Heart Work: Leading from a place of discomfort  

Equity work is hard work, and as some people like to say, its "heart" work. It is about constantly learning new things and unlearning old beliefs. It's about knowing that to do the work, you need to acknowledge the ways in which you have participated in systems and patterns of oppression. It's about knowing that when systems and environments don't change, students, staff and communities continue to be harmed. So, it's hard and vulnerable work … and why shouldn't it be? We're only challenging and dismantling systems and patterns of behaviours that have existed for decades or centuries. 

In my previous role as a System Principal and now with the OPC, I often get asked by colleagues how to approach or respond to different and often challenging situations. Our tendency as leaders is to look for immediate solutions to find resolution and compromise. Maybe it's an educator thing. But that tendency ignores the fact that this hard and complex work sometimes leads us to be reactive instead of proactive. There are tensions, and those tensions are important. Sometimes we need to sit with and hold those tensions to honour their importance and to further our own learning. 

 Consider some of the tensions you are faced with.

  • How do you prioritize the importance of anti-oppressive work with the competing pressures of time, limited resources, increasing workload (and a global pandemic)?
  • How do you respond to the resistance from staff when you know the importance of the work and you empathize with their personal and professional challenges?
  • How do you overcome your own lack of knowledge, comfort or experience, yet lead in an anti-oppressive and equitable way?

One of the things that I have learned is the vulnerability and personal toll that this work takes on individuals.

We want to make space for people to share their stories and those individual stories are so important. But those stories are heard at the expense of those telling them. I have often said I wouldn't have been able to lead much of the work I've been involved in over the last few years when I was younger – I didn't want to share and I didn't want to be defined by my identity. Realistically, I was also not aware of how my own perspective of myself was colonialized. I wrote a piece in the fall 2021 The Register  about my experiences related to racism on my journey, which to me was both the literal, physical journey and the figurative, metaphorical journey. At the end of the piece, I included a quote from Martin Luther King that reminds me of the struggles and also the importance of that journey. It inspires me to keep moving and it speaks to me about the endless nature of the work, the journey and the resistance embedded in it. A Member did, however, point out the ableism that exists in the quote by referencing flying, running, walking and crawling. It's true, with a literal perspective, there is ableism in the quote and I'm sorry to have just added it in without that consideration or without a focus on the literal interpretation. I was grateful for their reminder and I apologize for the impact that quote may have had on others.

I believe that validating one side of the conversation doesn't have to dismiss or ignore the other. We need to be able to lead comfortably from a place of discomfort that incorporates multiple perspectives. Universal responses don't generally solve the problem; instead, they usually ignore the complexity of the problem, resulting in an 'us' vs 'them' mentality that creates more polarization. For example, as a brown man, how do I acknowledge that my experiences have been impacted by systemic racism? And that although some were, not every incident was about race? 

As leaders, we need to be able to embrace and sit in those tensions to find the creative and constructive solutions.

Authentic accountability means being able to see multiple sides and recognize the complexity of the situation and how it fits in the complexity of systems in which we exist. How do we balance the impact of the system on an individual and also recognize the agency of that individual? Focussing on one or the other, dismissing those tensions, seemingly removes the complexity but also ignores the importance of them. 

In this ongoing blog, I hope to be able to bring light to some of these equity related tensions, to offer some strategies for holding yourself there and also for moving yourself forward. As we move forward together, I also hope to be able to share some ways you can lead in the work and also some stories of challenge, success and inspiration from our Members.