MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
Let’s get started.
Today, our guest is Nina Simons, Co-Founder and Chief Relationship Strategist at Bioneers, and author of Nature, Culture, and the Sacred: A Woman Listens For Leadership. Welcome, Nina.
NINA: Well, thank you, Melinda. Good to be with you.
MELINDA: Yeah. I will say, Nina and I have been in similar social impact business circles for many years. and we’ve met ages ago. I think it was one of a past event, either it was a Bioneers conference, or maybe SOCAP, or a B-Corp event at Wisdom 2.0. I’m not sure. But she has been in this space and a leader in this work for many years.
So let’s start with your own story. Can you tell us where you grew up, and how you ended up doing the work that you do today?
NINA: Well, sure, it’s a long and windy story. But I’ll try to abbreviate.
MELINDA: 66 years in two minutes. Go!
NINA: Exactly. I grew up in New York City, the daughter of artists. I always imagined that my life path would be in the arts. In fact, I fell in love with theater in college, and what I called transformational theater, which was things like plays by Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard; theater that really caused people to question their own belief systems and values. Then I discovered after college, how difficult it might be to earn a living at transformational theater. Spent several years managing restaurants, and again, working in the arts.
Then I met my husband and partner. At the time, he was finishing a film, and he was invited to come and film at a biodiversity garden in Southern New Mexico. I went along with him, just imagining I was going for a weekend in the country. When we arrived, we were given a tour through the most magnificent garden I had ever seen. It was filled with hundreds of varieties of food and flour and herb plants. It was just a riot of color and smell. He gave us a tour through the garden, and as he did, he introduced us to each plant. Then he told us their Latin name, and their common name, and how they were related to all the plants around them. Then he invited us to taste. I was tasting tomatoes that had been warmed in the New Mexico sun, and that tasted like my dream of what a tomato should taste like. There were sunflowers that were eight or 10 feet tall, and it felt as though they watched us as we walked through the garden. So I wondered, at the time, having grown up the daughter of atheists, whether the Garden of Adam and Eve might have been something like this. It was just so beautiful, and all my senses were dancing.
Then he explained to us the crisis of the loss of biodiversity to our food system, and how all of the small mom and pop seed companies were getting gobbled up by multinational corporations, and what a threat that was to our human food supply, and to the resource of biodiversity on Earth. By the time I walked out of that garden, I felt like the spirit of the natural world tapped me on the shoulder and said: “You’re working for me now.” I had no idea what that meant. But it launched me on a path of becoming a social entrepreneur, as my husband and that master gardener and a third one, together founded a company called Seeds of Change. I joined them first as the Marketing Director, and then over time, I was invited to be the president of the company. We grew it hand over fist, while raising capital the whole way.
In the midst of that, my husband was researching about biodiversity and bio-remediation, which is the science of how you remove toxins from water and air and soil. He was discovering these amazing innovators that no one had ever heard of. He was bemoaning this fact to a friend in a hot tub one day. and the friend said, why don’t you have a conference? Kenny said, “I’ve never been to a conference. It sounds boring, why would I do that?” The friend said: “Here’s a grant, go have a conference.” Kenny came to me because of my theater background, and I too had never been to a conference. So we had the great gift of beginner’s mind, and were able to co-create a three-day event that we started in 1990, called Bioneers. We started it partly in response to James Hansen sounding the alarm about climate change, and because we live in the American Southwest in New Mexico, and both have a very strong affinity for indigenous peoples and wisdom and cultures. It’s always been informed by native wisdom at its heart. So we started Bioneers back then, and somehow, amazingly, we’ve kept it going for 34 years.
Then along the way, I have had great sequential awakenings about how my gender was influencing my experience of my own life’s unfolding of my own leadership. When I was named a leader, it set me on an inquiry about why I didn’t like being named as a leader, nor did most of the women leaders that I chose to be working with at that time. I discovered it was a larger systemic problem, and what I’ve learned from Bioneers is, we’re all called to be leaders in this time. I thought, well, if me and all the women I know don’t want to be called leaders, what is the mismatch here? I realized that we’re all in a process of reinventing leadership. Since then, over the past 10 or 15 years I guess, I’ve also had a bigger awakening around racial equity, and how gender and racial equity intersect, and of course, how all the issues we face really are part of one systemic whole. Because at Bioneers, we tend to believe that nature is the mother of all issues, and that you can’t really address social justice without addressing ecological balance and equity. That’s the best short synopsis.
MELINDA: Yeah, fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit about your book and its focus specifically?
NINA: Sure. Well, when I first published the book, which was three years ago, it was a collection of talks that I had written over about 20 years for Bioneers. Really, what I realized was that those talks not only illuminated my leadership growth and aha’s and flourishing, as I freed myself from a bunch of conditioned norms over the course of that 20 years. But also, each year, I have this amazing opportunity to address a large audience, which, given the insecurities that I think we all face, has always been daunting and humbling for me. So I’ve really reached into my deepest soul, for lack of a better word, to understand what I could offer that would be of value to people. So it was initially a collection of these essays. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is about my discoveries of myself as a woman, and of falling in love with the feminine. Not only women, but the archetypal feminine in us all, regardless of our temporary gender assignments. The second part is in a larger societal sense about women’s leadership, and lessons that I’ve learned about the value of storytelling, to transform culture, including organizational culture of course. The third part is really about racial equity.
When the pandemic hit. Well, actually, when the first book came out, it was my mother’s end of life. So I had no time or attention to help spread the word about the book. I was given a gift of being able to create a second edition, and I realized that I could weave into that second edition, practical discussion guides and embodied practices that I had learned over 25 years of convening diverse women leaders. So it became an offering that I feel like is a breadcrumb trail for other women, since I am now feeling so grateful that I’ve been able to peel away enough negative conditioning and strengthen my natural gifts, enough to flourish and feel liberated. I want that for every woman. So that’s the best description of the book I know.
MELINDA: Just to clarify, is the book specifically for women?
NINA: No, thank you for asking that. One of my favorite reviews thus far has been from a man who said, “I’m so grateful for having read your book, because it’s helping me understand my wife and mother and daughters better.” Because I’ve learned over time, Melinda, that this is not just about women as people in female bodies. But also about, as I mentioned, the rebalancing, the archetypal feminine and masculine. I think as we look at diversity and empathy, one of the things to recognize is that we are all inheritors of a very long cultural legacy that has tended to undervalue those qualities we associate with the feminine, like relationship, and empathy, and emotion. And to overvalue those qualities we associate with the masculine, like action, and strategic planning, and scale. I’ve come to understand that many of the most egregious harms in this world can be seen as a result of that imbalance.
I was going to ask you about a review. Gloria Steinem reviewed the first edition of your book, and she said in that, “The world seems to be divided into two kinds of people: those who divide everything into two, and those who don’t. Reading [Nature, Culture, and the Sacred] is a step toward melting this false division into feminine and masculine, allowing each of us to become fully human.” So I was going to ask you about that, but you already talked about it a bit. Is there more that you want to say there about what she might have meant?
Well, I did already speak to that aspect of it. But the truth is, Melinda, that I see it as a very multi-valent issue. That in fact, I think all of us who are practicing leadership in any form at this time, are confronting the fact that our culture veers us toward false separations and binaries. I believe that part of the transition that we’re in, societally, is a transition from an I culture to a We culture, which of course, speaks to your beautiful title of Empathy & Allyship. That one of our challenges, I think, as leaders, is to really turn away from binary thinking anytime we encounter it, whether It’s in a gender form, or in a good and bad emotions form, or in the form of what do we do when we’re faced with a conflict.
One of my favorite blurbs for the book was a gift from Joanna Macy, who has been one of my teachers. and one of the things that she says is, “Nina not only understands the unique gifts that women bring to leadership, but also how adversity and obstacles and challenges can strengthen them.” That’s really led me to think about how women are designed, by nature, to be able to bear pain. I think many of the leaders that I most deeply admire are women who have suffered in many ways; women of color, women of diverse backgrounds. There’s also a transgenerational trauma that I think we all carry at this point. So it’s really got me thinking about how we relate to the challenges in our own lives, and how we always have a choice about how we frame our own stories. I think, for all of us, it’s a useful tool to remember that our challenges can be seen as gifts from other life, honing us to our next level of leadership.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. And we can also look to remove some of those challenges for the next generations, for the people around us as well. There’s a combination there of both of those things, and we’ll get to that I think a little bit too.
You mentioned there are three different parts to your book. Let’s dive a little bit into that first one, what does it look like to cultivate that inner balance? Can you share why it’s so important and what that looks like, or what that feels like?
NINA: Well, sure. For me, as someone who has been convening groups of people for a long time, in some ways, I’ve come to consider myself a social artist, which is a nice fulfillment of my childhood dream. But what I found, as I started convening women in the early 2000s, was that there was a quality of connection, and ability to see ourselves reflected in each other. When it was a group of only women, but of very diverse women. Not only diverse ethnically, but by age, by sexual orientation, by work area, all those things. That I began having experiences that informed me, first, how powerfully women have the capacity to grow each other’s leadership, when we are in intentional allyship. Secondly, I began having experiences of what Dr. King called beloved community, that were so delicious, that were so transformative, that I recognized that I wanted that for everyone. I realized that there were things that I had apologized for, for much of my life. Some of the book is written in poetic form, and what I noticed was that, in mixed gender company, when a woman interrupts someone, she usually has to apologize. But when women are all together as women, they’re constantly interrupting each other. But it’s a weave, rather than an interruption. I suppose it’s possible that it could be an affront.
But in my experience, there’s a beautiful way that women’s words and ideas tend to weave together. So I began appreciating the differences, which I had never really considered before that. I came to the question of gender and gender equity late in my life, as I began to discover the magic of women. That, while I, as a White woman, had grown up in a household where anger was never expressed, I had African-American friends who knew very well how to express healthy anger, and who I could learn from, if I could approach in a humble and respectful way, and if our friendship was strong enough to hold that.
So I discovered and experienced in my body, the power of allyship that has been cultivated in a relational way, that both embodies and includes emotion, and includes a kind of traditional spiritual practice. Like I learned many years ago, from a traditional Peruvian teacher, that ritual creates relationship. As we practiced that in circles of 20 women, I found it to be true and powerful. As I practiced it with myself, I found that I could turn down the volume of many of the voices that I carried within myself, that were self-limiting, self-judging, critical, and kept me small. So the first section is really a journey into many practices that helped me to shed the behaviors that weren’t serving my best self, and cultivate what I began to understand were my greatest gifts.
MELINDA: I’m lingering on a few things, one of them is embodied allyship. Maybe, would you mind saying a little bit more about that? What do you mean when you say that? What does that mean to you?
NINA: Well, it’s a good question. Our work in those trainings always integrated a very strong aspect of embodiment. That meant that we integrated exercises that involved play, where everyone would be out on a lawn and tossing a ball to each other, or making movements with sticks, that caused us to have to increase our physical awareness of how to collaborate with another person. Embodiment is something that, I believe, has also gotten short shrift in our culture, which is a hard thing for people who are kinesthetic learners.
I mean, I remember a particular instance, Melinda, where part of our opening time together was the women in the circle telling stories about their lineages, and about the grandmother from China whose feet had been bound, the auntie who remembered slavery, all of these egregious harms that had happened in the generations previously. Because of the permission in the space and the degree of trust that we were able to co-create, the women were tender, and kind of raw. So we decided to co-create a ritual together. Everyone wrote on pieces of paper, about the harms that they felt were still impacting their lives and their psyches. Then we wrapped them around branches and built a fire outside, and collectively, we burned those branches while we sang.
So that’s an example of embodied allyship. In that, there wasn’t a whole lot of false separation between any of us after that experience. The physicality of dancing together and playing together on the lawn also just helps create a common ground around all of us being humans and struggling in similar ways, while we all have different stories and different histories.
MELINDA: Yeah. So part of the allyship there is creating that trust and giving each other permission, and allowing ourselves to, what you said, free ourselves from a bunch of conditioned norms. It’s the norms that we learned in our lifetimes, and also the intergenerational harm that conditions us as well.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about intersectionality. You write about a couple of different intersections in your book. One is the intersection of environment and social justice, the other is the intersection of racial and gender justice, which are obviously all intertwined. But let’s talk a little bit about environment and social justice. We haven’t really talked about that much on this show, and it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. Can you just define briefly what is environmental justice? Then we can talk about how leaders can be thinking more here about that intersection.
NINA: Absolutely. I can define them, and I can tell a brief story about my own experience. Environmental justice is a field that really grew to national awareness, I think, in the early 2000s or late 1990s. It’s based around the recognition that the most egregiously polluting corporations tend to be cited in the lowest income communities, which are often communities of color in this country. So for instance, the incidence of asthma and heart disease in low-income African-American communities in this country is much higher. Not only because of the lack of healthy foods, but principally because of the effects of long-term pollution on the air that they’re breathing and the water that they’re drinking. It leads to lower life expectancy. That’s true in most low-income communities of color in this country, and especially true in Indian country.
The short story that I thought I would share, which I think has some important lessons in it, is that towards the end of our trainings, we had a very vigorous dance party, which was really celebratory. Everybody kicked out the jams and was able to contribute their favorite music, and we danced wildly in a way that I’ve never experienced dancing in a mixed gender group. That night, we went to bed. One of the women in the circle was an environmental justice leader who came from Detroit. She was African-American, and she had announced, when she first arrived, that she had asthma and had forgotten to bring her inhaler. I didn’t know much about asthma, so I didn’t know how serious that was. We were in a rural retreat site, far from any medical facility.
So at 3am that morning, we were awoken by her roommate, who said: “Oh my gosh, she’s having a really bad asthma attack. I don’t know what to do, please come help.” My co-facilitator ran off to do research on the internet, and I hurried into her room. Because I didn’t really know, from my mind, what to do for her, I dropped into my body’s wisdom and listened there. So what I got was that I should hold her and rock her. That, perhaps, eventually, her breathing would entrain with mine and breathe quite deeply and slowly. Then I began to sing to her, just kind of a wordless lullaby. I rocked and sang to her, and was terrified. But also, I had come to so deeply respect and admire and love this woman.
Eventually, I really don’t know whether I had anything to do with it or not, but eventually, her breathing slowed. I was able to lay her back on her pillows, and I sank down to the floor by her bed, and I had tears streaming down my face. I knew that some of the tears were about relief, but I knew that it was more than that. So when I asked myself and inquire deeply, what I found was that, no matter how long I had known about the increased incidence of asthma and heart disease in low-income people of color communities, no matter how much I had familiarized myself with the statistics and read articles, I had known about it from the distance that my privilege afforded me. I had known about it only in my head, and this experience allowed me. It cracked open my heart, and it really brought environmental justice home to me in a way that I had never fully grokked before, and made me a better advocate and ally. So that was the illustrative example I thought I would share, Melinda. Thanks for asking.
MELINDA: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. It’s interesting, I too have asthma, and my husband has asthma, and my husband is Black. I think when I was in film school, I took some public health communications classes. One of the things that I did was I studied the incidence of asthma in Black communities in the US, and the impacts, and then what some solutions might be from a communications standpoint. It wasn’t until I met my husband and really learned his experiences with asthma, and then I really deeply understood it. In talking with Black women and people when I was doing that study, of course, as well. But it wasn’t until I met somebody dear to me that it really had that same kind of impact.
I think one of the things that’s coming out here is that we talk about environmental justice, and it’s interrelated with health justice. It’s interrelated with so many different things, and its systemic inequities that started hundreds of years ago and continue into our systems. The impact of redlining, the impact of banking in different neighborhoods, the impact of where health food goes and does not go, the impact of fast food, where that goes and it doesn’t go, the impact of fresh food, where those go and don’t go in our cities, and in our rural areas as well. So thank you for that.
Then moving into racial and gender justice, then that intersection as well. Maybe you could share your own story when it comes to learning about the need to show up in the world as a White ally, what did that look like for you?
NINA: Oh, gosh! Well, it’s been a journey, and I anticipate that that journey will continue until the day I die. Some of it has to do with learning about and being able to actually reclaim my own heritage, and recognize that if, as scientists have shown, epigenetic trauma is a thing, then my Jewish ancestors certainly carried it. It has caused me to wonder, and be very curious about how many Jewish leaders are working for justice. Also, it’s helped me to be able to meet people of color allies and friends with my own full cup of culture, rather than looking to borrow from theirs. So that’s been helpful.
I have been fortunate enough, Melinda, to learn from a large number of indigenous mentors, from many different nations and continents. I feel like what I’m learning from them is how to be a better human, extraordinarily fundamental lessons, in right relationship with ourselves, with the Earth, and with each other. So I’m deeply grateful for that.
I also do a lot of work in the philanthropic sector. So I’m finding that there is tremendous energy and attention right now, both in the venture world or the social investment world, and the philanthropic world, in supporting the work of people of color leaders and entrepreneurs. For me, the more that I learn, the more enamored I am of women of color leaders in particular. Because while I’ve had to strip away conditioned learning that I received as a woman, I have also simultaneously received the benefits of the privileges of having White skin and being able to pass. Whereas, they have had to survive the double whammies of all of this systemic biases that you named, as well as the gender biases.
I had a fascinating experience. At one point, we were working with caucuses in our women’s leadership trainings. I had this great aha at one point, where the women of color had requested a caucus. They were all gathered under a portal a ways away, and the White women were all gathered in another portal. I could see the women of color across the lawn, and they looked so beautiful; they were all wearing brilliant colors. Every few minutes, there’d be a huge gale of laughter that would come up from them. The White women were all wearing white and khaki, and they were gray and glum, and they did not want to be separated. They were all saying: “Why do we have to do this? Why do they need a separate space?” I recognized that there has been a high cost, on both sides, to the segregations and the biases that we’ve experienced. I think often for White women, it has resulted in a diminishment of our expression, and of our willingness to take the risks of speaking our truth out loud or standing strong for our positions. So I’m excited for how connecting across differences can strengthen all of us.
MELINDA: Interesting. In your book, you write about indigenous allyship, especially allyship with an indigenous woman. Can you share what that looks like for you?
NINA: Well, sure. In my experience, indigenous women have been the ones who most readily resonate with the notion that part of our worldly problems, that one of the root causes of our systemic challenges is the imbalance between the masculine and the feminine. I’m a student of systems and of patterns, and from my indigenous allies, some of what I’ve learned is that we’re all indigenous to Mother Earth if we go back far enough. I’ve been reminded, and I keep learning more and more deeply, that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the land that holds us, and to the life forms — the trees, the plants, the animals, the life under the soil, and the water — than we in the White world tend to recognize.
This is a place where my training about nature and biomimicry and native ecological systems dovetails with my interest in gender and racial equity. Because science is finding now that plants can perceive color, and that a plant actually knows whether you’re wearing a red or blue shirt. It doesn’t have eyes like we do, but it does perceive color and can sense the difference. Similarly, one of my favorite discoveries recently is that the mycelium, which are the networks of mushrooms’ roots, that are massive and connected all underground, of which the mushrooms are actually the fruit bodies, that the mycelium perceive sound, and they respond best to low-frequency sound. Which means that when our ancestors would gather seasonally to do rituals, to call in the rain or to express gratitude for a harvest, that their drumming is what the mycelium responds most strongly to. So there is this sense that I feel like I am remembering or awakening to, that I feel like I’m learning from indigenous allies, about the hoop of life, and about how living in right relationship means respectful, reverent reciprocity, with every being you encounter. As leaders, it’s a wonderful idea to practice with our teams.
MELINDA: Yeah. I think some of my greatest allies have been women of color who’ve taught me how to be better allies. You talked about reciprocity there. So what does that look like from you giving back to them, what does that reciprocity look like?
NINA: Well, for me, it means showing up in friendship. It means offering what I can, and being truly respectful to hear what’s needed, to ask them and listen for what they want or need. Because in fact, as White People, that White savior thing is so obnoxious, and can be so damaging to any relationship. So what I found is, I mean, I have friends in Indian country who I’ve helped support through times of hardship, either financially, or by connecting them with other resources, or by showing up and saying, “Here are some of my skills, what can be useful for you?” Honoring the value of those long-term relationships, rather than expecting them to teach me, or demanding anyone to teach me, really understanding. This is true, in my experience, not only with indigenous allies, but with allies of any color, that there is emotional work involved in teaching a White person, and that’s a big ask. So I have to be offering something of enough value, so that they could wholeheartedly offer me what they choose to in return.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. What action would you like people to take coming away from our conversation today?
NINA: Oh, such a good question. Well, I would like people to give a little time each day, to centering, to self-reflection, to see where any of the biases or violent patterns from our culture may still be alive inside of each of us. Often, that comes in the form of self judgment, or of denying certain aspects of ourselves. I’ve found a sitting meditation every morning is so invaluable to my leadership. But also, I think one of my favorite references from a teacher comes from Fritjof Capra, who’s the Austrian physicist who’s written a lot about how to heal our relationship with the ecological world. He says that the shift to an ecologically restorative culture requires a shift from counting things, to mapping relationship. So I think the thing that I would suggest everyone take away from this is, tend to your relationships, to yourself, to each other, to the Earth. Because that’s where our greatest leadership lies.
MELINDA: Fantastic. Where can people learn more about you and your book?
NINA: Thank you. Well, my book is available wherever books are sold. There is an audiobook, as well as an eBook. If listeners would like to download a free PDF of the introduction to the book, they can go to Bioneers.org/NCSBook. If you go there, you’ll have an opportunity to sign up for Bioneers newsletter. We can also offer everyone listening, a discount to attend Bioneers this year. We’re very excited that for the first time, Bioneers will be in Berkeley. It’s April 6th to 8th, and it’s quite a magical environment. So what we can offer you, if you do decide to come for one, two, or three days, is to use the code NCS20 to receive a 20% discount for everything but the rising Appalachia concert. The rising Appalachia concert, because that money goes to the artists. So I hope you’ll join us, or at least sign up for the newsletter. Because Bioneers is a source of tremendous inspiration and vitality, and learning and hope.
MELINDA: Excellent. We’ll share the links and the code in our show notes at ally.cc. Thank you, Nina. Appreciate you, appreciate this conversation, and your work.
NINA: Thank you so, so much, Melinda. I feel the same about you.
MELINDA: Absolutely, great! Well, everyone, please let this sit with you. Find a new way to think, to live, to lead, to act differently, and make sure you take action. We will see you next week.
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