Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas to create a sense of community and belonging at your workplace

Published on 31/03/2023

How do we create a more inclusive community at our workplaces? We have all done the trainings and listened to the TED Talks, and every second line of an organization’s website mentions “EDI.” Equity, diversity, and inclusion may have become buzzwords in business, NGO, and government sectors, in reality, organizations – including those in the legal sector – have fallen short of reflecting and representing the broader population within which they work. We see that more women and racialized, Black, and Indigenous people are represented in companies, but they still face barriers to advancement and feeling a sense of belonging.

In this Five Good Ideas session, Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello, VP Equity and Community Inclusion at Toronto Metropolitan University, explores the ways in which feeling like you belong, knowing that you will be included, and seeing your work community as “your” community matters. She provides some advice on how you can achieve this sense of community and belonging at your organization and sheds some light on what we may be doing to hinder it.

Session handout

Five Good Ideas

  1. I love them! They are just like me!: We hire people that are just like us. We need to be intentional about who we hire, who we mentor, who is in our book club, who comes into our house. Awareness is key.
  2. Sense of belonging matters: We have to measure the quantitative and the qualitative.
  3. We need to learn about the community and then remember that the community member is nuanced.
  4. We need systemic change through representation. The case for exposure: You have either lived it or loved it.
  5. This work is messy: Do the work iteratively and be gentler with each other and with ourselves.



Presentation transcript

Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we are, where we live and work, and recognizing the responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually today, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy. I acknowledge that I am and Maytree is on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. Today the territory is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. It is also covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which was an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and Allied Nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

It is now my pleasure to introduce today’s session and speaker. We see the letters EDI everywhere, they’re ubiquitous. Equity, diversity, and inclusion. They’ve become buzzwords almost in business, NGOs, and government sectors. But oftentimes they have fallen short of reflecting and representing the broader population within which they work. We see that more women and racialized, Black, and Indigenous peoples are represented in companies, but they still face barriers to advancement and feeling a sense of belonging where they are. Dr. Tanya De Mello, who we will call Toni, will explore the ways in which feeling like you belong, knowing that you will be included and seeing your work community as your community matters. She’s going to provide us with advice on how you can achieve this sense of community and belonging at your organization and shed some light on what we may be doing to hinder it.

Toni is a remarkable person. She has a background in finance, management, consulting, and law. She has spent much of her career focusing on and researching equity, diversity, and inclusion. She’s a human rights lawyer, a certified coach, a mediator. She’s taught at the University of Toronto, Toronto Metropolitan University, and several colleges. She has worked at TMU as the director of human rights and then the Lincoln Alexander School of Law, which is Canada’s newest law school. She’s currently the  Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion. She has worked with so many organizations. She has degrees from a number of universities. She is incredible and we are delighted to have her here today. Toni, I’m going to turn it over to you and then I’m going to come back and start taking questions from the audience when you’re done. Welcome, Toni.

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: Thank you so much, Elizabeth, and I’m so happy to be here. So as I thought about what I was going to share today, I realize what I’m sharing now is different from what I would have shared with you folks even five years ago. The climate has changed, what people want and know and understand about equity, diversity, and inclusion has changed dramatically. And what my guess is that many of you are sitting there with a pen and paper because what I’m seeing is people jumping into action. I have been doing this work now for over 25 years. I am older than I look, I always say it’s great for online dating, not so great in a boardroom. But I share that because when I started this work 25 years ago, most people would say to me in Canada that we didn’t really have a problem with racism or homophobia. Canada was this welcoming, multicultural place.

It was hard to talk about these things. And some things shifted in the last 10 years, where more and more were recognizing that problems of exclusion exist in our country, exist in our offices, exist in our communities. It’s now all we’re talking about. I’ll be at the mall and I hear people talking about it at the checkout. I hear people talking at the bus stop, in my office, at dinner parties, it’s all people want to talk about. This notion of what it means to have our community be better represented, to feel like they belong, to fit or not fit, and to understand what that is in the context of our workplace and our lives. When I was younger I remember a friend once saying to me, Toni, does it ever make you tired to talk about racism? And I said, no, but I can tell it makes you tired, right?

And I think what I’m seeing now is that we’re tired of not talking about these things. The silence has become difficult. The silence has become seen as complicity. That to not name them, to not understand their force, to not understand how we’re complicit, and some of the stuff that’s happening I think is no longer been acceptable. What I think many of you are going to be saying to me is, Toni, I’ve watched the TED Talks. I go to these trainings. I’m here today, right? I’m reading the books. What is it I can do? What’s the checklist? And I’m going to give you five points of what I think you can do or think about as you’re in the workplace to make a difference to the lives of your colleagues, your clients, people that you interact with. But I’m going to tell you the first thing, that even as you write it down, it’s not this profound run out and do this.

1. I love them! They are just like me!: We hire people that are just like us. We need to be intentional about who we hire, who we mentor, who is in our book club, who comes into our house. Awareness is key.

The single most important thing you can do around this work is to work on your awareness, on self-reflection, and awareness of your behaviours, your actions, the people that are in your groups. My doctoral thesis looked at hiring in North America, and I looked at when people say things like, this person would be a great fit for our organization. And I asked, what does it mean to fit? Who fits and who doesn’t? And I look at the experience of racialized, Black, and Indigenous people to understand what they felt in these processes and whether or not they were welcomed, seen, heard, whether they felt that they belonged. And what I found in the research isn’t going to shock you. It turns out that the way we make hiring decisions is pretty quick. And it’s not just hiring, it’s how we make all decisions.

So how we hire somebody, how we decide who’s in our book club, how we decide who to mentor, who’s on our soccer or hockey team, we make them all pretty quickly. And we tend to hire people that we like. So many of us work long days, we might work into the weekends, we might do road trips. You want to be around people you like if you’re working a stressful or long job. There’s nothing worse than when you pass somebody in the coffee room and you’re like pulling teeth because you don’t know what to talk about. It makes sense that we’re going to pick people we like and that we get along with. What was interesting in the data and all of the research as well as the interviews is that it turns out that we tend to like people that are like us. They look like us, they talk like us, they think like us, they dress like us, they watch the same TV shows as us. It’s not just that we like them, we like ourselves, we like them because they’re like us, right?

And what’s really important is we don’t just think they’re like us, we think the way we are and that they are that’s similar is actually ideal or great, and anything that’s different is wrong or something we don’t want to aspire to. My ex-boyfriend lived here from Australia and he said people in Canada would say things to him all the time. Like, you’re from Australia, you drive on the wrong side of the street. Is that true? And he’d say, no, we just drive on the other side of the street. It’s not wrong, it’s just different. But we have this idea that the way we do things in our workplaces, in our country and our city is the best and only way. I remember in undergrad somebody came up to me and said, Toni, I know your mom’s from India and can you explain arranged marriage to me, because it’s really weird and I don’t get it.

And I said, well, I can’t really speak for a billion people and my family doesn’t do arranged marriage, but have you ever heard of the show The Bachelor? Have you ever been on an app called Tinder? That’s just arranged marriage. You’re welcome. There’s something about when we do it in our own communities that it’s normalized and it’s great, but anything else that’s different can be seen as wrong. And it’s a huge problem in the workplace, that we tend to like like, and we tend to promote the ways we are, and it can create a very homogeneous culture. It matters in so many ways because often we don’t even realize we’re doing this. We just think we click with somebody because they’re great and we may be inadvertently excluding people from what we’re doing in our workplace.

Often where we see this happen the most is in mentorship, where most promotion, advancement, really getting great opportunities doesn’t come from open job applications or from competitions, but rather somebody tapping you on the shoulder, or mentoring you, or helping you to get in. And often we pick those people based on who we are, what we like, and if we see them as resemblances of ourselves. And so when I tell you I want you to look at awareness, I want you to think about who’s in those groups for you? Who’s in your book club? Who do you mentor? Who mentors you? Who do you have lunch with at work? Who do you go out for drinks after work on a Friday night? Right? See who’s in those groups and what do they have in common? And ask yourself, who’s never in those groups? Where do you live in your city? What do the people in your neighborhood have in common? Who’s never in your neighborhood?

The more you can be aware of these things and realize who’s not included, the more likely you are to try to make a change and do the actions that people always talk about to get people in. Almost three years ago now, when George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a police officer, this work dramatically changed for me. It went from, as I’d said, for 10 years, people had started talking about it more, to people really asking, what are we doing in our country, around our institutions, around the forces that are supposed to serve, protect, and take care of our citizens? Who do they protect and who do they leave out? The shift in the dialogue around who was not being protected, who was not seen, who was not heard was stark when George Floyd was murdered. And what I saw that changed in every single company organization, tiny shop, was that people started going to the leadership and saying, what is it that you’re doing? What are we doing? How do we respond to this stuff?

And not just the horrific stuff like murders that are happening at the hands of people that are meant to protect us and serve us, but what’s happening to people in these communities every day in their workplace? How do they feel? How do we treat them? Are they here? Do they move up? And people would say to me, Toni, I’m reading everything I can. What’s happened with George Floyd has harmed me so much. It’s all I can think about. I’m watching everything, give me something that I can do. And one of the big things I ask them is to look at their neighborhood as I’m asking you. So look at who comes in their house. If you’ve never had a black person or a black family in your home, then you can read all you want, but it won’t dramatically change the lives of the black people in your community.

If you’ve never hired a black person, mentored a black person, what does it look like to be aware of the individual acts that we’re doing every day that show up in our workplace? So the first thing I ask you to do in my five points is to really think about your awareness and self-reflection constantly of who’s in my groups and who’s not, and how can I be intentional about changing them? One of the biggest learnings I’ve had in this work is it doesn’t happen over time. It just doesn’t happen naturally over time as everyone says. It’ll happen. It’s happened for women, it’ll eventually happen for racialized, Black, and Indigenous. What I’ve seen is that if we are not intentionally inclusive, we are unintentionally exclusive. It’s a saying that we have at my university, Toronto Metropolitan University, that you have to be intentional. You have to decide to do these things and to shift, and you have to be reflective about them when you’re doing them.

2. Sense of belonging matters: We have to measure the quantitative and the qualitative.

The second really important point, and it’s the heart of the talk for me, is that in order for people to feel like they matter at their workplace, they need to feel like they belong. Outside of two things that every single person will tell you is a consideration in work, so they are salary and location. I really care about what I make. I’m not switching jobs for $500 raise. And I care about where my location is. I might not move to Japan tomorrow. My family’s here, my home is here. Other than those two things, the single most important factor about whether or not I feel that I’m satisfied in my job, whether or not I want to stay versus going to another competitor is sense of belonging. Am I seen here? Am I heard here? Do I matter here? Right? It is so profound in terms of people’s experience and that’s why I think of this work as being the heart of success for many companies, organizations, and businesses.

And I’m going to give you a little example. I had the privilege of working for Barack Obama now over a decade ago when he was not as known as he is today. And I was with a group of students from Princeton and we were canvassing for Barack. And we found out that Michelle Obama, his wife, had come to the campaign trail and we all knew her because she had gone to Princeton. So she was kind of a big deal and we ran up to her and we said, hi, we’re really happy to meet you. We’re working for your husband. And she said, great. Where are y’all from? And we said, we’re from Princeton University and we’re so happy to be here. And she said, I went to Princeton. We’re like, we know. And she said, I had a really difficult time there. It was a very hard experience for me. And we were like, okay, good luck on the campaign. Sorry about that. We literally walked away with our tails between our legs.

Some of you who have read her interviews or her book know that Michelle Obama had a really tough time at Princeton. And the reason I’m bringing this up is because I think all of us can agree that Michelle Obama’s done okay, she survived Princeton just fine. But I always think, what would it have been if she went from surviving to thriving, if Michelle Obama had felt like she belonged, if every time she put up her hand people listened to what she had to say, she walked into a room and felt welcomed, what could have changed for her? Might she have been President of the United States? And so where I think we want to move in our companies and our organizations and our soccer teams by the way and book clubs, is for people to feel that sense of belonging that when I speak I am heard. When I’m in the room I matter. That all of what I bring, my lived experience, my views, my identities, they’re seen and heard and witnessed here. It changes how we engage.

And what I’ve seen in many companies is that we want to measure things. We now want to measure everything. And I’m a big fan of this by the way. I want to know who’s in. I want to know numbers. I want to know if they’ve doubled. I want to know who applied. I want to understand all of that. The quantitative measurement is key in equity and diversity. We cannot change that which we do not measure. That is in every industry, and we cannot forget that in this one. I think what I want to add to it is that we need to think about the qualitative that moment. It’s not just how many Indigenous people we bring in, it’s what they feel like when they’re here. It’s whether or not they feel that they’re supported, that they can thrive, that they can do the work that’s meaningful for them.

And so always when you’re doing this work in your companies, really fight for the quantitative and look at the qualitative. Understand what’s important to these communities, what’s missing. Often people say, how can I support them? And I’ll say, ask them, right? You hear the slogan very often, it comes from Indigenous communities, I know it’s used a lot by accessibility communities: Nothing for us without us. So ask people that are working with you, what are ways in which they can be supportive and measure that stuff quantitatively as well as quantitatively. The other thing that I think is extremely important is to think about the case for exposure. I’ve been telling you we tend to be around people we like and we like people that are like us. We have to be intentional about exposing ourselves to different groups in different people.

3. We need to learn about the community and then remember that the community member is nuanced.

And in the workplace in terms of sense of belonging, what I want you to think about is, this is something I say, you often see a difference when people have lived it or loved it. So people say, I have a lived experience of being poor in this country, and I can tell you what are some of the supports I could have used. I also hear people say, no, hang on, I have a friend that’s in a wheelchair and that’s not the experience that they’ve described or that’s not true, I’ve been to Jordan and actually there’s a lot of it. Right? There is something about having a connection to a community, by the way, this is not a problem solved and everything is resolved because you know one person that’s from Uzbekistan, right? But there is something that changes in us when we’ve lived something personally or we know somebody that we care about that has lived or experienced it.

And so the more that we bring these folks into our buildings, into our institutions, the more that we can know them and develop relationships, the more we’ll find points of likeness, points of common ground, points of common values that bring us together and have us tied to their destiny and to their fate. I always say that having more racialized, Black, and Indigenous people is great for racialized, Black, and Indigenous people in the workplace, and it’s great for white folks. It changes the way we think. It changes the way we deal with our customers. It changes the way we interact in our communities. We all learn from it. It changes our workplace. And I want to be clear that when I say that this exposure is important, I don’t want to assume that because I’ve dated a Black person or because I’m racialized, I know what it is to be queer. Or because I grew up poor, I understand what it is to suffer.

These things are lenses that can open us up to understand somebody’s story, but do not be tricked into thinking that because we have that one experience, we can speak for the whole group. One of the big things I think about in workplaces is we want to learn about what’s happening in different communities, we want people to come into our workplaces and feel a sense of belonging. And then we want to nuance our learning. I’ve learned a little bit about what it is to be Jewish and observe certain Jewish holidays and observances and religious, and then when I meet a Jewish person, what is it to nuance that and not assume that there are everything that I’ve learned about, right? That within every single group there is nuance, there’s diversity, there’s difference, there’s ways of practicing, being, thinking, right?

I often say there’s diversity with two white men. You have two white men in a room and they can be different ages, different political affiliations, different sexualities, different gender. There’s so much that comes up with two or more people. And so to really think about what it is to understand a group and learn about that group, but then every single person within it being nuanced, and that will create a sense of belonging. Because you might have had exposure to a country or culture or community, and that doesn’t apply to the person that’s right in front of you. The third is I’m going to move us from the individual and take us to systemic. And I will say that my life’s work has been about thinking of whether or not I can affect systemic change in institutions. And I will tell you, the verdict is still out.

It is my life work, and I still find daily, I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know if you can do it. And what I’ve been realizing more and more is that I’ve been fighting for a goal of having a workplace that’s more inclusive, that has less racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, right? Sexism. And I might never get there, but for me, the win is the work. That I have to start seeing these wins in the system, those little wins. The work itself is a win because you are trying to dismantle a system that has caused so much harm to people. And so as you think about changing these systems I want you to think about representation. And representation is a major part of systemic change, to have, again, the people who have lived it or loved it there to give a voice and have us think about things differently.

But to have that representation itself be a systemic change, because the system is run, decided by more diverse people. I have a story where I was a few years ago walking into a very big company, right before lunch, and I was going to give a presentation. And I come in and a woman runs out to me and she says, excuse me, are you the caterer? And I said, no, I’m the keynote speaker. And she said, I’m so sorry. I said, no problem. Catering is very important to me. I love a good meal. So waited for the caterer, I went in, I gave my speech. And she came up to me afterwards and she said, so I listened to your speech and I basically did exactly what you were talking about. I made a shortcut. I judged that you were the caterer, not the keynote because you’re brown and I don’t know how to change. I’m really having a hard time. I’d love you to help me. What could I do? What can I read?

And I was really moved that she came up to me and she was talking about her individual responsibility. And we talked for quite a while. And I said, it’s important to talk about what happened individually and thank you for coming. But we also need to talk about the systems that we’re in. When we look at the systems at her company, at our city, at my country, it turns out that most caterers look like me. And there are very few keynote speakers that look like me. And usually when a keynote speaker looks like me, they’re talking about equity or diversity like I am today. What would it change for that person if there were more keynote speakers that looked like me talking about tax law or international investigations or climate change? And if there were fewer caterers that looked like me?

One of the major things we need to think about as we look at systems is to change who’s represented in those systems, who has power in those systems. I remember reading one of the studies talked about just the pictures you have up on a boardroom wall will change how you decide who should be the next person on the board. As you’re interviewing, those pictures will influence you to have you thinking about who’s a leader in the community and who should be hired. So how do we think about the pictures that are up on our hallway, and not just in our workplaces, but in our children’s rooms at the movies and at the theater that we go to see? Who’s represented? What are the visions and versions of people that are represented so we can start to think about how we attack some of the systemic change?

4. We need systemic change through representation. The case for exposure: You have either lived it or loved it.

The fourth point for me is around a battle that I’ve been having for many years, which is how do we make sure that the work is substantive and not just performative? And often people will say, listen, it’s Pride Month and they’re doing stuff for LGBTQ2SI folks. And of course it’s like a cake and everyone gets together in the lunchroom and I just like it’s so performative, it doesn’t mean anything. Or they’ll splash something on our website or we’ll have one Black guy or a person in a wheelchair on a poster. That performative kind of work can be so exhausting. And sometimes it’s exhausting because it actually is done instead of the work, which is the substantive, meaningful work we need to see happen around changing belonging in our workplaces.

What I’ve learned though is I think you need to have a bit of both. There needs to be a bit of a splash factor sometimes. I think about all the times, places I’ve worked in, I’ve had cake for Pride and all the people that showed up, some of whom were in the closet and wouldn’t have come to an event for just queer folk. Something that brought everybody together over something fun and light. We’re having cake, we’re celebrating, there’s rainbow flags. Do the performative and make sure that in that moment of splash, you always have substantive work. What moved me about those lunches and that cake is that there would always be somebody talking about their experience in the organization as an LGBTQ2SI person, right? Those stories change people. They open people. Their understanding of what it is to be in that lived body shifts in these events.

And so I say to people, they’ll say, should we just do training or should we have equity development targets or should we just work with leaders? And I say, yeah, all of it. We need the cake and we need the speech and we need training. All of this stuff reinforces each other and it lets people who are in very different places come to it in different ways. Some people are going to come to a talk like this, others would rather see a TED Talk at home where they can decide when they tune in and when they tune out. So figuring out all those different ways where we can have some performative, because people need it sometimes to just feel like we got to win and always ensure that they’re substantive and ensuring that the performative doesn’t outdo or replace the substantive is extremely important.

One of the things that I have seen in this work that has been the most powerful is our ability to tell stories. And as we think about telling stories and changing the stories that we’ve been told, I think it responds to systemic change. I think it responds to the awareness and more than anything it creates that sense of belonging for people that have been talking about, because the stories of their ancestors or their people or their communities are told and are our part of our lexicon and part of our history. I think of the story of Viola Desmond, a black Canadian woman that in 1946 said, I’m sitting in a seat and it may be whites only, but I paid for the seat and I’m not moving. She was arrested, she was jailed. She wasn’t pardoned until many years after her death. This Black hero is somebody that I didn’t even hear about 10 years ago. I’d never heard of her.

She did this 10 years before Rosa Park refused to give a seat in the United States. And it’s like every Canadian knows who Rosa Parks is, and so few knew who Viola Desmond was. Viola Desmond is now on the $10 bill in my country, and every kid knows who she is. And I always think part of that is making her history a part of the broader history, that we don’t need a Black History Month on its own, that Black history is Canadian history. And what does it look like to tell the stories of these people that have so often been forgotten, so often been erased, sometimes purposely and sometimes in error. I think of when I went to Australia, now two decades ago and I learned about residential schools. That young Indigenous children were taken from their homes and put in schools to be educated.

And I said to my boyfriend, that’s horrible. I can’t believe that happened. And he said, it’s the same thing that happened in Canada. You folks had it as well. And I said, no, no, no, we didn’t. We were terrible to our Indigenous communities, but we didn’t have residential schools. And he was like, no, you did. I learned about it in school. I was 21 years old, I’d never heard of a residential school. Now you ask a grade three in our country and they can tell you about residential schools. What is it like to learn a history that’s more comprehensive and that includes many communities? What is it like to put the stories on paper of the people that have shaped not just our nation, but our institutions, who we put forward for awards, who we put forward to go to conferences, who we announce at a staff meeting?

What does it look like to tell stories of people that often don’t have their stories told, that are often behind the scenes that are the only member of their group? I ask you that as you think about the substantive work, think about the ways in which we tell these stories. These stories give us an exposure to understand and know the people in our workplace, so that they feel that they’re more likely to belong because we know all of them and all of what they bring.

5. This work is messy: Do the work iteratively and be gentler with each other and with ourselves.

And I’ll end with this my fifth point, which is, as we do this work, one of the things that I have found when people ask, I’m struggling to do it, or I don’t know how to do it well, I don’t know if I should do it. I think there is a hope that because equity, diversity, and inclusion are these feel good, touchy, fuzzy words that we have on every line of our website, that in doing the work, it’s going to be so warm and we’re all going to sit around singing kumbaya and having these little potlucks where we’re trying food from all over the world.

And the fifth point I’ll give you is that if you want to do this work and you want to do it meaningfully, it is messy. It is messy. If people actually bring their whole selves to work, if they go from surviving to thriving, if they engage in a way where they feel that they can contradict the powerful forces in the room and share an idea that could help everybody, it’s going to have more conflict. It’s going to feel uncomfortable sometimes, lots of times, and it’s going to be messy. One of the biggest things I’ve seen and learned in this work is how much I have to apologize because I’m trying things, I’m learning things, and often I’m seeing things that might not land for somebody because I’ve understood their community and maybe not the nuance of their context, or I haven’t heard what it is they were trying to share, or I work in a different way.

And so what I hear over and over again is sort of a fear people are having, I want to do it, but I don’t know how. I don’t want to get it wrong. And what I promise you is that if you do it, you will get it wrong sometimes, lots of times. And that part of this work is being comfortable with the messy. And another part of this work is thinking about, what does it look like to accept that as people are making mistakes they’re also doing their best, they’re also coming from a place of learning and that we have to think about what it looks like to be gentle with them as well as gentle with ourselves. I’m going to close with this story because it’s one that really had an impact on my life around this work. I’ve been doing this for so long, and what I’m noticing now is something that was happening to me, which is like you get so excited that you want to help other people learn, and you’re quick to correct everybody in the room and you want to make sure your voice is heard.

So you ask a question, but it’s actually a comment, so you could show. And I had moments of that, right? When I was learning this, I wanted to share, share, share, share, share. And sometimes I wasn’t gentle with others. I have a story where I was giving a presentation outside town and I was taking a cab back afterwards. And as I often do, I called my parents and so checking in on them in the cab, and my mom said, you’re passing our house, so you have to stop because cauliflower is on sale, and I brought you cauliflower. And I said, no mum, I’m not stopping. I got to get home. I’ve got stuff to do. She’s like, no, you’re going to stop because you’re passing our house and we have a lot of cauliflower to give you. So instead of arguing, I said to the driver, listen, we’re going to stop. I’m really sorry. It’ll be quick. I told my parents, you need to get out there. You need to be ready. I’m going to grab it and I’m going to go. Right?

So the cab pulls up and my parents are dutifully on the driveway and they have mail for me and food for me and all of this cauliflower, and they’re so excited and they want to hear about the presentation. I’m like, I got to go. I got to go. And as they see me, they notice my cab driver and my driver’s somebody who’s wearing a turban, he identifies as Sikh. Some people say Sikh, the Sikh religion. And they notice him and they walk up to him, they say, hello. We’re such a big fan of you, and we support Jagmeet Singh. And I was like, oh, no. They mentioned another Sikh leader in politics. And I thought, oh my God, no, no, no, no. My parents were like, and we go to a gurdwara and we love the food and we’re learning more about your, and I was like, please stop, please stop, please stop. They were doing all of the things and we know lots of Punjabi people and how is it going?

And then my dad’s like, and what is it like to drive a taxi? Because now my daughter takes Uber and we’re so worried about you. And I was like, oh my gosh, we got to go. I close the door. I say, please go. We’re going to talk to them. And as the driver goes to turn around to take me home, I say, I’m so sorry that my parents dropped every reference they knew about your culture, I’m so sorry. And he turns around and he has tears in his eyes. And I said, what is it? And he said, that was so powerful for me. It was so beautiful. And it’s so powerful to hear people learn about my culture, support the idea that somebody from my community would be in leadership in our government. And it has been really hard to drive a cab since Uber, that has been really hard and people don’t realize. It was just so refreshing to have somebody connect like that.

And I realized that I was so worried about the ways in which my parents engaged and talked and behaved, and I was so busy apologizing for them that I didn’t realize that I had sat in a cab, this person, and talked on the phone the entire time and hadn’t spoken a word to him. On the drive back to my house I learned about his family, I learned about his journey to Canada, I learned about his children. And a big learning for me for all of this work, if you take nothing else, was that I need to both be gentle with people in my life that are trying to do this work and connect to people and that they might have different ways of doing, that person might have been offended, you never know. But also to be gentle with myself, that we will make countless mistakes in this world. But the power of the work is to say, I am doing this because I want other people in my office to feel like they belong.

Not just because in belonging they’re going to have better ideas for the company and we’ll make more money. Not just because in belonging we’ll look better to our clients and we’ll make more money. But because when people are treated with dignity and when they can bring their whole selves to work, they thrive. And that in knowing people when they’re thriving, we build a community that goes far stretched from our office places and lands in all of our communities. And so I say do this work by starting at the individual level where you’re raising your own awareness and constantly reflecting on the work you’re doing. Look at the groups in which you are hanging out, mentoring, doing professional development. Think about what it looks like to support people by asking them and including them and making sure their voices are there at the table.

And then be gentle with yourself because it is not easy. If anything, I would say there are moments where I feel like the work is getting harder, the climate is more hostile, people are more aggressive in general, right? There is so much backlash now against this work, across our country, across the United States. And so I ask you to continue this work, to do it piece by piece and to bring in as many people in as you can on your way. Thank you for the time and I’m open to hearing some of your questions.

Q&A session

Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you, Toni. That was just terrific. I love how you finished with such a human, that is being human, right? Speaking to the person that you’re sharing a car with, engaging in where they are at, and then being able to forgive yourself that you lost sight of that in the moment because, and then there was cauliflower. I love that it was about cauliflower.

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: It’s always about food with my parents.

Elizabeth McIsaac: There was so much in there. And we have questions coming into the Q&A, and I just want to remind people that if they have questions, they can put them into the Q&A box. I’m not going to be looking at the chat. I actually have my chat turned off, so I’m not seeing anything coming up there. So put your questions into the Q&A and that’s where I’m going to be looking. I think where you finished off was a good place. I just want to pick up something from there. And that is, it is getting more difficult. It’s messy. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to be misunderstood, and sometimes we will not understand and we need to still learn more. And certainly we all still need to learn more. And so that sometimes creates fear, and fear can create paralysis. And so do you have any advice about getting past that fear of just saying, okay, we’re going to go? And there’s stuff, one, there’s the interactions, there’s legal ramifications, there’s all of these other things. So how do we get past the fear?

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: And it is something I will tell you, Elizabeth, I’m hearing from everybody, including people doing the work. I’m afraid that I’m going to say something where all of a sudden folks say, that person does not have the lens I thought they did, right? And so part of what I say to people is, if you are feeling that fear in a way that you cannot try at work, try in smaller communities where you feel more comfort. One of the things I talk about is I’m on a WhatsApp group with a lot of members of my family and there will be things on that group that I’m like, that’s not okay for me. It’s not okay for me for anybody to say this and this, these are family members and I’m going to say something. And I found in a group where it’s smaller and I feel a little bit more power, I developed that skill of being able to speak up and to try.

And the fear is real because I will tell you that in saying things people have seen that people will turn their backs on them. You might not get the promotion because you’re the person who puts up your hand and complains. So there is that fear and it’s legitimate. I often say starting these small groups so that you’re able to build that confidence. Often in our workplace institutions, I’ve seen now that we have more and more community networks, sometimes people call them affinity groups, community groups, so that people where they feel like there’s only four of us. What does it look like for us to be together in a space where we can just speak freely and we don’t have to give context or worry what people are going to think?

And in developing those groups of support, I’ve found that people will say I’m much more confident to speak up now in my broader group. The other one is the last point that I made, which is that fear that you’re going to make a mistake, and how do we say sorry? And for me, it’s learning what an apology is like and what is resonant with people. And so the example I want to use is, I misgendered somebody a few years ago and I’ve done it more than once, and I did it and it was harmful to the person. I apologized right away. And they didn’t accept my apology. They were quite upset. And I went back to my office and I was like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that. I have to work on my stuff. I’m in diversity and equity. I’m like misgendering people. This isn’t going to work for my career. I harmed somebody.

And I said, I’m just going to keep a distance until I figured out. I want to get my own stuff sorted. And then I came and did these presentations where I’m telling y’all expose yourself and meet people and invite people from your community. And I wasn’t doing it. I walked up to the person and I was like, I want to practice what I preach and I need to do the work and I’m afraid and I need to pass past that fear. And the person’s talking to me and the entire time they were talking, I was like this. She, she, she, because I didn’t want to get it wrong again. And I didn’t listen to a single thing she said. So my guess is the next time she meets me, she’s going to be like Toni misgendered me and she doesn’t listen when I’m talking.

And so part of what I challenge people to do is to try to let go of the self and to really listen to somebody else who’s talking in an apology, in an argument. And the way to do it is to say, if I couldn’t respond, but there was an exam on this, could I write what the person said? Could I report back what they said? Am I actually listening? I call it exam listening. And so to practice that work of releasing the self and letting somebody else open you up, I think it starts to diminish fear over time.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Wonderful answer. I’m just going to say this has been the most active chat we’ve ever had and I want to thank everyone for participating. I’m just going to give some direction in the chat because I think for some people they need to, I’m one of those people that can only look at one thing at a time. So if you need to close down the chat to listen more carefully, I’ve just put in some instructions for that. I have a question from, I think this is a really interesting one. I’ve witnessed equity seeking groups sometimes called equity deserving groups. I’ve also now learned that some people don’t like the term equity deserving because it invokes a bit of a colonial history. So terms are so fraught, languages, it’s evolving in the moment.

But I’ve witnessed people from groups who are equity deserving, seeking, in a race, no pun intended to the bottom. I’m more deserving than you. I have it worse than you. How do you suggest addressing these battles between groups so that perhaps more, obviously the answer lies in intersectionality, but in a practical way, how do we approach intersectionality?

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: Powerful that you raised intersectionality. So part of it, and I think there’ll be some people on the call that aren’t clear on intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that I don’t just have one identity, I have many. And I’m not just brown, I’m not just a woman, I’m a brown woman. So those two identities intersect. And I don’t know sometimes if it’s because I was brown or because I’m a woman, because I’m never a woman without being brown and I’m never brown without being a woman. They intersect and all of us have that. Every single person has that. And so thinking about that I think is really important as we do this. I think part of the challenge is when we talk about equity, we don’t often talk about power. We think of equity as if everybody’s here, things will be great. Diversity means there’s difference, that there’s difference in people. And as I said, two white men, you’re going to have infinite diversity.

Equity talks about power. And so a lot of these discussions are about who has power in the room. So when I’m in a group of all racialized people, I can tell you my gender matters. Women speaking in that room are all racialized, but being a woman has an impact, right? Thinking about when I’m in a boardroom and I’m the only woman, when I’m in a boardroom and I’m the only brown person, those kinds of dynamics have an impact on how people share, how they’re received, how decisions are made, who’s promoted. And so I think those dialogues are important. What I think is dangerous is there’s two things. So the first thing I think is dangerous is to say, if this person gets, then I don’t have. So if we’re doing a history month about them, it has to be me.

And there’s this amazing article called Detour-Spotting that I’m sharing with you in the links, and it’s about not doing the “but what about me?”. That somebody sharing their story and your response, your first response is one of, I want to hear your story. I want you to feel like you belong. Versus let your story be about my story. I know you grew up in a neighborhood and you were racialized, and that was hard. I grew up poor. It’s the same. So really try to stay away when somebody is sharing their story or they have a moment if it’s Pride Month that you let it be that moment so that people can be their full selves and people can speak and share and there will be time for yours. The other distinction that I think we need to make, because I do think it’s important for people to have their experience be heard and held without it being this constant comparison of, but I this, but this is worse, is by data. Certain communities have experienced worse outcomes.

And of course this is nuance. Of course if you’re racialized and you’re rich, it’s different. Of course, if you’re racialized and you’re gorgeous, it’s different. Of course, if you’re thin. There are a lot of things that play into it. But what I get scared of in this dialogue, Elizabeth, is that people will say, well, it’s not a competition, so we don’t want to say. The reason I say racialized, Black, and Indigenous is because if I say racialized or people of color, I often don’t mean black indigenous. The reason the term anti-Black racism or anti-Indigeneity was created is because it is different. Because those communities are disproportionately affected negatively of the community. And within every racialized community, it’s worse if you’re darker skinned or lighter skinned. I think holding both is possible, saying each of us has our story and it’s one that needs to be heard, that we are deserving of compassion, right, is important.

What you also talked about is the language is really important and being open to shifting that, shifting it for the person, shifting it for the group, shifting as we evolve in time. And the second is to really recognize that there are differences that people are experiencing every day, right? When you walk out on the street and you’re literal safety. I remember somebody saying to me that they realized as a man, as somebody who’s identified as a man, is that nobody ever texts them to say, did you get home safe? And most people who identify as women will tell you that is the first thing a friend will text, is let me know you got home safe. That is a different reality. Saying it’s also hard to be a man is not untrue, but they are different realities.

And I think we have to be honest and candid, because if we don’t name them, everybody matters. Everything is good and we don’t recognize that certain communities are disproportionately negatively affected.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Wonderful answer. We were worried there wouldn’t be any questions. We have a long line of questions, so I’m going to try to combine a couple so we can get through as many as we can. One person asks about what are the practices that we can take to make sure that recruitment processes are in line with the DEI standard, especially when the company is small and usually relies on their own networks. And then a similar one that I want to put in together with that is, how do we overcome the challenge of choosing then between a candidate we’ve been introduced by our network to and perhaps not responsibly sourced considering the DEI initiatives versus a candidate that we know less about, but is selected with respect to DEI? So then you get into those questions of which one, but then also how do you deal with the pipeline question? How do you do the recruitment?

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: That’s 17 questions.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I know.

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: Okay, just asking.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I know.

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: Okay, that’s a lot of questions. The first thing I’ll say about recruitment, because that’s my area of study, I look at hiring and I go out to companies across the country and talk about your hiring. And the biggest thing I want to say is whenever I talk about hiring, I talk about retention. It’s not just bringing in people, it’s how they feel when they’re there. It’s who gets mentored, who gets to go to conferences, who gets leadership, who’s heard in the room. You can bring in all the people you want, and if the environment is not one that’s hospitable for them to succeed, you’ll create an environment where they’re set up not to succeed, where they won’t be promoted. We see in every industry that as we rise in Canada, as we rise in work, women are more likely to leave than men. There’s higher rates of attrition.

We don’t see women in leadership as similar. And at the earliest levels, racialized, Black, and Indigenous folks are leaving or there’s rates of attrition or they’re fired, right? There are disproportionate effects of when you bring them in, to not support them. I don’t talk about recruitment without support. But when you think about how do we make our processes in recruitment, ones that are really aligned with DEI, the first thing I say is, you have to talk about this stuff at the beginning. Show them I talk, show them at TED Talk, you like, there has to be a discussion about caring about this stuff at the beginning. And I’ll tell you what happens if you don’t. It’s exactly what I just heard happen. You end up having two great candidates, and I say, Elizabeth, these are both great, but this one has something we don’t have at our firm.

It’s a person with a disability, it’s a person with a foreign accent to Canada. It’s a person that identifies as trans. And so I say, this person has a diversity we don’t have, they’re both great. And somebody will answer, I promise you, we look for it. Hang on a second, we have the standard of excellence. We need to hire the best candidate for the job. Here’s what you do when you do that, okay? You create what I call a false binary. That it’s one or the other. So diversity means not best candidate and best candidate for the job is the folks that are already there, Canadians, English speaking, right? Straight, white, able-bodied, all of those things. And you create this thing where we see folks that bring diversity as less qualified because you’ve literally said, well, we have to hire the best. What it assumes is people who bring that diversity aren’t the best candidate.

And so I want you to flip that framework, because for me this really helped and it was actually my mom who helped me flip it. It’s not that we’re bringing in racialized folks or women or folks that identify as LBTQ. They’re not qualified and we’re bringing in. It’s that we have had barriers to prohibit some of the best candidates for the job to be in our office places in history. And I’ll give you a little example that makes that obvious. 50 years ago you would’ve said no woman was the best candidate for the job. But it turns out we have all these talented women. And what it was, was that they were blocked from entry because they were a woman. I’m going to give you two studies that are important, there’s millions, but these are the two I love because they’re quick and easy for you to use with your workplaces.

The first Sheryl Sandberg talks about, and it’s a study in Columbia. They gave a whole bunch of students CVs and many had identical ones. The only difference is one of them you thought it was, the person’s name was Howard, and one you thought the person’s name was Heidi. Okay, so you might assume Howard’s a man. You might assume that Heidi’s a woman. Okay? And when students read them, they were identical, fictitious people. They thought Howard was powerful, transformative, a strong leader. Same identical resume, never met the person, they thought Heidi was political, calculating. They worry she’d be a steamroller. It’s not that we’re bringing in diverse people that aren’t qualified, it’s that we continue to have barriers for these people to say, because your accent is one that’s different from mine, I can’t understand you.

And often what we’re seeing in the data is women have to be twice as qualified as men to be considered equal. And racialized black indigenous have to be two, three, four to be considered equal. They’re never seen as the best candidate for the job even when they’re three times more qualified, they have to be that to be seen as equal. So challenge that framework of we’re bringing in diversity and that’s lesser, because what I can tell you is these folks have been kept out of our systems and we are now in a global marketplace where they are doing wonderful things all over the world. And you want to be one of the people that says, not only do we want you, but when we come, we want you to succeed. And I want to add one thing because it’s also, this is important because it’s about the pipeline.

If you hire people and you say, we hired that person because they’re from X group, we had to have a woman on the board, we had to have an Indigenous person. You actually bring them in a way that they’re associated with their group and they’re no longer an individual. So if that person doesn’t succeed, she didn’t succeed because she’s a woman. If it was a man, you might say, well, he just started, give him some time. Or he’s in a really tough client group. But what we do is when we bring these folks in, we find that they do more poorly because we’re looking for that. And one of my favorite studies is the American Bar Association did a study about lawyers and they gave out these documents to lawyers to grade, and they had all these demographic data of who you’re grading.

And what the lawyers didn’t know was the only difference was sometimes you thought you were grading a Black person, and sometimes you thought you were grading a white person. And when they thought they were grading a Black person for an identical essay, they found 48% more mistakes. There’s something about us that when we think of a group as less qualified, we’re looking for them and their errors. And what’s more powerful to me that I offer to you isn’t that they found 48% more mistakes with a Black person, but they didn’t find it with the white person. That there’s certain people that get a pass and I might be one of them as a Canadian able-bodied, all of those things. And so to think about the ways that you can have those conversations and as you’re doing your recruiting stuff, you need to talk about it before and this is the second place you need to talk about it. We need to debrief.

One of the biggest problems in our systems is everything is done urgently and in crisis mode. And where your biases are going to come up more is in those urgent crisis times. We have to at the end of our processes say, who have we had as speakers on Maytree? What are they speaking about? Who’s never been here? Who are our audiences? Who never gets to hear this message? So thinking about all of those things in debriefing and talking about them is the only way because we raise our awareness. And I have to tell you, people call me on my stuff. I found out a few years ago that it turns out, Elizabeth, that I hire a lot of extroverts. Who knew? Turns out I’m an extrovert. Turns out introverts work very differently for me. They may process differently. They look at agendas differently.

I have learned more from hiring introverted staff about my areas that I could really improve than I have from staff that work like me. I too am doing this. It’s not always those identities. We tend to hire people that work like, think like, look like us. And what I want you to do in your processes is not just be open to the debrief for others, but be open to it for yourself. So people will say, Toni, I’m noticing you’re doing this thing, and the more you can model, that I can hear it too, the more likely you are to have those discussions so that we do a better job of bringing people in and holding them.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Well, you just exposed me because I have an entire staff full of introverts and I’m the lead. We’re running, we’re at 1:55, so we have five minutes. I’m going to try to get a couple questions out too. A couple people have raised the very practical question of we’re now hybrid, how do we navigate some of this stuff in a hybrid world? Because we’re setting new boundaries every day. Is it two days in the office? Is it three? Some people can work remote all the time, some people can’t. How do we navigate this with a DEI lens?

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello: That is such an important question. And what I would say is that with great care and reflection and discussion, I have been surprised I am somebody who really believes in in-person and I recognize that there’s power in that. It may be easier for me to commute. I do not have children. I enjoy, I’m an extrovert. So there’s all these reasons for which we bring to our work style and what works best for us. And then we also have a collective community in thinking about how we can work well together. One of the things we’ve seen show up in hybrid, and I’ll say in remote, is that a lot of the power dynamics that exist in our workplace are just showing up on remote. So if you don’t have people put up their hand, for example, certain people are going to speak more as they do in a meeting. Thinking about ways in which you get people to engage you differently.

So some people speak really well when it’s a group and you put up your hand and ask a question. Others are more likely to share in small breakouts. So being able to the hybrid form, small breakouts so people can share and then maybe come back to the big group. Other people feel more comfortable with the chat, other people are distracted by the chat. So what I’ve seen a hybrid offer us is the potential to try different things and not say one is better and this is the way we’re going to go. What I’ve seen a hybrid offer us is to say, we will find a balance and kind of incorporate all of the things that we’re learning from these different models. So for example, with Zoom you can only see the top of somebody, you don’t see their body. And my guess is many of you have experienced this, and this is a good way to know if you have bias. You meet somebody you’ve only met online and you’re kind of surprised by what they look like because we have lots of biases.

And I have to do some checking of myself. Why did I assume they were older? Why did I assume they were thinner? How does it change how I interact with them? And so doing that self-reflection and that questioning is really important. And also asking the people you work with, what works for them. One of the things that I found I did wrong was think, okay, I’m seeing this work and I’m just going to assume it works for everybody because overall I can see, for example, I find online can be really advantageous for building a community. I find when there’s conflict, online is more difficult. Emails land more harshly, text you can’t really sense tone. Somebody’s on a screen, you can’t feel them or hear them or see their body.

And so I had this big concern that the conflict would, well because we don’t want to have conflicts or we want to reduce conflicts or we want people to know each other in conflict, we all have to come back. And what I’m learning from my colleagues that has been so helpful is to find ways to ask the people you’re working with what works and come up with a system that always talks about power and privilege in the decisions we make. To say this is a decision for X and not recognize that power is going to have an impact.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So much of this is grounded in humility and being ready to be wrong and being ready to learn. You’ve positioned it also profoundly. We have 22 more questions that we haven’t gotten to. There has been a request for us to share the references to some of the studies that you mentioned. So maybe you can follow up with us and we’ll send them out with the email that goes out to everybody. I’m going to take this one minute left to say thank you. Toni, you are extraordinary. Your energy is contagious, it is motivating. You have inspired a tremendous chat and a tremendous number of questions. It tells us we need to do more on this, that there’s more conversations to be had. I want to thank you for that.

Dr. Tanya (Toni) De Mello

Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion, Toronto Metropolitan University

With a background comprising finance, management consulting, and law, Tanya (who we call “Toni”) De Mello has spent much of her career focusing on, and researching, equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). She is a human rights lawyer and a certified coach and mediator. She has taught at University of Toronto and University, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) and several Colleges. She worked at TMU as the Director of Human Rights and then Lincoln Alexander School of Law, which is Canada’s newest law school the in 2019. She is currently the Vice President, Equity and Community Inclusion. She has worked with over 100 organizations in training, consulting, and supporting them in the EDI journey.

In addition to founding two NGOs, Toni has served in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the World Food Programme in Geneva (Switzerland), Senegal (West Africa), and Columbia (South America). Toni holds a dual Bachelor of Economics and Political Science from the University of Waterloo; a double Master in Public Policy and Urban and Regional Planning from Princeton University; and a dual law degree from McGill University and a Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy from the University of Toronto. She also completed her doctors at the University of Toronto, where she was looking at bias in hiring in Canada.