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Finding Freedom Through Vulnerability With Kudakwashe Mushaike

In Episode 87, Kudakwashe Mushaike, Founder of Below The Surface, shares a brief and powerful talk from Change Catalyst’s third Icon Summit hosted by Icon Project Founder and Change Catalyst Co-Founder, Wayne Sutton. In “Finding Freedom Through Vulnerability,” Kudakwashe tells us how authenticity, freedom, and love play a pivotal role in the journey of understanding vulnerability and how leaning into vulnerability can allow us to experience the world around us more fully. Vulnerability is important as we work to be good allies—and as we ask each other for allyship. We’re excited to share this special session with you.

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The idea of authenticity is… you showing up as your true authentic self, as your true authentic north… But the idea of the self is the stories that you tell yourself about yourself. An example could be, I’m a lover. Or on the negative side, I’m not good enough… And so, that begins to define who you are and what you think about when you think about yourself. And so, we want to reconstruct what some of those stories are because they come out in how you present yourself. In the journey of reconstructing who you think and who you believe you are, and how you end up showing up to other people— it’s a journey of vulnerability. Vulnerability, now defining it, is showing up in a way where you’re opening up about who you truly are and taking that risk. It really is taking on that risk.
Headshot of Kudakwashe Mushaike, a Black man with black hair, a black beard, and a white t-shirt, smiling at the camera
Guest Speaker

Kudakwashe Mushaike

Founder of Below The Surface

Kudakwashe Mushaike is a speaker, poet, software engineer, and the Host and Founder of Below The Surface.

Having lost his father at the age of one, Kudakwashe found himself looking to other men to set an example for him. Challenged by the fact that for most men, conversation merely touches the surface and ultimately, their pain and struggles are experienced in silence, he realized that there was work to be done to shift the culture around conversation amongst men.

Below The Surface was birthed from his mission to build stronger, more vulnerable communities of men through conversation and shared experiences.

In tune with his mission, Kudakwashe speaks to men about vulnerability, growth, and mental wellness.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. 


I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. All right. Let’s dive in. 


MELINDA: Hello everyone. At Change Catalyst, we recently hosted our third Icon Summit. The Icon Summit is part of our Icon project, which addresses mental health and professional development for Black and Brown men in tech. 


This year’s summit was focused on thriving in today’s adversity. The event focused on sharing the accomplishments of Black and Brown men in tech, and a couple of women, and also highlighting solutions to professional development, leadership, and mental health. 


Coming right after the anti-Black racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, it was much needed healing, refueling space. The full event is available on our Change Catalyst YouTube channel. Please check it out—amazing speakers. We’ll share the link in our show notes as well. 


For our podcast episode today, our team wanted to do something a little bit different. We were really moved, especially by one solo talk. So, we’re going to share that with you today. The solo talk is from Kudakwashe Mushaike. It’s called Finding Freedom Through Vulnerability. I hope you find it valuable. And you’ll see my partner, co-founder, and husband, Wayne Sutton is introducing him. Again, I hope you enjoy.


WAYNE: Hey, how’s it going? 


KUDAKWASHE: Hello! How are you doing, Wayne? 


WAYNE: I’m good. Good. Good. You?


KUDAKWASHE: Man, I’m excited. This is my dream.


WAYNE: Awesome. Well, I’m going to close my video and the stage is yours. 


KUDAKWASHE: Sounds good. Thank you.


KUDAKWASHE: So yeah, my name is Kudakwashe Mushaike. I’m the founder of Below the Surface. Below the Surface is an organization that is essentially celebrating freedom through vulnerability, and creating spaces for vulnerability. This space is only for men. We’re a male-centered organization. 


Part of the reason why this is because of the mission. The mission is centered around how the organization began was through losing my father. So, I lost my father when I was a year old. I grew up just feeling like I wasn’t enough, because I didn’t have a father in my life and wondering if other men felt the same way. I thought I was alone. And by the time I started having conversations with other men, I realized that it seemed like we were always struggling with the same thing where we just felt like we’re not enough. 


I figured that it was important for us to create a space for us to have deeper conversations about what it is that’s going on in our lives because once I opened up and was vulnerable enough about my own experience, it seemed like we’re all going through the same thing. So, I wanted to create a space where real people can come and have a conversation with me about their lives, to hear about what was going on in their lives in a way that we could all learn from each other and grow together. 


I’ve extended this in the organization and also created a space where we have resources about mental health, resources about how do we actually manage ourselves. How do we know about our impact on other people? How do we know about our authentic selves? How do we find that and then bring it to the table? Because you can only give what you have. 


Some of the work that we’ve done is really acknowledging how do we create and build ourselves so that we can give to other people. So today, my talk, like really what I want to talk about and give you today is about finding freedom through vulnerability.


I like the whole idea of freedom. When I started this work, I didn’t understand really what was the core, the motivation for me doing this work outside, of course, that I wanted to have compositions as a man and hear what was going on in their life. I wanted to learn from other men and also give them an opportunity to learn from me and vice versa, and also show other men that this was okay to be vulnerable. But I realized at a call that my real need was to find freedom. And by freedom, I mean, the ability for you to be yourself, to be your true authentic self. 


In the past few years, we’ve had to wear masks. I think we all realize how painful it is to have to wear a mask every day. After a while you just want to take it off and put it away. And so, I think of this image when I think of a vulnerability or when I think about what the organization is doing in the community. We’re helping people take off those masks. We’re helping people take off those masks to find freedom, which is an acceptance of their true authentic selves. 


And so, I want to share three things with you that have been powerful in my journey of understanding vulnerability. I’ll first, of course, define what vulnerability is and what it means to us as an organization. But I want to talk about three main things that stand out to me when I think of vulnerability. 


The first thing that I think of is authenticity. The second thing I want to share on it is, of course, freedom, which is why we do the work. The third thing I’ll finish off on is love. Because it is the reason why I think we’re alive in here. The idea of authenticity is that authenticity is you showing up as your true authentic self, as your true authentic north. I think I keep using authentic self. 


What that means, the idea of self. Actually, I have an episode on this on my podcast that you could check out after this. Our podcast is called Below the Surface Podcast. You can find it on YouTube or anywhere where you listen to your podcasts. But the idea of the self is the stories that you tell yourself about yourself. 


An example could be, I’m a lover. Or in the negative side, I’m not good enough. Those are the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves. You can insert your own story there. And so, that begins to define who you are, and what you think about when you think about yourself. And so, we want it to reconstruct what some of those stories are, because they come out in how you present yourself. 


In the journey of reconstructing who you think and who you believe you are, and how you end up showing up to other people. It’s a journey of vulnerability. Vulnerability, now defining it is showing up in a way where you’re opening up about who you truly are and taking that risk. It really is taking on that risk. There’s incredible work that even other people have done on vulnerability. One of those people I think about is Brené Brown, when she talks about vulnerability as a risk, as emotional exposure. 


I like to think that more is like, you know, just letting people see you for who you truly are. One of those examples that come into my head is when I used to work at Intuit, when I was an intern. I had a lot of struggles coming in, you know, being Black, being the only African in my team and not knowing how to communicate, you know, tech things. 


Part of the temptation for me there was just to low key just hide and just struggle on my own because I felt like if I opened up about my struggle, then people are going to look down on me or not understand me. But it was such a huge step for me to be vulnerable with the team and tell them I was struggling. And that allowed me actually to get help. In doing that, also, part of the vulnerability was more of like how I looked and how I showed up in the space. 


One of the things was like I struggled with dressing because my dress code was very different. I came from Zimbabwe where you dress up to go to work where you wear a full shirt and button prints. People didn’t do that in my team but I was vulnerable enough to continue doing that. It became something that was associated with me as someone who dress well and showed up for the things that we’re doing in a different attire and a different look, which was something completely different, and which was very vulnerable for me to be able to do. But it completely transformed and helped me show up as my true authentic self. In doing that, I was able to find freedom, which is my second point. 


I think we all want freedom. At the end of the day, even when we love, even when we hurt, it’s because we don’t have freedom. Even in our work we want freedom to be creative. We want freedom to be seen for who we are. We want freedom to express ourselves in a way that’s true to us. Whether it’s through art, whether it’s through music, whatever you can think of. We’re always searching for freedom. 


I think there’s no freedom without vulnerability because to be able to be even to be creative in terms of how you’re showing up and doing something different that nobody else has done, you need that vulnerability of trying something that’s incredibly very different from what everybody else is doing. To stand out is to be vulnerable. And to find that freedom is to be vulnerable. And so, engaging in that conversation has been something that has become the core of the work that we do. That guys, if you want to find freedom, you have to be okay with the idea of vulnerability and also giving people skills of how does vulnerability actually look like? 


I know I’m limited with time to really express some of these things but there’s an opportunity for me to also showcase the work that we’re doing and for me to invite you to also look at some of the videos and the podcasts we have out. Then that leads me to my last point, which I think is the fundamental reason why we pursue vulnerability which is another also sort of freedom, which is love.


I was very touched listening to Brené Brown talking about the power of vulnerability in a TED talk, because one of the things that she talked about is asking for needs. She talked about asking for needs, but she also talks about something powerful that I’ve experienced, which is expressing our needs, and how that can be such a vulnerable experience or experiencing. And she talked about numbing, which is something that I think about as well, when I think about love. 


So, the idea of love when I think about it, at least in this narrative that I’m giving is that it’s an idea of expressing your needs right and having other people meet them. When we’re in love, we are in a healthy space where we can express ourselves openly about what it is that we need. But you cannot express your need without vulnerability, right? Because the process of expressing your need is a very vulnerable one of like, saying, “I need this in this relationship, whether it is a space for me to express myself, whether it is a space for me to be heard, it’s a place for me to be understood, all those things that you’re expressing are by virtue of vulnerability, and for you to be able to receive what it is that you’re expressing, it is a process of expressing them first before you can receive them. 


And so, hence, the vulnerability in that, the uncomfortableness that comes with that is the vulnerable process of doing that. And so, if you can think about in those stems, you’d realize quickly that there’s no way we can really go without being comfortable with the idea of vulnerability or being comfortable about exercising vulnerability. 


At Below the Surface, we even talk about vulnerability as a lifestyle. It’s honestly, at this point, it’s my lifestyle. It’s how I relate with people even at work. You can ask Wayne since we work together. It’s observable how I am. But you know, we’ve had some multiple deep conversations in the past weeks about my life, what’s going on in my existence, what I can learn from Wayne and his experience and what he’s building and what he’s doing. And even me being here, it’s one of those vulnerable experiences where I’m sharing about my personal life with y’all. 


But without all of that we cannot find love, which is an understanding of our own deeper selves. We cannot even begin to understand our needs and expressing them without that vulnerability. I think the most powerful thing that I want to finish on with that is the idea of numbing. 


We’re so used to numbing our emotions because we don’t want to be vulnerable. It is becoming an escape for us not to be vulnerable because we’re so I’m comfortable with vulnerability. I understand it’s a very uncomfortable experience to be vulnerable. Even when I think of vulnerability, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Like the fact that I have to go in and talk. Like, this talk made me incredibly vulnerable. Like, wow. How am I going to sound? Are they going to hear me? Are they going to understand what I’m talking about? Are they going to be interested? All those thoughts come up, and it’s very uncomfortable. 


And so, to run away from that, it is a big temptation for us to numb, right. But I think the powerful thing there is that we can never selectively numb, which is the thing that has brought me back to vulnerability, the fact that I could numb all I want, but at the end of the day, I cannot selectively numb. And by selectively numb, I mean that, if you numb the experience of expressing your needs, then you also numb the experience of you receiving your needs. 


A powerful example of that is that when numb even with drugs, that we don’t want to feel the pain, we don’t want to feel the grief, we don’t want to feel the guilt so we’re going to drink or whatever. When we’re numbing those emotions, those emotions come from the same place as emotions of joy, as emotions of happiness. So that means once we numb what we feel, what we originally felt, we’re now also numb being the thing that we actually want. We’re going to have a numbed experience of joy and numbed experience of happiness. 


I think other scholars have even extended to say that joy is a vulnerable experience. Expressing joy is a very vulnerable experience because you actually have to express it, right, which is vulnerable because you don’t know how people are going to respond to it. With that, I think I’ll leave it here.


I can leave you here and open it up for questions. But yeah, my name again is Kudakwashe Mushaike. I am with Below the Surface. I’m the founder and host of Below the Surface and of the podcast as well.


WAYNE:  Kudakwashe, thank you so much for sharing. Thank you for being vulnerable. Thanks for being here in the Icon Summit. Do you have all this written down? I’m sure you have. Do you have like everything written down? This will be a great blog post or a series to start with.


KUDAKWASHE: I do have a video where I talk exactly about this stuff. So, you can find me on YouTube. Just look up Below the Surface Podcast. You may have to scroll through a lot of like robots because there’s this thing called Below the Surface. I think it’s a game or whatever, but you’ll eventually see as in there.


WAYNE:  We will go and chop it up when we’re back in the office again.


MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.


Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? 


Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you. And thank you for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel and share this. Let’s keep building allies around the world. 


Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. I appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.