A Conversation With Annahid Dashtgard

By Candice Bartlett | June 4, 2020

What is required to create change in ourselves and in society?

This conversation between Jennifer Haddow and Annahid Dashtgard was transcribed from a video earlier this week and is available in full in our Facebook Group. These words come at an important time right now and act as a meditation on the universal questions of what it means to belong, and what it takes to become whole.

Jennifer: We've been having more conversations recently about women, and particularly women of colour, sharing their own stories and us listening to those stories of their experience in the world. It made me think very much of you because you've just recently released a book, an amazing book that I'm encouraging everyone to get a copy of Breaking The Ocean: A Memoir Of Race, Rebellion And Reconciliation.

So you know, I thought of you because of this beautiful book that you have released into the world that shares very much your own personal story. I also thought of you because you're a dear friend, and we've been friends for many years. I first met you of course when I did a diversity and inclusion training with your internationally renowned consultant company Anima Leadership. You have called yourself an inclusion warrior. So can we start off by talking a little bit about what that means- you're one of the most peaceful, gentle people I've ever met so when you call yourself and claim that badge of honour as an inclusion warrior, what does that mean for you?



Annahid: Thank you for the intro, it's great to be here in your community today. You know, it's funny that you described me as being so gentle and kind, I'm thinking, is that true? Because I mean, it is true. And then there's also this fire that's there as well. You know, I think I use the word warrior deliberately because of the idea that belonging is something that we can never take for granted. I think one of the biggest challenges as a human species has been our ongoing challenge throughout generation after generation to create space for the groups and the communities that are left out. We have gotten better at doing that over time, we had the human rights conventions coming 100 years ago, we've seen the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the disability rights movement, all of these movements are ways of really saying, look, there are whole groups, millions of people that are simply completely left out of having access to opportunities that the rest of us can take for granted.

We have to really, we have to fight for that. That's why I use the word warrior, because what we're seeing now happening in the U.S. is really just a very public forum or tip of the iceberg of histories of oppression for black, but also indigenous and other racialized communities. I think if people are seeing this and not understanding or kind of maybe for the first time thinking, what can I do? I would say, at the very base level that this is not a struggle for black people, and it's not a struggle for indigenous people. Creating spaces where everybody gets to belong is a struggle that is all of ours. So I'd like to invite everybody listening to this to call themselves an inclusion warrior. Really, I think we should all call ourselves that. Yeah. hashtag-inclusion warrior.



Jennifer: Absolutely. And you know, you touch on this in your book. You talk about the healing power of emotion, including anger, including rage. One of the things that was such a gift to me in the work that you shared in the training that I did with you through anima leadership on diversity was emotional intelligence. I appreciate so much being able to engage in these issues, not as an armchair intellectual activist. Because there's a safety in that, there's safety in not opening to the ocean of emotion. Something that I appreciate so much about your approach is giving us a language to be able to talk about our emotions as valid including the darker emotions that are scary and uncomfortable to engage in, but are necessary. Can you share more about how you approach that through the stories that you share in the book, from your life around bringing in emotional intelligence to this conversation and allowing us to feel?





Annahid: Yeah, I think one of the biggest barriers to environments where belonging is taken for granted is emotional, the barrier is emotional. You know, we live in a time where there's lots of analysis around marginalization, privilege, anti-oppression, you know, there are different names that it goes by. In my experience when I'm working with a group of people, I find that the people that have the most difficulty, it's not because of lack of information or lack of theory, it's because a feeling has come up for them that generally as a society, we're not taught to notice our emotions as much as we are our thoughts. So I think a lot of us miss out on developing emotional intelligence and so you know, emotions for most of us tend to happen below the surface of conscious awareness. Particularly when we come into conversations around inclusion, belonging, power, equity, oppression, there's a lot of strong emotion for most people in the room. And if we can't notice what's happening for ourselves, then the conversations very quickly get derailed. I think a lot of organizations, a lot of teams, a lot of communities are stuck at this place where people have strong emotions, but they don't know how to have the conversations with one another, to move past those emotions.

I think the first thing like you said is just that no change happens without honouring what we're feeling. Right? So I think the starting point is what's coming up for me. Is it grief? Is it anger? Is it rage? Is it indifference? What is that emotion pointing me towards? It's not about noticing how I feel to just endlessly stay stuck there. But noticing what I feel as a signpost to what I need to perhaps go towards, what I need to learn more about, what I can perhaps self reflect more around, a conversation I might need to have. I think that in having conversations around these issues we need to also allow space for emotion to happen in the room. I'm seeing it.



Jennifer: It feels very relevant for me because when these issues come into clear visibility publicly as is happening right now, these issues of racism, there's nothing new here, except that there's the video being shot and it's more presented to the world right now. Of course, the protests happening in the United States are part of that and so allowing this into our spaces that we may not have had these conversations. I'm sorry that we haven't had enough of these conversations going back over the years, but let's start with where we are. So I'm glad to be having this conversation with you.

I thought about this question of why should an international travel company, adventure travel company, be engaging in this and talking about racism, and talking about inclusion? It became clear to me very quickly that this is incredibly relevant in our work because we bring small groups of women into a very challenging often you know, new cultures, new landscape. They're travelling to the other side of the planet sometimes, and we bring them into these experiences and it brings up emotion. Those emotions come out in a group, that is in itself a circle of diversity-women of different ages and colours, ethnic backgrounds and class. There are so many different lenses that women are bringing into that experience. Creating a safe space where people can have that emotional experience. It comes up very much when you go into Mongolia or Tanzania, or another place where you're seeing a lot of economic impoverishment, and social justice issues. A lot of that comes up in the body and we feel our privilege. We feel this question of how do we relate to the other? So I think it's very, very relevant to us having these kinds of reflections on the emotional piece of it because it's not just an intellectual kind of work to do.



Annahid: I'm just kind of caught by what you're saying and there's a couple of thoughts that come to mind in terms of the work that you specifically do. All of this work, this whole conversation is really about strengthening relationships across difference. When I think about what you're describing it's a relationship in a couple of ways. It's the relationship to the country, the land, and the peoples, that we're going to visit. Some simple ways of strengthening that relationship are getting out of the stereotype.



Often when we travel to another country, we have a singular idea in our head of what that country or those people is going to be like. So one of the things that I often recommend is just having many options, reading stories from people that are from that country and landscape. The more options we have in our head when we go into a relationship with a new place, the less likely we're going to typecast and the more open we will be, the more curious we will be, and then that relationship can unfold.



And then the second piece is the relationship among people in the group. And I think there's a term in the literature, micro-inequities, so much of the barriers to inclusion happen at the level below conscious awareness. So they come out in, you know, most of us tend to gravitate to talking to and befriending and spending more time with people like ourselves. People who share the same racial identity, the same class background, the same sexual orientation, etc. So in the groups, as people come together, I would really invite people to reflect on who am I attracted to, and who I may be less comfortable with. Who's getting left out, and how can I use my influence to really make sure that I develop a relationship with everybody in the group. Especially those that may have a minority identity in some way. It may be harder to feel the same access to fitting in.



Jennifer: And you work with many different people in your diversity and inclusion training, but if you could speak to me a little bit more about what you share in your book- your own life experience around this issue of how we bring up these conversations. I think you've given such a gift with your book, Breaking The Ocean to share a very personal story of how you came to Canada and how you struggled in those earlier days as a new Canadian. How you came to come to terms with your feeling of belonging as a woman of colour in this country. So I'd love to hear more from your story about how you found opening up these conversations? Obviously, you do it in your work I mean, you are a professional training people on these issues. But it can be very hard to initiate. I want to take the responsibility as a white woman to initiate these conversations as uncomfortable as it can be, it's not the job of people of colour to open up this space. It's all of our responsibility and I think that the expression, the visibility that we're seeing from people of colour, from black people right now is a gift. But I also want to take responsibility for opening up this conversation myself, in my own circles with other white people. So can you share a bit about how you've seen that done well? How do we open up this conversation respectfully?



Annahid: You know, this is a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint. I think that's important to say because it's not about jumping into the most difficult conversation overnight. Pacing ourselves, think about this as a long term, investing in a long term relationship. So for folks that perhaps haven't had conversations with people around race and equity and inclusion issues, it's not about running out overnight to talk to the 10th. I would say to start with understanding the issues better ourselves, and just gradually choosing one or two people in our lives that we could maybe help. What would it look like to help that person take a step forward? Is the person willing to learn and how can I maybe help them take a step further in their understanding, particularly in organizations? I think it's especially important because then it's not just about our parent or grandparent, although those folks are important. But really what we're talking about here is institutional structural change. So that where the conversations are especially important are with our managers, with our board of directors, with our senior managers that actually have the ability to ripple out the consciousness throughout the organization in terms of who gets hired, who gets promoted, whose voices get listened to. All of those things that really make a huge difference.

The studies show that about 85% of black and other racialized people in organizations think about quitting the majority of the time across the North American institutions. Health repercussions are greater. Blood pressure, sleep issues, other kinds of issues. There's a lot of data that shows that racialized people in Canada, as well as in the United States, have just experienced a greater emotional and physical tax simply by being part of the organizational structures alongside their white colleagues. And so I think that it's always uncomfortable. I've been doing this work now for 25 years and every time I have a conversation on identity, race, sexual orientation, trans identity, whatever it is, I feel some level of discomfort. But I know why I'm doing it. And, as I said, how. I'm also really strategic. Like I said earlier, it's not about blasting people. If people are pointing to A in the alphabet, it's unrealistic to expect in one conversation that they're going to get to Z. So it's not about blasting people. We want to stretch but not tear.

If I'm meeting somebody or group at point A in the alphabet, I'll think about how do I, and what do I say to get into point B or C. Allowing the emotion of discomfort or anxiety to be there, but not to give into it. Right? So part of this work is really being grounded in purpose. Again, going back to the word inclusion warrior.



My vision is for a world where everybody matters and belongs. I'm really clear on why I'm having those conversations. So I invite people as you step into them and when you step into them, knowing why you're doing it will really be helpful.




Jennifer: A lot of people, white people will say well, I'm not a racist. I'm not a hateful person. I don't hate black people. I'm not a racist. We're part of and we're privileged within a racist system. So moving beyond thinking of racism as hatefulness, can you tell us about your experience on both sides as a trainer, and having this conversation in a personal way throughout your life where white people want to talk about this, but there's a lot of feelings that come up that are difficult for us to manage.



Annahid: This is one of the main points. That we can be well-intentioned and still be racially biased. So much of racism in organizations today isn't so much the overt forms. We're seeing the police enact but as the more subtle ways in which racism manifests through unconscious choice. In other words, below the level of our surface awareness. So I give an example, I have clients that I work with that can go on and on and on about the policies and the equity stuff that they have. And they're, this and that. And then I go to their organization to do a session or to do a consulting gig,  and I walk in the room and my white employee will be greeted before I am. They will be affirmed before, even though I'm leading the session. That kind of thing happens over and over again. So the unconscious racism in most organizations comes out through whose opinions get listened to, who gets invited out for coffee and lunch, who gets offered the promotion, who gets asked to help with a project coming up? Who gets eye contact in the meeting, who's hand gets shaken first? All of these micro gestures are signals of power. And they add up. On a very basic level, I really encourage people that the starting step in all of this is why you know we talk about emotions, just notice who you gravitate towards. Because most likely who you gravitate towards is who you feel most comfortable with and who you like, and those that occupy different identity, most of us tend to feel a little bit more discomfort. So just that whole thing around so much of racism happens, despite people's really great intentions. That's a really important point.

The second piece in this, and you spoke so honestly about it is I think there's a lot of fear. I think especially since political correctness was a movement, it kind of brought awareness of what to say and do and what to not say and do. And it was helpful. But it also imposed an external set of rules, without people having the opportunity to go through a learning process to understand what is this thing called racism? What does it mean? How does it manifest? What does it mean for my relationships? So it's almost like we jumped to the end, imposing the set of rules. The equivalent is being in a classroom and expecting students to master complex algebra on the first go around without going through the learning process of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division so that I can understand how these things all go together in this picture of complexity, that is our algebra. I would say I think what's important if we don't share the identity of the person we're talking to.

So if you're a white person and you're talking to somebody who's racialized, and you notice a moment of discomfort and you're afraid of getting it wrong, as a general rule, there's no formula. It's better to be transparent about what's coming up for you than to pretend that it's not there. I've been part of too many conversations where if I feel like this is the thing if I feel uncomfortable and pretend it's not there, it looks like in that moment that I am minimizing, dismissing or ignoring the racialized person's experience. Because I'm shutting down in some way. Or I'm moving on to the next topic, or in some way I'm pulling out of the relationship. So it's better in those moments, and you modelled it so beautifully here to just say, Oh, that makes me feel kind of uncomfortable. I'm not sure what to do with that or, you know, I'm hearing you say this, and I'm embarrassed that I've never asked you about that previously. And I don't want to put this on you, but I feel like maybe I need to think about that a bit more. So we name our own experience and the person then will respond. Some people in your life might say, yeah, I don't want to talk about this right now. Other people might say well actually, I'm so glad you're naming that. You can actually go into a more authentic conversation with the person, or the person might point you to some resources.

But this is where I think white people have some responsibility is that because of those feelings of discomfort, shame, fear, white people pull out. And it's felt. So I think the way to lean in is just name your experience. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to get it right all the time. You can make mistakes, but what you just did was, it allowed me to breathe more easily actually. So that transparency, it's risky, but it's how relationships can develop.





Jennifer: Because we know that relationships are strengthened through vulnerability, and how deep we can go in our relationships often is measured by how vulnerable we're willing to be, and it is emotional.

I've been reading stories more recently from women of colour, from black women, especially about the barriers they see to getting out in nature. The idea that women of colour, people of colour, black people and black men also very much feel that there are barriers to getting out in nature. That there are unconscious trauma associations with black people going out into the woods where there has been a lot of violence inflicted. You know, in rural settings going back and probably even today, so I never thought about that. I never really considered that one of the reasons why more black women or black people aren't going into national parks aren't going out on solo backpacking trips, why that isn't a thing as much in black culture. It honestly never occurred to me that it was because of racism and barriers based on race. So when I started to read these stories written by people of colour about this issue I was like wow, I feel schooled. So now I'm thinking okay, well, what can I do, what organizations can I support? How can I be of service in helping to break down those barriers in the work that I do?

I want to ask you about your own relationship to the natural world because clearly you're a wild woman. You've written a lot about resilience, and the power of resilience. So I want to talk about the connection of the natural world because my premise is that, as humans, we need the wild that we can't do this work, we can't live and make a change in the world unless we are nourished by nature because we're humans and we're animals. We need this. As an activist, I've been burnt out. I know you've shared very much about your activism. You've been very, very much an activist and came to your own kind of struggles of replenishing yourself as an activist making this change in the world.



How do you engage in nature? Why is that important for you? And do you see there being barriers in your own communities of colour, around getting out of the city, getting out of the boxes, and actually tapping into this great source of nourishment and replenishment in your own journey?



Annahid: Well, I think, you know, on a spiritual level, nature is the relationship where we always intrinsically fundamentally belong. Right? We come from the land, we go back to the land. It's also interesting when you use the word nature absolutely, there are barriers, for perhaps getting out into the wild, the backcountry kind of nature. But many immigrant and racialized communities have a relationship to nature in urban centers and cities so what does that relationship also look like? Outside of going on a long backpacking trip. It might just be the little patch of back yard I have or it might be the park I walked past on the way to work. I think that there are obviously economic and other structural barriers. Many racialized communities occupy the lower rungs of society still and are over-represented in a lot of working-class jobs. So, time off, time to go on vacation, time to go on a longer trip, is less accessible. Though that is changing, that has been changing over the last 20 years. There's also a lot of
Black and South Asian Canadians that are middle and upper class. So I don't want to get into the black communities being all lower class because that's also a stereotype of its own.

I also think that it has to do with the stories that we tell about nature, and who's centred in those stories. In Canada, when you look at stories of the land and the wilderness, and still the films that are made about, you know, Into The Wild, that have come out in the last couple years. It's always white people, the environmental movement in Canada is 90% led and occupied by white people. It took me years actually to name and feel and talk about my own relationship to the land because I think subconsciously, and then later, consciously, I labelled that as a white person's issue or white person's narrative. Realizing no, I have my own relationship, in some ways it's the same, in other ways it's different, but I get to have that relationship as fully. How interesting even that the white person kind of narrative of backpacking and being on the land and surviving on the land, even that narrative has primacy over quite frankly, the oldest relationship to the land in this part of the world, which is indigenous peoples. So why have we not seen more indigenous stories centred in Canada? About the land, we're starting to see that now. But those stories are still marginal. We have to still go seek those stories out.

I have to say if I see one more book written on trees by a white person, you know, it's like there are lots of indigenous and other writers that have talked about it. It's just that those books and stories still have such a harder struggle to get into the mainstream. My publisher House of Anansi, The Big Lonely Doug, whatever it is like a voted tree on the west coast and a white reporter, writing about his experience, and it's great but there's probably about 20 books of indigenous people who have deeper and longer relationships, this land that we're living on that have written about that relationship in so many different ways. They get nowhere near the same exposure as this reporter from the MacLean's or the Walrus gets in his one book. And I'm using that as one example. That's the power piece that we're working against here. So the number one thing is what you're saying- please seek out the stories and the films where indigenous and black and other racialized people talk about the relationships to the earth. And I think that's a place where we can all source. I think it's my relationship to the land, but when I read somebody who has a cultural relationship throughout regenerations to the land, it also helps me strengthen my relationship.






Jennifer: Thank you, I feel really inspired about my work from this conversation and from what's opened up for me in these past few days, especially thinking about the value of what I can do and how can it contribute to justice and equality. So this point that you're making is very provocative and instructive to me about the role that I have in the influence in the space that I have in my work. How can I seek out those, that perspective, that knowledge, that comes from marginalized communities, indigenous communities, and communities of colour? How can I give more amplification of those stories in the spaces that I have control over? I'm going to be more conscious about seeking that out and doing the work along the way.

I feel really inspired about learning and sharing where I can. Sharing your book, you also have a podcast, you're putting out a lot of really great content. Sharing a story that I know needs to be heard, it's beautiful. I love your name Annahid- meaning Goddess of the ocean, and it's a beautiful story. Thank you for gifting us with your own story and the work that you do.