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Activism & Action

News So White It’s Blinding

Photo: Mike Sudoma, Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), website homepage 2020. The CAJ shared “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action” publicly and with it members in support of the recommendations.

Working in Canadian media these days can feel like playing a real-life version of Survivor. It seems every quarter brings new buyouts, shuttered outlets, and more castaways. While times are challenging for all journalists, people of colour—already underrepresented—are getting squeezed even harder.

Earlier this week, a first joint report by the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) and Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) tackled the issue, highlighting why it’s finally time—even in these challenging times—for the country’s newsrooms to stop sweeping appallingly low diversity statistics under the rug and start acting on its recommendations to boost diversity.

The two organizations decided to work together on the report when they realized they shared the same concerns. And that, says Nadia Stewart, executive director of the CABJ, was, “Folks who felt they weren’t represented in the leadership in their newsroom, folks who were still encountering unpleasant experiences, folks who felt like their voice wasn’t heard.” When the heads of the two organizations began to talk, Stewart says, “Representation diversity was still the elephant in the room.”

With diversity and race issues regularly making front-page headlines in Canada and abroad, the industry’s own problem with racial representation had become even more ironic, if not downright comical. Last September, editors at the Vancouver Sun showed a deaf ear to the issue, publishing an op-ed that recommended Canada say, “Goodbye to diversity, tolerance, and inclusion,” then later apologized after many of the Sun’s own journalists denounced the op-ed on social media.

During the 2019 federal election, when Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal erupted, an overwhelming number of journalists criticized the coverage and called for increased diversity in the newsroom, noting the first journalists to question Trudeau on the Liberal campaign plane were all white. Journalist Sunny Dhillon quit his Vancouver posting for The Globe and Mail when he wanted to write about that city’s lack of diversity on council—and was overruled by his bureau chief. In an essay, Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away, Dhillon explained the “challenges journalists of colour can face in a lily-white industry” and said the solutions were “as obvious as they are unacted upon—hire more people of colour, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence.”

Ironically, in recent years, US and international media have started hiring high-profile Black Canadians to cover race issues in Canada.

The goal of the joint report, called “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action,” is meant to move issues of diverse inclusion forward “in a way that isn’t just paying lip service, but actually is actionable steps,” says Anita Li, co-founder of CJOC.

The CJOC has more than 600 members and launched as a Facebook group in October 2018, though Li says the conversations around race has been going on for years. The CABJ was founded in 1996 as a resource for Black journalists in Canadian media and was relaunched in 2018 with “renewed focus” to support young journalists. In the report, the two organizations lay out seven recommendations to improve diversity and create an “equitable media” within the country, which includes creating mentorship and scholarship opportunities for people of colour and self-reporting newsroom demographics. Unlike in the US, Canadian outlets often opt out of publishing such details so that it’s impossible to know how many people of colour work in a news organization, or what roles they play.

Diversity in a dying industry

Increasing diversity in Canada’s struggling news industry faces one seemingly insurmountable roadblock: how to increase representation in an industry that’s simply struggling to stay afloat? Over the last decade, Canadian media has been pummelled by declining advertising revenues and shrinking subscriber bases. A recent report from the Public Policy Forum found that, since 2008, more than 250 news outlets have either closed or reduced the services they offer, and advertising revenue—the lifeblood of most organizations—has all but dried up.

So, is it possible for newspapers and digital publications to increase diversity while facing the constant threat of collapse? Many experts say yes. In fact, the benefits of greater racial diversity in the newsroom has been proven over and over again, starting with a deeper and more authentic relationship with the communities they serve, leading to a more sustainable business model. In an industry suffering from declining readership, a diverse news staff could be what rights the ship.

However, the business case can’t be the only reason to boost diversity, explains Eva Salinas, the former managing editor of Open Canada. In her former role, she actively hired and supported diverse staff and says diverse journalists play an important role in a democratic society by highlighting the stories that originate in Canada’s diverse communities.

“Yes, there is a business case, but there’s also a business case for allowing immigration,” she explains. “That shouldn’t be the leading reason. It’s about equality and human kindness. I think that needs to still be the leading reason.”

Yet another obstacle in increasing diversity is the role unions can play in blocking and even ousting diverse workers during layoffs as they protect seniority over everything else. Given that it’s usually journalists of colour who are less likely to be in senior positions, they tend to be the first offered buyouts.

Thinking outside the box

In response, some newsrooms are getting creative in maintaining both headcount and diversity, says Brian Gibson, president of Unifor Local 2000. “We did do something different here in Vancouver. The members themselves did decide to take a 10 percent cut in the form of a day off every two weeks to prevent layoffs, so the diversity was preserved. But, it’s not 100 percent commonplace because, again, seniority is usually followed, and with the addition of these new folks they’re usually the first to go.”

Logically thinking, journalist shops without a union might find it easier to tackle the diversity debacle, but Gibson has found that not to be the case when working with the recently shuttered Star Vancouver office. “That group was fairly diverse, but our issue there with bargaining was, again, because people negotiate their own wages, the people of colour and women were the lowest paid there. One of our biggest bargaining issues was trying to bring those folks up and get everybody paid the same for the same work,” says Gibson.

In their report, the CABJ and COJC also strongly recommended that news outlets not only hire reporters of colour but create “leadership tracks” for journalists of colour and invest in their potential as future managers. “Current newsroom leaders should be proactive in seeking out and developing leaders of colour. These individuals should be promoted to occupy decision-making positions, such as assignment editors, senior and executive producers, managing editors, and news directors.”

Even as the CABJ and COJC were issuing their joint report, TorStar, which had a strong record of employing young, diverse journalists, announced it would close its StarMetro News offices across the country. Where those journalists will find work is impossible to tell, but they are at a disadvantage with little experience in a slowly shrinking industry.

The authors of the joint report concede that the industry’s problems can’t and won’t be solved on the recommendations of one report and that change won’t be easy, but the group remains united and focused on putting forward solutions. Says Stewart: “The time is now. I think the circumstances are ripe and I do think people are ready for change.”

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Our Voices

Meet Mithula Naik: Feminist Designer, Latent Entrepreneur

Mithula Naik

Mithula Naik was studying industrial design in Chennai, India, a city of eight million, when she observed that women roaring around town on motorcycles and scooters were wearing bulky, ill-fitting helmets. As the daughter of entrepreneurs, she immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on her interest in gender and design. “I didn’t just want to take a pink-and-shrink approach to designing a new helmet line for women,” says the now 26-year-old. “I wanted to see how I could enable a better riding experience by designing a better fit. So I researched the particulars of how a woman’s head shape and size is different from a man’s and came up with a better helmet that is ergonomically suited.”

Convincing manufacturers to buy into her idea was not easy. “I had to go to several manufacturers. At first they didn’t think a different helmet for women was necessary, let alone sell,” she says. Eventually, India’s Vega Helmets decided to give the idea—and Naik—a try. And the product took off, launching in 2014.

Naik identifies as a feminist and a feminist designer. LiisBeth recently interviewed her to chat about growing up in India, feminism and how we can redefine entrepreneurship:

LiisBeth: What did your father and mother do for a living?

Naik: Both my parents are entrepreneurs. Both of them work in business. My mother runs a primary school and day care centre. It is based on a Montessori model of education, and goes from preschool/day care through to the fourth grade. Her school is now 35 years in operation. It’s not a large school; it has about 100 students. She prioritizes maintaining quality instead of franchising and expanding the school. My father runs a business for flooring and interiors, so he does granite, marble and interior-related work.

LiisBeth: As a person who’s growing up in an entrepreneurial family, what’s your perception of how entrepreneurship is viewed in India in general?

Naik: Entrepreneurship is understood in two very different ways in India. Firstly, there’s micro and small businesses, the mom-and-pop-shop kind. This kind isn’t considered so special and is often taken for granted because it’s what everyone does. It’s mainstream. A lot of people are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial because they have to be. It’s needs based and a well-known way of life.

The second kind is medium to large businesses. More recently, with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting “Make in India,” there came a new kind of entrepreneur. FlipKart’s largest ecommerce chain competes with Amazon. Ola Cabs, India’s very own online cab aggregator, competes with Uber. These are the newer more aggressive and high-growth-oriented entrepreneurship ventures.

But back to the small business world, the influence of family expectations plays a big role in how young people consider entrepreneurship as a career. Your grandfather had a shop. Your father expanded it to two shops, and now as the next in line, you’re taking it to the next level, either developing a third shop or looking to expand internationally with a higher growth mindset. This is the mindset maintained by many of my friends from India. Many go abroad, get international business degrees and then come back to manage and grow their family businesses.

Growing up I believed it was, in fact, harder to get a corporate job than start a business. The entrepreneurial family and the life that goes with it were familiar enough to me that I didn’t really think of it as a desirable career option. There was a certain amount of predictability to it. Also, there is a profound sense of responsibility of a different kind, in that you have to carry the foundations of what your parents have persevered for. I feel extremely fortunate because my parents never placed any expectations on my brother and me to take their businesses forward. They wanted us to dream our own dreams.

LiisBeth: I want to explore this idea a little bit more because I find it intriguing. You grew up in an entrepreneurial family, in an entrepreneurial culture, yet you thought a job would be a great idea.

Naik: Yes.

LiisBeth: [Stunned] Why is that?

Because entrepreneurship, as any career would, comes with its constraints. Just because you are the CEO doesn’t necessarily mean you will be making as much money as you could be working for someone else. A lot of Indians return to India after spending time in the west earning more working at a job than their families ever did owning a small business in India. But this is common as well, immigrating to the west for a higher socio-economic standard. Entrepreneurship is also a deep commitment and responsibility like I mentioned. Personally, I couldn’t see myself putting all my energy in my early 20s in building one business, in the same city I grew up in and having to stay on to build it for the rest of my life. And although that is an equally joyful and challenging journey I personally wanted to travel and experience what was out there, and I was very fortunate to be able to. The world is a smaller place these days.

My core skill is design, and I need to grow as a designer. I thought I could best accomplish this by working with a large company where I would have the opportunity to collaborate with talented people from multidisciplinary fields. Working in an organization and in teams to solve problems seemed to me to be a more attractive idea than jumping on one “big idea” I might have as an entrepreneur.

LiisBeth: Are women entrepreneurs respected in India?        

Naik: I’d say the idea of women entrepreneurs who are in business for themselves in India is not as common as it is in North America. A lot of Indian women pursue business training (MBA) but then are weighed down by family expectations to work in their family’s business or join the corporate workforce. The idea of an Indian woman having her own business where she has 100 per cent autonomy is something rather recent. However, the stereotype of Indian women entrepreneurs being married women who work alongside their husbands, or daughters working with their fathers, is slowly changing.

The changing scenario can be seen by looking at the many young Indian women today using the internet and social media platforms to start their own autonomous businesses. Facebook for Business, particularly for small and medium enterprises, I believe is thriving in India. Start-ups from women entrepreneurs seem to be currently concentrated in traditionally women-led industries such as cosmetics, accessories, fashion and confectionery, but I definitely see that women in India are waking up to starting their own enterprises in other areas.

LiisBeth: Are you a feminist?

Naik: I would surely consider myself a feminist.

LiisBeth: What does that mean to you?

Naik: I guess it’s just the radical idea that women and men are equal! [Laughs.] But seriously, if you have a belief in fundamental human rights, you need to be a feminist. I really loved this new idea I read about, where we should stop asking people if they are feminists. We should ask instead if they’re sexist because really, you’re sexist if you’re not a feminist. Unfortunately, people, including many women, don’t understand the true meaning of feminism. There are too many negative connotations people associate with it, which takes away the basic meaning of feminism.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your final master’s major research project.

Naik: My project is titled “Beyond the Economic: The Influence of Women Entrepreneurs in Canada.” In an exploration of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, my project seeks to re-examine the stereotype of the male as the prime entrepreneurial role model. It does this by uncovering the distinct experiences of women entrepreneurs for the expansion of both economic growth and social impact.

LiisBeth: What did you find out?

Naik: My research shows that Canadian women entrepreneurs have a lot of experience negotiating between the two complex entrepreneurial systems of for-profit entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship to reveal a middle ground. As a result, they are quicker to adopt a vision of Canadian society wherein businesses do not act in conflict with the good of the people, but rather alongside it. Think, hybrid enterprises. However, my study calls for more research in the subject, as there’s still a lack of available data on women’s entrepreneurship when compared to men.

LiisBeth: Why study women entrepreneurs in Canada?

Naik: Initially, I wanted to learn about how women entrepreneurs work in a first world country like Canada compared to a developing country like India. I thought I might come away with a sense of the ideal Canadian woman entrepreneur archetype that might be useful, motivating and instructional when comparing them to other women entrepreneurs in other countries. Instead, I came away with a much more interesting finding. It turns out Canadian women entrepreneurs have had a long history of fusing social benefit with business—a little known fact from what I could see. That experience and knowledge seems to be highly undervalued here. They could serve as a role model to so many others around the world.

LiisBeth: Can you discuss one of your project’s recommendations?

Naik: My first recommendation is that we begin to understand “impact” in more ways than merely financial and fully value the contributions made by women-led ventures. Many of their ventures not only contribute to the economy in the form of jobs created and supplies purchased, they also lead the way in running enterprises that measurably improve society and the environment. More progressive enterprise valuation formulas based on a broader definition of economic contribution could lead to new funding mechanisms and unleash a horde of financially oppressed but growth-minded women entrepreneurs.

LiisBeth: Any ideas on how to measure the value of social and environmental contributions?

Naik: Sure. We can start by carrying over new and now generally accepted “social impact metrics” and put a dollar value to social benefit outcomes. The social finance space is pioneering new ways of measuring social value. And the non-profit sector has also developed many new methods for assessing social impact and converting them into monetary terms. All we have to do is carry this concept over into the for-profit, commercial-lending and investment spaces so that a blended value enterprise can gain access to higher levels of funding since their balance sheet would include these other assets. I think government banks like BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) could play a lead role in this.

LiisBeth: Being new to Toronto, and Canada, what strikes you as the one thing that sets us apart from other countries?

Naik: Inclusivity. I know diversity is emphasized in many places, but you can be in a highly diverse space that is largely segregated and less inclusive. From what I have experienced, Canada as a country emphasizes inclusivity to a great extent. It allows people from all over the world to come together to produce great things regardless of their differences. This has surprised me on many occasions. In my experience so far, Canada looks at people’s inherent capacities, what they bring to the table and not the colour of their skin or where they come from.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Mithula?

Naik: I have been working with the Central Innovation Hub at the Privy Council Office and definitely looking forward to working on many more exciting projects. I’m using the tools of design thinking and social innovation to solve policy and service delivery challenges in the public sector. Can’t wait!

 

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Activism & Action Our Voices

Diversity Rules

rajkumari-neogy-diversity-rules-liisbeth

High-tech companies in Silicon Valley know diversity spurs innovation and creativity. They’re making serious efforts to get more diversity—especially women—into “the pipeline.” Yet, the retention and promotion rate of women remains appalling, says Rajkumari Neogy, founder of iRestart, a start-up diversity coaching company based in San Francisco.

Neogy herself enjoyed a meteoric rise in the tech industry. She started as a training specialist with a start-up and rose to a leadership and development lead with Adobe and Facebook before confronting her own painful experience of workplace exclusion. She witnessed sexism (“All the typical shit you read about does happen”) and she felt “othered” during her role as a consultant. “I was making six figures and helping the company grow,” says Neogy. “Due to being labeled as a contractor, I was denied access to company events, information, and resources.” That othering was rampant, she says, and many consultants were quitting. “After a while it begins to wear on you. You realize you only belong in this conditional way and that began to hurt more and more,” says Neogy.

But why did it hurt so much? Neogy took some time out from her career, spent two months on a beach in Asia thinking about it, and began researching and writing about pain and exclusion. She realized her workplace pain had been compounded by the “intense” childhood abuse she suffered in her family, her own internalized homophobia, and the trauma of being gay-bashed as a young adult. After excavating the sources and connections of her pain, she started applying the leadership training and communication strategies she had developed over her career and put herself back together.

She returned home to write her book, The WIT Factor: Shifting the Workplace Paradigm by Becoming Your Optimal Self. She also developed a new strategy to increase and retain diversity in the workplace—and created a new company to deliver it. And so iRestart was born.

To start her company, Neogy lived on her savings for a year while drumming up business and taking the free online lecture series “How to Start a Startup” offered at Stanford University. She learned best when she sought advice one-on-one from experts. With her financial advisor, she set up an S corporation so she could build stocks and dividends and, ultimately, equity.

Through iRestart, Neogy delivers her unique Disruptive Diversity coaching program, either to teams or individuals over a six-week period of engagement. She describes the leadership and mentoring sessions as a “rupture and repair” strategy that pinpoints root causes of exclusion and communication pain points (rupture) then creates profound inclusion by utilizing a range of tools (repair). The program builds a radical sense of self-worth in individuals, develops empathetic communication strategies, and increases emotional intelligence. The end goal is to create a “whole-person culture” that values diversity, which builds team effectiveness and performance.

During initial consultations, she admits she gets resistance, particularly from men. “They think, ‘What is this bullshit? Is this therapy?’ But men have just as much wounding as women. Men have been raised to be excluded. ‘Don’t feel feelings, don’t cry, don’t show up, don’t be effeminate.’ They are taught unconsciously to exclude most of themselves. So men feel unsafe with feelings and they are often posturing, aggressive,” says Neogy. “Workplaces haven’t allowed individuals to be truly authentic, to express personal feelings. That’s why we have so much workplace violence. I’ve watched men burst into tears [in training sessions] and flourish into authenticity. To enable authenticity, we need a level of connection, of vulnerability.”

Neogy admits women initially criticize her approach as “blaming the victim,” since she emphasizes changing the self as well as the culture. “It’s important to realize that humans have trauma and you go [to work] with your baggage,” she says. “Someone criticizes you [at work] and says, ‘You didn’t do this right.’ I could take this personally. Maybe I had a parent who told me how stupid I was. Here I am, 44, and I immediately turn five years old and feel shame.”

How does that play out in the workplace? Consider a typical meeting in a high-tech company, Neogy says. A woman joins a team comprised mostly of men. She may be the only woman. “The guys” are already bonded. They want to connect with their new team member. They’re trying to figure it out, but don’t quite know how. They want to appear confident, so they make themselves bigger, louder, more aggressive. They’re fearful that being too nice might come across as flirting. They feel vulnerable, too, unsure what to talk about other than work. If they’re engineers, they zero in on problems and without realizing it, their brains are associating this new person, this alien other, with “issues” like conflict and work problems.

The female team member begins to feel criticized every time she’s approached. Given that our identities are so closely associated with work, women begin to take the criticism personally, and may connect it with past trauma. That’s when the pain begins to layer and her sense of self-worth diminishes.

“The system is completely focused on excluding her without knowing it’s doing that,” says Neogy. “The workplace for women becomes an environment of microaggression. The woman is made to feel like shit. So either a company owns that out loud and doesn’t hire women or you attempt to redesign your system in a way that invites difference and values and enmeshes it.”

Going through disruptive diversity training, says Neogy, helps men admit their feelings and helps women separate the personal from the workplace. “You can’t ignore [trauma] so if it comes out through my coaching, you have not resolved it,” she says.

One female executive came to Neogy for coaching after being promised a vice president position for 13 months. After a frustrating wait, she started distrusting her boss and considered leaving the company. Within three sessions, she got the promotion. Another woman wanted a three-year plan to head up her engineering division; she was promoted within four weeks. Neogy says coaching helped both women build a solid foundation of self-worth, which enabled them to rise above the “blame” and not take problems personally. They learned how to talk to people they felt challenged by, while gaining greater respect from their team.

“When my client has a greater sense of self-worth, they get the promotion, they get the money,” says Neogy. “It happens over and over. Disruptive diversity is about raising the global economic status by raising the global self-worth status.”

In this work, Neogy says her own “otherness” as a biracial, bilingual specialist, and especially as a gender-fluid queer, in tech and communications has been a huge advantage, enabling her to act as a bridge between cultures, businesses, languages, and genders. She presents as butch and says wearing men’s clothing in the queer-positive tech and entrepreneurial world of San Francisco hardly turns heads. Rather, men feel comfortable being vulnerable around her. “I think they perceive me as a woman but not a woman,” she laughs. “They’re always hugging me!”

Women also feel safe confiding in Neogy because she’s not a man, yet she’s not in competition with them either. “I go in as everyone’s best friend,” she says. “Ultimately, I believe we all want to belong while retaining our uniqueness. It is by contributing our uniqueness that we feel valued, that we matter, that we belong. That uniqueness is diversity. But the contribution has to be received, which is the inclusion element.”

As the demand for her Disruptive Diversity coaching has grown, she’s developing a certification process to train other coaches to deliver her programs. She’s also partnering with a mentoring software company to build online diversity coaching content. And she’s seeking partnerships with micro-fund and venture capital firms from Silicon Valley to Shanghai, exchanging a percentage of her coaching fees for equity in their enterprises. She’s found this alternate payment structure can be attractive for entrepreneurs following a lean start-up model. Plus, an enterprise that starts with a diverse and inclusive culture bodes well for success. Her long-term goal is to build enough equity to invest in other start-ups while acting as a hub for VC firms and micro-firms, “a connecting tapestry” as she calls it.

Being in the business of healing businesses has also enabled Neogy to continue her own healing journey. “I have tried desperately to grow a family that is safe for me,” she says. “It took me 44 years to figure out how to do that. When we grow up in a family that exploits us, we run that pattern until we don’t. Entrepreneurship is a way of saying, ‘See me. I matter. I’m special.'”