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The Upstream Leader Podcast: Episode 7: Stay at the Table: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion


On Episode 07 of The Upstream Leader Podcast, Heath Alloway is joined by his brother-in-law, Chris Jones, for an important discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Chris has worked as a youth pastor and specializes in youth mental health, and he discusses his experiences with making diversity, equity and inclusion an important part of everyone’s lives.

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Upstream Leader podcast. I'm Heath Alloway, your host for today's episode, and I'm going to start today's episode off a little differently. I want to share a couple of thoughts, really set the foundation for today's topic around diversity, equity and inclusion. And this is a topic to be honest I'm a little nervous about. I struggle with the thought of, I'm a middle aged white male, am I really the right person to be having this conversation and covering this topic?

As I was driving in this morning—I'm gonna give you a little insight into kind of how my brain operates, and as I was driving in, I was just thinking about the discussion with today's guest. My mind started going a lot of different directions, and I'm not sure exactly how I landed here, but I started thinking about, “What if I was president for a day? How can I positively impact, or maybe help educate around that topic of diversity, equity and inclusion?” And it really came down to this: it was the thought of one vision, one mission and a common goal.

And I'm gonna really hone in on that common goal piece of this. And the common goal, most people that I've met, whether it's professional life, family, friends, whatever it may be—most people that I've met, they want to do better, they want to make a difference. In many cases, they just don't know how. So when you start thinking about the end of your journey, maybe when you end your career, or maybe when you end this life, you want to look back and you want to leave this a better place, and that's the one common theme that I see.

My reason for sharing this—when it comes to diversity, no matter your race, no matter your gender, or whatever it may be, we are all diverse in our own unique ways. There are really—there's no two people that are the same. I believe there's a lot of power in that. There's a lot of power in having those diverse backgrounds, and bringing those thoughts together for that one common goal and purpose. And I want you to think about that, when we get into this concept of “staying at the table.”

Today's guest is Chris Jones. He's also my brother-in-law. And Chris may not know this, but Chris has had an impact on my life, and I believe he's had an impact on many others’ as well. And he is someone that I consider a leader, and a leader in a lot of different ways. I've seen Chris lead through his faith and his service to others. I've seen him interact with his family, I've seen him interacting in sports, whether it was playing sports or coaching sports. I've seen Chris as a youth minister, and then just simply working with kids to provide them with a better future. So welcome to the show, Chris, and I'm honored to have you on today.

Hey, it's good to be here. I am excited, excited, to do this, because I think it is so beneficial. It's something that really has grabbed ahold of my heart—just about empowering people and helping people from many different walks of life. And so I'm very excited about jumping in here and having this discussion today.

Yeah, Chris, we get to have a lot of discussions, but not all of our discussions do we have hundreds of other people potentially listening in, so it should be a fun one!

Chris, just to start us off, and I know this is hard to do in less than two minutes. But in less than two minutes, tell us how you became the leader you are today.

Really just understand, realizing the gifts that I had within me and the calling that I had upon me as a person of faith God had upon me and my upbringing and, and wanting really to impact people's lives. What better way to do that  as a leader? And that you're wanting to see other people get better and to become successful. And so having that desire to see an impact in the people's lives that you are around, that you get to lead, you get to be a part of their lives, is really what caused me to want to be a leader and really settle on being a leader.

Because sometimes I was nervous about being a leader. But then I was very passionate about wanting to impact people's lives. And I believe those things go hand in hand as a leader, that you want to impact people's lives. You want to make people's lives better. You want to leave them better than what—how you met them, and help them to achieve some things in their own life.

Chris, one thing you said was just the fact that maybe [being] nervous from time to time along that journey and just that willingness to get uncomfortable and that desire and you know, just my interactions—it's clear that that desire has definitely outweighed those nerves.

So, as we jump into this, you and I, we're going to take a walk down memory lane, maybe well over 30 years ago, and maybe date ourselves a little bit. But Chris, when you and I first met, I was, I'll say pretty young, maybe 12, 13 years old. And Chris and my sister, Wendy, they came to our house to talk to my family about their relationship. And just like several of our listeners, Chris and I, we potentially had a lot of similar experiences in life, but we also had a lot of very different experiences in life. And when I reflect on that, and think about that today, some of these experiences will really shape the way we think, or the way we believe, or possibly how we see things. And at times—and this is something that becomes more and more clear to me on my life and journey is that sometimes those experiences and the way you view things, you can start to pass judgment on people before you ever get to know them, before you ever get to sit down and have a conversation, and really learn more about that person. And at the time, I didn't really know this.

As I reflect, what I believe I was experiencing was maybe that thought of that unconscious bias, and as I study that topic around diversity, equity and inclusion, I think that many experience that element of fear. And that fear, it typically comes from a lack of understanding, maybe a lack of listening to others, or maybe just a lack of communication. And going back to my opening thoughts, when you take that deeper dive, most people, they want to do what's right, they want to make a difference. And they may just not know how to do that. So, Chris, with that in mind, how do you define the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Well, you define it by: diversity being a variety of people in a variety of different backgrounds coming together for a common goal, and allowing each one of them to have a voice at the table, listening to each one of them, and knowing what they have to say, is important, regardless if they don't look like you, regardless if they may not be on the same political spectrum as you are, regardless if they have different beliefs in areas that are personal, we allow those people to have a voice, because what they have to say is important, in order to meet this goal that you are coming together to meet.

And I believe that's what it's about. I believe the fairness when we speak of equity is being fair. And when I interpret being fair, as leaders—let everyone have a voice, even the new guy, even the new girl, the new woman, the new guy, let them have a voice, even though they may be nervous, even though what they're saying might change in a couple of years. Let them know that their voice is welcome, and not silenced.

Yeah, and Chris, what you just described, I feel like it played a pretty key role. And going back to my thoughts around this being a topic that gets me out of my comfort zone, and struggling with that idea of why, and am I the right person to have this conversation. So with all that said, in your eyes, why is it important, not just for me, but also our listeners to continue to have that seat at the table and have that conversation about diversity?

Because we all are human beings. We all are here in this world, wanting it to be better. And it takes each and every one of us to play our part, to give something to the society we live in, to make things better. And when you're speaking of our organization, or our coaching the football team, or now where I work at, I'm leading a role in a place where we want to care for pre-adolescents and adolescents who've experienced a lot of trauma—that you want to let people know that we all have a specific part to play, that's going to benefit the whole.

When we don't allow those parts to come into play, then we are just seeing the same thing over and over. And we're only gaining “my” strengths, and not the strengths with other people, because areas that I'm weak in, someone else is strong in, and they're strong in it for a reason. And they may not look like me, they may not talk like me, they may not have the same political beliefs or even the same faith, but we have this common goal, and they have a strength that they can bring to the table that's going to complement minds and I'm going to complement theirs.

Chris, what you just described. I'll try to summarize it with one of my favorite quotes. It's actually a quote from Chief Tecumseh. along the lines of a single twig will break, but many will stay strong. And you know, as I reflect over the past 12, 15, 18 months, and there's no question that there's been, you know, a lot of events that has really brought this topic front and center, and more awareness behind it. But I also witnessed you reaching out in your community and reaching out to have conversations. So maybe give a little insight based on your experiences. Where do you view our biggest opportunity to drive change? We have awareness and education. But what can we do to continue to drive some of that positive change?

Really, it goes back to again to what I'm saying—invite someone to the table of your life and listen to them. Hear another person's story, another person's pain, another person's journey, to seek understanding. Because sometimes we put ourselves in a box, and we think everyone's history, everyone's journey is the same. And so we usually have one person's journey drive the whole thing, and not understanding there's other people that have had journeys. They have stories to tell. There are pieces of their stories that’s going to help bring life to you and to others. And so we have that opportunity, when we have hot topics to arise instead of venom and frustration—and I get it—let me seek to understand you. Help me to understand where you come in from, and share your story. What’s in your story is going to be your passion is going to be why you think the way you think and also your hope.

You know, that whole concept of staying at the table—and one thing that I want to kind of unpack a little bit is, you know, listening and hearing. Not just listening, but hearing what others have to say, and also, I reflect back maybe even more than the past couple years, but even going back further—I've seen a shift in communication and how that happens many times that communication, it can be through social media or other outlets, that many times, it's not always what's you the point you're trying to get across. But how people receive that.

Not only that, I have seen when those messages, many times they come across as—and I can't think of any better way to describe it—than it's really my way or the highway, and I'm not even open to that conversation. And to me, that's a dangerous place to be in. When we hit a point where we're not willing to have a conversation, we're not willing to sit down and take a look at different viewpoints or experiences or opinions, that is a dangerous place to be in. And I think that continues to, in some ways, drive a bigger gap in between people. And I get it—sometimes these conversations, they can be tough, they can be uncomfortable. So I want to get your perspective as a leader: how important is it at times just to step back, and listen, and hear what others have to say?

I think it's very important, because number one, you get the most out of people—if you want to get the most out of people, you get the most out of people when they feel valued. And oftentimes we feel valued when we are heard—regardless if I agree with what you're saying or not, I'm allowing you to be heard. And when we silence a voice and say “Either my way or the highway,” we automatically devalue that person, and not too many people are going to give their best effort and put in their best work, or work towards that goal that you all want to reach, when they don't feel valued. And so I want to make sure, “How can I make you feel valued?”

And one of the great ways to make them feel valued, is for them to have a voice. And as a leader, sometimes you gotta encourage them to have a voice, because oftentimes they've had different experiences already. And they're thinking, you know, for lack of a better terms, “I'm a peon, I'm a nobody, I really don't, I'm just here just to be a grunt worker, and there's nothing in me that can really better this company, better this corporation, better this team, better this family.” And when you say “No, your voice needs to be heard—we need to hear you,” their value goes up, their work ethic goes up and they want to be a part of a place that they feel valuable. We all want to be a part of something when we feel valuable.

And I think there's value from both perspectives on that: when you talk about being heard, whenever we listen, whenever we hear what others are saying, that also puts us in a position from empathy and perspective, and be able to see other points of view. You know, whenever you go back to the listening and the hearing, whenever we engage in conversation that way, it shows you're truly interested in the other person and what they have to say. And just like, so you see a result from that. And the more you do that, the more times you do that, the more times you get up to bat, I think you will see people open up more and more as they see this, you are truly caring about what they have to say.

And, Chris, we talked about this a couple times or mentioned it, but I'm going to dig a little deeper on it, that thought of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. The thought of when you're stretching yourself, you grow as a person. You grow as a professional. So do you have maybe an example or possibly just advice for other leaders or just anyone in general, when they're tackling those hard topics—what guidance do you have to help them maybe get more comfortable being uncomfortable?

Number one, I would say, make your conversations—if you're having a conversation, two, three, if you're in a boardroom, a meeting—make sure the atmosphere is a safe atmosphere. What that means is make the people comfortable enough to know that whatever you say, there's not going to be any retaliation. That we're going to listen. Because when it's a safe environment, then we know that “Okay, hey, I am trying to get it right. I may say the wrong thing,” because I think that's what makes us more uncomfortable. Is that “What if I say the wrong thing, and they take, and that's not really what I mean?” When I'm able to make an environment safe and say, “Hey, we're going to brainstorm, we're going to talk about this thing. We may say the wrong things, but our intentions are not to hurt, our intentions are not to demean, our intentions are not to harm. It's to build, it's to reach, it's to achieve, it’s to put all the pieces together, so we can be more effective.”

Then, you're able to deal with being uncomfortable, because you know, “I'm not going to be looked down upon because I say the wrong thing.” Because as you start to include, and you start to get diverse, I will tell all you: you will say the wrong thing. And it's not intentional that you will—and these difficult conversations we get in, we have to have enough grace and mercy to know, “This person said the wrong thing. But they're not racist, they're not this, they're not that. They are just trying to understand. And they have a limited understanding by their history. And they haven't seen the whole scope of everything, so give them a break, give them a break.” Because you'll know which ones are really trying to stir problems and which ones are just saying, “I'm just trying to understand.” And so “This is uncomfortable, but let me make it safe to know that you're okay with speaking some of your mind here, and I'm not gonna look down upon you, I'm gonna seek to understand you. And I hope you give the same to me.”

Yeah Chris, I think when people do that, that thought of getting comfortable being uncomfortable, they you know, the more you put yourself in those situations, the better you're going to continue to get. I just see that time and time again, when people are willing to do that, over time, just like you and I are here today, you get more comfortable in that setting.

Chris, we're gonna shift gears here for just a second. In the opening comments, I talked about what's helped mold you, I talked about the sports aspect of it. And I remember, it's still very clear to me today—it was whenever I was in high school, you were at Youngstown State, and I remember you playing against Steve McNair, you were on ESPN. I remember you turned around and said something along the lines of “Hey, Wendy, love you baby!” That really stuck out in my mind!

So I want you to take a second here, and I think there's a lot that translates from what we learn in sports, to also the workplace. So, can you share a little insight in how sports have really shaped your thoughts and really, how they've influenced your leadership style?

It's brought me discipline. It caused me to say that what I do away from the field is important to when I get on the field that I can't just live however I want to live off the field—even though I got talent—and then be effective on the field. I called me to be disciplined, which when I think of this, but it made me to be focused and helped me to learn focus.

And that translates to, if I'm a leader in a corporation and a business, on the job and my family, that what I do when no one's around is important. How I discipline my life—because it's going to affect them. You know, if I'm leading a big time business, and I'm doing well and I'm the leader, and I'm innovative, and I'm helping, and I'm building, and I'm being diverse, but then I'm not disciplined in another area of my life, and maybe if I had a heart attack, because I'm not disciplined in my eating, or maybe if I did something in my family, I messed up with my family and all that's out of the news—you see how that implodes people's mindset in that business, in that team or whatever.

So it made me realize, “Man, I'm important, I'm valuable, and what I do off the field is just probably more important than what I do, then on the field.” You know, I think about that in the job or whatever, I'm only on that job for so many hours. But what I do off, to prepare myself to be effective, is way more important. So focus and discipline is one of the things I would throw out there.

Yeah, and Chris, it's very interesting you say that. I had another interview with a guest that, you know, that was in the NFL for a while. And one of the concepts he talked about is, you know, anything is how you do everything. And he talked about how every aspect of a game is recorded, and then you watch it with your peers—the way he described it is, can you imagine if every aspect of our life was recorded, so everyone could see it, how would that impact how we behave in other areas? And that's really stuck with me.

And even though every aspect of our lives are not recorded, I do believe that those habits—the discipline, the focus—they eventually have a way of coming out one way or another. So I think that that's a great takeaway for our audience.

So one last thing here: with diversity and equity inclusion with that topic being so top of mind for so many people, and I see communities, I see businesses, I see firms; there's continuing education, there's a focus on educating around the topic. But I think there's a difference between educating or training, and then actually learning and putting those steps into place. So when you think about that—we continue to build more awareness, but what actionable steps for our listeners, what can they really do to walk out after this episode, and what can they go do to make a difference?

Go to lunch with someone in your company, your corporation, that you normally wouldn't go to lunch with, that may be on the lower totem pole—get to know them, and talk with them. And not just ask them about how they can be effective for your business, or your team, or whatever. But ask them about their life. Ask them about, let them talk about, what they may be going through in their daily lives or whatever.

I'm not saying getting so deep and all that, but let them know that “you are valuable, and you're not just valuable because what you bring to the table as a team, but I want to get to know you, I want to get”—and I'm talking about people that you have in your corporations that on the lower socioeconomic status, you know, they're still trying to work their selves up, they got to have a budget down to the cents of what they spend, where you may not have to have that. But you want to find out, how are they living, what are they doing, what's going on?

Purposely, intentionally, go out and say, if I'm white, I'm going to go and have a conversation in lunch with a Black person or Hispanic person. And vice versa. If I'm Black or Hispanic or Asian, I'm going to intentionally go hang out and spend some time with someone who doesn't look like me, who maybe not talk like me all the time, or believe like me. If I'm a Republican, and I got somebody working me and they're a Democrat, “Man, I want to go out with you, I want to go out and I want to—conservative, liberal, I want to find out what's going on in your life. Because you're more than those things you stand for, you’re an actual person, you’re an actual human being, you’re actually valuable.”

And when we can be able to do that, we begin to see that our world is not as big as we think it is. It's much smaller, and a lot of things that touch you are things that really touched me too, I just never took time to know. Because I kept just looking at our differences outwardly, and then come to find out that you love your children, you love your pets just as much as I do. It just looks different.

Yeah and Chris, the best way I could describe that is, people do that, I think, they typically find out that they have more in common than what they ever would have imagined. So I think that that's a really good point. And one thing that we like to do at Upstream, with any training, any presentation, any podcast, we like to leave our audience with resources. So what advice, what do you have, what maybe one book or maybe a podcast or resource that has really helped you along your journey? What would you recommend to our audience?

What we just talked about, the book, Keep Your Love On. It's a faith book, but it also talks about how to build healthy relationships, in marriage, with family, in business, or whatever. And it's really impacted my life to say I want to keep my loved on with people—I want to, and all the things we just talks about, it really hits on those subjects. And it's really impacted my life as a husband, but really also as a supervisor where I work at, as a leader it’s impacted my life, to begin to say even when I see flaws and things in people, I want to keep loving, I want to keep my heart open, I want to keep reaching out and trying to help and understand. It has—it's just a great book. You can get it on Amazon, you can get it in your Kindle, and it's worked a lot of different things out for me in my own life.

Well, Chris, as you were describing that “keeping your love on,” I just was thinking, can you imagine if we all would wake up, just even for a week, maybe a month, every morning, and wake up with that thought in mind, of “keep your love on,” and being very intentional with that. I just think of the difference that could make in our interactions, our team interactions, family interactions, or whatever that may be.

So, Chris, as we wrap up here, I'm going to try to summarize our discussion: Just that concept of staying at the table, there's a lot of power behind that. That's the willingness to sit down, have a conversation, listen to others, embrace different backgrounds—and when we do that, I think there's a lot of power. We can learn, we can continue to improve.

And going back to Chris's thoughts of just simply go to lunch with someone, spend a little bit of time to actually get to know someone. And when we do that, not only does it break down barriers, but I think we find out that there are many of us that have much more in common, maybe face some of the same struggles, maybe face some of the same successes, but the path just looks a little different. And I think if we can start doing that, and being disciplined in our focus in those areas, there's a trickle down effect.

And going back to my opening comments about, I believe that most people want to do good—they want to make that difference. And I think if we can all do that, and being very intentional, we can all make a difference. So Chris, I appreciate the time, I appreciate the willingness to sit down and have a discussion. And I kind of joked about it, but it is a little different, you and I get to talk a lot. But other people are going to get to listen this today, so I appreciate you putting yourself out there as well. So thank you.

Hey, you’re very welcome. You're very welcome. It's been a pleasure, it’s been a joy.

Well, thank you to everyone listening in. We look forward to having you on the next episode. Thank you.

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About Chris

Chris Jones imageChris Jones has been in ministry leading for 25 years. He began ministry at the age of 21, when he was called to fill in for his pastor, who was suffering with cancer. After his pastor passed away, he served as an interim pastor until the church hired a full time pastor.

Chris played football for Youngstown State University, including on the Penguins’ 1994 Division I-AA national champion team. After his college football career finished, he married his high school sweetheart and moved to Joplin, Missouri. They began attending Central Christian Center and after a few years working with the youth, Chris took on the role of Youth Pastor for ten years. Additionally, Chris has worked in the mental health field, primarily focusing on youth mental health, for 25 years. He has supervised and trained other mental health staff for 20 of those years.

Chris has also coached high school football as an assistant for 5 years.  He has a message for young and old that calls them to grow in intimacy with Jesus and know God has a loving father. He has a passion to speak into the lives of men and call them into their destiny as sons of God. Chris has led a men’s bible study for over 10 years at a local rehabilitation ministry house. Chris currently serves in the role of Marriage and Family pastor with his wife at Central Christian Center in downtown Joplin, Missouri.