The Municipality of Chatham-Kent is one of many institutions around the world studying and implementing strategies around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Chatham-Kent is taking it a bit further by adding another component: justice.
These four areas of focus frame the recent work by Rebecca Haskell Thomas after a 2020 Public Health Department report concluded that existing systems have had unfair and disproportionate impacts on segments of the community. In other words, some people were having a harder time than others.
Rebecca is the Municipality’s Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice.
“The report made some recommendations. One of them was to develop a strategy to ensure that we’re not making inequalities worse. So, ensuring our policies and decisions are not making things worse for some specific groups of people in the community,” she says.
Her work began about a year and a half ago.
“My role is to help develop a strategy for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the organization. We have an intern named Amrit Khaira, who is working with us to develop the strategy. But it’s not just the two of us. We knew we needed support and expertise, lived experience, and knowledge from across the Municipality.”
As part of the process, Municipality staff, members of council, and members of committees of council were invited to share their perspectives with Rebecca and Amrit.
“We have a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee that includes 10 people who are in positions of influence in the Municipality, who have lived experiences, and who can help us to move the strategy along,” she says. “We also have a Champions Network and that’s about 55 people, made up of staff, councillors and committees who are working with us to learn together and to be able to develop and implement the strategy when we get to that stage,” she explains.
“We did our first-ever survey around diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in the Municipality several months ago. The survey asked our staff questions about a sense of belonging, whether they felt like it was a welcoming place, and whether they felt everyone had opportunities to grow. We also asked questions about demographics. We wanted to get a better understanding of who is in our organization and where and who’s missing,” she explains.
The survey was sent out to staff and councillors.
“This is so we could get a better understanding of whether we are an inclusive workplace and whether we have more work to do. It was really insightful for us to do this level of analysis,” Rebecca says.
The information collected in the survey will help Rebecca, Amrit, and the committees identify specific areas in need of improvement.
“We’re focusing on three areas: workplace and workforce—making sure that our organization is accessible to everyone and everyone has opportunities to be part of the organization and to thrive. It’s really important that our decision-makers are reflective of the communities of Chatham-Kent. Our policies, processes, and services, and the work we’re doing to support the community needs to be centred on equity. Everybody needs to be considering how our decisions impact different groups of people,” Rebecca explains.
But how do diversity, equity, inclusion and justice fit in?
“When we talk about diversity, people quickly go to race or culture, ethnicity, or religion. But when we talk about diversity, we’re also talking about perspectives and experiences because those are important and they shape who we are. When we talk about identities, we’re talking about things like sexual orientation, gender, income, education, and there is a lot of diversity in our community when we think of it that way,” Rebecca says.
Equity is about ensuring everyone has opportunities to thrive and grow and sometimes there are barriers in place preventing this.
“When we talk about barriers, a lot of those barriers are not easy for people to see. That makes it really difficult to describe to people. But we know there’s evidence that some groups of people, like racialized people, people who have lower income, and people who identify as part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community have fewer opportunities for wellbeing,” Rebecca says.
“What I mean by that is, they might not have support networks, they may not have the same opportunities for education because of discrimination and biases that exist. They generally tend to not have as many opportunities for income because of the barriers that they face in education. There are barriers people face throughout their lives that can impact their ability to be part of our organization or to thrive once they’re in our organization.”
“Inclusion is about ensuring everyone feels like they belong and feel they have a place in our organization, in our community, and can see themselves in our services. They feel they are able to be their authentic selves, which is so important,” Rebecca says.
While this type of work is normally referred to as DEI, an acronym for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Rebecca and Amrit quickly realized another area was needed.
“As we started our work and outreach in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and talking to people about what we were doing, we heard the justice component was important and we heard about that from a few different lenses. One was that we need to think about how we are creating pathways to justice for Indigenous Peoples, some people call it reconciliation. We need to think about how we’re ensuring we are doing things in a just way for Indigenous Peoples in Chatham-Kent and surrounding First Nations as well,” she explains.
Rebecca’s passion for this work stems from her experiences growing up in the area.
“I want to be in a community that is accepting of diversity and that recognizes that we are stronger as a community when there is diversity, in identities, perspectives, experiences, and skills. This work is important to me because I want to be part of creating the community that I want to live in. Being a queer woman myself I didn’t have the best experience growing up and I don’t want anyone else to have those experiences. I have a six-year-old daughter now and I want her to grow up having a different experience than I had,” she says
Developing a Strategy
“Even within our organization and any other organization, there are unconscious biases that exist and that’s really the role of this strategy, to help us all to be able to understand what unconscious biases are and how they’re built into our work and how we can dismantle them,” she says.
The last few months have been spent gathering information and looking at census data to learn more about the community’s composition.
“We are growing in diversity which is amazing to see. We’ve also talked to close to 130 people about what’s working in the organization and where there are opportunities for improvement. This information has been shared with our committees and now we’re looking at what areas to prioritize, set some goals, and develop a work plan. Over the next year, we’ll be developing a strategy and starting to implement it,” she explains.
As the work continues, Rebecca is optimistic.
“I’m really proud the Municipality is doing this work, investing the resources into it, and that there are a lot of community partners doing this as well.”