GRANT'S DESI ACHIEVER
Diversity expands the circle
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
By the time he was 30, Shakil Choudhury had managed community projects in Costa Rica, co-ordinated an oral history project between young leaders in Pakistan and Canada, led inter-cultural dialogues between communities in conflict in Europe and South America, and spearheaded economic and political literacy workshops for low-income communities in Toronto.
Recognized as an anti-racist educator, he has helped organizations work through their differences to nurture environments where all people feel like they matter.
Choudhury launched Anima Leadership 11 years ago with his wife and business partner Annahid Dashtgard. They offer cutting-edge insights and practices from science, psychology and social systems with a focus on organizational health and human systems architecture; diversity, power and anti-bias research; emotional intelligence and relational leadership. His team is called in to train staff and students when a school has a racist incident. They are consulted when a human rights settlement requires an intervention. They have developed measurement tools for federal and provincial governments to help improve diversity outcomes.
Their impressive roster of clients includes Citizenship and Immigration Canada; the cities of Calgary and Edmonton; City of Toronto, Children’s Services; Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Government of Canada; Ontario Arts Council; Parole Board of Canada and the United States Department of the Interior.
The deep diversity model that Shakil Choudhury teaches seeks to reframe the debate regarding systemic racism.
It is, he writes in Deep Diversity, “a culmination of 20 years in the field of diversity and inclusion, one emotional burnout in my early thirties and a childhood pretending I was white”.
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Growing up, he avoided other brown kids and felt a distorted sense of pride at being mistaken for being Italian or Spanish.
“Desi parents who are new immigrants may be going through a culture shock themselves,” he says. “Even those who have been here a while may underestimate the drive to belong. This drive is a core part of human behaviour – as central as the ones for food, water and shelter. Adults and children adapt in different ways and some of the things we do to adapt are healthy, others not so much. Which of the strategies we adopt promote our self-esteem and which are damaging? It is important to have that conversation.”
Anglicising one’s name, for instance, is not a bad thing in and of itself, but parents who allow that to happen for the sake of ease then send mixed messages when they tell their kids to be proud of who they are, to stay true to their identities, points out Choudhury.
Steeped in his own identity as a “middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, university-educated Canadian male of South Asian ethnicity...We went through the immigrant shuffle of the 1970s Canada before my family landed on its feet in the 1980s,” his personal journey in Canada is both the source of his strength and insight as well as the basis of his bias, conscious and unconscious.
Born in Pakistan, Choudhury comes from a family with Hindu and Muslim roots in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. “I have experienced both the love and the tensions of these contexts, they reside within me. That is perhaps partly why I do the work I do. It informs why I am so committed to building relationships.”
His work created a hyper awareness of racism, he says. “It stems from a very important perspective, which is to understand that in systemic discrimination, there are systems in place that privilege some and marginalize others. The activist in me, the hyper-aware part, was like a macro zoom lens. It provided a bird’s eye view of society, it helped understand patterns. Who is being suspended at school, who is being carded more often, under-treated at hospitals. It is understanding data which goes beyond our lived experience. Most of us are aware of overt racism, but less aware of covert racism. Our lived experiences are like a micro zoom lens. To be able to distinguish between overt and subtle racism and just plain ignorance or curiosity, is to learn to toggle between the two lenses.”
Choudhury writes about a 2009 study with mock resumés conducted by UBC. The resumés had similar qualifications but one key difference. Some were given typically Anglo-Saxon names like Greg Johnson and others were given ‘foreign-sounding’ names like Dong Liu. The resumés with English-sounding names had a 40 per cent higher rate of call backs for interviews.
Are people still being held back because of their names?
Oh yes, says Choudhury. “It is only one of the ways, but one of the most obvious ways. Mispronunciation is another. ‘Your name is too hard, I’ll just say it like this’. We call these micro inequalities – small things that close the door.”
Discussing hidden racism in terms of data makes it abstract, impersonal, writes Choudhury.
We can tackle this at an individual level, by accepting that we all have these biases. Learn to catch ourselves in the act, in the distorted thinking. Did I just say that? Did I just think that? Educate ourselves about identities and communities we are not part of. And do it differently next time.
“We all make mistakes. The wrapper around it is compassion – towards ourselves so we can share it with others.
“At an institutional level, we must aim for a cultural shift. It needs to be part of a strategic plan. Organizations need to run a bias-free filter through all their processes – look at who are they hiring, who are they promoting. We need political and emotional literacy development.”
Having worked in different parts of the globe, Choudhury is well-positioned to compare the levels of readiness to accept change.
“Canada is doing very well, but change is slow. Take reconciliation within the Indigenous communities. We are working in that direction, but there’s so much more to be done. Certain groups continue to face profound barriers – the highest rates of harassment and discrimination and the lowest rates of advancement. Where we have a well-established democracy and strong social nets, we have these important conversations, but there exists the potential to go backwards. Humans have a neurological disposition towards xenophobia. Every nation has a minority community that is perceived to be a threat and it is easy to scapegoat a whole community. We should be aware of the weakness that resides within us, we’re vulnerable. All it requires is the trigger, the wrong leadership.
“But I remain very proud of how Canadians respond to situations. People grieve collectively, not pin the blame for an individual act on an entire community. Let’s just say I would rather raise my kids here than anywhere else.”
Is he viewed as a brown man with a chip on his shoulder with all this talk about racism?
“Usually not!” responds Choudhury with a chuckle. “That might have been the case earlier, but I have learned that how we teach is as important as what we teach. I don’t go in as someone who has all the answers. I share my vulnerabilities, I tell them I have had my own share of bias and their shoulders relax. They think it’s okay to have made mistakes.”
With the problem and its origins identified, what are the next steps? Are we genetically programmed to be biased?
Differences will always be there, says Choudhury. “If we mange to get rid of racism altogether, that would be an evolutionary leap! But if at any time we notice the ‘othering’ experience we are able to catch ourselves, that would be a step in the right direction. We must be diligent about self-enquiry. Ask yourself when and how it happens with you. When and how it shows up in your behaviour.”
His advice to newcomers is simple. Cultivate self-awareness. “The more clarity we get about who we are, the more we learn about the world around us. Knowing what’s best for this situation comes from a deep inner place.”
He quotes an old Indian proverb his father taught him: We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.
“Seeing our strengths and weaknesses, that is foundational to our success. It helps us to build on our strengths and work on our weaknesses.”
He used to define himself as an anti-racist activist until he realized that this had become the exclusive lens through which he viewed the world. Today, he describes himself as a father, an educator, a community and relationship builder.
“I work to help people understand the ways in which we are different and similar, to enable them to see how we can honour the differences, holding the polarities together.”
He and Annahid have two children, daughter Arion, six, and son Koda, four.
For them Choudhury envisions a world in which people are a little more kind, a little more generous.
“A place where there are no barriers to their potential. Where neighbours don’t make assumptions about each other and where people communicate.
“Where the differences between the haves and the have-nots are minimal and where human rights, dignity and respect are the foundation of relationships.
“Where the circle of We is expanded to include more people.”