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Impactful Moments from Breaking the Bias: Navigating racial and gender identities

"At the Mosaic Institute’s recent Breaking the Bias event, panelist Saadia Muzaffar – tech entrepreneur, author, and advocate, said: “When we are children, our sense of justice is very straight forward...then we grow older, other influences break us, change how we look at the world and our place in it...I think our sense of justice isn’t rare or scarce, I think that we have to protect and nurture it from a very young age in our young people, because we actually naturally come by it.”

While the work of dismantling prejudice and striving for justice for all can be incredibly complex, that insight is a reminder that we all have some innate pure sense of justice that connects us and helps guide us forward.

Saadia was one of four panelists joining the Breaking the Bias discussion on March 31 in honour of the month that acknowledges International Women’s Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

As the new Executive Director of Mosaic, I was honoured to host the voices for the Breaking the Bias event. I continue to re-watch this rich exchange to truly digest all that was brought to the surface and asked of us – this was not a conversation or list of action items that can easily be distilled down to two to three easy summary points. This session invited and demanded that we take the time and space to truly listen and reflect on its content and how we can integrate the wisdom and actions into our daily lives. While the notable recognition days that drove the event are significant, the thoughts, exchanges, and calls to action by the panelists and participants are evergreen.

The purpose of this online forum, held in partnership with the Anti-Racism Directorate, was to raise awareness of current issues facing gender and racially diverse people in Canada, and discuss community approaches to potential solutions. Breaking the Bias is Mosaic Institute’s most highly attended online event, with nearly 800 registrants, and closing in on 100,000 in terms of reach. A post-event survey indicated almost everyone learned something new (93%), and the comments reflected appreciation for the speakers’ willingness to share personal experiences and practical recommendations.

Why Breaking the Bias Matters

The event moderator–speaker, writer, and facilitator Jeff Perera–used a gardening analogy to frame the conversation. He took into consideration the environment in which we are operating (society and systems), how we identify what we want to weed out (bias, hate), as well as what we want to grow (empathy, ideas, values, community) and how our continuous work produces the fruits we wish to see. He invited the panelists to talk about their personal experiences and connection to their work in dismantling prejudice, and why it matters.

Panelist Selena Mills - Cree, French Canadian-Settler, direct descendant of the Woodland Cree peoples of Lac Laronge, Treaty 6, shared that it is her ancestors, community and future generations that she considers in all that she does. “I love the analogy you brought to this Jeff because I’m.. a four seasons gardener…I have always, since a very young age, found healing in my own personal journey in getting dirty, getting my hands in the soil, there’s healing properties in the soil that are good for you…I love that analogy and I’ve done this from a young age, and I’ve introduced to my children, and really what brought me to that and instilled that in me from a young age was more than survival, but to thrive. I have a deep connection to the land and the water that is healing for me but also lived experience that propelled me – I have always felt an ancestral push to do more than survive, to thrive, and to have a positive impact on my direct community, now as a mother, my central fire, my family.“

Selena outlined the broad scale harms that result from bias and discrimination on individual and societal levels – such as climate change, food security, gender-based violence, and the ongoing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2 Spirit folks. It is necessary to name and connect the larger issues that result from not addressing prejudice in our communities and society – understanding that everything is connected.

Panelist Raagini Appadurai - artist, activist and educator, said: “My entry point to this work began by being an empath kid, being plagued by the question, “Why do some lives seem to matter more than others?” Coupled then by the immigrant experience, having to work, prove yourself against biases or barriers. When you get older, you learn about the underlying determinants of these human circumstances – privilege and oppression, how systems work, how they’re interconnected, about history, about who sits at decision making tables and why. This childlike humanitarian sense of justice blossomed into a fiery pursuit of equity and justice. Systemic change begins within. This idea of inner work and outer work can happen simultaneously.”

Anne-Marie Pham, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, discussed that “Why breaking the bias really matters for me – I think about my journey…having been born in Vietnam, when I was three my family moved to France, living there for 12 years, then coming to Canada when I was 15 and the irony of coming to Canada – and having friends saying ‘you grew up with French and white people your whole life’, you’ll be fine when you come to Canada, you’re very adaptable. But I faced a lot of challenges. I was judged by my looks, “she’s Asian and an immigrant”. I was judged by my accent and the school system was culturally incompetent and put me into classes that were below my capacity because the school administrators didn’t understand how the French grading system worked. I felt what it was like to be unseen and unprotected.”

“On another occasion I got a job, and someone told me I got lucky to get the job because I was a visible minority, a woman, and could speak French, so they met their diversity quota and but they completely ignored that I had significant work experience that lead me to where I am today, and diversity and competencies are not mutually exclusive attributes.”

Anne-Marie spoke to painful recent news that are just some examples of the various issues that continue in our society – that have always been there, but that social media shines a light on – from the confirmation of Indigenous children’s graves, the rise in anti-Asian racism, the killing of George Floyd, to the killing of the Muslim family in London. These events are painful but compels the need and opportunities for workplaces and all of us to break the bias.

What We Need to Know and Do

The conversation turned to what are necessary considerations and actions that we as gardeners in our own communities need to know and do to help dismantle prejudice and create a more just, equitable, and inclusive society.

Selena pointed to the need for investment and resources to support actions that address bias and prejudice, as well as respect for and implementation of non-linear ways of doing things, alternative ways of being and knowing, governance and philosophies to disrupt the systems and hierarchies that uphold barriers, harms and inequities. Good intentions are not enough, especially by those in positions of power – people with lived experience have the skills to lead, and we need co-conspirators more than allies to create necessary change.

Raagini spoke to the inner work that is required first, and that systemic change work begins within. We can be working to break down biases within ourselves, but then advocating for that systemically. She reminded us of “The power of storytelling when we engage in hard dialogue together, the spaces where we do that..take a lot of bravery. It’s because it requires us to learn about people we don’t relate to directly. It takes vulnerability to really hear that voice. Bravery is our ability to sit with the unknown..and challenge our own patterns.”

It is incumbent upon organizations and groups to create safety in spaces while also challenging people, striking that balance is a good way to have hard conversations together.

Raagini also asked that we use imagination to envision what that hopeful future state can be, to collectively envision that joy, that freedom––what does that world look like? It is necessary to see what we are working toward, that hope, optimism, and vision are necessary to help us commit and continue to work together as well as to identify the change in processes, protocols, and other elements that we wish and need to see.

Saadia challenged the notion of storytelling––that while important, we need to understand and respect the sacredness of storytelling. Saadia’s perspective was that more testimonies about pain and experience aren’t always necessary or helpful, and that we as a society need to move from listening to believing, investment and action by people in power. She explained that action must be tied to gathering testimony, and progress must be measured to be credible. We need to identify and track what changes we need to see over time. One of the event participants shared the book, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s Youth Resistance Research and Theories of Change as an excellent resource for how to measure that change.

Saadia also shared that power loves to exert control through secrets. It is necessary to interrogate information, and who has access to that information. For example, within organizations: salaries. Transparency and openness are necessary to create equitable structures and systems that benefit everyone.

Anne-Marie spoke to the fact that more and more employers are saying “We need to do something – we need to address racism and discrimination, but we don’t know how”.

Anne-Marie said they see more people in this middle ground – who are not active allies yet, but not indifferent, but don’t know what to do necessarily. She reinforced Raagini’s points about striking that balance for employers in creating the necessary spaces to hold challenging dialogue and the role that each of us can play to facilitate really hard conversations. She also shared that a flag for all leaders is when people are quiet. “Presenteeism” – especially by those from underrepresented groups, means people aren’t comfortable to share if/when something is wrong – and then the necessary change doesn’t happen. Knowledge means we can change things, so we need to create the necessary systems and processes for people to share issues and concerns in order to act

Other key takeaways and actions the group shared included:

  • Investing in education, development, diversity and compensation

  • Leadership must start with inner work – it is necessary to start at the top to create organizational change

  • Support the well-being of those who are leading this work, and those affected by bias and discrimination

  • For those leading this work: taking breaks, self-care are as necessary as the work itself

I found Jeff’s gardening analogy of compost very helpful – as a leader and person who has not faced the same barriers or lived experience shared by those on the panel. The compost is our learnings, mistakes, experiences - what we have done or not done are all necessary for us to reflect on in order to continue to grow. The “within” work for me continues on a daily basis, and while it is hard work, it helps me to also envision and work for that better world where everyone can thrive.

As Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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