It’s time to liberate our DEI work from Individualism

| Equity and Inclusion
Against dark blue background, the contour of 7 individuals are cut out in wood. One of the individuals are lifted up by a hand and brought closer to the camera, leaving the rest of the group behind.

Blog post written by Zanna Ekeroth.

Too often in DEI conversations, we seek inspiration from people who made it “despite the odds”. We tell stories about a few exceptional individuals instead of the collective that got together to demand change. We celebrate women CEOs under the tag #girlboss, worship Oprah Winfrey for being the first Black billionaire and let full movements be defined by one outstanding (and palatable, as defined by the dominant culture) leader such as Greta Thunberg for the climate movement. Yes, their journeys are inspiring. But these stories feed into Individualism, a harmful white supremacy characteristic, and tend to uphold the oppressive systems we must dismantle. Focusing on an individual when we need collectivism is counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve. It makes us centre our own personal achievements and takes focus away from the impact our work has on the greater community.

When DEI work is characterized by individualism, we tend to:
(List inspired by Tema Okun’s work)

  • Chase individual recognition and validation for our work. For example, white people feeling the need to show that they “are not a racist”, often through performative allyship.
  • View oppression as harmful behaviour from one person to another but fail to recognize how it’s embedded into systems and structures.
  • Feel like we are responsible for (and qualified to) solve problems on our own – too proud to ask for help and/or too oblivious to understand that we need to invite other perspectives to find a sustainable solution.
  • Tell stories about “exceptional people” showcasing that “there is a way to make it in the system as is,” consequently putting the blame on an individual who is struggling, rather than recognizing the faults within the system.
  • Give credit only to the public leader or face of an organization/movement and erase the contributions of other people who are part of the work.

DEI is not solitary work. It cannot lie on one person’s shoulders. And even more so, no one is qualified to bear this work themselves. One person can’t be accountable for the perspectives of all members of a co-op and make an effective decision on behalf of the whole group. Still, we see so many organizations hiring one leader to step in and “take care of DEI” and doing that without setting them up with the right support. We need to look beyond the individual in our change-making efforts. This is where co-operative organizations should harness the strength of principle #6: Cooperation among Co-ops and #7: Concern for Community. This includes moving away from individual shame and blame and making sure our accountability processes review systems, culture and institutionalized behaviours. It includes acknowledging that our work and what we know is informed by others and giving credit to those. It includes sharing our learnings and practicing vulnerability; asking for help when we need it and asking for input even when we think we don’t need it. Most of all, it means recognizing that this work is about collective responsibility and liberation. DEI is just as much about how we do it as it is about what we do. Individualism, like all other characteristics of White Dominant Culture, must be actively challenged in our processes as we work to create a more equitable future in the co-op sector and beyond.

“We can’t use the same ideas that got us into this mess to get us out of it. The belief that it is perfect, exceptional leaders who create change only works to disempower the majority of us from realising our own power and necessary roles (to paraphrase Angela Davis). Change is built by many ordinary, wonderful people, not by individual heroes.” – Mikaela Loach

We invite you to reflect on the following:

  • How is collaboration practiced within your organization? Are people encouraged to work cross-functionally (and cross-organizationally) to solve problems collectively?
  • Are we falling into the dominant culture narrative of working in silos and praising people who “get the job done” independently?
  • Does your co-op’s DEI effort lie on one individual or a small group? How can it be embedded throughout the organization (using equity as a lens through which all aspects of our work are reviewed) instead of treating it as an independent initiative?

I wrote this blog post as an immigrant and settler in Canada, a white woman who believes in the power of community to achieve justice. The ideas in this blog post are informed by so many people whose work inspires me and fuels my continuous learning. With that, I want to encourage you to seek out more information and continue your learning in the links below.

In our next Equity & Inclusion in Co-ops Community of Practice on September 28, we will focus on Systems of Oppression and antidotes to White Dominant Culture. We are also excited to announce that members of City in Colour will be present so that we can launch our collaborative video together! This video, one of a series of four, focuses on adapting systems and structures in service to equity and inclusion. Sign up here!

Credits and further learning: