Raise your hand if you’ve hit the metaphorical wall. COVID fatigue: check. Depressing news fatigue: check. Information overload: check. 2020 has been a year unlike any we could have predicted, and it’s taking a toll.
Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. Some of us are devastated as we come to truly understand the ongoing pervasiveness and magnitude of racism, sexism, classism, transphobia and other forms of persistent discrimination. Meanwhile, those of us who experience discrimination and marginalization are feeling exhausted from a lifetime of fighting for justice with very little progress.
Some of us are coping by shutting off the news and retreating from this tough work. But many Torontonians do not have the privilege to be able to turn away. In fact we are at a critical moment: if we truly want to make progress, our city need us to stay engaged now more than ever. That’s right allies, we still have work to do, and we need to be in it for the long haul.
Unlearning lifelong biases and dismantling inequitable systems can be labour-intensive, frustrating, and emotionally fraught. To do this work, we need to sharpen a new set of skills that can help us deal with the bad news and refuel in order to persevere in the fight for justice. This is a type of resilience that those dedicated to social justice have cultivated to stay motivated and focused. We asked five BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) leaders, including charity directors, philanthropists, community advocates, and grassroots organizers, to share their strategies to keep pushing for a more equitable city.
1. TAKE ACTION, HOWEVER SMALL. YOU’LL FEEL EMPOWERED, AND EVEN INCREMENTAL PROGRESS WILL KEEP YOU ENERGIZED.
“It can be very overwhelming for someone who is just coming to the realization that racial injustice exists. There are many feelings of guilt and shame. But the reality is you have the power to make change, every drop fills a bucket. Remember that systemic racism didn’t happen all at once. To undo it, we need to add drops to fill a new bucket. Everyone has a part to play, so think about what you can do in the context of your own life. Can you advocate for a Diversity and Inclusion department in your workplace? Have the tough conversations with your family members when they make comments that are contrary to what you’re learning? Buy from BIPOC-owned businesses? Volunteer your time at or donate to organizations that support underserved communities? Write to your elected leaders as you learn about policies that are rooted in anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism? Think about what you can do in your own way to fill up the bucket.” –Agapi Gessesse, executive director, CEE Centre For Young Black Professionals
“Diversify your action to achieve short- and long-term goals. I volunteer on Boards (long-term strategies), I provide emergency granting support (short-term), and I help individuals out here and there (everyday). Diversify your giving.” –Elisa Levi, board director, Anishnawbe Health Foundation; and, philanthropist, Reset Foundation
2. BE PATIENT – THIS WORK TAKES TIME AND DAILY EFFORT.
“Like any new skill or learning, centering your life around active anti-racism requires practice, and deeply integrating these values into your personal and professional contexts requires a daily commitment to change.” –Zahra Ebrahim, community advocate and philanthropist, Zahra and Salimah Ebrahim Family Foundation
“Do not overwhelm yourself by thinking about all the things that need to get fixed and think to yourself well there’s no possible way I can fix this. Confronting anti-Black and Indigenous racism takes time, patience and practice. Remember to be kind to yourself as you learn and take action, but never compromise and never waiver. The only way we’re going to fill as many buckets as possible is if everyone is putting a drop into their own bucket.” –Agapi Gessesse, Executive Director, CEE Centre For Young Black Professionals
3. PRACTICE SELF-CARE RITUALS.
“The week of May 25th was a traumatic period for me. It was same week where Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper (a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park), the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in the High Park community. Since then, I have used my weekends to drive out of the city for a much-needed escape. For me, having different scenery allows me to heal, recharge, reflect and mentally prepare myself for the following week. Also, living in Scarborough, I am fortunate to be near several parks and walking trails, so I am very intentional about going for evening walks once I am finished work.” –Phylicia Davis-Wesseling, grassroots leader advisor, Toronto Foundation
“Practice Audre Lorde’s ‘radical self-care.’ To be an effective ally, you need to be confident, clear, and committed, and that requires your cup to be ‘full’ too. Try not to say you’re “taking a break” (as I’ve heard it framed), but rather, you’re building to the capacity you need to commit to this work long-term. Rituals are core to my ability to keep consistency and stay grounded when I’m navigating uncertainty. Established rituals reduce my mental load of having to figure out how, where, and when to recharge. Rituals enable me to connect to the things I know will “fill the cup” with ease and flow. –Zahra Ebrahim, community advocate and philanthropist, Zahra and Salimah Ebrahim Family Foundation
4. CONNECT WITH YOUR ANCESTORS, AND DRAW STRENGTH FROM YOUR CULTURAL AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICES.
“As an Indigenous woman, I rely on the strength of my ancestors. I remind my clients and community members that our ancestors survived smallpox, tuberculosis, Spanish flu, starvation, and a multitude of genocidal policies. We are resilient. I encourage the use of cultural and spiritual practices along with COVID-19 protocols. I encourage community members to seek the input and advice from Elders, and counsellors.” –Patti Pettigrew, executive director, Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society
5. UNDERSTAND YOUR OWN PRIVILEGE.
“Recognize that arriving at this awareness now is the heart of your privilege, and for so many it’s not an educational experience, but lived experience. I had a conversation this morning with a friend who shared how triggering conversations on “time off” can be, when your identity is the centre of what is being deconstructed and politicized, and how she needs to recover before she can even think about re-energizing.” –Zahra Ebrahim, community advocate and philanthropist, Zahra and Salimah Ebrahim Family Foundation
“The shame of racism is not BIPOC peoples’ burden to bear, yet we have held the shame of it for far too long. There needs to be a shift that requires the collective effort of everyone. Think of how exhausting the last two months have been, reading, viewing and being bombarded by racial injustice, protests, societal divisions and injustice. It is frustrating and makes you feel helpless, doesn’t it? Those feelings of frustration and helplessness have been felt by most BIPOC’s their entire lives, never being able to escape the pain and urgency that racism creates.” –Agapi Gessesse, Executive Director, CEE Centre For Young Black Professionals
6. DEVELOP YOUR ABILITY TO FEEL EMPATHY WITHOUT TAKING ON THE PAIN AND WEIGHT OF TRAUMA YOURSELF.
“If we truly sit with someone and actively listen, I believe we are forever impacted. But we are depleted when we carry the weight of the story by imagining it is happening to us. It can be very difficult to bear witness to something, especially when we’re aiming for long-term impact. It’s usually when you are trying to tackle the complexity of something that you can get weighed down.” –Elisa Levi, board director, Anishnawbe Health Foundation; and, philanthropist, Reset Foundation
7. TAKE IN ART AND CULTURE CREATED BY BIPOC ARTISTS.
“I would encourage folks who are new to the space to not only read the non-fiction works on anti-racism, white fragility, and the like, but also to consume the spectacular cultural expressions that speak to the BIPOC experience. Take in the music, art, food, writing (try out fiction!) created by BIPOC creatives, and let their beauty and vitality energize you.” –Zahra Ebrahim, community advocate and philanthropist, Zahra and Salimah Ebrahim Family Foundation
8. SHARE THE WORK – SOCIAL AND RACIAL JUSTICE NEEDS ALL OF US.
“The work of reconciling systemic injustice is not just for folks who do social justice work. It is for all of us. This work and learning should show up in your choices in your personal and professional life, regardless of what you do. Flip the orthodoxy that “inequity and injustice are the work of the social sector” and make it central to yours. Pay attention in all parts of your life, being conscious of where you are upholding systems that perpetuate injustice. We need everyone right now.” —Zahra Ebrahim, community advocate and philanthropist, Zahra and Salimah Ebrahim Family Foundation
9. KEEP THE MOMENTUM GOING – NOW IS THE TIME FOR REAL CHANGE.
“With all that is happening in the world, it is very tempting to tune out. But this is a very critical moment in our lives, and it is so important to continue to read and learn to keep the momentum going. Prior to COVID-19, many of us knew the increasing socio-economic divides that were happening in Toronto, but COVID-19 has further exposed these issues that challenge our city: food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, precarious employment, lack of digital access, health and mental inequities – and this is all under the backdrop of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. As much as people want to block out or remove themselves from what is happening around us, remember that Black, Indigenous and other marginalized groups don’t have that privilege. So collectively, now is the time to learn, be informed, find out ways to help in order to reimagine and make bold changes for a better city post COVID-19.” –Phylicia Davis-Wesseling, grassroots leader advisor, Toronto Foundation
“Everyone keeps saying this feels different because it is different. We have been dealing with the same issues as a community internally for centuries. In 2020 it has been brought to light, as the world has been at a standstill. If we really care about equality and that every human deserves the same opportunities in this world, then we will act now. The universe has orchestrated this call to action with an opportunity to redefine our new normal. This is nothing we have seen in our lifetime, and it will not go away without any real change. Therefore, we can spend the same amount of energy ignoring and avoiding it as we could to make real change happen now.” –Agapi Gessesse, Executive Director, CEE Centre For Young Black Professionals