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  • Writer's pictureHeather Sherman

Learn to Advocate for Diversity & Inclusion, Through Kindness

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Many of our kindness challenges are low key - a random act of kindness for a stranger, reaching out to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while or donating to a local charity.

Today’s topic has a bit more heft. In light of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to better understand how can we all learn to be kinder - and advocate more effectively - for our friends & colleagues in the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.

So, I reached out to an old friend and colleague, Kim Johnson, whom I worked with a while back at CTV’s national morning show, ‘Canada AM.’ Kim spent many years as a senior television producer, before moving into public relations (both in government and finance). She is now a diversity, equity and cultural diversity expert. Kim’s ultimate goal, as she describes, is to redesign corporate culture to become more diverse and inclusive for racialized and marginalized people.

“I believe in creating equitable spaces for all,” says Kim, “whether you are a cishetero white woman, a trans South Asian man, a disabled person using a mobility device, a woman with autism who communicates brilliantly through her own preferred method, an Asian woman who is new to Canada and looking to gain experience in her new country. Equity is ultimately about justice - and justice must serve all.”

Read my Q&A with Kim, below, and follow her on LinkedIn here.

Kim, tell me about your path from journalism, to public relations and now, to diversity, equity and inclusion strategist? What led you to where you are today?

When I look back on when I started my career, I recognize that advocacy always played a major part in how I governed myself and my work.

While identifying as I do as a progressive Christian, which plays a major part in my desire to do good and lead with empathy, I have always been bound by my secular purpose to help other marginalized people. As a child I highly enjoyed learning about other cultures, faiths/non-faith practitioners, sexualities, gender identities. My friend group, schools and neighbours were what I like to call a mini United Nations. As a journalist the constant wanting to know “why?” served me well. I’ve always been in a phase of wanting to know what makes people act the way they do and how can injustices be brought to light. Journalism was the perfect avenue for that.

Once in media, I continued to see and experience blatant racism and sexism. I’ve worked with Indigenous youth through internship programs in a Regina newsroom and mentored young Black Canadian journalists who were looking to navigate the early years of their careers. Moving to a corporate structure, I wanted to work to eradicate the barriers I myself, had faced.

I believe in equity. I believe in justice. Ultimately, I believe in people. I have tough conversations with white men and women who want to ‘get it’ but don’t know where to start (and honed the ‘tough convo’ skill through my time in media and public relations). I prefer diplomacy but will always be straightforward in my work and my words (thanks again, journalism!). The belief in building equitable spaces comes from years of feeling ‘othered’ or ‘only’ in white-majority newsrooms. If it was not going to improve during my time, I was working for it to be improved for the next racialized person to walk through that doorway. That purpose and advocacy guides me in my work as a D&I strategist.

What have you learned about the prevalence of unconscious bias and how do you teach others to recognize it and change their behaviour?

"'White/Innocent. Black/Criminal. Men/Clever. Women/Nurturing.' If you’ve ever taken an implicit bias test or training, you’ll recognize pairs like these as examples of the unconscious associations our brains make about social categories." - "What to Do With Your Implicit Bias"

The majority of the time, unconscious bias is very conscious. Our biases and 'instant associations' are also always there. Why? We are human. We are fallible. And it does not mean you are a bad person. I have to routinely check my own unconscious (and conscious) biases. If I had judged Heather as being 'the same' as other white women I've encountered in the media, I would have missed out on the opportunity to know and learn from a phenomenal producer, who always displayed empathy and kindness for all.

Some instant associations are good. Take a hot stove. Touching a hot stove = burns and excruciating pain. Or stopping at a red light. If you were to sail through an intersection, you'd risk a serious collision. Our unconscious biases are formed early in childhood. If a parent tells their child to "watch out" for Asian people because of (insert stereotype here), chances are a child will make the instant association (“Asian” + “person” = “bad”) throughout their life. That same child grows up to become an adult with a fear and mistrust of Asian people, despite never having a negative experience with an Asian person. That adult then moves into talent and recruitment, rejecting all resumes with 'Asian-sounding' names. The unconscious becomes conscious (and in that case, is racism). It is a domino effect.

Confronting your unconscious bias is the first step. You can take tests through Project Implicit. You can confront your thoughts by spending more time, reading more works by and engaging in community projects with persons you may hold biases against. Counter stereotypes. And always be in a position of learning and changing, not defensiveness and doubt.

What do you want people to know about your experience as a Black woman in professional & leadership roles?

I want people to know that my being Black does not tire me. It does not weigh me down. I take great pride in being Black. As a Black Jamaican-Canadian woman I am having to constantly prove myself in order to get ahead - while white women typically do not have to think about how they represent their race. Yes, white women face sexism. White women face the ever-present glass ceiling. Columbia and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the phrase 'intersectionality' (a description on how our social identities can overlap). I am constantly thinking about the intersections of race, gender and class and the concrete - not glass - ceiling I face.

Reflecting on this question made me think about the challenges I've faced despite being educated at a top post-secondary Canadian institution and having worked at some of Canada's most well-known and revered media outlets. The microaggressions I've faced, the taunts and the anger for simply being who I am and standing proud as a Black woman, a woman of faith, the proud daughter of immigrants. My education and work ethic can’t protect me from racism (it’s why the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” phrase is both racist and classist).

Despite the negatives, my many positive experiences have led me to this point as a leader. It is also important to note that I didn't get here alone. As previously mentioned, having a strong faith and familial background played a big part in where I currently am - but so have the mentors in my life. I was strategic in picking mentors who both look like and don't look like me. I have mentors who are American and Canadian; men and women; queer, trans and cisgendered, various ages (including younger!), of religious background and atheist/agnostic. It was important for me to learn from those who did not walk the same path in order for me to develop a more well-rounded leadership.

We can't get where we need to be alone. I'm thankful for those who have advocated and fought for me. In turn, I believe in advocating for all - especially racialized persons who are coming up behind me.

How pivotal is this time in history for Black people and other racialized communities?

Since the murder of George Floyd, we've seen a social uprising that feels very different from other times and forms of protest. We have seen social justice/anti-police brutality protests around the globe, including quite a few homogeneous countries. I did not think I would live to see protests in defense of Black lives in Belgium, Hong Kong and Madrid. Despite a global pandemic claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, people across the globe expressed their anger and solidarity for the senseless acts of death at the hands of those who are paid to protect us. As much as protesters tried their best to socially distance themselves in large groups, they still put their health on the line to make their voices heard and to declare the lives of Black people worldwide matter just as much as those who are white, Asian, Jewish, Indigenous, Pacific Islander, South Asian. This is the moment for white people to move from bystander to upstander status. This is the time to challenge the status quo.

Hold your leaders accountable when they pledge to increase the numbers related to Black and Indigenous persons in leadership. Does your Black colleague earn less than you? Build your case and speak with your human resources business partner about pay equity. Black parents worldwide give the ‘twice as good’ speech to their children (and highlighted by Papa Pope on Shonda Rhimes’ hit series ‘Scandal’) and it shows: we work twice as hard as our white and Asian counterparts only to be paid less. In Canada, “the annual wages of Black women were approximately $3,500 to $7,000 lower than that of women in the rest of the population.”

When you heard that Kamala Harris would be the new U.S. Vice President, how did you feel?

I felt a sense of pride - not so much for myself, but for my Black American sisters who worked tirelessly to ensure Vice President-elect Harris was able to cement her place in American history. From her fellow sorority sisters of the illustrious Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) to grassroots community organizers in both religious and secular settings fighting against voter suppression. In Black womanist and feminist texts and in actual life we have witnessed Black women typically vote for their communities as opposed to the individual vote.

Vice President-elect Harris is Black and South Asian and made special mention of the Black women who not only paved the way for her but continue to uplift her as she prepares to take the second-highest title in the United States of America. That very gesture means she understands who got her where she needed to be - besides her obvious intelligence and brilliance as a politician and attorney.

How can we all be more inclusive with, supportive of, and kinder to each other?

I believe in people doing good and being good, which is a stark difference in only being 'nice'. Nice means you mind your Ps and Qs and practice good manners. Nice never delves into actually doing good. Nice ignores; kindness takes action.

Kindness is definitely part of the inclusion equation and it starts in the home. Discussions about race, gender, sexuality, class can be discussed at the dinner table or in one-on-ones with children. Get familiar with the subjects that you personally are having difficulty with as an adult. It's okay to admit you don't have all the answers - but you will work hard on finding them for your child. Young people are looking for guidance and want to discuss the world around them. Have discussions on the differences that make us as humans (and our world) amazing and why it is important to be an upstander, not a bystander, when a classmate or friend is being bullied for their accent, their lunch for the day, their skin colour, the use of their mobility device or for who they like. Children will remember what their parents tell them about doing the right thing and being kind - and look to moms, dads, aunties/uncles and grandparents to exemplify the same behaviours.

Being an upstander for the marginalized is an act of kindness that will come easily to kids. Instilling kindness in children helps to foster a better familial relationship and ultimately leads to well-rounded adults who practice inclusion as second nature.

Life is tough. We are still living through one of the most horrendous periods in history since the days of Black enslavement, Indigenous genocide, The Great Depression, and two World Wars. Despite this tough time we are also in the middle of a revolution. During mandatory and self-imposed COVID-19 lockdowns I've read and heard countless stories of goodness and kindness: fundraising for people living in COVID 'hotspots'; mothers raising funds and distribution grocery boxes to low-income earners; volunteers working tirelessly at food banks across Canada; Canadians ensuring our Indigenous populations are receiving access to crucial health resources during the pandemic.

Kindness starts in the heart and it starts at home. It is then extended outward. It's okay to want to check on a Black friend or colleague after yet another senseless Black death by law enforcement. Be mindful to not make the conversation about you. Extending kindness in the workplace means developing your co-conspirator muscle. It means standing for what’s right. It will be tough, but it is ultimately worth it. Always remember: allyship = action.

We are in a position to show our children how to practice gratitude and extend empathy to all front-line and essential workers. Simple gestures go a long way the next time you're at the grocery store or gas station. Say 'thanks' to the Amazon delivery driver and Canada Post workers. Have your children draw and paint pictures for health care providers. Thank your bus driver. Thank your child’s educator. These are small examples of showing our youth how kindness takes action and ultimately creates a more inclusive society.

Kim’s Bio:

Kim Johnson is a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist with experience in building corporate and public diversity & inclusion initiatives, employee resource group program creation, governance and support; corporate and crisis communications, community volunteerism and outreach. She spent 10+ years in Canadian broadcast news journalism as a senior news producer and has also spent some time working in public relations in both government and finance. As a diversity, equity and inclusion leader, she helps corporations build equitable and fair workplaces for all Canadians - especially radicalized, LGBTQ+, disabled and Indigenous persons.

Resources for parents:

"How to Raise Kind Kids" Thomas Lickona

"All Are Welcome" Alexandra Penfold

"When We Are Kind" Monique Gray Smith

"Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged" Jody Nyasha Warner

"A Boy Named Queen" Sara Cassidy

"Malala's Magic Pencil" Malala Yousafzai

"Mrs. Katz and Tush" Patricia Polacco

Resources for adults:

"Indigenous Relations" Bob Joseph (Canadian)

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