Building Our Own Table: Janelle Benjamin
Meet the founder of All Things Equitable, as we kick off a new interview series
Hello friends, in the last 18 months, I’ve heard many people say “we Black people don’t want a seat at the table, we want our OWN table”. And I’ve seen lots of Black people set up ventures to do things their way, and to redress historic and systemic inequities. This new interview series, “Building Our Own Table”, will feature some of them.
To kick it off, I’m talking to Janelle Benjamin, Founder & Chief Equity Officer of All Things Equitable. I’ve been so impressed by the perspectives Janelle has shared on LinkedIn and elsewhere, and her excellent video series. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know her as much as I have.
Janelle, tell us briefly about your background prior to founding All Things Equitable.
I’m a “foreign-trained” Juris Doctor from Toronto, Canada. All this means is that I went away to law school and was met with barriers to getting called to the bar upon my return to Canada.
I was a lawyer working in non-traditional roles while working to be called to the bar. I did some policy work in the provincial government in Canada -- worked to break barriers for professional and highly-skilled newcomers (people like myself who came from other countries with professional qualifications, but were met with barriers) and worked with all provincial regulators in the province to do so. I also worked to break barriers for people with disabilities at an office tasked with implementing ground-breaking accessibility legislation in Ontario. For the bulk of my career, I have always worked to implement legislative initiatives to make system-wide improvements and ensure fairness and equitable treatment for a variety of people.
Right before founding All Things Equitable (ATE), I was recently laid off, unemployed, and found what I thought was, a great job in the accessibility sector. It was MUCH closer to home, had a higher title than the place that let me go, but paid $40K less. I was prepared to take it for greater work-life balance and to further support the accessibility community. I accepted the role, bought new clothes, celebrated with my family and on the eve of the pandemic, they rescinded the offer. I was devastated and dumbfounded and felt sick, truly. I began job hunting, with the world really, as we went into a lockdown due to COVID-19.
And then George Floyd was murdered. And the very next day Amy Cooper tried to call the police on Christian Cooper while walking his dog in Central Park and that was IT for me. I was done with applying for jobs, and working in places where people could, at a moment’s notice, tell me where I belonged. I’d had enough of workplace termination, and so-called “inclusive employers” yanking the rug out from underneath me. I had the qualifications and the know-how to make systemic improvements for marginalized groups since I’d been doing it my entire career. I moved into high gear to do something to stop the inhumane treatment that people receive in the workplace.
Give me the elevator pitch for All Things Equitable.
ATE helps make workplaces diverse, inclusive and safe for historically marginalized groups. We make it easy to be equitable!
And in more detail?
All Things Equitable addresses workplace inequities for all historically marginalized groups. We help employers improve their policies and practices so that organizations are diverse, inclusive, safe, and supportive of the wellbeing of all employees.
What inequity were you trying to redress/address, and why is this important?
People who identify as women, QTBIPOC, newcomers, foreign educated or trained, and people with disabilities, are systemically excluded, marginalized, harassed, oppressed, or discriminated against to the detriment of individual and organizational culture and wellbeing. Pay is not equitable across genders and people of colour are not paid as well as their white counterparts – Black people paid the worst of all.
The way organizations procure, contract, sell and provide services have inherent biases built into the processes because of social constructs and oppressive systems like patriarchy, white supremacy, racism, ableism, colourism, classism, heterosexism, and xenophobia that have worked to create social power and economic wealth for some in society to the social and economic detriment of everyone else.
We address all workplace inequities because that is the only thing proper in a just society. Under our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. Not just some people. Because these oppressive systems permeate every structure in our society and all people are impacted whether they know it or not, we have to make conscious steps to dismantle all forms of violence, oppression and injustice so that everyone can experience the same freedoms and joys as everyone else. It’s the right thing to do, quite frankly.
How’s it going? What has the response been?
The response has been incredible! My clients are all varied and I don’t do any outreach or direct marketing really. Clients come to me organically through referrals and some have signed on for even more work than they initially planned with me. All-in-all, I’m quite busy and the work isn’t slowing down. I’m at the point of wait listing those who want to work with me or referring out. Great place to be.
What’s next for All Things Equitable?
All Things Equitable is growing and I’m currently working on a scaling plan that will help me support even more organizations with their diversity and inclusion initiatives than I already do. I hope to move from the 1:1 model to the 1: many model in the next year or two so that I don’t need to refer out. I can support more organizations with their initiatives and make the changes that I really want to see. I also hope to become a certified B corp.
Any other interesting ventures coming up for you?
I’m looking forward to a few collaborations that will help me bring some new technology to improve diversity, equity, & inclusion to the employers that work with me -- innovative tools that allow for measurable improvements over time.
I’m also looking forward to my work with the Employee Defense Fund, a non-profit started with two other women to seek justice for employees who have experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
I know that antiracism activism, through your video series, is also important to you. Can you say a little bit about “White and Woke at Work”, and “Twice as Hard”? What led you to create them and what has the response been?
“White and Woke at Work” was created because of all the white antiracists I was meeting all over LinkedIn. I wondered about their activism beyond social media and the practical things they were doing in their workplaces that support #BlackLivesMatter. It’s a series that profiles white people from all walks of life who became “woke” and really tries to understand how that awakening happens. It’s an important series that chronicles journeys to anti-racist activism for white people. We learn why some merely say “I’m not racist,” while others actually take anti-racist actions in their spheres of influence. I believe it can truly inspire a new cohort of white anti-racists as people watch, identify with at least one of the guests, and think, “I can do this too!”
“Twice as Hard” – well, I had to profile Black women, didn’t I? We are doubly marginalized and oppressed and our workplace experiences are like none other. We are twice as good and overqualified in many cases but so many workplace phenomena exist to keep us back, minimize us, or exclude us. Things like “pet to threat,” code switching, tone policing, imposter syndrome, workplace PTSD, I could go on!
But, the show title “Twice as Hard” really comes from my childhood. It really is one of the earliest things I can remember my mother telling me: That I had to work twice as hard as white people in order to be successful. And I realize that so many Black women have learned that exact thing from their mothers. Where does that notion come from? In what ways is that notion helpful? In what ways is it hurtful? We’ve been taught to be excellent but is that really serving us in the workplace? It’s an important question, especially now, when employers are trying to compel people back to offices to work in person.
And so through the series we chat with Black women from across the diaspora and chat about the ways we’ve worked twice as hard over our careers; how we currently working twice as hard; and we really teach employers how to include us and embrace us with all our degrees and certifications and Black excellence. We teach Black women as well what to do to show up authentically, to stop code switching, and to create our own tables if necessary. So we can get out of the problematic patterns that see us arrive in organizations as the pet and later cast out once it’s been discovered that our light is too bright. The series features some powerhouse women in this field too. And so the advice given to corporations is GOLD. Truly. [Sharon’s note: check out both series on YouTube.]
In relation to racism, what’s your vision for the future?
I don’t know if I’ll ever see a world in which skin colour no longer matters. But, honestly, my vision is a world in which I’m out of business. There are no more diversity and inclusion consultants working because people just know how to treat other people. I don’t have to teach my son how to respond to a police officer while driving. I don’t have to talk to my daughter about misogynoir and the stereotypes about her Black womanhood. We don’t have to teach about race-based bullying or worry, did that just happen because I’m (fill in the blank with a racialized identity)??!
Is there an antiracism article written by someone else that really made you think?
Everything I read by Janice Gassam Asare, Dana Brownlee, or you Sharon Hurley Hall, is phenomenal and fills my cup with fantastic content that feeds the soul. I also enjoy the writings by your sister Lisa Hurley and my favourite is a piece she wrote “You Might Be a Racist If.” It’s such a well done piece with 40 examples of the tell-tale signs of racism. If white people could even avoid half the items on that list, they’d be well on their way to antiracism. LOL
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Background image courtesy of Getty Images - Colors Hunter - Chasseur de Couleurs