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Speaking Human-First with Mary Knox Miller

EP 2.1 Courtney Martin

Writing to Inspire Change

Original Air Date

April 11, 2024

Personal narratives have a unique power to help us connect to ideas and issues despite disparate backgrounds.

Courtney Martin has been channeling her “uncomfortable gift” for recognizing hypocrisy and seeking the truth into stories since high school. She’s an author, journalist, podcast host, speaker, and cofounder of organizations who uses words to grapple with contentious topics like race, education, activism, and motherhood.

Today, she shares why she returns again and again to personal narrative in pursuit of change, how writing helps her make sense of the world, and how she holds her values close while making a living as a writer.

Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • How seeing her white, progressive friends avoid their local public school sent Courtney down the rabbit hole of what would become her memoir, Learning in Public.

  • How Courtney uses her social and material capital to shape systemic change through collaboration with organizations

  • What taking a sabbatical taught Courtney about the throughlines in her body of work and reclaiming space to be alone

  • Why she avoids getting overly precious about her writing

  • Why change advocates need to be willing to show up for the long haul

Learn more about Courtney Martin:

Learn more about Mary Knox Miller:



EP 2.1 Courtney Martin

Author of Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School


Courtney Martin:

If I really want to walk my talk, then this might be hard for me in certain ways, but what can it unlock for others? What else could I possibly ask for? I just feel very clear that if I help even one person with something I've written get more in line with their own values, like what a gift to me that that's how I get to spend my time and have that kind of a impact.

Mary Knox Miller:

Hello everyone and welcome to season two of Speaking Human First.

I'm over the moon to begin with today's guest, Courtney Martin.

Courtney is an author, journalist, podcast host, speaker, and co-founder. But more remarkable than any title she may hold, Courtney is determined to live an examined life and spur change by exploring topics such as equity and education, the pitfalls and possibilities of philanthropy and activist motherhood.

Her op-eds, essays and features have appeared in dozens of major publications including the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Mother Jones and She's also appeared on Good Morning America, The Today's Show, The O'Reilly Factor and MSNBC. What's more Courtney is a co-founder of two organizations, the Solutions Journalism Network that seeks to elevate public discourse by focusing on what's working and FRESH Speakers, which elevates the voices of emerging change makers. She's also currently a storyteller in residence at The Holding Company where she brings to life stories of people reimagining and rehumanizing our care system.

There are so many gold nuggets in this conversation about how to lead a life while making an impact and an income. You'll also hear us thinking out loud as we toss and turn ideas around the concept of human first communications, which I'm still working on.

But what I do know at this point in time is that by slowing down and right sizing egos, our words have a better chance of recognizing a person's humanity, their social circumstances and identities, as well as the presence or absence of their power and influence. Otherwise, we're in danger of continuing what Courtney calls moral alienation as she wrote about after our interview in her Substack newsletter, The Examined Family.

One more thing. My voice sounds a bit different in this recording, thanks to a battle with pneumonia, but hey, when Courtney Martin says she's available to chat months in advance, you don't cancel, right? Let's get to it.

Courtney, thank you so much for being here. You are a very busy lady. Your time is precious. I'm so grateful to be in conversation with you.


Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Mary Knox.


Of course. There are so many things that I want to ask you to learn about how you've built a career making an impact and an income, but let's keep it simple and start all the way at the beginning. Tell me where did this fire in your belly come from to study and critique difficult issues like education, and equity, race, and democracy?


Well, you can imagine me. I was this frizzy haired little white girl growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I think the fire in my belly to the point of your question is very nature plus nurture. I feel like I was just born into the world with a gift for witness and a profound discomfort with hypocrisy. So it was like I was always watching what was happening around me and looking for discrepancies between what people were saying about how the world worked and then how people were actually behaving or how they said the world had to work. Why does it have to work that way? I was just very much born that way, but I really do think the parents I had set me up for continuing to develop that gift and that outrage.

My parents were both, as they describe it, hippies who protested at their university. They both went to Colorado State University. They grew up in Denver. Met when they were in sixth grade, amazingly. Got married when they were 19. Went to Colorado State University together. My dad grew up in a very economically precarious, volatile situation, so he actually lived with my mom's family for part of high school. They have this very deep bond. Both very obsessed with equality and they were shaped by feminism especially, and to some extent anti-racism. But the version of that that existed for boomers like my parents.

And then as my dad always jokes, we wanted to save the world and instead we just got rich, which is all relative of course. But he became a bankruptcy lawyer. His parents were constantly going bankrupt, so he became a bankruptcy lawyer. He couldn't have written a more obvious plot twist. And my mom was a social worker who did a lot of community organizing. Both of them just constantly answered my uncomfortable questions and encouraged me to keep asking them. And so though I felt surrounded by a wider plane of hypocrisy, and obviously there's hypocrisy in every family, but I felt like they taught me to trust my own outrage and be kind to everyone.

Contextually, I think it's pretty interesting that I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the '80s and '90s because it was the home of the right wing evangelical Christian organizing, so focus on the family and the New Life Church and all these really important intensely political and ideological forces. So I also had very early experiences of seeing the ways in which writing in particular could be this profoundly powerful thing in the face of big movements like that.

And in particular, my high school newspaper published a story about a lesbian alumni from our school saying what it was like to ... I think we said be gay or something at the time at our high school because queer wasn't really language at that point. And folks on the family tried to shut our high school newspaper down and I had this very visceral experience of thousands of people coming to the school board meeting and my high school advisor who was the most amazing man, Vincent Puzick, going up to the microphone and being like, "These kids have legal right to write these stories." And I was like, whoa, writing is very cool. The fact that we get to do this even though these thousands of people are trying to say we shouldn't tell the truth, that's where the fire in the belly got channeled in a very particular way.


Oh, that's an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing that. It's fascinating because it sounds like you've got ... Some people would consider it a burden to feel all the things that you feel and to notice a hypocrisy and to try to justify that and you're looking at it as a gift, which is wonderful. Wonderful.

So speaking of writing and speaking of the power of words, I would love for you to read to us a section of your latest book, Learning in Public: Lessons for Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School. We're going to start with chapter 122. Whenever you're ready.


Thank you. Such an honor.

"White people in America are raised to believe that we are the authors of our own lives. We are born into a family, sure, but really we are born into an ethos. That we live in, a place where we can spend a lifetime figuring out who we are, what we love, and then pursue a life around those loves. That we are entitled to this kind of authorship, this kind of control and safety. And that ours is an innocent solitary pursuit. That our job and our house and our kids and our dream have nothing to do with anyone else's. We've conjured them up from the thin air of the ethos, our blood, sweat and tears, though really there's not much blood. Our beginning, our middle, eventually our end.

But when you start to look closely at race in America and you're white and well-meaning, you often have the sense of the story coming apart. Part of it is a loss of innocence, a reckoning with your authorship.

You realize that all along you have not been writing the story, you have been choosing your own adventure in a pre-written, fairly unimaginative young adult fiction series where no one ever really grows up. I didn't ask to be born into a white family in Colorado Springs on the last hour of the last day of the 1970s. I didn't ask to be made of sensitive stuff filled with quote-unquote colorblind ideology by ex-hippie parents and teachers, and then pickled in Biggie Smalls in a study abroad program in South Africa in September 11. Maya, my daughter, didn't ask to be born to a white mom in Oakland who can't keep her damn hands off a keyboard.

It's disorienting and sometimes off-putting to be asked to place yourself within a larger national history, some of which you hardly have the stomach to even look at in still grainy black and white photographs, much less eight-minute and 46 second videos. But indigenous folks have the premium on, didn't sign up for this. Black Americans definitely have a profound claim on didn't sign up for this. For many of them it started on a slave ship in 1619, it led to a colony in 1719, a cotton plantation in 1819, a Chicago beach in 1919. See the Red Summer. A city street anywhere in America in 2019."


Thank you for reading that passage, which I feel like connects really well with all the things you were talking about in terms of this fire in your belly, where it came from, and all these influences that you have.

This book Learning in Public, it's essentially a journey by having you proactively decide that you want your daughters to attend your local school, Emerson, in Oakland, California. I like to call this walking the talk or practicing what you publish, practicing what you preach, which is really important, but it is not easy. And it also opens you up to all kinds of critique.

So how do you navigate those blurry lines between personal and professional and what have you learned about responding to those who don't like what you have to say?


Thank you. Yeah, I was thinking when you said it's great I've responded to this fire in the belly as a gift that I do relate to it as a gift, but it is a very uncomfortable gift. It's like a lifelong journey of tolerating that discomfort, leaning into it, leaning out of it, trying to figure that out.

So as you might imagine, I don't have a pat answer about the personal and the professional and how I navigate that. I tend to do a lot of first person writing in part because that's just how I'm built, but also I've really experimented over the years with all kinds of writing and the writing I do from a very personal place is the writing that people respond to most deeply and seems to have the seeds of real transformation for others in this way that helps me keep at it and helps me remember that it's really not just about me. There is a self-interest obviously in understanding myself better, but that for others the way into some of the biggest political issues of our time, the easiest way in the most inviting way in is personal narrative. And so that helps me understand that it's not just self-serving, even though I do learn a lot from writing my way through things.

So yeah, at different moments, I've tackled it in different ways. I can tell you for the book Learning in Public, which as you mentioned is about my own struggle to figure out where do I send my white daughter to school in a city where wealth inequality is so profound.

My neighborhood in particular, a gentrifying neighborhood where the local public elementary school is Title I, majority black, majority kids on free and reduced lunch. And I was traveling along with a bunch of other white and to some extent biracial mothers. We had babies together. We'd piled our kids on the couch together. We talked about breastfeeding and sleeplessness and all these things, and all of a sudden when school started, I noticed that all of them being politically progressive, were trying to avoid this black majority school in our own neighborhood. And I was just stunned and surprised and totally confused.

And so that led me down this real rabbit hole of research about the unpromised project of education in this country and the ways in which so often it is actually white parents and even white progressive parents who continued to segregate schools by choice in so many ways. And so then trying to, as you said, walk the talk by sending my own daughter to the school that a lot of people were very worried about me sending her to, including neighbors and other people, and then living into that choice and writing about it.

So the writing about it part ... I was clear about the choice. Once I was clear about it, I was like, okay, we're going to do this. And then the writing about it part I felt really nervous about. And I had first tried to get it out of my system through a series at On Being where I had a column at the time. So I did ... I think it was a four-part series. And then that just led to a deluge of interesting emails and so many more questions that I was just like, shoot, I didn't get it out of my system. I think this might have to be a book.

But I was so worried about writing the book for so many reasons. And I ended up having a conversation with my mentor who's a Quaker author, Parker Palmer, and I told him, "I think this needs to be a book, but I don't know. I could hurt so many people's feelings. I think I could get dragged over the coals for the way I'm trying to talk about this stuff."

And to keep in perspective, this is pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre some of the more contemporary conversations we've been having about race. And he basically just helped me hear myself into my own wisdom that the biggest reason I didn't want to write the book was to protect myself and that if I really want to walk my talk, then I needed to reorient towards sure, this might be hard for me in certain ways, but what can it unlock for others? And again, what can it selfishly help me understand about my own choice and the way I'm showing up? So I decided to write it.

It's really been fascinating because I have gotten so many incredibly beautiful emails and messages on Instagram and that thing from people all over the country who say the book is what gave them the strength to make a choice that they know is in line with their own moral values. And that's just like, what else could I possibly ask for? I just feel very clear that if I help even one person with something I've written get more in line with their own values, what a gift to me that's how I get to spend my time and have that kind of a impact.

I've also had totally painful friendship losses out of the books. Some of them just getting iced out. People don't even want to engage with it. And some people actually being upset with me and me engaging with them, which is totally part of my ethos is like, let's talk about it. Let's wrestle with it. And so yeah, that has been hard and that has been painful. I'm still constantly trying to feel out what is the way to write and talk about these bright moral lines that I do think exist and I want to be really clear and uncompromising about, but also love people and call them in and be unconditionally relational.

And that is really hard. To put it very plainly it's like I'm the person who ... I just had this happen the other day. Where friends come to me and they're like, "I've been wanting to tell you this but not wanting to tell you this because I just don't want to tell you this, that we're going to go to private school. We're going to send our kids to private school." And I'm like, "Okay. I love you." It's like, I unconditionally love you. I know you're a searching person. I know you are going to continue to try to think about your own moral responsibilities within all of these very complex questions. And I still feel like the idea that we've created this apartheid school system where some people get to go to these beautiful project-based learning schools, other people can't afford them and don't even have enough teachers in the classroom, it's not okay with me and I don't like the idea of anybody continuing to hold up that apartheid system.

It's very hard. I do not like being the person that I know people project that judgment from, and yet I still really want to be the person who does say, I think there are these moral lines, and I do want to ... Just really saying as plainly as I can, this is what I'm seeing. And I think there are a million ways for us to justify it, but it's really messed up. I want more of us to be willing to have that really plain, real hard conversation, especially those of us with white privilege and English as a first language privilege and all the other kinds of privilege.


I think what's incredible about your work and all of your writing, which spans decades, it seems like your ultimate goal is to influence people in a way that starts a conversation and that perhaps leads to action.

You have your hands in a whole lot of things. You are a writer, you are a podcaster, a conversation starter. You are involved with the Solutions Journalism Network as well as FRESH Speakers. Literally, I cannot imagine a more busy woman. But there are plenty of people who have lots of opinions and can talk up a storm. I know lots of them. But very few of them choose to actually step into the public arena and step up to the microphone or step up to the pen or paper or whatever it might be. And yet these are voices that we need in order to solve intractable problems. So you do. You step in and you show up, and you've done this through writing, speaking, as I mentioned, podcasting and entrepreneurship.

I'm curious as to why you chose these mediums and what you've discovered about the power and limitations of each to help people think differently and take action.


Big question. I will say one thing about my busyness because you mentioned it. Is I have a habit of co-founding organizations and not running them. So I really want to recognize that I deeply love and I'm involved in various ways with Solutions Journalism Network, but it's my colleague David Bornstein, who's run it now for 10 years and done this incredible job similarly with FRESH, my colleague Vanessa Valenti, who I co-founded with runs. I'm actually more involved with FRESH, but the appearance of what I do is really held up by a lot of collaboration and a lot of just incredible organizational leaders of which I am not. And I have just so much empathy for people who are organizational leaders because I think it's so challenging, especially in this moment.

So yeah, writing feels like how I breathe. Reading and writing is how I breathe, and it's like I would have no idea how to be in the world without it.

And then beyond that, what I've learned about myself is I deeply love being in conversations like this one, and usually I'm on the seat where you're in, where I love asking people questions and that is just such an absolute joy for me and also feels like a very complicated, interesting challenge. I just love the art of the question. And I also find people endlessly fascinating. At the end of my email, which you probably saw when we emailed, is this quote from this nun, Mary Lou Kownacki that says, "Engrave this on your heart. There isn't anyone you couldn't love once you heard their story." I actually wrote that on the inside of my closet doors in high school in some BIC pen BIC marker or something, and that's literally followed me for 20 years. That's so core to who I am and how I operate.

Those feel very individual or relational on a scale that's one to one, whereas I am really interested in being a part of collective movements and being a part of structural change and cultural change and so that's where Solutions Journalism Network and FRESH come in, which is like, how can I be someone who creates cultural permission for other people to do things differently or creates actual resource redistribution in ways that feels in line with my values? And both of those organizations have allowed me to be a part of something bigger than myself and feel like I'm really moving real material or social capital resources, which feels important to me.

I have a very practical side. I am a real pragmatist. I'm a Capricorn. I want real shit to change. And so that itch really gets scratched by being a part of more organizational efforts.


I love that you're talking about this co-collaboration and this concept of how yes, you are out there, you are bringing up questions, starting conversations, one-on-one with people as you talk to them. You are also very intentional about acknowledging that you and your ideas are a product of everyone that has influenced you. Those closest to you, I read you called noble friendships, which happens to be a Buddhist phrase, and you recently created the podcast, the Wise Unknown. You've got two podcasts going, but I just want to focus in on this one for just a second because it embodies yet again your message. So you ask well-known figures like Ashley Judd and Adam Grant and Ai-jen Poo to introduce to you who they credit for being critical to their success. People we have never, ever even met.

One, why this conversation and why now in this particular format? And two, this leads me to believe that you must be incredibly intentional with who and what you let in. Your discerning process. What does that even look like in terms of deciding whether or not to say yes or no to a project? How do you decide who to collaborate with and with everything you've got going on in the world, how in the world do you stay on the leading edge of ideas?


That's so nice. Well, The Wise Unknown was actually this idea I'd been carrying around with me for a very long time, but it was one of those things ... Like I'd mentioned it every once in a while to someone and gauge their reaction and it hadn't found its home. I don't know. I just was like, okay, I'm just going to tuck this in my pocket and keep walking with it and at some point it's going to make sense.

And speaking of collaboration, during the pandemic was asked by the Aspen Institute and the Skoll Foundation to co-host this podcast about social change, and it was called Solvers. Through that experience, I met this producer named Golda Arthur who I just fell in love with. We're very opposite in some ways. I'm a professional enthusiast. I'm just interested in everyone interested in everything. And she's secretly like that, but her exterior is very skeptical and very measured and like, okay, let me gauge out the bullshit here. So we're this great pairing.

And so when the podcast was over, we said, we want to work together more. We want to do stuff. And so we went through all these ideas that both of us had, and this was the one that jumped out at her because in some ways it seems like the thing that she'd be like, this is cheesy or something, but she was like, "I can't stop thinking about that idea." We're both moms, we're both creators, we're both journalists and just really made it how we wanted to make it. We took a big break because she went to take care of her grandma in India, and I had a sabbatical this last summer, but we made this beautiful thing and we're both so proud of it.

And so that was really why that finally came out into the world was less about the political moment we're living in and more about the fact that I held this little idea close to my heart for a long time and knew someday it'll find its home.

And then in terms of larger questions around discernment and how I spend my energy, it's an ongoing learning process. I just mentioned I had this sabbatical. I created a two month self-designed sabbatical, which as a freelancer was a really hard thing to do and ask for because it was like it's not part of some institutional program. It's like I had to be like, okay, I think I need this.

And I also didn't do it out of deep burnout. I think you often hear people talk about that experience like they were just so screwed up emotionally and physically that they had to do it. It wasn't like that for me. It was like I'm in my early 40s and I just had this feeling of I need to pause and I need to look around me and I need to ask myself what have I done with my energy and where does that feel really good and useful and interesting, and where have I maybe made choices I shouldn't have made or wouldn't make going forward?

And one of the things I did was I read my previous work, which I was intimidated by. I was like, oh, this is going to be so terrible. It made me feel whole. I've often felt like, oh, I wrote these random books, I've done all this random stuff. And then when I looked back at all of it, it all cohered into this really clear hole for me where I could pull the threads straight through of like, oh, this is why I was interested in that. That makes perfect sense in light of that book. So that just felt so good. I didn't come out of it with here's my perfect mantra for what I'm going to do moving forward, but I think it just solidified something internally for me where I can feel it easier.

The biggest midlife learning for me is just how much I need and love solitude, and I really have a default for sociality. Even if I have a moment to go on a hike, I'll think like, oh, who should I invite to hike with me? And then I remember, oh no, I really like to be alone. I just conditioned that out of myself in a way that I think has been damaging.

And interestingly, I relearned that from watching my daughter. My older daughter who's 10 is an introvert, and watching her enjoy her own solitude so deeply has just been such a moving experience for me because I'm just like, "You get to do that? You're just going to sit in your room and make weird art for three hours and you're perfectly happy. I want to do that." And then I'm like, oh, I'm an adult. I get to choose to do that. If I could figure out the finances of doing that, I have every right in the world to do that. That's one of the big beautiful lessons of parenting my older daughter has been reacquainting myself with my need for solitude. I haven't actualized it particularly well yet, but it's still something I'm really working towards.


Oh, that is too funny. That so resonates.

So you spoke beautifully just now about the sabbatical that you created for yourself, this two months, and I just want to give a shout-out to your Substack newsletter, Examine Family, because you wrote beautifully about this particular time there. And I have got to read this sentence because the newsletter you say is a place for people who get all twisted up inside about the brokenness of the world and wonder how to actually live in it. Loving and how humble, but brave as hell.

How has it been communicating with people through a newsletter, having the Substack presence, responding to people as they comment, letting that in?


I do really love the Substack rhythm and structure. For me, like I said, writing is breathing, so it's like I walk around the world being like, is that a newsletter? Is that a newsletter? And for me, that's actually really enjoyable. I like that meaning making and dot connecting.

A lot of what I write about is really random, is very weird. It's just my weird brain making sense of the world, and it's not the thing that you can pitch to an editor. I'm actually terrible at pitching editors. I do write a lot of freelance stuff, but I have to work really hard on my pitches because it's just not how I think. I'm not a salesperson, which is what a pitch is. You have to be like, this is the idea. This is why it's relevant now. This is why people will care.

And I'm more like, wow. I've been thinking about how ... I actually just on this walk this morning had with my friend, I came out of it and I was like, should I write a newsletter about how anemic the word compassion is but it's actually what I think we need right now because we don't know how to acknowledge someone's suffering even if we politically disagree with that? It's just like this ... I will make something of it that hopefully makes sense to readers, but it's not like a coherent pitch. It's just like I'm a person in the world trying to make sense of things. So that's another reason I love Substack.

And the commenters are just incredible. I just had this experience of deciding after some discernment that I would write about my dad's dementia. My dad has pretty progressive dementia, and I was really nervous about it for all kinds of reasons and wrote two pieces over the last month about it and just the response has been so beautiful and heartening and made me feel so much less alone. And I'm just like, oh, I'm so grateful. And that's the space. It's structurally just gives me so much freedom to be who I really am on the page.


And it's great that you have this place that you can go to just write what you want to write, however esoteric it is or however practical it might be. Yes, you're writing about your father's journey and your being in his orbit has been beautiful. So thank you so much for sharing all of that. Is that part of your care guild work with The Holding Company? Is this connected at all?


Well, yeah. That's interesting you mentioned it. One of my consulting gigs that I do is I work with this lab that's trying to redesign care that goes from cradle to grave. So it's thinking about elders, it's thinking about child care, it's thinking about disability. And that's just been such a fun journey for me with this group of people who think very much differently than I do because they're designers, and I'm the storyteller in residence, so I go one day a week on Tuesdays into The Holding Co and hang out with these great collaborators and do anything that's narrative or community building oriented. I interview people a lot and that kind of thing. That space and those people have been part of what has really helped me move through this dementia diagnosis with my dad and think about the caregiving that my mom is doing and the caregiving I want to do.

Usually I, speaking of discernment, don't do consulting gigs for that long. Someone needs help articulating something or working on a TED Talk or writing an op-ed or something, and I'll pitch in for a few months or whatever. But I am interested in so many things that I can get bored very easily. It's like I love to learn about something and then once I'm like, okay, I think I get this, I want to do something else. It's the rhythm of how I work, which I think a lot of journalists are built like that.

But with caregiving, it's such a vast topic. The care system is just like there are a million ways in and there are a million unfinished projects and problems and solutions. And so I just never get sick of thinking about care.


Knowing what you know now, what do you wish someone had told you about putting your ideas out into the world in hopes of spurring change? And that can be anything from how you communicate to the reality of what it takes to have an income and do this making an impact and an income. However you want to answer that question.


No one told me ... And thankfully I did it anyway, maybe because of the modeling of my mom, who's a brilliant community builder and collectivist. But in my 20s, I created a writers group and I was living in Brooklyn and I had all these amazingly talented artists and writer friends, and we were all trying to carve out real lives where we could pay our rent and do the work we wanted to do in the world and be taken seriously.

And so we created a group where we would meet every other week and really show each other work. We did also do a check-in where we talk about career-wise, what was up. Like I tried to pitch this place, I didn't hear back, and so I'm going to do this and just be a general accountability crew for each other. But then we also really did exchange pages and give each other feedback.

It was a really amazingly interesting group of people, and we really spent our 20s together. And we took ourselves seriously before the world did, and we also made each other better. We really critiqued each other and we figured out a structure that worked and stuff like that. And it was sometimes very hard emotionally and otherwise, but we did it.

I now look at that group of people and everyone's doing such interesting work in the world, and no doubt that a part of that was that group that we really supported one another. I think this core piece of what's missing from so many of our journeys is real authentic feedback from people who love us saying, this doesn't work, this does.

I have so much empathy for the financial piece of this question because my mom, as I mentioned, was a social worker. My dad was a lawyer. Neither of them were connected to the intellectual, creative, public thought leadership world. So I didn't even think it was really that practical to say I wanted to be a writer, much less the kind writer I am. When I was young, I didn't have any sense that I could actually pay a rent or a mortgage doing this. And in some ways, I think that helped me because I was just always a hustler. I was always like, who can I help write anything? Any role getting to write is cool in my 20s.

So I think there's something about just for me ... And maybe this wouldn't work for everybody. But I haven't been precious about being a writer like capital W. It's have to only do these elite publications or only relate to my writing in a very elevated way.

I feel like I am very comfortable putting my writing in service of other people's voices. I feel very lucky that I get to do Substack which is my writing, and I get to control it, and I have say over what it is, but I'm happy to go straight or do stuff that helps other people's ideas get out in the world.

So I think that's translated into more financial security for me. I watched people, especially in Brooklyn ... I went to Barnard College, Ivy League College, and there's a lot of people who are very precious about their writing, like, I'm writing the great American novel and this is what I have to spend my time on. And I deeply respect that, and I think it's going to be a lot easier if you can have some flexibility around your own identity and how you channel your gifts.


I love this concept of holding it loosely. So yes, you are a writer, and yes, this is what gives you oxygen, and that yes, this is how you make your living, but you're holding it gently and loosely for it to be whatever form, shape it wants to be in the moment. That's fantastic.

You have been so incredibly gracious with your time knowing that you're a very busy lady. And that as a mom of three, also in her 40s, I'm just so grateful for this conversation and appreciate everything that you have shared. Is there anything that I have not asked you that I should have or anything else that you would like to talk about or contribute to the conversation?


Well, you know I'm just going to ask you a question because you opened yourself up to that. Let's see. One of the things I experience is that I'm walking around the world with questions. There are certain questions that start to obsess me and I'm like, oh, I need to write about that, or I'm going to need to do something about that because I can't get this question out of my head. Is there any question or set of questions that you feel like you're walking around with these days?


Ooh, that's a good one. I'm really interested in this. In trying to break down this concept of human first communication and how we can talk to one another as humans first and secondary comes everything else that we label ourselves as. Because I just wonder, like your work, if there's an opportunity there to, if you show up as yourself, as you show up, as you really are warts and all, and you are able to communicate in ways that you connect with somebody as a human being first and foremost, would that help this world that we're in and all of the things that are going on? As opposed to seeing somebody as all the labels that you can think of, you see them as a human being. So this idea of human first communication is what I keep toiling around with and keep trying to define it.


Is that a phrase that you made up?




I love that. And you know what? It's so weird. It's like synchronicity city because it's like literally that's what this conversation this morning with this friend that I was inarticulately talking about, I feel like you may have just provided one of the answers, is that's what we meant was how do we acknowledge the real tangible political power forces inherent in certain identities and acknowledge people's suffering or acknowledge ... Which would be a human first, as you were saying it, form of listening.


Yeah. And you can take context in, you can take everybody's role. And obviously people in leadership have gotten to where they are because they've worked really hard, or if it's just somebody who's in your local school or your mayor or whatever it might be.

So when you're "interviewing people" like we like to do, of course, I'm going to take into account all of these layers that are part of them, but my goal is always to talk to them as a human being as opposed to the esteemed colleague of whomever it might be. But I'm just wondering if there's something in there that could just help right now in this world that we're living in with everything that's going on.

So I'm trying to define it. I'm trying to talk with people about it and I'm trying to figure out does it need a certain medium or mechanism as way of communicating? Is that writing? Is it podcasting? In my world it's visual communications. I love telling stories in visual ways and have been a photographer and videographer for decades.




So yeah. I hope that answered. I hope I did okay.


I love it. I love it. I'm going to be walking that question with you and with this new language you gave me, which is so cool. And I will quote you if I manage to somehow get this thing wrestled down into a newsletter. But I am hearing that everywhere I'm going. Every conversation I have, I feel like there is that tension you named. And I'm sure as you're having the experience, I have this meta conversation as I'm talking to you, that's like, but then are we basically saying, I don't see color? You feel like there's a way in which human first, or I was thinking about the word compassion can feel like you're asking people to check your identity at the door. I just see people as people. I don't see them as ... And I know that's not what either of us is saying, but it's like I'm still reaching towards how to help make that distinction.


And I feel as I'm talking with people who are in this world of being both a human being, but also a professional in terms of communicating ideas, it's like this simultaneous balance between I am absolutely resolute in my ideas, so much so that I'm going to put myself out there and label this and put a stake in the ground. And at the same time, I am incredibly humble because I know that I don't know everything and there's no way that I can know everything. So it's holding both of these things at the same time.


One thing I've been exposed to recently is this field of intellectual humility. Have you been following that at all?


No. But somebody recently told me about this. Go ahead. Go ahead.


Yeah. There's this growing academic field called intellectual humility. And at first I was a little skeptical because I was just like, okay, well, we know who needs to be a little more humble and who doesn't, and I am not sure how I feel about this.

But what I like is the definition of it is basically right sizing yourself according to the expertise you offer in a particular context. So it's like if we're going to talk about mothering daughters, that's a thing that we have a lot of experience on. So we would take up a little more space in a room where there were a bunch of people, some of whom have never mothered daughters, and it doesn't mean their voices aren't valid or interesting. But we would not hide our light under a bushel because we'd be like, yeah, I've done this for ... You longer than me, but many years.

Whereas if the conversation is about something that we're interested in but actually don't have a ton of either experiential authority on or we haven't studied, we haven't read about, we haven't, whatever, then we take up less space. Our ability to expand and contract contextually is what makes someone intellectually humble. It just makes me think a little bit about what you're saying, that maybe that's also an ingredient to that conversation.


Absolutely. Yeah. And you talk about this a lot in Learning in Public, that sometimes you don't need to be contributing. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is just to sit back and listen and to hear what people have to say and that there's nothing to do. There's just the power of listening and acknowledging and hearing somebody's story.


Yes. One ingredient of the human first piece for me is showing up for the long haul. Really understanding that the nature of relational change takes a lot of time. You can't just show up once to the community meeting and expect to say a flashy, amazing thing, and everything changes. It takes years and years and years of just hanging in there with people. Which I think has been a lot of my 30s and early 40s has been just really showing up, showing up, showing up, showing up, showing up. Our kids are hopefully watching us do that, so they're taking in that that's how the world works. But I think the narrative of social change is not that. It's like the flashy moments and that we set ourselves up for disappointment around that.


I love that. That it takes time and energy and showing up continuously and listening. In this instant gratification world that we live in, that's a hard pill to swallow sometimes for some folks. Thank you so much again, Courtney for this-


Oh, thank you.


Absolutely lovely conversation. I am so grateful to be in conversation with you and to hear all of your wisdom that you have passed along.


Well, likewise. It was so fun to think out loud with you about some of this stuff. And I'm so honored that my writing has meant something to you, and I really don't take that for granted. So thank you so much.


Showing up for the long haul, day in and day out. Sometimes speaking, but most often listening. All the while living the change you want to see in the world. What a gift to hear Courtney's story and how brave of her to share all the I'm still figuring it outs in real time through her work. To learn more about Courtney, visit her newsletter, The Examined Family at, or follow her on Instagram at Court Writes.

Speaking Human First is a production of Thought Leader Media, a visual communications agency, helping leaders increase their influence by connecting deeper with their audience. To hear or read more conversations with leaders on the front lines of social change visit Special thanks to Yellow House Media for helping produce this episode, and to Emily Patrick for her tenacious research.

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