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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Blog Interview Series: Liz Westbrook

Monday, March 30, 2020   (1 Comments)

This month, we are kicking off our blog’s interview series through which we will learn about our members’ DEI stories. Our inaugural signature event, the DEI Symposium, will be held on July 29 and will focus on celebrating these stories, so stay tuned! Everyone has a DEI story, and we’d love to hear yours. Please email Angela Lee if you’d like to share.

For the first installment of this interview series, I had the pleasure of chatting with Women in Government Relations (WGR) Board member and DEI Committee member, Liz Westbrook. Liz – who identifies as biracial is ½ Native American and ½ White (more specifically, ¼ Italian and ¼ Jewish/Hungarian) – will also be facilitating April’s DEI Committee meeting on the experiences of being bi- and multi-racial. Outside of WGR, Liz works at a law firm, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. While she is a licensed attorney, she has focused her career on legislative efforts. 

How does DEI apply to you personally?

My dad is mostly Native American, and my mom is half Italian and half Jewish/Hungarian. My dad’s dad left his community in Oklahoma, but my brother and I grew up knowing a lot about it. Being mixed makes you feel like the “Other” though, and like you do not fit in with either side.  For example, even though I’m half Native, I’ve been told I sound like a valley girl when I speak Cherokee, what little of it I know. 

“WGR makes people who have been part of the outside for a long time feel like they are being seen.”

It makes me feel like I’m not living this “Other” life and that my experience is valuable to other people. 
How does DEI show up in your profession?
My profession is still mostly a White, male profession. So, in some ways, the DEI Committee is an opportunity to get out of that and be surrounded by really interesting women from all sorts of backgrounds and to talk about things that really matter to me. I’m also on the WGR Board and was the Chair of the Congressional Outreach Committee, where I feel lucky that it was comprised of a diverse collection of women. It’s nice to see the DEI mindset flood other areas of WGR. 

What were your experiences growing up? 
Because of my lighter skin, I pass as White until people get to know me better. My grandpa was Cherokee (and if you ask the federal government, he was Choctaw). Part of this is that we don’t look like the stereotype of a Native American that people have in their heads. 

Throughout my childhood, I went to a few different schools where some were more mixed and others were not. Going back and forth between those environments made diversity/lack of diversity really glaring. I went to an all-girls school for 6th and 7th grade. This was my absolute favorite school. It had a really interesting mixed group of girls. I loved it and learned a lot. But then when my family moved to Atlanta, I went to Catholic school for one year, and it was the complete opposite. Going from an all-girls school that was so diverse to that environment was the first time I was really aware of diversity. I missed being around different kinds of people.

Do you feel you have a different perspective on racial dynamics because you are biracial? 
Yes, a complicated one. One thing about passing as White is you get to hear all the nonsense people sometimes say. When you push back, two things happen – oftentimes, I get told that I’m not Native or biracial. Some of this is that people look at me and are like, “No, you’re just White.” And then this other thing that happens, especially in cities where people use horrible racial slurs and it’s no big deal, when they realize I’m not exactly one of them either. Using the Washington football team as example, people think, “OMG, have I been using that word around her?”

“Anyone who is mixed race, but looks mostly just one race, feels like you’re not enough of something.” 

My grandpa grew up in Oklahoma, spoke Cherokee before English, was taken to an Indian Residential School (boarding schools that Native kids were basically kidnapped and shipped to in an effort to whitewash them), lived an early 20th century Native life, and then left to find work. He ended up in New York and raised my dad there. As much as my dad tried to teach me about our history and where his family had come from, I felt like I was not really part of it. I try to follow a lot of Native thinkers, speakers, and artists and consume a lot of books or anything I can by other Natives, but it still feels like I am outside of it.

What are some challenges and/or advantages you’ve had being biracial? 
A challenge is sort of like being the “Other.” My job is working with the US government on Capitol Hill, and I am passionate about this work, but I always felt like I kept a distance from it because my dad brought us up to be removed and resentful of this country. It took a while to understand where this mindset came from. 

“People seem to want you to be one thing.”

My mom's dad is from Calabria in southern Italy, and so we do some Italian traditions like the Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve, but sometimes when I try to relate to other people who have Italian ancestry, they've gone, “Uhhh you're not Italian. Didn't you say you're Native American?” My mom's grandmother's family was Jewish and fled Hungary, and the same thing happens frequently if I try to talk to people about that side. It's such a weird reaction to me since, even if you're not mixed race, so many people in America have really mixed backgrounds. 

My dad would do this thing where he would look at our history textbooks and read through them, and there would be expletives. Things like, “Since your book isn’t going to talk about it, this is what was really happening to Indians.” This made me more empathetic, especially as someone who passes as White, to try to think through other people’s stories and experiences. This is ultimately an advantage. 

When I was younger, my classes would do all sort of things for Thanksgiving, and my dad was always like, “Let me tell you about Thanksgiving for real.” Of course, this had an impact on me. One time, my class was divided into two groups – pilgrims and Indians. I had to be a pilgrim, and I was not having it. I told everyone the pilgrims killed all the Indians. This was not received well. I was 5 or 6 years old. 
What advice do you have for someone who is bi- or multi-racial in terms of their careers or just being a part of society? 
If you’re feeling like you’re not enough of one thing or another, know this is a universal feeling among mixed race people and that you’re not alone. I think we’re starting to embrace and see that it can be a strength – to be able to understand and empathize with more sides. One thing that really helped me is this book called There There by Tommy Orange. He writes about the urban Indian experience. It was the first time that I was reading something and was like, “OMG this is my family!” Just being able to feel that you’re not alone was really exciting. 

“If you can look for other people who share some of your background, then that can make you feel more like part of a community, and you can learn more about yourself that way.” 

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee writes a monthly blog covering topics from WGR’s monthly DEI Committee meetings. Meetings are open to all WGR members, view upcoming topics and meetings here. To learn more about WGR’s commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion click here.


Alpha Lillstrom Cheng says...
Posted Friday, April 3, 2020
Thank you Liz for sharing your story and perspective with us--I am so glad that WGR is providing a platform for these valuable conversations.