A natural-born mediator, Ruth Nakalyowa brings the gift of patience and kindness to all who interact with her. In her work of facilitating conversations around race, identity and oppression, she consistently practices the important work of listening to understand rather than to respond. As our Learning Lead, EDI, Ruth supports, prepares and delivers some of Roy Group’s sessions, particularly in the justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) space. She is a trusted source of learning for our team, too, as we explore the complex layers of human conduct within the realm of intersectionality and equity.
What is your role at Roy Group?
I started off informally, as a Zoom host. I was intrigued by Roy Group, and I wanted to expand my network. I also wanted to pick up facilitation skills and see how different folks conduct engaging sessions, which benefitted my work outside of Roy Group. And because I was a Zoom host, I was able to attend a Roy Group session to explore my Leader’s Gift. Once we had uncovered and articulated that, it became clear to Roy Group that my work would be valued in a more challenging role.
Wow, that’s pretty great. You never know where those doors will pop open! We’ll definitely dig deeper into your Leader’s Gift. What’s your role with PoD-C?
I am one of PoD-C’s co-founders. Before 2021, my amazing team and I had been doing EDI work individually. In 2021 we decided to come together and co-create PoD-C, Power of DisCourse. We create, plan and deliver workshops in the EDI space.
You’ve done a fair amount of travelling. Where to, and why did your growing up involve so much travel?
Yes, I’ve travelled to countries in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa. My parents travelled quite a bit for work, and they also believed that intercultural interactions contributed to a holistic learning experience. In other words, learning shouldn’t only be about sitting in a classroom, but also interacting with people who are not from the same place or who don’t have similar experiences and backgrounds. Because of my diverse friend group, I came to appreciate and love learning about different cultures and visiting new places.
You’ve also done a lot of volunteer work. Where does this focus come from?
It was definitely a requirement for school, but my parents also always taught my sister and I about the importance of giving back and being of service to others. Volunteering is humbling. There are no paychecks or benefits, so you know you’re working with people who are in it for the heart. You can meet the most passionate, hardworking and kind people.
Can you explain the term “intersectionality”? It’s new for many people.
It is the core of my work. Intersectionality is a framework that was developed by lawyer, scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw. It’s all about how social justice issues can overlap, thereby creating multiple layers of injustice. For example, I am a woman who is also Black. I may get treated differently because I am a woman…but also because I am Black. It’s complex.
I guess part of my purpose is to draw attention to the fact that we cannot approach oppression in a simplistic, one-sided way. My main work focuses on racism, but I always tell organizations that in order to truly be anti-oppressive, other ‘isms’ have to be addressed as well. Otherwise there won’t be any meaningful change.
How do you define privilege? And what happens when we choose to explore our own privilege?
Privilege is the advantages, benefits, or perks that only some people have. These advantages make life a little easier to navigate. So for example, you are at an advantage if you have a safe home to live in, or if you can easily relocate to another country where you feel safer.
One of the first things I like to explore with people is identifying one’s own privilege. There is a lot of value in understanding how we ‘arrive’ for conversations. It gives us a clearer picture of what our worldview might be, and the role we may directly or indirectly play in oppression. Knowing your privilege can help determine when you should speak up, when you should listen, and which communities you should be supporting more.
You have said, “You can’t call yourself an ‘ally’.” What do you mean?
Human nature drives us to constantly show others that we are good people. But when supporting communities—especially the marginalized—it is important to be selfless, and not center ourselves. It is the community we are supporting that gets to decide whether we are allies…whether we are truly helping and being of service. Also, allyship is about doing. It is a verb, not a label we get to give ourselves.
This is similar to the conviction Roy Group holds around mentorship. Mentor, just like ally, is a gift word. But it’s important to not get caught up in being gifted these words. Focus on putting in the work to even be worthy of these terms.
What is your Leader’s Gift?
Discerning needs, building connections, inviting the conversations that are ready to be born, and initiating unique and practical solutions.
The first step in my work is building connections. Very rarely do people want to have uncomfortable conversations with people they are not familiar with. At PoD-C, we like to take our time and get to know folks before we dive into difficult conversations.
As for ‘inviting the conversations that are ready to be born’, I recognize that a lot of people are at the stage where they want to start understanding racism. However, many feel embarrassed that they have waited this long, so they shy away from this important learning. This is where I come in. I’m not here to shame you. That doesn’t get us anywhere. I don’t care about your age, or that you don’t even have a basic understanding of race and oppression. As long as you are eager to learn and unlearn, and as long as you understand that systems of oppression do exist and that we need to urgently dismantle them, we can come up with practical solutions together.
What kind of pressure are BIPOC people feeling in the wake of the world finally waking up, catalyzed by Black Lives Matter? Is there suddenly a blanket expectation that you should all be out there teaching and driving change? Do you ever get tired of being a spokesperson?
We are constantly under pressure to educate people, to make people feel better about not knowing about issues that affect BIPOC folks, to come up with the solutions. There is definitely this false assumption that all BIPOC folks want to do EDI and anti-racism work. But not every person of colour wants that job! Some folks just want to survive and make it through the day in peace without having to answer every question there is about racism.
Of course I get tired! I am human. I don’t always wake up with my EDI hat on. I have interests, goals, and a life outside of my work. I encourage folks to be mindful and check in before expecting a BIPOC person to engage in conversations about race.
That’s good advice. What’s more important, recognizing and properly educating people about the events that brought us here, or co-creating a better Now and a harmonious way forward?
The way I see it, we can’t have one without the other. How can we create a harmonious future without understanding our past? How can we only talk about the past and not talk about a way forward? In order to truly decolonize our world, we need to be aware of the events that got us to this point so that we can create a future that is well informed. We can do both at the same time. It’s the only way we can approach dismantling systems of oppression holistically.
What question, when asked by other people, really puts a burr under your saddle?
“But don’t all lives matter?”
This question makes me feel that someone isn’t really listening. This gets to me because we never said non-Black people’s lives don’t matter. I really love the phrase Black Lives Matter, and I will continue saying it no matter how politicized it has been made. To me, it is a beautiful reminder. In a world that systemically oppresses people who look like me, I am worthy and I matter. Not matter more. Just matter.
Would you tell a funny story from your travels?
This is about to sound farfetched, but trust me, it happened:
I was in Zambia conducting research with my professor and a classmate. Toward the end of our hectic month-long trip, we decided to treat ourselves to a tour of Victoria Falls. Walking through one of the trails, we came across a baboon sitting calmly on one of the benches. As we continued our walk, all of a sudden, the baboon stole up behind me and tried to swipe my backpack — which had my passport, phone and tablet. I was due back in the U.S in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t be stuck in Zambia with no passport!
Long story short, I played tug-of-war for my backpack with a baboon (!) for a couple of minutes. Thankfully, one of the other tourists rushed toward us, scared the animal off and I managed to save my belongings.