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Top Five Takeaways from the Black Leadership in Social Impact Summit 2023

The LWF staff team is committed to sharing what we learn though professional development opportunities, in alignment with our values of continuous learning and accountability, and to advance our strategic goal of educating LWF staff, board, members and partners on treaty rights and responsibilities, anti-racism, environmental justice and the impacts of colonialism.

Claire, LWF’s Program Coordinator, attended the Black Leadership in Social Impact Summit in September 2023. She shares her learnings and reflections below.

The Black Leadership in Social Impact Summit was a two-day virtual conference, connecting Black changemakers across Canada to discuss challenges and celebrate successes in advancing our underserved Black communities while working within a system that has historically worked against us. This was my first time attending this conference and I took a lot away from the incredible speakers and other participants. Here are some of the things that I learned:

SERVANT LEADERSHIP IS A DE-COLONIAL ALTERNATIVE.

The tiered leadership structure that we are so used to in a typical workplace is a colonial way of leading that the majority of society has just accepted as “the norm.” This “big man” attitude around management does not allow for much collaboration and autonomy over one’s work. Tiered leadership mirrors a very isolating, individualistic mindset. As Black communities, we should be pushing back against this style of leadership and instead practicing “servant leadership,” which allows individuals to lead with empathy, understanding, equity and fairness. Servant leadership is centered in community, while also holding mutual accountability between staff and management. In my work, I am encouraged to see that tiered leadership structures are something that organizations are starting to move away from.

WHOEVER CONTROLS THE NARRATIVE, CONTROLS THE POWER.

Power is the ability to influence a narrative either implicitly or explicitly. When these narratives are the building blocks for the systems we live in, they become harder to question. One of the panelists, Emilie Nicolas, explained the concept of power brilliantly:

“Power is very much in the things that we don’t see, the things that we don’t question or just say ‘that’s how the world works.’ In British Colonial culture, these are considered ‘common sense/logic.’ The ways that white power shows in this country and how unnamed it is, makes it much more subtle and there is even less power [for Black communities] in that. In order to get that power back, we need to start naming things so that we can identify and begin to question the social realities that we are living in.”

When hearing this, I reflected on the histories of the United States and Canada. Both countries have a long history of holding power over Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC), and conducting overtly racist actions. As we have been able to name these injustices over time, each country has shifted to a more covert style of racism so as to not lose that power completely. This comes in forms such as implicit bias or microagressions which can be more difficult to name and point out. This covert racism that we experience today only takes more power and energy away from people of colour because we must now spend time identifying and proving it exists before we can start to dismantle it. This is not to say that overtly racist thinking is non-existent; it still shows its face when our BIPOC brothers and sisters are wrongfully murdered, for example. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I have felt another shift. We are seeing BIPOC people start to take more of their power back by calling out injustices, and naming covertly racist actions and systems in our societies. For example, awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and the wrongful deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police in the United States are now more widely discussed. Since the start of the pandemic, and more specifically since the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, BIPOC and our allies have worked to pull the curtain back and expose acts of racism, which have too long been normalized in North America, and claim back our power. My hope is that the momentum and fire does not burn out.

RACIALIZED COMMUNITIES NEED SUPPORT, NOT SAVING.

When discussing community engagement, consultation and research in underserved/racialized communities, external researchers often express the idea that this work is done “for” these communities. Research done “for” communities perpetuates the notion of “white saviourism” by assuming that researchers know what is best for racialized communities, rather than allowing community members opportunities to voice their opinions on what they need. A better approach is one that undertakes research “with” communities. Before setting their agenda, researchers should have conversations WITH community members about the struggles they are facing.

Communities that are oppressed are more than capable of finding their own solutions to the challenges facing their communities. It is unfair of us to assume that these communities need our help because they are not intelligent enough to find solutions that meet our perceived societal standards, which again perpetuates white saviourism. The term “capacity development” for community groups when conducting research can be a very patronizing term, because it implies that these communities don’t know anything. The term “capacity building” acknowledges that racialized communities have knowledge and that we can build on this knowledge.

Overall, many oppressed communities have found ways to solve issues without the use of western science and that is okay. These alternative community-based solutions should be uplifted and celebrated so that they become more common over time. This doesn’t mean that western-science solutions need to be attacked or dismantled – rather, we can recognize that multiple ways of thinking can exist in the same space.

THE ROOT CAUSES OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND RACIAL INJUSTICE ARE ONE AND THE SAME.

Greed and resource extraction drive both climate change and the racial injustice that we are experiencing today. The North American continent was colonized for the sole purpose of natural resource extraction and control. To extract these natural resources, Europeans needed people to do the work, thus giving rise to the transatlantic slave trade. The people of Africa were extracted from their homes to provide the cheap labour for the extraction of resources on the other side of the world.

To counteract religious tenets that all humans are free and equal, the concept of race was created. Prior to the transatlantic slave trade, the idea of race was not particularly widespread. The emergence of “race science” provided justification for the mistreatment of enslaved people.

Today, the drive to extract resources continues to shape our lives, and extractive industries are significant contributors to climate change. We live in a fast-paced world where “more” is perceived to be better: more money, more items and more space. Individualism is promoted: if you are not thinking selfishly or being greedy, you will be left behind, and we feel as though we have no choice but to play along. This culture of extraction and greed has deteriorated our environment and changed our climate, and it will continue to do so if we as a society do not make a change.

The roots of racial injustice and climate change are very much connected, and in multiple ways. Greed and extraction are woven in the fabrics of the North American society and culture, past and present. Perhaps one solution to disrupt the societal behaviours that have grown to be so dominant, is a more community-centered approach that leans on the traditions and knowledge of BIPOC communities. This looks like: leaving our silos to actually connect with others in our communities and share what we need rather than purchasing everything new; and having conversations with people from different backgrounds and leaving our pre-conceived judgements behind. Getting out of our individualistic mindset can help us to actively work against the behaviours we have become so accustomed to.

WORKING WITH THE SEASONS, HONOURS OUR ANCESTORS, OUR BODIES AND OUR CONNECTION TO THE LAND.

Often in environmental work, our work is driven by the seasons. But I think the energy behind this seasonal pattern differs drastically from how our ancestors used to work. Panelist Larissa Crawford shared how her organization bases its work on the seasons: she and her colleagues reflect on how their ancestors would have lived pre-colonization, and recognize that they did not work with the same energy all year round. Perhaps they worked harder in the summer months, harvesting food and hunting, while in the winter months, they retreated indoors and worked with a slower pace. In the environmental sector, our workload changes with the seasons but for very different reasons. We see the spring and summer as the only times we can get field work done so we jam pack our schedules full of site visits while also aiming to stay on top of emails, attend meetings and complete other desk-based tasks. Because we have effectively added another layer of work onto our plate during this time, we are not really thinking about our connection to this land and how we are honoring ourselves. Although we are working directly with the land, I’m sure many of us feel disconnected from it. There is a sense of urgency during these times of year, which often brings a lot of stress and anxiety. If we learn to give ourselves grace and let go of expectations to stay on top of everything during times when we are away from our desks, we may create more space to honour our connection to the land and not forget our history, and perhaps reduce some of those unwarranted feelings of anxiety and stress.

By: Claire Harvey, LWF Program Coordinator

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