Makya Renée Little of the Virginia Commission on African American History Education: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

Practice Empathy. Listen to one another. Don’t dismiss stories of inequity. Although you may not be able to relate to the specific challenges of someone whose life experience may have differed from yours does not invalidate that experience. Take a moment to “walk in their shoes.”

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Makya Renée Little.

Mrs. Little is a member of the Virginia Commission on African American History Education and a long-time resident of the Commonwealth. Previously, she served as a Group Chief within the CIA’s Diversity and Inclusion Office with a focus on accessibility and disability inclusion. Mrs. Little is the owner of Mareta Creations, a communications and design company, engages youth as a motivational speaker, and continues to be a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advocate within local, state, and federal government.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Absolutely! I grew up as a military (Army) brat, so I encountered various cultural dynamics throughout my childhood. I began elementary school in Berlin, Germany, before returning to the U.S. Upon returning, I had my first major encounter with racism and dedicated my life to one of excellence, where I felt I needed to work harder to prove that I was equal to my classmates — and even more gifted in certain areas. This level of ambition drove me to attend the top high school in the country. However, my desire for a more inclusion and challenging learning environment lead me to attend a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) — Florida A&M University. It was the first time I felt I was in an environment where merit and excellence was all that mattered, and that experience played a major part in shaping my view of equity in the workplace.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull made a significant impact on me. Federal government can be very similar to the military where the chain of command is a significant element of the culture, especially in regard to communication. As a Graphic Designer by education and trade, I self-identify as a Creative and love applying design thinking to problem-solving. However, in federal government, if anyone within your chain of command doesn’t see the merit of your idea, your idea dies at their level although it may need to be considered by a completely different department beyond them that would see it as gold.

In Creativity Inc., Mr. Catmull shares his “lessons learned” in leadership, and how he was driven by a desire to create a culture conducive to creativity. He paralleled W. Edwards Deming’s “total quality control” theories to improve productivity in Japan to ensuring corporations create a culture were every employee is responsible for finding and fixing problems — from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. The continuous improvement, employee pride, and increase in engagement had direct, positive impacts on the success of corporations who champion this theory within their culture.

I feel that government — in addition to many corporations — would benefit from such a culture shift. I also feel these entities would increase retention rates by providing frequently overlooked talent the ability to add value to their respective organizations in a meaningful way — from interns to C-suite executives.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

While I served at the CIA, I had a conversation with a senior executive on the verge of retirement about leadership. In discussing his career highlights and experiences with me, he shared his leadership philosophy, which consisted of three goals: 1) Help people, 2) Solve problems, and 3) Help people solve problems. As a leader who constantly strives to find a way to add value to organizations and relationships, it resonated with me so much that I taught my three children that it should be their “North Star” and guiding principal in life. On a personal and professional level, outside of reasonable self-care, I feel that your actions should always fall into one of these three categories. As a major example for them, I strive to ensure my actions always do the same.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My definition of leadership is absolutely a balance of demonstrating care and respect for the individual, and care for the mission of the organization/group. I read a quote once that said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” You can’t be a leader if no one is willingly following you. However, if you are more focused on the mission or goal and not the people required to accomplish that mission…you’re no one’s leader. So a leader, by my definition, is someone who can bring people together willingly around a common mission while respecting the individuals and their abilities to make unique contributions that support the team’s goal(s).

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

As a passionate person who loves to read, I invest LOTS of time in reading self-help books. One of my favorites is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler. It literally teaches you to examine your own intentions, goals, and assumptions before engaging in high stakes conversations. It also breaks down how to leverage those thoughts while preparing for how to get conversations back on track should they go left in order to find identify mutual goals and establish a healthy way forward. I actually had to use this preparation strategy for a talk with someone who out-ranked me in my organization.

I was new to my role and this person asked me to organize a meeting between stakeholders. In the meeting, they were blatantly disrespectful toward colleagues, including some who weren’t present. Completely embarrassed due to the fact that I organized the meeting, I reached out to the attendees individually to apologize afterward, but they all told me there was no need to apologize because they had come to know this was typical behavior of this individual. Wanting to ensure that the offender’s behavior would not continue going forward, I examined my motivations and how the effectiveness of our team required healthy, respectful relationships throughout the organization, and I requested a one-on-one chat. Although I attempted to focus on what I felt would be our mutual goals of maintaining healthy relationships, the conversation went left to the point that I had to settle for them agreeing not to ask me to organize meetings on their behalf if they could not commit to conducting themselves in a respectful manner. Had it not been for my preparation strategy, I cannot say that I would have been able to maintain as high of a level of professionalism as I did. However, writing out (and editing) my thoughts in advance was an absolute, much needed release which also allowed me the ability to critique myself.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I believe that this crisis has evolved over generations, and that every generation has had their “movement” toward social justice within this country. I do believe that the country was quick to label the election of former President Barack Obama as a “post racial” mile marker, and that recent events have dismissed that notion. Just as the media images from the 1950s and ’60s caused the nation to face the mistreatment of Black Americans, confront the horrors of racial terror, and respond, our generation has many more media outlets with which to share our stories and experiences. Although Black Americans and other underrepresented groups have been sharing stories of the injustices they have felt for decades and centuries, many of those stories have been dismissed or countered by conclusions that they are lacking some level of effort, achievement, or respect for rules or authority. The combination of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and the recent onslaught of emergency calls being made on account of Black Americans being perceived as threats while engaging in innocuous activities has put that theory to bed. Without that theory to hold onto, the rest of our society is being forced to do a mirror check and decide where they stand.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Since childhood, I’ve always been passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the midst of another series of murders of Black men and women by law enforcement made public between 2015 and 2016, my co-workers observed that it was beginning to weigh heavily on me. One day, one of my co-workers approached me and simply asked, “What’s it like?” That one question taught me the importance of empathy and the role it plays in the effectiveness of any inclusion efforts.

So when I became Group Chief within the CIA and was charged with enhancing accessibility and streamlining the provision of reasonable accommodations, I realized that — to increase stakeholder buy-in — I needed to start with empathy and I established a series called, “Walk in my Shoes.” This series of events took place during National Disability Employment Awareness month, and involved allowing CIA officers to share their experiences and what it was like to serve the Agency while being blind, being Deaf/hard of hearing, having a physical or mobility issue, or being neuro-diverse. The first year we held the series significantly impacted the Agency’s culture and led to the successful implementation of the CIA’s first Accessibility Strategy.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Effective problem-solving requires an ability to examine an issue from multiple perspectives. There are a multitude of experiences that can be shaped by race, culture, gender, ability, and socio-economic status. Since no one person — nor demographic — can represent all experiences, inclusion of as many perspectives as possible when making executive-level decisions increases not just the successes and profits of a company, but the engagement and retention of top talent as well. Also, if employees don’t see themselves represented in the upper-echelons of an organization, they begin to feel certain opportunities for growth and development of their talents will be unavailable to them within that organization. This often leads to their demotivation or departure, reduction of the company’s competitive edge, and an increase in costs associated with hiring employees to counter attrition. For state and federal government entities, a diverse executive team equates to greater fiscal responsibility of tax dollars. For something like a Broadway musical, it equates to $3 million in eight performances and dozens of awards (yes…I am obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creativity).

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Know Your “Why.” Be willing to do the self-work to establish your own North Star, and ensure you are genuinely driven by a desire to leave our society better than you found it — in whatever aspect or field that may be. Once you know your why and how to effectively leverage your natural gifts in your pursuit, be willing to sacrifice your comfort and push through barriers to drive change.
  2. Respect Others. See those who differ from you as equally talented and deserving of opportunities. There is so much intersectionality between our experiences that I feel there is always something I can learn from someone else — no matter their age or station in life. The basic recognition that someone knows something that you don’t is reason enough to respect them.
  3. Practice Empathy. Listen to one another. Don’t dismiss stories of inequity. Although you may not be able to relate to the specific challenges of someone whose life experience may have differed from yours does not invalidate that experience. Take a moment to “walk in their shoes.”
  4. Never Stop Learning. Constantly work to educate yourself on past issues and the history of our nation. Don’t rest on your laurels and take everything that you learned in school or see online as fact. Crosscheck sources, research authors to understand their lens, and read books on various topics that challenge your thinking and perspective. Education is the antidote to racism and oppression. We are all products of our experiences and what we’ve been exposed to. Expose yourself to knowledge.
  5. Help People Solve Problems. We as a nation are only as strong as our weakest link. We all must be willing to examine our systems to ensure opportunities are equally accessible for all. As Americans, we are ALL on the same team and need the best of the best to excel in all avenues. We have to see problems and barriers to success as our common enemy, and not one another.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Actually, I believe that Black Americans have always been going through a rough period, but have been conditioned not to complain about it or speak up en masse as to not come across as angry or to make others uncomfortable. However, now that everyone has been made uncomfortable by witnessing the Black experience uncensored, everyone is now more open to speaking up because they have been pushed out of their comfort zones. That shift makes me optimistic. Although I feel that change requires leaders to lead, I feel believe citizens and employees at the working level or lower-levels of management are no longer waiting for senior leadership to take the reigns. So the grassroots of this movement and individuals empowering themselves will eventually push our society in the right direction. Thanks to social media, everyone has a voice and everyone is starting to strategize and use it.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

OMG, yes! Jane Elliott! About a month ago, Oprah re-released an episode of her show from 1992 (post-Rodney King) and I fell down a Jane Elliott rabbit hole. I’m obsessed with books, and I love learning from others. I love how she too is a knowledge sponge and how she embodies lessons of empathy with a straight face while provoking thought. I had my husband and kids watch one of her videos with me, and ordered The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein on the spot! Then I came across lectures by Dr. Carol Anderson and Tim Wise…then a video of Angela Davis with Jane Elliott, and I just couldn’t stop! So I’d love to meet Mrs. Elliott and just listen to her share her knowledge. Her passion, empathy and advocacy for others, and wisdom are what I aspire to exude someday.

How can our readers follow you online?

I have a LinkedIn and Twitter presence, but I absorb more than I post. 🙂

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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