For the Record

Can you hear me now?

Celina Caesar-Chavannes sitting at a table facing the camera, with her hands crossed in front of her

Photography by O’shane Howard

Celina Caesar-Chavannes is the new Senior Advisor, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) Initiatives in the Faculty of Health Sciences – and the author of a new book, Can You Hear Me Now? How I Found My Voice and Learned to Live with Passion and Purpose. The former Member of Parliament reflects on her past role in politics and her current role at Queen’s – and what she sees for the future.

Tell us a bit about your new role as Queen’s Senior Advisor Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) Initiatives in the Faculty of Health Sciences. This really is an opportune role for me, and I’m really excited to be at Queen’s. I understand the role of some of the policies that Queen’s has had and how they have really disadvantaged students, especially Black students, through the ban on Black students in medicine. Post-2020 there’s an opportunity to really leverage this moment and redress some of the inequity that has existed at Queen’s for students, in particular Black and Indigenous students, and also to change the culture at Queen’s. My role offers the opportunity to do both, to really look at that transformation that is required to shift the culture toward equity and to support students, allowing them to graduate feeling like their optimal selves.

You have spoken before about how you see your role in a communications capacity, opening conversations with everyone, not just BIPOC students. How do you go about getting everyone involved, and making everyone feel a part of the process? When we talk about equity, it’s not just related to race, it’s related to gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, and more, and I think everybody could see themselves fitting into a particular category. Most importantly, when we think about equity, it’s about making sure that people – no matter what their background – have an equal opportunity to not just survive but to thrive in an institution. At the same time, if we’re doing a lot of great work at Queen’s and nobody hears about it, then how good is that work? So as much as we want people to really feel welcome within the Faculty of Health Sciences’ (FHS) EDI office, we need to do as much communicating as possible, not just within the Queen’s family but outside the Queen’s family too so that this leadership moment for the university is capitalized and becomes a benchmark for how future institutions change and adapt. 

Under Principal Deane, the university released a Declaration of Commitment to Address Systemic Racism. And the Principal’s Conversation Report, released last fall, spoke about the need “to address once and for all the intractable problem of racism at Queen’s, and to entrench more broadly and deeply the principles of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Indigeneity (EDII).” Tell us about the things that first struck you when you arrived at Queen’s that you wanted to address immediately. When I think about increasing equity in a workplace, I look at Robert Livingston, who is a professor in the U.S. He’s created a process called the PRESS process. Number one, or the P, is to understand the problem, and Principal Deane’s Conversation Report clearly identified the problem. The R is the root, and he clearly identified the roots of the problem as well. We didn’t just get to this situation where there’s racism on campus, he knew that this has been stemming from a long history of problems at Queen’s. E is empathy, and in Principal Deane having these conversations he actually displayed to leadership what is required in order to address systemic racism, which is to have empathy to connect with people to listen to their stories and then be able to respond. 

Then, the first S is strategy, and Principal Deane is using this conversation to develop that strategy. And the final S is sacrifice. He’s willing to put the skin in the game, he’s willing to have resources put in to redress the situation, he’s doing the model of what an institution should be doing. I think with Patrick Deane and Dean Philpott in FHS we’re seeing leadership at the highest level in Queen’s come together and that’s the most important thing. The tone is always set from the top. They may or may not know about the PRESS model from Robert Livingston but they’re certainly acting it out. That is how anti-racists behave.

You have a new book out – Can You Hear Me Now? Can you tell us why you chose that title? I chose the title because we’re not listened to most times. I look back on my time in Parliament in 2018, talking about racism and being gaslit for it. 

Now fast-forward, and 2020 happens and everybody’s talking about it. So, when I was talking about it two years ago, I was too early. 

But now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, having conversations about climate change and the global crisis around refugees, so can we talk about racism now? Can we talk about the disparity that exists between people, especially racialized people, that causes them to die and that causes them to not have the services that they need? That’s why that title is so important. Can you hear me now? Let’s have this conversation because we should have been having it two years ago and now we’re kind of catching up. We should have been leading in this domain.

There’s a scene in your book when you describe how it was critical to you that you not be considered a “token” in government – and yet, you continued to feel as if you were. Can you tell us a bit about how Queen’s can move forward with diversity and inclusion initiatives but simultaneously guard against tokenism? When you add diversity into an organization in which the culture of that organization is toxic, that’s tokenism. You add diversity, but you know that those individuals will not be supported, they will not be sustained, and they end up leaving and you never get to a point of equity. That is the definition of tokenism, when you don’t want to actually listen to people. 

What I think Queen’s is doing right now, because we’re changing the culture from one that is very elitist to one that is striving toward equity, is that when we sprinkle that diversity in, we actually have those conversations like the principal did with his report. It is very intentional what Queen’s is doing, to prevent that tokenistic behaviour, which is typically found in organizations that just say, “Oh, well, something happened, and we need to increase the amount of Black people or Indigenous people in our organization,” without actually taking time to figure out whether they’ll be able to survive and thrive in that organization. What Queen’s is doing is having that cultural assessment. Once you understand where the pain points are, that’s when you can build strategies to make them better and to drive forward the process of making change.

You are an immigrant, coming to Canada from Grenada when you were a child. Tell us some of the ways the immigrant experience shaped you, and helps or hinders you in your work at Queen’s. I think one of the things that it does is it allows me to understand the experiences of a lot of students. Being first in their family to go to university, being first-generation Canadian, or coming to another country to make life better for themselves and the pressure to do well. Some people are coming from poorer countries, some people are escaping conflict, and some people are well off, but they still hold expectations that their family places on them. I’ve had opportunities to speak with a couple of students here who have had challenges, and as a Black woman I think they get a sense that it might be easier to talk to me because I understand what they’ve gone through. 

“We’re changing the culture from one that is very elitist to one that is striving toward equity.”

How did your background in entrepreneurship and in politics prepare you for the work you are now doing at Queen’s?

My background is in health care-based research management, so there’s a clear line there to FHS. There’s a lot of disparity in medicine and not just for racialized people. I worked with people who had neurological conditions, and socioeconomic status plays a huge role in that. You have people who cannot afford their medications and they have to leave a province because their drugs are not covered under one plan or another. 

With the leadership of Dean Philpott and Patrick Deane, we are seeing real action and ownership. They’re taking responsibility, they’re changing the culture, they’re not afraid to talk about some of their own challenges and not afraid to say “Yes, we know what the history of Queen’s is like.” Just to speak up like that, it contrasts with the leadership that I experienced in politics. To have an environment where leadership is ready to act and I can bring my experience of action around equity, that’s just a beautiful recipe for transformation and change.

You start your book by recounting how you had “zero political aspirations” and had always thought that philanthropy would be the way you would give back to society. What was it that drew you to philanthropy, and what advice would you have for alumni who share that goal?

One of my mantras is “To whom much is given, much is expected” and I’ve received a lot to get to here. A lot of people helped me, a lot of people saw my struggle and pushed me toward being better. Having the capacity to give back and having the capacity to create that for someone else is critically important for me. In fact, it’s an expectation for me; it is something that I live by. 

Your book deals with gender and how you were treated as a woman in politics giving voice to women’s issues. What is the most important lesson you learned that you would share with women trying to carve out a career today?

I would tell them that their voice matters. That standing in their principles and their truths and their values matters. I often quote Clayton Christensen, who was a Harvard professor, and in his essay “How Will You Measure Your Life?” he says it is easier to stand by your values 100% of the time than to stand by them 98% of the time. If you stand by your values 100% of the time and you’re on the right side of history, do not be silenced, do not cower, do not be afraid, stand boldly in your truth.

Tell us a bit about what you hope the Queen’s of tomorrow will look like.

Tomorrow will have students who feel like they are part of a university that sees them, that welcomes them, that allows them to be supported and sustained. I think the sustained piece is the part that is most important to me because I want students to feel like they’re not just brought into Queen’s because they’re a paycheque for the university; they’re brought into Queen’s because we actually have a responsibility to them. We have a responsibility to shape their minds and to grow them and sustain them while they’re in this environment. A lot of students are feeling frustrated and feeling like they have to do extra work to make sure that there’s equity, and that’s not their job. Their job is to go to school and do well and graduate. That’s all I want them to do.

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