Trillium Network Council member Dr. Carolyn Hibbs sat down with Dr. Vivia 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.
This article continues the conversation from Part 1 in the August 2021 issue of FORUM e-magazine.
CH: What is a common mistake people make when they are pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives?
ER: They think it’s something you can accomplish by updating policy and maybe hiring a couple of new people. There are no shortcuts and that there’s no way to improve the situation without acknowledging imbalances of power. Policy is important but it’s the bare minimum. Lots of organizations have excellent policies that they don’t enforce properly.
VK: Exactly. Having policy but continuing to enforce privilege. It’s why I’m skeptical about training within a workplace—I’ve worked in places where they say things like “we have a zero tolerance policy for X” but when X gets reported it turns out there is tolerance for it, depending on who is accused of it—even if there are multiple accounts coming from multiple victims.
ER: This is often because they don’t recognize the relationship between policy and culture. Cultural change makes it possible to report or say no to discrimination or violence and to be supported. If you don’t commit to significant cultural change, your initiatives won’t be as effective as you hope. Don’t be ashamed of not knowing everything already. Life is about learning. This stuff is not really possible to learn in one workshop, or by doing an online training module and reading an article. It’s heart learning.
At the same time, you have to have space for those who survived violence or experienced some form of oppression. Something that is not always acknowledged in this field is that when you lump everyone together in a group for training, you tend to privilege the needs and questions of those least familiar with the topic. I don’t think it’s productive to do this work as though people of colour or poor people or mad people or Queer people should just hang around and wait until other people catch up.
CH: What should people remember after a significant incident of harassment or violence?
ER: Leaders need to take seriously that their staff or volunteers or members are going to need debriefing. Do something immediately to acknowledge the incident and reiterate that it is not acceptable, that you know it was upsetting. I am a big fan of trauma-informed practice. What that means is basically seeing a trauma response as a normal and healthy way to respond to a traumatic event, or to a society that consistently oppresses and traumatizes specific groups of people. This means treating people’s needs and responses as normal. It means acknowledging and believing their realities.
Then follow up with people on an individual level. People may need some support, whether that comes from inside or outside of the organization. Listen to them! Their experience is important knowledge you may lack. Communicate that you value their health and that they are important to the organization through policies about time off, insurance that includes coverage for counselling, and temporarily easing up on a person’s responsibilities. People need to see that you won’t let this type of incident happen again, whether that is through disciplining those responsible for causing harm, implementing new policies and programs, or creating new structures of governance. Knowing that your organization has your back is very powerful, and can help people feel empowered to push for further changes that move the organization forward.
VK: Ultimately, it’s on management to straighten that back towards justice. The Human Rights Code is a thing. Ministry of Labour regulations are a thing. Be sure that your workplace knows them—these are the bare minimum that employees should experience. It shouldn’t be on the worker to self-advocate, or navigate a way to avoid re-experiencing the behaviour or encountering the individual responsible.
ER: Also, remember that you will make mistakes. You don’t have to be perfect.
CH: What do you do when you make a mistake?
VK: I take accountability. I apologize. If a conversation is possible and does not cause further harm to the person I have wronged, ask for ways I could do better.
ER: I apologize right away and then take my cue from the person or people involved. Humility and empathy are going to get you a long way, and listening to and then taking direction from others is going to get you even further. But I don’t make it their responsibility to forgive me or absolve me. My actions are my responsibility. Admit that you are still learning, and commit to doing better in the future. But then you actually have to follow through on that.
CH: How do you incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion in your day-to-day life and work?
ER: Create a culture of support and care, rather than competition and isolation. In the research project I’m currently working on, we are gathering and analyzing data on sexual violence in post-secondary settings. It can be intense, and we are working slowly and steadily to make sure we don’t burn ourselves out, or absorb unmanageable amounts of trauma vicariously. This way of working has been welcomed so much more readily by my younger collaborators than by anyone else I’ve worked with. I learn so much from them.
VK: This ties in a bit to what I said earlier: recognize that everyone is carrying something, and do your best to be kind in any situation that you can. Going back to the idea of corporation as body—constantly reminding myself that we are all inter-connected is literally part of my religious world-view.
ER: Live by example. Always believe in the possibility of change—encourage everyone to think beyond the status quo. Support people when they speak out against unjust situations. We all need to know our allies!
Bystander education is really productive because it takes the pressure off the people experiencing the discrimination and violence to call it out or prevent it. You spread the responsibility out to more individuals. Getting more people to feel accountable and empowered to help, or to step in when needed, is a good start.
CH: What does success look like? How do we get there?
VK: Nothing short of cultural change—and this is really, really hard.
ER: Also, actual consequences for those who violate human rights, and this looks like tangible shifts in power. Success looks like a constant ongoing effort, particularly on the part of those who benefit from privileges that protect them from daily indignities in all areas of life.
VK: Real shift involves people who may not want to surrender their power laying a lot of it down.
ER: Success is not a destination. I believe in what anarchist feminists call prefigurative politics—practical action, always learning, always trying new things, never getting there, creating the reality you want through your relationships and practices in the everyday.
CH: What is one thing you wish people knew about diversity, equity & inclusion?
VK: That the harm caused by discrimination and oppression is real violence. That it’s the equivalent of wearing a heavy backpack every single day while other people have springs on their feet. That barriers are incredibly tangible for a lot of people.
ER: Yes, this concept of heaviness is important. I wish people knew what a heavy burden oppression is for people who experience it daily. I wish people would think more seriously about intersectional approaches. In particular, I have seen disability get left off the list of concerns and initiatives.
CH: Thank you for your thoughts! These concepts have seen significant development and change in my lifetime, and we can really never stop learning. I sincerely appreciate how you’ve presented diversity, equity and inclusion as an evolving field, while still clearly identifying important steps that we can take right now.
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.