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When we came up with the idea for this season one day in November of 2019, the only thing about the world that seemed crazy at that moment was the idea of doing an episode all about peer influence. Were we really just going to have an entire episode about Instagram fitness models?
Little did I know that we would soon be living a moment of peer influence like many of us have never experienced. We’ve seen, in such a short time, the power of protest movements to effect change. Whether it is our nationwide reckoning with the role of the police to the long-overdue retirement of some pathetic participation trophies — or, unfortunately, to the incredibly vocal but tiny minority that can’t be burdened to wear a mask over the constitutionality of mask-wearing — have no doubt that your voice can matter.
And if you have doubts that your voice truly matters, then listen to this episode. In our final interview, co-host Elena Valentine interviews her friend Theresa Stewart. And the person who inspired Theresa? Someone she had never met.
Add us to your podcast feed and listen in!
Wait, What Do You Call Yourself?
Jessica Miller-Merrell is a consultant, author, and speaker. She’s also the Chief Innovation Officer at Workology. In other words, she’s an influencer — the type of person you’d see on lists like Micole’s.
But does Jessica think of herself as an influencer? Kind of. For Jessica, thinking of herself as an “influencer” is a bit of a misnomer. Instead, she prefers to think of herself as an educator. “I’m leading with resources — first arming people with information to help them do their jobs better and then to make more informed decisions,” she says.
Whatever she calls herself, though, there was a moment that Jessica realized her voice had power. After the publication of her first book, she spoke at a conference — and had an encounter with a group of people she didn’t realize existed: fans. “I had a group of people kind of following me around, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” Jessica says. “People actually read my stuff.”
“I think an influencer somebody who helps advise or share resources to help someone make a decision, whatever that is.”
You’ve Got Influence, Even If You Don’t Know It
Theresa Stewart is a designer and cultural consultant who is the founder of colored, a diversity and inclusion consultancy. This past June, she shared a Twitter thread detailing her experiences as a Black Queer woman working at Cards Against Humanity, exposing the company’s racist and misogynist culture. As a result of Theresa’s actions, Cards Against Humanity co-founder Max Tempkin is no longer with the company, though he still maintains shares in the business. For more on Theresa’s experiences — and the experience of others’ — be make sure to read this in-depth article on Polygon.
Theresa’s story is a prime example of the power of peer influence — and not just because Theresa was able to effect change. Theresa had shared her story in bits and pieces previously, but never in its entirety. She was inspired to share her story by the #SecondCityIsOver hashtag on Twitter, which exposed institutionalized racism at the comedy institution. Specifically, Theresa was inspired by Aasia Lashay, a Black female comedian Theresa has never met, who was involved with #SecondCityIsOver.
And it’s the fact that Aasia is a Black woman like Theresa that made such a large impact. “Frankly, most design leaders are cis straight white men whose paths are very different than mine,” Theresa says. But a Black woman like Aasia had similar experiences to Theresa. And even though Theresa didn’t know her, the ability to relate to Aasia was very impactful for Theresa. “When I look to peer influencer, I look at somebody who has the same amount of thing I do at stake,” she says.
So if you have your voice, use it. Theresa’s experience inspired others to come forward about their experiences with Cards Against Humanity and Max Tempkin. And you never know when the next person who needs strength will find it from you — even if you’ve never met them.
“If I could see somebody who had all the same things on the line as I did being courageous, I knew I could trust in myself that I have enough protection that like I can say something and live in that aftermath.”
People Featured in This Episode
- Jessica Miller-Merrell: LinkedIn, Twitter, and personal website.
- Theresa Stewart: LinkedIn, Twitter, and company website.
- Theresa’s Twitter thread
- Polygon: Former Employees Accuse Cards Against Humanity of a Racist and Sexist Office Culture
- Medium: Ending My Relationship with Cards Against Humanity and Max Temkin
SPONSOR READ: This season of Margins from Managing Editor is brought to you by Showcase Workshop, which helps your team deliver outstanding sales presentations wherever you go. Marketers, you’ll be able to see how your content performs in real time, so you can deliver more of what works. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/Margins.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: From Managing Editor Magazine, this is Margins. If you have “content” in your job description, or you’re just interested in how we all talk to each other online, we made this podcast for you. And this season on Margins, we’re exploring the idea of influence: who has it, who wants it, and how we wield it at work and in our communities. I’m your host, Mary Ellen Slayter.
ELENA VALENTINE: And I’m your co-host Elena Valentine.
The Big Idea
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: We talk about peer pressure like it’s a bad thing, right? We talk about peer influence and peer pressure like they’re bad things. But in reality, sometimes having a peer give you perspective, that’s the best perspective you could get. It isn’t always a bad thing. And so in my case, I’m having a hard day, I’m having, just got some stuff I’m going through in my mind about running a business during this pandemic, and I reach out to you. So you’re my peer. I consider you my peer both as a business owner, our businesses are about the same size. And I think that the most important thing for me is that we come into, the way that we run businesses, we have similar values. We started our businesses for similar reasons and we have similar values that are guiding them. And so I look to you to tell me if I’m about to do something really stupid, in terms of just the general owning a business, but also if I’m doing something that would conflict with those values.
ELENA VALENTINE: And it’s interesting, because then I think about, “Well, what is that?” If we had to define then that level of peer influence, I think a big one and one t hat certainly is a theme that I’m hearing throughout this episode is there’s a level of relatability and attainability. There’s this difference because we’re on the same level, we’re in the trenches together, going through the same things. And so in the moment we can relate, we can give feedback, we can be inspired by, and inevitably I think maybe make quicker course corrections, as opposed to maybe more higher level, be it influencers or business owners who might be well more veteraned, or perhaps be a larger business, or whatever that is, where it doesn’t necessarily feel like I can make these kinds of quick course corrected steps. What I found as I was going through this episode and really reflecting on this episode is just how much peer influence is important to me and in my life. And if I think about any influence that I’m going to most consistently, it is to my peers, more than any other type of influencer. I don’t know if you feel the same or have been able to distinguish or reflect on the peer influence in your own trajectory.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: I have been. As we’ve been working on this season and on this episode, because what I would say is I reach out to different people for different things. So again, being in this pandemic, I need all the help I can get, is the way I look at it, if we’re going to make it through relatively unscathed, personally, professionally, whatever. And so I do a couple of things. One, I do reach out to people who are more experienced than me. These people are not my peers, but they have been through some things that I haven’t, and they coach me through it. But so sometimes the right person to ask is someone who’s had more experience, right? So there’s a few experienced entrepreneurs, business owners in my life that I can send them messages and be like, “Whoa, this is not working for me. I’m not liking it.” And then you get on the phone with them and they give you some perspective because they’ve already been through it and survived it. There’s one that I talked to pretty regularly whose advice I highly value. He’s just like, “Well, let me tell you about the time I went bankrupt.” Or I have another friend who owns a business, who’s actually built and sold several businesses, who’s like, “Oh, well, let me tell you about the time that I was getting a divorce.” It was like, “I got my wife pregnant on the way out the door, and I started a new business.” And I’m like, “All right, this isn’t that bad.” But the peer part of it, this is where I think whenever I reach out to my peers I want to know, how are you handling it? I actually don’t want to know how you handled, I want to know how you are handling it now. And I feel like we bring each other not prescriptive advice, and not some story that has been crystallized and made … The more you times you tell a story, even a really crappy story that has a, “Oh, this is bad, this was a terrible time in my business,” you can polish it up and give it that punch. My peers give me the muddy drafts. You and I, I can call you and say, “I’m thinking about doing this.” And you’re like, “Well, I was thinking about doing this.” We’re in the same place and it’s like a real time, almost like we’re writing it together, as opposed to telling a story that’s already happened.
ELENA VALENTINE: Yeah. It’s almost like there’s almost this level of in the moment collaboration, if you will. Again, of like, you can quickly course correct, because there’s this relatability factor, because it feels like, “Hey, okay, she can do it. This feels similar within my realm. It’s something I can try most readily.” And what I find interesting, especially in my conversation with Theresa, was just realizing how much it took to see peers of her level speak out. And it took seeing that being done in critical mass f or her to feel like she could potentially have support or a group to hold space for her, when before that didn’t seem possible. And so as I r eflect about this time among COVID, among Black Lives Matter, among so many folks who are speaking up and speaking out about toxic workplaces, it’s been because we are seeing these peers. We are seeing everyday colleagues finally being confident and I think safe enough to speak their truth. There’s obviously a lot of risks here, and Theresa, she shares a little bit that, this has been extremely emotional and raw for her, and there is still a lo t of negativity around this and a lot of trolling. And that’s something that anyone could expect through this. But I think it’s seeing that there’s other peers who are also going through it at the same time that make it easier.
Interview 1: Jessica Miller-Merrell
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: Jessica Miller-Merrell is a consultant speaker and author who’s incredibly well known around the HR tech community. I also consider her a friend. She’s been influencing her peers for a long time. So what does having influence mean to her?
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: I’m not a fan of the word influencer, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about it. But I think it’s somebody who helps advise or share resources to help someone make a decision, whatever that is, whether it’s buying makeup or HR technology software or a new process in their workplace. It can mean a lot of different things.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: Okay. Do you consider yourself an influencer?
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: I think of myself more as a trainer, teacher, a connector than influencer necessarily, because I’m leading with resources first, arming people with information to help them do their jobs better, to make more informed decisions. So I guess in a way I’m influencing, but I feel like it’s resources first. They’re asking me a question or we find something, I get inspired, I’m like, “Oh, these people, my team, my people need this information. I’m going to put together a resource for them or training for them to help them do their jobs better.”
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: So when did Jessica realize that she is an influencer?
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: I think it took me a while. Because again, my first paying gig was with the Job Board, and I was their HR expert. And I was just a resource for job seekers. So I went into their forum and answered job search questions “I didn’t pass my background check or my drug test, what does that mean?” “Why are they asking all these questions?” And then I wrote on the blog, but I still don’t think I thought of myself as an influencer. It was probably until I went to the SHRM conference after my book was published, and I had a group of people following me around, that I was like, “Wow, this is crazy. People actually read my stuff. They are interested in getting to know me more.” Because when you’re on the Internet and you’re an “influencer,” and I’m using air quotes while we’re talking, you don’t see that. It doesn’t manifest itself in the same way. Yes, people talk to you on Twitter, but there’s also Russian bots that talk to you on Twitter. So to see the physical manifestation of 1,000 people in the room at my talk was crazy. And it honestly scared the hell out of me.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: I would imagine. That is sort of a weird power.
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: Yes. Well, and also, when you become an influencer it opens you up to criticism. So people have a free pass to tell you things whether you want them or not. And the Internet is just a pretty, sometimes a horrible place. It could be an amazing place, but a lot of just nasty people. And then of course, when you speak on stage at conferences people leave their feedback. And what I have found is it might necessarily not be about my talk at all. It might be my hair, the way I dress, my weight, my makeup. So I wasn’t prepared for that side of things as an influencer.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: How do you know when you should let that feedback influence you?
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: I’ve decided to not take it personal. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. And when you put yourself out on the Internet, they are entitled to share. So you have to expect feedback, good and bad. I do try to insulate myself from some of that information, because I am a people pleaser by nature, so sometimes it is really hard and it hurts. And I have cried in my closet before when I read some comments that weren’t necessarily positive, but I’m not here to be everybody’s friend. My responsibility is help give people resources and information to help them be successful. Sometimes it’s not the popular opinion, and you just have to be prepared for that. The other thing is, and this is probably the best decision I made, is I joined a Mastermind group and I’m able to talk with other successful entrepreneurs. They aren’t in my same circle. And in fact, most of them I would never have met unless I joined this particular group. But they’re all going through similar things and dealing with feedback, positive and negative, hurtful comments, crazy stuff happening. And it’s parallel to me, but we can share together and I have a safe space to say, “This was really crazy. Here’s what this person said to me today.” Or, “How you deal with haters or angry people?” Or just whatever in your business.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: So let’s say you want to exert influence in your space. Jessica says there’s no point in just looking to your own industry for guidance. Look outside your bubble.
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: I think it’s important for you to love what you do in the area that you want to influence. I think passion’s really important. I think that people need right now somebody to believe in, somebody be inspired by. So it’s a good time to get into the influence game. I think that when we see influence we think of Instagrammers, I think of fashion bloggers and mommy bloggers. And I tell you, I get inspiration from all those groups of people. For probably about eight months, I probably three times a week just sat on a Facebook Live and watched these LuLaRoe moms sell the leggings. I was blown away. I’m like, “How does this happen? I just bought five pairs of leggings.” And they were making $30,000 a month.”
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: You went to multilevel marketing, you got pulled into MLM.
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: But it was brilliant. That’s influence, right? And I’m not wearing my leggings today, but I still have a few pairs that have survived. But that to me is interesting. So I’m a student of that, how you can create networks of people and communities and serve those people so much that they want to share it with everyone they know. And everybody was on the legging frenzy there for a while until it came crashing down. So I think, put yourself in unusual places, different communities that you don’t fit in. I think that’s really important so that you can learn from different people. Again, it’s been the best decision that I’ve ever made getting into this Mastermind group and this tribe of people who, I might have known, I would know a few of them, but I do not fit in. And that’s a good thing. That’s when the learning really happens.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: And finally, Jessica left us with one last thought on influence.
JESSICA MILLER-MERRELL: Last thing I guess I’ll leave you with is, everybody has an opportunity to influence. You don’t have to be some Tony Robbins. You can be in a niche, a niche group, and I think that you can have a lot of power. I never in my wildest dreams thought that HR was the cool, sexy influencer place to be, but it’s so fun. And there’s so many good people in this industry. So go small, and you can really make an impact with people, I think, on an individual level. And even if you are a marketer at a big company, you can still wield influence and build those relationships. It just might be in a different way.
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Interview 2: Theresa Stewart
ELENA VALENTINE: My friend Theresa Stewart used to work at Cards Against Humanity. And if her name sounds familiar, that’s because it just might be. This past June, Theresa shared a Twitter thread detailing her experiences working as a black qu eer woman at the company, exposing a racist, misogynist company culture. We’ve linked to the Twitter thread and other articles explaining the story in great detail in our show notes. As a result of Theresa’s actions, Cards Against Humanity cofounder Max Temkin is no longer with the company, though he still maintains shares in the business. What follows is an unfiltered conversation between Theresa and myself detailing what it’s like to speak your truth, how scary it is, how liberating it can be, and ho w Theresa could not have done it without the influence of her peers.
THERESA STEWART: So about a month ago I shared a Twitter thread. I was inspired by the black woman comedian who started Second City is Over talking about how Second City treated its black comedians and contributors, which led to a walkout many years ago that you can look up. And I thought, if she’s courageous enough to talk about her experience at this international institution, I can talk about mine at a Chicago institution. So I used to work at Cards Against Humanity and their sister company Black Box as a senior user experience designer. And about a month ago I just shared a Twitter thread around the racism, sexism that I experienced there. And not only from leadership, but it’s from the top down, so the entire environment and the people I interacted with. And got a lot of traction, more people started sharing their stories. The most comprehensive account is from Polygon, shoutout to Nicole Carpenter for that reporting.
ELENA VALENTINE: And we’re not going to dive into too many details.
THERESA STEWART: Yeah.
ELENA VALENTINE: It’s out there, everyone after this episode can look it up if they want.
THERESA STEWART: Yeah. But I did want to give her a shout-out because she did a really great job.
ELENA VALENTINE: Amen to Nicole Carpenter.
THERESA STEWART: Yes. And so yeah, that’s what happened. It has been an interesting month since sharing it. I know a lot of people are wondering, because I worked there about four years ago, you know, why now? And I think for me it was an important part of my healing process. Because I have come so far. I didn’t talk about it then because it was such a traumatic time for me. And if anybody is familiar with trauma work, when you’re going through the experience it’s all about survival. And once it was over, I thought it was something I could just shut off and leave. But now that I’ve done a lot of self-work, it just felt like the right time in the healing to say, “Hey, here was my experiences there. If you still want to support the company, totally fine. You do you, I just want you to be informed about what it is you’re supporting.”
ELENA VALENTINE: And it’s interesting, this being peer influence, you literally said that you were inspired by a peer.
THERESA STEWART: Yes.
ELENA VALENTINE: In a different but in some ways very related industry.
THERESA STEWART: Very related industry.
ELENA VALENTINE: So I guess before we even dive into it, when we think about the world of influence and peer influence, how would you even define that?
THERESA STEWART: I think that’s a hard one. Because I think at first blush when people hear influencer, they think influencer like Instagram. But I always think of peer influence as somebody who is leading and somebody who is courageous enough to say the things that need to be said, and who has that power over people to make them feel bolder, bring out their best selves. And I think about it in that respect, because I don’t believe all peer influencers are people who are in leadership positions. I think it’s somebody I’m working with day to day who is showing me how to be courageous and how to take a step. And yeah, some of my greatest influence is actually almost exclusively like meeting you, where people who are my peers, not necessarily anybody who’s in a managerial or leadership capacity, but it was other people with me who were in the trenches, who gave me the strength and courage to pursue the things I wanted to do when I was scared.
ELENA VALENTINE: And why does that matter? So it’s interesting that you already differentiated, so there’s the peer influence and then, I don’t know, there’s something else.
THERESA STEWART: Yeah.
ELENA VALENTINE: What is that then? And why, I guess, do you find yourself in so much alignment with a peer influencer?
THERESA STEWART: I think especially because of the industry I’m in, design. Frankly, most design leaders are like cis straight white men whose paths are very different than mine. And so why I typically look to peer influencers is, I look at somebody who has the same amount of things I do at stake. And I say that as in, the reason a woman from Second City inspired me is because she was a black woman. We were literally at the bottom of the fucking totem pole. And she was brave enough, risking her career, because she is a comedian, actor, lives in LA now, if I’m not mistaken, big deal to do that. And if I could see somebody who had all the same things on the line as I did being courageous enough, I could trust in myself that I have enough protection that I can say something and live in that aftermath. : And so I think for me peer influence is, yeah, about seeing who has a similar background and the same things on the line. Because I think it’s hard to give advice across so many differences, if that makes sense. So when I talk on panels and things like that, if you’ve ever seen me talk …
ELENA VALENTINE: She’s excellent. She does not mince her words, everybody.
THERESA STEWART: I don’t mince words. And I’m very much like, “This is my code of ethics. This is what I do. This is what I’m about.” But I always caveat, I am almost 10 years into my career and I’m able to do this because I have enough support and reputation that it’s part of my brand, and that when people hire me they know what they’re getting. When you are first starting out you might not necessarily have that courage. And that’s okay. And so what you work on early in your career, and this is where the peer influence comes in, is find other people who are similarly, and learn how to be courageous and take those small leaps. Because that article, and what I shared a month ago was a big, a big leap. It took four years to get there. And it was four years of tiny, tiny steps and leaps and being a little bit braver and a little bit braver and a little bit braver. So leading up to that.
ELENA VALENTINE: So given that, and we’ll dive into this even a bit further, were there other Second City peer moments over these past four years that perhaps may have emboldened you? Or if you could think of other milestones for you where you said, “Okay, I can tell I’m building the courage. I’m building the words”?
THERESA STEWART: Yeah. I think I had other little steps. So prior to, it’s funny, it’s funny that this Twitter thread got traction. Because I’d actually shared individual parts of the story over Twitter over the course of the past four years. Like the letter that I shared about my experiences and saying, “This is what I’ve experienced as a queer black woman at your company.” I shared that letter years ago and nobody really noticed. So all the little …
ELENA VALENTINE: And why not?
THERESA STEWART: Hm.
ELENA VALENTINE: Why didn’t they notice then and they noticed now?
THERESA STEWART: They didn’t notice then because I’m a Twitter nobody. And that’s why they didn’t notice. They notice now because it’s like that trifecta of just the right moment in history for that to happen. And so because there’s such a shift, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and George Floyd and all these other unarmed black people that continue to be lynched by the police in our country, I think it was like, it’s that cultural zeitgeist. So it was like, here’s a black woman sharing her story at a time when we’re being conscientious about elevating black voices, and especially black voices of people who are at the bottom. This might be a tangent, but I talk often about, my friend dubbed it the tree trunk of weirdness, which is like, a cis straight upwardly mobile white man is the center of the circle. And every characteristic identity outside of that, you’re one rung away from that. So I am a lesbian black woman who grew up lower middle class. So I’m pretty far out there on the ring of power. And so I think … Yeah, I don’t know, I guess I think that’s always important to know when you’re taking these steps and moments. And it’s like before so many people were only listening to the people in the center who had the power one rung out. So cis straight white women, but now there is a cultural movement, and hopefully it stays with the momentum, to listen to black voices and listen to these experiences and really examine the insidious ways that racism still exists in our society.
ELENA VALENTINE: So if we had to go back to that moment where you’re about to write that Twitter post … Or tell me about the moment where you knew you were going to even write that Twitter post, and then potentially just the influences around you that moved that forward.
THERESA STEWART: It was literally right after I saw my friend, comedian Lisa Beasley, talk about the Second City is Over after this other woman shared it. And in that moment I looked to my wife and I was like, “I think it’s time for me to share my experience. People are talking about Second City, one rung away from that is Cards Against Humanity,” because all of those industries are really interconnected here in Chicago. And if you’re not in Chicago, it’s hard to understand. When I say that Cards Against Humanity is an institution, it is, they have comedians, they won a corporate design award. They have a board game cafe. The guy, the cofounder that stepped down, Max, is best friends with the guy who runs Alinea Restaurant Group. Cards Against Humanity is in everything in Chicago. And so I saw that and I was like, “I think it’s time for me to finally just speak my piece.”
ELENA VALENTINE: And what would you hope would happen? I guess, what were you expecting it?
THERESA STEWART: What was I expecting to happen? That I would tweet it, nobody would pay attention, but I would feel better because I finally put it all out there. Because the thing was, I was holding onto this. And at some point in my own journey and in my own healing, I have to let something go. And this is something that was taking up space in my mind rent free and eating at my soul. And it was like, “You know what? I’m just going to share what I need to share. Then it’s off my chest, it’s out into the world, people can respond to it how they respond to it. But I feel better because I’ve spoken it.” Because for so long I have been silenced about so many experiences, and it felt like this was the time to not be silent any more.
ELENA VALENTINE: So you post, inspired by peers.
THERESA STEWART: Inspired by peers, encouraged by my wife. And I said, “Wife, I’m going to post this. We might get death threats. We might get …” And my wife just turned to me and said, “Fuck them up.” And I wrote it. Because having that support of somebody in my life, because me, I am … It’s funny. I say I’m courageous, but I’m definitely my mother’s daughter and very risk averse. So I’m like, “Okay, if we do this here’s all of the horrible things that could go wrong. And you are my wife and people know that we’re married. I don’t want to unintentionally sign you up for something that you’re not.” And for them to just be like, “Fuck them up.” Whatever happens, they were like, “You know I’ve got your back and we’re together. You’re speaking nothing but truth so they can’t come after you. And if they do, don’t worry, we’ll put up a fight.” And I think just having somebody else in my corner like that say it also gave me the courage. Because I think one of the big things about peer influence is the idea of not feeling alone. And one of the greatest things to come out of this thread was I connected to this woman in Sweden who actually was the first direct report. And you can read about her in the article, but the fact that she tweeted, she was like, “Thank you so much. I didn’t think anybody else could understand the depths of how disturbing my experience was.” This woman fled the country and was still afraid. And this happened seven years ago to her. And when I think about peer influences, it’s that, it’s making sure you’re not alone. There’s so much in the world that they want you to feel isolated. And so peer influence is also about collective action. I see those two things hand in hand. Because if I can see that my peer is doing this, I can do this. And that is just such a powerful thing, I think.
ELENA VALENTINE: So if what I’m hearing is c orrect, it’s like there’s a relatability factor there. It’s one thing if it’s a leader being like, “I’m taking this bold step,” and everyone’s like, “All right, fucker, you’re a leader. So …”
THERESA STEWART: Yeah, you’re a leader, you’ve got bajillions of dollars.”
ELENA VALENTINE: Yeah. You have power. You have power already to do that. But for you, peer influence is like, “Hey, if she can do it and we’re on that same sphere, well then, I can do it too.”
THERESA STEWART: Right, right.
ELENA VALENTINE: So then you post, and then what happens on Twitter?
THERESA STEWART: Whew, I went what the kids are calling viral, flamed in part by a woman, Anita, who runs Feminist Frequency, who saw my Twitter thread and wrote a medium post about how she was ending her relationship with Cards Against Humanity, and something she had been thinking about for a while. And once she shared that, because you know, it’s Twitter so she’s got a little blue check, she’s verified. And once that happened, she linked to my Twitter thread and it was just, everything spread like wildfire. And it was an interesting couple of weeks. Very hard and very emotional. And I’ve now made peace with it, but at first, seeing people on the Internet that you don’t even know just saying horrible things about you, it’s hard. Even though you know that they’re Internet nobodys, it’s still, for me, I’m also open about, I struggle with a lot of mental health issues, for me seeing what random people on the Internet were saying were also working with this terrible internal narrative I have on myself. And again, I’ve been working on that for years and years and years. And so that narrative is quieter, but when you see all of that coming at you, it’s like that narrative starts to spring to the surface.
ELENA VALENTINE: So it basically took more, would you call her a peer or would you call the folks that really helped to spread this … How would you describe their level of influence and connection to you? T
HERESA STEWART: I don’t know if I would consider all of them a peer, and not in a negative perspective, but more in, we are all such in vastly different parts of our life and in our industry and in the world, I don’t know if I would consider the people who spread that message as a peer. I saw it more of like they’re leaders. Outside of the woman that I connected with from Sweden, I would consider her a peer, but Anita’s a leader. Anita runs a nonprofit, been through Gamergate, that’s huge.
ELENA VALENTINE: And so would you say, if you had to think about different levels of influence that really helped to bring this to life, how would you define that or think about how this helped to spread?
THERESA STEWART: I think the biggest ripple was, peer influence is great. From the perspective of, peer influence was one step above the whisper network, right?
ELENA VALENTINE: Say more about … Yes, tell us more about the whisper network. Clearly we’re defining various levels here.
THERESA STEWART: So the whisper network is, I would say, where I operated with this story first.
ELENA VALENTINE: I was part of the whisper network.
THERESA STEWART: Yes, yes.
ELENA VALENTINE: I am a whisperer, everyone. Thank you.
THERESA STEWART: Well, even whisper network being like, if other people would be like, “Hey, I saw that you worked there, I’m thinking about working there. What do you think?” And depending on, honestly, their characteristics, if it was a black person I was like, “Yeah, turn the other direction. The money is not worth it.” But if it was a cis straight white man, I’d be like, “You’ll be fine. There’s stuff you’re going to witness that’s going to be uncomfortable, but nothing’s going to be targeted at you.” And so when I think about Cards Against Humanity, there was a huge whisper network in Chicago about them. And I would say peer influence is one step above that because it’s vocally saying or publicly sharing, “Here’s my experience there.” So then I think that peer network helps reinforce the whisper network. But still, it’s all happening in its own isolation. Right now, whether right or wrong, I think having the leader on top of the peer network to also amplify that message also helps. I would say Second City, you should talk to this woman, would be a really great example of how peer influence took over everything without a leader. Because it literally was just all the black comedians who are still in the game, acting, screenwriting, and all this other stuff that helped that spread like wildfire. So it all just is like, peer influence is like it all depends on the influence that that peer has of people outside of your community. I think that’s the struggle. And so why I wouldn’t consider Anita a peer, I consider her a leader when I think of Second City, is that woman had peers that also had influences outside of the black Chicago comedy community.
ELENA VALENTINE: Did you think you would be the one to take this above the whisper network?
THERESA STEWART: No. I didn’t think so, because who am I? I don’t know. I didn’t think it would be me. Wow, you’re giving me some … I’m having a crisis of self right now. I didn’t think it would be me, but at the same time I don’t know who else it would have been. Because everybody else who left did the same thing. They just were like, “I’m out and I will never speak of that time again.” And there were also people who are more protected than I am. Most of the people that worked there tend to be wealthier, they tend to be white. They have so many other connections and positions that they don’t need that.
ELENA VALENTINE: They also have so much less to lose.
THERESA STEWART: Yeah.
ELENA VALENTINE: And so I guess what I find so fascinating about your story, about Second City, quite frankly about so many that we hear, is that somehow it’s really the people that have the most to lose. Like Theresa, you risked your career. You risked a lot to do that.
THERESA STEWART: Yeah. Yeah. Career especially, because I pointed out in the thread that they won a corporate design award in 2017. That’s not that long ago. And AIGA, and design’s going through its whole thing now, but it’s like, these are the things we have to contend with, is, “This is my experience at a company that is so well lauded that I was afraid, partially, by speaking out it would impact my career from the perspective of, other companies won’t want to hire me because they know I’m treated badly that I might say something.” That’s where I got scared, that the place I work now might see it and be like, “Listen, we saw this. We’re proud that you did it, but at the same time …”
ELENA VALENTINE: “Don’t do it to us.”
THERESA STEWART: Yes, yes.
ELENA VALENTINE: So I know you don’t know this woman who blew the lid off of Second City. What would you say to her now, as a peer, as someone who inspires … THERESA STEWART: I have already said it to her on Twitter.
ELENA VALENTINE: Okay.
THERESA STEWART: Full disclosure, I know who she is. Not in person, I just always mispronounce her name, and I forgot to look it up before this so I don’t want to mess it up. But it’ll be in the comments of the podcast.
ELENA VALENTINE: Yes.
THERESA STEWART: I said this to her, I messaged her on Twitter and I was like, “You are the reason that I spoke out. Thank you so much. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without seeing how courageous you were.” Because one thing I’ve been trying to get better at, especially when I think of peer influence, is telling the people who inspire me that they inspire me. Because especially at that peer level, when you’re not this leader who has a blue check on Twitter, it’s so hard to see your impact. And I always try to do my best when somebody influences me to give them credit and say that. So even though I said I’d probably never talk about this experience again, I will hold true and raise her up. Because I couldn’t have done this without her. And even though we don’t know each other or anything, it was the fact that she did this. And like, yeah.
ELENA VALENTINE: And so wrapping this up, I guess what will be the one thing that you take away from this experience? Good or bad, but …
THERESA STEWART: I think the one thing that I’ll take away from this experience is, you just have to speak your truth. And it’s scary. You have to speak your truth whenever you are ready to. So even if something happened at a workplace and it was a decade ago, just because it was long ago doesn’t mean that diminishes what you experienced and what you felt. So my big takeaway is, even all the shit storm that has been following on and all the opportunists and liars that have joined on, I am still proud that I wasn’t silent any longer. And having grown up and had my voice stolen from me for so long, that’s what I’ll take away, is that even though the outside world might suck about it, I have an internal sense of calm. And that is really worth the storm that I weathered. And that would be my advice. If you’re thinking about speaking up, it’s going to suck. I’m not going to sugar coat it. It will suck. So do what I did, just get off the Internet for a while, set some Google alerts on your name just in case you don’t get doxed. But the sense of peace I felt, I felt like … As well you know, my wife and I are taking the next step, we’re going to leave the city. I felt like I could finally say goodbye to Chicago, because I had said everything I needed to say about my time and experience here. And there wasn’t anything I was holding back.
ELENA VALENTINE: I love you, Theresa.
THERESA STEWART: I love you, Elena.
Closing and Housekeeping
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: So that’s it for this episode of Margins from Managing Editor. Find us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen in. Subscribe now so you don’t miss a single episode.
ELENA VALENTINE: And if you like what you hear, share us with your friends — and rate us on your favorite podcast platform.
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ELENA VALENTINE: And a special thanks to the two most influential peers I know, producer Rex New and audio editor Marty “Madness” McPadden.
MARY ELLEN SLAYTER: We’ll see ya’ll next time.