Catherine Perry, Fostering Brave Conversations on Race

Catherine Perry from Inward Bound Center for Nonprofit Leadership joins us to talk about how to have conversations on race and healing the racial divide in America.

  • Her workshop, “Racism in America: What is mine to do?”
  • How to break down barriers and start conversations in faith communities, at work and with neighbors and friends
  • Being brave and using humor to engage and make an impact in your community
  • Setting the tone for risky conversations with and edge
  • Race relations in faith-based communities
  • Reconciliation vs. Forgiveness
  • Recommended reading: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • For more info about Catherine’s workshop or to contact Inward Bound, email

Episode Transcript

Susan Cooper  0:00 

Welcome to Inclusion Catalyst with your hosts, Mickey Desai and Susan Cooper. We invite diversity leaders to the table to deconstruct complex social justice issues and showcase the best inclusion practices in our workplaces and our communities.

Catherine Perry  0:14 

You know, my picture is that America is kind of frozen. Because we don’t – we just, it’s just too risky…

Mickey Desai  0:23 

To say what you got to say…

Catherine Perry  0:24 

To say what you got to say. Again in order to get to the other side of “so how are we going to spend the budget and how are we going to design our neighborhood? And how are we going to – Who are we going to invite as new people into our parish community”. And we’re putting off all those conversations because it just feels like a minefield.

Mickey Desai  0:41 

I’ve been recording. So I’m just going to say, this is the inclusion catalyst. I’m your host today Mickey Desai. Our co host Susan Cooper, unfortunately can’t make it today. So everyone, please say hi to her when you get a chance. In the meantime, I’m very honored to have Catherine Perry with me at the desk today. Catherine founded the Inward Bound Center for Nonprofit Leadership in 2010 after a 20 year career in corporate marketing. Inward Bound’s goal is that nonprofits are known for their outstanding leadership and rank as the best places to work in America. Their newest program is a unique one and a half day workshop entitled Racism in America: What is mine to do? This workshop surprisingly contains no panel discussions, presentations or videos. They don’t even talk about the history of racism. Instead, the workshop features powerful cross-race conversations grounded in deep respect. Each person leaving with their own list of “what is mine to do”. We’ll be talking about that today. Catherine, How are you?

Catherine Perry  1:33 

I’m great and happy to be here.

Mickey Desai  1:35 

Excellent. And forgive me for being sneaky and starting the recording a little early but I thought we might have a couple nuggets in our conversation.

Catherine Perry  1:42 

Yeah, you tricked me. But you got me warmed up. Here we are.

Mickey Desai  1:45 

Exactly. We were talking about how do you break down that barrier? You know, how do you get someone to facilitate the conversation on on easing racial tension or for healing racial divide by making it clear that it’s okay to say the thing that you may be hesitant to say? Is that not right? How do you go about doing that?

Catherine Perry  2:06 

Well, I have this this silly picture of when there’s race diversity in the room, when race matters in terms of successfully selling our product or growing our faith community, or deciding who the playdates are for our kids, that we — there’s all this stuff we’re talking around. And so there’s a sense of, you know, permission, even very dramatically over dramatically saying bravery to, to go ahead and say some things like, you know what, we’re really good friends. Our kids are playdates. You know, we haven’t talked about the fact that, gosh, we’re in very different neighborhoods. You know, my kid, your son’s my kids only friend of color. You know, just went to watch out about that for a minute. Can we chat about that for a minute? I mean, that feels so risky to so many people. Like it could you know, end the friendship risky. And so I guess my mantra, my cause my, the flag I’m waving is to wade in the deep water. And, you know, smile when you say it and might even preface it with, you know, like I just did. You know, we haven’t talked about something that’s kind of important, and say and just start the conversations.

Mickey Desai  3:25 

My background being in counseling psychology, it makes me think of what it means to do just what it means to talk between friends about the hard things, you know, and I think that friends are in this day and age a little more reluctant to talk about the hard things for exactly the same reason. That if I mentioned to my pal, that I noticed something’s going on with him, then that’s the end of my friendship. When in fact, if you can wade through those waters and help the other person out, that only strengthens your friendship. Then the trick is how then do you have that conversation? How then do you you move whatever needs moving in order to make that happen?

Catherine Perry  4:00 

Well, that’s a big payoff, isn’t it when we can start the difficult conversations, some people would say the most difficult conversation in the country right now is to talk around race. And so that’s part of my passion around. How crazy is that? That that that’s keeping you from having a significant powerful impact in your friend’s life. That we are talking about the trouble teachers are having in our kids school because no one’s going to talk about how race is coursing through what’s going on and playground today, right. And organizations that are launching a product together that serves a diverse market, how are they going to talk about the needs and assumptions and beliefs and you know, angles and prejudices of their target market before they write the ad copy? And decide on what the marketing headline looks like. So this this is a stumbling block in so many areas. And so my call is for us all to be humble and creative and brave and use a sense of humor, And all the tools we have to have a difficult conversation around this topic.

Mickey Desai  5:07 

I think you may have answered one of my future questions here in a second. But I want to take a step backwards and start from the very beginning. And you’ve done a lot of work in and out of the out of the nonprofit sector, a lot of different kinds of consulting work. What drove you to start to look at issues of race and inclusion and reconciliation?

Catherine Perry  5:27 

Well, I had a, I’m not your typical candidate, whatever that might mean. I am a white middle class suburban girl, who really didn’t meet people of color till I went away to college. But what shifted me was in my professional world when I entered nonprofits in 2010, and you’re talking about nonprofits in the south, they’re often serving diverse communities and they’re often hopefully led by people of diversity that mirror who they’re serving. Add on that the fact that I decided to go to a Mostly African American Catholic Church in Atlanta. And so I spent 15 years, often being the minority in the room. And I got a PhD in listening and in appreciated in powerful, at times emotional ways, how people of color are having a very different experiences in this country. Many are, many aren’t. Just to make it more complicated. But I didn’t, I don’t know what I don’t know. And so to remain silent. I’m paying a high price. And the team I’m with whatever that teams doing, again, launching a new product, growing a faith community deciding what gentrification in my neighborhood looks like. We can we can’t dance around this anymore and get the work done that we all want to get done together. So being the minority for 15 years and listening motivated me highly. So I have a little bit of bravery. You know, I’ve stepped in it. I’ve – and you can probably hear this smile in my voice because I really think sense of humor is often a very, very important energy to bring to the conversation as well as humility. Yeah. And and bravery. And again, you know, for me to name what I’m seeing at the conversation, right?

Mickey Desai  7:23 

I think you found the right recipe. I think humor is definitely a big piece of that. And, and it’s a valuable thing that people tend to overlook. But we can come back to that in a minute. But the point I was going to make is that humor always has a kernel of truth in the middle of it. And that is the thing that I think that makes humor such an great leveraging tool. But, again, I don’t want to be the one preaching today.

Catherine Perry  7:51 

As they say at church, preach it, brother!

Mickey Desai  7:54 

My next question is how and you’ve sort of already touched on this. How will your work in this area facilitate operations for organizations as they work towards their own mission goals?

Catherine Perry  8:04 

Well, speaking frankly here, there’s a lot of pretty lousy diversity training work out there. And and it’s really a shame because it has, again made it pretty risky when you’re in work settings to venture. And so creating a space. And by the way you hear in this in this world people talking about creating a safe space and and i don’t know what the right vocabulary is but often what creating a safe space means is the senior person in the room gets to say whatever he or she wants and they feel really safe. And the junior people in the room are keeping their mouth shut. And and the marginalized minorities, whoever that might be, the marginalized minority might be the junior person in the room, as well as people of color. It is not safe for them. And so there’s something about transmuting that into a space, something about permission and edginess. And, and that’s my current favorite word is. These are edgy conversations. They’re absolutely edgy. And so how do we make space for each other sharp edges, and I literally will preface things I say now. So you know, here’s an edge I’m bringing into the conversation as a way to help prepare people

Mickey Desai  9:31 

Interesting. You don’t find the vocabulary of edginess makes people a little more cautious.

Catherine Perry  9:36 

You know, every setting, every community, every teeny little work team has their vocabulary. And so that’s part of, you know, and I hate to make a big deal about team agreements. But for some, it might be the word risk risky, maybe risky is a better word. Edgy. You know, my voice is shaking as I say this, you know, noting what’s going on in your body. Right? You know, or I tried this at the last meeting and boy it sure bombed. So I’m going to try again. Right? Boom. Right. So again, it’s putting it out there. And by the way, you know, I’m an extrovert so I have a little bit of an edge you introverts out there, don’t get a pass. It takes all of us and, and it my optimism is then it softens the space so another person gets to do it and might very well do a much better job than I did.

Mickey Desai  10:31 

You mean another person in the room? I see.

Catherine Perry  10:33 

Yeah. So I go well look at her you know, she showed us how to do it. And and again, the this theme of our results, it’s all in service to the work we’re here to do. Sure. So you know, I’m not doing this to be difficult. I’m you know, I just don’t think we have the right headline for the copy yet. And let’s figure out how we can get a copy headline we all love before we put this out there. And you know we’ve got we’ve got two people on the team aren’t saying anything. So let’s talk about how everybody can be in this conversation.

Mickey Desai  11:05 

How do you do that? How do you make sure that everyone is in the conversation?

Catherine Perry  11:09 

Asking for it. And and, and naming again, how edgy it was for me to say, “No, I didn’t say who”. I didn’t say why they aren’t in the conversation, I don’t know why they are in the conversation. But we need them in the conversation. You know, you’re, you’ve got a button, a chair, you’re getting a salary. Do we want your best thinking? And, you know, again, thinking of a worship community, you know, sometimes, you know, they’re just sections of the worship can be they don’t show up at the meetings, and then complain about the decision. So it’s, um, keep linking it back to the how it impacts results. Okay. The fact that we don’t have the best of everybody in this conversation right now.

Mickey Desai  11:48 

And you continue to tie in those values of humility, humility, non judgmentalism, humor throughout the entire process. Do you find or have you had a chance to experiment using this framework within the corporate sector?

Catherine Perry  12:00 

Absolutely that’s that’s where I come from. I spent 20 years in corporate marketing and now do executive and leadership coaching. And and so that’s why I have this tentativeness around HR rules and the lawyer getting in the conversation and this idea that oh my gosh, that could be, you know, regular, you know, regulations or obstacles. That you know, I’m going to pay a high price if I try and start these conversations, and that really kind of pisses me off. Because it does waste the resources and the best thinking is not happening. And there are ways to start again, I’m into starting conversations. So literally to even say, you know what, I wonder how much of us are holding stuff back because we’re worried HR is going to show up in the room, and we don’t want HR to show up in the room. So how can we have a conversation right about this without having HR show up in the room?

Mickey Desai  13:01 

Does your class then become a safe space?

Catherine Perry  13:07 

Well, it’s an edgy space. I’ll tell you that. I tell you that. You know, coming in as an outsider is in a leadership coach, I’m, you know, I have protective armor on because I’m not in the system. But hopefully, you know, I’m modeling some things. Literally open with the concern, you know, I’m concerned we’re going to a lawyer. Yeah. What are you going to bring in a lawyer? We start talking about the fact that you know, happens to be the people of color, who aren’t showing up at our meetings. Can we can we talk about that? In the room, they say I’m not talking about it. So that so then what right?

Mickey Desai  13:47 

I’m doing a strategic planning session for a local nonprofit currently, and they’re very resistant to change. And so I said to them, I said, Look, if you’re looking at an alcoholic who’s not willing to get better Everything in their life is just falling apart. What good does it do you not to just say that the problem is what it is, and stop dancing around that person, you know, stop walking around that person’s eggshells anymore. So I think you’re right, I think definitely head on. And Susan sent us one question. She says some thought leaders suggest that white supremacy starts and ends with white people. And that the onus is on white people to do more of the emotional labor to solve these problems, because they’re the ones in the position to solve them. But I suspect based on your programming, that you don’t necessarily agree with this idea?

Catherine Perry  14:37 

Well, here’s what I know of whites created this system. We’re now blacks can’t dismantle it. We have to do it together. And so I I have a theory that some some of us whites, kind of assume they could figure it out and adapt and you know, it was kind of their job to fit into the system. And that doesn’t work.

Mickey Desai  15:02 

And so meaning they fit into the system, even though it’s unjust to other people.

Catherine Perry  15:05 

That’s right. You know, I don’t know that but i don’t believe that’s true. So I can’t even begin to justify it. And even if it’s just us dodgy away for us to dodge it, right? So blacks can’t do it alone, and whites can’t do it alone. Darn it. So we guess what we have to team up on this. And again, so how are we going to Team? What’s your role? What’s my role? Who’s gonna say what, when? Right? I will tell you that what I’ve heard from the black communities, some folks in the black community, of course, it’s always individuals here is that when we start talking about, you know, gender discrimination, or immigrant discrimination, or like your alcoholic example, right? It can be perceived as dodging the issue of black white relations. And they’re not all the same. They’re not they have completely different histories. And to whitewash that, Pun intended is, frankly, demoralizing when an African American needs to feel like they need to educate us and God love them. They do need to educate us in some ways. But I with several coaches, I’ve created a workshop called Racism in America: What is mine to do? And a big agenda in this is that when we actually break out two thirds of the way in have some white conversations and people of color have conversations. Our job that the way of structures that our job is to talk to other white people. That’s our job.

Mickey Desai  16:43 

So you actually split the group by race and have a race specific conversation?

Catherine Perry  16:47 

Yeah, two thirds of the way in, you know, it’s it fits in the arc. The workshop is cross race conversations. That’s the the structure and there are certain conversations that only happened within our race. And so to be two thirds of the way into the experience, and be able to process with other white people can move them down the path faster. And you know, there’s a special kind of challenge that only happens when whites are talking to whites, right? And then, you know, same thing happens with people of color. But one of my hypotheses is that I just I just think white people have racist tendencies are not going to get convinced, otherwise talking to black people. They’re going to get see another perspective,

Mickey Desai  17:30 

They might get entrenched. We all do.

Catherine Perry  17:32 

Yeah, we all do. You know, the the optimism I part of my optimism is that there is something each of us can do. And what does that look like?

Mickey Desai  17:40 

I never would have thought of splitting a group by race to facilitate those internal conversations that that match up towards the larger goal. I think that must be completely brilliant. And I wonder if it’s just unexpected with your actual students. I wonder if that sort of thing catches them by surprise.

Catherine Perry  17:56 

Well, we let them know up front that’s going to happen and it’s part of It’s very important, it’s two thirds of the way in. So all the issues are out people have done their work. conversations have moved forward, light bulbs going off aha moments. But there’s something about processing that without other people in the room that might shut us down. That seems to work well. And then we come back for the last 25%.

Mickey Desai  18:26 

Right. My next question for you is, transformation is not often a peaceful, willingly had experience. How do you get the leverage required to help people even consider changing?

Catherine Perry  18:38 

Well, my my stance is that most aren’t ready to change. And that’s one of the reasons rename the workshop, What is mine to do? Because that’s going to pre select people who say, there ain’t nothing I need to be doing about. This isn’t my issue, right? Or it may just not be the right time or they’ve been so burned, whatever. So there’s a room full of people who are ready to struggle with this. There has to be a bigger game. And so in church communities is, you know, this is our call as a faith community. So let’s test it out with each other. My favorite are work teams, because we are here, taking a paycheck, getting the job done. I’m frustrated, you’re frustrated, something’s getting in the way. And so we have to, we have to to make our numbers, right, we have to to model as senior leaders what we want to have happening in the organization. So there has to be a bigger game.

Mickey Desai  19:34 

Sure, there has to be a bigger picture with the larger end result attached to it. And you think that’s different? In the in the ecumenical sense. I mean, do religious teams not have the same shared bigger picture setup?

Catherine Perry  19:49 

Well, there’s there’s the staff at faith organization. And I don’t think they’re any further along in this issue than any other work team necessarily. I think I think it’s very similar. But it’s fascinating within faith communities who pray together and worship together, and how does, you know the other marginalizing the other? Look, and so that’s a bigger conversation than race. Right? So, you know, now we’re getting into issues of gender and class and, and tenure, you know, people have been in the worship community for a long time. The elders are, we do what the elder say, right? You know, the younger people don’t have a voice, right? So but it’s so compelling in the faith world because we talked about a bigger game. I mean, we’d like to think we’re doing God’s work. So we better, we better be taking this on, right. And especially in Christian communities, you can use the vocabulary around I don’t think Jesus was racist, you know, you call yourself a Jesus person. You know, we might want to be looked at it’s up,

Mickey Desai  20:54 

Right? Yeah. Who would Jesus turn away is the question.

Catherine Perry  20:59 

Well would Jesus have the difficult conversation? I think Jesus would have the difficult conversation right.

Mickey Desai  21:04 

You know, that is true. I never thought about putting it that way. I confess I’m not very much of a religious person. But if you put it in those terms, would Jesus shy away from helping somebody? I don’t think so.

Catherine Perry  21:17 

You know, you are calling us out.

Mickey Desai  21:20 

He’d throw chairs.

Catherine Perry  21:21 

Yeah, there you go. Right. There you go. So, yeah, but vital place in the planet right now. I have seen faith communities stepping up. And I take some comfort from that.

Mickey Desai  21:33 

Yeah, I actually heard on NPR the other day that the religious left is starting to make more of a headline that they never wanted to have before. But now it’s happening, which I think is kind of interesting. My next question for you, and this sort of has something to do with. You’ve already said that you automatically pre select a certain population by with the question “What is mine to do” at the title of the work as the title of the workshop? What is there to do? It means I’m sure that changes from person to person. But that leads up to my next question. So not only what am I asking you, what do you find that people think that they ought to do? But how is reconciliation different from plain old forgiveness?

Catherine Perry  22:12 

Reconciliation, the way that word is used, It includes a lot of things in addition to forgiveness. So, I’ll give it so there’s awareness. I’ll give you a great example. I love this example. Let me see if you do too. So I was telling talking the workshop about about the workshop to an older white gentleman, friend of mine, and I explained an anecdote. We heard of a black woman who went to a black Catholic elementary school and had a terrible experience with sister Florence in fourth grade. And I went on to describe the experience he interrupted me and said, I’m sure sister Florence would live today. She would apologize. And I said, took a deep breath and I said, Okay, up training moment here. First of all, you have no idea what sister Florence. She might be unchanged. Yeah. And you said that to make yourself feel better, because it is really hard for you to hold the fact that there was a white nun who was a racist. And so we whites do that all the time. We, you know, look at the bright side and in so that’s one of the ways that we want to shift is to hear the story and not feel like we need to defend for sister Florence who’s long in a grave and who knows, right? But the real the real loss would be if you said to her, my friend who shared the story, if you said said that to her, I’m sure sister Florence would would forgive you. Because you just diminish the power of her story. Because now she has this little fork in the road. She’s supposed to make up something nice about sister Florence. Do you see how that takes the power of her anecdote and completely diminishes it. And so either she’s slinks away or now we’re in an argument, right? And so that’s an example of the nuance, and this kind of a PhD right where we are. So it’s, it’s subtle. And so, so I love I love that example is let’s shift awareness in terms of what can we do?

Mickey Desai  24:23 

What do you think the more healing statement would have been in that regard?

Catherine Perry  24:27 

Well, for example, it could have been simply empathy. Right, and you’re the expert on that. So you know what that could look and sound like another could be if we’re again talking about race conversations to say, well, gosh, what other examples do you have about being in a communities and you feel like race mattered? And she might say no other ones. Actually have outstanding experience. Right. So you could ask a widening question that that signals I’m ready to talk about race if you are.

Mickey Desai  24:56 

Right. It’s certainly a lot there to unpack if we wanted to go down that road. This is really fascinating material. Again, not not what I would expect from doing good old fashioned nonprofit consulting leading into race relations. I never thought that would would be a direct fit, but it is a direct fit.

Catherine Perry  25:13 

Well, we we do leadership coaching with nonprofits at inward bound. And I will tell you, we have never done a team coaching engagement without race coming up. Because, you know, they they are serving people of color and most of the staff in many cases are people of color, and it is stunning. Now, that surprises me as a white person. It does not describe it does not surprise my associates of color, though. Well, of course, you know, where have you been right? But I did know, I didn’t know but the payoff, the big payoff in addition to whatever the mission and impact and work of the group is, is it once we create some maneuvering room for these countries Now we could talk about the real issues. Okay, now let’s talk about affirmative action. Now let’s talk about who we’re going to hire around here. Let’s talk about who’s not getting promoted. We couldn’t even have those conversations before because someone was checking out someone wasn’t showing up. Someone was walking out of the room, someone was getting defensive. So that’s the big payoff, is we’re not going to get triggered.

Mickey Desai  26:21 

Right. Yeah, I think that is the payoff. You have to have those conversations without getting triggered.

Catherine Perry  26:26 

And it’s really, really hard for a lot of people.

Mickey Desai  26:30 

My last question for you. Are there any tools that people can put into daily use as they look at issues of equity and inclusion from your experience?

Catherine Perry  26:39 

Yes. Well, one is the theme, which is to start the conversation. So so that would be one. Most people don’t go buy a book. But if you’re going to go buy a book, and you’re white, I do recommend White Fragility, which is a book that is filled with examples of sister Florence stories of how it can become that. When a person of color says something negative about our country, that we decide they’re not a patriot. And we make it an issue around patriotism.

Mickey Desai  27:10 

When it’s just an issue about humanity.

Catherine Perry  27:13 

Yeah, exactly. Same general issue. But we whites have a way of making leaping to conclusions that are not favorable to people of color. And it’s flawed and dangerous, frankly. So, you know, the example now, you know, a football player takes a knee, which is actually a very respectful pose, I may add, there are some people who so he should lead the country. What’s that about? You know, that so that the white person is made it about patriotism, right? It’s not about patriotism, right. So if you want to go into those waters, White Fragility, yeah, which is a book that I that I would recommend,

Mickey Desai  27:53 

Definitely gonna check that out.

Catherine Perry  27:55 

And this and the last thing is that how can we put ourselves in communities of color? And there often needs to be something proactive there. On a very sad, somber note, the author of White Fragility tells the story of how being raised white, she her parents who cared for her teachers who loved her. Early people who led her and managed her in organizations. She said people who only wanted the best for her not once did anyone say, Don’t stay in a white only world. Don’t stay in a white only you will miss out. You will miss out. And we’re missing out. We are missing out. Now, people of color. They’re taught how to be in a white world. Right? Exactly. Cause they’re 13% of the population. So that I guess that’s how I bottom line my answer.

Mickey Desai  28:44  

So much more to talk about. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time today. I know you have a busy week in front of you. If a listener wanted to drop you a line or learn more about the Inward Bound Center. How would you suggest they do that?

Catherine Perry  28:55 We are a nonprofit of 501c3. So

Mickey Desai  29:04 

Great. Catherine can’t thank you enough. Thank you for joining us today.

Catherine Perry  29:07 

Oh, this is great. Thank you.

Mickey Desai  29:09 

And to our listeners, thank you for joining us. You can find us on Facebook, we have a Facebook page that is simply and we have a webpage that’s And we look forward to your feedback there as always. In the meantime, we’ll have another episode for you up in a couple weeks. Have a great day.

Susan Cooper  29:27 

And that’s it for this episode of Inclusion Catalyst. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and share with your friends and colleagues.

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