Interview with Joel Brown: A thoughtful and profound interculturalist

29 December 2020 | Community in Action

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In 1963, the Gay African-American writer and social critic James Baldwin published ‘The Fire Next Time’, two long essays on American race relations. His book, in midst of the civil rights movement, created a great stir by eloquently expressing the tragic experiences of Black Americans. In one passage, he wrote: 

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” 

Our interviewee, Dr. Joel A. Davis Brown, incarnates Baldwin’s message. Growing up in the U.S., he experienced intimately the evils of racism and understands what happens when there’s no dialogue — or love — between cultural groups. Educated as a lawyer, he hoped to contribute to a more just society. But he learned that applying the law didn’t necessarily lead to a reconciliation of opposing par ties. As he said, “Jurisprudence doesn’t really touch on the final questions of our humanity and existence.”  

Upon discovering SIETAR, he found it provided him with the proper tools to deal with people’s fear of unknown cultural experiences. He is now working as Chief Visionary Officer at the Pneumos LLC, a management consulting and coaching firm based in San Francisco, CA. In the following interview, he reveals how he became a passionately active interculturalist. 

Let’s begin with your story. Where were you born and raised and what were some of the early life experiences that gave you the roots for the intercultural field? 

I was born just outside of New York City, but raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee is a midsize city, about 120 km north of Chicago. Historically, it was built by Germans but, over the last 80 years, it’s become fairly diverse…and one of the most segregated and polarized cities in the U.S.  

There are several things that influenced me in terms of interculturalism. My mom always wanted me to be socialized, to be able to meet and converse with different people and not live a sheltered life. She was a hospital administrator and her work led her to interact with people from Pakistan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa. She was adamant that we get exposed to people from different communities and backgrounds. And she also said, “If I bring someone home, you are to treat them like family”, which was perfectly normal; I didn’t even think about it. So I had this adopted, extended family of people from all over the world — different languages, different viewpoints about everything. And that was how I started to see the world: everybody was a friend, everybody was somebody you simply hadn’t talked to or understood yet.  That was something that made it very easy for me to connect with people who are different because that has been part of the community I have built for myself.  

On another level, being a Gay and African-American man on the fringe of society determined in many ways my thinking about my place in the world and who I was. And recognizing that, even within those particular groups, there were moments of exclusion. Because in the LGBTQ community, there wasn’t a lot of space to recognize people who were racial minorities.  For many people, the idea was that if you were LGBTQ, you had to be white. If you were African-American, much of the narrative of what that experience was like was based upon what straight people said. So you find yourself kind of living in the margins of the marginalized group. 

In terms of my formal education, Milwaukee had an extensive communication and arts program in schools, such as debate, extemporary speaking, theatre, etc. There were competitions and events around these activities, which allowed me to communicate fully in the public at a very early age.  

It also led me to write poetry because with pen and paper, I found it was a safe way to express myself. It was my way to share my world without judgment or validation from other people. I remember writing my first poem when I was seven years old and my teacher said, “This is really great. Did you write this?”  

Looking back, I now realize that poetry has been a lifeline to me; it’s the universe that wants to express itself through you and all you have to do is to get yourself out of the way and not overthink it. And when I don’t think, anything that wants to express itself will come through. Art is free-flowing when it is done in its highest form, it’s not dictated by conventional form. It’s supposed to be disruptive and challenge the status quo. It asks why we accept things as they are. Art, and in particular poetry, has a very important role to play in how we look at change because it is, by its very nature, designed to challenge the status quo.  

You seem to have had, at a very early age, a keen and sensitive mind as well as one that questioned the status quo. Did it develop in your family and school environment? Or was it just there and it just popped out? 

I sensed it was already there. My family knew that I was different — I was the free spirit, the sensitive heart, the empath. What does it mean to be an empath? To feel deeply, to hear and understand other people’s mental and emotional experiences. It was something that I had to express. It made me feel in many ways apart from other people because there were a lot of things I was exploring. I remember thinking: “Do you end up with nothingness once you leave this earth or is there an immortal soul?” With my nine- or ten-year old friends, that was difficult to talk about. 

I had many conversations with my older brother, probably the only person who never judged me. He always understood me to be different. But at the same time, he might say, “Don’t you want to play with toys or go outside and play sports?” I did that, but still was very much into these deeper philosophical questions about existence. 

From what I read in LinkedIn, you graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science, then went on to law school in Virginia. Why law? 

I was always fascinated by law and the idea of creating equity through justice. In the U.S., one of the easiest ways — and I say “easiest” in quotes — for marginalized communities to receive justice was through the courts. The idea is that you have an independent judiciary which appealed to reason and logic and higher concepts of living. It is much easier than trying to convince a majority population to do right by a minority population, particularly in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. 

I’m in many ways a nerd, so looking at laws and how we can apply them explains why I love law. And from a philosophical point, and because I had a knack for oratory, studying law made sense at the time because laws reflected consciousness of society. I wanted to help understand that more critically, and to help evolve our consciousness.  

But you aren’t practicing law anymore. What happened? 

After a few years, I realized that laws reflect the particular mindset of people within a particular nation state, which often trails behind evolved consciousness. What I mean is that there’s something to be said for respecting diversity, inclusion and interculturalism from a compliance standpoint. But is that really the highest form of living? To do something because laws tell you to do so, as opposed to doing it because you know it’s the right thing to do for a more just society?

Essentially, much of law is redressing harm from the past and looking at how to make sure negative things don’t happen. However, the law doesn’t usually grapple at a deep level with the final questions of humanity and our existence.  If you’re only thinking with your head, not your heart, you’re not entertaining questions of the spirit and thus you diminish your ability to relate to people on the intercultural level.  

In the legal profession, you have to contend with laws, social conventions, and statutes that dictate everything: how long briefs should be, what type of paper you can use. Also, it meant having to wear a suit every day and feel uptight and formal, which was so different from who I really am. I just felt restricted and the rebel in me found more safety in poetry and art.  

Even though I loved the story of law, I realized at some point the career did not match who I was from a values standpoint. I wanted to be something different, still very much in line with justice but done in a way that felt more liberating. It’s hard to help liberate others if you’re still trying to create space for yourself to be free.  

Despite my doubts, there was a lot of pressure for me to stay in law practice because of the professional prestige, the amount of time and money I had already invested, and the peer pressure. There was a stigma of being a lawyer and leaving the profession. But I’m very glad I left because I haven’t lost anything. Rather I’ve become better, more in tune, more astute, and a better global citizen. I’m thinking not just in terms of what’s legal or illegal; I think and color outside the box: what’s normal, what’s not normal, and what’s in between that.  

What was it exactly that allowed you to transform yourself? 

I don’t think I transformed myself; rather, I was pushing against the edges. When I was talking about personnel issues overseas, a client would say, “Oh, we have a team in London…” or “We have people with different backgrounds and are struggling to deal with this…” Those were the things that naturally fascinated me. And I found myself spending more time consulting than writing legal briefs. 

At that time, I didn’t realize that there were people doing intercultural or diversity work. I didn’t even know the term “intercultural”! I mean, it was as if there was this parallel universe out there and I opened the curtain and said, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize all this was taking place.” I thought that, as a lawyer, there was only the legal dimension I could be part of. Once I saw what else people were doing, I lost interest in law. 

I initially thought I was going to be doing diversity and inclusion work but realized that was a short-sighted endeavor – diversity is framed to an American lens but the world is  not just the U.S. As I started to travel more, I realized that the focus in the U.S. is very myopic and ethnocentric. I don’t know if it’s because in America people think we have it all, but too many of us don’t see the need to look externally.  

Because I was interested in being a better global citizen, I was more fascinated by what I found with colleagues and people I met outside the U.S. They seemed to have great er curiosity, agility and humility and were more open to creativity and innovation. That resonated with me. And once you start opening your eyes to the many things outside the U.S., your mind can’t go back to the old dimensions. It was then I realized that diversity could not only be based on the U.S. perspective and this is when I started to look into interculturalism. If you look at the world today, it didn’t come into existence by accident. There are reasons and forces and verbal elements that influence how the world works. The situations we all find ourselves in are influenced by history, sociology and politics.  

When I looked at diversity and interculturalism, I found a lot of people debating the two as “either or”. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to use both. I wanted to make it more practical and real, and I think interculturalism helps how we can look at diversity and inclusion differently. I had a number of mentors, like Kelly McCloud-Schingen and Patricia Coleman, who started to help me understand how I could merge the two. 

Is this when you became aware of SIETAR? 

No, not really. Some years earlier, I was with one of my earlier mentors doing consulting work with the U.S. Navy. In her working materials, she had one paper called “SIETAR Skills”. I thought, “Wow, these are pretty good. What is this organization?”  

But I didn’t really become part of the organization ’til years later through Kelly, who invited me to the SIETAR Europa Congress in Valencia in 2016. Patricia was there and she looked out for me. I was just blown away by the talks and the participants at this congress. They gave me language and tools for things I hadn’t been able to articulate well. Since then, I’ve been to every SIETAR Europa conference as well as those of SIETAR USA and Young SIETAR, all of which I have enjoyed.  

But I must say I’ve gotten a lot more out of SIETAR Europa because of its broader focus and inherent humility and curiosity. I always ask myself, “How can I learn more and what is it that I’m not aware of?” That’s why SIETAR Europa is so exciting, because there’s so much to learn. Every person I meet is a teacher and they give me something additional to think about. Whether I agree with their ideas or not, I use different ideas to refine my thinking and my own practice.  

Concerning your practice, do you incorporate the neuro logical aspects of interculturalism in your interventions? 

First off, I’m continually fascinated by the neurosciences. There is so much coming out, Patrick, that I don’t have time to read it all. What I think about is, once again, how do we make people feel safe? How do we make sure to avoid things such as the amygdala hijack, the “flight, fight or freeze” mode when we interact? Help people be adaptive? These are key things for me.  

Now, to answer your question, I’m going to first go backwards and hopefully come to an answer. This is a maxim I believe in: “It’s hard for people to create inclusion for others if they haven’t created inclusion for themselves.” The question is: How do you do that?  

When we do work with different groups, we always start with helping people understand the part of creating space for others. The seminal question is: How do you create space and how do you allow it to be fully expressed where people can fully be themselves? This process of using Global DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging and interculturalism) is less about “either/ or” and more about “both/and”. That allows me to be part of the equation – the focus is not only on others but on oneself. It’s important for any leader to recognize, “I’m also part of that process.”  

The main thing I try to encourage people to do is to see themselves as cultural beings in the process, and not just regard the other person as being cultural. That’s one of the big challenges. And I think when we see ourselves as cultural beings, then the fear and the risk of engaging in an intercultural dialogue becomes less, because you see it as something that’s normal, part of who we all are. It’s something that’s not necessarily a new paradigm or orientation; it’s part of a natural paradigm that you’ve already living in and you’re just extending and expanding to include other people.  

If we’re more comfortable with that, we can reduce some of the monkey-brain behavior that happens and engage with a higher level of confidence and adaptability. And that’s where the diversity, inclusion and equity lens really help inform the intercultural practice, by going deeper, beyond the superficial level, to look at power, privilege, and systems. 

This brings us to Black Lives Matter (BLM) , which has become very important in the U.S. Has it affected your training and consulting work with American companies? 

Let me begin by saying we’re a nation in civil war, and I don’t say that lightly. What’s been happening for the past 50 years is a competition of ideas. Do you accept that we are a pluralist nation and we’re better because each person thinks differently and that such difference is equally valid? Or do we continue to operate with one narrative that is largely prescriptive and does not allow for variation?  That’s what we’re dealing with.  

When I say, “a nation in a civil war”, it can be frightening.  But look at the language people are using today, the way they’re interacting on social media. The interaction of people of color not just with law enforcement but with the pow er structure — it’s brutal.  

The first TV debate between Trump and Biden was a very violent exercise; it was very disheartening because you’d expect something better. To reduce this polarized atmosphere will require a mindset shift for many people. What I mean here is that a lot of what we’ve been doing has not been well thought out and hasn’t been designed to solve  the problem. That’s why BLM is important. 

What I see with companies that have contacted us is that about half of them are sincere or earnest. I don’t require companies to be perfect and have solutions; that’s why they contact us. The other half are companies that are defensive, fearful, thus they are reacting from an impulsively reactionary standpoint. Senior leaders don’t even understand why they’re doing this, they haven’t done the self-inventory to ask the essential question, “Why is this important for us?” 

I met an organization recently and asked the senior leaders why this was important to them and there was silence. One of the leaders almost seemed offended that I’d asked the question. “What do you mean?” I said, “Yeah, this is important. But if you can’t tell me from a personal standpoint why this is important, then you won’t be able to convince your people. And I’m not convinced that you’re really invested in doing this work.”  

When asked to do things and operate in different ways with a different mindset, a lot of people can find this scary.  What often comes up is, “Oh, you’re being European.  You’re being socialist, un-American.” But I do get the sense people are looking at this more deeply. My concern is how do we make sure that this moment actually shifts something? Where people become more introspective, looking within, and facing uncomfortable questions.  

But will they actually do the work? I’ve had people say, “So much is going on, what can I do? There’s not much I can do.” I think we’re still dealing with the idea, or fallacy, that the work is external and not internal. I’m hoping if BLM does nothing else, it helps people realize that the internal keys have to be addressed.  

I’m now seeing a lot of people starting to question the mythology they grew up with. To recognize that the U.S., from a foundation standpoint, has never been an equal society. I’m heartened to see that some people are starting to be reflective.  

But what I’m also seeing is a lot of finger-pointing and polarization. And what I want people to think about is: How do I shift my consciousness? How do I cultivate a mindset where I’m always questioning things? To understand where I begin, in terms of my norms, and where the norms of other people begin? How can we create a society that works for everyone and respects cultural difference?  

I’m not sure we’re there yet. I think a lot of people are hopeful, but it’s too early to tell. I will say that there’s a greater opportunity now to have conversations around anti-racism and white supremacy than I’ve ever heard before.  

Interviewed by Patrick Schmidt

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