Awakening to Equity and Justice at Work with Michelle MiJung Kim

Michelle MiJung Kim at the CultureLab Podcast

As we become more aware of various social injustices in the world with more advocates taking the lead, a growing number of individuals aspire to contribute to the cause of positive change in the workplace.

Our guest, Michelle MiJung Kim is one of the leading voices advocating for equitable workplaces and yet another inspiring guest in our DEI series of interviews.

From growing up in South Korea to moving to the United States at the age of 13, and the impact of their family’s undocumented status and low income on their worldview to coming out as LGBTQ+, Michelle has definitely lots to share with us when it comes to building equitable working places.

She is the award-winning author of The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change, a speaker, activist, and entrepreneur and has been a lifelong social justice activist and has served on a variety of organizations

In this episode, Michelle introduces fundamental principles that are frequently absent from contemporary mainstream discussions on “diversity and inclusion.” During this honest and open discussion, she invites us to delve deeply into the demanding and intricate process of striving for equity and justice at work. This exploration involves addressing the intricate complexities, contradictions, and conflicts that naturally exist in our imperfect world.

Episode highlights

Marginalization: the notion of marginalized individuals feeling compelled to prove their worthiness of respect and dignity, often results from traumatic experiences. This can lead to a persistent avoidance of rest and a belief in scarcity. Furthermore, valuing marginalized perspectives and lived experiences are essential tools for comprehending systemic oppression. It also celebrates the power of collective organizing in addressing these issues.

Solidarity and allyship: There is a beauty in the way that people organize collectively to take care of one another in the absence of systemic care, and the possibility of change. This is why allies and support networks are so important as they fill in systemic gaps.

The Importance of uncovering hidden Stories: Hidden stories are the experiences that we may not remember, but that are still part of our story and they play a huge role in creating a more inclusive and empathetic society.

Why we need to wake up: Michelle’s book’s title, “The Wake Up,” was chosen to reflect the era when many were awakening to systemic injustice. It explores awakening to others’ struggles and our own complicity in them. One significant challenge discussed is the fear of sacrificing something tangible for the pursuit of seemingly abstract or idealistic goals.

DEI is a universal effort: It’s a collective effort involving everyone, promoting the idea that engaging in DEI work benefits both marginalized groups and those with privilege. This approach reframes it as a fight against oppressive systems to reclaim shared humanity, acknowledging the universal impact of these systems.

Navigating accountability and trade-offs in diversity and innovation: The absence of accountability hinders collective progress. Furthermore, grounding ourselves by understanding why this work is essential propels us forward and helps us delve into the challenges of managing diverse teams, where inherent conflicts can lead to increased innovation.

How to show up and move forward: Michelle’s framework for creating change and transformation, consists of four layers:





For Michelle, change must occur simultaneously at these four levels for meaningful progress in DEI work.

Power dynamics at the workplace: Individuals at various organizational levels possess different forms of power and influence. This is why everyone has a role to play in driving change, and the responsibility for systemic change is not solely on those with executive power.

Intentions and impact: There is a gap between what people intend to do versus the impact they’re having on the people they’re saying they want to be in solidarity with.

Binary thinking: We need to get rid of seeing ourselves as “good person”. This is an example of one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture is binary thinking. It’s always either or it has to be black or white. So, we need to start giving oneself permission to be multi-dimensional and open to feedback and growth.

The uncomfortable nature of change: The desire for shortcuts or hacks to make the process more comfortable is not the right way to go about it. We need to embrace discomfort and engage in honest, difficult conversations. If we commit to the “why”, we are then willing to push through discomfort for the sake of equity and inclusion.

Prioritizing safety: Discomfort is inherent in equity and inclusion work but we need to prioritize the safety of marginalized individuals over the comfort of the privileged. Also, sustaining individuals with multiple marginalized identities in this work without burnout is key.

The best place to start: Acknowledging the lived experiences of marginalized individuals.

Listen to the interview in the player below or on iTunes. If you like what you hear, please leave a review, and it may be featured on a future episode.

More about Michelle MiJung Kim

Michelle MiJung Kim (she/her) is a queer Korean American immigrant woman writer, speaker, activist, and entrepreneur. She is the award-winning author of The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change, winner of the 2022 Nautilus Gold Medal and 2021 Porchlight Personal Development & Human Behavior Book of the Year Award. She is CEO and co-founder of Awaken, where she has consulted hundreds of organizations and leaders from Fortune 500 companies, tech giants, nonprofits, universities and beyond on their equity education journey.

Michelle has been a lifelong social justice activist and has served on a variety of organizations such as the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s Advisory Committee, LYRIC nonprofit’s Board of Directors, and Build Tech We Trust Coalition. She currently serves on the board of Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality (AACRE). Her work has appeared on world-renowned platforms such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The New York Times, and NPR, and she has been named LinkedIn’s Top Voice in Racial Equity, Fast Company’s Queer 50, and Medium’s Top Writer in Diversity three years in a row. She lives in Oakland, California.

Books mentioned in this episode

The Wake Up by Michelle MiJung Kim

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

Additional resources

CultureBrained® Community – a one-of-a-kind virtual community for Heads of Culture, founders, and leaders who want to up their culture game.

The Culture Playbook Guide

Discover Your Personal Values

Interview with Minda Harts on the CultureLab podcast- Expanding the Table

The Deep Dive with Aga and Shani: DEI Initiatives That Work

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