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When we’re not at the table, we end up on the menu

When we’re not at the table, we end up on the menu

Women of colour in a meeting

Why we need to decolonize boards to ensure equity

Systemic racism manifests itself in the form of disparities and inequities in health and social status, injustice through differential treatment, and exclusion from social participation and representation. Communities impacted by systemic racism are kept from participating in and benefiting from social, economic, political and civic activities. This exclusion did not just happen. It is the result of the systemic and deliberate way that the existing culture, norms, and ethics have been designed and established.

Truly understanding how this impacts racialized and marginalized communities requires us to examine ourselves and our institutions carefully. Arguably, the most impactful space for such an examination in the nonprofit sector is at the governance level. The board is the highest accountable body in an organization or institution. It is the board that sets the direction of the organization and establishes its policies. 

The timing for change is ripe. The painful murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black communities have raised awareness on the generational injustices that Indigenous and Black communities have faced. We are witnessing a new willingness to listen and (re)act to the voices of BIPOC communities. 

We have long known boards lack diversity 

Even before Statistics Canada published new data on diversity on nonprofit boards we knew very well that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities were significantly underrepresented in governance, boards and leadership spaces. In August 2020, the Diversity Institute from Ryerson University published its report that clearly showed this alarming disparity1.

If we are not at the table….

As the saying goes, when we are not at the table, we end up on the menu with someone else making decisions about us. Even with good intentions, that someone else (usually someone white, elite and of middle-class background), will not make the best decision for us. That is why for Indigenous and Black communities, the unnegotiable principle of “Nothing about Us without Us”, and the African principle of “Kujichagulia” (Koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) or self determination, are key.

It’s not just about the numbers

In 2019, the City of Toronto, under its Action Plan to confront anti-Black racism, recommended the improvement of representation of Black communities on health and social service boards. 

When the City of Toronto issued a call for proposals to address this underrepresentation, TAIBU Community Health Centre proposed the Black Governance & Leadership Project (BGLP). This project aims to build the capacity of grassroots and volunteer-led Black organizations to become sustainable and to develop the governance capacity of members of Black communities so they can be matched with opportunities to serve on boards. However, the most important aspect of the BGLP is its work with mainstream institutions to change their boards’ processes and culture so that they are ready to welcome racialized and marginalized voices to the table and ensure their participation is meaningful.

Governance spaces can be challenging. I have the privilege of sitting on different boards, committees, and tables. Even as an individual who carries a lot of privilege (education, title, command of language, heterosexual status), it is always either intimidating, overwhelming or stressful. The term 'Black fatigue' describes the common frustration that many BIPOC board members feel when they experience the polite dismissal of their viewpoints with a smile or have to work twice as hard to ensure they can participate equitably2. Simply adding more BIPOC representatives to a board without first changing the culture and processes may make the board feel good, but won’t bring about any meaningful change.

Only decolonization will ensure equitable representation 

As per the approach of the BGLP, if you want to increase the representation of Black communities (or any other racialized communities) in your governance and decision-making processes, I advise you not to make a recruitment strategy your first step. Start with the process of decolonization. 

According to the Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, decolonization is a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power. It involves dismantling structures that perpetuate Eurocentric ways of being, doing and knowing. 

Decolonization begins with acknowledging the existence and impact of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism as a systemic issue and its existence in the institution that the board governs. It requires self-reflection on one’s privilege and views of racialized communities. 

Decolonization is about valuing and including perspectives, norms, principles and methods of knowing from other cultures or communities in the institution’s governance. In the case of Indigenous communities, we are talking about valuing ‘Indigeneity’. When it comes to people of African descent, we refer to ‘Afrocentrism’. 

Decolonization is about creating a process of accountability for self and for the board. One cannot be accountable without transferring power, or in our common (buzz) language, without empowering BIPOC communities.

As much as the responsibility of decolonizing the governance space lies with the organization, it will not be successful without a strong and trusting relationship with the communities it serves. Decolonization is about becoming an advocate and ultimately earning the status of ally.

It is time we are returned from the menu to the table! This is only possible when the table is set properly and has become a nurturing place for an equitable and meaningful participation. Communities’ values must be respected and accepted as equal (and not as the exotic or the other) with their principles, ways of doing and ways of knowing becoming an integral part of the culture and processes of the board.

 

Diversity Leads, Diverse Representation in Leadership: A review of Eight Canadian Cities, Canada, 2020.

Mary-Frances  Winters, (2020), Black Fatigue: Racism, Organizations, and the Role of Future Leadership, Hesselbein & Company.

 

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

As the first Executive Director of TAIBU Community Health Centre, Gebremikael has led the organization since 2008 in developing and implementing various community empowered and Afrocentric programs and services. He holds an MA in Migration, Mental Health & Social Care from the University of Kent (UK). He is the recipient of the prestigious “Emerging Leaders Award” from the Alliance for Healthier Communities.

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