Michelle Silverthorn on advancing diversity and inclusion

By Stephen D. Zubiago

Michelle Silverthorn is a recognized expert in organizational inclusion and the founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation. She has joined Nixon Peabody on many occasions and helped us learn more about diversity and unconscious bias. Michelle joined me in this podcast episode to discuss how we can advance our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in the workplace and in the communities where we work and live.

Listen to our full conversation below and subscribe to NP Leading the Way on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Steve Zubiago (SZ): Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle Silverthorn (MS): Thank you, Steve. You have a fantastic organization full of people who are really committed to inclusion. So I'm always happy to talk to you about whatever we can do to keep moving that ball forward.

SZ: I appreciate that, and your efforts on our behalf have certainly helped us. Tell us a little bit about your background.

MS: I grew up in the Caribbean. My dad is Jamaican; my mother is Trinidadian. We grew up bouncing between the two countries and ended up in Jamaica.

My sister went to Vassar. She was the first in our family to go to college in the states. When she went, she was like, "this is great," the choices of majors, the activities that you can do, the study abroad programs, all of that was really appealing to both her and me. Then I went to Princeton. I was there for four years. I went back to Jamaica, went to Trinidad, stayed there for a year, and then went to Michigan for law school. And after I graduated from Michigan, I worked at two large law firms in New York and Chicago. Then I realized I really wanted to teach. I had all these stories I wanted to share. So, I left the law firm life, and then I started this company.

SZ: I'm going to bet you've had some mentors in your life. Tell us about those people.

MS: I love my mentors. They were able to show, here's what you need to do to not just be here and work here, but how to be successful here. "What does success mean to you, Michelle? What does the work mean to you? What work are you good at?"

I came from the Caribbean. Having someone to help you navigate was great. Then I moved to the public sector life. Cathy Irwin is a great mentor of mine who made me take a long view of life. "Where do you want to be in five years? In ten years? In 15 years?"

From my mentors in this diversity and equity and inclusion work, what I've learned is you have to deliver solutions because that is what people will take away. They will listen to the stories, and they will love the stories, but they want a toolbox that will give them solutions for change. That's why I like doing this work.

SZ: Tell some accomplishments that you had?

MS: I really love my clients. I am really invested in their success, and I really want to see where their journeys take them.

When I can have clients who say, "You know Michelle, they didn't have everything we were looking for in the résumé, but we believed in them, and we committed to putting a black person on our executive committee because we said we would do it and we did. We committed to hiring an Asian American woman to be in our C-suite, and we did it. I can hire right away immediately without any push back from anyone, or I can take the time and make an effort to hire someone who may not look like the right fit for us, who we may have to train some more, who we may have to coach. But, we are going to commit to this because that is what we said we would commit to when we said we were going to commit to racial equity."

Those are the accomplishments—when clients come back and tell me: "Here's the risky (it's not really risky) step I took that not every one of my peers will take, but we did it"—I love.I love traveling, and I don't know if you've seen, I mean if you look at my bio, I have traveled, at this point, to over 100 countries and I love it. I love every second of it. I love meeting new cultures. And it's all of those experiences that made me, me. And that is probably what I am proudest of in my life.

Also, did I say my children. I love my children! Yes, they're the best.

SZ: I took away three big categories from that response.

First of all, the love of our clients and being invested in their success. I think that as practicing attorneys that approach can certainly lead to success.

And then as you talked about travel, your openness to everything. That's another thing I think attorneys need, sometimes we get a little pigeon-holed. We want to solve a problem, do what we've done before, rely on precedent. That approach can work sometimes, of course, but often a broader and more open approach can be helpful.

And then, I love that you said your children. When I get asked this question, that's always my answer too.

So, Michelle, a lot is going on in the country over the last year. There's been nationwide dialogue about racial equality and social justice. We've had many discussions about them and we've had the recent anniversary of George Floyd's murder. There's been increased violence against diverse populations of blacks, Asian Americans, and recently a rise in violence against Jews. All this is really making the world complicated. Help us think through the right approach for a law firm, as lawyers, as citizens of the United States. What's the right approach? Give me your thoughts.

MS: The wrong approach is living in any country where someone walks into restaurants in 2021 and asks, "Who are the Jews?" That's not my country, that's not the values I have as a human being. That cannot be the country which I love. And the right approach is making that stop, doing whatever you can do as an individual to say that every single person has an equal right to live here and an equal right to succeed.

Now, what are the barriers to that? It's easy for us to say equality is great. It's enshrined in the Constitution. I'm an American. I get to inherit America's vast history. I also get to inherit the tragedies we have inflicted upon each other and on ourselves. Looking at that with clear eyes doesn't mean I'm any less American. It doesn't mean that I'm any less part of this country's narrative, it just means that I love this country so much that I'm willing to work with its faults and successes and that is what I want people to do.

So as we build this country and as we figure out what our role is, every single lawyer and business professional who is listening to this, you have the ability to share, whether it's on Twitter or Instagram or in conversations you have with each other. And for people who work at law firms, you have such a unique access to a legal world that so many people just don't. You understand laws, you're able to say, "These statutes are wrong, and here's why."

To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn should not be the only books that teach about race in our classrooms, and yet they are. And I should not learn about race from a single perspective of how does it make a young white person learn to be a better person. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad perspective to learn, it just shouldn't be the only one. Trying to understand those perspectives and trying to change that is the way that we change this world.

SZ: When you gave the presentation to our firm about unconscious bias, you gave us ten bias interrupters, and I actually have your ten interrupters posted on my bulletin board. I find that very helpful, and it's something that I look at. Tell us things that each of us individually as lawyers, as citizens of the United States, can do to advance diversity.

MS: I think you should look at what your influence is. So, I am a mother who works. My kids go to a school. We chose to live in a town in rural America, but it is one that has one of the largest conglomerates of the world headquartered right next door. This means the school my children attend has a mix of people across the spectrum.

The question is what is it that you can do. I always ask people to just pick something. You can look at yourself and say, "You know law firms, here are all the systems that we can change," or I can think about it this way—what is the one thing that I can change?

So whether it's one conversation with your child's teacher, whether it is one conversation with your town's alderman, whether it's one conversation with the partner that you work with about an experience you are having and you would like them to see something differently. Whether it is the book you are reading, when you buy it from the airport and you go to the airport stand and say, "Well, that's interesting. I was actually looking for more books by Asian American authors, and I don't see any here. Why is that?" It's all those individual actions. It's every conversation. Build up that muscle. Just think about what your spirit of influence can be and what is it that you want to change. You can't change everything automatically all at once, but you can take it step by step by step and think through—"What are the actions that I have control over that I can either introduce more people to, or if I use my voice, I can shift it?"

SZ: Very helpful thank you. The final area I wanted to discuss is Juneteenth. And, so tell us . . . what do you do on Juneteenth?

MS: Well, usually on Juneteenth, I learn more . . . I teach both my kids, and we learn more about our culture, our Jamaican and Trinidadian culture, and I share with them some foods that we're doing or some meals.

I have to say if you've seen High on the Hog—it's fantastic. I highly recommend it. I like talking about food and culinary experiences.

So, I really talk to my kids about their history. My kids are going to be white, they're going to be black, they are going to be African American, they're going to be West Indian, and that's a lot of histories they are a part of. Having them understand this, I think is crucial.

And, again, it's something that I had to learn too because I didn't grow up in this country. And Juneteenth, prior to last year, wasn't something that was on everyone's mind and something that we talked about. Now it is because we can shift, we can shift behaviors and systems.

June 19th—it's time with my family and time to really deliver on the promises that my ancestors fought and died for just so I can be here.

SZ: This has been a podcast with Michelle Silverthorn sharing her thoughts on leadership and on diversity. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you soon, Michelle.

MS: Thank you, Steve. I love talking to you. It was wonderful, and I will see you all again soon.

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Stephen D. Zubiago


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