In this episode, Marcel Byrd talks about the intersection of public health and art, authenticity and vulnerability, reading a room and determining safety, and the beauty of dance.
Marcel Byrd: LinkedIn
Marcel Byrd is a public health and arts advocate originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but currently residing in D.C. Through his work, Marcel is curious to further articulate and foster the relationship between public health, systems-level social change, and dance.
00:53 – Marcel’s Superpower: An Explosive Relationship with Laughter
01:45 – The Intersection of Public Health and Art
06:36 – Authenticity and Vulnerability; Bringing Your Whole Self While Remaining Professional
14:59 – Reading a Room and Determining Safety for Being Vulnerable & Making it Safe for People Around You While Being Vulnerable
19:41 – The Beauty of Dance
30:58 – Seeing and Being Outside The Box
38:57 – Gaining Confidence While Retaining Humility
Astrid: The feedback loop can’t be, “I’m only going to keep doing this if I’m positively affirmed.”
Coraline: Vulnerability is scalable.
Avdi: Being the person on the dance floor not necessarily nailing their moves perfectly, but that has a big smile on their face regardless.
Jessica: Imagination is paramount to creating a better world.
Marcel: Articulating the importance of art, creativity, and vulnerability.
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AVDI: Hello, this is Episode 112 of Greater Than Code. I am Avdi Grimm and with me is Astrid Countee.
ASTRID: Thank you, Avdi and I’m also here with my great friend, Coraline Ada Ehmke.
CORALINE: Hey, everybody. Also here today is Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Good morning and I am happy to be here today with our guest Marcel Byrd. Marcel is a public health and arts advocate, originally from Atlanta, Georgia but currently residing in DC. Through his work, Marcel is curious to further articulate and foster the relationship between public health, systems level social change, and dance. Welcome to the show, Marcel.
MARCEL: Hi. Thank you for having me.
JESSICA: We’re so glad you’re here and we’re very curious to learn what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
MARCEL: Something about me, I’m usually very easy for me to laugh. I’m very much someone that finds everything hilarious and certainly, it definitely helps with that social interactions and stuff like that. I would say, sort of a really explosive relationship with laughter and acquired that through just being in this body for 25 years.
CORALINE: Jessica is known for laughter too and enthusiasm and it’s wonderful.
JESSICA: That’s a beautiful superpower — finding everything hilarious.
CORALINE: It’s also a great survival tactic for the times that we live in.
MARCEL: Yeah. That’s very real.
JESSICA: No kidding.
CORALINE: Marcel, I’m really interested in hearing about the intersection of public health and arts. What can you tell me about that?
MARCEL: My background historically, might come most specifically in sexual health. I recently did a two-year fellowship at a nonprofit in DC that helped the health department around issues of HIV, hepatitis and in that role, I was in this sort of health equity seat, so basically, in this space of how can we shift our programming to be more inclusive of people who are, I guess the most marginalized when it comes to HIV and hepatitis but also, to general health outcomes and disparities.
For me, something that I’m really interested in is how do we make it so that health acknowledges the person that we all carry, rather than seeing people as statistics or particular factors of a disparity and how can we have our health system looks like just who we are holistically and all of our interest and I’m kind of bringing that to the table. I think also for me, specifically arts, especially dance in particular but also to a certain degree podcasting as well, has been really paramount for my own mental health. I’m just having that form of expression.
For me, I’ve always understood art on a personal level. It’s like intricate to my health, so that’s just something that I’m trying to further explore and bringing in art and artistic expression into discussions around public health, mental health, and not like a supplemental piece or something that’s kind of extracurricular but something that’s actually foundational and really, really important for a sense of creativity is part of all of that.
JESSICA: What’s an example to do that?
MARCEL: I guess the example is I actually made a podcast through this previous role that’s basically, a show that would explore the relationship between public health work with the work of various acts that we’re doing around issues like social health education, prison abolition, all types of different and various social issues and basically, creating a forum through which people can listen to the show, kind of get a better understanding of these issues while also getting to know the person who told the stories that perceive the work that they do.
It’s something that [inaudible] just the right time being in this work is that sometimes, it gets very heavy. Sometimes, we talk about issues as if they don’t relate to people. We’re quick to say X percent of people experience this like health outcome or this group of people is more likely to experience this. We just do this blanket statements that remove the individual people that make up that group and so, something that I was really curious to do is to create a show where we use storytelling and narrative and personal backstory and all of that to highlight that relationship.
For example, if someone says that they are a graphic designer by trade and they specifically work with nonprofits that work with issues of say, diabetes and something like that. My question is always like, “How did you get to that point? I doubt you just woke up one day and you’re like, ‘I want to do this,’ but I’m sure a series of events that kind of personal breakthrough that led you to that point so what is that piece?” and see how people get to where they are. That was something that I was really curious in doing.
Something else also was that, while I was in that role, I planned a three-day summit that explored the relationship between health equity and healing justice. Something that I did while I was there was we had a human justice workshop actually, where someone came in and some guided meditations and other practices to get us more connected on a personal level. Also, at the very end of the summit, for our last discussion, we had someone do… Have you ever heard of like [inaudible] recordings?
MARCEL: It’s basically when someone comes in and they take notes but rather than writing out hand notes, they draw it, so they visually capture it. For the meeting, that was actually really important because the theme of the summit was unlearning stigma in gaining magic, so it was kind of exploring magic at this idea of radical openness and inclusivity, so basically I wanted the summit to be artistically inclined as possible.
Even though largely the people who were there were people from health departments and some other like nonprofit and stuff, I didn’t want to feel like a ‘public health space.’ I wanted to feel more like a holistic, artistic, personal space where people can go in and bring in their whole selves and where that art and that creativity is really, really important. Because ultimately, the way I see it, imagination is paramount to creating a better world. We have to be able to imagine circumstances that we ourselves never actually lived in or perhaps even gone through to create something. We’re just sort of aimlessly trying to work toward something that we don’t actively cultivate in our imaginations and like, “What are we doing?” That’s always been my perspective on all of it and that’s not even specific with sexual health. I would say that it’s in line with any sort of movement related work, just in general.
ASTRID: Marcel, it sounds like you’re trying to put the humanity back into these really big, messy topics. Is that right?
MARCEL: That’s very accurate, yes.
ASTRID: So what do you think it is about art that allows that process to happen, that maybe isn’t happening when you use other techniques?
MARCEL: In my experience, things like dancing, things like podcasting and stuff like that but just in general, art is one of those things that is vulnerable in a different way. When you create something artistically, whether it’d be music or a movement related piece, there’s a personal investment that I think sometimes gets lost when we get really surrounded or inundated with some of these merits around self-preservation. What I mean by that is I think that sometimes when we talk about these issues, there is a very particular language that people typically use say, if we’re talking about HIV, we’re talking about hepatitis, especially when we’re talking about systems, government, health department related level, there’s a certain way to talk about it.
I think oftentimes, when we get really caught up in our heads, when we get really caught up with academic presentation, when we get caught up with being perceived as experts and things like that, I think we, in essence lose the true nature of these issues. The reason why we live in a world with such disparity is that we haven’t necessarily been able to quite create the outcomes we’ve been looking for or even if it hasn’t been super long-lasting and so, I think when we allow ourselves to be artistic and to be creative, it allows us to remind ourselves like why we’re even doing it or at least for me, that’s kind of always been the case.
When I put myself in a more artistic, creative space, it brings more of who I am because when you create something artistically, it’s bringing all of you to the table or as I think sometimes, when we’re in these meetings or we’re in these office spaces or whatever, you bring your academic version of yourself, which is not different from who you are but I think that sometimes vulnerability, personhood, for being our whole selves genuinely responding to how things about us, that’s not necessarily ‘professional.’ I think we’re socialized to kind of code switching in that way and to be more ‘objective’ and I think that when we allow ourselves to be artistic, it removes all of that. It removes all of that essence of trying to be painted at a certain way or hiding from vulnerability but rather, it embraces it and we ultimately have to be vulnerable. I would even argue to even to talk about a lot of these issues.
CORALINE: That really resonates with me, Marcel. When I’m not programming, one of the things I do is I’m a musician and I’m currently working on my sixth album and based on conversations I had with people in my field and people in my life, I decided to make this album about my own struggles with mental health. What you said about authenticity and being a whole self and being vulnerable really resonates with me because through the music, I’m talking about things that I’ve never said out loud to other people. I have one song that I’m doing, it’s about my experience with being involuntarily hospitalized and I tell the story in that song and that’s not a story I’ve ever told any other living soul. I cried when I was recording it but I think by being vulnerable and being authentic, that’s where we really make our connection with people. I like your use to the term code switching because that is a form of code switching from that cool clinical voice to that personal voice. I think that personal voice is how we actually make connections.
MARCEL: Right and thank you for sharing that and I 1000% agree with you. It’s unfortunate. I think there’s a lot of reasons why we are kind of socialized to do that but even you look at it like children for the most part, children are very open about everything for the most part typically and I think as we get older, we just notice that this notion of saving face or being perceived a certain way, things just become more important and I think that when we do that, you can’t have a personal movement by being impersonal, like you just have to kind of remember while we’re there and value vulnerability and the ability to be authentic, rather than seeing it as a distraction or somehow unprofessional or something like that.
ASTRID: I have a question, which you may or may not be able to answer but how do you bring your whole self into your work and still remain professional when you’re dealing with environments where those are mutually exclusive things? Because I agree and I think a lot of people agree that you want to make real, true connections and to do that, you need to be a true person to be able to show that. But then at least for myself, I found it really hard to figure out when that’s going to be possible or how to not make that without having negative side effects because of it. I think that this is part of the reason why there’s a lot of fake authenticity going on because I think people want this but they don’t know how to do it without putting themselves in a place where they may suffer consequences.
MARCEL: Right and honestly, that is a fabulous question. It’s something I’m very much still trying to answer myself. In my experience, we’re assuming at a workspace type of situation like something that I was always seen but just kind of reading the room, getting a feel of the culture. When you first enter a space, just trying to see how things operate, allies are really, really important. At least in the workspaces that I’ve been in, it’s really important to find other people who feel the same way and so, you know how to communicate in a way that’s more authentic with them and you know that it won’t necessarily lead to that backlash.
But ultimately, I think we can also scale it. I think sometimes we look at vulnerabilities like zero or a hundred, like it’s either you’re being not vulnerable at all or you’re just like laying everything on the table on this whole thing. I think that there’s ways to kind of push it forward to be more vulnerable and just being vulnerable to an extent where you feel comfortable, like you don’t want to feel like, “Oh, God, if I do this, I’m putting my job in the line,” or something like that but you want to take into a point where it feels like this is a reasonable extension here but also perhaps, it might be historically unprecedented.
For example, even when I created the summit that I was telling you all about and that theme of unlearning stigma gaining magic, no one had ever even really did anything like that at my organization, so when I presented it, people were like, “This is weird but you seem like you know what you’re doing so we’re just going to trust you to do this,” which is a privilege. To be in that space where I was given that institutional backing, that in itself is the situation that’s not a reality for a lot of people, so I’m really thankful for that.
I think there’s a way to get to know the environment, find the people who feel the same way that you do and also, just scale your vulnerability to the point where you feel comfortable. For one person, they might be completely comfortable in just being totally open and with how they feel about everything but for someone else, if they’re bit more reserved or perhaps, there’s other factors that need to be considered. I think there’s a ways to push the envelope but still, just challenge people to, I guess to be more open in that way.
JESSICA: Or maybe just a little bit uncomfortable.
MARCEL: Yeah. I think it’s very much a case by case basis. Also, there are times where I would lose and leave the office space, go on walk, and just remind myself like why am I actually here or why am I actually doing this. I think those reminders help you to push pass the bull shit because honestly, there’s a lot of bull shit to sift through. With any movement related work, you’re going to have to work with other people who are not you and you have different approaches and you have a different character, which is good but also, there can be a lot of disagreements there.
I think for me, something that has really helped in such doing work that feel so personal is like, “I’m here because of X, Y, Z reason,” and so, all of my actions right now are reflecting the reasons or existing in tangent with the reason that I’m here and if not, then what do I need to do to shift that. I think if you don’t keep those in mind, it is easy to get caught up with things that just don’t matter or to have those things consume and to say something like, “Me too.” I would say that’s another pillar as well.
CORALINE: Marcel, you talked about the way [inaudible] kind of reading a room to decide how vulnerable you can be. What are some of the things you look at to determine how safe an environment is for you to be authentic and vulnerable?
MARCEL: Certainly on how people talk to one another. I think a really simple one is, for example I’ve been in workplaces where people in the kitchen and it’s like, “Oh, how are you?” I’m good. How are you? “I’m good,” and then part ways, boom! That’s it. Also, I’ve been in workplace where people really kind of connect and they really share those experiences because in any workplaces, you find people who genuinely connect but I think it’s different when you find people who feel comfortable connecting with one another behind a closed door versus people who do so very publicly.
When you’re in a space where people can be in these open spaces and openly talk about their lives and it’s not distracting or it’s not discouraged, I think that’s kind of an indicator that this seems like a space where people kind of bring more of who they are to this workspace and that’s not discouraged or seen as unprofessional or something like that. Aside from, I would say, this might sound a little ethereal but I think there’s an energy that you can just feel like when people are in a room together or people are looking at their phones or people are just like doing anything to not make eye contact with each other or people in a space where they feel more relaxed or body language indicates that these people are, at least baseline not against being here. The people feel comfortable enough in this space. I think that there’s that and also, I think certainly, there is something to be said for just people’s vocal statements around various perhaps, political issues or issues related to identity. It just sort of getting a gauge of how people talk about these things can also be an indicator of what is a safe space.
Because if you’re in a space where people just ideologically disagree on things that for you, it may not be up for debate, then it’s like, “I don’t think there so much to gain here,” or at least in this present moment, in this current context with these people. I think time is a really huge factor. Sometimes you just really need to exist with a group for a while and then, you sort of naturally as you get to know people and be like, “I can see where people’s heads are truly at,” because I think there’s also a lot of dissonance. I think sometimes, people market themselves or present themselves in a certain way but then as you get to know, then you realize you actually may not necessarily feel that way.
I would say, just in the way, you sort of just generally get to know a group of people just being mindful of the subtle and also, more open manners which people express how they truly feel about things or how they relate to a group.
AVDI: I have a question about safety. We’ve been talking about knowing whether you yourself are safe to share something and are safe to be vulnerable. I think it’s really important but there’s another side to safety which is that emotional safety, which is sharing something vulnerable isn’t just difficult for yourself sometimes. Sometimes, it can bring really difficult things up for other people in the room, that they maybe aren’t prepared for or maybe weren’t prepared to be confronted with or prepared to be thinking about in that context and I’m wondering if you have thoughts on that side of safety, making it safe for the people who are around or witnesses to this kind of sharing.
MARCEL: I think there’s a way to issue a disclaimer for certain things, for example a certain topic or something that you bring up that is just very, very sensitive and you realize it could be overwhelming for other people to bear witness to, especially if it’s something that might be a traumatic event or something like that. I think there’s a way to give notice of that in advance, rather than just jumping right in and kind of giving people that autonomy to decide if they want to be in that space where they want to explore this more.
Aside from that, I think sometimes people conflate the idea of comfort and safety. I think people sometimes get the two confused because there are a lot of situations where someone might be uncomfortable talking about something or hearing about something but they’re not unsafe. They’re not in any way in any sort of physical or even really emotional damage outside of just being a little bit uncomfortable or being a bit challenge on to how they might see things. I think that we can all gauge like what is uncomfortable to talk about or what might be sort of like pushing an envelope a little bit and what if actually something that like, if I bring this up and do so in a way that might be a lot for someone else, that actually might do some more harm than good. I think just juggling those two can be tricky but I think to just keep an idea mind is helpful.
AVDI: I am really curious about your experience with dance. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What’s your background there?
MARCEL: Yeah, definitely. Funny enough, I actually didn’t grow up dancing. I actually hated dancing growing up and not because I find it awful. It was just that I’m growing up in Atlanta and when it comes to dance music, there’s very much a dominant hip hop culture and it felt like everyone I knew was good at dance. Everyone can just dance their asses off and I’m like, “How-? When did you all-?” It felt like it was always overwhelming because people were just so good and usually, when you’re younger, you go to school dances and stuff like that and some people with all these moves and I’m just like, “So you all clearly had a three-hour rehearsal before this dance and I did not, so I’m just going to stay on the corner and just like not –” I think it was hard to get comfortable
But I think also, there were some gender considerations at the time that I was still trying to work through. I think dance is something where, at least for me, it’s been really helpful to not be concerned with these ideas around masculinity or femininity or anything like that but to rather just allow yourself to move in a way that you just want to move and if they can be read as feminine, whatever. If it is read as masculine, whatever. I think for me, as I was younger, I’m kind of getting more control my gender identity, my sexual identity. Those are just other things that kind of made me hesitant to dance because I was still trying to, I guess figure that out.
I started feeling more comfortable dancing just in general. I would say around age like 16, 17 and then, when I went to college, that’s when I get started taking dance in a formal sense. I started with modern. I took that when I was 19. I took a few modern classes and just throughout college, I took some other classes here and there, nothing super-duper consistently but I did modern and I did some hip hop fusion classes for a bit. There was a summer while I was living in New York and so, I took some voguing classes and went to a few balls and got really into ballroom culture and it wasn’t really until I moved to DC where my dance training became much more robust and consistent.
That was when really for the first time, I saw like jazz, ballet, West African dance class, just different styles that I just never really done before and I just got to a space where I honestly kind of became… I think obsessed is even an overstatement but I think truly, I started taking more dance classes and I was, “I love this shit and I want to do this shit all the time.” Until to the point where now, I’m in dance class, at least once pretty much every day and I’m always trying to work on different styles.
I haven’t necessarily pinpoint one. You find that a lot of dancers will be like, “I do modern,” or, “I do jazz,” or I do whatever. People kind of pick where they might do one or two, whereas I’m kind of do all of them shit, like why not? If the studio offers all these different styles, why not just jump to all of them. It started off as sort of a hobby, something like I sort of dip my toe into but got very aggressive about it very quickly.
Then more recently, as I started finding more performance opportunities in the DC area, audition for different shows. I’m not part of a company at the moment — that’s the goal — but I do find myself auditioning for different shows and things like that and kind of being involved at projects from time to time. That’s kind of my relationship with dance and honestly, I can confidently say that I’m going to be doing this shit forever. Regardless of my physical state in life, I always want to be involved in some sort of movement related art work because it truly saved my life in so many capacities. That’s my relationship with dance. It’s not that I’ve been doing ballet for 25 years, nothing like that but it’s something that I found in adulthood. It’s something that I’ve certainly, been kind of celebrating on really, really quickly more recently since moving here.
AVDI: That’s awesome. This show is kind of programmer-oriented and I spend a lot of time around programmers and one of my observations is they tend to — we tend to — try to get out of our body, easing into our heads a lot of the time, and I feel like dance is a wonderful way in dragging me back into your own body. I think everyone should try it, personally. At least try it. I’m curious if you have suggestions for, if somebody is like, “Hmm, maybe I could actually try that.” What would they look for? Should they just go out to a club and start moving around? Are there good classes, particular classes that would make it feel safe and approachable and not scary?
MARCEL: Yeah. That’s actually a really good question. I’m actually really glad that you asked that because I would say a good place to start would be more than taking… Obviously, when you go to a studio, there are different levels: you’re a beginner, you’re an intermediate, advanced, stuff like that. Through my experience, sometimes the labels can be a little misleading. Sometimes you’ll take a beginner class and beginner means in this context, especially being an adult and taking dance classes. Sometimes beginner means that someone might have say, a beginner ballet class, someone might have had a history of ballet, stopped for a couple years, and then jumping back in, so they have a context that you yourself may not necessarily have yet. Sometimes beginner classes don’t really feel beginner because everyone kind of knows what’s happening, at least somewhat.
I would say a good place to start, there’s actually really, really amazing studio in the DC area. It’s in Maryland and it’s called Dance Exchange. I’ve done some intensives and I just work with them in the past and they do really interesting, kind of like more improvisational choreographic type of work. When you go to one of their classes, it’s not necessarily like, “Okay, one and two and three and four,” and you’re doing a routine. It’s more of like, you’re kind of given the space to create your own movement, to create your own praises, to just be autonomous in that sense and I would say that’s a really, really good place to start because there’s a wrong way to do it.
If you’re creating your own movement, if your commission is to keep in mind these things or maybe for example, we had a discussion about, which is something at Dance Exchange will do, we’ll talk about something that exist in society. It will create a movement that sort of reflects our feelings around that or our insights around that. Obviously, there’s no translational way to do that, so when you move, it’s just a way that feels right to you. I think that’s a really good place to start.
You don’t have to follow someone else’s lead. You can kind of create your own lead and if you just want to start somewhere like see if there’s in your area or a place where you can take movement improv classes or sort of like more movement oriented classes, rather than dance specifically but also, if you want to just jump into a beginner class, I would say truly that’s the best way to start but again, the act can be kind of tricky too because typically, you’re dancing in front of other people, people that might be more experienced than you are — actually, almost certainly, always be more experienced than you are — you have to go across the floor and then that can be vulnerable in a way.
But I would just say, definitely if you want to just come towards moving out in general, maybe via in a more informal space like a club, a bar, that’s fine. Or also, just taking a movement improv class, that’s fine and then as you get more comfortable going to some sort of more beginner oriented classes, it’s good but also shop around because some studios have a really weird energy.
Sometimes, the culture doesn’t really work for you, so definitely don’t be afraid to check out different place and see what works for you. I’m telling you, the instructor of a class can really transform everything. If you have a shitty instructor, you don’t want that alone to be the reason why you don’t explore a form of dance that would otherwise be really, really great for you.
AVDI: Awesome. Thank you. I have one more dance question for you and that is, what has dancing taught you about life?
MARCEL: I would say two things — two major things. Sort of going on to the point that you had mentioned earlier about the dance is bringing to your body, I’m very much someone who just historically, I can be a bit of a perfectionist from time to time and so, dance has really just taught me to be patient with myself and to really appreciate myself for my abilities. I think that when you go to a dance class, for example, for me, my goal was to be more flexible, I want to be able to kind of do the [inaudible] and whatever classical bull shit that people would be doing in a class.
First, it was frustrating to see that my range of motion or the way in which I move my body wasn’t similar to that of other people but as I’ve done dance more and more, I’ve come to appreciate that this is a process of just getting more flexible of stretching of that. It is actually even — I’m telling you in a yoga context — could be very sort of just meditative and spiritual because you just have to be very much in tune with your breath, very much in tune with how your body is feeling. It was a really good way to just connect with yourself and become one of those things in the morning just when I wake up, I like to just stretch, just to feel like ‘in my body’ and the time that until I get a certain result but just to kind of feel more connected in that way. I think dance has taught me to be a lot more patient with myself and to appreciate the gains that naturally come as you, as you start to work towards a certain goal.
But more than that, I would say the biggest lesson has just been vulnerability all day. Vulnerability and also attitude. What I mean by that is sometimes when you’re in a class, if you were trying to get a certain movement or praise or even trying to get something that you haven’t really done before, it’s really easy to get frustrated. It’s really easy to psych yourself out but I’ve noticed that I did the best when I just allow myself to be in that space and when I trust myself, like truly how you think about yourself translates into how you move and so, even if you’re not doing something perfectly, if you have a really open mind about it and you aren’t just dogging yourself down and again, just being patient with yourself and being vulnerable and embracing that, that’s usually what carries more.
It’s funny. You’ll see people dance in class and it’s like, there might be five people dancing and four of them were just hitting those counts exactly and they’re right on it but there might be that fifth person that may not be perfect but is smiling through all of it and having the time of their lives, having such a great time, great energy and that’s the person you’re going to watch. It’s just one of those things where I’ve noticed that joy and just bringing all of that to the space, dance is going to be fun. People will dance because it’s fun.
I think when you make it too serious, it becomes too insular and so, I think dance has really taught me just to be more open with that joyous energy, be more vulnerable, and just allowing myself to try something and know that I’m going to fuck it up but maybe the second time I do, I fuck it up less, you know? I think it allowed me to just chip away at that perfectionist idea of, “I got to get this right on the first time. I’m not going to embarrass myself in front of other people. I’m not going to do this [inaudible],” blah-blah-blah, to now being like, “I’m going to embarrass myself in front of these people but ultimately, if I’m having a good time, who the fuck cares, whatever. If don’t do it right, girl, whatever. You all probably are doing this for 10 years, this is my first time doing it, boom!” I would say that’s sort of the things that’s taught me the most, for sure.
AVDI: Thank you. That’s awesome.
ASTRID: Part of what you’re saying, Marcel about the freedom and acceptance that you’re experiencing with dance, I think is probably related to why a lot of what you were talking about at the very, very beginning about why do you have disparities and trying to do something about those disparities often doesn’t work is partly because I think people don’t feel that way. It’s hard to show compassion or empathy to somebody else when you don’t do it for yourself.
ASTRID: — It’s hard to think outside the box and think about ways and things that you could be doing differently that are not going to have heavy consequences if they don’t work. It’s really easy to lean on statistics and numbers because at least, you’re not going to be wrong about that. I was thinking about what you had said about the… Was it a summit? The summit that you did, with the title that it included magic and I was thinking, “I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to have a summit with the word ‘magic’ inside of it,” and invite a bunch of scientists to it and they’re open enough to participate and really get something out of it. I’d be more concerned that they were talking behind my back about how I must be kind of cookie.
MARCEL: That’s real and that’s the hard part. I’m sure there are people and I was told people were like, “Girl, magic what? Isn’t it a public health thing?” Sometimes, that’s the thing. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned, I mean dance, public health, all of the above, is just to see myself outside of it. I think when we allow our jobs or we allow these role or these things that we do enjoy to be the sum of who we are and take it so personally, then you’re not going to take any risks.
For example, if I see myself as I’m this amazing dancer like, “I’m a dancer and I’m perfect, blah-blah-blah,” if I can’t do something, that’s going to attack my sense of self as a person, versus I’m like, “I really enjoy dance. I want to get better at dance. I want to expand my movement vocabulary. I love this but I’m also infinite in who I am outside of this as well.” This does not consume the entirety of who I am, then you’re going to be much more willing to take risks and things like that because making a mistake is not an attack on you. It’s just like, “Oh, okay. I just made a mistake, but I still like it, whatever.”
I think that’s how it started, even in the work with public health. I think especially with the job, it can be tricky just because you spend so much time there. It’s hard not to see it as an extension of your result but I think that reminder of I am whole and complete outside of this. It does not make up who I am and so if I make a mistake, my identity as someone who works in this capacity in this organization, that’s fine because I’m still a whole person outside of that.
I think sometimes, we romanticize this idea of getting so consumed with something that is a sum of who we are and I think that’s actually really dangerous. I think it actually prevents us from doing good work. I think it prevent us from just being more open and more vulnerable to an extent that we could be but aren’t allowing ourselves to be because we don’t want to have anything that attacks that identity that we have about ourselves.
CORALINE: I definitely see a parallel there, Marcel between what you’re talking about in your life experience and what I experience as a senior developer. We’re starting to talk more in my field about safety in terms of it being safe to make mistakes. I think that for people who have a higher public profile, either in public or within an organization, you can feel a lot of pressure to never make a mistake. It’s actually really bad for people to not see you make mistakes because if they are themselves struggling with something or learning something and making mistakes along the way, they may hold you to a certain degree and reverence or look up to you in a certain way and think, “I have to be perfect too,” when in truth, everyone makes mistakes and everyone messes up from time to time and we’re all learning. I think that vulnerability can really be inspiring and making mistakes can even be inspiring.
MARCEL: Right, exactly. Because if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not doing the right thing, quite honestly. Again, we’re all just trying to make it work. I think I 1000% agree.
ASTRID: Well, we have this culture that supports this very strict, very perfectionistic attitude, especially around work. I was recently reading this article, a Wired article about Elon Musk about Tesla and that’s exactly the type of environment they were describing, where people were getting fired for making mistakes, people are getting fired for talking to Elon Musk, when a mistake had been made somewhere else, that there was very high stakes ‘we’re trying to change the world, you have to be perfect’ kind of attitude and we exalt that and say, “It’s great to be a genius,” so even if you’re kind of an asshole genius, that’s fine. If you’re going to demand 100-hour work week, that’s fine, as long as the end justifies the means sort of thing and it feels really hard to reverse that kind of exulting to say, “We actually like if you don’t push yourself to the limit, if you’re not perfect. If you try things that are a little bit different, if you do [inaudible] yourself to make mistakes, it feels really hard to make that happen but you’ve actually had some success in creating those opportunities so what would you suggest for people who maybe are not as where you are for your own personal journey but who are trying to get there?
MARCEL: Like all things, just be patient and just acknowledge where you are with that. If you notice that you have some tendencies that you are trying to unlearn, just giving yourself sort of the room and the grace to do that, I think is paramount. I think when we try to change really dramatically overnight, it can work but I think, it’s not necessarily always sustainable so I think just acknowledging where you are.
More than remembering why, because in this job, we’ve only talked about these successes but there are also a lot of times where like me being vulnerable, me being open, me expressing myself in a way that I knew was kind of contrarian to sort of how people did historically, did lead to tension, did lead to problems in that space. It’s one of the things where it’s like in those moments, just reminding yourself that the issue isn’t necessarily that I made a mistake or that I was open or more vulnerable. It’s just that when you allow yourself to be more honest, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t but regardless, I don’t think the feedback loops leads to be, “If I’m only positively affirmed, then I’ll keep doing it,” but the moment is like I get pushed back or whatever, I’m just going to stop doing that. I think you just have to have a resolve that could withstand all of that and again, that’s easier said than done and somebody just have to very actively sort of mindfully do.
Sometimes, it’s just going to be easier than others, like all things are kind of flows but I would just say, just be open with yourself, be honest of where you are and just set realistic goals for yourself. Give yourself the grace to incrementally get to where you want to be and to remind yourself in moments where being more open and more honest is didn’t really work out or perhaps, ended in a way that was like, “That wasn’t actually great.”
The issue was not the notion of being more vulnerable. That it itself is never going to be the problem. They might be through the reception or whatever might be the issue but don’t change that part, especially if you’re doing work around society and trying to improve outcomes for people that you have got to always be vulnerable because my God, it is so important. I would say, that’s my advice for sure.
CORALINE: Marcel, it strikes me that the kind of work that you’re describing requires a delicate balance between confidence and humility. How do you gain confidence while still retaining your humility?
MARCEL: Don’t fall for the hype. I think that’s really a huge piece, especially when you’ve been in a type of work for a really long time, when you’ve had a lot of successes and things that. It’s really easy to be like, “Oh, yeah. I’m just that girl,” to get kind of self-absorbed in a way that remove the work from the community that you’re serving and makes it about you. I would say, allow yourself to experience joy, allow yourself to be rewarded for things. I’m not saying just be robotic and unresponsive when people come at you and things like that. That’s fine but I think just making sure that you don’t let it consume you or that become the motivation of how you do the work, even if you were never given an official award for something, you’re still remembering why you’re doing that work and ultimately, the opportunity to do that work is honestly why we’re here in the first place. I would say, try not to fall for the hype but also allowing yourself to just trust in yourself.
I think confidence at the end of the day is just all about trusting who you are and trusting your ability and trusting that even if you make mistakes, that you would never intentionally lead yourself astray and that you’re always trying the best that you can. Sometimes, the best that you can do may not necessarily be what the expectations were. Sometimes it might lead to things that you didn’t perceive so we hope it’s good sometimes but ultimately, the notion that you’re always trying your best, you’re always doing the things that you need to do to kind of move forward and trusting that, is honesty all you need.
Also again, very, very important is whatever work you do, however you define work, seeing that as something that you do and not something that you are. I think at the end of the day, when you see yourself is entirely whole outside of it and you’re bringing those insights into whatever work that you’re doing, it’s freeing in a lot of ways. It’s liberating. It makes things way less deep. I’m not saying that it makes so much important but you’ve moved the ego nonsense out of the equation because again, it’s not necessarily who you are. It’s just something that you do so.
I would definitely say, just kind of keeping that notion in mind and just trust in yourself and knowing that you’re always doing your best and that even if your best isn’t what was expected, you’re always working to make things better for yourself. Just that trust, not falling for the hype and just remembering that you’re a whole person outside of this so like whatever. If you made a mistake, whatever. Plenty of people have did it. Literally, everyone has done it, it’s fine. It’s not the end of the world. If you’re at a workplace where people overly criticize you for that or they make it seem like you’ve just done the worst thing on the planet, that issue is at that workplace and not in any way you. Because I guarantee, if people are so afraid to make mistakes, they’re probably not doing a good work, just saying.
AVDI: I want to add one suggestion to that, if I could for the confidence and in being vulnerable and in doing things that might seem mistakes in retrospect: be deliberate about building your support system, make sure you have those people that you know you can go to after you feel like you’ve made a fool of yourself and they’re the people that will have the right reaction, that they won’t try to minimize it but they also won’t freak out and the people that will just be like, “Yeah, that sucks. You’re still awesome.”
MARCEL: Exactly. That support really helps.
JESSICA: And ironically, when you do see your work as something that you do and you have the freedom to make a mistake at it without that being an infringement of your identity, you get better at it because you can try stuff.
MARCEL: Right, exactly.
JESSICA: Marcel, this is the part where we do reflections and we let you go lasts because you’re the most important.
ASTRID: If no one else is ready, I can go.
ASTRID: Okay, Marcel. I really liked what you said and this is paraphrasing. When you said the feedback loop can’t be, “I’m only going to keep doing this because I’m positively affirmed.” I feel like that’s a really important statement because I do think that, although when we talk about these things, we probably already logically know that and the process of trying to change or trying to grow, it can be really hard because it’s uncomfortable and it does feel like if I’m getting any type of negative feedback, maybe I’m doing the wrong thing and I should stop and so, it’s a good thing to remember like you said, why you’re doing it and that is not just about everybody agreeing or thinking that what you’re doing is great, instead it’s a larger goal.
CORALINE: I was really struck by something Marcel that you said early on when we were talking about the tension between authenticity and safety. You said it was not zero or a hundred. You talked about scaling vulnerability and I think that’s something that I need to work on personally a little bit better because there are certain situations, maybe at work where I have an ideological difference with my manager or with a coworker or something and I’m like, “Oh, it’s not safe for me to talk about X,” versus being surrounded by people who do social justice work and I feel like I can be a lot more open. I think I need to remember that it is scalable. It’s not all or nothing and then I can reveal parts of who I am or reveal parts of my experience and cap it.
MARCEL: That’s real.
AVDI: I really look what you had to say about that one person on the dance floor who might not be nailing their moves perfectly in time but has a great big smile on their face. That is definitely the person I love to see and the person that I like to be and that’s an image that I like to keep in my mind. Thank you.
MARCEL: Of course.
JESSICA: Yeah. When I first started going out to dance at clubs as a very young person, the trick for me was seeing someone who is dancing and instead of saying, “I want to look like that,” but saying, “I want to have that much fun and it doesn’t matter what I look like.”
MARCEL: Right, exactly.
JESSICA: The quotes that got me early on was when you said, “Imagination is paramount to creating a better world,” because the futures that we can hold in our head are powerful. They’re causal of our actions and they don’t actually have to be possible to be powerful. That is what it’s about. It’s not about us in our work. No matter how awesome we might look, it’s not about that. It’s about the work itself and the future that we’re imagining.
MARCEL: That’s true and nothing is really accidental. Society didn’t end up this. For better or for worse, people imagined a lived reality that came from their minds that was for good and to organizing bodies and became such. I think we all have that power and I think sometimes, the disarming thing about oppression is try to convince that our visions, our imaginations, our ways of seeing the world are somehow invalid or less than, when literally all of this should exists because there were people who had a certain vision and they brought that to fruition, so if that can be the case for a lot of people, then it should be the case for everyone as well.
But I would say that my reflection — biggest reflection — I really enjoy the opportunity to articulate the importance of art and the importance of creativity and vulnerability of all that into this work. It’s something that I don’t necessarily often get the space to really do that so I definitely appreciate the opportunity to do that, just to reflect. Because sometimes, when you some things and you’re like, “Oh, wow. I felt that way. Interesting. Okay, cool. We’ll journal about that later,” but yes, overall it’s a good conversation.
JESSICA: Thank you so much for coming.
MARCEL: Of course.
CORALINE: Yeah, it’s been really great. You’re really a fascinating person and I’m thankful for the time that we get to talk with you.
MARCEL: Yeah, thank you. Thank you all for having me.