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Podcast: Radical empathy and active allyship

November 17, 2021
clock 17 MIN READ

We’re excited to bring you new episodes of our podcast, The Intersection. Join us here, where investments and technology meet, and thought leaders and movers and shakers come together to discuss what’s shaping the future of business, community and culture.

Episode 2: Radical empathy and active allyship

As part of Pride Month 2020, we are proud to share a conversation with Rei Lemashov, LGBTQ+ speaker and advocate. Listen as Rei dives into his own experiences of coming out in the workplace and encourages us to find our own identities. 

Enjoy episode 2.

"I am proud of myself for being true to my values and for challenging those around me to be allies and to remain accountable."

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Speaker 1: Hey everyone. Thanks for joining us back at The Intersection, a podcast that brings you candid conversations with members of our community and leaders in our industry. This week, we're excited to welcome Rei Lemashov, LGBTQ+ speaker and advocate. In today's episode, Rei sits down with Krista Deguffroy to discuss what it means to be an active ally. Rei also share stories about his transition to becoming his whole self while working in the Financial Services industry. Take a listen.

Speaker 2: Hey Rei, thanks so much for joining us today.

Rei Lemashov: Thank you for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.

Speaker 2: We have a lot to talk about today, but I want to start by congratulating you on your presentation today to the SEI community. You spoke a lot about your journey, the importance of creating community, empathy, and ally ship. I applaud your willingness to discuss your experience.

Rei Lemashov: You know, it's always a little bit intimidating to get up and talk about a personal journey with people you don't get to see on a daily basis, but I've been thankful enough to get a little bit of feedback from this morning session and it just reinforces everything that I do. And I couldn't be more excited.

Speaker 2: Like definitely want to dive in on some of that too. However, I want to ask a little bit about you and your career path. So let's take it back to maybe one of the first times you came to SEI, you revealed your worst professional advice that you'd ever received. So what about that experience made you want to come back and get even more personal? Would you mind sharing with some of our listeners?

Rei Lemashov: Honestly, it's probably because that was so long ago that I don't remember what the worst advice I shared was. It makes it a little bit easier to come back when you don't have that to relive. But honestly, since I was last at SEI, it feels like the entire world has shifted in the span of six months between COVID-19, bringing the world to a halt, black lives matter being reignited, this simultaneous expansion and contraction of LGBTQ rights we've seen in the course of a week. So I felt that now more than ever, it was important for me to use any available platform to talk to people about the importance of leading with authenticity and with empathy. I think as we are all navigating how we respond, both as individuals and as entire communities, to these global events, we can get so caught up in our reactions that we forget to come back to our foundation. And if I can help center people in that journey, I will take every opportunity to do so.

Speaker 2: Well, we thank you for that. So let's talk a little bit then about your journey. I mean, how has talking about your story impacted you? Have you been surprised by anything along the way?

Rei Lemashov: There have been a lot of surprises, as anyone who has gone through coming out or being vulnerable about a part of themselves they kept hidden away, your mind immediately runs through the worst scenarios. And you're like, "Who out there is going to look at me differently, who is going to be responsive, who is going to be critical? Am I going to make friends or lose friends?" And anytime you go out there and you're willing to stake your flag in the ground and say, "Hey, I'm here. And I have something to tell you", you're opening yourself up for both positive and negative responses. I have been pretty surprised at the amount of positivity and compassion that has come back to me. And I'm embarrassed to say that I had some preconceived notions about certain types of people. You just kind of get into your head of who is going to be a friend and who is going to be a foe.

And it has been so nice to see that the people I was most defensive about would come forward and say, "Now that I have insight to the individual perspective, now that I see what happens to a person going through something like this, instead of just reading about the technical or the political commentary, I really want to educate myself more. I really want to learn how to engage." And as much as I'm up here talking about, "be open, be like welcome to new experiences, be empathetic". I need constant reminders of that as well. So it's been really nice to see that even my preconceived notions are totally wrong.

Speaker 2: Well, I hope you know that you've gained quite a following and fandom here at SEI. We might have to issue you a badge. We'll have to have security about that, but let's talk about one of the things you mentioned in your presentations. You've talked about being a radical ally. So help me understand, what does that mean? And maybe what's the first step someone can take ally ship?

Rei Lemashov: Yeah. So that's kind of a combination of two other terms and my presentation, radical empathy and an active ally. So to break each one of those down, if you're going to be a radical ally, I don't mean radical as in extreme or political. For any math fans out there, or anyone who is working with a family member through their algebra book, radical is a math term that talks about the fundamental root of things. So how can we make a behavior, a practice and approach, a fundamental part of our identity and how we view the world. That's the first part. And then ally ship is the second. And I mentioned this in my talk, one really great thing about the current re-ignition of black lives matter besides, the imperative pursuit of justice is the fact that we're having all these conversations now about what is a good ally.

And some of you may have heard the term performative being thrown around. So that's an ally who gets up and says, "Black lives matter. I'm going to post the black square on Instagram" and is doing it for the clout. But in the background isn't doing work that benefits that community. They're not educating their friends. They're not calling out problematic behavior. They're not themselves taking in more information about that community. Where as an active ally is someone who is proactive in their pursuit of ally ship. It's someone who is looking to learn. They're open, they're curious, and they're also open to feedback. So they're not afraid to ask questions like "How can I help? What dangerous notions do I have that I need to actively take apart?"

Am I truly helping? Or am I taking up space that's better for someone else. And they're also not afraid to mess up. I think one thing we all need to get comfortable with is practice. Practice makes perfect, it implies that we are going to fail and that's okay. You're going to show up as an ally. You're going to try your best. And sometimes you're going to say the wrong thing because you just didn't know. And that's all right. Just knowing that we have people with us that are able and willing to raise their voices. We all sometimes say the wrong thing, we can learn, we can do better in the future but if you're already used to being silent, it's hard to raise your voice. But if you're used to raising your voice, then you can always evolve in what you say.

Speaker 2: So true. And I think sometimes that fear of taking that first step or that fear of being perfect and maybe making a mistake doesn't allow us to move forward. So I appreciate your insights on that. A couple of days ago, so as we're recording this, what three days ago, the Supreme court of the United States announced that Title VII protections extend to the LGBTQ+ communities in the workplace. I want to talk to you because you have a really unique perspective on this, your journey to becoming your whole self and your true self has all happened within the same place of work. So what does this historic landmark mean to you?

Rei Lemashov: Well, it means that I can use my favorite joke far more often, but like my friends at work, I really like to put things in the timeline of "Oh yeah. Well, that was when I back when I was still a woman" or, "Oh no, no. That's when, like my voice was cracking, like that was in the middle of puberty I remember because ba-ba-ba" and right now I really limit that to a small group of people. So I guess I can be more open about it. I'm just kidding. All jokes aside. This is incredible for the community, but I have to be honest, it's bitter sweet. So quick history lesson, if you'll indulge me. Before the recent Supreme Court ruling, it was still legal, believe it or not, in the majority of states to fire someone or refuse them employment based on their gender identity and their sexual orientation. That was a state level, you know, individual municipalities and cities had their own rules.

I'm lucky enough to live and work in Philadelphia county, which does have discrimination protection. But this is historic because now, the Federal Government says your identity doesn't impact your job, which is so incredible for all of my queer siblings across the country. But it's also a bittersweet moment because the ruling was limited to Title VII. We're only talking about employment discrimination. I know that there's a lot of conversation around Title IX, right? The education amendments and how Title IX still impacts the LGBTQ community. It's actually still legal for federally funded programs like colleges, hospitals, adoption agencies to discriminate against the community. Pretty it's legal to discriminate against trans people when it comes to restaurant access, it's legal to discriminate in terms of renting or buying a home under the Fair Housing Act. It's still legal under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

And so it's so tough because we do want to take a moment to pause and celebrate where we have made achievements by. I remember I had a family member. They basically said, "Cool, so gay rights are over now." And it was just such a surreal experience like "Yeah, we can get married, but do you know the letter of the law? Do you know how much work there is still out there to do?" So I don't want to take away from what an incredible moment. This is in the pursuit of true equality and equity, but this is one of our victories. It's not the last. And I'm hoping that this gives us the momentum to keep on going.

Speaker 2: I think that's really important and I think sometimes when we're talking about progress, we don't always stop and recognize those significant moments that happen in all of our lives, as well as in our communities. I'm going to pick on you for a minute and I'm going to ask you then, what's your proudest professional accomplishment? Or let me be specific. If mom had to put one professional accomplishment on the fridge, what one is she hanging up?

Rei Lemashov: Okay. You'll have to tell me if you can't use this. But it's funny because I got a sneak preview of the script and I actually called mom up and I gave her forewarning that "Hey, I'm going to mention you in my SEI talk, you're near the end." She was like, "Oh man, don't don't use any pictures of me." Sorry I did. And then two, I asked her, "Can you help me out? We're recording this podcast." I was asked what accomplishment you would hang on the fridge. She's like, "Hey, fridge isn't magnetics." Like "Mom, it's a phrase." And she kind of thought about it. She said, "I don't mean to pander but the thing that I'm proudest of is you didn't get fired coming out." I was like, "What is that supposed to mean?"

She's like, "No, no, no. That's not really what I mean. It's just, it's so hard go through such an experience like walking in the door, wearing a pencil skirt and heels. And then one day you show up and you're like, 'I wear suits and ties now. And my name is Reiand I'm a man.' And then to see that process through your transition until hold your guns and the fact that you have kept people accountable as being allies to the queer community as really engaging with them on a corporate level, you know that's no easy feat."

But I do in hindsight, see what she means that it is a really hard notion to completely flip upside down the persona of who people think you are at work and to not only retain your position, but then be able to continue making progress in your career to challenge leadership and say, "Hey, we clearly have a gap that needs to be filled. How can we step in and create a support system for this community?" So I'd have to agree with my mom. I think I'm proudest of myself for being true to my values, for challenging those around me, to be allies, to remain accountable and yeah, for keeping my job in the process. Absolutely.

Speaker 2: I think I'm going to have to one, meet your mom, two get a magnetic surface so that she can hang out those accomplishments but I appreciate you giving us such a glimpse into your family life. So a lot of our listeners and a lot of the people that your presentation went to are in the Financial Services space. So I'd love to ask you, what makes you most excited about the future of Financial Services and the Financial Services employee population?

Rei Lemashov: Where do I even begin? I feel like this should have been the podcast episode because I have so many ideas. I'm going to do my best to contain myself and answer it in only a few facets. So number one, I'm excited for Financial Services as a business because one thing that I mentioned in my presentation today, there's no hard number of the size of the LGBTQ population because queer as a term is very fluid. You don't just have to be gay or bi anymore, there's a whole umbrella of us out there.

And it seems like our population is growing, but for argument's sake, let's peg the number at about 10%. The queer community, 10% of the population, we are so loyal to each other when it comes to business engagement, that if one of us has a bad experience, that's it. All of us are boycotting you, you're never going to get our business again. So to see the exact opposite where we see proactive engagement from companies, we talk about that too. Here's where we are seeing, here's where we're validated, here is who was making a conscious effort to engage us as firms increase not only their diversity initiatives, but their engagement and inclusivity priorities as well. I'm excited to see how much more they can grow with the LGBTQ demographic as both employees and as clients.

Speaker 2: I appreciate all of your honesty in our conversation today. Are you up for a game?

Rei Lemashov: A game?

Speaker 2: Here's the rules. I'm going to ask you two things. You're going to tell me which one you prefer. Sound good?

Rei Lemashov: I'll do my best. Yeah. Sounds good. Okay. Let's look at it.

Speaker 2: Number one. Dogs or cats.

Rei Lemashov: Cats.

I wouldn't have said that up until super recently. I was a dog person growing up, my fiance and I moved in together. We had no pets and through Serendipity, a high school friend of mine had a special needs cat that needed a home. And she's just so stinking cute. She's a full adult cat, but she's five pounds, itty-bitty her voice box didn't form correctly. So when she meows, it sounds like a pterodactyl. And I was like, I need this animal. I don't care that it's a cat. I need it. She is the love of my life. Satisfaction of having such a finicky animal, like a cat choose you. I haven't found greater satisfaction yet. I'm a cat person. I am her person.

Speaker 2: All right, I'll let it slide. I'll let it slip.

Rei Lemashov: I appreciate that.

Speaker 2: Okay. Next one. Iced coffee or hot coffee?

Rei Lemashov: Iced.

Speaker 2: Card games or board games.

Rei Lemashov: Card.

Speaker 2: We disagree on so much.

Rei Lemashov: Did we at least agree on the iced coffee?

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Rei Lemashov: Okay.

Speaker 2: Okay. One of my favorites, hard tacos or soft tacos?

Rei Lemashov: Can I flip this question around a little bit?

Speaker 2: Sure.

Rei Lemashov: I feel like the more interesting question is corn or flour tortillas for your tacos because I'm a corn tortilla guy and I don't really care if they're hard or soft, but if you give me a flour tortilla, I would rather just eat the taco, filling with my bare hands, then toss that tortilla.

Speaker 2: Well, then I'm going to ask it a different way. Then we're talking about tacos, corn or flour?

Rei Lemashov: I'm going to go corn.

Speaker 2: So much judgment. Last one, working alone or in a team?

Rei Lemashov: This has also been something transformational for me. I am now a team person. If you asked me, I want to say even up to like a year ago, I would have said working alone. I have come around to the more collaborative, holistic approach you might even say.

Speaker 2: All right. Well thank you for being a good sport on that one. I have one last question before we go. And I know personally that you're an avid reader. So tell me what's next on your must-read list?

Rei Lemashov: Ooh, can I answer in both fiction and nonfiction?

Speaker 2: Yes.

Rei Lemashov: In fiction. I'm going to count it as next because I just started, but it's called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis and it is a retelling of the great migration from the South to North, by the Black Community and it's about one woman who has nine kids and she's the first one to move up to the North. And so it's talking about their family from each of their perspectives. As someone who first-generation American learned the most vanilla type of American history in high school, the winner gets the right history. It is opening my eyes so much. And what's really striking to me are the similarities between the great migration I'm reading about in this book and the stories that my grandparents were telling me about trying to sneak their way out of the Soviet Union and even within the Soviet Union as Russian Jews. It was really interesting to see the parallels and get a new appreciation for black history. And then on the non-fiction side, I am about to start a book called Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.

Speaker 2: I think I need to add that to my... I'm not a big physical book reader. I am an audible listener, so I like to listen to my books, but that's because I'm a multi-tasker. I don't know why. Well, right. Thank you again. Thank you for joining us and for being so open with your journey. As both a friend and a colleague, I thank you for leading with your whole self and allowing us to join you in the mission. It's a privilege to work with you. It's a privilege to know you and count you as a friend. And I look for more opportunities to continue to do so.

Rei Lemashov: Thank you so much for having me here today. It has been an incredible opportunity to get to share more of myself with you with the SEI community, especially want to thank SEI diversity for inviting me to present as a part of their pride series. And I look forward to what the future brings.

Speaker 1: Thanks for joining us again, stay tuned for more conversations with members of our workforce and community. Until next time stay well. And of course we hope you'll meet us back at the intersection soon.

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