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This is how I claim space and challenge white supremacy in the nonprofit sector

Me and Jerry Natanine, Mayor of Kangiktugaapik (Clyde River) Nunavut, on the bow of a Greenpeace ship,
the Arctic Sunrise, as we sailed through Baffin Bay in 2016. ©Greenpeace

I was recently interviewed for Greenpeace’s Talent Acquisition Project and asked to share my employee story. Here’s what that brought up for me…

I’ve been Deputy Director at Greenpeace Canada for the past year. My role involves the design and implementation of a new strategic plan, overseeing key legal work, collaboration with our People and Culture team, and directing diversity and belonging approaches for internal systems and external campaigns. The challenges our organization faces are not unique, but each of them are pressing: addressing climate and biodiversity crises, achieving a green and just recovery from the pandemic, centering staff wellbeing and avoiding burnout, all while ensuring our work and our work environments are rooted in equity, justice, and the elimination of white supremacy.

I’m new to this role, but I am not new to Greenpeace, having first joined the organization as an Arctic Campaigner in 2013. I’m also not new to campaigning and communications, which have been central throughout my career. But my roots in activism go back even farther, and folding my lived experience into my role gives added meaning and benefit to my work. Who I am and where I’m from all impact how I contribute to society professionally. More than that, my experiences from a young age have done more to prepare me for the realities of a career in social and environmental justice than formal education ever could.

Activism by default

I was raised in a politically engaged, community-centered, Punjabi, Muslim family, in suburban Toronto. Like many immigrant kids, I grew up in a lively, off-and-on multigenerational household. Spirited political discussions were the norm at family gatherings and dinner parties with aunties and uncles raging against US propaganda during the Gulf War, solidarity for Palestinian liberation, providing hot takes on Thatcher, Mulroney, the Bhuttos and the Bushes. We found community with other immigrant families who shared our values and language. As a youth, my parents took me and my brother to city council meetings to bear witness to deputations on building a new Islamic school, fundraisers for local masjids, we made banners for Palestine in Saturday Urdu class. We were taught how colonial violence impacted our circumstances, about the trauma our grandparents endured from the partition of India, and about peace. My father’s mantra is that we were put on this planet to serve humanity. My mother spray painted a giant blue peace sign on the hood of our family car.

Me, age eight.

We’ve never really called it activism, but building community and organizing for change was and is part of our lives. Some would say it’s our way of life. Not a hobby or a nine-to-five. In many ways, the lifestyle is forced on us because in a white supremacist society where the dominant culture prevails, we — and others in similar circumstances — must advocate to defend our culture, our faith, our very existence. My upbringing led me to develop other ways of engaging in activism as I got older. Protesting cuts to education in high school, the second Iraq war, and also challenging oppressions within my own family and community because inner reflection and growth is important, too. I have complicated and unresolved feelings about my upbringing and connection to present day community. We are not not immune from perpetuating colourism, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, misogyny, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of abuse. We can be complicit in inflicting harm as we concurrently experience our own forms of intergenerational trauma and oppression — and we must continue to resist and call it out.

White-dominant nonprofits

I studied poli-sci in university, started a career in documentary filmmaking, switched to the nonprofit sector, and eventually landed at Greenpeace where the intersection of the environment and human rights is where I’ve found my stride. Today, I’m lucky to work alongside passionate, creative, and rebellious colleagues. People who don’t accept the status quo and are not afraid to challenge systems that simultaneously destroy our climate and stand in the way of social justice. For the most part, I can be myself at work, drawing on my lived and professional experiences to inform campaigns, collaborate with communities, and develop strategies. I also experience systemic and everyday racism and sexism on the job and it’s an exhausting struggle to be heard and respected in the white-dominant and white-centered spaces I mostly work in. If you’ve been following the Reply All series about systemic racism at Bon Appetit and the subsequent reports of similar toxicity at Gimlet Media, none of this is shocking. For BIPOC in media, in nonprofits, in tech, in nearly every sector and particularly in workplaces that self-describe as ‘progressive,’ these stories are all so familiar. 

As a Desi woman now in a senior leadership position at a nonprofit, I hold more privilege than I did in previous roles. I’m also aware of some barriers BIPOC folks face in this sector. As my colleague Jesse Firempong and others in the environmental movement have pointed out, for too long mainstream environmental groups in Canada have cast a white and privileged gaze on how society views environmental issues, while first hand knowledge and negative impacts of environmental degradation and climate change are felt most by communities of colour. Like me, many BIPOC folks have deep and direct knowledge of organizing from our own lived experiences, but instead of being valued for our talents and expertise, we have largely been excluded from the ENGO and broader nonprofit field. Sometimes it’s because we don’t have the right schooling or credentials, or we’re told we’re over qualified. Other times we have the credentials, but we don’t run in the same white leftist circles. Or, we are simply told we’re “not a good fit” for an organization, which is an all-too-common and demoralizing rejection to receive, exacerbating the pressure for us to code switch for the workplace. It was hard to break into nonprofits when I landed my first job at an ENGO fifteen years ago and I’m sad to say it’s still hard for BIPOC to secure and sustain jobs in the sector today.

Reject the pressure to fit in

Authenticity matters. Success in social change demands representing the realities of our movements for justice, devoid of saviorism. Greenpeace is a white settler organization that both carries wisdom to share from its fifty years of campaigning, as well as mistakes from taking up too much space in the movement or whitewashing environmentalism altogether. While I can understand why many BIPOC folks may not care to participate in mainstream activism — having been othered by the nonprofit industrial complex for so long — more BIPOC leadership would result in more authentic and respectful campaigning. This could not only help reverse colonial ways of working, but would likely improve our campaign outcomes, as I’ve said, since for some of us activism is in our roots.

Via @iamrachelricketts

To BIPOC and other equity-seeking folks currently struggling in their nonprofit jobs, or to those seeking to start a career in the sector, my advice to them would be this: Reject the pressure to fit in. Challenge assumptions about how things have always been done within any organization and don’t discount your ability to make big change happen and to introduce new ways of working and relating and being that make sense to you. Do you, live your truth, even if it sometimes feels like an act of rebellion in itself. Find your people and lean on each other for support and mentorship. I say this knowing that I have not always followed this advice myself. It’s incredibly difficult to be a dissenting voice in any space, especially when you’re in the minority, and especially when systems are designed to keep you quiet. It can jeopardize your personal wellbeing and job security. There is a fine balance between learning the ropes of a job and wanting to excel in your role on the one hand, and wanting to challenge an organization’s systemic failings on the other. At the same time, what nonprofit spaces need more than anything right now is the inclusion of new perspectives to fill long ignored and glaring knowledge gaps from being too white for too long, especially in leadership. The barriers to success are real and disheartening and damaging, but what else can we do but resist them, take up space, and prioritize our own self worth and wellness in the process.

Raunak as the antidote

This brings me to another stand-out lesson from my upbringing, which is the importance of collective care, and the cultivation of joy. As I and other members of Desi and Muslim communities passionately seek justice combating racism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and other systemic oppressions, these struggles are balanced with living multifaceted, full, and caring lives. In circumstances like this, mutual aid is a necessity and — as in many collectivist societies — it is also a cultural norm. Long before the notion of self care was commodified and repackaged for white audiences through cultural appropriation in the wellness industry and ‘live, laugh, love’ crafts on Etsy, we have long prioritized recharging and filling our proverbial cups with the support and care of our communities as a tool for survival. This is not to diminish the experiences of those who are excluded from their own South Asian communities or experience psychological invalidation and other abuses. That negative side of collectivist culture is part of our truth, too.

Desis like me are experts in cultivating what we call raunak, which imperfectly translates to beauty, life and exuberance in Urdu and other languages from the subcontinent. This shows up as delight, laughter, music, poetry, self-care and community care. Oh, and food. We make an abundance of delicious food. And though our experiences are different, other colonized communities seem to share this similar and often innate knack for balancing life’s challenges with some fun — such as in the fight for Black liberation or for Indigenous sovereignty. Janaya Khan, author and cofounder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, has shared reflections on the value of squad-care. Anishinaabe writer and broadcaster Jesse Wente explains that for many Indigenous communities, their stories and struggles for change are not devoid of joy. I find joy is necessary to heal from the grind and delight can be an actively cultivated antidote to despair. Our struggles are part of our identities, but they don’t define our whole selves, nor should they. And perhaps above all else, we know that we too are deserving of joy, and seeking it out unabashedly is also part of our resistance.

Via @intersectionalenvironmentalist

In an activist organization like Greenpeace, caring for our staff and prioritizing their wellness is another top priority, although it hasn’t always been that way. The climate and biodiversity crises are not going away soon and it can be a heavy and onerous task to work on these existential threats every day, all the more for racialized folks. My colleagues are passionate about what they do and it’s easy for them to want to do it all the time, accepting requests and putting in effort at all hours of the day. This has built up an unhealthy culture of overextending ourselves, doing it for the cause, and burning out. But to tackle the issues we work on, we need endurance. We need to be in the best shape to keep making progress and to keep our campaigns going for the long haul. Resilience will ensure our work is both sustainable and successful. Seeking joy, looking after one another, and adding a bit of raunak to our lives, while also taking action to achieve a more equitable, more just, more sustainable world can help maintain our stamina to reach our collective goals.

Activism is central to who I am, but it isn’t all that I live and breathe. I cook, I laugh, I garden. I’m obsessed with thrifted and DIY home decor. I am nourished by my communities both through what I receive and what I give back. Familiarity from a young age with struggles for justice and my lived experiences have ingrained in me a certainty and stubbornness that I belong in spaces that are not always welcoming to people like me. As a Desi woman, I neither have the interest nor the luxury of letting go of the activist side of my identity. But in the gravity of the times we are living today, I think it’s wise to fill our cups with equal parts of dissent and delight. As my community, our elders, and our ancestors have taught us, both are necessary ingredients of achieving transformative change.

This text was also published on Medium.