The City of Waterloo is taking steps towards addressing systemic discrimination based on race, identity, gender, sexual orientation and ability by establishing an anti-racism and equity team.
Similar to the model being established by the City of Kitchener, Waterloo council approved a budget for a team of four to be hired — one director and three staff — to manage the team.
“I think the needs of many in our community are not being met due to discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ability and identity,” Mark Dykstra, commissioner of community services, said.
“Treating people equitably required an acknowledgement of different circumstances as well as systemic barriers.”
The budget framework approved includes $520,000 for salaries, benefits, training and operational needs for the team of four.
Dykstra said each staff person on the team will be equipped with both expertise as well as lived experience in the areas of Indigenous initiatives, anti-racism, equity and accessibility for persons with disabilities.
“We know we need to remove systemic barriers within government institutions. We want a staff team with expertise in these areas along with lived experience to advance that work,” Dykstra said.
The team will focus on addressing both internal and external issues involving diversity, equity and inclusion. By working with senior management teams, they will hone in on workplace culture and try to create diverse workplaces, as well as changes to service delivery, programs, policies and more.
The need for work towards equity and inclusivity was recognized by the city back in 2016 when they hired one set staff person, but it hasn’t been enough to support the community — sparking discussions around needing a designated team.
Lori Campbell, director of the University of Waterloo’s Indigenous Student Centre, noted that the dedicated staff team will ultimately alleviate pressure off of advocates within the community, much like herself, who are often posed with the task of filling gaps and providing guidance.
“I think my hope for it is that municipal members and staff employees of the city will increase their knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people that live within the region, and be better able to meet their needs and engage with them,” Campbell said.
Campbell reiterated the importance of bringing all voices into consideration when making any decision.
“Representation matters. I think Indigenous peoples, like all BIPOC peoples, need to be at all the decision making tables that affect all people,” Campbell said.
“Our voices are often not considered because nobody understands us … nobody has an understanding of our needs the same way that we do.”
Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo, who also holds a PhD in Education, echoed Campbell’s emphasis on the importance of including those with lived experiences in decision making roles but noted that she still has questions surrounding who will have the final approval over what the team brings to the table.
We may be in a situation where, inadvertently, the group advocates for something and, again, we’ve got white folks at the helmof who determines whether or not the groups that are advocating, deserve what they’ve asked for.
LAURA MAE LINDO
At SPECTRUM, Waterloo Region’s rainbow community space, members noted they’re excited for the multi-faceted ways in which the team will make a positive impact.
“I think that any move to improve diversity and equity is going to improve things for the LGBTQ2+ community,” Cait Glasson, president of SPECTRUM, said.
Glasson hopes the new team will bring equity to the front-of-mind at the city-level when creating policies and programs.
One example, of providing wider equitable opportunities and options, Glasson explained, would be incorporating Trans-only swims — as SPECTRUM has organized in the past — within city programming moving forward.
“A lot of Trans people don’t go swimming because swimming is a really fraught thing. Because of that, many Trans people just never go swimming,” Glasson said.
“I think that I see the new teams as a beginning step in trying to get the cities educated about the needs of communities that are not the majority.”
Fauzia Mazhar, executive director of Coalition of Muslim Women locally (CMW-KW), highlighted the complex ways in which community members experience discrimination and inequalities.
“Islamophobia happens at the intersection of racial identity, religious identity, and xenophobia,” Mazhar said.
“There is a lot that is racialized about the Muslim community — but there is something bigger, and race is part of it but it doesn’t give you the full picture.”
Mazhar hopes that intersectionality and how it impacts different groups of people in a multi-faceted way will be a part of the anti-racism and equity team’s conversations. For example, the experiences of a whitewoman with a hijab will be very different from a racialized woman who doesn’t have a hijab.
“Just think if you are Muslim, let’s say you are also a Trans woman or you’re a Black woman … it’s far more complex … and multifold than just one aspect of your identity,” Mazhar said.
Looking forward, Dykstra is hopeful for the start of system-level change, which is necessary.
“It’s the start of a journey … we’re advancing things now and we need to move forward.”