EP 31: Building Resiliency and a Culture of Togetherness with Roberto Che Espinoza, PhD

leadership resiliency Jul 16, 2021

Roberto Che Espinoza, PhD is a non-binary trans guy. This episode was recorded before Roberto changed his name. Please use his current name Roberto Che Espinoza moving forward, thank you!

How you lead yourself impacts how you lead others.

And how you lead yourself and others has a ripple effect in all the spaces you live and work.

It really is that simple. And that important.

Unaddressed pain from difficult life experiences and traumas rob us of our capacity for connection.

Unaddressed burdens of trauma impact how you make decisions on everything from parenting to public policy.

Both individual and collective traumas perpetuate disconnection in all the spaces we live and work in.

The ripple effect of disconnection takes us out of our innate ability to genuinely care about the well being of others. We become hyper focused on our own safety - sometimes at extreme costs to others.

When we make decisions based on fear and self-protection, we end up generating more fear and dehumanize the people we lead.

This is weighing us down individually and collectively. Our unaddressed trauma generates very real consequences in our communities.

As my guest today wisely states, we have forgotten how to be human with each other. But when we do remember how to be human with each other, we can create more peaceful, more equitable, and more just communities.

Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a Transqueer Activist, Latinx Scholar, and a Public Theologian. They are the Founder of Activist Theology Project, and the author of Activist Theology & their forthcoming book Body Becoming.

Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • How supremacy culture goes beyond whiteness and why it is essential to understand its far-reaching impacts on how we lead and connect
  • Why you need to develop an ethics of engagement that prioritizes relationships
  • Why table fellowship is an important practice for creating conditions for togetherness and breaking the patterns of dissociative patterns and insecure attachments of supremacy culture
  • How an Activist Theology mindset helps move past inaction and fear to actions aligned with your values and capabilities
  • Why cancel and call-out culture fail to create sustainable change and how to build the transparency, honesty and vulnerability required for true accountability

Learn more about Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza:

Learn more about Rebecca:

Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: When we do this inner work, when we change our attachment to ourselves, it changes the attachment interpersonally, and when that attachment changes, it actually impacts our cultural body, and when our cultural body has a healthier attachment, then our democracy functions better.

[Inspirational Intro Music] 

Rebecca Ching: How you lead yourself impacts how you lead others, and how you lead yourself and others has a ripple effect in all the spaces you live and work. It really is that simple and that important. Doing your own inner work changes how you connect with yourself and how you show up in your business and in the world. Unaddressed pain from difficult life experiences and traumas rob us of our capacity for connection. 

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.

The ripple effect of disconnection takes us out of our innate ability to genuinely care about the wellbeing of others. We become hyper-focused on our own safety, sometimes at extreme cost to others. Trauma limits our capacity to care for and connect with others, let alone ourselves. Both individual and collective traumas perpetuate disconnection in all the spaces we live and work in. Unaddressed burdens of trauma impact how you make decisions on everything from parenting to public policy. When we make decisions based on fear and self-protection, we end up generating more fear and dehumanize the people we lead. This is weighing us down individually and collectively.


In my recent Unburdened Leader conversation with state representative Jennifer Konfrst, she reminded us of the exhaustion and the challenges she faces trying to push back on these collective burdens that have shown up in the laws in Iowa. What kept her going when she was ready to give in and tap out? Her ability to connect with the stories and the needs of each person in her district. In order to connect with others and their stories, you have to connect with your own story first. So all of that disconnection that stems from trauma makes it harder to lead well. It makes it harder to tolerate the nuance of different perspectives or to find common ground with those whose stories are different from yours.

When we're so disconnected from our own experiences, it's near impossible to connect with each other in a way that makes our society better and more just. Our unaddressed trauma generates very real consequences in our communities. We're seeing spikes in mass shootings, public policy passed that emboldens hatred over humanity, surges in racial violence and hate crimes, increases in physical and mental health struggles, and more and more households are food insecure and uninsured. As my guest today wisely stated, "We have forgotten how to be human with each other." 

Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a transqueer activist, Latinx scholar, and a public theologian. They are the founder of Activist Theology Project and the author of Activist Theology and their forthcoming book, Body Becoming. Now, listen to how Dr. Robyn clearly and succinctly describes supremacy culture and why it is so essential for us to understand how it impacts how we lead and connect. Pay attention to how Dr. Robyn talks about the importance of table fellowship and how this is a powerful leadership practice for us all, and listen to how Dr. Robyn explains their concerns with cancel culture and callout culture and what needs to happen instead to foster more accountability and meaningful change.


All right, folks, fasten your seatbelts for some truth bombs that will be delivered with immense clarity and love as I welcome Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza to The Unburdened Leader podcast.

Hello, Dr. Robyn. I am so excited to have this conversation with you today.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Hello there. I'm really happy to be here and even more thrilled that we can actually see each other instead of just -- I’m talking into a microphone but I'm actually talking to a human.

Rebecca Ching: I love that. I know, it's something so important to me. It helps me connect in these conversations. I often will watch my guests and read the nonverbals and then tell the audience about it. It's an occupational hazard.

So what we often do on this show is we start off and go a little deep. [Laughs] We kick it off deep.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I'm ready.

Rebecca Ching: I want to take you back in time, back to August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. You were protesting that day in response to the white supremist Unite the Right rally convening in that city, and you eventually needed to be evacuated. I'd love for you to walk us through that day and tell us what we would have seen if we were standing with you on that street corner in downtown Charlottesville. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, you would see me on the corner of Second and Water Streets, and you would see me in a pair of khaki shorts, cargo shorts) with my clergy collar shirt that is sleeveless, and so, you can see my tattoos. You could see me wearing a red stole that says "Black Lives Matter" in this bright yellow patch with a resistance fist on one side of the stole and the Black Lives Matter on the other. 


I think you would also see a sort of collective disillusionment at what was happening, that you would see what felt like millions of alt right people -- all shapes and sizes, all white -- you would see them descend on this corner, and then we would have to hustle into a fenced area where the state police stood because violence broke out. Then, we would be there together while cans of concrete and cans of urine and other bodily fluids were lobbed in our direction as a means to hurt, I think, us who were standing there in this fenced in area (it was actually the media place). 

The disillusionment that I talk about is I never thought that I would see regressive politics in my lifetime, and so, there's this mix of, "Oh, my god, what in the hell do we do," and this sort of disillusionment of, like, "Oh, my god, this is happening," which makes for a really confusing time to be in public space because you don’t know where to go, you don’t know who's safe. The following days I attended a public memorial service for Heather Heyer, and the person I was with actually had me sit on the inside and then she would sit on the outside because I'm visibly, maybe, antagonistic to the Unite the Right people, and so, for a safety measure and security measure, I sat on the inside and my friend sat on the outside. 


Again, another sort of high-stake collective disillusionment moment of, like, "Oh, my god, we're here." I say it that way because I can't really take you back there because, as we know, so much has happened since then, and so much continues to accelerate in the vein of supremacy culture (which is the way we talk about it at the Activist Theology Project). It's not just white-bodied supremacy; it's supremacy culture, it's a justice emergency, it's a moral emergency, and so, we like to call it supremacy culture.

But that place, Second and Water, I could feel the quality of presence of what evil might feel like, and I don’t say that lightly. I'm not calling people evil, but the ways that we behave toward each other, there was a quality, there was a felt sense of a presence of evil, and not to be binary or black and white, but I think that if we do the proper inner work, we can feel the quality of presence of virtue or good, and we can feel the quality of what is unvirtuous or, perhaps, evil. That is really what I took away from that time being in Charlottesville and being evacuated and having our hotel compromised and being threatened by white supremacists. 


I still live with the PTSD. I've been stopped by the state police and asked to lift up my clothes to prove that I don’t have a weapon. I've been asked if I'm a terrorist, and I tell that story to say the work that many of us are doing causes so much emotional harm and psychic harm when we are just trying to sow seeds of goodness.

Rebecca Ching: So, if I hear you correctly -- there's a few things I want to circle back on. Thank you for sharing that. Wow, I feel like I just went back in time with you. I feel it in my body. Doing the work to help make this world a better place, if I'm hearing you correctly, puts you in harm and can cause harm to those trying to bridge peace and to create a culture that's more humanizing. Just that work itself can cause a lot of harm to those showing up. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Am I hearing that correctly? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, I think you are.

Rebecca Ching: And you also talked about regressive politics. Can you unpack what you mean by that?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I'm in my mid-40s. I just had my Obama birthday last year. We're skipping over 45. We're not gonna name that birthday. Just it's gonna be my 45th birthday. So I say I'm in my mid-40s, I'm a transqueer Latinx. I never thought that I would see human behavior roll backwards in my lifetime.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.


Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: This is the illusion of progressivism. It's a kind of imperial optimism, and we're all sort of socialized into this imperial optimism, and so, when I was confronted with regressive politics, certainly in the 2016 election, but then for the next 4 years, and even now, we're sort of seeing the undercurrent of the past 4 years. I never thought that I would literally be teaching people, my students at Duke, my church community when I preach or on podcasts that treating people like we want to be treated is just a fundamental human value. The fact that that is most of the conversations that I have with people -- I'm not talking about being LGBT positive, I'm not talking about making sure that everybody has their particular rights, I'm just talking about how do we treat each other.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: That's what I mean by regressive politics. We don’t know how to be human with one another.

Rebecca Ching: Dang. You alluded a little bit that (if I heard you correctly) when we do the inner work we can pick up on the sense of good and virtue and also evil and darkness. 


That really stood out to me because when we do the inner work, we're gonna feel. We're not gonna be shut down. We're not gonna be armored up and protected which is quote-unquote safer, but it's also where dehumanizing happens. So that inner work allows us to feel better, but also, we're gonna feel the darkness more deeply too.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t like using that platonic language of good, bad, evil, virtue, dark, light --

Rebecca Ching: Okay. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: -- but it's accessible to people.

Rebecca Ching: Ah, what do you prefer to use? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I don’t know that there is language that I would prefer to use. I know that that language is troublesome, right?

Rebecca Ching: Sure.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Because often when we say "dark" or "dirty," we're alluding to people with dark skin, and I'm not trying to perpetuate that kind of stereotype, but I do think that there was a cloud that descended over me in August of 2017, and that cloud felt very stifling. To figure out how to build relationships out of a place of feeling stifled and feeling like you could feel evil is really hard work to do. 

Rebecca Ching: Mm, I'm going back to -- I used to work in politics, and even when I was still in undergrad (and listening to you talk), I went to a rally that was with the other candidate that I was working against, and we were supposed to go in there, me and another college buddy, and we were supposed to ask a question to one of the surrogates in front of this huge room. 


Just what you described, there was this sense that my whole nervous system almost shut down, and I could feel my throat tighten. It was like a fight or flight system. I'm a spicy redhead. I love getting scrappy, and I love a lively conversation especially at that age back in the day, probably with a little too much abandon, maybe.  

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: But I remember that moment that I was getting ready to raise my hand, and I literally just felt what you described. You just brought me back in time to that moment where this isn’t okay, this isn’t safe, and I remember there were people around us that started to look at us and recognize oh, we weren’t, quote-unquote, "with them."

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: And it started to feel like I was not physically safe, let alone emotionally safe. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Ching: Gosh, I hadn’t thought about that for a while. The word that came to mind for me was almost "oppressive." There's a spirit of oppression that came in too.

So when I'm thinking about this time and realized wow, we're coming up almost on the four-year anniversary of this event. I remember 'cause I was actually running a workshop that weekend around shame resilience of all things, and we're unpacking this in the workshop, 'cause it was happening over that, this deadly gathering. I'm curious what comes up for you as you reflect on that event today. What would the old you from four years ago standing on that street corner say to you today? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: You know, I was there holding public witness, and I think that I would tell the younger me, and maybe the younger me would tell the older me, "We've still got work to do." 

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And I think that the ways in which harm has been accelerated against the least of these continues to remind me we've got work to do. 


And so, I think my younger self and my older self would be a unanimous voice singing a refrain of, "We've got to continue to get our hands dirty," with people, with the messy work of being human with one another.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I'm thinking about what you said: we've forgotten how to be human with each other. What does it mean to be human with each other?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I think that one of the things it means is having an ethics of engagement. Social media -- I tell people, the longest abusive relationship I've ever had is with social media, and it's going on 15 years. 

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And it's because there's no ethics of engagement.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah. Dang.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And I want to help people have an ethics of engagement. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everything that each of us believes or says, but we do need some kind of container to engage with one another. We are so brutally polarized. We don’t know how to engage with one another, and so, my work as a public theologian, as a professor, as a clergyperson is to invite people into a framework of having an ethics of engagement that prioritizes relationships. We don’t know what it means to love our neighbor, and let's just use the mask as an example. Wearing a mask is me loving my neighbor. 


Wearing a mask is not political. Wearing a mask doesn’t mean I believe in science (though I do believe in science). Wearing a mask is just a pragmatic way to show love to your neighbor, and we've got people here in Tennessee who try their damnedest to say that to wear a mask is a political act, and I want to say wearing a mask is just being kind and human and showing love for your neighbor.

Rebecca Ching: That's a big, big bridge. That's a big onramp between politicizing the mask and being kind and loving your neighbor.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: Wow. You know, you bring up social media and your longstanding toxic relationship with it. I will say, though, I found that profound from you because I was just talking to someone about your feed and how you communicate. I can read something that you write, and I feel deeply convicted and loved when I read that, and that is holy. It sticks with me, and it's so rare. So, I mean, if that's still a struggle, how you maintain that, you offer that respite, at least, I know for me, but I suspect for many. I'm really gonna be holding to this ethics of engagement, and I want to start digging into having you share with us what Activist Theology is. This is your body of work, and I'd love for you to share what it is and why is it important for leaders.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, Activist Theology is a book that I wrote, and it is my body of scholarship, and I launched my scholarship as a collaborative project. So Activist Theology is a book. It's also a podcast: the Activist Theology Podcast. It's also a project: The Activist Theology Project. 


Basically, the work is how do we live out our values? How do we live out our politics? How do we live out our theology? We all have theology. Where you buy your coffee is a theological act, and all theology is ethics, right? What we think about the divine or God or spirit shows up in our actions. It's ethics.

So the project is rooted in sort of public theology initiatives. It's grounded in an ethics of en conjunto, a fostering togetherness. There's no real English equivalent to that word, en conjunto, which is a Spanish phrase. The closest equivalent is togetherness or being together. That's what we're trying to do. We are trying to create conditions through public theology initiatives to build a culture of togetherness.

Rebecca Ching: So building a culture of togetherness, what does that look like in practice, whether it's in a family, in a faith community, in a corporation?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I'm a big believer of table fellowship.

Rebecca Ching: Mm, me too.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: That's how I grew up thinking about it. 

Rebecca Ching: Ah. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Table fellowship could be a roasted chicken and greens and cornbread.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Or it could just be having tea with one another, but we need more table fellowship from the family to corporate America because both places do not have conditions for togetherness. Why? Because supremacy culture creates dissociative patterns of disconnection and the reality of disassociation, psychologically speaking.


Rebecca Ching: Well, okay, so my brain goes to my clinical training and thinking, okay, the dissociative protectors come up when we are not safe, when there's danger sensed. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right. 

Rebecca Ching: And so, then, my brain goes to then that's there because connection is dangerous, connection is a threat. So how does your framework help us move through and help those dissociative protectors relax so we can experience more much-needed table fellowship? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: It's through healthy attachments.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: What supremacy culture does is create insecure attachments which then shows up in our behavior, in our inability to be together, but if we can foster healthy attachments instead of anxious, insecure attachments or just insecure attachments, we can build a culture of togetherness, but we have to learn how to be human with one another and that being human with one another requires healthy attachments. So some of this might not feel theological or ethical, but I think it's deeply theological and ethical. I'm a person who loves the psychological realm, and I think there is a lot of overlap between how we think religiously or spiritually and what is happening in the psyche. 

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yes, yes.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And so, we are trying to steward theories of healthy attachment through things like embodiment and somatic work, through things like the intersection between conversation and contemplation. 


It's iterative and emergent, and each of these iterations help foster healthy attachments.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, so my brain's going in the stance of our own inner work but also a collective work, and I see them -- it's a dance. Sometimes we need to have seasons of doing our own work so we can increase our bandwidth to be human with the collective, and yet, when the collective can surround us, when we're not at our best and give witness and love us, then that can also help those dissociative protectors relax too. It's personal and definitely not formulaic.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, and the inner work changes the outer work, right?

Rebecca Ching: Totally. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I've just finished a book on bodies, embodiment, and democracy, and my whole thesis is when we do this inner work, when we change our attachment to ourselves, it changes the attachment interpersonally. When that attachment changes, it actually impacts our cultural body. When our cultural body has a healthier attachment, then our democracy functions better. 

Rebecca Ching: Did you say you just finished writing this book or is this something you read?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, no, I just turned in the manuscript to the publisher. 

Rebecca Ching: Ah! Oh, congratulations! Ah, I am excited.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: It'll be out next year. 

Rebecca Ching: That is gonna be powerful. I mean, I love the intersection of faith and psychology and culture, and so much of what we lived through the last year brought a lot of that up to the surface. What would you say are the stakes if we do not choose an activist theology mindset in how we lead? What are the stakes if we don’t do that?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I think we become paralyzed in our inaction. The whole point of activist theology is to mobilize people into getting their hands dirty, whatever that might look like. 


For us, for my partner and me, it looks like helping out with the folks who are unhoused in Nashville.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Because I think a house is a fundamental human right.

Rebecca Ching: You mentioned this phrase a couple times, "getting our hands dirty," and I notice it going through my brain going yeah, absolutely, but then when I check myself, I know that it's a lot more challenging to get my hands dirty, and it really sounds like, for you, getting your hands dirty is aligned to your core values. We don’t have to do it all. [Laughs] We don't have to save the world, but it's doing something that's uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, can you unpack this a little bit more -- this getting our hands dirty process, and not just talking about it in a nice phrase, but what does it look like for me to get my hands dirty? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, so let me also say you make a good point. Not everyone is gonna want to go to a protest. Not everyone's personality is designed to go to a protest. Not everyone will want to work with the marginalized people that are on the streets. I get that, but can we come together and imagine what our roles are in getting our hands dirty? Because, for some people, getting our hands dirty might be that disruptive giver who wants to give to Open Table Nashville or The Activist Theology Project. They want to give to support. I think that's getting your hands dirty. For some people it will be wanting to go out on the streets as I drive the van around collecting people to get them into a shelter. That might be a version of getting your hands dirty. For other people, it might be hey, listen to this podcast episode where these folks are talking about what we can do to create a better world. I think there are lots of ways to get our hands dirty.


And so, for me, as the founder of The Activist Theology Project, I am already thinking about, okay, who can step in when I can't be there? I've already started those conversations with an individual here in Nashville. When I can't be present for ATP, who is the leader who has the skill to step in? That's getting your hands dirty sort of on an organizational level. 

Rebecca Ching: Right, it's not all about one person. I appreciate that, and I'm thinking, too, this contrast of getting my hands dirty to times when I'm paralyzed. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Mm. 

Rebecca Ching: You know, that's kind of what you talked about of --

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: -- the stake is if I don’t have an activist theology mindset, then I'll be paralyzed, and I won't take action -- 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right. 

Rebecca Ching: -- versus taking action, even small actions. I think that, to me, feels good versus where scarcity and shame can come in and say you're not doing enough or that's not good enough or has enough reach, it's what action am I taking today.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right. 

Rebecca Ching: Or am I in a place of feeling paralyzed, and what do I need to do to help address that so I can move to action.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: That's powerful. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: That's powerful.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And let me tell you, it takes relationship.

Rebecca Ching: Oof, does it ever.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And we don’t know how to be in relationship with people. The entirety of Activist Theology Project is not only dedicated to social healing, but is dedicated to fucking helping people have relationships with people. Why are we so scared of difference?

Rebecca Ching: Oof.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Sorry to interrupt, but it just sort of --

Rebecca Ching: No, I love it. Interrupt away, but I think we're afraid of discomfort.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, absolutely.

Rebecca Ching: Our capacity for discomfort is a theme that keeps coming up in my clinical and in my leadership work.


Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, and that discomfort, the root of that is disassociation.

Rebecca Ching: Mm, the fear of going to a place of complete shutdown or paralyzation.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, holy cow. We can write another thesis here. This is awesome.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, we really could. Maybe we should do that.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. Don't tempt me 'cause your book and your work has woken me up in both my passion for psychology but also in my faith. So this is so powerful, and I told you before we started recording, I've been gushing about your book to anyone who will listen. Most of that's my husband these days. [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: I keep re-reading it, and I really wish I had it 20 years ago when I went to seminary. I'm gonna be sending the book to some of my colleagues who I went to seminary with. You wrote about the topic of resilience, and it's a topic that's a buzzword in a lot of leadership spaces but also in a lot of clinical spaces, but you wrote about it in a way that was new to me. So I'd love for you to share how you define resilience and what that looks like in action.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, I mean, as a transqueer Latinx, I come to life with some cultural bias. So one of the biases that I have is we should rest more. Life should not be business as usual. I'll never forget I took off two weeks (the week of Christmas and the week of New Years), and everyone was booking on my calendar, and it was just business as usual. I had to remind people that we were still living through a global health pandemic, and that I was really panicked about contracting COVID and, subsequently, dying from it, and that for us to be engaged in work that is sustainable and create runways for resiliency, we have to be caring for our self. 


And so, for me, resilience is about what is my relationship with myself and what is my relationship to others.

So one of the things that I do as a practice of resilience is I take a siesta every day. I grew up with a Mexican immigrant woman, spent my summers in Mexico, and I learned what it means for the world to shut down for two hours. It's a beautiful moment, and so, for resiliency's sake, I take a siesta every day. It's on my calendar from 3:00-4:30PM every day. I siesta, and I don’t mean I just sit in front of the television and watch television. Nope, I put my phone down on "do not disturb," I get in the bed under the covers, and I close my eyes. I take off my glasses, I close my eyes, and I rest. For at least an hour, I rest. Sometimes I fall asleep, sometimes I don’t, but literally, I'm just giving myself a breather. 

Rebecca Ching: Wow, 'cause resilience, often, is about -- as I understand it and conceptualize it, it's not about not feeling difficult emotion, it's about how we reset and how quickly we reset, and this practice of rest is essential to resilience. I appreciate that you shut down all tech and really just -- your body has this ritual. 

I lived in Europe for four years, and the grocery stores would shut down, usually from 12:00-2:00PM.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yep, yep.

Rebecca Ching: A little different cultural reason for it. You couldn't do laundry during that time. It wasn’t appropriate.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right, right.


Rebecca Ching: I was irritated. I was like, "This is so inefficient! How dare you. I've got things to do!" I was very entitled. [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, but -- 

Rebecca Ching: -- And then by the end -- go ahead.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: But efficiency is one of those pillars of supremacy culture, right? 

Rebecca Ching: I am learning that. Oh, my gosh. I'm learning that efficiency and urgency are rooted -- along with perfectionism?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yep. 

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh, it's hitting me between the eyes on that. So, yes, and as an Enneagram Three loving efficiency, I'm like I don’t want to worship it. I don’t want to worship it anymore. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: And so, I'm navigating that. So it terrifies me, though, to take an hour and a half off each day. I'll be honest, part of me is like that's awesome, and I recommend it to everyone, but for me, I'm like oh, jeeze. I would have to change so much, but if I care about these things, I need to step up my game to practice that on a deeper level, so thank you for that. 

You already referenced this sentence that I kept re-reading in your book, and it's, "All theology is ethics." It took my breath away. [Laughs] I'd love for you to share how is this statement different from conventional wisdom around these topics?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Oh, I think religions are more interested in right belief --

Rebecca Ching: Mm, gosh. [Laughs] Totally raising my hand right now, yes. Ugh.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: -- than sustainable action.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And so, if we are at all interested in a holistic spirituality or a relationship with the divine, we have to remember the Latin root for religion is just reconnection, and we've turned this term "religion," which is about reconnection, into an industrial complex that fortifies supremacy culture. 


And so, as a theologian, as an ethicist, as a clergyperson, I'm more interested in helping people connect with themselves so that they can connect with the world, and sometimes that means inviting people just to go hug a tree. I'm not trying to be funny when I say that. Like, literally go --

Rebecca Ching: Literally!

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Literally go touch a tree and hug it. You know why?

Rebecca Ching: No. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Because it's coregulation.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, you're right. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And one of the things that we need right now are practices that help us coregulate in sustainable ways. That's why all theology is ethics. 

Rebecca Ching: What you talked about at the beginning of our conversation about where we buy coffee is theology, can you expand a little bit on that?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: So when I was on faculty in Berkeley prior to the 2016 election, I found a coffee shop around the corner from my therapist's apartment -- not apartment, office. I just got to know them. I would go there every Wednesday. At about 9:30 I would get my big cup of coffee, and I loved the coffee, and I finally asked, "Where do you get your coffee? What's the story here?" They said, "Oh, we're a coffee cooperative, and we pay our coffee farmers a living wage," and I was like, "Really?" Then when I moved to Tennessee, I was like I love their coffee, and I want to make an ethical choice around coffee. I don't want to buy from Whole Foods. I don’t want to buy from Starbucks. 


So they have a coffee CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and all the money goes to the farmers. So every month we get two pounds of this really rich coffee, and so, I feel really good about that, and it's carbon-neutral shipping, and so, I'm not adding more supremacy to my consumption. And so, I feel good about that, and when I say to people, "Are you going to your neighborhood coffee store or are you buying from a corporate conglomerate like Starbucks," because that matters. 

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, we have a lot of power in our actions.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yep. Yep.

Rebecca Ching: We have a lot of power in our actions. I want to shift gears. I've been really looking forward to your answer for this question. In a culture of canceling and calling in, calling up, and ideally, to me, accountability, how can we do accountability better, and what are the stakes if we don’t?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, we can do accountability better by being in relationship with one another. So much of our calling in, calling out, and canceling is not done from a place of relationship, and we really need to be in relationship with people, to have these accountability measures in place. That's the first thing I would say. We can do accountability better if we learn to be in relationship with one another, and maybe accountability would look really different if we were in relationship with one another.

Rebecca Ching: You're absolutely right. The physics of accountability means being in relationship, not only with others, but also with ourselves.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Mm-hmm.


Rebecca Ching: This is a theme I'm picking up in this conversation. It's not rocket science, and it's foundational, but the rocket science is the actual practice of it, and you're right. We've forgotten how to be human with each other. I think there's a lot of nuance in there, to be honest. I don't think this is cut and dry. I think it's a messy practice, but I hear from so many people who want to be bold and brave and change how they've seen the world and change how they engage with those that they lead or those in their family or community but are afraid of the backlash if they make a mistake.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: I think its two-prong is they're worried how they're gonna be seen, they can't tolerate any feedback. So that's one part of it, but the other part is sometimes the feedback is so toxic it takes them out.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: There are these gaps, and there's a polarization around that.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: The thing that we need to remember is that relationships only move at the pace of trust. 

Rebecca Ching: Oof, gosh, you're dropping these nuggets today. Relationship only moves -- can you say that again?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Relationships only move at the pace of trust.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, how do you build trust? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Transparency, honesty, and vulnerability.

Rebecca Ching: Ah, [Laughs] to really be seen.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Those three things create conditions for intimacy, and when there is intimacy, there is trust, and when there is trust, there is healthy attachment.

Rebecca Ching: I'm thinking about a lot of people and systems that hold power. That would terrify them to shift. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: That would be a lot of change.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yes.


Rebecca Ching: That would be a lot of change. That would shake things up, and we're seeing the fight, almost literally to the death, to maintain how we've been doing things because to be in relationship is to release power over.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right. Right.

Rebecca Ching: Not only just others, but I think I see this with leaders over themselves. Like, I'm gonna power over my shame, I'm gonna power over my trauma, I'm gonna power over -- they can only do it for so long.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: It's not sustainable, but oh. You said what builds trust is transparency, vulnerability, and what was the --?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And honesty.

Rebecca Ching: Honesty. Oh, gosh. I'm just thinking this through, 'cause I'm just rumbling with how much do we know who we really are, you know? You write a lot about identity and the traps of how we talk about ourselves, and this got me thinking as I was reading your work that I wonder if we know more who we think we should be to be safe versus who we really are. I wonder if you can tell us about your journey with identity.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I try not to make identity into an ideology. We are shaped by stories, and if there's anything that is true about my identity, it's that it's a storied identity. I think we forget that. We forget that we're shaped by stories, we're shaped by other people, we're shaped by living texts. My identity has been shaped by a number of people, and my identity is more than transgender, it's more than queer, it's more than Latinx; it's an identity that is cascading with story. It's not stable, it's not a monolith, it's a multiplicity, and I think we forget that.


Rebecca Ching: Okay, I get this, and I'm with you, and I can also hear people saying, "What does that mean that my identity's a story and that it's multiplicity?" Like I said, I'm totally tracking you. I agree with you, but I know this is hard for people to grapple with. How would you break that down, how we view each other, how we view ourselves, not just in, like you said, an ideology versus story?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I think we truncate people's existence into the last foolish thing they said.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, gosh.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Then we just sort of locate them as a foolish person. That's their identity, and part of this is because, again, we don’t know how to be in relationship with people, and so, we truncate them, and what I want to invite people to do is unfurl with one another and get to know each other's stories so that you can experience the multiplicity of each other.

Rebecca Ching: This is a sarcastic statement, but Dr. Robyn, that's not efficient. We've got things to do!

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: I don’t have time for all these details!

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: We got work to do and places to go and laundry to do. What do you mean unfurl? I don’t have time! I can hear this in my own system, and I've definitely heard it from others. How do you respond? [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, my invitation is can we create some spaciousness and put a bookmark in the laundry or a bookmark in the dishes? I mean, my partner and I have been working from home for the past year and a half, and, you know, we're doing everything multiple times a day. We finally got to the place of, like, okay, the dishes can wait. Let's just sit down and watch a show. We've been working all day, and we work with people, so that can be exhausting if we're doing that back-to-back, so we say okay, let's just take a break. Leave the dishes for tomorrow. Let's unfurl, and that creates spaciousness.


Rebecca Ching: Again, tracking with you, and I feel my soul longing for more of that, and I have been creating more of that over the last few years and last year ushered that into the whole next level, and I'm grateful for it. What I notice when I create more space is it also, then, brings up other things that need my attention, that are often not pleasant or comfortable. I can't dissociate when I have space.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Mm-hmm, right.

Rebecca Ching: I can't disconnect or numb.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right.

Rebecca Ching: That's a good thing, in theory, but in practice… oh! [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, I mean, it's labor-intensive. I'm not saying this is easy work, but this is really the work we need to be invested in if we're going to create the kind of world we long to inhabit.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, if we're gonna create the world we long to inhabit, we literally have to slow down.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: Which is counterintuitive. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: We don’t have to build and create and be led by FOMO.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Right. 

Rebecca Ching: It takes a while to come down, though, off of that tyranny of the urgent and to rewire the thinking of am I doing this because I believe it or because I've embodied what everyone else thinks I should do and what everyone else thinks our culture says is right, and that space allows time for story, then.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Mm-hmm, yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: And to really get to know -- 'cause you're right. When I think of the most important people in my life, and even reading your book, you're a beautiful writer and storyteller, and I've connected to aspects of who you are through the stories that you wrote in that book. 


Yeah, and that allows space. I had to sit down and read. I'm connecting the dots here. School is in session here on The Unburdened Leader podcast! 

So I had sent you a DM on Instagram. It was a nontoxic experience in that space, and I don’t know if you know, but you brought me to tears in the best of ways 'cause I was just thanking you for sharing that you -- you recently shared that you were diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, and I thanked you for you talking about it and how you spoke about it because that is something that is dear to me is my oldest daughter -- who's turning 13 next week, holy cow. I felt so witnessed and so cared for and affirmed in your response. I hadn’t felt like that in my nine-year journey, so thank you for that. 

I'd love for you to share a little bit about what led you to pursuing getting assessed for Autism.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah, my former partner worked with kids with Autism in a research setting, and I didn’t know much about Autism. I looked up the symptoms, and I was like oh, these really resonate with me. Hmm, I wonder if that's me. I asked my former partner, and she was like, "No, you're too smart. You're not Autistic." 

Rebecca Ching: Oh, interesting.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: So I said okay, all right, well… and I went along, and my partner and I, at the time, separated and later divorced, and then I was in Cuba with a comrade, and I missed all the social cues. Driving back in the car, my colleague said, "You might want to see how people with Autism deal with social settings," and I was offended. I was like, "Oh, you think I have Autism?" 


We actually got into quite the argument about it, and then last year I was driving with my current partner, Erin, who I talk a lot about on social media. We were driving to pick up my car, and we were having one of those relationship talks, and I said, "Well, you know, when I was in Cuba, Alba thought that maybe I had Autism because I missed all the social cues. What do you think about that?" Well, my partner had already been thinking about that, and she was like, "Yeah, you know, maybe that's true. What do you think about that?" I was like, "Well, you know, it's possible."  

So, then, I read the symptoms again, and I was like oh, these really resonate with me. So I sent the symptoms to my partner. I was like, "These really resonate with me. What do you think?" She was like, "Yeah, let's talk about it when we get home."

So we got home and ended up reaching out to a friend of mine, Mike McHargue, who is also on the Autism spectrum. I reached out to him, and I was like, "I think this could be true for me. What was your process?" He was like, "Oh, I thought you were on the spectrum because I get along with people who are on the spectrum."

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: And so, he sent me a couple of the assessment tools that he did that are, like, self-assessments, and I scored as being on the spectrum, and then I went in to do official testing. So I reached out to another friend of mine, Hillary McBride, who is a psychotherapist, and I said, "I think this is true for me. Do you have someone that you'd recommend in Tennessee?" She was like, "Oh, this makes perfect sense. I thought this was already true for you by the way you talked about your relationship with your body." I was like, "Oh, okay, well, maybe we're onto something here."


So, then, I contacted the therapist here in the Nashville area. She was very kind, and we did all the testing and the therapy, and she was like, "You are what would be called Asperger's, but that went away, and it's just Autism Spectrum Disorder. And so, that was my journey, and it just made a lot of sense how I do things. I have some sensory issues with lights. I keep the lights off most of the time unless I need them. I can only feel my body when someone is hugging me, for example, or touching me. So my doctor thinks it's good for me to get massages so I can have a relationship with my body. So that's my journey in a nutshell. I mean, obviously, I'm gifted, intellectually. I was in gifted and talented classes in school, but I'm so high functioning that I didn’t get flagged. I had to mask a lot in higher education.

Rebecca Ching: Yes, masking is something I'm noticing even in my daughter, and we're really working on that for her to not be who she thinks we want her to be, but to show up -- I mean, a teenager [Laughs] so I'm just planting the seeds right now. How has this new information impacted how you see yourself?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I've always thought I was a little bit weird, and I'm trying not to pathologize myself, but we're unique people. We are who we are, you know? I try not to let it impact me too much, but I try just to name it when it happens without letting it impact me negatively.


Rebecca Ching: So are parts of you not excited about this data? Is that what I'm picking up? It's almost an inner conflict or is it just the feeling, the stigma, or, as you said, discrimination from others that's tapping into --

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I feel the stigma, and I also want to be an advocate. I have a lot of colleagues whose children are non-verbal, and so, sometimes I have survivor skills, you know?

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I'm functioning and I'm verbal, but my brain works differently, so I just try to help as much as I can. I think the information makes sense. I mean, I'm excited in so far that I can help people put a face to Autism.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm. I know my daughter's really rumbled with it. We made the decision just to let her know as soon as we know that hey, this is a part of your nervous system, a part of your story, and so, we want you to know so that you can best care for yourself and speak your needs. She was very ashamed, very fearful that she would be misunderstood, that she would get bullied. You know, this journey has brought me to kind of differentiate the powerful difference between awareness and acceptance, which she has received so much in our community, but where it ends is the inclusion, the invites to parties or to playdates or to hang out. We're pursuing that more than she is pursued, and I think that is what's heavy and what I'm realizing, wow -- and that's that piece of being human with each other, getting our hands dirty and creating space for uncomfortable. So I really appreciate you. Thank you for sharing that.


I'd love to wrap up our conversation bringing it back to something we've touched on a little bit today, but you wrote this on your social media feed, "Thinking must be a collective act if we're gonna build networks of trust," and we unpacked the anatomy of trust from your lens. I would love to have you share with us what does thinking as a collective act look like as we want to make the world one that is more human?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Well, I think it's what we've done today. We have relied on story and memory and past traumas to help create conditions for empathy and kindness and a new imagination. That's collective work, so I think we've modeled it here. I think we need to be doing more of this work. We need to bring church, academy, movements, the corporate world into closer proximity so that we can model for each other what thinking collectively looks like so that we can have more empathy, more kindness, more generosity in proximity, not just as a thought. 

Rebecca Ching: Proximity really is an important ingredient to this work, huh? 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: It's been particularly difficult after 2020, but I think yes, definitely. Thank you. I feel like we could talk for quite a while. I know my soul would love to. I am honored to have had this conversation today. I'm gonna go for a nice long walk to let it integrate versus jumping back into work, to honor this time.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Great.

Rebecca Ching: Where can people find you if they want to connect with you and your important work?

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: So I'm on Instagram as @irobyn -- Instagram and Twitter, and then my collaborative project is The Activist Theology Project, and that is activistheology.com, and just remember activist and theology share a "T," and we're on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @activistheology.


Rebecca Ching: Wonderful, and I'll make sure to put click links in our show notes along with how people can get your book.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Great. 

Rebecca Ching: Well, thank you, again, for your time today, Dr. Robyn. It's an honor to have had this conversation and to get to know you a little bit more. Thank you so much. 

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Thank you.

Rebecca Ching: Dr. Robyn reminds us that when we remember how to be human with each other, we can create more peaceful, more equitable, and more just communities. So how do we remember how to be human especially when it could be so easy to see others as the enemy? We keep fighting for our own humanity and the humanity of others. We tell our own stories, and we listen to the stories of others. We address the trauma that keeps us from connecting. That's why I do the work I do, and that's my vision for how unburdened leaders can change the world. 

Leading is hard. Leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. You don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.  

Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small. 

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 keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a 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, 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 connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If you want to help support this show, please subscribe, download, and also share with someone you think may appreciate this episode. If you particularly value this episode, I’d be honored if you left a review. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com.


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