#06, September 2020


Identity: An Untapped Resource

Aleeya Velji

Aleeya Velji splits her time between work in the field with various social innovation laboratories, such as Edmonton Shift Lab, and doctoral research at the University of Cambridge. She specializes in ways to counter discrimination and provoke systemic change. Here she parses the crucial role of identity as a tool for inclusion and transformation.

Photo d'Aleeya Velji pour Raccords#06

Some of the most inspiring work I have done in social innovation has been around the topic of racism. I spent the last five years exploring the intersection of racism and poverty through a social innovation lab called the Edmonton Shift Lab. Our team came together to design and facilitate a deep dive into the topic of racism through various prototypes.

Yet, even with my learning and the unpacking of race, identity, and bias through my lived and professional experience, today’s conversation around race admittedly makes me feel overwhelmed. I am unsure how to respond, and I wonder if I would remain an ally by taking a historical point of view to suggest that we have improved incrementally over time, and we will continue to improve as the conversation is now gaining impact and momentum on a global scale. It has gone beyond the incremental, and it is pushing institutions and systems to rethink and evolve from old patterns. We have a responsibility to use this momentum to bring about change.

I have landed on identity as having an important role to play in the ongoing transformation. Contemplating my place as the “other” in many areas of my life, I noticed this natural tendency to adapt, reconstruct, and mould my personal identity to fit what we tend to see as “normal.” Doing this helped me, the “other,” to fit in, be heard, and even get a seat at the table, but it also crushed parts of the person I am on the inside. For many minority, Black, and Indigenous folks, there is a negotiation of identity when trying to find a place of belonging.

We are now coming to a deeper understanding around race by getting pushed to authentically embrace and represent the diversity of identities that make up organizations, policies, systems, and communities, to truly foster it as an asset. How might we think of identity as something we value and protect in all the work we do?

As the topic of racism is complex, I see myself as a learner, and I will attempt to share some insights from what I have been learning.

We need to first take a look at where racism shows up. Shelly Tochluk is a professor at the education department of Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, and her work has influenced my understanding of this area. She has supported this dialogue as a strong ally; here is how she frames the various manifestations of racism.

  • Internalized racism: private beliefs and bias based on culture.
  • Interpersonal racism: internally held discrimination between people and how it appears when they interact with each other.
  • Institutional racism: in systems of power, unfair policy and discriminatory practices.
  • Structural racism: racial bias that exists amongst institutions and across society compounding effects of history, culture, ideology, and interactions between policy and institutions.

Racism appears in both personal and systemic ways. We as people look at the world through the lens of particular thinking patterns. These patterns come from how we were educated, where we grew up, who we grew up with, and so on. These ways of thinking become normalized and internalized and transform into biases. These biases shape how we think and how our systems work. They show up all over the place. We see them embedded into policies, practices, programs, and discourses. The current events are making us realize why this is harmful and pushing us to rethink our paradigms of thought.

Getting real with our own biases: our inner arc

Unpacking bias involves unlearning what we know, relearning new things that may be very hard to understand, and repeating that process over and over until we begin to behave in new ways. The skill set required to get real with our biases involves thinking critically about what we know, and this is hard.

Depending on who we are, as we delve into learning more about race relations and continue to see it dominating the media, it may spark within us feelings of shame, especially when confronted by a Black, Indigenous, or minority person wanting to hold us accountable. In these scenarios, it is our responsibility to regulate our emotions and transform the experience into something that allows us to shed light on our biases and be accountable for ourselves. This process requires vulnerability, yet if we do it well, we can build reciprocity into our relationships, which is a supportive tool in helping us reframe what we know.

The self and the system: our outer arc

As we personally struggle to let go of our biases, imagine what it might be like for an organization to go through a similar transformation. We as people embody these organizations and bring to them our identity, which is reflected in the outputs. So let’s begin to consider how we can take the interpersonal learnings from the unpacking of our personal biases and have the courage to apply them within the context of various institutions, as building this bridge of understanding could push us to get systems change that we are collectively aiming for.

To get better at this, we need diverse teams that bring to the table multiple and mixed cultural identities and experiences that are embraced as valuable. Perhaps this is where we can draw a lot more creative thinking and spark innovation.

If we consider identity to be the result of someone’s circumstances, such as their trials, loves, successes, cultural and customary practices, familial upbringing, and so on, then we should give these lived experiences value. Because it means every person develops specific talents and capacities, and we can learn from them.

As I think back about the experiences I have had in the various organizations I have worked in, I recall the collaborative intelligence (CI) of those whom I was surrounded by. CI can be described as the individual talents of each person that are drawn out by leaders with the intention to effectively support employees in bringing their full selves into the work. It can only come out if people feel a sense of psychological safety in the workplace.

When organizations effectively value the identity of employees and those they serve as a non-negotiable part of the structural and operational work, this is the sweet spot where CI is at its peak, and a human-centred approach seeps into the DNA of the organization.

Policies and products that embrace and support identity do not just come—they are intentionally created by consciously understanding why it matters and taking the steps to sincerely support their development.

Building the bridge

Let’s look at some practical tips to start changing our approach.

1. Leaders, encourage vulnerability.

Organizational leaders play an important role in fostering psychological safety in the workplace. And their ability is dependent on where they are in their own process of learning and relearning. Right now, I see some leaders who are authentically choosing to talk about race and identity within their workplaces to make them safer. By being vulnerable and open, they can lead by example and set solid foundations for the conversation.

2. Have a discussion about race. Be mindful to be kind.

The lived experience of racism is challenging and deeply personal, and until we know these stories, it becomes hard to fully understand, empathize, and consciously transform. Every organization whether large or small is now being asked to confront its relation to race. This can be done by organizing conversations on the topic. These dialogues are tough, and sometimes even traumatic, so we need to consider building psychological safety into the discussion as a way to bring out the best of team members. Invite serious playfulness into how we talk, and use creativity and play to add some levity to the complexity of this work.

This is a simple way to bring in some of the ingredients needed to sit in difference and foster spaces of trust, learning, and relearning together. This approach can build empathy, understanding, and friendships, which to me are the foundation to support how we can move to practical actions and solutions as a group.

3. Design helpful processes and spaces.

No matter the work we do, we are all, at some point, designing products, policies, programs, and solutions that can either reproduce the oppressive systems or start to free us from them. Equity design, described by researcher Pierce Gordon, is “a creative process to dismantle systems of oppression and (re)design towards liberation and healing by centering the power of communities historically impacted by the oppressive systems being (re)designed.” In other words: when we gather to work on solving a problem, we need to put the affected community at the centre of everything, keeping in mind the power structures within the community and the design team itself.

From my work in the Edmonton Shift Lab, I learned that directly inviting an Indigenous colleague onto the stewardship team supported the unfolding of a lifelong friendship based on reciprocity where all the stewards were able to learn from each other’s lived experiences, and then work together to design a social innovation lab process that valued the integration of this lived experience. It was not an afterthought; it was a priority in the design from the onset and made some real space for the Indigenous perspective to be weaved into all the prototypes that were co-created in the lab. When we forget about this, we are not designing processes of liberation, but rather maintaining the oppressive system.

To get it right, there are many steps to take. But we can start by asking and answering simple questions. Who is from the community we are trying to help? Who is not? Why are they involved? Who holds the most power? These questions, as suggested by the Creative Reaction Lab—which does a wonderful job at facilitating such processes and has amazing tips and tools—allow us to be aware of our organizational biases from the start and help us find the right place to create from. There are plenty of other resources we can dig from to help us throughout the process.

Fundamentally, we are all leaders in this space. As we do this collective work, we have the opportunity to unpack our own personal bias and mirror what we learn from our inner arc into the outer arc. If done well, this process can succeed in fully inviting identity in all its diversity into our world view, and into the systems within which we actively live, work, and play.

Aleeya Velji is a social innovation specialist, working with design and foresight methods to support large and small institutions in creating systemic change. She now works with the innovation and policy team at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in Montreal.

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