An interview with Hema Karunakaram & Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, two of the volunteers behind Letters for Black Lives. Conversations about race are never easy. For first generation Americans, there are added layers that make initiating these conversations difficult. Parents and children have different knowledge of American history, and many terms central to this conversation do not translate directly to parents and grandparents’ native languages. In the weeks following George Floyd’s death, Hema Karunakaram and Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani joined hundreds of first generation Americans and Canadians to draft templates for conversations with elders around anti-blackness and racism. In this interview, Hema and Adrienne share how people from all over are working together with peers and elders to provide translated blueprints for these conversations.
“Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother: We need to talk.You may not have grown up around people who are Black, but I have. Black people are a fundamental part of my life: they are my friends, my classmates and teammates, my roommates, my family. Today, I’m scared for them.” - Letters for Black Lives
In 2016, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man in Minnesota, was shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. Philando’s girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live and incorrectly identified the police officer as “Chinese.” Christina Xu, a 28-year-old Chinese-American, tweeted a call for other Asian Americans in support of Black Lives Matter. She encouraged them to talk with their families about why they stand in solidarity with other people of color. Sparked by this tweet, thousands would convene online to collaboratively write letters about anti-Blackness to their elders in 23 languages. They called the effort Letters for Black Lives.
When the death of George Floyd reignited an urgent conversation around Blackness in 2020, Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani and Hema Karunakaram raised their hands to push the project forward. Adrienne, a first generation Iranian-Ameican, started to rewrite the original 2016 Letter for Black Lives as a guide for conversation with her family. She revisited the Letters for Black Lives Slack group and asked if anyone would want to join her in this effort. Hema was one of the members of the group that volunteered again.
We talked with Adrienne and Hema about what it was like to collaborate with hundreds of people from around the world to come up with one clear message and bring this message to life with their elders.
👏Learn more about Letters for Black Lives at: lettersforblacklives.com
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated, and there may be some errors.
Welcome to the Get Together!
Speaker 2: It's our show about ordinary people building extraordinary communities. I'm your host Bailey Richardson. I'm a co author of get together how to build a community with your people, which I wrote with our other hosts today. Kevin Kev, where are you at?
Speaker 3: Hey, I'm Kevin I'm Bailey's. Co-founder at people in company. It's our strategy company that helps organizations start and sustain meaningful communities.
Speaker 2: In each episode of our podcast, we interview everyday people who have brought people together in extraordinary ways about just how they did it. How did they get the first people to show up? How did they grow to hundreds, thousands, more members today we're talking to two of the volunteers behind the letters for black lives project Hayma Karuna, Carrum, and Adrian Masa Farchioni letters for black lives is a project that brings volunteers together who care about black lives to translate letters and resources that help all of us have the hard, much needed conversations with family members about anti-blackness in our society. The project began in 2016 after the police killing of Philando Castiel as a way for Asian Americans and Canadians to begin these hard conversations with their families, mom, dad, uncle auntie grandfather, grandmother, the English version of the letter begins. We need to talk. You may not have many black friends, colleagues or acquaintances, but I do black people are a fundamental part of my life. They are my friends, my neighbors, my family, and I am scared for them today. We'll talk to Hayma and Adrian, about the recent work, the letters for black lives, volunteers have put in addressing George Floyd's death and the black lives movement and a new version of the letter, and then dozens of new languages from Bangla to Korean to Lao Kev. What's one thing that stood out to you about our conversation today.
Speaker 3: When we coach clients on how to start new communities, we push them to bring potential community members into the process. So, you know, build this community with people, not four people. My favorite moment during this episode was when Haman Adrian reflected on actually getting their parents to help translate the letter. They didn't want to just spring these letters on mom and dad after they were already baked, but rather they brought them into the actual translation process and asked for their help and ended up having an even richer discussion about anti-blackness in their communities. And I thought that that was beautiful.
Speaker 2: I agree. I love this interview. You ready to get in Kev?
Speaker 3: Yeah, let's get into it.
Speaker 2: Welcome you guys. You are meeting for the first time on this podcast, which is wild and a symbol of the modern world that we live in, that you can be working on a project and never talk to each other in person live. So this is going to be fun, but I wanted to ask you both to introduce letters for black lives from the beginning. Would one of you mind sharing what you know about the project and how it got started? I heard about letters
Speaker 4: For black lives in 2016. So I was not involved in the very beginning. I heard about it pretty much after most of the hard work had been done already. It got a lot of press coverage and I was like, Oh, I shouldn't join and help. My understanding is that in 2016, it started as a bunch of Asian Americans who were trying to figure out how to have these conversations about anti-blackness and racism in their own communities. And it spread from there. Everyone wrote this letter to their family and translated it into dozens of languages. So in 2020, again, we started that effort.
Speaker 2: It was super crowdsource from the start. I also found out about it in 2016, and I remember it had started off as a Twitter thread and it just blew up from there into a Google doc. By the time I came in, most of the English letter had already been written. And then it was interesting how the translation started happening because at first it was like, okay, we wrote this letter altogether as a bunch of Asian Americans. This is awesome. Let's get it out there. And then I think it was just this thing that happened organically, where people were like, well, wouldn't it be cool to have this in another language? Maybe we have it in Chinese. Maybe we have it in Korean. Maybe we have it in Hindi. And then all of a sudden dozens of language teams just started spitting out. So that's how I got involved.
Speaker 2: I'd been lurking in the Google doc for a couple of days. And then when the translation conversation got started, I started to participate. But I think what made it so interesting was how people all just found each other, mostly through social media. And then we continue to work through Slack, but it really wasn't something that had one single leader or one person doing the recruiting. It was mostly word of mouth. And can you tell me from your perspectives, why are these conversations so important? I'm not from a multilingual household. So what makes having these conversations so hard? There are multiple layers that come with being a part of a multilingual household, as well as being first generation. Something that I always felt some dissonance with is I'm Indian American. I was actually born in India and our family immigrated to the U S when I was two years old.
Speaker 2: So all of my schooling and everything was done in the U S it was always really interesting for me growing up as we were learning about American history and the things that you learn just as a product of growing up in the U S is so different from how our parents or our families might have learned about the U S not living here. So I noticed that a lot of times when I was sharing things that I had learned about in school, my parents might've had their own perspective about it, or they might've said, yeah, you know, we briefly touched upon things like that. We know who George Washington is. We know who he brim Lincoln is. We've learned about Martin Luther King, but it doesn't go much beyond that, especially if you had most of your education and in countries, that's
Speaker 4: A big part of it is this additional layer in addition to not being black, of course, and not ever fully being able to understand that experience. You're coming up against the experience of talking to a family who didn't grow up in the U S and may not have had the same type of exposure, even from an education perspective, a historical perspective, or just the context of possibly being around people who are from different cultures and backgrounds in their childhood. Yeah. My parents immigrated here from Iran and they also had studied the civil rights movement. But first of all, I don't think U S public education systems do well in teaching with civil rights movement at all. Martin Luther King is completely whitewashed, but I do think that in Iran, there are not very many Afro Iranians. And so coming to the U S and coming to DC, which is like chocolate city is very different from how they grew up. And so I think it's an initial culture shock when they first came here and your audience are very, many of us are white passing. So we don't deal with racism the same ways that black people do. So it's a lot of trying to understand what our role is in the system. And those aren't really conversations that I grew up with in school. Those aren't conversations that my parents grew up with in school. And so it's just like trying to learn how to have those conversations. Now,
Speaker 3: I was having a conversation with my mom a week or two ago about recent protests and just realize my parents are Vietnamese war refugees that came over in 75. And one thing that makes some of the conversations hard is how some of my parents' perspective on racism on the black community is informed by very particular experiences they had when they first moved here. You know, it's like from the family that lived next to them, when they first landed in the set in central Texas, and it's just shaped by these very singular experiences. And I didn't, I don't even have that context until now I'm learning about this because I'm finally excavating it later, but yeah, they came from a different background and a different experience that they've been formed their perspectives by.
Speaker 4: Yeah, I did not have a resource like this when I was growing up in America and try and figure out how to talk to my parents about this. So I think that gen Z is awesome and probably more politically aware than a lot of other generations. But I do think these conversations are hard to have. So I hope that if someone who is 15 and trying to figure out how to have these conversations with their parents, and isn't sure how to have it, which was me when I was 15, like, I hope that this helps them. Absolutely. And I want to talk about the translations themselves. Can you bring to life why the translation process is something that the group needs to work on? Are there words, concepts, phrases that you can point out that really demonstrate what makes it hard to talk about,
Speaker 2: About this issue in another language? Something that's been a struggle since 2016 and we're encountering it again in 2020, especially in South Asian languages. My community speaks Telegu. I have some familiarity with other South Asian languages as well. And there is so much anti-blackness in South Asian culture. And in the way that we view skin color so much, so that just translating the word black directly, like the color black is a derogatory term in a lot of our languages. It is the color of black, but when it's used to describe a person it's almost always used in a derogatory fashion. And I was trying to explain this to someone recently where some of these things that are so normal to say in our languages, they sound ridiculous. When you hear someone say it in English, for example, it would be totally normal. If a person came back from the beach with a tan, for someone in one of our languages to say, Oh, wow, you look really black.
Speaker 2: Now. Obviously it doesn't sound good in English, but it's such a casual way of speaking in a lot of our languages. And I think that's something that we really struggled with where, you know, where is that line, where we want people to acknowledge that we do say things that are derogatory towards people who are black or people who just have dark skin in general, but we want people to recognize that without going too far. And I think that's a really fine line and different languages handle it different ways. I know that in the lagoon, we have chosen both in 2016 and 2020 to use the literal translation for the word black, because that's what people are used to hearing. You didn't want to try to find some unfamiliar or roundabout way of talking about what we were talking about, but with the acknowledgement that this is probably the first time that a lot of our audience has heard that word be used in such rapid succession so many times, and that can make you uncomfortable if you always grew up with that word being used negatively, but we chose to continue doing that, to help people sit with that discomfort.
Speaker 2: You know, why does it feel so weird to hear someone say black over and over? That's really a reflection on our own communities. Anti-blackness I think that's an issue that we need to work on as a community, but I know in some other South Asian languages, they've chosen to, to say blast in English instead of trying to translate it because different people will respond to that differently based on how negative that term is in their own language.
Speaker 4: That's interesting. I did not know that. I think that it's probably not the same for Persian speakers, but there is this thing that I didn't see it on Twitter, where basically the way that you call people black or the way that you call people white is like black skin and white skin. And there was a lot of conversation about whether calling someone black skinned is just not okay. And I don't have a great answer on that just because we also say white skins. So in the letter, we just stayed with that, but there is a lot of conversation about whether we need to change that language. We also struggled a lot on one sentence where we're talking about the connection between modern day policing and slave patrols. That was a hard thing for us to translate because there's no word for slave patrols in Persian, as far as I know,
Speaker 2: Sounds like a good thing. Good reflection of your history. Hopefully.
Speaker 4: Yeah. I mean, I, slavery existed everywhere, including any Ron, but I mean, none of us knew what the word for it anyway.
Speaker 2: Yeah. I heard Gary and Christina who were early on the project saying Christina wanted to explain white supremacy. And she had this moment of realizing that she could say white supremacy and Chinese, but it doesn't mean the same thing. It's just a very literal way of saying it with none of the cultural connotation. And I feel like there's probably so many types of phrases and words like that are like weird euphemisms or catch alls from so much history and so much complexity. And that one really helped me understand how challenging this translation process must be.
Speaker 4: Yeah. The Instagram teams, but we should start to translate the civic terms in every language. And they sent it around and I was like, Oh my God, I have no idea how to translate any of these. So it's like model minority. Okay. I can do that. Colorism. I have no idea how to translate colorism intersectionality. I do not know. I know how to translate capitalism and solidarity white supremacy also. No idea. So, yeah.
Speaker 2: Yeah. It's wild. So how do you end up making those decisions? Is it consensus based when there's just a lot of confusion about what the right path is? Yeah. The more people that you're able to bring in, I think it's been valuable to hear different perspectives. In my experience, we've also had a lot of people bring in their parents or at least test drive a sentence or two at a time with a family member, particularly someone who might be a parent or of an older generation. Cause I think part of the challenge here too, and to Adrian's point where there's these really complicated words that we don't know how to translate either because we just never encountered them before in our languages or because they're so obscure that even if we did know what the word was, it's not likely that everyone else would know what that meant.
Speaker 2: You know? And I think the purpose of our letter was really to be something that was very accessible and be a conversation starter. So if you need a dictionary by your side, just to get through our letter, well, we haven't done what we set out to do. So I think there's that balance that we're trying to find to where we had a couple of times where we'd find the literal translation for a term like racial segregation, but then we'd find that none of us, the translation team, mostly first generations really knew what that meant. If we just read it somewhere. And so a few people would reach out to their parents or family members and say, Hey, if someone just said this phrase to you in
Speaker 4: Did you leave a lot of the letter in English or no?
Speaker 2: I would say a lot of it, there were a handful of phrases that we felt it was just either too difficult to translate. We also left slave patrols in English, for example, because there just wasn't an equivalent culturally, that made sense. Another thing that we chose not to translate was black lives matter, like as the name of the movement, we chose not to translate that there is a way that we can say that as a sentence, but we chose to leave the name of the movement in English just to kind of honor it and respect it and have that be something that we wanted to draw people's attention to. So even if most of the rest of the letter wasn't in English, it was like, this is a phrase we want you to know in English.
Speaker 4: Yeah. I think that makes sense. We translated black lives matter. If you look at a lot of news articles and Persian, they keep it in English. So it definitely makes sense to leave it that way. It should have
Speaker 2: A little bit earlier, but I want to ask both of you about your personal motivations to be a part of this project. Is there something that really motivated you to raise your hand and join? Is there something that you care about professionally, personally, family background, something just to bring you to life for the audience? Like why did you get involved in letters for black lives?
Speaker 4: So I was not involved in 2016 and I had already signed into the Slack and it basically just kept thinking with my phone for the last four years.
Speaker 2: Oh man. Total resurrection. That's a good Epic story text.
Speaker 4: I just checked the flock. Well, actually what happened was I looked up the 2016 letter for myself after George Floyd was killed and I started rewriting it. And then I thought, Oh, let me check this Slack group and see if anyone is in here. And a couple of people had posted and I was like, Hey, like I'm rewriting this letter. Does anyone else want to help? And then a couple other people jumped in and it went from there. And I guess the reason I got involved was the same reason that anyone is doing something right now, which is that this is unjust. Something needs to change. And we've had enough of this really. And so a lot of the change in policy, I do believe comes from the conversations that you're having. Just with the people you, for example, after 2016, a lot of people were asking, why are white people not talking to their racist grandparents or their uncles or whoever it is who's voting for Trump. And so I think this was kind of the same thing. You have responsibility to fix what is in your community. And so that's why I'm doing it. Yeah,
Speaker 2: I absolutely agree with Adrian. And I think even in 2016, I remember maybe not with the same zeal that you're seeing it now or the same frequency, but a lot of posts about what can people do. People saying, well, you know, I know people are protesting. I don't know if I feel comfortable doing that, but I want to contribute in some way or people saying, well, I tried to have a conversation with my mom, but it didn't go well. So I don't know what to do now. And I think the answers, there's always more that you can be doing, whether that's educating yourself or trying to have conversations with different people, giving your money, giving your time. There are so many ways to be involved. And I think that that's something that drew me in where I was like, what is it that I can contribute?
Speaker 2: What is within my means? What is something that really speaks to me? And for me, it was really just trying to dismantle a lot of these notions that I grew up with and in my own community and my family and friends and the network of people around me, I always felt that there was this dissonance between the values that we were being taught or being raised with compared to the way that we actually viewed what was happening in the world around us. And so I think that's something that really drew me into this project. Cause it seemed like this really unique opportunity to start to dismantle those notions and break past some of these barriers. And especially with the translation aspect, that's a big part of it. I grew up being fluent in
Speaker 4: In a different language or in someone's native language?
Speaker 2: I think part of it, especially with my parents and most of their friends, they all learned English as a second language. And even if they may be fluent, there are certain things that kit them more deeply if they hear them in their own language. I think there's a reason why when people are getting really emotional or having really sensitive conversations, they tend to revert to their mother tongue. And that that's something that I had never really experienced before. But I was curious, I remember interacting with other people that were involved in the project and hearing their experiences. And I was like, huh, I wonder if that would work. I wonder if maybe saying something just the same thing, but in another language would make a difference. And I think it does. I think people perk up and especially for me personally, I found that my parents were just so impressed with the effort itself of going to the lengths of translating this letter. They were like, Oh, look at all these first generation kids, mostly who grew up in the us translating a letter to another language. Not necessarily because their audience doesn't speak English, but because they might get something different out of it. If they hear it in the language they grew up speaking,
Speaker 3: I feel like there was a little hack that was mentioned, which is the letter might be praise towards family members, but then there's also perhaps the process as a translator to enlist your family members to help with the letter and sort of an enlist, you know, building it with them, not just building it for them.
Speaker 2: Yeah. And I think that's a great way to start getting some of the volume actually in 2016, my mom was pretty involved with the Fogo letter as well. It was cool because it seemed to me like this way to sort of break through in a way that I think if I had just gotten up to her and been like, I want to talk, I want to talk to you about racism. I want to talk to our anti-blackness. It would have felt less comfortable or I would have felt more lost in that conversation, but it was a really gentle way to bring her into it saying, can you help me save this and those who can we talk about how to talk about what's been going on how to talk about black lives matter. And I think that was really cool. I think it sort of connected us in an unexpected way and really opened up the conversation so much more organically when we were talking about like, you know, why does it feel weird the way that we're translating the word black?
Speaker 2: Why does that make us feel weird? And I think it's a whole new realm of conversation that I never would have expected, but it turned out to be a positive experience between me and my mom. I think a lot of people ended up translating the letter with their parents. I did not translate it with my parents, but that's only because someone else was way quicker in translating this letter. So what I did was I sat down with them and I was like, let's go over this translation. Tell me what you think. And I think basically the same thing that happened to you happened to me. I'm lucky in that my mom has gotten more liberal and more openminded as she has gotten older. So she understands very well that there is something wrong in this country with the police and race. But she did not know that the police officer had his knee on George Lloyd's neck for nine minutes.
Speaker 2: And so when we were reading that sentence together, she gasped and she was like, Oh my goodness, I can't believe they did that. And so it's just like those smaller details that got through to her as we were translating. Thank you for sharing that. Those are both really beautiful stories. There's so much that I don't know as a family that doesn't have another culture, it's just sort of, this is it for me. And I had never realized that people had more intimate and more emotional conversations by impulse in their native tongue, but that makes total sense. And it's a beautiful anecdote. I wanted to also zoom forward a little bit. You've already alluded to this, both of you, that there were two iterations of the project. So 2016 was the first push. And both of you have been quite involved in this second push in 2020. And I'm curious, there's multiple ways to get involved now with the project. And I was rereading something that was written in 2016 about the project, how one of the goals was to make it easier for people to craft their own starting points with these conversations. So I was wondering if you could share, what are some of the starting points with this letters for black lives project? What are some of the ways that people can take a first step into having these conversations through the work that you and others have done?
Speaker 4: I guess it's just about reading the letter for the Persian one. I also transliterated it for people who like me are not amazing at reading letters and maybe want to have the conversation in person. We created a follow up guide for conversations, which goes way more into detail. So it goes into, you know, if you want to talk to your parents about defunding the police or abolishing the police, if your family is pushing back on why you can't say all lives matter, or if they want to start talking about affirmative action, which is a conversation that happens a lot, just like pretty much any thing that we could think of. We jotted down in this Google doc and the hopes that it helps people
Speaker 2: Expand to beyond whatever is on the letter, because
Speaker 4: No, it's not like you're going to send someone this letter and like, okay, racism is solved. We did it, everyone it's over. So that way
Speaker 2: Do think it's a starting point for having more conversations. Yeah. I remember seeing this post on Instagram recently that talked about conversations, about racism and about social justice as being like a ladder. And you have to meet people on the rung of the ladder that they're on right now, but you also shouldn't be asking them to climb up the ladder too quickly. So if you're talking to someone who is just now starting to understand the reality of police brutality and the pervasiveness of anti-blackness, and they're just now starting to say, okay, I guess this is a thing that's happening. I need to be aware of it. You can't ask them to immediately climb all the way up, you know, six rungs to, we have to abolish the police. There was a lot of steps in between there. And I think that this letter is crafted broadly to meet people who may be on the lower rungs of that ladder.
Speaker 2: If your family or your community is already higher up. That's awesome. And I think that's where some of those resources in the conversation guide come in, but we recognize that in a lot of our communities, we're not that far along. So we really wanted people to be able to start lower on that ladder and take those baby steps. And I think it's also important to recognize that people interact with content in so many different ways, especially now when we have so much technology and so many forms of social media. So we have written letters that might be available in different languages or as Adrian was saying, even transliterated. Sometimes if you don't read the script of another language, but you understand it, we've also had audio and video recordings so people can listen or watch people recite the letters. We've created snippets graphics on Instagram that just share a few sentences and it can get passed around on WhatsApp or we chat or other platforms that older generations might be using more often.
Speaker 2: So I think that's something we really want to encourage too, is, you know, we've provided some base content, but the form in which that content lives and gets passed around, there's a lot of possibilities for that too. I feel like knowing Christina, who was the first person to tweet about this project, I feel like somehow there's been assembled this like dream team because looking through all of the things that have been produced, the output is really smart and also remarkable the conversation guide. When I was reading through that, I wanted to clap at my computer because it was so impressive. It's so thorough. One question that came to mind for me is just, we're talking about meeting people where they're at and that being the case with not only the different types of conversations you might have, how in depth they're going to be, or possibly how radical they're going to be, but also the format. And it strikes me that the team behind these translations and these assets would need to be reasonably aligned on their opinions about what conversations should be had or what possibly policy changes should be argued for. Is that the case? Do you feel like there's ever any issues with people who are working on the project being on different rungs of the ladder in terms of what vision they have for racial justice in the U S
Speaker 4: No, I don't think that's the case. There are hundreds of people involved in this project and it would be
Speaker 2: Impossible to say everyone had exactly the same views. I think that everyone is in agreement that something is wrong in this country and we need to talk about it. And that's why the letter is the way that it is. And that's why the guide is as expansive as it is because
Speaker 4: Everyone's families are different times
Speaker 2: Points and this conversation and B
Speaker 4: I don't think everyone has the same idea
Speaker 2: As unfortunate happen in this country.
Speaker 4: Three. And to be perfectly honest, I don't think everyone who was involved
Speaker 2: No is enough. Like we're not criminal justice experts. And so I don't think that we were necessarily all in agreement in that regard, when we were first writing the letter, the English one, a lot of people kept learning about the projects. As we kept thinking that we were closer to finishing the letter. And as we were like, okay, we're going to finish edits. We're going to finish seeking feedback. Someone else would come in and be like, Oh, Hey, did you think about this thing? And so there was this conversation towards the end of, well, maybe this letter, shouldn't be just solely about defunding the police and maybe we need to change this letter. And we ultimately decided we needed to take a step back and have a smaller stepping stone for people. And if you look at our guide, then you can see more resources on defunding the police and then maybe have that conversation with your parents and Adrian, I think you might remember this better than me, but I think there was some conversation around if there should be a very clear call to action at the end of the letter, what is it that we want people to do?
Speaker 2: Do we want them to sign a petition? Do we want them to agree to vote on some kind of policy? Like, what is it that we're actually encouraging people to do? And we purposely left it pretty open-ended, we're not asking people to take a very specific action. We're trying to just start a conversation. And so that's why I don't think we wound up with a very clear ask at the end, we asked for people to listen and to think about the future. Yeah. And also the truth is who am I to come in here and tell you what needs to be done? There are so many amazing black activists who are already doing that work. And that's who you should be listening to. It's like, if anyone in this letter was like, yeah, I think I have the solution to racism and police brutality in America. Let me tell you, I would have just been like, I don't trust you. I'm sorry.
Speaker 3: Tell me more about how the collaboration happens. I'd love to know just a bit of the operational behind the scenes. What tools are being used? Are there teams, how does this happen?
Speaker 2: Yeah, so most things happen through Slack and Slack is just everything for us. It's where we direct people. When they say they want to get involved, we tell them to join our Slack community. And I think we have a few thousand people in our Slack community now who are involved in varying degrees, but we've set up different channels within Slack for different parts of the project. So there's a different Slack for a different channel for every translation team, for each language or for the different adaptations. We've done additions for, there's a Canadian edition. There's one for the UK, one for Australia and for different parts of the dire sport communities. So that's one level of organization. There's also teams that are dedicated to outreach and the social media efforts that we have. We've got people in design and Instagram channels. And then we have places where people can ask general questions or volunteer their efforts, places to talk about potential opportunities to talk to newspapers or podcasts.
Speaker 2: So I think the Slack is just meant to be sort of a choose your own adventure kind of space. But as I mentioned, it's thousands of people and a lot of what we do happens asynchronously as well, which is why I think platforms like Slack can be really helpful. So we don't all have to get on a call at the same time to get something done. You can go at your own pace. A lot of people might be in school or working full time jobs and they can just use whatever time they have and still play a big role. Also in a lot of people in different time zones, like you said. So it makes it easier to talk to people other than Slack, which really it is all on Slack. And there are a lot of great people who are keeping track of all of the threads and channels. Most of it was just on Google docs. That's where we wrote the letter. That's where we wrote all our translations. That's where we wrote steps for the translation and publishing process. And we did have a couple of zoom calls, for example, when we were writing the letter and we couldn't agree on one paragraph, we were like,
Speaker 4: Let's talk about this with our voices. And so we all hopped on a zoom call and yeah, I guess that's most of the technology that we've used up to this point,
Speaker 2: Nuts and bolts. Those are the internet meat and potatoes for community. Next thing it's like Google doc and Slack. I read somewhere that this project is not a manifesto. It is a blueprint. And I'm curious, are there any other North star principles about either something that this project is or something that this project explicitly is not trying to be that guide decisions?
Speaker 4: We are definitely not an organization. There's no real organizing work involved in that way. It really is just a resource for people who need it. I guess what's the main one. There are a lot of really great organizations who are doing the work of changing the reality for black people in America. We're not that organization. We're just trying to get people to talk to their families about anti-blackness and racism.
Speaker 2: Yeah, absolutely. One thing I really liked that Gary has said is that work like a collective of poets, or you can think of the letter as this creative product that we've created one time and we've put it out into the world. And it's something that's able to be adapted and reused in a lot of different ways, but we don't have an intention of creating more materials or followup materials. We've actually received responses from some people whose families or communities have actually written letters in response to us. And we don't necessarily intend this to be something where we're going back and forth and having a conversation. We really view with the letter as one piece of content, that's a starting point. And so I think as a part of that, to Adrian's point, we want to direct people to existing resources. We don't want to be duplicating work, and we don't want to be taking the spotlight away from black activists that have been doing this work for so long. And so if our letter is a starting point for someone to start looking into an organization that is led by black activists and start watching their videos and start listening to their work, that would be awesome. That would be a win for us, but we are not the ones to be taking over that space.
Speaker 4: We've put a lot of resources and our followup guide of organizations that are doing really good work are people whose work. You shouldn't be reading on police reform or criminal justice people who are doing very good work already. We've linked to them in the Google doc. So hopefully people will find it
Speaker 2: Y'all are like poets, making pathways for people into the conversations and into learning. I wanted to ask about just stories of impact. I know there is a Slack channel called highlights, or that is what I've heard from the outside, where stories are shared by people who have started these conversations, read the letters. Do any stories stand out to you that have made you really feel the impact of the time and work you've put into this? Yes,
Speaker 4: We have a letter responses channel and we also have a conversation strategies channel, and they're both very good resources for people. The Instagram team recently posted one that was interesting. It was the story of someone who shared the Japanese letter with their grandfather. I'll just read it to you. It says over the weekend, my sister went through the Japanese version of letters for black lives with my grandfather. And something clicked in him. He started seeing racism in America as a systemic human rights issue, which is cool. That's what we're trying to do,
Speaker 2: Grandpa. Yeah. Radical grandpas, whatever the secret is for the click. That seems like
Speaker 4: Really great response for someone to have Hayma anything from your side
Speaker 2: Now that you have seen that has really brought to life, the power of these conversations and the tools that you've built to facilitate them. Yeah. I think one thing that's been interesting to see is I've seen a handful of rebuttal might be too strong of a word, but there have been a lot of people that have shared stories of pushback that they've received. And I think that in itself is also really interesting to get a sense of who our audience might be and how to adapt to the way in which we might further a conversation. So, as I mentioned, the letter itself has seemed like a poem. It's a singular piece of content that's been put out, but the conversations that people are able to build upon, I think it really depends on where people are coming from. And the reality is a lot of people haven't had the smoothest conversations.
Speaker 2: And I think that is to be expected with such a broad range of people that we're trying to reach. But I've seen a lot of pushback. That's been along the lines of, it's not that our communities don't understand that this is an issue, but we have our own issues to deal with. Or we're just not that motivated to care or XYZ happened in our community. And we think that that takes more precedent. They think that especially coming from the South Asian American community, there's this sense of it being a competition among all different minority groups and people saying, well, we have our own issues. You know, like I get stopped at the airport. People think I'm a terrorist and yes, that's also true, but that's not the issue that we're talking about here. It's interesting to hear that kind of pushback because it helps us also get better at framing these conversations.
Speaker 2: That's also part of the growth, right? Going back to the ladder metaphor, it's how you're able to help other people climb the ladder. But part of climbing the ladder yourself is also understanding other people's perspectives and getting better at having these conversations and getting past some of those pieces of pushback. Like, well, I've also experienced discrimination X, Y, Z way. And so then you have to move the conversation to, okay, well, it's not a competition. You know, this is a different issue. And I want us to talk about this different issue. I don't want us to take away from that by making this about us versus them. So I think it's also been interesting to see that kind of feedback that we're getting and just understanding the ways in which people are processing the letters.
Speaker 4: Yeah. So, Hey, ma actually helped start the channel for letters for black lives and she solicited responses to the letter. And I don't know if you want to share any of those responses at all. Cause when you posted it in Slack, it was just like, this is so cute. I love it. I'm glad it's working.
Speaker 2: Yeah. So we've gotten some pretty good responses. A lot of people that are saying, I was afraid going into this with how my parents would respond, but they were actually understanding people have reached out saying, I really wish I had this resource when I was younger because it's, let me start a conversation in a way that I couldn't before. We've also had people say that they've tried to use the letters with their families and it hasn't gone as well. They've maybe have remained indifferent or unconvinced. And so that's actually led them to start brainstorming other strategies. You know, what are some other ways that we might be able to reach people? I remember there was one response along the lines of, I tried to have a conversation with my parents and they listened to me, but they didn't entirely take me seriously in the sense of, Oh, you know, you're young, you don't really understand how the world works.
Speaker 2: And it got them thinking about how well maybe they would listen if it was coming from someone who was their generation, maybe that it's this process of building allies that are even closer to who they are in terms of background and age and things like that. So it's been interesting also hearing those kinds of responses where it's, that's exactly what we're hoping to help enable here is getting people to consider alternative ways of having these conversations and making connections. Is there any way people listening can help or ways that you need more support or any wishes that you would send out into our listeners ears?
Speaker 4: I mean, I think you should join the channel. If you want to have these conversations with your family and you don't know how, or you tried and you were running into that pushback and you just need a sounding board, but otherwise no, there are other organizations who are doing far more important work that need resources. So look, those organizations, I have look up movement for black lives, look up the black lives matter, local chapter near you. We've already done so much of the work. This is a resource that we're putting out there. You should use it. And if you have time, invest that energy somewhere else.
Speaker 2: Wow. Yeah, I agree with that. And I think the biggest thing that you can do is just to try to have a conversation. We get requests all the time from people saying, how can I get involved? You know, like I speak this language, but you've already translated the letter into that language. Like, can I do this? Can I do that? And it's like, have a conversation. Have you done that yet? Because that's the most important thing. Try to have a conversation with someone who's close to you with your family members, with your community. It's not going to be comfortable, but all of this work is about pushing ourselves and getting out of our comfort zones because you know what else isn't comfortable with? Police brutality is uncomfortable. Racism isn't comfortable. So that is the biggest thing that people can do. If you want to get involved, pick up a letter in any of our languages or any of the adaptations that we have, find one that resonates with you and share it. Yeah. I would agree with that. I think that's a great way to enter the interview. And let me just say that's the time we've ever said, do you have a wish? And someone said, no, just go, just do the conversation. Then go support the people at the center of it. So rock on Kevin. Anything to add? No, just thank you for your time. Yeah. Thank you for your time. And for the work that you guys have done. Appreciate it.
Speaker 3: If you want to get involved and learn more about letters for black lives, whether by translating or beginning conversations with your family, head to letters for black lives.com, thank you to our friend, Christina, she for starting this amazing project and so many others, as well as to Gary chow for setting up this interview, shout out to Maggie Zang for editing Greg David for his design work, Katie O'Connell for marketing this episode and wild sound for their sound engineering.
Speaker 2: You can find out more about the work we do at people in company with organizations, helping them get clear on who their most important communities are and how to build with those people. You can head to our website, people and.company. Also, our book is available. Get together book.com, head on over there to pick one up it's full of stories and learnings from conversations with community leaders like this one with letters for black lives. Final thing. If you don't mind, please review us and click subscribe. It helps more people find this episode in the podcast. Thank y'all