What is Our Role in Social Justice?

Written by: Wendy Rinella, CEO and Brian Hanna, Chair of the Board of Directors

This is a question we, and we are sure others who lead organizations, have been thinking about a lot lately, prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests as well as police violence towards Indigenous Canadians and people of colour. We are taking this time to listen and learn from many neighbours and local organizations who are sharing their painful experiences in the wake of these tragedies. We are sharing some of our reflections on our own operations and impact below.

What is The Foundation’s role in social justice? Principles of social justice include access, equity, rights and participation/opportunities and are measured by the distribution of wealth, opportunities and social privileges. As an organization, have we done enough to address injustices? We have been thinking about these issues both in the context of our organization, its culture and practices and in the work of the Foundation.

Five years ago, when Wendy became CEO in 2015, our organization was led by a male-dominated, all-white Board with an all white female staff. As part of our new Strategic Plan in 2016, we purposely sought out new Board members who better reflected the diverse makeup of our community which is about one third visible minority. Today, half of the Board is from a visible minority population and there is greater gender balance.

Our staff is still white and female dominant, which is also a factor of low turnover and internal promotions. We recognized that we could bring in diverse viewpoints through internships, summer jobs and contract employees to provide greater diversity in age, gender and ethnicity. Since 2016 we’ve embarked on short term positions through Canada Summer Jobs, Ontario Skills funded contracts and work terms for Sheridan College and RBC interns. With the help of government and corporate programs over 4 years, we have supported 16 short term positions of whom 8 were visible minorities.

We’ve made every effort to promote and hire from these opportunities, including having offered permanent positions (full and part time) to seven employees, three from visible minorities. Today they are not with us, but we did seek to understand why they left: one was for maternity leave, one for education and the other for better pay. We need to learn how we can better serve these hires. So while we now have greater diversity in age, ability and gender, we are still striving for greater racial diversity.

This change in Board and staffing composition has also stewarded new donors and more diverse fundholders to The Foundation. We issued our first non-English report in Mandarin as part of our 25th Anniversary impact report, 25 Community Conversations last Fall.

Like other employers, our policies include adherence to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as staff protections from discrimination and harassment. We also require all competitively awarded grant recipients to sign their commitment to the Ontario Human Rights Code as part of the grant contract.

In terms of the work of The Foundation, like the other 191 Community Foundations in Canada, we conduct research and analysis to identify the greatest needs in our respective communities. We then work with our donors (Fundholders) to steward funding to address these challenges or assist them in meeting their philanthropic goals. As such, we often find ourselves with a common purpose with those who advocate for systemic change and social justice.

We recognize racial prejudice and inequality is systemic and we must all try to do better. When we conduct research on inequities and poverty, the face of poverty often has a specific race, ethnicity, gender identity and age. We know Indigenous communities have the greatest poverty and inequities and face barriers to change like potable drinking water and lack of basic infrastructure like schools. We know black Canadians experience higher unemployment, women make less money than men and single Moms and senior women face greater poverty. In Oakville, we know one in eight children live in poverty.

While we are not at the forefront of public policy demanding change, some see philanthropic organizations as part of the problem perpetuating inequities. For instance, Decolonizing Wealth takes issue with philanthropic organizations that act as “white saviours” without input from those it seeks to assist.

Another point of view is that the philanthropic sector are social justice allies in the wings, narrowing the equity gap and incubating and facilitating long term solutions for a vulnerable population like single Moms on welfare or youth exiting the child welfare system.

Where do we land? Our varied actions likely have aspects of both perspectives.  It is something we are reflecting on. From a community perspective, we also see this as a long term effort to build trust between individuals and between organizations across our community.

For over 40 years, we are fortunate to have the black-led Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton (CCAH) in our community that has been our partner on many initiatives including Community Classroom and the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th. We have been amplifying the great work of CCAH and encourage everyone to read about the late great Veronica Tyrrell, a CCAH leader profiled in our 2018 Annual report (p. 9).

The Foundation Board and Team will be collectively taking this time to listen deeply and reflect on our role in the community. Our Board will be taking a deep dive on this topic this summer.

We look forward to hearing from you with your perspectives and continuing this conversation.