#06, September 2020


Walking the Talk

Interview with Carla Beauvais, co-founder of the Dynastie gala and the non-profit Orijin Village.
By Florence Sara G. Ferraris

Social entrepreneur, leading advocate for diversity in Québec, and panellist for Zone économie on ICI RDI, Carla Beauvais discusses the pressing need to value the experiences of racialized people before the bond of trust is broken forever.

Interview with Carla Beauvais

The past few years have seen the birth of various initiatives aiming to showcase and promote the personal experiences and entrepreneurial successes of members of Québec’s Black community. Orijin Village, the non-profit organization you co-founded, seeks not only to shine a light on their talent, but also to weave a network of solidarity between the community’s entrepreneurs. What role do these safe spaces play, both in terms of breaking down prejudice and transforming the system?

Carla Beauvais: Without being a direct response to the lack of diversity represented in the more mainstream events, initiatives like Orijin Village or the Dynastie gala [the awards ceremony that concludes Black History Month every year, for which Beauvais is the executive director] offer us spaces for recognition and empowerment that didn’t exist before, or were difficult for us to access. In the case of Orijin, it’s still a bit early to measure the real impact, but the Dynastie gala is clearly an opportunity to highlight the talents of people who, sometimes, have been active in their scenes for 10, 15, even 20 years. There’s something frustrating about seeing so many people excel in their respective fields and never be rewarded for their work; it’s also great to see how proud these people are to finally have their talent recognized.

Knowing that, these initiatives therefore also act as safe spaces where we can shine without having to justify ourselves, spaces where we can truly express ourselves without judgment and without having the impression we’re begging to fit in.

It also helps us within our own communities. They are spaces of solidarity where it becomes possible to create bonds between members. I say “our” communities because they aren’t monolithic and it’s not always so easy to gather all these experiences around a common project. Where we come together is in the will to see things change. That’s the shared goal that allows us to unite our voices.

We also lack models. Our youth lack role models, they even say so! Those I encounter through my work, namely in the Montréal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel, are running out of steam. They’re 16 yet they feel like they’re not allowed to exist in this society that is rightfully theirs. They don’t identify with it. So, these initiatives are also ways of showing them that there’s a place for them, and it can take many forms. That’s the point of showcasing many different paths that don’t correspond to the stereotypes sometimes conveyed by the majority.

The workplace is making efforts to make more room for diversity, namely by implementing positive discrimination policies or quotas. In the field, these measures don’t always have the desired effect, and sometimes turn into double-edged swords for marginalized people. What other measures need to be taken to foster inclusion?

It might seem like a cliché, but the first thing to do is establish a space for healthy dialogue. Most organizations make inclusion efforts on paper; it’s in the field that things get messy. So it’s important to encourage everyone to speak out in order for everyone’s reality to be heard, and also for these inclusion values to percolate from the people making decisions down to those who implement them.

Those in a position of authority have an important role to play, because it’s great to have an inclusion policy, but, in the end, individuals are the ones who are responsible for their actions. Managers need not only to lead by example by condemning racist or discriminatory behaviours themselves, but also by encouraging, even rewarding, those who participate in the creation of an inclusive environment. It can take the shape of, among other things, organizing get-togethers between employees aiming at humanizing them. It’s a lot easier to let our unconscious biases run wild when we don’t know the person on the other side of the screen and our relationships are strictly productivity-related. In this respect, organizations have the responsibility to go beyond quantitative performance; that way, qualitative connections can get the space they deserve.

It’s also important to learn that there’s nothing wrong with creating uncomfortable moments. Reporting or calling out the toxic words or behaviours of a colleague is not, and will never be, pleasant business. However, this discomfort, often fleeting, can in the long run make a real difference for people in minority situations, namely because it stops normalizing these behaviours and allows allies to clearly identify themselves. It is therefore necessary to break the code of silence that has been prevalent for too long and move things forward.

The legitimate frustration and exhaustion felt by many activists coming from marginalized communities with respect to the system’s social hierarchy, which hinders their emancipation, highlights the need to amplify the collective raising of awareness around white privilege. How can we work toward building bridges between these two worlds?

For a long time, I thought and acted as if the obligation of building bridges was my—our—responsibility. That’s actually what I had the impression I was doing by getting involved in organizing Black History Month, which is a showcase for our communities. This kind of initiative is a way to make our talents visible to the eyes of the majority, and thus to show the dominant culture that worlds parallel to theirs exist. We become easy to find for mainstream organizations who would like to collaborate or develop partnerships.

However, I admit I’m starting to get tired of running into closed doors; always having to re-explain the same things and feel like I’m playing the victim or that people see me that way wherever I go. I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel like doing us some good: to carry out projects that focus on the good things in my community, without necessarily trying to build bridges. Not because they’re impossible to create, but because I don’t think it’s our turn anymore. Those who want to forge ties with us know where to find us, and we’ll always welcome them with open arms. So there you have it: hey, majority, come and find us!

It’s time for big organizations to invest directly in initiatives coming from marginalized communities instead of creating new channels. For example, adding awards for Black music in the galas of big organizations can seem like a good idea, but it doesn’t help projects already in place within communities and which have been working for a long time to help their members gain wider recognition.

What questions should drive our collective actions and conversations over the next few years with respect to racism and social inequality in terms of bringing about change on a systemic scale?

The only thing we should ask ourselves is: What will happen if we don’t do anything? What are the consequences of maintaining the status quo? We often hear that we shouldn’t transpose the violence and intensity of the situation in America to our Canadian and Québec realities. Yet saying that means forgetting that we’re really not so far removed from it. Because the frustration of Black communities here is just as palpable. It’s not normal that people who were born and spent their whole lives on Québec soil don’t feel at home anywhere. It’s an inner exile, the impression of feeling more and more like a stranger in your own home, which is hard to bear, which fuels anger and exhaustion. Do we really need to wait to fall apart, to reach a point of no return, before taking concrete steps to change the situation? Are we ready, collectively, to take that risk?

Read the other sections of this issue

Other Raccords