Creating Sustainable Models for Social Change with Ashleigh Huffman, Ph.D., U.S. State Department

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In this episode of On Record PR, we go on record with Dr. Ashleigh Huffman, experienced educator, public speaker, entrepreneur, and author in the Sport for Social Change and Women’s Empowerment movements. Ashleigh is passionate about gender equality, human rights, access and inclusion, and has worked in more than 80 countries using sports to achieve these ideals.

Ashleigh’s co-led efforts on the global sports mentoring program resulted in the 2018 ESPN Stuart Scott Humanitarian Award and the 2018 Peace and Sport Diplomatic Action of the Year.

Throughout her career, Ashleigh has worked across sectors with athletes, corporates, government, and nonprofits to create holistic and sustainable models for social change. She has trained more than 10,000 leaders across the world in sports-based social innovation strategies and worked with more than 50 companies to promote global women’s empowerment, inclusion of persons with disabilities, and refugee integration.

In her current role, Ashleigh educates and equips professional, Olympic, Paralympic, and university athletes to use their passion and platform as a force for good. She works with sports leagues, federations, and corporates to see sport, not only as an international market for economic transaction, but social transformation.

Ashleigh is a graduate of the University of Tennessee with a Ph.D. in socio-cultural studies and was the captain of her basketball team at Eastern Kentucky University.

This episode of On Record PR was recorded in August 2020. Producer and guest host, Jennifer Simpson Carr, interviewed Dr. Ashleigh Huffman via Zoom. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and strengthening civil rights movements, the holes in our social fabric have been amplified: systemic racism, sexism and healthcare disparities, just to name a few. This conversation was inspired and shaped by the critical need to discuss what actions can and should be taken to shape and inform a more inclusive society on a local and global scale.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: Welcome Ashleigh.

Ashleigh Huffman: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here. It’s great to reconnect with you, a longtime friend. I appreciate the opportunity.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I appreciate you joining me. For our listeners, Ashleigh and I have known each other since our time as opponents in high school basketball and teammates in AAU basketball.

Ashleigh, I’ve had the honor of being connected with you by way of social media, primarily Facebook since it became more popular, since we went to college. I’ve had the opportunity to watch you create real inclusion throughout the world. As I mentioned in your intro, you’ve been to 80 countries, making impact across the world. I’ve been lucky to witness this incredible work you do and the impact it’s made on communities.

Let’s start by talking about what it means to you to be an educator and an entrepreneur in global sports diplomacy and women’s empowerment movements.

I’m really lucky. I work for the U.S. Department of State as a program specialist in sports diplomacy, which sounds like a lot of fancy words, but really it’s about the use of sport to promote human rights and peace building to strengthen relationships between countries; to use our roles and platforms as athletes to make a positive difference in the world, and to create opportunities and access for people who are on the margins.

Even though it’s a government position, it very much aligns with my previous work as a professor and my work from my nonprofit career. It speaks to the heart of who I am as a former college basketball player. It’s really about the role of sport and what it can teach you to become a better human. Then, how do you use what sport has taught you to transform communities?

For me, I feel like we’re living in polarizing times. It’s a very unique situation during times that require leaders to listen and then lead; to work toward solutions, not suppression; and to stop solely talking to people who look and sound like us. We need to start building bridges with people who look a little different and who don’t always agree with every idea that we have.

It’s like, the kid in the back seat, who’s always yelling, “Mom, Mom, Mom, MOM!” And then it increasingly gets louder until  it’s a roar, “MOM! Put down your phone and listen to me!” I feel like that’s where we are. We’ve silenced the small requests and the pleas, so now we are at a roar and it’s really important for the role of education in society today to really promote bridge building,  solutions, and listening first. It’s not about who‘s right, but what‘s right. What does it mean to me to be an educator and an entrepreneur? I feel like many people perceive education  as indoctrination, but to me it means empowering the next generation to think on their own, to see a problem and  be able to solve it. It’s promoting critical problem solving and working together as a team. It’s emotional intelligence, awareness of self, awareness of others, and awareness of the interplay between the two.

Here’s the deal: As an educator, as an entrepreneur, the world changes so fast. For example,  what you studied as a freshman is no longer relevant by the time you graduate. I can’t teach you necessarily to do a specific job, but I can teach you to think, I can teach you to work well with others, and I can teach you to promote and encourage empathy. Those are really the important skills that I think we need in 2020. We need big ideas. We need creative solutions. We need people to listen. And we need people to not feel threatened by people who are different, but to see those differences as a solution to the problem.

You’re talking about opportunities to impact generations of people and make long-lasting change. How do you approach the challenge of creating holistic and sustainable models for social change?

I think that’s the million-dollar question. That’s what everyone wants to know.

  • How do we change our culture?
  • How do we shift into the 21st century?
  • How do we become a more diverse and inclusive place?

Whether it’s in the workplace talking about minority advancement or the international development space, talking about eradicating disease or eliminating poverty, the question becomes how do we change the systems that have been in place for a very long time? There’s always resistance to change. It doesn’t always mean that it’s a malicious resistance but there’s resistance out of fear, out of uncertainty, out of loss of power, and out of the insistence of being right. There are a lot of reasons why sustainable change is hard. I don’t know if this is the right answer, but it’s something that I’ve dedicated myself to studying for the last 13 years.

At the University of Tennessee, I wrote a theory: The Theory of Empowerment for Social Change, which was four parts; the Four E’s of Empowerment: Expose, Equip, Engage, and Entrust.

My thought was, you start with the individual. You empower one person who then influences their spheres of community and people and, in doing so, you transform the world. It starts with one and, like the butterfly effect, spans outward. I think the organizations of today should expose, equip, engage and entrust.

My thoughts are:

  • Expose: If you can see it, you can be it. We talk about that with women in leadership or with different people who are the first. If you’re never been exposed to something, then you can’t aspire to it. If you don’t have someone who says, “That’s possible for you,” then it’s really hard to imagine what it would be like. I think exposure within an organization, ideas and networks, resources, promotions, opportunities, and trips are all a part of step one.
  • Equip: How do we build capacity? Seeing something doesn’t make it a reality. I can see someone who plays for the Washington Mystics in the WNBA, but it may never be my reality as a young girl who witnesses it. You have to work on the tools and skills needed to move forward in the process — you have to build the capacity.  I think you have to let people try. You give them a task and you encourage success. You start small and you build momentum.  They may fail, but they will learn. Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders. I think it’s important to be aware of someone else’s potential.
  • Engage: To me, this is what mentorship is all about. It’s about investing in someone else. Diversity is being invited to the dance. Inclusion is rocking the dance floor. It’s about having the space to be who you are and to influence the environment that you’re in. You can have a seat at the table. I’ve had many seats as the only woman, or as the young female, or as the person that represents the South or a lower socioeconomic status. You can be the first, but it doesn’t mean you have any power or influence. I think that’s where the investment comes in; inclusion + investment = impact.
  • Entrust: This is how culture changes. You believe in someone; you mentor them and then you can entrust them to follow through. Any great coach knows, I can only coach you in practice for so long — eventually you have to go out and win the game. I may be the first woman, but I don’t want to be the last. How am I empowering others? Who am I investing in? How do I help someone in my organization or on my team get across the finish line? How do we win together? I think that is how you change cultures.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s an incredible approach to sustainable change. I love the comments you made about having the opportunity to see people in positions that you can aspire to be in one day. I think we are very lucky in the environment we are in today with many women who have paved the way before us in sports, business, and politics. The list goes on and it’s endless. As someone who has a five-year-old, I can wake up today and show her senior executive women: CMOs, CEOs, women in politics who are the first. That piece is incredibly important.

You are co-founder of the Center for Sports, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee. Tell me about the genesis of the Center and its mission.

I was a college basketball player and basketball really transformed my life. It wasn’t always great. I had injuries. There were politics. There was corruption. There are all sorts of issues with sport, but I realized that it is not sport in and of itself that’s good or bad. It is the way people in positions of power use it. You can be very intentional with that mission.

For me, I went on my first international basketball exchange to China in 2005. Being from a small town in West Virginia, having only ever traveled to Ohio, Kentucky, Florida… China seemed like the next logical place to go — halfway around the world! Everyone said out of ignorance, “Oh, you’re going to get bird flu. It’s going to be awful.  Think of the pollution.” But I thought, “This is such an opportunity!” I went there and we played against six different universities. I realized very quickly that you don’t have to speak the same language to have the same hopes and dreams. Basketball was such a conduit for relationship building. I knew that there was more to sport than just a high-performance, soul-sucking, moneymaking industry. I knew that it was not just about economics. It was about the transformation of people.

I thought, “WOW!” I don’t know if I can have this as a job, if I can be someone who combines education, sport and women’s empowerment. But if I can, I am going to try my very best. From that, I just continued to do projects. I continued to do bake sales. I continued to do fundraising, and this was before Kickstarter and GoFundMe. I was begging and working. I had three jobs trying to pay for these unique opportunities to travel, because I knew the power of sport. There’s something different about it. I went the next year to Israel to do a peace camp between Israeli and Palestinian girls. I went the year after that to Zimbabwe to work with survivors of sexual assault and HIV-AIDS victims.

I realized the more places that I went and the more exposure I had to the world and the way sport was addressing so many of the world’s problems, that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

Then I started working locally with refugees: Iraqi refugees in Knoxville–from Baghdad to Tennessee is a big leap for people. That’s a huge transition. But I saw how the power of sports could unite us. There were so many differences on paper, and yet, we were so unified in terms of what we wanted in life and what success meant; and what family and friends meant; and social connection; and economic mobility. I started studying it and I got my master’s degree. Then I got my Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee.

I was leaving to find a normal job as a nerdy professor, and the University of Tennessee came to me and said, “What if we just keep this idea here? What if we continue to do this global work? What if we continue to make a difference locally with refugees? We think there’s something to this idea of sport to unite, sport to empower, sport to heal. What do you think? What would you think about staying?”

I said, “Here we go! Let’s go! We’ll do it!” That is how the genesis of the center came about. And it continued to grow every year. We wrote for grants and we were lucky enough to land one with the State Department. And the rest is history, 80 countries later.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: It’s an incredible story.

Ashleigh Huffman: I’m a very blessed human.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I’m so glad that you shared that with me. I did not realize the trials, tribulations, and all of the work it took to get the Center to where it is today.

Is there a particular story that represents the success you were hoping to achieve by founding the Center?

There are so many success stories. I think that is the beauty of it.

It is the meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.

For a long time, I wanted to be a teacher and I wanted to be a basketball coach. In some ways, I am doing both.  The success is in the stories: it is in the faces of the students who have changed their career paths; who have now gone on with Doctors Without Borders doing medical missions; they are human rights lawyers; they are in the Peace Corps. Other lives are radically changed from this moment of exposure –the “Ah” moment, this first trip. It is the same thing that happened to me in 2005. The trajectory of my life was never the same.

I’m still very close to all of the students. I get text messages from them. Just to hear the impact, even 13 years later, and to see them excelling, that’s what it is all about. We’ve done so many projects all over the world – everything from boxing for self-defense in Kenya, to basketball after a typhoon for healing in the Philippines, to wheelchair basketball for peace building in South Africa.  There are so many things that I’m very proud of and not for the work that I did, but for all of these brave people who’ve put themselves out there.

Many times, I’ve been to different countries where their resources are so little. I think to myself, “Would I still play if I didn’t have shoes? Would I still play if I didn’t have access to a hoop that wasn’t exactly 10 feet tall and a pristine court and air conditioning? Do I love the game enough to want to do it in those kinds of circumstances? Do I want to do it for someone who’s a dictator? For someone who’s corrupt?” There are really a lot of challenges, a lot of under-resourced places, but there I find the most joy. I think of the success not as the impact that I’ve had on others, but the impact they’ve had on me.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: It goes back to that butterfly effect you mentioned before. You traveling to those places and offering opportunities to individuals who otherwise would not have access to these services and support. I can’t imagine how much you have touched people in this world and how far that reach has gone.

It also makes me think about how fortunate we were as high school athletes to have families that could drive us to tournaments and provide us with different opportunities. For you to bring that to people across the world is simply incredible.

We were both very fortunate to have known one of the great legends in women’s basketball, Pat Summitt. She and my mother, Juliene Brazinski Simpson, were co-captains of the first Women’s U.S. basketball team in 1976. Pat was head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols for almost 40 years. For those of our listeners who may not be as familiar with her and as a way to frame her impact in basketball, in addition to her representing the U.S. on the first U.S. Women’s basketball team and winning a silver medal, during her time coaching she accrued 1,098 career wins, which was the most wins in college basketball history upon her retirement.

Listen to Episode 14 with Juliene Brazinski Simpson on The Roles of Teamwork and Mentors in Life & Sports

Pat Summitt was an incredible person, coach, role model… the list goes on. What impact has she had on your career?

Wow. What a question. I just can’t thank her enough. She’s not with us anymore, but I’m sure a lot of girls that grew up during that time feel the same; they were women wanting to become somebody. There is a whole generation inspired by her leadership. I can remember as a young girl, I dreamed of playing basketball for the Lady Vols, of being one of her players, to learn from the best.

I can remember my very first camp when I was 11 years old– I went to Pat Summitt’s basketball camp. There were 700 girls in the gym and all of these parents. The moment Pat walked in the gym… there was silence. People stood to their feet and you could hear a pin drop. I thought, “Wow, I’m in the presence of greatness.” For a woman to be that respected: for everyone to stop talking and just focus on her was impactful. I can remember practicing in the driveway in a small town in West Virginia, knowing that I better go hard because Pat Summitt might drop by and I might get recruited!

She instilled in me her Definite Dozen, which was an incredible leadership philosophy. Because of her, I sat in the first three rows of every classroom. She said, “You have to start your own engine. You have to take your initiative for what you want in life.” There were so many little nuggets that she dropped all the time. I was devastated when I didn’t get to play college basketball for her. But, in a strange turn of events, I went to the University of Tennessee for graduate school. In many ways, I got to work with her on an even more meaningful project, even more meaningful than being one of her players.

I was trying to start a basketball academy in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. After working one of her basketball camps, I went to her and I said:

“Coach, I’m going over to Iraq in two weeks, and we’re trying to start girls’ basketball there. It’s the first time. It’s a liberation moment for these young girls to be something, to get out of that house, to invest in themselves. But we have only a couple of basketballs. Do you think you could help us out?”

I can remember, she said, “Managers! Over here! Clean out the closet. Everything we have, you take. Whatever you can. You fit it in a duffle bag, however many you need. We have training tapes. We have old uniforms. We have practice gear. We have basketballs. We have camp balls. Whatever you find in the closet, you take it. Empty it out.”

I was stunned. I mean, my jaw hit the floor. Here is this legend telling me, “Just take it all.”   It was incredible in that moment to see her generosity. She was the real deal — very authentic.

When we went to our first camp in Iraq, we had four flat basketballs. Then we rolled out the duffle bags from Pat Summitt and there’s 400 orange and white Lady Vol basketballs. What started as a camp for 60 girls with four flat basketballs is now basketball being played in 15 cities from Irbil to Mosul, to Sulaymaniyah to Baghdad. These girls are not only playing basketball, they’re going to school, they’re starting their own businesses, they’re becoming leaders in their community. It is this one small seed of this woman who was incredible, who changed my life, who is now changing the lives of so many people with whom she’s never met.

We made a documentary film about it called, Pat: A Legacy of Love and truly it was to honor her and all that she did, and the unspoken notoriety and recognition that was so deserved.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I love that story. It gave me chills. I feel that she is someone about whom there are so many wonderful things to say. She paved the way. She was somebody we could watch on TV. She had this incredible impact on people around the world in basketball and beyond. She was about supporting others, supporting you, a woman who was going to another country to make an impact beyond what you were doing in Tennessee. For her to support that, without hesitation, is just an incredible story that represents who she was as a person and her support of others in this world. Thank you for sharing that.

You are now with the U.S. State Department. The Global Sports Mentoring Program is an incredibly impactful program, linking international sports leaders with American executives to develop business plans that address social issues in society, with a particular focus on women and persons with disabilities. Can you tell us more about the program?

The program is single-handedly the greatest thing I’ve ever done with my life. I can’t even begin to describe the impact that it’s had on me and the impact it’s had on the people who’ve been involved. I feel so incredibly lucky. It was started in 2012 — Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State at the time. She put out a call for proposals, empowering women and girls through sports. And if you look at the stats, I mean, there really is something to that. Ninety-two percent of C-suite women played sports in high school or college. Sixty-five percent of the most powerful business women in the world played sports. Many women who start small businesses played sports. The lessons you learn through sport: it is the leadership skills that you acquire, it is the tenacity, the grit, the resilience and the discipline that make for success. The “get back up after failure” mindset the communication, follow through and accountability. They are all of those lessons that are learned through sport.

In 2012, we had just started the Center when we put out the call for proposals. We were six months old and I thought, Oh man, we’re nobodies! We’re never going to get this, but this is what my heart beats for. Yes, we have to apply. No, we’re never going to win, but we have to apply. It was a million-plus-dollar grant. We had this vision that it wasn’t just about empowering or promoting access for women in the United States, but how we bridge the gap. In the U.S. we have all of these incredible women who have knowledge and expertise and have risen through the ranks. How do we give some of that which has been acquired? How do we then equip others who are seeking out answers– all of these amazing, incredible foreign leaders, whether they are women and girls or persons with disabilities? How do we then bridge the knowledge gap? It’s not about fortitude. It’s not about brilliance. It’s about access.

So, we created this mentorship program. It’s five weeks long, pairing international leaders.  One of the programs is empowering women. We pair women from other countries with CEOs in the United States: Google, Procter & Gamble, ESPN, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (U.S. OPC), and different sports federations, like the WNBA. Top-level executives mentor women from all over the world — Uganda, Brazil, the Philippines, Kenya, and Egypt. The women who join this program identify a challenge that they face as a female in their country. It can be anything from pay gap to bullying in schools, to early teenage pregnancy, to HIV-AIDS transmission.  They come and they are mentored, not necessarily in sport because they are already working in sport, but in how to build a business plan that addresses a social issue.

For example, I want to talk about mental health, and it is taboo in my country. I’m from Ukraine, but with everything that’s going on with Russia, I need a way to talk about the PTSD that so any of us are experiencing in all of this. So, they would come to be mentored by the NHL. The NHL would help them develop an action plan to use ice hockey to “break the ice” about mental health. That’s one example.

One woman was mentored by Saatchi and Saatchi in L.A., an advertising agency. You think, “What in the world can an advertising agency tell me?” But they helped her create the marketing plan, the storytelling, and the social media to promote entrepreneurship in women business owners and leaders, in order to get her program funded in Kenya.

It’s incredible to see the crossover that doesn’t necessarily have to be a sports organization, but the power of sport and athlete-to-athlete, former athlete-to-athlete, that connection that’s developed. When you put two women on a mission, it’s unstoppable. Now they’ve gone back, and we’ve had over 130 alumni from 80-plus countries. The success rate for implementation — the number of people who have implemented at least one phase of their action plan — is 92%. The ripple effect of the program is a huge investment. It’s five weeks of your time. There’s a financial commitment. But the ripple effect is that there are tens of thousands of women, tens of thousands of persons with disabilities whose lives are changed. They’re starting small businesses. They’re running for office. They’re becoming presidents. They’re becoming the main sports anchor. They’re becoming authors. They are becoming Nobel Peace Prize winners. I mean, there are so many things that have come from this, I can’t even describe the way it makes me feel when I think about it.

We were lucky enough in 2018. We won an ESPY, the Stuart Scott Humanitarian Award. And then we also won the Peace and Sport Award in 2018 in Monaco.  Those things are amazing, but it’s really an honor to see the hundred, or the thousand, refugees that feel more included, or youth that didn’t drop out of school. That makes the program incredible.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: Amazing. And again, such an incredible impact. From that perspective, you’ve seen so many different types of business plans for programs that have been thoroughly thought out by business leaders — by representatives of those countries.

Can you tell me from the perspective of diversity, inclusion, and creating true equity within an organization, advice that you would give to senior executives that you have seen be successful as part of that program, from a business planning perspective?

Yes, I’ve seen all sorts of business plans. I watched a TED Talk once. There was this woman who was a 25-year-educator in Brooklyn, New York. She talked about how she had students who came from some really difficult backgrounds and she said, “You know, when I would grade my student’s tests, I would give the tests back to them and instead of saying minus 18, I would say, plus two, because at least you got two!”

I think everybody needs a champion. Everybody needs someone who believes in them. Everyone needs someone in their corner to say, “I see your potential. I see your strength.” You know, the thing about sports that’s beautiful, is it is a super microcosm of society. The beautiful thing about sports — especially basketball, because it’s my favorite – is that it takes diversity in order to win. You can’t have a bunch of speedy, scrappy point guards out there and expect to compete. You can’t have five thick centers taking up the lane, who can’t run the floor, and expect to win. I was enamored with “The Last Dance” documentary and I don’t know how many people watched it but, Michael Jordan needed Pip and he needed Rodman, and he needed Kerr. He needed Phil Jackson. You know, it takes a diverse skillset. If you look at football, you have your big guys up front. You have your speedy guys on the side, you have your quarterback calling the plays. Everybody looks different. You have veterans, you have rookies, you have all sorts of races, ethnicities, religions. I just think it’s a real and a beautiful model to see different perspectives come together and unite around one goal. And I think that what we have to learn from sport is that you can be a different shape, size, race, religion, old, young, but it takes all of us in order to win. And I think it’s our best model for success.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: It’s so true. That’s one of the reasons I think talking to individuals in athletics and in sports as part of our podcast series is so incredible, because so much of what we learn as athletes and in sports is transferable to every single aspect of our life.

One thing that really struck me when we were chatting a couple of weeks ago was that you mentioned inclusion is not simply about creating opportunities. You touched on this earlier too, but I want to talk about it a little bit more now. Inclusion is about positioning and empowering diverse individuals and giving them a seat at the table, but it’s not just about having the seat; it’s about their voice being heard so that they’re empowered to make a true impact within that organization.

Tell me what steps you’ve seen organizations make to create genuine, lasting and sustainable inclusion.

It goes back to what I said before. There have been many times where I’ve been invited to the conversation, but I knew that what I had to say didn’t really matter. I can tell you the first time. I was 26 years old; it was my first real job. I was working with football. A very male domain. I was one of the few women and I was one of only two women who was not in an administrative position, who was not the front desk secretary, but actually had a role in the organization. Thirty-nine men, two women, and when I came into the first meeting at 26, very young, obviously, they said, “Oh no, honey! You don’t sit at the table. Your seat is back there in the corner.” I said, “What?” I was lost. I didn’t know that still existed in the 21st century. It was very eye-opening for me. So, I said, “Okay, but what happens when someone asks me a question? They can’t hear me. Do you have a microphone?” This person thought I was kidding, but I was serious. Then we were asked to report out and talk about different things as strategy and I’m shouting from the back of the room. I thought, “This is bogus.”

So, the next meeting, I came in and I found a chair with wheels and I just rolled myself to the front. I said, “Excuse me. Is there some space here?” Sometimes you have to make your own way and sometimes you have to roll your own chair to the table. But I think great leadership means there is already a chair for you and that what you have to say matters. I think we can do a good job. It’s about leading also where your feet are. You don’t have to be in a position of power. It’s not top-down and it’s not bottom-up. It’s leading across. It’s 360. It’s lead from where I am.

If you see somebody in your organization that is always cut off, somebody interrupts, nobody gives them props for the idea, other people are trying to take credit, I think it’s important for you to speak up and you say, “You know what? That’s a great idea. I like what you had to say. Hey, can you explain more?” It’s especially important if you’re a person of influence. If you’re the quarterback, then you need to stand up for those whose voices are being silenced so that there is a culture of, “Oh, somebody did hear me.” I think that is sometimes what is missing; we wait for the leader to acknowledge others, when it is your peer to the right and your peer to the left who can step up and speak up.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I think that’s incredibly important. There is a quote floating around LinkedIn to the effect of, “Being a leader doesn’t mean having a specific title. It’s about using the voice you have to raise up others.” I think you completely summed that up. That’s what it’s about: taking ownership of supporting others and lifting others up and recognizing when it’s time for someone else’s voice to be heard, or for them to have the opportunity to expand on their idea.

In all of your work, where have you found the sincerest conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion?

You know, this is a good question. I think the most sincere conversations for me come at the dinner table. They come with my family and friends. Those are the hardest conversations to have, I think. But I think they’re the most important. My grandfather, who was a professional boxer, was Mohammed Ali’s first professional fight – it was October 29, 1960. They couldn’t be more different on paper, really. My grandfather was white, he was chief of police, he was an Air Force veteran, big, burly, big hands, slow, Christian. On paper you look at Muhammad Ali and you think, wow, everything is exactly the opposite. My grandfather lost in six rounds in decision but they remained friends for the next 40 years or so until my grandfather passed away.

I asked him one time when I was old enough to understand how unique and interesting this friendship was, “How? How are you still friends with Muhammad Ali? Explain! You are so different.” He said, “You know, Ash, you don’t have to agree with someone in order to respect them. And you don’t have to look like them in order to love them.”

That was so profound for me. It went straight to the heart. Okay, I can still respect who you are as a human being and where you’re coming from. Just because it wasn’t true for me doesn’t mean it wasn’t true for you. It doesn’t mean I didn’t experience it, but it doesn’t mean you didn’t experience it. I think it’s just humanizing each other. Someone once told me, “Well, you can win an argument or you can win a friend.” There’s some middle ground in between that.

I think there’s just a lot division in the world today, and I think it’s about seeing each other through the lens of humanity, knowing that there are many variables that played into each of our lives that made us who we are. That unique experience is what will provide solutions. If we’re only making solutions for the top 25, then we’re going to experience what we see in 2020.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I could talk to you all day and listen to your stories. I have learned more about you today than I knew previously. I’m going to go look up your grandfather when we finish this recording. We’re coming to the end of our time. Do you have any questions for me? Although, they’re not going to be nearly as exciting for me to answer as what you’ve talked about with your work.

Dr. Ashleigh Huffman: I do have questions for you. I have so many, but on the air, my first question is:

Why did you interview someone from sport? How do you think this relates to what you do and to your audience and to this target? Do you think anything I said mattered today?

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I think every word you’ve said mattered today. I wish we could record you all day, because I just feel like you’re a wealth of information and you’ve made such an incredible impact in the world.

But, why sports? It’s such a great question. My first interview for this podcast was my mother. I felt so strongly that her experience as the first to represent the U.S. in the Olympic games, and paving the way in certain areas would be a great discussion on leadership, being the first; seeing something and then achieving it.

Similar to what you said, I believe very strongly that who we are today is a collection of the people we’ve met along the way, the experiences that we’ve had in life. Every single thing that we’ve done has formed the person that’s sitting in front of you. Sports has had such an incredible impact on my life. It’s been an important part of my life, as I know it’s been for you. I credit very wholeheartedly who I am today with the opportunities I was given in sports and the people that I’ve met through sports.

So, while from the surface legal and sports doesn’t seem to align, I think it’s really important that people understand that the characteristics and skills that you gain by being an athlete, which are teamwork- -being part of a team, but owning yourself, owning the work you do and your performance, leadership, confidence, dealing with adversity or struggle, performing under pressure… you named a number of characteristics before. I would argue that they’re all critical to who we are today as people and give us opportunities to be successful in any position or organization.

We also touched on this earlier, but as you mentioned, athletes are role models and most use their voice for greater good. I think there’s so much knowledge and insight that can be learned from sports and athletes because they’ve been at the forefront of inclusion and diversity. I just think that sharing that knowledge from athletes and people who’ve had this experience along the way, and bridging that gap between people and an industry that have done it so well for so long and have created such opportunities globally, I think it’s a unique opportunity to bring that insight to people in law firms and beyond. Hopefully, as these episodes continue, they will give people some inspiration. Thank you for asking.

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