Beyond Statements: Transformational Anti-racism Work is Relational

At CSCNS, we have a little crush on Brené Brown and often find ourselves referencing her work in team meetings. While these days Brené borders on being a household name, her colleague Aiko Bethea is a lesser-known rising star. Brené and Aiko recently recorded two episodes on the Dare to Lead podcast (November 9, 2020 and February 8, 2021). A quote from those discussions that struck a chord with us was:

Afro-Nova Scotian Flag - designed by artist Wendie Wilson Afro-Nova Scotian Flag – designed by artist Wendie Wilson

The 2021 Nova Scotia African Heritage Month theme is Black History Matters: Listen, Learn, Share and Act. It recognizes the important legacy of people of African descent and their long-standing history in shaping Canada. The theme brings focus and increased awareness of racialized issues of a community that has overcome great adversity for inclusion. It calls on all of us to listen, learn, share and act to make our society a better place for all.

In honour of African Heritage/Black History Month, we wanted to share some thoughts on how we have found Aiko’s anti-racism work to be a useful framework for thinking about systems change in For-Impact (aka community sector) organizations. On June 1, 2020 Aiko published “An Open Letter to Corporate America, Philanthropy, Academia, etc.: What Now?”. She frames it as a follow-up to recently issued statements of support for #BlackLivesMatter and asks:

The letter outlines 12 steps that organizations can take to move beyond issuing statements. On January 28, 2021 she released “Leaders: 5 Things You Need to Know for Black History Month 2021”, reiterating the importance of accountability and action.

Across the podcasts and letters there are a number of thought-provoking and inspiring lessons for anti-racism work to dismantle systems. Of course, systems are made up of individuals, groups and organizations, and broader systemic structures. In the following sections, Emma and Annika provide their thoughts on how Aiko’s lessons can inform the work of the for-impact sector in moving to a more equitable system.

What does accountability and action look like at the individual level?

Emma: George Floyd’s murder was an awakening for many around the world but as Aiko points out, for BIPOC folks there was blood in the water before that and there is still blood in the water now. In Nova Scotia there is over 50 historic African Nova Scotian communities with a long, deep, and complex history dating back over 400 years. There is work to be done. Learning and unlearning is not an overnight journey. We all need to take the time to pause, slow down, reflect and listen. In May and June 2020 there was a lot of action and deep work done, a lot of black folks (myself included) exhaled a bit – we were optimistic that we were being seen and heard. Now, a year later, we feel ghosted by so-called allies and we are still asking if anything will change. We know anti-racism work is hard and it is tiring but please do not forget for a second how hard it is for the BIPOC folks who have been living this their whole lives.  This February people seem re-ignited for African Heritage/Black History Month but I would remind them that Black lives still matter – so continue to listen and learn and do the deep work individually. As Aiko points out, if you have not done the internal work you are going to keep perpetuating harmful ways and behaviours to folks.

  • Have you acknowledged your privilege?
  • Are you willing to use your privilege to help others?
  • Are you being curious and authentic?
  • How will you check yourself and hold yourself accountable if you notice you, or someone else, is being racist?

“The work of anti-racism is becoming a better human to other humans” – Austin Channing Brown

Annika: There’s no question that change starts with the self and that we each need to do our own work to understand how we arrived at this point, the inequities in our society and systems – and our role in them. Aiko talks about the need to face shame and grief in this process as we come to terms with our ignorance, our privilege, and how we have perpetuated systemic racism. We can either put our armour on and become defensive, or work through the emotions and make the adjustments needed to do better. This resonated with me and I know I’ve done both in my personal learning journey. We need to put egos aside and be vulnerable to embrace brave leadership and a willingness to engage in tough conversations that lead to action.

Aiko also spoke to the need to check our tendency to jump to try to solve problems (aka action bias), noting that running into action without being prepared or equipped to handle the situation can be dangerous and harmful. While committing to anti-racism work has to be a priority, it needs to be done well to get the intended impact. Harm happens when we confuse priority and urgency.

What can we do as For-Impact organizations to hold ourselves accountable?

Emma: Organizations are always asking for recommendations on who can do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) or Unconscious Bias training. I’m always happy to provide recommendations but a question I have to ask is what else are they doing as an organization? How is the training going to be sustained long-term? How are they going to create transformational change within their organization and create a cultural shift? I believe we must move from a one-and-done approach. As Aiko indicated, we must operationalize our learning and ensure to go beyond just performance management. DEI needs to be included in values, job competencies and other areas of your organization.

  • How are you centering BIPOC voices and experiences within your organization?
  • What does retention look like for underrepresented groups? (Review the numbers and reasons for voluntary and involuntary departures as well)
  • What does the promotion rate look like?
  • If there are BIPOC folks within your organization, where are they situated?
  • What does compensation look like across groups in your organization?
  • Are employee engagement survey results disaggregated to recognize responses by underrepresented individuals (race, gender, abilities, etc.) as well as those who opt not to self-identify? Being satisfied with outcomes that reflect the majority responses will leave you ignoring clear and telling trends from your underrepresented populations.
  • Are underrepresented employees getting equal opportunities to develop?
  • What supports are in place to ensure your BIPOC are successful?
  • Is DEI a line item on your budget? What proportion of resources is devoted to it?

Annika: Aiko explains diversity as a representation metric (i.e. number of hires from underrepresented groups) and inclusion as a state psychological safety, where different perspectives are valued and it’s ok to have dissent. When they both exist, innovation happens. You can have diversity without inclusion, but not the other way around. In her book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race“, Reni Eddo-Lodge describes structural racism as the result of “people with the same biases joining together to make up one organization, and acting accordingly. […] where anyone who falls outside of the culture must conform or face failure” (p.64).

As Emma points out, we need to look critically at our own organizations to assess not only the diversity of people, but the quality of their experience. Brené asks Aiko: How do you spell love? Answer: T.I.M.E. If we are truly to create spaces of love and belonging, our work needs to be relational and not knee-jerk. Again, we need to check our action bias and make sure we’re not jumping into processes and behaviours that are perpetuating harm. We need to engage (and pay) DEI practitioners, listen to their advice, and commit for the long-term.

Where can we focus as a sector for systems change?

Annika: We are all affected by systems and together we are systems. There is no neutral role in how we engage in systems – we are either actively supporting/perpetuating them or actively dismantling them (this aligns with Ibram X. Kendi’s point that we can be either racist or antiracist – there is no in between). As a sector, if we are to commit to dismantling inequitable systems we need to shine light on what is problematic and fight for change.

Funding is a contentious topic in the For-Impact sector and the recently released Unfunded report illustrates how current philanthropy and granting practices need to do better to support black-led organizations. Evaluation, impact assessment and data collection processes need to change to ensure organizations working with African Nova Scotians and other black communities are telling their own stories based on Afrocentric principles. Programs and supports need to move away from one-size-fits-all approaches. Decision-making needs to be informed by those with lived experience.

I’ve written about the need to move away from a scarcity mindset in other contexts but it’s just as relevant here. Aiko raised the painful reality that the rise to leadership of women has predominantly been a white story. Especially in a sector where women are the majority, we need to do better. We need to move away from misconceptions that there’s a limited amount of space for success and therefore choices have to be made. There is room for everyone.

Back in August, published a piece called “What Does it Mean to Build an Anti-Racist Social Impact Sector? Here are Five Ideas” based on a panel discussion that included Dr. Rachel Zellars from SMU. Zellars highlighted the need to “be really mindful of the powerful lie that scarcity introduces us into”. If we seek radical change we need to move from a scarcity to an abundant mindset and challenge conventional ways of working and being.

Emma: When the Unfunded report came out in December 2020, I was excited that it was released but the stories and data were by no means a shock to me. According to the report, “Across all community foundations we reviewed, grants to Black-serving organizations represented a meagre 0.7 percent of total grants during the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years. Grants to Black-led organizations were only 0.07 percent of total grants made in the same period.” As Annika indicated there is work to be done. As a sector we have a responsibility to do better not only for the communities we are in service of but also in service of the black-led and black serving organizations in our sector. Here are some things to consider from a system approach:

  • How are you giving up your seat on panels, boards, roundtables so other voices can be centered and heard?
  • How are you advocating on behalf of BIPOC communities as part of your work?
  • How are you breaking organizational silos and collaborating with BIPOC-serving and BIPOC-led organizations?

We have found Aiko’s framework for system change to be a useful model for us as an organization and we hope it resonates with you as well. Anti-racism work is no doubt hard but until we move from a transactional to a relational approach there will never be any meaningful change. This work is a commitment to life-long learning and creating a culture of learning within organizations and the sector overall. Humility will serve you well in this work, be vulnerable and recognize that you’ll make mistakes along the way but this is change work and there is comfort in your discomfort.


Annika Voltan bio photo Annika Voltan
Executive Director Emma Beukema Headshot 2020 Emma Beukema
Director of Learning & Innnovation


  1. Thanks to both of you. I have already read this twice and will read again several more times to see if I can absorb all the wisdom you are sharing. Love the combination of practical suggestions and big picture systems thinking. Great call to action for all of us in changing mindsets, assumptions and behaviors. And of course giving us another step in our own learning journeys. Looking forward to participating in your planned activities for the coming year for the Sector.

  2. Thank you. So much still to own and learn. Danny

  3. I found this commentary helpful and thought provoking. I plan to follow up on the authors/papers you have cited. I think the idea that we need to focus on relational practices is very connected to the work I do in the education of nursing students related to mental illness and addictions.