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What is your relationship with conflict and disagreement?

Do you see conflict as bad or dangerous or simply a natural part of relationships and being in a group or on a team?

What helps you move through conflict and differences of opinion when things are heavy and charged? 

Do you avoid it at all costs? Or do you try to be a peacemaker and help everyone feel heard? Or do you dive right into the arena and take a stand for what you believe? 

You probably vacillate between all of these depending on the topic, the people you are around, how you experienced conflict growing up, and the combination of your unique personality, temperament, gender, race, class, etc.

Today’s guest shares a framework that offers a way to contain our overwhelm into some actionable practices that can help you connect to your purpose and your values while navigating the discomfort of disagreement, high-stakes decisions, and deep exhaustion.

Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American writer, strategist, and lawyer. Deepa leads projects on solidarity and social movements at the Building Movement Project, a national nonprofit organization. She conducts workshops and trainings, uplifts narratives through the Solidarity Is This podcast, and facilitates solidarity strategy for cohorts and networks.

Deepa’s first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, chronicles community-based histories in the wake of 9/11 and received a 2016 American Book Award. Deepa’s most recent book, a guide based on the social change ecosystem map that she created, is called Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection.

Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • The three main components of an ecosystem-based approach to social change
  • How an ecosystem creates a container where we can have uncomfortable conversations around our values
  • Why a clash in values isn’t an indicator of an unhealthy ecosystem
  • How ecosystems for social justice allow us to play to our strengths even in urgent times sustainably
  • Questions to ask and red flags of an unhealthy ecosystem
  • Why finding joy in the midst of heartbreak is essential to sustainable movements
  • Why it’s key to consider who holds power inside and outside an ecosystem when calling out bad behavior or policy

Learn more about Deepa Iyer:

Learn more about Rebecca:



Rebecca Ching: All right, folks! I am so grateful you’re tuning in for episode 98. If you’ve been listening, I’ve been doing a little bit of a countdown to episode 100, most importantly, just to thank you for listening. Some of you are new. Some of you have been here from the beginning. And I just want to thank you for your time and investment. And for those who’ve given me feedback and shared what’s been important to you, you’ve helped shape this show, and I am so excited for what’s to come.

So if you’ve been listening to the show and you have been impacted by it, I’d be honored if you left a rating and a review just to help us celebrate this milestone and share this show with a few folks you think may benefit from it. That would be a huge gift to me as we approach this milestone. All right, now onto the show!

[Inspirational Intro Music]

Deepa Iyer: We’re not always gonna be on the same page even if we value freedom or equality in mind. But it’s really the opportunity that an ecosystem can create the container to have some of those uncomfortable conversations and that the ecosystem creates the container where we could all sit with some discomfort and recognize and have faith that, if we are having those conversations in good faith, that the ecosystem is going to enable us to learn a little bit more about an issue or about each other or where we stand in terms of our values.

Rebecca Ching: What is your relationship with conflict and disagreement? Do you see conflict as bad or dangerous or simply a natural part of relationships and being in a group or on a team? What helps you move through conflict and differences of opinion when things are so heavy and charged? Do you avoid it at all costs, or do you try and be a peacemaker and help everyone feel heard? Or do you (like yours truly) dive right into the arena and take a stand for what you believe?


Now, many of you probably vacillate between all of these depending on the topic and the people you’re around, right? And if you’ve had a hard time even feeling what to do these days and can do on how to make a difference, especially with all the polarities around us, man, I get that too. My guest today offers a framework that offers a way to contain our overwhelm into some actionable practices that can help you connect to your purpose and your values while navigating the discomfort of disagreement, high-stakes decisions, and deep exhaustion.

I’m Rebecca Ching, and you’re listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.

I know I’m not the only one dealing with the overwhelming feeling of all that needs to get done at home and at work while taking in the heartbreak I see all around me. It’s a lot. It is simply just hard to be human. And this overwhelm fuels our uncertainty about how to engage with each other and our own emotions. I also suspect many of you hold a complicated relationship with conflict, speaking and living your values, while trying to figure out what’s your responsibility and what’s not.

Now, my childhood and early work experiences inform my relationship with conflict to this day. While working in DC and applying to be the head of scheduling for my then boss, I researched and spoke with some other folks who used to work for him, and they all said one of the things he really values is when staff negotiates, debates, and works things out amongst themselves.


So whatever ended up on his desk was the accumulation of a lot of different perspectives, and often some heated debates, and resulted in some excellent work. He valued a staff that didn’t all think exactly the same and valued good conversation, even hard conversations, around the topics he cared about the most and brought folks onto this team that weren’t just gonna be “yes” people but cared deeply about these issues and could engage in those kinds of conversations with passion and conviction.

Also during that time, I was in a small group from my church with folks who had vastly different perspectives on all things politics and culture. I loved how we would debate and argue and then break bread together, and we really supported each other in our lives regardless of our disagreements. It made a profound impact on me too.

So that’s what I cut my teeth on when I was a young twenty-something, combined with coming out of a household that saw conflict as a sport in a very unhealthy way with a lot of explosions all the time (meaning emotional explosions, right?). So my personal capacity for conflict feels different than a lot of folks around me and, as my husband often reminds me, not everything has to be a debate, and, you know, why not, right? Now, he’s right. But my default is just to hunker down so quickly. While I find it fun and engaging, it’s exhausting. So I’m learning. I have been learning over the years.

Now for you, depending on how you experienced conflict growing up and what you learned in early work and life experiences, combined with your own personality, temperament, gender, race, class, and more, all of these factors and experiences influence how you do difference and conflict.


Your strengths and struggles with conflict only become more amplified when working on teams or in any type of group, and what I love about the framework that my guest today developed offers us all guardrails and clarity on how to utilize our gifts and strengths while also honoring the gifts and strengths of others so we can welcome difference, admit shared values as a positive, and not something to fear but instead something to nurture. Imagine that. Difference is something to nurture.

Now, you may think, “Okay, what is Rebecca talking about this ecosystem thing? This isn’t realistic.” I can see that. Hang in there with me because I hear from so many of you that you feel like if you maybe disagree with others or you risk being shunned or lose your sense of belonging or, worse, you could lose your job or community. But ecosystem’s approach to change helps us start to ask ourselves, “What’s our part,” while also holding a high regard for other perspectives in ways that can create some more space for vulnerability and more risk taking. We can all disagree and still move forward based on some overlapping common ground. I know, a novel approach, right?

Now, if you work with me, you know I talk a lot about the difference between content and process and how sometimes focusing on just the content can derail the really important process that is happening. We can get so stuck in the content and our way of seeing things and who said what and when and how, which, sure, is an important thing, but it’s not end game. But the relationship, the respect, the approach, the process of how conflict is happening can be just as impactful to move things forward.


So, as you listen today, you’ll hear my guest and I disagree about an approach to activism and change, especially around this certain terminology. Now, I mean, I don’t even know if it was a full-on disagreement. Don’t get your popcorn out or anything like that. But we disagreed on this role of using a tactic, and we flushed it out, realizing that we may just have some different views on this approach but still connect on many values. I felt so honored to have this conversation today with my guest, and I really appreciate this little moment, too. And I can’t wait for you to learn from her!

Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American writer, strategist, and lawyer. Deepa leads projects on solidarity and social movements at the Building Movement Project and national nonprofit. She conducts workshops, trainings, uplifts narratives through Solidarity Is This podcast and facilitates solidarity strategy for cohorts and networks. Previously, Deepa served as Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (otherwise known as SAALT) for a decade and also held positions at Race Forward, The US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, The Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, and the Asian American Justice Center.

Now, there was so much I got out of this episode. I can’t wait for you to hear this. But I really want you to listen for when Deepa talks about how value clashes. When we have some differences, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our ecosystem is unhealthy or that there’s something structurally or something wrong, but in some cases, it’s just a signal for us to do some interior work, and you all know I love a good YOU-turn, right? Pay attention also to when Deepa talks about the roles of boundaries (and you also know I love a good boundary) and hard conversations can move to intentional actions.


And notice when Deepa talks about how a strong ecosystem can hold different points of view well and produce (I love this term) generative conflict, quite the opposite of what we see today. All right, y’all. Please welcome Deepa Iyer to The Unburdened Leader podcast.

Deepa, welcome!

Deepa Iyer: Thank you so much for having me!

Rebecca Ching: As I mentioned before we started recording, I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a long time, so I’m really honored and looking forward to having this conversation because we have a lot to learn from you.

Even before we get into the questions, I just want to make a reflection in your book. I’ve got it right here, your workbook, Social Change Now: A Guide For Reflection and Connection. As I was reviewing this for our conversation again (and I go back to it a lot), I was struck that every time I go into this I feel expansive, I feel curious, I feel clear, I feel grounded. I was noticing, especially with so much going on in the world right now, that’s not how I feel. When there’s a need, when there’s a divide, when there are polarities, when there is tragedy, I often feel fear, I feel maybe some guilt and shame, I feel obligated, sometimes I feel pressure to be performative. This, I keep coming back to it, and I just wanted to name that before we dig into some things in this book, that it has just been a really good grounding anchor when I feel spinning, and I’m reminded, “Oh, wait. Here are my lanes. Here are the places that I can make an impact. Here’s what that looks like,” and it kind of mutes out a lot of the spinning noise.

So I just wanted to start off by saying thank you for this labor of love. It’s a real gift, and it’s so needed right now.


Deepa Iyer: Thank you so much, Rebecca. That means a lot to me. I appreciate you.

Rebecca Ching: I mean it, too, because shame does not create sustained change. Fear does not bring out the best in us.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: I’m a Systems thinker. My foundational training is in Systems Theory, and so, the ecosystem approach is something that I’m really naturally bent towards, and you talk a lot about that in your workbook. I’d love for you to walk me through just the basics of how you define an ecosystem approach to change and how can we figure out our place in an ecosystem.

Deepa Iyer: Absolutely, and I just want to reflect back that this framework developed for me during times of overwhelm and confusion as well, so I feel like it helps me still. I turn to it often during those moments, and I’m just glad that it’s of use to others too.

So the ecosystem framework is really one that moves us from being in silos and in isolation from each other to connectivity and solidarity with one another, and what it really — and you mentioned it. I think when folks look at the visual of the ecosystem framework they can understand this because it really shows that each of us, whether we’re individuals or organizations, have a role to play when we want to advance social change, but that we can only do that when we’re actually moving together with others who have the same values or close to the same values, who have the same interest in motivation towards creating change in our society, our neighborhoods, our campuses, our organizations, and who really want to learn from each other.


And so, this framework has three components to it. It starts with a real focus on values. What are the core values that drive me? What do I mean by words like equality or inclusion? What does that actually mean? And the second question is what kinds of roles do I want to play, am I being asked to play, should I play in service to those values? And the different roles include visionary, builder, disruptor, healer, many others. There are ten roles that we’re invited to think about in this framework, and many of them are very complementary.

Then the third part of the framework is that it is an ecosystem in such that when we really focus on our relationships with each other, when we’re thinking about reciprocity rather than competition, when we’re focused on understanding how we can move together in a given moment, our ecosystem gets strengthened and we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. And that I think limits the confusion and the overwhelm that so many of us are feeling these days.

Rebecca Ching: What I like about this approach too is it’s not — because so many people that I work with and that I know and a lot of the circles I run in it’s like full-body sacrifice. But this is like a both-and. It has to be an internal, “Okay, what are my values? What are my gifts and my strengths? How do I work, and how do I connect with others?” It’s not a my way or this is the only way. It really is this inner connection, and here in The States that’s just not intuitive to how we work.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah. Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: You mention there are weavers, experimenters, frontline responders, visionaries, builders, caregivers, disruptors, healers, storytellers, guides, and weavers, and there are these really cool descriptions.


It really stood out to me. I was like, “Okay, yeah, I’m a healer and a weaver. Yes.” And so, then, what does that do? And you talk about how to help even those with those strengths. So how do we even lead others, which is really cool.

But just given the climate that we’re in right now at the time of recording this conversation, how can healthy ecosystems help build resistance to polarizations and divisions?

Deepa Iyer: I think that’s such an important question to be asking right now in this moment where we’re seeing so much polarization happening, so many ways in which people are not listening to each other or hearing each other or making assumptions and falling into really unsophisticated binaries. And the way that, if we use an ecosystem model, we can tend to some of that is by, one, recognizing that we need to understand where we’re aligned when it comes to our values, and that’s really where, as I mentioned earlier, this framework begins.

I have seen many organizations in this time do kind of a double take on their values. What do they mean, right, when they’re talking about values related to liberation and freedom. Does that only mean for one set of people or one country or one location? How does that actually apply across the board? I’ve seen organizations think about questions like, “Is our commitment to justice within the boundaries of only the United States, or does it extend?” or “How are we understanding the histories of occupation and resistance in Palestine,” for example.

So there are all these conversations that are happening that I think are about values – what we believe in, what’s really important to us. So I think that’s one way to begin. And even if there is not alignment, which is very much inevitable.


We’re not always gonna be on the same page even if we have a value of freedom or equality in mind. But it’s really the opportunity that an ecosystem can create the container to have some of those uncomfortable conversations and that the ecosystem creates the container where we could all sit with some discomfort and move through that both inside of us but with each other as well and recognize and have faith that if we are having those conversations in good faith, that the ecosystem is going to enable us to learn a little bit more about an issue or about each other or where we stand in terms of our values.

I think another thing I would quickly say is that when we work as part of ecosystems, we can also really think about doing some work on ourselves as well as taking the time to learn so that we don’t feel as though we have to respond immediately, that we have to say the right thing on social media, that we have to know everything about a particular topic, right? An ecosystem approach enables us to learn from others, like the guides who are part of the ecosystem. It enables us to take the time that we need to work through some of the misunderstandings and the polarizations through the help of weavers and healers. And so, relying on others to help us understand better what the situation is externally and also the skills that we need internally, right, to move through some of this, can actually come from an ecosystem approach so we’re not feeling like we have to do it all alone or by ourselves.

Rebecca Ching: I think that’s really powerful because a healthy container, a healthy ecosystem can hold a lot of disagreement, a lot of discomfort, a lot of back and forth without dehumanizing, demoralizing, dismissing, right?


That’s actually health, and, as someone who is in the healing space too, if we have a low capacity for conflict and discomfort, then that is gonna be hard to navigate our own internal ecosystem, let alone be in the space with disagreement. And you wrote this in your workbook, and you’re alluding to it, but I want us to be a little more explicit with it, about how can a clash in values within an ecosystem (whether it’s one that we live or work in) be used for positive?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, I think one of the first things to keep in mind is that those sorts of values clashes don’t necessarily mean that our ecosystem is unhealthy or that there’s something structurally and fundamentally wrong with what we’ve done in the past or any of that, right? I think that it’s actually just a signal that we need to do some interior work to understand what has shifted in our ecosystem. How have external events, perhaps, put a spotlight on values that we took for granted but now are exposing some dissonance or confusion or discomfort?

And so, I think that it’s really important that we don’t just take for granted that, “Oh, we’re working towards a particular goal, so we’re always gonna be on the same page.” That’s a very stagnant approach, right, to social change and to ecosystems. So one is just kind of accepting that conflict is inevitable and not being scared of it.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.


Deepa Iyer: The second is to actually make sure that when we have those values misalignments or values clashes that we’re really leaning on the healers and the weavers to come in and help us understand, and I think that’s why healers and weavers are so important because they have the ability to look at the big picture. They have the ability to listen. They have the ability to create the container where it’s possible to understand where you and I might be coming from and to hear each other’s perspectives. They set community agreements. They even sometimes talk about, “Well, what will happen when we disagree? How will we respond?”

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Deepa Iyer: And so, it’s really important to try to include healers and weavers into our ecosystems from the get-go, but particularly when there is some form of conflict.

So values misalignment is actually an opportunity for growth, and it’s an opportunity for healing, and it’s an opportunity for progress. I think the one thing I’ll just say just to close this out is that I do think that sometimes we can get stuck in a lot of naval gazing when it comes to getting everything right, and I think that’s also this pattern that often happens where we have to have sort of the purist analysis. We have to be perfect before we say or do something, and that can lead to a process where we’re kind of looking at our values over and over again and they don’t make sense anymore, right? Or we’re caught in the cycle, so I think it’s also important to set some boundaries in terms of time and questions and process so that we’re able to move from values to the next step, which is the action.

Rebecca Ching: Exactly.

Deepa Iyer: What is our ecosystem now going to do, right? And even if we’re misaligned and we’re not all perfectly there, what are still some things that we’re agreeing to do because the moment requires us to say something or do something.


Rebecca Ching: Yeah, perfection and a pension towards everybody wanting everyone to be comfortable can really derail needed change and needed action. That’s a good word there.

I want to keep digging into your workbook, but I want to pause and have you take me back to an experience. You shared this on social media, and it really stood out to me. Late of summer 2023, you traveled back to Louisville, Kentucky, which is the city that your family immigrated to when you were 12. Perfect time to move to a new country, especially, right?

Deepa Iyer: [Laughs] Exactly.

Rebecca Ching: You went back there to deliver a workshop, and I just want you to take us back to how you were feeling in that moment as you prepared to talk about things like resistance, solidarity, and belonging back in the place that you went through your teenage years.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, my parents still live in Louisville, Kentucky, so I’m there often, and I have, as you alluded to, a complicated relationship with the city because of many of the experiences that my family and I had when we moved there in the mid-eighties. And at that time in Kentucky, race was really looked at through the binary of Black or white, and so, it was clear that we weren’t white, but it wasn’t exactly clear how we thought of ourselves as Asian Americans or Indian Americans, and how that was in relationship to whiteness and also to Black communities and anti-black racism.


So there was a lot there that I don’t think I had the words for at all that I felt and experienced viscerally but couldn’t articulate. And so, whenever I go back, it’s always a process of renegotiating that for me, and I think this past year when I returned I had this opportunity to connect with an organization there that is doing some tremendous work around unearthing the hidden histories of enslaved Black people in Kentucky, and that led to a podcast episode on the podcast that I do called Solidarity Is This where we were able to really explore what does it mean to unearth these histories in Louisville, Kentucky. What does it mean to unearth them in terms of the ways in which these histories have not been shared, taught, etcetera.

Hannah Drake and Josh Miller from The (Un)Known Project have created this real immersive exhibit space on the banks of the Ohio River where you actually see the names and the footprints of those individuals who were enslaved but their histories were hidden. And I think for me, just even talking to them and moving through that podcast episode helped me to have a different understanding of how people in Kentucky now are reshaping it and are bringing forward a lot of these experiences and these histories that exist but that we didn’t know about, and it made me feel a lot more connected to a city that I have a complex relationship with.

Rebecca Ching: What would you say to 12-year-old Deepa? What would you want to say to her knowing what you know now?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting because I feel like I am more in touch with her these days because, as we were prepping for the show, I told you that I had a 13-year-old son, and so, as he moves through his adolescence, I see shades of myself and confront myself more.


I think that I would tell her that she will find places and people to whom she will belong, because I think that the lack of belonging, was a really tough experience that 12-year-old Deepa and beyond went through, especially when you move from the country of your birth and growth and family at that age, it’s very different than leaving when you’re one or two years old.

And so, the sense of disassociation (Meena Alexander, a writer, calls it the shock of arrival) was something that I think had ripple effects in my life for some time, to understand and integrate where I belonged and to whom I belonged. And so, that’s the message I would provide, that you will find those places and spaces and people to belong to.

Rebecca Ching: Where do you find belonging today?

Deepa Iyer: Well, you know, I think one of the places that provides me a lot of nourishment when it comes to belonging is indeed social change ecosystems and movement spaces, and for me, that has been primarily in the Asian American and South Asian American community spaces where I feel that our shared purpose of changing systems and policies in this country, understanding belonging and inclusion, changing narratives, that work really speaks to me, and I find that I have a place there in that ecosystem as a storyteller and a frontline responder and a guide. I also feel spaces of belonging, I think like many other folks do, with family, chosen family, and real family, friends, and community.

So those are the places (more so than a location or a city place) that I feel that real sense of belonging, that, “Yeah, this is where I need to be right now.”


Rebecca Ching: Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for sharing that. It’s so hard to have a long-game approach when you’re in adolescence or even a newly-launched young adult in a world, and even with my own teenagers right now they’re starting to look ahead and seeing the world through their eyes is hard, but having those certainty anchors of places to find belonging or to know that it will come is so important, and at the beginning of your workbook, you ask a couple of powerful questions that I thought I’d just love to hear you answer. You ask the reader, and I’d love to hear how you answer these.

The first one is how can each of us connect with the urgency of this time with effectiveness, sustainability, and connection?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, I mean, I ask those questions in the book because I, too, am grappling with a lot of that as well. I think that when we’re faced with moments of urgency, and I think there are so many that have been presented to us and I think will continue to, the way to kind of move through those times is to get really anchored in terms of how can I be of service. What are the skills that I can bring forth that I have learned or that I have experienced to be of service to a particular ecosystem, and then finding an ecosystem that we’re connected to. Sometimes people will reach out to me and say, “I don’t have an ecosystem. I’m not connected to XYZ,” and I think that it speaks to kind of the isolation that a lot of folks feel, I think, in this day and age. I think it’s really important that we connect ourselves or make the ecosystem ourselves. Whether that’s sometimes you can’t find it at work, and it’s something that you find on an online community of activists or in a writing circle. I think you have to seek it out. I don’t think that we can just do social change as individuals behind a laptop screen.


So the way that I would answer is to find our ecosystem or make one, right, create one, and then really understand how in a time of urgency we can be of service. And that comes back to, as we talked about, really understanding what our strengths are and what we can bring to the fore. It could change depending on the moment too.

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Deepa Iyer: For example, you might be a frontline responder in this moment where you’re putting together rallies and protests for Palestinian liberation, and that’s where you need to be, but another crisis might come forth in a couple of months, and the role that is needed from your ecosystem might be that of a storyteller to document and share what is happening to communities that are directly affected by that crisis.

So I think it’s also a nimble approach, a flexible one, that enables us to move around both in terms of what’s needed of us but also in terms of our sustainability.

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard. Leading is also often controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, and your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm.


I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up old echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing it safe and small.

Now, leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is both actionable and aligned.

So, when the stakes are high and you don’t want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than you were taught.

To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: What’s coming to mind, too, especially as you touch on the loneliness and isolation that many feel as they seek out ecosystems, community, stronger connections, what are some of the flags that the ecosystem we’re in is one that isn’t welcoming diverse thought and difference, but it’s kind of that group think, and it becomes a little bit of a silo and an echo chamber. What are some of the red flags, because I think a lot of people have found, especially over the last few years, what they feel — “Oh, I’ve finally come home,” but then it’s just there isn’t diversity of thought, there isn’t challenging, there isn’t questioning. It’s just a hunkering down into these kinds of bunkers of being.


And so, what are some of the red flags that we should look out for in ourselves but also in the spaces that we’re in that they’re not a place of health but really dangerous, that could — you know, I guess I’m just thinking as we’re recording this just days before the January 6th anniversary. And so, yeah, I would love your thoughts on that.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, I mean, I think that oftentimes we are a part of ecosystems that feel like a pressure cooker, and the burners are turned really high up because there’s an urgency or a crisis or because we just don’t have enough resources and we need to do X, Y, or Z. I think some of the flags or questions to be thinking about is is it possible to create space in order to slow down? Sometimes when something is really urgent, it’s hard to do that but I think it really behooves us to take a couple of steps to stop and breathe and assess and evaluate before we just move. So that’s one question: can the ecosystem or the container lend itself to be one that allows for that kind of space and reflection process?

And that would also be something that’s important to you. As you said, it’s also about what is uncomfortable for you. So a lot of people, I think, have trouble with that sort of, “Let’s stop and process.” So I think that is one question that I would often ask in order to feel more comfortable in an ecosystem.


Another one is, as you said, where there isn’t an opportunity to share different points of view, to share different strategies or directional points, right? In a strong ecosystem, there is this sense that we can hear multiple points of view and we’re not going to kind of crumble when that happens.

Rebecca Ching: Yes.

Deepa Iyer: So the capacity (again as we discussed for conflict management) for generative conflict.

Rebecca Ching: Mm, generative conflict. Yeah, I think that’s one of my biggest red flags. If I’m in a space where I feel like it is not — my questioning or disagreeing is not welcome, then I have to interrogate that within myself, like, okay, what’s going on within me and what’s going on with this space, that I don’t feel like it’s okay to say, “I don’t know if I agree with this. I don’t know if this is okay.” So I think that’s huge.

Deepa Iyer: And I think it’s also important to think about kind of what the bigger picture is because we can all have different points of view on where something should go or what should happen, but the ecosystem itself is situated in bigger ecosystems, right? It’s got a set of goals and it needs to move in a certain direction. So I think that it is important to bring our questioning and also recognize that the ecosystem may be limited. There could be the space to talk through things, but the decisions that are made might actually be motivated and influenced by factors that we’re not aware of. So I think there has to be a little bit of a give and take in terms of the ecosystem being something that will always move in a particular direction.

Rebecca Ching: And there isn’t just one authority, right, or one person. I think that’s what I like about the ecosystem lens. It has a lot more of an egalitarian role. There are still probably elements of hierarchy or different levels of role power, but it isn’t this so linear, top-down, and you have to stay safe by falling in line.


Deepa Iyer: Right. Right.

Rebecca Ching: There are still boundaries.

Deepa Iyer: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: And I think especially for businesses, like you said, if we need to make money, okay, well, how are we gonna make that money? How are we gonna care for those that are helping us make the money, or we want to see change but how are we gonna maintain everyone’s well-being while we’re fighting for these seemingly insurmountable changes?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And on that note, you also ask in these intro questions (and this one really stood out to me) how can we embody grace, joy, and accountability even when the external forces of division and inequity are relentless?

Deepa Iyer: Oftentimes, we are forced into a couple of different types of responses when the forces are relentless, right? We feel as though either we’re confused and overwhelmed, we don’t know what to do, or we take quick actions that are not necessarily aware of or influenced by what’s going on around us, or we can get to the point of heartbreak and disappointment that it’s hard for us to see the possibility. That last part is really where I think that question that you read out loud is about.

So finding ways to experience joy even in the midst of tremendous crisis and heartbreak, I think that’s a way for us to keep moving forward. It could be something simple such as I’ve noticed, for example, something that often gives me joy in the midst of heartbreak is when I hear from young people who are becoming really aware to what’s going on around them, whether we’re talking about Palestine or whether we’re talking about the climate crisis, and they get engaged.


They want to support, and that is a way of expanding our ecosystems and, for me, it’s a small source of joy because it shows that the work that we’re doing is important and vital and folks are getting energized by it. It’s hard to experience that when we’re moving through so much disappointment and heartbreak.

And then I think around grace and accountability that, really, I think is tied to a sense of humility —

Rebecca Ching: Mm, yeah.

Deepa Iyer: Right? And understanding that — and you said this already — we might not know all the answers, and we have to leave some space to say, “I made a mistake,” or “I didn’t know.” I think the ecosystem also has to be a container that accepts that rather than kind of discard people if they’ve made a mistake or if they didn’t know all of the answers.  

Rebecca Ching: Yes! That’s a word because I think if there’s a fear of being discarded from a place where you find community and connection because you made a mistake, or your idea didn’t work out or really wasn’t something worth moving forward on. If our worthiness and value are tied to our curiosity and our contribution, that’s a huge flag.

I think, too, over the holidays my husband and I were really intentional about joy. This approach that I’m trained in called Polyvagal Theory talks about finding the glimmers, these little moments where you just kind of feel in your body, whether it’s a beautiful sunset or just seeing my kids smile, and I think there’s this sense here with kind of the work ethic in our culture that if you are resting and recharging and having fun, then you’re not invested, you’re not really working hard enough.


And I can’t call bullshit to that enough, and I’m so done with that, that this is a frickin’ marathon of so much, whatever we’re involved in, and taking those moments to notice those glimmers while holding, I mean, right there is grief with it all and definite uncertainty. So I really appreciate this question, and I think I’m gonna put these up so I can revisit them regularly, and I encourage listeners to do the same.

I want to shift a little bit, and I’m really excited to hear your thoughts on this. How do you differentiate social activism and cancel culture?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, speaking of discarding and disposing.

Rebecca Ching: Exactly. Exactly. [Laughs]

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, well, I don’t think that cancel culture is a form of social activism. I think that it is an approach and a strategy to take down power or what is perceived as power. So I don’t really see it being a strategy that we should use inside of our ecosystems and movements. I think that it can actually lead to a lot of harm and distrust among folks and among organizations.

First and foremost, of course there are gonna be times when we need to hold people accountable or hold power accountable, right? And that is important. But the cancelation, right, the process of saying, “Okay, you did something wrong, so you are now forever excommunicated from our movement or our social change circles,” I think is problematic because it assumes that every single one of us is always going to know what to do.


And I can say for myself I’ve made so many mistakes over the course of my social change journey (both public and private) that I’ve learned from. And I think that when we have this threat of cancellation or this possibility of cancellation, we tend to stay close within. We don’t engage, then, with the ecosystem. We don’t have the uncomfortable conversations. We don’t experiment with ideas. We don’t explore our curiosity. And so, I think that it’s a really dangerous way to approach folks within social change movements.

It is a little different, though, when we’re talking about people with power and platforms that are making decisions about a policy, right, a government policy that is going to have an impact on a lot of people around the world. It’s not possible, often, to have an audience with that person. You can’t pick up the phone and have a conversation with your senator, right, to be a one-on-one kind of thing. And so, sometimes activists do use cancellation or calling out to point out some of the ways in which there is hypocrisy. Say, an elected official for example, is not representing the needs of their constituents.

So I think we have to sort of think about the way in which we use cancellation or calling out and to whom we’re doing it. What I think is problematic is when we’re doing it to folks who are part of our own ecosystems.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Deepa Iyer: And so, I think it’s important to differentiate that, right? And that I see quite a bit inside of social movements and social change spaces where we have this really high standard that we hold, for example, an executive director to.


They’re supposed to know everything. They’re supposed to always make the right decisions. They’re supposed to set the tone and culture for an organization. We’ve seen examples where that kind of cancellation of a leader, a social movement leader, can be really harmful for the ecosystem as a whole. And in those kinds of cases, when you know someone, when you’re familiar with someone, it actually helps to pick up the phone and have a conversation, right, rather than sort of go online and start blasting them.

So I think it’s important to really be intentional about who’s our target, what are we gonna gain from the use of cancellation, what other strategies could we think about first, particularly if we’re familiar with this person and know them one on one, and what is our own role in doing this? Are we trying to embody the role of the disruptor, which is one of the roles on the map, and if so, how is that aligned with, again, the broader purpose, right, and the values that we’re committed to?

Rebecca Ching: You know, I can’t help but be thinking about, also at the time of our conversation, Dr. Gay stepped down as the president of Harvard, and it, to me, was the weaponizing of cancel culture because the intention wasn’t accountability. It was really weaponizing and creating, in my understanding — this is me. I feel strongly about it. Happy to have conversations one on one, not in the DMs of social media about this, but it was really about creating more distrust but also the second woman to lead Harvard and the first Black woman. So there’s so much there, and it’s just been very heavy on my heart, and that’s been the violence, I think, used of that versus accountability, so the opposite of that.

What would you say are the qualities of public accountability when used for good, not doing harm, not weaponizing, not perpetuating power-over systems, but how can public accountability be used for good, and how have you seen it used for good?


Deepa Iyer: Yeah, no, I agree with you in terms of what has happened to Dr. Gay and the weaponization of race and gender at an institution that I think wants to preserve itself more so than think about the leadership that it has appointed.

In terms of public accountability practices, I’ve seen this in different ways. I mean, I think that oftentimes it has happened in the form of naming and shaming, right? So, for example, a lot of corporations that might be behind the climate crisis, right, like naming and shaming those is one way of holding them accountable. Another way has been to identify the ways in which — and a lot of times I think activists do so much research. It doesn’t just — that they take to Twitter and say something, right? They’ve done the research. They’ve done the reports in terms of understanding where the money flows or where funding comes from or what the connections are in a particular issue and then bringing those to bear. I think accountability also happens when there is the opportunity and prospect of change and redemption and repair.

Rebecca Ching: Oh. I’m gonna jump in. That feels different than naming and shaming because I’m kind of stuck on that because I don’t ever see shame for good. But is it naming and making it really uncomfortable to stay that path but not dehumanizing in the process that’s in flow as well?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: But I think if we’re ashamed, then we’re not going to really change.

Deepa Iyer: But I think it depends —

Rebecca Ching: If we’re convicted, if guilt — if I’m like, “Ooh, I didn’t do something,” but if I’m doing something then I’m just doing something for optics or I’m gonna turn on myself or turn on others. I don’t know. That’s just how I understand shame. So I get nervous about that.


Deepa Iyer: Yeah, no, I appreciate it. I think I probably have a different take on it from the standpoint of campaigns that are really focused on bringing about systems change. And so, there are times when I think it’s a tactic that is helpful, especially if you are identifying publicly — and I think shaming in that context is literally naming, right, naming an individual or an organization or a corporation.

Rebecca Ching: Putting light on it.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, spotlighting it.

Rebecca Ching: Putting light on behaviors. Yes.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And that can be vulnerable, yeah.

Deepa Iyer: This is shameful behavior, right? Like, this is, in a way, shaming a community that you’re part of or it is shameful behavior for a corporation that has X, Y, Z values, right? And so, I don’t necessarily see it in that vein. I think that is just a tactic that some activists use in terms of campaigns. Naming and shaming doesn’t mean that there’s no space, then, for that target to change. I think that the hope is, right, that by naming and shaming that there will be some sort of systems change or a policy change or an institutional change. So it creates an opportunity to do that. And the accountability, though, is both ways. The person who’s being asked to shift has to also feel as though they want to do that, that they can do that, that they agree — they have to agree with some of the requests and demands that are being made as well.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah. Yeah. I’m gonna keep thinking about that because, for me, I always have the lens that — and kind of going with what Brené Brown says — that shame hurts the person giving it and then also the person receiving it.


But I think there’s a nuance in the words that I think — but to say, “Wow, this behavior is horrible, and we want you to change. We just don’t want you to crumble.” I think that’s the thing. That’s what I see sometimes, that the pressure is so much that folks, then, just make performative changes to get everyone off their back or they hunker down. We see this with the [INDISCERNIBLE] crowd. Anyone in that, they just hunker down, and the more that people come and try to hold, they love kind of getting everyone enraged.

Deepa Iyer: I don’t think that the tactic of shaming a child is the right tactic, right? So I just think it’s a lot more complex.

Rebecca Ching: Sure.

Deepa Iyer: I don’t think that the way that Brené Brown or whoever defines it, that might be in an interpersonal context, and I think that’s very different from a campaign that is trying to actually say that a government is being shameful. So shaming the people who are associated with that is a tactic that a lot of activists use, and I think that’s very different from, I think, what you might be alluding to, which could be a one-on-one kind of experience that’s interpersonal.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, no, it’s a good rumble to continue with, too. I guess what I’m just thinking of is a lot of leaders, when they get scared — I used to work in DC, so I’ve seen a lot of behind the scenes with senators and the ones that can sit with a lot of public accountability and the ones that are constantly worried, that were worried about, “What are they gonna think? What if they vote me out?” And they kind of are more worried about themselves versus why they’re there, [Laughs] it’s to make a difference. So I appreciate you unpacking that a little bit with me.

I want to shift a little bit to just about success, especially in light of your work with ecosystems. How has your understanding of success changed since you were younger and what does success mean to you today?


Deepa Iyer: It’s not a word that I use a lot, so when you sent me the question, I was also pondering sort of what it means to me. I think that there have been times in my life where success has been associated with achievement in different forms, and I have learned over the years and decades that success to me is actually how I would probably define and characterize as contentment.

Rebecca Ching: Mm, I like that.

Deepa Iyer: Contentment I think looks different to me as I grow older.

Rebecca Ching: So true.

Deepa Iyer: Right? Yeah, and a lot of times it’s the space where I feel aligned with myself, where I feel that I’m in a sweet spot of this hour and this day, when I’m doing X thing, gives me a feeling of deep contentment and alignment, and so, that feels like a success. So I think it’s different than the way that it’s usually defined.

Rebecca Ching: Totally, and I love this lens. I’m gonna really be thinking about that. And what would you say are the stakes for all of us right now to engage in social change wherever we lead?

Deepa Iyer: You know, I just feel that we can no longer deny or dismiss or delegate social change. It’s right in front of us, right, and every single one of us actually can take some form of action to make a difference, and it’s really important that we don’t sort of say, “Well, someone else is gonna take care of it.” I think social change right now requires each of us to figure out, “Who are my people, in terms of my ecosystem? What roles do I want to show up as in this moment? And what actions will I be taking in service to the broader goals of the ecosystem?”


It’s not gonna be easy. It’s not comfortable. It’s actually I think really challenging and very, as we talked about earlier, oftentimes laden with conflict and discomfort.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Deepa Iyer: And I think that’s okay. We just have to accept that. It’s not an easy path to be involved in social change. But I think that it’s important that we don’t dismiss or delegate it to others. So whatever the issue is, right, that really calls to you, I think it’s important to lean into it and to not get more and more hunkered down into our silos and into these isolated communities that we live in and really think about where we can dig in and make a difference.

Rebecca Ching: I love that. I love that so much. I could keep talking to you for ages. Thank you so much for giving us a little bit of a window into your work in your workbook, which I recommend everybody have on their desktop right now. But I want to wrap up with some light-hearted quickfire questions, which I traditionally do as I end my Unburdened Leader conversations.

I’m curious, Deepa, what are you reading right now?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, I love that question because I’ve been trying to read more. I finished, recently, a fictional novel called Honor by Thrity Umrigar, a South Asian American writer that I really recommend, and I just started the book that I’m sure folks are familiar with called The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi. So that’s what I’m moving through right now.


Rebecca Ching: What song are you playing on repeat?

Deepa Iyer: Right, [Laughs] maybe this is a thing of the new year, but there’s a song called “This Year” that I have been listening to quite a bit. So look it up!

Rebecca Ching: All right. What is the best TV show or movie that you’ve seen recently?

Deepa Iyer: I have been watching this Danish show called Borgen, which is on Netflix. It’s just a really interesting series about a woman who becomes the Prime Minister of Denmark, and sort of both her professional as well as her personal life and how that is implicated by taking on this leadership position that she’s in. It’s really good.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. What is your favorite eighties piece of pop culture? And if not eighties, whatever decade is your jam.

Deepa Iyer: I think it’s just anything, honestly, eighties music related.

Rebecca Ching: Hello. Hello.

Deepa Iyer: Like MTV, a total eighties kid.

Rebecca Ching: I want my MTV. What have they done?

Deepa Iyer: I don’t know! [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: I know, it’s so sad. It’s so sad.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, and the mixtapes. I really miss those.

Rebecca Ching: Gosh, I know the art of the mixtape, especially waiting for the song to come on the radio so you can hit record at just the right time.

Deepa Iyer: Yes, yes, yes.

Rebecca Ching: If you are a Gen X-er, you are understanding, maybe a little Millennial too. Okay, what is your mantra right now?

Deepa Iyer: Yeah, it’s like you picked all these questions that I had been thinking about, so it’s great. It’s actually stay gold, which I recently wrote an essay at the beginning of the year on Substack about this. But it’s a phrase that comes from this book called The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton that was a real favorite of mine, and then my kid read it this year, so we got to read it.

Rebecca Ching: No way!


Deepa Iyer: And there’s a poem in there called “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, and one of the characters in the book says, “Stay gold,” and it’s just a way to recognize kind of what you talked about earlier where those small moments of joy, even if they’re ephemeral and they’re temporary, can be the moments that stay gold and stay permanent inside of us.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah and are sustaining too. I’m so curious to hear what you’re gonna say to this. What is an unpopular opinion that you hold, Deepa?

Deepa Iyer: I don’t know at this point. Maybe it’s the shaming, [Laughs] after our conversation. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Deepa Iyer: The public shaming. I’m not sure. That’s a tough one for me. I’m gonna have to get back to you on that one. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: No problem. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?

Deepa Iyer: You know, I think that the person that both challenges and inspires me would be my son, my teenage son. I think as any parent (you’re a parent) it’s like the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life and where I feel like I’m constantly confronting the limits of what I’m capable of. But just kind of watching him grow into himself and recognizing that my role there is to be a guide in that process is one that really inspires me to do better. And then also to make sure that I’m exposing him to a lot of the injustices and the inequities and the possibilities in this world. So that really I think is what challenges and inspires me.

Rebecca Ching: With you on that a hundred percent. Deepa, this was really an honor. Thank you for your time. For folks listening, where can they find you and connect with your work?


Deepa Iyer: Yeah, so I would say that on the ecosystem framework, the place to go is www.socialchangemap.com, and on work related to Solidarity Practice that I do at The Building Movement Project, the website is www.solidarityis.org. And then I’m also on Instagram @deepaviyer. 

Rebecca Ching: Wonderful! Thank you so much for your time. Again, it has been an honor, and I really appreciate you and all that you put out into the world.

Deepa Iyer: Thanks so much for having me, Rebecca!

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: Before you go, I want to ensure you take away some important wisdom Deepa shared with us in this Unburdened Leader conversation. Deepa walked us through on how her workbook and methodology, Ecosystems for Change (and run, don’t walk, to order this workbook, please), can help us align on most of our values, though not every single one, to move us forward together. She also talks about how we can help create space for all the different roles she details in her ecosystem, and this normalizes conflict and decreases overwhelm when we don’t know how to help and make a difference in our world that is so on fire right now.

Lastly, Deepa talks about the power — I just really love this term — of generative conflict that moves us collectively forward with meaningful action when we really listen and honor all the differences in our ecosystems. And this takes work, and this takes time, and this approach challenges the approach of what we think efficiency is, and we have a whole lot of unlearning about what it means to be productive, and I really appreciate how this model can do that.


So, I’m curious. What piques your interest about the Ecosystem for Change approach? And how does your relationship with conflict help or hurt how you lead yourself and others? As we wrap up this episode, it’s so important to reflect on how we do conflict. How you approach your feelings of overwhelm by all the needs in the world can lead you to feel frozen or it can take you on a deeper discovery of yourself so you can have a greater impact on all those around you and the world, and this is the ongoing work of an unburdened leader.

Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me and sign up for my weekly Unburdened Leader email at www.rebeccaching.com!

And, again, if this episode impacted you positively, I’d be honored if you left a rating, a review, and shared it with some folks who you think may benefit from it. And this episode was produced by the incredible team Yellow House Media!

[Inspirational Music]

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meet the founder

I’m Rebecca Ching, LMFT.

I help change-making leaders get to the root of recurring struggles and get confidently back on track with your values, your vision, and your bottom line. 

I combine psychotherapeutic principles, future-forward coaching, and healthy business practices to meet the unique needs and challenges of highly-committed leaders in a high-stakes world.

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