Categories
Activism & Action

HOW WE CONTINUE TO FAIL BIPOC ENTREPRENEURS (And What We Can Do About It)

Photo by Holly Clark, Stocksy

Several weeks ago, a 35 year-old, Latinx, queer, immigrant woman-in-tech entrepreneur named Sophia Stone did what entrepreneurs do:  apply for funding.

With her 65+ page business plan well underway, Stone applied to, among other prospects, Futurepreneur Canada (Futurepreneur) a 20 year-old government-funded Canadian nonprofit that provides up to $60,000 in financing, along with mentoring and coaching to youth entrepreneurs 39 and under.

Stone expected the usual hoop jumping that comes with applying for a loan.  She did not expect to find her herself in a high-stakes face off with institutionalized racism.

Stone publicized her experience in a Medium post on Aug. 5. Frustrated with her interactions and response from Futurepreneur, Stone called me.  Her story clearly demanded further amplification. We believed this story also held important lessons for incubators, accelerators; in fact the entire entrepreneurship support industrial complex. With Stone’s consent, we began our own investigation.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A month after filing her application to Futurepreneur, Stone was engaging in an Instagram discussion with a fellow Latino about Latino proximity to whiteness and the privilege that affords. “We as a community need to also face the anti-Black racism that occurs with us too,” she wrote.

An interloper, who is not Latino, happened upon the discussion, and fired back with racist insinuations, which Stone and others challenged.

Stone, outraged by his comments and as good millennials do, did some internet sleuthing. Who the hell was this Dick? Who did the Dick work for? To her shock, she discovered he was a mentor at the very place she was applying to—Futurepreneur.

He was university educated, successful, midling, millennial white tech entrepreneur.  Along with being a youth mentor at the very prestigious Futurepreneur, he sat on the advisory board at The HUB, a Scarborough based startup incubator at the University of Toronto.

Genuinely concerned for the safety of herself and other BIPOC entrepreneurs, Stone made the gutsy decision to bring Dick to the attention of the CEO of Futurepreneur. Stone was hopeful something good would happen out of this. However, the official email response and “courtesy” phone call in response to Stone’s complaint that the email received was inadequate, revealing that despite commitments to diversity and inclusion, actual policies, protocols and practices remain deeply racist, sexist and oppressive.

The CEO explained they had investigated Dick, spoken to him and the four people he had mentored (one a person of colour, though not black) and found that, while they strongly disagreed with his point of view, Dick is an exceptionally good guy who is just underinformed, believes in equality, and that there was “no hint that his actions are inconsistent with our values of diversity and inclusion.” And if there was a whiff of stench, it appeared to be an isolated incident. Since Stone was not yet at Futurepreneur, her concerns hardly mattered, insinuating they were going above and beyond by taking any action at all.  And, besides, Dick wrote these things on his own social channels—not Futurepreneur’s; how could they be held responsible for what he or any of their other 3000+ volunteer mentors do in their personal time? To cover all bases, management brought the issue to the attention of the board, which by the way, included a Black member (new, her first meeting was July 14/15); the collective decision was made to continue working with Dick, albeit asking him “to be mindful of his public comments” and to do a bit of recommended reading. If there were future incidents, they promised to review his role.

The CEO then proceeded to remind Stone about all the good diversity and inclusion (D&I) work Futurepreneur has been doing, including promoting their IT Director (a Black man who has been with the organization for five years) to Head of D&I, as well as the recently added Black board member.

Our Follow Up Investigation

I found Dick easily on LinkedIn. He refused to meet and tell his side of the story, responding in writing that he did “not see how my (his) personal posts have anything to do with Futurepreneur.”

I interviewed the CEO of Futurpreneur. The Chief Experience Officer joined the call. The CEO professionally conveyed the same discussion points relayed to Stone. During the call, I discovered the organization had not seen or read Dick’s recent 10,000-word essay including carefully researched citations entitled “Evidence-Based Examination of Systemic Police Bias in the United States,” arguing that he is right, everyone else is wrong, and that police bias does not exist and that the inherent badness of Blackness brings on their troubles.

This essay was published for all to see, under his real name, several days after his meetings with Futurepreneur.

Futurepreneur thought they had handled it. Case closed. But racists don’t just change their deeply held beliefs after a meeting. Once Futurepreneur read the Medium post, to their credit, the organization called an emergency meeting and, later that evening, announced that Dick was no longer affiliated with Futurepreneur. The CEO wrote and posted this blog piece on their site the next morning: “We made a Mistake. We Fixed It. Now We Learn From It and Move Forward”. That was Aug. 6.

Meanwhile, three days earlier, the Director of The Hub at U of T learned about Dick’s posts independently from staff. The very next day, that organization terminated Dick as a member of their advisory board and posted this note on their website, immediately: “Comments like those made online stand in sharp contrast to the University of Toronto’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

With Dick removed from both organizations, Stone, at this point, might be pleased. She was not.  “This story was never about the mentor,” she wrote in an email to me. “It stopped being so the minute (Futurepreneur CEO) Ms. Greve Young chose to protect a racist. She is complicit in this story and used her own racism as a tool to systematically perpetuate institutionalized racism. She fixed and learned nothing and is wholly unfit to lead this organization.”

Futurepreneur’s mea culpa post never mentioned Stone’s role nor honoured her courage for speaking or acknowledged the weight of the emotional labour people of colour bear when they risk calling out a racist in their midst. They most certainly did not thank her for the personal risk she took.

Not doing so sends a clear signal to other marginalized, community whistleblowers: if you speak up, be prepared to be re-traumatized. Organizations may mean well, but they clearly lack the know how to deal with complaints about systemic oppression—and their ham-fisted action can, itself, be oppressive.

Calling in White Leaders in Entrepreneurship

So what can we all learn from this? And by “we,” I mean everyone, including our team at LiisBeth?

Make this Two-Handed Work: We must advance diversity and inclusion organizationally but, as importantly, dismantle racism and other systemic forms of oppression in broader society. That starts with accepting that we have all been raised in patriarchal, capitalistic, colonialized societies based on white supremacy—we are totally brainwashed. Ergo, so is our ability to “see” and respond appropriately if our goal is to dismantle systemic oppression. What to do? Make sure you have relationships with anti-oppression activists (perhaps even on your board). Recognize and check in with your own racism (we are all racist) when called to deal with immutable racists in your midst.  Seek out, support and establish relationships and work with leading activist organizations—not just corporate consultants who do this work daily on the ground and are farther along in their liberation journey than you are.

Know the Law: Incubators and accelerators depend on volunteers. But few have clear intake protocols, onboarding workshops, and explicit policies around volunteer conduct and accountability—let alone transparency about what happens if that conduct breaches policy or damages reputation. It is incorrect to assume what someone says on their personal social media channels is not your business.  According to legal precedent, organizations have, can and should hold employees and volunteers legally responsible for what they post on their personal social media channels. Especially if it causes reputational damage, harm to the community, or contravenes an organization’s stated values.

Develop anti-oppression informed policies and practices : The investigation process itself and fact that Futurepreneur exonerated Dick the first time raised a lot of questions and suggested a racist perspective, and perhaps even white feminist lens was at play. For example, how many times does someone have to demonstrate racism before being held accountable by an organization that is committed to diversity and inclusion? How are you treating the whistleblower? As an annoyance? Or are you honouring their identities, courage and wisdom by truly listening and figuring out how to overcome the challenge together, in a way that is anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal? Are you using the fact that you have a Black or Indigenous board member as a cover or leveraging their wisdom and experience in a meaningful way? In this case, it might have been more appropriate to fully engage person of colour on staff, the person in charge of D&I, or BIPOC person on the  board to participate in calls with Sophia—and me—rather than a white male colleague.

Be Clear About Tolerance Level: If a person kills someone, do we wait to see if they kill a second time before we act? Can you really change a person’s “misinformed” beliefs by handing him a few readings and telling him not to do it again?  Dick’s Medium post written to prove he is right and everyone else is wrong—after reprimand—reveals the need for a clear zero tolerance policy. Does this lead to “cancel culture”?  If you think that cancel culture is really a thing, think again.

What Now?

Ultimately, this story is not about Futurepreneur. It’s about how to make real change.

The fact is that our entire, mostly government funded entrepreneurship ecosystem is patriarchal, racist and pro-extractive capitalism centered. If we want to see a healthy post COVID-19 economy and socially just world emerge, this must change—fast.

Through this debacle, Tara Everett, a young Indigenous entrepreneur and sixties scoop survivor  contacted me. She told me that she pursued entrepreneurship after tiring of repeated discrimination in the job market only to experience further discrimination and trauma in the entrepreneurship space. The problem, she said, lies with programming at entrepreneurship centres, which is defined by government policy rather than being “led by the people who need to access these services.”  Everett left me this to think hard about: “I believe at the heart of it, it wasn’t the people that I felt the discrimination from. It was the policies and the procedures.”

Last year, a June 2019 report, “Strengthening Ecosystem Supports for Women Entrepreneurs,” surveyed 117 Ontario entrepreneurship support organizations and found that more than 68 per cent of startup incubators do not provide training on gender equity, diversity, and inclusion. A mere 3.4 per cent of incubators make accommodations for specific demographic groups. Worse, only 20 per cent of the 686 incubators and accelerators operating in Ontario even bothered to participate in the survey.

The vast majority of our mainstream women’s entrepreneurship centres and institutions are still led by white women and predominantly white boards of directors. Open positions are still filled primarily by white men and women. The Aug. 11  “State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada 2020 Report” by The Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) at Ryerson University affirms that as a nation of white, settler, colonialists, neo-liberal capitalists with dominant patriarchal norms and systems, “bias is baked in” to everything we do and create. Wendy Cukier, Director of WEKH noted in her webinar presentation about the report that “diverse women face additional barriers in our entrepreneurship ecosystems. As long as our definition of innovation and success is predominately tied to tech and science, we will continue to see exclusion for all women.”

This year, the York Entrepreneurship Development Institute (YEDI), was recognized by the University Business Incubator (UBI), a global ratings company, as one of the “World’s Top Five” business accelerators. Yet, a look at YEDI’s website shows that the place is overrun by white men. Out of 45 mentors, instructors and staff, only seven are women (15.5 per cent), and a mere three are from visible minority groups (.06 per cent). There are no Black mentors.

Several folks advocated for UBI to change their assessment criteria to include D&I metrics, including me. The response? Economic performance is all that matters. As a result, to me, UBI recognition means “seal of patriarchal approval” versus excellence.

This is a moment to seize and learn from, to build a movement.

If our entrepreneurship support institution leaders continue to lag and receive funding, it is up to us—the entrepreneurs they serve—to rise up and push for more meaningful progress.

Some Additional Next steps?

First, let’s applaud Sophia Stone for her unbelievable, selfless courage. You can show your support by taking the time to read her own story here.  I guarantee you will learn from it.

Futurepreneur should also step up and thank Stone for this incredible learning opportunity she handed them, and also clarify how her work as a whistleblower will impact her application to Futurepreneur going forward—should she decide to continue.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners everywhere need to continually assess their own prejudice, practices and policies. Myself and LiisBeth included. Because committing to diversity and inclusion is an ongoing, living, complex personal and professional practice, not a statement.

In fact my own white feminist lens came into play while working on this article. I too have learned some hard lessons.

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Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

Coping with Activist Burnout in Extraordinary Times

Illustration by John Mutch

Each week, I am privileged to lead “check in” calls for several communities of feminist enterprise activists– people who create and leverage their enterprises to support feminism plus other social and eco-justice movements they believe in.

If you were a fly on the screen in one of these conversations you would witness compassion, friendship, plus a few heart-quickening, Hannah-Gadsby-style “fuck that shit” rants that that generate both laughs and tears. You would hear stories of both the inner and outer work (not sure which is more difficult) required to work to advance social justice; and the mother-bear creativity and grit that goes into resourcing an enterprise that resists patriarchal, extractive capitalistic and winner- take-all-entrepreneurship creeds.

In your notebook, you might write “activist communities are awesome,” and maybe underline it twice.

However, in these past two weeks, you would have witnessed a community processing pain, dealing with feelings of powerlessness (does anything we do really matter?) and sheer exhaustion. You would also notice that the groups are smaller than usual—because even regulars in these meet ups can’t bear to talk about the horrific events of the past several weeks just yet.  In your notebook, you might write this in big bold letters:

ACTIVIST BURNOUT?

While still reeling from the pandemic, we witnessed what was basically a snuff film on social media—the slow, public execution of a Black man by a sadist cop and three fellow officers. And while all eyes were on George Floyd protests, we also learned that Chantal Moore, an Indigenous woman, was shot five times by an officer performing a wellness check in New Brunswick. Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black Toronto woman, “fell” 24 stories after police arrived at her home to check on her, and Caleb Tubila Njoko, a London ON man, who died under similar circumstances. In Dallas, a Black trans-woman, Lyanna Dior, was beaten by mob of Black and other racialized men, underlining the critical need for an intersectional lens on racism, reminding that all Black lives matter .

While protests raged, Louisiana and several states threw up new obstacles to access to abortion, provoking more protests. And we heard yet more news about increases in domestic violence around the world during COVID lock downs.

I could go on. And on.

Change makers are hopeful that innovative new policies may result, but history tells us that overarching systems of oppression (patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy, to name a few) are not easily dismantled, even when we seemed primed to embrace change.

Despite Roosevelt’s New Deal in the ‘30s, the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, another revival of feminism in the ‘70s, building environmental movement over the past 40 years, still gross economic inequality, racism and misogyny (led by misogynist-in-chief Donald Trump) rages on.

All this, along with pandemic related unpaid work (home schooling anyone?), no wonder activists are questioning whether real change will result this time — and feeling burned out.

Why Activist Burnout BURNS

You might feel burnout toiling for an over-demanding, clueless boss or in a soul-sucking work culture. But you can always escape by changing who you work for.

But activists struggling to change a system are stuck working in that system.

Studies on activist burnout highlight unique stressors: slowness of progress, lack of resources to affect change, consequences of being a systems outsider, the weight of the emotional labour required to develop a “deep understanding of overwhelming social conditions related to suffering and oppression.”

Symptoms are similar to other forms of burnout: physical depletion, insomnia, negative thinking, depression, anxiety, lags in attention and memory, poor health, procrastination and increased substance abuse.

Those can trigger activists to withdraw entirely—at the very time they are most needed. Like now.

How to Heal Yourself—and Others

Annahid Dashtgard is a Canadian, author, change-maker and co-founder of Anima Leadership, a highly respected international consulting company supporting transformational change, especially in areas of diversity and inclusion. Previously Dashtgard helped lead the anti-corporate globalization movement (including organizing the 100,000 strong anti-globalization demonstration in Quebec in April, 2001) and has frequently been referred to as one of the top activists to watch.

In her recent book, Breaking the Ocean, Dashtgard writes about her 20-plus years as an activist. “Saving the world was a relationship of passion requiring fidelity and obsession…there was never any time for here and now. My activism and identity became one.” And burnout was the consequence.

Dashtgard says activist burnout results when we push beyond what we and our bodies can sustain. She advises activists to “Go at the speed of your own nervous system,”  as well as “learn to say no”and “unplug when you feel you need to.” She reminds us that “not a single one of the systemic issues any of us are working to change is going to change overnight, so pace accordingly.”

To those feeling despair, Dashtgard reminds us that activism does lead to positive change– history shows that, over time, “the arc of the universe tends towards morality.”

When it comes to guiding activist-led enterprises, she cautions against reacting too quickly to current events. “Often there’s such urgency to jump into action, but any change efforts need to be built on a solid foundation.” She recommends talking to people and gathering perspectives before taking next steps.  “The answers are often in the group, and often unfold through a process of listening as much as directing.”

Caring for the Movement

As well as heeding sound self-care advice, we can also experience a recharge by caring for our movements and each other. How? Consider this additional advice from other long-time activists:

  1. Write Activist Love Letters: Syrus Marcus Ware, a Black Lives Matter and trans rights activist, encourages people to think about their role in sustaining movements by writing love letters to activist leaders. He has personally mailed thousands of letters around the world to activists and organizations “as a salve to heal activist burnout.” Ware adds, “It’s [also] been amazing to get replies and be connected to activists around the globe.” Imagine the shot of energy we could bring if we each wrote five love letters to people working hard to change the world?
  2. Shift Your Focus: If the glacial pace of change gets you down, one way to refill your cup of hope is to take your eyes off the sky (the big picture) and focus on the ground – at the “emergent forms of life in the cracks of the Empire” — advice from Joyful Militancy authors carla bergman and Nick Montgomery. Activist-led experiments and startups below the radar are doing amazing work. Find them. Collaborate. Nourish them. Your support in whatever form that takes can make make an impact in ways that are felt right now versus decades from now.
  3. Say Yes to Pleasure: In Pleasure Activism, author adrienne maree brown suggests making space for pleasure – it’s a fierce form of resistance and critical for changing the world and staying resilient in fucked-up times. She recommends that we get in touch with our erotic and deep desires as part of our resiliency practice. “I touch my own skin, and it tells me that before there was any harm, there was miracle.” Tantalize your senses, take your mind on a trip, open up to great sex, take delight in the very beauty of existing.

We know that unless systems of oppression are dismantled, none of us will be free. If we don’t re-imagine our economic system, a handful of predominately white male billionaires will continue to call the shots. With rampant environmental destruction, Mother Earth will echo George Floyd’s now iconic plea “I can’t breathe” for years to come– and we will all suffer.

But we can’t do this vital work when we’re suffering to the point of burn out.  Self care, yes. But also remember that just being alive is a miracle worth celebrating everyday. Take a look at the flowers growing in between the cracks in the cement, cracks you are creating.  They will remind you that a better world is possible and indeed emerging.


LiisBeth is one the few indie, 100% womxn-led and owned media outlets in North America. If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming a subscriber donor today! [direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]


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Categories
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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Activism & Action Our Voices Systems Uncategorized

What We Are Talking About When We Talk About White Privilege: Themes From the White Privilege Conference in Toronto

An Alternative model of whiteness painted by Golnaz Golnaraghi

I am a first-generation immigrant woman from Iran, standing in a room comprised of mostly white folks. I had a paintbrush in my hands and found myself creating art that represented a model of whiteness, an alternative model.

I was participating in a workshop that was part of the White Privilege Conference – Global, held recently in Toronto. “Whiteness without White Supremacy,” was facilitated by Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University — the first black dean to hold such a post in North America.

What emerged in my art conveyed my vision of a model of whiteness with a strong and rooted core grounded in love, power sharing, co-creation, empathy, iterative-learning, equality, and belonging.

I hadn’t considered writing about the conference — until after, when I felt compelled to share my reflections. But first, a bit of background.

The conference was hosted by Ryerson University’s Office of Equity and Community Inclusion, headed by Vice President Dr. Denise O’Neil Green. It followed on the heels of the 2016 White Privilege Symposium hosted by Brock University. The WPC was founded in 1999 in the United States and brought to Canada by Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., a diversity, privilege and leadership consultant and educator who also founded The Privilege Institute.

At a Ryerson Soup and Substance Session held prior to the WPC, Dr. Moore explained that when he was a practitioner working towards a PhD and attending and presenting at conferences, he felt that diversity was the one topic that seemed stunted at a basic level, without a growth process. “We would never accept that if our kids stayed in math in the same course all the way through their high school.” So, he set out to make the WPC the Calculus course for diversity. The conference, utilizing what he calls an “inclusive relationship model,” offers a space for deep dialogue and solutions-based action around systems of supremacy, privilege, power, and leadership.

Walking into the theatre hall on my first day of the conference, I felt a palpable excitement in the room. There were more than 500 participants—one of the most diverse I’ve ever experienced—from a range of genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations and hailing from a broad mix of sectors, most notably education and non-profit.

The quality of the seven keynote speakers (four women and three men) was impressive—all accomplished thought leaders, educators, and activists from Canada and the United States. The conference also featured 65 workshops, a Youth Action Program for youth in grades 6-12, a marketplace of more than 20 vendors, and the 10th annual Viola Desmond Awards & Banquet Dinner, named for a Black business woman who challenged racial segregation in Canada but was only recently recognized, becoming the first woman on Canadian currency.

For me, to attend this conference with hundreds of people (many white) eager to learn, explore and talk about diversity at the deepest levels, with a spirit of curiosity and respect, was a moving experience. I was inspired by the keynote speakers who dedicated their lives to social justice, despite potential risks of becoming targets of backlash.

At the Soup and Substance Session, Dr. Moore explained that risk: “What I’ve learned doing this conference is if you’re really good at this work, people will put your life in danger.” He said that was a significant threat, as the father of two young children. But he vowed never to let fear hold him back from taking action.

That is no easy thing. In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo cites retaliation as the number one concern for people of colour engaged in racial justice work. Activists face harassment on social media, protests at public events, and threatening emails, just to name a few threats. The WPC in Toronto was no exception as protesters held a public rally on the last day of the event, calling a conference on white privilege “racist.”

But as Oluo aptly reflects in her book, “Conversations about racism should never be about winning. This battle is too important to be simplified. You are in this to share, and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better.”

The purpose of the conference was not about blaming a group of people but, instead, acknowledging the systemic causes of oppression and inequalities—and their effects. Ultimately the goal was to move us towards meaningful conversations, solutions and change, in societies and ourselves.

The conference explored many rich concepts, far too many to cover in one article. What I seek to share are themes from the keynote speakers that stood out for me.

We must reject talking about white privilege in a disembodied way

We cannot talk about white privilege without speaking about white supremacy, so said Toronto-based social activist and freelance journalist Desmond Cole. He emphasized that white supremacy is a system of power that designates value to individuals based on the perception of skin colour and ethnic ancestry, creating a racial hierarchy with notions of whiteness at the top. And, that white supremacy gives rise to white privilege.

Ritu Bhasin, an advocate for authenticity, inclusion and empowerment, defined white supremacy as the “ideology that white people are better, more valuable, more deserving, more competent, more able than people of colour and indigenous peoples; how it shows up and how it manifests is by way of power and privilege.”

Cole called on us to reject conversations that speak about white privilege in a disembodied way, as if white privilege were not connected to the history of colonialism, slavery, capitalism—a white privilege “that just exists, ‘cause it exists, ‘cause it exists and is sad and unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. Heck, can you even change it? Maybe it’s a force of nature!”

Cole pointed out the ways white supremacy plays out in the policing system. Cole, himself, was arrested at a police board meeting where he took the microphone to speak out about Dafonte Miller, a Black teen who was allegedly severely beaten by an off-duty Toronto police officer and his brother. As a prominent voice and critic of the Toronto Police, Cole was also part of a successful effort to remove police presence at Toronto public high schools.

We must recognize privilege and how it affects us, in different ways

In basic terms, privilege is a set of benefits, advantages or ‘perks’ afforded people who fit into a particular social group. We hear about male privilege. But what about straight privilege? Ability privilege? Class privilege? White privilege? It may be difficult to recognize our own privilege while we are enjoying the perks, but we must seek to understand them based on different aspects of our identity such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability, etc.

We can be privileged in some aspects of life while experiencing oppression in other areas. To underline this point, Sian Ferguson’s White Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide offers an example of white people who believe they don’t experience privilege because they are of modest means. Being poor can be an oppression but does not negate the benefit that comes with being white. Cole drew an analogy of a 100-meter sprint: “Some people are starting at 70 meters and some people are starting at zero. And some people are going to get arrested as soon as the shot gun goes off to start running, so that they have to be put back to the beginning.”

For those who may struggle with seeing their own white privilege, Dr. Adrien K. Wing, Associate Dean at University of Iowa and editor of Critical Race Feminism, suggests a read of Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh, a white woman, offers a personal account of taking a closer look at her own daily experiences with white privilege, which she once took for granted. These are some of her observations:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

Wing reminded us of recent incidents that might extend the list—Going to Starbucks While Black and Dozing at Yale While Black. “Every single day another one of these episodes happen and for some of you it can be like ‘Wow that’s sad,’ but for those of us subjected to that potentially every day, this is no joke.”

We must look at Allyship as not a noun that we are, but an action we do

That powerful comment, from one of the conference MC’s, captured the essence of the conference for me.

Cole urged the audience to stop using the word “allyship” and, instead, to consider, “Are you my friend? Cause my friend would see me being harmed and would stand in front of me to protect me…I want you to be my friend and I want you to be, ideally, if we can get really close, my family.” What I took from Cole’s message? We must move beyond talk, beyond calling ourselves allies, towards taking action—with courage and heart.

Dr. Jane Fernandes, President of Guilford College, and the first deaf woman to lead an American college or university, has also been active in addressing critical race justice issues. Growing up as a deaf white woman, she experienced a structure of hierarchy in the deaf community that mirrors the hearing community, with whiteness also at the top. “If we share an oppression with people of colour, like deaf black people and deaf white people, we share deaf and then we’re fighting for deaf rights, and we can forget that we are white.” But by understanding what goes on in the intersections, we can begin to dismantle and transform the system. Doing so makes our advocacy more inclusive and effective.

“Our choice when we know about our white privilege and we understand all these things about how it was created,” she said, “is to use it in such a way as to dismantle our system (of oppression).” That starts with small acts. “If everyone here disrupts the system a little bit five times a day, every day, that’s massive.”

We must be self-empowered warriors to make change

Dr. Shirley Cheechoo, who achieved a double first—first female and first Aboriginal Chancellor at Brock University—is also an award-winning artist, actor and filmmaker. She shared a moving account of her eight years in the residential school system where she experienced harrowing emotional, physical and sexual abuse. She turned to drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain—until she decided to quit, cold turkey, and turn her life around. She recalled her grandfather’s advice: “Forgive but never forget about it. Shirley do not let anyone choose your path in life. You have to let go of the old self. Self is not something already made. It is through your choice of actions that you create your best self.”

Cheechoo chose not to forget her past, but to stop being a victim of it. “We cannot wait for the next generation to make a difference. We are responsible, and we have the opportunity to make change.”

Motivated by a deep passion to serve indigenous youth, by helping them live their potential, she founded De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group (the only professional theatre company located on a reserve in Canada) and Weengushk Film Institute (a film and television training centre unlocking the creative potential of indigenous youth). “For years I have asked as a mother, as a woman in my community, how long, how many more years are we going to leave the children and the youth in the hands of unemployment? How many more people will have to fall into the trap that steals and butchers lives, dreams, and hopes of our next generation to come? We must learn to defeat the system and fix the problem now, and we must do it together. The Third World Country is right here, in our backyards.”

We must take the bridge on the path forward

Dr. John A. Powell, an internationally recognized author, speaker, and Director and Chancellor’s Chair at Hass Institute at UC Berkley, gave a rich talk on “Rethinking White Privilege in the Age of White Supremacy and Ethnic Nationality.”

Powell explained that when we talk about white privilege and ethnic nationalism, “We’re talking about a process of ‘othering,’ we’re talking about some people claiming that they belong, and those same people claiming that other people don’t belong.” He suggested that this process of ‘othering’ is a problem that has gained power into the 21st century and is happening all over the world.

Othering, Powell said, can be thought about as “the way we marginalize people, the way we distribute resources, the way we recognize consciously and unconsciously as well as structurally, people’s humanity. You can ‘other’ someone without necessarily having a conscious animus towards someone.” And that can be based on a variety of dimensions—gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and on and on.

“The opposite of ‘othering’ is not ‘saming,’ it’s belonging,” he said. “When you think about integration, inclusion, you think about people coming into your space, but it’s still your space. You can ask them to leave.” But belonging, he pointed out, is saying “It’s not your house, it’s not my house, it’s our house. When people really belong, they co-create the thing they belong to.” According to Powell, this is done through a process of bridging, listening, engaging, organizing, and love.

Ethnic nationalism, he pointed out, has become more explicit because of migration patterns and increased diversity, specifically that of the ethnic ‘other.’ That reminded me of narratives reflected in the 2016 elections in the United States, the global refugee crisis, the US travel ban, the US migrant crisis, as just a few examples.

He offered two dominant stories in society available to us: “One is breaking, which is stories about the fear of the ‘other,’ in some way threatening or taking something away from who we are. And the other is a bridging story, which is that we are actually going to enlarge the ‘we’ and the ‘other’ will be a part of that new we.” Bridging takes us towards a path of human connection and belonging.

Powell also talked to the changing demographics in Canada, citing Joe Friesen’s Globe and Mail article that said, “By 2031, one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority. One in four will be foreign-born, the highest proportion since the end of the last wave of mass immigrantion that began around 1910.” Powell asked the audience to consider what Canada’s story might be and who will tell that story? “And so, will we bridge? Or will we break?”

We must move forward

And so, I left the conference with my painting of what an alternative model of ‘whiteness’ might look, realizing that it’s a ‘we-ness’ we must strive for, rooted at the core, grounded in love, power sharing, co-creation, empathy, equality, belonging. And the call to me, to take the bridge forward through action, translating that painting into all the narratives that shape our lives: schools, teams, workplaces, boardrooms, business models, advisory groups, government. And on and on.


For more information about the White Privilege Conference in Toronto, click here. For more information about the 2019 White Privilege Conference in Iowa, click here.

Additional Resources:

To watch recordings of the keynote speakers at the Ryerson White Privilege Conference, click here.