“Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement [and] the Indigenous movement have both created an opportunity to publicly acknowledge systemic racism and have deeper conversations on it,” says Sangeeta Subramanian, founder of Chetana Consulting, a firm specializing in equity, diversity and inclusion.
There have been conversations around diversity and inclusion in Canada for a fairly long time, usually from a mechanistic lens. Those conversations are centered around the numbers, but Subramanian feels they tend to ignore the larger topic of systemic barriers to equity.
“The idea is no longer to bring more ‘diverse’ people into a space in hopes that things will sort themselves out. We need to take intentional and sustained action to identify and dismantle inherent power structures that perpetuate inequity,” adds Subramanian.
She offers the example of a table: if there are 12 seats at the table, the older discourse on diversity ensures three seats belong to minority community members. However, the new discourse on diversity asks questions like: Could the table be an uncomfortable construct to those members? Can these persons share their lived experiences authentically? Do they feel respected and welcomed? Is the table a safe space for them?
This is where the concept of safe spaces becomes crucial.
Safe and brave spaces: the what, why and how
A safe space is one where individuals can share their experiences without judgment, bias, denial or fear of retaliation.
However, Subramanian explains that sometimes the term ‘safe space’ falls short, and the term ‘brave space’ might be more suitable, as it acknowledges that certain conversations can be difficult or uncomfortable and therefore requires all involved parties to be courageous.
“Safe and brave spaces are built through trust, openness and empathy. They allow the people seeking equity and those with privilege to come together to a neutral space and have an honest conversation,” says Subramanian.
The idea is for such conversations to persuade people to critically examine the structures of oppression, understand where privilege is at play and to be able to counter the euro-centric narrative.
Diversity, equity and inclusion beyond the buzzwords
A lot of people find themselves lost with all the buzzwords surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. While it can be intimidating to have these conversations, the last thing Subramanian wants is for diversity and equity concepts to seem complicated or too academic, so she strives to make these conversations accessible to all through her work.
“We need to break the myth that these are complex concepts; in fact, we should be able to have a conversation about diversity in simple words. I love to open up my discussions with interactive exercises,” she says.
Subramanian offers a sample exercise for people who wish to move the conversation forward: identify 10 people in your close circle. How many of them are of the same gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Your view of the world comes from a certain perspective. How can you open yourself up to people that are different from you?
Every step towards learning is a step in the right direction.
“These systems and structures of inequity were not created overnight, and therefore cannot be dismantled overnight. There needs to be intentional and sustained action that requires energy and persistence from all parties involved,” concludes Subramanian.
People interested in furthering the discussion can attend a webinar offered by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) titled Safe Spaces and Effective Conflict Resolution and hosted by Simon Fraser University (SFU) Aug. 19: