Transcript – Episode 40: Chat with Kevin Lunianga, with guest host Deputy Minister Leslie MacLean

Leslie MacLean: Hello everyone. Welcome to National Public Service Week in Canada.

I’m really happy. I’m Leslie MacLean. I’m the deputy minister of International Development. And I’m really happy to be chatting today virtually because it is a pandemic, we’re socially distanced, with one of the staff who works in our Emergency Watch [and Response] Centre. I’m going to ask him to introduce himself, but it’s a particularly important time for us to be having the conversation. We’ve seen a number of protests here in Canada and around the world asserting the truth about Black lives mattering. And deputies have been hearing from the visible minority network and from staff across the network who are saying GAC [Global Affairs Canada] needs to do better, racism is real, it’s not just individual, it’s systemic. And I know there’s been an amazing engagement already of many employees with deputies to really help understand what are the things that we as an organization can and should be doing.

So, Kevin, I’ll pass the baton to you to introduce yourself if you could, and then we can start to chat. Thank you.

Kevin Lunianga: Thank you very much, Leslie. I really appreciate the introduction. So, everybody, my name is Kevin Lunianga. I work here at Global Affairs Canada in the Emergency Watch and Response Centre. I think, as Leslie mentioned, it’s a very important topic to address, the discussion of anti-Black racism here in Canada and also in the department. I just came to share some tips and maybe give some advice to people to better manage the relationship between colleagues and also to better discuss or have the language, to talk a little bit about anti-Black racism and how we can improve the workplace. So there you go.

Leslie MacLean: Thank you very much, Kevin. And again, as we’ve already discussed, for me, it’s a very rich opportunity to be able to share with each other and start our dialogue as 2 people, but within the department as well. So I’ll ask the first question.

Can we be on a first-name basis, Kevin?

Kevin Lunianga: Absolutely.

Leslie MacLean: That’s great. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences as a young Black person here in Ottawa or here in the public service? And thank you again for deciding to join the public service.

Kevin Lunianga: You’re welcome. No problem. Yes, absolutely. So, I was born here in Ottawa. My mother is of Rwandan origin, she came from Rwanda, and my father is of Congolese origin. But I was born here, in Orléans. I went to a French-language elementary school. My experience in Ottawa was generally positive from ages 0 to about 13—13, 14. Then, when I was 13 or 14, I started getting negative comments from my classmates. I was told a few times to go back to Africa and I was called a few things that aren’t really appropriate for a Black person. So, from the age of 13 to 14, I started to feel a little ashamed of my African roots. For example, I wore contact lenses for my eyes—blue lenses—because I was ashamed of my brown and Black eyes. And I wanted to be white, so I wore contact lenses. And I was ashamed, really, of my roots and my skin. I had a hard time, but I’m lucky, because my mother works for the department, in fact. And she was posted to Zimbabwe. So when I turned 16, we moved from Ottawa to Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe completely changed my experience—my life experience. I was fortunate to live in a country where people of colour, people who looked like me, were in positions of power. I was also lucky enough to go to an international school, and there was a lot of diversity in my classes. We talked about a lot of different subjects together. And we socialized with a very, very mixed group of people. And when I came back to Canada—I finished high school there—I was inspired to talk about topics surrounding racism and have conversations about how we can create more diverse environments. So, in general, my experience was positive. But it’s because of Zimbabwe that I’ve really had the tools to talk about these things.

Leslie MacLean: Thank you so much for sharing, Kevin. It hurts to hear stories that were difficult, and I’m glad that other experiences helped change things. That experience has obviously brought us together today because you have continued to follow those ideas of how you can help others, address barriers. Could you talk a little bit about your experience here at Global Affairs, Kevin? Have you encountered barriers? What are the things we need to be paying attention to? How do we go about addressing those barriers?

Kevin Lunianga: Absolutely. Absolutely. Great question. So maybe I’ll start by saying that I think the Black experience is one that is very diverse. And so, you know, I come from a space that only speaks to my experience. But we should recognize, of course, that Black people also exist within the frameworks of disability, different religious beliefs, different genders and sexual orientations. So I want to really, as we have this conversation, think about how folks with multiple identities exist within the framework and what their experience might be like.

For me, working at Global Affairs Canada and in the public service altogether has been a fairly positive experience, I would say. I think I’ve been lucky because I work in environments and in departments or in sections where the focus is social justice or social equality. And so, for example, right now, I’m in the Emergency Watch and Response Centre, where we help Canadians in crisis. So by virtue of doing so, we have to have an awareness of inequality, of discrimination, of these topics that may inform people’s experiences while they’re abroad. So I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a fairly…in a positive environment here at Global Affairs Canada.

However, maybe we can talk a bit about the discrimination, anti-Black racism, that occurs and the various forms that it takes. So I think perhaps an important concept to have is the difference between overt racism and covert racism. And I think that, in government, it’s much less common to have the overt, which are the clearer, more direct forms of discrimination. So, for example, when I was telling you about being told to go back to Africa as a child, these comments, I think, are much, much less common in the public service. What we tend to see are, I would say, these covert forms of discrimination or anti-Black racism that typically occur in forms of comments, sometimes jokes, or sometimes small actions.

And, actually, I have an anecdote I’d like to share with you. And we can break down perhaps these kinds of comments and the reaction that it elicits from a person of colour. So this was the wintertime. I was walking to my desk from outside and I was wearing a lovely big black jacket and this bright orange hat, which is my favourite hat in the whole world. And as I was coming back to my desk, I was wearing this hat on my head and an individual that I had never really spoken to or talked to before, an older male who I didn’t know, passed by me and he said, “Hey, I can finally see you.” And his comment took me aback. I was kind of puzzled and confused. I wasn’t sure what he meant because, I mean, I’m the only 6’-4” Black man in the office. So kind of hard to miss. So I was a bit confused by his comment. And I think this was a quintessential example of a small micro aggression that occurs to Black folk on a regular basis. Because when I think about his comment, he was saying that your dark skin and this bright hat makes you visible. He was making a joke.

So in that moment, 3 potential solutions came to my mind. Solution number 1: “Kevin, just don’t bother. Don’t mind. It was a joke. If anything, you should feel bad for this person because it was a bad joke. So don’t say anything. Don’t comment. It’s not worth it. Not necessary. Don’t spend your emotional energy here.” However, I thought to myself, if I stay quiet, does this create a precedent? Does it allow for this person to then make jokes to other Black folks and folks of colour, who will then feel kind of uneasy? Option number 2: “Kevin, address it. Say something. Perhaps ask him a question, clarifying question, and ask, ‘Well, what did you mean by that, by that joke?’ or ‘What do you mean by you can finally see me?’ ” But then, I think the social fabric that existed in Canada talking about racial discrimination is very difficult for folks. And so if I ask him the question, will it then create some hostility in the workplace for me? Will it then create tension? Option number 3: “Kevin, maybe go speak to HR [human resources] or the Employee Assistance Program or someone and talk about your experience and just share it with someone.” Then I thought, well, will they have appropriate channels or mechanisms to talk about anti-Black racism? Will I be able to express myself and be met with the support that I need? I’m not sure. And so we can see how a small comment or joke that maybe was meant to be funny, but has this interesting, very sly way of reminding you of your difference, reminding you that, you know, you’re Black and don’t forget that, and how it has this impact on Black folks. And I think these subtle forms of discrimination are what we see regularly here in the public service.

Leslie MacLean: Kevin, I appreciate again this sharing because it’s as you just said, sometimes it seems like a small thing and I guess you can say, “Oh, I’m going to ignore that, it’s a minor thing, blah blah blah.” But we don’t want things to go on. It’s super important to…this reflection, what to do when something like this happens. How do you respond so we address the issue and it doesn’t continue? I was really happy, Kevin, that in your comments, you talked about the cumulative effect of those kind of small things and the difference between what is overt that we say everyone knows not to do and the subtle or the covert. And one of the things I’ve been paying a lot of attention to is the question of unconscious bias, that we may have beliefs and they may be very subtle, very insidious, as you say. So if you think about us as leaders, we are colleagues at GAC. We are blessed to live in a wonderful country, and yet, it has real issues and difficult discussions can be part of moving forward. We can’t resolve things if we’re not ready to face difficult things. Kevin, I know it’s a subject that elicits a lot of passion. You’ve thought about it. What kind of things should…? Dialogue is important. Reflecting on this is important. Concerted and ongoing action is also important. Could you share with me a few of the ideas you have that we can implement in this difficult time to continue making progress together?

Kevin Lunianga: Absolutely. But before I begin, I’d like to talk about the support I’ve seen in the department. Especially among colleagues who are Black or people of colour during the events, during the death of George Floyd and the death of Ahmaud Arbery. I saw a lot of collective support. And I had colleagues—we talked about things together—and who were really present and who were able to support us. It’s a really nice thing I saw in the department. I’m very proud to be part of the visible minority community here.

In terms of maybe actions or pieces that we can do, here’s perhaps...let me introduce 2 more concepts that I think are important in the context of GAC and of us as an institution here in government. I think being an ally and having the tools and the languages to help support our colleagues who might be undergoing these experiences is the most important piece that we can do. And within allyship, there are 2 different pieces that I want us to be very mindful of. I think the first piece is maybe what we can call performative allyship. And I think oftentimes performative allyship looks like short-term solutions. It sometimes looks self-gratifying and it looks more focused on images versus actually dealing with larger systemic issues and root issues. So that’s performative allyship.

And I think the kind of allyship that we want to move toward is committed allyship, and committed allyship looks like longer-term solutions. It looks like the capacity to really sit with folks of colour and folks of minority status and understanding the different issues. And it looks like coming up with tangible solutions and change.

So I think as institutions here in government, I feel like, typically speaking, we see more of performative actions and we need to find ways to move toward being more committed in our allyship. And I think a good way to do that is a concept that I think is very useful called the 4 As to allyship, and maybe I’ll explain sort of how that works. You know, in thinking about how we can support our colleagues who are going through experiences, the 4 A’s might be a very important or useful tip.

So the first A stands for “ask.” So maybe ask a colleague of colour or a minority colleague what support looks like to them. Let them use their words and guide you and let you know what their support looks like by virtue of asking them the question. And that can be as simple as saying, “Hey, what does support look like for you and what does meaningful support look like? How can I contribute to that?”

I think a second A stands for “access.” It means accessing information. So doing our best to educate ourselves, to learn more about the history of anti-Black racism in Canada, to learn by virtue of videos, maybe documentaries, maybe reading books and really getting our self-awareness and improving that piece.

I think the third A can stand for “avoid,” and that’s [to] avoid apologizing. And I think as Canadians we have a habit of saying sorry a lot and easily and we don’t realize it. But oftentimes saying sorry falls under the performative allyship camp because it often is rooted in the politic of making ourselves feel better versus actually finding solutions and helping out with the broader issues. So I would say avoid apologizing is an important piece. And the last piece, the last A, stands for “allow,” and it means [to] allow minority folks and folks of colour and Black folks to speak about their experiences and be open minded to it, because I think oftentimes there is this kind of fear of expressing ourselves and being reprimanded by, let it be management or whoever it might be. Because if you speak about race, sometimes it creates discomfort, and there’s not always that openness.

And I’m happy that you’ve opened up this door, Leslie, to have this candid conversation. To me, that is quintessential committed allyship, having this conversation with me, opening up the door and engaging meaningfully, that is a step toward committed allyship. And I think this is what we want to be doing more and more here in the department.

Leslie MacLean: Thank you so much, Kevin. There’s such a lot there. I was particularly taken by the “avoid apologizing” because it took me back to an earlier conversation you and I were having that this is a really difficult moment and all of us need to be in it together to have something better come out of this difficult moment. And the risk for us is that we have lip service, that we say that this is important, that we want to have a workplace that is inclusive and that respects everyone, regardless of their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, whether they have a disability. All of those things in some intersecting way and for me, therefore, the thing that will be super interesting and important is what we’re going to do to make sure that the dialogue continues. And it’s more than just words, it’s that we seek out and do what needs to be done. Because although performance art is great, we don’t want to be performative in this space, we want to be, we want to be true to the core of the issues. And true to the opportunity to have respect, to be just a fundamental a given in terms of how we work together.

So, Kevin, when you think about the dialogue that you, that many other staff around the organization, are opening up by having the courage to say “We have to do something and I’d like to talk about some of my ideas. I bring my reflection to the table. I want to be a force for change.”

Me, I really welcome this offer and this commitment. And your 4 As for allyship are going to be in my ears for a long time and the test for being a true ally I think will be in my ears for a long time. When you think about the culture that you have seen in the department, which I’m really happy to hear, Kevin, has been generally supportive with a bounce or more. Are there other things you could think of, Kevin, that we should be thinking about? Because we don’t want lip service, superficial change, we want change that supports individuals, communities, our country.

Kevin Lunianga: Absolutely. And I think perhaps I’ll start with what I see as the 2 main barriers for, I would say, minority folk, folks of colour, Black folks. And I’m going to propose maybe 5 solutions or 5 ways that we should think about how to maybe make the culture at work more equitable and more diverse. So I think for me, there are the 2 main barriers that I see for kind of, you know, a diverse workspace.

Number 1, I would say is representation. I would say that, you know, I pointed to the importance of or how helpful it was for me to go to Zimbabwe and to see people in positions of power and to see myself reflected across society. And I think this piece of representation is something that perhaps we can improve here in the department. And I think it’s an important piece, because senior management, I will say, you are phenomenal. Having the chat with you and listening to you speak to me means again, this kind of leadership is what we need. I think it’s kind of…the next step would be to look at getting other folks and diversifying also the ranks of senior management, keeping in mind that what we have now is great.

I think also another piece, maybe the second thing I’d like to mention, the second barrier, is really a question of the culture of silence in the department. And I think it’s because we’re a department with a lot of diplomats. We appreciate the fact that we’re very diplomatic and we don’t like conflict, and we often try to deal with this with silence, I find. So in the context of racism, generally, if you talk about racial issues too much, it becomes, not necessarily a problem, but it becomes something that creates, that becomes uncomfortable for people. And when you create this atmosphere for people, because they’re uncomfortable, it can often create issues for you to move ahead in your career because people say, “Ah, this person often complains about racism.” So the culture of silence that we have in the department, I think, doesn’t allow Black employees to be completely themselves.

So, what can we do to maybe change this culture and to create a culture of openness and diversity, I propose, I would say, 5 nice little solutions. The first one would be a commitment to advocacy that is advocating for the experiences of folks of colour and, as senior management, I think sitting down, what you’re doing now, having these conversations, figuring out what are the issues, and then bringing it to the forefront and sharing it with management, I think it’s important. And I do want to give a shout out to Deputy Minister Marta Morgan, because she met with the visible minorities network on June 12 on Friday and listened to the experiences of folks. She sat there and took notes on how they’ve felt here in the department. So I think that to me is a commitment to advocacy. And seeing more of that is what we want to move toward.

I think the second piece is a commitment to service. And when I say service, I think, like I said, senior management, you have so many tools and experiences in your belt, and I think maybe having a program, maybe a mentorship program, where senior management focuses on employees of colour, but of course it’s open to all employees, but having this dual exchange, like what we’re doing right now where, you know, you’re sitting with me, a 28-year-old African Canadian male, and here you are, the Deputy Minister with decades of experience in government, and we’re exchanging, and what’s so important about this is that I can’t think of many other contexts where we would be sitting down and having this kind of conversation. So I think a commitment to service is really beneficial for having these conversations and breaking down the silos that exist here in the department.

I think the next piece would be a commitment to information. And that is, I think senior management at the department can work toward providing resources for employees to do that learning and to educate and to unlearn. So maybe we have great resources. The [Canadian] Foreign Service Institute, I think, is phenomenal. So providing some training and providing some materials for folks to kind of read through to start their journey of learning about these complex issues, I think, is something that can create a culture of change.

And perhaps next point would be innovation. I think we have to be creative. How can we think of creative ways to talk about these difficult topics? Does that mean channelling art? Does that mean channelling videography? Does that mean making a 1-minute video series on what not to say to your Black colleague and making it using comedy, perhaps, to kind of have these discussions where we can have…we can do some learning in different ways.

And I think perhaps the last piece would be a commitment to excellence. How do you recognize excellence in our department? We see so much beautiful talent, so much Black excellence, minority excellence. What does recognizing that look like? And I think we’re on the right track. I think sitting down and teasing what the issues are can let us now think of what do we want to be as a department? Where do we…what kind of culture do we want to create? And I think, as I said, this is a great and important first step, but we have to continue the work and want to move again away from that performance allyship and enter that committed allyship, which I think we’re on the right track for.

Leslie MacLean: Awesome. Lots and lots of content and ideas, Kevin. It’s super interesting and super useful. I really reflect on the culture of silence. Being too polite may not be part of how we want to work and play together if we are going to move to that committed allyship where everybody is accepted for who they are and we all get to bring our A game to work every day, and that includes our difference. Kevin, I think we’ve had so much fun that we’ve really run out of time. Do you have a question for me?

Kevin Lunianga: I just have one question for you, Leslie. I’d just like to know, because I think you have one of the most interesting mandates in the department. Because you need to engage with international development issues. And when we think about international development and why we need international development, we have to talk about issues like colonization, and racism and global inequality. So, as Deputy Minister of International Development, what do you think, how can we use the experiences you’ve gained in your work and your global perspective to better improve the culture here at Global Affairs Canada, because I think you’ve learned a lot of lessons from what you do, how can we use that to improve the culture?

Leslie MacLean: I love this super-hard question, Kevin, thank you. To begin with, I’m also excited about the international development assistance mandate. For me, it’s such a recognition that we have the luxury, that we have a duty, as a country, to help others and to target our efforts toward those who are most vulnerable. And for me, the question that may be relevant for us within the department is, “How are we going to build our capacity?” And we’ve just talked about a capacity for recognition and a capacity for openness. Sometimes it’s the capacity to have difficult discussions and to have those difficult discussions—not to have conflict together—but to move to a place of respect and of equality and of ease and openness with being who we are.

Leslie MacLean: So Kevin, I really appreciate our time together and our exchange, and I think you have given me a wonderful opening to think with you about the importance of dialogue, but the importance of commitment and of action as well.

Kevin Lunianga: Thank you. I have to say once again, to me, you’re setting the example. You are trailblazing and showing the importance of really creating change and a culture. And I’m so honoured to have this conversation with you. And I can’t wait to continue chatting and hopefully having you as my mentor.

Leslie MacLean: Deal.

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