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Gotta start somewhere: Steps toward building an inclusive workplace


Illustration by Alix Wilson @alixjoyceartwork
Illustration by Alix Wilson @alixjoyceartwork

Jake MacIsaac is assistant director, Dalhousie University Security Services. He focuses on promoting restorative approaches with campus stakeholders. He was part of a three-person facilitation team that oversaw the restorative justice process at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Dentistry in 2015 addressing climate and culture within the faculty and wrote a follow-up report on the restorative justice process university. In this first-voice essay, he offers a glimpse into his journey of building and cultivating inclusivity on campus.

If it only happened once, or even just occasionally, I might not even be inclined to mention it. But it has been my “waiting room experience” more often than I care to remember.

“Oh you’re Jake MacIsaac. Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

It’s like being invisible in plain sight. One time, a person tried to remedy the awkwardness of the moment by adding. “Yes, of course, the Black MacIsaacs – they’re good people”.

I get it. I don’t immediately present like a Jake MacIsaac, at first glance. Whilst I’m proud of my biracial heritage – the Scottish ancestry associated to the name I own and the proud African Nova Scotian roots responsible for the melanin that colours my skin – neither of those things uniquely or completely identify me for who I am. And this isn’t this only way that people miss seeing me for me.

People, not property

I work as a security guard and as part of the job I wear a uniform every day I come to work. This provides ample opportunity for folks to read me a certain type of way, often leading to wrong assumptions about the things they think I prioritize or care about — like access control cards or surveillance cameras. Chasing down intrusion alarms and rattling doorknobs doesn’t get me out of bed either. People are the most important part of my job, not the buildings or property or metrics — like a downward trend of reported incidents — that are part of it.

On the campuses where I serve, our constituents told us what matters most about feeling safe is being able to show up authentically, fully as who they are, and having spaces where they belong. Taking a personal inventory of how privilege and oppression manifests in my own life has been very helpful in learning and seeking to understand how others might be navigating similar spaces.

For example, part of how I identify is as an African Nova Scotian straight cisgender male. That short sentence gives some insight into how I show up in the world; a peek into what some of my lived experiences may have been and what my present reality might be like. Each piece of my identity mosaic creates intersections where power and oppression, the two sides of the same coin of privilege, collide.

Pushing past privilege

A friend once shared an experience with me that helped me connect the concept of privilege to our day-to-day: “It’s all that stuff you never have to think about and the stuff I can’t risk not thinking about.” The context of that conversation being whether I had ever picked a dream vacation destination thinking about if it might be safe to have public displays of affection with my partner without worry of harassment or violence. That was the day I learned about hetero privilege.

But if we wanted people to feel safer on campus, thinking differently had to result in doing differently. Being defensive or dismissive of feedback from our community would have caused us to miss out on understanding some of the unintended ways our service was contributing to having people feel unsafe.

For example: Uniforms and personal protective equipment are part of the job, but after hearing student voices, many of whom are racialized and/or from our international student community, we realized not all of their past experiences with uniformed officers resulted in feeling reassured and protected. Some folks articulated they felt intimidated by our look. It was completely opposite of what we wanted to accomplish. This was not our fault but it became our problem to resolve. We moved the soft body armour part of the uniform from being worn externally to being worn under our shirts. The uniform colour changed from a navy top and bottom to a white shirt with navy pant.

We also sought to build our capacity to have difficult conversations, with ongoing staff development around equity, diversity, and inclusion –not just one workshop. Changing expectations on service delivery from doing the job, to doing the job right. Taking the time to ask what about preferred pronouns when meeting people not assuming. (Pro-tip: Try using one’s own preferred pronouns in an e-mail signature block or on a name tag. Not only is it great for modelling inclusive practice but it signals a safe space for others wishing to disclose how they identify.) Whenever a land acknowledgement is done, using that moment to mentally check-in (personally and professionally) about what obligations and opportunities for reconciliation exist for settlers on Indigenous land. Finally, striving to hire a diverse team that reflects the community we serve.

“Show up. Be friendly. Try.”

The journey toward inclusivity in other workplaces will be different, but I suspect equally transformative. Learning the vocabulary around being more inclusive can be intimidating but please don’t resist changing because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. My experience has been that when mistakes happen and a clumsy person is willing to accept responsibility regardless of intent, to hear how someone else has been impacted, to participate in a conversation with those harmed, and to commit to doing better going forward — mistakes are most often met with grace and understanding.

My boss, Mike Burns, often sums it up through this supportive and simple directive about workplace culture change: “Show up. Be friendly. Try.”

Jake MacIsaac helps folks have conversations to make things right instead of digging in and losing what matters most.


NOW ATLANTIC - JULY 2019

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