Image courtesy of Letecia Rose
In recent years, many organizations and institutions worldwide have been faced with confronting systemic oppression. As the public call for progressive policies and practices has amplified since spring 2020, many organizations have pivoted to help usher in this new frontier of equality and inclusion--the AGO included.
Behind the scenes at the AGO, we’re embarking on our own journey which includes listening, reflecting and embracing an ongoing, refreshed approach to diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility. As part of this, in September 2020 we kicked off an ongoing monthly series of mandatory employee diversity and inclusion training sessions facilitated by distinguished guest instructors. Equity advocate and community engagement specialist Letecia Rose led two sessions on anti-Black racism and consulted with AGO leadership during the hiring process for a new Diversity and Inclusion Manager, set to start in 2021.
We recently connected with Rose for an important discussion on diversity and inclusion and what that looks like today in an organization like ours.
AGOinsider: Can you tell us how you got into the work of engaging with organizations to help create inclusive and accessible spaces?
Rose: My work in the equity and inclusion realm began 15 years ago. Right out of university I landed a job with an organization called Harmony Movement. They had the mandate to eliminate all forms of discrimination that prevented people from being equal. In my role I worked with elementary and secondary school students to teach them the perils of prejudice and how they could be leaders for social change in their communities. In my time there I travelled across Ontario and delivered thousands of workshops and training to not just young people, but educators, community organizations, government bodies and eventually businesses looking to learn more about equity concepts. It was a humbling job because it showed me as a Black woman how much I didn't know about the inequities that were experienced by racialized and marginalized people. I knew a bit, but this job gave me the opportunity to learn about my history and my responsibility in dismantling systems that enabled oppression to continue. That job gave me the framework and foundation that enabled me to do the work that I am doing today.
AGOinsider: Can you share your definition of diversity and inclusion?
Rose: Diversity is about representation. It's about who is in the room; the variety of people, identities, genders, abilities, religious beliefs, nationalities, personalities, including types of communicators and diversity of thought with a mix of individuals. It’s about the group, and less about the individual. It is necessary for there to be visibility, to feel represented, and to feel seen. However, it needs to be more than a checkbox exercise. Diversity is also about the distribution of these individuals within an organization, community, or setting to ensure that it is not superficial. When we look at diversity with an equitable lens we have to ask: How many historically marginalized people are on the top and how many are at the bottom? Who are the decision-makers and do they look like the people we serve?
Inclusion is about participation. It's about the integration of your diversity efforts within an organization, place or setting. When done meaningfully, it adds visibility and value to the individuals being included and the organization that now gets to benefit from their innovative ideas and perspectives. However, inclusion tends to exclude the people who they are trying to include. Examples of this can be seen on education panels about women's rights but only men are the featured speakers. Organizations creating solutions for young people and youth are never consulted. When inclusion is done superficially, it is having a seat at the table but not having the opportunity to contribute. Using an equity lens to examine your inclusion efforts make you ask, do we have the right people in the room? Who benefits and/or is disadvantaged by the structure of this space?
Both diversity and inclusion can't only be about good intentions. It needs to be executed equitably to truly be meaningful and impactful.
AGOinsider: For larger institutions taking on the work of making their spaces more diverse, inclusive and equitable, what do you think are the first steps they should take?
Rose: For organizations that I work with, I always encourage them to understand the current state of their organization to identify the problem that they are trying to solve. Some organizations attempt to solve issues of inequity by only increasing their diversity efforts. Increasing the different types of people in your organizations does not solve your exclusion problems or whether you have policies and practices that maintain the status quo. So before you recruit new people, do an equity audit of your organization. Prioritize creating safe spaces for staff members to share their experiences and feelings about the organization. Know the demographics of your organization. When you have a thorough awareness of how people are feeling, policies and practices that are missing, and deep acknowledgment of the levers that kept power imbalances in place, organizations can then create a strategy to work to correct the inequities and imbalance to foster a culture of change.
AGOinsider: What are some of the challenges you see for constructive change in a larger organization?
Rose: Many organizations that have problems with change fall into three categories: denial, defensiveness or minimalizing. They are either in complete denial that they have an issue and have a mentality of 'out of sight, out of mind'. For some, change makes them extremely defensive. Admission of missteps or mistakes makes them feel uncomfortable. And for other organizations, although they may acknowledge that they have a problem, they believe that it isn't as bad as other organizations. As such, they feel that they do not need to change. In each of these examples, organizations are using excuses to disassociate from change based on ignorance or as an attempt to mitigate perceived risk. However, organizations that do not acknowledge their current state are at greater risk of fostering oppressive spaces that enable discrimination, which will result in losing top talent - becoming stagnant, less innovative and successful.
AGOinsider: How do you see diversity and inclusion strategies intersecting with accessibility and community access?
Rose: You cannot talk about diversity and inclusion without using accessibility as a framework to effectively address the needs of individuals. Access is about meeting people where they are at; designing places, spaces, products and experiences that are reflective of individuals and populations. Accessibility is rooted in using an equitable lens and asking questions of the individuals and of ourselves to ensure that we are considering the realities and different starting points that people are experiencing. It means that we use curiosity to lead our efforts. We work with an assumption that we don't know someone's barriers, so to better understand it, we must ask them and involve them in the design of anything we create. This means when working with communities, using authentic inclusion efforts to ensure that they are able to contribute in a meaningful way. It means, ensuring that you have the right representation is the distribution of community members in the room. It means removing barriers to their ability to give input and feedback. It means involving community members in the design of the questions being used, its distribution, execution, and dissemination. There are no shortcuts in creating accessible spaces, but when done right, it ensures that everyone is included and reflected in the process.
AGOinsider: In your opinion, what are the unique challenges you see for arts and culture organizations trying to enact change?
Rose: The arts and culture sector is no different than the public or private sector in that the pathway to change requires a similar dose of reality. Every organization has unique challenges but only a commitment to change will enable any organization to truly make the lasting impact needed to address systemic inequity and equality.
Stay tuned for more updates about our diversity and inclusion strategy in 2021.