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Reflections on Tokenism, written by Constance Athayde
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - July 10, 2020


Tokenism. It is a sneaky perpetuation of inequity facilitated by those enjoying the benefits of privilege. I label it as “sneaky” because it so easily shape-shifts from person-to-person and organization-to-organization. The nods and uhm-hmms are just smoke and mirrors to keep a person, specifically a BIPOC, lost as to what is going on behind closed doors.

As an Indigenous woman I have had numerous experiences of Tokenism in academia and employment. My response genuinely depended on where my emotional and psychological strength levels were — I could shrink and make myself smaller, hoping to be forgotten or I could boldly file a formal complaint. Really, no matter the course I took the results were the same. Nothing changed. In fact during the complaint process and in trying to explain the issues and words that brought me to such action, my internal voice often told me that I was making too much of what I had been experiencing. You see, Tokenism is sneaky like that.

My most recent position was as a dual DV/SA Program Manager within a Social Service agency. I reported to the director of the agency, or so I thought. The DV/SA division was a fairly new program and the methodologies for assisting survivors was still in development. Guidelines were there, but how to actualize the lofty goals of stabilizing survivors and their families in the first year as agreed to in the grant action plan was still in the ethereal stage. As a DV/SA Manager I was motivated to cultivate methods that would generate mutual respect between Advocate and Survivor. This required not only a change in operations but in our internal judgements of survivors. To acknowledge that a survivor has a right to make decisions, meaning they are not required to accept our recommendations. The services they receive were not to be based on how pleased we were with their choices. These ideals did not mesh with the social services model of making a plan that a “client” must follow to receive a reward of services.

Our program began to develop a collective approach to working in conjunction with survivors to re-evaluate their decision making process. To join with them in stretching out of survival mode and into a more elongated target setting concept which meant taking the non-judgmental viewpoint of decisions and using a new peer-developmental relationship rather than the previous role of caretaker. We began diligently working cooperatively….Manager with Advocate, Advocate with Survivor, Survivor with Others. The majority of those we served were Indigenous so perhaps it is even more apparent why we would take a stance in providing opportunities for survivors to make choices. Why we would not want to be viewed as Caretakers from another social service agency, and why the concepts of respect and trust were our self-checks in considering assistance options.

Like any agency ours had its share of paperwork and bureaucracy. Our team began to notice that our paperwork and interactions with agency processes were off-track. The wait time for signatures began to take days, weeks, and several times months longer than other divisions under the umbrella. There were also many instances when our submissions were “lost”. We began to make copies of all submitted paperwork, logging them in our own ledgers. Of course, deadlines for housing rentals, employment opportunities, etc were lost for many of those we were serving.

Perhaps one of the most illuminating actions by the social service agency was when the Director asked me to write a grant without much clarification of goals for the funds. So I looked at what was currently funded, and what suggestions had been provided in a recent community survey as well as what statistics would support the grant. I wrote the grant, submitted it for review, and waited. The deadline for submission to the granting agency was marked on my calendar and as the days passed I began to become concerned that I had not received a response from my supervisor. I emailed, and left multiple voicemails which remained unanswered. Finally, in a staff meeting the grant was mentioned. It had been submitted but someone else had written it, and with a completely different plan. At that moment my radar was lit up with the little things that had been occurring for sometime. Such as when I suggested partnering with another agency and it was not approved, but in a short-time another person suggested a similar action and it was approved. Of course, the missing fund requests, the rejected proposals for community gatherings/classes, closed meetings between a select few …so many instances flew through my memory.

Our program had become diligent in seeking creative solutions for assisting clients not only financially, but as peer-counselors and they became disillusioned with the approach of the social service management. Requests were constantly denied without offering alternatives or reasonable options. Could it be that the management did not trust us? Could it be they held little respect for us? We listened to survivors speak about their relationships and clearly saw that we were experiencing many of the same actions within our agency. I found myself taking on the role of an Advocate for our program and staff, and unfortunately at times becoming their shield to protect them from the negative and discouraging daily occurrences. This was not in the job description!

As time passed the series of comments, lack of communication and general apathy to our program grew to be a barrier too high for some to surpass. It became clear that as a Manager I was expected to occupy an office and sign forms but not to contribute to staff and program development. I chose to not be relegated to the back office and left the agency.

As members of sodalities throughout many towns and cities we are all to be proponents of justice – racial, ethnic, economic, gender and all the components that we use to categorize our identities in the human race. Yet, we continue to encounter evidence to the contrary such as my most recent position. The reasoning for high turn-over in the field cannot be limited to client work alone. Are our boards of directors and hiring managers genuinely interested in compiling a team of members that reflects those we claim to be advocating for or is to display minorities like ornaments on a christmas tree to be put on exhibit when needed?