I often find myself in conversations with people who share their goals of diversifying boards and organizations.
Sometimes I am told this when people are asking me to join a board — often the conversation starts with: “It is important for us to have Indigenous representation on our board.”
I know when this occurs that people mean well, and they are coming from a good place. It just doesn’t land well.
I am sure people of other minorities or underrepresented groups have experienced this, too.
I have heard similar comments from people recruiting for positions within organizations, with the goal of finding a candidate of Indigenous background.
There has been a big societal focus on diversifying organizations and when people bring this forward, it’s coming from a good place, with the best of intentions. When I am on the receiving end of this, however, it’s tough.
I am glad people are trying to diversify, but when the goal is primarily to search for someone in an underrepresented group, it can feel as though the person’s skills, experience and attributes are secondary. Sometimes, it can feel like skills, experience and attributes are hardly factored in.
When this happens, it can make the candidate seem like nothing more than the minority that they represent, a representative of the group, and not an individual person. If it’s not done tastefully, it diminishes the intention, and becomes ticking a box.
I don’t ever want to be selected for something just because I am Indigenous. I want to be selected because I am skilled, talented and offer value. I want to know that I am the best person for the role, regardless of my racial background.
When there is a strategic goal of hiring an Indigenous employee, or recruiting an Indigenous board member, it can set the tone in an unfavourable way.
Walking into a room full of people who look at you thinking you are only there for your racial background and not necessarily on your merits is destructive. Peers can unconsciously assume the individuals are not as talented, skilled or qualified as their counterparts.
This, while not intentional, perpetuates the uneven power dynamics and creates a false sense of dominance within the organization, leaving the Indigenous person, or person from the selected minority, to remain an outsider perceived as “not as worthy” as their peers.
I have many readers who take the time to write me. Some are supportive, and others have differing opinions. If you are reading this and think to yourself that diversifying organizations and leadership is done at the expense of skills and expertise, that’s exactly my point.
Nothing worth doing is easy, and there are so many nuances that people must navigate, particularly when trying to implement change, equity and inclusion in organizations. I don’t want to scare people — I want to share what the experience can feel like on the receiving end.
There have been times when I joined boards that were seeking Indigenous representation when the conversation was done well. I am on the board of Our Place and YMCA/YWCA of Vancouver Island and both organizations were seeking Indigenous representation.
When I was asked to join these boards, I was asked by members to explain the importance of Indigenous representation, and they told me the skills, experience and talents that would make me an asset to the board.
Having folks explain to me that I am more than qualified and would be an asset to the board regardless of my background made me feel seen and valued as a person, not just an Indigenous person.
In these situations, my Indigenous background was considered added value, not the main attraction.
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