Allyship, Feminism, and Making an Impact, with NYU’s Kayla Merriweather

Kayla Merriweather is a powerhouse. A senior at New York University, she’s in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, concentrating in History and Place through a Black Feminist Lens with a Minor in Spanish. She’s a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar, a Resident Assistant and the President for the Black Student Union.  In summary, she’s wicked smart and an example of the type of leaders we need for a better future. To close Women’s History Month, we’re talking about how she practices and teaches allyship, what allyship means to her and what it means to be intentional about the companies you support.

Transcript

Donald Thompson:  Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. I’m really excited about our guest today. Kayla Merriweather is a student at NYU, right, obviously in, in New York, but a North Carolina native. And Kayla, welcome to the show.

Kayla Merriweather:  Thank you for having me. Nice to be here.

Donald Thompson:  So one of the things, Kayla, that I like to do with, with our guests and we’ll get into some things on gen Z and racial equity and things like that, but would like for the audience to just get to know you. So, just talk about your family education background, things of interest.

Just give us a little flavor of Kayla Merriweather.

Kayla Merriweather:  All right. My favorite thing to do. So, hi everyone. My name is Kayla.

So, I guess I’ll just start talking about, I guess, where I’m, where I would consider myself from. So, I was born in California, and my family lived there for a little bit before we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, so that’s where I would consider myself, quote unquote, from, or like where, where I was raised.  That’s also where we lived the longest. And so, then after that, right before I started high school, we moved to North Carolina. And so, that’s where we live now. So, I have three siblings. I’m the oldest, the alpha of one might say, and I love them all.

So, I have two brothers and one sister. And then my dad, his name is Kurt, works with Mr. Don, so that’s how me and Mr. Don are acquainted, but I’ve also been in some ways, I guess, quote, unquote, affiliated with like, Walk West or Creative Allies. I think there’s this one time, you all were doing a focus group, or something similar, and I came and shared my perspective, so I’m happy to be back. And I’m also, I feel like I’ve been able to see The Diversity Movement grow from an outside perspective. So, I’m really happy and excited about the work that you all are doing. I think it’s really important, especially in your field.

Donald Thompson:  That is phenomenal.

Now, one of the things I do remember, and this was a, you were a senior in high school when you helped us with that focus group. Right? And, you were, you have a very authentic demeanor, but you’re not shy. Right? And so you, and so you shared some great feedback about a business that we were looking at from that gen Z perspective.

And we certainly appreciate it. One of the things that you didn’t mention that I want you to brag on yourself just a little bit, talk about being a Martin Luther King scholar. I mean, that’s kind of awesome.

Kayla Merriweather:  So, at NYU, there are various merit scholarships for students. And so, the one that I received is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship, which is awarded to incoming college first year, students who have demonstrated a  commitment to community service, leadership and a high level of academic achievement.

And so it’s very, it is very selective. I think they’ve changed it a little bit now, so that way, when you’re applying to NYU, you can designate that you want to be considered for the MLK scholarship. But when I was applying, there was just a checkbox that said “I want to be considered for merit scholarships.”

So, it was really up to the admissions team to kind of match you with the scholarship. So when I had applied, I think there were 65,000 total NYU applicants, and of those 65,000, only 70 were selected as MLK scholars. And, in the end—so like during my first year, there were 40 of us in total. And so it’s a large, or a wide range of majors and backgrounds, different ethnic and gender identities.

So, it was a really great way to be introduced to community at NYU, especially a community that I was interested in learning with and growing with, because something that we all did have in common was a passion for social justice and community service, but we all had different understandings or backgrounds as, as we came to approach it.

So, I think that first year seminar that all MLK scholars are required to participate in really set the foundation for my intellectual growth as it pertains to social justice, and I also made some lifelong friends for sure. So it’s, it’s definitely an experience that I really relish and cherish, and so I love it.

I love it. I love being an NYU student.

Donald Thompson:  Awesome. And I don’t, I want our listeners to hear it one more time. 65,000 applicants  to NYU, and of those 65,000 applicants, 70 or selected scholars. That’s powerful, powerful company. One of the things that you mentioned that I want to start to layer into the conversation was the term “social justice.” What does that mean to you? Like if, if I don’t know anything about what that term means, right, talk to me about what social justice means.

Kayla Merriweather:  Yeah. I think social justice definitely is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I would say for me, it’s something that I define personally.

So, in terms of my own relationship with social justice, it’s usually the issues that I’m most passionate about are the ones that pertain to my identity in some ways. So I am a Black woman, so issues like racism, sexism, like class inequality, environmental racism. There are a  lot of larger issues that kind of fall under the umbrella of social justice, but there are also a lot of other topics, I think, that are related to social justice that I might not myself personally relate to, but I still acknowledge as very important. And so, that’s why I think when it comes to social justice, the word ally, and like allyship is usually commonly associated with that as it should be.

So like, for example, earlier this week we saw the horrific murders that happened in Atlanta that are just a poignant example of, you know, anti-Asian sentiment and the very real intangible harm that comes from xenophobic comments. And so, even though I, myself am not necessarily a member of the Asian community, I think my passion for social justice is why it’s so disturbing to me and why I think it’s really important  that in terms of liberation or just moving toward a more just society and world, it’s really important that even if an issue doesn’t affect you directly, that you’re still moved to act and educate yourself and educate the people around you. So, I think the process of learning and unlearning is also really critical to social justice.

Donald Thompson:  Oh, that’s a great, great answer. I appreciate that. That helps me, right, it’s a broad term, but then people tend to drill down to where kind of their experiences most resonate, but it helps you to be empathetic, right, with those broader issues. And I think that’s really, really powerful. What are some of the things that, you know, one of the things in our show notes we want to talk a little bit about is women’s issues that, that you’re focused on. Tell me some of the things that you’re passionate about, some of the things that you’re actively doing, right, to, to push those causes forward.

Kayla Merriweather:  Yeah, for sure.  So something that I really appreciate my, about my journey at NYU is the way that I’ve been able to intellectually develop my own like, personal inquiries, I suppose you could say.

So at NYU, there is a school of individualized study called Gallatin, and so that’s where I am a student. And so, the name of my academic concentration is History and Place through a Black Feminist Lens. So, I think that Black feminist feminist lens really shows that women’s issues, but particularly Black women’s issues seeing as I am a Black woman, are really always at the forefront of my mind. So, I think another thing, you know, related to being an MLK scholar is learning about the Civil Rights Movement and movements to ensure rights for marginalized people and how, all too often, women are  either not at the forefront or their contributions are either devalued or diminished. Yeah, so just thinking about the importance of placing the ideas and just, almost like the image and the representation of women at the forefront of any issue, I think is really important. Not only because I think women have a perspective that should always be considered, but also thinking from a representational standpoint, thinking about young girls and even young women, such as myself, who are aspiring for greatness, it’s really important.

You know, when you look at the top or wherever it is that you want to be, that you can see someone that looks like you achieving what you want to accomplish in order to motivate you and push you for more. And also, just thinking about like mentorship and what it means to share knowledge and really shape the next  generation not only after you, but even if you are in the same generation, you know, sharing knowledge, I think is why it exists. It’s not something you should hoard or harbor to yourself, it’s something that you should share with others. So, to answer your original question about the work that I’m doing with women, I think it’s just, it’s just something I incorporate into every aspect of what I do really, because it is my identity and it’s not something I want to conceal.

Donald Thompson:  One of the things Kayla as a male, right? I don’t have a woman’s perspective. Right? But you talked about allyship and in order to move things forward, right, for women’s issues, you need more than just women to participate.

Right? And be aware. How would you coach educate, encourage, right? Those of us that are not women to be supportive and  aware and a part of the solution to, to move things forward.

Kayla Merriweather:  Yeah. I think that is a great question. And it’s also very timely because I am a resident assistant, actually, in my dorm, dormitory, at NYU, and I actually just recently did a program on how to be a better ally. I thought it was timely. And so, something that I did to help my residents really remember different aspects of what it means to be an ally was I gave them a bag that had certain items in it that they could use to reflect on what it means to be an ally. So the five items that I included were a mini mirror, a mini brain eraser, a heart eraser, a cotton ball, and a piece of candy because, obviously I’m like, I have to give them some type of food or something. But, well, my rationale for including those items  were—so the mirror was to symbolize reflection, obviously when you hold privilege in any sort of way, it’s kind of uncomfortable to sit in that and to know that it’s not necessarily something you did, but it’s just, that is who you are or an identity that you hold. So just reflecting, not only on your identity, but also the ways in which you can support the groups that you’re hoping to assist.

I did, I used the brain to symbolize intentionality. I think right now, especially since we’re in this pandemic and a lot of what we’re doing, whether it’s work or personal related, is through a screen or on social media. There is a lot of pressure, I think, to say certain things or be a certain way. And so, I wanted to use the brain to symbolize that you should be thoughtful about the way that you approach  allyship. And that means, you know what I mentioned earlier, doing the work to unlearn and learn things about the communities that you’re hoping to assist, but also not, you know, expecting those communities to educate you per se, because there is a lot of knowledge that’s out there that’s already been written by, you know, women or other communities that you might want to be an ally to.

And so, it’s useful to kind of use what’s already at your disposal and then approach, you know, we are talking about women in this case, but anybody that you want to be an ally to in an intentional way where it’s not like you’re expecting them to educate you. The heart was in terms it’s, it’s also related to intention, but I think in terms of what your allyship is coming from, I don’t think it should come  from guilt per se, but rather a sense of responsibility. I think a sense of responsibility really like, governs a lot of the things that I do. And sometimes there is a little bit of guilt, like wrapped up in there, but I think just because that is a negative emotion, it, it comes out in the actions that you’re doing.

So, if you shift more towards responsibility, which is, I would say, you know, more inherently positive, then it really reflects in what you’re doing. Okay, so last two things. So cotton ball, I think also acknowledging that any, any type of allyship or conversations related to allyship are difficult, they are hard.

And so, it’s necessary to keep that in mind and just not only approach yourself with kind of like softness, but also leaning into vulnerability and realizing that there is strength in that not necessarily weakness. And then,  candy is more of a symbolic representation of allyship. So, when I was doing some research to inform the bag that I was making, I saw the candy, or chocolate in particular, cause I distributed chocolate-based candies, is often a symbol of love and commitment. So, I think just keeping that in my w really with whatever you do, but especially allyship is really important and that allyship isn’t necessary necessarily a singular act, but it’s a process. It’s a relationship.

It’s a commitment that you really have to invest yourself in. And so, it’s not like you should do anything just to say like, “Oh, I was an ally today,” but it’s, it really is a relationship that you need to cultivate intentionally, but also acknowledging that there will be some type of  setback, or uncomfortable feeling, but choosing to work through it because you’re dedicated to it.

Donald Thompson:  Choosing to work through it because you’re dedicated to it. Like, I’m gonna try to give you credit for that. As I remember right. But if I don’t, I’m saying it right now, but that was, that was well put. And then I think the other thing that I got and I’m getting a lot, is that moving from guilt to responsibility. Right? And you mentioned the responsibility is more inherently positive, it’s also much more forward thinking. Right? Guilt is usually associated with something in the past. You don’t typically feel guilty about the future, right? But your responsibilities lean future. And so, I very much resonated with, with those points in the, in the way that you described it. One of the things that I’m, I’m thinking of, of questions and points that I want to learn  more from you, I would love your perspective on how you think about social justice, equity, relative to how you spend your money and brands you associate with.

Kayla Merriweather:  Yeah.

Donald Thompson:  Right? A little birdie told me you love Amazon.

Kayla Merriweather:  Oh my gosh. Okay. Let the record show. Okay, so I’m glad that this will be available on the internet. Let her records show that a falser statement has never been made. I abhor, detest Amazon.

It’s actually funny. I really think this has become a part of my brand. So, I try to FaceTime my family, like what the decent amount of frequency. And there was, there was this time I was FaceTiming my dad. I don’t know how he came up, but we were talking about like Jeff Bezos or something.  And I guess I was talking about it in a certain way, maybe I had a certain look on my face, and my mom passed by and she said, “She’s talking about Amazon, isn’t she?”

Yes. Yes. It is known that I am, I’m not the biggest fan of Amazon just because of, you know, the way they treat their workers is my main, my main beef, I guess you could say. But, I’m also a large proponent of just like the redistribution of wealth, and so I think that’s really important, especially given like the income inequality that is, you know, facing that only like the Black community, but also women and Black women, of course, and just a lot of other marginalized communities.

So thinking about how I choose to learn or where I choose to purchase things, what businesses I try to patronize. I just, I try to be  intentional. So, there’s something that I can get on a platform that’s not Amazon, I usually do. On Amazon, they usually have whatever the, the provider of the product is like a link to their direct website.

So, sometimes I’ll go there, just buy, buy from them directly. And then I also really try to support Black owned businesses as much as I can because I also find that sometimes we create products that other people wouldn’t. So for example, I can’t remember the name of the company, but there’s an organization, or a company, that has hats or hoodies where the inside is lined with satin. So, it’s less likely to cause like frizz or like friction once you are taking it off, which is really important for me because my hair is very prone to  frizzies. And so, I also like try to broaden my hair products from Black owned businesses, because I know if they’re Black women or Black people and they have similar hair types that their products might benefit my hair’s texture more. So it’s all about, you know, intentionality, and just being strategic with where you’re spending your money, because in a lot of ways that is some form of investment that kind of reflects on you. In my opinion, so.

Donald Thompson:  Intentionality is what, what we got from it.

I think, you know, when I talk to folks that are, would be in that quote unquote gen Z framework, when we break things down generationally, I do see a very strong brand alignment, right, between social good, right, and in spending those dollars. Whereas here for me, I mean, I think about  it sometimes, but, quite frankly, I need those pair of shoes, you have them at those price, click button. Like, I don’t process if it’s  right or wrong. It just means I’ve, I’ve seen that be more important. Let me ask a similar question, but now from a career and a growth standpoint, what are the kinds of organizations, managers, leaders that you think about—I mean, you’ve spent a lot of time, effort and energy with this very powerful education, the things you’ve studied, all your extracurricular activities, and you’re about to move out into the world, right, in, in that degree. How do you think about who gets to access your talent?

Kayla Merriweather:  I love the way you put that, because that really grants me the most agency, I think. But, that is something that I’m still thinking about. I don’t necessarily have the answer, and I think that’s fine, but I think there are just some  guiding principles that I’m thinking of.

I acknowledge that, you know, representation, or like identity representation is important, but it’s not always an option sometimes, unfortunately. So I think it’s, for me, what I’m looking at is what exactly the leader or leadership organization, if that’s how they identify themselves, what their background is, how they came to be, where they are, what their values are, at least from, from what I can gauge either like on their website or maybe if I’m able to have a conversation with them.

But I think at the end of day, I’m thinking about myself and like, the environment in which I feel that I can flourish and be the most successful, but also have the greatest  impact on someone else’s life or in another community and whether the organization or entity that I’m in is conducive to making that impact, if our values are in alignment in that particular way. So, definitely a lot to think about. I, I always, I’m always doing a lot of research for classes or in my other roles on campus. So I think I’ve, I’ve developed a sense of discernment in where I can, when I’m doing that research, I can kind of get a feel for the values, but I don’t think you can really confirm that unless you’re like talking with people in the organization or, you know, once, hopefully soon, like we return to an in-person setting, like you’re actually in that space. But, a term that I’ve become more familiar with since being at NYU is what it means to  develop a safe space and the limits of that in some, in some ways.

So, those are just a lot of the things that I’m considering when it comes to entering the workforce, but also just trying to, you know, be kind to myself and like give myself grace, because this is a very uncertain time. There are a lot of companies that might not even have the capacity to bring on someone right now.

So, I’m trying to be proactive, but also acknowledging that sometimes things just take time.

Donald Thompson:  Well, that’s, that’s, that’s awesome. A couple of final questions, ’cause I can talk to you all day, but you’re but you’re literally just as busy as I am. Right? You’re the president of the Black student union, you’re an RA, right? You’re a scholar, right? Like you got a lot going on. So I  appreciate your time. You mentioned the ability to look into an organization and see someone that looks like you to help motivate and inspire you.

Kayla Merriweather:  Yes.

Donald Thompson:  Who are some of the people that have done that for you? Who do you admire?

Kayla Merriweather:  Yes. Great question. So, the person that immediately comes to mind for me is Kimberly Crenshaw. So, Kimberly Crenshaw is a legal scholar and professor, I believe right now she’s affiliated with Columbia Law School, but I know she also founded the African American policy forum and is one of the pioneering creators of critical race theory, which I was introduced to an a class I took my sophomore year, and she also wrote this ground breaking essay on Intersectionality, which is a term that she coined, and how  she did this research study or series of studies that evaluated kind of the theoretical eraser of Black women specifically.

So the case that I’m thinking of that I heard of when I was also a first year at NYU, so she’s, even though she’s not affiliated with NYU, I think in a lot of ways she’s developed, or helped me develop, intellectually in feeling validated in studying like the Black women’s experience specifically, but there’s, there was this study that she did in a General Motors plant, I believe, where the hiring managers were being accused of hiring discrimination and that they needed to be more intentional in hiring quote unquote diverse candidates. And so they, in order to work around that, they decided, or they decided to hire more Black people. So,  they hired Black men and then they decided, decided to hire more women, and so they hired white women. But there was this kind of gap where they, because they felt that they had kind of checked off those diversity check boxes, Black women kind of fell in the cracks, so, or through the cracks. So, she’s been super inspirational for me in knowing that there is a career, I guess, in studying, you know, race at a legal level.

So, I do want to be a lawyer eventually, or I want to obtain a law degree. I’m not sure if I want to practice law yet, but definitely obtain a, a JD at some point. And so, her experience has really been inspiring and knowing that being a professor at an esteemed law school like UCLA or Columbia, where you’re focusing on Black women’s  experiences, is possible.

So, she’s definitely one of the people that sit the forefront of my mind.

Donald Thompson:  That’s awesome. And I think, you know, that just aligned with your earlier point of we need to see and have that, that ability to visualize, right? So that we can strengthen our own muscle to dream bigger. It’s just harder to do when you don’t see anybody that looks like you or a background like yours, or a perspective.

So, final question for me, you talked about, and I’ve got lots of notes, but you talked about roles and organizations that can make the biggest impact would be part of your decision-making process. Let’s fast forward 10 years, and what is Kayla Merriweather?

Kayla Merriweather:  That’s a very good question.

Donald Thompson:  Cast a vision for the future for me, for  you.

Kayla Merriweather:  Idealy,  in 10 years, I will have either finished or be close to finishing my post-graduate programs. So I mentioned getting a JD, but I didn’t mention that I specifically want to be in a JD, PhD program because I think having those degrees, both of those degrees independently of each other is very valuable, but earning them concurrently I think would just be a beneficial experience for me because I think understanding the nuances of law is very important, but in terms of the actual education process to get there, it is pretty like clinical and theoretical. So, I was thinking combining that with a research aspect that was more practice-based in the form of earning a PhD would be just advantages.

So, in 10 years,  hoping to either be done with that or close to done. And then, I think there are different, different fields or paths that I can see myself going down. I really love learning. And knowledge and sharing knowledge. So I can definitely see myself entering academia in some way. I’m not sure if that would be at the higher education level or in K through 12, but also keeping my options open and then thinking about other ways to impact education.

So, education policy, being involved like on a school board, and I also think that in terms of how, you know, having the ability to impact as many people as possible, a lot of that does come down to just general policy and legislation. So, I can also see myself being involved in government in some capacity.

But, it depends where and like what department, but these are just kind of some larger overarching goals because who knows? Maybe in three and a half years, I’ll have a life-changing experience about everything. So, I think I’m also trying to keep myself open to the possibility of future experiences that will impact me and just, you know, kind of arming—or arming myself sounds a little, I don’t want to say violent, but like equipping myself with tools that will enable me to, you know, go where I want and do what I want.

Donald Thompson:  No, that’s awesome. Final, final question for me, as we reflect on this conversation and the stage that you’re in and building your career, why NYU? Right.

Obviously, you know, from what you described, you were a  tremendously successful student in high school, lots of extracurriculars. You had a lot of options, right? And that’s a, that’s a beautiful thing. So of all those options, why NYU?

Kayla Merriweather:  I think that’s a very important question to ask, and I’m glad that every time I think about it, I feel really justified in my answer. So, I will say that I went to East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina, which is a very competitive high school. So, we’re one of the best public schools in the state, and so that’s definitely reflected in the student body. So, I had a lot of classmates that were applying to like 15, 20, 25 schools and I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t want to do that.”

I don’t want to be, you know, specific and targeted. So, I thought about two major things: what I wanted to study, and then also where I wanted to be geographically because  Chapel Hill is, it’s a pretty small town. It’s a college town, so UNC-Chapel Hill is kind of like the heart of it. So, I knew that the small town like vibe wasn’t really, for me, I was more of like a big city girl where I, where I wanted to interact with a lot of different people, but also just having the opportunity to explore and discover my self in a way that I thought would be fulfilling. So, I was looking at big cities like New York and DC primarily. And so, once I kind of decided on New York as a location, I wanted to, I picked NYU specifically because of the programs there and the really extensive global network that students have access to.

So, unfortunately my study away plans were foiled by COVID,  but I was still able to visit Madrid, Spain when I was a first year with my MLK scholar cohort, so I was still able to get some type of global experience. And speaking of the global experience, I think NYU really just attracts so many different types of motivated students from different walks of life who want to do different things.

And so, I also thought the range of types of students would really benefit me as well because I just wanted to learn as much as possible. And so, obviously you do that in the classroom, but you do it socially with the people that you interact with, like on a daily basis and the organizations that you can be a part of.

So I will also say that the, the free trip to New York City that weekend definitely done a lot in convincing me to go there. Their  marketing team, they know, they know what’s up, they know what they’re doing, but it really just gave me a taste of the possibilities of what it means to be an NYU student, so I, I knew even before I left that weekend, that I would be an NYU students, so lots of reasons, but I think the main ones are knowing that it would be the best place to help me develop personally, academically and professionally. And then just having New York city as your campus is really an experience that is unparalleled, so would definitely not trade it for anything in the world.

Donald Thompson:  That is awesome. What a great way to close, having New York City as your campus. That is great. Kayla, that was wonderful. I can talk to you all day. Your dad is so proud of you. Every time I ask him just  how you’re doing, and I sit and I sit and listen. That’s how we came up with Amazon. Yeah. He keeps me up to, up to date.

I am, I’m cheering for you. If there’s anything in this world I can do to be supportive of what you’re doing, please let me know. I really want to want to know, but, but in the interim I am cheering for you. and I, and I’m so proud of you.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

Earfluence
Podcast Production
About the Author
We believe in sharing amazing stories, providing knowledge to the world, and celebrating diverse voices. Through podcasting, our clients are amplifying their expertise, expanding their networks, building a content engine, and growing their influence. If you're interested in podcasting, we'd love to hear from you! Schedule your free 15 minute podcast consult today.