Priyanka Sheth, CEO of Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre
1. Your achievements have been stellar. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you feel most proud of accomplishing.
I don’t actually reflect on my accomplishments a whole lot, so it’s wonderful when someone creates the space for me to collect my thoughts.
I have worked in the NFP world for over 20 years and through my journeys within different organizations, I have realized that whilst we struggle to move the needle to ensure that someone else’s world becomes a better place, we often don’t work towards creating the same for ourselves. Our lives become so entangled in our work, that the separation is almost improbable.
These last two years have been the highest hurdles to climb as we transitioned in and out of isolation and back into community. Just before the pandemic was called, I was working with an organization serving homeless folks and we lost one of our rising stars. She had recovered from a car accident, had learned to walk again, had the brightest smile and yet one day – we lost her. A couple days later we were moved into lockdown and so there was no time to grieve collectively. Moving individuals who are on the margins back and forth between the security of a safe space and the unknown is heartbreaking. It was in these moments however, that I learned even more the resilience of the human spirit.
Many months later, I took over DBNC in February 2021. I had never dreamed that I would be running an organization remotely, without ever meeting any of the managers or staff in-person until a while later. In March of that year we lost one of our managers suddenly. It was awful. Walking the organization through that grief remotely was not ideal, however we managed to pull together. His family and the staff teams shared moments of solace and togetherness and in the being of togetherness we created the Michael Lipinski Fund to honour his legacy. Whilst the organization was stable, it needed a strategic direction / plan; policy work to reflect a DEI lens; a reflection of staff and the needs of the community and a strong DEI policy and reflective practice. I engaged a consultant to support the development of a strategic plan; started a DEI committee and began the work of sifting through a myriad of policies to ensure that we had the tools to reflect our new direction. We transitioned 3 more managers and this too was a significant change in the team. The waves of hybrid were beginning to float and we had to quickly determine if we would be able to sustain the work and the balance for the workforce. The portfolio of services was also one that had some new areas of learning for me and I am truly grateful to the members in the community who allowed me the privilege of asking questions and offering their invaluable support. It truly took a village of support for me to be able to learn, grow and begin to look into the future more hopefully. As you can tell, I cannot pinpoint my greatest achievement other than to say that together we truly are better.
2. As you look back, what might you have done differently?
Hindsight is always 20:20. Looking back, I would have liked to lean in on some of the nuances of the work a bit longer before developing our strategic plan. We noted the first year of the plan as a recovery year, however, I would have liked the plan to have a bit longer in development especially given the significant changes in the environment that we were and still are within. Whilst change was necessary, not everyone is keen to move at the pace that is required and organizational change is a long-term commitment. I would have also brought on a full-time DEI consultant / staff as this has become evident that in order to effectively continue the work, it has to be focused. In the beginning I had a bit more time and over the months, work has become increasingly busy. We are now in the process of bringing on a DEI staff / or consultant team to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to grow and learn. This would have been the best case scenario to have the individual from the beginning and we could have grown together. Not all is lost and DEI is an ongoing journey and as such now is better than never.
3. There has been a continuous buzz about DEI in the past close to 3 years. Beyond ensuring the right policies and protocols are in place and that there is regular staff training, what are the critical elements to ensuring a working environment, culture that is truly equitable?
Understanding power is key to understanding equity and creating a culture that is equitable. Not everyone is at the same starting line even amongst racialized communities and the need for individuals to be heard is paramount. Staff “training” in DEI (ARAO) has occurred since the 80s but we have been doing this in isolation of reflective practice and consistent re-engaging in learning. I call the need for ongoing learning, “Infusion Learning” or “Learning Journeys”. Unlearning is as important as learning and shifting a culture of an organization is a mammoth task that requires patience, resilience and a dogged determination to stay the course. Within the NFP world we come to the work with the intent of doing good and ensuring that the world is a better place, yet, as I mentioned before, in failing to care for ourselves, we leave behind our empathetic lens and develop a hardened resilience to being available and yet not fully present. The need to have the difficult conversations; take accountability and responsibility for both self and the organization in the learning journey, and developing communities of practice so that we can learn from each other and lean into the learning, is part of the package to ensuring that our work is meaningful especially to those that sit on the margins of society.
4. Do you envision that we will be able to, as a society, move towards a society where there is zero tolerance of violence against women, be it physical or sexual or emotional?
Violence against Women is the unspoken global pandemic that has deep roots and far reaching ideologies that continue to manifest.
Power is one of the most dangerous elements that presents itself to a human. For anyone who has power – how they exert or use their power, for good or for domination is a reflection on their ability to handle power. For those that have no power and use their need for control, to violate another human is horrifying. I would hope (in my wildest hopes) that we as a society, can come to a space where there is no tolerance of violence against women. I would be naïve to believe that in my lifetime, this will be possible. I will lean in to the Indigenous teachings to say that it will take 7 generations before we can find ourselves in a space where violence against women is simply not tolerated and women and girls (including women identified individuals) have a safe space to belong. I do believe that the responsibility of teaching and sharing the knowledge that violence in any form is unacceptable, is borne on the shoulders of mostly women and lately some good men. I also believe that I hold personal responsibility to ensure that those within my circle understand that power and control have no space in our worlds, and that women and girls deserve to share the same space as men and boys. I also continue to work closely with groups and individuals who engage and consistently reach out to their communities, to share their learnings, and to develop circles of support so that each one can reach one, and thereby create a better world. To challenge structures and leaders to ensure that there is strong backing for the work of activists, and champions who work tirelessly to shatter the status quo is our moral and imperative duty.
5. What are the unique ways in which you are as a CEO ensuring the mental health of your management and frontline staff and preventing burnout?
TLC. Over the past year and half, we have introduced practices that will allow for those that are struggling to find a safer space in the work.
We have introduced personal days whereby staff can take time away from work without the need to provide a reason for the time away.
We have increased our sick time allotment so that staff can take time to heal We are working on a hybrid model of work that is being done in consultation with staff, to ensure that we develop best practices for our teams. We have an in-house wellness committee and engage in wellness activities throughout the year. We have 4 all-staff meetings a year. At each meeting we have one learning activity and then spend the time with one wellness activity. Out last session was on Mindfulness. We sought better health benefits so that staff could avail of services that could support their well-being. Our health ambassadors are keenly invested in the well-being of the community and of the staff teams and consistently host sessions throughout the year. We are working on providing a longer term either RRSP or Pension Plan to all staff and budgets are being developed accordingly. We don’t look at the individual in isolation but as part of the structure that holds the organization up and allows us to do our work. For the management team, I have special lunches to recognize their work. They have flexibility of working from home or office, we have regular “check in” meetings to ensure that they are well, and if any one of them is struggling, I send them a note or flowers. I have also taken to scheduling my management team to outside learning sessions / conferences, that takes them out of the routine and engage them with other communities. I always have a listening ear, which has become a regular part of our management meetings so that we spend time not just on the practical but also on hearing each other. We also start each meeting with a “check in” that is not program-based but individual. We are introducing a “get to know me” practice across the organization and teams visit another team to know each other better. On Dec 8th, I will be hosting a wine and cheese event for Leadership in the Region of Peel. It is themed – Leaders Caring for Leaders and I am hoping to start a trend of caring not just organizationally but as a region as well.