We might want change now—but change is almost always met with resistance.
And resistance to change is, at its core, protective.
Yet, this well-intentioned approach can end up hurting instead of helping especially when the desire to protect is at the expense of the well-being of others.
When we look at the industries that focus around our image, it gets even messier.
I am late to the fashion, make-up, skincare party—and I have loved playing around with style and products that make me feel good. It has been fun to support some incredible companies caring more about just the bottom line and support causes that serve the greater good.
Still, the messaging around beauty and health can be disorienting… and sometimes downright demoralizing to the point where we confuse the truth on our worth and value.
This is where leaders transform their care into activism in order to cultivate spaces that are brave and safe for all.
This is work.
This is THE work.
So what does cultivating spaces that are brave and safe actually look like? How do we dismantle our own internalized bias or oppression to create spaces where people truly feel welcome and included in the work at hand? And how does this all relate to the work of building a business or managing a team or leading a movement?
That’s what we’re going to be exploring in today’s episode.
My guest today has been called a beauty activist. She is someone who models what it looks like to do the inner work that allows her to keep showing up and disrupting homeostasis for the greater good.
Nikia Phoenix is a content creator, storyteller, and occasional commercial actress with a passion for social change and conscious living. She is also the founder of Black Girl Beautiful, a loving and safe space that celebrates Black women. After diving deeper into wellness and self-care, Nikia recently became a Reiki master and meditation practitioner.
Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Nikia Phoenix: When it comes to women of color, I think oftentimes we’re told what we’re not instead of what we are. So being able to embrace ourselves and embrace our beauty and be bold and honest about it is activism.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: Leaders who care about those they lead must also care about the systems within which we all exist. Now, this can get uncomfortable. Once we see the systems, we can start to see the way others’ pain is often our profit, and yet when you start to notice the systems that protect some at the expense of others, it’s hard to unsee. This awareness brings up discomfort around doing business as usual and moves many to say, “Enough! No more, and change is needed now.”
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
We might want change now, but change is almost always met with resistance, and resistance to change is, at its core, protective. Yet this well-intentioned approach can end up hurting instead of helping, especially when the desire to protect is at the expense of the wellbeing of others. When looking at the industries that have a focus around our image, it gets even more messy.
Now, I’m late to the fashion, makeup, skincare party, and I have loved playing around with style and products that make me feel good. It has been fun to support some incredible companies caring more about just the bottom line and supporting causes that serve the greater good. Still the messaging around beauty and health can be disorienting and sometimes downright demoralizing to the point where we confuse the truth on our worth and value.
This is where caring turns leaders to embrace an activist mindset in order to cultivate spaces that are brave and safe for all. This is work. In fact, this is the work.
So what does cultivating spaces that are brave and safe actually look like? How do we dismantle our own internalized bias or oppression to create spaces where people truly feel welcome and included in the work at hand? And how does this all relate to the work of building a business or managing a team or leading a movement? That’s what we’re gonna be exploring in today’s episode.
The Unburdened Leader is kicking off a series showcasing the power of leaders who infuse their business and bottom line with change and disruption. They use their life’s work and platforms to communicate change and activate those who follow them, those who learn from them to care and do the work to change instead of tapping out. This particular focus of activism, which has often been branded as a dirty word, is not just about a product or a marketing tactic. It is about deep change coming within leaders first, where more bold and honest actions push back on the oppressive and insidious attacks on the worth and value of all. When you do not feel comfortable in your skin, it is harder to tolerate the vulnerability of standing up to leadership and systems that hold a lot of power. The bulk of marketing for the beauty and wellness industry knows how to focus on the pains of feelings of not enough, offering solutions to that pain that leave us questioning ourselves and looking elsewhere for relief to pain that has been cultivated by really effective marketing.
When you're doubting your enoughness, you end up leading from a place of scarcity and fear, and when we lead from scarcity and fear, it distracts us from focusing on much-needed changes of the systems and how we lead that are deeply entrenched. So the battle for your confidence is something fierce. When you doubt, when you shrink, when you hide, you're not leading yourself or others well, and the world is missing out on your best work.
My guest today has been called a beauty activist and models doing the inner work to maintain the capacity to keep showing up and disrupting homeostasis for the greater good. Nikia Phoenix is a content creator, storyteller, and occasional commercial actress with a passion for social change and conscious living. She is the founder of Black Girl Beautiful, a loving and safe space that celebrates Black women. After diving deeper into wellness and self-care, Nikia recently became a Reiki master and a meditation practitioner. When she’s not socially distancing at home, she enjoys traveling to serene locations, documenting her journeys, and occasionally road tripping with her cat.
Listen to how Nikia sees the intersection of beauty and leadership along with how she defines leadership. Pay attention to Nikia’s experience growing up and how she cared for the young parts of her story through how she was leading her life as an adult. And listen for her experience in how she navigated a really difficult work betrayal. Don't tap out early and miss the doozy of a story she shared at the end from her childhood that is still echoing in my heart today. Now, please welcome the amazing Nikia Phoenix to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
You're listening to The Unburdened Leader, and I am so thrilled to welcome Nikia Phoenix to The Unburdened Leader podcast today. Welcome, Nikia!
Nikia Phoenix: Hi! Thank you for having me.
Rebecca Ching: I am so looking forward to this conversation. I have admired you from afar, and we’ve had brief interactions here or there, and I’m really excited to get to know you better and have many other people learn from you.
And so, I want to jump in. When I was prepping for this interview, I kept seeing you describe yourself and others describe you as a beauty activist, which I love. So I’m curious for you to unpack what does being a beauty activist mean to you, and more specifically, what does that look like in action for you?
Nikia Phoenix: You know, this is very interesting because I often do think of myself as an activist. However, a beauty activist, I’m like, “Oh, wait this is… oh, I guess this is what I do.” I encourage people to live in their true selves and embrace the beauty inside and out, and I know that oftentimes we’re, I think especially as women, taught to accept compliments but just kind of shrug it off like, “Oh, yeah, it’s nothing.” “Oh, well, thanks, but --,” you know, always making excuses. But I definitely encourage people to accept who they are, accept their beauty and allow it to shine. Especially when it comes to women of color, I think oftentimes we’re told what we’re not instead of what we are. So being able to embrace ourselves and embrace our beauty and be bold and honest about it is activism.
Rebecca Ching: How are you bold and honest in your beauty activism? What does that look like for you, day to day even?
Nikia Phoenix: Day to day that looks like it’s a process. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: It’s a process. Like I woke up this morning. I’m like, “Okay, I know that we’re doing this interview, and I know that even though it’s not gonna be shown, parts of it are on camera. How do I feel today? I feel like I can just be stripped down and be me, and I don't have to put on all this extra stuff even though makeup is pretty and it’s fun dressing up. I can just be comfortable, and as long as I accept myself, then others will accept me also.”
Rebecca Ching: That’s the work, Nikia. Dang. Right there. And it’s the daily practice, getting to that space, huh?
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: So how do you define beauty?
Nikia Phoenix: Beauty, for me, is a state of being. It is a state of loving yourself, actively loving yourself and showing love to other people. It’s being compassionate. It’s having grace for one’s self. I often feel like we’re too hard on each other and too hard on ourselves, and that can come across as not very attractive, I guess. Beauty is laughter. Beauty is joy. Beauty is love.
Rebecca Ching: And our listeners can't see the big smile on your face as you say that. And so, you described joy, laughter, love. These aren't things that we wear. This isn't a lip liner or a hairstyle or a pair of shoes, which I love my shoes.
Nikia Phoenix: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I just will say I miss wearing my shoes. They're all just sitting all dusty these days. My slippers are here.
Nikia Phoenix: Mine too. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Oh, dear lord. So beauty is a state of being, and you even said I’m just sitting here thinking about the most beautiful people I know also make me feel beautiful. When they're owning their beauty, that makes me feel beautiful too. It’s like this powerful contagion, yes?
Nikia Phoenix: Yes, because at first you think, “Okay, I’m standing in their light,” and then you realize that you're standing in each other’s light, and you just continue to radiate.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and it’s so not tangible, right? Because when we don't feel beautiful, I’m thinking of the things I do when I don't feel beautiful, I can do the practices. If people haven't followed Nikia, you have this morning ritual where you just say, “Wake up!” I remember at first I was like, “Who wakes up so happy?” And I’m like, “Well, why don't you try it, Rebecca? Why don't you try just saying, ‘Hello! Let’s do this,’” and moving into that.
Beauty is almost this practice, I’m learning from you too, and it’s a state of being. Yet sometimes when I don't feel beautiful, it’s easy to fall into, all right, I want to wear something that makes me feel good or I want to dress up or get comfy, or sometimes, I can have the opposite effect, I collude with my icky feelings and not care and say F it and detach from my being almost and swim in the ickiness.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: How do you navigate just the waves of -- I mean, if beauty really is this (which I agree with you) state of being, and we’re living in a world that I used to work in advertising and politics where I know billions of dollars are spent to get us to believe and to, therefore, buy and spend money on things, how do we practice beauty? [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: It’s practicing self-love. It’s being able to look at yourself in the mirror, and no matter how you look or how you feel that day and say, “Hey, you. I love you, and we’re gonna get through this.” It’s about finding those random moments or being open to those random moments of serendipity I guess, because oftentimes I think that when we’re not feeling good about ourselves, when we’re not feeling beautiful, we don't recognize the beauty that’s all around us.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Nikia Phoenix: We don't. So, no matter what, I try to keep my eyes and my heart open so that I can actually witness those moments of beauty. Like yesterday I was not having the best day. I was overthinking, which is something that I often do, and I was sitting by my window in my dining room, and my cat happened to be outside, and I just saw him walking through -- it’s obviously autumn here, and so, the leaves have fallen. I saw him walking through the backyard, playing in the leaves and chasing squirrels. And then I saw all these birds come out and a beautiful bright red cardinal, and I was like, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” and I’m glad that I allowed myself to be open to witnessing the beauty in nature.
Rebecca Ching: And how did that impact how you were feeling?
Nikia Phoenix: I lightened up. I relaxed. My shoulders relaxed, and I was like, “Oh, turning brain off. Opening heart up.” [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: And I got out of my head.
Rebecca Ching: Our thinking parts work overtime, don't they, Nikia? They work so hard for us. Sometimes they need -- I love this almost intervention, this practice, if I’m not feeling connected to my own beauty, to notice beauty. I think that’s a really powerful leadership practice even too as we’re leading ourselves.
I did want to ask you how do you see the intersection of beauty and leadership, and what does that look like to you?
Nikia Phoenix: Hmm, that’s a really great question. What does that look like to me? I have to close my eyes to kind of visualize. That looks like standing in your light, standing in your being, and just allowing that to radiate.
When that truly radiates, when your energy radiates, when your beauty radiates, it influences other people. It positively influences other people, and without you even saying anything and without you even consciously doing anything, you're leading by example.
Rebecca Ching: I’m really taking away from this the non-verbal practices here and the impact we have on ourselves and others by connecting to beauty, and if we’re having a hard time connecting to our own, connecting to the beauty around us. I mean, I don't think it’s realistic for us to walk around always feeling good about ourselves. I mean, as a trauma-informed therapist and leadership coach, I’m like come on, let’s not put that pressure on. But I love the practice of I’m not feeling this, but I’m gonna witness the beauty around, and even if I’m not feeling it, and if I do that practice, the impact that my presence then has on others for the better, that’s powerful. That is really powerful.
Nikia Phoenix: Our heart energy is so big. It is so powerful. It radiates from within us and radiates out, and we can feel that, and other people can feel that no matter if they're actually physically in a room with us or just thinking about us from a distance, and this is realistically how Reiki works. You're tapping into the universal energy and allowing that universal energy to help lift you up and then you're feeding back into it.
Rebecca Ching: It’s connection.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: It’s connection. Yeah, and when we’re feeling dark or disconnected, connecting to beauty if we can't within, externally connecting to it and then that cyclical, that radiation -- I like that radiating. Not radiation. Radiating, [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: [Laughs] You know?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Nikia Phoenix: I genuinely picture someone just standing and breathing and just feeling grounded and allowing that energy to come up through their feet, through their knees, all the way up through their body and push out their aura. That’s the energy that I see and that I feel when I think about beauty.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and I’m thinking oh, my gosh. We just don't take the time to do that. It’s hard, you know? I mean, here in my house I’ve got two kids schooling right now from home and my husband’s teaching his AP US History class, we’re talking. But those moments and this connection too -- again, I think we’re all energy, and I think sometimes we dismiss that as too woo, but that’s contagious. And so, I really just think stopping and noticing and connecting, I’m really taking that away. So thank you for that message. I think it’s easier said than done, but you practice it so well. It is a practice, isn't it?
Nikia Phoenix: It is a practice because, like I said earlier, I’m an overthinker, and like some many people are overthinkers, we have been taught to be in our heads instead of being in our bodies and feeling our energy and feeling other people’s energies.
So I have had to stop myself in my tracks when I start overthinking and running too fast because when you're running too fast, you will trip over your own feet.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Eventually!
Nikia Phoenix: Eventually! And I’ve done that [Laughs] and fallen flat on my face but still tried to get up and run again. It's like, “Okay, wait. I need to assess the situation. Calm down.”
Rebecca Ching: That is so me, Nikia. I trip and fall, and the metaphor in literally, but I want to keep doing it until how many times. I’m like wait, I need to engage with this differently, you know?
I was just a part of a leadership team for an IFS Level Two Trauma and Neuroscience training, and the lead trainer, Frank Anderson, was reminding us that our kind of thinking parts and our inner critic parts are often connected to emotional neglect in our story and that these parts of us come up and think and want to keep us from getting hurt again. Just thinking about our thinking parts working hard.
And so, it brings me to an experience that’s come up in your talking and when you talk and speak and write about an early life experience you had. You shared a lot about being teased and bullied because of your freckles, and I’m a little partial to freckles. But you’ve had these experiences, and how have these experiences impacted your own sense of beauty and your worthiness of love.
Nikia Phoenix: I remember wanting to hide and wanting to blend in and, in high school, discovering makeup and trying to cover up my freckles with foundation, which meant that I had to put on layer after layer after layer, and of course it didn't work. But it was hard. It was hard being -- realistically though, everyone’s different. But my differences were really visible. I couldn't hide, and I wanted to hide so much. My mother has freckles, but even she wore that thick pancake makeup, and when she saw that I was going through things that she had gone through, I’m literally her reflection. So it was a healing moment for both of us.
While I was going through this journey of self-discovery and self-love, my mom had to insert herself back into her own journey for the sake of trying to help me through it, and I just remember being curled up in my mom’s lap as a teenager, literally, like long, lanky legs curled up in my mom’s lap crying and her comforting me. And I think when your mother says things like, “You're beautiful, and I love you, and you matter,” of course you're like, “Yeah, yeah, but you're my mom. You're supposed to say those things.” [Laughs] But I did genuinely need to hear those affirmations, and eventually those affirmations started to sink in, and I realized that those things are actually true. Those are things that I carry with me to this day because I know that I need to reaffirm myself every day. I know that I need to show myself love every day because I can't count on other people to give that to me, and I can't give that to others if I don't have it for myself.
So just being teased, I don't know if it necessarily made my skin thicker, but it opened my eyes to all the different beauty that is out there that is waiting to be embraced.
Even when I see little kids, I know that they're often looking at me like -- I’ve literally had this happen in airports. This little kid will stare at me and tug on his mom and say, “Mom, what’s wrong with her face?” I know that they're a kid and they don't know, and the mom immediately apologizes, and I just kind of laugh it off, and I’m like, “Hey, ask me questions. Let’s talk.” I’m okay with me being your first introduction to different kinds of beauty. I’m okay with that at this point in time because I’ve learned to accept my own beauty, and I also love to see the little kids who may not feel -- you can tell when someone just doesn't necessarily feel comfortable in their own skin, and for me to be able to look at them and say, “Hey, I see you,” I think that they understand when I say that we’ve been through similar things and I just want you to know it’s gonna be okay.
Rebecca Ching: Isn't it interesting how we connect with those who have been through similar pains? There’s this weird unspoken knowing. As a redhead in Minnesota (where I grew up), it was definitely the land of the tall, thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed. I think of standing out and the names and then my maiden name is Bass, so with being a redhead and the last name of Bass, there was a lot of teasing, but there’s this knowing, and I feel a solidarity even. Whenever I see a redhead I’m like, “Yes! You and me.”
Nikia Phoenix: Yes! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Two percent of the world population! When you talk about this experience of now having a sensitivity to that and wanting to be the person, like you're okay with what the world would call different and wanting people to ask questions. Tell me about the shift.
When did you start to really shift from being othered to, “Let’s have a conversation.” Do you remember when that shift happened for you?
Nikia Phoenix: The shift probably came in my mid-twenties when I started modeling because when I was younger and wanted to model, it was the nineties, and that’s when we had supermodels, but we also celebrated diversity and uniqueness and fashion and beauty, and then the early 2000s happened, and it was like, “Ah, ditch that. Let’s just go back to cookie-cutter everyone looks the same.”
So when I did start modeling in my mid-twenties, I realized that I was getting jobs because I was different, and I really liked that, and I realized that I was also getting jobs because I wasn't as hung up on trying to change myself to fit into a particular box or a particular mold because I knew by then what was I going to be able to change. I can't change anything, and so, I just started embracing it and wanting to have these conversations. Especially with modeling, I felt like (and I still feel like this today) models are human beings. They are artists. We can't treat them like they're mannequins. And I remember people trying to treat me like I was a mannequin, and I would say, “Hello! Real person here. If you have something to say, let’s talk about it.”
No one ever -- not no one ever, but it rarely happens that models would speak up for themselves. I'm like I’m going to speak up for myself. I need to.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so lots of questions on this. So first, given the part of your earlier childhood teasing/bullying experiences, I mean, there was a part of me that was kind of like -- you know, you now have booked with some of the world’s biggest brands as a model. What was that like for you connecting those younger parts of you when you started getting these really big gigs from international brands? I know a part of me is like, “You take that! You take that fully!”
Nikia Phoenix: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: “See? See,” you know? “Here’s my ad!” That was me kind of cheering on, “Yeah, bully!” But for you, what was that like for you? You kind of touched on that, that it started to help you deepen your sense of self-love and self-acceptance. What else was that like for you when you started booking these really big-name brands for modeling gigs?
Nikia Phoenix: Oh, my gosh. It was really exciting. It’s like, “Hey, mom, look!” I was able to share some of those hey-mom-look moments actually with my mom because she did a shoot with me, which was awesome. It was validation. It was validation and also really cool because there was one shoot in particular that there were so many people that auditioned for this particular campaign, and I mean, so many people, so many models and actors that I even look up to, like how are we auditioning for the same thing. And when I finally booked it and we’re on the shoot and we’re getting ready to shoot, this other woman walks out from behind one of the doors, and she’s part of the corporate team, and I looked at her and I said, “You're why I booked it.” She had freckles.
Rebecca Ching: Huh.
Nikia Phoenix: I was like, “Oh, wow!” And she said, “Yeah, I saw myself in you, and I knew that you could do this.” I was just like talk about paying it forward. Wow. Wow! That was a moment of triumph for all freckled people, freckled little girls everywhere. It was beautiful, and then also because it was such a moving campaign, being able to witness other people’s reactions to the campaign and for them to see themselves in it and to be moved by the imagery, I was like, “Oh, we’re all winning! This is why I do this.” Ah, the little me who needed comforting and love and was feeling so uncertain about herself, she celebrated in those moments.
Rebecca Ching: You know what’s so powerful about that to me is instead of you even being -- so often we objectify other or different as a check in the box, but that to have this part of your story because another woman saw herself in you, like you were really seen and known and elevated. I think, wow, when we do that, dang. And then the healing effect on your whole story and, oh, my gosh. Were there tears shed with the two of you? I just have this image of the two of you.
Nikia Phoenix: I’m shedding tears right now. For the particular campaign I had to go through a number of different emotions which at the time I’m like, “I’m not an actress. How am I supposed to pull this off?” But I had to go from being happy and excited to crying and then going back to happiness again and --
Rebecca Ching: Oh wow.
Nikia Phoenix: At first I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be such a challenge.” But when I was able to think about just even the audition process, I was like, “Oh, I can do this,” and, I mean, naturally we do kind of ebb and flow between different emotions. We don't always stay in the sadness or always stay in the happiness. We flow through it. So it was a lot easier for me to convey the emotions that I needed to for that shoot when I just allowed myself to feel and to be.
Rebecca Ching: Wow, and I think sometimes when we’ve experienced traumas, like the teasing and bullying, we want vindication, but this word of validation and being witnessed and seen is really more healing than just going, “Take that!” Then we’re still hooked into those who hurt us. But the witnessed and being seen and elevated, I just have this image of what you just painted on the shoot there. Thank you for sharing that.
Nikia Phoenix: I forgot about that moment honestly until now, and it’s one of my favorites.
Rebecca Ching: Well, thank you for sharing it. Thank you for sharing that. You touched on a little bit just a little bit ago and you’ve also spoken and written extensively about the modeling industry, especially the challenges as a woman and a woman of color, and it inspired your first blog, Model Liberation.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm!
Rebecca Ching: I’m excited to hear from you. What are some leadership lessons you've learned from the modeling industry that you continue to lean on today?
Nikia Phoenix: Hmm, in those moments being on sets that may not have felt the most comfortable, and especially when I was working with younger models, it was so obvious to me that they were not okay, that they were not comfortable, that they needed to say something, that they needed someone to advocate for them, and they didn't know how to speak up for themselves.
I was like, “Here I am! What can I do to make this easier for you? Because making it easier for you is genuinely gonna make it easier for everyone.” Because if you're really tapped in, you can tell when something’s not okay. You can tell when someone’s not okay, and that’s going to affect the quality of the work, it’s gonna affect the artistry. We’ve all had those moments when we’ve gone into a big project and stuff has hit the fan and everyone’s been angry or walked in with their egos present instead of their hearts, and then you look at the final product and you're like, “Man, this is crap. We really weren't in it at that moment. We weren't respecting each other and feeling it, and that shows.”
So I’ve always been how can we make it easier for everyone? How can we make this a good environment for everyone where everyone feels free to express their creativity, to express their artistry, and to know that it’s going to be appreciated. So the leadership things I’ve learned is be aware, feel, listen, speak up. If something’s not okay, you have to speak up, and if something’s great, speak up because we always need those affirmations. We need to know that we’re doing a good job because if we’re not doing a good job, give us the constructive criticism from a loving place so that we can shift because at the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re doing right by the client. We want to make sure that we’re doing right by the director and photographer, doing right by ourselves. So being able to speak up and to affirm and give feedback is very, very important to make sure that the end product is going to be something that (because we’re in advertising) genuinely moves people.
Rebecca Ching: It’s such a powerful lesson, though, because when we don't speak up when something’s not working, we’re out of alignment with ourselves, and that shows in the quality of the work. That’s what I’m hearing from you, and I’m also knowing that speaking up can rock the boat. It can create backlash, and if folks have done that in the past and gotten in trouble for that, right, the default is to suck it up, go with the flow, go along to get along. But what? It sacrifices, internally, your sense of self-love and the quality of the work that you're doing.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: That takes a lot of courage, and I love how you also challenge us to speak up when it’s going well or something’s great and to celebrate that too, to affirm that if we’re on the right track. Using our voice is not just a #useyourvoice. It is a courageous leadership practice, isn't it?
Nikia Phoenix: Oh, my goodness, it really is because I think that we often, especially as women, we’re taught to just kind of be in the background, not to really say anything. It’s like we’re here for a reason, so let’s speak up. We’re all here for reasons. Let’s speak up! Let’s use our voices. Let’s exercise those vocal chords and make this genuinely better because I think when we’re quiet and we see -- it’s like seeing a trainwreck happen right in front of your eyes and you're just kind of quiet, because I’ve been a witness to some of these moments, and you're like, “Should I say something? Should I not say something?”
Well, say something. I think it’s better to say something than not.
Rebecca Ching: Even if it means backlash, even if it might mean losing a gig, even if it might mean having a bad reputation as a troublemaker, you're saying -- I see you nodding. You're like, “Yep, still speak up.”
Nikia Phoenix: Yeah, you have to speak up. You have to speak up. I think it’s also, at the end of the day, you want to leave on a lighter note and leave a situation knowing that you did everything that you could to create, to make a better environment, whatever your mission is, and you’d rather walk away knowing that you did all of that than to walk away with some regrets and, “Oh, if I had only said --.” Say what you need to say. Get it out.
Rebecca Ching: I’m just thinking courage is beautiful, right? That’s just what I’m taking away from this. It doesn't feel beautiful in the moment, [Laughs] I know for me, but I also totally can connect with those times where I didn't speak up and I’m sitting with the should have, could have, the regrets, the conviction of being out of alignment with what matters most to me.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: And more people speaking up, and what I want to maybe just catch this in light of what’s going on, particularly in our country right now. This is speaking up with love and respect. This isn't just a megaphone blaring, “I’ve got something to say!”
Can you talk about the nuance of speaking up that you're talking about because it isn't just, “I’m using my voice, and blah!” I think sometimes there’s a sense of where does this speaking up come from. Where is it coming from in you? If it’s coming from me, it’s coming from my values. If it’s coming from conviction that is almost a mandate for me versus a reactive/reflexive speaking up where I’m powering over or blaming or shaming speaking up. Can you talk a little bit about how you differentiate speaking up?
Nikia Phoenix: I love that you used the word mandate because that has been coming up a lot for me recently: mandate, purpose, calling. Something that you know absolutely that you must do, and it’s coming from a higher calling.
Rebecca Ching: Hmm, yeah.
Nikia Phoenix: I think a lot of the speaking up is speaking from a place of honesty, a place of love, a place of empathy, and I often don't think that all of the screaming that has been happening as of late, it’s not coming from a place of love at all. It’s coming from a place of fear. I think a lot of us are aware of that.
Rebecca Ching: Right?
Nikia Phoenix: And yes, there’s a difference between speaking from an honest place and a truthful place and just yelling and screaming obscenities and, “I just need to get this out.” Because realistically, I think that when you're screaming you're not even truly listening to yourself.
Rebecca Ching: Oof. Totally. Oh, my gosh. I’m just thinking of some of my Mommageddon/Momminator moments when my kids are like, “Ahh!” [Laughs] It just has to get out, but it’s a different kind of communication. That’s not speaking up. It’s just release. [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: It’s just release, and then almost immediately you feel regret or shame.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yeah, oh, gosh. Yeah, I love this boundary, this lane of if I’m using my voice and speaking up, am I connected to empathy with the situation with what I’m speaking for, against, about. And where am I in relation to loving myself, my story, and humanizing even the person who I’m speaking up for or situation.
That means slowing down, and that’s kind of almost what you talked about at the beginning of our time together, this sense of connecting to our beauty even is a practice of slowing down. But there’s a lot of pain, and when we’re overwhelmed and led by fear, our voice is being used but not for love and there’s not empathy, there’s not compassion there, and it’s just offloading.
Nikia Phoenix: I can think of moments in my past when I’ve just been so angry, and although my anger is coming from a real place, I’m just so angry and no matter what, it’s just coming out as anger. My anger shows up before I do. My anger shows up before my humanity, and it’s just coming up as anger. So no matter how much I yell and scream, whoever I’m actually trying to communicate to isn't gonna understand because all they hear and see is anger.
Rebecca Ching: Hmm. And there’s a part of me that wants to say, “Yeah, but sometimes it just has to get out.”
Nikia Phoenix: I mean, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: But --
Nikia Phoenix: Yes, that is very real. Sometimes it does have to get out, otherwise it’s gonna fester like a sore. It has to get out, but now I know there are other ways to release that anger.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, true story. Yeah, yeah, and I think sometimes, especially with women, we, I think, pathologize and make anger pejorative because I think we see anger as secondary, but there’s this researcher, Panksepp, who talks about these primal emotions, and he talks about rage/anger being one of these primal almost mama bear. So I think there’s a lot to be angry about in our stories, in our world, but there are practices on how to release that in ways that honor ourselves and our stories and don't dehumanize others in the process. But that means we have to do work! That means we have to do work, do the inner work.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: That’s not efficient all the time, Nikia!
Nikia Phoenix: Oh.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. I’ve got more work to do! Come on!
Nikia Phoenix: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: It’s like once you think you've done it all, no, there’s still more to do. There’s still more to do. I know.
Rebecca Ching: And I say to everyone, “You know, you're not done ‘til you breathe your last breath,” but I don't know if I like that. I’m like, “Dude! I just want to be done!”
Nikia Phoenix: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So, on this note, for you, creativity and creating is infused in everything you do, whether it’s your speaking, your writing, your modeling, podcasting. You found communities. You just do so much. In prepping for our time, I listened to a couple episodes of your podcast.
Nikia Phoenix: Oh, wow! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: And you shared on a recent episode about a work betrayal, and I found it was really fascinating on how it shut down your creativity.
Nikia Phoenix: Oh, completely.
Rebecca Ching: What did you learn after exploring the roots of this creative shut down, because I just think when we see our creativity shut down, I think it’s a datapoint of deeper work, and I just love that. So what did you learn after you’ve had that kind of experience?
Nikia Phoenix: Oof. [Laughs] So some other things. The betrayal affected my creativity, and I think I was definitely in denial about it or trying to, like we were talking about previously, running, running, running, you trip over your own feet and you're like, “No, I still have to run! I still have to run!” I was still trying to run instead of just sitting there and reflecting.
So when I was still trying to run, I kept getting hit with other obstacles that were a result of me not genuinely sitting in my crap and reflecting and working through it, but it realistically brought up some unhealed childhood trauma that I didn't even -- I was like, “No, that can't be it.”
I’m like, no, no. That’s exactly what that is. That’s exactly what that is, and we have to deal with it. We can't keep running from it. We can't hide from it. We actually have to address this and start to heal that. I realized that my inner child needed to feel safe again. My inner child needed to know that there was also an adult on the other end that was like, “Hey, we’re tethered to each other, but I’m the security while you can go out and play.” I needed to know that I could trust myself.
I literally was having a conversation with someone last week about this exact topic of the previous betrayals. In the conversation I said, “Well, how do you find your team?” And so, this friend gave me some pointers and just other things that you can do to also make sure that you have everything lined up, that you have all of your processes documented, and that you have all your onboarding documents, and that you’ve answered all the questions before someone else is able to ask you the questions, and I thought about it, and I said, “Wow, I did that,” and because I was working with people who didn't respect me and didn't trust me, it made me not trust myself.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, totally. Yes.
Nikia Phoenix: When I had actually set myself up pretty well to begin with, but the whole relationship, the toxic relationship gaslit me into believing that I had done something wrong, and I know what gaslighting looks like when it comes to romantic relationships because I’ve been there, done that. It was a horrible abusive relationship, but when it came to business and creative relationships, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This exists here too.” [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: True story. True story.
Nikia Phoenix: So, you know, I had to say to myself, “Listen, we knew that something was wrong, and now we know that we’re okay. This may not be the last time that something like this happens, but I’m gonna be quicker next time because I’m learning the lesson, and I’m healing that inner child that had been hurt for such a long time. I’m healing that part of myself, and I may not be perfect, but it’s a process, and we’re going to be okay.”
Rebecca Ching: What would you say is the lesson that you're in the process of healing or continuing to heal from that experience? What’s the lesson?
Nikia Phoenix: The lesson is to trust myself.
Rebecca Ching: Ugh, yes! [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: To trust myself.
Rebecca Ching: Did you have little inner inklings that something was off early on but because it was in a work dynamic you kind of dismissed it --
Nikia Phoenix: Oh, my goodness, yes.
Rebecca Ching: -- a little bit later than -- okay.
Nikia Phoenix: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: In that particular creative business instance, I brought on a project manager to help out because I was like I know that I obviously can't do this alone, and I need someone that I can trust, and even that project manager was like, “It’s not you. It’s not you.” And I’m like, “Are you sure?” They were like, “It’s not. It’s not you.” And if they're the project manager, and they're managing everything and they're still getting pushback, they're like, “And it’s not me either.” [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Validation.
Nikia Phoenix: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: More validation. [Laughs] Yeah, you know, I know for me my work betrayals have actually led to some of my biggest healing. Those trailheads of how did this show up here? Where are the spots in my life that I’m still missing, and it’s led to some of my biggest personal healing but also biggest professional growth because I was like, “Okay, I don't want to do this again.” So what are the systems and practices, but at the end it’s -- I remember I brought in a mentor to help me with something, and he said, “Did you feel early on that this wasn't a good decision?” And I said, “Yeah, and I overrode it.” I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no,’” you know?
And so, now, whenever I have a little bit of that inkling, I just slow down. I just slow down and slow the process down. Even though I don't attribute the right language to it, if there’s just something in me that just is like, “Eh,” I’m like, “Is it me? Is it truth? I don't know.” Sometimes I overthink it. I just now listen to it if there’s a little bit of an, “Eh.” But those are some of the biggest trailheads to my own personal healing though. And so, I thank you for sharing that. Thank you for sharing that.
Nikia Phoenix: Thanks for giving me the space to share because I think that a lot of people experience this, whether they want to vocalize it or not, and it is therapeutic to hear from other people, “Hey, yeah. I’ve been there,” and to also see that you can make it out with your sanity, you know? I feel so much better when I hear from people the real nitty gritty stories, the you’ve been through some stuff. I want to hear that, and I want to see that, “Oh, yes, and here you are, able to talk about it without completely breaking it down because you’ve healed from it or you're in the process of healing from it.” That is so powerful to me. I appreciate that so much more than the smoke in mirrors and just the cosmetic “everything’s great.” I need to see that you’ve been through something, that there’s been a process. It’s just so inspiring to be able to see other people overcome obstacles and know that you can overcome those obstacles as well.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely, and we don't talk about that enough. We talk about just the end result, but anyone who’s daring to put anything out there, to show up and do something, we’re open to criticism, to attacks, to being misunderstood, and especially in this hyper-critical world that we’re in. Yeah, gaslighting shows up everywhere, everywhere. I grew up with gaslight parenting, so that’s still a tricky one for me. That’s still a tricky one, and it can sneak up into -- because I have a high tolerance for it. [Laughs] So it’s just -- yeah, same with you?
Nikia Phoenix: Yeah. Same.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah. And so, I was so struck, though, by this creative shut down because in creativity there are two big influences in my life.
In Brené Brown’s research, Brené talks and writes about if we don't express our creativity it becomes malignant, and then in IFS (Internal Family Systems), creativity is one of the qualities of Self, of the place of healing, and if that gets shut down, that’s detrimental to my own wellbeing, let alone me being “productive in work.” So it’s such a big data point for me now if I’m like, “Wow I can't do my creating. What’s going on?” It’s a trailhead for me now because I know if I don't get that creativity back flowing, it’s gonna turn on me.
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: So I really resonated with what you shared.
Nikia Phoenix: When you lose your creativity you're losing your inner child.
Rebecca Ching: Wow. That playfulness, that innocence.
Nikia Phoenix: You're losing that part of yourself that wants to color, that wants to dance, that wants to be free and that part of yourself that also recognizes the beauty in everything.
Rebecca Ching: Oof, yeah. It shuts down a lot of those parts in me for sure. So, okay. Now that we’ve gotten a little heavier, we’re gonna go even more. So when we last connected, you and I served on a panel together, and you shared your lack of trust or belief in that surge of support and allyship that showed up after George Floyd’s death. You were so generous on that panel. You were like, “Ask me, and I don't mind teaching you.” Not everyone has been open to that, but you were like, “Hey, ask me. Don't dodge around this.” So what does an ally look like to you, that is not performative?
Nikia Phoenix: You know, so it’s interesting that we’re having this conversation now after everything that’s happened with the election and that is still happening with the election. And I bring that up because there are some people who are ready to face some uncomfortable conversations, and there are some people who are still in denial that these uncomfortable conversations are going to happen.
But realistically, with a Black woman, an Indian woman, a South Asian woman, a woman of color in office as the Vice President, we’re gonna have these conversions. They're going to come up, and they're gonna be very in your face. They're going to come up, so it’s kind of like the universe is like, “Oh, so you didn't want to have these conversations? You didn't want to talk about performative allyship? Oh, now we’re going to talk about it. We’re gonna have to talk about it.” I think that these conversations are gonna come up more and more and people are going to have to get to the root of why they feel like they have to put on a big show instead of doing the actual work.
Rebecca Ching: What’s the difference to you?
Nikia Phoenix: Putting on a big show is instant gratification, and it’s a Band-Aid for the problem, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem. It doesn't actually fix the problem. And oh, my goodness, this has come up recently. Women’s organizations that will say, “Hey, we’re here to support women of color. We’re here to support our sisters,” and they’ll make these grand gestures, but I’m like, are you making the little everyday gestures as well? Because you don't have to do this big, grand thing to get to women of color, to get to Black women, to get to other BIPOCs. You encounter us every day. You can just have a one-on-one conversation.
So I think we’re gonna have to shed some skin and continue to push and get to the root of why we don't want to have these one-on-ones.
I guess it feels safer to do the big, grand gestures and to do the social media posts, but it makes us feel vulnerable, I guess, to have the one-on-one conversations. But the one-on-one actually has the biggest impact. We need that.
Rebecca Ching: Listen, I think the one-on-one has the biggest impact of the person desiring to be the ally
Nikia Phoenix: On everyone.
Rebecca Ching: On everyone.
Nikia Phoenix: Because the person who wants to be the ally actually has a genuine face and a voice and a human being to put with this big cause that they say that they’ve been fighting for or that they support, and the person that you say you want to help is like, “Now I actually have a point person. Now I actually have someone that I can hold accountable for all the things that they say that they want to do to help me and my people.”
Rebecca Ching: So accountability is an important part of doing the work?
Nikia Phoenix: Mm-hmm. Yes. Accountability is a very big part.
Rebecca Ching: What does accountability look like and feel like to you in the realm of allyship?
Nikia Phoenix: Oh, it’s not pretty. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Nikia Phoenix: Accountability is not pretty. Accountability is going to be some finger pointing. That wonderful meme with the two housewives screaming and pointing and then the cat responding, I’m the cat responding. [Laughs] It’s not pretty, but eventually it’s going to make things so much better.
I read this article this morning that was talking about how Joe Biden said this in his campaign about fighting for the soul of America, and it was something that when Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he also said something very similar and then scaled it back.
And this article was very interesting because it said it’s not just one soul of this country. There are at least two or multiple, and we’re at odds with each other. We have to find a balance. It’s okay that we have different views, but we have to be able to find a balance and be able to relate to each other one-on-one.
Growing up in South Carolina -- this is one of my most awkward favorite stories, but my stepdad loves boiled peanuts, and so before a football game he would always have boiled peanuts, but he only wanted to get them from one specific place. He wouldn't get them from wherever. He was like, “No, go to my guy.” So one night he sends me to his guy, and it’s in this area in my hometown called The Valley, which I guess The Valley anywhere isn't ever somewhere people celebrate or want to necessarily be. But keep in mind, I’m from South Carolina, so it’s very rural.
Oh, gosh, I pulled up to this place, and there was literally a Confederate flag on the roof of the house, and there’s this guy sitting on the front porch, and he looks like (forgive me for saying this) a redneck Santa Claus, and plaid shirt, overalls, big belly, white beard. He’s got a gun, and I pull up, and I get out of the car, and I’m like, “I’m here to pick up some peanuts for --,” and I say my stepdad’s name, and his demeanor just completely changed.
He was like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Come in!” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s safe for me now.” But I walk in, and there are still Confederate flags everywhere, and there’s taxidermy, and I’m just like this is so weird. At any moment I could -- I don't -- but because I said who I was there to pick up the peanuts for, I was deemed safe.
Now that I’m older I’m like, okay, this man clearly knew that my stepdad is a Black man, and also, at the time, he was president of the NAACP in our hometown. This man flying a Confederate flag completely knew that. However, despite their differences, they were able to meet each other on common ground as human beings who just want boiled peanuts.
Rebecca Ching: Huh, wow. The common humanity of boiled peanuts in rural South Carolina.
Nikia Phoenix: Yes. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You know, but that story, it goes back to what you were saying about the one-on-one relationships and the importance of allyship is making sure that we are connecting one-on-one with people who are maybe outside of our lived experience, our comfort zone, not as a token, but as a practice, as a deepening and then upping our capacity for discomfort in those conversations and to know that our actions and beliefs may be challenged, but we have to hold on to know that our worthiness isn't on the table, but we may have a lot of unlearning and healing to do, and that is nuanced work.
Nikia Phoenix: Yes, because the fact that we think that in order for us to gain more freedoms we have to take away someone else’s freedom, that’s a lack mindset. There’s abundance that’s just out there for everyone. So I don't have to take away something that you have in order for me to gain more. That’s realistically not how this works.
Rebecca Ching: Right. But again, we’re living in a world where they think the pie is shrinking. So, wow, thank you for sharing that story, and thank you for this conversation. This time flew by, Nikia! Where can people find you if they want to connect with you and learn more about you and your work?
Nikia Phoenix: Yeah, so you can find me on Instagram @nikiaphoenix. I am working on redoing my website. I’m also working on detaching from social media a little bit more to be able to live in the real world, be more present in the real world.
You can also find my other platform, www.blackgirlbeautiful.com, on Instagram as well where I celebrate women of African descent. And yeah, so if you happen to see me in these streets, a little smile, head nod, wave. I will wave back. It’s just nice to be able to acknowledge our humanity more often than not.
Rebecca Ching: Nikia, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for radiating your beauty but also calling us up in how we show up and encouraging us to use our voices, especially from a place of love and empathy. So grateful for your leadership and to know you a little bit better.
Nikia Phoenix: Thank you. Thank you for having me!
Rebecca Ching: I love this quote by Naomi Wolf from her seminal book The Beauty Myth:
“She who wins calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to truly see her.”
This is the work of a leader owning their activism, challenging the status quo of the world’s definition of beauty by trying to change the lens of the world’s view instead of asking the individual to change for the world. Nikia reminds us when we’re fueled by love, integrity, the right community, and vision that feels aligned, we can challenge the status quo to change instead of being complicit with the status quo. It may seem easier to adapt ourselves or ask others to adapt, but easy has a cost.
Caring about business, bottom line, and the greater good sure makes things more complicated. But I know you're not bothered by complicated things, especially when it is an issue you care deeply about. You are a leader who cares beyond just the bottom line and is inspired by the values of serving the greater good. You understand your activism has the power to activate change and disrupt the status quo, and you're here for it all, even on the hard days. So let’s do this!
What gets in the way of you leading from a space of confidence and knowing you're enough? What are some of the messages that distract you from believing in and trusting yourself? And where do you need to take a stand for change instead of staying silent or going with the flow? If you desire the best from yourself and those you lead, you have a collective responsibility to do the work to increase your capacity for the pushback that inevitably comes. It is essential work for leaders who are deeply committed to increasing their own capacity to lead themselves well so they can lead others well.
Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up.
Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to help the protector of cynicism stay at bay and foster a scrappy hope that is actionable and aligned. When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free consultation call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
[Inspirational Outro Music]
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, along with free Unburdened Leader resources and ways to work with me www.rebeccaching.com.