Bringing Whole Selves to Work: Co-op Culture Welcoming to BIPOC

May 18, 2022
Mathias Ho, Graduate of Political Science from the University of Toronto and communications professional

Christine Clarke, founder of Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education, would call her mother at work after coming home from school as a child. An immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago working for the Ministry of Transportation, Clarke’s mother answered in a perfect Canadian accent.

“[After realizing it was me] my mother would switch into how she naturally spoke with a Trinidadian accent. As an immigrant to this country, my mother learned that in order to procure work, she would have to adopt a professional way of speaking.”

As Clarke explained during her keynote lecture hosted by the Canadian Association for Studies in Co-operation at Congress 2022, this “professional way of speaking” would not have been perceived as her mother’s natural Caribbean accent. Clarke says “code-switching” has long been a strategy for Black people to be successful in the workplace. It is done in order to make others feel comfortable in exchange for fair treatment. 

The cost is the mental toll of concealing one’s true self and taking on a secondary identity in order to navigate the workplace — a workplace, Clarke argues, that has been dominated by white leadership, creating a culture that compels racialized individuals to code-switch to conform to the established principles of what is deemed professional or acceptable.

This is one of the reasons Clarke left the traditional sector for the co-operative movement.

“The co-op sector suddenly became this example of this workplace that offered through the cooperative principles of democratic decision-making…that those of us most impacted by discriminatory policies and behaviors at work can be the bosses and we can create workplaces that work for us.”

Despite the promising principles offered by the co-op compared to traditional sectors, Clarke still found a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion principles (DEI) and a dominant white leadership. But with the co-op principles of equality, equity, and solidarity, Clarke sees potential. 

Through Freedom Dreams, Clarke is proposing actionable goals to help the co-operative movement to engage in more DEI initiatives to become welcoming, inclusive, and participatory places for not just the BIPOC community, but also LGBTQWH+ and non-binary people and those with disabilities.

Some of the seven DEI principles Clarke wishes co-operatives to engage in include voluntary and open membership without discrimination; autonomy and independence; and education, training, and information to promote solidarity.

“If we [the BIPOC community] can't see co-operatives as a sector that has real answers and real transformative approaches to the urgent need to create economic stability signified work to generate living wages within our communities, then what's the draw?”

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