“Elephant in the Room,” with Phillip Jacobs ’09
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Philip “Sharp Skills” Jacobs. He’s a modern-day renaissance man, as an entrepreneur, award-winning hip-hop artist, speaker, author, consultant, and inventor. He was the first executive director of Washington Employers of Racial Equity or WERE, a coalition of 80 plus companies in Washington State, committed to making the region equitable for Black Washingtonians and all people of color. He’s here with us today to talk about his latest book, Elephant in the Room, a business parable about race and equity conversations in the workplace.
Amanda: Phil, thank you so much for joining us today.
Philip “Sharp Skills” Jacobs: Glad to be here. It’s good to be back.
Amanda: Now I want to jump in and talk about your book, but I first have to give a quick shout out to your family because you have the cutest boys, maybe of anyone I’ve ever met.
Philip: Thank you. Thank you.
Amanda: We’ll just start by saying a family man that has this many irons in the fire, it must be pretty hard to manage all your time.
Philip: I feel like I’ve just gotten to a place where there’s a certain rhythm and my kids know that daddy works, but I make time for them. I prioritize them, even in the midst of everything I’m doing, so somehow, some way, it works.
Amanda: Well, maybe we’ll come back another day when you’ve written your parenting book because it’s probably coming one of these days.
Philip: I think so.
Amanda: I’ll just put that out there to the universe. We’ll see if that comes back.
Philip: I think that would be great. Yeah.
Amanda: All right, so let’s get to your latest book that’s just coming out the end of October, here in 2022. Why this book? Why now?
Philip: Yeah, so what I’ve seen, I think since the murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and then also the great racial awakening that we had in 2020, and my time being the executive director of WERE, Washington Employees for Racial Equity and just the work that I’ve done over the years around anti-racism and racial equity, I felt like, for one, it was important for me to provide my perspective being in all of these different spaces and rooms.
I’ve been able to meet with some of the most influential CEOs of companies in the nation, maybe even the world. And I’ve also been able to meet with public figures and I’ve also just been able to be in communities where I’m hearing the voices of people that look like me; family members, friends, relatives. And hearing all these conversations about racial equity. And one of the things that I’ve come to realize is that even though we’ve had these momentous occasions and even opportunities, I’ll call them, for us to have conversations about race and to move the needle forward, there still seems like there’s a difficulty in having these conversations, yet still.
And so I felt like this book would be something that could uniquely help folks to move the conversation forward. Is it the end all, be all? Of course not. But it is my contribution to that cause of making these conversations, hopefully a little bit. Enabling people to have them a little bit better, and also for them to be effective conversations that lead to systemic change.
“And one of the things that I’ve come to realize is that even though we’ve had these momentous occasions and even opportunities, I’ll call them, for us to have conversations about race and to move the needle forward, there still seems like there’s a difficulty in having these conversations, yet still.”
Amanda: Well, let me back up just a moment and ask you, why do you think it is so hard to have these conversations? Why is it so hard for us as human beings to talk about race?
Philip: I think there’s a plethora of reasons, but I think it comes down to shame and guilt. I think many folks, I guess I can liken it to, it’s like when you have skeletons in your family closet and it’s things that you learned that your own uncle used to do, or different members of the family that you’re ashamed of, you don’t want to bring that to the forefront. And then also, you might not even feel like it’s necessarily your responsibility to deal with it.
But racism and racial inequity is much, in many times, it’s like global warming, so to speak. Yes, none of us really caused global warming. We weren’t born … many of us weren’t born to start these things and create these factories that have led to the degradation of our environment but we do have a responsibility to address them, so that hopefully future generations won’t have to still be grappling with these same issues.
And so I feel like we have to take ownership of it and it’s hard to take ownership of it and also sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. It’s like when this is something that has been bigger than you and has gone … that started before you even knew about it, and you’re just kind of in it, it’s hard to deal with it and it can seem overwhelming. So that’s part of what I’m trying to …. Hopefully the book, it helps people get a concept of real people, that are having these conversations or real scenarios, I should say, and how to deal with it.
Amanda: So what I hear you saying, what comes to mind when you talk about it is the old therapy adage of responsibility versus fault. Because what happened may not be my fault, but if I’m going to have anything to do with making things better, I need to take responsibility.
Philip: Absolutely. And the thing is, when you don’t deal with something, when you don’t take ownership of it, even though you might not have been the one who necessarily started it, you can still perpetuate it. You can still continue the cycle. And it’s like at some point, somebody has to make the decision, I’m going to break this and I want things to be different. I don’t like the way our society looks. I don’t like the way that Black people are treated. Or, I hate hearing about another George Floyd situation happening. So what can I do? How can I use my power, my influence, even if it’s just at the Thanksgiving table correcting a parent or somebody in my family that has a racist point-of-view. How can I be the influence? How can I be the change that I want to see directly in my sphere of influence? So really, I think that’s what it boils down to.
Amanda: I have found for myself, whether it’s a racial issue or any of the other hot-button issues we have today, that I feel like asking a question can be so much more healing than pointing something out. Like you just said, correcting. Something like, “Well, why do you say that?” Or, “Why do you feel comfortable using that term when probably that’s not what other people use are using these days?” We can enter into dialogue without necessarily shutting down the conversation.
Philip: Absolutely and that’s really an approach that I try to take because I feel like you have a couple ways that you can approach having conversations about race, but I’m about what leads to an effective conversation. And when you don’t give people opportunity to voice their opinions, even if you disagree with them to the hundredth degree, you still have to be able to hear people out, even if you disagree with what they’re saying and that’s what I think builds the bridges that we’re hoping to create and that we need.
We need to hear these diverse points of view. We need to hear people that don’t see eye-to-eye on certain issues, but it’s like if we can have enough respect for each other, for me to listen to your point-of-view and try to get an understanding of it, even though I still might not agree with it, if I still understand where you’re coming from, there’s an opportunity for us to connect as humans, as opposed to just focusing on solely our differences.
And so I believe that’s the bridge, the bridge that I want our society to get to, where it transcends some of these conversations that have been just about race or racial inequity. But we got a long ways before we get there because we are where we are.
Amanda: Right. Sometimes you have to bring up the elephant in the room.
Amanda: Before you can even get to the solution. Let’s talk about the style or the structure of the book. I mean, you could have written seven key points to racial equity, but you wrote a parable.
Philip: Yeah. So I’ve read quite a few books around racial equity or diversity, equity, and inclusion and a lot of them have been very foundational and fundamental to my understanding of the topic. I think more so because I’m a Black man. I have a direct understanding of it. But those books are important but one thing that was missing for me, and I think one thing that just helps me I think just as a learner, is the power of story. And I’ve always loved story. I’ve loved telling stories. I’m a musician too, so I tell stories through my music. I like writing short stories and things of that nature.
But I started to just do some research on why do stories tend to stick with us? There’s stories that we heard when we were little kids and we still remember to this day, whereas there’s things that you learn when you were in college, or somebody gave you a bunch of information. As great as that information was, you cannot remember.
Philip: What you were told.
Philip: But it’s something about stories. And so I said, what would it look like if I wrote this as a story or a parable using modern examples? How people really think? Scenarios that I’ve personally been in or that I’ve heard others be in? What would that look like where people could see themselves in the characters, but also it would give them, I think, enough psychological safety, where it’s still safe because it’s not me, it’s them who said it. It wasn’t me. Right? But you see yourself in that person, so it’s like you said it.
So there’s a couple different things around that. But I feel like, again, one of the reasons why having conversations about race is so difficult is because it touches home. It gets right to the source of our identity points, or the identity points that have been created for us through society. And so I wanted to give people enough of a buffer where it’s not you, but there’s probably a character for every person that reads this book that they will identify with in some sort of capacity, where they’ll be like, “Okay, that hit home for me.” And at the same time I can process it because for one, it’s a little more entertaining for one piece. And then two, it’s a character, so that gives me that leeway to take myself out of the equation if I need to.
Amanda: Right. And any parable, I mean, this is why Jesus taught in parables. Any parable, it’s not just about the main character or the protagonist, but you realize as you grow and you move through life that in different situations, at different points along the way, you’re sort of every different person in that parable. It’s a very global way of looking at the Bible versus, I’ve heard this said that our modern western view of the Bible is that we are always Jesus in every story, whereas the rest of the world and the rest of time sees it as, “Oh no. I’m every single ….”
Take the prodigal son. Sometimes, I’m the prodigal son. Sometimes, I’m the brother that’s mad. Sometimes, I’m the dad. Sometimes, we’re sort of everyone in the story at different points along the way.
Philip: So true.
Amanda: So what led you to DEI work in the first place? I mean, you have so many other things that you’re working on. What made you dig in and start writing books and speaking and consulting?
Philip: I just say it was divine timing, intervention, whatever you want to call it. But when I first graduated from college, I was in the energy management field, of all things. But there has been one constant throughout my life, and I mentioned this earlier, that I am a Black man and I have two Black sons. And so I actually got connected with a mentor of mine, Chuck Shelton, CEO of Greatheart Consulting, back in 2017, I think. No, actually 2016, and we just started meeting for coffee over several months and that was his company’s primary work was around building inclusive leaders and focusing on diversity.
And so when I learned that there was an entire industry, or segment of business that I could advance and advocate for Black people and people of color and other marginalized communities and get paid for it, I’m like, “Where do I sign up?” Because virtually I’ve been doing it my entire life and so to be able to get into a place now where I can be a professional, with this type of work, but also gain access to some of these centers of power.
Philip: When I tell you, Amanda, I’ve been able to sit with some of the world’s top CEOs, I mean, that’s no joke. And look them eye to eye and talk to them about things like difference in race and things that we just care about as humans.
And so it’s been an incredible journey. And just by nature, just being a writer, I just like, I need to write a book about this and capture my experiences somehow, some way, and I just thought Elephant In the Room would be a perfect way to do that.
Amanda: So, I don’t want you to break any confidences, obviously, but do you have a situation of sitting across the desk or the table with a powerful CEO? Do you have a moment that really sticks with you, as you continue to do this work?
Philip: It’s not necessarily one particular moment, but I can think about just some of the ones that I’ve met and I think there’s this misconception, these older white CEOs don’t care about race or racial inequity. And the ones that I’ve met with, unless they were just kind of playing me for a fool, which I don’t think, because I’m a pretty good reader of people, a lot of them genuinely care, but they still don’t necessarily have the tools to lead in this area. And I think that’s what is expected of many of them and that’s why this work is important because as a CEO, as a leader period, especially when you have hundreds of thousands, or even just hundreds of people that are looking to you for leadership and they come from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, languages or other identity points, it is now a demand on today’s leaders to be able to have a point-of-view and to be able to lead somewhat and have perspective in this arena.
But I think just one of the things I was think pleasantly surprised around was that how many of these leaders really do care. It’s just that, again, they don’t necessarily have the tools, the language, the life experience, to lead from this area. And so hopefully something like Elephant In the Room and the consulting that I’m doing and many others, there’s so many smart and brilliant people that I’ve come across that are doing racial equity work and DEI practitioners, that’s where our greatest use is, to help equip leaders such as that.
“And so hopefully something like Elephant In the Room and the consulting that I’m doing and many others, there’s so many smart and brilliant people that I’ve come across that are doing racial equity work and DEI practitioners, that’s where our greatest use is, to help equip leaders such as that.”
Amanda: So you’re sitting across the desk, or the conference table from a leader, and they just tell you flat out, “Phil, I don’t even know where to start. Where do we start?” How do you answer that question?
Philip: Great question. I think it starts with owning your story and I have to give a shout out again to Chuck Shelton, who’s the CEO of Greatheart Consulting. But one of the things that I learned while I was at Greatheart was the importance of owning your story and that comes in a variety of ways.
Looking at how you grew up, how your perspective was shaped by the values that your parents instilled in you. When did you first learn about race? When did you first have a friend that had a different racial background than you? All of these things come into play in consideration as you start thinking about how you view the world and then ultimately how you lead other people. This is where racial bias comes and this is where bias comes from.
The ways that we were raised and the stereotypes that we are taught to believe, these are the things that shape how we talk to people, how we treat people, how we think about people, the opportunities that we give to others, the ones that we deem that are worthy or not worthy of certain opportunities. It all happens inside of us and so if you can get a leader such as that, that asks that question to begin to really just think about, take a moment and think about what was your upbringing? How did you first get introduced to some of these concepts? That’s where some of the power gets unlocked.
And then from, there are obviously technical ways and other aspects, but really I think it’s just being open to hearing other people and not seeking to necessarily be the central voice, but willing to open your ears. I got an old friend of mine who says, you got two ears and one mouth for a reason, so that you listen twice more than you speak. And so really open themselves up.
But then after that, and this is the crucial piece, and this is where a lot of leaders miss it, is you have to be able to take action based off of what you hear, if you are in a position of power and influence. A lot of times what I’ve seen is it stops at the listening point, or the listening was not done well enough to actually be able to put in place things that can truly change things for the voices that are speaking to them.
But yeah, that’s a layered answer, but really it starts with owning your story, understanding who you are, your upbringing, and your own relationship to this racialized society that we’re all in.
Amanda: Yeah. It’s so human to listen to somebody else’s story and say, “That changed me,” and yet go away and not allow yourself to be changed.
Amanda: We do it all the time, right?
Philip: Yeah. And really that’s the luxury that many white people have, that Black people, people of color don’t, is that conversation can be had in wherever and then it could be left wherever it is had. Whereas for me, I have to still go home and there’s still so many other elements that I have to grapple with as a Black man. And so that’s the part that sometimes can be a little unnerving, but how do we continue to have these conversations even when the spotlight is not on George Floyd? How do we continue?
Amanda: The more and more I have these conversations, it feels to me, and I’m sure I’m not saying anything new, but that when we talk about something like privilege, which has become a bit of a buzzword, but when we talk about the concept of privilege, more and more to me, it’s not about an additive good thing. It’s about the absence of fear. That you actually get to do things without being afraid, which doesn’t pull on your immune system and your emotions and your energy and all those things. And when you get to move through the world, unafraid, that’s kind of privilege, right?
Philip: Yes. And it goes back to not having to think about race. To me, that’s the privilege of it. Things that we just can take for granted, just even as a human. Right now, I’m taking breaths, right? I’m able to move my hands and other things without thinking about it. That is a certain privilege that I have. And so what I think a lot of, especially those that are racial equity practitioners, or folks that are advancing this conversation forward is, “No, we need you to be conscious of race because we live in this society that has been created around this, that has been built up on this, and we need you to be thoughtful about this because this is the experience that we’re having.”
Amanda: Yeah. I don’t happen to be a person of color, but I am a woman, and I did grow up with a single parent and we didn’t have a lot of money and so there are times and places where I can put myself in that place of, “See, I walked through this situation full of fear, when I know that others in the room were not.” And I think we can … it’s exactly what you were saying, right? I can’t say I have any experience walking through the world as a Black man, but I can put myself in the place of what is it like to be the only one in the room that’s afraid and have to deal with that? That I can and then you start to relate.
Philip: Yes. Yes.
Philip: And that’s one of the biggest pieces is yes, there’s no way that we can fully walk in somebody else’s shoes, but there are elements that, to your point, we can relate to and from there we can build empathy. And then when things happen, when we see things happen in our society, or somebody being mistreated or just other inequities, these micro-inequities, not even the macro ones that we see on the news, but these day-to-day things that tend to steal life from people, steal joy from people, steal hope from people, we can then use our influence to speak to those things and use our influence to hopefully change them.
And so that, I really believe a lot in personal agency and personal power, and I think of more and more of us that have these areas of privilege, and we recognize that, we begin to lend our power and our privilege toward those things that are inequitable, to make it more equitable.
Amanda: And then there’s just more power to go around.
Amanda: I mean, I feel like there can be a sense of, “Oh, if someone else needs more power, that means I have to give up mine.” And I just don’t believe that. I just don’t see the … it’s not pie chart economics. It’s the yes, and. When everybody has more power, everybody has more power.
Philip: Absolutely and the pie just gets bigger. I mean, even if we were to break it down to just to numbers. I mean, we’ve lost trillions and trillions of dollars due to racial inequity in this country and if we were to get our heads on straight and say, you know what? Just from a purely economic standpoint, I mean the ways we could increase our GDP by trillions of dollars over the next 10 years just by doing some basic things, like pay equity, making sure that people get paid what they should be getting paid.
And so I try to also break it down in that way too, because sometimes I think people get the misconception that racial equity work is just altruistic and there is that component to it, but it’s not just that. It’s like when you have a segment of society that is being suppressed and oppressed, that is a drag on our entire economy. And so it’s like, how do we help position people to create wealth and to be able to take care of themselves and sustain themselves and be independent, and that helps build our society. It’s not rocket science.
Amanda: Right. No, it’s true. It’s absolutely true. So I want to thank you, by the way. For those who don’t know, Phil was a Medallion Award winner at SPU in 2019 and you, not only have you done amazing work out in the world since graduation, but you continue to come back and bring this work back to our campus. You could have just kept moving forward but why is it important to you to come back and invest in the next generation of workers?
Philip: You know, because when I look at the students, I see myself, and a lot of the students that I get to work with are first-generation college students or students of color. And I remember when I went to SPU, this is probably an exaggeration to some degree, but I really felt like there was probably only five black students on campus. And now when I look at it, I mean, I’m sitting in front of hundreds of students of color and young men and women that they have all these hopes, these dreams, but also have fears.
The privilege that I get when I get to come back to campus is to tell them, “You will make it. You’re looking at somebody who made it.” And not just on campus, but just in life. And so to me, there’s nothing better than seeing that light bulb go off for some of these students when they see me because I’m not … I’m the old guy when I’m in the room now, but I’m not too far removed from them, in terms of age, where I can still relate to them and I can say some things that make a lot of sense to them in the language that they can understand. And so that’s just the greatest thing.
And also, I do music, so I get to come to campus and perform, and that creates a connection point. And so I just love it and I’m honored to do it. So, as long as SPU will have me that I love to come back.
Amanda: Well, speaking of your music, you just won an award, did you not?
Philip: I did. Yes.
Amanda: Tell us about that.
Philip: Yeah, so much like the Medallion Award, it came out of nowhere. I got nominated. I got an email saying that I was nominated for it. The organization is called Soul Cafe in Seattle. So, Soul Cafe has an award show that they do every year. I think this might have actually been the second or third year. And they had a Hip Hop Artist of the Year Award and I got nominated. It totally wasn’t on my radar, but they invited us out and they said, “Make sure that you have your fans vote for you.” And I sent out the bat signal and folks voted for me and took home a trophy and it’s actually sitting just across from my Medallion Award, so it makes me smile.
But it feels good when people recognize your work and your art and I don’t do it for the awards. I never have but they are nice to have and I think that they do serve as somewhat of validation, just to keep up the good work and just keep moving forward.
“But it feels good when people recognize your work and your art and I don’t do it for the awards. I never have but they are nice to have and I think that they do serve as somewhat of validation, just to keep up the good work and just keep moving forward.”
Amanda: Absolutely. And so as you move forward, what’s next for Philip Jacobs and what’s next for “Sharp Skills”?
Philip: Yeah. These guys are quickly becoming their own entities.
Amanda: The two of you.
Philip: Yeah, absolutely. Well, so the next thing for “Sharp Skills” is I’m dropping my sixth album and I think this podcast would probably air a little after it drops, but October 29. October 29, 2022, the name of the album is called Making Up for Lost Time. And I named it that because for a long time I feel like I just kind of held back on some of the things that were in my heart that I wanted to do but I went through a very difficult season in 2020, that just opened my eyes to realities and just who I was and what I wanted to become and who I am. And it just gave me a laser sharp focus on the things that I wanted to do that I was holding back on. And so this album is the product of that. It’s one of the products of that. This book is one of the products of that.
And so that’s why I called it Making Up a Lost Time. It’s like all these years I kind of held back. It’s like no more of that. We’re moving full steam ahead with the things that are in my heart to do.
Obviously, the book is coming out also on October 29. So October 29th is going to be a big day with both of those releases. And then I have some other things that are down the pipeline now that I can’t divulge completely, but you mentioned earlier in my bio that I’m an inventor, and so I have invented something that I also think is going to help a lot of us have effective conversations around race. So, I’m really excited about 2023 and what’s in store for that, so there will be a big announcement coming soon and who knows, maybe you have to just do a follow-up interview or something when that happens.
Amanda: Well, I’m super excited now. I really want to know what that is, so I’m up for it. Please do come back and tell us about your new invention. Oh man, that’s exciting.
All right, so I know you’ve been on the show before and you’ve already given an answer, but maybe you have a different one after you’ve grown and there’s new books and new albums.
If you could have everyone in Seattle, do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Philip: Man, there’s a lot, but I think the thing that just popped in my head was just be kind. We live in a world right now where there’s just so much anger, there’s so much fear and hostility and hatred, both internally and externally. It goes a long way by just saying, “Thank you,” to somebody or saying, “Excuse me,” or, “That was my mistake.” Or, “You look nice today.” Just basic human things of just kind of going out of our way just to be kind to somebody and you never know what somebody’s going through. And just those few kind words or actions, can make the difference for somebody in their life that you don’t even know. So, I just say be kind. Find ways to be kind.
“And just those few kind words or actions, can make the difference for somebody in their life that you don’t even know. So, I just say be kind. Find ways to be kind.”
Amanda: Absolutely. And even be kind to ourselves.
Philip: Absolutely. Yes.
Amanda: I know that’s one of the hardest ones for me.
Philip: Yeah. Well, and I feel like you can’t pour into others if your cup isn’t full and so one of the things that I’ve been practicing over the last couple years has, I’ve called it radical self-care, where I really put myself, my health, mental health and wellbeing, as a priority. And because I’ve done that, I’ve seen it pay off in so many other ways. I’m a better father, I’m a better professional, I’m a better friend. Just across the board, I’ve seen it pay dividends and so I would just highly recommend that we do practice that radical self-care.
Amanda: Yeah. Put that mask on before you assist others around you. Right?
Amanda: The old airplane. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Absolutely.
Amanda: Well, Phil, thank you so much. You can come back anytime. I always love talking to you and you bring so much wisdom and joy to every conversation we have. So, thank you so much.
Philip: My pleasure. Thank you.
Book: Elephant in the Room: A business parable about race and equity conversations in the workplace, by Philip Jacobs
Album: “Making Up 4 Lost Time,” by Sharp Skills