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Seeing the person

In order to create a more inclusive and diverse Halifax, Ann Divine says individuals first need to look inward and recognize their own biases and presumptions about each other.

“We have all of these [inclusive] policies and practices in our workplaces, but we have not checked ourselves internally and thought about how we behave and respond to one another,” says Divine, CEO and founder of Ashanti Leadership Services, a career and professional consulting service.

Divine was born in Guyana, South America, raised in England and moved to Canada with her family in 2004. She was the first person ever profiled by My Halifax Experience.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, we all have those biases that are shaped by our community, culture and families,” she says. “I’ll have times I have to check myself or someone will have pointed something out to me and I’ll have to reflect on what I said.”

In response, Divine has developed an Unconscious Bias Training program for businesses and organizations, which a number of groups in Nova Scotia have already taken part in.

“Unconscious Biased Training focuses on how we relate to one another because they [the biases] have become part of our value system and decision making process, even if we aren’t conscious of them,” Divine says.

For example, they can cause an employer to not hire a qualified applicant and not consult a new employee on a project because it isn’t thought they could give valuable insight. This doesn’t make the workplace feel inclusive, but by recognizing and avoiding these preconceptions, the workplace mood changes to one that’s welcoming.

“It has to be done in a manner in which the new person feels they’re valued by their colleagues and that their presence will have value to the organization,” Divine says.

This is especially important with the influx of newcomers entering the Halifax workforce. During the first three months of 2016, 1,849 immigrants arrived in Nova Scotia.

As an immigrant herself, Divine is well-aware of the challenges and hurdles new residents face. They not only have to adapt to being in a new country, but also a new lifestyle, culture, new language, and sometimes even a new career.

“If you’ve been functioning at a senior management level in your organization and have to start all over again, mentally you’re still at a management role, but physically you’re at the lower level,” Divine says. “That can be quite debilitating and stressful.”

If a workplace or community doesn’t feel inviting, then it can be even more disconcerting to a person who just wants to call Halifax home. Another way Divine says businesses and organizations can help is to abandon their “this is the way we always do things” motto.

“Often, the expectation is for the immigrant or newcomer to adapt, but it can’t be like that anymore,” Divine says. “You might do something differently because it’s your culture, but because you have someone new in the workplace you might have to think, behave, and act differently.”

These accommodations can be as simple as giving time off for a religious holiday or allowing a uniform alteration because of a cultural practice. Immigrants have to do their part as well.

“It’s a two-way street” Divine says. “We as immigrants have to put ourselves out there, open up, and let people see who we really are.”

Divine recalls a recent conversation she had with someone about attending Halifax’s Run for a Cure event. Run for a Cure is a five-kilometre or one-kilometre walk or run that raises funds for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

“I may never see her in the crowd or at the event, but the invitation was there and it made me feel included,” Divine says. “Being willing to participate and doing something you aren’t accustomed to also plays a significant role [in this shift] because that’s the only way you’re going to meet new people.”

Trying new things can help shed the aforementioned biases because the community is getting to know a person, not a stereotype. If a person is scared or unwilling to become involved in the workplace or their community, then those stereotypes may unintentionally prevail, making a community feel uninviting and closed-off.

While spending time together is part of the solution, it’s also something that needs to be worked on.

“When new people move into our communities we tend to be suspicious and wonder who they are [and] why they are here,” Divine says. “This is especially true if you’re in a long established community, but you need to invite them in.”

Something as simple as a dinner invitation or being invited to a community event being hosted at a neighbour’s house can mean a lot.

“Our home is our scared place, our castle, and when you’re invited into someone’s home you share personal stories, connections and that’s empowering,” Divine says. “These people become part of your home, your social circles, and your family.”

In turn, Halifax should set an example. The municipality needs to become more interconnected, with residents forming relationships outside of their individual neighbourhoods. HRM is more than one community: it’s more than South End Halifax, it’s more than Dartmouth, and it’s more than Lower Sackville.

“We should be working across the board, reaching out to each other and see how we can fix problems,” Divine says. “We are marginalized in our communities and that doesn’t solve anything.”

While fixing these and other problem areas will help make Halifax more inclusive, Divine says there’s one thing that should be kept in mind at all times.

“The bottom line is we have something in common: humanity. That’s the bond we share with each other and that’s what is so important for all of us,” Divine says.

Remembering this will help Halifax and other communities become diverse and hospitable places to live and work.

About Katie Ingram

Katie Ingram
Katie Ingram is a writer/contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience

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