If you are a leader who embodies activism, you are moved by personal convictions that see beyond yourself and the bottom line. You boldly desire to make intentional change that will impact another person, your family, where you work, our planet.
When activism is seen as a negative word, it supports the status quo. Making activism negative plays upon your fears being misunderstood or being seen as too much, too disruptive.
And it is easy to respond to these fears by quickly defaulting into silence or complacency.
But there is something immensely freeing by owning our values and desires for the world we want. Sure, it can feel a little scary and most definitely vulnerable.
When we do the work to not be weighed down by our burdens, we can move through the fears and increase our capacity for vulnerability so we can own our activism not as something to be ashamed of but as a beacon for our meaningful work and life.
My guest today wrote a whole book reframing activism with a more holistic lens that is inclusive and inspiring. She has given us a road map on redefining and reclaiming activism in an aligned and meaningful way.
Karen Walrond is a lawyer, leadership coach, and activist. Karen's work has helped thousands of people around the world find purpose and meaning in their work. As a photographer, Karen traveled throughout Africa with the ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization committed to the prevention of extreme poverty and preventable disease. Karen currently serves on the board of directors for the Houston Coalition Against Hate.
She is the author of The Lightmaker's Manifesto and The Beauty of Different, and a contributor to Disquiet Time and Expressive Photography. Karen, her husband, and their daughter live in Houston, Texas.
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Karen Walrond: Activism is being led by your values to purposeful action in the hope of making the world brighter for others, and when you have that, suddenly activism becomes very broad and it includes so many people who are doing so much amazing work to try to help make the world brighter. That may or may not include protesting or marching or doing something. There's lots of other ways of being an activist.
Rebecca Ching: Activism is not a bad thing, and it's time we stop treating it that way. There are a lot of forces that have weaponized activism so that it feels untouchable or tainted by people with responsibility for others. Now, the impact of weaponizing activism is chilling and can leave you feeling judged and questioning yourself, so you don’t live and lead your unique purpose, and instead, just second guess and stay quiet.
Leaders who embrace activism in themselves and others are some of the most hopeful people I know, and this hope is not a Pollyanna hope, but a scrappy hope that is gritty and focused. Now, for me, owning your activism is not about rigidity, obsession, or tunnel vision, but a commitment to doing the inner work so you can play the long game of making the world a better place, whatever that means to you. Owning your activism means staying the course of your vision admission while embodying the qualities of an unburdened leader. You choose hope over cynicism. You consistently work on identifying your own burdens and doing the work to release them instead of lead from them. You deepen your capacity for vulnerability and all of the discomfort it brings while staying true to your values and your integrity, and you grow your capacity to cultivate a trauma-informed culture that supports change for all.
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, more impactful leaders of themselves and others. Leadership comes in many forms, and so does activism. Both are not limited to their common stereotypes. If you're a leader who embodies activism, you are moved by personal convictions that see beyond yourself and the bottom line. You boldly desire to make intentional change that will impact another person, your family, where you work, our planet, and I'm hard-pressed to find a leader around me who does not hold these desires. When activism is seen as a negative word, it supports the status quo, and making activism negative plays upon your fears of being misunderstood or being seen as too much or too disruptive, and it's so easy to respond to these fears by quickly defaulting into silence and complacency.
Now, phrases like "activist judge" or "activist press," not only demonize professions, but they dismiss differences and challenges to power, but that's the point, right? Those in power are just scared of losing it, so they push back on the desire for change. When we "other" activism, we shut down innovation and change, and we also squash courage and connection. So let's be clear, activism often involves being overt about your agenda, but when is it expected that we don’t have an agenda? When you really think about it, neutrality is a myth and another way to not take ownership of your impact.
Our mission, values, vision, goals we lay out for our work and life are all about our agenda and our activism. Clarity in what you stand for is as much for you as it is for those you're leading. I think there's something immensely freeing by owning our values and desires for the world we want. Sure, it can feel a little scary, and most definitely vulnerable, and when we do the work to not be weighed down by our burdens, we can move through the fears and increase our capacity for vulnerability so we can own our activism, not as something to be ashamed of, but as a beacon for our meaningful work in life.
Now, my guest today wrote a whole book reframing activism with a more holistic lens that is inclusive and truly inspiring. She's given us a roadmap on redefining and reclaiming activism in an aligned and meaningful way, pushing back on those who want to use activism as a tool to silence.
Karon Walrond is a lawyer, leadership coach, and activist. Her work as helped thousands of people around the world find purpose and meaning in their own work. As a photographer, Karen travelled through Africa with the ONE campaign, an advocacy organization committed to the prevention of extreme poverty and preventable disease. Karen currently serves on the board of directors for The Houston Coalition Against Hate. She's the author of The Lightmaker's Manifesto and The Beauty of Different, and also a contributor to the Disquiet Time and Expressive Photography. Karen, her husband, and their daughter live in Houston, Texas.
Now, listen for Karen's honest reflection around receiving after losing her home to Hurricane Harvey, and what emotion overwhelmed her the most.
Pay attention to the two key factors we all need to have the endurance to stay the course in our activism and our meaningful work and notice what shifts in you as you listen to Karen's reflections on how she leads herself when anger and rage show up.
Now, please welcome Karen Walrond to The Unburdened Leader podcast. Karen, welcome!
Karen Walrond: Oh, what a thrill it is to see your face and be here with you. I'm really excited to be a part of this.
Rebecca Ching: I cannot wait to dig in. We have a lot to cover. So I want to start by taking you back -- I think it's been four and a half years, which is a little trippy, but almost four and a half years ago that you lost your home in Houston, Texas, and just about everything you owned to Hurricane Harvey, right?
Karen Walrond: Yeah, I did. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I remember religiously following your Facebook post updates as you gave a window into how you were navigating this looming reality of what was happening in your real-time rumble with whether to stay in your home or whether to leave as the flood waters were literally rising.
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I'm wondering if you could take us back to that moment you decided to leave your house? What were you feeling when your husband and your family dog waded out into the rising flood waters to reunite with your daughter?
Karen Walrond: Yeah, that was a crazy time. [Laughs] You know, now that there's some distance, because it's been, like you said, almost four and a half years, now, that that happened. It was the end of August in 2017. Looking back, I'm sort of incredulous that we went through it, right? It seems so crazy, and I do remember at the moment where we were wading through the water -- I do remember at that moment thinking I'm not entirely sure I believe this is happening to me, because I've seen images like this on the news, and this happens to other people, right?
That's sort of the thing. It looked so familiar because I've seen flooding in different parts of the world and people with all of their worldly belongings on their back trying to get somewhere and thinking that's awful, but also it feeling very, sort of, foreign, right? Even Katrina, which was just a few hours down the road from us, right?
So hindsight makes it feel a lot worse than what I was feeling in the moment. What I was feeling in the moment was literally, "We've got to get to our kid." It wasn’t grief. It wasn’t anything like that. That came later, right? In the moment, it was, "I've just got to get to my kid. We've just got to get safe. I want to make sure that my husband's safe, that my dog is safe, that my daughter is safe, and I'll worry about what to do next later." It was literally a very moment-by-moment kind of thing. It's so funny because you say that you were following along on Facebook, and a lot of it was because in the moment, I kept thinking I know this is bad enough that it's making national and international news, but I suspect that what the media is showing is the absolute very worst of it, even though I was going through a really bad time. And so, I want to make sure that the people who I know -- and I have a very curated Facebook friends. The people who I friend on Facebook tend to be people who I've met, and I know in real life. I thought these people are going to be panicking because they're actual real friends, so I want to let them know that whatever you're seeing on the screen, it's not as bad for us. I mean, even as we were losing our house, even as we were wading through -- I'm like, but we're good!
You know, and honestly, even to this day, I think -- you know, we were hearing stories of people leaving grandma in wheelchairs behind in the flood water or people going into diabetic comas because they lost power and they couldn’t keep the insulin cold. There were way worse stories than what we were going through, so we kept thinking I mean, yeah, we're having to wade through water, but we have a place to go. Friends are taking us in. We're not homeless. The whole time I kept thinking there are people who are dealing with far worse situations than we're dealing with. So it never really felt, in the moment, like oh, this is the absolute rock bottom. It never felt that way. It still doesn’t feel that way, weirdly. I mean, it was definitely a challenging time in our family, but I never felt like this is it, we're ruined, this is the end, even though we lost our house, we lost everything in it. We lost a lot, but I never felt like oh, we'll never come back from this. That never, ever entered my mind.
Rebecca Ching: I mean, there was an immense amount of loss, but there's also, it sounds like, I don’t know if detachment's the right word, but it was almost like we're just in the moment. Take it as it is. But there wasn’t catastrophizing, but water was rising around you.
Karen Walrond: No, I mean, it was a catastrophe, right? It definitely was, but it's so funny because I remember the days after a friend of mine called me and was like, "Okay, what do you need? We want to send you things. Your friends are asking what do you need?" I was really like, "We don’t need anything." I was really sort of, "This is embarrassing. I don’t need anything. There are people who are literally dying out here. I don’t need anything." It was funny because at one point she goes, "Okay, Karen. Obviously. It's not like you're homeless." Well, actually…
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, well… [Laughs]
Karen Walrond: [Laughs] Exactly. We both sort of fell out there, like, "You kind of are homeless." It was the first time that I sort of was like, "Oh, yeah, we actually are homeless. We have to go find out how we're going to live."
I remember weeks later, a friend of ours was trying to help us muck out the house and sort of salvage what we could, which was some plates that had been on high shelves. At the end of it, I looked at what we had salvaged, and I was like, "See, there's lots here! We're not so bad." My friend looked at me and she goes, "This is pretty bad, mate. You don’t have anything!" She's a Scottish friend, and she was like, "This is pretty bad, mate." I don’t know if it was sort of survival for me or what it was, but yeah, there was never a time that I thought let's just throw up our hands and give up.
Rebecca Ching: Is there anything else that we would see that you did not share publicly when you were doing that real time?
Karen Walrond: Well, so the water stayed in our house for about two weeks before --
Rebecca Ching: Oh, wow.
Karen Walrond: -- before it receded. That's when it started hitting, after the storm had passed but the damage is still there. My husband would wade into the house every day and try to save what he could. He did a video walking through the house showing what you're seeing. The water, by then, is dank and it's smelly and things are disgusting, and things have floated away so the house looks like a ruin because things are floating from room to room. It was just gross. He's cursing the entire time, right? He's like, "I can't believe this effing happened," and he's like really, really cursing. I recently watched it the other day, and it got me. He did it, and he was like look at the video, and he shared it with me, and there's no way I would have shared that because it was bad. Even watching it, I was like, "Oh, wow this is -- yeah, we're gonna have to rebuild." We knew then that the house was gonna have to come down.
There was no way to save the house. I didn’t share that. [Laughs] I didn’t share that part, and probably would not have shared it.
Rebecca Ching: You went through a really long season of receiving after losing everything you owned. I'm curious what impact that experience has had on how you lead yourself and others?
Karen Walrond: That's such a great question. Well, what it taught me was that I don’t receive well. [Laughs] It's really, really hard for me to ask for help. Still, still, and the same friend that said, "Well, it's not like you're homeless. Well, actually, you kind of are," she actually -- because I was like, "I don’t need it. I don’t need it. I don’t need it," and I remember her saying to me, "Karen, your friends need to help you," and it was the first time that I was like oh, of course, if I were in their situation, I would feel hurt if my help was rejected, right? You know, that was the only time. I literally said to her, I remember, I was like, "Okay, here's what--," because she wanted to organize an Amazon wish list or something like that, and I said, "Okay, I tell you what. Organize something. I don’t want to know what it is. I don’t want to know what's on the list. You guys brainstorm what you think we need because I can't look at it. That's gonna be too hard for me. It's gonna be really, really tough, and make it clear to people that I didn’t ask for anything." You know, I was really, really quite upset about it.
Now, looking back, I mean, I don’t know that I'm any better at receiving, honestly, I mean, if I'm totally frank, but I am definitely so grateful for everything people did, and I know I am far more activated to do something when somebody needs help even if they don’t think they need help.
I am far more likely to go -- to our mutual friend, Brené Brown, "What does support look like? How can I support you?" I know despite my reticent to accept it, it meant everything. It meant everything to me and to my family that people did reach out.
Rebecca Ching: Did you let that sink in? How you just got love-bombed and cared for?
Karen Walrond: Yes, well, I had no choice because --
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Literally!
Karen Walrond: Well that, but mostly, two or three days later my post office box was just inundated with just -- and also, it was sort of a gift that I didn’t ask for anything because it was really sort of lovely how thoughtful people were, because it was almost an indication of what -- of course, we got things like bleach, but my daughter, who plays guitar, we got so many guitar picks that she will never have to buy a guitar pick another day in her life, right? Or just sort of the things that were really clear that these were people who knew us and things that were funny. I got, probably, five coloring books that were curse words, right? So like de-stress coloring books.
Rebecca Ching: Nice.
Karen Walrond: So there were just these really sweet, thoughtful, "I'm thinking of you" gifts that were just so lovely and so kind. We had borrowed a friend's pickup truck because we lost our cars. Our cars were in the flood waters as well. The bed of the truck was full, and we had to keep making trips back to the post office. Yes, I let it wash over me, because it was just in my face how much people cared and were concerned and wanted to help and were so generous. I actually mention this in my current book, but my overwhelming emotion from that time is gratitude. It's not loss. It's not even grief.
It's just the gratitude of people being just amazing. People are amazing. People are amazing, and it was a gift to be able to have a time in my life where I could witness it, right? I was the recipient, but I would not wish a hurricane or a flood on anyone, but I do wish that everybody on the planet could have a moment where they could see -- the It's A Wonderful Life moment where you see people sort of galvanized to help you.
Rebecca Ching: Showing up for you!
Karen Walrond: Yeah, yeah. It was a real gift.
Rebecca Ching: Are there any echoes that are still tender from that time?
Karen Walrond: No, not tender. Although, there have been -- for example, I'm a pretty avid photographer, or I have been, but since that time I really have to struggle to pick up my camera, and I'm not sure where that comes from. Before the flood, I would shoot every single day. There was not a day that I didn’t pick up my camera. Now, even though photography continues to be a source of joy for me, it feels like, "Oh, I haven’t shot in a while. It's been a month. I should probably pick up the camera." I'm not sure what that is about. I don’t know what that's about, but that's something that I know is a little weird. But overall, no, I mean, we're in our new house, and my daughter's thriving, and our family is closer than ever having endured it. So, for the most part, it's actually turned into a gift all around, what happened.
Rebecca Ching: That's powerful.
Karen Walrond: Which I am very privileged to say, because that is definitely not true -- I mean, we still have houses that have remained abandoned, since that time, on our street. It is a great privilege to be able to say that, because that's not true for everybody that was affected at that time.
Rebecca Ching: Thanks for sharing that.
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: You touched on a couple of things that you do. You are a multi-talented leader. You wear many hats. You're a trained engineer and lawyer.
Karen Walrond: I am, yes.
Rebecca Ching: You're a photographer.
Karen Walrond: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: You're a leadership coach.
Karen Walrond: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: You are a deep creative and an author.
Karen Walrond: Yeah, crazy, right? I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I can relate to that, too, Karen. [Laughs] I can definitely relate to that too. We'll figure it out as we breathe our last breath. You have a new book that came out, and I want to get to that, but first, I want to give a shout-out to your first book, The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit. Now, our copy, here, in The Ching household is well-loved, as my daughter and I have gone through the pages on repeat over the years, and that book has been an important catalyst of many conversations as my daughter's rumbling with her feeling different as she's navigated her autism and her world. So I'd love for you to say, from your perspective or unpack a little bit more, what's a confident misfit, and how would we recognize those qualities in ourselves and in others?
Karen Walrond: It was funny, when I wrote that book, the title was the easiest part of writing the book. For some reason, when I was thinking about wanting to do a book where I photograph all these different people and have them share their stories, especially people who may have a trait about them that the world would say is a "fault" or a "flaw," but they've turned it into their superpower, they’ve turned it into something that actually brings them joy or they sort of lean into as the thing that they're most proud of. The confident misfit came about because I am an immigrant. I'm from Trinidad, and I moved back and forth between Trinidad and The United States a lot when I was growing up. We kids learn how to adapt really well, so when I was here in America, I would grow my hair out, and back then it was Farrah Fawcett's flips so I would flip my hair and wear the jeans and the heels.
Then, two years later, my dad would get transferred back to Trinidad and I would get rid of the American accent and I would go back and start talking like a Trini. I would cut my hair off. I'd wear a uniform to school. You know, and I was completely Trinidadian. Then, two years later, I'd come back to America and I'd flip back into an American accent. And so, I had really sort of chameleon-ed my way through life, and that sort of continued as an engineer and then as a lawyer, and I was in the energy industry. I would go okay, what can I do to fit in? The truth is, as an engineer or a lawyer in Texas, Houston, where I live, diversity in the energy industry meant a white guy from Oklahoma and a white guy from Louisiana, right? There just wasn’t -- so what was I trying to do? No matter how I tried, I am never going to walk into a room and people look at me as a white guy from the Southern US, right? It really sort of made me realize this is ridiculous. The only thing I can do is show up, work hard, do the best I could, stay in my integrity, and be who I am.
And so, that's, for me, where the confidence came from, right? For me, it had a lot to do with race and gender and nationality and realizing the work was just too hard to try to blend in. It was just too difficult. For me, it was I give up. I can't do this anymore. That's probably true for a lot of people who feel very different. At some point, they just have to be like, "Well, this is who I am. It's too difficult to try to be something that I'm not."
A lot of people, when I wrote that book, kept saying could you write one for kids?
I never felt comfortable doing that. I think kids love it, and I think it's a book that teenagers -- I mean, there are a couple of F-bombs or something in the book, so you might not want your very young children to read it, but for teenagers and that kind of thing, I think it's a book that will resonate with them, but I also feel like some of that becoming a confident misfit is sort of hard-earned. You have to kind of go through life in a certain way and get really comfortable with that. So I don’t know how, as an adult, I would write to kids going, "Oh, don’t worry about the fact that kids tease you." That's a hard sell, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Karen Walrond: But, like your daughter, hopefully, people start to get to the idea where, you know, it's harder to be someone else than to be who I am, so how do I get comfortable with who I am? What would it take for me to do that? That's the work, right?
Rebecca Ching: That is the work. That is the work. Thank you for sharing that.
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I want us to shift towards your newest book, The Lightmaker's Manifesto: How to Work for Change Without Losing Your Joy. I told you before I started recording, I have been recommending this book. I have been reading it to clients. I think a lot of people are rumbling with how to show up, and there's this sense of activism that means that you're over-extended, you're passed out, you're exhausted. It's like full-body, full-soul sacrifice, which is so not helpful and so a part of the culture of white supremacy. Let's just burn out. All in and all out.
I'd love for you to talk about how this new book idea found you.
Karen Walrond: Yeah, so thank you for asking that question. I would love to say that I had a muse inside of me that was just crying out and I had been an activist for so many years and my wisdom needed to be shared. That is all complete lies.
What actually happened was I had written the first book, and I had contributed to other books, and this publisher became familiar with my writing and contacted me. It was really funny because they happened to email me, like, January 2nd of 2020. It was, like, right at the beginning of the year, and, normally, I would have ignored the email. It was this, "I'm with this publisher, and I'm really interested in, perhaps, you writing a book for us." Normally, I would have probably deleted it. I would have been like okay, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know this. But that year, 2020, I picked two words for my year. They were bold and experiment.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, wow.
Karen Walrond: I thought, if I'm gonna choose these two words, I will respond to this email. So we set up some time to talk, and the woman, Valerie, God bless her, said, "We are looking for a book on the intersection of joy and activism, and we think you could be the one to write it." Because bold and experiment, I was like, "Yes! I could totally write this book!" Then, I hung up and went, "I am not the person to write this book!" [Laughs] Like, why would I do this? In my mind, I said I'm not an activist. I mean, sure, I've done some marches. Sure, I've travelled to Africa. I've done this stuff, but activists are people who stand in front of tanks in Tianamen Square. Activists have police dogs set on them. They get arrested. They're tear-gassed. I've not done that, right?
So I literally was like I don’t know how I'm gonna do this, but with the first book, The Beauty of Different, I had interviewed people, and I loved doing that. I thought well, let me think about who I know that I could interview -- who I think of as activists. The first person was Brené Brown who is a very good friend of mine. I was like okay; I could interview her. Then, I thought Tarana Burke, who is the founder of the me too. movement, and she's a friend. I'm like, I'm sure Tarana would let me interview her.
I came up with a list of people, and then suddenly realized that all of these people, while undoubtedly activists and who may have been in situations in the past where they've marched and had police dogs on them, but they're not known for that, right? They're not known to be people who put themselves in harm's way, and so, I realized there's an issue here. For some reason I'm willing to call them an activist, but I'm not willing to call myself an activist, so there's something about the definition of activism that needs to be unpacked. So that's really where I started.
I started thinking about who I could interview and how I could unpack what activism is. What I ended up coming up with was that activism is being led by your values to purposeful action in the hope of making the world brighter for others. When you have that, suddenly activism becomes very broad and it includes so many people who are doing so much amazing work to try to help make the world brighter that may or may not include protesting or marching or doing something. There's lots of other ways to be an activist. That's how it happened.
Rebecca Ching: I really appreciate that definition. It's a needed container. I've been active, politically, since I was little, doing campaigns in the neighborhood to working in the Senate, so I feel like anyone who shows up, whether you're in the limelight or not, if you are pushing forward something you believe in, that is true. I just love the language that you put around it. You're also sort of identifying in your book these qualities that contributed -- like, how to work for change without losing your joy which is so timely right now. There's two that really stood out to me. We had one of those put down the book moments and went, "Whoa." I had to sit on that.
First, I want to start by looking at a passage you wrote on integrity. I'd love for you to read that, and then we can unpack that a little bit more.
Karen Walrond: Okay, yeah, sure. I'm honored. Okay, so it goes: "So I've entered more and more into an activism space with my work, and I've come to value a higher standard than authenticity. Instead, I go for integrity. Integrity is much larger than authenticity. It encompasses trustworthiness. It implies a moral code. It doesn’t have the airbrushed-ness or works that bare-it-all-ness that authenticity often connotes. Rather, it inspires an adherence to that moral code. I think integrity, it challenges us more than authenticity does because it requires us to be mindful of our best selves. It's less about how others perceive us, and far more about how we think of ourselves. When it comes to activism, integrity calls for us to stand our ground about what we believe. This may sound easy, but it can be the hardest part of activism. Integrity means staying the course even when it seems like things aren’t getting better. Integrity means resisting the urge to copy others who make advocacy look easy, and it means forging your own path with your own skills and gifts, whether others find it entertaining or not. And sometimes integrity means speaking up for justice even though you might lose friends and family members as a result."
Rebecca Ching: Oof.
Karen Walrond: Yeah, integrity can suck.
Rebecca Ching: Tell me, why you said that right now.
Karen Walrond: Well, because it can be really tough, right? You may end up -- I think the preamble to that passage talks about how some people will speak up, for example, on social media. Somebody will say, "This is wrong, and this is what I believe." You know, people might come back and go, "I don’t come to your social media feed for politics. I come to your social media feed for cute pictures of your kids." Or, "You're so angry lately," or "You're so…" and that can be a really hard thing. That can lead to a lot of loss, right?
It can be tough, but I think if you're truly in your integrity and you're truly rooted in your values, you know that's the only way to go forward. There's, really, no choice.
Rebecca Ching: Right.
Karen Walrond: It can be a really tough thing to do. I think we, superficially, think, "Oh, well, of course, I can be full of integrity, and that's an easy thing to do," but in many ways, in a lot of ways, you get tested if you're called on to stand in your integrity. I think we all are.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I mean, no question, especially these days. It can feel confusing and discerning, but what I found so anchoring is that where it's less about how others perceive us, because it feels like everyone's the integrity police of everybody else, and that's where a lot of people were feeling shut down, at least a lot of people that I work with. A lot of leaders are like I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to stir the -- I want to be helpful. So people were feeling frozen, but you said it's less about how other perceive us, and far more how we think of ourselves. I was like it's a lot less disorienting. It's an anchoring statement versus worrying what everybody else thinks, imagine that, and going okay, what do I think about myself? How do I like how I showed up here? Am I shrinking? Am I playing the "nice" card? Unpack that a little bit more, that part about where you said it's far more about what we think about ourselves.
Karen Walrond: Yeah, so the other thing I think it's important to know about the book is the book leans really heavily on introspection, right? On grabbing a journal and really kind of sitting and grappling with things like what are your gifts? What are the things that insight passion in you? Passion can be, "I'm really excited about this," or, "This really makes me angry. We need to change this." Also, being very, very clear on your values, right? Being really clear about this is what I stand for, this is how I want to move through the world.
I think when you combine those things that you're very, very clear about what it is that you are called to or moved to do something in service of, and you're very clear that the reason that you were called to do that is because of values that you hold, then a lot of the other stuff starts to fall away a little bit, right? If somebody starts to say, "Well, you should have…" -- well, when you're really clear about what you stand for, that can sort of roll off your back a bit, because you know that this is what you were called to do, and you can look in the mirror and go, "I stood in my values. I did what I was called to do. This is an action I had to take." Therefore, you can go to sleep soundly at night, because you have stayed in that. I think that's what I meant about -- you do the work to kind of unpack yourself and what you are called to do and what you are here on this earth, really, to serve and who you want to help. The other stuff falls away.
Sort of related to this is there are so many causes in the world, and what I find can happen is sometimes, for example, if anti-discrimination is your thing and you're like I really need to do something about this, and then there's an environmental or animal -- there are puppy mills or something, and somebody gets mad at you for not speaking out about the puppy mills, right?
Rebecca Ching: Oh, yeah.
Karen Walrond: Right? That's what happens. The truth is, I would love to be able to take on all the causes in the world, but we can't do that. And so, when you get very, very clear about this is what I am called to do, this is how I'm supposed to move through the world, then being called out for not speaking about that is not an attack on your character, right?
It is about being discerning about where you are going to focus your energy. And so, it's a lot easier to respond and say, "Look, I'm not happy with puppy mills either, and my silence doesn’t indicate that I am for puppy mills. I'm silent on a lot of things which bothers me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that…" You can do that with sort of a clearer conscience.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. It does require -- in the IFS community (the Internal Family Systems community) we talk about the Y-O-U turn. The Y-O-U turn. The introspection that you talk about and that's what it is. And so, when you get the dings. When you get the little attacks or the challenges, in the end, it's an inside game.
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: If I need to change or shift, we can take ownership of that, but I think this also reduces burnout, and it helps with endurance to stay the course so thank you for those words, because I really value them. Another quality that you identified in your book that is one that I've been rumbling with a lot lately is the quality of kindness.
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: This is another one that's a big Y-O-U turn: "To advocate for others in an honorable way, we need to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and like who looks back. Being a part of change is an inside game. We can't be a part of healing the collective if we're not doing our own healing."
Walk us through your connection of honorable advocacy and how we're kind to ourselves.
Karen Walrond: There's, I guess, two parts to that. There's the kindness to others, and there's the kindness to ourselves.
Rebecca Ching: Right.
Karen Walrond: The kindness to others part is probably the trickiest part, I think, especially in the times that we are in right now. Probably within the last, say, five or six years, it has become very much an us versus them, and how dare you, and if somebody disagrees with you, then they're evil, right, or they're bad, they're soulless, whatever. We get to the point where we just write a person off.
The lesson for me in this book is the person who probably gives the most wisdom around this in this book is a dear friend of mine, Asha Dornfest, who is a political activist in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She does a lot around politics which, let's face it, politics is fraught with unkindness in a lot of ways, and she is one of those people who, literally, you're in her orbit and you just release. She's a very calm person. She's very easy going. She never, ever, ever has a negative thing to say about anybody. I asked her about kindness, and I said -- thinking, honestly, that she would say, "Well, I mean, that's just who I am. I'm just raised to be kind, and that's who I am." I didn’t expect what she said, which was that kindness was a tool of her resistance. She says that the truth is that "they" -- and I'm using air quotes, here -- want us to fight. "They" want us to polarize. "They" want it to be us versus them, blue versus red, conservative versus liberal. "They" want that.
Rebecca Ching: "They" want to fight. "They" want to fight.
Karen Walrond: "They" want the fight, right? She says, "My being kind is an intentional act, intentional stance to say I don’t buy into that. We are humans. We are all interconnected. Yes, of course, I want to shift mindsets, but part of that means that I'm not going to act in a way where I'm using the tools of the oppressor, right? I'm not gonna be unkind because I think that people are being unkind to me. It's the Audre Lorde quote, right? "The tools of the oppressor can never be used against the oppressor."
So she says that she's not a pushover, she's not gonna allow herself to be abused or allow abusive behavior. She'll walk away or she'll establish a boundary, but she's never going to be unkind. It is a way that she has decided is gonna move to.
That was very different for me, because I think, you know, my idea of kindness before I spoke to her was sort of the "when they go low, we go high," kind of, "Well, I'm better than that person," right? I love that quote, but there's a certain thing about well, if I'm gonna be kind because I'm a better person than you, and that's not what it was about. For her it's, "I'm going to be kind because I'm going to stop that part of the oppression," right?
Rebecca Ching: And the dehumanization is what she was talking about. I underlined that in the book. I underlined everything she was saying, too!
Karen Walrond: Yeah, for sure! I mean, so that's one thing. That's one aspect of kindness. The other about self-compassion was something that was triggered by another person I interviewed. Her name is Valerie Kaur. She's as Sikh (S-I-K-H) American activist, and she said to me something that was both horrifying and very freeing. It was that we are never going to get to the end of what we're fighting for. We're never gonna get to full justice. It's not gonna happen in our lifetimes. People have been fighting this march way before us, and people will continue to fight after us. I was like that is the most depressing thing ever, but what she was saying was in order for us to be able to have longevity in the work, longevity in the march, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to be able to take the baton from the generations before us and carry it as long we can so that we are able to pass the baton on for the generations after us.
Similarly, Zuri Adele said, for her, self-compassion is not just about the oxygen mask analogy that we always hear, right, but it's about stopping to gather the energy, to gather the kind of energy, the mindful gathering of the energy to go forth and be active and advocate again. It's about okay, I'm gonna stop, I'm gonna gather the energy, and now I'm gonna push forward. Valerie Kaur also says, "Listen to the midwife." Breathe and push is what we say when we give birth. It's not push, push, push and don’t breathe, right? There's both. There's this sort of rhythm that has to happen in order for us to have longevity in the work. That rhythm necessarily means we have to be kind and we have to be self-compassionate or we're just not gonna be able to do it. We'll burn out.
Rebecca Ching: I repeatedly hear people say, "Rebecca, you say all this stuff, you give me the research, but parts of me feel like I'm asking to be hurt," or saying they don’t deserve me being kind, right? I said this is a selfish act. It is for your wellbeing.
Karen Walrond: One hundred percent.
Rebecca Ching: It is not connected to letting them off the hook. It's not about accountability or boundaries. It is about staying aligned to your humanity, and soon is a slippery slope to say well, I'm just gonna give them what they gave, and were gone. We've lost it. We're unmoored, and man, has that been hard to hold onto.
Karen Walrond: It's the hardest. It's the hardest. It's absolutely the hardest, but, again, the way Asha talks about it -- her goal whenever she is speaking to somebody who holds an opposing view, she goes, "My goal is not to convince them that I'm right." She goes, "That may be other people's goal. It's not my goal. My goal is to just open the door a bit for them to understand a possibility of a slightly different or broader perspective on the issue," right?
She goes, "If I have somebody walk away going, 'Huh, I hadn’t considered that part.'" That, for her, feels like victory. If all you do is, "You're an idiot," when you're talking to somebody, you're never gonna even get to that part, right? So for her, kindness is that tool of being able to go, "You know, maybe consider this part. Maybe consider this," and listening and being compassionate like, "Well, why is it you think that way? What is it about your experience, your culture that leads you to hold this stance? Then, I'm gonna share mine. Then, maybe, maybe both of us will walk away with a hmm, I had not realized that or maybe I need to look into this further." For her that's her goal in her political activism which is a really interesting way to think of it because I've never thought of it that way before. I was like no, they're wrong. I'm right.
Rebecca Ching: Right. Well that still may be true, and how do we show up in those spaces because that's part of staying true to our values. No trust is earned -- as we've learned from Brené's research -- no trust is earned without connection in those small moments, and then if we don’t like ourselves, how can we give that?
Karen Walrond: Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: If we're not living in saying I've got to be kind to myself, and I'm doing the best I can. Where do I need to grow and have that compassion? It isn’t about making us vulnerable to being hurt which is what we've absorbed in this very toxic culture we're in, so thank you for unpacking that. You touched on one other emotion and that's anger. You had this other sentence that stood out to me, and I think it's so important to destigmatize anger especially in those who are not white and male.
Karen Walrond: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: You wrote, "I'm pro-anger. I find it an incredibly motivating emotion."
This is really powerful: "Yet, anger left unfettered can be incredibly corrosive and lead to unthinking actions you later regret." These words brought me to January sixth which we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of that and all that led up to it and the unfettered anger we witnessed play out before us at our nation's capital. I'm curious, how has this kind of unfettered anger impacted your capacity to find joy in your own activism and life?
Karen Walrond: In my experience, it is rare that I have ever lashed out, even when I'm right, and felt good about it later on. Right? Even when I'm right. Even when I'm 100 percent, absolutely, that person is wrong. I am 100 percent right. If I react in fury, I mean, I honestly can't think of a time where, with time passing, I went, "Yeah, totally. That was awesome." Usually I'm like I probably could have handled that better. But I think, also, anger is very motivating because that's what inspires us to activate in the first place, right?
So the question becomes -- this is the trick about activism and advocacy, right? The question, it's a chess game. You feel that rage or you feel that, and then you have to take a beat and go, "Okay, what is the most effective way that I can make change?" More often than not, just reacting in anger or reacting in fury does not move any closer to what you're trying to get to. You have to take a beat.
Rebecca Ching: What do you do when you take a beat? What would we see if you were taking a beat?
Karen Walrond: This had nothing to do with activism, but recently, I was at a restaurant and somebody was less than great at their job, let's just say, and it made me angry.
I was sort of surprised at the fury that sort of came up in me, and she was just downright rude. This person was just rude. I was asking for help, and she was just rude. That's the thing about anger sometimes, right? It's in flames, right? It's just poof. What I did in that moment was I said, "I'll handle it myself, thanks," and I turned and walked away. I actually walked away thinking I'm sure she probably was like well, that customer was horrible, but I removed myself because I knew if I really told her about herself bad things could have happened.
Let's just say I had. Let's just say I said, "Give me your manager. That's not happening," and she lost her job. Let's just say that had happened. Whatever fleeting satisfaction I would have had in that moment, I would have walked away and gone what if she's a single parent? I would have sat there and gone how badly did I ruin this person's life, right? So for me, just turning and going, "That's fine, I'll handle it," and walking away, I think to myself she probably went home, even if she thought I was a horrible person to just walk away, there's probably a part of her that's like, "I'm not sure what I did there." There's a part of some self-reflection that she, I'd hope, may have been moved to do. For me, when I feel that flash, my best thing to do is to just remove myself or say, "I really can't talk about this right now because I don’t want to say anything that I regret, and I don’t want to say anything that you don’t deserve, so give me a beat."
That said, if we bring it back to activism, for me, discrimination is just -- I get infuriated by it.
It is definitely my thing. I get infuriated at all forms of discrimination. Anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Asian, anti-Black, it doesn’t matter. It makes me bananas, but that fury is what makes me go what can I do? What is my own place in why this is happening? What's my own fault? How can I hold myself accountable, and how can I do something to help? That's why I say I'm pro-anger, because that fury is often the spark. It's the thing that will ignite you to make some change.
Rebecca Ching: It's a data point, not just an emotion. It's like when you take the beat and go, "Oh, hello, fury."
Karen Walrond: Right.
Rebecca Ching: "You're here again and again and again. What's going on?" Sometimes it's like it's just been really rough, and it's hard to absorb, and I need to close the laptop. I need to not be on technology or watching the news. I need to be with my people, my music, my journals or whatever it is. Again, when you're holding trauma in your system, that's where it gets really hard, right -- is to take that beat.
Karen Walrond: I would like to say I sound really enlightened right now, but this is something I struggled with. For social media, that's a great one. Somebody's wrong on the internet, and I don’t know how many Tweets I've typed and then not hit publish. I don’t know how many Tweets I've typed, hit publish, and then turned back around and unpublished it like that's not who I want to be. To be very clear, I sound like this very wise sage, but it is something I for sure struggle with, and I think we all do. The trick is, sort of, to be mindful of it.
Rebecca Ching: I think it's mindfulness, but it's also very human. When you care deeply, you're gonna hurt deeply. That's a part of the gig, right?
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It really is taking a lot. That's why I love, again, the constant Y-O-U turn and the tools in your book just to help concretize this practice so we can run the marathon. You talked about being a wise sage which you are. You and I share the same birthday, and I just joined you in the 50s.
Karen Walrond: We do. Yes, welcome.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, and so many people resist birthdays because of fear of aging. You’ve also been pretty open about your rumble with aging and pushing back on how our culture advocates for fighting the science of aging. We're also gearing up to that time of year where everyone talks about diets and changing our outsides to feel better on our insides. It gets to a peak.
Karen Walrond: Ahh, yes.
Rebecca Ching: Yes. I'd love for you to share what's shifted inside of you that's allowed you to find more joy in aging instead of trying to fight it the way culture says we should.
Karen Walrond: You know, the more I work on ageing -- I'm 54 now, right? So I work on ageing. I recently just let my hair go silver. It is something that I think about a lot. For me, I think about how when I was ten, I wanted to be 15, and when I turned 15, the last thing I ever wanted to be was 10 again, or when I turned 21 I didn’t want to be 15 again. So what switches that suddenly we're like, "Oh, I wish I were 30." That was one thing. There's something weird that happens where suddenly that happens, and that doesn’t make sense. The other thing is, I will tell you, my grandmother lived to 102 years old.
Two other grandparents lived well into their 90s, so I come from a line of long livers, and so, if you think about that, at 54 -- assuming I don’t get hit by a bus -- if I live healthy, I have my life again to live plus also think of all the medical advances that will happen in that time, so I could live to 110.
Rebecca Ching: Powerful.
Karen Walrond: Who knows.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Karen Walrond: Except now, I don’t have to learn how to walk or talk. I don’t have to go to school. I've already done that. Just think about all that life ahead where I don’t have to learn the basics anymore. That, to me, is thrilling. That's thrilling, so why would we get caught up in age? There's just so much more that we could potentially do.
Rebecca Ching: This is a powerful reframe. When I'm thinking about it, I'm like -- because I have relatives, too, that have lived almost to 100. I've been in this weird mode of like what's our retirement plan and our investments and what kind of insurance. I mean, it's not bad to be doing that, but my husband says I've gotten a little laser-focused on it. He's like can we just have an evening to chill? I'm like let's go through our budget and figure out the investments. He's like oh, my gosh. That's scarcity, and I think, for me, at least, there's that element of always I was trying to catch up or get ahead. When you say that that way, I just felt this settling in my system like god willing, right, that if we have the chance to live a vital, long life, without having to go through middle school again, um, thank you.
Karen Walrond: Right? Exactly, and all think about medical advances. What looks like -- I mean, I don’t know about you, but when my mother was 54, she was ancient in my mind.
Rebecca Ching: Right?
Karen Walrond: She was ancient. Now, I'm here and I'm like this does not feel ancient at all.
Rebecca Ching: No, not at all.
Karen Walrond: But now maybe 75 will, but by the time I'm 75, that's gonna feel like 35 used to feel.
Rebecca Ching: I love it.
Karen Walrond: Who knows. There are all kinds of -- the potential is so huge of what lies ahead. I'm very pro-ageing, honestly. I really, really am. I'm not even anti-ageing. I am pro-aging. Let's do this.
Rebecca Ching: All in. Let's do it.
Karen Walrond: Yeah, yeah!
Rebecca Ching: So I want to wrap up asking you how your definition of success has changed as you age and after all you’ve experienced.
Karen Walrond: Oh, good lord. When I was in my 20s it was definitely the stuff, right?
Rebecca Ching: For sure.
Karen Walrond: It was the car and the money. Now, it's about a cross between, honestly -- and it's what the book is about -- it's a cross between cultivating joy which is deeper than happiness. I'm not talking about just having happy days but cultivating that joy, which is tied closer to meaning and purpose, right?
Rebecca Ching: You got it, yeah.
Karen Walrond: And how to be of service, like, how can I help people along the way? Those two things. Even as I don’t ask for help as I said at the top. How can I be of service, and if I am living a life where I can say I have the capability of continuing to do that and I'm still curious and learning about how to do that, then that's success.
Rebecca Ching: I love it. So when you take a look around at your life right now, is this what you thought you'd be doing today?
Karen Walrond: No, but this is better. [Laughs] This is way better, for sure. For sure.
Rebecca Ching: In what ways?
Karen Walrond: Well, you know, I was a very successful lawyer for a while there, and I was making lots of money, and I was miserable. Now, I'm doing work that I love, I work with people I love, I get to be on podcasts with people who are amazing and what a gift. What a gift. What a gift that is. Yes, I am full of success just for that. It really is a wonderful life, as they say.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you, Karen. Thank you so much for your time of day. Where can people find you if they want to connect with you?
Karen Walrond: The easiest way is to probably go to my website, www.karenwalrond.com will get you there. You'll see a funny word that says, "Chookooloonks." Don’t worry, you're at the right place. If you go to www.karenwalrond.com, you will find links to the Facebook, the Instagram, the Twitter, all of that stuff. So please come visit me there.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. Make sure you get your copy of The Lightmakers Manifesto: How To Work For Change Without Losing Your Joy. It's a great holiday gift. It's a great gift to give in the business community, your family. There's so much that's accessible to everyone, so thank you for showing up and writing that book. Thank you for being you. I really appreciate you, your leadership, and your heart, Karen.
Karen Walrond: Absolutely, likewise. Thank you so much for having me.
Rebecca Ching: I've seen many leaders over the years scoff at activism or look down on it or shame it like it was beneath them, seeing it as unruly and too impassioned, but when we do not value activism, we do harm. Now, whether you may be dismissing your own activism because you feel like it doesn’t fit you because you're not doing enough or you feel like activism is too loaded a word, it's important to reclaim the word for your own good and the greater good. As Karen notes, we don’t have to stand in front of tanks to take a stand for the change we desire to see. How has your view of activism shifted after listening to this conversation with Karen, and are you clear on your values and what drives you? If not, what actions do you need to take to get crystal clear on your values, and what practices can you put in place, so your anger informs you but doesn’t overwhelm you or take you out.
Reclaiming activism and owning your own activism means staying the course of your vision and mission while still doing the inner work to increase your capacity for vulnerability, self-leadership, and hope. This is the work of an unburdened leader.
Leading is hard, and leading is also often controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries, and starting to really own your activism. Navigating the inevitable controversy can change your confidence, clarity, and calm. Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and could 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 the inevitable conflict both 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 connection call. I can't wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can sign up for the weekly Unburdened email, find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources along with ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com.