Seena Hodges believes that racial equity is the defining issue of our time.
“We are at a very important time in history,” Hodges said. “And one of the things that we should all consider is what side of history we want to be on. And the world is watching.”
Through her Twin Cities business, the Woke Coach, she leads anti-racist consulting, workshops, training and one-on-one coaching.
Hodges worked in marketing and communication at the Guthrie Theater, Theater Latté Da and the St. Paul & Minnesota Community Foundation before founding the Woke Coach. We talked to her about what it means to be anti-racist, the difference between allies and accomplices and how she approaches this work with “a spirit of absolute joy.” The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: The name the Woke Coach came to you in a dream. What led you to make it a reality?
A: When I decided I was leaving the foundation, I knew that this was the business that I was starting. One of the things that was happening around the same time is that I was having lots of conversations with folks about the state of the world and our place in it.
People would say to me things like, “I don’t want people to think I’m racist.” They would say, “You know, I want to be a quote unquote better person.” But they would always end with the same sentence, and it was: “But I don’t know where to start.” Our flagship program is called “From Ally to Accomplice,” and essentially it is the program that helps folks figure out where to start.
Q: What’s the difference between an ally and an accomplice?
A: With an ally, folks feel safe because there’s someone beside them or around them, holding your hand and helping you feel validated and be seen. And that’s really important work. With an ally you can count on them to be there when you need support.
But with an accomplice, you don’t even ever worry because you know that whatever the issue is, they’ve got it. These are the folks that are informed and they’re ready to challenge the status quo in the name of equity and inclusion. When you’re an accomplice, the difference is that you’re really actually saying “I’m willing to risk something. I’m willing to give up some of my power.”
Q: Can you give an example?
A: If you’re in a workplace and something happens and a microaggression is committed, what an ally might do, after the meeting, they might send an e-mail saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” And that puts the onus back on the person and it makes them feel bad, again, because the [ally] not only witnessed it, and knew that it was wrong, but didn’t speak up.
Whereby an accomplice, in that same situation, speaks up in the moment and doesn’t let the moment pass, knowing that the risk to them [as a white-identified person] is minimal.
To be a risk taker, you have to know things. So the program helps you understand all the things that you don’t know, in order to be an informed risk-taker.
Q: You say that anti-racism is a lifestyle. What does that mean?
A: The number one thing that folks should know is that once you commit to being anti-racist, it is a lifelong journey. It is not something that you get to opt out of, if you’re truly serious. It means that you are committed to anti-racist practices. And what that looks like, is it looks like examining yourself. It looks like interrogating yourself. It looks like interrogating everything — what you know, what you don’t know.
Q: Is that difficult?
A: The thing that’s difficult is that when folks think about racism as a concept, they think about racism as either white people wearing hoods, or someone being racist to a person — interpersonal racism. And I think the challenge with that is that people don’t understand sometimes that racism is inherent in the systems and structures and governing bodies, because a lot of those things were built on racist principles.
When we are engaging with folks and not thinking about the history and the legacy of racism, and we are just trying to not commit acts of interpersonal racism, we’re missing the whole point. So when we talk about an anti-racist lifestyle, it starts with learning: What are the things that you don’t know, and what are all the ways that you are causing harm every single day without even being conscious of it?
Q: You call yourself a coach, not a consultant. Is there a difference?
A: [As a coach] the clients have everything they need to be successful. It’s your job to just help them discover it. As a consultant, I might see myself as coming in and telling people about some concepts and some ideals. And so while that’s fun, I’m more interested in helping people change their lives. Coaching is what we do, no matter how you slice it and dice it, because it’s one thing to teach people new stuff, but then it’s another thing to help them have the confidence to act on what they now know.
Q: You approach this work with a “spirit of joy.” Where does the joy come in?
A: It’s not to say that the work isn’t hard. It’s not to say that the work isn’t emotionally laborious. But, to quote so many before me, I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. I’m a Black woman who owns her own business, doing something that I absolutely love, every day. I have my family, I’ve got wonderful friends and we motivate and inspire each other. So I’m happy, and I bring that level of positivity to my work.
I also choose clients that want to do this work. I’m happy when people opt in. So for us, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t tough patches and debates, or conversations that are tricky, but I also recognize that if we don’t have these tricky conversations, these conversations that feel uncomfortable, then we’re going to be in this situation for the long term and that’s not OK.
Q: Has the demand for your work changed since George Floyd’s death?
A: I don’t know any DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] or anti-racism practitioners right now who aren’t extremely busy. Mr. Floyd’s murder was egregious. It was traumatic and unnecessary. And the reality of the situation is that the only thing I know to do is to make sure that his death is not in vain. The only thing I know to do is to work with the willing and work with the enthusiasts toward better outcomes for all of us.
I also hope that it isn’t just a flash point. Because after seeing Mr. Floyd’s murder, it should have sparked something inside of everyone.
Q: At the end of your training, can people say that they’re officially woke?
A: No, we don’t give away certificates. This is a lifelong journey. It means, once you go through our training, you need to keep talking to other people. It means that hopefully you understand what it takes to live as an anti-racist who wants to create more equitable and inclusive circumstances everywhere, whether it’s your business or the grocery store that you shop in. And so what we want to do is change people’s hearts and minds. No certificate of completion.
Q: Does having to do this intense work virtually make it harder?
A: People are having these conversations now from their own homes, and I think there’s a level of comfort that they find to be surrounded by their own things. As a facilitator, it is a little harder to read body language, but you can look at faces and tell what’s going on.
I think some people are happy that they don’t have to be looking at their colleagues around a table while this is happening. I think it drives home the fact that while this is a group learning experience, it is an individual journey. So as an individual, you have to opt in to this work. Being anti-racist, creating inclusive environments — it is up to you to opt in to that.
Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726