Alumni Profiles Series: Lesley Curtis
Lesley Curtis received her B.A. in International and Global Studies from the University of North Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in Romance Studies from Duke University, where she studied the history and literature of abolitionist movements. After graduating from Duke, she held a postdoctoral fellowship at Wellesley College. In 2017, Lesley founded Sagely, a consulting firm that empowers organizations and leaders to navigate cultural change with confidence and the power of storytelling.
Tell me a bit about your time at Duke.
When I was studying at Duke, I was deeply passionate about storytelling, the power of communication, and how people are arguing for their own equality and a better world.
I was also really interested in the intergenerational aspects of stories, like the way you can have one thing that has happened to a particular generation but how that continues to be suffered and felt, even in ways that cannot be articulated or recognized, by later generations, because it is about a story or how we see the world. That was something I was really passionate about.
What professional plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
My assumption was that I would be teaching at the college level, and my assumption really came from the fact that that was what everybody else did. And because of that, there really was not a discussion about anything else. Within that there was an assumption that people would not live with their families, or that they would take a job in the middle of nowhere, or adjunct for a few years, or go without income for a significant period of time. It was part of the culture.
What changed your career path from academia to DEI consultancy?
My parents grew up in rural Appalachia. I do not come from money, so I could not just finish a degree and not work. And I think that was different than for other people. Then there is another side, too: I have an interracial family, and there are certain places that I don’t think we would have felt very comfortable living. That was certainly an aspect of it. In 2014, I had my daughter. I was doing a postdoc, which was great, but it was a huge revelation to understand that parenting is the most important thing that I will ever do, and I am not just going to be hanging out spending one year here or there as many academics do in search of university positions.
The problem is that we really think of ourselves as objective observers. We are dedicated to a subject—you have to be incredibly dedicated to study it for as long as you do—spending all this time trying to find some kind of truth or interpretation. And I think in doing so it’s easy to not pay attention to our personal lives because we are imagining ourselves to be objective observers.
Given all those things and all the personal limitations that I would have to accept in order to take a teaching job, I started doing communications for organizations. I could talk to somebody who’d say, "I'm thinking about this, this and this,” and I could very easily take all those disparate pieces and put them together and say, “Here's the story.” And people really responded to this as a talent. And I [also] realized that anybody who has a Ph.D. in my field could do this. So what I started thinking of—and this is how I explain it to people in our academic circle—is that it is like reading life as a text.
What key needs and challenges drive your clients to hire you?
Many white leaders of organizations are having revelations about the racial and social inequities and wondering, “What do I do?” They are leading organizations that want to have conversations about antiracism. They want to do the right thing, make ethical decisions, and ensure that their employees of color are feeling supported and happy without being tokenized.
One thing I think we are particularly good at is working with white allies. The issue with whiteness is that it is assumed that race does not pertain to us or that it is not something we talk about. There is a tremendous lack of awareness because you can go through your whole life and assume you are the norm. Band-aids are your skin color and the flesh-colored crayon looks like you, for example.
White people are heavily impacted by race and racism, yet they are encouraged to ignore it or actively hide it. In my work, I meet white people who have had to choose between obeying their parents or having Black friends. I have met white people who speak quietly and with shame about their racist relatives. I meet white people who are still tearful about the unethical decisions they were expected to make and uphold.
One of the things I work to communicate is that racism is bad for everybody. You may believe that all of this has been existing without you, but you've been asked to keep this alive in a million different ways. You've been asked to be quiet. You've been shamed into silence.
What has been the most surprising thing about what you do?
It’s surprising to me that there are not more people with my degree doing what I am doing. For those of us who are really invested in storytelling, there are studies on the neurobiology of storytelling and how stories impact us profoundly. For the people who have spent all this time studying stories and histories and the ways in which we create them, why wouldn't they be incredibly valuable in these spaces?
Krishni Metivier, Ph.D.
Recent Ph.D. graduate, Religion
Krishni Metivier recently received her Ph.D. from Duke University where she studied intersections of religious and racial identities. Across a multitude of projects, she has addressed and supported marginalized communities and offered strategies and insights that facilitate social and institutional growth. Her proposed approach to equity and antiracism in higher education published by Inside Higher Ed has been recommended by the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the YMCA, and a host of universities and colleges nationwide. Her doctoral research, supported by the AAUW, tackles racial and religious essentialisms impacting both Black Americans and Hindus. As part of the #LoveIsNotTourism movement, she collaboratively addressed the plight of separated binational couples and families garnering global media attention, including from the BBC.