The province of Saskatchewan has a booming economy but projections are that the current workforce will shrink as workers get older. So they are looking for workers. However, merely filling the ranks is not good enough. They must create an inclusive culture. Despite being recognized as one of Canada’s top “diversity employers”, creating an inclusive culture is a daunting task. Some minority employees believe there is systemic racism in some areas of the public service and there is a lack of awareness about how cultural differences affect the way people communicate with each other.
I recently delivered the keynote address at a conference organized by the Saskatchewan Visible Minority Employees Association (SVMEA).
Here is a an excerpt of my keynote address:
Many minorities face a dilemma everyday in the workplace. They want to be acknowledged and recognized that they are different yet they want to fit in. They want to be included and valued in the culture of the organization.
I know what it means to be the “only one” in an organization or team. I call it the “One Happy”.
In 1981 I was the only black reporter at one of the city’s major daily newspapers. At the time, Toronto was growing but it was also having difficult race relations issues: For example, two black men were shot to death by Toronto police in separate incidents a year apart. Tensions were high. Black people were protesting in the streets. It was a pivotal moment in the relationship between the city and its black residents.
Critics correctly pointed out that blacks were underrepresented or absent in major institutions; notably the media, which many people believed affected the way the African Canadian community was covered in the news.
After applying, I was hired as a reporter at the newspaper. Over a three-year period I had front page stories. I wrote features. I covered the general elections in Jamaica. I even worked as an entertainment reporter.
However, more than a decade after leaving the paper, I learned the back-story about how and why I got the job.
A former senior editor of the paper, told me the Managing Editor of the paper at the time was under a lot of pressure from the business community, politicians, religious leaders and the black community to hire a black reporter. It’s time, they argued, that the media reflect the changing demographics of Toronto.
According to the former senior editor, the Managing Editor said when he hired me: “At least now there will be one happy …” He used the N-word.
Many things started to fall into place for me after hearing this news. It allowed me to put into perspective how I was treated at the paper: I was assigned certain stories other reporters were not. My stories were given extra scrutiny. I always felt like an outsider. Always as if someone was looking over my shoulder.
My experience is an illustration of what can happen when an organization sees “diversity” through the narrow lens of representation — and not through the much broader lens of inclusion and intercultural competence. It can have negative repercussions for the person as well as the organization.
There are many “One Happy’s” in organizations: women, persons with disabilities, gay or lesbian or transgender, an older worker, etc.
These are the people who were supposedly hired for their abilities but the organization was not ready (or willing) to leverage those abilities.
What my experience illustrates is that it’s not good enough merely to have “diversity” in the workplace by meeting artificial quotas of specific identity groups such as people of colour, Aboriginal people or persons with disabilities or women in nontraditional occupations.
I often wonder… What would have happened if the managing editor had set a different tone to all the other leaders who supervised my work there?
IF he had valued the background and knowledge that I brought to the newsroom?
IF — even if he felt forced to hire a black journalist — IF he had taken the time to train his leaders in how to be more inclusive?
IF they had seen this as a start to being better connected with the communities in Toronto? To producing more relevant journalism.
Unbeknownst to me the former senior editor became my mentor. He often went out of his way to help me with my stories. He told me the good AND the bad. And I always worked hard to live up to his expectations.
In the end, I believe I became a better journalist because of his mentoring. And my experience as a “one happy” made me realize the importance including as many voices and perspectives as possible in my stories.