Voices are meant to be heard
As a writer, I’ve always believed that a single story can have a large impact. For instance, hearing the lived experiences of marginalized and racialized individuals can bring numbers and statistics to life. Over the years, I have had the benefit to hear some of those stories firsthand. Some have come from colleagues, others from friends, but all have had a profound impact on me.
The thing is, it’s not as simple as just asking someone to share their lived experience with others. Doing so can be painful and might even put the speaker at risk of further discrimination.
“As a straight, able-bodied White man born in Canada, there’s a lot about this subject that I just don’t know. There are things that I’m just not aware of and perspectives that I’ve never considered.”
I want to be perfectly candid: as a straight, able-bodied White man born in Canada, there’s a lot about this subject that I just don’t know. There are things that I’m just not aware of and perspectives that I’ve never considered. But I do know that with each story I hear, I learn. So I was both excited and nervous to have the opportunity to write about something that is so important to so many people.
Diversity and inclusion in the federal public service
The idea of exploring the impact that stories of lived experience can have on diversity and inclusion led me to my Treasury Board Secretariat colleague, Vinita Ambwani. Vinita is a director in the Centre on Diversity and Inclusion within the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer. I wanted to get her perspective on the challenges marginalized and racialized people face when sharing their lived experience and how someone’s personal story can help change peoples’ attitudes and opinions in ways that policies and statistics can’t.
Vinita’s job is to promote diversity and inclusion across the Government of Canada (GC), so I was very interested to hear her point of view. “I’m a woman, a mother, an immigrant, and a visible minority. I carry multiple identities, so I see the world through that unique lens. Everyone experiences their lifedifferently. It’s not the same for all of us and that difference is lived experience,” Vinita explained. People with intersecting identities often face systemic discrimination on an individual, institutional, and societal level. This includes those of a particular race, disability, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, or sexual orientation.
“Data and directives are good, but stories can go a long way in creating more empathy and understanding.”
According to Vinita, facts and figures don’t necessarily explain how people feel. She believes that sharing lived experiences can help provide that critical insight: “Data and directives are good, but stories can go a long way in creating more empathy and understanding. Ultimately, it’s about having an inclusive public service, and that means a better Canada.”
Creating a safe and meaningful space
As effective as personal stories can be, it’s occasionally difficult for someone to open up and share their lived experience. It can be painful and traumatic, and it’s made even worse when someone shares their story but never sees any concrete action being taken. Or worse yet, is reprimanded for it.
In a previous Living Digital article, Sayyedya Francis, Mi’kmaw from the Eskasoni First Nation and part of the Knowledge Circle for Indigenous Inclusion team, explained that having to share one’s story to gain understanding from others is exhausting, especially if that story is not shared by the person who’s asking. Others are afraid of sharing for fear of being ostracized or even reprimanded. As Vinita explained, “For the speaker, they have to be brave because it’s often challenging to revisit a negative experience or relive the trauma.”
So what are some of the ways we can ensure that a dialogue is successful? As listeners, the onus is on us to ensure a safe environment for the speaker. That means making sure they feel safe to share their story. Colleagues and friends of mine from marginalized and racialized groups have pointed out that a safe environment has to be earned by earnestness and a willingness to take action with what they’ve heard. Their story shouldn’t start and stop there.
“As listeners, we need to make sure we’re ready to receive the message and learn to become comfortable with our discomfort, while striving to make the speaker feel safe enough to share.”
Vinita noted that as listeners, we need to make sure we’re ready to receive the message and learn to become comfortable with our discomfort, while striving to make the speaker feel safe enough to share.
For someone like me who hasn’t had to face the kinds of barriers and discrimination felt by racialized and marginalized groups, these insights were revealing and eye-opening. But they were also remarkably consistent with the personal stories I’ve heard from others. For my part, hearing these experiences can be uncomfortable, but it really isn’t about me. It’s about giving the speaker the space they need to share. Because at the end of the day, that momentary discomfort I may experience doesn’t compare to the discomfort that those that trusted me with their experience have had to and continue to deal with.
Dialogue through initiatives
Listening is one of many steps that we can take, but what about those who may be apprehensive to listen? Vinita explained that unconscious bias often comes into play. Many people may not be aware that they have biases that exclude or discriminate against others. These biases are programmed into us and often go unchecked. So how do we get around that? “I would say a good first step is taking the time to understand where someone else is coming from. Proper training is an important tool as well.”
Vinita and her team are leading some great initiatives to encourage the sharing of lived experiences and give people who want to share their stories a platform to do so. The team recently launched the Federal Speakers’ Forum (accessible only on the Government of Canada network), a space where public servants can engage in this type of dialogue and hear the lived experiences of various speakers from across the GC on different themes like racism, unconscious bias, and inclusion. Vinita explained that they look at recruiting speakers with different perspectives and different realities on the same issues across the country.
We all have a role to play
As we wrapped up the interview, I reflected on a few takeaways from our conversation:
- It can be extremely difficult and painful for someone to share their story, so it’s important for the listener to help create a safe environment to do so.
- Listeners need to have an open mind and recognize that the speaker is doing us a service by sharing their story.
- With the speaker’s consent, keep their story alive by telling others. This helps ensure the message continues to spread and doesn’t start and end with just you.
- Learn from the experiences others have shared with you by speaking up and taking action when witnessing injustice.
Among all the interviews I’ve conducted with Living Digital, I can honestly say that this one was the most eye-opening. It’s important to understand how racialized and marginalized peoples’ experiences have impacted their lives and it’s something that I continue to learn.
When it comes down to it, we all have a role to play. We can take concrete actions to unlearn our biases, speak out against injustices, and amplify the voices of racialized and marginalized groups. Because if someone is brave enough to share their story, the least we can do is make sure their voice is heard.
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