SoundAffect: Damon Williams on how to move the needle on campus diversity and inclusion

Dr. Damon Williams, chief catalyst and founder of the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership & Social Innovation, joins Megan Hayes to talk about leadership, possibility and the imperatives of diversity, equity, inclusion, change and the centennial generation.


  • Damon Williams: I also think it's important to help our students to understand that racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, Islamophobia, and all the other isms that are out there, they exist. All we can do is each and every one of us get up and try to make a difference in the world to make it better. And for me, that's not about brainwashing anyone to any one particular philosophy. But it's helping them to understand that we're all connected in this thing.

    Damon Williams: From Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, this is Sound Effect. Now here's your host, Megan Hayes.

    Megan Hayes: Dr. Damon Williams is recognized as one of the nation's leading experts in strategic diversity leadership, youth development, corporate responsibility, educational achievement, social impact, and organizational change. Celebrated as a visionary and inspirational global thought leader, and a trail blazer, he is one of the world's foremost authorities on diversity, equity, and inclusion, chief diversity officers, student achievement, and driving social impact in organizational change in the higher education, corporate, K-12, and social sectors. He founded the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and served as a senior leader, building the division of multicultural and international affairs at the University of Connecticut. For four years, he served as senior vice president and chief education officer at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

    He currently serves as the chief catalyst and founder of the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation LLC, and senior scholar and innovation fellow for Wisconsin's Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Dr. Williams authored the best-selling book, Strategic Diversity Leadership, and co-authored The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management, both in 2013. His most recent publication is Voice, Choice, Access and Passion: Preparing the Centennial Generation for Leadership. He earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, Center for the Study of Higher and Post-Secondary Education, and both his masters degree in educational leadership, and his bachelors degree in sociology and black world studies from Miami University. A founding architect of the inclusive excellence concept with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Dr. Williams developed a national inclusive excellence tour, with a vision to empower one million leaders and five thousand institutions with a message of strategic diversity leadership.

    Through this project, he has worked with colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and government agencies as keynote speaker, strategist, educator, and social impact leader. He is at Appalachian this week as part of this project. Dr. Damon Williams, welcome Appalachian State University, and welcome to Sound Effect.

    Damon Williams: Thank you so much. I'm really glad to be here. Thank you.

    Megan Hayes: Well, we're really glad to have you. I wanted to try to start sort of big picture. In your books, you dedicate quite a bit of text to defining diversity. This is also something that we work to do at our institution. I don't think that's unique, and it proves to be a very difficult task. So why is talking about what diversity is so difficult to do, particularly in an academic setting?

    Damon Williams: When we actually sat down to write the definition of diversity in chapter three of Strategic Diversity Leadership, what we found was that visiting different institutions, if you had 20 people in the room, you get 20 different definitions. Some people are going to be defining it in terms of race, others are going to be defining in terms of gender, others are going to be defining in terms of LGBTQ, still others may be defining it, "No, it's about access to the institutions." Or others, "It's about the campus climate."

    And what we realized is that we had to really wrap our hands around it and to provide some conceptualization of what's a big idea and a big concept, which is becoming more important in the 21st century. And so across the 10 chapters of the book, what is diversity actually is the longest chapter, and the most complex chapter. And so we really wanted to provide some guidance to help institutions not just define diversity broadly, but also to talk about diversity as it relates to creating a learning environment that is going to be enriching and driving of stronger educational outcomes for our students. So the way we define diversity is broadly, with a lot of different identities, as a part of that, which is diversity. But we think it's important for institutions to also frame that same diversity as a part of creating a rich learning environment in the classroom, outside the classroom, that's going to accelerate our students to being leaders for the 21st century.

    Megan Hayes: So I've heard you talk about diversity work in an organizational setting, and how it's as much change management as it is diversity education. Can you explore that a little bit?

    Damon Williams: Sure. Probably the thing that has most made my work well-known is not that it was all about the diversity side of it, but it was about the systematic strategy, leadership development, culture evolution, deliberate practice, the tactical ideas that are a part of managing change. I'll never forget, I was a doctoral student years ago. I was doing all my research on issues of diversity and inclusion as a grad student. It was before I had declared my major focus in my program. And my faculty member came to me and he said, "Williams," he said, "Are you going to be another one of those diversity guys that just spends all their time defining the problem? Or are you going to be one of those people that can actually help others to do something about it?"

    And it went off in my mind's eye almost like a light bulb. And Tupac Shakur says that thug life hit him like the holy ghost, and I think that issues of organizational strategy, and development, and change management hit me like the holy ghost too. And so it was in that moment where I really started to hone out an organizational lens, and wanted to develop myself as an organizational strategist who does research and thinks and does stuff in the area of moving organizations, and makes the choice to move issues of diversity and inclusion, versus someone who's a expert in diversity and inclusion and is trying to figure out how to get something done.

    I really wanted to bring together this idea of diversity, inclusion, and change, and dynamic synergy, and wanted my work to really be about empowering leaders to get things done. And that meant helping them to understand strategy, structure, processes, change management, leadership development, accountability, incentives, infrastructures, things that are actually going to help you move the needle.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, that's so important, because I think we talk so much about what we want to do, and you talked earlier about the why, and why it's so important. But that how piece, you can get stuck in that, especially in academia.

    Damon Williams: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm a big believer in the statement that vision without execution is delusion. So if we don't have a clear sense of where we want to go, we can't get there. But just as it's important to have a north star of where we want to go, we've got to have operational discipline in how we execute. And as I've been looking across the country, you see a number of institutions that have awareness. You see a number of institutions that are doing things, and they have action, but the challenge for us as a organizational sector in higher education, and even in the corporate sector as well, the challenge for us is around going from awareness, to action, to innovation.

    And innovation for higher education is oftentimes around execution with a lot of operational discipline. So this is what we're trying to go. This is the intervention we're trying to put in place to do it. How do we do it at a really, really high level, with a lot of rigor, a lot of consistency, a lot of focus? And ultimately, that is what gets us breakthrough results as opposed to just kind of playing at things. And then they are inappropriately or loosely implemented, and then we don't get as much outcome on the other side.

    Megan Hayes: Right. When you talk about innovation and strategy, I have heard you say before that innovation and strategy are about doing something different rather than about doing something the same. So in the strategy development work that you do with organizations, you've developed this hacking problem model. I'm really interested in that. Can you talk about this model and how it works? How it plays out?

    Damon Williams: Sure. In my last role, I was senior vice president, chief education officer at Boys and Girls Clubs of America. And in that role, did a lot of work with leaders in Silicon Valley that were supporting our Boys and Girls Clubs efforts. And so I spent a lot of time thinking about technology, a lot of times thinking about digital disruption, innovation, and really wanted to sharpen my toolkit and thinking as a innovator and understanding what that meant in a 21st century context in particular. As I stepped away from that role and I stepped into this new chapter where I've been leading this national campaign, I really wanted to go inside of what it means to innovate.

    And innovation starts with really asking some hard questions about what we're doing, and not being fearful of having sacred cows that we won't touch, or not being fearful of opening up conversations maybe that we tend to not have. So it starts with questions. I also think it's important to understand what others are doing, and applying those things to our current context. I found that many will only look towards institutions that are their peer group, or their aspirational group. But true innovators don't box themselves in to a that group alone. They're looking for solutions wherever they can find them and reapplying them.

    And then third, this idea of innovation is really about getting out of silos, coming together intersectionally. How does the race conversation intersect with the gender conversation? Intersect with LGBTQ? How do we really engage in a dynamic conversation involving not only student affairs, but also academic affairs, our faculty? How do we really come together? And that's one of the strengths of higher education. It's shared governance. It's collaborative energy. But how do we really come together and build dynamic solutions that bring us to our fourth element of innovation? That's really having this bias towards action and experimentation.

    Huge, huge believer that we've got to launch. You got to start, you got to get things done. We spend a lot of time in analysis paralysis in the academy. It's the gift and the curse. The gift is the collegiality, the shared conversation, the really going deep on issues. That's all a part of the gift. The curse of it is it takes us 18 months to get anything done. 24 months to get anything done. And what's happening is the world is spinning faster than ever before. Technology means we're more closely connected. When you're more closely connected, things happen faster. Everything's moving faster. State legislatures want things to be done quicker. Political leaders want things to be done quicker. Corporate leaders are looking for things to be done quicker. Our student are expecting things to be done quicker.

    And so we have to pick up the pace and so as we're building out pilots, there's nothing more important when you're developing a new initiative than interacting with your marketplace. So faculty members, they know this intuitively. When they write a paper, they send their paper to a conference. They're interacting with their marketplace. And then, they improve it, then they go big and send it to a journal. We have to have many more pilots and things that we're trying that poke the box, that disrupt, that are different, that are going to allow us to be on the pathway to understanding what works. And then once we know what works, we have to scale up.

    And that's another challenge that we have, because we're so decentralized. So if it works in this space, you got to scale it up across the enterprise, knowing you may have to adapt it. That's a part of the scaling process. But we've got to have more of a bias towards action, experimenting with things that poke the box, clarifying them, interacting with the marketplace, improving them, scaling at what works, and then last thing is we just need more courage. People have to have more courage to do things differently, whether it's making the decision to say, "Hey, I'm going to mentor someone that is from a different sexual orientation than myself, or maybe has a different lived experience than myself. I'm going to actually reach out and really get to know this person and invite them to lunch."

    Or it's saying, "You know what? I don't know much about this inclusive teaching thing. But I'm going to go and talk to the chief diversity officer. I'm going to go talk to some folks in faculty affairs, see if there's some conferences that I can check out, see if there's some books I can check out, see if there's something podcasts I can look into." It's really having that bias towards doing this differently, and that takes courage, whether you're a dean, a faculty, a student, a department head, or someone that works in the communications area.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, I mean because as I'm listening to you talk, I'm thinking about the importance of that intersectionality, because if you're trying to speed things up, and yet you're trying to be inclusive, in some ways, those two things seem to be kind of pulling in opposite directions almost. And so it seems like ... And also then I think in academia, we're supposed to be experts, we're supposed to be good at this stuff, and so if we don't do it right, or we start doing it wrong, then we can get into that paralysis mode as well.

    Damon Williams: Absolutely. That idea of ... People have questioned, they said, "Well, you know, Dr. Williams, you said we need to go faster. Does that mean we need to not be as engaged in achieving buy in?" Everybody talks about buy in, buy in, buy in. First off, buy in is a fallacy. People never, "Buy into," something. What people want is engagement. See in the academy, you always are wrong if you don't give people an opportunity to engage. If you've given them a chance to give their perspective, if you've given them a chance to be heard, if you've given them a chance to shape the idea, they can generally go with the outcome.

    The challenge comes is when you don't create that opportunity and context for the engagement. So Peter Senge, the author of The Dance of Change, he talks about this idea of the dance of change and the importance of engaging in these moments where we pull people into the conversation and help them to shape in thought partnership where we want to go. What I'm saying is not that we shouldn't do that. We should absolutely do that. It's essential. But what I'm saying is, "Hey, speed it up."

    Can you do it one semester, not two? Can you do it in two months, not eight? Can you engage using digital tools that allow for you to create a more expedited way of getting to the same outcome? Can you get a small group together and rapid prototype the concept? And then you're shopping a more fully-formed concept that people are working from as opposed to starting with a total open-ended slate. So those are just some practices or techniques of accelerating the change journey, which I think are really important for D and I, diversity and inclusion related work, but also to just accelerating our institutions in a faster response to a rapidly changing world.

    Megan Hayes: Sure. So this is one of my burning questions. And it's about resiliency. I'm really interested in exploring that concept because I think it's one thing to develop the skills that we all need to succeed in environments that are difficult, sometimes even dangerous. We need to be able to go out into the world and experience things that are uncomfortable, put us out of our element, survive even in maybe places that don't feel safe to us or aren't safe. It's another to transfer that responsibility for some of the unconscionable behavior from those who are in power to those who are less empowered, or even disempowered.

    So I feel like as an institution, we are wrestling with how do we encourage the development of resiliency while also taking, sharing, owning responsibility for what needs to change. So I guess my question is have you see that before? And what's your insight and thought about kind of where that sweet spot is almost between making sure that we're preparing students to go out into a difficult, challenging world, and be okay? Know that they've got the tools and the skill set to be okay, but not make it all their responsibility and all their problem to figure out how to do that?

    Damon Williams: That's a meaty question. It's a meaty question. A couple things. And inside that question I think you see the true complexity of these dynamics, and the reality of doing this work, particularly when you're thinking about it not just in the eco system of higher ed, but you're thinking about how an institution like Appalachian State in nested in a community, is nested in a state, it's nested in a politic, it's nested in alumni context, and a broader context societally, and there's a lot of permeable things flowing back and forth. And that complexity can get overwhelming I think at times.

    I believe that in terms of working with our students, a couple things. One, I'm a big believer in helping our students to really understand how developing their skills and abilities to interact and lead in a diverse and global world is a set of skills and tools that they need to have in their toolkit, whether they want to be a healthcare leader, they've got to engage issues of culturally competent healthcare, or ethnic and racial health disparities, or cultural differences that they see in patient populations, modalities to treatment. Whether you're talking about working at industry, and you're talking about working in a global, connected marketplace, or understanding that women make most household decisions. Talk about marketing to women versus to men versus to under-represented minorities.

    All of those things and everything in between, from sport to media, cultural skills and the ability to lead in diverse context is important. So I think we have a real responsibility as educators to help our students to understand the world they're going into, and to help them to have the types of in and out of class experiences that are going to get them leveled up and ready for that world. I also think it's important to help our students to understand that racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, Islamophobia, and all other isms that are out there, they exist. We can't legislate them away. All we can do is each and every one of us get up and try to make a difference in the world to make it better.

    And for me, that's not about brainwashing anyone to any one particular philosophy. But it's helping them to understand that we're all connected in this thing at some level. And in this country, to be a part of a diverse democracy, we need leaders who understand or empathetic for others. And I'm a huge believer that we have to close the empathy gap that exists in our communities. Can you look at the world from someone else's perspective that's on your team? Can you look at the world from someone's perspective that maybe reports to you, that you report to, a client that you're serving? That skill of empathy is so I'm and that skill of empathy development is the-

    PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:19:04]

    Damon Williams: So important. And that skill of empathy development is the foundation of connection, and I talked about this this morning in a number of my talks. But this idea of the ABCs. And Dr. Beverly Tatum, a colleague of mine, of President Emeritus of Spellman College shared this with me, it's this idea of the ABCs, and this work is about affirming identity. It's about building community. And it's about cultivating leaders. And a key aspect of that is what we do in terms of helping to bring more empathy to the world and to the work that we're doing and to individuals.

    Megan Hayes: So along those lines, do you think it's good for everyone to feel like an outsider at some point in their lives?

    Damon Williams: Absolutely. I don't believe that the most growth happens by playing it safe in the middle in life. Whether you're talking about the work that you do as a athlete, pushing yourself in athletic training, the work that you do as a leader, taking expansion assignments, broadening assignments, the work that you do, maybe as a student going to do study abroad. The work that you may do as a student leader going into a student organizational context is totally different than you had.

    There was a student, a white woman, white female student at University of Wisconsin Madison, and she was a part of the African Student Association. And I never forget, I'd met her first year, and I was like, where'd that come from? She was like, well, she was like, I was always kind of fascinated by Africa, and there was this African Student Association, and my roommate was of African descent, and she was going to it and I went to a meeting with her, and I had asked her the question, can I go as a white female from Madison, Wisconsin? And her roommate was like, yeah, absolutely come. And she said, and I went, and it was cool. And she was like, I'd never been in a space like that where I was the only person of my background in the room. She was like, I felt scared, but I was with my friend, and they were welcoming. She was like, and now I'm a member.

    And it's those experiences where there's dissonance in our lives, right? That allow us to develop. And it's in those moments where I believe we can become our greatest selves, but we don't become our greatest selves by playing it safe. We become our greatest selves by pushing ourselves to the margin, and not living in fear. See, fear is the enemy. And when we are fearful of difference, when we're fearful of being outside of our comfort zone, then what we do is we stymie our ability to become great. And I believe that these experiences outside of comfort zone where you are the other, where you are outsider, if you approach them with humility, I believe that the benefits that come on the other side are difficult to quantify.

    Megan Hayes: One thing I'd love for you to address, because I think we need to address it here at a predominantly white institution, is this difficulty in creating space and conversations where we ask, what do we need to do to better include and represent under represented people? And I've certainly been the only woman in the room and been asked to speak for all women, and that's kind of ridiculous and uncomfortable, and it's also a set up, I think for failure. But, even with that said, we still have to ask those questions, don't we? I mean, am I thinking about this wrong? We don't want to tokenize, right? We don't want to be tokens.

    Damon Williams: Yeah.

    Megan Hayes: And yet when there aren't very many people in the room to represent, don't we have to step up and represent?

    Damon Williams: Yeah. That's a great question. And it actually came up earlier today, there was some folks said ... And they their language more than mine, they sent minoritized communities, meaning women, LGBTQ, underrepresented groups. They said, oftentimes others are learning about diversity on the backs of those individuals.

    Megan Hayes: Right.

    Damon Williams: Who, to your point have to be the spokesperson, or offer perspective.

    Megan Hayes: Which can be so exhausting.

    Damon Williams: Oh, absolutely. There is a burden that's associated with that.

    Megan Hayes: Sure.

    Damon Williams: And so, a couple things. One, I believe in elevating the authenticity of that statement. It is a burden, and there's a cost that is wrought upon individuals who have had to play that role. And I think that's very real. And I think it has deleterious mental health impact. It can have deleterious physical impact. It can have deleterious academic impact, and sociocultural impact. So I think we have to be mindful of that reality. And I think that in our work with different student communities, I think we have to make that a part of our health and wellness agenda in multicultural student centers, in areas of student counseling, or student academic advising. Even helping our faculty to understand some subtle principles of how to be affirming in that way. So a part of the response from me, is I think that we have to really recognize and understand it. Another part of it is, I think we have to do a lot more to help individuals who are part of empowered communities understand how to be allies in those moments.

    Megan Hayes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Damon Williams: Understand how to be full contributors in those moments. Understand how to say, you know what? I don't think we should be asking anybody to make a statement about the entire race, or entire group. But understanding how to help them to become a part of that conversation, because they have to be full participants and contributors in that, not just underrepresented groups.

    Megan Hayes: Sure.

    Damon Williams: And then the third part I would say is ... And I've been criticized for this. But as I talk to underrepresented communities, and if that's the cost, right? That's the role that you have to play to help our communities, our society, to improve and get better. Then you're a part of a long line.

    Megan Hayes: Sure.

    Damon Williams: Across generations of folks who've made sacrifices to move the cheese. And this is just your role to play. And you should thank your stars that that's all that your role is at this point. And so, I'm a huge believer that to those who much is given, much is expected. We are in the midst of a change project in our institutions to continue to evolve them, to make them more inclusive for women, and minorities, and more diverse, and to embrace diversity as a value that's really lived in our systems. That's a change effort, and it's a process of getting there. And if your work, the role that's asked of you inside of that is this, then that's just a part of it. And like I said, that's a much easier role to play than what was played in the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, let alone the 1800s. And that's hard for many of our students, underrepresented and majority. Because they maybe don't see themselves as a part of that continuum in the same way. There's been something that's been broken there that we're seeing with the centennial generation, and the millennials as well. But in the same instance, the millennials and the centennials, they have a consciousness to them.

    Megan Hayes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Damon Williams:  About the world. They want to change the world. But they want to do it in some ways that are on their own terms, and not as a part of this continuum, but a part of kind of a new moment that they're defining and controlling. And that's a part of their value system. And it will continue to shake it's way out going forward. But I say racism, sexism, homophobia is just a reality. It's a gravity problem. And we need everybody all hands on deck doing something about it.

    Megan Hayes: That's a really good point, the history piece and the context piece on it. My great aunt used to say, every night before you go to sleep, you got to think of 10 things you're grateful for, even if you had a really bad day. And that's kind of almost in the same vein, you know what I mean?

    Damon Williams: Absolutely.

    Megan Hayes: But yeah, having been on this campus for over 20 years and seeing the work that we have done with ... It started with the Women's Center, and we got an LBGTQ Center, and the Multicultural Student Center. None of those were there when I was a student here. And so, I think there is something to being aware of when at what point in history those things became sort of part of our everyday culture, everyday norm.

    Damon Williams: Right. And the presence of those centers and those spaces are the outcome of Appalachia State trying to build capacity to include. Capacity to create an experience that was inclusive and excellent for all. Because oftentimes the pathway to a sense of belonging, and a pathway to a sense of connection and affiliation comes through those identity reflecting spaces that affirm you in a way that you can then move into the broader community. And they're not spaces of segregation in a negative sense. They're really spaces of solidarity and identity affirmation, which then becomes the gateway or the platform that allows you to move into the broader balloon, and have the type of a experience campus wide that ultimately all of our students have to have, and should have.

    Megan Hayes: Can you talk about the power of what can be achieved by working behind the scenes, and with those who may have quiet voices, not the loud voices?

    Damon Williams: Yeah. Oftentimes, and I talk a lot about courageous leadership, that innovation requires leaders who are willing to step up, and stand out, and be courageous. But that doesn't all the time necessarily mean noisy. Sometimes it's the quiet voice of connection, the quiet voice of mentorship, the quiet voice of one to one conversation and partnership, the quiet voice of someone who's maybe using their social capital as a faculty member who's tenured, or their social capital as a white male, or their social capital as someone who is heterosexual. But using that capital quietly in the benefit of diverse groups, quietly towards the benefit of an inclusion agenda, that maybe everyone doesn't become aware of it, but it's really hallmarked to making a real ripple effect.

    I'm a big believer that change happens on our campuses, oftentimes analogous to a political campaign. And so, when you're executing a political campaign, you just want more and more people coming into your political energy. And what I mean here by this is, it's not just those who are making the biggest speeches, but it's those who are on the ground, who maybe have a quiet belief that being more inclusive, and being more connected, and mentoring, and supporting, and sponsoring others is an important part of what makes this place great. And they don't have to sing it or say it. But if they can quietly move forward and start doing some of it when that student comes into your office and you're the first frontline receptionist, and that person looks scared, and you can tell they're uncertain about going into financial aid, and it's how you connected with that person, and how you champion their humanity. Or it's the student who's elevating that, hey, I want to use this gender pronoun, or this naming convention. Don't know how to do it. And it's how you connect with them. And that maybe doesn't become public anywhere else, but you're finding ways each and every day, in even the smallest ways to move an agenda forward over time. I just have to believe that that's what makes the difference in our communities, and in our society, and in our lives.

    Megan Hayes: So you talked a little bit about role modeling. I think a lot of us think we have an understanding of what role modeling is. I've also heard you talk about avoidance modeling. So can you talk about those two concepts, because I think we might have more to learn in both of those areas, actually.

    Damon Williams: Yeah. I'm a big believer in role models and avoidance models. And one of the quickest ways to achieve the same types of outcomes that someone else has achieved, that you want to achieve in your life as a leader, is to reverse engineer what they were able to do, and how they were able to do, and what were their action steps both as a role model but also as an avoidance model of steps that you don't want to put in place. And that becomes, for me, a really important part of how I try to learn. So I'm a very big believer in learning in four dimensions. And so, the first dimension is intentional academic study. So it's going to class. It's taking online programs. It's a reading books in a given area. But it's intentional traditional academic learning centered stuff. YouTube is the most powerful learning platform in the history of the world. People don't see it that way. Those who do are unlocking incredible levels of human potential. The second dimension is-

    Megan Hayes: My kids will be very happy to hear that.

    Damon Williams: Oh, it is. It is.

    Megan Hayes: They spend a lot of time on YouTube.

    Damon Williams: It is. It depends how they do it. But it truly is. And that second dimension is through experiences. So we learn fundamentally through this intentional study. Then the second dimension is through experiences, right? So it's leading an organization, playing a role, having a job, having an internship, doing a study abroad, what we talk about high impact learning. That second dimension of how we learn. The third dimension of how we learn is really having mentoring relationships, learning relationships in your lives. And so I always talk about having peer mentors, having my board of advisors, and then having some aspirational mentors that I interact with. Now, those aspirational mentors, I might only be able to get to them once a year, because they are that influential, and they're that far out of reach. I've got a board of advisors, I can get to them at a moment's notice. I've got a group of peer mentors that are at my level, and we're struggling with these things together. We're sharing everything we know. And then I've got mentees that I am sharing what I know to. So this idea of a multidimensional set of mentoring relationships is this third dimensional. So intentional study, experiences, learning relationship. And then the fourth dimension of learning for me is this idea of observations.

    Megan Hayes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Damon Williams: And observing what's going on, role models, avoidance models, and observing the world around me. Individuals that are able to move the fastest, and are able to get the most done, they learn in four dimensions. They have a clear sense of their passion and their purpose, and the pathway that sits at their motivation core, and then they activate what's at the core through those four different dimensions, and it's almost like a wheel. So every course, every leadership experience, every relationship, every role model makes the wheel turn. Makes the wheel turn, makes the wheel turn. And what happens over time is, the more you do the right things to more centrifugal force that you're wheel has, your flywheel, to leverage the concept that Jim Collins talked about in Good to Great. And then it has its own energy. And you don't even have to touch it. It just keeps spinning. And then new energy comes in, new energy comes in, and people ask me, Damon, how are you able to become a 28, 29 year old Assistant Vice Provost, 34 year old Vice Provost, Vice Chancellor. Do this, do that, write these things. I have very clear sense of my leadership flywheel. And everything in that flywheel is building and manifesting itself, and over time it just starts to spin in such a way that you get these incredible breakthrough results. And that's where you see individuals having real deep impact.

    I've always wanted my life to be about impact. Helping each other, helping others, sharing the things I know, creating connection. And that's what this flywheel for me is all about. And when I talk to students, probably the thing that most excited me when I moved around the country, on my last role when I got a chance to work with hundreds of thousands of young people across this country, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, search for a million young people annually, big shout out to Boys and Girls Clubs. I will always love Boys and Girls Clubs. They do incredible work helping students to find their pathway and have safe spaces. But some of the most important work I did then, and even now, it's when I have a chance to talk to students about finding their pathway, and unlocking their purpose through questions and unlocking their purpose through movement. People think that unlocking purpose and passion is about coming down from the mountain top. It's about having a general direction and walking. Every step we manifest it, every step we clarify. If we keep asking questions, and if we're working that four dimensional model, you unlock so many things.

    So I love to share that philosophy with students, particularly really early, so they can build it out. And then touch base with them a couple of years later. And they'll say, Doc, Dr. Williams, oh my gosh, and I'm doing this, and I worked this model. There's nothing that's more enriching as a educator than that.

    Megan Hayes: So, how should young people go about choosing their mentors?

    Damon Williams: A couple things. One, sometimes we choose our mentors, and I get a lot of people that come up and say, hey, will you mentor me? And what I say to them is, we can have a learning relationship. Now, you have to understand that there's multidimensional ways of accomplishing that. So a learning relationship is you can follow me on Instagram. You can follow me on Twitter. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel. I tell folks all the time, if you drop me an email, I will respond. So we can have a learning relationship. Are you going to be able to get me on the phone to kind of help you work through a problem in a different type of way? Are you going to be able to ask me to be a sponsor for you, and write a letter of nomination to help you access an opportunity? That's a higher level, we have to work to that.

    Megan Hayes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Damon Williams: And a relationship that starts very casually could manifest and evolve to that, but you can't expect that an individual's going to automatically give you that. It's a journey of developing that. Another piece of this too is, I think that we oftentimes don't take advantage enough of peer mentoring. If you are connected to the people that are generally kind of in the same experience you are, and you're authentically and with humility sharing what you know, sharing what you understand, listening, then what you can do is you start building something magnificent. Some of the greatest things I've been able to accomplish happened when I just was humble, and I shared, and I connected. For example, I was 25 years old and I had a $75,000 consulting project as a doctoral student. Who has a $75,000 consulting project as a doctoral student, doing a program evaluation? But an individual came to me and said, Damon, we'd like you to come in and do this training for this youth development program. And I had been working with the Children's Defense Fund doing youth development work. I was a doctoral student at University of Michigan. They asked me to do this training program. And so, the director said, what do you want to do the training session? Finan-

    PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:38:04]

    Damon Williams: The director said, "what do you want to do the training session?" Financially. I'm a servant leader. I don't want anything to do the training session. What do you mean? She goes, "No, no, no baby. I've got budget." She said, "What do you want?" And it was one of the important lessons that I learned about understanding that I had a talent and skills and that there was a market value associated with that. And I believe that in this connection economy where everybody can have a website, have a YouTube, you can be a brand, we more and more have to help our students to understand the principles of micro-entrepreneurship.

    Now this is obliviously years ago, before those things happened when I had this experience, and so I ultimately negotiated a small contract and did the consulting [project with her. We finished. That went very well. She then comes back to me and says, "Do you know anybody that does program evaluation?" Now, see I'm a quick study. And so the second question, I said, "I know somebody who does program evaluation. What do you want?" So she explained it to me. And I had taken a course on program evaluation and I had worked on one of my senior faculty members' research team. And so I had a pretty good understanding of what it would take. And the short of it, I ended up getting a $75,000 consulting project to execute this evaluation.

    And I went out and I got five of my colleagues who were all doctoral students who are really, really sharp. And we sat down and we figured it out together.

    And I tell that story because inside of it, I just believe that we have to help our students to have belief that they are enough, that they can do. But a key part of having that belief and being enough is the level at which you can connect with others to learn. See, what's on the other side of great outcome is probably a journey of learning. But we oftentimes don't commit ourselves to that journey of learning. I try to commit myself to that journey of learning, and then get the right people around me and then can get great things done. And that's something I've learned very early on as an undergrad, and even now as I'm doing the work I'm doing. It's the same thing. Same thing.

    Megan Hayes: SO I'm gonna kind of move outward a little bit, philosophically. In looking at other countries and models, if we look at Germany or South Africa, for example, what their societies have done that we haven't is make these nationwide reparations for the atrocities that they have societally, violently imposed on others in their societies. And so, there doesn't seem to be an appetite for doing that in the United States-

    Damon Williams: Yeah.

    Megan Hayes: Right now. So, in the absence of that, how can we do this hard work at the localized levels and really make any traction? Because it almost feels like you get a little bit ahead, and then some sort of major action takes place, that isn't happening on our campus or in our town, and yet, emotionally it has this huge impact on us. And then we slide backwards. And we don't have that almost sort of societal back up that those countries who have made those nationwide reparations have. So, just kinda curious about how do we find traction in that environment?

    Damon Williams: That's a great, that's a big question. You got really big there on me. A couple things stand out in my mind's eye. The first thing that stands out my mind's eye is man, why is it that we haven't been able to get to a place where we might make some level of a reparation?

    Megan Hayes: Yeah.

    Damon Williams: A part of it, for me, is, and I don't think we ever will, I feel like there's a tremendous ... there's elements of our country that make us great. The work ethic, the by your bootstraps kind of Protestant work ethic type of philosophical core, the, in some ways, false belief that individual manifest destiny. And those things are such a powerful part of the ethos, and they mask that just underneath, all those concepts, was a real orientation towards capitalizing upon the labor, capitalizing upon the humanity of others to allow for this great nation to be built. Whether it was native communities or African communities, and never truly acknowledging that reality.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah. 'Cause they didn't get the bootstraps.

    Damon Williams: No, no.

    Megan Hayes:You know, but they built them for everybody else.

    Damon Williams: Absolutely. And so there's an arrogance there. And a fundamental lack of humility, which is really a part of our DNA as a nation. And it's the part that's not as something that we're, some of us are not as proud of. So I don't know if we'll ever, and I don't believe we'll ever get to that place of reparation.

    Megan Hayes: Wow.

    Damon Williams: But the bigger question for me now is how do we move forward though? And how do we get things done? And I stepped away from my work in higher education to go work at Boys and Girls Clubs of America because it gave me a great opportunity to work at a different place in the ecosystem. To work in the corporate sector, to work at one of the greatest not-for-profits in the world, to work with I think my team managed about 250 corporate accounts.

    Megan Hayes: Wow.

    Damon Williams: So we work with everybody. And what I came to understand even more prominently, was that to solve difficult, complex social challenges, it takes an ecosystem leadership perspective. It takes public-private partnership. It takes collective impact. It takes coming together, not just signing principles that are symbols of inclusion, but building real operational plans that are going to really create a greater level of synergy between the players that are involved.

    I was just in Boone County on Saturday. So I'm in Boone, North Carolina, today. I was in Boone County on Saturday in Columbia, Missouri. And it was Inclusive Excellence Proclamation Day. So, the university and the city of Columbia had come together with a number of players in the city. And there was a mayoral proclamation and they have a statement of inclusive excellence that they've got 1000 leaders and I believe about 60 organizations that have signed on in the corporate, government, higher education community, so they're trying to move this thing forward.

    And my response to that was that's wonderful.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah.

    Damon Williams: Because what it does, it creates a shared covenant of what we believe. A shared covenant of where we want to go. A shared covenant that starts to create a new cultural reality, or a new cultural adobe of these ideas of inclusion and excellence being synonymous. I think that's a great thing.

    But it's very similar to what the NCAA did not too long ago with the athletic directors. It's no different than what's happening right now in the corporate community in terms of corporations coming together around various different principles. It's no different than what President Obama put forward with the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative and Boys of Color. It hasn't moved from the level of being a philosophical, cultural covenant to a collective impact initiative.

    See, that elevation up strategically, what that means is we got to .. we not only have this shared vision of what we want to do, we got some common indicators of how we tracking progress. We've got some conjoined tactics that different organizations are going to play a role of delivering that, over time, are gonna lead to change. We've got a backbone organization that's gonna be the backbone of the collective impact initiative.

    So, to solve complex challenges over time in our communities, I believe number one, we've got to create connection across the ecosystem, public and private, college, universities, K-12, higher education, corporation, not-for-profit governance, really coming together to really focus on not just talking about things, but developing a shared covenant and then the next level up: the level of collective impact efforts that are going to really allow for some aggressive change to happen over time. We're scratching at it.

    When I was at Boys and Girls Clubs of America, working with Disney, Toyota, University of Phoenix, Taco Bell, Microsoft, Justice, Education, NASA, we work with everybody. Working with all the foundations. And what I found is oftentimes we just couldn't seem to come together and really bring together the Y and the Boys and Girls Clubs and 4H and the Girl Scouts, and everybody coming together because we would oftentimes get to our narrow self-interest.

    I call this collegial competitors. We love each other, but those Girl Scouts show up with those cookies, I'm telling you. No, I'm just playing.

    Megan Hayes: Boy Scouts have really good popcorn.

    Damon Williams: Absolutely, absolutely. But this idea, just putting aside the differences and really getting in a shared place, and really aggressively trying to move efforts forward, I think that's the only way we're gonna really see some deep and material change. It's not gonna be the government alone. It's not gonna be any college or university. It's not gonna be any foundation, even the Gates Foundation with all their resources. It's gonna take really developing strong collective impact efforts.

    And I spent a lot of time really trying to level up my skills as a strategist, to think through the lens of collective impact because that is the only solution I can see to difficult and complex social challenges in this country.

    Megan Hayes: This you've touched on a little bit, but I think this will kind of bring it all home, especially for our students. There are many young people today that are told by society, "focus on this practical vocation so they can get a job." Then they go to graduation or some sort of key moment in their lives and they're delivered the classic, "follow your passion; do what you love, the money will follow." Those kinds of speeches. I think there's this incredible challenge that we in higher ed face of helping young people balance this pragmatism with a sense of hope. So I'd like to ask you for a moment just to talk to our students and just what advice do you have for Appalachian students?

    Damon Williams: It's funny. That idea, "follow your passion, and the money will follow." It really became kind of in vogue. It was after Steve Jobs gave his big commencement speech at Stanford some years ago, which is one of the most, in my understanding, is one of the most hit YouTube videos, commencement videos, ever. It's like, "follow your passion." But the reality of it for our students is this.

    Megan Hayes:  I thought yours was pretty good. Just saying.

    Damon Williams: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. The thing I would say to students is this: number one is you have to ask yourself a lot of questions. Who do you want to be in this world? What type of lifestyle do you want? What type of work makes you happy? What type of people do want to be around? What type of person do you want to be? What type of sacrifice are you willing to make to get there? That first semester as a student, ask yourself a lot of questions. And be naked to those answers. Don't run from them.

    The second thing that I would say to our students is choose a direction. Choose a direction. You can change. But choose a direction to start walking. Don't allow yourself to be frozen by not having total clarity. Choose a direction to start walking.

    The third thing that I would say is as you are walking, everybody has an economic engine that has to be activated to take care of yourself. Some are fortunate that they've got a mother or a father that can underwrite things, others are not. You've got to go out there and make those things happen on your own. I was one of those persons that had to do that. I worked three, four jobs when I was an undergrad. I've always had at least two or three sources of income. It's just the way I roll. And embrace that. The beauty of this knowledge-based connection economy is there are more ways for you to make money online and through connection than ever before. And I think that students should really lean into that reality early on.

    I'm a huge believer in exploration. But I'm also a big believer in moving down a pathway. You don't have to know exactly where are going to end up, but you've got to start walking in a direction. And if you need to change it, that's fine. And the more questions you ask, the more you get clarity around what the north star vision is. For me, I didn't know what job I wanted. What I knew is that I wanted to be amongst the best in the world at diversity inclusion and change. Period. That's always been what's driven me. Not a job, not a role, not a salary, it's that. And I paid a price for that.

    And I encourage our students to get a big picture idea of it and then just start walking. And start lining up the academic piece, the credential piece, the self-directed learning piece, the experience piece, the role model piece, the observation piece and get that thing spinning. And what you find is that every step you take, more clarity comes. Every step you take, more clarity comes. And then you look up after one year, two years, three years, five years, ten years, and your dreams have become a reality.

    But you've got to make a choice. And you've got to get a direction and a pathway. And understand that if you are someone who's coming from a more economically vulnerable background, it's gonna be harder for you. But that's okay because the greatness comes in how far you go from where you started. And I just don't buy into folks saying, "Well, I didn't have this." And "I didn't have that." Figure it out.

    See, as human beings, and I know I've got to go, but as human beings, when you've got a challenge in front of you you've got to figure it out, you figure it out. When your doctor tells you you got to lose weight or you're gonna have this issue or when someone comes to you and says that you no longer employed and you have to find a job, when someone comes to you and says, "If you don't make X, Y, and Z change, you're getting kicked out of school, you will figure it out.

    The power comes in those who are self aware enough to figure it out absent that external force. And you develop those muscles of figuring that out over time by taking these small steps. Small steps build up to big steps.

    The last thing I would say to our students, just believe. You just have to have a deep belief in yourself. And the world is gonna tell you you can't. There's gonna be naysayers and haters that tell you you can't. But just have a deep, deep belief in yourself. Ignore the naysayers. And nothing, this is the final thing, nothing, and I mean nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, trumps hard work. If you work your face off at something, you will be successful. Period, end of story.

    Megan Hayes: Wow. Well, Dr. Damon Williams, thank you so much for your time in the studio today. You'll be working with students, faculty, staff, administrators-

    Damon Williams: Yes.

    Megan Hayes: You're giving a public speech. For the next three days you'll be on our campus and I can't imagine a more important way to begin our semester or our year so thank you very much for your time.

    Damon Williams: Thank you Ap State nation, been great. I look forward to rocking out with you all. I'm @dawphd on twitter and Instagram. You can find me at

    Megan Hayes: Excellent. Thank you so much.

    Damon Williams: Thank you.

    Megan Hayes: Today's show was written and produced by Troy Tuttle, Dave Blanks, and me, Megan Hayes. Our sound engineer is Dave Blanks, with assistance from Wes Craig. Our web team is Pete Montaldi, Alex Waterworth, and Derek Wycoff. Research assistance comes from Elizabeth Wall. And video and photo support come from Garrett Ford and Marie Freeman. Our theme song was written and performed by Derek Wycoff of Naked Gods. Our podcast studio is dedicated to Greg Cutty. Special thanks to Steven Dubner for the inspiration, advice, and moral support. Sound Effect is a production of the University Communications Team at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Thanks for listening. For Sound Effect, I'm Megan Hayes.

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