MIRIAME – CLIP: The impact people were telling me I had on them was that it was some kind of like a healing presence. And now I have some kind of clarity that my work is really about making people feel that they can be their best self.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not. You’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
How do you discover and define your purpose? And how do you do it when you are already in a place of navigating cultural differences in a variety of ways? Miriame Cherbib, a member of the Ethos Team and the founder of Speaking Justice, shares her story of how as a first and a second generation immigrant she has taken her passion for human rights and her desire to belong, and transformed herself and the communities around her – all through the power of purpose. Join our conversation as we speak about growing up in unfamiliar cultures and how we can use those lessons to become an advocate for others.
[INTRO MUSIC OUT]
ALIDA: Miriame! Welcome to the Care Work podcast. I am so excited to have you here. This is a big moment for me because you are the first person from the Ethos team to actually be featured on the podcast, so it’s a big deal.
MIRIAME: Hello and thank you. I’m very, very honored for all these reasons, and also because each time I have conversations with you, I learn and I grow and I feel my heart just wide open. So I’m very excited about this.
ALIDA: Well, I wanted to just start by asking you to describe your role in terms of care work, however you define care work.
MIRIAME: Oh, that’s a very good question. A lot of people were very clear, and I know it’s a common thing with purpose. A lot of people were very clear of the impact I was having on them. And I guess that’s how I would define purpose. There’s many ways to define it, but, um, the impact people were telling me I had on them was that it was some kind of like a healing, a healing presence. And that really helped me figure out what the kind of work I wanted to be doing in relationship to care work. And now I have some kind of clarity that my work is really about making people feel that they can be their best self, right? And the way I’ve been able to do that is just many strategies, but one of them is by being a facilitator at Ethos, it was very clear to me that that aligned. So creating the conditions for folks to have meaningful conversations, creating the conditions for folks to learn about each other. Those are different strategies I’ve implemented to, or I’ve used in the past to have the kind of impact I wanted to have and the kind of care work I wanted to do in the world.
ALIDA: It also strikes me that it seems very aligned with going all the way back to when you were a child, because one of the things that you’ve talked about is that care work and human rights and humanitarianism, these are all things that are essentially in your blood, because you grew up in a family of activists. What did your family advocate for? What were they activists in support of?
MIRIAME: Yeah, I’m going to have to talk about my dad because he’s really a big influence in my life and how I envision the world and this care work that we’re doing. My dad is a human rights activist. I grew up with him as a role model. And he has what I would call, intense, very extreme sense of compassion. He cannot stay just without doing something when he hears about injustices. So for him, injustices are extremely painful. I’ve seen him not being able to physically handle it. And so therefore, he spent his life advocating for basic human rights, specifically in North Africa and in Europe, because he comes from, uh, Tunisia, a small country in North Africa. And, uh, he immigrated in France in the 70’s. So he’s built many organizations, coalition of organizations between North Africa and Europe, He has to advocate. So I often laugh, remembering that my dad goes and demonstrates every week, no matter the current news or whatever is happening, no matter how many people are there, sometimes it’s just him and a couple of friends. Sometimes it’s like a million people with him. So that’s the context for me for where I grew up. And often as a kid, I would obviously go with him because he was just taking care of us. So we’d just tag along and demonstrate with him, or go to debates, or sometimes even like, travel to different events around the world. That was just what I had as a normal childhood for me.
ALIDA: In the past, I’ve heard you say that you have sort of this shared connection to others and advocating for others, but that you take a really different approach from your dad. So your dad is somebody who will just get on you, who will bug you and agitate, and agitate, and agitate, but you will mediate, you will peacemake. So you don’t send your dad in to make peace. You sent your dad in to create a stir.
MIRIAME: Yeah, because of how amazing my dad is at creating disruption, and annoying people with power, so they do something that’s really his zone of genius. He annoys people with power until they’re fed up and give up. This is literally what he’s done in Tunisia for 30 years of dictatorship, and, uh, with some success. Tunisia was successful, So it’s just constant. It’s constantly doing that. Because of that, I had to learn to balance it out, because he would use it with, um, any authority figure. So police officers, teachers, and it’s just constantly I had to learn to be really highly aware of power dynamics. Who had power and seeing and noticing, I think, very early, without really being conscious of it, that if there was power, inequalities, inequities in a situation, that would trigger my dad, he would try to bug the person who had more power. And so, when you’re at school, and I’m eight, and my dad is just becoming really upset at my teacher, because she said something or tried to make us do something, I had to become more diplomatic, and really develop my own what I see as my own superpower. The ability to first be really aware of power dynamics, and then, being able to hear everyone’s point of view and de-escalate my dad, and translate. So I was constantly translating for him because his emotions would get really high, and I would just explain where he was coming from and what he actually meant so people would be able to hear it.
ALIDA: It’s interesting too, Miriame, because you grew up in France, and as you mentioned, your dad is Tunisian, you’re Tunisian, your family is Tunisian. And being able to essentially navigate these power dynamics doesn’t just happen for you at the family level, it happens for you at the cultural level, because you’re both French and Tunisian. And maybe not everyone listening would understand what that means or how that shows up. But there is a lot of negotiation around power and identity that happens when you are cross cultural. And so what was it like for you growing up in France?
MIRIAME: It was honestly two very antagonistic things. It was very simple, and at the same time, very confusing. I understood very quickly that my role for my family and kind of for the society around me was to perform. I needed to perform. And, um, we can talk about assimilation, but the way I’ve summed it up in the past has been I needed to be better at French than French people. That was the main thing. So during French classes, I would just give my 300% and I would do my homework just as fast as I could and as best as I could. And I became that, I just did really, really well at school. And the idea was be better than anyone else. So no one has anything to say to complain about, about us, right? Because of the stereotypes in Europe. There’s just a lot of stereotypes around immigration, and especially immigration coming from North Africa, in France, from the former colonies, and lots of stereotypes around Arab people. And so my parents, my dad especially, were really obsessed, I would say, with making us look, first, very neat. So we would buy a lot of clothes. We didn’t have a lot of money, and it seems like a detail, but it was so present in my life growing up. My parents would buy the best clothes, so we would almost like they didn’t want us to wear the same clothes many times, because you don’t want people to think that we didn’t have the means, that they didn’t work well, that anything like that. So we needed to be extremely put together. And then at school, and then in my later studies, everything needed to be really perfect, so no one could say anything about us. No one could kind of align us with some stereotypes, and we would be protected. I think for them, it was really protection, protecting us from racism, and from biases.
ALIDA: Thank you so much for sharing all that. I think that there’s also a way to start to tie this a little bit to some of the choices that you made later on. So you ultimately decide to pursue economics and be part of a major French institution. So talk to me a little bit more about how you made that decision and what you ended up doing.
MIRIAME: Yeah. So in my dad’s vision of the world, the safest place to be is to be employed by the government. This is just the way, and you get a job, and you get it for years, and then you retire with very good pension. So, for him, that was success. So I figured out that to satisfy my dad and also satisfy my own interest, getting a PhD and working for a research institute would be amazing. And what I wanted to do has always been advocating. I wanted to be like my dad. I wanted to be an activist. I loved the long nights of debates, I loved the arguments, I loved the demonstrations, I loved the organizing, I loved the connection, loved everything. But it wasn’t acceptable, because my dad never made money from his activism and was very clear that that was not a career. Research seemed quite the natural way to do that. And especially it seemed to me that the institutions that had the most impact on countries like mine, like Tunisia, where organizations like the world bank and the IMF.
And so I thought that trying to understand those institutions, how they worked, not only helped me with trying to find that sweet spot where everyone would be happy, including me. But also help organizations like my dad’s organizations be better equipped with understanding how to, uh, fight, how to advocate, um, when those organizations will come in a country and harm, potentially, communities.
And I got lucky to get a yes from one of the best colleges in economics. I knew that if I went there, it was, like, really a great opportunity to dive into this and create the career I wanted to have, because it was really difficult. Again, you have to imagine that when I was growing up, unemployment was the threat. So anything I wanted to do, any purpose driven conversation would have also, that layer of fear, of just unemployment is there, and the statistics are not on my side. Given my socioeconomic class, uh, my ethnicity, it’s just not on my side. So I had to be very, very careful, and I got this opportunity, dive into it, went to Paris Dauphine and I think it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
ALIDA: At what point in studying economics and being a researcher, did you decide that you were going to focus on saving the world in relation to climate and climate change?
MIRIAME: It came really at the end and almost totally randomly. I was set to work for the public statistic bureau research center in France. I had my supervisor. I was going to get my PhD there. I was going to actually study, I think, pensions. I was going to study pensions, which is very right now. There’s a huge strike in France, a huge social movement against the pension reform. So it’s kind of hilarious to think about that, but I was going to study pensions. I had everything set up and then this opportunity came from one of my dad’s friend. And he said, you know what? One of the biggest topics right now that is just, like, growing slowly is climate change. And we need more um, students, like you, who would be able to tackle these big questions.
So I studied macroeconomics and microeconomics, and it was like, we need people with the macro economics, kind of like, mindset to be able to really tackle those questions. This problem of financing green projects. You should go and talk to the director of this amazing, uh, research center. And so it was really just, okay, that sounds like a big thing. Let me try it. And obviously, right away I saw that not only was, like, climate change, we have to remember it was 2011, so people were obviously talking about climate change, but it was growing. It was really growing. And I could see how working on climate change would make me work on global scale inequities. It was very clear.
ALIDA: This brings me to really what I see as the start of your care work, because the way that you were saving the world as an economist and around climate change was actually through facilitating dialogue. And what I think is so interesting, I have been working through this podcast and through some of my own research and writing my book on what is a practical theory of care work look like? And the most complete definition that I have found is from Nancy Folbre. And basically, she coined a term called “caring labor” that says that caring labor is when we connect to other people and help those people by meeting their needs or helping them meet their own needs. And this is, I think, the core of dialogue. So what were you facilitating dialogue on and how did you facilitate that dialogue?
MIRIAME: Good questions. And I love this definition. Yeah, it’s definitely how I see facilitation, how I define facilitating any kind of conversation. So, I started by studying the financing, creating new financing tools for green projects. I found myself in this place where, like, okay, I think I’m at the right place to do what I want to do. But the topic I’m studying right now is not exactly what I want to do. I do not want to help big banks make money on green projects. That was basically what I was set up to do as a PhD. So I saw an opportunity. One of the amazing director of research, in my research institute, had just gotten this great opportunity to collaborate to a European project set up to be at least three years. So, three to four year European project involving 10 different countries, 13 different organizations somewhere, research organizations somewhere and the goal was to research by implementing national dialogues on the future of the energy transition. So, basically the future of energy in Europe.
And this research, this director was looking for someone to help, because he’s actually an amazing mathematician, and that field of study was kind of newish for him. So he was looking for someone who would have interest in doing this. And so I felt it was just the right thing for me. I said yes. And that’s when I started this process of three years where I got trained on dialogue and conflict management, and had an amazing freedom to do almost anything I wanted with this project. And so that’s where I started discovering nonviolent communication and using the tools of nonviolent communication to talk about energy. The other thing around the project was this idea that if we put in the room researchers, engineers, scientists, people who think that they’re extremely rational, have an extremely rational view of climate change and the energy system. And we studied them, how they interacted. We would see, we would find that actually, they would speak from the emotional point of view, and not much from the rational point of view, though they would use rational arguments to kind of, you know, make it sound better for them.
ALIDA: Let’s dig into that a little bit. So how do you know it’s emotional? What are they doing that’s emotional?
MIRIAME: Yeah, so we would record our conversations, and they had a tool that analyzed every single word and had a way to just determine if they were the words were in the realm of emotions or not. So that was one way to do it. But from a facilitator and researcher point of view, me taking notes and looking at how people talked about the energy system, it was very clear that once you have someone, for example, nuclear, we had to talk about nuclear energy. Highly sensitive in France. Highly sensitive in France. So you would have a researcher against a researcher pro nuclear. Both of them would start first two minutes of the conversation, throwing numbers at each other, and very quickly seeing that that would lead nowhere. Um, there would be more arguments about, I mean, things that are, I think, I’m not opposing rationality and emotions, um, as emotions not being valid. I think it’s actually really valid. But it was just interesting that they would start with the rational, uh, and then when they would get stuck, we would actually get to what mattered to them, which is the vision of the society.
ALIDA: In those situations where there were potentially heated exchanges or conflict coming up between the participants in the research. How did you use nonviolent communication with folks who are not familiar, especially with what nonviolent communication is? What does it sound like? What do you say? How do you use it?
MIRIAME: Yeah, it was very complicated. So we would send material beforehand, have people read them. And the requirement was at first, to use “I” statement when the conversation really heated, so really try to use “I” statements. And we were actually almost coaching them. We were trying to remember at some point, guiding someone to just be able to put emotions on what they were talking about. And they’re like, it sounds like you are feeling really strongly about this, and just trying slowly to get there, but making it acceptable to talk about emotion, I think that was the most important thing there. And you know, the goal of the project wasn’t for everyone to agree, I think deeply that’s my interpretation of it. It was to make those people realize that, um, they had emotions, and it was okay to have emotions.
ALIDA: There’s so much in this idea of making emotions acceptable, especially in a scientific community or in a scientific dialogue. And it’s so interesting because you end up doing this in a totally different way. So I think what’s so interesting about your history and your story is you’re a researcher on this major, years long project, working under a Nobel Prize winning academic, and then you make a hard pivot. You leave France altogether, you move to the US. You end up in rural Washington State in the Olympic Peninsula, and you start teaching kids. And social emotional learning is part of what you’re teaching them. So the dialogue thread is there, and this making emotions acceptable is there. But to someone who doesn’t know you, it seems like a pretty extreme shift. What happened?
MIRIAME: Yeah, even for people who know me, it was a pretty radical shift, I have to say. Well, I didn’t find my place in research in academia. I felt very lonely, except for that project. I have to say that project was amazing. I learned a lot. It brought a lot to me, but I didn’t feel part of the overall research institute. I definitely felt I didn’t belong. I didn’t feel valued. Yeah, at moments, I didn’t feel respected. And I felt that me, as um, second generation Arab, young woman, who didn’t go to the Ivy League, that was very clear there, did not have my place. I thought that it was time for me to actually really have the impact I wanted to have on people. And that studying in my research institute, on my own, trying to get my own little career thing going, it wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t going to lead me to the impact I wanted fast enough. And um, I had met, through the research institute, the person who was going to be my husband and who grew up in the Olympic Peninsula. And when we’re looking for community, a great community to live, that’s where we decided to go. The community was extremely strong. Community was very important for me and for him.
When I got to the US. It was just people open arms and wanted to be together and build something together and have impact together. And I didn’t feel isolated. I had many years of feeling isolated in my work, and suddenly it was like, wow, I can have impact here. I can have a very local impact. So it was a very different scale. Suddenly, like, I had gone from studying big world problems, and then I discovered small community level issues, and I was like, wow, this sounds more manageable for me and fun, because I’ve never done that. And so that’s why I did that transition. And the school thing was just, what else? I mean, teaching kids about emotions and about francophone cultures. I was teaching French, francophone cultures, what we call cultural competency, which is basically DEI for kids. All that with a strong social, emotional curriculum was just perfect. And I really dove into it. I was like, just, this is it. I can do that for forever. And I worked there for six years.
And so that’s when, in addition to teaching, I created my own business, uh, in the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, industry. I wanted to support my community, um, like that. And at first, it was for educators and parents and caregivers. So it was, again, looking at kids and looking at how many hours they were spending at school and how many hours they were spending outside of school. And I thought, like, well, what about I also support the people they interact with outside of school? That’s how it started initially, and then it became a little bit bigger. Belonging was really the goal. And honestly, I think it’s because of my social, emotional learning background as teaching, it was very clear that equity, learning about different cultures, you know, awareness, all these things were great. And the end goal was for my kids in my classroom, at school, in their community, to feel that they belong.
ALIDA: One of my favorite questions to ask on this podcast is who takes care of you? And one of the things that really strikes me about you, Miriame, is the answer for you, has been your local community. So even in choosing where you were going to go and deciding on the Olympic Peninsula, but also you know, you’re talking about the impact that you’ve had in your local community through teaching and through speaking justice and the programs that you’ve created. And at the same time, this is a rural community that’s embraced you with open arms, including in things that are controversial or politically divisive. And so I would love to hear a little bit more about the community that you participate in and how you both give care within that community, but receive the care that you need there.
MIRIAME: Yes, the power of community, it’s something I had to learn when I moved to the US was so new to me. Of course, I had friends in France, I had family, but it’s so different. and I have to say, also, um, working in DIB. When I came in the US. I felt lighter. I felt accepted, in a way that I’ve never felt before. Even before getting enough, having enough to spend enough time here to feel like I really belonged. Even before that I wasn’t viewed as the Arab women. I was viewed as Miriame. A lot of people viewed me as French. A lot of them knew I was Tunisian. I always present myself as Tunisian and French. People very excited to have someone. And people would be like, so you moved from Paris to Squim, Washington State, 8000 people? And I’ll be like, yes, I did that. It very much felt like at first, this community was excited about me. And I never, ever felt that before. Felt that people felt like that for me. So it was first a big shift in my self image, and a major opportunity, because people didn’t have the stereotypes, the past, the history, with Tunisia, with Arab people. It was an opportunity to reinvent myself, very much.
So that first felt like a huge relief, and a second chance, almost. Not that I felt, not that it was horrible in France, it wasn’t like that. But that feeling that I have, I wish many people would have it. And so, in terms of community, people here where I live, are here, not because of the nice weather, we don’t really have great weather. They don’t necessarily come here because it’s rural. They come here because there is this perfect balance between nature and community. And so everyone is very involved in community. Everyone understands it’s not really a question of survival, but understand that to thrive, they’re going to need people around them. And so, because everyone is so aligned, the connections are easy. I have found connections were really easy.
So I was saying it was hard for me because I came to the US and I had what I called even before my work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Scarcity mindset. I remember that my husband would want to share food with people, would bake things, give away things. And first I’d be scared, be like, but why are you giving away 75% of what we have? This was not something I had, because we’re just a small family trying to survive in France. And coming here, I did not understand first the amount of abundance that this community was providing and that we had. And it took me a lot of repetition of people demonstrating immense, almost absurd generosity for me to understand that that was a possibility. And it was a real blessing. It was such a blessing when I made that shift. It happened quickly, like within the first year. When I made that shift, I never looked back. It was so easy.
So our community is very interdependent for very concrete example, my husband bakes bread. It was one of his wedding vows to bake bread for me because I come from France and I absolutely adore bread. And he wanted me to have access of the highest quality bread possible in the US. So he didn’t want me to go to the grocery store, he wanted to make it. It took him about a year and a half to be able to master. And it’s bread that is made from local flour, from flour, from wheat grown by our friend Nash, amazing organic farmer. For years we would get the flour for free and we would give bread to Nash. So my husband bakes four loaves of bread every day. And we keep one, sometimes zero. Depends if we have bread from the day before. And we give either three or four loaves of bread away. We don’t sell them, we just give them away. Uh, from that, so we get flour, we get vegetables from our many amazing farmers. We get eggs. People give us anything they have and we don’t ask. It’s not something that is some people don’t give us anything and it’s totally fine. But it’s almost a gift economy, uh, based community. And a lot of us are, um, active enough that it works really well. So it’s the same thing with childcare, during you know, when there’s no school, like last year, three fathers took care of three kids taking turn. And it’s just normal for everyone to just do that. What else would you do? And kids had a great time, but these interactions have absolutely saved me. And it is you’re, right. The way I care for myself and the way I care for others, because there’s just so many opportunities to do that.
ALIDA: I’ll ask one final question, which is, if you take a moment to reflect back on what we’ve discussed today, what is the one core message that you would want people to take away from your story and your experiences?
MIRIAME: I would say that identity is very complex. It took me a lot of time to understand the complexity of my identity and the privilege that came with this complexity. I think that spending more time understanding who we are and how that affects our interaction, could just clarify a lot of the power dynamics, a lot of issues that may come up. I really spent these last two decades looking at who I am, where I belong. And where I belong really had to do with being able to search for this complex identity, the cultural, individual, social identity, and just see how all these interacted. And the moments in my life where I struggled, were definitely linked to my identity, at least in part. And the moments I thrived were linked to my identity and how all these different elements interacted. I think that’s definitely something from my background and the power of community. I mean, I think we’ve talked enough about that, but that definitely, helped me become a better person.
ALIDA: Well, thank you so much for being on today’s show, Miriame. I so appreciate you.
MIRIAME: Thank you. I do appreciate you also, lots, and what an honor. Thank you so much.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda Wolff.
Theme Music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.