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Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, President and Principal Consultant, Denise O’Neil Green Consulting
Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, President and Principal Consultant, Denise O’Neil Green Consulting

(Originally posted April 28, 2023 on the EDI Knowledge Mobilization and Dissemination Centre at Sheridan College)

This article was extracted from a fireside chat I did last year as part of the CICan 50-30 Challenge “Every Woman Counts” webinar series: A virtual space for important conversations to advance workplace EDI across Canada. The fireside chat was moderated by Alicia Sullivan, EDI Mobilization Advisor, Inclusive Communities at Sheridan College. The “Every Woman Counts” effort is spearheaded by Sheridan College, inviting diverse women across multiple sectors Canada-wide to share their knowledge about issues impacting women and other equity-deserving groups in the workplace.

In the fireside chat and in this article, I reflected on my professional experience as an EDI leader and offered practical tips for moving the dial on EDI in Canadian workplaces.

Drawing upon my experience as a Chief Diversity Officer in Canada and the United States, I shared aspects of my personal and professional journey as the senior and executive officer responsible for EDI and culture change for 14 years in North America. In this article I highlight excerpts and respond in a more fulsome way to some of the questions and topics, speaking to what I believe is vital to any EDI effort and how I navigated challenges and pitfalls.

1. What inspired you to get started in EDI work?

My first job in EDI was supporting racialized students at a university. I was working at Central Michigan University as the Graduation, Retention and Improvement Program (GRIP) Coordinator. GRIP was an academic success program for racialized students to help them transition from high school to university and successfully graduate within four years.  When I was in that role I supported students, and I would talk with faculty and advise them on how they could support racialized students. Running GRIP sparked my desire to continue this line of EDI work. Supporting students of many different backgrounds and recognizing that I loved creating new programs and structures and building new things within organizations compelled me to venture along an EDI career path.

 

2. What equipped you and gave you the strength to break barriers and stay the course for over 3 decades?

I’m from Chicago and I grew up in an all-Black neighbourhood. The majority of my teachers and mentors were Black/African American men and women in front of the classroom. A particular mentor of mine was Larry Hawkins, a former Harlem Globe Trotter. Mr. Hawkins was fierce and unapologetic about supporting Black youth, who needed support coming from single-parent and low-income families, and so forth, who were very smart but needed additional mentoring and support. I bought into Mr. Hawkins’ philosophy of not being a taker, but rather being a giver. That’s the philosophy I’ve taken on doing EDI work. It’s about giving to the community and supporting communities. And I’ve been doing that ever since starting the GRIP program for those students.

 

3. What did being the inaugural Assistant Vice President, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and subsequently the founding Vice President for the Equity and Community Inclusion Division mean for you and TMU when you formally initiated EDI work?

Upon being appointed to the role at Toronto Metropolitan University, I was very excited because I thought coming to Toronto, one of the most diverse places in the world, would enable me to sharpen my EDI skills.  However, what I found and observed right away was that while the organization was very happy to have the position, they were not ready for the AVP position and subsequent VP position as well. My observation was that Canada, across a number of different sectors was 20 years behind, if not more, in doing EDI work. I believe Canada is behind due to demographic shifts happening much later in Canada than in the US.

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Many people will espouse EDI, but when it comes to doing or truly supporting EDI work, that’s a very different thing. They weren’t ready for the position. I was even told by a colleague that someone in a critical leadership role believed the position wasn’t needed. So, I didn’t have a great welcome or onboarding experience. On the other hand, there were so many possibilities.  Because the organization did not know what they wanted, I had the opportunity to build and create, with the support of many great colleagues and a great team.

 

4. Probing into the nuts and bolts of strategy, operations, and relationship management, how did you balance all of your roles with effectiveness?

Put simply, I love the work. I’m guilty. I love the work, as challenging as it is. And I love working with different types of people from many different kinds of backgrounds, and I believe that part of what helped me is that I have a very clear understanding of how organizations function and work as an organism. While one part of an organization may give you all the support you need; another part of the same organization is working to undermine you. So in understanding, there are many different components that are operating. You work in organizations whereby you have leaders who don’t understand your EDI role. So I always saw myself as an educator.

You mentioned disruptor, visionary leader, etc. and at the basis of it, it’s about being an advocate and educator. In doing so, you meet people where they are, so you can help bring them along in a very intentional way to a point where they can be your ally and understand your role. That is very critical. But, in addition to being an EDI expert, you’re also an expert in other things, you’re an expert in politics. You’re an ambassador. You’re a communicator. You’re a leader. You take on all these different personas and different roles in order to operate and bring about the change you’re looking for because ultimately you’re a changemaker. When you’re an EDI professional, you’re stepping into the role of being a changemaker when you’re trying to bring about ways of improving the space.

 

5. What’s your assessment of EDI today?

My assessment is that after George Floyd’s murder happened there was an acknowledgment that EDI work was a real thing, was important, and needed to happen across many different sectors, in organizations within this country. In particular, anti-black racism got more attention. So many organizations did hire individuals to work in the capacity of EDI professionals. However, now that is 3 years out. And so various organizations, I’ve heard, have started actually letting go and laying off their EDI professionals at this time in Canada.  It’s a mixed bag. Organizations do not understand that it’s not just a one-and-done. It’s not just simply hiring one individual or a few and then your accountability is over.  Actually, it’s just the beginning.

There’s still energy out there whereby organizations still want to see change. But they don’t quite know how to do it. And then there are other organizations where they started down this path, and they’re weary. They didn’t put forward the resources needed, the talent needed, or the commitment needed to change things. And now they’ve moved on to something else. They’ve moved on to another priority. But with this work, you have to be persistent and persevere. Leadership has to persevere and understand that this is an intentional ongoing journey but I liken it to blazing a path.

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6. Share a few things that you did to further build and sustain outcomes during your tenure at TMU.

Building relationships with key individuals across your organization at all different levels as much as you can is vital. As one person or one office, you can’t do everything. You can’t be everywhere. It’s important to find those individuals and build relationships with those allies who can provide information about what’s happening in the organization, with individuals being your eyes and ears. When I started out I went on a listening tour. That was one thing I did. The listening tour was with the individuals who were on the various EDI or Anti-racism committees that were already in place. I also conducted listening tours with different equity groups. We brought women together and wanted to hear what their concerns and challenges were. We brought together racialized groups; we brought together members of the queer community; we heard from our Indigenous colleagues. We heard from persons with disabilities, and even beyond that. So about listening, connecting, and hearing those concerns with an ear of empathy, recognizing where within the organization’s structure, things need to change in order to address the particular concerns that were raised.

There was also another thing I did at the very beginning. I started this program called Soup and Substance. It’s like your typical hour-long lunch & learn, except elevated. We would provide soup and refreshments. People didn’t have to bring their brown back. They could just come and get some refreshments, and I would be the moderator, and we would touch on different topics that actually came from that listening tour. The panel would have representation from staff/practitioners, faculty/researchers, students/student leaders and administrative/academic leadership. Panelists spoke about the problems and solutions along with the how. It was a way of solving the problem together. And it was a way of building community and having people see each other. Soup and Substance sessions were well attended and very successful.

So what I did later on to sustain things was to put in a structure of individuals who could continue to lead those efforts, whether I was there or not, including a campuswide accessibility steering committee and integrating findings of the accessibility audit into facilities’ renovation schedule. That’s one example.

 

7. Based on your experience in senior and executive roles in higher education on both sides of the border, what single most vital ingredient is required for enabling lasting EDI change in organizations? What big mistake you may have made as an EDI leader and how did you navigate that?

The important ingredient for these roles is that oftentimes they are not properly resourced, and resources span a gamut. There’s staffing, space, funding and communications support. It comes in many different formulas, whatever that support is. Resources are often lacking but are the key ingredient.

One of the mistakes I would say I made is that I was so busy doing the work I didn’t properly communicate enough about what it was we were doing because we were so busy doing the work. You know how we can be having our heads down and do the work because we gotta get this done. From my perspective, you have a short window to make things happen, and once that window closes the work becomes much harder. Whether it’s a window of influence or a window where the organization is ready to move on, the need to move quickly, as much as you can, is very vital. But you can’t do that and not communicate to the community what it is you’re doing because you need their support throughout your journey. Reporting out to the community in a structured versus ad hoc way so they know what’s happening and can make the path clear for you where they can, is important.  I would advise any person in these roles to put together a one-page, short report that shares: 1) What we did, 2) Where we had an impact and 3) Where we plan to go.

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8. What pearls of wisdom would you like to leave for decision-makers (people with power and influence) about how to lead/transform EDI culture? And what would you say to EDI practitioners as they keep at this challenging and important work?

So for those who are in positions of power and influence, I would say, provide your EDI professionals with what they need. Ask them what kind of support they need and actually give it to them. Don’t simply give them lip service and provide space for there to be disruption in the organization. If you’re asking for someone to do EDI work, that means you’re asking for them to disrupt the status quo.

For EDI professionals, I must say that one of the things I decided for myself after leaving the role I had at TMU and starting my own consulting business in EDI, I embraced a new mantra. My mantra now is to do good work but also be well. Do good, and be well! So in the work that you’re doing, support people, support yourself, but also be well because these roles very often require periods of 24-7 or building the plane as you’re flying it in whatever capacity. So step back. Give yourself the space to take on what you need, whether it’s from being physically well, mentally well, emotionally well, or spiritually well. So that would be my parting words. And if you need to leave the space because you’ve given it what you’ve given it, and it’s time to move on, that’s okay, too.

Feel free to watch the entire fireside chat below and let me know what you think about it in the comments, or by connecting with me on Twitter and LinkedIn:


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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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