Featuring Emily Nordquist, Interim Director and Senior Program Manager, Baumhart Center
Description Can we mobilize against other societal threats in the same way we have and continue to do with COVID-19? Emily Nordquist of the Baumhart Center joins us to talk about how she hopes we are able to harness our abilities to facilitate nimble change against the other pressing issues of our time.    
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Season Season 6: Hopes for the Future


Rick Sindt: Welcome to Q Talks. This week, I'm speaking with Emily Nordquist of the Baumhart Center. In our conversation, Emily reflects on how nimbly we were able to transform our everyday lives in response to the emergence of COVID-19 and wonders about ways we might be able to create a similar sense of urgency around other existential issues we are facing as a society. This conversation took on a different flavor than the others in the series, and I hope you enjoy what Emily has to say. 

Rick Sindt: Well, thank you for joining us, Emily. I'm excited to talk to you today. So I'd like to start where I'm starting with everyone else, which is just asking you about what you've been paying attention to over the past 15 months, as we've all been in our pandemic lockdown. 

Emily Nordquist: Yeah. So I've been thinking a lot about how quickly we pivoted and how much we transformed our lives so quickly in response to this global pandemic. And it's something that we saw as such a threat to our society, which it was and something that we saw was very urgent. And I've been thinking about, Wow, isn't it amazing how quickly we adapted our lives around this thing, how much our society changed in that moment. And then asking the question, you know, how do we develop that same sense of urgency for other pressing issues of our time that have been around much longer than COVID-19? So for me, I've always been passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I think that we have a four hundred plus year of racial inequity in this country. We have the largest racial wealth gap, and I can't understand why we don't develop that same sense of urgency and response when we look at issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and racial justice. 

Emily Nordquist: You can also think about climate change. So, you know, we have already done so much damage to our planet that we can't come back to a certain extent. And so when I think about future generations and the way that we think again about public health and the ways that climate change will impact populations of color and poor folks in particular, to me, we should have that same sense of urgency and willingness to adapt when we look at these problems. So the question I've had is how can we help people have enough concern and care enough in the way they did about COVID-19 to actually make a difference on these big challenges that we're facing as a society, but tend to only really impact marginalized populations, right? COVID impacted all of us. You could also assume racism impacts all of us negatively, everyone, you know, how do we help people understand that and help them to develop the same set of urgent responses that we had to COVID-19? So I've been thinking a lot about that. 

Rick Sindt: In a previous conversation with Maciek in this series, he actually talked about how a recent study by Citigroup, I think it was showed that racial inequities cost the economy $14 trillion and I can't remember if that was a year or over time. I feel like a year is a lot, but we had a little conversation, and I think maybe you would want to chime in on it about how it's interesting to be at a place where before, when we would say, "racism impacts everyone." Those of us who agree, like felt it to be true deep down, and it always kind of felt like la soft sort of thing, but now the hard numbers and facts are coming out about how actually it is hurting everyone. 

Emily Nordquist: Yeah, I mean, there's a real economic argument for us to dismantle white supremacy, and there's a book that, you know, goes into more detail that just came out. It's now a bestseller called The Sum of US written by Heather McGhee, and she comes at it from this economic perspective of it costs everyone. It costs our entire society to uphold white supremacy and racism. So, if we look at that, what is it that's stopping us from actually making a difference and taking risks to make change? And the thing I've been, I guess, glad about is it seems like people are more willing whether or not they're willing, they are stepping into more uncomfortable conversations than they've probably have had to have before about race and racism. And that's progress. This work does start from within. And while I believe it's too late and that George Floyd was not really a catalyst for this and shouldn't have been a catalyst for this, people are being forced into conversations they didn't have to have before. And my hope is that those conversations lead to real care, concern, empathy and then enough of it so that they are willing to change their own behaviors and their own mindsets and think about our world and the society that we all share differently. So, that would be my hope coming out from this. It's not something that I'm like happy happened. Like the unrest [last] summer. We should never as a society gotten to that place, but I think that discomfort is necessary for change. 

Rick Sindt: How do you imagine, or hope, things will develop like you're just talking right now about having discomfort and how things are starting to move, and that's necessary. So, as you're hoping for the future, I wonder, what do you imagine the next step or two looks like in society? 

Emily Nordquist: Yeah, yeah, it's a good question. I think it has to start with seeing the humanness in all of this and to start seeing our full humanity. And, you know, I look at it from the business perspective as well just in terms of where we sit at the Baumhart Center and we talk a lot about corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think a lot of the things that have happened in the past are kind of just looking at what policies can we implement, how can we do more unconscious bias training? But I also think that we have to understand that there's a greater responsibility for business to address this in a more systemic way. And so when we think about capitalism, it's this system that has caused inequity. If we think about back to slavery, the way that they made decisions about how humans were treated, not as humans, but as commodity, that is also rooted in many of the same principles that we see in capitalism. And so we need to go deeper and not just say, "Hey, have you done your unconscious bias training this year? And how are you being an inclusive leader?" Sure. But say in this system that we're working in how has it led to greater inequity? And how do we then think about our own responsibility as leaders and in this particular case, business leaders to reimagine what that system might look like and how we might influence it. And so I think my hope is that the work goes deeper and is rooted in facing our history, as you know, folks in the United States, as humans and just taking the work to a level that I don't think unfortunately we've seen before. 

Emily Nordquist: And it's not that the information isn't out there, right? There's all kinds of resources we can tap into and learn from. But again, it comes back to is it urgent enough for us to care enough and do we have enough empathy for us to change our own behaviors around this? The information is there. It's clear. You can point to the business case for DEI you can point to the cost in terms of economics on our society for upholding racism that is there. We don't have to work on that data. We know that data. Now it comes down to: as humans, how do we start to care enough and develop enough concern to actually do something about that and imagine a different way of how I think about it doing business, but also just a different way of us seeing each other's full humanity and allowing ourselves to exist in this world in all of our authenticity, whatever it may be. 

Rick Sindt: Yeah, so what I'm hearing–and correct me, if I'm wrong–is we're really good at thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and racism as an issue of the person and of behavior but the thing is that when something is systemic, it means that there can be no racists in the system and still certain people are privileged and will have better outcomes. 

Emily Nordquist: Exactly. And I mean, to give you an example of this before joining the Baumhart Center, I worked in community and economic development, and in a lot of that work, you have, you know, you look at things like opportunity zones and tax credits who ultimately benefits from that? Typically, wealthy white investors, right? And yet we see this as a tool for creating more equity and inclusion and access in our low to moderate income neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Brown. Right? If we just continue in that cycle and we don't think about like, how are we actually creating equity? I think it's not enough, right? And so I ask that question like, OK, there's this system where it's still promoting the wealth of white folks, right? And yet we're still thinking about it as benefiting marginalized communities of color, low to moderate income folks. Like we have to look at that again and understand like the systems behind this and look at, you know, how can we build this in a way that truly is benefiting the folks that we keep talking about benefiting? So, it's a lot of things out there that are like that, and my hope is that we can just unpack that and that people will have the humility and the openness to do that. You know, there's a lot of defensiveness in this and I think that that needs to come down and we all have to admit that we don't know everything and we all have a lot to learn. And if we do that, we're all better off. So just opt-in to that mindset and that learning and build together and in a different way. 

Rick Sindt: What I found lately, that's really helped me as a white person. And this is something I feel like I've known for a while, but I was just like given words to articulate it is–I'm reading Glennon Doyle's latest book–and in it she talks about. Like what it means to exist in a toxic environment. She kind of says like there aren't racists and non-racists, there are people who are racist and trying to detoxify their system from racism because we're breathing in racist fumes every day, and then there are people who are breathing in those fumes and not at a place where they want to change their behavior from that. 

Emily Nordquist: No, I mean, it makes sense. And well, I think I think the point that we all have to realize as people of color and as white people, for me, specifically as an Asian-American woman, we are all raised steeped in white supremacy. So even for me, although I am Asian, I'm raised in a society that upholds white supremacy. And so the things that I've learned are the right ways to do things are the ways that you want to aspire to be, that's steeped in white supremacy. And so all of us have unlearning to do it. It does fall on people, on white folks right to do that learning as well. But for me, as an Asian-American person, I also have to confront that. I also have a super white last name, and I was raised by white people because I'm adopted and so I'm very much steeped in white supremacy in my upbringing. So it's on all of us to undo that and to just take a look at it. And I think that that's the sense of humility and humanity that we all have to just accept, like I'm not better than you. Like, I don't know more than you. All of us grew up in this system and this way of thinking and this way of doing things, and we can decide to come out of that together, you know, but the responsible, you know, the responsibility still on us. 

Rick Sindt: Yeah. And I think about in hard conversations like this about racism, about sustainability, which I want to get into next, it's sometimes I feel like we get overwhelmed by the possibilities. Like there's we have we're very used to this one way of being like you said, we've been raised in this one place and to move beyond that means to like, reinvent the space that we take up in the environment that we're in. And there are just endless configurations of what that could look like and that can be rather terrifying because it's there are just so many things that could be. 

Emily Nordquist: Yeah, I was talking to my friend. He's a DEI practitioner and he works in tech. We were having a conversation about what would a liberated workplace look like. Both of us said, "I honestly don't know." I would love to envision that and be a part of that one day, but I honestly don't know what a liberated workplace looks like, right? And so if we think about it. It's a lot to imagine. It's hard to even get there. I don't know what that looks like, but if we could try, we would make a lot of progress, you know? 

Rick Sindt: Yeah. What have you been thinking about or how does this translate into your thoughts around climate change and the future of the planet? 

Emily Nordquist: So when I think about sustainability and climate change, it's something that as a society we should be just as urgently responding to. And it affects all of us. But, in truth, if you look at environmental justice, it's going to affect populations of color and marginalized communities much more quickly and much more drastically than it will other groups of people. And so I think about this in the same way that I would think about, you know, the racial wealth gap and racial injustice in our society. It impacts all of us negatively. But it has this acute impact on these specific populations. And I am asking the question of how do we get all of us to care enough about these issues and to understand how important it is to move on them? And I think that COVID-19 just ties into that because we've been so responsive, right? 

Rick Sindt: Yeah. So, in the last season of the podcast, actually, I talked to professors Swasti Gupta, Mukherjee about the inequality we're seeing with climate change. And she talked a lot about how there are already millions, tens of millions, of climate refugees a year and we're just being in the United States, we're like, quite protected from seeing that. But another thing argument she has that I would like to hear your thoughts on, especially since the Baumhart Center focuses so much on ESG, is her stance is ESG: environmental, social, and governance is great. But right now, the E of that is in such a crisis that we need to extrapolate it from ESG and give it its own platform and pay special attention to it. 

Emily Nordquist: That's an interesting argument. It's hard to go against Swasti, too, because she's brilliant. But I think what's difficult is that to me, especially looking at social, in particular, because of the inequities you described in terms of the impacts of climate change, it becomes hard to unmarry those two things. And for me, the reasons that I became more interested in learning about climate change and sustainability was the environmental justice lens. Like, obviously, I care about our planet, but as a human, I care about other humans quite a bit. And so that, to me, is the catalyst. And so I would love to talk to her more about that. I think we need to make that part of our platform for what businesses could do differently. But at the same time, I find it hard to imagine separating those two conversations because so many communities of color are again impacted first and impacted more deeply. 

Rick Sindt: So let's switch like a little bit more into the personal. Do you have any personal hopes for the future as we transition into a post-pandemic state of being? 

Emily Nordquist: Yeah, I hope that everyone has had more time and space to reflect on what is most important to them in their lives and has been able to then carve out the time and space to invest in those things. You know, before the pandemic, I feel like it was a constant grind. All of us were just in constant state of motion, and I don't know that that's sustainable, you know, and I think about myself, like when I graduated from school, I was ready to do anything to get my career going, to have my social network in my friend group. All of those things, I was just willing to do anything and just so hungry and stepping back in this last year, I realized, you know, I care a lot about my family, I care about eating well and exercising. And there are just so many things that I hope that we come back to after all of this has kind of passed, and I hope that we hold on to that in a very close way, right? And the big thing for me is also travel. You know, I wish I would have converted like a sprinter van with my partner during COVID-19 and just driven to all of the national parks and lived out of a van because I don't know when else in my life, I would have the freedom to do something like that. And now I've had a year plus to imagine, well, what if I had actually done that right? And so if we just say yes to more of those things earlier in our lives before we're at this retirement age, and while we're still, you know, many of us able-bodied, you know why? Why can't we lean into those things that actually feel so fulfilling? So that would be my hope is that we all reflect on that and then can continue to carve out space and time to invest in those things. 

Rick Sindt: The other thing I'm asking people is what would they like to leave behind? 

Emily Nordquist: I think this sense of busyness getting in the way of reflection and stillness. When I think about the murder of George Floyd, I think a large part of the reason that you saw folks who were not Black responding and reflecting is because we were in a moment of stillness. This isn't the first time that a Black man or a Black person was murdered by the police. This is not the first time in our history that we've seen horrific violence against Black people in the United States. But in this moment of stillness, people felt it differently who were not Black. And I think before the pandemic busyness and being constantly in motion kind of served as an excuse for not feeling those things in a very human way. And so busyness getting in the way of that opportunity to reflect, I would like to leave that behind and I can already see our world coming back to a place of constantly being in motion, and you can even see that with the conversations around violence against Asian-Americans. Right now, that is still happening in our major cities and because we are coming back into the world and constantly on the move, we've kind of just let that conversation go and it feels just like another thing to deal with. Whereas, when we were all at home, in stillness, it was this human impact that we were experiencing. And I don't think as a society, we're going to be better off if we don't have those moments to see the humanity in each other. And so that's what I would leave behind. Is that busyness getting in the way of progress. 

Rick Sindt: I think that's a very nice place to end. So thank you so much for joining us today, Emily. 

Emily Nordquist: Thanks so much, Rick. It's fun to be in conversation with you.