Written by Sienna Jae Taylor
This past week I participated in a conversation facilitated by Pillar Nonprofit Network that focused on committing to equity and inclusion during COVID-19. Within this microcosm of change agents, the urgency of this conversation was undisputed.
The inadequacies of our systems have come front and centre for all to see.
COVID-19 has not just brought forward a global health risk, but has roused a real fear of access - access to money, to food, to technology, to our family and friends, to work and school, and to the futures we had planned for ourselves.
Something that I can’t shake, though, is that as a collective we seem to be more moved by the loss of privilege, than by the stories of those who never had it to begin with. Empathy flows freely for those who have lost access to what was previously provided to them in abundance.
For those in our community whose access has always been limited, new challenges arise. Where the most vulnerable populations have previously been able to seek out resources and support through community efforts, they are now left more at risk than ever before.
While nonprofits, community organizations and neighbourhood teams are shifting and creating innovative solutions to continue supporting those who need it most - the barriers continue to rise.
But we hear the cries of our community loud and clear: “We are all in this together”. Our interconnectedness as a community has never been more evident.
But I can’t help but think that for marginalized and vulnerable communities, the challenges faced during this time are far greater.
During our conversation, we heard about older individuals facing unimaginable isolation, having no access to the technology that could connect them to family or friends.
We heard about low-income students unable to participate in their education because they don’t have access to Wi-Fi or a computer.
There are families unable to purchase basic needs online because they don’t have a credit card and no other forms of payment are accepted.
Families are struggling to keep food in their homes because they simply do not have the option to buy in bulk.
Essential workers making low wages are faced with the impossible dilemma of going to work each day, putting themselves and their families at risk and finding child-care, all while making barely enough to cover basic expenses.
Newcomers who experience language barriers are unable to access important information from schools, health professionals and the government. Something I know I have taken for granted during this time.
Without accessible technology, those with vision loss are similarly unable to receive important information necessary to access resources and basic needs.
International students, like many others, have fallen between the cracks and are left with no resources or supports during this time of crisis.
Folks with disabilities are hearing stories from around the world of health care facilities placing them on the bottom of the priority list - a bold statement of their value as humans.
And women and children living in abusive homes are forced to be trapped inside, with their abusers, with no respite.
We are all facing challenges...
But this global pandemic is harder for some than others.
And while I type this I hear the echo of so many that we cannot compare our struggles. And yet, if we do not acknowledge the power dynamics at play, we will never be able to seize the opportunity to balance the disparities in our communities.
Although these inequities are exacerbated by the uniqueness of COVID-19, they are not new. And if we want to move forward with a more just and equitable society, we must acknowledge this.
At the beginning of our discussion, the Pillar team shared tenants of creating a brave space. One of these tenants in particular stuck with me.
We must challenge with care and compassion.
When the world is in crisis, this may be one of the hardest things to do. We are all experiencing trauma. And still, the intricacies of systems set up to value some over others must be untangled.
So how do we make that happen?
Personally, I believe in the strength of the nonprofit sector in Canada. I believe that the organizations that make up this sector have the intelligence, the grit and the passion to drive systemic change. The individuals and organizations that chose to participate in the discussion we had last week maintains the confidence I have.
For these organizations, I beg of you, do not sacrifice or shelve your missions.
Yes there is a health crisis. Yes it is a priority. Yes your mission may not be directly related. And yes your work still matters. Possibly more now than ever before.
Be loud. Take up space. Make demands that will lead to a more just and equitable future. Challenge with care and compassion.
And for the rest of us? As individuals we have the power to shift our world, shift our perspectives, and support social impact work.
Time and again, organizations have stepped up to push for change and too often they are met with resistance. Resistance that more often than not, stems from ignorance.
But, as mentioned in this equity discussion, we have a unique opportunity to see things clearly.
The average person finally understands what it feels like to be afraid...
Afraid that you may lose your job.
Afraid that you might not be able to feed your family.
Afraid that you might not make this month’s rent.
Afraid that you may not be able to access the most basic of necessities.
The stories of people being isolated, devalued, and left alone at the peripheries are front and centre. This cannot be unseen or unheard.
While organizations across communities are doing the heavy lifting, as individuals we have the opportunity to create micro-level, cultural shifts that will pave the way for positive outcomes.
We cannot be afraid to call out injustice.
We cannot be afraid to tell the hard stories.
We cannot be afraid to say to others... “Imagine your life was like this - every, single, day.”
We cannot be afraid to challenge with care and compassion.
So how do we move forward?
The first step is to continue the conversation. Be intentional about bringing an equity and inclusion lens to every conversation, program or initiative that you participate in.
Pillar Nonprofit Network is committed to increasing conversations and promoting community action around equity. They aim to increase the understanding of issues around equity and inclusion in our community, and offer their support. To learn more about equity and inclusion as a Network Building Principle explore Pillar’s Network Approach.
To stay informed and continue the conversation, consider subscribing to Pillar’s newsletter.
About Sienna Jae Taylor
Sienna is a Community Engagement Specialist, advocate for equity & inclusion and champion for positive, social change and a member and volunteer of Pillar Nonprofit Network.
She graduated from Western University with an Honors BA in Anthropology and a Major in Sociology in 2013 and received her post-graduate Diploma in Not-for-Profit Management in 2014.
Sienna began engaging in the nonprofit sector while she was in University. It was during this time that she was hit with the harsh reality that there are systemic inequities deeply embedded in our community. As someone with lived-experience of poverty, she questioned why she found herself on a stable path, while many of her peers were unable to overcome the systemic barriers that they faced. She decided that she needed to pursue a personal and professional journey that would work toward change.
In her ten years of experience in the nonprofit sector, Sienna has worked in a variety of roles including: Community Development, Volunteer Management, and Educational Programming. Through all of her roles, Sienna has developed her expertise in equity and inclusion, relationship/community building, and nonprofit education – all with the intent to create positive social change.
In January of 2020, Sienna launched The Southdale Education Fund, a local initiative that seeks to alleviate the financial challenges of pursuing post-secondary education while living in poverty.
More information about Sienna and other writing can be found at www.siennajae.com.