Beyond box checking:

Homecoming panel discussion offers meaningful guidance on equity, diversity, and inclusion

EDI Panel
Professor Awad Ibrahim (Faculty of Education), Jon-Ethan Rankin-Kistabish (LLL ’18), Soukaina Boutiyeb (BSocSc ’11), Nathan Hall (BSocSc ’07), Cici Moya (BA ’11)

Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) are three words that get a lot of attention. But what do they really mean, and how can individuals and institutions take deliberate, meaningful, and ongoing action to ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging?

This topic was the focus of a panel discussion called “EDI: Everyone’s Doing It … But Are They Doing It 'Well'?” Hosted on October 3 by the Alumni Relations Office, the hybrid event was organized as part of Homecoming 2022.

Featuring four panelists in conversation with Cici Moya (BA ’11), the discussion skimmed the surface of all there is to say about EDI and how we can be more respectful of the nuances of diverse communities. Here are some of the key ideas shared.

Eliminating ambiguity to have bold, courageous conversations

From the outset, Nathan Hall noted that a challenge when talking about EDI is that there’s no standardization of terminology, measurement, or accountability. Hall (BSocSc ’07) is the founder of Culture Check, an organization that has supported thousands of people experiencing racism in the workplace and provides guidance to organizations that want to make a genuine culture shift.

“A lot of organizations live in that ambiguity [of what EDI means] and it allows for virtue signalling,” explained Hall. This can let organizations align themselves with values that are getting a lot of attention without having to do the hard work of changing their culture or disrupting the status quo.

“Really focusing on why we’re doing the things that we do and defining these terms — what they mean and how they manifest themselves in our situation — is key in order to actually apply them,” continued Hall. 

Professor Awad Ibrahim from the Faculty of Education said that EDI depends on an openness to have vulnerable conversations. “EDI and anti-racist work require a doing away almost with this idea of creating ‘safe spaces.’ It requires us to move to courageous spaces,” he said.

In having conversations about EDI and anti-racism, Professor Ibrahim encouraged people to set aside their guilt or fear of making someone uncomfortable: “A lot of minority groups tend to use diplomatic language in such a way that we don’t want to offend people. Unless we get into those courageous spaces, we will always be on the edges of the actual work that we need to do.”

Designing genuine approaches to EDI

Panelists also spoke about the need to avoid tokenism — when a single person is asked to represent the views of a diverse group.

Soukaina Boutiyeb (BSocSc ’11) shared an anecdote from her work as executive director of Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne (AFFC). In developing a project to support immigrant francophone women, she highlighted the importance of meaningfully engaging with and creating services for the women they were supporting — versus simply consulting women in general.

To Boutiyeb, avoiding tokenism starts by ensuring there are more people at the decision-making table: “Instead of just inviting one person, we need to invite two, three, four people from the same demographic. We must recognize that women have different perspectives, and that one woman cannot represent all women.”

Boutiyeb’s comments brought up the question of who EDI policies are serving. Jon-Ethan Rankin-Kistabish (LLL ’18) is a member of the Abitibiwinni First Nation, a lawyer at Murdoch Archambault, and a member of uOttawa’s Indigenous Alumni Council. He said that implementing policies that are equitable and inclusive requires stepping back and asking who we are designing them for: “Our reference point is usually the majority and privileged groups in society versus the minority and marginalized groups.”

EDI also demands people move beyond harmful generalizations. Rankin-Kistabish referenced a past job where he was the only Indigenous person working with a public institution that served Indigenous clients: “I was constantly reminded that I was Indigenous and told that I was different. They said ‘Jon, you’re not like the others because you succeeded in school, you have a job, your family looks okay. I never understood why the comparisons were made, why I was complimented by remarks that denigrated and generalized my fellow men.”

Real change starts with individual and institutional awareness

EDI is everyone’s responsibility. Rankin-Kistabish told the audience that authentic EDI approaches require a willingness from non-marginalized groups to be more aware of their unconscious prejudices. “EDI is a complex evolution that requires as much work from the people who want to apply this approach as for the people to whom it applies, who may face microaggressions in the process,” he explained.

Soukaina Boutiyeb said that meaningful change must come from within: “An [inclusive] future starts with a change of the internal culture. Let’s start there and then we’ll have a common vision.”

In response to a question from the audience about whether we should be focusing so much on inclusion, or if the conversation should really be about respect, Nathan Hall said it’s not necessarily enough for an individual to be solely respectful, as we can be racially discriminatory and “respectful” at the same time. Within the context of an organization, it also requires a willingness to implement and operationalize a set of clearly defined values.

“When we talk about racism, it is the institutionalization of prejudice and beliefs,” said Hall. “If in the course material I have implemented racial biases, if I have implemented discriminatory practices in the curriculum, I can still be ‘respectful’ to you in the classroom while upholding racist ideologies at the same time.”

The ideas and perspectives shared by panelists contribute to the work uOttawa commits to through the recommendations developed by Dr. Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, Special Advisor, Anti-Racism and Inclusion. The conversation was also a valuable reminder that we all have a role to play in advancing EDI in our lives and workplaces.

Professor Ibrahim summarized the discussion well when he said: “My hope and vision is that EDI and anti-racism are not something we say, but something we do. Ultimately that will be where we take this work, when we think about it as an act of love for ourselves, for the community in which we live, and the people around us.”