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A Conversation with Dr. Sylvia Bartley

Dr. Sylvia Bartley is the author of “Turning the Tide: Neuroscience, Spirituality and My Path Toward Emotional Health.” In this episode, Chanda and Sylvia discuss the complexities of community engagement work and holistic approaches to mental health.

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Chanda Smith Baker 

This is Chanda Smith Baker, the host of Conversations with Chanda, the conversation we are getting ready to have is with Dr. Sylvia Bartley. She is an Executive, a leader, and author and recognized advocate and champion for social change. She has dedicated her career to the elimination of health education and economic disparities. She wrote a book called Turning the Tide, a book around her journey to emotional health. She is a dear friend of mine, and I believe you will enjoy this conversation, and is a conversation that builds from the conversation we had last week with Sue Abderholden mental health, how we can better care for each other in those in our community. So, thank you for listening, and I will catch you on the other side.

Souphak Kienitz  00:01

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest most vexing problems, hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:12

We are having this conversation from San Diego where we are both here for a conference and so thank you for taking time on this break in this place to be with me.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  00:25

Oh, it’s always a pleasure to be with you. And we’re looking at a bay with palm trees. The sun is shining. We’re surrounded by beautiful black women. What can I say?

Chanda Smith Baker  00:36

I mean, there’s nothing like it. And so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about you though, as a black woman coming from the UK, by way of lots of places, you made it to Minnesota. And so we met when you had just arrived, perhaps to the Twin Cities. That’s correct. And you came as part of your role at Medtronic. And so how did this woman from London land in Minnesota?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  01:08

Yeah, well, the only way I landed in Minnesota was through my job at this medical device company called Medtronic, one of the best companies in the world, I must add. Ans it is a global company for my role in the UK and then in Europe, and part of my career development, growth and also to replicate and scale some programs and structures that I created in Europe, I relocated to the United States and knowing that I was relocating, one of the things that I was very mindful of, is getting involved in my community. And by my community, I mean a black community, because I believe that no matter which shores we were dropped off at Black people living in a diaspora, we share some common experiences. And one of those, unfortunately, is there a lot of disparities. So I learned about the African American Leadership Forum through some of the leaders in Medtronic. And after I came to the United States in 2010, we arrived, my daughter and I arrived in August, and I think it was by November, I said to my friend, I’m ready to go to an AALF meeting. And that was a Saturday morning when I showed up at Yurok. And Kim Nelson and Jeff Hassan was at the head of this table full of African American brilliance. That’s all I can say. It was intimidating. Because I’m British, I didn’t know the culture. But this group, they were focused purely on the academic achievement gaps between white and black students. So you had educators and elected officials and community folks, and leaders like yourself, who at the time, you were heading out Pillsbury, and it was just a room full of this knowledge and brilliance. And I was just in awe. And I remember walking away from there thinking, My God, I want to get involved, but how can I help these brilliant group of people, because they’ve got it all. And so I just committed to attending the meetings and really trying to sit back and watch and listen, because I wasn’t an expert in the US education system. And I didn’t know that culture, and I didn’t know the community. So I was just consistently listening and learning and being a quiet person in the room. And then one day, I saw where I could add value. And I thought, okay, I can add structure, and strategy and a framework, because there was all these ideas and lots of things to do. And so I thought, I thought to myself, I can help do that framework. So I said, Kim Nelson, here’s a framework I developed, do you think it will be useful for the group and that’s how I became from a passive listener and learner to an active engager. And that’s where I met you, because I remember you clearly sitting across a table with your baseball cap, you were really quiet. But then when you open your mouth, it was full of knowledge, and intelligence and observations. And I was like, who is this woman, and you are on my radar for I have got to get to know her. And here we are, my dear friend. 12 years later.

Chanda Smith Baker  04:11

Twelve years later, I was sitting there on a Saturday with my baseball cap, trying to try to blend in with the wall. And just listen and observe. And I think you know, what’s really special about what you just shared about the journey, because there’s so many people, especially in a time that we’re living in now, where many of the disparities, right, we’ve talked about disparities, but it can be very distant for people, right? It’s these folks over there that are experiencing it. And then 2020 in the pandemic, it became way more immediate in terms of people’s understanding of what it means like it was right in front of our face in ways that we had not seen before. And I get the question a lot and many people that are working in the social sector get the question of, I want to help I just don’t know what to do. And so here you are. If you’re coming into a new country, you knew you wanted to do something. And so what I heard you say is that you found a place to go, you were a quiet listener, you didn’t know the culture, you didn’t know the people, you didn’t know the issues. You didn’t know the sector. But yet you stayed at the table until you found the way for you to contribute in your way. And then you offered an added value. That’s a lesson right there. Let’s talk about the African American Leadership Forum. So you’re still involved.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  05:31

I am 12 years later, I’m still on the board. I went from being the co-chair of the Education workgroup. And when it I think it was like probably six months in, because one of the things I can do is just being consistent. So again, being new to Minnesota, consistently showing up being reliable showing up on time. You know, even if I don’t say anything, just being there to help clear the tables, take the trash out, getting my hands dirty, doing all of those things on a really pretty cold Saturday morning at eight o’clock, and I lived in Eden Prairie. So I had to leave my house at 7am on a Saturday morning to get there on time to do all of this. But to me, it filled my heart and gave me joy to it connected me with the community. And free and more importantly, is helping our community. And so I think I went from just being consistent. And then Kim Nelson asked me to be the co-chair of the Education workgroup, this phenomenal group of people. And I literally said to her, I said like Who me because first of all, she called me now that oh, I’m in trouble. It was calling. And then of course, you have all you can say that Kim is yes. But then I said to her look, please go back to the group and ask them first, don’t just point me, because that’s never going to work for anybody just get the consensus of the group. It was myself and Chris Stewart, they went ahead and did that. Then I was a co-chair for I think five years. So under different co-chairs, really loved doing that work, and getting involved more deeply working with elected officials and of his network of schools. And I got very involved, Eric asked me to be on the chair to help start be the Founding Chair for mastery school and trying to manage that organization. So this went on for at least five years. And then we helped AALF move. And you know, because you were the co-chair, the tri chair. Yeah. And we helped out moved from you guys lead a group or a collective of people to a 501C3, yeah. And then helped to build. The organizations are very instrumental in hiring our first executive director. And as a full-time employee did a phenomenal job of building the organization. And very proud to say, just recently hot off the press. We hired our second full-time Executive Director Adair Mosley, so excited about him, and how he’s going to take out to next level. So I’m really glad that I can be there along the journey. I think it’s I will hang up my hat soon. And let other leaders take over so you get fresh perspectives and new ideas, but just really glad to see it in a solid place. And we all played a role in that journey. We all played a role in that journey. It wasn’t just you know, individuals. And that’s what I love about AALF. The true collective.

Chanda Smith Baker  08:19

Yeah, I remember when I met you, your photo on your phone was a brain, you have a PhD in what neuro whatever Oh, you still have?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  08:28

I still have my brain, neurophysiology, and I’m fascinated by the brain and its workings.

Chanda Smith Baker  08:33


Dr. Sylvia Bartley  08:38

You know, I think my mother would say God works in mysterious ways. People say to me, were you a STEM person when you were a kid? No. But I did well in science. But my job that I had my first job, straight out of school was working as a research technician in a medical school in London. And this is where I found my love for neurophysiology. And I worked in a physiology department. But I worked in a sub kind of department working in neurophysiology because physiology is everything. But I worked with the professors on the brain, and they taught me so much about the brain. And it’s just to me the most fascinating organ in the body. Because if you think about when we get up when you pick up your cup, when you raise your eyebrow, when you look at people, these are all commands that are being done in our brain. And they’re sending these signals along axons and pathways to our fingertips into our hands. So we can do the motor movement. We can do all of these things, we can sit up straight, and I think that’s not to be taken for granted. Because in Medtronic, I worked with a therapy called Deep Brain Stimulation. And that is a therapy that you apply electrodes into deep structures of the brain and you apply chronic stimulation to alleviate symptoms of pain. Parkinson’s is so new central tremor. These are movement disorders new neurodegenerative. And so I saw firsthand what happens when the brain doesn’t work well, in the motor part, they can’t sit still, their hands are tremor in the soles of their feet, is touching the back of their head and alleys, their normal body posture, which means all sorts of things like muscle contractions, bone distortions, people literally been in constant pain 24 hours a day, because their body is just so contorted because a part of their brain is not firing right or functioning, right. And that’s maybe an extreme example. But that’s what happens when it doesn’t work. And so working in therapies that can help alleviate those symptoms, so people can live the qualities of life is something that I’m 100% committed to and did that work in Medtronic for at least, I know, 10-12 of my 20 years at Medtronic, working around the world literally, with neurosurgeons disseminating procedural practices. So, they put the lead in a right spot, they play the right stimulation, so you get the best optimal outcome for the patients. And that was just a soul fulfilling role that I could never have imagined when I was a kid. So that’s why I love the brain.

Chanda Smith Baker  11:20

Though you were a kid that wasn’t a STEM kid. Were you at least a good student?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  11:26

I was a hard working student. Let me put it that way.

Chanda Smith Baker  11:30

I only say that because you know, we have this very consistent narrative, right? Like, if you’re not good in school, then you won’t be successful later. And you know, we all have, when did you decide…

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  11:42

That’s not right.

Chanda Smith Baker  11:43

I think he said, that’s crap. But anyway, anyway, why isn’t it right?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  11:48

It’s, let me just share my experience everyone’s expereince is different. So born and bred in UK, Caribbean parents, there was a migration of Caribbean people to the UK, its colonies, bring them in to do all the domestic work. And I went to a predominantly white school living in predominately white neighborhood, that was fine. That was my experience. We were talking the other night, and I said, I really didn’t experience racism when I was growing up. And, but I knew I was different. And I always felt disconnected. And I had to try hard to be in my stream. So, they streamed us a stream being a high, they streamed you based on your level of academic ability, A, B and C, I was in a stream, I don’t know why they put me in A stream, I think it was because of my sister’s academic abilities. And I struggled to, I struggled in the A streams that I was always on the bottom of the eighth stream, we would have a test there were my results would be at the bottom. And it wasn’t for the one to try. And I got a plus effort for trying. I tried so hard. And I would go home and cry. And I’ll be up at two in the morning. And it was disheartening. It was demotivating that I was trying really hard. And yet again, I’m at the bottom. And so I remember saying to a white female teacher, Mrs. Bannerman. I said, you know, I’m really struggling in maths in particular. And I said, please, can you please move me down to the B stream? And she said, No. You just need to apply yourself differently. And we’re going to work on this together. That’s the difference. As opposed to saying, Yep, down you go. We have no expectation for you. Do you said no, you have ability, you’re just applying it wrong. And so we worked together. And yeah, I did. Well, I mean, I ended up passing all my exams and, and from then on, I literally flourished. And I got my first degree, and I was on the and here’s the and it’s funny talking about this. I remember being in my, my first degree doing apply biology in a university, again, that was predominantly white, there was a probably three black people out of 60. And we had this big biochemistry test. And I remember doing a test and I left probably 20 minutes early, and everyone looked at me like, oh, yeah, she can’t do it, right. But I done it. And then when I read in the results, the guy I don’t know why he did this lecture, he read the results from the bottom to the top. And it’s 60 people, and he read everyone’s results out loud. And I was like, oh, and I’m like, oh my god, I was cringing. Like, I’m I’m going to be at the bottom because that was my experience at school, who was at the top? I was the one at the top and there was a big gasp across the lecture theater. Everyone was like, all my friends. My study group they write with cheering and hugging me. But there was a gasp and I don’t think it’s because there were races it’s because I left like half an hour before the exam finished. And I think it was the way I applied how I learned. I didn’t learn like most people I just learned differently. And when I got that I took off.

Chanda Smith Baker  14:52

One of the other things that now we have in common is that we were in so School as parents, we didn’t have sort of a nice, neat package pathway. Can you say how that route was for you?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  15:12

Yeah, I am. So a unicorn. And they’re so different. So I did not know what I wanted to do, and I left school. So I just floated for a little bit. And then I’ve got this job. And then they said, Well, you’re smart. Do do your first degree. So I did my first degree on what we call in UK day release, by work four days a week. And on the fifth day, or whichever day it was, it was Thursday day, I went to a university that did a HNC, which transferred, you do X rays, it was a degree in applied biology. And that model was great for me, because I’m a didactic learner. So four days a week, I was doing all this research stuff in my university that I worked in. And then one day a week, I learned the academic stuff. And then when I didn’t understand stuff, I had the beauty of going back to my academics to explain, and then we had to do a practical project and assignment. And we’d I did that work, and I had all the equipment. So that was really good. And they funded that. And when I finished that, and I did really well, I got a two-one BSC honors degree, which is, which is decent. My professor said, Look, I want you to do a PhD. And I looked at him and said no way. Because I wasn’t white I wasn’t middle class. I didn’t have the private background. And I idolized these folks that had doctorates. They were all the academics doing all the lectures, they were a cut above and, you know, in the UK there, there was classism to being a technician, there was his kind of separate divide. But they wanted me to cross over the chasm. And, and he’s one guy did, everybody else didn’t. But that’s a different story. But again, someone believed in me, but it took me two weeks before I accepted his offer, because I didn’t think I was worthy of that position. And it was only until one of the students, the students love me, I did some teaching, you came to my office, she was crying her eyes out, she could not get a grant to do a PhD. And he’s with a third time trying. And I think it was the universe’s way of saying, Look, people are kidding themselves to get what was offered to you on a plate and you can’t accept it. So just trust I just trusted, and I went and registered and the rest is history. I got my PhD five years later. And I Yeah, it was, it was a moment because I that was never in my line of sight. And I did all of this while I was a parent single, got married, got divorced, single parent, different relationship. Now have a child. So when I was doing my, my oral exam for my BSC, I was like eight months pregnant. And the guy said, how can we make this more comfortable for you? And I said, Well, what you can do is don’t ask me any questions.

Chanda Smith Baker  17:58

Just give me that PhD.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  17:59

But we had a great conversation. But yeah, I was a single parent, raising two kids and studying for my PhD. Part time.

Chanda Smith Baker  18:07

Part time and took five years.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  18:10

Took me five years part time, which is a minimum time you can do it part time. You can’t do it before then. And in addition to that, you know, not many people know this, but I can’t say I was poor. But I was struggling. I was living hand to mouth paycheck to paycheck. I was living above my means because my salary wasn’t enough to support me and my two children so every month had negotiate. Which bill I was going to pay or who I’m going to ask to get food from this month like it was in my mom or my sister. My sisters will pay my bills. My mom would buy me shopping and nappies and it was like diapers. Yes, nappies, yes, a diaper. You call it nappies. But it was like that I needed the support of my family because I was financially strapped. And this went on for years. But I knew this is why I love education. Because I knew in my heart that education was my route out of that situation. And it sure was because with higher education, you get a better job. And then if you perform, you know, things just progressed from there. So, my early years was a years of struggle, depression. Literally, we were living in places where there was mold on the wall and we had to put plastic over the windows and my my son, I had to pull him in, like a full coat hat and gloves at nighttime because it was freezing. In our in our apartment. We had it rough. It wasn’t easy.

Chanda Smith Baker  19:37

Strength shows up, doesn’t it? Hmm. Yeah, it wasn’t easy. Let’s talk about depression. Let’s talk about depression. Okay. So, we all have had moments, and you had many moments. And then it led you to get formally diagnosed with depression. And then you wrote a book about it.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  19:59

It was actually the other way round. Okay, well tell us the story. The book was very cathartic, in that I wanted to write about intersectionality, between neuroscience spirituality, and emotional health. And I really was getting deep into the science and Sly Jones, you know, great playwright. He, he was kind of like my mentor. And he said to me, I needed a hook that will connect me with the audience. I need to be vulnerable, because why would they read all the scientific stuff now, like, I aint got no hook, and then we want to talk about, you know, I felt very uncomfortable with that conversation. Anyway, but during writing the book, I was living with depression, I think I was also very menopausal, which amplifies symptoms for depression. And but I didn’t know it. And I just thought I had negative thoughts. So when I was writing a book, I would say, Yep, I have negative thoughts. I’m a little bit pessimistic. But this depression, when I was writing, the book was just doubling down on me and getting really, really bad that it nearly kind of, I was, I’ve always been highly functional. And behind the scenes I would like, crumble. But I nearly crumbled in public. And that’s when I knew I was in trouble. And I was writing a chapter on the book. And the pressure was so bad. I couldn’t Oh, it disabled me almost. And my friends voice was in my head. You know, we experienced these things for a reason. And you got to find your purpose and reason for experiencing this. And I thought at that moment, I need to be honest about it and talk about what I’m feeling. And that’s where Sly Jones, coaching came in and said, don’t describe it. Just write what you see what you smell what you feel. And so, during that moment, I just picked up my keyboard, and I started to write that. And then when I finished write it, I was like, wow, I’m depressed. And then I went finally went to a psychiatrist 2017 And she diagnosed me with and bearing in mind. I know a lot about depression, because I worked there with in my, that was a speciality my field that we were working on. She said, Well, you got now let me get it right by severe moderate reoccurring major, moderate reoccurring depression. So I said, No, I do not. And she said, Why do you say that? It’s what gave all the science right trying to be smart. And she just looked at me eyebrow was raised arms across. And she said, this is the indicators for depression one, it lasts more than two weeks. Two people have it. No, it doesn’t last more than two weeks, two people have it once or twice in three. And I was like, okay, because this was something that I’ve had, as long as I can remember, if I’m to be honest, and as soon as I accepted that diagnosis, it was like, a load came off my shoulders. I wasn’t great. It sounds crazy. But I felt like I wasn’t feeling good. I always felt different. And so then I that was my path to healing. And then I decided to look into treatments, holistic treatment that I could do to address my depression that’s mindful, I don’t take medication. That’s personal to me. But I do the exercise and yoga and all that good stuff. But if I want to fast forward to the pandemic, one of the things a pandemic allowed me to do is to be still because I can travel so much. Then I said, Okay, let me double down on my health. And I went to the Amon clinic and actually took some functional brain scan SPECT scans. So I can literally identify in my brain where I had over activity or under activity, like the root cause of my depression. And you can visually see it. And once I saw that, then I worked with a functional psychiatrist, to get a tailor-made treatment plan of supplements, exercise, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, treatment, and all of the different kinds of treatments that are specific to me. So, supplements that are five hydroxy tryptamine, because I had an overactive if we can get technical a little bit overactive basal ganglia, that’s your seed of emotions. And that’s where you know, billions of isolations suicide ideation, feelings of not belonging, all of those areas, my brain was on fire. It was super overactive, which meant I would feel those things so even seeing that made me feel better because again, I wasn’t. Sometimes people will say to me, don’t be so negative, pull your socks up, get on with it. Everyone has a bad day, but this really crippled me sometimes but and I would be depressed for no reason. People say no your triggers, and I could be happy and then the next day I could be really sad and feel like I’m not loved and I feel very isolated like I don’t belong. And it’s very crippling and and feels awful, didn’t like that I can’t explain it, and then looking around and everyone’s happy, and everyone’s like, what are you gonna be sad about, you know, and then I’m just like, well, and I can’t explain it to folks. But then knowing that there’s physiology and chemical imbalance behind it, and overactivity, and then taking supplements, to calm down my anterior gyrus, to bring it down to a level to build up my thyrooptic tryptamine, my serotonin because I have a low reserve. It’s work, right, because I, every day, I’m taking like 1520, supplements, I’m exercising, I’m eating the right foods, I’m doing all of this stuff. But for once in my life, I can feel I feel at peace, I feel whole, I feel happy, I feel connected. If I was on this kind of a trip, five years ago, I would be in my room, I would feel like I don’t belong, all these beautiful people, and I’m this awful person that’s out there by myself. It would it would amplify my depression. And right now I’m just feeling so part of this community. And I know it because of the years of work that I’ve done to really understand the root cause, and then be committed to the treatment pathway that is different, to just taking medication could it’s it’s a holistic approach.

Chanda Smith Baker  26:21

I watch to sort of stumble over using the word crazy. There are so many stereotypes, and negative connotations around mental health and depression. For those that might be listening, that are struggling, maybe in the place that you were five years ago, or 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, if you yourself back then like what would you what would you advise and what would you say?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  26:50

Well, I if I well, you know, I’m going to answer your question. I did a talk once in in Medtronic, and I’m very open about talking about my depression once I was diagnosed, and people took a I give the leadership talks, and I talk about internal. And I say, hey, look, you know, you see me up here, you think I’m successful, but that’s not how I felt for most of my life. And then, and then I talk about my depression and one lady, people crying, people like leaning forward, one lady came up sobbing, saying, I lived all my life with a particular condition. I was undiagnosed. I wish I was diagnosed earlier. So to answer your question, I wish I was diagnosed when I was five years of age when I first had my feelings of depression, because then I could have lived a fuller life. But that wasn’t my path. And that wasn’t my purpose, I had to go through this kind of convoluted purpose to get to this point, for whatever reason. So I would say, if you are feeling it sounds so simple. But go and get help and do not take no for an answer. Do not accept pull your socks up, do not accept, get out of bed and get on with it, do not accept that you don’t have anything to be sad about, do not accept, Oh, you’re so negative, just really go and say to the doctor, look, these are some of the things that I’m feeling and experiencing. And there’s all these tests that people do. And from these tests, they can diagnose you, and then you can get the treatment, but then I will secondly advise, everyone’s experience is different. Everyone’s physiology is different, everyone’s makeup is different. So what works for me, it’s not gonna work for everybody else. But make sure you get a holistic plan, look into the root cause of what is causing your depression, medication is great, but it’s like the ocean. It’s like, okay, there’s an ocean out there. And in the ocean, something is off. And I’m gonna throw in these drugs, a load of drugs in the ocean, and we’re going to hope that something sticks 30% of medications work for people, anyone listening, if you’re taking medication for depression, do not stop. I’m not saying that what I’m saying is, is treating the symptom. And then after a while, that doesn’t that kind of you reach a kind of threshold which comes ineffective, but understand what is the root cause of why you’re feeling the way you are, and then treat that is the prevention. Because once you get to the root cause, then you’re gonna have more success in your management. And I will say I don’t think depression is never gonna go away. Right? If I stop taking the supplements, it will probably reverse back maybe I don’t know. It’s a lifetime commitment to addressing your emotional health.

Chanda Smith Baker  29:22

Yeah, what if the person saying you have nothing to be sad about is yourself? Right? What if it’s not an external messenger? What if it’s an internal person?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  29:33

But where, where did that internal voice come from? That internal voice came from external messages? At some point, right? It is our conditioning. It’s, you know, you the conditioning that were brought up and we just got to get on with things particularly as black people. We were conditioned not to show emotion not to feel to have horrific traumatic things happen to us in front of us. And God help us if we show an emotion even today a good example is angry black woman, they dehumanizing us by saying we’re not allowed to have feelings. You know. And so, if we are saying to ourselves, I have no right to be sad, we’ve been conditioned.

Chanda Smith Baker  30:17

Fair point, you were not just honest sort of with yourself and you took actions which you were very vulnerable, in a moment inside of a company, right to talk about your personal journey, regarding sort of your mental health, your depression, the actions that you were taking. And there’s a lot of conversations around vulnerability and leadership, right. And it was, perhaps an act of courage for you to get in front of your peers and colleagues at Medtronic to lead in a way that obviously was transformative for that community that was there, and listening to you that it felt like an act of courage.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  30:56

Not at all. I think, when you live with something for so long, and it’s your lens, and you hide it for so long, or you try and hide it for so long. It just sucks the living daylights out of you sucks the energy out of you. So I reached that point, spiritually to where I had to keep asking what is my path? And what is my purpose? And how do I use it for the better, and it was freeing. It was very freeing to be open and say, you know, I have depression and not that I because when you say that they I initially thought it made me look weak. People think I can’t do my job, they will see me differently. They wouldn’t respect me. And when I got over my fears, and false expectations are real when I got over that. People were so supportive, and it led to different avenues of support and not having to pretend anymore. Oh, my God is the best thing. And so that word vulnerable, I really want us to be in a place with emotional health where somebody says, I have breast breast cancer, they don’t hesitate. You know, some people are private people. So they keep stuff themselves. But people are open to share that. And people don’t say, Oh, thank you for being vulnerable. They immediately go to I’m so sorry to hear that. How can I help you? I want that to be the place where when you say I got depression, not thank you for being vulnerable? Or you’re so brave. Oh, you’re so courageous. Somebody told me. I’m wanting to be so normalize in parentheses that people say, How can I help you? Or this is where you get help?

Chanda Smith Baker  32:37

Oh, yeah, I hear that. And for some people, it’s very normalized in their social setting, but not normalized in a professional setting. And I think we’re where my interest is, is in terms of not just how you felt and how freeing it was. But it didn’t sound like your leadership was diminished in anyone else’s eyes. Right? It felt like it actually probably was amplified. Right. And I think that’s the story is that sometimes you’re hiding stuff and then you put it out there? And you’re like, Well, wait, they actually see my leadership more now. Right? Because I just close it, the very opposite often happens. And I think that’s, that’s part of what I want to illustrate. Because there’s, there’s so many people that have you know, it’s funny, because we were talking about religion earlier, but in a religious context, right, like you go through these tests that become the testimony, right? Like, they becomes a thing that you share that allow other people to open up and see more, right?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  33:39

And if I can jump in here, I think that extends to community leadership as well. So the emotional, talking about my emotional health, and then talking about the ways in which I approach it, I kid you not I probably did 30 talks in different teams and functions at Medtronic purely about that one, I did it for one group, it went to another went to another. And they just saw me as a different kind of a leader. And the same for community work. I think that amplified my leadership, I think if I did my job just by itself, nobody would see me. And I’m not saying this is just my perspective, looking backwards. But the work I did in that community really amplified, who I was as a leader, and that’s not the reason why I did it. And I didn’t think that would be the impact. Because I never told anybody initially, I was doing all this work in a community. But then it became a thing that my you’re doing all this work in Medtronic, and you’re doing all this stuff in a community and everybody knows you. Somebody texted me and said the senior person just text them and said Sylvia knows all these folks in our community these leaders, this is good for business.

Chanda Smith Baker  34:51

So, tell me so, so wait a minute, so you can work in a company and be active in community and it can be good for business?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  34:57

Yes, because it increases the company’s brand. This is what community engagement is all about. So, leading up community engagement for my last company over the last five, six years, it’s all it’s not, it’s about doing the right thing and alignment with a mission, don’t get me wrong, but that the ripple effect of that is people see you in a community. You know how many people said to me, I never heard of Medtronic until you came along. And they were born and bred in North Minneapolis. Or they would say, that white house up there in a hill, they they is a distance from them. And so seeing people in a community work in Target as a great example, red Target shirts, out there in a community increases the brand of targets. Yeah, that’s a good organization that’s invested in our community. And so, we need to get more employees invested in community not just to align with the mission, not just to make sure it’s good for the community, but also to increase the visibility of the organization.

Chanda Smith Baker  36:01

Do you think that company learned anything through their proximity to community? Did it evolve, how they thought about community, how they interacted in community?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  36:13

I think will amplify that significantly was the murder of George Floyd. Then there was this epiphany that racism exists right on our doorstep, what are we going to do about it, that’s when people started to offer their time and services to get involved. And intentionally, well, meaningly want to get involved to right this wrong, that was so egregious, and heinous and done in front of our eyes. But there isn’t a model out there because I think people are struggling to work full-time. Perform, because you can’t do community work and be visible in the community because some people don’t like that, as well. Right? Some people hate that you can’t be visible and do community work, and you’re failing at your full time job. It’s just not an option you got to perform at your job, make that priority, do your community work just don’t really impact that is a different no one has that model. That is a different, a difficult thing for people to do. And I can candidly say with the murder of George Floyd, and all these organizations wanting to get involved in community, what’s happening now is for and I’m talking about the Module Four is about the black community. What’s happening now is black folks are expected to go above and beyond their job. And then that will get you the you performed well. So there’s, there’s no dedicated resources, some places in some instances to doing this work, but they’re expecting the black folks to volunteer their time. And that’s where it can become civic engagement, volunteer into being voluntold. And then they’re expected to perform like a job and are expected to do their job. And then that’s how you’re going to get the you performed above and beyond what we expected you to do. That’s becoming an issue for lots of black people. Because they’re tired. they’ve exhausted they’re feeling in the grunt of the, the aftermath of it all. And now, once this, this is the quiet quitting conversation, right? Once in a while, I can just do my job. But now go do my job and do everything else for black people. But then guess what? I don’t want to miss I will need to represent my people. I don’t want to not help my community to how can I say no? So it’s a burden. But people particularly people in corporate America.

Chanda Smith Baker  38:33

Yeah. So okay, quiet quitting black women have been quiet quitting for years. So that has been a topic of discussion. It is. It has been all over LinkedIn for sure with the article. So quiet quitting pilot had that resonate with you quiet quitting?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  38:49

I don’t know if black people have been quiet quitting for years. I want to have that discussion, because black women in particular doing it all? Why in my mind what the definition I read of quiet quitting is you do your nine to five. You do your job. You don’t answer the phone at the weekend. And you don’t respond to emails at nighttime.

Chanda Smith Baker  39:10

Boundaries, or is that quiet quitting? Right? Like, that’s a debate.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  39:13

But we’re doing that all the time. We’re answering your emails at night and phone calls, and we’re doing our job as well as our community work as well as all this other stuff. And I think the difference is I wanted you to see my heart and passion to do all of this. And I do that the level I did it is not in every one. So everyone shows up for volunteering. Some people just want to volunteer one hour, tell me what to do. I’m showing up structured, I’m going to do it. Some people want it to be a lifetime commitment. Some people want to do it like maybe a little bit more people have different models, but forcing them to do it on top of their jobs in a way that is like their jobs. That’s where the challenge comes in.

Chanda Smith Baker  39:51

Yeah, but I mean, you know, and in other cases, you’ve heard folks from you know, all kinds of identities that become the person that people go to to explain what is happening in community and that additional burden, it creates fatigue, right? There’s an expectation that is placed there that is not there for everyone. And how you respond matters, because if you don’t respond the right way, this is where all the stereotypical white, he’s talking about the angry, black woman and those types of things. So there’s all kinds of ways where these additional burdens and expectations get placed on diverse communities. Do you think that we’re examining those differently in the corporate space?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  40:32

No, I think the expectation is if you’re Asian, and there’s an asian hate crimes, then we’re going to communicate and here’s what to do. If you’re black, and a black hate crime, you’re gonna go to black community, and you’re going to lead it, and we’re gonna do all these kinds of things. So there’s the expectation. And I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, I’m kind of torn on that one. Because I wouldn’t want anyone who’s not in my community, to tell me what’s right for my community. So I think, you know, for me, I felt the responsibility to raise my hand and say, This is what the community is feeling. And this is what they need right? Because this. So despite the emotional toll it has on us because we’re still experiencing it. So I don’t know if there’s a right answer to that, because we want someone who’s not in our community, saying what the community needs?

Chanda Smith Baker  41:17

I hear that. I mean, I don’t know whether or not it’s about acknowledgement and resource. I don’t know if you know, I don’t know, I don’t know the answer. But I know that, that we are in times that are very, very different. And the amount of conversations that I’ve been in around people that are experiencing new levels of fatigue, that are very conflicted between their values and the values that they’re working in, or, or decisions that they have to make that they think are in conflict to what community might need. These are real conflicts that are showing up every day that people are wrestling with. And I just, you know, the conflicts are not going to go away. And I think the more we can find places to have the conversation and to figure out how to navigate those more successfully, I think will be better in terms of addressing the disparities, and being more impactful all the way around, right. And folks will feel more satisfied.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  42:16

Yeah, I agree. And I, you know, thinking about my experience at Medtronic, they were very good at managing that. They’re very good at acknowledging, and rewarding and recognizing people that went above and beyond their jobs to represent and come up with strategies. I think for me, the, the challenge, and the heartache, and the hard work, was working with people that kind of jumped on that are not in the community, not only in your community space, but wanting to jump on that bandwagon, because they saw it as a path to their career progression. And so they were taking up space around that table, making, you know, pushing themselves inserting themselves in places where they do should not be inserted, because they wanted to be seen as a leader. This was the on Vogue thing, before, they weren’t doing anything for about people. In fact, they were doing all they can to pull black people down. Then George Floyd gets murdered. Everyone’s on jumping on that bandwagon. The leaders are all upset, everyone wants to get there, all of a sudden, they’re lovers of black people, and they’re taking up space and inserting themselves. And they’re trying to tell the black community what they need, but yet at the same time, they’re dismissing their black peers and their colleagues, because I think they’re above them. That’s where the hard work and emotional toll takes place. This real talk right now?

Chanda Smith Baker  43:44

I don’t even know what to say. I don’t think it’s for the listening ears, but if that’s you, you should stop. Man, and I mean, to recognize you should recognize it. I mean, you know, I mean, there’s folks that have really good intention. And I think that if you are paying attention, you will see the signs of, of, I mean, generally, you know, when you are welcomed in a space or not welcomed into space, and if you just apply that to these types of issues, you will see the signs, right. And I think most people will accept folks that are coming with, you know, true intentions to make a difference, even if it’s clunky. Right. I think there are people that have never tuned in that feel horrible that they didn’t tune in and they have honest intentions. I’m wanting to get get in the fight towards justice. And there’s plenty of space for folks like that. But you do have to enter like you’re a novice. You can’t come in, you know, with the plan.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  44:42

But you will be authentic. That’s my Yeah, yeah. There’s a space for everybody because lord knows there’s enough work to do. Right? But you’ve got to be authentic and I hate it when people come in because they want visibility, exposure, and a promotion. Off the backs of our people off of the backs of a horrific incident? You know, and there’s too many of them. One is too many.

Chanda Smith Baker  45:08

One too many. Now, what should we be talking about you got any questions for me?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  45:17

Well, have I got any questions for you? Well, I would ask you, as a community person, you’re 100%, community-engaged leader, very, very well respected in the community by many, very knowledgeable about systems and processes and all of that good stuff. How would you advise corporations to really have sincere, authentic, impactful community engagement strategies and plans in the Twin Cities and I say, the Twin Cities because, as you know, better than I, Fortune 500 headquarters really high parotta, probably the highest in the country. There’s all of these corporations sitting there, and everyone wants to do something. How would you advise them to do the right thing? And do what’s impactful?

Chanda Smith Baker  46:18

Yeah, I mean, that’s a that’s a really good question, a big question. And we’re sitting, you know, Minnesota is very generous community, right, one of the most charitable in the country, I think that we have been very proud of that as a state for a long time, and lending resources as one way to make a difference. And I think that what we have learned is being in relationship is something that’s completely different. And so, you know, if I were to recommend, right, and, you know, I could probably say something really smart about what they could do with their corporate philanthropy, or how they could invite community into their businesses differently, or how they could have targeted strategies, and all of those things, but honestly, Sylvia, I think, just being in relationship with community, and I say that meaning leader to leader like, I remember leaving Pillsbury United Communities, and really craving good strategic thought partnership, or wanting my team to have some access to really good training space, and thought leaders from across the country that our nonprofit budget could not afford. And and thinking about corporations that were bringing in speakers and wishing that, you know, our leaders could have access to that. I mean, there are some things that are just sort of, in my mind felt very simple. Right? Have, it’s not quite coaching, but there’s definitely sponsorship coaching, relational things, because when you’re in relationship, right, even with me as leader, I think you begin to understand more about my approach into community that then shapes your approach, I begin to understand, even with our experience with African American Leadership Forum, right, you’re coming from corporate, I’m coming from the social sector, right, you had your way of approaching an issue when we were part of the education workgroup, and I had my way, and pretty soon, we understood each other’s ways. And it made the whole experience better. And I think that’s part of the thing is that our sectors are so separate, right. And we know that some of the most sustainable efforts have been multisector, with diverse people at the seats. And so I would suggest that if you’re, if you’re trying to solve problems, and you don’t have a diverse set of thinkers at the table from multiple sectors, you could do better that way. Right? If you’re solving a problem in a community that you have no footprint in, you might have staff from there, but you haven’t even talked to them about what their experience is, you might want to just get back to the bases and basics and just ask good questions and be in relationship with the communities you’re trying to serve.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  49:04

Yeah, that’s good advice. And I think there’s something to be said about community leaders like you really coming together and providing advice and being counseled to corporations because they’re always asking the questions of what can we do and how can we do it better? And how can we be impactful? Now I have another question for you, which is a really important question. One of the things that I feared a lot when I moved to Minnesota and getting involved in community which held me back somewhat I had a hold back, was this you’re not from here. You don’t understand because you’re not from here. I’ve heard people say to other people that are American, you’re from Chicago, you don’t understand you’re from whatever you don’t understand. Me being British, very mindful of that. But from my perspective, people like me want to get engaged. And even though we’re not from here, we want to be part of the community. We live here. We aren’t rooted to live here. Yeah. And so how can we? I don’t know if this is even a rhetorical question but how can we approach it different? Because I see that as a barrier.

Chanda Smith Baker  50:10

When I think that about someone I don’t? Do I say that to people? Apparently, I do. Maybe I do. So, my tell, I guess if I say that what I mean, what I’m responding to, is what I believe is an assumption being said to me about a community that I’m from. So, if you come, you say something about the north side, or if you say something about a community I’m very familiar with, that’s not true. From my experience of being here. I’m gonna say you’re not from here. Like, I’m basically saying, if you go, if you go to that place with what you just said to me, you might not want to go to that place.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  50:48

Yeah. Like you haven’t said that out loud. Or if we’ve had conversations, and people have said, you haven’t said that directly. But I’ve been in like forums, where people have stood up and said, You’re not from here, not to me, but to other people. So, what do you know, and I get it, but how do we build community, if we’re living here. But because we’re not born here, it doesn’t mean to say we can’t contribute.

Chanda Smith Baker  51:13

I mean, I think it’s fair. But I also feel like you know, if you really want to be active in community, and you have one person that says it, I mean, think about how many barriers get in your way to everything that you want to accomplish. Right? When you show up every day, you showed up, you sat in that room, you were a listener, you were quiet, there are a lot of people that show up the first day with, like, all the answers that aren’t from there, right like that can be offensive to people that have been here for a long time that have been working together. And so there’s something that’s really quite remarkable to me that I love about this city that I love about the north side that I love about Rondo, right that I love about greens, like, like the love of place, right? Like there’s deep loyalty. And there’s something really, really great about that, right. And that’s an expression of that. There’s also like, if you’re not going to come in and respect but we got going on, go back to where you came from, with all that noise, right? Like, there’s a piece of that. But then there’s also a piece of like, we need everybody we need boots on the ground on these issues every single day, because we are losing lives, literally and and folks are not achieving the goals and dreams that they have for themselves, because the systems are not performing and responding to the needs of our communities. And we need everybody on board to do that. And so you know, one person two people saying that if you mean it, you find people that don’t say that to you. Right? And if you allow that to be the excuse, you weren’t you weren’t there.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  52:44

Exactly. If you allow that to be the reason to stop, you’re I gotta say Minnesota, Twin Cities, community, black community, the corporate community, the diverse community, I just love it. I live in Atlanta. Now. I love Atlanta. But I miss my Minnesota community.

Chanda Smith Baker  53:04

Well we miss you, too, Sylvia, before we go, one last question, which is would you share with our listeners your best leadership advice?

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  53:14

My best leadership advice is, you know, do all of the external stuff. The mentoring or coaching or performing the planning this strategy that we’re all that good stuff, but the secret sauce is the internal stuff? What is your path? What is your purpose? Why am I put on this earth? Does this fulfill me? Am I doing it for internal reasons, or external reasons, I’m doing it for sole fulfilment or my doing it because I might have ego. And once you get more to that internal, it will really guide you and on your career, it will guide you in how you show up as a leader. It will guide you in how to be humble, how to be compassionate to yourself and others, and how really to make an impact in this world. And once you’re on par from purpose, you’re unstoppable. You float, you’ll be successful in ways that you never imagined. So, the internal clock, to me is the most important clock when it comes to leadership.

Chanda Smith Baker  54:10

I appreciate you sister.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley  54:13

I love you.

Chanda Smith Baker  54:14

I love you. I love you. Sylvia Bartley, Conversations with Chanda, thank you so much.

Souphak Kienitz  54:23

If you enjoy this show and want to learn more about what we do here at the Minneapolis Foundation, please visit us online at And of course, if you want to follow Chanda or the Minneapolis Foundation on Twitter or Instagram, that’s ChandaSBaker or MPLSFoundation. Thank you to Sarah Gillund, John Cuoco and Darlynn Benjamin. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thanks for listening.

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About Our Guest

Sylvia Bartley

Sylvia Bartley is a health equity thought leader and influencer widely recognized as a neuroscientist, an advocate, and champion of social change, dedicated to advancing health equity through addressing barriers to care for minoritized communities and by addressing the social determinants of health. Sylvia’s work is guided by a greater spiritual purpose rooted in mindfulness and intentionality.

She has dedicated most of her professional career to creating opportunities for individuals living with chronic diseases to receive access to medical technologies. For the last 20 years, Sylvia has worked for Medtronic, the world’s leading healthcare technology company, where she has held roles in sales, marketing, physician education, and philanthropy. During this time, Sylvia has led global teams to disseminate best surgical practices, advanced techniques, and products to treat Parkinson’s Disease and other movement disorders. Most recently, Sylvia helped Medtronic develop an enterprise-wide health equity strategy aligned with customer interests, challenging disease states, and patient needs.

As part of this work, Sylvia engages healthcare leaders, patients, and other stakeholders to uncover and address barriers patients face in receiving high-quality treatment for chronic illnesses. Her commitment to this effort promises to help transform how minoritized communities work with their healthcare providers to manage their chronic conditions.