An Applied Example of an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Process

This article describes the transformation that took place within a small community organisation intent on making one of its programs more accessible to racialized and immigrant women.

 

Introduction

As a white woman, I have—and always will have—a lot to learn about racism and privilege, how to be an ally, and how to support the racialized people around me. I’m working on it. I also know that I’ll have to keep learning and checking my blind spots and unconscious biases all my life.

Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to have had opportunities to act as an ally at different times in my life. This is the story of an EDI process that began in 2008, when I was able to act as a facilitator because of my role as coordinator of a community organisation. My racialized co-workers, as well as those belonging to invisible minorities, were really at the heart of this day-to-day struggle, and I take my hat off to them. I’d like to acknowledge Heidi, Leona, Michèle, Sofïa, Salma, Naïma, and all the other facilitators at the organisation—for their patience and dedication, and for the learning they passed on to the team, at the time and since.

 

Context

The Montreal Assault Prevention Centre is a local feminist community organisation using empowerment and popular education models. The mission of this organisation is to offer concrete tools for preventing assault to those who are most vulnerable to assault: children, women, and people with intellectual disabilities or physical limitations. Year in and year out, the Centre has a budget of around $300,000 and operates with a team of four to five full-time staff and five to eight part-time facilitators. The Centre’s philosophy considers the intersectionality of oppression, meaning that people at the crossroads of discrimination are more at risk of being attacked. There are two main programs offered by the Centre, the ACTION self-defense workshop for women and girls of all abilities and the CAP program for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

 

The problem

The animators of the ACTION women’s self-defense workshop meet regularly to discuss the successes and difficulties encountered during the workshops, and to brainstorm solutions as a team. At one of these meetings in 2008, of which I was a part, we made a disturbing observation that ultimately led to an EDI process.

One facilitator reported that she had animated a workshop where a racialized woman attended but said very little after her introduction. She was a black woman, a single parent, who had experienced domestic violence. The facilitator said that the other participants, who were all white, didn’t let the racialized woman express herself fully because they “corrected” her on her experiences. In fact, the white participants said that the woman shouldn’t feel the way she did. They went on to suggest that she should have done a number of things other than what she had done. Although this annoyed the facilitator, who tried as hard as she could to reframe the discussion, the women went on judging the woman of colour.

During that meeting, we dug into this situation at length, because our approach is to give each woman a place to recognize her expertise, rather than imposing our interpretations on her! I remember that we raised the hypothesis that the other women in the workshop had reacted in this way because of prejudice, and that, in the end, the facilitator simply did not know how to prevent the discussion from getting out of hand, or how to give more space to the racialized woman. The facilitators wondered why we didn’t know what to do when faced with such prejudice.

Following this first observation, we talked more widely about the problematic situations we had noticed in our workshops that particularly affected racialized women. As the stories unfolded, we noticed that the racialized women who signed up for the workshops were often in the minority in the groups. They didn’t always stay until the end or, when they did, didn’t seem to participate fully in the workshop. They sometimes remained completely silent.

Based on this initial observation, we dug deeper and found that even though a large part of Montreal’s population is racialized (it is estimated that almost a third of Montrealers are of immigrant origin and may therefore be racialized), very few racialized women were present in the ACTION workshops. Each of us could count on one hand the number of racialized women in our classes!

I remember that meeting like it was yesterday. I was flabbergasted by our conversation. Then I asked myself why I hadn’t brought it up to a meeting before. And my unflattering answer was that I didn’t see the problem because there just weren’t that many racialized women in the workshops. So, the problem was invisible to me as a white woman who didn’t experience such situations myself. But I felt very badly after that meeting because the organisation’s mission is to offer tools to groups most vulnerable to assault, and I knew that racialized women, indeed all women at the intersections of oppression, may be at greater risk of assault.

 

An aside

I thought I was already an ally, but that conversation launched deeper work in allyship. It led to questions about whether I was willing to let go of my privileges in order to be on an equal footing with racialized women. It led to questioning my personal biases. It led to lots of learning and reading about groups of people that I knew nothing about. It gave me a whole new way of looking at my childhood experiences around questions of race. I now know that this indepth work will continue throughout my adult life.

 

The project

Following this meeting, the Co-ordinator at the time identified a source of funding and asked me to write an application to Status of Women Canada. Between submitting the application and obtaining the funding, the Co-ordinator left the organisation, which led to an internal reorganisation. That’s how I came to be the organisation’s Co-ordinator in 2010.

To carry out our project, we hired a racialized woman, with a background deeply rooted in anti-racism and anti-oppression, to act as the project co-ordinator. She was a soft-spoken woman with an iron will. Over the two years of this project, this woman identified our many expressions of unconscious racism and confronted the team frankly and firmly.

The project co-ordinator observed the ACTION workshops for six months and interviewed the racialized women who were taking part in the regular workshop. After this period, she spoke to me about the approach she planned to take with the facilitators. I immediately foresaw the resistance we would face from some of the team members. So, I reached out to a sister group to lead an anti-racism workshop for our facilitators. Anti-racism work was their area of expertise and we needed help in becoming better allies. Unfortunately, this workshop increased resistance, the opposite of what I had hoped. This made the rest of the EDI process very unpleasant. Why such an opposite effect? These awareness-raising workshops can sometimes, unintentionally, put white women on the defensive, rather than in ally mode, and that’s what happened during this first workshop with some of the facilitators. What’s more, women often (very) deeply feel that they know about assault and discrimination because we’ve been subjected to sexism since childhood. This can be particularly true for women who have experienced gender-based violence such as rape, incest, or domestic abuse. For some, the idea of being part of the problem of discrimination or racism is horrifying and completely contrary to the motivation behind becoming self-defense teachers in the first place!

This resistance took many forms in our team—from refusing to take part in meetings, to rejecting any suggestion to improve our practices, to personal attacks towards the project coordinator or towards me. It was, as I mentioned, very unpleasant.

I remained determined to integrate anti-racism into our practices despite this resistance. I continued to support the project coordinator and really appreciated her ability to stand her ground even when her colleagues discriminated against her and other facilitators. I imagine it wasn’t easy for her as a racialized woman. Her greatest strength was that she always proposed a solution when she identified a practice that needed changing, one that was tainted by racism or discrimination.

When she started giving feedback to the team, she began by suggesting changes to the central element of our workshop, the success stories. All animators love these success stories because they make self-defense come to life. Women who hear the stories rejoice and they want to hear even more. The success stories are also essential to the ACTION workshop because they demonstrate a wide range of ways of standing up for oneself in very different situations. Here are some of the findings of the project coordinator:

    • ACTION is a workshop that shares women’s stories and aims to be feminist and intersectional, so these stories should represent all women. While we had many stories from older women, women with disabilities, and unhoused women, we had none from Aboriginal women.
      • Suggestion: At the beginning of the workshop, acknowledge colonialism and the suffering it continues to cause in order to welcome First Nations women to the group.
    • The few stories of racialized women that we were telling were not identified as such, which had the effect of “whitewashing” the stories.
      • Suggestion: When we tell their stories, identify that it is racialized women who acted this way. We can also indicate their cultural background if we know it.
    • We did not include stories related to the fight against racism or other forms of discrimination, which left out a whole lot of women’s experiences.
      • Suggestion: Collect and share stories of how women have responded to homophobia, transphobia, racism, ageism, or other forms of subtle and obvious discrimination.

These initial findings were followed by a recommendation to review the facilitator’s manual to include stories that reflect the realities of a broader range of women’s lives. She then added more general reflections and suggestions:

    • Our representations of women’s bodies were very gendered and did not take trans or non-binary women into account.
      • Suggestion: Avoid generalizing about the features of women’s bodies.
    • We used chopsticks to simulate knives in armed assault practices as we thought it was deemed less intimidating for women. The project coordinator reminded us that these could be hurtful to women of Asian descent.
      • Suggestion: Use simple wood dowels instead.

Finally, the most crucial point of the EDI learning process in which we all took part was to learn that not only did we fail to take an anti-racist stance, but we unconsciously let inappropriate comments “go.”

    • General suggestion: Take ongoing anti-racism training courses, to give ourselves the tools to recognize and respond to such comments in a systematic way.
    • Targeted suggestion: Create and offer a workshop by and for racialized women only.

This last suggestion caused quite a stir among some of the facilitators! Some staff feared they would lose their jobs, and it must be noted that self-defense animators are not paid especially well—they very often relied heavily on this income to survive. Some felt that this was reverse discrimination, as men sometimes do when confronted with their sexism—they felt this was unjust. Others reacted quickly to integrate the proposals and develop the project. I remember another meeting where we quite uncomfortably brought up this resistance. I will leave that there!

In my mind, the ACTION workshop was developed so that women could talk together about what they were going through, so this last suggestion to offer the same safe space to racialized women was a natural one and would be implemented.

I did my best to become a shield so that the project coordinator didn’t receive this resistance. I was attacked for my “inflexibility” in this project. And it’s true that I insisted that the proposed changes be made in a timely manner. What I was saying was probably gentler, but in my head, I was saying: It’s going to happen, full stop! My colleagues undoubtedly sensed my determination and unwillingness to bend.

I have to say that I felt extremely frustrated and at times very angry with my team-mates. Why didn’t they see the need to change our ways of doing things? How could one not be touched by what the project coordinator was telling us? I had many doubts about the process during this time! Despite this, I felt that I had taken the right path. What we, white women, were doing as animators in our groups was simply a continuation of systemic discrimination in our society, and it had to stop. As the project continued despite the resistance, some facilitators left the organisation. It is immeasurably sad, but sometimes change brings its share of chaos.

Today, when I look back on this project, I’m very happy with the determination I showed in the face of the awful feelings and conflicts that arose. I’m proud to have persevered and to still see the fruits of this project today, some ten years later. In fact, the workshop that was designed at the time is still offered to racialized women by racialized women today. A workshop specifically designed for newcomer women has also been incorporated into the organisation’s programs. In addition, the current team of animators represents a much greater diversity.

 

Lessons learned

Transformation cannot take place without disturbing the status quo. It sows confusion, it can bring chaos, fear, and suffering before opening up new horizons.

Transformation also takes time, no matter how fast you think it should go or how obvious it is to you. You need to be patient, go step by step, give yourself the means to succeed, and never give up! Even if you want to go faster, you can’t. You have to respect the pace of the people involved in the change process.

When you want to take a step towards equity, diversity, and inclusion, you need to spend a lot of time preparing the land before launching your project. I would say that better preparation would definitely have improved our process. If I had to do a project like this again, I would seek more support before starting it.

I will add that It’s better to be transparent with the funders who support such projects. They know that organisations are going to have certain difficulties with EDI and can suggest solutions that other organisations have tried. At one point, I received inestimable support from a Status of Women Canada staff member when the project was stalled. I had been afraid to lose our funding, but instead I received the help I needed to go forward.

 

Conclusion

After all of these difficulties, the organisation’s remaining team members took great pride in the project, even going so far as to apply for an award of excellence. The award, received in 2011, enabled the team to celebrate their hard work.

 

Today

Since then, I’ve taken on the role of Executive Director of the Movement to End Homelessness in Montreal. I started in 2019 and I’ve seen some major social transformations in that time, and I am very worried about where we are headed as a society. Still, I am mindful of those earlier lessons and work on being an ally in as many ways as I can. An anti-racist lens influences the recruitment of team members, the research projects the organisation develops, and the training programs it offers. The lessons learned from that first EDI initiative are still with me, and I know that any changes I want to make towards more social justice will take time and patience.

Michèle Chappaz

Michèle Chappaz

Directrice générale, le Mouvement pour mettre fin à l’itinérance à Montréal