Diverse communities confronting racism and marginalization need strong institutions. These must be rooted in key principles such as accountability.
Various criticisms of the recently formed Federation of Black Canadians aren’t a surprise to those of us who have worked on the front lines of advocacy.
A 2013 report from the World Economic Forum describes civil society as “the social basis for democracy” and as having the “ability to express controversial views; represent those without a voice; mobilize citizens into movements; build support across stakeholders; and bring credibility to the political system by promoting transparency and accountability.” These are key functions, yet many ethnocultural and faith-based communities are struggling to fulfill this role.
Five important pillars are either wholly or partially missing from too many community-based institutions.
The first is governance. Of the Federation of Black Canadians, journalist and activist Desmond Cole notes in a recent commentary that it has no clear terms of reference or constitution, though the federation has already started to raise funds.
The same issue pertains to many other community-based organizations. Without meaningful governance, there will necessarily be a question of legitimacy. Many activists resist buying into something that may appear opaque, elitist and top-down. There must be a clear path to participation, open to everyone.
Next is transparency. From the mission to the minutiae, an institution claiming to represent communities must be transparent — about its funding, about its political ties and about how strategic objectives are determined (whether consultation is based on a closed or open loop, for instance).
Accountability is the third pillar. Typically, annual general meetings are meant to provide accountability, but there are ways to circumvent AGMs and to hold more closed check-ins with “members” — a term that may be ill defined and exclusionary. When AGMs are held, turnout can be low or lack meaningful and barrier-free engagement.
Then there’s sustainability. Investment in leadership training and mentorship is often lacking, nor is there always an effort to recruit people with the skills required to sustain well-rounded and long-lasting institutions that respond to the evolving needs of communities. The adage “It matters who you know, not what you know” applies. Governments, funding agencies and donors rarely provide much-needed dollars to support leadership and management training, preferring to invest in programs over people.
Furthermore, retaining talented, experienced and skilled staff is next to impossible when salaries remain significantly low. This is often due to a devaluation of the work, coupled with few or anemic fundraising efforts and/or plain mismanagement. In ethnocultural communities, it is usually women who accept these low-paying positions. Few supporters or donors ask questions about the staffing situation of a nonprofit, private school or charity; they take for granted that people are receiving a decent wage. Such institutions are often too small for workers to unionize, so it is often far too easy for management to ignore staff efforts to negotiate better terms.
The final pillar is renewal. There is little opportunity to renew organizations because young people are rarely granted meaningful decision-making roles. (In American and Canadian Muslim communities, this situation has led to the emergence of the UnMosqued movement.) Community members are tired of discovering male-dominated and monolithic ethnic representation at the helm of many of our faith-based institutions, where board turnover is rare. Some board members hold on to their positions for 10 or even 20 years, instead of stepping aside for those with new ideas who are better placed to lead organizations into the future. Young people who do stick around often perpetuate the same cycle, instead of implementing change. No surprise there; they cannot be what they do not see.
This article is by no means a blanket critique of all community leadership and institutions, nor do I want to dismiss the often noble and sincere intentions of those who give their time and energy to serve. But it is intended to be a wakeup call.
Millennials are not going to put up with these failings; nor are those of us who also expect and deserve better. As Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, wrote in this month’s Atlantic, “The rise of digital media, meanwhile, has given ordinary Americans, especially younger ones, an instinctive feel for direct democracy. […] As a result, average voters feel more alienated from traditional political institutions than perhaps ever before.” The same is most certainly true here in Canada, on multiple levels.
A significant proportion of Canadians already distrust their institutions, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. If we don’t address these gaps, trust will further decline.
Diverse communities attempting to confront systemic racism and marginalization deserve strong institutions that are rooted in their communities and built to last. Otherwise, they will ultimately fail in helping to improve our collective condition. This is what we must consider before even a cent changes hands and before the granting of any real legitimacy.
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