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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 055: Deanna Rolffs

Deanna Rolffs
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Deanna Rolffs

Deanna Rolffs on Powerful Women: Let's Talk

Deanna Rolffs is a strategist, facilitator, coach, systems thinker, and consultant that has worked with executive leaders and teams for more than twenty years, the last ten focused on the intersection of organizational theory, leadership development, justice, and equity. She has a personal and professional dedication to justice and equity.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.


Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. It is time for Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Thanks so much for joining us today, I’m Jennifer Moss. It is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman Deanna Rolffs. Deanna is a strategist facilitator, coach, systems thinker and consultant and she's worked with executive leaders and teams for more than 20 years. Now, the last 10 or so years have been focused on leadership development and justice and equity. It sounds like she has a full plate like our powerful women do and I'm so happy to welcome you Deanna Rolffs to Powerful Women, Let’s Talk.

Deanna Rolffs: Thank you, Jennifer. Hello Listeners.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. Happy to have you here. So, you’ve got quite an accomplished career. You are we should add the senior consultant at Design Group International, where you’re doing all this incredible work. Plus, you serve on multiple leadership boards. You got your master's at Grand Valley State University and you're completing your coaching credentials as well. We're going to drill down on some of those specifics of all that you do in just a moment but, to start with a quick question. Are you enjoying your journey?

Deanna Rolffs: Always. Always. I think enjoying it for me is about vulnerability and embracing the issuing of the push to be perfect. So, when I can check that and embrace and dive in and be more fully myself, then I really do enjoy it a whole lot more.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So, let's talk about how you support leaders and teams and to grow and to transform in your most recent work as we mentioned with racial equity. I would imagine that you have a lot of interesting and or perhaps difficult conversations regarding that.

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah, definitely. Actually, difficult conversations and facilitating supporting folks regarding how to have difficult conversations is a really big part of my work. So, I just described broadly first and then we can dive in wherever you would like. I'm a process consultant so I've spent most of my career in leadership and nonprofits and K-12 organizations, but with the adult learners and I thought it would do that for the rest of my life. Teams doing brave work right, nationally or locally or somewhere in between and then I found out about Design Group and Design Group is a community of practice so I own my own business and I joined this community and we're all process consultants, which is really as compared to product consultants where you might sell products or you tell people what to do or you kind of walk in that traditional dominant narrative of what a consultant is like you know, you're all fancy and coiffed and you walk in and you know the answers and it's the opposite of that. It's walking alongside, it's asking hard questions, it's listening, helping and learning and I really feel like I've come home in the last few years.

Jennifer Moss: It's a process.

Deanna Rolffs: It is a process. Yes, yes and all changes and the topic of racial equity and anti-oppression work or justice work is no different, right. We're all on a journey. As a white woman myself. I work in teams of BIPOC folks, Black Indigenous people of color, queer folks, a lot of colleagues that I walk alongside they pull me into projects, I pull them into projects and usually it's when a leader or leadership team has embraced that something's just not working and they're missing something. They want to create some change, they maybe write a new mission or maybe they know after last year in the civil unrest and George Floyd's murder they realized, oh, we should really be doing something around equity and inclusion, but we're not too sure what and we know it shouldn't just be counting the presence of difference or diversity. It should be something deeper than that. So, I get referred to folks that are like, hey, do you do this? Or could you help with this? And it can look like a million things because everything's custom, which is also why I love it back to your initial question, am I enjoying the process because I'm changed in the process by walking alongside and I realize every day what I don't know, but I embrace that and kind of have built some muscle to not be so fragile or afraid of that and then modeling that and walking alongside with leaders too.

Jennifer Moss: And so again, you develop and help with that process and it kind of you thought you wouldn't end up doing that, but along the way, your process changed it sounds like.

Deanna Rolffs: Exactly, it really did. All the reasons to say no to consulting or owning my own business went away when I learned about this methodology and like I've been a process, you know, consultant supporting superintendents and leaders from San Francisco unified to, you know, across the U.S. but, doing that owning my own business was so scary and I didn't really think I wanted to, but I can't believe I get to do it. The leaders I walk alongside are so brave and inspiring and that's also what keeps me going.

Jennifer Moss: And that that's very interesting and so this is Powerful Women and I have focused questions that I’d love to ask but I have to go into my reporter zone and say as the process continues with equity and inclusion, are you making progress? do you feel a change?

Deanna Rolffs: Definitely, definitely. A good friend of mine Lisa Nights on a panel recently she said “I remember the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's quote, about the arc of justice,” and she said, “do you think that is happening?” and I feel the same reaction when you ask me that question, I wouldn't be doing this work if I didn't think there was progress and I think as the last 400 years of injustice in the U.S. have taught us when we're willing to see it we have to be willing to go there and the push back is fierce even when we do go there. So, from the littlest steps to the largest steps. I see hope every day or I couldn't keep doing this and I think I have to hold up the mirror to my own biases, my own internalized racism and racial superiority and then meeting people where they are. Right. So, sometimes progress looks like, okay, what do you mean by the term whiteness, are you calling me bad because I'm white and no, not at all. Or sometimes that means like we want to create an anti-racist framework because our organization is doing anti-racist work, but we don't have a framework to guide, right. It can be all the way across that gamut.

Jennifer Moss: I think a part of that process everyone has to take hold of that mirror and hold themselves accountable of sorts.

Deanna Rolffs: You're right. Yeah.

Jennifer Moss: And so as we talk about powerful women and thank you for that, I had to kind of dip alongside the roadway there. So have you as you're on your journey you know, I think we all encounter some sort of barriers. Have you encountered personal barriers? I mean you're fighting for a process in what you do now for a living, but to get where you are today, have you encountered barriers? As most women and people in their various careers do doesn't have to be just female. You travel on your careers path, have you hit barriers along the way?

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah, definitely. I can think of both some personal and professional ones and the first one that comes to mind is when I was in my 20's and I was hired to be a school improvement consultant without having traditional K-12 education. Many earlier, the first years of my career I was hired for positions where people said you think differently, you weren’t trained, traditionally. Why don’t you come in and help us? And I didn't realize what that called me too and I didn't really even realize gender dynamics right in a boardroom. So, I of course, as a woman first saw that in my 20's regarding gender. So, who was excluded and who is included in who's talked over in meetings and who's given credit in meetings and I even saw I think I'm understanding it even more now in my 40's but, I saw because I love being in my 40's it is lovely. There is more bravery to it. Caring less but also carrying more in like really healthy ways. So I remember not even knowing how gender oppression shows up yet, I learned about the first Black professor I had doctor Lloyd Paige at Calvin, she just blew my mind wide open with issues of inequity and I shifted majors and I was like, there's whole studies of sociology and how people interact and growing up in a small town in Iowa, I was kind of in acculturated, not overtly, but I was acculturated to not ask hard questions. I would ask like why do women not lead in church? And does that mean God hates women or why does the Bible say this about people that live in poverty but, I hear you know, around, everyone talks negatively about them. So I was I think the struggle that I'm trying to paint in those couple of bits of stories of my journey are that I didn't have the constructs to understand power dynamics, right, and I saw men just kind of being taken under the wing naturally of other men that were in leadership. So, I didn't see myself as a leader, I didn't know, even though informally people called me that I was like no, I don't look like that. I don't have.

Jennifer Moss: That doesn’t look like me.

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah. I'm different than that. What would that even be like to be a woman that's a leader because it was so out of my frame of experience. So, I think then slowly, I tried to figure it out. I figured out what the anger was like that was coming up, right and how to not push it back down. I learned a little bit here and there about power and how to interact and how to be myself but, I think one of the biggest lessons I learned was to listen and especially as a consultant for 12 years in school improvement early in my career when I was so green, I was just a baby, I didn't know but, I walked alongside and I realized that if I win in presuming I knew the answer, it didn't go well but, if I went in with curiosity and openness and also bravery to say, hey, I observed this. Are you seeing that? Or I wonder about that dynamic? Did you notice that in that group of 40 teachers, it was 3 men and the men spoke, the majority of the time?

Jennifer Moss: Dare to ask the questions.

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah, exactly.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So, as we talk about those barriers on our journeys, you know, all of us have our different journeys. As we strive to move forward a lot of women say it may have taken a while to get there, to point A, to Point B, to C, D wherever you're at. So, we face those obstacles and challenges, as you mentioned, but along the way somewhere you tend to find your own voice what it would take for you to find that voice to be comfortable in your own skin?

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah.

Jennifer Moss: Because that helps along the way and where you're at today to be able to be comfortable so that you can make great progress. You know, in this position that you’re in.

Deanna Rolffs: Yes. I think the first thing that brings me even to today is find your people that you can be authentic with and do your own work as Renee Brown and her sister say like do your work which really it sounds so simple, but it's not easy, but it's so worth it. So, even last year shifting into owning my own business, I started my own blog, which is the scariest thing in the universe to do and I hired a coach Amelie come Monday out of LA a friend of my sister-in-law's, she owns The Center for Women's Voice and she coached me on how to listen and what my fear was about writing and what I didn't want writing to be and what I did want it to be, not some academic paper but, like this is what I'm running into this authentic kind of raw stories of courage that I see that I can center myself on and then say I'm just going to the best I can even walking in today, I thought, OK, my brother told me breathe and,

Jennifer Moss: That's really good advice, as always.

Deanna Rolffs: And don't cuss and be honest. So, I think finding my voice is a journey. It's a lifelong experience and when I look back at myself, even in my 20's, I have a lot of compassion for the person I was and the mistakes I made where when I was in my 20's, I would beat myself up like I'd wake up in the middle of the night and I said this and, you know, really spend a lot of energy focusing on how I wasn't perfect.

Jennifer Moss: And rehashing just beating yourself up over and over.

Deanna Rolffs: Yes.

Jennifer Moss: Been there, done that.

Deanna Rolffs: And figuring out what to replace that with right with abundance and love and joy, I can extend that to everyone else in my life. Why not you?

Jennifer Moss: Yeah. So, what would you say to your 20-year-old self today? Now that you have that inner voice confidence.

Deanna Rolffs: I would say keep being curious. Don't be afraid of what they think air quotes right.

Jennifer Moss: They’re still trying to figure out who they are.

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah, connect to your why. Right what’s your why in this world? What do you want to do with this brave life that you have the one precious life and just don't worry so much.

Jennifer Moss: So, what's on tap now for Deanna Rolffs as we move forward in our powerful women journey? What are we doing now? What's up next? What's on tap?

Deanna Rolffs: I am still figuring out this entrepreneur thing I launched…

Jennifer Moss: That’s a big deal

Deanna Rolffs: it is, especially when I kind of pushed away for a while and I launched full time left my last executive leadership role right before covid. So existential crisis. Right, but I had been building relationships and sharing kind of what this process consulting is, but not trying to convince people to hire me and I think one or 2 things I learned and then I think where it's going but, we'll see. So, right during covid, when covid hit, I shouldn’t say during because its present but, when it hit last March, the first Monday my kids were home from school and like I just went full in. I carry the benefits for our family. I need to earn some money here but, have that fear not rule me. I think that's probably one of the big things I would tell myself too, because I still tell myself now and I sent a bat signal out to Facebook and I said anybody want to do virtual happy hour? I had a fresh zoom account, not the free version, I thought I can invest in this and four women said yes in my life. They didn't know each other, but we joined and all during covid we became a community. We would text each other when we're stressed out, we would share a laugh, we would share silly memes, we would, you know, share anger and frustration and injustice we were seeing and I learned to be authentic in a brand-new way. When I felt like it was directly tied to my paycheck and my ability to support my family, I had to step up and say can I still really be who I am or do I have to try to be who I think people want me to be and every time I spoke into it and really saw somebody for who they were or what they would show me of themselves, I learned and I said yes to everything. Oh you want an hour facilitation on how boards can do virtual meetings? Fabulous. I’ll do that for free, you know, and I really like smaller projects and now what's coming forward is so many bigger projects where teams are grappling for a year and have asked me and a colleague or other colleagues to support or I just finished a project with the United Nations Women which was such an honor with to Julian Newman at Culture Creatives for us to really talk about what leadership and power and oppression looks like even if they're not ready to call it white supremacy or you know, but to say how do you want to fight injustice and how do you as leaders want to change, be open to changing yourself and your organization and the team's you’re on and then those you serve. So it's a little bit of strategic planning with anti-racist framework imbedded. It's a lot of equity and inclusion. You know, we've created this framework for how, you know, an organization, an art organization, for example, might want to engage more deeply in spaces of belonging, but they know they can't just recruit more Black and Brown folks to their board if they're not paying attention to the power dynamics there because it will show that they're excluded. Right and then they're not welcome. So, it's more and more deep work, right and more ways of me figuring out how to also heal I think in some ways the ways that dominant culture has harmed me to think that I have to do or fix or make it happen or force it but, to really hold those many balcony moments for leaders to both grapple and learn and try something even if it feels super risky and then learn from it and try again.

Jennifer Moss: It’s working through that process. You mentioned that at the very top, right.

Deanna Rolffs: Yeah.

Jennifer Moss: So, an easy question for, you, it’s very good and just listening to your work and your journey is incredibly exciting and you know, it's inspiring so, we appreciate you. Easy question, what makes you laugh? It's one of my favorite things. I love to laugh so that's like my state question. I always have to ask every person that I talked to.

Deanna Rolffs: So many things because I’m also so serious. I'm like really focused and dedicated

Jennifer Moss: Serious work.

Deanna Rolffs: Yes, and doctor Christina Cleveland's work has taught me. That part of healing is laughter and joy. A couple things are, maybe just one. We have a new puppy and his name is Storm and our great Dane died this summer. So, we took a little time and seeing the joy and energy of a dog and how much they love you and adore you and just are always interested and curious and we humans have a lot to learn from that about curiosity and openness to each other. So, that's one thing, friends and colleagues are another thing. Some of my leadership Grand Rapids, friends. I found my people. Go A-team at Leadership Grand Rapids I just saw a few of them last week and seeing the things they're doing is super inspiring and we just laugh and enjoy but, also are serious together fighting oppression, right or at least trying and then I think friends and family, of course, where just even an example one good friend of mine. We will call each other when we do really ridiculous things or things you might call stupid like make mistakes like I did this thing, you wouldn't even believe it and we die laughing and then I can let it go rather than you know hold onto it.

Jennifer Moss: Yeah, I get it right.

Deanna Rolffs : And then of course, shows like Schitt's Creek, you know, Canadian humor shows too.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. Simple stuff that just keeps you going from day to day. So last question, lots happening in the world we live in, we talked about some of that. People are often looking for that word of encouragement. Do you have a by chance, a favorite motto or saying that you used to encourage yourself and perhaps others?

Deanna Rolffs: I would like to share, two, if I may? So, the first one is a quote I saw, I am a geek about, quotes, I collect all of these quotes. They inspire me greatly and make me laugh and give me hope, one of them that I do not know to whom I should attribute this, but it is “don't half-ass anything, whatever you do, always use your full ass,” sorry, I cussed. You may have to bleep it out.

Jennifer moss: You’re good.

Deanna Rolffs: I love that because it's like just try it. Just be you don't be so afraid and then secondly, a quote by Alice Walker, “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow,”

Jennifer Moss: I like that, very good. Deanna Rolffs, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation It’s so nice to meet you and to have this chat.

Deanna Rolffs: Thank you so much, Jennifer and thanks, listeners.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely.

And so

again, thank you for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk, I'm Jennifer Moss, please do enjoy your day.


Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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