WOSEN’s Design Principles: Moving Beyond Checkboxes to Create Systems Change

CSI has been a proud member of the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) since its inception. In this blog, the WOSEN team — including our very own Jo Reynolds, Social Innovation Specialist, and Mitalie Makhani, Senior Program Manager — reflect on the unique approach they took to designing business supports: how they arrived at their seven design principles, and how their understanding of each principle evolved over time.

Can redesigning the way business supports are provided unlock the potential of diverse women entrepreneurs? When Pillar Nonprofit Network, CSI, SVX and Nordik Institute set out to form the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN), we began with that question in mind. Our goal was to reimagine the entrepreneurship ecosystem to support  women entrepreneurs from equity-deserving communities who are often excluded from traditional business supports. We knew that ending these inequities would require a unique approach.

When we refer to “women entrepreneurs” this includes ALL women. WOSEN recognizes the vast spectrum of gender diversity and as such programming is also inclusive of Two-Spirit, non-binary and genderqueer individuals. Admittedly, our learning of inclusive language continues to evolve. 

WOSEN has been asking equity-deserving founders how entrepreneurial support services can better meet their needs. We heard that talented entrepreneurs continue to face barriers as they navigate systems that were not built for them. These barriers include: lack of access to capital and investment, systemic racism, biases towards hyper growth and institutionalized stereotypes and biases, just to name a few.

We know that our social and economic systems are built on a foundation of colonization and white supremacy. As a result, traditional business supports uphold these oppressive systems. Without honest examination, acknowledgement and change, these systems and supports will continue to perpetuate harm to entrepreneurs from systemically-oppressed communities by creating barriers to success. This fuels a lack of trust, increases stress and impedes the entrepreneurs’ ability to build the enterprises that serve our communities.

In response, at the outset of WOSEN, the collaborative began with our own reflective process. From there, we co-created seven Design Principles to help reimagine how to equitably reach and support a diverse group of social entrepreneurs to meet their potential. The principles have evolved beyond checkboxes for inclusive design and have become the root system that nurtures this entire network.

The Design Principles, Inclusive & Accessible, Systems-Informed, Decolonized, Responsive, Human-Centred, Anti-Oppressive and Ecosystem Approach are the foundation to all aspects of the WOSEN project. They guide recruitment and onboarding, inform design and delivery, build reflection in evaluations and create connection in partner collaborations. They are introduced to all external delivery partners and facilitators and are discussed frequently in internal meetings. 

Most importantly, the principles are interconnected and relational – they are not meant to be expressed or lived in isolation. They are linked to each other. This connectedness is deeply felt in how the principles show up within the relationships between the collaborators, program partners and participants. The WOSEN collaborators are constantly learning together and the way we understand, define and demonstrate these principles continues to evolve.

Rooted in relationship, the Design Principles are critical to building inclusive programming and a community where women entrepreneurs feel they belong. In our experience, being in authentic relationship means engaging participants in the process of program design to ensure it is meeting their needs, then iterating and responding to feedback along the way. Eaman Fahmy, Inclusive Program Designer for Pillar Nonprofit Network explains that the importance of “connection before content” cannot be underplayed. “We really have to establish that trust and connection before moving forward with the content,” she explains. 

Jo Reynolds, Social Innovation Specialist at the Centre for Social Innovation, adds: “For people like myself who design programs, the Inclusive Design Principles is an invitation to do it differently. Nothing for us, without us, is very important.”

Exploring the Design Principles has prompted a deep inner and external learning journey for all WOSEN collaborators. Developing new ways of working that challenge our current oppressive systems while still mentally steeped in the dominant narrative requires a great deal of personal development, un-learning and reframing. A commitment to this type of learning also requires the ability to let go of the need for perfection, to lean into discomfort and to appreciate the iterative nature of changing thought patterns, and ultimately, developing new systems. 

“I’d like to share with someone who’s going on their learning journey that it doesn’t always feel like you’re moving forward and there’s an ebb and flow. I love the mentality of honoring the process and that it isn’t linear, said Mitalie Makhani, Senior Program Manager at the Centre for Social Innovation. “These aren’t checkboxes, you don’t get to say, I’m now decolonized and I’m officially anti-oppressive. That doesn’t happen. It is ongoing and continuous.”

To share what we have learned with others who design and deliver business development programming, and those engaged in system shifting collaborative projects, the collective has developed knowledge products including a set of comprehensive definitions and a series of videos launching today. These products, along with a deck of conversation cards that is currently in development, will help facilitators and collaborators integrate the teachings into their relationships and content development.

By creating space to reflect, the following videos capture the principles in an organic way and illustrate how they are interpreted and explored by the people who use them every day. The series is narrated by Storyteller, Performer, Arts Educator, and Creative Consultant, Timaj Garad, who beautifully weaves the metaphor of the honeycomb as representing the interconnectedness of the collaborative and how the principles connect and overlap. As an artistic artifact, they present the content in a human-centred and heart-led way that is accessible and engaging, inviting viewers to tap into the emotion that exists as we uncover deep questions. 

Reflecting on Systems-Informed and Anti-Oppressive 

We can all place ourselves within systems. It takes time to understand our positionality and learn how to navigate these complex systems which are rooted in colonization and not built to serve everyone equally. It takes time and energy to stay Systems-Informed but the work is necessary to challenge these systems and pave new ways to navigate and bring about the change that our communities desire.

We seek to recognize the different forms of oppression that exist in our society, and attempt to mitigate their effects and eventually equalize the power imbalance in our communities. Practicing Anti-Oppressive work in real terms is not only confronting individual examples of power and oppression or confronting societal examples, it is also confronting ourselves in recognizing our own roles in upholding systems of oppression. 

Reflecting on Inclusive & Accessible

As we’ve embarked on an un-learning and re-learning journey, we’ve had to consider the power of perspective; recognize power dynamics and reimagine inclusion and representation as belonging rather than participation. With these mindset changes, we begin to foster safe, brave spaces to co-create and co-learn with one another and create more opportunities to fill gaps and bridge barriers. All decisions have consequences and it’s vital that we approach decision-making with intention and inclusion if we are to make shifts in the ecosystem. 

Reflecting on Decolonized

Being decolonized means reflecting on the history of colonization and recognizing that these oppressive systems still exist today. It means being committed to an ongoing learning journey that isn’t only captured through academia, intellectual theory and western knowledge. Taking a Decolonized approach recognizes that knowledge is also held in the body, in the earth, in our spirits, in ancestral wisdom and cultural traditions. It means listening in a deep and generative way, not only with our ears, but with our hearts. Taking a Decolonized approach requires hard work and heart work and honoring that we all hold knowledge and lived experience. It means changing the narrative together. 

Reflecting on Human-Centred, Ecosystem Approach & Responsive

We are all human, but centering the human experience has not traditionally been the norm in entrepreneurship. If we believe that the people are more important than anything else we must create an environment to hold space for Human-Centered design. The Responsive nature of this approach is not a one way street, it requires co-creation with program participants. It means working together to share knowledge and gain more clarity about the ecosystems that we work within. Relationships are the foundation for everything, including how we define success and how we affect change.

The WOSEN collaborative partners hope that these knowledge products will help to amplify and disseminate what they have learned so that others working with entrepreneurs can adapt their offerings to be more equitable, inclusive and responsive for existing and emergent talent. By sharing their collective insights, learnings and un-learnings in using the design principles, they hope to encourage program designers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to also dive deeper into their work to enhance their program design, relationships and facilitation practice. 

Learn more about WOSEN and the design principles here

The Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network is a collaboration between Pillar Nonprofit Network, Centre for Social Innovation (CSI)SVX and NORDIK Institute’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (SEE). Lean 4 Flourishing supported the development of the Design Principles. This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.

 

After 16 Months, the CSI Team is Taking A Moment To Breathe

It’s been an overwhelming year and a half, to say the least. That’s why, from July 19 to August 13, the CSI staff team is taking time to recharge and reflect before we reopen (when it’s safe to do so). We’re calling these four weeks CSI Breathes

What is CSI Breathes? 

CSI Breathes is an opportunity for our staff team to collectively slow down a bit. We have all committed to lower the intensity of our work, mitigate Zoom fatigue by limiting internal meetings, and for many of us, to take that long-awaited vacation without coming back to Sunday scaries and an overflowing inbox (you know the one – that dreaded pile of emails that can quickly max out any energy you may have recouped while away). 

We aren’t closing up shop by any means. Carving out time to, on the surface, do less will actually give us a chance to do a lot more: get outside, be in nature, see our families and friends, and of course, prepare to ramp up for a (hopeful) September reopening of our buildings! 

Why are we telling you this? 

Rest is key to doing transformative work. In fact, mental breaks increase productivity. As we co-design the future of work, exhaustion from overwork will not be something we take with us, nor will it be a point of pride we hold up to the world as a marker of productivity, success, or virtue. We understand that not everyone can take a breath right now, that it’s a privilege to be able to slow down and recharge. The nonprofit sector and business world are often saddled by cultures of burnout, stress, and precarious labour. It’s time to change that.

Building the Next Economy – one that is regenerative, equitable, and sustainable – requires that we strengthen local economies through community wealth; create workplaces that allow us to bring our whole selves to work; and implement models that empower quality employment, so that prioritizing rest is no longer considered risky, privileged, or lazy (and isn’t something we feel the need to write a blog about). It’s the standard of a healthy economy as any basic human need should be. 

Building this kind of economy requires us to live out these values now. It’s why CSI is proud to be a living wage employer; why we took the last year to review and bolster our compensation plan; why we created the Community Rent Pool to support our members through crisis; and why we did not lay off a single staff member due to Covid and instead, got creative reassigning roles. It’s also why, from July 19 to August 13, our team will be doing the most transformative thing any of us could be doing after sixteen months of profound grief, loss, and uncertainty: we are going to rest. 

What does this mean for you, our members? 

Honestly, nothing major! Other than the fact that you’ll be receiving a re-energized staff team ready to welcome you back, we are up and running as usual and all member supports remain here for you. You may notice our CSI events calendar is a little less full and our newsletter is on pause, but otherwise, our community team is doing what they always do in the summer for our members: preparing for a jam-packed September! 

In fact, in the spirit of CSI Breathes, our CSI Annex Community Animator, Tara, collaborated with CSI Member, Challenge Factory, to bring you a three-part curriculum-based program designed for people looking to make a stronger connection between their values and the work they do, and to help them learn to communicate these goals in a collaborative way with their employers. 

Crisis is a profound teacher. Throughout the pandemic, our CEO, Tonya, has reminded us, “COVID is Mother Nature sending us to our room, and asking us to think about what we’ve done.” As our team takes some time to reflect on what the pandemic has taught us, Ignite Your Career is your chance to learn how to navigate uncertainty, identify the supports you need, and communicate your goals to your employers.

What are our staff members getting up to during this breather? 

Part of the fun leading up to these four weeks has been swapping stories with coworkers about what we are most looking forward to. Here are a few CSI staff members on what they are doing with their CSI Breathes: 

“I am excited to use the hot tub and brick oven pizza stove that my partner and I were building from scratch,” CSI’s WOSEN Senior Programs Manager, Mitalie, exclaims. “Looking forward to making gourmet pizzas and experimenting with various ingredients.” 

Our Community Animator, Tara, is “looking forward to disconnecting from my laptop, pulling out my paints, and staring at the blue and green wherever I can find it. […] It’s a little time to reflect and reconnect with myself and my purpose.” 

And like most of us, our Membership Animator, Andrea, says she is “looking forward to the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family, and embark on some short day trips. Where I end up? Not too sure yet, but I am thrilled to be out in nature more, take a dip in a lake, hug a few hundred trees, and play some sports — volleyball anyone?”

And when September comes? She says, “I’m excited to meet CSI members, old and new. I will take time to connect with more members, support their transition into the space, and welcome new members to the network.” 

We can’t wait! Until then, we breathe. 

Reflecting on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s Announcement

The following is a reflection from multiple staff members as we processed the news from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and looked for concrete actions that we and our community can take. Please note that the following contains material some may find triggering in regards to residential schools in Canada. 

Indigenous History Month began just a few days after the bodies of 215 children were found in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. On Monday, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, called for this horrific finding to be a “catalyst” for further work uncovering these graves at the sites of residential schools throughout the country.

On behalf of her band, Chief Rosanna Casimir of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation is encouraging everyone to take part in a National Day of Prayer today (June 6). With a similar intention, Idle No More Toronto and Porcupine Warriors have organized the Bring Our Children Home March and ceremonial event happening today at Queen’s Park in Toronto at 2 p.m E.T. Today is a day to reflect on this unthinkable loss and honour the 215 children who have been found, as well as the countless more who are still missing. 

The first step towards reconciliation must be truth, and so listening to the words of survivors* of the Kamloops residential school, and the system as a whole, is paramount. (*Warning: This story contains disturbing details about the Kamloops residential school. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.)

Those of us who are settlers must recognize that as much as this discovery at Kamloops is tragic, it is not surprising: “We know there are a lot of sites like Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future,” said Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

We must also recognize that calls for justice are not new. Indigenous peoples have been speaking out since the schools’ inception. In 1907, the first Chief Medical Officer of the Interior, Dr. P.H. Bryce, wrote a report demanding a major overhaul of the system of residential schools, only to be ignored by the Canadian government, and later pushed out from public service. In 1922, he wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal to Justice to the Indians of Canada, detailing clear evidence of the government’s role in creating and maintaining the system of oppression, as well as their attempts to silence him. 

When tragedy surfaces, there can be a tendency to assume we need to create more solutions, that a problem persists out of an absence of ideas. Such assumptions can be a way of intellectualizing atrocity and problem-solving our way out of discomfort. Indigenous communities have been recommending solutions, providing answers, and lighting a path for reconciliation for a very long time. The problem persists, not out of a lack of policy analysis or studies or community processes; it persists due to government inaction and public indifference.

Yellowhead Institute’s 2020 status update on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission paints a grave picture of our unfolding legacy: “In 2019, we noted that at the rate of 2.25 calls completed each year, we could only hope to see substantial change over nearly four decades (we projected the completion of Calls to Action to be in 2057). Unfortunately, with the regression of this year’s reconciliation update, it could take much longer, at least another generation.” Of the 94 recommendations, six of them pertain to the identification of missing children and their marked and unmarked burial sites (#71-76). According to Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, these specific calls to action have not been fully implemented, though some progress has been made. 

It’s important to recognize that this work cannot be done solely by our institutions; it is also work that must be done by all Canadian settlers. An important starting point is to read, understand, and demand the adoption of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which begin with calls to action for child welfare. And for those who have the means, here is a link to donate to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society

The following is further reading settlers can do to learn about the atrocities of the residential school system and take action towards reconciliation:

Here are health supports for survivors, their families and community members: 

  • A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
  • The Indian Residential School Survivors Society offers a crisis line for grief, crisis, and trauma counselling at 1-800-721-0066.
  • First Nations Health Authority provides mental wellness and culturally-safe support

Today is a national day of grieving. Let it be followed by deep, persistent action. 

Join Our Team and Help Shape The Next Economy

Are you ready to lead?

CSI is proving the Next Economy is possible. We’re looking for bold leaders to join our team and help bring the most promising and transformative models, enterprises, and solutions to reality. Applications for our Chief Operating Officer (COO) position close May 24th 2021, and applications for our Chief Program Officer (CPO) position close May 31st 2021.

The Centre for Social Innovation is proving that new business models are possible. With entrepreneurship, collaboration and systems change as our core DNA and the power of social innovation at our back, we are focusing on markets as the place to prioritize our work.

This is a rare kind of crew – practical, friendly and deeply ambitious. We are making social change while proving a new kind of economy is possible and we’re having fun doing it.

How Are You, Really? A Call to the Community

Through conversation and programming, our CSI Community Animator, Marcus Huynh, has spent the last year invested in the health and wellbeing of our community. For Mental Health Week, he wanted to share a few words about what this experience has taught him, what he hopes for our community, and how he is here to support. 

We’ve seen the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health in our personal and professional lives. The way we work and live has changed. The way we lead has changed. The way we socialize and connect with loved ones has changed. The way our kids learn at school has changed. What we see in the media has changed. We see the discrimination and racial inequities that continue to be illuminated and how the pandemic have disproportionally impacted marginalized communities.  

 As social changemakers, we place a lot of responsibility on ourselves to do more and respond more urgently during moments of crisis. At CSI we say, “It’s up to us.” And while that remains true, it’s important to acknowledge that working amid uncertainty, grief, loss, and isolation whilst balancing the needs of relationships, home, and financial pressures affects our mental and emotional capacity and can take a significant toll on the wellbeing of our community. Burnout, and it’s more conversational counterpart, screen fatigue, are real. If you’re feeling exhausted, you’re not alone. We hear you. 

So, as Mental Health Week comes to a close, it’s a great reminder to check in, especially given the current state of the world – and to acknowledge the work doesn’t stop once the week ends. I am writing this as a call to our community to continue to check in, reflect on where we’ve been and to offer an open door for anyone who needs an ear. We all need to listen, keep the conversation going, and break down the stigma surrounding mental health, together. The more we can inject these conversations into our lives and our work, the better, as it affects all aspects of our lives!

It’s essential for us as changemakers to reflect on community health as we work together to build the Next Economy. It’s also “up to us” to ask ourselves and those around us: How are you really doing? What’s causing you stress? What support do you need? As a community, where does our mental health fit into our work? And what is your role?

As CSI Spadina’s Community Animator, my work involves building and connecting the community. These simple questions help me check in and insert more opportunities for dialogue to better understand what’s beneath the surface. The most important part of my work is checking in on the community, meeting them where they’re at, and listening to the pulse of the community’s health.  

In March, as we entered one year of the pandemic and the anniversary of CSI first closing its spaces, there was an opportunity to pause and reflect. We made various CSI programs and touch points available to highlight the importance of mental health and to engage CSI community members along different intersections of their wellbeing journey. We have such incredible members working in mental health and emotional wellbeing and we wanted to broadcast and bridge their work with the needs of our community! We collaborated with CSI members, like Pedro Afif (Psychotherapist) and Ronit Jinich (Mindfulness Without Borders), to provide workshops on Psychoeducation to help us understand how stress shows up and how we are responding to our mental health during this time. We offered various modalities and different ways to engage, particularly since everyone is at a different place in their own mental health journey. 

Often mental health and emotional wellbeing support comes in less direct forms: during the past year, we also hosted community virtual gatherings known as our “Toasts”, which were an opportunity for our members to simply show up wherever they were at, even as the world was changing around us, connect with some friendly virtual smiles and faces, and cheers to each other. For me, these were some of the most memorable and impactful moments of reconnecting with our community virtually. They provided the opportunity to witness connection and remind ourselves that we are all human, that we are in this together, that there is support and there is hope.

Over the last year and a half, I’m reminded that mental health care is different for everyone. Some people may be looking for someone to talk to or seeking resources, others may be navigating different ways of coping, or simply noticing the symptoms that show up from stress and anxiety. Whether it’s having someone to share challenges with, attending a session or conversation to gain insights, reading an article, or asking for help, people need to seek out and be offered support that suits their needs, including counselling or therapy. On that note, mental health is a two-way street, and we all have a role! Sometimes a loved one will come to us for support, and sometimes we’re the ones who need support.

Let’s continue to have these conversations, get real, and provide each other (and ourselves) the support we need as a community. 

I’ll start: How are you, really?

And while we continue the conversation, here is a list of government funded resources and services in Ontario, including telephone counselling, internet-based CBT, online guided programs, local community services and learning resources:  

Tender care: keeping CSI green during the pandemic

Plant wall

What is it we like to say when the snow is (hopefully) gone and the April sun hits? Oh, right! “Spring has sprung!” With greenery making a comeback after a distinctly isolating winter, it feels like the right time to spotlight a few of CSI’s unsung heroes: our plant caregivers, Veronika and Deenie. Over the last year, they have spent many hours watering, pruning and taking care of CSI’s countless plants, and their work should not go unnoticed. Let me explain why.

Plant from the Plant Drive sitting on windowsillThere are many plant parents at CSI. Our plants, like our pets, have a way of adopting us. Take the twenty-five year old grapefruit tree that spends its winters in the Annex office, for example. Plants have a storied history here (more on the grapefruit tree below). In fact, we once did a Plant Drive in 2011 as a fundraiser to grow CSI, but that’s another story. Suffice to say, leaving our beloved coworking space deserted was difficult enough without the added melancholy of bidding our dear plants adieu. That’s when Veronika, our Greenery PECA, and Deenie, our CSI Annex Caretaker, stepped in. 

And while a fervent attachment to a few succulents may seem silly to some, in a year of incredible uncertainty, ambiguity, and loss, it’s comforting to know at least some things are being taken care of. Thank you, Veronika and Deenie!

 

Plant from Plant Drive sitting on deskSo, what does caring for an entire building’s plants look like? 

Veronika is our Greenery PECA. A PECA is a Project Exchange Community Animator (you can learn more about that on the Exchange Animator page). She is in charge of “greening” our space through special projects and initiatives. Deenie calls her “our resident plant lover extraordinaire” and for good reason: Veronika can often be found tending to her planted trees in the alley or feeding the indoor plants worm compost she makes from all of our food waste.

 

Turns out, taking care of an entire building’s plants in a pandemic requires a whole new level of commitment as it makes for a pretty intense fitness regime. Veronika told us she’s “grateful that despite my gym being closed for months and months, I am able to get exercise lugging water up and down five flights of stairs regularly.” When you put it that way, we’re very grateful, too. 

Deenie is our tried and true CSI Annex Caretaker. She was kind enough to take over for Veronika from March to September in the early stages of the pandemic. Her master key certainly proved useful! Many CSI members would have lost their personal office plants otherwise, not to mention a few of CSI’s rather finicky hibiscus trees Deenie says she had to save. 

Yucca Tree on second floor of Annex officeAny Favourites? 

Deenie admits, “my favourite plant is a twenty-five year old grapefruit tree I grew from a seed. My daughter and I loved to peel and  eat grapefruit like an orange. We were sharing one when she was nine. We found a seed that had a little green trying to poke through. Now, this tree is too large to winter inside my home but enjoys a sunny welcome inside the Whole Note office on [the CSI Annex building’s] fifth floor. 

Veronika says, “my favourite is the Yucca tree in the second floor meeting room that was donated by Trainer’s Gym. It has branches winding in many directions, crossing over and under each other. Members have suggested I cut the branches and re-root them so that they can grow straight, but I tell them that the tree reminds me of the CSI logo in its defiant messiness. Sometimes life is not linear, and is a bit haphazard, but that is what makes it interesting. The tree is a reminder that the path to a goal is important, not just the goal; that adaptability is of value, and that life can take you many ways before you flourish.

Hanging vines in the CSI Annex location.

Veronika’s words are a helpful reminder as we make our way through the third wave of the pandemic. It’s comforting to know that eventually when the path is cleared and we can finally re-enter the space, our community will find a lot of life, fresh-faced and blooming, ready to welcome us back. We all have Veronika and Deenie to thank for that.

 

Putting up my Hand

This International Women’s Day we’re proud to share a piece written by our Director of Partnerships and Co-Chair of our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility committee (IDEA), Raissa Espiritu. Raissa’s personal story highlights her experience growing up as a woman of colour in Canada; the societal barriers she has encountered and her struggle with identity. We are so grateful to Raissa for sharing her words with us, words which strengthen the drive for racial and gender equality across sectors.

I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and grew up in a small town called Dundas, a suburb of Hamilton, Ontario. My parents came to this country from the Philippines so that I could have a better life. 

My parents were both well educated in the Philippines, but their degrees were not recognized in Canada. I remember them working as research assistants in a lab at Dalhousie University. Eventually, my dad was able to get his degree in Chemical Engineering and my mom was offered a role in an Oncology lab at McMaster University run by one of her former Dalhousie students. That’s when we moved to Ontario.

A true immigrant success story; my parents worked for the same organizations until they retired. I remember hearing quiet conversations in their shared dialect, spoken to hide things from my sister and me. They didn’t think I could understand when they talked about how they felt their education and skin colour prevented them from exceeding in their roles, or about how the cultural hierarchy at their workplaces fostered nepotism and hiring for likeness.

Little Raissa sitting on a kitchen table.

Three years ago I would have told you that there was nothing wrong with my upbringing. All my friends and the people I grew up with were white. I cannot recall how many non-white people I knew. My family was lower-middle class. At school, I was told I could be a leader, that I could be anything I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and be outspoken. There was nothing that could hold me back from living my dream. At home, there was different food, different rules, and high expectations of me – obey, don’t talk back, be lady-like, respect authority, work hard, and have good grades. 

Three years ago, if you’d asked me whether my bicultural upbringing had an impact on the person I am today, I wouldn’t have had an answer. To me, it was just “normal.”
Three year old Raissa holding her baby sister.

In August 2019, I started my Executive MBA at Ivey Business School. I felt that my accomplishments up to that point had no real meaning, and that, as a woman of colour, for me to succeed and thrive in this world, and become the leader I wanted to be (that I was told I could be), I had to go to business school. Business school held the promise of making me more outspoken, unleashing my inner leader, and, most of all, getting people to take me seriously. 


At school, I forced myself to raise my hand in every class. It was hard and uncomfortable. I was worried about hostile reactions to what I would say, or even worse, being wrong. I was fighting against decades of my upbringing and lived experiences. I recall talking to a friend about how nervous I would get to put up my hand. How I always found it hard to get all of my thoughts organized before speaking, because I felt that my remarks needed to be perfect, that I had only one shot to prove myself.

I don’t know when things changed for me, maybe when I was forced inside due to Covid-19, with nothing to do but think about… everything. Or maybe it was after the death of George Floyd, as the Black Lives Matter movement pushed forward. I started to look at everything in my past in a new way, and found it wasn’t normal. I finally began to recognize the battle within me, and I didn’t like my past memories coming to the surface. 


For the majority of my professional career, I’ve been a fundraiser. I raise funds from both ultra-high net worth individuals and corporations for the causes I’m passionate about. However, in Canada, #philanthropysowhite. For more than a decade, I’ve witnessed myself morph and change to fit into this culture. At times it has pushed me to depression. At other times, it has caused me to work harder to climb the proverbial ladder.

Raissa at graduation.

I recall working on a third-party fundraising event where my colleague, a black woman, and I, coordinated a tennis tournament in one of those big Toronto houses on the Bridle Path. We watched the guests play tennis all day to raise money for a cause while they drank cocktails, got massages, swam in the indoor and outdoor pools, and ate lavishly catered meals. This memory symbolizes inherent white privilege to me, juxtaposed against the two racialized women who had been picking up tennis balls all day, trying to earn a decent wage. We did so with obedient smiles. 

Raissa Espiritu, Director of Partnerships at the Centre for Social Innovation

Once I recognized this battle, I started to put up my hand in class more. 
I started to stick up for myself more.
I leaned on, and supported, the other womxn in my class more.
I became more vocal about the social injustices that were happening around me.
I started to tell my stories and share my experiences more.
I cut through all that stuff I was raised on, and I stopped caring who was in the room.

And you know what happened?


My classmates validated and valued my leadership. They chose to be allies. I became Valedictorian of my class. Opportunities began presenting themselves, and, right now, I feel such an abundance. It only took my 40 years of life, a lot of grit and support, and I still don’t think I deserve it. It’s still hard to put up my hand.

This is a long story, with – right now, at least – a happy ending. I know there are people with similar stories who have not been given the opportunities I have, whose stories don’t end happily. Not everyone has choice, the ability to pursue higher education, or even the luxury of self-reflection. I know intersectionality and privilege come in many forms; this is my story.

What I want to convey is that, when you’re working or interacting with someone, a colleague, a classmate, a new acquaintance, take time to understand their context. 

Recognize how another person shows up is different from how you show up. These differences signify the privilege. How will you use yours?

As a woman of colour I’m asking you to listen. Educate yourself without burdening us. Use your privilege to stand up for us and help lift us up. My hope is that you will empathize and validate our identities so we can spend more time being ourselves, and less time as the two-dimensional characters we have been playing to fit in. 

What if this were all possible, and every racialized person felt supported, validated, valued? If we truly embraced cultural differences, equity, and diversity in our communities and at work, more of us would have the opportunity to use our skills and experiences to the fullest, to be unleashed, to be ourselves, to be truly outspoken and heard, to feel worthy, to be recognized, to put up our hand.  

Raissa Espiritu is the Director of Partnerships and Co-Chair of the IDEA Committee at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Ontario. She makes the change she wants to see using her ambition and tenacity to solve the world’s biggest problems. She is a bridge-builder, changemaker, consultant, advisor, director and serial entrepreneur. She has a background in basic science research and an MBA from Ivey Business School. She has many interests and is currently focused on investing for good, femtech, and championing diversity & inclusion. 

CSI’s Director of Programs Recognized as Emerging Leader by The Globe and Mail

Climate Ventures members

We are so honoured and delighted to announce that CSI’s Director of Programs Barnabe Geis has been selected as one of 50 changemakers and leaders by The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine. We’re thrilled that social entrepreneurship and social innovation are becoming more and more accepted and mainstream!

The award is in recognition of his work launching and leading many of CSI’s programs focused on supporting early-stage entrepreneurs and innovators, both for profit and nonprofit, working to build the Next Economy – one that is regenerative, equitable and prosperous for all.

Barnabe Geis
Barnabe Geis, CSI's Director of Programs

These programs have included educational courses such as Social Entrepreneurship 101 and Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals, both run by Peggy Sue Deaven, that have supported over 300 aspiring entrepreneurs, and accelerators such as our national Earth Tech program, run by Shea Sinnott, supporting cleantech companies working on climate and water solutions.

In 2018 Barnabe created CSI Climate Ventures to support the entrepreneurs and innovators working on climate solutions. Climate Ventures has accelerated 121 early-stage entrepreneurs that have earned and raised nearly $32M and sustained 376 jobs while participating in our programs.

“We are so proud of the work that Barnabe and his team have done, helping to prove that the Next Economy is possible,” says CSI’s Co-Founder and CEO Tonya Surman. “Over the last 10 years, Barnabe has stepped up to grow several of our Next Economy programs; from local to highly scalable, social and environmental, for profit and nonprofit, including companies such as Mommy Monitor and Flash Forest. It’s his tenacity and belief that ‘it’s up to us’ to use the power of enterprise to solve many of the world’s most challenging issues that make Barnabe worthy of this recognition.”

“This is truly a reflection of all of our work at CSI, from program managers, staff and the leadership team, to our partners and funders,” Barnabe says. “It’s been a privilege to get to play a role in the journeys of amazing entrepreneurs and innovators tackling pressing social and environmental challenges and proving that change is possible. I look forward to growing our programs to support many more ventures over the next couple years.”

Supporting social entrepreneurs at the early-stages to get their solutions and business models right is crucial to their future success and impact, and to fostering a resilient economy that will serve people and the planet and address the challenges of our time, from the climate crisis to rising inequality. CSI is developing an inclusive “acceleration ramp” to take hundreds of entrepreneurs across the country from idea to impact.

The Report on Business Changemakers Award

Changemakers is a new editorial award program produced by The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine. Its intent is to showcase the emerging leaders transforming business today.

Barnabe is in good company: the other Canadian leaders recognized by The Globe and Mail include Remi Desa, CEO of Pantonium, Thomas Benjoe, President and CEO of FHQ Developments, Atrisha Lewis, Partner at McCarthy Tétrault, and Kristina Menton, Director of Operations, Flight Test & Propulsion at Opener LLC.

“As the Canadian economy recovers from the pandemic, many people are seeking ways to make business more sustainable, inclusive, innovative and fair,” says James Cowan, editor of Report on Business magazine. “The 50 Changemakers on our inaugural list serve as inspiration and instruction for any business leader seeking to effect meaningful change.”

A community of changemakers

The people, groups, and organizations that make up CSI are all working toward meaningful change. If you want to support this work (or you’re working on a project yourself), consider becoming a CSI Member.

Why health care institutions need to build trust with the Black community in the fight against the pandemic

Hospital building with a blue cloudy sky in the background

Bria Hamilton is a Master’s student in the Environmental Studies program at York University in the Urban Planning stream. Her research is focused on Black feminist geographies and the use of these theories to disrupt normative planning practices.

Bria also works with CSI on the Every One Every Day: Toronto program as a Neighbourhood Asset Mapping Researcher. This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail. We’ve republished with Bria’s permission.


“I don’t want to get the vaccine.” I have heard variations on this sentiment numerous times from my Black friends and family members regarding the incoming COVID-19 inoculations. In this specific instance, it was my Jamaican-born grandmother, who has lived in Canada since 1974.

I set aside my initial discomfort surrounding anti-vaccination rhetoric, which often cites unfounded side effects of vaccines. After I asked my grandmother why she felt this way, she hesitated before telling me that she did not trust the vaccine, she was not sure how it worked and she felt the trial phase was too quick. She had heard from her friend that multiple people had died from the trials; her friend had heard this information from their friend, and so on.

My grandmother, my mother and I have all had extremely negative experiences with Canadian medical care. The most atrocious story was the removal of my grandmother’s uterus without her permission during unrelated surgery.

These stories of medical racism are commonly shared within and across Black communities, many of whose members do not trust medical institutions to care for us. This mistrust is certainly not unfounded: the histories of Canada and the United States are riddled with enslavement, institutionalized racism and over-policing of Black bodies.

The Tuskegee Study in the United States has become a widely known exemplification of medical anti-Black racism. From 1932 until the study was disclosed in 1972, hundreds of Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., were purposely withheld syphilis treatment by the U.S. Public Health Service in order for researchers and practitioners to study the natural course of the disease.

The patients believed they were receiving standard treatment but instead were “subjected to blood draws, spinal taps, and eventually autopsies” by white medical staff, Marcella Alsan and Marianne Wanamaker wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2018.

The majority of the patients in the study died as a result of the disease and lack of treatment. The Tuskegee Study cemented existing oral histories and generational knowledge of racist medical practices, and it is marked as a major contributor to medical distrust in Black communities.

Entrenched memories, oral histories and traumas of medical abuse are often dismissed as conspiracy theories amongst broader populations, as J.M. Hoberman noted in his book Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism. Despite the widespread tendency to dismiss experiences of medical racism, there are clear indicators of inadequate health care for Black people.

For centuries, medical professionals have sought to prove biological differences between Black people and white people and their tolerance for pain. According to a 2016 study presented at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, as many as 50 per cent of white doctors still believe that biological differences allow Black people to tolerate more pain, and thus provide inaccurate medical recommendations for those patients. A study published in the Journal of Perinatal Education found Black Americans are up to six times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Canada neglects to collect race-related health care data at all, but with the maintenance of oral histories in Black communities, the medical mistrust persists.

The effects of COVID-19 are contextualized within a historically racist system and thus exacerbate disenfranchisement in racialized communities. Marginalized communities are most susceptible to the virus because of high-density dwellings; the necessary use of shared spaces; the fact that low-income workers are required on the front lines; and the use of public transit.

COVID-19 infections are continuing to rise in Canada and the United States, and the Black population has been overrepresented in these cases. Black people in Toronto, for instance, represented 9 per cent of the population but made up 21 per cent of the reported COVID-19 cases, as outlined by Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s Medical Officer of Health in July, 2020.

The COVID-19 vaccines will serve as an essential measure of combatting the virus. Despite the necessity of the vaccine in Black communities, which increasingly face the negative effects of the virus, health care and government organizations have neglected to consider the mistrust of institutions amongst Black people. At a press conference in December, Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott mentioned that those who choose not to be vaccinated may face restrictions when travelling and within communal spaces, such as movie theatres.

With the possibility of these restrictions, I am heavily concerned that the inaccessibility of health care and the warranted medical distrust within Black communities will result in additional discrimination and immobility for Black people. Governing and health care bodies are responsible for this mistrust and thus are responsible for providing avenues through which Black people can feel comfortable and safe receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

To achieve this, I recommend extensive work into collaborative efforts toward vaccine education within Black communities, as well as continuing anti-racism education for health care practitioners.

Within my field – urban planning – public consultations allow community members to ask questions, develop relationships and ultimately build trust toward planners who aim for healthier communities. In the medical field, community engagement frameworks can be used for educational and collaborative efforts, and can help lead to safer medical experiences for Black people. The process of creating vaccines should be explicitly showcased with attention paid to accessible, culturally relevant information.

In light of international attention to George Floyd’s killing, many institutions, governments and organizations have put forth statements about the need to address anti-Black racism. In Canada in particular, racism discourse is sidelined by the hegemonic self-proclamation of a diverse and inclusive nation. Anti-Black racism work requires more than statements: There needs to be action, trust-building efforts, anti-racism education and the active engagement of Black voices in these conversations.

The Evolving Role of Workspace

Two people wearing masks having a conversation at a Team Table in CSI Spadina

A year of remote work has proven that it is, indeed, possible — but it doesn’t spell the end of the office completely. Likely, organizations will adopt a more flexible system that blends the two.

We know that offices work well for some things, and not as well for others. Having immediate access to people (in person!) can do wonders for innovation, collaboration, mentorship, and professional growth. These spontaneous interactions and background conversations are, however, distracting when you want to do deep work.

It makes sense, then, that workspace evolves into a space for community: somewhere like-minded people can learn, grow, and create together.

“We need to be intentional about the communities we are building,” said our CEO Tonya Surman in an interview with The Professional Centre. “Community for community’s sake is lovely. […] The real question is why do we seek communities? I think that coworking spaces are going to have to dig deeply into purpose.”

Tonya speaks about the future of workspace, harbouring community, and how leadership right now is harder than ever. Watch the full interview:


And if you or your organization are currently looking for flexible coworking space, we might have something for you. See our coworking options.