Let's Face the Facts
By David Nathan
By David Nathan
It was hard to miss the symmetry. On April 7, 2021, 16 years after graduating from Lasell University — where she first began her quest to understand the deep-seated racial inequities that she saw in America — Natalie Gillard ’05 returned. This time, rather than joining discussions facilitated by her professors, she led a virtual Presidential Speaker Series lecture for the Lasell community on a subject she knew well, but that had only begun to generate mass media headlines following the death of George Floyd nearly a year earlier.
In the years since graduation, through her own research and roles in higher education facilitating student leadership and diversity and inclusion programs, Gillard became an acknowledged expert on structural racism. Her breakthrough came in 2016 when she created Factuality, a facilitated dialogue and interactive game in which players actually experience the deleterious impact of structural inequality in the United States.
Over the last five years, Gillard has led Factuality sessions that have reached more than 40,000 people both in person and virtually. Factuality has helped support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at hundreds of multinational companies (Google, American Express, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson), universities in addition to Lasell (Yale, Princeton, UCLA), government agencies (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, New York City Department of Correction), and nonprofits (United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, American Heart Association). Playing Factuality equips participants with the knowledge needed to understand the history and prevalence of structural inequality.
“My whole life has revolved around conversations about race that most people just started having in the last year,” Gillard says. “Through the Factuality platform, I am able to meet people wherever they happen to be on their equity journey.”
For Gillard, the inspiration for the game that would change the course of her professional life was born out of frustration with a colleague. In 2015, while working as an adjunct professor and director of student leadership and inclusion at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, a co-worker told Gillard that the diversity training sessions she had facilitated in the past were insufficient. “You need to train my staff and this time it needs to go below the surface,” the colleague told Gillard in a condescending manner.
While muttering under her breath, Gillard began the search online for models, demonstrations, and other tools that would illustrate — rather than merely tell — that marginalized groups were not merely victims of prejudice but of long-standing structural barriers that essentially codified inequities. “I decided that I was going to find the best diversity game out there and when I couldn’t find anything, I decided to create it.”
She went home that night with an idea: A board game loosely based on Monopoly. Players would assume the identity of characters of different races, faiths, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and abilities, rather than a thimble or top hat as playing pieces. Over the course of the game, players moving around the board would experience the systemic advantages and limitations associated with their characters’ identities. “What would Monopoly be like if I were a character?” Gillard thought to herself as she designed the game. “Could I actually buy a house or would I be impacted by past residential segregation policies like redlining and have to be a renter?” She “gamified” the conversation about structural inequality in the United States using Bureau of Labor Statistics to keep it current and real.
Although she referred to early versions of Factuality as “bootleg” and “janky,” she knew immediately she had the basis for an interactive experience that would show players the inherent injustices in American society. She shared her creation with a faculty member at Notre Dame. “You’re on to something,” the professor told her and during the year that followed, Gillard tirelessly built every component of what would later become Factuality.
Factuality is a 90-minute crash course on structural inequality in the United States, played as an in-person or online interactive game.
Gillard arrived at Lasell as an undergraduate in the fall of 2001 from nearby Waltham High School with the same existential questions as many of her classmates: Who was she? Where did she “fit”? What was her passion, and could she somehow transform it into a fulfilling career? By the time Gillard graduated in the spring of 2005, her voyage of personal exploration was well underway and she had found her voice.
“Lasell changed my life,” she remembers. “My experience at Lasell set me up very well for what I am doing now.”
Gillard majored in legal studies and was a psychology minor, but dipped her toes into a variety of academic pools. “I was so curious about everything,” she recalled. Professor Joe Aieta’s philosophy class triggered her interest in a deeper examination of issues of race and class. She was so energized by the discussions in her sociology courses, particularly a class with Professor Jenifer Drew, that she wanted to find a career that would allow her to continue those conversations. Professor Linda Bucci served as her academic advisor and supervised her senior thesis, which sought answers to explain why Black motorists were pulled over for traffic stops at disproportionately higher rates than whites.
As a sophomore, she took a class with the first Black teacher she had ever had. She could not understand it: Why, through elementary school, middle school, and high school, had all of her teachers been white? Why, only when she was paying for a private college education, did she finally have a teacher that looked like her?
In search of further insights into the inequities of the world around her, she headed off to Lesley University to pursue a master’s degree in race and ethnic relations. After graduation, her curiosity took her deeper into the world of higher education — this time, on the administrative side — and eventually to Notre Dame University of Maryland, where her entrepreneurial journey with Factuality began.
Take a peek behind the curtain to see what Natalie does in her day-to-day life in addition to running Factuality.
Gillard’s Presidential Speaker Series address brought her experience at Lasell full circle — as does her work with Factuality, particularly with adolescents and teens. The questions she grappled with as a young adult are no longer personal wonderings; with each session and each participant, the conversation on structural inequality grows. More importantly, it clicks.
By putting participants into simulated situations in which their personal values and assets are challenged against intersectional, real-world statistics that impact other demographics, Gillard has found a way to elicit true empathy and make the lessons stick beyond situational sympathy. In Factuality, there aren’t true winners and losers; everyone leaves with perspective they didn’t have before.
“I am constantly updating the game to keep it current,” she says. And, while she deals entirely in facts, the way she interweaves recent data with historical actions is an art. Gillard and her team have incorporated data on COVID-19, incarceration rates, and working mothers into recent games, while simultaneously acknowledging the systemic impact of bygone neighborhood redlining and residential home loan restrictions on today’s society.
Gillard knows that her journey — and that of Factuality — is far from over. At the same time, she reflects back on those early days: The level of brainstorming and self-motivation it took to advance each new idea has cemented itself in her unique entrepreneurial spirit.
“Since that first exchange [with a colleague], I have been so intentional about extracting the good in every situation, so much so that nothing feels that negative anymore. It was when I pushed myself to create Factuality that I started telling myself: ‘You can do anything. You can become anything. You can have anything.’”
To learn more about Factuality or to bring a session to your organization, visit factualitythegame.com.