Why Curiosity Will Save Us All with Jennifer Brandel
Jennifer Brandel is a serial entrepreneur and innovator who works between industries to address how to design better systems for listening, responding, and evolving with their stakeholders. She is a co-founder of Hearken, which she’ll talk about extensively today, but she’s also behind Zebra’s Unite, Civic Exchange Chicago, Democracy SOS and WBEZ Chicago’s Curious City.
Now that we have her bona fides out of the way, here’s the real reason Jennifer is special to us: there are so few people able to clearly create an environment that makes the complicated approachable, and the messiest of problems solvable. Even the problems we face today, problems many believe to be impossible.
“We’re coming to a moment in which many more people are recognizing that collaborations and the interdependencies of sectors, of organizations, even departments within a company need to be in better and closer communication with one another. And the more we divide and silo ourselves and separate the work, it’s at our peril. We’re missing insights. We’re missing opportunities to leverage one another’s work. We’re being less efficient. All of these things translate into the workplace of making our lives harder and also making us keep doing things the same way over and over again, rather than evolving at the speed at which we could be.”
How does she approach these intractable problems at Hearken? Curiously. She’s an enthusiastic observer with inexhaustible energy to face hard things and try to make them better. If you’ve never heard of Jennifer or her work, we’re thrilled and honored to be able to present her worldview to you on this show. Thank you to Jennifer for joining us on the show this week.
Hi, there and welcome to the Mission Forward Podcast, where each week we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting conversation on the power of communication. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B Corporation. If you are new to listening, well, I’m glad you’re here. At Mission Forward, we take on topics relevant to public communications and purpose-driven professionals. We explore what’s behind the most effective communicators and the most equitable communications, all in an effort to help you along your journey as a communicator for change.
If you like what you’re here, I hope you will give this show a five star rating and share this episode or any of our other great shows with the people in your network. I promise today’s show is definitely going to be one to share. Today’s guest is Jennifer Brandel, serial entrepreneur and innovator who works between industries to address how to better design systems that listen, respond, and evolve with our stakeholders. She is co-founder of Hearken, Zebras Unite, Civic Exchange Chicago, Election SOS, Democracy SOS, and WBEZ, Chicago’s Curious City. Oh my gosh, I’m tired thinking about that. Full transparency.
I had the opportunity to work closely with Jennifer over the last many months, which gave me an even better understanding of her work and her approach. But before all that, I remember the first time I was connected with her. It was back in 2020 when a foundation reached out to see if my team could support with some promotion related to Election SOS. That was the first time I came across Jen’s work, and I remember thinking, I want to be in this woman’s orbit. She is super smart, creative, knows how to make messy problem solvable, and has the best glasses around.
Today, we are going to talk about chance encounters, the power of listening, and why curiosity can save us all. Jennifer Brandel, welcome to Mission Forward.
Thank you so much for having me. What a delight.
Oh my gosh! I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. I’m curious, if you will start by just telling us a little bit about what brought you to this amazing body of work that you now run over at Hearken and all of the other incredible initiatives that you oversee.
Whew! Okay, where to begin? There’s so many different starting points, but maybe the easiest one will be what brought me into media overall, because that was not a foregone conclusion. I was studying art history and philosophy and integrated liberal studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I had a real hard time picking a major, which in our conversation will probably be no surprise as I have a real hard time picking an industry or a sector or categorizing the world in what I feel like are false boxes. Long story short, I was headed to a philosophy class my senior year.
It was a beautiful spring day and a friend of mine named Michi intercepted me as I was walking up to the building where the class was in. He was like, “What are you doing now?” I was like, “I’m going to class.” He’s like, “You got to skip. There’s this amazing guy who’s going to be speaking at the student union tonight. His name was Ira Glass.” I was like, “Who? What?” He said, “Public media.” I was like, “I don’t listen to radio. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” but there was something about it. I’m not like the class skipping type of person. I remember thinking how much every class cost when I did the analysis of how expensive college was.
I’m like, this is $500 I’m throwing away. But anyway, I think it must have been the warm spring air and the glint of the sun on the buildings. I’m like, let’s do it. I’m going to go. I went, and that was my introduction to public media, public radio, Ira Glass, and the power of media, essentially of reporting. I remember being in this big hall. And for a moment, he turned the lights off and told everyone, how is the voice, in just hearing my voice and what I’m saying, different from seeing me and having all these other dimensions represented? I just was blown away by everything he was saying by the content he was playing from this American life.
I had a notebook, and I was almost at the end of my notebook because it was at the end of the semester. I ended up running out of room taking notes from what he was saying and was writing it in pen on my arms because I just didn’t want to forget. It was so speaking to me that literally I was trying to inject it in my veins. The next day, I started volunteering at WORT, the community radio station in Madison because I was just so moved by what radio could do, what media could do, the power of the creative storytelling. And lo and behold, I wrote a really bananas cover letter for an internship to NPR on vellum paper.
I hand calligraphied It was an art student before. Anyway, long story. I wrote a really bananas internship letter. They called me up and they’re like, “Do you want to intern at the arts desk?” I was like, “No, thanks. I have already planned to go to Italy for a while to care take on someone’s vineyard for a bit.” And then I came to my senses and called them back two hours later and I was like, “Wait, wait, wait, can I do this? I’m so sorry.” I had no idea anything. I found myself an NPR six months after hearing Ira Glass surrounded by all these amazing people who I had no idea who they were, which was great because they had no fear around them.
I was telling other interns, I’m like, “I’m going to lunch with this guy, Corey Flintoff,” and blah, blah blah, and they’re like, “Oh my God! You’re asking them to lunch?” I was like, “Yeah, what’s the big deal? He seems like a nice guy.” It was great that I had this beginner’s mind because I was just thrown into this now what I understand is an incredible and important legacy in the media just through the power of skipping class one day.
That’s amazing. I love that story on so many levels, but it is so purely Jennifer Brandel, because you have this optimistic spirit about even the most complicated issues. We have worked together on some issues related to local news and the news sector, but not just that. I mean, really broadly, everything you touch is touching issues of democracy, and those are some of the most complicated conversations to be having today, and yet you bring in optimistic spirit to that work. How do you do that? How do you always see the optimism in the big challenge?
Well, beyond Zoloft, which, truth be told, I am on, but I’ve always been this way. I think Zoloft just really helped me through the pandemic and some serious hormonal changes. But no shame in that game. So many people I love are on Zoloft. But honestly, I think it’s around the fact that holding life seriously, but lightly, at least my understanding of it. I have no idea what happens after we die, what the point of this all is. But if I think of it as an opportunity to always be learning, connecting with one another, increasing our compassion, being courageous, and supporting what we know in our bodies to be aligned with what is good for people, then I’m game.
I’m into it. I’m always looking for folks and people who are not just focused on reactive things or trying to mitigate problems, that’s great. I’m just not inspired by that space. I want to be on the proactive side of trying things out. Because obviously if we had a solution to these things, they wouldn’t be problems. I think to me, I’m just excited about working on that edge of what are the things we haven’t thought of or tried, or what has not worked in the past, but it might be the right time to try now because the context has shifted?
Where can we get wisdom from many different areas, times, geographies, altitudes, et cetera, that could help us right now? I’m voracious in bringing together lessons from all sorts of things, mysticism, scientists, conversations with my neighbors, they all connect to the work.
Right, right. You can find a connection in anything, and I think that’s the beautiful thing about your work. For those who don’t know you, and I suspect there’s quite a few listening who do, but for those who don’t, tell us a little bit about Hearken.
Yes. Oh my goodness! Well, Hearken means the word itself, if you’ve heard, it means to listen. It’s all over a lot of religious texts. If you grew up reading the Bible or anything else, it’s hearken to the angels, hearken to this, but it also also means to pay respectful attention. The other thing about the word itself, and this is getting super nerdy, and if I had my way, this is all I would talk about is just wordplay and whatnot, but there’s two different ways to spell the word. There’s H-A-R-K-E-N and H-E-A-R-K-E-N, and we chose the more archaic version, H-E-A-R-K-E-N, because it contains two words that explain everything.
There’s hear and there’s ken. Hear means obviously not just to listen, but to take in information, and ken means to expand your range of knowledge. Ken, you might have heard sayings like, it’s out of my ken. It’s not something you probably hear every day, but hearken, the other thing I love about it is that the H-E-R sounds like heart. It’s really about how do we help people listen to expand their range of knowledge and to make connections in this world.
Mission Partners has helped us in a lot of ways really reposition and think about what it is we do, because we’ve become synonymous in the journalism sector with a technology that helps listen and respond to the people that newsrooms are trying to serve or a framework of this public powered process. But we’re really adaptable to any problem set in which stakeholders and the people their decisions affect are too far away from each other, and we’re trying to bring them closer and have these moments in which they can connect.
At the end of the day, we’re a social impact consultancy that uses this power of engagement to impact and influence systems for public good. And that could be sectors or particular newsrooms or whatnot. We’ve worked with Sundance and the Carter Center and the BBC and local tiny media companies. Up and down the chain, we see these same problems that’s evident.
What really struck me the first time I met you and has continued to sit with me is that you developed Hearken before COVID, before the largest racial unrest that our country has seen in recent history. You were thinking about the spaces that existed within systems, the spaces that existed between those who sit in powerful positions and those who are members of a community. You realized that there was something that needed to happen to close those spaces for democracy to really work at its best. I think when you think about democracy, you’re not just thinking about government entities, you’re thinking about democratic practices, participatory practices, civic engagement, right, collectively.
And then we think about what’s happened over the last few years and how relevant your work has become, even more relevant than it was in 2015, how necessary your work is. I’d love for you to share an example of how your work is playing out in systems and institutions and this idea of, you mentioned it at the top, that this is not just addressing an issue in a sector. You’re really thinking holistically about how sectors across the board can consider their role in advancing more democratic ideals and practices.
Whew! Okay, where to begin? This is a great juicy question. Maybe I’ll start with a brief story about my personal experience with feeling the pain of this distance between people who are in power and people who their decisions impact. As I mentioned, I didn’t necessarily study journalism. And even when I was in NPR, I wasn’t doing journalism. I was helping research. I was getting the mail. I was producing little things here and there, but I wasn’t getting journalism training.
I started pitching WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago where I was living after my 20s. I ran around the world. I was a grape picker in Tasmania and psychometric test developer in Montreal, I wrote like… This is something I don’t know that I mentioned to you, but I was a pen writer for an exotic dancer, writing a sex ed column in a paper. Anyway, it was in wild 20s, but…
The most interesting woman alive, Jennifer Brandel, everyone.
No, but I ended up in Chicago in my 20s doing all sorts of random things, trying to make ends meet and make rent. I was listening to the public radio station and I was like, I should start pitching them story ideas because I’m seeing all these cool things happening. Long story short, I taught myself how to do public radio through pitching the station, working with them, and just by doing, which is how I like to learn. One day I went from pitching them stories to them pitching me stories, to then suddenly being in the newsroom at the editorial table where decisions get made.
I remember it’s like the day before that I had no power to determine what narratives, information, frameworks, metaphors, et cetera, that my community got. And then the next day, I felt like I had way too much power. It was too much responsibility, and I didn’t understand how… No matter how smart, diverse, thoughtful, et cetera, the people in the room were making decisions on behalf of all of Chicago, which is millions and millions of people, I was like, how can we be sure that we are helping them get their information needs met? We have a lot in common. We do not know what it is like to be a new migrant to this country or this city.
We do not know what it is like to live on minimum wage. We do not know fill in the blanks. It felt impossible and we were set up to fail to be in this position to assume that we knew best. Another chapter of my life in my 20s was working for the Baháʼí Faith. They are an independent world religion, started in the 1800s out of Iran. Their prophet is this man named Baháʼu’lláh. I was working for them, helping to translate their faith to non-jargony language so that more people could understand what the faith did. They had this absolutely transformative approach to community building, which was this humble posture of learning.
Instead of many religions or even NGOs or whatnot do, instead of going into a community and saying, “Hey, we see a problem that we know how to solve. Let us teach you how to do it, and then we’ll make sure you can do it, and then we’ll leave. Hooray. Hooray.” They didn’t assume that they knew what was best for people. They assumed that the people closest to their problems knew what was best for them and they were just there to help. They had this approach which is we have two hands, how can we help you versus we know how to solve your problems. I thought that was so mind-blowing.
When I looked at every industry, journalism included, we were taking the opposite approach, that we know what’s best for you. We know what information you need to make decisions. We know what’s important to you. And you can’t. It’s just frankly a lie. I just kept thinking about, how do we close these gaps in the systems between these decision makers? And in part, it’s really a problem of how do you take a system that’s closed and make it open? How do you take a system that’s top down or hierarchical and allow some channels for bottom up grassroots feedback to come in?
And then how do you make that part of your workflow so that it’s not a nice to have thing you do every so often, but it’s actually core to your principles so that you are essentially user testing or market testing everything you make, whatever products it is, whether it’s content or actual tangible goods. You’re always in sync with the people that you’re serving because they get a chance to weigh in. It’s not just with a focus group once a year that produces an 80-page white paper that no one reads. It’s actually a commitment to continuous learning and evolution.
Right, right. Where do you then come in to the work? Are you coming in at the highest levels with the people who are in those positions of power who say, “Okay, we get it. We realize there’s a better way of doing this work. Help us figure it out,” or do you come in at maybe a lower level where someone’s saying, “This system is not working for us. You’ve got to help us think about how to manage the upward elements of this system?” Tell us how that works.
That’s a great question. I mean, really there is no title and correlation between people who see the problems and people with the ability to change them. We hear from interns and low level, early career people in an organization who say, “I see a problem and I know our system is totally screwed.” And we hear from CEOs and the people in power who say, “Oh my gosh, this thing isn’t working and it’s clear. We need to figure out a new way to do things.” It really is that insight of a system not being healthy and not having the right flow and call and response with the people you’re serving is something anyone can really recognize.
We get those emails from every part of the chain. But at the end of the day, to do this work, it’s culture change work. It’s change management work. It’s technology work. It’s incentives work. And that can really only be funded and supported by the people at the top because the lower level employees don’t have the budget, the clout, or the decision-making power to do this kind of work. Although they can do experiments that we can help them with on very low levels to prove out the theory, but they unfortunately just aren’t in a position to make that change themselves.
I remember asking this question to Tina Rosenberg, who was on the podcast a while back, and I am a huge, huge fan of her work and solutions journalism in general, I remember asking her if she could name a system that she believes is working just the way it should be. She’s like, “It’s an impossible question.” But do you? Are we driven by the ideal of a system, or do we know that there is in fact a model that works?
Wow! I look to nature when you say that question. The immediate thing that came to mind was that the intelligence that exists in our world holistically knows what’s up. It adapts, it generates, and obviously it’s not working as it should because climate collapse, et cetera. But these individual systems are incredibly adaptable. They are able to usually over time, if they’re given enough time, adapt to changing conditions and make sure that life can be sustained. I think there’s probably beautiful ecosystems that have some balance in it in the world, and those are working well, but they’re increasingly endangered because we keep encroaching upon them obviously and putting our footprint on them.
But I think what immediately comes to me is nature bodies. There are things that are working. The more that we can learn organizationally from nature and we can start recognizing patterns of things that work that have been here from millennia before we have been here to screw it up, I think the better we are equipped to make things happen. And not to sound too woo-woo, but actually I really don’t care because I am woo-woo, but I always want to say to the people who aren’t woo-woo, don’t worry, I can also speak your language of KPIs and whatnot, is that every time we design a system that is in harmony with how the natural world works, it is workable and it is working.
There are so many things that are out of balance right now because they are breaking fundamental laws of nature and of humanity and how people work. They’re not being designed for our best and highest good.
Do you see the trajectory that our human race… Where we are as a society, as a world, as human race? Is there any hope that in the near term we will find or maybe refind some of the balance that we have lost?
I do believe so. But the thing I believe is that it’s going to happen in small groups, and it’s going to happen in community and through mutual aid. It might be happening in an apartment building in which there’s an ecosystem, that someone’s sick and the neighbor brings the soup and gets the mail and helps out. And that we are responsible to one another. I was actually on an incredible, incredible mind-expanding meeting with this woman, Nora Bateson, a couple weeks ago, and she talks about this whole idea of warm data and what are the things that we cannot capture easily in words and dashboards and all of that stuff.
I want to make sure I have it right. I’m just going to bring out the sentence she said that I wanted to get tattooed on me. I don’t have tattoos, but if I did, I might put this one in. When we think about any of these systems that we’re involved in, if they are on some level asserting that we’re pretending that people don’t need each other, they are harmful. And if they are dividing people who might otherwise be able to help each other, they are harmful. If you look at it in that way, they’re basically not aligned with the truth, which is that we do need each other and people need to help each other. You shouldn’t be dividing people.
When you look for signs of that, we just slice and dice so many things and divide them even unconsciously, whether it’s by, oh, this industry or this is your job and your swim lane and not what you’re supposed to do. I think that flattening really denies people their humanity, their dignity, and ultimately can lead to violence when we flatten things and divide them in different ways. I know I’m getting pretty esoteric here, but I hope that’s… This is what I’m thinking about.
You’re sparking a story for me. Do you know the name Leland Melvin, astronaut?
One of the first Black astronauts, if I recall. I don’t think he is the first, but he has this great story about the first time he went to space, and he was in the space shuttle. He had gone to space with astronauts from a few different countries. He was on this space mission with someone from Russia and there were a few other countries that were represented. He remembers the first time that he looked down and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s Earth, how incredible that is. Oh my gosh, I can see the United States, how incredible that is.” And then the astronaut next to him said, “Oh my gosh, and I see my home country, I see Russia, how incredible this is.”
They looked at one another and they said, “If only our leaders could be here right now, if only they could remember that we are all connected, we are all of the same human race, and how easy it is to forget that, how stuck we are on what divides us versus what makes us all connected.”
That is absolutely it. That is absolutely it. In fact, the Baháʼí Faith comes to mind again because their entire tenant is the unity of mankind is the truth. The borders that we create, the ethnicities, the markers, the different things that divide us are actually false. The more that we recognize that we are one organism, not only human beings, one species, but we are with Earth an entire organism itself, each of us playing a different part like cells in the body playing a different part, the more we can be prepared to make decisions, understanding that we affect the system and the system affects us.
I can imagine people listening right now says, “It’s all fine and good, but what are we going to do about how deeply divided we are?” Sometimes even within a given family, there are deep divides. I’m going to once again call on you as the model that you create and a really incredible interview that you did not too long ago with your brother and your father. Can you talk just a bit about that?
Oh my goodness, yes. I’m constantly being humbled by the things that I teach and espouse to others. I’m always practicing at getting better at myself. I’m no expert in. I fail. One of those things is talking politics and listening and maintaining a level of sincere curiosity with my father. Amanda Ripley is an incredible author. If you haven’t looked at her work, she’s got this book that came out a couple years ago called High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. There’s another incredible author, Monica Guzman, who has a book called I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. I think it got those right.
They’re both brilliant, brilliant thinkers, journalists, writers, and offer so many tactical and practical ways of starting to unwind some of these patterns that have been reinforced by media and by other forces to divide us. I got an email from my dad one day, one of many, that was just made my blood boil, one of those political chain emails that’s like, “I can’t talk about Muslim now with people not getting mad at me.” I’m like, oh my God, I can’t do this. I realized that I had given up on my dad as someone I could talk to and listen to, and that was not a good thing.
If I’m going to try and help bring people together through curiosity, through listening, through responding to their needs, through treating them with dignity, I’m not doing it close to home. It’s often hardest to do the things that you can do professionally close to home. I wrote into Amanda Ripley. She’s got this great podcast on Slate called How To, and I asked how to have political conversations with your family without yelling, because my brother and I had just gotten to a really ugly feedback loop with my dad in which my brother would start writing back. He’s a lawyer, so he would write back with all of these facts and points I’m like, that’s not going to work.
And then we would have these text chains that would blow up. Monica and Amanda through a two-part series on this podcast helped me and my family start to unwind some of these things and practice some of the approaches in their books. I will say, it really works and it really helps. It is a practice. We’ve backslid as a family into these text chains a little bit. I’m like, can we just remind ourselves that this is not the environment in which we can have these conversations? We need to make the time. We can’t just do it over text. It’s too low-fi, et cetera. It’s really that curiosity and listening that I think, like you said, can save the world, but it’s a practice. It’s not something all of us do naturally.
Well, we’re coming to the end already, which is hard to imagine. If I think about just reflecting on everything you’ve shared today, I said earlier on somewhat jokingly, the most interesting woman alive, but my goodness, I mean, on so many levels, Jen, what I have learned from you as a caring leader, as a courageous leader, as a creative leader, how you truly do center curiosity because you are curious and you use that curiosity to help then improve the world around you.
Last couple minutes. I would reinforce to those listening who don’t know Jennifer Brandel and her work to go check it out and to support it in any way you can, but tell us what’s got you feeling good, feeling hopeful, feel excited about the work that you’re doing these days.
That’s a great question. Hearken, the company I run and the initiatives we’ve spun out that you’ve named at the beginning, many around democracy, I feel like we’re coming to a moment in which many more people are recognizing that collaborations and the interdependencies of sectors, of organizations, of even departments within a company need to be in better and closer communication with one another. The more we divide and silo ourselves and separate the work, it’s at our peril. We’re missing insights. We’re missing opportunities to leverage one another’s work. We’re being less efficient.
All of these things translate into the workplace of basically making our lives harder, and also making us just keep doing things the same way over and over again rather than evolving at the speed at which we could be. I’m really excited. With our Democracy SOS work, we’re going to be doing a lot of work pairing civic organizations. That could be the League of Women Voters or the Better Government Association or Braver Angels or these different groups that are working to help on this polarization and information problem to work with newsrooms and to actually leverage each of their strengths to bring about better communication for the electorate in time for the 2024 elections.
It’s a big, big challenge, an exciting one. But anyone listening, if you have work that you feel like journalists could or should be using that’s research, information, tactics, et cetera, or you’re in a newsroom and you want to find people to help you because you have fewer staff than you used to and you need research or information on voter guides or whatever, reach out. We’re here to help match make and help facilitate those collaborations so that we aren’t just all in our own corner doing the same thing, but we’re actually doing it together.
Amazing, amazing. You said it so well several times throughout, the power of closing those gaps when we see them and what they can do for society as a whole. Thank you, Jennifer Brandel, for all your work and for the work of your colleagues. It is so inspiring, and I’m so glad to have this conversation today.
A delight. Thank you so much, Carrie, and I’m really honored to be on your podcast.
And that brings us to the end of this episode of Mission Forward. Thanks for tuning in today. If you are stewing on what we discussed here today, or if you heard something that’s going to stick with you, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what’s got you thinking. If you have thoughts for where we should go in future shows, I would love to hear that too.
Mission Forward is produced with the support of Sadie Lockhart in association with the TruStory team. Engineering by Pete Wright. If your podcast app allows for ratings and reviews, I hope you will consider doing just that for this show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks to 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 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.