"My accent is a mixture of all of my experiences."
It’s one thing to be able to list the places you've lived, and the experiences you’ve experienced... It’s another to understand how those textures and nuances are interwoven to make you uniquely you and to channel those into being a leader. This episode’s esteemed guest New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author and CEO of Become a Good Ancestor, Layla Saad is one such person. We talk about everything from her upbringing to her faith, to her professional journey from lawyer to changemaker to who in Layla's family visits her in her dreams and another who is their home remedy healer. If this doesn’t inspire you to make change in your circle, we don’t know what will!
About our guests: Layla F. Saad is a New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author, antiracist educator, and international speaker. She is the founder and CEO of Become A Good Ancestor, a company and learning destination dedicated to helping changemakers build a better world without burning out. www.becomeagoodancestor.com
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Welcome back to Root and Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.
Coming off the heels of speaking with a father/daughter duo who experienced different upbringings (and whose conversations around their Arab-Jewish culture, heritage, and world events was family dinner table talk) we knew we wanted to drill down on how the kaleidoscope of one’s influences have the potential to be markers and contributors to the fabric of one’s life.
That desire brings us to the incredible Layla Saad in today’s episode. Not only does Layla come from a myriad of influences, she has truly understood the value of her unique experiences and the sum of their parts. This has ultimately led Layla to be who she is today, unique, empathetic and inspiring. This New York Times Bestselling author truly is a gift to the world, so we'll just let her introduce herself. Here she is.
So my name is Layla Saad. I’m a writer, a teacher, a speaker. I'm a podcaster and I'm also the founder and CEO of Become A Good Ancestor, which is a business and a learning destination that supports change makers who want to change the world without burning themselves out.
I'm the author of Me and White Supremacy, which is a well known anti-racism book. In terms of my identities, you might be able to hear from my accent I'm British, but it sounds like British with a mix of something that people can never quite place. And that's because I'm a third culture kid now, third culture adult. My parents are from East Africa, Kenya and Zanzibar. They met in Wales, which is where I was born and grew up. I've lived in Wales, I've lived in Tanzania, I've lived in England and I live in Qatar. So my accent is a mixture of all of my experiences and my experiences really inform how I see the world.
It's like you've brought the bits and pieces of your real life experience into what you're giving to the world today. You could add some colour to your upbringing and what that was like and maybe some defining moments that led you to who you are today.
Absolutely! I moved to Qatar when I was still in high school. My parents wanted also to be closer to this side of the world. I did go to university in the UK and I found that I just didn't feel like I fit there.
I was British, I'd lived there all my life and then I'd left for three years. And when I came back and was at university I just felt like this place just isn't for me. So I ended up actually coming back to Qatar to figure out what I wanted to do next. I studied law and I said, I don't really want to be a lawyer, but I don't know what I want to do. Let me go home and I'll come back and figure out what's next. But I ended up staying here and I got married here, I've had my kids here. I love living close to my parents. They're still here as well and I love being in a country where my faith is the faith that's practiced here and all of that.
When I moved here every single friend was from a different country and a lot of times both parents were from different countries. So it's very mixed in that way. So I feel very at home in that sense as a third culture kid I don't feel like the odd one out here. When I was growing up, my dad who worked at sea was always travelling to different parts of the world and coming back and bringing different gifts and different artifacts that represented different cultures. Like in our house, there were always things from like Singapore or India or Egypt or different places. And so that was really normalized and I think when we moved here to Qatar, it was the first time that I actually felt like I was in a country that reflected how I felt at home and what was normal for us culturally.
Growing up in Cardiff in Wales, I remember being at school and being one of the only black kids as well as definitely the only Muslim kid because my parents sent us to Roman Catholic school. Every week we would go to mass and every time everyone else would go up for communion and I would just be sat there really sticking out, like a sore thumb. Like shame, this sense of a spotlight being on me, but also in other ways really enjoying going to church.
We were in a country where Christianity was the main religion.
My mom would have to do the work at home of educating me around what our faith was. She would buy us Christmas presents because she knew everyone would be saying, what did you get for Christmas? And she didn't want us to be the only kids who said we didn't get anything right. So is this balancing act. But she also had to really balance that with understanding.
... I feel like a chameleon in a lot of ways, but I really struggle with being in spaces and places where one type of way of being, especially culturally, is this is the norm, this is the standard, this is all that we are. I have a lot of trauma from it, but I also have a lot of positive experiences of being in intercultural spaces as well.
So much of the citizens of the world, people from different places, but knowing who they are and embracing the gift of the mixedness and the kaleidoscope of influences that each of those people brought just adds such a richness to your background that I feel like naturally, you have a platform where you help people do what they do today.
Can you imagine like I could have been a lawyer? That could have been my job because I studied law. I thought that lawyer would be the right route for me until I started my degree and absolutely hated it.
But I stuck with it and I finished my degree, but I chose not to go forward with it. When I was in my third year of university I was really struggling with anxiety and depression. Both from, I think from being back in a country where I didn't feel like I belonged, but also being in this degree that I thought was going to be the thing that I was here to do and then feeling really lost at sea. And I remember one day just grabbing a journal, I started journaling around what do I want? Not a particular job necessarily, the languaging that I would use now is the contribution that I want to make. And all I wrote down was I want to do work where I get to help people and I want to do work where I somehow help to make the world a better place. We know many people who use the law to exactly create change. Right?
But for me that didn't feel like what I was here to do. When I was in my final year as well, I was working a lot with personal development books and CDs because I was trying to do my own healing work and I stumbled into coaching and that area of work. So that's really where it started for me. When I came back home, I was working in corporate tax because it was related to my degree. On the side I was like, I want to do work that changes the world. I want to be a leader. I want to do something meaningful and I was very much inspired by people that we would consider as quote unquote, good ancestors, right? People like Martin Luther King Jr., people like Mother Theresa, people like Gandhi. That was my thinking at the time. These people created big change in the world. And I felt like there's always been something intrinsically inside of me since I was very young that felt like I am here to do something on a big level. I don't know what that thing is, but I can sense that inside of me.
And so I started training as a coach. I trained as a life coach, I trained as a health coach. I moved into corporate training and then I started working in marketing in a nonprofit. I felt like, I'm just bouncing around from one thing to another and I still haven't hit upon what I'm here to do.
Next thing I knew, I was almost 30 and I remember going into the office one day at my marketing job very early before everyone else. And I sat down, I booted up my laptop and it was like I had this incredible experience where it was like I floated out of my body and looked down on myself and I burst out laughing. And the laughter was like this moment of clarity that you're not even supposed to be here. You're like sitting at someone else's job in someone else's chair, doing someone else's role, living someone else's life. And the things that you're supposed to be doing are out of the door. You don't know what lives inside of you.
And so I made a pact to myself at that time that when the moment comes and you'll know when it is. You will leave this job and you will go and do what you're here to do. And I knew it was in the world of entrepreneurship and online business and so I did. I had my second child and two weeks after he was born I was building a new website.
I started off coaching and what I was finding was my writing was really resonating with people and my coaching was really draining for me. So my husband had always told me, I don't think you're supposed to be a coach. I think you're supposed to be a writer. And I was like, no, you don't know what you're talking about. Writing was a skill that came so easily for me and the writing is what really resonated with people. The thought leadership is what really resonated with people and it was what lit me up. So I actually ended up transitioning from one-on-one coaching into writing and that's how eventually I ended up becoming this bestselling author because I was really focused on let me be in my zone of excellence. Let me be in what is easy to me, what lights me up, what I would do if there was nothing else to do. This is what I would be doing. And from there, Become A Good Ancestor is a company that I founded. We just passed our one year anniversary.
I find the word change-making so interesting and changemaker. Maybe you could talk a little bit about when you first discovered the word or when you first identified with it and talk a little bit about your platform.
I had been called an activist a lot and I've come to understand that it's not about whether you're an activist or not, it's about whether your work is the practice of activism. Being a changemaker is you can create any kind of change. You can be a changemaker at your school. You can be a changemaker in your family, right? You can be a changemaker in your neighbourhood.
And so that's what really resonated for me and I want the people that we speak to, to understand wherever you show up, you have power and you have influence and you're going to create change.
Can you speak a little bit about your reaction to the reaction to your platform?
Oh, that's an interesting question because my work has evolved so much. I came into speaking and writing about white supremacy and anti-racism. And it was really speaking from lived experience and what I was learning, in real time for me. Which meant that I was working through the stages of awakening myself. All of that stuff which then evolved into finding that I have a lot of internalized stuff myself that I needed to work through. Finding self compassion which then led to more compassion for other people which then led to wanting to really focus not just on what we're fighting against, but what we're fighting for.
The me who started this work in 2018 is very different to the founder of Become A Good Ancestor. None of it is more right than the other. It's just the arc of my journey and all parts of it were definitely valuable for me and I know have been for other people as well. When I first wrote that article that went viral the whole range of human reactions to that piece was a big learning journey for me. I also had to learn and understand that everyone else was also on their journey in the same way that I was and in ways that I may have been judgmental or harsh or had binary thinking about how people were reacting to my work because I was very harsh inside myself. That's the internalization of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, of these binaries of thinking.
That's how I was within myself, so that's how I was with other people. At the same time, I was really grateful for the people, who taught me to understand the textures of my own humanity, the textures of other people's humanity. It softened me and now I'm softer within myself I am really aware that I don't want to replicate stereotyping or grouping people as being one thing. Binaries like that were a huge part of the early part of my journey. Now, I really try to take people as they come while holding an awareness that these things exist, but also holding an awareness that you can be a person of colour and still replicate white supremacy. You can be a woman and still be enacting misogyny, right? All of those pieces are true and I really love building intentional relationships with people. And really encouraging people to do that as well because we need community, we need each other. These systems thrive because they divide us, right? And they make us distrust each one another and so community.
Love that and thank you for talking about softness. If there's one gift I wish in my bones that my daughter internalizes it's a little bit of self-compassion and softness. You have come from such an interesting upbringing. Did you spend time with your grandparents?
The grandparent I actually spent the most time with was my mom's mother. While I was in high school she came here and she lived with us for a while and she was the sweetest woman. She really loved looking good and having nice things and being very clean. She was extremely generous. I come from a very big family and all the family of all ages from the very youngest to the very oldest just adored her. And so when she passed, it was this huge loss for us. And she is the grandparent that comes in my dreams. And she'll come usually when something good is happening and it always feels like she's clearing the way. Like when I was in the process of choosing a publisher for the book I had a dream that she was looking over my publishing contracts and she was like, we're going to sort this out and it's going to be great and I had a really great publishing experience. So I felt like she was clearing the way.
That just resonated with me so deeply. What we do is hard, right? The thing for me that keeps me from my ancestors is my mom has passed. When I feel a little bit like I'm not sure what's happening next, I feel her hand on the small of my back... and as soon as you said that I was reminded of that.
You talked a little bit about your Muslim faith. What was your experience with rituals and traditions growing up and do you still practice them? And are those things that you want to bring to your own family's life now and your children?
Yeah. So my mom always described us as moderate, but we're taught in Islam. Don't be extremely tough with their religion, but also don't be extremely lax with it either, be somewhere in the middle. And Islam should be part of your day-to-day life. I think when we moved here, it was interesting because we hadn't grown up in a country where Islam was practiced. We clung to it more than the people who had grown up here, where it was just the norm. Whereas for us it was like, this is an important part of our identity that we practiced. So that was really interesting. Even in my own journey, I've done a lot of spiritual soul searching.
One of the shifts that I chose to make, must have been in 2016. Up until that point I had won the hijab and by 2016 I just felt like, I don't know why I'm doing this. There isn't something that's a personal choice other than it's what I've done, so I'll keep doing it. My concern at the time was that I didn't want people to think that I had chosen to do that because I felt oppressed in any way. If it ever comes to me that I'm like, no I want to put the hijab back on and these are the reasons that I have for it that are meaningful for me, then yes, I'll do that. I really think that it's about each of our own relationships with our faith and our own relationships with God and so when my mother does cover, if my daughter chose to in the future, I would support that.
Did you hear about our conversation cards?
I did, and I love them. I actually ran a workshop at the end of last year. And in it, I have a slide that has your conversation cards and I tell people, go and take these. Why I was sharing those cards, in particular, was because when we're talking to kids about racism, they may internalize a sense of shame. They may internalize anger, they may internalize confusion like a bunch of different stuff is going come up for them. And one of the main critiques of teaching, especially white children about these things is that you will shame them about who they are. And so my answer to that is it's not about cultural shaming, it's about owning your culture and understanding it, but it's also about taking accountability, right? You've got to have both and so I love your cards because they're really accessible. The questions, they're just interesting. For me, they're very clever because they're doing this thing on a family level of connecting the family carrying on family stories maybe even reviving practices that may have been forgotten and things of that nature.
But on a societal level, they're also having this impact of making sure that people don't see themselves as just this box of either being white or being black or whatever the case is. They're actually owning the textures of what makes them and understanding the connections between them and other people who may be very different to them.
Ok, pause time. You know when someone articulates what you do from their perspective and does so in such a poetic and impactful way that it gives you chills? That’s how we felt when we heard Layla so eloquently summarize the familial and societal impact of the work that we are doing at Root & Seed. Heartfelt thank you to Layla for that reflection. So of course, we needed to ask her a question.
Are there any ingredients that people outside our culture don't understand?
I'm not sure that there are ingredients that people outside my culture don't understand. But what it made me think about was my mother we call her the witch doctor of the family because whenever anyone is sick or anything is wrong, she's the one who will be like, you need to mix this herb or take this thing, mix it, grind it and you make it into this paste.
My mom always jokes that the minute the kids get in the house they're always like Bebe I have this thing here, I hurt myself here. She'll call me and she's like, why didn't you tell me that this and this was going on? And I'm like because they never told me and because they know you are the witch doctor of the family, so you'll figure it out. And so that day I was like, I'm going drop them to your house, you get your aloe vera plant, scrape out the gel, do whatever it is that you do, and so that's what I think about, and I really love that I have a mother who is this gardener and who works with ingredients and uses them to heal herself, uses them to heal our family. It's something that comes naturally to her. My children and I, we, get to receive these healing tinctures and remedies and pastes and all of these things. And that's the piece where I'm like, yeah, she's lived everywhere, but she's an African woman and these are things that she has inherited from her culture that are meaningful and I love that.
It's lovely to hear these stories because we see so much of you already online, but sometimes to hear these little stories that make you who you are.
Yeah, thank you. I really enjoyed this and I just want to shout out your conversation cards again because one of the things that I'm intending to do as the eldest daughter of parents who are continuing to age is I want to keep those stories. So I'm intending to use your conversation cards as a way to record these stories. The work that I do is about becoming good ancestors. My parents are very much good ancestors to me, to my children and I want those stories kept. I want to hear their voices. I want to remember their tales, their stories and I'm so glad your work exists because it really matters.
Ah, Layla is such a gem and her parting words reminded me of Season 3 Episode 3 guest Abdul Rehman Malik, who spoke about the work that all of us are doing in the cultural space. The idea that a thousand flowers need to bloom for us to make an impact and suffice to say we are privileged to be building a garden of the future with the likes of Layla Saad.
Layla's journey wasn't direct. It was a bit of a winding road before realizing that writing, the thing that gave her joy, was the thing she was meant to do. Also, her realization that we all need to have self-compassion as we work through the traumas brought upon us by the systems of oppression we've all grown up within. It's very inspiring to think that we all have it within ourselves to be change-makers, even if it's just in our current orbit or sphere of influence.
Being your authentic self in the face of adversity feels like a natural place to go next, which takes us to the world-famous artist Daniel Mazzone. Daniel's work has graced the walls of museums, airports, and even the Vatican. Daniel's art is literally a manifestation of the authenticity we are all forced to hide. Sound cryptic? Well, tune into our next episode for a beautiful story of how Daniel turned a tumultuous youth into an incredible point of view.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Editing by: Emily Groleau
Sound Editing by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
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