Creating a “call in” culture: 5 questions with speaker and activist Loretta Ross

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, poverty, and homelessness, Ross has dedicated her life to promoting social justice.

A dark-skinned woman wearing a white and black shirt smiles at the viewer.

On August 29 in Corson Auditorium, Interlochen kicked off the Academy year by inviting all employees to hear from keynote speaker Dr. Loretta Ross, an award-winning, nationally recognized expert on racism and racial justice, women's rights, and human rights.

Ross’s work emphasizes the intersectionality of social justice issues and how intersectionality can fuel transformation. She is a 2022 MacArthur Fellow and associate professor at Smith College (Northampton, MA) in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender, teaching courses on white supremacy, race, and culture in America, human rights, and calling in the calling out culture. Ross appears regularly in major media outlets and was recently featured in a New York Times piece, "What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?".

In her work as an activist, Ross draws on her own personal experiences as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, poverty, and homelessness. Here, she shares her passion for activism, her go-to strategy for working through conflict, and her definition of what it means to call people in.

What are the main focus points of your life and work? What are you most passionate about?

My passion right now is teaching people how to call each other in instead of calling each other out. I've done more than 50 years worth of social justice activism and I’ve taught for five years as a college professor.

Could you define what it means to call someone in instead of calling them out?

It's a matter of approach and tone, because a call in is simply a call out done with love and respect, instead of anger, blaming, and shaming.

Both of them are accountability processes. In other words, somebody said something that has caused harm, or at least is suspected of causing harm. You want to check in with them. You want to say, ‘Did you mean to do that?’ Or you can choose to say, ‘I can't believe you said that!’

Both approaches call into question what was done or said, but with calling in, you keep in mind that the other person has feelings like you do.

Your work deals with heavy issues and places you in frequent conflict. How do you stay positive despite the seriousness of what you do?

I've had to train myself to not avoid conflicts, but view them as opportunities for learning. If I can restrain my initial panic, I can usually figure out what's actually at stake. Is it a misunderstanding? Did I use a word that I shouldn't have used? Did I trigger something in somebody else? Is it because we're using the same word and meaning different things? There are all kinds of reasons for conflict, not all of which are bad.

What are you most looking forward to sharing with our community here at Interlochen?

I hope they’ll learn to be less judgmental about each other, to say ‘I have choices. When something makes me uncomfortable, I don't have to strike out. I don't have to call people names or attach labels to people, simply because I'm uncomfortable.’

What are some goals you’d like to accomplish in the years ahead?

I’d like to see a culture shift. I want us to step back from the precipice of destroying our democracy, and embrace bipartisanship. I want us to figure out how to have productive conversations, even with people we don't agree with.

Learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion at Interlochen Center for the Arts