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Personal Essays

Communication flows. Let it. 

Updated: Mar 6

Have you ever bought an orange that looked nice and bright on the outside, but the juice was too sour to enjoy? Have you ever seen the model, picture-perfect, family, only to learn their life is filled with turmoil? Maybe you’ve heard “I love you” from someone carelessly causing you pain? Maybe you know someone who’s a really good liar? We never really know what’s on the inside of a person, place, or even a system, until it’s under pressure. Whether a devastating medical diagnosis, the ending of a valued relationship, or the letting go of a treasured job, the health of a relationship often remains hidden until things go south. In reflection, the signs may magically appear – like blazing torches – asking ourselves “how could I have missed those cues!”

Culture is the silent language, the unspoken message, the devil in the details. It hides out until it is named. It spreads effortlessly until identified and consumes until contained. A culture of dysfunctional communication, much like cancer, kills. Energy. Ambition. Success. Connection. What if instead of allowing dysfunction to hide out, like cancer within the marrow of a bone, we paid closer attention to signs and symptoms of organizational dis-ease? What if embracing tensions, identifying symptoms, and responding more quickly to treat the side effects of communication challenges, we strengthened our organizational health? As any survivor will tell you, cancer has a way of changing us for the better, if we let it.

As an outside hire for a leadership role many years ago, I immediately witnessed multiple personnel dysfunctions. I was charged to identify "cancer" within the team - specific behaviors decaying productivity, clogging organizational flow, and impeding company growth. Like a good steward, deeply concerned with the health of his ecosystem, the CEO sought a fresh perspective. And like a good mother, my experience and passion for the industry supported efforts of constructive criticism while listening for social cries for help. Peering through a lens of maternal leadership and responsibility, I spotted some carcinogens. Hidden within safe harbors and quietly overlooked corners were passive aggressions, tolerated bullying, and social assassinations. With connections weak, toxicity spreading, and wounds festering, this was a job for courage and hope. Spackling our holes, we declared the power to improve simply by diagnosing our dysfunctions. We named them, identified their presence, and made plans to work them out. Within a year, we were speaking openly about conflict without taking offense, we were celebrating growth with the fruit of our painful labors. We had increased organizational strength and gained momentum.

Shortly after recognizing our success, my young child was diagnosed with Leukemia, a blood cancer. It, too, had been hiding out from recognition, slowly zapping her life-energy, and was leading our entire family down a devastating path. This diagnosis metaphor that I was using to unite teams now became personal. It was my turn to face a disease. It was my turn to accept the maternal responsibility and leadership of laboring to improve the health of not just one person, but an entire family ecosystem.

Diagnosis has a way of blossoming a willingness to do whatever it takes to fight for something. Diagnosis surges an eagerness to shave our heads in solidarity for the afflicted. Faced with the stages of grief, I sat in denial, stood in anger, and looked for someone to blame. Then, I remembered what I asked of my team, and decided to open communication flows. First with myself, then on to my daughter, my partner, and the nurses and doctors working on all our behalf. From the inside out, the comfort of denial was disrupted, the callousness of anger softened, and the letting go of blame freed my attitude to shift perspective. I paid closer attention to the language I used when speaking to myself and others. Proactively, I designed frameworks for intentional communication to flow, allowing frustration to find its way up, and out, of our life.

As my daughter progressed through remission, I returned to work with a gift from cancer: something of an x-ray vision. I look for what’s neglected. I listen for the pains of onboarding, and I'm on high alert for the faint sounds of a system causing humanity harm. I search for unintentional practices, I dig for unclear language, and I peel back the stickers covering up the sight of a dead-end job. I can smell the stench of stagnant communications from miles away. Equipped with experience, data, and case studies, I carry this experience, into my work in strategic communications at Gonzaga University. Grappling with dysfunctions in a cultural context fascinates me and communication theories stand as pillars of knowledge that serve to treat wounds caused by company cogs.

What do communication and cancer have in common? They both rely on hope.

Not all dysfunctions are salvageable, just as not all cancers are survivable, but if we remain willing to fight – for something - hope will also fight for us.

“I’m not a feminist, but…I support women!”

Yes. Because white women know what happens when *we align with feminism.

It’s a risk. There’s a lot of privilege on the line. And many of us are far too fragile and far too fearful, to jeopardize our access to this *privilege. So we don’t align. We don’t support the work. We stay silent when feminism is mocked and slandered. We laugh along. We ridicule and demonize feminists - picking them apart with the same debilitating perfectionism that we police ourselves with.

Except, when we dialogue with *other women, when we listen to women outside white Christian America, (Black women, Indigenous women, women of color and culture, women on government assistance, solo moms, incarcerated women, women in abusive relationships, women tangled up in domestic violence, marginalized women, women experiencing deep depression or suicidal ideology, women at shelters, women in therapy, women at the gym DOING INNER WORK, etc, etc...) we hear a song stuck on repeat:

“I once had low self-worth."

"I suffered from low self-esteem."

"I was raised to be quiet, obey, and submit to men in authority, without question."

"I didn't have permission to use my voice."

"When I did use my voice, I was not heard."


"I HAD NO AGENCY to protect myself from violence, manipulation, and dependency."

When we engage in dialogue with *other women, we also learn that a large part of healing - an essential element of raising dignity levels, fortifying inner strength, grasping at wisdom, standing in discernment, and taking strides toward self-sufficiency - comes from adopting feminist theories. Feminism, at the most elementary level, is the belief that *all genders should have equal rights and opportunities. Feminism counters supremacy, racism, exploitation within capitalism, patriarchy, and social ills that keep *all women down, under, and held below. It is about respecting diverse experiences, identities, knowledge, and strengths for every human within this intersectional and global community.

*The path from the dehumanization of women to the disposal of women is swift and sweeping.

“Authentic allyship is not about amplifying your own voice, but rather listening to the voices of people within that community and what they are saying. They need to be uplifted.”

– Graham Ball, Penn State Law

White-women supremacy club culture, however, prefers to throw resources at religious institutions claiming to “help women” but instead merely perpetuate patriarchal values, demonize feminism, exploiting a woman's journey for their marketing purposes. White women also prefer a good social performance, preferring work that offers public recognition for our financial "gifts." Performative allyship, according to Penn State Law graduates, is disingenuous, based on the idea of self-gratification, and ignores responsibility within a community.

Something else to consider, especially for us white women living in the north, many cities, like beautiful Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, that host a 90% white population and a .42% black population: the cancer of racism hides out within infrastructure. These places, where groups like the KKK and Proud Boys are given the silent nod to comfortably maintain a presence, are also aware that intersectional feminism was planted by the seeds of, and traveled on the coattails of, Black women. Could the rejection of feminism by white women, in addition to allegiance to supremacy and patriarchy, be rooted in racism? I'd love to hear responses from white women, except... most white women leave me on read when I ask difficult or challenging questions. *Our fragility is too often too brittle for hosting a capacity to hold the weight of engaging in productive dialogue.

Feminism also works to keep women safe from violence. Research shows Black women experience much higher rates of domestic and sexual abuse from partners than white women. If feminism works to keep Black, Indigenous, and women of color safe from violence, why don't more white women support it?

"Not only do [Black women] endure racism but we are also seen as women — experiencing the systems of patriarchy and sexism that white women face. But in a nasty plot twist, we are not entirely seen as women forcing us to experience specific injustices similar to the experiences of some Black men. Simply put, we are not seen as valuable or worthy of protection."

- Maia Niguel Hoskin.

Being caught up in the ethnocentrism of supremacy, *we white women routinely center our white Christian outlook as superior. We privately recline, enjoying the fruits of feminist labors, while vilifying feminism publicly, where "our" white men will see our allegiance and celebrate us, in-kind. I've yet to see many white influencers show up to women's marches, work for systemic change, or express outrage at racist acts. That's because white supremacy is volatile, and in order for influencers to stay visible and protected by white men, white women cannot afford to get involved.

I, too, am a "late blooming feminist" (rest in power, RBG). But I am also right on time. I am blooming right now for right now. Feminism, up here in the north, or what I call "The Bible Bowtie", is just another F-word. In religious clubs, white women use the archaic term "women's lib", never allowing the full word, liberation, to roll off the lips. These women apply it condescendingly to crazy women who believe in supporting the freedom and safety of *all women.

I made the mistake of believing the "women's empowerment culture" up here in white woman land would support a community space for *all women of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs - a feminist space within a patriarchal town. What I learned, was that the social media following of over 2,000 white women was strictly performative, or as Oprah calls it: cotton candy. Women used a social, public, affiliation to our efforts only to promote themselves, while the actual space itself stood empty and eventually closed. Only later would I learn that the closure was not only due to a lack of support and a global pandemic, but also because white women's social and civic clubs, on behalf of the white male stakeholders they ultimately served, were actively working under the surface - like cancer in the bones of a community - to destroy something that was meant to expand opportunities to *all women. With a 90% white local population, I came to find out there is no such thing as "Karen culture", it is simply THE culture. It also explained why many local white women cannot see themselves as racist, because they simply behave this way to everyone - especially other white women.

For me, frustration breeds creativity. When I'm committed to working through challenges I make something: art, research papers, crafts, food, The frustrations of caretaking a child with cancer led me to write a book, assist my child in writing a book, and colorfully decorate our long-term stay hospital room. And now, immersed within a cancerous community culture, I created a feminism 101 zine. While I hold the belief that the misinformation surrounding feminism in white-women-club-culture is beyond repair, I also hold a mustard seed of hope for planting new community seeds for seeing a change of fruit.

White women, we cannot allow ourselves to stagnate in the swamp of complicity and apathy. The porcelain doll that patriarchy hopes you aspire to be is hollow. I've provided a link below for downloading my free feminism 101 zine, Coeur d'Femme: the heart of feminism. To reject that which we do not understand is to think small. Investing in growth and development is also accepting the pain of facing our ignorance. Yet, simultaneously, by doing so we usher in the joy of increasing our capacity to hold a more expansive and kinder outlook.

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Stepping into a new leadership role within my industry, I walked into a learning institute with some personnel dysfunctions. The CEO, a kind and generous family man, asked me to identify and diagnose "cancers" within the team - specific behaviors decaying productivity and perhaps obstructing the flow of his goals for growth. It was the first time I considered words and actions as "cancerous" but it made sense, as behaviors can be nameless and faceless, and without proper diagnosis can erode the health of a workplace ecosystem.

Because I did not hold a history with the team, being an outside hire, my approach offered a mediator role and a reduction of bias. I was simply passionate about the industry, dedicated to the advancement of education, and hired to help build and strengthen multiple teams. What I found within the first 30 days, was symptoms of constant passive-aggression. Little verbal assaults, but many unspoken assassinations. Hidden thorns and untraceable jabs. Team members would leave notes on one another's desks, criticizing teaching methods, poking at inadequacies, or feeding into workplace gossip. During team meetings, no one was airing frustrations or making much eye contact, yet during the work week, much energy was spent making frustrations and resentments nonverbally clear.

Passive aggressive behaviors in the workplace are often the result of a lack of freedom, courage, invitation, or personal empowerment to share negative responses. One of the most dangerous cultures a company - or any relationship - can unknowingly create, is a culture that discourages transparency, shames negative feedback, or disregards members' voiced experiences.

"Great leaders make space for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the comfortable and the uncomfortable, because a good leader knows how to learn something from everything."

Before my work in communications systems, I had believed the issues within this organization were mere personality clashes between select individuals. And so, as the new department head, I made space to hear each person and engage as simply a mediator and active listener. However, the notes I took started to reveal less about a personality riff and more about establishing junctures for healthy discourse to exist. In order to begin cultivating a culture of healthy communication, I knew my work had to begin with empowering everyone to voice concerns to the group, within our meetings, and as a diverse, complex, but united team. Setting specific times for feedback started to relieve the need to act in passive-aggressive ways.

Through the practice of applying communication flows, the comfort of passive-aggressive behaviors and long-held personnel conflicts are disrupted, causing them to jostle, shift, and move. To offer a routine juncture for critique and feedback is to embrace the value of conflict - an essential developmental opportunity for growth. An organizational culture that proactively works to prevent communication blockage and buildup, establishes value and validation of the humanity that is tethered to tension. In regard to my team, applying the flow of a communications system allowed frustrations to find their way out of our daily workflow; we were able to effectively address more concerns than we originally had diagnosed, collaboratively find solutions, and in turn, increased the value of our differences by focusing on the issue at hand - instead of questioning the messenger.

In Keys to strategic organizational communication, Conrad and Poole's systems principles identify practices that can help assess organizational challenges, provide dialogue opportunities for strengthening team dynamics, and infuse communication flows with shared value for improving a steady forward motion. Consider how these principles might improve your own personal and professional leadership.

1. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Increasing the value of diversity supports differences and provides considerations to unique vantage points. Taking time and making space to ask about why and how choices were made offers learning opportunities for everyone at every level.

2. Cause and effect relationships are complex. While personalities might be an underlying factor, actions and behaviors also stem from different responsibilities in responding to different issues. Looking at the budget, resources, or scheduling issues, can shed more light on the root of a challenge.

3. Find the right levers. Understanding an imbalance of influence, opportunity, or power within a system, helps equalize levels of responsibility within each lever for expressing grievances and offering solutions.

4. Don't just focus on the system itself. Taking a bird's eye view of the company serves as a reminder of our role within a larger system of cogs moving the organization forward.

5. Systems adapt or die. As the flagship for future additional locations, and knowing we were just starting out, we viewed systems-making as rough drafts, not final presentations. This offered us the flexibility and freedom to shift and change as we grew. The building of a framework also helped to analyze our most necessary and valued communication flows.

6. History is important. Without much history, a new team can focus on the opportunity to create something wonderful and fulfilling, for everyone at every level. For us, understanding that we were actively engaged in writing our history extended grace towards the drive of perfectionism and "getting it right" the first time around. Knowing what has worked, or caused wreckage, is also beneficial - discuss them all!

7. Systems must learn to renew themselves. Tensions are unavoidable. When we learn to embrace obstacles and expect the presence of challenges, our frustration takes a back seat to curiosity. And when we practice confronting dysfunction, we are working to form a flexible and renewable system that naturally increases the opportunity for continued sustainability.

The value of systems thinking is that it provides a focus on the framework, allowing for human relations to flow within and throughout, while also providing an adjustable structure that adapts as it advances. If you are an established organization, consider what junctures could provide an opportunity to "clear the air." As a leader, and perhaps remaining outside of daily chit-chat, you might be surprised to hear what others see as blockage and unnecessary buildup. For new establishments, consider embracing the absence of culture and prioritize designing one that supports a healthy flow of communication.

If you need some outside eyes to inspect your communications framework, diagnose dysfunction, and offer prescriptions - I'd love to work with you. Not everyone enjoys confrontation, so it can be helpful to bring in someone less personally involved to assess challenges with the least bias. I would also love to hear how any of these principles helped you or your team! Whatever you do, just keep the dialogue open and flowing. Keep talking about challenges. Keep confronting dysfunction before it has time to grow and calcify. Encourage people to find the right language to properly name issues. Great leaders make space for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and the comfortable and the uncomfortable because a good leader knows how to learn something from everything.




Conrad, C., & Poole, M. S. (2005). Keys to strategic organizational communication. In

Strategic organizational communication: In a global economy (pp. 32–38). Thomson Wadsworth.

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