Digging In With ONN

Disability Justice, Affinity Groups and Decent Work

Episode Summary

In this episode, Ingrid Palmer breaks down the framework of Disability Justice and Access centered practices within nonprofits, especially for BIPOC workers. She outlines the different ways nonprofit organizations within the sector can use affinity group models as a means to integrate intersectional solutions to advancing Decent Work. Bio: Ingrid Palmer is the Director of Networks and Relationships at Toronto Neighbourhood Centres as well as the CEO and founder of Focus On Ability - a motivational campaign designed to inspire triumph over adversity. As a visually impaired storyteller, advocate and award-winning inspirational speaker, Ingrid Palmer enjoys spotlighting traditionally unheard narratives to build community and connection between diverse groups.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Ingrid Palmer breaks down the framework of Disability Justice and Access centered practices within nonprofits, especially for BIPOC workers. She outlines the different ways nonprofit organizations within the sector can use affinity group models as a means to integrate intersectional solutions to advancing Decent Work. 

Bio: Ingrid Palmer is the Director of Networks and Relationships at Toronto Neighbourhood Centres as well as the CEO and founder of Focus On Ability - a motivational campaign designed to inspire triumph over adversity. As a visually impaired storyteller, advocate and award-winning inspirational speaker, Ingrid Palmer enjoys spotlighting traditionally unheard narratives to build community and connection between diverse groups. 


TNC Relationships, Belonging and Anti-Oppression Charter

Episode Transcription

Digging In With ONN Episode 7 Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Yami: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that ONN's head office is located on the unseeded territories of the Mississaugas of the credit, the Anishnabee, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. We know that Tkaranto is diverse to many First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities, documented and undocumented. And for all of the listeners, those of you who identify as settlers, there's a really great resource called nativeland.ca. That's n a t i v e dash land, l a n d . ca, where you can find out whose land you're on, and not only for the purposes of acknowledging but building relationships and practices of solidarity. So make sure to check that resource out.

Kavita: Welcome to Digging In with ONN. We are your hosts, Kavita and Yami. This is a podcast that discusses public policy and systems change with a focus on Decent Work. We use an intersectional lens that centres learning around Truth and Reconciliation, racial justice and equity practices this week. We’re super excited to have Ingrid join us from Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. Ingrid, could you please take a moment to introduce yourself and your role at TNC?

Ingrid Palmer: Sure, my name is Ingrid Palmer. I am the Director of Networks and Relationships at Toronto Neighbourhood Centres and I work alongside Sree and Rob who are the Associate and Executive Directors.

Yami: And Ingrid we're so excited. I know that TNC, the Neighborhood Center, is one of the partners of the Decent Work project that we're currently embarking on for the next couple of years, this iteration. The areas of engagement with the nonprofit sector in embedding Decent Work practices is just so foundationally strong. Ingrid, part of your role at TNC and the work that Toronto Neighbourhood Centres has been doing around Decent Work has been taking the Charter of Belonging that was developed by equity-seeking affinity groups, maybe you can speak to what those are, and engaging in practices and work more broadly over the last year. As a point of departure, could you talk a bit about the work that TNC is doing with equity-seeking groups within your network?

Ingrid Palmer: TNC does have an anti-oppression charter that was developed in conjunction with a number of our affinity groups, which we have several, some that are based on job roles and titles and then others on how people identify. So we have a BIPOC affinity group, we have a Disability Justice affinity group. These groups enable our staff to come together and connect both along the lines of the work they do, for instance, maybe the youth workers affinity group or the volunteer coordinators affinity group or the HR affinity group come together and have an opportunity to puzzle or grapple with whatever issues they might be dealing with within their jobs. In terms of other groups like the BIPOC affinity group, that would be more along the lines of the identities that we carry and how that can affect you in the work that you do. 

When it comes to the charter, we have been involved in a lot of work over the past year throughout our agency, looking at all our work through an intersectional lens, which is really necessary because it helps us to be able to see how power affects different groups and allows us to be cognizant of how people can be subjected to multiple systems of oppression that intersect, overlay and that interact with one another resulting in a variety of ways that a person, including the communities that we support and our membership, that they can experience discrimination, and that these various forms cannot be separated from one another. They are constantly in play, and that person is carrying those intersections, they carry that weight, wherever they go into whatever situation they're in and whatever spaces that they are occupying. 

To build knowledge and capacity around understanding that each one of us has our own unique experiences, connected to the identities that we carry, and that for some of us, that can be empowering, and that for others, that it brings about disadvantages and barriers and adversity that have to be dealt with. So in our work, a large part of our efforts over the last year have involved targeted training and knowledge, sharing opportunities to empower our members and build capacity to negotiate and dismantle the often subtle, but no less hurtful nuances of every form of oppression that still continues to permeate our work lives, our social lives, the systems that we have to interact with, and our relationships. Both at work, between our colleagues, and also with the communities that we are supporting. 

We have had Dismantling White Supremacy Training throughout our organization. We're actually getting ready to have the next follow-up training to that, but our initial Dismantling White Supremacy Training led to a dedicated community of practice space for those individuals who are really ready to dig into the work and that's been part of the things that we're trying to puzzle out at TNC, is knowing that we all fall on different spectrums of this work, and need to be supported in different ways. There are those of us who got it ready, we want to go deep, we want to get into the actual dismantling, and that's where the community of practice comes into place. Then we have others who are, I'm getting there, I need more information, I need some more support, and we have others who are like, I don't understand why we need to do this,

Yami: And others in terms of community members within the network.

Ingrid Palmer: Oh, both community members and staff. The question is, how do we support everybody where they're at? And bring this along without getting stuck in thinking about how to do it without doing anything. What happens so often is that we get stuck in the figuring out what we should do, that we don't actually do anything. Part of what I came into at TNC, and what I have contributed to is to say, let's do something, let's figure it out on the way of doing something, otherwise, we'll sit forever and do nothing at all.

We've also done a lot of work around supporting our rainbow affinity group, which is our group dedicated to those who identify with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. They have over the last year put on two engaging opportunities for both frontline and senior-level staff separately, to unpack harm that has been experienced, and also to increase competencies in regards to supporting, identifying staff and community members. 

We've also begun some work around Truth and Reconciliation. We had a reading club that was reading, I think it's called Braiding Sweetgrass, and also was looking at how to incorporate intimate Indigeneity into our work into our practices and relationships. We're able to engage in a tackling acknowledgments workshop led by Indigenous leaders, which was really powerful and has really helped us to work on improving our relationships. We've also initiated a BIPOC mentorship and leadership initiative to support our staff who identify with this group to be mentored and supported and to have their capacity nurtured because we know from research that BIPOC leaders don't get the same support mentorship that white leaders do. They've kind of been left to figure things out on their own and it just highlights another way that no matter what area, BIPOC People are always being disadvantaged, or always having a harder fight or not receiving the same support, there's no area really that's left untouched.

At TNC, we thought it was really important for our BIPOC staff to have specifically catered mentorship, learning opportunities and a space to be able to unpack any of those emotions, that can build up during your work that we have to experience those microaggressions those little nuances of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, or other forms of racism that we have to deal with because we have a tendency as marginalized communities to push our feelings down because we have to focus on getting through. We have a tendency to do that. Those feelings don't go away, they pile up, they're inside. We need to provide outlets of support for our staff to unpack those emotions to unpack those experiences in a group of peers, where they could feel safe to do so. 

Whenever you're with your peers and you take away that need for explanation, because everybody gets, you can just get into the work and support each other. And as well, we've just recently initiated our Disability Justice affinity group to explore the impacts and nuances of ableism and provide a space there also for identifying staff and allies to express their feelings and their experiences and to unpack what they're dealing with. We know that many people with disabilities don't disclose their disabilities. For many reasons, one of them being fear of how you're perceived on your job, because if you mess up something it could be like, oh, everybody has a bad day, but if you're known to have a disability, then it becomes because of your disability. Everything becomes tied to your disability when it's known that you have one.

Kavita: It's just human nature to make mistakes. We're not robots.

Ingrid Palmer: Exactly. It's something that happens to everyone. But if there could be another reason to attribute it to, that happens a lot to folks who are more marginalized for different reasons. So it's really exciting to have this new group launched and that it will be really playing a vital role in disrupting ableism and through our network and our centres, putting in the work to do that, and really helping to lead and guide that process. We know that those affected have to be on the front of the work of any type of dismantling work that we're doing. We really want to need a Disability Justice lens to be on this work and to really be looking at what that work should be considering what it looks like. 

Yami: Now Ingrid, Sorry to interrupt. I had a question. So you talked about Disability Justice and I know that there's a strong focus on that as one of the affinity groups. Disability Justice was a term that was coined by Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, and Stacey Milbern in 2005, at one of the Sins Invalid sessions or conferences rather, I should say. I'm curious if we could slow down a bit and if we could break down what is Disability Justice? You've talked a bit about how you're framing it at the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, but maybe if we could just start off with a definition of what Disability Justice is.

Ingrid Palmer: Disability Justice focuses on all persons with disabilities, centring those who were left out of the disability rights movement, and are still ignored in a lot of ways in silence. Thinking about the oppression of disability and how it intersects with race, how it intersects with immigration status, with socioeconomics, thinking about folks who identify as having a disability, but also as being queer, or trans or non-binary. Also, individuals who are incarcerated, or without housing. So it takes a much broader look at who are persons with disabilities, and what are the other identities that they carry. Because for many people, it's not just about disability. Like I spoke about earlier, when we're talking about intersectionality, folks have to navigate multiple layers of oppression that are present all the time. And when you have one to navigate with that's hard enough, when you have multiple, it's just even heavier and weightier.

Kavita: It's compounded, right, based on the different intersections that you identify with.

Ingrid Palmer: Absolutely, absolutely. Sometimes people think of it as, okay, in one situation, you have to deal with this, and then maybe have to deal with the other. No. It's all the time. It's juggling those all the time, in every situation, maybe not knowing which one is going to be weighted heavier. Because some are, but they're there, they're always all there, and how to juggle and navigate on racism, and sexism, and homophobia and, and the fact that maybe you’re from a lower such socio-economic location that's a lot to have to deal with. And that's not taking away from someone who only has to deal with one. But that is taking into consideration there hasn't been before that other people have a lot more to deal with and are facing a lot more oppression. 

But Disability Justice also concerns other systems that go beyond rights and an equality-based approach. It moves beyond just access and inclusion in unjust systems. Instead, it is working as a collaborative move towards transforming society as a whole. Because that needs to happen, and without that taking place, the movement just won't be as progressive. 

There's a lot of debate on disability rights versus Disability Justice, and to me a lot about replacing one over the other. To me, it's the next iteration. It's the next evolution in the journey towards justice. There will come another movement that will replace Disability Justice right now because there are gaps that are being missed right now that the next movement is going to address exactly. Disability Justice, also, to me incorporates the idea that our worth is not tied to our body's performance.

Yami: Say it again! 

Ingrid Palmer: Our worth is not tied to our bodily functions. That is something that took me some time to really untether myself because that messaging from society is so strong. It is so so strong, and it took me a long time to really cut that rope, say, nope, this has nothing to do with my disability and that recognition that it's the attitudes, it's the landscape, it’s everything else that is limiting me and limiting what I can do. Primarily, it's these attitudes that we really have to take a hold of, because even when I talk about racism, I'm like, You know what, we can have the best policies in place, and programs and whatever, but if the attitudes don't change, it's all for naught. Right? Because if the people implementing this, who are responsible for supporting this, for rolling it out don't have a change of mind and heart, these perfectly written policies and programs are going to come to nothing. We've seen that over and over again. It's imperative that we have a transformation of mind, of attitude, of thought and perspective on the disability community, and what our capacity really is.

Kavita: For sure. Ingrid, if you can take a moment to explain what affinity groups are, but then also give us some examples of how you've been weaving Disability Justice into the work that you've been doing with TNC? And how does it move beyond how we understand accessibility within the nonprofit structure? So often, you hear folks refer to AODA, which is the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and that things AODA compliant. That's sort of the terminology that you hear, but how are we to understand it beyond that sort of structure and move beyond doing the work just to be compliant with the act?

Ingrid Palmer: Okay, so an affinity group is a group created for persons to come together who have something in common. So at TNC, we have affinity groups that are formed along job descriptions. We have an HR affinity group, we have a volunteer coordinator affinity group, a youth worker affinity group, program directors, civic engagement, so staff can come together, based on those descriptors that you have in common. It can be about the work that you're going to come together and you can speak together, share knowledge, share about best practices, talk about challenges that you're facing in the work and ask for advice, solution support, maybe collaborate. 

Then we have other affinity groups that are based more along the lines of how you identify. So we have a BIPOC affinity group, for Black, Indigenous, Persons of Colour, staff who identify as such, and we have a Disability Justice affinity group for those staff who identify as having a disability. Those groups determine what you're going to use that space for. It's for those groups, by those groups. So if you want to use that space, just to debrief, because everybody needs to do that in a community of people who get it, who understand that, or if you want to collaborate on initiatives, or perhaps you might want to do some learning together. The real point of these groups is that they are for those individuals who choose to join those groups, and they determine how they will be used, what they will be used for, and then TNC, we support that. We're there to support and to take notes of what you said you wanted, maybe help to facilitate and bring about what was discussed in those groups. We're there as a support element, but those spaces are to be directed by those groups. 

Kavita: Thank you for explaining.

Ingrid Palmer: When I think about my role at TNC, and what I've been engaging in, I also think about the consideration of persons with disabilities, and how we've been perceived in the medical field, socially, often as walking examples of a condition. At least that's definitely how I felt a lot of times. I have been in my role really challenging that dominant narrative of disability as incompetent or unable because our potential, our contributions have largely gone un-accessed. We have the most unemployment rate out of any group.

In my role, it's been really important for me to be a representation of our social capital, and to really take on that leadership role. I feel like in my job that I lead, I direct, I teach, I model accessibility and consideration of others’ needs in meetings. I am patient, I am open to new ideas and ways of doing things, which are characteristics that persons with disabilities are often denied on the job. I think it's really important in my role, and through my work to model these accessibilities and how they're beneficial to everyone. The thing with disability is that everything that accommodates us accommodates everybody.  No one is ever left out. When you make pathways for our community, everyone benefits. 

I think it's really important for me to weave that through my work, to be sure that I am taking up space. I think that's really, really important that I occupy space, that I use my voice, that I make decisions that I participate in that, and that I amplify perspectives within our community and the diversity within our community, because we are another community that often gets treated as a  monolith that we all think the same way or have the same needs, and that is absolutely not true. That's really important to bring that out and up in discussions where it wouldn't be heard. Even when it can seem irrelevant.

Kavita: Just to reinforce the point, right? 

Ingrid Palmer: It is relevant, and it's just that people aren't used to incorporating that type of thinking into a lot of the work we do. The more that I do that, the more that it will become. I hate this word, but I'm sorry, normalized. Because our perspectives, our voices, and our input is sorely needed in everything, and it is missing. This is where we're really tired of being add ons. We're tired of that. We want universal thinking design consideration to be embedded in everything. So that we don't have to do that. So it's really important for me to model through my work that being visually impaired is not what limits me, that I have the capacity, that I can do things and that it's ableism, and it's this attitude and the slow expectation from society from others that is the true limit of our community. The biggest thing I do is try to model our capacity, and to bring those perspectives into every area of the work that I do.

Yami: I love that you talk about modelling. What I'm hearing from you is it's not about perfection in modelling it, but putting that effort forward to be like, am I looking at, or existing within my world from a lens that is considering disability and ableism? I Ingrid, in working with you, there are different ways-  for folks who, for example, are visually impaired - that everyone's an individual. How Ingrid does it is going to be different than how someone else does it. How do we also listen to our communities? I love that you're like, I model it. And it's not prescriptive. Because I think about it as someone who has an invisible disability, there needs to be recognition of learning disabilities and how they show up in the workplace versus folks who may not have a learning disability or may not have an invisible disability. Even the word invisible, I think we need to rethink. Overall it kind of still leads to an ableist lens of being,

Ingrid Palmer: I just wanted to add that, what we really need to do is to just move into consideration. Period. You don't even have to know that someone has an invisible disability. For some of us, it's just obvious, we don't have to tell you. People see my white cane, that's it, they just know. But if we could just learn to be more considerate, because everybody has needs. Disabled, non-disabled, everybody does, and we just need to learn to be considerate of one another and not to be, as you said, prescriptive or have this one way or right way of doing things, that it has to be this way. It doesn't. And if we can just learn to be more open, and more considerate of one another, period, we would cover so much in that. We wouldn't have to break it down to persons with disabilities or persons with invisible disabilities or persons with cognitive disabilities, somebody without, just be considered and open.

Kavita: I think that would solve a lot of problems just by being open and considerate. We can start there to advance all forms of justice.

Ingrid Palmer: Problem solved! We did it

Yami: Ingrid, you're kind of answering the next question that I had around, what do nonprofits need to consider? I think, based on some things that you've shared, definitely, that realm of modelling, that realm of thinking consistently, thinking about accessibility from an intersectional lens, I'm curious, as someone who works with a number of nonprofits across the city, what do they need to consider? From policy to practice engagement, give us three key takeaways for our listeners.

Ingrid Palmer: I think beyond just having the lens, I really want nonprofits to have more disability helmed initiatives that are actually led, not just that you're at the table contributing, but the helm, the leading part is really, really important. 

The idea of accessibility, for our community, of course, is historic, but for the larger society, it's still really new to them. Right? So that the more that you can have, amplify and project that leadership, I just think it's, it's so important. We're getting to the point where everybody knows, yes, you've got to be at the table, too. I think the next step is leading.

Kavita: Yeah, setting up the table inviting you to the table instead of me coming to your table.

Ingrid Palmer: Yeah, that it's not what's coming to mind. But also that I'm at the head of the table. 

Kavita: Yes. 

Ingrid Palmer: You're coming in, you're taking the seat at the side even if it is your table, you're still saying, You know what, here you go, I'm just gonna sit over here and be quiet, you go ahead like that, that will support and direction. I think your nonprofit is really needed. That's the next step. We got that. And now more of that power needs to be relinquished. Now we have to bring you to the table. Now. Here's the head seat. Go ahead.

Kavita: Yeah. And as you said, Ingrid, I think that that helps them change the power dynamics. Because if I get to lead at the table, then there's a shift in power there. Right? That's really necessary.

Ingrid Palmer: That's it exactly. Because the power still resides where it does. You're still picking and making the decisions, right? So the next step really is to really let go of that. The thing too, is that we're all hardwired to recreate this power differential. I've seen it so many times where we think we're moving forward and we just went in a whole circle, with a different dress on or *laughs* different shoes. But we just beat the exact same path, all excited thinking, yay, we just did something different when we actually did it. And what I say to folks, as if we're going to do something new, it's got to feel new. It's got to taste new. It's got to smell new. You should be unrecognizable. 

Yami: That’s dismantling! 

Ingrid Palmer: Not to, like, beat each other over the head, we do it unconsciously right? But when we catch it, that's why we've got to have all eyes on the table. Because someone's gonna say, wait a second here. The rest of us are all just like going along, but somebody's got to call it out and be like, well wait a second, we went around this bush three times already that we're actually not going in the direction that we thought we were, and be willing to pull it back and make that effort to go ahead again. Because I've seen where people get all upside, and we put so much work into this. But, if we're not willing to pull it back when we need to, and scrap it and start all over again, we're not going to get the outcome that we want. It's got to smell different, it's got to taste different, it's got to look different.

Kavita: We have to be committed to a new outcome, right? And a different outcome.

Ingrid Palmer: People say I want to be held accountable. And then when they're held accountable, they're like, no, I didn't mean like that, or I didn't mean now. *laughs* So yes, the commitment to the work is not always gonna look and feel like how we thought it would. It's gonna be irritating. And it's gonna be uncomfortable and annoying. But that's how you know you're on the path. But when you are feeling too good, and it's too easy, something's wrong.

Kavita: Oh, yeah, then we're not creating anything new. We're recreating the same.

Ingrid Palmer: Right? So it's all about moving that power into the community into different hands. Because as long as you want to keep it in your hands and say, oh, no, I promise to do the right thing, it's never going to end up being that way. And it's hard to relinquish something that you're used to having all the time. And it's scary. But those feelings, that fear is a part of it too. So really trying to move that power into different hands, and really taking on that allyship and support role. We throw these terms and these words around, but we've got to make them real and meaningful. And that takes doing things differently. I'm not sure if I've just had a long one point or—*laughs*

Yami: I think there were several points within that! Definitely. So several ways that nonprofits can, from a Decent Work perspective, really think about policy and practice and engagement. Because it is challenging to think about what it means to stop in and potentially scrap something that's not working? Whether it's an internal hiring practice, that you've been trying to put forth around making your work practice more accessible, and in that effort, and that deep effort, that things go sideways? And it's like that commitment means sometimes that we have to sit with those frustrations of failing and trying again.

Ingrid Palmer: Yeah exactly. Because we put a lot of time and effort into it. We're thinking, are you kidding? But sometimes you gotta throw it all out. Because your commitment has to be to doing it right and not just to doing something.

Kavita: And to recognize that just because you're starting over, it's not a failure to have done that work. Because if that process led you to realize that no, we're actually recreating a problematic structure, then it's a win. You've had an important learning and now when you start from scratch, you're going to stay away from what you previously did.

Ingrid Palmer: Right? It's like embracing that failure. And embracing it as, like you said, something good. You do learn something, and it's going to inform your work going forward. You know, so you're going to make a different mistake. But that mistake will also bring you further. Right, it'll bring you further to the point where want we want to get to,

Kavita: I think we've made this point in a few episodes now, make mistakes and don't be afraid to fail. Mistakes are not failure, and as Ingrid said, to embrace that growth mindset. 

*Music starts to fade in*

So Ingrid, thank you so much for joining us today and giving us some really key takeaways. What stands out for me is this, as you were talking about your work at TNC, is just taking that step. It doesn't have to be perfect. Let's just do it. We don't have to launch once we have all the answers. Let's get going on the work. I think that's really important. And think something else that you said that really stood out for me is, and I think applies to all communities, is no community is going to be a monolith. You can't expect anyone community to all have the same opinions. We're all individuals within that description. You know, like, however, we're identifying a community, there's no way that all folks with disabilities will have the same perspectives on all the issues that impact their lives and what those solutions look like. And to be more open to the diversity within communities and that pluralism and embracing that. So thank you so much for  shedding light on those points, and we hope that our listeners take some notes.

Thank you to our listeners for tuning into this episode. We're your hosts Kavita and Yami. We hope that you will join us for future episodes, as we keep digging into the issues that matter to the nonprofit sector. Make sure to share, rate and subscribe so you're the first to know when new episodes are live.