Storytelling Towards Racial Literacy: Q&A With CIC Philadelphia Member Lion’s Story

As Black History Month 2021 draws to a close, CIC sat down with Lion’s Story, a member of CIC Philadelphia’s Social Impact Cohort, to explore the opportunities and challenges of building racial literacy in the workplace. 

Lion’s Story helps organizations to increase their racial literacy — that is, the ability to recognize and resolve racially stressful social interactions — through training methods based in storytelling and mindfulness.

Recognizing that conversations on race can be difficult, particularly in professional settings, Lion’s Story aims to equip individuals with the skills to understand their own racial narratives and engage in honest, productive dialogue. At the core of their approach is the CLCBE racial stress reduction mindfulness strategy, which starts with observation of one’s feelings and finally ends with breathwork that calms the nervous system. 

In the conversation below, we discuss shame, the brain’s response to narratives, and the critical need for organizational racial literacy in the context of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement, and racial disparities in the pandemic’s impact in the United States. 

Led by Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein of Making Headlines PR, our conversation features:

  • Charles Barrett Adams, Managing Partner/Co-Founder at Lion’s Story

  • Shamm Hadgu Petros, Partner/Director of Learning & Evaluation at Lion’s Story

  • Howard Stevenson, PhD, Co-Founder at Lion’s Story and Constance E. Clayton Professor of Urban Education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

  • Minna Hyon, Events Lead at CIC Philadelphia

This conversation was edited for space and clarity. 

CIC: Let’s start by hearing about your mission at Lion’s Story. 

Shamm Hadgu Petros: Our mission is to develop the skills and capacity in individuals and institutions to process racial stress, claim stories, and heal from racial conflict. We envision a racially literate world where people have a full understanding and authorship of their own racial stories for the direct benefit of themselves, their communities, and organizations. 

CIC: That’s ambitious. What barriers do you face in this type of work?

Howard Stevenson: Part of the issue for people is knowing how to live in a world where they’re not “superior.” What else do you have to do if you’re not superior in navigating the world? How do you make choices? How do you listen to people who are different than you if you are equal and don’t have the benefits of power? 

Some people are afraid to “do race” because they don’t want to give up power and privilege. We’re all traumatized but in very different ways. 

Charles Barrett Adams: Black, brown, Indigenous folks — we know we’re traumatized. We experience it and live it and we know it. I think other folks don’t realize it. Oftentimes, when we work with organizations, people refuse to engage, even though this is where they are employed. There’s fear, but they also question why. 

Our work is skills based; we believe in competency over character. There are ways that you can heal, process, and engage with these racially stressful, face-to-face, interactive moments. 

The Lion’s Story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.

CIC: How does it work when the people who most need to do the work refuse to do so? 

CBA: We do our best to create a space that can allow them to at least take a risk. Mostly we’re successful, but honestly, you can’t make people do something. 

SHP: We tell our client partners that when you do this work, you’re going to start recognizing things in your community and you’re going to be able to read your environment better than you have in the past, and one of those things is that some people don’t belong or some people are not ready for the level of work you’re trying to engage them in. And that is their true reality: folks who are extremely avoidant of racial topics who are expected to step into a Lion’s Story training will experience racial stress. They will be heightened to all these different psycho-emotional-sensory experiences, because this might be the first time they’ve had to talk about and sit with race. And I think that’s a success. 

There are some of us who experience racial stress and trauma far more frequently than others. Due to white supremacy, we all experience it — white or Black. But we really try to validate people. A core value of ours is that everyone has a racial story that matters. It gives you critical information about your beliefs, your behaviors, and how you like to engage. It’s our job to help people recognize that they have a story and then help usher them into their stories. And as it pertains to stress and trauma, when people know they have a story, it’s our job to help them make it linear. With the structure we provide, we can give you some clarity and literally draw that out, and maybe you can build an arc to your racial story, instead of it feeling like this overwhelming, impenetrable monster. 

HS: There’s a wonderful term by Molefe Asante out of Temple University: peculiar arrogance. It’s the arrogance of not knowing what you don’t know, yet speaking as if you know what it is we all need to know. That’s a peculiar arrogance — to somehow hold onto your own sense of self in opposition to the truth or reality. 

In our work, when some people are faced with a stressful moment, they run. Some people just get paralyzed. But others turn it into a fight. All of it is out of a sense of incompetence. “I don’t know what to do. I’m scared. I’m not going to put myself at risk to process these racial feelings just out of a sense of defiance. I’m not going to give up on that even if it would help.” 

CIC: How do you employ storytelling and psychology in your work? 

SHP: Everything we do is guided in storytelling. There’s a lot of power in being able to tell your story. It helps you diffuse, to put a timeline, put order, put characters into your narrative, so you feel empowered. 

From the very beginning to the end, there’s an arc of story prompts that we guide folks through that help them excavate their personal, professional, and organizational experiences with race. 

We also have a racial literacy toolkit that folks develop with us as they go along with our work, which takes them a bit deeper. 

Authorship is freedom. We see this over and over again, as people reimagine their stories. In our collective practice, we retrospectively tell stories about your past, but we also change the prompts so you reimagine what your past could look like or what your future may look like. 

We find this to be very empowering. People are able to imagine their best selves: themselves as a racial justice warrior. Because unfortunately, you’re going to be confronted with another racial encounter, but that moment is a moment for you to rewrite your story. 

HS: Your brain responds to stories differently. In a biochemical sense, if I give you a set of facts about racism in the world and how to make it better, you’re going to be listening in a very different mode. That information triggers a sense of shame about “what I don’t know” or “what I haven’t done” or “what I should do.” Your brain gives off a chemical during a story that says it’s okay to come out, it’s safe to engage. 

By the time we leave, they can literally have a debate amongst each other about if racial literacy and DEI work is relevant to their organization.

CIC: What is the story behind your name? 

CBA: It’s from a West African Proverb: “ The Lion’s Story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.” 

Essentially everything that Shamm and Doc [Howard Stevenson] just talked about is all boiled down to that proverb. Authorship is freedom. Who gets to tell whose story? In this country, one group of people, white people, have been telling the story of everybody else since its inception. 

We often ask folks who are hesitant or don’t want to engage to think of their racial story. We’ll ask them to put it in a hashtag or a bumper sticker or a statement t-shirt. 

The one that stuck out to me — and it’s happened in different languages with the same memory — is something along the lines of: “Grandma was wrong” or “Grandad didn’t know better.” 

Everybody has an elder in their family who has one thing about them — the way they cooked, the way they talked about Black people or the way they treated women — which, in their mind, this elder did wrong or did unfairly.

As Doc was describing it in terms of psychology, I was seeing people’s faces in those moments. They’re hesitant to even say it out loud: “My hashtag was ‘Grandma was wrong.’” And when they finally say it, everyone in the room goes, “ahhhhh!”

CIC: Do you find they can release that shame because everyone around the room can relate?

CBA: There’s shame, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love that person. 

SHP: Both and… both and. 

CBA: So you may say: “Grandma was wrong, and Grandma was my favorite person in the family.” Both of those things can coexist. 

Back to the proverb, someone told them something about another type of person, they’ve attached some values or demeaning understanding of that person, and they carried it with them. That doesn’t mean you can no longer love your grandma. 

HS: Right! It actually humanizes the moment. You tell me a story and I find some connection to it. You’re different from me and I was ready to argue with you and win this battle, and all of a sudden, I’m thinking about my grandmother, because I know I love my grandmother. You can have evidence of her being both a caring, compassionate person who also said some really awful things. And that’s humanity — that we are both, in all of our frailty. The humanization part allows me to say, “Well, maybe I can say something to my grandma next time after I give her a hug.” 

SHP: We give people the tools to acknowledge with CLCBE — calculate, locate, communicate, breathe, exhale — which is embedded in mindfulness. 

Racial literacy is the ability to read, retask, and resolve racial encounters and racial stress. Reading is a foundational, fundamental strategy that we develop with folks; it’s the ability to observe and appraise racial stress and encounters in all of the ways. It’s being able to access for yourself, in a moment, how that moment has impacted you physically, physiologically, emotionally, cognitively. 

That might sound and look like: “Wow, for my first racial story, I have shame at a nine about this experience, but I also have pride at a ten, and how can those two emotions stand in juxtaposition to one another?”

As Charles says, that gives us a whole other playing ground. We’re not just talking about shame here. We’re talking about shame, but also pride exists, and love, and caring. All these things can exist with one another, and reading is that ability to really digest that. 

That’s the first step: C — to calculate how you feel. 

Then we ask folks to locate their feelings. Where in your body do you feel this? In a racially stressful encounter, you may notice your hands are shaking or you have a feeling in your gut or in your throat. We ask folks to be as specific as possible, because these physiological responses are very taxing on us, especially if they were repeated time and time again. 

Then we ask folks to communicate, a whole lot. We ask for self talk and imagery. What are the scripts playing in your head over and over again — scripts that you might have adopted from your community or from your caregivers that are dictating how you engage in racial encounters? Maybe these scripts are informing whether you fight, flee, or freeze, and it’s really critical that you be able to recognize them. For some people, recognizing self talk is difficult, but we pick up on it. We hear people say things like, “but that didn’t really matter” or “that moment was just fleeting.” 

We ask people to think about what images come to their minds in these moments. I love this question. You think you’re following a linear trajectory of a story and people bring up images that you never even imagine that bring us to different times and places and characters in their narratives. Sometimes images really get to the core of what people are afraid to say. 

Last, we ask folks to breathe and exhale. To inhale and exhale very intentionally, breathing in for a certain amount of time and breathing out for a certain amount of time. We play with different exercises to ignite your parasympathetic nervous system and to help people engage. Both of those serve a different function. 

Dr. Stevenson, you describe CLCBE as a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I’d say even Dialectic. It’s very, very powerful. We get reports back all the time that people use this process in their daily lives — in traffic, at home. But we think it’s particularly powerful when encountering racial stress in personal and professional spaces. 

People are able to imagine their best selves: themselves as a racial justice warrior. Because unfortunately, you’re going to be confronted with another racial encounter, but that moment is a moment for you to rewrite your story.

CIC: How do you help people see that, unless they are living something on a daily basis where it becomes ingrained in the way they communicate and work together, they are not necesarily being anti-racist? 

CBA: We help people talk about things that are racially stressful that they otherwise wouldn’t talk about. Some people get on the phone with us on an intake call and they can’t say “the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.” They’ll say “what happened to George Floyd” or they can‘t say the word “Black.” Not that we’re testing them, but we’ll get off the phone and say, “They can’t even say the word Black, but they want us to start telling stories?”

Companies who use us well are interested in getting their people to talk about their own stories. Eventually, our goal is to talk about the racial story of the organization. So the conversation goes from your personal experiences and your earliest childhood memories and then we can talk about Grandma. By the time we leave, they can literally have a debate amongst each other about if racial literacy and DEI work is relevant to their organization.

HS: We get a chance with this support to say to people, “if you really want to go deeper, we can do it.” We don’t want to hang out with people who just want to do business as usual. 

We have a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to sometimes say, “you’re really not ready. I think you’d like to be and you have nice aspirations, but this particular dog won’t hunt.”

Nothing we do without practice is going to become anything. How did you learn to swim? Did you just throw yourself into the water and keep paddling? No! The same is true around racial competence and finding your voice and story. 

CIC: You’re part of CIC Philadelphia’s Social Impact Cohort, which was designed to help build a pathway to Black business ownership and leadership in the region. Talking about race in the workplace has been difficult. How might being in a coworking space help people have those conversations?

CBA: The conversations in the social impact cohort were really vibrant. At the first meeting I attended in person, people were looking around and you get someone to mirror and you think: “There’s somebody that physically looks like me and/or our organizations overlap, or we’re working in the same communities, or we’re doing wildly different things but we’re doing them for the same reasons.” I think it’s a really powerful dynamic. 

Minna Hyon: From the CIC side, being able to work with Lion’s Story on a level that affects our internal culture and our team has been groundbreaking. What I think was really important was bringing this thinking into the workspace, where it’s usually not accepted or even thought about — where people typically are saying emotions don’t belong.  

Lion’s Story is actually coming in and saying the exact opposite! They’re saying your emotions are real and they’re a huge part of who you are, and that obviously is going to affect you in a professional and workspace setting. So how do you work with that and internalize it in a way that can create a positive change within your team and the culture within the office space itself?

CBA: Right. Not bringing your emotions to work and also being super productive all the time and working late, that’s actually somewhat of a white supremacist frame of an organization’s culture. 

CIC: How can your work with a coworking leader like CIC shift the workplace of the future? 

CBA: I would love it if every CIC globally held X percentage of space intentionally for people from this part of the community and who represent the community. 

It’s also about access. The visual of what CIC feels like upgrades our work. But there’s some systemic inequities that could also be addressed by getting access to being in that space and not making it a financial hurdle. This helps us out and helps Black and brown communities in general. It helps us day-to-day, but it also helps us go on to do other things. We can hire more people and we can have better trainings because of access to the space. But how do we do that so it can be replicated across all the other CIC locations? 

CIC: One of our 36for75 clients, Black & Mobile, has talked about their growth and how being in the space gave them that professional credibility, particularly when they were interviewing.

CBA: Now imagine if the social impact cohorts existed throughout CIC globally. CIC could be doing its part to eradicate or chisel away at white supremacy in a number of countries. One of the opportunities in the space we’re in due to COVID is that now you can have the conversation across borders and across seas. That’s something to think about — the multiplier effect. It could happen across all these CIC spaces, if it’s formally part of how they organize from jump. So when CIC first starts in a place, they can say, this is what the space is going to look like — this percentage of folks are going to be nonprofits and this percentage of folks are going to come from the community. I think that could totally change the way coworking spaces operate. 

To learn more about Lion’s Story or to donate to support its mission of helping individuals and institutions develop the skills to process racial stress and heal from racial conflict, visit:

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