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New Leaders Council

2016 Graduation Address

Brian Riedel, Assistant Director of the Center for Gender and Women's Studies at Rice University, delivered the keynote address at NLC-Houston's 2016 graduation ceremony on June 15, 2016. 

Coming at the end of the fellowship year, and during a very difficult and emotional week after the mass murder in Orlando, Florida, his speech, Progressives, Silos, and Self-Care was thought-provoking, fascinating, and very well-received.

He graciously shared the text of his speech so those who could not join the gathering would not miss out. 


New Leaders Council board members, alumni fellows, family, and friends, it is an honor and a pleasure to be with you tonight at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center to celebrate the 2016 graduates of New Leaders Council Houston. 

It is also humbling to give a graduation speech to a group among whom I count several of my community’s heroes. There are many in this organization whose leadership I have admired for years, and others whom I am just now getting to know. So in preparing these remarks, I spent some time talking with several of your “fellow fellows” to get a deeper sense of what they got from this experience.

Those conversations more than confirmed for me my initial sense of this group: the collective of talents, energies, and passions in this room is formidable. You are community organizers, policy wonks, entrepreneurs, doctors, advocates for the voiceless, educators, financial wizards, social workers, legal experts, and scholars. 

You are daughters, sons, partners, spouses, and parents. You are curious, ambitious, and determined. You are not satisfied with the way things are.  You can imagine something better.

I imagine that is part of what makes us all progressives, a category I understand you have spent some time debating over the last six months.

What does it mean today to be “progressive”? 

Are all progressives somehow “the same”?

What might it mean then to undertake the mission of the New Leaders Council – to “recruit, train and promote the next generation of progressive leaders”? 

Tonight, I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts about those questions, thoughts that turn out to revolve around organizational silos – isolated groups of people, information, or ideas – and the relationships silos have to self-care.

So what does it mean today to be “progressive”?

For me, one of the most compelling and inspiring thinkers about progressive politics is Urvashi Vaid. 

In August 1998, while Vaid was serving as Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Policy Institute, the Log Cabin Republicans invited her to give a speech at their Annual Convention in Dallas, Texas. She has since reprinted it in her 2012 book Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics. So imagine if you will, being in a room full of Log Cabin Republicans, and hearing Urvashi Vaid say the following:

“Progressive politics is for many of us a politics of intersection, not identity affiliation alone.  It is a politics that believes institutions more than individuals reproduce inequality and need to be transformed.  It is a politics that believes that institutional racism and sexism are connected to institutional homophobia and to structural economic inequality.”

Let that sink in for a moment. For Vaid, progressives attend to intersections over identity politics, to institutions over individuals.  She calls us to seek connections among forms of institutional and structural inequality. To paraphrase, she is challenging us to seek out and work to overcome silos in our individual thinking and our political organizing.

We know the battles. 

We’ve seen them before, and the politics of division they can sow.

For example, women of color encounter them in conflicting calls for allegiance: are you a feminist or are you with “your people”?

At the time Vaid gave her speech, any number of inequalities might have been on her mind, if not also on the minds of her Log Cabin listeners. 

In 1998, state-level Defense of Marriage acts were rapidly multiplying in the wake of the 1996 federal DOMA. 

The not yet fully implemented NAFTA was already demonstrating uneven economic effects for workers and corporations in the US, Mexico, and Canada.[i] 

Immigration policy conversations regularly bemoaned that the largest portion of immigrants, over 1 in 4, came to the United States from Mexico.[ii] 

Of the 1.3 million people in state or federal prisons at that time, almost 50% were black.[iii] 

Nearly 30 percent of Hispanic youth aged 16 to 24 had dropped out of the school system.[iv] 

On average, women in the United States earned 75 cents for every dollar men earned.[v]  

Earlier that March, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, killed four of their classmates and one of their teachers in Jonesboro, Arkansas, using three semi-automatic rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition Andrew brought to school from his family home.[1]

For Vaid, this list is not just a litany of distinct and intractable social issues. It is a list of opportunities for silo-busting, where the method is developing the relationships among these issues. How does NAFTA affect Mexican immigration to the United States?  Put labor unions in conversation with immigration reformers. How does the gender pay gap fuel black incarceration rates?  Put feminists in conversation with criminal justice reformers. 

Rather than work divided in single-issue silos, and thus with an impoverished and incomplete vision of the social landscapes about which we care, Vaid’s framing of progressive politics urges us to work through coalition and alliance.

It is challenging work. It means suspending our own worldviews long enough to understand those of other people. It can mean placing ourselves in uncomfortable, risky, even violent situations.

We might even say that Vaid took this call to work across silos to its logical conclusion by making her remarks on progressive politics not to an audience of self-identified progressives, as I am tonight, but to a convention hall full of Log Cabin Republicans.

I suspect Vaid’s strategy came from a sense that there can and should be many different kinds of progressives, and many different coalitions among usUncomfortable as it might make us, no one has a monopoly on the right way to be progressive.

Regardless, Vaid’s call to work across silos should not be surprising to us here tonight. After all, look at the strategy animating the work of New Leaders Council. It is designed to churn our social worlds, connecting us to each other and to prior cohorts of progressive leaders, deepening our collective networks, challenging the lenses through which we see the issues we care about, and inviting us to think more broadly about the art of collaboration. 

New Leaders Council is an exercise in silo-busting among ourselves.

True, questioning silos is a good practice whoever you are.

I believe we do ourselves a disservice, however, to imagine silos as always and necessarily bad. After all, we create them all the time. At some level, they serve us.  

They certainly help bond together those within them, if at the expense of those outside. Their familiarity can be comforting.  Within them, we know exactly who we are, what to do, and why. They promise to soothe our insecurities.

If these things are also true of silos, perhaps we can serve progressive ends better if we work to understand why we make them.

One proponent of this approach is Gillian Tett, author of the 2015 book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. Some of you may know her as a journalist and U.S. Managing Editor for the Financial Times or as a frequent guest on in-depth interview shows like Charlie Rose

What you might not know is that she was trained originally not in journalism or finance but in social anthropology: she got her PhD from the University of Cambridge and did field work in Tajikistan, examining how Tajiks used marriage practices to preserve their Muslim identity under Soviet rule. 

As an anthropologist, she was trained in describing and analyzing how people understand and organize their worlds – in other words, the building blocks of perception that can in turn become silos.

Applying those same skills to her coverage of financial institutions, she was among the few journalists who predicted the 2008 collapse of credit markets due to once obscure but now infamous instruments like Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps.

In Tett’s analysis, silos are inevitable. Human beings will never stop classifying the world around them, and silos emerge when those perceptions become taken for granted and reinforced in a group of people.

It’s like the group-think or echo-chamber that can form in our Facebook feeds. Say you can’t stand seeing yet another cute kitten video, so you un-follow people whose annoying, mewing posts clutter your feed.

Eventually, you won’t see cute kittens anymore.  kittens-555822_640.jpg

Substitute your favorite hot button political issue here. 

Tett also argues that with the ever-increasing complexity of our modern world and the ever-increasing volume of data, we need silos – groups of experts and specialists who can make sense of at least some part of that flood of complex data.

For Tett, the problems emerge when those experts and specialists – and perhaps we should also hear the word progressives here – get too entrenched into their worldviews and cannot (or will not) communicate with others whose lives are intimately connected to the work those experts and specialists do.

Tett focuses her analysis on the corporate world. For example, she describes how silos within Sony resulted in the 1999 commercial launch of three distinct digital music players: the Memory Stick Walkman, the Vaio MusicClip, and the Network Walkman.

Each product used a different proprietary technology. The lack of connection among the technologies accurately reflected the lack of communication among the divisions of Sony that made them. The subsequent failure of any one of these devices to capture significant market share paved the way for Apple’s later success with the iPod.

But how did Sony’s silos get there? 

By Tett’s account, they were put there quite intentionally as a way to improve the business. After the phenomenal success of the Walkman in 1979, Sony grew enormously; by the late 1990s it employed 160,000 people working in consumer and industrial electronics, games, movies, energy, even home insurance. The company’s size made it difficult to keep efficient. 

So when Nobuyuki Idei became president of Sony, he borrowed an idea he’d seen while on the board of the international food giant Nestlé – organize the company into subdivisions (silos) each responsible for its own profit and loss reporting. 

At first, the measures worked well. Sony’s debt dropped, profits increased, and its share price doubled. 

As Tett recounts though, “as the managers of the new silos realized that they were responsible for their own balance sheets, they started trying to ‘protect’ their units, not just from rival companies but other [Sony] departments as well. … Collaboration halted. So did experimental brainstorming or long-term investment that did not offer immediate returns. Nobody wanted to take risks.”

By contrast, Tett describes Facebook as determined to be the “anti-Sony,” fending off the formation of silos on multiple fronts. All Facebook employees go through a bootcamp orientation that puts them in touch with different parts of the company. The corporate campus architecture and open-concept offices encourage people to cross paths with colleagues working on different projects. Regular Hackathons further mix up workers’ routines with all-night brainstorming sessions around questions identified and defined by the employees themselves. Sometimes the Hackathons produce something immediately profitable for the company; more often, however, they do not.

Tett’s narratives of Sony and Facebook illuminate a primary barrier to institutionalizing forms of silo-busting in a capitalist culture: there is immediate expense in time, money, and labor that might not generate an immediate payoff.

This is just one reason, incidentally, that projects like New Leaders Council are so valuable: they push back against that bottom line mentality, and remind us to invest in possibilities, not just profits.

But for all the wisdom Urvashi Vaid, Gillian Tett, and others might have to offer us progressives about working across silos, there is nothing so instructive as lived experience.

As those in this room who worked on it know all too well, our city has its own example of silos beautifully overcome and silos unforeseen – the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

The coalition that came together to make HERO possible in May 2014 is impressive by any measure. Business leaders and city representatives were involved in consulting and drafting language from the earliest stages. Multiple faith leaders rallied around the cause. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus brought with it sobering memories from decades of past efforts toward non-discrimination legislation. Education and community outreach moved through multiple stakeholders, eventually including the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, Equality Texas, the Human Rights Campaign, LULAC, the NAACP, NOW, and many others.  fran_and_faith_leaders.jpg

All shared the message that HERO named fifteen classes through which people were protected against discrimination. Multiple days of testimony at City Hall were overwhelmingly in favor of HERO. Those present at the hearings may also recall the episode when all the opposition to HERO suddenly walked out of chambers to bolster the numbers at an opposition press conference on the steps of City Hall. Even then their crowd looked thin. 

At that stage, it felt like HERO was the will of a solid, organized majority.

Once the opposition’s referendum and court efforts placed HERO on the November 2015 ballot, the coalition that successfully brought HERO to the city council vote faced two political questions. Would the opposition’s lie of “No men in women’s restrooms” persuade the public? What strategy would best get out the vote in support of HERO?  

It felt like everyone I knew in Houston voted to keep HERO.  This may be true for some of you as well. 

But as it turned out, this was the most seductive silo.  The vote failed 61% to 39%. 

After my initial anger and grief passed, I was left with the disillusioned feeling of living in a bifurcated city: the 39% silo that supported me and my community, and the 61% who voted against us, a host whose numbers and presence I was never able to measure or comprehend, not for all the media in the world, social or otherwise.

Months after the vote, at a community debriefing meeting, I felt that same energy among many activists in Houston. We were a community in need of self-care. The vote exposed a silo in which we operated, and the exposed wound stung.

That moment also illuminates a fraught relationship between silos and self-care. Remember how silos can feel comforting?  Remember how good it feels to know exactly who you are, to have a coherent theory for why you do what you do? When we have been attacked, dehumanized, and then humbled at the polls, it makes sense to seek out our comfort zones. We need them. We look for like-minded people. At the same time, the referendum on HERO exposed that very social structure as a silo.

This is what I mean by a fraught relationship. 

Self-care is necessary in the risky work of crossing silos, yet safe space occupied too long risks itself transforming imperceptibly into a silo too. Perhaps this is one of the deeper lessons HERO holds for progressives: getting out of our comfortable silos is itself a vital form of long-term self-care.

So what’s a progressive leader to do? 

Progressive work requires us to look for and work across silos, to operate outside of our comfort zones. 

How do we balance taking those risks with taking care of ourselves? How do we best work with others so that they too dare to undertake such risks? How do we stay connected to our passions for social justice, and continue to show up in our daily lives as daughters, sons, partners, spouses, and parents?

I am not sure these questions avail themselves of any permanent, universal answers. But I am sure these will always be the right questions for progressive leaders to ask, regardless of the tasks we undertake.

And we need this community of fellow progressives to sustain us over the long arc our work will take. Indeed, we today might be forgiven for thinking that the tasks before us look remarkably similar to those animating Vaid’s 1998 talk.  

In 2015, Obergefell v Hodges invalidated DOMAs across the United States, but a trans-inclusive federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a Houston Equal Rights Ordinance still elude us. 

We’ve switched from debating NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Net immigration from Mexico to the United States has dramatically reversed, yet some still argue we should build a wall. 

Black incarceration remains disproportionately high: in 2014, 37% of the 2.2 million inmates were black – note also that the absolute number of those incarcerated has almost doubled since 1998. 

The percentage of 16 to 24 year-old Hispanics dropping out of school has considerably improved from the 30% in 1998, but 12% in 2014 hardly seems a number of which we should be proud. 

The gender wage gap persists, with glacially slow improvement to 79 cents per dollar.[vi] 

These last four days, all our hearts are turned to Orlando.[2]

But we progressives know what to do here. If the capstone projects you have shared with me over the last weeks are any measure, Houston can expect great things from this community of leaders. From mentorship programs linking elementary school Latinas to their college-aged peers to projects educating service providers about the needs of transgender refugees, the capstones you have undertaken affirm the adage so often attributed to the pioneering feminist and anthropologist, Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

New Leaders Council class of 2016, we are grateful for you. 

Stay curious, keep crossing silos, and take care of yourselves and each other. 


[1] Later that October, James Charles Kopp would fatally shoot abortion provider Barnett Slepian just after Dr. Slepian had returned from mourning his father at synagogue.

[2] Sadly, November 29, 2015 saw a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  And this month we await a decision from the US Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.







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