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Insights from the NCCDH’s racial equity journey

Insights from the NCCDH’s racial equity journey

By Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh on March 30, 2019

This piece is a reflection on the NCCDH racial equity organizational change experience. It is written from my perspective and others on the team will likely have a different view and analysis. My intention is to discuss some of the tensions, challenges, shifts and insights that have surfaced through the change process.


Racism is deeply embedded in the everyday policies and practices of institutions. However, the workings and impact of racism are not always explicit and obvious unless people consistently apply an anti-racism lens.
To apply anti-racist or racial equity approaches, the National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health (like many other organizations) began by “lifting the veil.” [1,p.20] This meant that our team had to understand and distinguish between different forms of racism —for example, individual, institutional and structural racism. [2]

Additionally, we have to move from building awareness of racism to transforming how we work. As the NCCDH seeks to weave racial equity into all aspects of what we do, there have been tensions, challenges and shifts in our work. I discuss some of these below:

  • Build an understanding of different levels of racism
  • Address the knowledge, skills and needs of a multiracial staff team
  • Acknowledge and respond to the emotional aspects of change
  • Stay in difficult conversations
  • Support the leadership of racialized staff
  • Work with a knowledgeable change team

Build an understanding of different levels of racism

Lifting the veil or making “race talk” and a racial equity analysis a normal part of how the organization operates are two actions that require a shared understanding of racism. They make it necessary for staff to:

  • be more aware of their own reactions to conversations on racial equity;
  • develop a shared understanding of racism;
  • reflect on their own experiences of racism; and
  • consider how their actions can perpetuate or eliminate racism.

Popular understandings of racism tend to focus on individual racist behaviours, rather than how structural racism that is rooted in white supremacy functions. This coincides with a false view that acts of racism are always explicit and intentional. Such views mean that when people are critiqued for behaviours and practices that uphold racial inequities, they sometimes feel personally attacked. As a result, these individuals quickly move to the non-racist intention of their actions.

During team discussions, we talked about racism as not being contingent on the intent of the actors. This point was often reinforced alongside discussions of different forms and levels of racism. We consistently emphasised systemic racism as the key driver of racial inequities, linking individual manifestations for racist actions to the broader policies, practices and systems that make individual racist behaviour potent.

In reflections, staff have named shifting their focus from intent to impact as a key area of growth.

Address the knowledge, skills and needs of a multiracial staff team

Racial equity change is often met with a range of reactions from White and racialized staff, which organizations can anticipate and plan for as they begin the change process. [3]

When the NCCDH began staff development on anti-racism, it was apparent that staff had varied levels of skill to navigate these conversations. Early on in the process, a team member expressed concern that some White staff were being shamed. Another noted that some people on the team were on “their anti-racism moral high ground.” Others expressed frustration and disappointment that the discussions were fairly introductory. (Dis)comfort came up often within discussions.

Anticipating these potential reactions, our team read DiAngelo’s article on White fragility [4] early in the process. A conversation on White fragility opened up space for those issues to surface and be discussed somewhat transparently.

For many of the White women in the group, the examples provided a useful framework for understanding their reactions to discussions on racism. For racialized staff, it meant we did not have to do the intellectual and emotional work of constantly naming this ourselves, which validated some of our experiences on the team.

Staff also read about internalized racism. [5] Racialized staff have shared that our needs often got missed in the group discussion. Organizationally, we have acknowledged that racialized staff have taken on additional emotional and intellectual work without adequate support. To address this, the NCCDH is exploring the creation of a network of support outside the organization.

Acknowledge and respond to the emotional aspects of change

“My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.” [6]

“Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we will all perish, for they serve none of our futures.” [6]

Audre Lorde, "The uses of anger"

To explore emotional responses to racism, the team read Audre Lorde’s “The uses of anger.” [6] In this seminal piece, Lorde explores her anger towards racism as a tool for action and the limitations of guilt.
During this discussion, we used caucuses to learn and strategize based on racial identity and regroup to share and strategize together. Caucusing requires that the groups participate in a high degree of critical reflection and action grounded in anti-racism principles. Caucuses benefit from facilitators with knowledge and expertise in racial equity who can help guide the group. This was not present in the White caucus and the group missed an opportunity to reflect on how their identity as White people was influencing the conversation. [7]

In the racialized caucus we welcomed a separate discussion and used it as an opportunity to share more freely with each other. Some staff in the White caucus shared that the caucus and the joint conversation that followed helped them reflect differently. Others, however, were uneasy with this deliberate (temporary) separation based on racial identity and months later some still struggle to articulate what it means to be engaged in racial equity change as a White person.

Whiteness and white identity formation are central to understanding racial inequities. These are often left out of conversations, and explicit naming of the actions associated with White dominance is an essential part of racial equity transformation.

Stay in difficult conversations

In a debrief, many staff mentioned that our learning conversations sometimes felt stilted and measured. We were being cautious about what we shared and how we responded, and many issues remained unsaid. Issues were sometimes raised and never fully discussed.

As another staff noted, we seemed to “talk around the issues.” This was further confirmed at a later staff meeting where it was named that racism was still at play within the organization.

Naming racism has been sensitive and has had an impact on interpersonal relationships and team dynamics. A rupturing and questioning of interpersonal relationships can usurp the larger goal of systemic change. Connecting individual transformation to organizational change has been critical to our approach.

Alongside our racial equity change process, our team has participated in conflict transformation training to help us address and stay in difficult conversations.

In the interest of creating a learning environment that supports change, we have encouraged active listening and the development of skill to stay in difficult conversations. This requires patience from all involved and a deep belief that we can all change. We have some tools in place to support ongoing dialogue and need to use them more consistently, while holding each other accountable.

Our team is working on being “critically conscious of difference without allowing that difference to keep us apart.” [8,p.80-81]

Support individual growth while acknowledging the leadership of racialized staff members

The racial equity work is officially led by an Anti-Racism Workgroup. A co-chair model has been set up to allow for the leadership of change to be shared by another staff member and myself and to not place a high burden on me. [9]

In reality, I continue to carry a greater responsibility and provide leadership to the NCCDH’s work that is not captured in a simple co-chair model. In spite of this, the team initially struggled to accept the leadership I brought to the work. In some instances, this leadership I bring has been framed as action of the workgroup, and it has been easy for work I have done to be credited or distributed to others.

This is a striking difference in how NCCDH approaches staff leadership. As a team, we value collaboration alongside acknowledging and celebrating leadership and contributions in big and small ways.

In this instance, leadership was obscured and misnamed. Racism makes it difficult to see and embrace leadership from racialized peoples. It is important for organizations to assess how racism influences leadership and decision-making. Uncovering these patterns allow organizations to approach racial equity with a more critical edge.

Work with a knowledgeable change team

Change teams ideally have members with knowledge and expertise in racial equity. Our anti-racism workgroup did not have dispersed expertise and some members were also going through a learning process.
As our work unfolds, various workgroup members are taking on more responsibility and continue to grow. We have worked with an external facilitator and have also established an external Racial Equity Advisory Group to bring in more expertise.

For organizations committed to racial equity, we have to respond to the impacts of institutional racism in the lives of staff and the communities we serve. There is a fine dance between individual transformation and institutional and structural change.

Many staff recognize that individual transformation and growth is a lifelong journey. Organizationally, the NCCDH continues to shift our policies and practices across all aspects of our work [10]. This has been supported by:

  • a leader who was open to learning and growing alongside the team [9];
  • leadership from staff with expertise in racial equity;
  • resources for bringing in external support [9];
  • a team willing to learn and grow even when it has been difficult [11];
  • a learning culture that provides dedicated time to learn and practice; and
  • building accountability in our organizational plans and committing to publicly sharing our process .

Thanks to Pemma Muzumdar for comments on earlier drafts.

Photo credit: Suzanne D. Williams




[1.] Forward Through Ferguson. Advancing positive change: a toolkit for equity and empowerment [Internet]. Location (US): The Ferguson Commission; 2017 [cited 2019 Mar 8]. 22 p. Available from:

[2.] Government Alliance on Race and Equity. Racial equity: getting to results [Internet]. Location: GARE; 2017 [cited 2019 Mar 8]. 21 p. Available from:

[3.] Thomas B, Lopes T. Dancing on live embers: challenging racism in organizations. Toronto (ON): Between the Lines; 2006.

[4.] DiAngelo R. White fragility [Internet]. Int J Critical Pedagog. 2011;3(3):54-70. Available from:

[5.] Lipsky S. Chapter 7. In: Lipsky S, editor. Internalized racism. Seattle (US): Rational Island Publishers, c1987 [cited 2019 Mar 8]. p. 144-7. Available from:

[6.] Lorde A. The uses of anger [Internet]. Women's Studies Q. 1997 [cited 2019 Mar 8]; 25(1/2):278-85. Available from:

[7.] Clement C. NCCDH staff becoming anti-racist through informed dialogue: 2 of 2 [blog on Internet]. Antigonish (NS): National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health, St. Francis Xavier University; 2018 [cited 2019 Mar 8]. [3 screens]. Available from:

[8.] hooks b. Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. Abingdon (UK): Routledge; c2003.

[9.] Clement C. Becoming anti-racist: small steps along the way. [blog on the Internet]. Antigonish (NS): National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health, St. Francis Xavier University; 2017 [cited 2019 mar 8]. [3 screens]. Available from:

[10.] Layden F, Clement C. Integrating equity into employment. [blog on the Internet]. Antigonish (NS): National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health, St. Francis Xavier University; 2019 [cited 2019 Mar 8]. Available from:

[11.] McDonald D. Pay no attention to the main behind the curtain. [blog on the Internet]. Antigonish (NS): National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health, St. Francis Xavier University; 2017 [cited 2019 Mar 8]. [3 screens]. Available from:


Organizational capacityRacism/racializationRacial equity at the NCCDH