Creating a new culture is the key to resolving a racially divided nation, rebuilding the fabric of our society at its core, and ultimately healing. At Race for Reconciliation, we believe that unhealthy culture deters reconciliation, and that with attention to language and listening, we can create a culture that fosters racial reconciliation. 

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How to make culture a priority.
  • How to bring a healing atmosphere everywhere you go.
  • What a culture of racial reconciliation actually looks like.
  • The three keys to creating that culture.
  • Why where you spend your time can contribute to a healthy culture.




Karin: Welcome to the R4R Podcast. This is Karin Conlee. Thank you so much for joining us. I am the Executive Director of Race for Reconciliation. And I have the privilege of continuing a conversation that we have turned into a podcast series with Vonnetta West. Vonnetta, thank you for being such a trooper and helping us really talk about some really important issues as Race for Reconciliation launches and as we set a foundation to really become a movement that we pray will be a positive unifying force in the space of racial reconciliation. So thank you, thank you, thank you for coming back.

Vonnetta: Thank you for having me.

Karin: We are really to the fifth of five major pillars that we have designated for Race for Reconciliation, and this particular one is called creating culture. I want to go ahead and actually read the definition and the statement that we have put alongside this. It says this, creating culture – We believe that unhealthy culture deters reconciliation, and that with attention to language and listening, we can create a culture that fosters racial reconciliation. And Vonnetta that is part of our goal as an organization is to change culture.

So you know, we have talked about, we want to be a place that provides healing from the past, honor in the present, and hope for the future. We know that that will require creating a culture that that is positive and unifying. I know in some of our other conversations positive doesn’t mean that it won’t be uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to just all feel good having these conversations, because if we do then change is not going to happen internally or externally. But we really need to talk about if people who are listening to this podcast have a heart to be a part of the solution, they are culture carriers. They have the ability to take a culture with them where they go. We have a responsibility as a movement to create a culture.

So I want to dive into a conversation with you about creating a culture. We have a dear friend by the name of Matthew Kelly who has a book out and it’s really a business book, but it comes with the importance of how important it is to create a culture. I’m going to steal a couple of his principles and ask you to help us apply them to this space of racial reconciliation.

So one of the first things that he talks about is you have to make culture a priority. So, as we think about this we have to know what culture we’re wanting to create. We have to have some vision in mind of what that culture looks like. I know as the executive director of Race for Reconciliation I have in my mind what I want that culture to look like. But I want to tap into your wisdom as well to say, what do you think the preferred culture should look like in the conversation and the space of racial reconciliation?

Vonnetta: Wow. I think that culture has to include a few things. I would agree when you said we’re all culture carriers. It’s very important that we each have a personal culture. That impacts how I show up to help foster a culture for racial reconciliation. Like I don’t have that as an individual. My own culture that I live with. I cultivate every day where I have core values. We create those things for organizations, but we struggle to create those for ourselves as individuals. I was just encouraging a friend a few weeks ago, who has some great things that I believe she’s destined to do. I said, you need to create a culture. What are your core values? What are your principles? What are the things that you absolutely say, these are my majors and these are my minors. These are the things that I want to be attentive to.

04:53 If we do that individually, and we say something, I say, at least once a week, I will not be a bigot. I tell people that I say that to myself and they say, you actually repeat that. Yes. I have things for me based on who I want to be as a human being that I say to myself by myself on a regular basis; I will not be a bigot is one of them. Everywhere I go I want heaven to show up with me is another that I say on a regular basis. I want to be a vessel for goodness and for kindness. I want to be love wherever I show up. You may say, some people may say that’s corny. No, these are the things you actually have to say to be a person who…I have a personal culture and atmosphere is another word I use for…that’s synonymous for me with culture.

So the atmosphere that you bring to these conversations, the culture that bring personally is very important to racial reconciliation. I can bring truth and I can bring truth that I speak to power, but the atmosphere that I bring it in will determine whether or not power hears it. Because who wants to speak and not be heard? Who wants to speak and not have some movement happen? So the goal just can’t be to speak truth to power. It has to be to speak truth to power in an atmosphere that creates results. So that culture personally becomes important to racial reconciliation.

Then when I bring that culture to spaces, if it’s positive, if it’s something that has an energy that helps us make progress, then hopefully it begins to be shared culture. And people bring their personal culture and we connect together and we build a culture, this is very important, that says we do not shun truth. That’s a key thing that a culture for racial reconciliation has to say, we do not shun truth. We don’t shun the truth of the past. We don’t shun history. We don’t shun and turn away from what’s happening in the present. We are not blind. We are not spiritually or mentally blind. That culture has to have that element.

I mean, I think there are a few components, quite a few actually, to a culture for racial reconciliation. But that will be a key one for me, a culture of compassion, a culture of truth, and a culture of courage. Courage, compassion, and truth are three aspects of a culture for racial reconciliation that I don’t think we can move forward or even have a culture that’s about racial reconciliation too. I would encourage people who are listening to this podcast to go back to the first one, to understand what we mean when we say reconciliation. So they’re not listening to this saying, I don’t want any reconciliation because they haven’t heard our definition for it. But it’, absolutely true compassion and courage. But I have to bring that myself and then connect with people.

Karin: Well, I love that you did start with the self because I do think that in order, you know, we talk all the time about, you know, you can impact your circle of influence.

Vonnetta: Yes.

Karin: When you impact your circle, then that will impact your community, and that will impact your city. There are concentric circles there, but it starts with us. If we don’t have our own defined culture and know who we are…

Vonnetta: You have to have it. I mean when people talk about where they spend time, where I spend time it’s very much relative to the culture that I want to cultivate around me and the one I want to help cultivate when I get together with other people. Now, the only reason why I would spend time with people who I would, for all intents and purposes, based on what they share with me, define as bigots, is if I believe I have created a personal culture where I can influence them to change their culture. If that’s not happening, if I’m saying to myself on a daily basis, I don’t want to be a bigot. I’m just not going to be partying with bigots. I just don’t get together. Even people, if there are people in my family who have bigotry in them, we don’t hang out, not just for hanging out. Because my culture is very important to me. There are certain things in my life that I refuse to be. There are certain things that I’m adamant about being, and I have to protect and ensure that I keep that culture so that wherever I go, I show up with it.

Karin: Wow. I love that. I feel like that is what each individual, we look at this as such a, you know, a global problem, a countrywide problem, and think how can I make a difference just little old me? You can, but it starts with you defining who you are going to be then that determines the culture you carry with you. This is a way that you can take that culture into a conversation and impact the people that are around you. Even if it’s just having uncomfortable conversations with people you know, that moved them to have challenged themselves in that same way, you are being a part of the solution. That’s an important part of it.

10:28 The second principle that that Matthew Kelly outlines is mission is King. I feel like in this series of podcasts, you’ve outlined this before, but for those who maybe haven’t joined us yet and gone back to listen to those previous, if you could narrow it down to one thing, the one mission, when we think about creating this culture in the space of racial reconciliation, the one thing we need to do, what would that be?

Vonnetta: For mission? How does culture create mission? Is that.

Karin: In the context of us creating a culture, we’ve got to know what that mission is. The center of why are we creating this culture? We got to know what the mission is to accomplish it. In this space you know, I’ve heard you a couple of times kind of say, this is the bottom line of racial reconciliation. What’s that one mission?

Vonnetta: The bottom line, you know, people may phrase it a different way and they may say, we want a better world. We want peace. We want a more loving humanity. But the bottom line is essentially we want a world where we don’t consistently mistreat each other. That’s it. We want a world where the things that people need in order to live and survive, they have those and it’s just not a few people who have those, but everyone across the world has those things.

People would say, we want a diverse world, but our world is already diverse. I mean, diversity is not justice. Inclusion is not justice. What’s justice is when people are able to participate and have shared power. So for me, an ultimate goal is a global community where they share power and resources, where people aren’t in poverty, where there’s not a lack of food and hunger. And that is, you know, simply expressed by Dr. Josiah Royce and then carried on by Dr. King is a beloved community. Which isn’t a utopia. It’s actually something we can achieve as Mrs. Coretta Scott King said, we can achieve it. We can get to it. We have to work at it.

But it’s a place where people are treated with dignity and love and respect. But in order to get to that, we have to eradicate what Dr. King called these ‘triple evils’ of racism and poverty and war. Which have other factors connected to them. So today that will be all of these forms of discrimination. And then poverty, and then militarism this violence, this physical violence that we have, that we see around us every day, that’s in what we watch and what we listen to. So it’s become like a part of our culture. Where if we start to say, we don’t want violence to be a part of our culture anymore, because we’re mission-focused and we want this beloved community then our culture starts to reflect our mission. How can you reach your mission? If your culture doesn’t reflect you wanting that mission that’s personal and collectively, you know.

Karin: Well, and to me, you know, sometimes as women we just get down to the very basics and simplify. I mean, what you just said, we want a world where we don’t mistreat each other. Okay. You can put all of the clutter and all of the, you know, everything aside and go, is that something worth living for? Is that something worth investing my time in? Absolutely. I love the way, you know, just to boil it down to something so simple, not to ignore the hard work that is going to be necessary to get to that. But if we can understand that’s really our goal, that is our mission, that is incredibly important.

Let me ask you, because that is so important. But this is a problem that has existed for so long. One of the other principles is you have to over communicate the plan and in this space what would you say in terms of…this is an old problem. It’s not a new problem. We talked about in our earlier podcast. This didn’t start in America. This is a, you know, since the beginning of humanity issue, but how can we communicate it in such a way that people are receptive to it and willing to engage in the solutions now?

15:07 Vonnetta: I think over communicating the plan is just so important. Continuing to state the mission I think is fundamental too, because there’s so many different statements out there we could just get to something concise. Like, hey, we want to live in a world where we don’t mistreat each other. And then you start to look at what are the components of that? Well, that’s systemically, that’s personal. In our school cultures we don’t want bullying in our schools. You build a whole plan around just that statement of that mission statement. Then we start to establish what our culture has to be for that.

I think getting on that same page Karin means that you have a plan for coalitions. People that you get together and start to articulate that. I mean, we have social media today. People ask, what would they have done in the sixties with social media? I mean, there were three major laws that were change in this country around discrimination and racism under Dr. King’s leadership. They did that with radio and flyers. So I think if they had social media, what we could do with social media, you know, to get this messaging out there of we’re living below how we should be treating each other. We need to love more deeply. We need to think higher.

Language that we started to get out there. You know, we have this phrase that first lady Obama shared ‘When they go low, we go high’ where I think it’s a wonderful phrase and it’s something that needs to be restated, but that doesn’t even capture what we need to do in an approach to injustice. You know, it can’t just be a matter of when people go low, we’re respectable and we go high. It has to be no, when people go low, we look at these systems, we change systems. We look at how to change hearts. So there needs to be some meat put on that.

So I guess what I’m saying is when we’re oversharing the plan, we’re going to have to start to put some explanations with some of these pieces because people don’t get it. If I say nonviolence, people think, oh, I’m not going out there and people attacking me and I’m not going to attack. They don’t understand why they did that. That they had an ultimate goal of changing, voting rights laws they had an ultimate goal. They weren’t just saying we want to be bitten by dogs. They were thinking about future generations.

So the overstating, if we could get a consistent message out that reflects the culture that we want to cultivate and the change that we want to see in the world, then that’s powerful. There’s not just the Gandhi, ‘be the change that you want to see’ cause that doesn’t tell people how do we do that? So people need to know now what to do. We have this resource in social media that if we connect organizations, we can get messaging out there to millions and millions more, and then millions more of racial reconciliation and justice.

Karin: Absolutely. You know, as you mentioned that you have been a part of the social media world and an analyst in that, and very involved in that. When we talk about creating a culture, and we talk about creating a personal culture, everybody now has kind of a megaphone with social media. I’m gonna maybe just jump track for a minute and go back to our fourth value of wisdom and put it in the context of us creating this culture. What would you say would be the wise ways to use that tool versus the unwise ways to use that tool?

Vonnetta: Yeah. You know, I’ve tweeted several times and I’ve posted as well. This is my philosophy on social media, just for me personally. It’s this- I create my social media world, and I determine whether or not I create a world that I need to fast from and get away from because I’m always seeing people saying, I need a break from social media. I’m like, you created that world, you know, unless you do social media work the way I do and you have to look at it every day. On my personal pages I’m not friends with anybody I don’t want to be friends with. I’m not following anybody on Twitter that’s going to make me want to throw up when I read their Tweets. I’m not looking at anybody’s Tweets that I say on a regular basis, wow. They’re just saying really ridiculous inhumane things. I created that world. So that’s a part of my personal culture.

19:41 Social media. Sometimes I’m funny. Sometimes I’m informative. Sometimes I’m angry if there’s been an injustice. Sometimes I use it to help galvanize people around the work. It’s a reflection of my day to day life. So whoever I am day to day, then that’s what you see on social media that I’m going through my day. Sometimes I’m saying a joke, I’m listening to music or, you know, I’m dealing with an issue and I’m trying to figure it out or I’m upset. I’m hurt about something. I don’t put everything that I feel out there on social media. You just can’t do that. Cause really, I mean, maybe we need to whisper this to people. All those people don’t really know you. They don’t really know you.

I know it’s called Facebook friends, but all those folks aren’t really your friends. So you can’t be showing your whole heart and mind on social media, some things you got to hold close. But I think if we see it that way, this is a world that I created and I determine what it looks like and what it feels like to me. That’s just me personally. I have be careful what energy I put out there in that space because I’m responsible for it. I think we’ve gotten to a place in social media where the wisdom lacks, because we’re not face to face and we’re not talking to people. So it kind of absolves us of responsibility.

You have people who are hiding behind fake names and they’re not really themselves because they’re trying to do something that they know in their heart of hearts is not the humane thing to be saying or to be doing. Otherwise it could be you. You be yourself. I just be Vonnetta West on social media when I’m saying things that I’m okay with them being attached to Veneta West. So, you know, the wisdom we need in those spaces is so critical right now to have it. Again, it’s not that it can’t be fun. I have fun on social media. If there’s a hashtag that I want to get on and somebody…sometimes we do this thing on social media where we’re watching a TV show and we tweet about it and that’s fun. But then if it gets to a place where we just say, there’s somebody who says something and we want to drag them and I’m like well, I don’t think I want to do that.

But I do try to make social media sometimes for me just because I’m an educator, I’m a teacher, a teaching space. I mean, and I’m not a traditional teacher and educator. But I do sometimes say, what can I impart here on social media if somebody says something that’s really ridiculous. Or I’m thinking that’s just not a humane thing to say. Is there something I can share to try to move that along and maybe help them in some way? So the wisdom, I just think people are on there, It’s just my phrase ‘wildin out.’ We don’t even know what we’re doing, the damage we’re doing on social media.

Karin: Yeah. Well, I think maybe to connect this back to some of what you said earlier, you need to take your personal culture and apply it to your social media.

Vonnetta: Everywhere, yes.

Karin: So, you know, that space shouldn’t be exempt. It is an opportunity to do good. It also is a place where harm can be done. So if you have defined who you are and the culture you want to create, you can have your social media reflect that. That’s so important.

Vonnetta: You can. If I say in my personal culture, I won’t be a bigot and I don’t embrace bigotry I have to carry that over to my social media. So whenever I see somebody saying something relative to just one person really, and they’re applying it to a whole group, I don’t get it. Like if I’m talking to you about how there’s this heightened discrimination against Asian people because of the Corona virus and you start talking to me about what Asian people do and how they discriminate and how they do this and they don’t deserve our compassion. I’m going to say, hey, in my personal culture, this is not what we do. It’s not what I do.

So I’m going to bring that over to social media and say, Hey, you know, I understand you’re frustrated and you’re upset about some things you’ve experienced, but no matter what’s happened here that doesn’t excuse the hate crimes against Asian people in this country. You can’t use one injustice to excuse another one. So we start to do that a lot. And you just have to own social media stay true to your culture, whatever it is you create it personally.

Karin: Absolutely. In this space one of the other principles of creating a culture, this is in the business context, which kind of makes me smile as we’re talking here, but it’s to hire with rigorous discipline. So you want to have people involved in your business in this case, in this movement that you are very intentional about because it is so important to keeping the culture. Is having people who embrace those same values, who embrace that same message, who are going to be those carriers of culture. What do we need to do in this space to make sure that we are those culture carriers? That we’ll be a place and the people that have a culture that can bring the healing we’re looking for?

25:00 Vonnetta: What we just talked about. I think the number one thing is to cultivate your personal culture. That’s very important. Determine your core values. Determine them for you and determine them for the spaces you want to go into. That you say, no matter where I go, I know my core values are love. One of my core values is justice. I may have a core value that’s discipline. A core value that’s honorable language, things like that, that you take in and you say, hey, this is what I’m going to carry with me wherever I go.

Now, if I’m leading an organization, that organization, whether people want to accept it or reject it, is a reflection of my personal culture. I talked to a lot of leaders and they don’t believe that. They start saying, well, I need people who work here who do this. Or I need people connected to my organization who are more loving. My first question to them is, are you loving? Because if your personal culture isn’t loving, then you shouldn’t be expecting your organizational culture to be loving, not if you’re a leader of an organization. Well, I need people who are more strategic. Are you strategic?

You know, these are just questions that we as leaders, even as a pastor, I ask myself when I want our neighbor’s house to do or be something, I first asked myself, am I doing that? Am I being that? If I say, we love our neighbors all over the globe, am I loving my neighbors? Or am I biased about who my neighbors are? Because if I want that, then I need to be a culture carrier and I need to leave our neighbor’s house in being that. And then we can connect with other people, other organizations, and that culture becomes shared.

Now, there are some cultures, this is very important to being a culture carrier that we have to realize have become dominant cultures. And we have to go into those cultures and engage them strategically. In this nation, white supremacist ideology, and indoctrination is a dominant culture. You do not engage it lightly. You just don’t go into an organization and say, wow, this organization has been practicing policies that are reflective of white supremacist ideology and indoctrination for 50 years. I’m going to take my love culture and culture in here. We’re just going to change it in a month. Well, no, you’re not. It’s not going to happen.

That’s a dominant culture where you have to be very strategic in saying, one, does the leader reflect that culture. If they have a leader that reflects that culture, then you’re dealing with something where you have to say, hey, we can spread an atmosphere and a culture here but we need a shift in leadership. That’s hard for people because we start to have these ideas of, you know, leaders become so almost idols. We’re thinking, what do we do with a leader who practices this culture? But leaders hearts have changed. Leaders have shifted. You just have to see what kind of urgent situation it is. But as culture carriers, we have to realize, when we’ve come into contact with strong cultures and dominant cultures, not saying that they can’t change, but it’s going to take more than trying to connect to change them.

Karin: You know Vonnetta in this space one of the final principles of having a culture is growing your people by creating a coaching culture. And really in a lot of ways that’s who you are in some ways in my life, a coach. That’s who you are as a trainer, and as a facilitator, even in your ministry, I see the gift of coaching in you. As we wrap up the last of these five pillars, and we’ve talked about so many important topics over the course of these five podcasts. As we kind of wrap this up, we’ll have one more on the minors, which I really want to encourage is equally important for people to understand what we need to guard ourselves from. We’re going to get to that. But on that coaching front, coach us for a minute, is there anything that may be on your heart as you think about this platform, this movement, a desire for us to truly go into cities and contribute to the solutions in those systemic problems? But also to educate people, move maybe the silent majority into this conversation and have them really begin to ask some questions? Coach us for a minute Vonnetta what would you say kind of in your final thoughts for us?

29:58 Vonnetta: You know, a lot of people who have come to me in coaching spaces they’ve come because I think the main thing they say to me is, we know you care about this. I think that’s very important as we go into racial reconciliation in different cities, people will begin to invite us in when they know that we care. It’s very important to be invited especially when we go into communities and we’re saying we may have something that may benefit in that community. Well, we don’t know if the community even wants that. If the community will receive that. If people know we care and we’re not going in with this salvation mentality, they used to do this workshop called Salvation vs Empowerment for AmeriCorps groups in this country. I’ve changed the title of it but it’s essentially about how do we demonstrate that we care for people without having the presumption that they need for us to save them.

Because people we sometimes can act as though we can go in and save people. I’m not here to save anybody. I’m here to say, hey, I love you. If it’s a fundamental issue that I believe we all need to dig into, I’m going to be much more assertive. If it’s something personal and relative to you or a community that you live in, then I’m going to say, hey, I’d love to help, but I’ll only help if you invite me in so I want an invitation. I think it’s very important in this work to sometimes have an invitation to help people personally.

So for me, as a coach, people invite me in. I don’t show up in people’s lives and just say, hey, you need help with leadership. I get an invitation or somebody has said, hey, Vonnetta, somebody told us that you’re good and you do this and they welcome me into their spaces. That’s important in this work too, that we’re saying who’s welcomed us in? Who’s invited us in? But if it’s critical and it’s about children being hurt by inequity in schools and things like that, I’m not waiting for invitation. I’m going to say, hey, this is very problematic. We need to work on this.

Karin: Vonnetta. I don’t think you realize what you were doing. You are giving great coaching and great wisdom, but it was also just a softball for me to really bring an important point to light in the sense of who we are as an organization. One of our missions is exactly what you said, to go into a city and have an event for an event’s sake is not profitable. It’s not productive. It can be counterproductive, especially walking into the racial reconciliation space. And so in our platform here, the cities that we go to will be determined by where the invitations come from.

Vonnetta: That’s important.

Karin: We are looking and trusting that right now there’s an organization in St. Louis, this is their heart, this is their mission and they’ve said, hey, will you come partner with us? And that is important because we want to honor and respect those people in each community that are doing the day to day work, that are dealing with the systemic problems and bringing change. So that we can partner with them elevate the causes that they’re involved in, elevate the message, and provide a platform where people can, you know, tap into us as a place that will have resources. We will be a resource platform that will connect to other great resources of other people doing great work in this space.

So I guess if you’re listening to this podcast and you are in a city where you’re doing that work and something that would bring together the people in your community in a way that provides that platform to really elevate your cause and what you’re doing, that’s who we are. And so to your point, we’re not going to go on a tour, uninvited places. We’re going to trust…We’ve been invited into Memphis. We have two or three other cities that are in communication with us, and we’ve said, we want to be successful with this first event [inaudible 34:19] to see where else this message is needed. But that, I think we can apply that on a corporate level for us as an organization. But I think to your point, that’s also true on an individual level.

Vonnetta: Yes.

Karin: I remember a counselor telling me once, you’re the one that came and asked for help, don’t expect somebody else that they want to hear the answers. They’ll come for help when they want it. In the same space. I think if we are cultivating our personal culture, there will be opportunities for us to share that that people will invite us in. So that is great wisdom that you have given us.

Vonnetta thank you so much for being with us, for continuing this conversation. Again, to find out more about us, go to check out our resources, check out where we will be coming and become a part of this movement. Thanks. We’ll see you next time.