By DAWOLU SAUL
I remember thinking on the evening of December 31, 2019 that 2020 would be my year. I would ground myself, grow and prosper. I would strive to be better – a better father, husband, friend… just a better person.
It is now October of 2020, and I find myself wondering what is going on, and when am I going to wake up from this very strange dream.
We are roughly eight months into a global pandemic, and amidst all the chaos, the world has suddenly realized and more importantly acknowledged that racism is still alive and well, and that friends and colleagues suffer daily from discrimination and marginalization.
The question now seems to be, what is the best way to address the problem we have now collectively agreed is still there? As leaders and managers, we are not equipped and are often ill-prepared to have meaningful conversations within the workplace about racism and discrimination. I would also argue that as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour, (BIPOC) we are likely scared to bring up the issue for fear of what may happen in return.
So, if we are ill-equipped or fearful, then the best course of action no doubt is to just avoid it and play nice with everyone, right? No, we must seek to have meaningful conversations about racial inequality, discrimination and systemic barriers and the oppression they can cause. We have to create a safe environment by first overcoming our mutual fear.
I recently participated in a learning event where I moderated a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion and it was a great discussion with some passionate individuals. Ironically, the panel right before me was a career-oriented panel that was discussing the life of an executive and what employees could do to advance their careers to the next level. I was however disappointed to notice that while the panel was a mix of male and female participants, the ethnic make-up was unfortunately homogenous. There was not one BIPOC role model to be found.
I could have left it at that realization, but I thought to myself that this was a perfect opportunity to start a conversation. But with who, and how do I do that? I admit that it was a scary prospect, but until we take that step, there really can be no change. We have to overcome these fears, and raise issues and concerns when we have them so that we can start these much-needed conversations and listen to each other. It is the listening that is also quite important. If I raise an issue, I don’t want to be told how I can fix it, or what I or anyone else should do, I want to be listened to, be heard and be acknowledged. From there we can progress, together we can then learn and through this education, begin on a journey of self-discovery and change.
And I do stress that we have to do this together. As with any relationship, effort is needed by all parties to ensure that we are walking hand in hand and in harmony. We are stronger together and it is the efforts of BIPOC and allies alike that will result in any progress and change in the fight against racial injustice and combatting systemic oppression.
If you consider yourself an ally, I would argue that some self-reflection is likely needed. How else can one question or recognize if they have any conscious or unconscious bias? How else can one admit that they are a recipient of privilege, or that they benefit from a system that was designed and is still maintained by those who have the power of majority, power of the elite, or power of privilege?
As an ally, self-reflection is needed prior to educating yourselves, overcoming your own fears and speaking up. You can only take action if, and when, you truly believe that racism still exists and can only be combatted once the silence of complicity is broken. Only then can we aim to create a future where we celebrate and embrace our diversity, and where we embrace the idea that inclusion means strength.
All of us agree that the best teams are diverse and inclusive. Teams where everyone feels that they belong, that they are valued and that we each have the opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, many of us still have to battle with micro-aggressions. Whether it is an offhand comment on how difficult it is to pronounce your name, or a mention of how well your articulation or language skills are. These passive aggressions and others like them are evidence that a problem still exists, but ignorance truly is bliss. If I do not speak up, then I am denying my colleague the opportunity to grow. By realizing that a comment which some may deem innocent is actually a racist micro-aggression that erodes my confidence, that prevents me from bringing my true self to work, and that is ultimately at the root of many systemic barriers which prevent our mutual workplaces from being inclusive, and from being equal.
Let me close with a word of caution. Do not just jump on the bandwagon and join the cause. It is easy to wear a BLM t-shirt, or orange for reconciliation, purple for (take your pick) epilepsy, child abuse prevention, LGBTQ+ youth or autism. We can take that selfie, post it on social media and then feel good about ourselves. However, I want to teach my children that words have power, that they should consider others before themselves, that even as mixed-raced children in a world that will likely just see them as Black, that they have a privilege that they should acknowledge as well as the monumental barriers to overcome.
I hope and pray that 2020 will still be that year of change that I wanted it to be. It is my desire that we will each find a measure of empathy, that we can each overcome a little bit of our fear, and that we seek to educate ourselves and work hand in hand to become aware and take a specific stance and concrete action.
As the Visible Minority Champion at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, I have created a network that will seek to be a consultative body for the department. We will work with our diversity and inclusion colleagues to create a strategy for change. From reviewing and changing our HR policies and practices, to seeking and using data to drive change, and making and delivering on a commitment to create and maintain an inclusive barrier free-public service where each of us can bring our true selves to work and maintain a culture that is defined and strengthened by its diversity.
Dawolu, or Olu as he is otherwise known, is the Director General of Digital Media and Marketing Services, within the Strategic Communications and Marketing Sector at Innovation, Science and Economic Development. He has over fifteen years of communication experience within the Public Service, combined with over ten years of film, television and radio broadcast production experience.
Originally, from Guyana, South America, Olu immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of seven and has had the opportunity to live in a few Canadian cities before settling in to call Ottawa home.
He prides himself on being a charismatic leader, who puts organizational priorities, the wellbeing of staff, and providing a clear vision and direction at the top of his priority list. Olu lives with his family in the East end of Ottawa, and can be found out and about on his motorcycle when the weather is nice and time permits.