Gwendolyn VanSant and Tuti Scott on Embodied Leadership
In fall 2017, my colleague Lex Schroeder interviewed Tuti Scott and me about why we have chosen to work together and create new programs elevating justice and embodied leadership at this time in the world. This interview tells the story of The Embodied and Beloved Community, a series of gatherings with the aim of supporting and connecting fierce women leaders/founders who are ready to take the leadership to the next level. The first gathering took place in December in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It is republished with permission.
Lex Schroeder: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you arrive at working together?
Tuti Scott: I want to give more voice to body, mind, spirit working together, that equilateral triangle — how we spend equal time in these spaces and experience tension between them. I’m drawn to people who do this well… And as a marginalized lesbian who has great respect for folks who can’t hide their identity — black and brown people specifically — I wanted to be intentional about partnering with someone who could be authentic with me on that journey of body, mind, spirit, creating space [and what this means] for different identities.
Gwendolyn started BRIDGE to do exactly this — to bridge-build amongst communities of color and people who are “othered” and create a sense of belonging… She’s lived it and done it. In my opinion, she’s a bit hidden in the Berkshires. I want to bring talented women whom I respect and love into bigger arenas if they want to be there.
Gwendolyn VanSant: A mutual colleague called and said, “I know this really cool woman. She’s working with the Women’s Fund of Western Mass.” I had done work them, and I was a LIPPI (Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact) graduate. So we get on the phone to discuss a project and Tuti was just so authentically present and welcoming to me as an African American woman, calling me her sister on the first day. It was an instant connection.
Tuti works in spaces where there’s an abundance of resources and brings a gender lens into those spaces. And for many years I have been working in under-resourced spaces on the equity side of things, trying to get people to imagine what their resources are and connect people to more resources. So it was a natural fit. We wanted to combine our work and do it a peer learning environment.
Tuti spoke passionately about women’s experiences and was also really clear that my experience was different from hers in a welcoming, loving, embracing way — even over the phone… [Then we lost touch] and I found out it was because she had open heart surgery. [Laughter]
TS: [Laughter] Yeah, got a little derailed for a year or so there… Sorry, Gwendolyn! I’m back!
GV: Then Trump got elected. I was depressed and overwhelmed and people wanted me to [respond]. I thought, “I can’t fix this right now!”… Tuti called and [invited me into] work around women and politics… Then we just got into doing intense work together at a fast pace. There aren’t many people in the world that I trust enough to follow as leaders… [Laughter]. But I was just able to fall in, be supportive, and give feedback and have it be instantly valued. Those things are really important to me. Plus, it was an opportunity to do work that’s so meaningful.
LS: Can you tell me the purpose of the new work you are doing together on the Embodied and Beloved Community?
GV: It’s really about engaging the triangle (body, mind, and spirit)… I’ve [spent] a lot of time in the mind and felt a pull for the spiritual piece to take center again. Tuti integrating mind, body, and spirit in her work gave me permission to go there… Working with the body is part of my own self-care journey. And Tuti reminds me of things that bring me joy, which is actually being in my body. Modeling, as a partnership and as a team, that we can embody our values and do it well — this is a major part of what this program provides for people.
TS: Being out in the world working with teams and organizations and changemakers, I feel the need to build a posse of white women leaders who can talk about identity and othering and build a community of belonging in partnership with women of color. This is what builds better teams and stronger businesses. I want Gwendolyn and others on my team to be available to train others on cultural competency and equity work and fill in gaps… I feel like people are hungry for these conversations. They want to go to the edge, they just need guidance in how to do it. We’re good about providing safer space… I’ve also been looking for someone like Gwendolyn to challenge me, be a thought partner, and stretch my mind.
LS: What time would you say it is in the world right now? Why is this work needed specifically?
TS: Women are finding their voice and their power because misogyny, harassment, and sexual violence are being revealed… People are finally recognizing the widespread prevalence of all of this. Now, more than ever, women need to have as many supports as possible and have a tribe. Women need to have leaders in their work who are going to validate their experience, voice, and journey. And until we can have authentic leaders who are trulyembodied… it’s going to hold women back in leadership. I’m a believer in somatic learning, getting people feeling what’s happening in their body. I think I have a enough lived experience having gone through body transformation that I [have empathy]…
Women are more apt to say they’re not qualified, yet they are. They’re more apt to need just a little mirroring and guidance, displaying what they already know back to them so that they can advance. With more women in leadership, the better the world will be. I know that to be true because I’ve seen it and lived it. So how do we make that happen across all sectors, with entrepreneurs, with businesswomen, with people who are doing good philanthropy? How do we make sure women are held in a sacred leadership space?
GV: I go between people feeling like it’s a devastating time and it’s a really realistic time. Trump has held up a mirror to our country, and we’re just being called to stand up and work. Some of us have been working for a really long time and working hard, and it’s time for other people to get up… I’ve developed an ability to help guide people — women especially, but not just women — to be strong, to be leaders, and to use their voice.
TS: I agree what’s going on in the United States is not new; it’s just reached a climax… White women are waking up to Bring Back Our Girls and Say Her Name… As a white woman, with a team of mostly white women, I know we need to be ambassadors [for a different way of being in the world]. Look at the straight allies who helped the gay movement… Where are the white women allies who will speak truth to power around race? I still have conversations with white women who tell me, “I do not think there is a correlation between race and gender.” We have to educate every person in a position of power and help them understand that identities intersect.
GV: [Laughter] What she said! By working intentionally with high impact cohorts of women leaders and through trainings with organizations, I know we can shift the tide. People are ready for systems change. People are owning that our systems don’t work, owning all the “isms”. Now it’s just figuring out how to be brave enough to move through them. This is the time we’re in: people have to act, and there needs to be some guidance. Anybody doing anything positive and well-intentioned is better than nothing. Then we can get organized to do the really powerful work.
LS: You both talk about the importance of daily practice and being spontaneous in your work. What are some daily practices you recommend to a young leader/founder for leading with grace, equity, or spontaneity?
GV: I think about constant self-education… I try to go to folks I know who don’t think like me so that I can begin to understand [their thinking]. Constant self-education and self-evaluation. Just look around you. If people look like you and have the same stuff you have, then you’re not really pushing yourself to do the hard work where it’s needed.
TS: I always try to ask, “How did that land for you? Was that ok?” Or, “Can we talk about what’s holding you back?” Just asking questions that invite people to share and sharing about yourself, again with some humor. Like, “God, that was awkward! Can I do that over?! Can we try that again?” As women we don’t give ourselves permission to fail, name it, and move on.
LS: What questions would you say you are both still in around your work together?
GV: How to not [recreate something you know doesn’t work]… We’re not a nonprofit or a corporation… We’re not trying to create something we already know where we can easily slip back into old patterns.
TS: Working in philanthropy for so long with leaders who have a gender lens, the question I’m asking is how do we make [the conversation around privilege] accessible to white men? How do they begin to understand that it affects and is material to them? How do we bring class into conversations with people who are so far from other people [who are suffering] that isn’t about shame or guilt? I use humor sometimes. But there has to be a systemic, repeatable individual practice that [people use to] unpack their privilege on a daily basis, and specifically when they give away money.
LS: What’s the shared value of the two of you working together?
GV: I can support Tuti in the places that she wants to go… and working together gives me an opportunity to be in my body in the way that I need to be to make the kind of impact I want to make.
TS: Same. I think Gwendolyn and I both share the value of [elevating new and different voices]. We value embodied leadership, which is to say we’ve learned from our bodies and our work. And I’m all about learning across culture, gender, generations, sectors, and race. I just want to put rooms together of so many different people and see alchemy happen.
Gwendolyn VanSant is a well-recognized thought leader in diversity leadership and community organizing for racial justice. She is the Founding Director of BRIDGE and the Equity and Inclusion Team Lead at Changemaker Strategies. In addition to providing award-winning cultural competence trainings, Gwendolyn is a frequent speaker and long-time activist. In spring 2017, Gwendolyn spearheaded the county-wide campaign and coalition “Not in the Berkshires” and helped craft and pass her town’s Trust Policy, a step towards a statewide Safe Community Act. In 2016, Gwendolyn served as the Founding Director of Equity and Inclusion at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. In 2015/2016 she was recognized as a “Berkshire Trendsetter” and was named one of her county’s most dedicated and creative social entrepreneurs. She serves on the board of UU Mass Action Network.
Tuti B. Scott is a consultant for strategic philanthropy and a coach to high-achieving leaders. A life-long athlete, Tuti engaged thousands of supporters for the Women’s Sports Foundation where she raised $70 million to support women’s leadership and equal access to sports for women and girls. Tuti has been a leader in social justice philanthropy, women’s rights, and women’s sports for more than three decades. Through Changemaker Strategies (formerly Imagine Philanthropy), Tuti works with leaders to be more courageous and strategic in their giving and helps organizations navigate their next stage of growth. Her clients have included Women Moving Millions, Root Capital, Third Wave Fund, Civil Liberties and Public Policy, among others. She has been a featured speaker and workshop producer for the Women’s Funding Network, the Jewish Women’s Funding Network, and member funds of these networks. Tuti currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Tides and a founding Board member of the Women Win Foundation, and she is proud to call herself an intersectional feminist and bold philanthropist.