A New Normal: Resetting the EDI Space in 2021 and Beyond

by Dr. Denise O'Neil Green | January 26, 2021 10:00 AM

Dr Denise O'Neil Green | Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion | Ryerson University
Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion, Ryerson University

With the tumultuous year of 2020 behind us, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of “a new normal”.  A “new normal” commences when there’s been a paradigm shift, black swan event, or a significant life changing event that requires doing things differently.  I had my own new normal experience when one of my children had an automobile accident that left him unable to walk and paralyzed from the waist down. Just going out to dinner required planning in a different way; making sure the establishment was wheelchair accessible, which meant getting through the entrance, moving through the aisles to our table, being able to roll under the table and eat, and being able to get to the bathroom (sometimes they were up or downstairs and there was no elevator), let alone into the bathroom. This new normal experience required us to do a reset in our family.  It wasn’t a reboot, as it were, because we never had to live life in that way before.

The notion of a reset given the challenges of 2020 has received a lot of attention.  There’s been talk about a financial reset, a global reset; and with the installation of President Biden on January 20, America had an executive branch or federal government reset. Time magazine even dedicated an online issue to the topic of “The Great Reset,” reimagining economic systems and teleporting to us into the year 2023, when the COVID-19 pandemic has been beaten.

But let’s not forget we also need and require a reset in the equity, diversity, and inclusion space (EDI).  More specifically, a reset is required to eliminate racism and white supremacy. Systemic and institutional racism are concepts that attempt to describe the insidious nature of racism and how it moves throughout organizations, institutions, governing bodies, and systems, leaving a trail of destruction with no culprit to hold responsible. It’s as if the invisible hand articulated by Adam Smith did not get the anti-racism memo. And where economies, democracies, and other systems seem to work well for most; they always find a way to have a disparate impact on folks of colour, particularly Black and Indigenous people.

Portrait Photograph of a 76-year-old President Nelson Mandela By © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74768082

So, what are we to do? According to Nelson Mandela: “We should lay the scourge of racism, of divisiveness to rest. This requires strong, democratic institutions and (the) will of everybody and the culture of compassion. None of this is possible without a strong economy and a cohesive society”. How can these five requirements rid us of racism to truly embrace EDI? Let’s consider the following:

Strong Democratic Institutions: The assumption is that democratic institutions are inclusive of everyone, but they are not.  History has shown us this experiment of democracy needs a reset.  Democracies must run on the principle of inclusion otherwise its rhetoric.  Inclusive democracies reinforce citizenship for all, including those from BIPOC communities.  Differential application of law enforcement, government programs, and social benefits between racialized and non-racialized groups undermine democracies. The concept that whiteness equals citizenship and “the other” should go back to where they came from is nothing new.  However, treatment and recognition of BIPOC folks as full citizens is fundamental to eliminating the racism scourge.

The Will of Everybody: An EDI reset can’t truly materialize without everyone’s participation, exercising their will to make it happen. Unfortunately, for far too long BIPOC folks, though not exclusively, have done most of the heavy lifting and sustained most of the backlash and negative consequences.  To rid us of racism, white supremacy, and division, everybody has to see their role in this work, unlearn, relearn, and act with intention to disrupt the exclusionary practices and traditions we have accepted for far too long.

Culture of Compassion: In Daniel Pink’s Book, A Whole New Mind, he outlines six senses that are needed for this age: The Conceptual Age.  He argues empathy makes us human as much as our capacity for logical thought. The building blocks of a culture of compassion is the ability to exercise empathy.  I did not say “sympathy” but “empathy”.  Empathy requires understanding the perspective of others, fostering connections, and caring for others.  A collective, global empathy should have been exercised long before the murder of George Floyd, but it proved to be a moment in time that connected us, activating compassion, and empathy in a way we had not seen before. I agree with Princeton Professor Dr. Eddie Glaude that whiteness and its supremacy must be renounced by white folks, otherwise how can a reset in the EDI space even be possible.

Strong Economy: Does a strong economy guarantee an inclusive, equitable economy whereby growth is shared by or benefits all? I would answer: No.  Strong economies are often built upon maintaining an underclass, with intersecting identities of class, gender, and race.  Others may not agree. Nonetheless, government officials can leverage policies that are strategic in its application to ensure they are applied equally and/or equitably.  A cost-benefit analysis of economic policies and procedures using an EDI/anti-racism lens before approval should be required, and if a disparate impact is likely, the policy should go back to the drawing board.

Cohesive Society: Lastly, a cohesive society isn’t possible unless racism and white supremacy is eliminated. Cohesion calls for connectedness across and within groups, including those that have been historically marginalized, racialized, and oppressed.  Recognition of each other’s humanity is at the core and foundation of this fifth requirement of Mandela’s. I often advocate for a human rights-centered approach to advance EDI. Making sure that we all can exercise our human rights and are appreciated as a member of the human family aids us in fostering greater connections to build the type of society we want to live in.

I appreciate the words that Nelson Mandela shared to set us on the right path of resetting our global society. The exercise of considering a reset is an exercise in hope, and so it’s time for me, for us, to reimage a new world.  We know the pandemic is something the world wishes to be rid of; if the same attention was given to eliminate racism, what a beautiful, wonderful world it would be!

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