Tag Archives: Gender

Navigating subtle meaning of words and feelings

Sitting around the table discussing the meaning of words, their power and how important it was to analyze the context of when and where such words were used was a favourite of my bonding times with my mother when I was growing up. She would share the content of her classes with me, while she was a university professor in my hometown in Ecuador.

Growing up with an acute awareness of the power and meaning of words turned me into a conscious communicator and from an early age, an assertive person. I also learned early on the real meaning of the words chosen by people when they were trying to assert power.

At the same time, that awareness made me shy to share what I really thought in many circumstances, fearing to hurt someone else’s feelings.

I remember being brought into the midst of a conflict between my high school friends to solve their misunderstandings; nothing that a little bit of context, word review and meaning, and acknowledgment of feelings would not solve.

Fast forward to my first newcomer/migrant experience and such knowledge had to be quickly put to use. When I would hear an offensive word directed to me or other racialized persons, I repeated to myself “Isabel, remember the context, and you are new to this context. Keep learning, keep calm, continue to be assertive and move on”; resilience was the end game.

It was not only about the words, but it was also the feeling of uneasiness to which I could not attach a word or meaning. I still had to learn so much about bias and discrimination, and in a different language; English.

Bringing that experience to the fundraising profession is another story. As a street fundraiser, while I studied in Madrid in the early 2000s, I thought I had rejection and bias figured out. When you do street fundraising, you know that rejection can be blunt, but add the layers of your skin, your accent and the context of sub-urban Madrid in my case. Hitting my targets was hard, but I did it! What other proof was needed that I could handle rejection?

That proof was not enough when in England after getting down to the final two candidates for that amazing entry-level position at the high-tech company or the management fundraising position at my dream NFP; over and over and over again, the feeling of uneasiness brought me back to square one and made me feel as though I did not belong.

Or the time when in a major donor steering meeting, as tasks and responsibilities were distributed to deploy the major giving strategy, the director lists them all including that I will be limited to clearing tables and washing dishes in a joking manner.

How about the awkward time spent in a networking event where I actively engaged with people, when I aimed to present myself as a strategic leader, accomplished professional and was looking to identify opportunities for collaboration, but instead could not get past explaining to others about my ‘background.’

It felt like there was little I could do to change those situations I would come across in those exchanges, but internally I was changing, and I was burning out.

It has taken many years for me to attach meaning to the words and feelings that bias and discrimination use to present themselves. And mostly it has been possible because I have opened up and found allies and spaces like the AFP Inclusion and Diversity fellowship where I have engaged with people open to discuss and embrace those uncomfortable feelings.

This fellowship has not only been a catalyst to further attach meaning to feelings and words, but an opportunity to also assess my moving and relative privilege, an exercise all of us should undertake as we navigate diverse communities and societies.

As a fundraising professional, I write and speak to build connections and empathy that call for action towards the causes I serve, but most importantly I communicate to move us closer to transformative change.

With this piece I hope as a newcomer to the fundraising profession or as a veteran in it, you felt connected, especially if you have gone through similar life experiences. Please speak up and share them safely; your story can change others’ stories and help them avoid burn-out.

If my experience seems ‘alien’ to you, but still you believe you are and can be an ally for inclusion, I invite you to exercise respectful curiosity and to step into the uncomfortable zone to explore the relativity of privilege.

I cannot promise you will find all the answers to your curiosity, but you will move out of fear towards a sacred space of acknowledgement of your own and others’ dignity. And along the way, you will make the fundraising profession a safer space where all of us who journey through it can belong.

Respectful Curiosity

One of the most beautiful approaches to conflict resolution that I have heard recently came from a podcast that I listened to, where the host, Whitney Johnson, interviewed Dr. Donna Hicks on the topic of disruption. (https://whitneyjohnson.com/donna-hicks/).

In this exchange, Dr. Hicks shared stories of her experience exploring the concept of how at the core of major conflicts lay a deep sense of lost dignity. Dr. Hicks is a Harvard professor and has studied and led mediation initiatives for some of the most relevant modern strife and wars around the world in the past decades and uses these experiences particularly around recognition and protection of all parties’ dignity to build cultures of trust in organizations today.

This expert talked about the acknowledgment of lost dignity as a first step to build trust towards peace and reconciliation and how ‘we are all guardians of dignity, and we owe it to ourselves, others, and the greater good to educate ourselves in the inherent value and worth of everyone around us in order to flourish.’

During my reflection on the idea of lost dignity, I was also reading and exploring the concept of ‘respectful curiosity’, a phrase that I coined in a conversation with a colleague around the topic of how diverse communities bear a high burden when speaking out to discrimination and injustice. How they seem to be penalized and how important it was that people sitting on the fence of understanding these issues – including me on many occasions – should exercise the practice of ‘respectful curiosity.’

I am still developing this concept but as I listened to that podcast, the idea of honouring my own dignity and that of others, the fullness of what I feel ‘respectful’ meant finally came into place.

In the social profit sector, we all seek to redress injustices, undo systemic wrongs and ultimately honour the dignity of those who we serve.

My journey to understanding the deep-rooted displays of racial, gender and socioeconomic injustices in the Canadian context has just started, and the only way I felt I could begin to learn has been through curiosity.

Yes, reading, listening to podcasts and lectures can help but, how can you feel moved to act and speak up and stand up to injustice when you witness it if you have not connected with people with those lived experiences?

And how can we connect with others when our structures seem so homogenous that the systems we are immersed in, are not conducive to connect with others with diverse lived experiences. There is so much that individuals can, and would do, for example setting up collaborative teams that reflect the diversity of participants to tackle organizational challenges, if this is an individual driving change in one department without structural support and acknowledgement in the ample sphere of the organization this practice will not be permanent. Therefore it is paramount that structures shift to build spaces for diverse connections.

Diversity, inclusion and access to power in our sector will require individual actions and systemic transformation. So as an individual I call you to move to a space of no fear through respectful curiosity and to step up your actions for inclusion because you have the power to change the system.

So be curious and ask the tough questions. What can we do to make our team diverse?. How can we bring in our beneficiaries into our decision-making process and truly represent them?. Do managers/leaders have the skills to manage talent that is unlike them? Why is this person not at this table? How can we all learn about addressing and including other’s life experiences without judgement? What did we learn from a diversity and inclusion initiative that died out?

Through this questioning, you will be bearing the burden with your colleagues from small minorities and as you do this, you will not only be guarding their dignity but yours too.

Exotica: Sex and race in face-to-face fundraising

Cover Photo by Drop the Label Movement on Unsplash.

“But really, where are you from?” – that dreaded question I often received when meeting donors in my first fundraising job. I had begun in the role feeling like I had finally found my path, like I could do anything.

I lost that confidence quickly when I learned that many of my donor meetings would start with this inquiry or versions of it, like “have you lived in Canada all your life?” or “where is your home?”. “Toronto” would never suffice. Sooner or later I would give in and tell a story, expecting my counterpart to be satisfied, allowing us to move on. I waited for my chance to ask about their passions, their connections to our cause–like a good fundraiser should.

Instead, my responses almost always led to a larger conversation about the donor’s trips to Asia, with more questions about my origins, which languages I speak, and even more whys and hows and whens. I often left confused, wondering where I went wrong and how I could have changed the narrative. Over time, I got better at redirecting these comments and questions, but they remained ever-present.

I soon learned that interactions like this would be just a part of the picture. They would become coloured by the universal and often unspoken language of sex.

I’ve met several donors who have sexualized or romanticized my experience with them. One who only took after-hours meetings with me, as though they were dates. Another who sent me emails praising my beauty, and asking for personal meet ups and favours unrelated to my job. Another who repeatedly called me, asking if I was married and what religion and ethnicity I held.

My worry about these moments today is not that I sometimes experience them, but that they are plentiful. A rite of passage for many female or racialized fundraisers. So many of us have anecdotes and stories–one in four according to the research. Yet we remain quiet; we think they are too small or that it’s all in our head. We don’t want to seem like complainers.

In the age of #MeToo, our sector is leveling up to speak more about unwanted attention and sexual harassment, as we have witnessed so recently at AFP Congress 2018. Female fundraisers often bear the brunt of these interactions; the power dynamic between donor and fundraiser looming over our heads. When you are trying to make goal, the question of how many unwanted flirtations you are willing to endure is a moving target.

It’s not my place to prescribe what is the best way to react in these situations–there are too many contextual factors at play; your sense of safety and willingness to deal with confrontation among them.

However, I do call upon my fellow fundraisers to bring these conversations into the limelight, without fear of reprisal. We must share our experiences with one another, to help each other understand and respond. Team leaders need to remind staff that it is safe to disclose such interactions. Because sometimes we need to give voice to what is inside to realize it’s not just in our heads.

This article has been co-published with Hilborn Charity eNews.

Flush with Change

Ideally, organizations and everyday people should be proactive about what they can do internally to ensure an inclusive workplace environment for trans and gender nonconforming people. The movement may be new to some and while others are more familiar – we all simultaneously need to be considering how we can support and advocate for transgender people in the communities we serve. Often this means:what are you going to do about ensuring equality for this topic? How do we learn more so we can understand? How do we share what we already know? This can be as simple as asking questions about the topic in an open and friendly manner, and just listening and being present and ready to engage in a meaningful way.

This blog is intended to highlight thoughts and changes happening in public and private spaces for trans and gender non-comforming people with the intent of opening conversation.

Change is here

The familiar image on washrooms depicting a man in the 1970’s wide leg starched pants and the women in the ironed triangle skirt are being challenged by a third image – half and half of each.

The washroom is a place of privacy, which has become a public debate. Due to the cultural mores of the last 300 years in North America, it is a challenge for some to understand the issues about sharing a washroom. So, together we must educate and be patient in working with bringing the topic forward.

Open the Conversation

In the New York Times, “before the Whitney Museum of American Art moved to its new location in Lower Manhattan, it hosted a discussion about what it means for a museum to be a safe and welcoming space. Providing restrooms for everyone on the gender spectrum was near the top of the list”. Let’s keep this mind – this is NYC a progressive and political savvy city, but how does a small community museum in the middle of Canada begin to open the conversation? What tools are needed? Small steps rather than large leaps are best in educating the public and bringing our viewers/visitors forward with us. The Royal Ontario Museum tested a non-gender specific washroom during the exhibition;of A Third Gender. The ROM provided single stall accessible all gender washrooms since 2015, this is a result of visitor requests and the ROM’s commitment to provide a safe and inclusive space and excellent museum experience for all visitors.

During the engagement of A Third Gender, the two multi-stall washrooms at the ROM near the exhibition entrance were designated as all gender washrooms. This came partly as a result of the exhibition team’s consultations with members of the LGBTTIQQ2S community, conducted in January 2016 in collaboration with the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at University of Toronto. Accessible, viewable prior to walking into the exhibit – which also made a statement of intention that supported the content of the exhibit. Building a team of learners and creating action steps within a safe space is key to change and the conversations required for impact, no matter how big or small the organization.

Flush the Change

The norm of male / female washrooms has been institutionalized in North America for generations. Many people take the availability and use of safe restrooms for granted. When I was Executive Director / Curator at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, our Engagement Officer hosted a Conversation Series on Queer Safe Spaces, and accordingly placed temporary signs on the doors of the washrooms for our guests. Actions speak louder than words, and change occurs one step at a time with meaningful gestures. While it may have been confusing to some people at first to “read” of the temporary sign, when explained – all were supportive.

Lets face it, for some people deciding whether, when, and where to use a restroom is a safety concern, as well as a privacy issue for all of us. Everyone has different needs. A washroom that is gender conforming may affect a person’s ability to work, interact in their community, travel for work or play and generally participate in society as they wish to.

Creating a space of Inclusion

Although an excellent step in the right direction, creating gender-neutral bathrooms is not enough to ensure an inclusive environment for transgender employees and visitors.

According to HRC’s 2014 workplace climate survey and report, The Cost of the Closet and Rewards of Inclusion:

  • 40% hear jokes about transgender people in the workplace.
  • 42% of transgender workers fear getting fired for disclosing who they are.
  • 40% of transgender workers report “fear for personal safety” as a reason for not being open about their gender non-conformity.

A safe work environment that is supportive, open and aware of the issues for others is key, and this requires being able to speak about the issues in a supportive, factual and open manner so others can learn. Building a supportive culture is key. Merely changing the signs on the washroom door is not an inclusive act if the culture or space in which they dwell is not open and supportive.

This is Our Time

My advice is, think about who you are, and what is important to you. Imagine if this were challenged about your identity and who you are. It’s that simple. We all want to be safe and secure and to have the freedom to be who we are. Safe spaces are important for building an open society. Toilets are up for public debate, and it seems a movement is gaining ground on Trans Rights in North America.

We live in a time of change, a space of privilege for some, and others who are fighting for recognition in 2016. We all have a role to understand the issues, and ask questions if we don’t know. Its how we learn and open a conversation.

Women, Ethnic, & Queer: A Dialogue

This is an excerpt from a real-life dialogue between Tania Hossain and Tania Cheng – two ethnic and queer women working in the nonprofit sector who also happen to share the same name.

TH: Hey Tania!

TC: Oh, hey there Tania!

TH: So…I’ve been meaning to speak to you about this recurring issue, and it kind of bugs me even though we are well into the 21st century.

TC: Sure. What’s going on?

TH: Well, not too long ago, I was part of this working group comprised of mostly women. During one planning session, we had started sharing our ideas for a project. The women started talking over each other to get their points across, and it went on for five minutes straight. I thought it was never going to end…until guess what?

TC: What happened?

TH: One man spoke and everyone…I mean everyone… went silent. They were accepting, eager to listen, and created a space for him to talk. They all celebrated his idea – an idea that another woman lightly touched upon earlier in the meeting which somehow everyone forgot about.

TC: Wow. I’ve been there. Sometimes, it seems like a woman’s voice does not hold as much ground as a man’s voice in group settings.

TH: I wish this was a one-off situation. I’ve been part of panels, leadership forums, and boardrooms where I’d face a sea of older, white men. To be respected as an equal and give my voice the same credibility as a man’s voice, I would feel the need to know more and do more.

TC: Same here. I’ve also noticed a greater acceptance of qualities traditionally associated with masculinity. A few years ago, I was exhausted after working eight consecutive 10-hour days delivering youth programming. After a particularly stressful incident, I started to tear up in front of my colleagues. I was later advised by a male supervisor to better “manage my emotions” in the workplace.

TH: That must’ve been difficult to hear. You know, being a woman has made me more aware of these power dynamics and how our gender identities impact us both in our professional and personal lives. It makes me wonder how a woman’s success, her creativity, and the potential that she sees in herself is affected by society, placing more importance to a male voice over a female’s whether it be consciously or subconsciously.

TC: In my case, being a Chinese Canadian can compound the situation because I feel like I have to work against the stereotype of being quiet, reserved, and obedient. How does the intersectionality of identities impact you in your work, Tania?

TH: It definitely adds another interesting layer of experience being an ethnic woman and queer. I remember my first week at a job. I was told by my boss that it was completely fine to identify with the LGBTQ community so long as I was not too “public” about it. They said it could impact their client relationships. Coming from a traditional South Asian background, I have had my fair share of being silenced due to my queer identity, but then to face it again in a workplace, especially in the nonprofit sector, left me feeling vulnerable. What has your experience been like?

TC: For the most part, situations where I’ve felt discriminated against have been subtle. Subtle as in you know that there is something off, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Like the fact that I’ve always had to be careful about disclosing my sexual orientation at the workplace…just in case. Even when I worked at an organization that openly promoted social justice values, it took a full year before I felt safe enough to come out to my colleagues. I knew they would accept me, but it wasn’t part of the everyday dialogue so there wasn’t a space to talk about it. I only noticed the difference between tolerance and true inclusivity when I started working at an organization where one of the leaders openly identified as LGBTQ.

TH: How did having a leader who shared your identity make a difference?

TC: It happened subtly and informally. For example, she would bring up her partner and family in informal office conversations, talk about attending LGBTQ events, and gradually, identifying as LGBTQ at work felt “normal” for me.

TH: That goes to show how powerful diverse leadership can be for creating a culture of inclusivity and the important role we could play as leaders within the nonprofit sector. It’s not always easy juggling the various identities, but I can say that they have made me stronger when confronting difficult situations and learning to persevere through it all. If I could sum up in one word, the positives of having multiple identities, it would be – perspective. I get to see the world in a different light than anyone else can. I carry that with me everywhere I go and get to share it with others which is exciting and empowering at the same time. When I sit at a table discussion or walk into a room full of people, I know there is a bit of colour I can add to the conversations – no pun intended. What about you? What are some positive things to having these unique identities?

TC: They give me street credit! Just kidding. Having multiple identities helps me empathize with others better and be more open to different perspectives and experiences. I am also attuned to how power and privilege dynamics play out in day-to-day interactions, so I try to create informal spaces where every voice is heard.

TH: That’s awesome that you try to create those informal spaces. Often times in our sector, there is a need to create a formal space or set aside a time slot to talk about diversity and inclusion, which is great, but change happens from the ground up. Our diversities, our day to day lived experiences, our very own identities isn’t just a one-off chapter or a special extra reading material in a textbook that can be skipped over. Neither is it that obligatory one-time workplace training that everyone has to go through. If our sector really wants to move the needle on the topic of diversity and inclusion, then we need to have real and authentic dialogue about our lived experiences.

TC: Like this one? 🙂

TH: Exactly. By the way, you know this conversation is going to go public right? Like published on the Internet for the whole world to see? I don’t know…we’ve disclosed some personal stuff in here. Is this too risky?

TC: Maybe, but I’ll take it. If we’re serious about promoting diversity and inclusion we have to put ourselves out there and talk about our experiences, even if it makes us vulnerable. What do you think?

TH: You’re right, let’s do it.

TC: Thanks for keeping it real, Tania.

TH: You too, Tania.

Diversity and Inclusion should be a topic ingrained in our day to day lives. We all have traits that make us unique and a part of the everyday dialogue around diversity. A first step in being more inclusive is for us to be more self-aware: to understand our needs, our emotions, our identities, etc. The more we know about who we are and what we need, the more we will be able to help ourselves, raise our voices and also in the process, empower others.