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  • Writer's pictureChanel Grenaway

The Problem and Potential of Words

The potential of anti-racism and equity practice often stops once it’s in a policy.

Words have the power to move us; to inspire and transform us. Think of an inspirational poem, a call-to-action speech, or that powerful quote that you keep on your bulletin board to remind you that you can do it

Words are also limited in their ability to capture complexity and nuances.

In the field of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism there are no universal definitions and similarly, words and their definitions are consistently evolving. Indeed, words can be a sticking point and point of tension especially when it comes to anti-racism practice change.

A big part of my anti-racism work with organizations is facilitating learning and conversations that help leaders to move from anti-racism awareness to action and practice change. I do this by challenging leaders to reflect upon the values and concepts that they want to use to guide their work and by creating the space for staff to delve into what these words and concepts could look like and feel like within their organization

If I were to ask your staff team to define words used in your equity, inclusion, and anti-racism

policy, including how they are integrated into organizational norms, decision-making, and work

practices, would I get a cohesive response?

When I ask this question of my clients, in 97% of cases the answer is no.

If someone were to ask you how your organization demonstrates its commitment to inclusivity and belonging, what would you say?

If one of your community participants were to ask you how their wisdom, lived experience, or voice is included in your program design, delivery, or evaluation, would you be able to provide examples?

What I observe is that the potential of anti-racism and equity practice often stops once it’s in a policy or a statement and thus, the opportunity for meaningful action, change, and more inclusive outcomes is not realized.

From buzz to execution

So how do you move from buzzwords, or complex concepts to words that prompt action, and inspire equitable changes in thinking and behaviour? How do you avoid performative activities or getting stuck in the tensions that emerge while trying to do better? Moving beyond awareness and theoretical definitions to reflection and practice change is key to advancing your anti-racism and equity work.

Delving deeper into the terms you have selected in your diversity and equity statements and policies is one way to move from buzz to execution.

Start by creating space to have conversations about equity language and concepts. As individuals and teams, you may start by reviewing key terms and frameworks, explore which ones cause feelings of resistance or discomfort, and ask yourself why? Which ones challenge the status quo and default ways of doing things? You will want to explore the emerging tensions and collectively discuss why you are exploring these concepts. How are these words currently being used in society and what range of feelings do these words conjure up within your team? I expect that if you read the list of words below and ask yourself one or two of the suggested questions, you will quickly see how important it is to delve deeper than the theoretical definitions.

  • Systemic racism

  • Anti-Black racism

  • White supremacy

  • Privilege and power

  • Equity centered

  • White fragility

  • Indigeneity

  • (Micro)aggressions

Delving deeper and including self-reflection and collective insights is also critically important. Take time to reflect on what these concepts and words mean for you as an individual, a collective team, and an organization.

Using words to name past harms, and being explicit about the context of systemic racism in your sector and organization can be a powerful method of shifting workplace culture and practices. Select concepts that challenge and inspire the team, and try co-designing definitions that are more holistic and aligned with your organization's mission and vision. Create space for a brave conversation about the thoughts and feelings that are emerging, the lived experiences that staff may want to share, and/or challenges with the concepts that staff may express.

Going through these steps can help with staff uncertainty and engagement about their role in the anti-racism change process, it can also provide a path to the “how to” questions of integrating and embedding anti-racism and equity practices into day-to-day work habits. Most importantly, it can help to define what it means (within your context) to be working towards greater equity and anti-racism practice.

Act, apply, and integrate your learnings

Awareness and reflection are extremely important, but it is not enough. You need to shift and move to action and ways of addressing barriers, biases, and exclusionary practices.

  • What concepts, words, and frameworks most resonated with your organization?

  • How can you embed these in your work?

  • What new practices, pilots, and approaches can you start?

Creating an action plan can help you to clarify the “how to” of anti-racism and equity. Think about how you might actualize your values and commitments from a leadership, team, and organizational perspective. You can also collectively explore your intended outcomes and design what needs to change in order for you to realize them.

Awareness building, self-reflection and collective input into the “how to” part of anti-racism and equity helps everyone to gain clarity and participate in the development of a new practice model and way of behaving that is anti-racist and anti-oppressive. One can argue that this is a critical knowledge and capacity-building skill and exercise for all organizations. If you want to see a change in thinking, practices, and outcomes, it is worth the investment of time and energy to delve into these concepts with your teams. Words are powerful, let’s all use them to envision and create the world we want to be a part of.


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