity of blackness is massive. I mean, I have this my little white passing son and my father who was a deeply dark man. And that’s just skin color. Then there’s all of the diaspora. Natalie and I both have the West Indian bit, there is the Southern part. I mean, there’s so many things in blackness. There’s a richness there, and this is why when I think about culture and how important it is for white folks to find culture for themselves and not steal it from other people. But it is because carving culture is part of how we figure out belonging. Belonging is partly it’s about being of a people, being of a place, being of ritual and of history. And for some of us we’re too far removed from our ancestral culture. Like on my mom’s side, I know we’re part Irish. I have no expectation that I would go aside from the fact that I’m black. I have no expectation that I would go to Ireland and be like, "Oh my God, I’m home, these are my people." So part of it is that white folks need to do the work, which is painful and hard, but of figuring out how to create culture. And one of the things I think about when it comes to anti-racism is that people who are actively white supremacists have culture, they have music, they have lexicon, they have ritual, they have clothing they wear, they have ways they bury their dad. They have ways of gathering. And they’re doing this collectively. I’m like white folks who are doing anti-racist work need to be creating a culture of anti-racism. And I feel the only one that I’m aware of was the hardcore music that came out of D.C. in the ’80s there was this anti-racist flavor to it. And as it spread across the east coast, there was anti-racist hardcore musicians who are white. I don’t know what it looks like, but I’m just like, that is I’m so excited about is for white folks to start to create a culture of anti-racism, that allows them to hold a culture that is not about white supremacy. And I think in that is where white people begin to understand the tremendous joy that exists in doing anti-racist work. Because I think for so many white people, it is painful and uncomfortable and exhausting. And it’s not that it’s not going to be those things, but I think if you can’t find the joy in it that you’re missing out. And I think that the joy has to come from doing that work with other people and building culture around it.

Carrie Fox: Right. So I don’t know how we’ve gotten this far, but we’re coming on to an hour and we have a half an hour show and we’re going to play the whole thing. Man, I cannot say how, I can’t even find the words to express how much I have just loved being in this space with you and getting to hear your voice again and listen to you again. I have missed you all of these years. And Natalie, thank you so much as well for joining today and being part of this important conversation. I appreciate you both so much. Thank you. Thanks for listening to this episode of Mission Forward. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimrah Haroun and the Mission Partners team. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is Believer by I Am Daylight, and roots by Josh Lee. Thanks for your support. And we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.