Fight with one hand, build with the other, a conversation with Leo Johnson

Leo Nupolu Johnson, internationally acclaimed human rights activist, social entrepreneur, United Nations fellow for the International Decade for People of African Descent and Founder and Executive Director of Empowerment Squared, joined us for a serious unlearning session on ABCDEI recently. 

Leo is spearheading true sustainable change in BIPOC communities in Canada and beyond. He drew from his own immigration experience to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee to centre the focus of Empowerment Squared on the ability to navigate the educational system successfully. He shares some powerful lessons on how we can put a value on the marginalized experience and perspective, be genuine and action-driven allies and drive more impactful community initiatives. We should that our conversation with Leo was specific to the BIPOC experience, but many aspects of the struggles faced by BIPOC are common among a wide range of marginalized groups. 

By the end of our conversation, we both felt charged and refreshed for the journey to change that lies ahead. Read on for some serious motivation to fight with one hand and build with the other.

Level the playing field, especially when things get tough

Rule 1 of supporting marginalized communities: trust. Trust them even when – inevitably – things don’t go smoothly. There is a clear double standard around expectations of marginalized communities when it comes to social impact programming. When white communities make mistakes, it’s seen as “learnings” on the way to success, whereas marginalized organizations are one mistake away from a total shutdown. 

Why are the standards so high when the people are different?

At some point, BIPOC charitable organizations doing meaningful work to drive community wellbeing will have corruption, dysfunction or inefficiencies in process. Resist the urge to reinforce a confirmation bias when this happens.

Take the example of Steve Jobs. How long did he work at Apple before the company turned into the powerhouse it is today? He undoubtedly made some mistakes before landing on the incredible Apple product ecosystem that is known and loved today. Can you imagine what we would have lost if Steve Jobs were shut down with his first misstep? 

Community at the heart of social responsibility 

White communities, please know this: BIPOC communities often devalue their knowledge. 

It is true. In the process of raising resilient kids and preparing them for their journey to success, knowledge and hard work are necessary and therefore undervalued. As marginalized folx then go on to create programs to drive community impact, they can find themselves in the uncomfortable role of serving the corporate agenda. 

Leo’s view in no uncertain terms: “You (BIPOC charitable organizations) are not supposed to be the servants of funders. You are not supposed to be the representatives of funders. I think that is a misunderstanding of the role that you should be playing based on the commitments that you’ve made to communities you represent. If all we’re doing is working hard day and night to meet the requirements of the funders, I wonder who’s being left behind. I wonder who’s being ignored.”

Fix the deficit

In the process of creating equity, it is important to balance the fight and the build. Fighting has a very prominent and important place in the history of the fight for equity. And it will continue to. But if we are protesting about the same causes for years in a row, without moving the needle in any tangible way, then we need to add in a different element. 

The rally is important – no doubt about it. But it goes beyond that, and if marginalized folx – alongside allies – don’t gear up for the longer journey to create real action towards building equity, then we’re going to be stuck waiting for change. Instead, let’s power up to make change happen. 

Since ABCDEI is all about learning and unlearning, this is how we have unpacked the concepts shared in episode 7 into simple and actionable ideas:

  1. Give marginalized communities the freedom to fail. When we are dealing with 400 years of deficit, BIPOC will inevitably make mistakes. So, when they do, be ready to double down on your support. Deal with the reasons why they failed and learn from it – don’t cancel them. Don’t hire BIPOC to check a diversity box. Do it when you have a clear plan to adapt your culture to accommodate people from marginalized groups. Put a high value on BIPOC skills and expertise, including translating that to dollars. Most importantly, don’t put it on your marginalized hire to fit into your culture. That’s on you, the employer.
  2. Park the corporate agenda around community impact initiatives. Corporate leaders looking to create real impact in the community should look to their charitable organization partners to help connect their funds to the needs of the community. Pigeon holing a charity’s operations into an organization’s 10 arbitrary requirements for a corporate responsibility program may not translate to success in terms of driving real change.
  3. Fight the good fight but conserve some energy to build. It’s all about balance: Don’t expend all your energy demanding change. Conserve some of your stamina for the creation of change, which is a longer and more arduous process. 

If you have found yourself wanting to unlearn but wondering where to even begin, or if you have a guest idea, drop us a line at

Here in fighting and building,

Rohini + Susan

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