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Dec. 2, 2021

The CATK Interview: Plantation Theory Author, John Graham, Part One

The CATK Interview: Plantation Theory Author, John Graham, Part One

Join Torin and Julie in welcoming HBCU grad, author, and employer brand guru, John Graham to the show.


Join Torin and Julie in welcoming HBCU grad, author, and employer brand guru, John Graham to the show in part one of a two part interview you will not want to miss.

John Graham’s professional passion is helping global companies uncover who they are at their core. Through award winning employer brand and employee value proposition development, Graham has discovered innovative ways to bring the humanity of employee stories to life. As a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practitioner and culture transformation consultant, his work centers on improving the lived experiences of marginalized employee populations through bleeding-edge approaches that disrupt the status quo and create equitable and inclusive environments. Graham earned a bachelor’s degree in African Studies and a Master's degree in Education from Lincoln University. He also holds an executive certificate in Fostering Diversity and Inclusion from the Yale School of Management.

Accolades include:

- Double alumnus of Lincoln University - 1854 (Oldest degree-granting HBCU in the U.S.)

- Fostering Diversity & Inclusion certification from Yale School of Management

- Published author of Plantation Theory: The Black Professional’s Struggle Between Freedom & Security

- Named to the 2020 Comparably List of Inspiring Employer Brand Leaders

- Launched global employer brands for Fortune 50 Pharma & Biotech companies

- Award-Winning culture marketing and talent attraction strategist

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Cred:

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Transcript

0:00:01.3 Announcer: We've been about this work, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging. Share through the voices of a white woman, and a Black man, we bring lived experiences. We have pursued D&I progress for most of our professional lives. We use Crazy and The King to cover news, tips from colleagues and host incredible guests. Listeners, count on Julie and I to transparently drive the conversation. We thank you for rocking with us. Check it. Julie, kick off the show.

0:00:38.5 Julie: Welcome to Crazy and The King. Hey, my friend.

0:00:42.3 Torin: Tell you something, end of the year, you know I'm already feeling really good, holiday season is among us, but we got some things that we need to talk about. And one of the things that we had to do is we had to get some incredible voices on to end the year. So, even though Julie and I are not here live, we're still giving you some of that heat. So stuff happened in 2020... What's this, 2021? Yeah.

0:01:05.1 Julie: Still, yeah.

0:01:05.5 Torin: Some stuff happened. I mean... When you said "still", look at you, I know what was... That was a little soft shade right there, you threw a little soft shade, I got it. I caught that, though. So, I know... If we were to think about this year, what's probably one thing, work-related, that just... It sits with you and maybe even it just annoys you? What's the one thing from 2021?

0:01:31.4 Julie: I would say that we are still holding steady, right? Holding steady is not good enough anymore. I thought 2020 and 2021 was gonna change us, and if anything, it's not annoyed me, it has refocused me into what has to happen in 2022 and beyond, because it's really time to move beyond sort of the performative bullshit and... We should know that by now.

0:02:00.7 Torin: But let me make sure I understand, when you say, "We're holding steady," I think what you're suggesting, J, is that we haven't made enough movement in areas that matter, areas like compensation, areas like inclusion, areas like recognizing people with disabilities, areas around being more civil, more empathetic. Is that what we're saying? Focusing more on shareholders and not stakeholders, we're just kind of going through the routine, is that what you're saying?

0:02:28.4 Julie: Yeah, I feel like we are still focused too much on access and not enough on equity, and until we start transforming that conversation into equity, we're just gonna hold where we are. I'm glad we're not taking some steps back, I felt like we were, but steady is not where I wanna be either.

0:02:45.8 Torin: Yeah, I think back to a conversation that I had in October. Well, it wasn't a conversation I had, but it was a conversation that I was privy to listen to, Jason and Jess Von Bank on their NOW of Work crowdcast. And one of the things that they focused on, they focused on acronyms, and they focused on why HR is not performing at a high, high level, and one of the comments that kept showing up in the thread was that people relying on technology, thinking that technology could change the outcome in ways that we as people couldn't change the outcome, which is why I'm so glad that we have John Graham on today so that we can kinda talk about the people in the solution, and hopefully this would be one of those conversations that allows us to move forward at more of an accelerated rate. Makes sense?

0:03:41.0 Julie: Absolutely, and I can tell you that we've both been waiting and excited to have John on the show. I'm a big fan and have devoured his book called Plantation Theory, so why don't we...

0:03:52.0 Torin: I'm jealous.

0:03:53.7 Julie: Just get right to it and hop to our break and welcome our guest.

0:03:57.4 Torin: Yeah, I'm jealous because I don't even have the book yet, and that's hard.

0:04:01.1 Julie: I'm not gonna tell you I have a signed copy, but I do. [chuckle]

0:04:05.4 Torin: That's a problem. But that's how it is. I don't have a copy, I'm gonna make sure we get a copy. Let's listen to this ad break and then let's get into our conversation with John.

0:04:17.6 Julie: Alright, so welcome to Crazy and The King, Mr. John Graham, how are you today?

0:04:23.6 John: Hey Julie, I'm great, how are you?

0:04:26.2 Torin: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. We're gonna start all of that over. We're gonna get that... We gotta have that holiday festive... Because again, folks been tired of listening to podcasts, folks been watching Zoom meetings and video, and we've gotta bring them into our environment, let's give them some more of that energy. So J, hit them again with that joint. As a matter of fact...

0:04:49.8 Julie: No, no, no, I defer to you, my friend. Bring it.

0:04:53.5 Torin: Okay, cool, cool, cool. Alright so look. So, we've been waiting for this conversation. J told you before the break that she's already began to devour the book. Plantation Therapy... It's Plantation Theory, right? Theory, theory, not therapy. It probably should be therapy and actually... You know what? That's a great way for us to go into it. Fuck up the name of his book, then allow him to come in and fix it. So, welcome to Crazy and The King, Mr. John Graham.

0:05:19.9 John: Hey hey. Thank you so much for having me.

0:05:22.2 Torin: That's what I'm talking about. There you go.

0:05:23.4 John: Thank you so much for having me, I'm just as excited to be here. You've gotta forgive me, I'm three eggnogs deep, so this is chill vibe.

0:05:32.6 Torin: I love that, I love that.

0:05:33.0 John: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Plantation Theory: The Black Professional's Struggle Between Freedom and Security. Available everywhere books are out. But yes, it's certainly a 150-page easy read that is not an easy read. Anybody who has read it thus far knows that it certainly pushes people to ask better questions.

0:05:58.4 Torin: Yeah, I'm gonna make sure... I'm gonna make sure, not just one or two copies, I'm actually gonna make sure I cop five copies and I'm gonna see if we can put them in the hands of some incredible kings and queens in the month of December. The title, that subtitle, that freedom and that...

0:06:15.7 John: Security. Yeah.

0:06:17.5 Torin: Yeah, that freedom and security is like a pause right there for me, but before I even jump into that, because I'm ready to go at 100 miles an hour, John Graham, VP of Employer Brand, Culture & Diversity at Shaker Recruitment Marketing. He, again, is the author of Plantation Theory. He identifies as he, him, Black man, husband, father, spiritualist, creative, fraternal brother... Love the dimensions. That spiritualist piece, J, it might prevent him from using any inflammatory language, but we'll see what happens. Alright?

0:06:55.0 John: No, no, no. I'm one with the universal language of all indeed. Yes. It's like...

0:07:00.8 Julie: Excellent.

0:07:00.9 Torin: Well, then there we go. There we go.

0:07:01.8 John: Across the board. Yes.

0:07:03.1 Torin: Then there we go. There we go. J, take it away. What do we got?

0:07:06.2 Julie: Yeah, so I think I first wanna know why Plantation Theory. Introduce us to the book and the motivation behind your writing.

0:07:19.5 John: Absolutely. So I'm a historian by background. I was an African Studies major, which means I was steeped in all things African culture, pre-Trans Atlantic slave all the way up to, let's say, 1964 Civil Rights Act. That being the case, coming out of undergrad, going into corporate, I had a very deep sense of who I was and where I was entering from a corporate perspective. That being the case, trying to weave in culture into everything that I did, whether it was early days in customer service, all the way up to leading global employer brand, recruitment marketing functions for major Fortune 50 pharma and biotech companies. I wanted to ensure that the culture was properly represented and articulated and respected. So 2020 became the year of conversations that were never had openly in corporate settings as catalyzed by George Floyd's murder. And so what I saw was a lot of people who historically had not talked about these issues hearing things for the first time, a lot of people who had not been able to express the realities of their lived experience being openly called to do so on broad stages. And there was still a disconnect because people were looking at the what and wanting to jump into the how, but nobody was talking about the why. And so I felt that was the opportunity to put a complete thought together in Plantation Theory.

0:09:06.7 Torin: Yeah, you talk about 2020 being the year of conversation, and you mentioned a moment ago you knew who you were. It reminds me, John, of an opening that I gave to a presentation back in 2014. It's powerful for us to know who we are. What does that really mean to you, and why is that important? And I wanna be very, very specific, why is that important to you as a Black man to who you are?

0:09:38.0 John: Well, I think identity helps you not only present yourself to the world, but it helps you ground yourself when you're presented with things that aren't in alignment. And so when you know who you are, you'll know what you're willing to accept and what you're not, and be very clear on what alterations or conformity or contortions you're willing to make to achieve a certain outcome. And I think being grounded in not only your history, but strength and confidence in your identity is hugely important, especially as a Black man in America, but as a Black professional in corporate America.

0:10:24.2 Julie: I think it's interesting how you got to that point in your life, and this is my take away from the book. You grew up in an affluent, mostly white neighbourhood school kind of life, and you decided to go to an HBCU for college. And then what that changed in you... So talk to us about your lived experience and the differences of being in the majority, and you do that just so beautifully in the book.

0:10:54.8 John: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, my parents did well. My father was in corporate, a board motor company in sales and marketing. And every time he got a promotion, it meant to new city, and so having to adjust and adapt... I'm an only child, so you make friends fast, you get used to being in social circles and then going and establishing new relationships and so forth. But everywhere we would move, the consistent theme was I was one of a handful of Black students in the school. And so I can remember as far back as second grade and fifth grade, and getting into fights, and people wanting to touch my hair, and calling me the N-word, and all of these things because first of all, kids are brutal, but when you are one of only a few of that cultural exposure, and then you have a homogenous community that isn't used to people that are of their cultures, it creates a lot of tensions that I don't think kids, number one, know how to deal with, and most parents don't have those conversations with their children either outside of Black community.

0:12:12.0 John: So that shaping my early childhood, I saw the richness of the experiences that my parents had at Lincoln University, where they met... Where several family members had attended and graduated from as well. And my first step onto that campus at 12 years old with my father just really instilled the sense of pride, knowing the history on those sacred grounds or those hallowed grounds as it were, the Thurgood Marshalls, the Langston Hughes, Kwame Nkrumahs, the [0:12:50.5] ____ the people who had stepped on those grounds before me was massively impactful in making that decision to go to an HBCU. But during my time there, coming from predominantly suburban environments, it really gave me the first experience of being in the majority, not having to worry about my performance in speaking for my entire race, but my individual performance was my own and my success was expected. That was the bare minimum expectation that you'd be excellent. And so that is an experience that gives you a very different sense of who you are in context to America if you've never lived it.

0:13:38.7 Torin: You just said something which is, first of all, you drop names that in the three years that Julie and I have been recording have never been uttered on this platform. So I appreciate your sharing those names for our listeners, and my hope is that they pull them down from the listening experience, and that they spend some time educated themselves on who those individuals are. Sure, Thurgood Marshall may ring true and familiar, but came Kwame Nkrumah, that's a new one, that's a different one for them, and I hope that they do that. But I wanna go back to something that you said, you used the word "excellence" and prior to that, you talked about alignment and you talked about weaving yourself and contorting yourself.

0:14:28.5 Torin: I wanna go to excellence, and this might put you on the spot, it might challenge you for a moment, but when you talk about that whole being able to bear the weight of your individual performance versus having to speak for the audience of Black and brown people or Black men, aren't you tired or Black excellence? Here's what I mean...

0:14:54.4 John: Yes, yeah.

0:14:55.8 Torin: That phrase, Julie, and this is something that I've never said on the show before, but I had to pause because there was a period where I would put a post up on social media and I'd put hashtag Black excellence, and I ran across someone, I can't remember who it is, but the person challenged me, not personally, but their tweet challenged me like, "I'm tired of being excellent, I just wanna be... " Not that I wanna be lazy, I just don't wanna have to be excellent. What do you say to that?

0:15:33.0 John: So I'm in the same camp. I've had very deep discussions around the problem of excellence and asking questions of why is excellence coded into us but mediocrity is coded into others? And so when you start to look at who benefits and this brings it back full circle, The Plantation Theory, excellence was a requirement because you had no choice. You had to perform at high outputs of productivity against your own health issues, challenges, circumstances. Didn't matter. You were doing what you were doing from can't to can't see as they say. And so that's generationally coded. And so this notion of being excellent, to always be working twice as hard for half the recognition, to be the best dressed, to be the best performer and still not meet the mark is something I have a challenge with when it's mediocrity that seems to get rewarded and elevated. So yes, I'm with you. Excellence should not be the standard because it sets an impossible pace, an unsustainable pace that ultimately we've had to endure for centuries.

0:16:55.5 Torin: And not that John needs any explanation, but again, I just want our listeners to know we're not suggesting in any way that we are afraid of that hard work, we're not suggesting in any way that we are asking you once again to lower the bar, that we want to arrive at a slower pace of good, we just really want you to recognize that we want a fair expectation across the board. That's what we want.

0:17:26.2 John: That's right. And fair defined as the same expectation that you would have of yourself rather than the... There's a very powerful medium in language that requires us to examine the racial realities in which we speak. And so fairness is one of those words, but equality and equity, all of those things have different meanings depending on the racial frame we're talking from, so I appreciate that call out for sure. And look, we've addressed meritocracy and the myth of meritocracy in this conversation around excellence in the sense that, no, we're not asking to be given a pass and side step hard work, but if we're looking at meritocracy and it's a promise in theory, then it suggests that those who have worked the hardest reap the most rewards, when an historical view who's worked harder than Black folks in America? And that's a question in a conversation that's uncomfortable, but it's real, and that's why... That's why as we talk about excellence, as we talk about fairness and expectation, we also have to be... We have to recognize that there's a historical inequity.

0:18:47.1 Torin: Alright. So they say that as men, we can tap into our feminine side...

0:18:54.0 John: Oh, for sure?

0:18:55.1 Torin: I'ma tap into my feminine side for just a second. Child...

[laughter]

0:19:03.4 John: Yes, sir.

0:19:03.4 Torin: Son, when you said it... Just the whole thought of it really is... And I struggle with how to put it in words, and I haven't really been able to put it in words, J, from the stage like I wanted to, but the question... He just hit it, like you can't tell me that Black and brown people, that people with disabilities, you can't tell me that more people than Tim Cook in the LGBTQ community, you can't tell me that we haven't worked hard. Like, I just find it hard to believe that a group of people think less of us with all that we have displayed across industry, coast to coast, border to border, for centuries. And I've struggled to put that in words, but I just so appreciate your succinctly saying, "But who's worked harder?" But who's worked harder?

0:20:14.9 Julie: So, The Plantation Theory I understand because I've read the book, and I think the subtitle tells us a lot, and we've had I think a very important foundational conversation right now. Tell me how Plantation Theory manifests itself, and I would say from a Black perspective but even from a white perspective, and how then that creates this friction, for lack of a better word. How does it keep us from getting to that next place?

0:20:54.4 John: Now, that's a phenomenal question. I will do my best to answer it with the following. If you look at the model of work in this country historically, we largely haven't changed much. And what I mean by that is the concept of business is still low cost labor, high productivity and profitability, if we just keep that as the premise. So when you look at Plantation Theory, you're coming from a no cost labor into a transition. And so I say in the book, in 1866 you have 4.5 million freed Black folks with no support system, no education, no access, and no means of sustaining a living. And oh, by the way, now you're competing with an influx of immigrants who have been brought in to replace the low-cost labor from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and so forth, South America, Central America. And so now you have a million plus of these free Black folks die within the first year of being released from bondage because disease, famine, neglect. The remainder...

0:22:17.9 Julie: And I wanna stop you right there for just a second. That stat, I underlined, I circled, I did not know, and I think that's important, a million freed Black slaves died after they were sent off with nothing out to make their own way. I'm sorry, please go ahead.

0:22:37.9 John: That's alright. No, no, it's a great call out. And so when you look at the remainder, you had a very small subset that go on to lead independent lives, set up shop, whatever, and live free lives. The majority went back to plantations as share croppers, which set up the next 100 years of what we know as the peonage systems, Jim Crow and so forth. Where that plays into today, the only thing that separates us is one generation from not being full citizens, and I'm talking about Black folks. So the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII and so forth, my parents were in grade school when they switched from a Jim Crow era to not Jim Crow era. One generation. So we still work with people who were of age in a time where we weren't seen as full human beings. Now you think about how that plays out. So how does that play out in performance reviews? "You know what, you did excellent this year, but let's wait till next year, see how it goes." Promotion is always out of reach no matter the credential or the output. When you look at the recruitment piece, "You know what, we decided not to move forward with you, even though your resume looks excellent with all of these credentials," but you don't know why.

0:24:04.3 John: There's a whole host of things, the micro-aggressiveness, the assumption of dominant culture assimilation. You're coming into a culture, "But bring your whole self to work," but not really your whole self to work. These are the underlying things that we don't address because we assume since 1964, now there's this expectation of fairness. Fairness. Well, that expectation doesn't necessarily play out in reality. And who's defining fair? So if we look at the executive levels of most companies, you would see that that expectation doesn't play out. When you look at the promotion rates of Black talent or marginalized talent, that expectation doesn't play out. And when you look at attrition rates of marginalized talent, these expectations don't play out. So these are how plantation theories, the expectation of, "Give us your all and we might, we might give you some relief, we may give you some acknowledgement," these underlying notions of, "Work hard, keep your head down. We'll tap you." They just still play out today.

0:25:26.7 Torin: Yeah, you know what, you just dropped that historical reference, and for a lot of individuals connecting it back to 1866 is something that is a concept beyond them, like they've never even given that consideration. And you did it in a way where people can easily make reference to it. Julie, she circled it. She highlighted it. She underlined it. I often talk about the book, The Color of Law, and reading such, it will change a person's relationship with that familiar phrase of "pull yourself up from your bootstraps". I wanna put a pin in the conversation. Let's have a part two. So sit there real quick. We're gonna button up this episode and then we'll come back and we'll continue to record because I don't wanna rush where you are right now. You've dropped some points and I want us to be able to pick up on them. So real quick, let's make sure that we focus on this, so stick with us, John.

0:26:26.6 Torin: Our Her Voice segment typically is around women that are making moves. And for those of you who have been rocking with Crazy and The King, ever since we introduced the segment, I wanna say, Julie, back in July of this year, it's been something that has resonated well with our listeners. Well, our Her Voice Segment for the month of December is going to be around women who have made moves in 2021. The first one that we wanna highlight is a Amanda Gorman, who also made history as the youngest inaugural poet. She was phenomenal, and I know you remember that. Right, J?

0:27:08.9 Julie: Oh, yes. Loved it. Listened to it many times. Also, Sara McBride who was sworn in as the first openly transgender State Senator.

0:27:18.1 Torin: Yeah, and Chloé Zhao became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for the best director. So we appreciate the work that women have done, and I thought it was extremely important. Julie thinks it's extremely important that we continue to highlight the work of women. They have had a tough year to say the least. And it's our small way of saying we wanna make sure we keep the focus on, how do we undergird support and courage and inspire and just reward women in the way that they should be rewarded? Quick mentions, Julie.

0:28:01.5 Julie: Yep. John's book, plantationtheory.com. Pick up a copy and devour it like I have.

0:28:09.3 Torin: Or several copies, pick up several copies. Yeah. And another book alert dropping in the fall of 2023, I know it's more than 18 months from now, but you have to find this young lady on Twitter, follow her and put a note on your calendar to grab her book. Her name is Aida Mariam Davis, you can find her on Twitter at Aida, A-I-D-A M-A-R-I-A-M. Aida Mariam, she is the founder and CEO of Decolonize Design. So fitting and so complementary to the conversation that we are having today, but her book, Decolonizing Design: Reclaiming our Sacred Personhood in Creating New Worlds is coming out in the fall of 2023. And this is probably a good time for us to say, stick with us, do your best to create work places that matter, be a better human, share the pod with your digital, your social tribes. Julie and I wanna grow in 2022, so we're gonna keep giving you all that we have, but for now, J and I are ghost.

0:29:25.4 Julie: See ya.

John Graham, Jr. Profile Photo

John Graham, Jr.

NYT & Forbes Featured Author, VP, Employer Brand, Diversity & Culture - Shaker Recruitment Marketing

John Graham’s professional passion is helping global companies uncover who they are at their core. Through award winning employer brand and employee value proposition development, Graham has discovered innovative ways to bring the humanity of employee stories to life. As a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practitioner and culture transformation consultant, his work centers on improving the lived experiences of marginalized employee populations through bleeding-edge approaches that disrupt the status quo and create equitable and inclusive environments. Graham earned a bachelor’s degree in African Studies and a Master's degree in Education from Lincoln University. He also holds an executive certificate in Fostering Diversity and Inclusion from the Yale School of Management.

Accolades include:
- Double alumnus of Lincoln University - 1854 (Oldest degree-granting HBCU in the U.S.)
- Fostering Diversity & Inclusion certification from Yale School of Management
- Published author of Plantation Theory: The Black Professional’s Struggle Between Freedom & Security
- Named to the 2020 Comparably List of Inspiring Employer Brand Leaders
- Launched global employer brands for Fortune 50 Pharma & Biotech companies
- Award-Winning culture marketing and talent attraction strategist