For Black History Month, we sat down with local diversity, equity, and inclusion advocate, Everline (Eve) Akinyi Aboka-Griess, to talk about racism, discrimination, and the way forward for our community.
Q. You have a unique style in teaching about the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and society. How has your life experience influenced this approach?
I am a positive person by nature, and I try to approach people from empathy rather than a place of hurt or anger.
Last summer, during the Black Lives Matter protests, when people started saying “All lives matter,” instead of reacting in anger, I took the time to reflect and ask myself how I want to show up in this world. I tried to understand where these people’s perspectives. Were they experiencing discrimination that we had not known? Were they wondering how they fit in this movement, or why no one has ever fought for them in the same way?
I tried to think about things from their perspective, and that is when I decided to show up with a positive mindset. I chose to lead with empathy because that is what our society needs right now.
Q. Have you experienced any resistance to your workshops?
I have not any. I think it is all about the approach. I make it clear from the start that this is a respectful environment; nobody is a victim, and nobody is a perpetrator. The issues we are dealing with here are issues that we inherited. You did not enslave anybody. This is one part of the history of your community, but it is not you.
When you open the conversation up in that way, people feel better because nobody wants to speak to their attackers. I make sure to open the room for people to talk and share how they feel. That is why my workshops are two hours long. I want to allow people to speak and ask questions to learn in the best way they know.
I think because of this approach, I have not experienced any resistance to my workshops. I would say the biggest challenge is getting through the front door. Once we are there, people are very receptive, and they genuinely want to learn.
Q. One of the courses you teach focuses on unconscious bias. How do you approach this topic?
We remind people that unconscious bias is natural to us as human beings. We all have it. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have because our 2,000-year-old brain has been conditioned since our ancestors’ time to perceive something different as either wrong or dangerous.
This way of thinking and approach to life made sense when our ancestors lived in caves or shared their habitats with wild animals. It was a survival instinct, and this instinct has been passed down to us for generations. If you grow up with people who look like you, then you may perceive those who do not look like you as dangerous. That is human, and it is understandable—it is what we do with that realization that counts. For most of us, our unconscious bias is incompatible with our conscious values, which is hard to reconcile. So, in our workshops, we train people how to start reversing their unconscious bias.
It is beautiful to see people’s reactions after the workshops. Some are sad for the pain caused by their ancestors, and they want to apologize. Others want to take their learnings and share it with their families and friends.
Q. What have you learned as you have been facilitating these workshops?
I have learned that we all have a caring heart at a deeper level, no matter our skin colour. We do not always know how to start having difficult conversations.
Q. Do you see progress being made in the DEI space in Calgary?
The diversity and inclusion topic is not something new in Calgary or Canada. It has been here for the past five decades, but systemic racism is still very much alive in our cities and our country. When governments continuously pledge money or special initiatives to combat racism, but nothing changes, you have to wonder who is leading this work. Are there decisions being made at City Hall on our behalf, and why aren’t we invited to sit at those tables?
We are the ones with lived experience. We are the ones experiencing discrimination and injustice. Furthermore, we are not asking for special treatment. We want you to understand what we go through and ultimately see us for who we are—inventors, scientists, artists, teachers—people who want a fair chance in life.
Q. Do you find that companies sometimes take the wrong approach in implementing diversity and inclusion into their business practices?
Some do, yes. Some organizations currently doing diversity and inclusion in house do not take the time to ensure their teams are properly trained. Moreover, because they do not know how to approach this work, they will turn to the Black or Indigenous person on their team and say, “Ok, you are now going to be the head of our diverse team. You are going to teach people about this.” That is not fair to anyone. Moreover, it is not right to make a Black person take on the responsibility for this work simply because of their skin colour. Everyone’s experience in life is different.
In a way, many companies are winging it and hoping for the best. Furthermore, that is sad, really, but it is also counterproductive to the bottom line. Many studies conducted show companies with diverse teams experience higher productivity, which translates to profitability. Our workshops focus on how diversity influences productivity, performance, and profit tools for organizations.
Q. Do you think there have been steps taken in the right direction since the Black Lives Matter marches last summer, or do you believe most of it is still talk?
Sadly, I think much of it is still talk. Think about how long we have been talking about reconciliation. However, Indigenous people are still being spat on in the streets. They are still being followed around when they enter a store. How many qualified Indigenous people do you see invited to job interviews?
This does not mean things cannot change. I believe they can, and that is why I am doing this work. I am doing this for our community and my son because he will grow up to be a Black man, and I do not want him to go through what I went through. Furthermore, I think the key to this is to show up not as a white or Black person but as a human being.
We have the power to change our community for the better. We have to be willing to do it. We have to show up and do the right thing.
Q. In the past, you have said that looking back at the discrimination you have experienced makes you laugh now. Can you explain why?
I laugh because somebody missed an opportunity to get to know me as I am. Somebody missed an opportunity to interact with my soul. Somebody missed an opportunity to bring my knowledge and expertise onto their team because of my black face or headscarf.
I have experienced much discrimination in this country, some of it crushing. However, I have chosen not to show up as a victim. Instead, I show up as a warrior—a warrior who fought a war and won. The things that I went through and the discrimination that I experienced made me a better person. They made me more understanding and made me learn to care for every individual, regardless of their background or skin colour.
I bring that empathy into all my conversations, my workshops, and my life.
Eve Akinyi Aboka-Griess is the founder and CEO of Capability Career Group. She is a published author and motivational speaker who enjoys spending her free time with her family. To learn more about Eve’s work in the diversity, inclusion, and equity space, visit https://capabilitycareergroup.com/ or reach out to her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As part of United Way’s journey of building and implementing an organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy that will guide our work, we are actively listening to and learning from our community members. We are grateful to Ms. Aboka-Griess for taking the time to share her insights and experiences with us and our audience.