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Who’s In Your Kitchen? In honor of inclusive leader Peggy Joan Maxie

By Jonathan Stutz

 

Who’s in your kitchen?

When you entertain at home, who are the folks congregating in your kitchen (as they always seem to do)? It’s a question I routinely pose during my Inclusive Leadership training sessions.

This thought exercise arose from Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Alabama during the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. The social justice leader and his collaborators enjoyed plentiful meals in the home of activist Georgia Gilmore as they planned their strategy and tactics. Dr. King posed the question while thinking about the time his team spent together in Gilmore’s kitchen.

The people in your kitchen are the ones you spend the most time with, who get to know you at a deeper level, and whom you get to know equally well. But if they are limited to the folks who look like you, think like you, and have a background and culture similar to yours, then your world view becomes increasingly narrow. It becomes very difficult to grow your cultural competency and your comfort with people different from yourself if there are only people like you in your kitchen.

I will be forever grateful to Peggy Joan Maxie, the first Black woman elected to the Washington State House of Representatives, for inviting me into her proverbial kitchen over 40 years ago. Peggy passed away recently, at the age of 87, but the lessons she taught me about servant leadership, about empathy, about cultural intelligence, and about biases, will live on forever.

I first met Peggy in 1982 when we were both part-time employees of Time-Life Libraries. Being a State Representative is considered a part-time role and like me, a student at the University of Washington (UW) at the time, she needed to earn money outside of her primary responsibilities to make ends meet. To look at us, you couldn’t imagine two people more different. Peggy was 45 and I was 22 years old. She was a single, Black woman, born in Texas, and a devout Catholic who had almost become a nun. She was introverted, reserved, and an accomplished six-term legislator. I was a young, extroverted white Jewish Canadian American and newly married. I was just getting started in life, about to graduate from the UW and begin my career journey. At Time-Life, Peggy was also an “only,” the only Black woman in the office.

I was drawn to Peggy because she was an elected official and a Democrat. I was a Political Science major with experience working with Democratic campaigns, looking to expand my experience in politics and community organizing. I was fascinated with leaders and leadership—it was pretty much all the books I read—and Peggy was an inspirational leader.

She was incredibly warm, generous, and approachable. She took a personal interest in me, and we became friends. She even recruited me and another colleague from Time-Life, Michael Waskevich, to work on her campaign for reelection one summer.

Through her actions, Peggy demonstrated unique emotional and cultural intelligence. She knew how to listen deeply, to ask open-ended questions, and to be curious about personal stories, all in her quest to understand people’s lived experiences. She wanted to know what made someone feel proud and happy but also, and perhaps even more importantly, what was not working for them—their issues, problems, needs, and concerns. Little did I know at the time, she was my role model for what I came to know as “inclusive leadership.”

Peggy, Michael, and I spent tens of hours together preparing for debates, discussing campaign strategy, building yard signs, and canvassing door-to-door her district, the 37th, one of Seattle’s most ethnically and socio-economically diverse districts (from Madrona in the north to Columbia City, the Rainier Valley, Rainier Beach, to Renton). And as Peggy and I got to know each other at a deeper level, I discovered we had much more in common than not. We shared a strong moral code and a deep interest in creating a more equitable society. If Peggy and I had not taken the time to invite each other into our respective kitchens, my life would not have been the same. Peggy changed me. She was instrumental in forming me and encouraging me to follow my path. I’ll miss Peggy and I will never forget my time working for and with her.

So here’s what I learned from Peggy and from life:

If only more of us spent time with people different from ourselves in one another’s kitchens, how much greater understanding and empathy would we have in this world?

If a diversity of people is lacking in your personal life, you’ll find it tough to be comfortable with folks outside that demographic at work. Connecting with a diversity of individuals at work will also be difficult if you always spend your social time at work—for example, lunch, coffee, or tea breaks—with the same people every day.

On a daily basis, take steps to expand the circle of people you spend time with. Ask someone new to lunch. Grab coffee or tea with somebody from a different culture than your own. Utilize Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (ID&E) events and really all your social opportunities to connect with a diversity of individuals. Use the time to get to know them, learn about their work, and how they experience the work environment.

What is their lived experience? What are their interests and hobbies? Their views and perspectives? Listen with the intent to understand and to build bridges. Over time, this practice will increase your skills as an inclusive leader and your empathy as a human. Your new knowledge will factor in when reviewing resumes, interviewing job candidates, considering the makeup of your team, and determining what needs to be changed. In the process, you’ll be changed, and the people around you will be equally and positively affected.

So ask yourself now: Who’s in your kitchen? And who are you going to invite in next?

 

Jonathan Stutz, M.A. (he/him/his) is the President of Global Diversity Partners. He has over 25 years’ experience working in leading edge companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Zulily. Jonathan earned his M.A. from City University of Seattle in Organizational Leadership and B.A. in Political Science from the University of Washington. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Bellevue, WA non-profit, Youth Eastside Services and has served on the Human Services Commission for the cities of Bellevue and Kirkland, WA. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book Daily Practices of Inclusive Leaders: A Guide to Building a Culture of Belonging (May 2024) with Eddie Pate. Pre-order now on Amazon or wherever books are sold!

 

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