Ella’s Eyes

After several years of helping to lead a significant and much publicized organizational turnaround, the notion of doing something else in my career began to resonate. Additionally, in my personal life, I began to wonder about the true and lasting impact of my career and whether focusing on mission driven not-for-profits might be the better course. So, as I’ve outlined in these pages before, I took a leap of faith and landed in an inner city community health center.

I had many trusted colleagues and friends while there and so many of the lessons I learning in those days ended up in my book on organizational transformations. If I were ever to write a book about personal transformations, I’m sure many of my experiences at the health center would make their way into that book as well.

One of my most trusted colleagues was Ella, the leader of one of the most significant programs at that site. Ella was smart, personable, and patient with me as I made the frequently awkward transition from one world into this new one (for me). I respected Ella greatly and hoped that she found in me a good and capably ally. 

The leadership team was invited to a management retreat and a diversity expert was enlisted to lead it. At one point, toward the end, she facilitated an exercise that – to this day – I wonder about. In some ways, I found it to be mean-spirted as we were pushed, against our wishes in some cases, into an uncomfortable place. On the other hand, I learned so much from this exercise that it’s hard for me to criticize it. These mixed emotions have never left me so if you have any thoughts on this, please feel free to comment on this post.

All thirty or so of us were asked to line up, shoulder to shoulder, blindfolded. Right off the bat, this was strange and felt irksome. Then, one by one, the facilitator read off a series of questions that went something like this:

If someone in your family read a book to you when you were younger, take a step forward.

If you know anyone who was killed by gun violence, take a step backwards.

If you never worried about where your next meal might come from as a child, take a step forward.

If you have been sexually assaulted, take a step backwards.

And on and on it went…

Eventually, the facilitator asked us to take our blindfolds off and look around. When I did, I saw that I was toward the very front and so had a sudden but short-lived feeling of glee, of appreciation and gratitude for all of the many blessings in my life.

But that gave way fast…

I then saw my co-workers. Where they all stood. I saw the differences between us, including differences in skin tone. My glee gave way to an embarrassment of sorts, a shame even. And then I saw Ella. My coworker friend, my good colleague, standing far, far toward the back. And for one fleeting instant, our eyes met and, I think, pierced each other’s. I saw her. She saw me. We were both revealed and then, grasping this, looked away from each other. She hadn’t intended for me to know her in this way and, if I’m being completely honest, nor did I.

The group then spent time reflecting on that experience and the ensuing discussing demonstrated that this was powerful for everyone. For some, it was eye opening while for others it was harsh and unwelcome. As a management team, we needed to process this, to heal.

Again, I have mixed emotions about this entire experience, ranging from anger to indebtedness. I recall the lessons of the day and a new awareness of just how different our lives can be from each other. I felt empathy and understanding.

And in my mind, I can clearly see the place where this happened, the faces of my colleagues, the moment we took the blindfolds off. Most of all, I can still see Ella’s eyes.


  1. I do not like that exercise, never have. There are better ways I am sure to illustrate privilege without being this intrusive.


  2. Thank you for sharing such a powerful experience. It’s incredible how this exercise brought out such a range of emotions and opened everyone’s eyes to the differences in their colleagues’ lives. My question is, have you ever had a similar exercise in a workplace since then, and if so, how did it compare or differ from this particular experience?


  3. Thank you for sharing your feelings and experience of a very thought provoking exercise. It is meant to bridge divides rather than create them. It is notable that you focused on “Ella’s eyes”. This is not just about privilege, it is about empathy and awareness that people have had different backgrounds. It is about learning to tune down our judgement and become aware and accepting of differences.


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