As part of humanity labeled as “other,” Sonja Pemberton has spent her career illuminating and standing resolute in the need to stop the conscious and unconscious inclination to “other.” Embodying intentional, persuasive, and meaningful actions, she authentically articulates the impact of “othering.” Being able to support speakers in sharing their powerful expertise is a privilege, and I caught up with Sonja to talk about how she believes that by actively dispelling the myth of the other, we empower advocacy, allyship, and influence. 

​​How do you define othering?

A conscious or unconscious focus on a broad range of human differences perpetuating exclusionary practices and behaviors.

How have you observed individuals’ othering themselves?

In a workshop, an individual admitted that they didn’t shop at department stores because they didn’t feel worthy due to their weight. Most recently, the focus on “imposter syndrome” is another way individuals other themselves.  At their core, the person is saying I’m not good enough, or I lack self-confidence. Whatever the source of the underlying rationale, they tell themselves that they don’t belong in a specific position, a neighborhood, or in the company of certain people or situations that they perceive are of higher status or more competent – are  examples.  It is a mindset that originates from a self-belief based on their perceived capabilities or social identities of being less than and therefore undeserving.
I purposely specified their social identities plural because many people navigate the intersectionality of multiple identities in societies that focus on differences. Socio-economic status, marital or parental status, ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation, religious or political affiliations are several examples where identities intersect.

You talk about the contrast to life and the shadow. Can you go deeper here?

In one of my keynote talks, Dispelling the Myth of The Other, I use the metaphor of an iceberg.  What we see of each other is just the tip of the iceberg, and hidden beneath the surface lies the complexities or shadow side of the individual’s life journey.  The depth of what lies beneath is a very good visual depicting the number of complexities an individual encounters throughout their lifetime.
I was recently out for a walk and decided to stop near a pond. As I stood on the grass looking into the pond, I could see the reflection of the trees and greenery above, representing the beauty of life, a stark contrast to the image of my dark shadow cast on the grass. I took a picture because that moment perfectly illustrated the dichotomy of life. It reminded me of how we exist in the reality of the moment's beauty and simultaneously in our shadow side. With the analogy of the iceberg, our shadow side lies beneath the surface.  It is where the “imposter syndrome” lives; it is the “me you can’t see.”

How do people become aware of their potential and their shadow sides?

 This is the work! Helping individuals to unpack their luggage and discard what no longer serves them.  When we think about how our lives began as tiny humans reliant on caregivers for all of our needs.  If we use an analogy of life as embarking on a long journey where the destination is unknown, as infants and children, we could not pack our luggage with what we would need to navigate the journey of life, so our caretakers packed for us.  They put everything their life experience had taught them that would be required and packed it for us, too. Our caregivers included their beliefs and assumptions about the world, their hopes and fears, and what they desired for us. Once we are older, we can reflect on our experiences and notice contradictions in our caregivers' beliefs and assumptions, hopes, and fears.  We must then decide what to do with those items in our luggage that are no longer aligned with who we are becoming. This requires a Mindshift to embrace a new way of thinking and being because we are WHAT we think, not what THINK we are.

Do you think there's something underneath the surface that we are resisting when it comes to becoming? 

I believe it is our propensity to Other. The marginalizing, labeling, and stigmatizing originate from generational, ancestral, and collective societal experiences and trauma. It is the underpinning of many global issues we are currently facing as a society and have faced for centuries.  There is a cultural inclination to focus externally on “others” their actions and beliefs and where we disagree. Instead, we should be internally focused on unpacking and discarding what is no longer needed for our journey.  This is where the resistance shows up because it requires an introspective journey to uncover our beliefs, hopes, and truth to fully become our authentic, true selves. 
This is difficult for some, especially when we see clear lines drawn to denote us versus them. Knowing if you cross those lines, you are no longer considered part of the family or social group. I believe the hard-line emanates from a place of fear. It is a fear of losing perceived power, influence, or status. Allowing the “other” to be equal or have the same status, influence, and power will negatively impact those who hold these valuable social constructs. Focusing on differences provides perceived gain for those who feel threatened by a level playing field for all.
I believe the pandemic has brought an awareness of how the world is fractured. Fortunately, I don’t think we will return to what was; we will have to find a new way forward.  The world is evolving, and we must prepare for and be open to large-scale change. 
Our survival and that of the planet can benefit from feminine energy. With this feminine energy comes diversity of thought and a willingness to be open to new innovative approaches to lead us into the future and address the social and ecological issues threatening our existence. Our country was built as a male-dominant society. It has always favored masculinity, toughness, and grit to survive, thrive, and prosper. The feminine attributes were discounted and considered weak and described as soft skills. The recent global pandemic has revealed the blatant lack of resources and focus on many facets of our population's needs. The world watched as the masculine-built systems failed to protect their citizens and their livelihood. Every system, including healthcare, education, real estate, policing, the courts, and banking, has been unable to meet the needs of those it was designed to protect. Over the last two years,  there was no denying that we, the people, did not include all the people. 
Many business think tanks are attempting to find a way out of the great resignation and determine how the systems designed to take care of their employees and citizens failed. They are now ready to focus on soft skills to attract and retain their workforce. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which used to be about profits and investors, is being questioned. The discussion has shifted to include all stakeholders;  employees, customers, and communities.  
We’ve also seen more diversity in promotions to the senior-level leadership, including women and other underrepresented groups. Board appointments have also embraced this trend with selections from both of these demographics. Let’s hope these efforts will result in an inclusive, transformative leadership culture equipped and allowed to lead us through the complex situations we are currently facing.

How do you help people identify if you are living the legacy you want to be remembered for?

We must individually unpack our luggage of what we no longer believe. When we uncover the origins of these beliefs and let them go, we can each create a new powerful ideology to change the trajectory of our global society. Our most significant potential lies in identifying and using our unique talents in our service to humanity. This is why we are here; to serve. 

What is a living legacy?

I don’t think most people perceive their lives as a living legacy. When in fact, every day and in every way, we can become more of who we are meant to be. The question becomes, are you living your life in a manner you would like to be remembered? Are you using your talents in service to humanity?  If not, are you ready to do so?

And what’s possible when we fully become?

Everything and anything!  We, the people, have the power to create a world where we are fulfilled, where work no longer feels like work. Where we are aligned in our purpose and collectively build a global society where everyone feels respected, seen, and heard.  Many may say that will never happen.  I believe it starts one person at a time as we each model the behaviors and beliefs in our respective families and social groups. When we begin to do this globally,  it will have a ripple effect on our global society.  We must be intentional and steadfast in our efforts to leave the world a better place than we found it. That change begins with each of us. And, YES, this includes YOU!
Sonja Pemberton is a captivating speaker, transformational catalyst, and inclusion strategist. Her relaxed and engaging presentation style resonates with audiences prompting inspiring and empowering engagements. With a career spanning more than 25 years, she has been privileged to lead, mentor, and coach across all career levels and generations, sharing her knowledge and expertise in leadership development, culture, inclusion, and performance improvement. Her industry experience includes startups to Fortune 100 companies.  Sonja holds a master’s in organizational development and management and is currently pursuing a doctorate in leadership and change. The movement she founded, “Dispelling the Myth of the Other,” has been spoken on and taught worldwide.


Tricia Brouk