Addressing Burnout: Is Doing Equity Work Worth the Costs?

June 4, 2021
Valerie Leow, J.D. Candidate, University of Alberta

Congress 2021 blog edition

In an era of increasing hostility towards the incorporation of diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-colonial policies and practices in institutional settings, “We Are Dropping Like Flies: The Professional and Physiological Implications of Doing Equity Work” an open event hosted by the Canadian Sociological Association and moderated by Associate Professor at Mount Royal University Irene Shankar, invited four social justice scholars to provide insight on the personal and professional costs of performing equity work.

PhD Candidate in Sociology at The University of British Columbia Jennifer Adkins, Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at ATB Financial Roselle M. Gonsalves, Assistant Professor in Indigenous Studies at Mount Royal University Vicki Bouvier, and Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Language Revitalization and Decolonizing Education at Queen’s University Lindsay Morcom addressed the physical and mental health implications of performing equity work and Indigenization and the necessary institutional support needed to make this work meaningful and sustainable.

The event opened with the panelists first talking about their backgrounds, and how they found their calling in equity work:

  • Gonsalves talked about being “voluntold” – or being involuntarily volunteered for, or tasked with labour that she had not consented to – simply due to her professional field. It was only after she made the intentional choice to step away from “being in spaces that demanded [her] labour without [her] consent” that she found herself called back it.
  • Adkins characterized her calling to equity work as a magnet: “I was attracted to it, or it was sticking to me. Regardless of what job I would apply for, it would become that. And so, the idea of walking away from it doesn’t seem like an option. It just feels like who I was meant to be.”
  • Simply existing in Bouvier’s body of work in Indigenous Studies automatically resulted in her constantly being “pillaged” for information about settler-colonialism by her colleagues. Yet, she felt responsible to her community in bringing forth greater awareness and understanding of the topic.
  • As a member of the Bear Clan, which reflected her gentle, loving, and protective nature, Morcom felt responsibility – as someone of both Indigenous ancestry and settler ancestry – to dismantle an over-colonized system.

Panelists then shifted gears to sharing personal and professional accounts of some of the costs that they experienced with regard to their performance of equity work:

  • Bouvier had previously taken stress leave due to the mental and emotional fatigue she experienced from performing equity work. “There is a cost – a spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental cost.” She said that the experience of working in an institution where people “mystify your belief system” or “outright condone residential schools” all work to “wear you down holistically. “
  • Gonsalves spoke on how people who do equity work “become commodified because [their] boundaries of personhood and profession become blurred” – how simply identifying herself as someone involved in equity work instantly turned each conversation emotionally heavy. As an example, she recalled how she opted to tell her hairdresser that she worked at a travel agency or in a bank, rather than in equity work, to avoid the hairdresser using her as a therapist without her consent.
  • Morcom expressed her exasperation over people assuming that she alone represented Indigenous peoples as a whole, that her voice constituted the voice of all Indigenous peoples. At past dinner parties, she found herself being forced to explain Indigenous tax laws, status and non-status, and the like to people who relied on her to educate themselves.
  • While it was uplifting to have a lineup of students – often women of colour, like herself – outsider her door waiting to talk to her about planning their future or who needed advising, at the same time, Adkins said that it also “takes a bit away from you.”

To conclude, panelists proposed what they thought were necessary changes that needed to occur in post-secondary institutions specifically in order to make equity work meaningful and sustainable.

  • According to Bouvier, our institutions are specifically designed to serve some people and not others. On changing these institutions to serve even those that they are not supposed or designed to, she said that systemic, structural, and personal change are all needed: “it has to be part of every vein and artery of the institution.” She advocated for “peeling apart our whole institution and seeing every crevice that has a barrier to equity – not equality, but equity.”
  • Moving beyond relying on flowcharts of what the institution tells you that you are supposed to do when, say, a student comes in with a mental health crisis or issue, Morcom spoke on doing what is necessary for each individual student to keep them safe instead. She noted that there is a lack of Indigenous support in particular in Student Support Centers in post-secondary institutions. Yet, there is a need to act with gentleness and the Seven Grandfather Teachings (Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth) to support efforts to decolonize individuals and institutions.
  • “We cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools,” said Gonsalves, “if we have been trained in the academy to accept that we are just a different class of humans… then we’re not going to question [the system] when we get into those positions of power, because we have accepted the conditions.” She argued for the need of educators to equip students with voice to resist a colonialist system as early on as possible.
  • Adkins conveyed her dismay in encountering institutional barriers in situations where she already knew what should or could be done to help, with the barriers sometimes even stemming from the very people who originally brought her in to do the work in the first place. She encouraged institutions to speak up on equity issues of racialized or Indigenous peoples, rather than keeping silent about them, to allow people to share similar experiences with each other and actively confront them.