Dr. Joel Davis Brown is an Entrepreneur, Spoken Word Artist, Activist, and Metaphysician. He is the Chief Visionary Officer of Pneumos LLC. Joel works strategically with various organizations, including non-profit organizations, Fortune 500 companies, churches, and institutions of higher learning to build consciousness, capacity, community, and collective esteem.
In his book, The Souls of Queer Folk: How Understanding LGBTQ+ Culture Can Transform Your Leadership Practice, Brown demonstrates how the values and norms of the LGBTQ+ community are instructive for leaders in all types of business and industry and can serve as the foundation for a bold, new brand of transformative leadership.
Joel conducted a study to illuminate the lived experiences and cultural values of the LGBTQ+ community. Based on that research, he developed 9 leadership dimensions that show how understanding the cultural imprint of the LGBTQ+ community is essential for organizations to be employers of choice and for global communities to maintain their vitality.
PrideIndex recently enjoyed an enlightening and informative conversation with Dr. Davis Brown. He shared why it is important to understand your talents, what he learned about himself after writing his book, and his love of Zora Neale Hurston and Octavia Butler.
PrideIndex (PI): Thank you for agreeing to this interview today. Tell me a little about yourself and what brought you to where you are today?
Joel Davis Brown (JDB): Thank you. That is a really good question. The best way to describe me is I am an entrepreneur. I do a lot of organizational development work related to culture, leadership, and inclusion. I’m an adjunct professor and author. I just published my first book last week. That’s what got me to where we are today.
PI: After reviewing your social media work, I see you’re a public speaker, slash thought leader, and slash organization development strategist. How did you maintain this slasher lifestyle or sensibility?
JDB: LOL. I have never heard the term slasher before. It might not be a positive thing.
PI: No, it is highly positive. A slasher is a term of endearment that I have given multi-talented folks. I.e., Actor/Director. Not a slasher like in the horror movies.
JDB: My goal is to use my talents to uplift marginalized people, give a voice to those who don’t have visibility, and help anybody who had come across as open to being the best version of themselves. And in doing so, I’ve used my poetry and storytelling in a number of different ways. Those skills translate across those other platforms if you want to call them those callings. So, I can use those in public speaking, and I can use storytelling in my teaching and with my consulting work as well.
PI: Let’s talk about your consulting work in terms of you being an organizational development strategist. What does that mean?
JDB: Organizations usually come to us because they’re looking for a way to be more inclusive and equitable and create a culture where people can do their best. All organizations have a culture; some organizations are “employers of choice,” are aware of their culture, and are aware of the strengths and shortcomings of their culture. Once they become aware of the gaps, they come to my firm to assist them in becoming more people-centered, human-centered, and heart-centered. That’s really what today’s workforce is looking for: someone who wants to amplify their talents and create psychological safety. So that’s what we do. Sometimes people refer to that as diversity, equity, or inclusion of belonging, but we think of it more broadly than that. More broadly, it’s a about helping to create a culture where leaders are doing their best work and people can be their best selves. So that’s what we do. And we work not just with organizations but with communities and individual contributors because that type of work is often needed in many different contexts. So we’re all about building ecosystems where people can be their best and be seen and help contribute to the health of the planet.
PI: That is outstanding and great work, and I must commend you for these efforts. When did you first know that this was the work you wanted it to do?
JDB: I realized that when I worked in corporate America and saw that my ambition wasn’t rewarded. I wasn’t respected. Being a Gay Black man taught me that I had to create the type of environments that I wanted to see, for myself and others, because they didn’t readily exist. In fact, many environments I found myself in were hostile or alienating. They were dysfunctional. And they didn’t really affirm who I was or who I was.
But I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. Some people think this way, even if they come from privilege. I realized there was a need to support others in being “themselves” as well that wasn’t just related to BIPOC or other Queer people. There’s a need for many people to work in a place that affirms their humanity. So that work initially began as me trying to find a place to thrive. But then I realized there was a broader implication because a lot of people are operating in systems and organizations where they don’t feel fully appreciated. Working eight to 10 hours a day is a long time not to be affirmed. The mission was to create systems where people have dignity and respect, especially when many of us work to care for ourselves. So I wanted to change that paradigm where people can work and make a living without sacrificing their self-esteem, culture, or sense of self and purpose.
PI: I read through your bio, and something that just caught my eye right away was that you graduated magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota. You majored in political science and philosophy. Why did you choose this profession rather than run for public office?
JDB: It is not something that I have dismissed entirely. But you can change minds, influence people, and change consciousness without being in office. I do not know if I have the temperament and the patience to be in public office. Often times, it seems being in public office is about ego and it removes you or takes you further away from the people you’re really there to serve.
But if you’re not in public office, you can still change how people think and operate; you can still do things to impact people. And I would actually say the most important thought leaders that we have in the world right now are not the people in political office, but the people who are storytellers, artists, writers, philosophers, and activists. That’s where the “juice” is, and for me: it is never about ego. It is all about how you create a sincere, tangible impact.
I never really had a taste for public office, although it’s something I would only consider if the right opportunity presented itself. I’m having too much fun now living in relative anonymity and being able to create impact while walking through my neighborhood without having 100 people recognize me and 100 people who might have different agendas or people who might have other issues. There are more effective ways to help people sometimes than through politics.
PI: Talk about your book, The Souls of Queer Folk: How Understanding LGBTQ+ Culture Can Transform Your Leadership Practice. Where did you find the muse for this book?
JDB: It started with my research. And before that, it started with me just being a young Black Queer kid on Milwaukee’s north side. The question was: What does it mean to be me? When it came to my Blackness, I think I had answers. But when it came to my Queerness, there were not a lot of perspectives readily apparent or available. And then when you bring the two together, being Black and Queer, it was even harder to get some of those answers because, to paraphrase author Paula Giddings, “All the blacks were straight, and all the gays were white, but some of us were brave.” And so I wanted to understand really what it meant to be me in a way that wasn’t really clear.
As I got older, I continued to ask this question. And then I went into my doctoral program and researched what it meant to be queer. Most of the people I interviewed for the first part of my study were people of color. And then from there, we created a survey and extended the questions based on those earlier answers to about 600 people across North America. And we came up with some interesting answers.
What I realized, however, in looking at those answers of what it meant to be Queer, was that a lot of the values we were finding were also the competencies and values that people today are asking of their leaders. So who we are through our cultural journey is consistent with what it means to be a good leader. And if you think about it, it makes sense: a group such as the Queer community that’s had to deal with that level of recrimination, discrimination, bias, oppression, murder, retaliation that we’ve had to deal with and can still survive and thrive and flourish is worthy of study. There’s something magical about that.
So as I reviewed my research, I realized, there’s something there about us that the world needs to understand because if we can survive, if we can make the best out of very little, if we can be resourceful, then I think others probably could learn from our example, particularly with the leadership challenges and dilemmas that they are facing. And that becomes the essence of my book. Our innate cultural wisdom has broader applications. And if people simply listened or understood who we were at our core, I think our wisdom, queer wisdom, could be used in a greater capacity to help deal with some of today’s challenges.
The problem, of course, is that many people still need to recognize our value. But the first thing that must happen is we must fully acknowledge OUR worth. And through this book, we start to see our own light and tell our own story. Again, given everything that’s going on, we must honor Queer wisdom. We can use this as an opportunity to harness our power and share it with others who are willing to listen and use our leadership skills to help the world be better than it is right now.
PI: That is a powerful message. What did you learn about yourself as a result of writing this book?
JDB: I learned, first of all, how much I love writing. I realized what a tremendous responsibility it is to tell the story of your community and do so in a way that is honest, balanced, and fair but also affirming. I didn’t take that lightly.
Secondly, writing a book gives you a legitimacy that must be earned. There are a lot of people who write books and by writing a book, they suddenly see themselves as a genius even if what they write is shit. Writing and publishing a book does not make you legitimate. What determines the value of any book or art is who you’re trying to uplift. So I take that very seriously.
I also have been very conscious of giving access as much as I can to those who don’t have the means to have a book published but who are doing critical and necessary work in the world to uplift their community, whatever that community might be, particularly BIPOC and Queer communities. So I think it’s important to make sure that we give access to those who don’t have privilege, who don’t have a lot of money, or who don’t have a prestigious title bestowed upon them. Just because you don’t write a book doesn’t mean that what you say is not important. There’s even a greater responsibility to ensure that we level the playing field and use research and academia with great integrity. And that’s been impressed upon me even more now than when I first started writing the book.
PI: How long did it take you to write this book?
JDB: The first draft I wrote in five months, and then you go through the editing process. That’s where a publisher is really important because the editing process can be and should be rigorous. For me, there were five stages. It then took me an additional 6 months because you’re busy working and having other things to do. The editors have their process and timetable as well. But from start to finish – from the first time I sat down to put pen to paper to now – I finished the book within a year.
PI: What are you working on now as a follow-up?
JDB: I’m working on rest right now (Laughs) and enjoying my downtime, at least briefly. When you’re writing a book, it becomes your lover, partner, roommate, and best friend. So I’m now enjoying reconnecting with myself, family and friends. I feel like I’ve been living in a cave. But it’s essential to balance wellness and care for oneself. So that’s what I’m doing.
I will be creating a companion piece of this book, or a workbook of sorts that people will be able to use because this book that I wrote is not designed just to be a vanity piece. It is not something that I want people just to read and put on the shelf or just read once. I want people to access it because it really is designed to help people leverage and take advantage of Queer wisdom and apply it to themselves.
And when we think about wisdom, we have to think about something other than traditional leadership. It’s not just about leading others; you must teach yourself before leading anybody else. So the book offers practical tips and recommendations for people to apply it. And I want people to apply it: I imagine and hope that people will read it and return to it. I want people to write notes, highlight certain sections, and read things several times. I want people to question how they’re thinking; I want people to study it carefully and share it. So I want it to be a living, breathing thing, and the workbook will assist with that.
I also am creating an online community where monthly, I’ll have a call, which will welcome people from around the world to talk about the fate of leadership and how we can use Queer wisdom to better ourselves, whatever the opportunity might be. Those are the things that I’m going to be focused on very soon.
PI: This interview would only be complete with discussing you being a spoken word and poet.
JDB: Sure. I started writing poetry when I was seven. And it’s always felt natural to me. It’s just like when you meet someone who can dance or sing and you may say: “How did you learn that? Where did you get that from?” It’s just a gift that Spirit gave to me. I remember writing short stories, poems and sonnets and everything in between. When I discovered the spoken word, it freed me up, even though I’m not sure exactly when I found it. For quite some time I had been experimenting with free form, and then I realized that there was a name for it. I was first introduced to poets like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Sonia Sanchez. I love writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Octavia Butler. Those are the people who woke me up.
I’ve always been a writer, but writing took on extra importance when I came out because I didn’t think I had anybody to talk to. My writing took on a different meaning and an extra edge because the exercise became therapeutic. It helped me not be so lonely because I had that paper and that pen to talk to. My sister, who in my eyes is a better writer than me, listened to some of my poetry and she became my audience. My brother was my also a supporter, and he and my sister would invite their friends to get on the phone with me as I shared stories with them. At some point, their friends said: “You have talent and you need to write more.” All of a sudden, I was doing “open mics”. Before you know it, there was an audience that I didn’t anticipate, especially as a young, sensitive gay, black boy. I didn’t think that people could relate to what I was writing. I thought what I felt was just my own “stuff.”
I didn’t know anybody else could relate to me as a person, but then you realize the themes are universal. I just continued to do that to the point where I started to perform more. I began to travel and I put out a couple of CDs. I took it as far as I could. I would say that I’ll be writing poetry until I return to “the dust;” I will always be writing poetry in some form or fashion. I take breaks because you have to live to have something to talk about. You’ve got to reflect; you got to process. But then there’s a time to write.
Poetry and storytelling are powerful tools for us to tell our stories, to heal, and to convey complex feelings and emotions. At the end of the day, it is all about channeling something that’s coming from the Divine. When I am at my best with my poetry, I know I am channeling something from Spirit on transmitting something from the Divine. I just have to get out of the way and allow it to come through.
So, even to this day, I will challenge myself to write whenever I feel the urge or inclination. I can write in restaurants, on the subway, on Uber, or at dinner. I’ve annoyed relatives at times when I just need to pull out a pen and just write randomly. I love to twist and bend words and use language to connect people and speak to what’s in the heart. So I write about anything and everything; whatever is lived can be written about, and that’s what I cover. And those are the things I focus on when writing poetry and storytelling.
PI: Where are you going to be promoting this book, as well as yourself, next?
JDB: So, the book is on all major platforms right now. So you can find it at Barnes & Noble, and you can find it on Amazon. There are a couple other places that escape me right now. But if you look for it, you should be able to find it. You can also go to my website if you’re looking for news. My new business website is Pneumos, and I’m also building my public speaking website, which should be ready in about 60 days. I’m looking for all opportunities to speak, share, connect, and kick it with folks who want to talk more about Queer leadership and wisdom. I’m easy to find on social media. IG: joelabrown LinkedIn: joelanthonybrown
I love people that are cool, grounded, and positive. Reach out to me if you want to connect. I like connecting with the community.