“It’s very rare to have one person who everyone respects in entertainment, or in politics, or among the grass roots,” civil rights activist Van Jones told the New York Times in 2015. “But to have one person who’s respected by all three? There isn’t anyone but Michael Skolnik.”
Who is Skolnik? He’s the former political director for media mogul Russell Simmons, the former president and editor-in-chief of hip-hop news site Global Grind, and co-founder of The Soze Agency, a worker-owned cooperative creating social-impact campaigns for clients like Google, Amazon Studios, Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International, and Emily’s List.
According to the Times, he’s “the man you go to if you…want to leverage the power of celebrity and the reach of digital media to soften the ground for social change.”
Skolnik, 40, is personally connected to everyone from Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, to hip-hop star Nas. He has created documentaries on social-justice issues like incarceration and anti-semitism in the US. He’s on the board of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. And according to the Times profile, in 2015, after the police officer who killed Eric Garner was not indicted, Skolnik partnered with Jay Z to deliver T-shirts reading ”I Can’t Breathe” to star basketball players like LeBron James, who just happened to wear them at a game attended by Prince William.
Gender equality is central to Skolnik’s activism, and throughout the Me Too Movement he’s been a prolific advocate against sexual harassment and toxic masculinity. He uses his social media platform to routinely call out other men for their silence on gender justice, and refuses to subscribe to paternalistic feminism:
In conversation with Quartz, Skolnik explains why he doesn’t let his son watch US president Donald Trump, why he thinks all men should admit they’ve done things that hurt women, and why he once pulled all his female employees into a room to understand why they don’t ask for raises (then made all salaries at his company transparent).
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
As the son of a proud feminist, gender inequality and equity have been issues I have been thinking about and taught about since I was a child. As I grew older and began to build businesses, gender equity and equality have been part of the core of everything I have helped create. What I have learned from the Me Too movement is one, that women are stronger than us men have ever imagined. Their courage and bravery to come forward to tell their stories has been awe-inspiring. And two, men really need to talk to each other about the pain and trauma so many men have caused women. It is no longer acceptable to be silent.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
I proudly identify as a feminist, as I am proud to support the advancement of women’s rights and gender equity. My feminism is defined by my belief that women deserve every right and privilege that men receive and that it is our duty as men to end sexual violence against women.
3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis to advance gender equality?
When we started our new company, The Soze Agency, I was very interested in the idea of creating gender equity within a for-profit business. So we embarked on a remarkable experiment of making our company a worker-owned cooperative, where the employees could become owners and I would ultimately give the company to the employees over the course of seven years. We are now coming up on year four and I have never worked at a place that focuses more on gender and race equity than our company. And it has been incredible.
When we needed to create a parental leave policy, one of our co-founders led the design of that policy, as she had just become pregnant. When we talk about salaries, we are open about them within the entire company, so there is never a chance that a woman is paid less than a man for the same job. When we hire vendors, we are intentional about hiring women-owned businesses as well as companies owned by people of color. These are things we are thinking about everyday.
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
The biggest threat to men is the seduction of power and the greed of American capitalism. When most people think of equity, they think the only way to obtain it is to give up something so the other side can have it. I look at it much differently. I think that when equity is achieved, all sides benefit from it, whether it is monetarily, emotionally, spiritually, professionally, or personally. When you can relieve yourself of that desire to make money just to make money or to have power thinking that it will resolve your own insecurities, then true freedom is achieved. And that freedom lessens your stress, anxiety, and fear, thus making living much more enjoyable.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what’s your biggest inhibition to doing so?
I talk about sexism all the time with my male peers. It is healthy to have these conversations among men.What I find to be most effective is when we all can admit that we have done things that have hurt women. However, it is important during these conversations to recognize that much of how we feel about women has been taught to us since we were babies: What color is more masculine? What toys make you a boy? What cartoons are boys supposed to watch? What clothes make us feel powerful? What sports we play. What language we use. What language is used toward us. “Stop crying, act like a man.”
We must deprogram all of this shit that we have been carrying with us for decades. It is toxic. It is poison. It is a cancer. And nobody wants to walk around the world with cancer. So we have to rid ourselves of this kind of thinking in order for us to live free.
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
I think of my five-year-old son, Mateo Ali, everyday. I think about how I am raising him to respect girls and women. I think about how others are raising him when I am not around. Not his mother, who is his greatest teacher and a feminist with a capital F. But the other kids at school. The things he sees in the playground. The TV. The toys he wants to buy. The parents of his friends. The stuff he sees when walking through this world. The president. The damn president, who I won’t let him listen to because of the despicable misogyny and sexism that spews from his mouth on a daily basis. Imagine that. We can’t let our boys listen to the president. That is what we are up against.
7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?
I wish they knew how I was really raised. I wish they could have seen not just my incredible mother, and how much she influenced me, but also my incredible father, who was very comfortable married to a feminist. These were my teachers. These were my mentors. These were my heroes. I got to witness a couple share space, support each other’s dreams and aspirations, respect each other’s time as if it was their own, never judge each other over how much money each made, hold each other accountable for living up to their responsibilities as parents. That is what I wish… that more people got to see Martha and Simon Skolnik raise their two boys.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
I was raised to never judge one’s journey towards consciousness; everyone has their own pace. So, I tell men, whenever you feel comfortable speaking up, do it. And however you want to do it, that is fine. But once you take the first step, you better keep walking…
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
Early in my career I noticed that very few women who worked for me would ask me for a raise, while the men would ask all the time. At one point, I gathered a group of women in my office and asked them why they do not ask for raises, when they undoubtedly deserved them. The general consensus was that they were conditioned from previous jobs not to ask for raises, as they were afraid that it would cause them to be fired. I wish I had the wisdom then to have a policy of open salaries, which we do now in our new company. I think it is important to remove any secrets within a company that can cause people to wonder if gender equity is a core value of the company.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
The best advice I ever received from another man was letting me know that the saying “behind every great man is a great woman” is bullshit. Instead we must believe that next to every great man is a great woman, or in front of every great man is a great woman. And for young men today, talk to each other. Listen to each other. When you make a mistake, make sure one of your boys lets you know. Those are real friends. Those are people who are going to make you better.