The events of late spring of 2020 were a long overdue wake-up call for societies, not only in Canada but across the world. It highlighted how deeply engrained racist and colonial systems are within institutions. It raised acute awareness about how these systems negatively and violently impact folks who identify as Indigenous, Black, People of Colour, 2SLGBTQI+, women and girls, people who are living with a disability, and other marginalized groups.
June 2022 marks two years since Equitas first released a statement acknowledging publicly that despite being a human rights education organization Equitas is not immune to racism and other forms of oppression. We are part of a wider community of international cooperation organisations in Canada that have also acknowledged systemic issues of racism.
It is time to revisit our commitments to anti-racism and share our journey and engagements towards becoming an anti-racist organization. Many of the actions we undertook on this journey took longer than we initially anticipated, sometimes taking a step backward and then taking a step forward. With each step, we have developed a deeper understanding of how racism has had a negative impact on our organization and gravely affected the people who are a part of it. This update aims to hold us accountable to the diverse peoples that are connected to Equitas and to the communities supported by our work through partners.
Cultural safety as a starting point for anti-racism work
In 2020, a small group of staff formed the Racial Justice Committee in an effort to support organizational accountability to anti-racism efforts. Comprised of a mix of racialized staff and allies, we were enthusiastic about making a difference within the organization. We mapped out our strengths, we made workplans, and identified a long list of activities and workshops that needed to be in place in order to proactively contribute to more equitable spaces for staff and partners who are Indigenous, Black and People of Colour. Let’s hire an expert! Let’s do a training on implicit bias! Let’s review our Human Resources policy!
Before we knew it, we were challenged on our process, and asked if we were actually equipped to address racism and colonial practices and behaviours within Equitas.
Were we, as an organization of more than 50 diverse individuals, ready to engage in a process of self-reflection? Were we able to enter dialogue with humility and empathy? Were we able to create a culturally safe space, where power imbalance, personal and systemic biases, could be challenged? Were we able to move from understanding the harms of racism and colonialism to embodying anti-racism as individuals and as an organization?
Anti-racism work calls on us to go beyond an intellectual understanding of racism and oppression and change the very nature of the way we engage with each other. Anti-racism work, as we have since learned, requires an enabling environment for productive dialogue across the organization. It requires creating safer spaces for those who have experienced racial discrimination, in particular folks who are Indigenous, Black, People of Colour, to participate fully as themselves, and braver spaces for those with more privilege to put shame aside, and enter into dialogue with vulnerability.
In partnership with external facilitators, Equitas staff have since participated in a four-week series of cultural safety workshops that aimed to create a stronger vessel for this long and difficult work. Staff in leadership positions have since undergone an additional four-week series that unpacked the ideological, institutional, interpersonal and intrapersonal ways that oppression and racism exist within society and within Equitas.
It is with an ongoing lens of cultural safety and anti-oppression, that we have attempted to move forward with our racial justice strategy.
Actions towards establishing a long-term racial justice strategy
At its heart, anti-racism is also about policy work. It involves uprooting and deconstructing white supremacy culture that is embedded in organizational policies and procedures. As much as it is about personal work, unlearning and relearning, anti-racism work must lead to structural and systemic change, and as such Equitas has updated a few procedures and the review and update of key policies is currently in process.
As an organization, we acknowledge the harm that our colleagues experienced in their work with Equitas and in the international cooperation sector. As a first step, procedures related to filing disclosures, reports and complaints related to discrimination were revised to ensure safe and confidential reporting. All staff now have access to an independent ombudsperson, as well as external psychologists and mental health experts, in addition to our employee assistance program.
A salary-equity review was also conducted and job-descriptions re-written to ensure they reflected work roles and responsibilities and staff are equitably compensated. This being said, we acknowledge that we have significant work to do to ensure that all of our policies and practices align with our values, and that many emerging good practices related to people and culture that have been implemented need to be codified to actually contribute to a sustainable system change. We are currently updating our People and Culture policies and procedures.
Equitas’ Board of Directors updated the board nomination procedures so that our governing body better reflects the diversity of staff and partners and of the communities we live in and serve. Additionally, a board-level Equity and Inclusion Committee was formed and has been supporting Equitas staff to move the racial justice plan forward. The Board is also committed to ensuring that resources are allocated to support this ongoing work.
Guidelines and procedures related to ethical use of images (photo and video) of people associated to our programs were also reviewed and updated. As a human rights education organization, it is important to consciously consider the power dynamics that exist between partners and community members featured within our communications. These guidelines are one step towards transforming power towards equitable relationships.
Equitas’ organizational plans for 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 include a strong focus on learning about and integrating anti-racist and decolonial approaches into our programming. This programming focus is also supported by our participation in Cooperation Canada’s Anti-racism framework. The framework calls upon signatory organizations from Canada’s international cooperation sector to commit to and report on ongoing anti-racist changes ranging from addressing workplace inequity, racism within our communications and knowledge sharing activities, as well as the design and delivery of our programming. As part of our commitment, we have been tasked to report on an annual basis on indicators that measure progress towards anti-racism. We have also been able to lean on and lean into discussions with other organizations that are aiming to do better. Systematically measuring, monitoring and using race disaggregated data in a safe and confidential manner will help us better identify evidence-based strategies that proactively address racial inequities within the system.
What we still do not know is whether or not all of these actions are contributing to a more racially just organization. We are currently in the midst of a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) assessment in collaboration with external consultants, inviting staff to confidentially report on how they feel about the organization. The report (due end of July) will provide more details and guidance around a long-term racial justice strategy.
Critically engaging in dialogue with others
It is clear from the past two years, that aiming to be a racially just organization calls upon us to continuously look inward while also critically engaging in dialogue with others. Our ways of being within the organization impact our work with partners in communities across Canada and across the world.
As we continue to move forward, we must be better as an organization to centre the voices of our partners across the world and in Canada to facilitate in collaboration a renewed approach to human rights education. New models of decision-making and power sharing need to be examined and integrated if we truly aim to be an anti-racist organization not only within the international cooperation sector, but within the sector of human rights education. We hope to better engage our funders and supporters in dialogue around how anti-racism efforts are integral to human rights education efforts. We also aim to signal a shift towards more equitable funding strategies for international partners and address current practices around the allocation of resources in international cooperation to dismantle racist practices within institutions.
We are hopeful for the change that we can continue to make together as a team and with partners. We are hopeful that the results of the JEDI assessment will guide plans to do so and assist us in prioritizing additional and continued work. We are learning not to be reactive, but rather thoughtful and purposeful; we are learning to put guilt aside and lean in with more integrity; we are learning to be more courageous, empathetic and generous with ourselves and others. We hope to continue to share out our lessons, be transparent and accountable about our mistakes, and invite others to lean in to more difficult conversations about racism and colonization.