KARYN: I think of Prentice Hemp Hill’s quote that “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and love myself simultaneously”. Every moment and every job will demand something different. But it is up to you to decide whether what’s being asked of you is too much and how you want to negotiate what you ultimately actually end up delivering to make sure that you can love yourself and love the work that you’re putting out into the world.
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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 strike a balance between caring for yourself, caring for others, and caring for the world? In some ways, that’s the central question of this podcast. But it also happens to be the central question of this episode with Consulting Director here at Ethos, Karyn Oates. Who, through her description of growing up on the South Side of Chicago, entering the theater industry and ultimately becoming an equity professional, focused on delivering a good life to people. First and foremost, through equitable practices, Karen is exploring what it means to set boundaries, achieve balance and ultimately create a sustainable system of care. If thinking about care sustainably is interesting to you, then stay with us.
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ALIDA: Hi, Karen. Welcome to the Care Work Podcast.
KARYN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
ALIDA: Well, I’m so glad to have you here. And one of the things that has come up for me is obviously you’re the consulting director on the Ethos team, and you are constantly in a position of sort of balancing both care and empathy with our clients, but also being logical, process driven, analytical on the back end. And I think it’s a really unique blend. I’ve asked you before a little bit about how you do your work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. And you’ve said that you really want to help employees from marginalized groups navigate their careers with dignity. I thought that would be a great place for us to start and I would love for you to talk about what that means.
KARYN: Yeah, absolutely. So I see navigating a career with dignity as a combination of choice and respect. So sort of having the flexibility to determine your own path in your career, whether that looks like growing within one organization or moving around to a bunch of different places to sort of find what works best for you as you evolve as a person. Authenticity. So being able to bring as much of yourself to work as possible or as you choose to. And then the respect piece, I think, is where a lot of the structural recommendations that we make at Ethos come into the equation. So for me, that means knowing that your employer and those that you work with value you as a worker, value what you bring to the workplace, both in terms of the way that you’re treated and the way that you’re compensated.
ALIDA: When you think about what a dignified career looks like, especially for folks who are coming in from a space of disadvantaged, being minoritized, what is happening for them? What does that career end up being for them?
KARYN: I think that’s a really tough question to answer because it’s so individual. But when I consider the sort of conditions that would make it so that someone could pursue a dignified career and what role I play in that personally, as a DEIB professional, I think about not having to explain yourself when you are trying to pursue the respect and the sort of flexibility that I just mentioned. When I started my career as a full time worker, it became really clear to me that oftentimes the perspective that I brought to employers and my own lived experiences as a black woman meant that I sometimes needed to ask for things that others had never asked for before. And so when I would ask the folks who were the gatekeepers of those resources, there would often be a lot of questioning involved before we actually got to the thing that I was trying to get. And I see my role as a DEIB practitioner as eliminating the questioning from those interactions, making sure that organizations and folks within them have the cultural competency to skip that part and not make it the work of the employee to have to answer those questions and just be able to provide the resources. So ultimately, not having folks feel that they have to validate their own humanity at work to get the resources they need to do their jobs well done.
ALIDA: Of the things that I’ve noticed is everyone on the team obviously does self identification here. We say what our identities are, and you are really the only person who names the actual geography you’re from. You’ll say that you’re from the South Side of Chicago. Also, when you’ve talked about your family, it is always from a place of respect and dignity. And so there are kind of these relationships that I’m wondering if you could sort of talk to me about. So what does it mean to you to be from the South Side? How did you see your life coming to be in this community and in this family structure, and how does that show up at work for you now?
KARYN: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. So when I name that I am from the South Side of Chicago, I am trying to accomplish two things. And I think both of those things are targeted at different groups of people. So for those who are primarily familiar with the South Side of Chicago as a specter of violence and pervasive poverty, the sort of Fox News narrative of what my city is, I feel that naming that I’m from the South Side, puts that fact into the room and maybe heads off any uninformed comments that folks might make about the place that I come from. I’ve had many of those comments said to my face directly in business situations, which is always awkward for everyone involved because, um, I’m very proud of where I come from. I try to sort of make it clear that that is a big part of my identity, because I don’t know that it is necessarily what people would expect based on an initial reading of my face, my manner of speaking, the context in which I’m showing up. I think for folks who may be more familiar with black communities in the Midwest in general, I think there’s a lot of rich information in the fact that I come from the South Side of Chicago.
My family migrated to the Northern US. During the great migration. We have that legacy. There’s a lot of history and a lot that you can maybe learn from me in a short amount of time by hearing that I am from the South Side of Chicago. So that’s what I’m trying to get across. And when it comes to my family, it’s a really rich network of people who’ve had a variety of work experiences that have really shaped the way that I think about work and ultimately what I chose to pursue. So, like, my family members run the gamut in terms of the careers that they pursued. I have many aunts who were career educators. My grandmother owned a restaurant for 15 years. My mom has been in retail for her whole career, and I have an uncle who had, like, a 20 year career as a corporate lobbyist. So truly, the full spectrum, and I think what I’ve learned from them is that no matter what kind of work you’re doing, often times maintaining your humanity means knowing where to draw a line, keeping some separation between your work and your personhood, and knowing when to advocate for a more optimal balance of both.
ALIDA: I want to go back to something that you started to say, which is the rich history and just the richness of the community in the South Side. It’s a narrative that I don’t think we hear about enough, especially right now, when, if you type in Chicago and crime into Google search, the first thing that comes up is that we’re the murder capital of the US. Which is interesting because we work with a lot of criminal justice folks in our community, and all of them are like, no, that’s St. Louis sort of the defensiveness immediately is per capita. That’s not true. There are a lot of things about that that are wrong. But the narrative, as you say, is very much focused on crime, on poverty, on violence, and not on the legacy, the community, and specifically the vibrancy of the community today, not just sort of thinking about this glamorized past, which we can also see reflected. So talk to me about the richness of the South Side. If people don’t know it, if they haven’t been there, if they don’t have experience with it, what is it that you love about it?
KARYN: I think what I love the most about the South Side is that this is maybe a little bit corny, but in Upton Sinclair’s poem about Chicago, he talks about the city, as always, breaking and rebuilding itself. And I think the South Side, by virtue of the way that it has been divested in historically and by virtue of the ways that the people who live there at various different points in its history have done what they needed to do to make it a place where they could live and thrive. Just make it so, like crackles with life. I don’t mean to glamorize it.
First of all, is an enormous swath of the city. The South Side of Chicago is the size of many other small US. Cities. So I won’t paint it with a broad brush. But specifically Englewood, where I spent much of my upbringing, and Brownsville, where I live now, the people who live there are not unaware of the challenges that the area is facing, and they’re doing what they need to do to make it a better community every day. So in Bronzeville, I see so much community driven investment in new businesses, in residential real estate and a lot of community discourse about making sure that all of that new investment remains equitable and that people aren’t being forced out. And if you just look at the fun stuff, there’s incredible food on the South Side, a sort of year round slate of festivals and cultural traditions. The Bud Billiken Parade runs down my street. It’s like an annual back to school parade. And it’s just a beautiful coming together of many different parts of the community. It’s like participatory and alive. It feels alive to me.
ALIDA: And it’s interesting to me that you talk about this because you’ve had such a meaningful history with this part of town, and then where you end up going to college is suburban Ohio, to a school I think best known for Lena Dunham.
KARYN: We also had either Ben or Jerry. I don’t recall which one.
ALIDA: I wanted to just take a moment to ask, how did you make that transition? How did you make that decision?
KARYN: I am a Posse scholar. I received a full tuition scholarship to Oberlin. So that was the decision. It was one of the sort of top three schools that I chose that was eligible for that scholarship support. And I knew that it was a place that was known for openness of thought. And I knew that it was a small school, which was, I knew was what I needed in an educational institution. I committed to going there before ever actually having been on campus. So the transition was real and it was challenging. Suburban is giving it too much. Oberlin is a rural community. We were surrounded by cornfields. The transition was a challenge. But I think as soon as I was able to see Oberlin for what it was, rather than comparing it to Chicago, I was able to appreciate it and really let myself settle into community there.
ALIDA: I realized that you mentioned Posse, and I would love for you to talk a little bit more about what it is, what it does, and how it brought you into the phase of the career that you’re in now, since it seems to have made a very big decision happen for you, which was to go to Oberlin in the first place.
KARYN: Absolutely. So the Posse program was started by a woman named Deborah Beal in the 1980s. She was a teacher in New York, and she noticed that she would send many excellent students, high school students, off to college, and many of them wouldn’t persist. They would come back. So she at one point, convened a bunch of them, asked them, what’s going on? Why didn’t you stay at school? And one of the students remarked that he would have stayed if he had his Posse with him. So her approach to solving the college persistence problem for students in major cities who didn’t necessarily have the resources to the sort of family and cultural capital resources necessary to proceed and persist in college was to gather cohorts of ten college juniors. Have them get to know one another, become a true community unto themselves throughout their senior year of high school, and then send them all to the same college campus together with a full tuition scholarship. So that the money question was sort of not fully off the table, but alleviated somewhat.
I think participating in Posse was probably the first time that I had to seriously invest my little discretionary time in actively being in community with people I didn’t know very well, who weren’t necessarily anything like me. And it challenged, I think, all of us to find what we could appreciate in one another and figure out how to support one another through what was ultimately a huge life change for all of us. So the senior year of high school portion is getting together for weekly conversations, facilitated conversations with Posse staff members about a variety of different sort of social phenomena. So we talked about race, we talked about gender, et cetera. We did a scavenger hunt across the city of Chicago at one point where we had to sort of bend for ourselves and work together. And I realized that I was drawn to that kind of model and being asked to think in, I think, more rigorous ways about the world around me than I had up until that point. And I think that passion that I discovered through Posse informed what I chose to study at Oberlin and made me realize that I had something valuable to say and that if I followed my passion, maybe things actually would work out career wise. Ultimately, it shaped my experience, and I think it has shaped my path.
ALIDA: It’s interesting to me because so much of our discussion is actually centered on community. So being part of the South Side community, being part of the Posse community, and then you have, throughout your life, self selected into the theater community, which is a whole other community unto itself. I’ve heard you say before that you’re a theater nerd, but I want to know, speaking from one theater nerd to another, what kind of theater nerd you are, and when you consider yourself as part of the theater community, what is that community to you?
KARYN: Yeah, so I definitely identify more with plays than with musicals. So that, I think, automatically sorts me into one subgenre of theater nerd. I studied acting in school, in addition to Africana Studies and sociology. And I think what always drew me to theater was a) hanging out with other weirdos, and b) looking at other people’s lives and trying to understand what made them tick. So in that way I think studying acting alongside social science really did sort of align with my passions. While I was at school, I had three campus jobs, always, at any given time, and I decided freshman year that I was only going to take jobs that allowed me to do things that made me happy. You don’t have a lot to choose from. We’re talking about oberlin campus jobs. But I did find my way into being a copywriter for the Theater and Dance department’s publicity office my freshman year. That was the job that I ended up having the longest. By the time I was a senior, I ran the office, I was the manager of the publicity office. And that made me realize that arts administration was probably going to be the path for me. Part of the job was talking to the people who were directing and, um, in the case of dance, creating the shows that happened on campus. And I really loved talking to creative people about the choices that they decided to make, what they wanted audiences to gather from what they were putting out into the world, and sort of how they wanted to position this thing that they spent their hours, their lifeblood producing. So, yeah, I consider arts administration to be my craft. I respect actors and actual sort of on stage, backstage theater practitioners to the moon and back, but I will not pretend to be one of them. With that being said, I found a really rich pathway in arts administration, and I’m still involved. I’m part of, um, Definition Theater company as an ensemble member and as their director of communications. So I still write press releases for theater.
ALIDA: Theater is not known for being the best place to be if you are coming from a variety of marginalized groups, especially when we talk about some of the reckonings that have taken place. And there are many, there are many, but we see white American theater being perhaps the most public in recent years. And so I wonder if you might talk a little bit about your experiences with theater and the biases that exist, but also what is happening in this sort of theater reckoning today.
KARYN: Big question. So, starting with my own experiences in theater, when I told my mentors and advisors in college that arts administration was going to be the direction I would pursue, they warned me that arts administration is a very traditional, very white space that is resistant to change. So I sort of went into my first professional step with my eyes open. And I think what I encountered when I actually started working in the industry was like a lot of other well established industries. Theater is very attached to its own lore and to tradition. And traditionally, the people who have held power in theater spaces are wealthy white men. To some extent, white women have found their ways into the halls of power as well. But there are just dynamics that exist in a 21st century workplace. A workplace that is trying, making gestures toward being inclusive. That an organization, an industry that is invested in valorizing a very homogeneous past just sort of can’t see.
While I wasn’t the first black woman to work in many of the organizations that I did at the beginning of my career, I found myself sort of facing some of the same challenges that those who came before me faced because the organization didn’t have the structures that it needed to remember how to serve those challenges and sort of support people who didn’t fit the mold. So while I was in my first full time theater job at Step and Wolf Theater, the organization undertook its first diversity, equity, and inclusion effort. And it has since continued that work and sort of continued to evolve and strive to be better. And I had the privilege of working with them through Ethos on a recent engagement. And I think what I learned was that organizations can change given the right leadership structures, given enough people, sort of at the junior levels of the organization continuing to push for change, organizations can take steps forward.
ALIDA: One of the things that I’m wondering, when you see opportunity for theater, if there was something that you would suggest that theaters do, these are the three things that all theaters can do. What might you suggest?
KARYN: First and foremost, pay your people. I’m, um, specifically coming from the administrator lens here, when you have a cultural institution, especially a cultural institution in a major city, if you are, as an organization, paying less than a living wage, and I think organizations can sometimes act as though they don’t know what a living wage means, but they do. If the folks in your organization are not making a living wage, you are automatically going to see a sorting effect where only people who have another reliable source of income can afford to work for your organization. And that is either going to be a second or third job, or the support of family members who can, for example, pay your rent while you do this work. So I think if theaters want to retain a more diverse staff, they just need to pay people a living wage. I think having human resource managers on staff is also, uh, a key strategy.
When I started at Step and Wolf in 2013, there was no full time person doing HR, and there never had been in the 40 years that the organization had existed. And that was very clear. When we talk about some of the challenges that I referenced earlier, with just getting the resources necessary to do your job, getting support with the everyday conflict that happens no matter who you are in an organization when you’re working with other people. So add resources to the human resource management function, and then, I think, an investment in education around the DEIB, especially if your organization is taking the provocation and the challenge of we see white American theater very seriously and trying to structurally adjust to what people from marginalized groups are asking for at work. If you’re trying to be an inclusive workplace, there is history that is fighting against that. So making sure that folks understand how DEIB impacts them, impacts the organization’s mission and what actions they would need to take personally to advance equity and inclusion in the organization feels important and feels like a way to sort of lessen, some of the resistance, some of the defensiveness that can come from trying to implement that kind of change in an organization that is steeped in its own history.
ALIDA: One thing that came up for me as you were sharing around paying people a living wage so that you have more people who can actually participate in not only theater, but in so many arts organizations and so many nonprofits in so many professions that I think organizations get away with underpaying because the folks involved are so deeply invested. They’re doing it for the love of the job and that can sort of, in some ways, be weaponized against them. What is your philosophy or approach to making sure that people do make that living wage and also feel dignified in their careers as they take home that paycheck?
KARYN: That’s an excellent question. My philosophy on a living wage, I think, has to do with taking into account the affordability of housing, of transportation and food, but not necessarily choosing the option in which folks would need to walk to work and to the grocery store, can only buy store brands and can only live in 2% of the available apartments in a given market. I see a living wage as a pathway for folks to not worry so much about sustaining the rest of their lives while they’re at work and genuinely feel that they’re dealing fairly with their employers when they’re selling their labor to them, not feeling that they’ve been taken advantage of.
ALIDA: You know, what it brings up for me is sort of what is old becomes new again because so much of the, uh, early 20th century labor movement was built around this idea of we want bread and roses too. What you’re describing is a living wage means a good life. Not just subsistence, not just survival. So when you think about what’s necessary for getting there and the skills required. What practices do we need to be pursuing in our organizations to allow for that?
KARYN: Actually talking to people and, um, asking them what they want from their careers is a strong start, I think, in a lot of organizations. Leaders, for good reasons I think just sort of assume that everyone wants the same thing from their career and from their workplace. It’s not necessarily true, but it’s expedient. So stopping to take the time to talk to people and ask what they want from work where they see their current job factoring into the rest of their career and what the organization can do naming openly the resources that the organization has to offer to help people get to those goals. So it’s sort of not over promising, but saying hey, this is what we can do to support you. Where are you trying to go? And how can we sort of blend the resources that we have collectively to get you there?
For reasons that I think are tied to a lot of the legal liability that can come with any kind of employment arrangement. Many employers are resistant to making it clear exactly what resources are at anyone’s disposal, whether you’re a people manager and you’re responsible for dispensing those resources out to staff like disability accommodations, accommodations of any kind, paid time off. People are very hesitant to sort of go there, and many folks don’t really know what’s available. But I think transparency is the start of that conversation.
ALIDA: Okay, so with that in mind, I have a curveball to throw you because it’s a question I have been asked several times by both employers and employees working in nonprofits. Based on what you’re saying, I wonder how you would approach this, which is coming from an employee. Which is it? Do I have a job? And a job is a job, screw it, or I can’t work in a job I don’t find purpose or fulfillment in.
KARYN: I think that is up to every individual. It is maybe the fault of the like, American approach to jobs and careers in the past that anyone would even expect an organization to answer that question for them. Like the old model of you come into an organization in your early twenties and you stay until you retire and you get your gold watch and your pension. And that is that, I think, has made some people sort of assume that the organization is responsible for their career development. And so much has changed about the agreement between workers and organizations in this country and across the world since then. In any case, in my view, I think both answers are absolutely valid. I think if you want to go to work, clock out and leave your job where your job is, that is absolutely fine. And if you want to make work, your entire personality sort of stay on the clock at all hours and invest every minute of your personal time in building your professional brand, et cetera. Also absolutely fine. But that is your choice to make, and those are your boundaries to hold.
ALIDA: Thank you. I, uh, appreciate it because I think it goes back to something that you said at the beginning of this episode that I want to, as we close, go back to, which is something that you really learned growing up. And from your family about a professional career is that to hold on to your humanity, you have to draw a really strong line and know what your boundaries and expectations are and then make sure that you’re not crossing that line. And I do think part of what this conversation is bringing up for me is how many of us, because of the sort of all encompassing nature of work in American culture, don’t know what a line with work actually is and don’t have models for it around us.
KARYN: I think of Prentice Hemp Hill’s quote that boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and love myself simultaneously as the model that I find the most helpful when I think about boundaries at work. And I, uh, think that approach offers some flexibility in that you don’t have to be sort of strict and walled off in the ways that you approach work. There’s a give and take, and every moment and every job will demand something different. But it is up to you to decide whether what’s being asked of you is too much and how you want to negotiate what you ultimately actually end up delivering to make sure that you can love yourself and love the work that you’re putting out into the world.
ALIDA: Thank you so much for sharing that, for the insight and honestly, for the framework that you can use for yourself. I think it’s especially important for anybody who takes care of people for a living where the boundaries are even blurrier, because it doesn’t feel so easy to just pick up and leave, even when you are burnt out or feel that you yourself are, uh, in need of care. Closing out today’s discussion, I have just one last question for you, which is if folks take one thing away from you and your story, what is it?
KARYN: I think staying curious about those around me and about what I need from work has helped me move when I needed to move and sort of dig in and keep asking questions when that was ultimately the right thing to do. So I would just invite you to see where curiosity can take you in your own career journey.
ALIDA: Thank you so much. Karen, where can we find you after today’s episode?
KARYN: After today’s episode, you can find me on LinkedIn. So if you search for my name and you just send me a note mentioning care work, I will connect with you.
ALIDA: Amazing. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
KARYN: Absolutely. Thank you.
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.