#15 – Colonialism, co-creation and courageous action with Ben Borne

In light of the horrific recent discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in unmarked graves in Kamloops, we wanted to focus our learning on the Indigenous experience. We were joined by Ben Borne, a descendant of yellow quill First Nation and co-founder of Symmetry PR. Ben shared how he came to understand his Indigenous identity and his own privilege while discovering first-hand the realities and barriers that indigenous people face in Canada. His message to well-intentioned leaders is clear: don’t just say sorry, find a way to rebuild systems. Take it a step further and invite those in the margins to co-create new frameworks with you.

#14 – Radical ignorance – not radical Islam – is a serious problem

Rant alert. The past few weeks have brought so much pain to different marginalized groups in Canada. In today’s episode, Rohini and Susan share their anguish at the hate-fueled killing of a multigenerational Pakistani family out for a walk in London, ON. They reflect on their time spent living in the Middle East and the warmth and acceptance of the Muslim people that made Oman and the UAE feel like home. Finally, they share some advice for leaders about how to create real change to address and end Islamophobia once and for all.

#13 – Playgrounds to power structures: Lessons in DEI from Gen Z

Episode 13 was incredibly special, because it featured one of our own. Susan’s not-so-little-anymore kid, Yara, joined us for an enlightening discussion on leading with empathy, the importance of education and meeting in the middle. What really stayed with us was this: lessons from the playground translate surprisingly well into breaking down traditional workplace power structures. Yara’s precociousness reinforced the origin story of ABCDEI – specifically the focus on learning/unlearning like a child.  If Yara represents the voice of the next generation, we are going to be just fine, people. 

#12 – The new language of racism with Sherhara Downing

In episode 12, we were lucky enough to chat with Sherhara Downing, the livewire founder of Level Comm. She helps business leaders speak confidently and concisely to build their personal brand. Sherhara shared several personal experiences that have informed her commitment to anti-racism training. Her generosity in sharing gave us serious unlearning fodder during the conversation and thereafter.

We focused on some of the barriers to doing the work to dismantle systemic racism, with ways to overcome the 3 Is of inaction: indifference, ignorance and intention. Tune into our most high-energy episode yet!

#11 – Policies and not prayers with the Milkshake Sisters

And just like that, we’re kicking off Season 2 of ABCDEI!

In episode 1, Susan and Rohini are joined in studio by another dynamic duo – the Milkshake Sisters. Marianna and Angel are activists and educators with a focus on trans rights, with an intersectional lens given their immigrant roots. This episode tackles some tricky unlearning territory: for marginalized folx, it’s resisting the urge to “exhale anger” and for cis-normative/white folx, it’s the need to self-educate and to stop approaching any marginalized group as a monolith.

The powerhouse duo leaves us with a serious call to action: change policies, don’t send prayers. Make sure to take notes as you tune into this supercharged lesson on equity.

Title: Build inclusion into your foundation, not the façade with Mohit Rajhans

Mohit Rajhans is not afraid of blazing a path. Today he is the co-founder of Think Start Inc. and author of Rethinking Your Content and Growth Beyond Your Personal Brand. But he started his career in media, in a way that was confusing because it involved flourishing and a struggle simultaneously.

Mohit joined us on ABCDEI to break down the lessons he took from living in this conflicting duality between diaspora and mainstream news media. Through the conversation with Mohit, we identified many transferable lessons of unlearning for workplaces of all sizes.

Bollywood is not the Indian film industry

If you tuned into the podcast, you’ll recall Mohit regaling us with stories of his red-carpet interviews with the likes of Bollywood megastars Shahrukh Khan or the late Sridevi. He even told us about his own Bollywood cameo alongside former Miss India and superstar Juhi Chawla. Through those stories, one thing became worth emphasizing is that Bollywood is not Indian cinema. For the uninitiated, India has several regional language film industries; Bollywood is just the biggest and arguably most famous overseas. Why are we pointing this out? Because it reaffirms the fact that marginalized groups are not monoliths. The Black experience isn’t singular, nor is every trans person’s journey or every story of living with a disability. 

An honest look at blind spots

When Mohit was coming up in the media industry, he became well-acquainted with the media industry’s expectations – and failings. For instance, he found a direct facade with leadership. The leadership in the late 90s wanted to create front-facing diversity programming and content for the market for the halo effect. However, the reality was not consistent with the picture being painted in front. There were beautiful and diverse teams on billboards in front, but behind the scenes, management was still making the same mistakes by treating marginalized talent differently.

Going back to the monolith concept, Mohit pointed out how the fight for the one person of colour sportscaster or entertainment reporter seat, was tough. And once the seat was won, the person felt the need to take the whole burden of diversity on themselves in order to fulfill that gap. Being a mascot for diversity is unfair, inaccurate and a very heavy load to take on oneself. 

Setting the next generation up for better

Mohit made the decision to shift his 2.0 career into consulting with the goal of helping the younger generation avoid making the same mistakes that were made in the first round, when he was growing up in this business. As a father, he grapples with what his children see in the world today. On one hand, they have friends who are from many different countries, speak different languages and have different ideologies and it’s no big deal. On the other hand, they come home and watch the news and wonder about how someone’s last name can work against them in terms of employment and acceptance in society. It’s a huge contradiction. 

If Gen Z is resentful because we should have figured this out by now, that’s fair. We need to expedite conversations that matter – especially in organizations that have commitments to the communities they serve. We need to talk about representation, inclusive leadership, training manuals, customer service bias, client relationships and counsel. We need to get specific and get over our aversion to change. Let’s just acknowledge that it will get bad (for us) before it becomes good (for everyone). But the journey will be worth it, for future leaders.

Since ABCDEI is all about learning and unlearning, this is how we have unpacked the concepts shared in episode 6 into simple and actionable ideas:

  1. Embrace systemic change is possible. That is the silver lining of the global pandemic: almost overnight, we changed the way we work, live, educate and broadcast mainstream news, all from the safety of our homes. Let’s use that lens to champion other changes that are necessary in the journey to building equity.
  2. Seek feedback differently. Stop seeking feedback unilaterally. No one is looking to the 50-something CEO to roll out the TikTok strategy. For that, we’re looking at the youngest in the corporate ranks or even our teenage kids. Let’s learn to seek other types of feedback differently too. We need to look at DEI topics like that, because we stand to learn a lot from the next generation of “inclusion natives.”
  3. Look beyond the reason for change. As Mohit pointed out, some leaders today are motivated to drive change by a fear of shame. Shame for being old-fashioned, rigid or stuck in stereotypical ways for their respective industries. Whatever the reason may be, positive change is still worth fighting for. For us, personally, that has meant sometimes saying yes to the token seat. It isn’t ideal, but if it means we have a seat at the table and equal share of voice in the conversation, we are willing to overlook the reason that got us there. Change has to start from somewhere.

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 hello@abcdei.ca.

Here for being seen and heard,

Rohini + Susan

#10 – Season 1 wrap: Unlearning out loud

As we come to the end of Season 1 of ABCDEI, co-hosts Susan and Rohini reflect on the lessons they have taken away from the last 10 weeks. The origin story of ABCDEI lies in the deep discomfort of staying silent in the face of inequity and the desire to unlearn out loud through conversations with people with different lived experience. The pair’s reflections touch on topics including self-worth, sponsorship, supportive networks and silence as a privilege in and of itself. Tune in for an actionable look back at some of the powerful and inspirational conversations from season 1. 

#9 – Build inclusion into your foundation, not the façade with Mohit Rajhans

This week, we chatted with Mohit Rajhans, one of the first South Asians working in mainstream media in Toronto. His curiosity about the lack of diversity in media when he was coming up in his career led him down a path that included Bollywood coverage, red carpet reporting and ultimately, morning news. But living in this duality between diaspora and mainstream media gave Mohit a first-hand view of the blind spots in the industry and Canada as a whole. Mohit shares insightful advice on how leaders need to understand the deep value of true representation, so they are building inclusive foundations and not resorting to tokenism and fake facades.

Modelling true allyship with Kristyn Wong-Tam

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who was elected to Toronto City Council in 2010 and whose advocacy efforts have spanned affordable housing, economic development, community art and urban planning, joined us recently for one of our most inspirational conversations yet on ABCDEI. 

In the past decade, Councillor Wong-Tam has brought a lot of positive change for her ward. But it’s also what she does in her time outside Council that makes her stand out. She was front-and-centre at a gathering at Nathan Phillips Square to fight the rise of anti-Asian racism in the wake of the recent shootings in Atlanta, the victims of which including six women of Asian descent. She was there to unveil a set of new benches in Toronto specially made and painted to mark #TransgenderDayofVisibility in the heart of the city. And as the only out member of Toronto city council, she has fought effectively to turn an LGBTQ lens on a range of issues.

When you think about the essence of a politician, it’s representing the diverse needs of one’s constituents. Not many can do it as authentically and passionately as Councillor Wong-Tam, especially in one of the most diverse and challenging areas of the city. Here is some of the wisdom shared by someone we feel is modelling true allyship:

Motivation is personal

What propelled Councillor Wong-Tam into politics was a deep-rooted feeling of restlessness with the imbalance in success of those around her. 

She saw people who were falling the cracks in the system, no matter how hard they worked and how qualified they were to achieve the success they deserved. Despite their best efforts, they were struggling to provide food and care for their families. That’s when she strived to do something and judge her own success by those around her.

Dismantling patriarchy

Wong-Tam talked about the need for more women, especially racialized women, in government because their voices are important and the point of views that they bring to policymaking is so critical. A woman’s perspective can shift the discourse around topics of economic recovery, health spending and education policy, among other issues. 

But in order for that to happen, we need to be able to address misogyny and patriarchy. 

We live in a world that has systemic barriers that hold women back. And it doesn’t matter what country you are, or region or town you’re from. Women always rank the lowest with respect to economic advancement, with respect to labour force representation, with respect to university and college degrees held. 

Dismantling patriarchy has to involve focused effort on the part of governments, businesses and institutions to improve conditions with an equitable and intersectional lens.

Intersectionality matters

Wong-Tam approaches her work with an intersectional feminist lens. What does this mean? It’s about working towards the upliftment and the advancement of women and girls, but especially BIPOC. If women, girls and non-binary folx feel safe traveling on transit, have economic opportunities and equitable access to employment, then everybody else will, because they’re always at the bottom of every single list.

Now, a lot of people feel more comfortable speaking about equality. But, as Gail Strachan articulately stated in episode 5: meritocracy is a myth. In fact, some of the fiercest resistance to these topics can come from BIPOC men. It is important not just to bring the historically privileged folx with us, but as Ali Kazmi shared in episode 4, allyship among the margins is critical too. But to be clear: bringing women up in the organization, creating new opportunities for BIPOC doesn’t mean eliminating roles held by white people. It’s about looking ahead with intentionality.

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. Fight patriarchal culture. Don’t get defensive about the processes in place at your workplace. Look at them with an intersectional lens and be open to changing, replacing and retiring policies that hold back certain marginalized groups from advancement and fulfillment. Create safe channels to seek the input of those who feel held back: that’s where your change goals should be focused.
  1. Co-create change. When you’re reviewing corporate culture, make sure you have a policy to ensure the workplace is discrimination and harassment free. Co-create that document by inviting your colleagues to share their individual views on what makes a positive workspace, for BIPOC, for new parents, for transgender individuals, for those living with disabilities. Accommodating these diverse needs is step 1; step 2 is creating a guide to address conflict in a productive way.
  2. Don’t create diversity mascots. Too often, an individual in a predominantly white workplace may feel pressured to speak for all forms of diversity. This is not possible, nor is it fair to any individual. The BIPOC community is not a monolith, nor is the LGBTQ community. Their issues are not the same. Don’t put anyone in that awkward position.
  1. Listen with love. People who are from under-represented groups have embraced the need for self-care. So, for those with privilege on the flip side, we urge you to listen with love. When someone shares their struggles with you, try to hear them with your heart and resist the urge to jump in and fix the issue immediately. This is what Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) expert Aiko Bethea describes as the action bias on an episode of Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast, cautioning against the instinctive rush to ‘fix’ racism fast. When we go straight to fixing, we feel good, but the other person feels unheard, unseen and disempowered. Inclusive leadership is much more about listening to learn than to react in the moment.

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 hello@abcdei.ca.

Here in heeding and ignoring advice,

Rohini + Susan

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 hello@abcdei.ca.

Here in fighting and building,

Rohini + Susan