The City of Ottawa has been named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers for the 11th time this year.
It’s an important honour, but as an anti-racism specialist for the City, Jacklyn St. Laurent knows that what really matters is the behind-the-scenes work of staff that earned the City this recognition in the first place. It's that work, after all, that impacts whether employees feel seen and heard and supported on the job, regardless of age, cultural background, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
So, what is that work about?
Well, it’s certainly about more than just one person, but Jacklyn’s role as an anti-racism specialist offers a great example.
Part of her job is to review City policies through a lens of anti-racism, provide informal training on anti-racism and anti-oppression, and seek out additional trainings to recommend to staff.
So, what does that mean in real terms?
It means examining, identifying, and confronting systemic racism, racism and racial microaggressions in our policies, practices, programs and services.
Part of how we do that is by offering training for supervisors and managers and new employees on these issues so they’re able to have the tough conversations. We want to encourage everyone to develop awareness, work on their unconscious racial biases, and then continue to educate themselves.
“It can be uncomfortable for people,” Jacklyn says, “so the question becomes: How do we get a bit more comfortable with being uncomfortable?”
The hope is that every employee will slowly start to feel safe and supported at work, regardless of their ethnicity and cultural background.
It means fostering a workforce that reflects the communities it serves
Jacklyn notes that she’s invested in the City’s Antiracism Strategy not just as a City employee but also as a racialized community member. “For my partner, for my future kids, for racialized communities, I know we get more out of City services when we see ourselves reflected in them.”
She’s quick to point out that while hiring or promoting racialized people is important, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. “To set people up for success at work,” she says, “we’ve got to earn their trust. And to do that we have to show up in Ottawa’s racialized communities, hear what people have to say, give back to them and stop taking from them.”
Supporting the health and wellness of racialized employees is crucial for Jacklyn. “I tell people, I would love for us to be at every community event and conference and board meeting to talk about the Anti-Racism Strategy, but it’s also important for us to pace ourselves, to rest and recharge and avoid racial burnout.”
It means shifting attitudes and shifting the culture
Jacklyn’s background as a psychotherapist informs what she thinks it takes to create the cultural shift Ottawa needs in order to be an anti-racist city:
Having cultural humility means being aware of your own limitations when it comes to understanding someone else’s cultural background and experience. It is a stance that is centred around the other person rather than yourself.
Jacklyn points out that it can be emotionally draining to continuously help others SEE racialized people as human and not as threat. It's called xenophobia – the fear of what's different from me.
“What do you fear when you see an African or Caribbean or a black person?” This is a question Jacklyn has started to ask herself and others to reflect on during conferences.
“In that moment, I can feel everyone's energy and discomfort. But we will sit together in that feeling, and work together to understand that feeling in a safe and compassionate way.”
Reflecting on Dr. Ibrahim Kandi’s book How to Be Antiracist, Jacklyn says: “We have learned to ignore each other, fear each other, destroy each other and take from each other. Let’s start to learn how to live beside one another and see our differences as beauty and strength.”
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