The Dream of You - Part II

Jo Saxton 

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This week on the Story Collective our conversation with Jo Saxton, author of The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For, continues as Jo shares her thoughts on life as a black woman, the #MeToo movement, and how men and women can intentionally move the conversation about women in the church forward. If you haven’t already read or listened to Part I, we encourage you to do so first, as you’re about to drop in where Jo and Holland’s conversation left off. What follows here is an edited and abridged version of Jo and Holland’s conversation, and we encourage you to listen to the unedited audio recording as well (we love hearing Jo talk!).

[Holland Prior] One of the most poignant moments for me in your book is when you describe how you received “the talk” from your family about how you would need to work harder than everyone else because you are both black and a woman. How have you seen this play out in the church?

[Jo Saxton] People often talk about tokenism around me. I remember in my younger years it was like, “You’ve just been asked because you’re black and a woman,” and I’m like, “I’m also good at what I do!” I think sometimes people were deliberately being insulting, and some people were accidentally being insulting. Some of it was, “Are you getting an opportunity that should be open to other people?” And my response was often, “Well, maybe, but they should have more black people and women anyway, so I’m here now and I’m going to stay.”

In her book Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes was talking about her role as a showrunner and her success and the vulnerability of being the “first, only, and different,” and I often find myself in environments where I’m the first woman of color, the first woman speaker they’ve had. It’s a privilege, but I don’t want to be woman of color they have.

I struggle when I see a lineup that doesn’t have women and doesn’t have people of color. I feel like people aren’t trying when I see that. I hear sometimes people are saying, “We don’t want to do it for token reasons,” and I’m like, “Well great, you won’t ever have to because there are plenty of gifted women, there are plenty of gifted people of color, you just have to work harder to find them. You will never have to do it for tokenistic reasons. You will find people who are gifted, who are enlightened, who are called, who are skilled, who are experienced if you look. Now, you may not find them in the places you normally look but that’s because you don’t have friends who are people of color, so you just have to look harder.”

I’m at a point now where I feel pure enough to tell them it’s important and say, “Look, I’m not even asking you to invite me, I’m just telling you this is what you need to do.” I often find myself recommending people. I just do it on principle now, saying, “Hey, are you looking for a Latina speaker? Because I have a list.” And I do have a list. “Are you looking for a writer of color? Well, have you heard of this person?” I try and do that where I can, and I’ve determined that’s everywhere. I just leave people with the information because then we don’t have to do the “where are the women?” conversation or the “where are the people of color?” conversation. Those get tiring.

Advocating for others is so important. Thinking of another advocacy movement going on right now in our culture, the #MeToo movement, and this wider conversation we’re having about sexual abuse and gender-based violence, what do you think Christians can and should do to lend their voices to this movement?

Be a lot louder! I feel that when the church has been at its best is when it has been leading movements in the culture. As a Brit, I learned more about Wesley in school than I did at church because he’s in our history books. There are Christian leaders who are in our history books for their roles in the abolition of slavery, of child labor, of things like that. And so I have high expectations of us now. If we are living into the fullness of our calling, we should be shaping culture for human flourishing. Not for whether they live the way we want them to live but for human flourishing. If we are salt and light, then when we come into contact with the world, that should mean beautiful, healthy change—messy, because we’re human, but change.

When I think of the #MeToo movement in terms of the church, I think we should be celebrating people’s bravery for daring to speak up. I think maybe we’ve not remembered quite how hard it is, because these women are slaying giants. They’re slaying giants when they say these things—things that have intimidated them since they were little girls.

I think we could do with looking at our belt a little and asking if there are #ChurchToo stories that we need to be acknowledging. And, with God’s help, asking: What does it look like to honor women’s voices? What does it look like to listen to women, and to listen to their stories and their needs? Are we training pastors to hear women’s voices? Have we normalized silence? Have we spiritualized silence? Have we silenced them and called it forgiveness? We need to keep revisiting what it means to equip and empower women to live up to what God has called them to do and be.

I’ve heard now from a lot of different venues that 2018 will be “the year of the woman.” When we look specifically at the church, if 2018 is indeed to be the year of the woman, what conversations about women do you think need to happen in the church this year?

I think we need to talk about #MeToo, definitely. I think we need to talk about identity. We need to talk about the pay gap in relation to men and women, but also women and women of color because there are pay disparities according to ethnicity as well amongst women. We need to talk about maternity leave. They all say something. What does investment in women look like? What does empowerment of women look like? Those are key questions we need to ask.

We can’t just keep on adding things, because if we add it, then it will be a nice initiative for a while and it will not change anything. What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to systematically do? What does it mean for our seminaries? What does it mean for our training vehicles? How do we look at the on ramps? Sometimes when people say that women aren’t coming through it’s because the “on ramps” are terrible and a woman can’t fit on it. She can’t, and people think it’s because she’s not passionate or willing or able, but it’s because our lives are different. We need to look at the structural changes that will produce pipelines of women over the years.

We need more than topics, we need accountable conversations where we have deadlines and action points and start doing things. We’re good at talking, we’re really good at talking about this stuff. And the other question I’d raise is when we’re tired of this conversation, then what are we going to do? I want us to preempt when this isn’t the sexy conversation to have and decide what we’re going to do. At some point, something else is going to come up, and we’ll think of doing something else instead and we need to stay on it.

What advice do you have for people who want to move this conversation about women and leadership forward?

For men, I would say invite a few of the women around that you know and ask them what it’s like—“real talk” conversation. And you might have to ask them more than once. In fact, I’m going to suggest that you ask them a minimum of 6 times, so that people feel safe to share what it’s like. Ask them how they’ve been impacted, what is the #MeToo movement saying to them, what have they seen in the culture, and all that kind of stuff. In those kinds of conversations, you can begin to formulate a plan.

If there is a male leader saying, “I really want a woman preacher,” I say go get one. It was Marian Wright Edelman who said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Sometimes stating “We really believe in women leaders and we want you to come forward and we want you ladies to step up” is wonderful, but it’s another thing when they’re in your pulpit preaching or when they’re leading a department or when you’ve brought them in to consult. And pay them what they’re worth when you do that.

To the women who really want to move forward, I would ask you: Do you have an environment in your life where who you are—your gifting, your skillset—is celebrated? What does it look like to ask for opportunity, engage with opportunities? Now, my opportunities over the years have not been a straight line, they have been a weird zigzag. Even if you are offered something in your life where you’re like, “Oh, that’s not what I want to do,” it’s still worth having a conversation to explore that. Learn skills of advocacy and negotiation, otherwise you will feel used 6 months down the line.

The other thing—and I wish I thought of this years ago, actually, I really wish I had—is we need sponsors. To men and women who are in positions of leadership and have influence: Who are you raising up? Who are you willing to sacrifice some of your opportunities for to give someone else a break? Who are you introducing them to? Sometimes we need sponsors. And when I say sometimes, I mean all the time. We need people who will say, “There is this woman, not only do I highly recommend her, but she’s going to come with me when I’m doing this thing. She’s going to need a little bit of space for this.”

The last thing I’d say for women who are wanting to move forward is reclaim your voice—your voice. That can be a battle for some of us because we might look at the package we come in and think, “Well, there’s no one like me there, so I’m not the kind of woman they want.” I remember when I started out thinking I’m surrounded by white dudes who are lovely, but my story is different, my journey is different, my nuance is different, my sound is different, my voice is different. I’m just different. I remember writing down things which I felt were true of me, and I thought, Lord, when I speak I always want to talk about how you transform lives, because that’s my story. And, I always want to be funny but clean, because I like making people laugh and if you’re going to make people look at the junk in their lives, make them happy along the way. And, I always want to be theologically robust because I want people to be stretched intellectually. I realized those things made up my voice, they made up part of who I am. Maybe you’re someone who loves poetry and the way you deliver is like spoken word, embrace it. Maybe you’re an artist—I envy you! What flavor do you come in? Reclaim it, even if you don’t see it around you.

Don’t try to fit yourself into another mold. The thing that people are drawn to is your authenticity, even if you’re different. Reclaim your voice. Reclaim the flavor that God made you in, because he quite liked it, actually.

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Jo Saxton is an author, speaker, leadership coach, church planter and visionary, who empowers women, challenges societal stereotypes and helps people discover who they truly are, by seeing themselves the way God sees them. Born to Nigerian parents and raised in London, Jo brings a multi-cultural and international perspective to leadership. Be sure to check out her new book, The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For.