It can be easy to add the words decolonization, justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility to a website, to a mission statement, to a discussion. It is more difficult to articulate what these words mean to each of us as individuals. And furthermore, what each concept means as individuals making up a collective, a unit, or an organization.
As I took on the role of manager of a co-operative education (co-op) and work-integrated learning (WIL) department serving 5,000 undergraduate and graduate university students, I was confronted with questions about what our position and actions would be with regards to what we were calling equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the time. Some questions came from within myself, and others came from some of my staff searching for clarity on their alignment with our workplace. My lived experience as a visible minority and as a woman has meant confronting questions of equity and inclusion prior to them becoming buzzwords. But for most of my career I hesitated to explicitly address these issues within the context of work. This compartmentalization became unsustainable as the leader of a very diverse and large unit. Beyond my own personal qualms, it was the heterogeneity of my staff that gave me pause given their different ethnic, gender, generational, educational, observational, small-”p”-political realities. The knowledge and experience each person brings to their work has an important impact on how they see, assess, and respond to situations that require tact and thoughtfulness.
Anyone who has heard me speak on decolonization, justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and/or accessibility (D-JEDIA) has heard me say that I dread our unit promulgating D-JEDIA, and a student, employer partner, or other stakeholder not have that sentiment be borne out – or worse, that they to feel unseen or slighted. To avoid that I opted to approach D-JEDIA starting with my staff; asking each of us to be open, to question, to learn, and to understand our own biases, blind spots, and unique characteristics. The core of any team is its people, so what is at their core is important for each to understand and keep top of mind in interpersonal interactions.
As a Black woman who has worked in a variety of industries and countries, I am keenly aware of what it means to enter heterogeneous spaces as a visible minority. In my previous role as a program coordinator, my lived experience informed the care I took when discussing co-op or WIL opportunities with students who identify as women and/or as people of colour – especially in all-white or male-dominated spaces which were common in my area of focus. In those situations, I responded through a D-JEDIA lens. I approached it as a person first, beyond my role vis-a-vis the student. My awareness, discernment, and desire to act did not come from a decree, it came from lived experience – one of the most fundamental forms of knowledge. While many of us can pull on our lived experience of being othered and/or discriminated against, people from dominant cultures with no other self-acknowledged intersections may find it challenging to pull on their own experiences to see the fullness of, and inform whether and/or how to advocate for, students in under-served groups. This is not a slight, it is a privilege that must be recognized to demonstrate empathy.
Most of us have some privilege, it is often a question of what role and power we have relative to others in each context. My intersections keep my senses primed on particular forms of disadvantage. However, I certainly fall short on the areas where my privileges of not living with a visible disability and being neuro-typical obfuscate opportunities to be an ally or an advocate for others. This is why we must start with knowing ourselves and confronting our biases before we can get to the work of unlearning, learning, gaining awareness and knowledge, and eventually taking action. This, in my opinion, must come before processes and proclamations related to D-JEDIA. Without the underpinning of the self these concepts remain empty words.
The strategy our co-op and WIL unit implemented in bringing D-JEDIA to the fore was based on a people-focused educational approach rather than rules-based, as Angela Campbell explores in her 2021 essay Equity education initiatives within Canadian universities: promise and limits. We focused on two elements necessary for effectiveness: a whole-department approach to defining common language, as well as drawing on expertise from across our institution for learning and self-discovery. Our first foray into discussions about EDI was through a collective exercise lead by senior leadership including our erstwhile vice-provost inviting our staff members to collectively write our mission statement and goals, including a goal on respecting the diversity of others and a commitment to learning and personal growth related to EDI. This set the foundation for the work that came after.
Next, a group of interested staff members began collecting relevant resources related to D-JEDIA such as CEWIL’s Advancing Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Work-Integrated Learning: A Toolkit for Employers and Community Partners. From there a standing committee on decolonization, equity, diversity and inclusion (D-EDI) was created, reflecting the importance of our goal. To ensure a careful approach, I gave the standing committee a mandate to focus on people as core to D-EDI; seeking-out resources and workshop sessions where we could each take on the self-work of understanding our personal and professional perspectives, as well as recognize our assumptions and biases. We sought-out expertise from departments within our university that were keen to have a willing partner in this work, such as our Equity office, Centre for teaching and learning – Decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy hub, Office of rights and responsibilities, Access centre for students with disabilities, Counselling and psychological services, and more. Over time, staff have been able to learn, question, and discuss individually and as a collective.
The next phase of work would be to once again come together as a collective to understand how each person has interpreted their self-discovery and determine how, as a unit, we want to approach our stakeholders. In this way, we would bring to life the words decolonization, justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility; ensuring that each interaction with our unit is reflective of a people-first approach.
Navigating the complex world of co-op and WIL applying a D-JEDIA lens to interactions and situations with students, employers, and partners who each bring their unique needs, requires thoughtful reflection. The approach that leaders –and ultimately each person– take is a product of their own experiences, fears, and biases; recognizing and being transparent about that is important. A people-as-core approach offers the possibility of each staff member meeting each stakeholder as individuals. As such, the resolution of each situation remains in the hands of each person.
I encourage each of us, especially department management, to question and explore the reasoning behind our stances and how that affects whether or how we engage with decolonization, justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and/or accessibility. And, rather than relying on declarations related to D-JEDIA and/or top-down policies, I suggest focusing on the self as a vector for positive impact. Recognize how leadership impacts internal stakeholders such as staff, as well as the effects that organizational practices have on external stakeholders such as students, employers, and other partners.
Sara Baptiste-Brown is the manager of the Institute for co-operative education at Concordia University.