Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Tamika Butler on Antiracism, Equity, and Self-Care Through Solopreneurship
As a watershed year comes to a close, Tamika Butler, Esq., founder and principal of Tamika L. Butler Consulting, joins host Courtney Kashima on the podcast. The result is a stirring, uplifting, and funny conversation on the issues facing everyone who works to undo society’s inequities. Tamika’s practice focuses on the built environment, equity, antiracism, diversity and inclusion, organizational behavior, and change management. A transportation planner, lawyer, and nonprofit executive director in previous roles, she explains why she struck out on her own after the pandemic started. She and Courtney discuss the positives and negatives of working for yourself, as well as why it’s important for urban planning firms and other agencies to collaborate with each other.
“… I’ve always seen planning and transportation as part of an intersectional framework for how we care for folks as their whole selves, and now I get to build a client base that looks like that.”
—Tamika Butler, founder and principal of Tamika L. Butler Consulting
Both planners express their hopes for equity work going forward — that agencies and organizations understand that these endeavors cannot be done once and forgotten about. That engagement should be an ongoing priority rather than something done when the timing suits the organization. That those in positions of power recognize how easy it is to value people, and that firms become culturally specific, not just culturally competent. Tamika also shares her advice for planners looking to step into their power and put their antiracism ideals into practice.
[00:00:00.360] Tamika Butler: It's not about being safe, right? We don't, we don't want a safe space. We want courageous spaces. We want brave space, because that's the common thread. Whether it's an up day or a down day, a day full of joy or a day full of despair, doing this work requires courage to do the right thing. And in the face of not knowing for certain that just working hard is going to deliver the right result, how do you do it anyway? How do you have that courage and how do you make sure that you say, "I have a role in this no matter who I am, and it's not that person's job or that group's job. It's all of our job."
[00:00:46.680] Courtney Kashima, AICP: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the people behind the plans, showcasing the work, life, and stories of planners from all across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at Muse Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I'm also a longtime member of the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Tamika Butler. Tamika recently launched Tamika L. Butler Consulting, where she provides consulting, training, and public speaking on issues related to the built environment, equity, antiracism, diversity and inclusion, organizational behavior, and change management. She has a background in law, community organizing, and nonprofit leadership and previously worked as the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, and at the consulting firm of Toole Design, as the director of planning for California and the director of equity and inclusion for the firm. Tamika, welcome to the podcast.
[00:02:03.180] TB: Thank you so much for having me, Courtney.
[00:02:05.460] CK: First things first, a well-being check. As we round out month eight and head into month nine of the pandemic, how are you holding up? And I'm curious where you're finding comfort and joy.
[00:02:17.740] TB: Oh, man. Well [laughs], in our, in our pre-chat, I was just telling you that we're in the middle of a big move. And so I think I'm finding comfort in staying busy. I think especially with the holidays passing and not getting to see any family, we, we didn't see anybody and we didn't go anywhere; it was nice to be distracted. But I'm finding a lot of joy in Ruffles chips, I will say [laughs]. And I probably need to be finding a little bit more joy in long walks and bike rides. But right now, chocolate chip cookies and — with pecans, only pecans — and, and Ruffles chips are really getting me through.
[00:03:02.470] CK: Oh, man, it's the Ruffles and the, the good old French onion dip. That's the combo—
[00:03:07.630] TB: Ooo, yes [laughs].
[00:03:08.050] CK: —that gets me into trouble [laughs]. Well, having your own firm and moving is certainly more than enough to keep you busy.
[00:03:17.170] TB: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And, you know, you throw a two-year-old on top of that and it just becomes really fun.
[00:03:25.090] CK: Fun? I'm encouraged. I'll have to get some [Tamika laughs] tips. Mine are four and six, so never a dull moment, as I say.
[00:03:33.010] TB: I mean, I — tell me I'll make it to four and six because right now potty training is making me feel like we're not going to make it.
[00:03:41.320] CK: You will make it. I can promise you that. And I will say I don't miss diaper or stroller days [Tamika laughs]. So, yeah, hang in there. Hang in there for sure. Tell us about the decision to launch your own firm and what you're working on at the moment.
[00:03:58.390] TB: Sure. So, you know, for me, I was always a person who didn't want to start my own firm. I think a big part of it is I like people, I like coworkers, I like being parts of teams. And, you know, I just, I really — I never thought I wanted to do the work of having my own business. And then the pandemic started and I was going to be at home anyways [laughs], and so it seemed like a good time to, to see, to see if I could do this thing that the other folks have, have said to me in the past that maybe they thought I'd be good at. I, I really believe that a big part of it was like many working parents, my wife and I were trying to balance it all at the beginning of this pandemic, right? And I was, I was waking up at like 4:30, 5, trying to work half a day, putting our son down for his nap, we both work like crazy through his nap, and all parents know that some days that could be a great work chunk and some days it could be horrible. And then, you know, taking him for the afternoon while my wife worked, and then we would both go back to work after bedtime. And it was just, it was too much, and so part of it was having some flexibility in setting my own schedule. I think the other part of it was just being able to be my authentic self. Being a queer black woman who is not afraid to speak up, I think sometimes for the outside world looking in, it looks like, you know, a lot of courage and fearlessness, but behind the scenes, it's a lot of pain and, and, you know, constantly trying to navigate white spaces and professionalism, and, and I think all folks of color and queer folks and folks with disabilities and those of us who have been members of oppressed groups, we know what it's like to, to not quite be able to be yourself all the time, to have to code-switch. And, and starting my own firm was just this moment where I worked at a company that I really appreciated that, that I was doing great work at, but part of my job was being the director of equity and inclusion. And as a black person in this country, with everything that was happening, I was trying to hold space and create space for all of my colleagues, and I didn't have that time for myself. And I don't know that that's just about that organization. I think that's a struggle that folks have when they play these dual, you know, these roles of being the equity person. And, you know, I, I just really — I wasn't taking care of myself. And so the ability to kind of set my own vision and work with, with who I wanted to work with and say yes and say no, put up out-of-office emails that say, "Don't ask me to do work for free," that say, "Naps are revolutionary and I'm taking a week-long nap." Things you wouldn't necessarily do in a, in a professional, in quotes, setting, but I get to define "professional." I get to define what, what it looks like, and so that, that was a big part of, of me starting my own firm. And I've been really lucky and really fortunate; a lot of the clients I had at my old job came with me to my new job. And so I'm doing anything from, you know, transportation plans, like I was doing at my old firm, to, you know, change management, diversity, equity, and inclusion work for diverse clients: museums, higher-education nonprofits, you know, college-access groups, public health organizations. So really being able to expand the work I do because I've always seen planning and transportation as part of an intersectional framework for how we care for folks as their whole selves. And now I get to build a client base that looks like that.
[00:07:55.510] CK: So is it just you at the moment, and if so, do you want it to stay a firm of one, or are you [Tamika laughs] thinking of growing?
[00:08:03.430] TB: That's, that's a great question. Right now, it's just me. What I've realized is that in 2020, a lot of people went out and did their own thing. And so I have a pretty solid network of folks who I love and trust, a lot of women, a lot of women of color, a lot of queer women of color who have gone out and done their own consulting. And so when a client comes to us and says to any one of us and says, "Hey, we want you to work on X," there's this group of us who reaches out to each other and says, "Hey, friend, you do communications at Team Friday. Could you help me out?" "Hi, Naomi. You, you've worked with me on active transportation stuff before. Do you want to come on to this project?" Right? And so being able to, to leverage that. And so, yes, I'm a person of one, but there are barely any projects that I work on solely by myself. And I had a mentor who said, when I first started my, my business, my dear friend Vedette Gavin said, you know, "When you have a new project or a new client, come in, don't just think about the work you want to do on it. Think about who you want to bring with you. Think about who you want to work with. Think about your friends that you want to put on and that you want to create something with and that you want to grow with while you help a client." And so every project I get, I literally think that to myself and try to figure out who I want to work with. And in the long-term, you know, do I, do I want to grow into my own multioffice consulting firm? I don't know about all of that. You know, 2020 has been this year where planning for things always went wrong. And so I've really tried to embrace this move to my own consulting company, as just saying, "I'm going to check in on myself in a year. See where I'm at. See if I'm enjoying it. See what I like, what I don't like." But I'm going to be open to 2020 and just see what the year brings me without necessarily making a plan, without falling into that trap of we have to be successful. We have to, we have to do this, we have to do this. I'm just trying to be.
[00:10:10.930] CK: Trying to be open?
[00:10:11.440] TB: Just, just trying to be open, just trying to be trying to be receptive, trying to be present, literally just, just trying to to frankly be myself and to embrace whatever that looks like on any given day.
[00:10:29.560] CK: No, I feel you. Let's see, I founded my firm six years ago, but only in the last two years did we grow from one to seven. So you have to think about—
[00:10:39.400] TB: Wow, congrats.
[00:10:39.400] CK: —it as a business owner. Oh, thank you. Thanks. You know, I — I'm with you. You know, you could write whatever you want down on a piece of paper, but whether it's 2020 or other factors, I think the plan should be loose and nimble and stay true to yourself and authenticity is important. I know that's what propels those of us who hang out our shingle, you know, is — but you know, we're not, we're not selling widgets. We're — so our personality, our drive, our desire to help communities is baked in. It's, it's own thing for sure.
[00:11:21.020] TB: Exactly.
[00:11:22.690] CK: And I'm curious because I'm a careful student of businesses that came before me. And I have colleagues who, you know, on one end, were like, "We don't want to work, were — there's three of us. We don't want to work for anyone. We don't want anyone working for us" [Tamika laughs]. So that really did — it gave them the flexibility to, to choose their projects, but it also meant there wasn't someone to hand stuff off to, right? And then—
[00:11:48.140] TB: Right.
[00:11:48.140] CK: —I've been curious, as I've learned that one multinational corporation owns several of the, the leading mobility firms. So they're all essentially the same company. And that's kind of —
[00:12:00.580] TB: Right.
[00:12:00.580] CK: —on the other end of the spectrum.
[00:12:03.290] TB: Yeah, I think, you know, that piece about, you know, "I don't want to work for anybody and I don't want anybody to work for me," I think there is some freedom there. And, and I really, I just don't know. I was really lucky to, to be at Toole Design. I think Jennifer Toole is, is a powerhouse of a businesswoman. And I learned so much from her about, you know, just how to run a business and how to run a business with, with empathy and with caring for folks. And, and, you know, I've been an executive director of a multimillion-dollar nonprofit. And, and I feel, you know, I feel for, for folks who lost their jobs this year. And I also feel for the folks who had to make those decisions, because I know, I know how tough that is to have to make that decision to lay somebody off. And, and I have been really lucky to have a lot of supervisors who I've had a tremendous opportunity to learn from. And I've, I've also been a supervisor, and I know that this was a year where when everything started really falling off the rails, not, not having anybody be my boss and not being the boss of anybody was its own form of self-care, frankly.
[00:13:30.950] CK: Well, I love your collaborative approach, you know, teaming with solopreneurs or firms of different sizes to, to team up on a particular project. I think planning is a field that needs more of it. I've been inspired, for example, the graphic-design field, among others, understands that you can team up to tackle a particular project. It doesn't have to be defined in these neat and tidy ways by firm. And so with my work, I seek out people who get that collaborative spirit, so I'm glad to hear it's working for you as well. It's, I find it to be a really energizing way to work, but that the—
[00:14:12.880] TB: Totally. I think you're so right, it's, it's this ability to feed off of other people. And I think, I think a lot of us who, who do this striking out on our own, we're curious, folks, right? And so it's also that you might have a way of doing something, but being able to work with somebody else and seeing how they do something is exactly what you said. It's energizing, it's reinvigorating. But it's also, you know, this benefit of having your own shop, sometimes it doesn't work out. Sometimes you get those folks on your team project that just don't deliver. And it's also that freedom of being able to say, "That was fun. I learned a lot. And for the next one, I might not come back to you."
[00:15:00.910] CK: [laughs] Right.
[00:15:01.380] TB: And I'm not in this forced situation where we're actually colleagues under the same company and I have to work with you, and I have to come back. And that — you know, one of the things that I feel like has been the most freeing is I am not working around people as much as I used to. I think we've, we've so normalized that in society. And we all know and we've all had those jobs were there are those problematic people. And everyone knows they're problematic, but you just work around them. And it's been really nice to, to not have to work around folks or to, to work around folks but know there's an end in sight because you don't have to work with them again.
[00:15:42.860] TB: I'm curious, though, if you've found where it gets tricky is — you know, I guess in my firm, almost all of our clients are public sector. And the procurement process, you know, is not one that rewards nimble and flexible ideas [Tamika laughs]. So that's the side mission I'm on is I think the — let's just call it the planning procurement process, needs a lot of evolution. There's a lot that could improve in terms of equity. And I don't think it's sexy enough or impacts enough people in a direct way that they pay attention, but I certainly pay attention. And I'm curious if you've seen some of that or if it's too soon.
[00:16:24.920] TB: No, I think you're absolutely right. You know, I, I was having a conversation with a friend, and there's this, this crew of us, because I do think one of the things that keeps you sane in this world, particularly as, as a woman of color, is finding your people and making sure that you all are checking in and checking on each other. And so I have this group of friends, and we don't all do the exact same thing, but we work in overlapping spaces. And we were talking about — you know, some of us work in private consulting; some of us work at nonprofits; some of us work for government. And one of the things one of my friends who works at government said is that sometimes when you're in government, it's tough to do this work, this equity work, because the victories may be few and far between. But when you can get them, they are lasting, and they are impactful, even if other people don't see them. And the example that came up was procurement. Right? Because it might not be sexy. It might not be flashy. But if you can change a government entity's contracting structure to make it easier for small businesses or straight-up community-based organizations or the preacher who knows everybody in the neighborhood who you don't really have a way to pay for his time and efforts? If you could make that change, that is so impactful for equity work and will, will be there for, for years to come. And so, you know, I think sometimes when, when I'm talking to clients, especially big agencies, they have that question, and I'm sure you've heard this: How do you do equity work? We just want to do it. We just want, we just want to get out there and do it right. Like, this is the project, how are we going to do it? And, and you always have to pause and say, well, what are your internal structures and policies and procedures? Because before you go out in the field and build your infrastructure and do, do equity, is your organization equitable? And that's everything from hiring, retention, and contracting, and all of those, again, things that might not feel as sexy or might not feel as public facing, but if you can't get that stuff right, then you're probably not the group those of us who get this work actually want out in the field doing equity.
[00:18:47.500] CK: Yeah, or just as often what I'll notice is they've caught the bug, the equity bug, or they've been given a directive. And so they have good ideas and lots of good intentions. But when it all gets boiled down, what they're really looking for is what I call the, the equity sprinkle. So right now, I'm doing a hand motion—
[00:19:10.630] TB: Mmm.
[00:19:10.630] CK: —of my saltshaker, my equity shaker. And I try to have very frank conversations with people, big agencies. Yeah, the culture change, the internal practices — that's not going to be part of a typical scope, but I look for those opportunities to address those, whether or not, you know, the piece of paper I signed asked me to.
[00:19:34.960] TB: Mmhmm. Yeah. Yeah. And that's the thing, right? Like, as, I'm — I know in a lot of these conversations, at the end, we always talk about what, what do you hope for in the next year? What do you think's on the horizon? And, and one of my hopes is that it's not just a sprinkle, right? That, that we, we don't flip that page of the calendar, look around and say, "All right, we have new leadership in Washington. I think there's a vaccine coming. I think this, I think — things are looking up! I'm done with, like — this is well salted. This is well seasoned [Courtney laughs]. Let me put that shaker down." And I could make a lot of jokes about how certain folks don't really understand flavor and season, but, like, you know, just a sprinkle of it isn't, isn't enough. This is, this is lifelong work. This is deep work. This is hard work. And, and it's, you know, those of us who show up knowing that and see folks pull out their little salt shaker, and it's like, oh, you didn't, you didn't really know what you came for. And I think the other part of that that's really hard is sometimes what they came for is for us to do the work. And when we try to do more than just a sprinkle, it's like, "Well, that's not what we really wanted." And it's like, "Well, you said you wanted X." "Well, we wanted X, but we wanted you to do it faster. We wanted you to do it cheaper. And we didn't want it to be as uncomfortable." And that's just not really how it works.
[00:21:05.980] CK: It's like me when I hire a personal trainer [laughs].
[00:21:10.510] TB: [laughs] I, you know, I used to, I used to use a personal-trainer analogy. And then I had a really deep conversation with somebody about whether or not that was body shaming and whether or not I should use it. And I was, I was trying to express that the, the use of the personal-trainer analogy was never about getting skinny because skinny is better, right? It's about being fit at any size, which is why I actually think in some ways it's a great analogy, because that's what equity really is. It's not about some ideal destination that you get to, right? The skinny. It's about the fact that you acknowledge that everybody's body type is different, and we just want there to be health. We just want there to be wellness for everybody. And too often what folks do is, is call us in to say, "Be my, be my, be my personal trainer." And then, you know, as soon as you start doing your job, they get upset, and they're like, "This is too hard. Why are you being so mean to me? Are you having a bad day? Is that why you're putting me through these reps?" And it's like — it's about you as the trainer, not about the fact that they just don't want to do the hard work. And, and too often it's folks, again, who just want to get skinny for the summer because they have equated skinny to good and not folks who say, I want a lifelong health journey. I want to be well, I want, I want those around me to be well. I want to thrive. And, and my version of thriving when I look in the mirror is going to be different than everybody else, but I just want somebody who sees that and who helps me thrive. And people, people don't want that real work, right?
[00:22:59.020] CK: Yeah, I think that's an apt description. I appreciate it. In a similar vein, I've said on this podcast before that some of this work, the work we're talking about right now, is hard, but some of it just isn't. And we should stop pretending that it is. I'm thinking of things like engagement as an ongoing priority for an agency rather than the moment they're ready to talk about a particular project. Or another example in procurement is that, you know, maybe we shouldn't be issuing our RFPs until we are invited to do so by the community, or at a minimum, they should be involved in the shaping of it, not just receive a consultant team and a scope once it's already been decided. So I'm curious, in your view, what are some of the, the easy things that should just be done now and move on to the harder stuff?
[00:23:59.590] TB: I think you're absolutely right. It's, it's one of those things that's so nuanced, like, yes, if you're doing antiracism work and if you're really fighting against anti-Blackness and white supremacy, like, some of that's going to be hard and some of it's going to be really uncomfortable, mainly because for some of y'all, you've never done it before. And, you know, wanting to, to again have empathy and hold space for that is important. But some of it? Like, it's 2020, stop calling women of color angry. That's easy. Like, that's not hard, right? Like, it's, it's not hard to, to not say the n-word. It's not hard to [not] use sexist tropes. It shouldn't be hard to do some things. It shouldn't be hard to pay people for their value [laughs], right? Like, like, those things shouldn't be hard. And you can say, well, there's a pandemic, there's an economic crisis. That part actually is hard. Well, no, our budgets may be smaller, but how you spend your money is still reflective of your priorities. And so if you prioritize this, then it shouldn't be hard to show us how. Right? Because we know. And I think there are so many parts of this work where folks say it's just so hard. I think, I think that, that hiring is another one of those things, right? Whether or not it's, it's procuring a consultant team or whether or not it's hiring someone on your staff, you — taking it to academia and planning, you know, departments, hiring and admitting students. Right? Like, again, it's, it's one of those things where folks say, well, it's just so hard because we just don't know where to find folks. We just don't know where to find us. Well, let me tell you, this year when folks thought it was the fad and like they had to do it, to put out a Black Lives Matter statement, and to do a DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] training, they sure knew how to find us. Right? Like, they knew [laughs] — like, we're all swamped and busy. When, when folks all of a sudden were intentional about it, they knew where to find a black bookstore. They knew how to find black businesses, right? Like, all of a sudden, it's intentional. And I tell folks all the time, things aren't — things aren't necessarily hard just because you're doing them differently. They're just different. And even when things are hard, when you really want them, you do them, right?
[00:26:30.700] CK: Right, right.
[00:26:30.700] TB: Like, we're coming up on the holiday season. When your kid really wants something [Courtney laughs] and you have to go to five stores, you find it. The sneaker heads, when they want that pair of Jordans, they refresh, they refresh. They're — they get up early. They go to bed late, right? When we really want something — I, I went to Stanford for law school. There are only one hundred and sixty people in our class. But when top law firms wanted to find us, they knew how to get to us. It's not because we're everywhere and because, you know, like, there's a ton of us around. And so when people really want something, when people really prioritize something, they either make the determination that it's actually not that hard, or it's hard but it's worth it. And we need folks to realize that not only is this worth it, but this is, this is the bare minimum, right? Like [laughs], like, like caring about these issues and integrating these issues and centering them in your work, the — it's time to start realizing that if you don't do this, you're going to be obsolete.
[00:27:30.180] CK: So another one I talk about adding to the easy list, and [I'm] surprised this is still a thing, is, like, free internships.
[00:27:40.270] TB: Hmm.
[00:27:41.290] CK: Doesn't matter if you call it a fellowship. Doesn't matter if it has a fancy title. It's not right.
[00:27:48.270] TB: It's, it's not — it's, and it's, it perpetuates, you know, it's these things that folks say, "Well, on its face, it's neutral." And something that I always try to explain to clients I have is, "Yes. And guess what? That means it's bad for everybody" [both laugh]. Like, like anybody who has to come and work for you for free, it's not good for them because we shouldn't ever have people work for free. But the way that discrimination and racism works is that it is disproportionately hard on those who are different. So just because you want to say, "Well, everyone has it bad," or, "Well, everyone has to go through this. It's just a rite of passage, that there's just a period in your life where you're an unpaid intern." Yeah, but who can afford to do that? And so it's not great for anybody, but it's going to have a disproportionate impact on certain groups of people. And you can't look up one day and say, "You know, there's just no pipeline. Why isn't there a pipeline?" Well, because the way that you enter in the pipeline is free, and [laughs], and who can afford to do things for free ninety-nine? Like, not those of us who are trying to get jobs to support our family to pay for our own education, to take care of our kids. Right? Like, we can't do things for free ninety-nine. And so you're going to continue to get the same type of people and your pipeline is going to continue to look the same way.
[00:29:11.990] CK: Anything else you want to add, if you're thinking of a typical agency person or even in sort of policy organizations, anything else we want to add to the the quote-unquote easy list?
[00:29:28.350] TB: I really think that sometimes, especially in the planning space, we're so focused on projects that we don't give a lot of time and energy to communications and how we talk about things. And I think it's easy at this point in the game to realize that if you put out a poster or brochure or an ad on a bus and the people in it don't look like the people who are actually on the bus, you have a problem. If, if you know it's, it, it shouldn't be hard — we got to get beyond just being culturally competent and culturally sensitive. We need to be culturally specific. And that should be easy. And then I think the other thing that I would put on the list for, for agency folks, but really for everyone: it is free to value people. It is free. Now, sure, you can value me by paying me a good salary and a good, a good wage, but also by recognizing the double duty often that folks of color, indigenous folks, folks with disabilities — the double weight that we have to do to do our day job, but then to respect everybody's feelings and also be the one that constantly in the meeting is like, "Well, what about this? But what about this? But what about this?" And it is free to say thank you. It is free to acknowledge that work, to give folks credit for that work and to give folks just respect for all that they do and to value their experience, their life experiences, the same way you validate somebody's fancy degree. That is easy.
[00:31:10.630] CK: It's a good reminder. Also people feel validated or appreciated or valued in different ways, so I would—
[00:31:21.352] TB: Mmm.
[00:31:22.000] CK: —encourage anybody who wants to take another look at how they do that to get to know those people, and I mean, it's sort of like just being — it's, like, Good Manager 101. But I think there's a theme here of, There's a lot of things we could be doing that's either good for everyone or bad for everyone, but the impact is where it makes a difference. I don't know, I guess I had a boss once who — I think it's one of the only times I ever got a quote-unquote bonus — but she thought we all would want a trip to New York City. And several of us were like, "We'd just like the cash, please," you know [laughs]? But because her definition was a trip to New York City was, was how you rewarded someone, that's what we all got [laughs]. It's kind of a silly example but.
[00:32:16.070] TB: I, you know, it's two things you said that really stuck out to me. I think the first one is just getting to know people and asking questions. Right? Like, that's super easy. I think something that happens — folks hire people who are diverse, and they, they're scared of us. It's like, it's like we're going to, we're going to do something. And so the number of times that — and we can all talk about these instances — where we've been part of a team or we've been at a job or we've had a boss who, they've had 15 meetings about what they should do about something instead of just asking you. Because everybody's afraid to ask. Or they make these grand gestures like a trip, right? Or, like, doing this thing, and they never ask. And they say, "Well, we just didn't want to inconvenience you." And what I — and, and I think, you know, I've had a lot of, in particular, I think, white women who try to be allies by not burdening you by asking. And the example I always use is, like, as women in the workplace, we know that discrimination is real in the way that we are supposed to — the way that we have to advance while also bearing children for those who want to or choose to or can bear children. Right? And we have seen a lot in the pandemic about how gender norms — or gender roles and the setbacks that women are going to have just because they're taking on more of this parenting children at home. And as a woman, if you had a man say, "Well, we didn't staff you on that project because we knew you wanted to get pregnant, and you probably wouldn't have enough time." Or, "You are pregnant, and we knew that you wouldn't want to travel. It might be too hard." Like, no, you would want them to ask you. And you want to be able to say, "Actually, I can do that," or, "No, I don't want to do that," and not have it held against you either way. But you don't want somebody paternalistically making decisions for you. And I think too often folks who want to be allies do it in a savior way and try to make decisions for you, and it is easy to just ask. It's faster. It takes less time. It's cheaper. Just ask. Don't have meetings upon meetings upon meetings about us without just talking to us. Don't try to do something nice for us without asking what would be nice, what would be helpful. And I think that's, that's huge. That's — you're absolutely right.
[00:34:46.770] CK: Switching gears a little bit, I've heard you speak several times, and your remarks are passionate, moving, and frank. I don't imagine anyone leaves an event where you speak and quickly forgets the knowledge and insights that you've dropped. I also imagine that these same qualities and your commitment to anti-Blackness and equity comes at a cost to you personally. I think it's important for people to really think about that and acknowledge that. You know, I could walk away from a speech you give, a keynote address, feeling inspired and maybe reflecting as a white woman on things I want to continue to be committed to or do differently, but the cost is not the same, not likely to be the same. It's not as immediate. So what advice do you have for people who want to step out of their comfort zone and step into their power?
[00:35:47.740] TB: Yeah, I — thanks for the question, first of all. I do think this work takes a huge toll. And I was, I was doing prep for a panel I'm going to be on and, and a woman of color who I really respect and admire spoke up and said, "It feels like too often on these stages, we want folks of color and women of color to really bare their souls and speak truth to power, and we want the white folks to be able to still be professional." Right? And so we have to call people out, we have to bear our souls and do the emotional labor and potentially forego the opportunity for folks who are watching us — like, sure, many might be inspired, but many more — you know, a lot of people, you said it's hard to imagine that people would leave not remembering. Well, some people just leave, right [laughs]? Some people don't make it to the end. And, and many more leave thinking, "Oh, well, that person's not professional." I remember when we had our son and so I wanted to go to a private consulting firm, I applied at several firms, and many firms thought I just couldn't manage clients because I'm too, I'm too emotionally moved, and I'm good at inspiring people but I'm not actually good at doing the work. That, like, you know, to be, to be a consultant, you have to be professional and you have to handle client relations. And I'm like, "Fools, you know, I've been a lawyer, right?"
[00:37:16.020] CK: Right [laughs].
[00:37:16.020] TB: Like, all that is is client management. Like, you can be, you can be a person full of emotion and feel things deeply and still be good at your job. And I think, I was talking to another mentor who at the beginning of this said, you know, at the beginning of this summer, said, "Wow, there's a lot of diversity consultants coming out of the woodwork." And many of them are folks of color who want to shuck and jive to get that check. But they aren't those of us who have been in this game for a minute, who have had to speak up knowing that we would never get that promotion as a result, who have had to ride home freaking out about how we were going to pay our bills, how we were going to take care of our kids, but knowing that we still had to say something, because if we didn't say something, who was going to say it, right? Like, voluntarily tokenized ourselves. Losing resources, losing opportunities, and having folks just think less of you. The, the number of times — I've never, never had a job where some white person hasn't said I was angry. And usually multiple white people, usually people in positions of power, right? And so I just think that folks don't understand the toll this takes, and I remember talking to a supervisor and saying, "I know that having me speak up and say, 'Yo, like, this is really hard, and I know you didn't mean to do this, but this is racist.' Or 'This is exploiting community. We can't do this.' And I know when I say that to you, it hurts your feelings. And so I want to hold space for what you're feeling. But I also want to acknowledge that when we do this, that when it becomes a big thing and we have to have multiple conversations and it might go in someone's profile, usually mine, I just want to acknowledge the toll it's taking is heavier on me as a queer black woman than it is on you, my white colleagues. And this person snapped and said, "That's not true. This is hard for all of us. You can't say that you're having a harder time." And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, take a step back. There's literally research, right? Like, this is not a controversial statement. This is not my opinion. The toll that it takes to code switch and to carry the burden of, of being the person who everyone wants you to tell them when they're doing something wrong but when you tell them they're doing something wrong, they also take it out on you and you are pushed out of an organization? Like, that, that toll that it takes on women, on people with disabilities, on queer people, on folks who have any intersection of those identities, that toll is real and it is harder. And, and I remember saying that to this person, and they were like, "Well, I didn't know that." And I was like, "Well, let me send you some research. Let me send you some Harvard articles, because I know you'll believe that." And so when you say what can folks do who want to step into their power, for me, it's: believe us. Just believe us, when someone tells you something, and especially someone who is a member of a group that has been historically oppressed and continues to be oppressed, when they are telling you something, believe them. And, and listen and be open to acknowledging, atoning, and not being so quiet because you're afraid to get it wrong. But when you get it wrong, be open to hearing that you got it wrong, say sorry, not "I didn't mean to do it." Doesn't matter. This is how it impacted me and figuring out how you're going to move forward. And so I always say to folks, just believe people.
[00:40:56.400] CK: So if a big takeaway as far as where to start is just believe people, I'm wondering if you can break that down a little bit because you've had some interesting roles in different sectors, in leadership positions. And so whether you want to speak, speak in the planning space, but that tension between consultants, agencies, and community, what are some maybe specific things you've observed or hopes you have about what that means?
[00:41:38.380] TB: I, I was just going to say, one of my hopes is that people start to realize that this idea that your professional life is different than your personal life is a luxury — in the simplest way, I always say, I was like, that's some white people ish, right? Because I don't get to separate my personal life and my professional life. And it's not because I don't want to. But when folks say things like, "Well, I'm just colorblind, I don't, you know, why does it always have to be about race?" It's not always about race, because as black folks, we make it about race. We weren't the ones in power who always made it about race. And even if I try to be is color neutral as I want, when I walk into a room, you still see my black skin. And, and you see it, right? Like, you, person in power, you see it. And so for me, one of my hopes is that those with the privilege to separate their personal and private life realize that many of us don't have that privilege. And we stop doing this thing where, it's like, well, in my private life, I donate to this organization. Well, in my private life, I read How to Be an Antiracist, I read White Fragility. Well, how are you applying those things that are happening in your private life to your professional life? Because everyone wants to say — the phrase I've heard the most this year is "2020 laid bare." The inequities and the racism. And, and the reality is these things were always here. So bringing it back to that piece about just believing us, folks of color, women, you know, again, folks and racialized groups and oppressed groups, they have been saying, "Yo, something's not right here. Like, this seems to have a harder impact on me than on other people." So this idea of like, well, it wasn't until we saw that Latinx, Black folks, and indigenous folks were dying at a higher rate from COVID that we realized that there were health disparities. Black mothers and black babies have been dying for years at a higher rate. Right? And so all of these things were already here. And so we need to — for folks who say, "Well, now my eyes are open and I'm just finally seeing it for the first time. Now I want to do the work." I want you to both do the work — like, welcome to the party. Like, we're glad to have you. Get to work, roll up your sleeves. But also you need to take that moment and reflect: why didn't I see it before? Because it's not new. There's been people telling me this. There's been people dying. There's been disparities. Why didn't I see it before? Because my fear is if we just move forward to do the work and folks don't take that moment to say, "What it is, what is it about me that never made me ask myself why all of my friends are white, why I only hang out with white people, why my kids only hang out with white people, why there's only white people at the school, why the teachers are only white, why I've only ever had a white doctor, why I've only ever been on a plane with a white pilot, why—" right? Like, why have you not been thinking about this? Because as a person of color, every time I walk in a room, I'm like, where all the black people? I notice. And so why haven't you noticed? And I think we really — I have a hope that people really ask themselves that question and seriously have that introspection and then again get to that part where they start doing the work.
[00:44:57.560] CK: No, I appreciate that, and I think the, the other aspect of it is, if you have privilege, are in a position of power — and we're going to assume you're already "believen" and your values are there—
[00:45:12.000] TB: Right.
[00:45:13.380] CK: —then what are you going to do to take your, your personal values into your professional life? And it's, I know there's a lot of talk about discomfort and how the work has to be uncomfortable. And I know personally, for me, it's, there might be an organization I'm going to support or a statement I'm going to make or a meeting I'm going to speak up in, and sometimes there is fear. But I think the issue is any potential cost is a fraction of the value or the issue or the people I'm hoping to make it on behalf of. And that's kind of the only way — not the only way things are going to change, I don't want to make it sound like a white-savior situation, but it's more like, I think once you listen and believe, you've got to put it into action. And that's what white people in particular aren't familiar with or comfortable with, but it's the only way to actually make a difference from that perspective.
[00:46:32.160] TB: Absolutely, I think you're 100 percent right, and I think — I think, you know, for me, I just want folks to realize that this isn't, this isn't always fun [laughs], you know? And it's not always easy. But there are a lot of moments of fun. There are a lot of moments of joy. There are a lot of moments of celebration. You know, it's, it's ups and downs, but the consistent is that it requires courage. Right? Like, it's not, it's not about being safe. Right? We don't, we don't want a safe space. We want courageous spaces. We want brave space, because that's the common thread. Whether it's an up day or a down day, a day full of joy or a day full of despair, doing this work requires courage to do the right thing and, and to know that you might not know how it's going to end up. That there are many of us who haven't had the privilege to, to ever believe that simply just working hard was going to make us successful because we knew there were so many other factors and things against us. And so in the face of not knowing for certain that just working hard is going to deliver the right result, how do you do it anyway? How do you have that courage and how do you make sure that you say, I have a role in this no matter who I am, and it's not that person's job or that group's job. It's all of our job. Because this matters to me. I'm not doing this to make life better for X person or group. I'm doing this because if their life is better, my life is going to be better, and we're all going to be better. And that takes commitment and courage. And that's what I really hope folks walk away with.
[00:48:20.530] CK: Absolutely. Thank you for that. Either in that vein or could be a guilty pleasure, anything you're reading, have read, recommended podcasts? Doesn't all have to be in the antiracism vein. If something's sort of a, been a nice distraction or made you laugh, just curious if there's anything people should check out.
[00:48:47.670] TB: I'm reading a lot of kids books about potty training to my son. I'm a beast with Sesame Street and Mister Roger's Neighborhood right now. And, you know, I have been binge-watching a lot of, a lot of shows that people don't — [Marvel's] Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Underrated show. And then the, the lesbian Thanksgiving — Christmas movie just came out with Kristen Stewart, Happiest Season. And we watched that as, as well. It's always, it's always fun to see folks who, who look like you reflected in popular culture. Long overdue for a holiday romcom with lesbians. And then tuning into Lifetime for those, those holiday movies, because, again, they actually put black folks in them [both laugh]. And, and, you know, trying to find that, that feeling of, of the holiday season when this year it's, it's so different than it's ever been before.
[00:49:54.240] CK: Absolutely. All right, if people want to learn more about your work, specifically, where, where can they go? This is your chance to shout out any handles or sites or any information if people want to connect with your work directly.
[00:50:07.440] TB: Folks should, folks should head to my website, w-w-w Tamika Butler dot com [www.tamikabutler.com]. And that's the easiest way to get a hold of me to hit me up. And then I'm on Twitter all the time at Tamika Butler [@tamikabutler].
[00:50:25.050] CK: Tamika, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.
[00:50:28.860] TB: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
[00:50:36.040] CK: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For more information and to hear past episodes, visit planning dot org slash podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send them to podcast at planning dot org.