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The Rungs of Learning with Julia Ismael, Founder of the Equity Consortium

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Julia Ismael and I met at Antioch University ten years ago when we were to both enrolled in a Bachelor's degree completion program. We shared a lot of classes because we were in the same Leadership and Organizational Development track and easily bonded over our status as late in life students who were also working moms.

She's a mover and shaker who's done a lot of different things in her career: paralegal, school founder and administrator, board member and community advocate. Through each of these experiences, she has kept an open mind to learning and growing while being a steadfast equity advocate.

I hope you enjoy this month's Rungs of Learning interview with Julia.

What is your current business and how did it come to be?

I lead an organization called the Equity Consortium, a firm whose mission is to institutionalize equity.

In all the experiences I’ve had in life working for other people, the one common theme has been equity work in one form or another. With my positionality as a woman, a Muslim and a black person, there was no escape no matter how hard I tried. I figured instead of putting it to the side, I needed instead to pursue what was most interesting to me.

Over my last three jobs before I founded the Equity Consortium, I felt myself building to this focus. I got fired from my last job for advocating for safety for women and children in the building. I’m proud for standing up for what I believed because I made the right people upset and, from that point forward, I realized I was trying to fit everything I know into one specific mission.

A lot of the work on equity is very individualized and I wanted to expand the definition of equity because the person doesn’t choose just one identity, they walk with all their identities. I wanted to take what I’ve learned about this and encourage the institutionalizing of equity with a broad perspective and address the systemic issues.

What are some of the principles that guide your work?

One is to add more voices to the change process in a compassionate way. Another is that anything we do must not cause harm - in the process of it creating it or in the outcome itself.

We also use talking circles a lot where people literally take turns talking uninterrupted. It’s so simple and the most beautiful things happen when we do that.

What’s your approach to working with clients?

We want to provide an organization a very clear starting point for whatever equity work that they are doing and offer an Equity Factors assessment to determine this starting point.

The initial creation of the equity assessment started with input from three dozen equity advocates. We asked them for “what feels good” at an organization and what do they want to see when they go to work. Then we crowdsourced with input from seventy people to create a tool which resulted in an assessment of 167 questions.

We invite organizations to an avenue of easy entry and make the assumption that the organization we are working with does not know what the problem they are trying to solve is. They trust us, the professional, and then believe what we say. If they don’t like what we have to say, we encourage them to get a second opinion, kind of like going to the doctor.

Shifting gears, you went back to school later in life like me. What compelled you to go back to school and what did you get, if anything, from being an older student?

I was working as a paralegal, and I didn’t want to go back to that field after a bad experience there. I was also working at the Islamic school and loved the environment and education, so I decided to go back to get my degree to start a Muslim middle school program for girls (which I did for three years after I graduated).

I did appreciate going back later in life because I felt I was more directed, I knew exactly what I was there for, I knew my boundaries.

At the time, having a degree in Leadership and Organizational studies gave me a lot of theoretical foundations and a framework for the complexities of howe people work together for a common cause. That said, I struggled for years as to what that means for leadership in practice. There are not enough classes in the world to teach you how to be a leader without actually being one.

The process of a formal education helped me understand though how I’m validating knowledge and transitioning to the real world and making sure my learning continued beyond the classroom. For example, when I’m thinking about who’s qualified to evaluate the Equity Factors assessment, it’s beyond the degree. For me, in our work, qualifications are rarely about “do you have a degree”. It’s more about if they know how to do the process, how long they have been doing the work and thinking about their identity and how it relates to the world. That has just much weight and credentials as any degree.

One thing I’m hearing from you is this theme of trying and experimentation. That is a learning mindset because you’re open to a different way. Have you always been that way?

No, that was a painful learning process. The role that ego plays in this work is prominent. I need to continuously check myself and ask: am I saying it because it makes me look or feel good or am I asking because I honestly want to understand?

I’ve become a student of how we ask questions of each other. In my opinion, there are two ways we ask questions: asking questions to build a case (orderly and predictable) and asking questions for understanding (asked with the intent that I have no idea what the answer is, and I’m open to learning). If I ever forget how to do that, all I have to do is remember what it’s like to be a child. Children are in a continual default place of learning, always asking why because they really don’t know and are genuinely trying to understand.

What other thoughts do you have on why or why there isn’t more openness to learning?

The inability or unwillingness to learn is all driven by the ego. We don’t allow each other the grace to learn in public or private so it’s scary. It’s a social contract that we are rewriting to say that it’s acceptable to make mistakes and learn in public. If we give grace and say the truth, we are creating a positive cycle which creates more openness to learning.

We are in a unique time where I feel like no one has the answers to what happens next. The predictability of white dominant culture is fading and it’s uncomfortable for some and exciting for others.

As we wrap up, what are you focusing learning on these days?

I’m focused on learning things that are not equity related and more on the technical things needed to start a business – get capital and all the technical aspects for creating something new. I’m also learning to ask for help. There are so many things I don’t know about and I’m sensitive to asking people for their time.

You can find out more about Julia and the work of the Equity Consortium by going to her website.

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