Even before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing and the presidential election, our country — our world — has become extremely polarized.
From my experience, ten years ago people hardly spoke about politics in the workplace. Now, after tense Thanksgivings and prolific social media, we all have chosen sides. Trump’s clear stance and allegiance with white supremacists makes the division clear along racial justice lines.
I’m a documentary filmmaker of color. I came to America at the age of three, and identify as an Indian-American immigrant. I grew up feeling invisible and dedicated my life to giving voice to others who may feel the same, whether that’s by documenting marginalized communities in sub-Saharan Africa or working on freelance projects in the US to support women of color in promoting their progressive artistic endeavors or social justice projects.
But earlier last year, I began working with a 20-something white Pilates couple from the Midwest and Europe. Pilates, along with the current yoga and wellness movement as a whole, has struggled for years with a lack of diversity and inclusiveness.
My apartment mate and I decided to attend their weekly pilates class, and while it was excellent, week after week it never grew in size. It was often just me and my friend, sometimes another person from the neighborhood. And while I felt I could help them grow by drawing from my communications experience, I shared my opinions with only my apartment mate.
Eventually the class teachers, Mariusz and Emma, began asking my friend and me for feedback. When I started sharing my thoughts on their site’s UX and purchase points, rather than being offended, they were quite interested and were keen to hear more.
“We started the $5 class because we wanted to do something for the neighborhood, especially as a white couple moving into a primarily POC neighborhood,” Mariusz shared. But their social media and communications weren’t cultivating an authentic community, and their language wasn’t clear on their sliding scale structure.
I didn’t have high expectations of how open they would be to my feedback when I entered their home, filled with candles and matcha teas. But I am who I am, and can not change my identity. I decided I would be very vocal about my values and not soften my approach because of my preconceptions of who my client was. So we received their website on their dining room table, and I openly critiqued the style of their photography, and explicitly told them that the content on their Instagram wouldn’t draw in clients from their neighborhood.
Rather than never speak to me again, they were open to changes. “It was really nice because we want people to say things as they are, but I feel most of my friends just think everything is so great, and tell us they love it,” Emma, who is from Minnesota, said. Emma found my approach and directness a refreshing contrast to the politeness she was surrounded by.
I took new photos of them, some with brick backdrops, others from angles that didn’t fall into the typical pilates look. They changed their social media pages, and they redid their offerings to encompass a more clear sliding scale and group passes. “It was nice to have someone else not see us as one person,” Emma added.
After the pandemic hit, they moved back to Minneapolis and a month later the George Floyd incident hit. I was still consulting with them, and I braced myself for a call that week asking me for help coming up with a Black Lives Matter statement. By then I had winced and shaken my head dubiously at so many statements flooding through that week and the weeks to come.
Instead, I opened my inbox to see their weekly newsletter, which I usually gave input on, with an authentic and vulnerable statement they wrote themselves, specifically calling out the pilates and wellness communities for their lack of inclusivity and how they need to step up and speak out against the injustices within. I was surprised and inspired. This newsletter was followed by many social media posts calling out the community to self-reflect on its own racism.
Emma already had this letter in her head for years when the murder occurred, thinking about her role in this conversation. “Even though it was terrifying and heart breaking, I was really proud to be in Minnesota because a lot of people have been doing that organizing work for over a decade,” Emma shared.
Business has doubled for ZE Moves since we started working together. Recently, I decided to push our shared views even further: “I know you don’t want to turn away Republicans, but it would be cool to connect your classes to the elections.”
“We don’t want Trump supporters in our class. Let’s do it.”
Mondays are now The Biden Push(up) and there’s Kick Ass Kamala (my idea) mid-week. 20% of all proceeds go towards their campaign, and ZE Moves has raised over $500.
Throughout my work with Emma and Mariusz I was able to be myself, voice and share my values of race equity and feel heard. I don’t know if my work with ZE Moves will change how my client base looks in the future. But it does give me hope that you can bring your authentic self to a working relationship — even if it’s with an unlikely partner.
Ambika has been creating, teaching and writing at the intersection of storytelling and social good for two decades. She believes in working with local teams, developing work collaboratively, and taking risks in telling authentic, powerful stories. She has produced content for Current TV, UNICEF, Havas, Praekelt.org, UNICEF, UNFPA, and Save the Children and trained for BBC Media Action, Columbia University, and the New York Film Academy. Recently at WITNESS, she oversaw the first brand refresh in the organization’s 25 year history.