Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: In Conversation Part 1

Carolyn Hibbs PhD, Vivia Kay Kieswetter PhD, and Emily Rosser PhD

Trillium Network Council member Dr. Carolyn Hibbs sat down with Dr. Vivia Kay Kieswetter, an anti-oppression consultant, and Dr. Emily Rosser, an anti-violence researcher and practitioner, to discuss the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion at a high level and to consider some practical insights.

Carolyn Hibbs: I really appreciate your willingness to discuss these concepts with me. I really admire both of your work in this area, and I’ve learned a lot from both of you through conversations like this one.

CH: What led you to become dedicated to diversity, equity & inclusion?

Vivia Kay Kieswetter: My own experiences as both a worker and manager led me to this field. As a person raised in poverty, I quickly keyed into how class played a role in how people were treated in the workplace and then promoted—or skipped over for promotions. This flowed quickly into noticing that class wasn’t the only factor that impacted this—leading to research and reading into anti-racism practices and in general anti-oppressive practices.

Emily Rosser: I’ve always been interested in justice, since I was very young. I think it had to do with a few things—most directly, being raised in a single parent family and also observing how violence played out across a number of families I knew growing up. I also grew up at a time when the world was starting to come to terms with the atrocities of the recent past—including the first round of publicity about the abuses that had happened in residential schools. In university, I volunteered on a sexual assault crisis line.

CH: What has contributed the most to your development in this area?

VK: A hunger to make things better. As a person keenly aware of what structural violence and oppression can feel like when it is directed at you, I have sought ways in which I can learn how not to do these things to others. It’s something that requires constant vigilance—privilege is a shifting web and as I move through different spaces and roles I either receive or am robbed of varying degrees of power. Always trying to be aware of those relationships—who has power or who might be abusing it—is central in my work and my values.

ER: First, working in collaboration with others to challenge injustice and to provide direct support to survivors of violence. A lot of things you only learn through frontline and activist experience, or through being at the receiving end of violence.

Second, I did have an excellent formal education and I don’t want to discount that here. I was in the first generation of PhDs in women’s and gender studies. I learned how to value and highlight experience as a source of knowledge. I benefited from an incredible range of anti-racist feminists as my teachers and mentors, and particularly as my colleagues.

Third, a lot of my work has been across different languages, and I think the experience of constant translation and interpretation is a very good metaphor for how DEI work can and should go. You are never sure how someone else has experienced the world, you are always asking for clarification and confirmation that the other person has understood, always searching for common ground, common vocabulary, never assuming.

CH: What does leadership in diversity, equity & inclusion look like?

ER: Leadership would look different depending on who is leading. If you were a person or group that embodies a lot of privilege—like white people or cisgender men, for example: leadership from that type of group could look like making things more consultative, more horizontal, less hierarchical; accompanying and taking direction. Leading by example for this type of privileged group is very important. It doesn’t mean deferring to others at all times. It does mean using the power you have in an imperfect society to actually change the way things are.

VK: Being a leader in an anti-oppressive space means that you need to be willing to sit with uncomfortable feedback and make those who you work with feel safe to let you know when you have messed up. No one is going to go to training and then never make a mistake again, so part of the training needs to be breaking down the “top down” mentality.

CH: How do you ensure that people from equity-deserving groups play leadership roles in diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives?

ER: I have had more doors open to me by virtue of my whiteness, my education, speaking English as a first language, being relatively able-bodied. I try to use the platforms I do have to do what activists call “pass the mic.” I can invite people on panels, or write articles with them, or defer my time somewhere so someone else can keep talking. I read and support intellectuals and activists.

In terms of more formal DEI work, you should hire people to help your organization do DEI work well. Those people are out there and they are good at it. But again, nothing really matters if you are only doing it for show. Your goals have to go beyond the superficial.

VK: I would want to be very careful that marginalized people weren’t the ones who became responsible for educating people who have been instrumental in marginalizing them.

ER: Organizations may have implemented superficial measures recognizing gender and racial equality, and maybe also sexual diversity. But organizational cultures often remain deeply ableist, which means they idealize a culture of constant work, a grind that never stops, and putting work over all other needs. My dream is to normalize health.

CH: What would you say to someone who is skeptical of these initiatives?

ER: To someone who is skeptical because they think things are fine the way they are, or they fear losing some of their privileges, I would say, part of living together is caring for others, caring about others. Our society does not do a great job of this yet.

VK: Do not discount the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion training. If this training makes you deeply uncomfortable, that is a sign that you need it. 

ER: I would also say that, actually, we all benefit when we do things more equitably. Oppressive systems harm those in positions of power as well as those in positions of marginality—participating in them harms their humanity, as anti-racist feminist bell hooks would say. Just taking conventional ideas of masculinity as one example: I have worked with so many men who have been deeply damaged by the narrow expectations placed on them. This is not to equate all suffering or to flatten out the effects of power, it’s more to say that there can be entry points for everyone, and engaging across differences in power and experience doesn’t have to look like arguments or defensiveness.

VK: A corporation is a body—that’s literally the root of the word. Think about your body as a thing you need to care for. You wouldn’t expect your body to be healthy if you were constantly smashing your left hand with a hammer. This might seem like an exaggeration, but if you have an environment where people are experiencing daily micro-aggressions or worse then you are never going to be firing on all cylinders.

ER: The other reason people might be skeptical is because people in equity-deserving groups have seen these types of initiatives fail. It’s common to come into an organization that says the right-sounding things about DEI, only to find that they have done very little to put those values into practice. DEI has become a sort of trend recently in corporate and academic settings. The worst examples are when leaders pay lip service to diversity and take a bunch of diverse looking photos for their pamphlets and websites, but the structures of power and decision-making remain decidedly not diverse. It makes people who experience harassment or violence feel like tokens rather than valuable members of an organization, a team.

Another common experience is to enter an institution and find you are tasked with “fixing” it because you belong to a particular marginalized group. It’s not fair to place that responsibility on the shoulders of those who experience the harshest effects of discrimination—or on any one individual. For all those reasons, I would say that I absolutely share those forms of skepticism about DEI initiatives. I still want organizations to try. I think they should be held accountable to the standards that already exist in our society. But they have to try hard.

The conversation continues in Part 2.

Dr. Vivia Kay Kieswetter is enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at Trinity College on the territories of the Anishnawbe Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Wendat Nation, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. She is a lay minister on the discerning path toward the Anglican Priesthood. In her life she has been: a professor, a waitress, a coffee shop minister, an opera, reggae, jazz, and rock singer, and she holds a PhD in musicology and a Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance and Musicology with a concentration on Jazz and Gospel Music.  Vivia is in the process of reconnecting with her father’s Indigenous heritage, is passionate about intersectional justice, enjoys cooking, swimming and walking, and often has long theological conversations with her two cats. Connect with Vivia on Facebook.

Dr. Emily Rosser is a researcher and activist with a focus on gender-based violence, and currently supports anti-sexual violence initiatives in universities across Canada. She completed her doctoral research on sexual violence and genocide in Guatemala, and continues to pursue research on trauma and health. Connect with Emily on LinkedIn.

Dr. Carolyn Hibbs helps nonprofits improve their governance and operations, drawing from 15 years of leadership experience. She completed her doctoral research on race, gender and religion in India; and is committed to embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into her life and work through ongoing conversations and research. Connect with Carolyn on LinkedIn.