Next-gen leaders

In this interview with Leslie Woo (CivicAction) and Adwoa K. Buahene (TRIEC), the two CEOs ask what “build back better” means – and for whom?

In this interview with Leslie Woo (CivicAction) and Adwoa K. Buahene (TRIEC), the two CEOs ask what “build back better” means – and for whom?

An interview with Leslie Woo and Adwoa K. Buahene

After weeks of unpredictable weather, it’s warm and sunny in Toronto, and even Zoom feels celebratory. Leslie Woo, CEO of CivicAction, sports a pastel-coloured scarf in her hair, and Adwoa K. Buahene, CEO of Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), a necklace featuring a mosaic of multihued tiles.

But don’t be fooled by such festive touches, or the contagious laughter. When it comes time to answer questions about what lies at the heart of statements generated by the COVID-19 crisis, such as “inclusive recovery” and “build back better,” the women form a united and not-to-be-messed-with front. Build back better for who? they ask. Who decides what “better” means?

While the pandemic has ravaged the non-profit sector, these two leaders have emerged to light a path forward. With decades of experience between them, with distinctions such as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, with international perspectives gleaned from living, working, and studying abroad, the sector would do well to sit back and listen.

The non-profit sector has a critical role to play, Woo and Buahene agree, and it’s imperative to get it right. Unless people at the helm of “build back better” see this as an “opportunity to leapfrog all that the pandemic has revealed and that it has made worse,” Woo says, the statement “could actually set us back.” Better means addressing the “rift between those who have and those who don’t have.” Better means becoming stronger. Better means reinventing.

Better does not mean returning to the status quo, says Buahene. If our definition of better is better than today, “then we’re going to be back in the same spot we were two years from now.”

‘Build back better’ means addressing the rift between those who have and those who don’t have.

Leslie Woo

That same spot could be either a pleasant or not-so-pleasant place, depending on your gender, income level, race. Oxfam International’s 2021 report – The Inequality Virus – says that history “will remember the pandemic as the first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time.” Canada has not been immune. Take your pick: gender inequality, medical racism, income inequality, economic racism. As the COVID dust settles, one wonders if it’s bricks we need to build back better or a bulldozer.

Woo, a trained architect and urban planner who founded She Builds Cities and who spent 12 years as Metrolinx’s chief planning officer in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), could, literally, build anything. And while planning how to build a better society may seem more abstract than, say, creating a multibillion-dollar 25-year plan for a web of transit lines serving millions, there are some surprising similarities, she says.

When it comes to being a leader, to transforming and growing a non-profit organization to be as adaptable and resilient as possible (minus the multibillion-dollar budget, she notes), Woo draws on her Metrolinx experience.

“The real journey to get there was not in the plan-making; it was trying to bring the plan to life,” she says. To do so required “incremental little decisions every day.” Without the “horizon in mind,” without a “clear view of the outcomes,” you’d be in trouble, she says. “We can cumulatively make a lot of individual decisions, which unto themselves are sound but when we put them all together are taking us in the wrong direction.”

The more stakeholders, the more important a clear and common vision. A team of engineers, Woo says, might become so obsessed with technology and shaving off travel times that they forget a transit line is actually for people, and that the best transit routes are ones where people actually get on and off.

Such an example circles back to the question of Who. Who benefits? How do we define who benefits? If the engineers did all the planning, Woo says, the beneficiaries would be very limited. But “if we engage all the different voices and understand that many people will benefit, or need to benefit or can benefit, every dollar can go so much further.” The same principles can be applied to the non-profit sector, she says.

Buahene laughs when asked if she has anything to add. “Given that I’m not an urban planner, I’m just going to say ditto.”

But Buahene, who has been volunteering since the age of 12 and served in positions such as vice-president of donor and community partnerships at Habitat for Humanity, who speaks German as a first language and has a master of arts in analytic philosophy, who ran her own business for a dozen years and has worked in leadership positions from Mumbai to Bucharest, has a lot more to say than ditto.

In terms of building back better, a complete solution means including the people we serve. The mantra, for all sectors, must be what began as a rallying call for equitable patient care: “Nothing about me without me,” she says, saying that the foundation of our common vision must be based on diversity and inclusion.

Buahene has 20 years of leadership experience and co-founded n-gen People Performance Inc., a consulting company focused on generational diversity. To pair this experience with TRIEC’s focus on immigrant diversity and inclusion is “very near and dear to my heart,” she says, sharing how she watched her internationally educated physician father struggle for years to work in Canada.

Buahene knows the urban myth of brain surgeon as taxi driver is very much a reality, and how much this hurts our society. A recent article on TRIEC’s website points out that thousands of internationally educated health professionals in Ontario are seeking licensure at a time when Canada is in the midst of a health crisis.

Employment and wage gaps between immigrant and Canadian-born individuals are well documented. When using an intersectional lens, racialized women endure what one report refers to as a “double penalty.” The Toronto Foundation’s 2019/20 Vital Signs Report shows that a racialized woman in the city earns less than $40,000 a year, while a white man earns nearly $90,000. An RBC study notes such wage gaps cost the Canadian economy approximately $50 billion a year.

The people she serves at TRIEC were at the front lines of the pandemic, Buahene says, and should be at the front lines of building back. Not to mention, Canada depends on immigrants, she noted in a Globe and Mail article: they constitute 25% of the workforce.

Statistics Canada predicts that in 15 years, half the population will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. Toronto has already reached those numbers (compared to 7% nationally) and serves as the main immigration pathway for future newcomers. In 2019, 118,000 newcomers arrived in the GTHA. The sheer scale of such demographics makes Buahene view Toronto and the surrounding area as a kind of “global case study.”

Woo, who grew up in Trinidad and came to the city as a young adult, sees Toronto as a “giant human experiment,” a place that’s “constantly in a state of being.” While other cities may tug at her heartstrings – Paris, Melbourne, Barcelona – the “remarkable synergies” created between so many different types of people and communities in Toronto – “I mean, it’s got to be one of the most exciting places to be in the world.”

If there were a place that had the right ingredients to build back better, you’d think Toronto would be it. One of the most multicultural cities in the world, it receives consistently high rankings in the Global Liveability Index and its fair share of scholarly praise. But past reports such as Poverty by Postal Code and The Three Cities Within Toronto show how long-term trends toward poverty and inequality have become the city’s present. One in five live in poverty. More than one million access food banks every year. “Inequality is the new normal,” says the (pre-pandemic) 2019/20 Vital Signs Report.

“We have diversity in the city,” says Buahene. “We need to work to greater inclusion.”

“It behooves us – employers, civically, community partners, and within communities – it behooves us to really start working hard, hard, hard on inclusion.”

We have diversity in [Toronto]. We need to work to greater inclusion.

Adwoa K. Buahene

The terms diversity and inclusion have evolved from buzzwords into a “growing” diversity and inclusion (D&I) industry. A 2019 Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion survey found that 95% of business-leader respondents recognized the benefits of diversity as a business strategy. The Muttart Foundation’s Intersections and Innovations: Change for Canada’s Voluntary and Nonprofit Sector devotes an entire chapter to understanding diversity and inclusion in a philanthropic context. Author Christopher Fredette maps three main ways to frame diversity – as demography, as difference, as inclusion – with the latter the most “integrative” approach, “in which minority group members are distinguishable as individuals and equally valued, neither simply assimilated nor differentiated.”

In Reimagining Diversity: Moving from a Multicultural Perspective to an Ecological Perspective, Armado Rodriguez asks, “What becomes the value of inclusion for those who have been historically brutalized by the status quo?” or “who wish to create new worlds?” Rodriguez uses a forest metaphor to envision an “organic” world that’s “always changing, evolving, growing, learning, adapting.” Here, he argues, diversity evolves from being a commodity that poses little threat to the status quo: “Whereas a multicultural perspective values inclusion, an ecological perspective values revolution.” In the forest, revolutions begin with forest fires, he says, destroying old underbrush and fallen trees, making way for new growth.

While Buahene and Woo don’t use the term “revolution” during our interview, their presence here today – two racialized women who became CEOs of large non-profit organizations in the middle of a pandemic – suggests revolution is afoot. A host of reports and investigations, including The Globe and Mail’s “The Power Gap: Women Are Outnumbered and Outranked at Canada’s Vital Public Institutions,” show the odds are against such a meeting, as do surveys from the sector itself.

“One would assume that this is a sector that’s more empathetic and conscious of these issues,” Woo says, “but, in fact, leadership around those tables are very wanting.”

In June 2020, a lack of diversity in leadership positions in the non-profit sector prompted Senator Ratna Omidvar to write an open letter calling for action, saying that studies, such as one conducted by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, “paint a picture of a sector that may talk the talk but appears to be unwilling to walk the walk.”

Buahene, who joined the board at Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) in August 2020, recognizes that, aside from her experience and background, it was a “conscious move” by the PFC for greater representation, and it’s a role she says she feels “privileged” to provide.

But Woo and Buahene don’t dwell on the inequities they face. They’re too busy thinking up ways the sector can move forward.

They list some impediments to the functioning of a healthy sector ecosystem: inertia, lack of curiousity about issues behind inequities (such as Indigenous history), uninspired leadership (if you don’t have the right leaders, Woo says, “so many great things die on the vine”), data deficits, lack of creativity.

Woo looks to emerging leaders as one way forward. “When we think about what ‘build back better’ could be, they’ve already been thinking about it,” she says, and their ideas are “different than my generation or other generations about the future they want.” This relatively untapped talent pool just needs connection, she says, an introduction to “the boardrooms of the universe.”

“The sector needs to have a ready pipeline of young, diverse talent and individuals who can take their place at the table and understand what it means to be at the table,” she says.

The sector needs to have a ready pipeline of young, diverse talent and individuals who can take their place at the table.

Leslie Woo

HireNext, a free assessment tool launched by CivicAction in 2018, provides employers with suggestions about how to “better attract and retain young, diverse talent” and overcome hidden hiring biases. Another initiative, YouthConnect, prepares youth for the future of work with free tools for online learning and skills-building events. The Emerging Leaders Network, which is 2,900-plus “rising leaders strong,” provides a ready-made base of sector-wide connections.

In light of her involvement with PFC, Buahene stresses the importance of revising funding practices and granting mechanisms. Foundations, which are often “established Canadians of many generations,” may not be “diverse in and of themselves,” she says. She refers to a useful resource created during the pandemic by PFC with action ideas about how “to fund in a different way,” something critics have been calling for in a growing number of debates.

Restrictions placed on funding, and the “bureaucracy that surrounds seeking approval to shift things,” can impede the ability to be creative, to have more leeway, Buahene says. When you have an idea, “you may not have all the steps perfect leading to a solution.”

Both leaders see a need for the sector to branch out and engage a larger variety of stakeholders. It’s important to look around, Woo urges, and “not just to ourselves or the people we serve, but to unlikely suspects or partners.”

In addition, Woo says, the sector needs to see itself more as a valuable business partner than a “checkbox that someone affiliates themselves with so they can be tagged as a do-gooder.”

“There’s always a fear that somehow we become impure when we enter into the gates of the capitalist economy,” she says. But it’s not always about money; more and more resources aren’t the solution, Woo says. Support could mean sharing expertise, showcasing other non-profits.

What it’s about, and both TRIEC and CivicAction are examples of this, is building relationships. An ecosystem approach to creating solutions is one that engages multiple stakeholders to reflect the interconnected nature of their work, and the interconnected nature of the issues faced by their most vulnerable populations. Partnerships, co-creations, collaborations – call them what you will. For Woo and Buahene, they are an essential part of a solutions toolbox for an increasingly complex set of problems that are becoming more and more systemic.

“A childcare problem, an immigration problem, a skills-trade problem – they’re very connected,” says Woo, “so you need to think in that way.”

Buahene sees this every day. TRIEC, which represents more than 50,000 people in the GTHA and 82 associations, uses a multiple-stakeholder approach – government, industry, professional networks – and this is an advantage when it comes to achieving outcomes: “If you just try to create a solution in a vacuum, you’re not likely to get it right.”

“If we tried to solve just for ‘x’ and we haven’t thought of ‘y’ and ‘z,’ then it’s not going to be a complete solution.”

If you just try to create a solution in a vacuum, you’re not likely to get it right.

Adwoa K. Buahene

Complete solutions may start small but can have far-reaching effects, Buahene says. By providing meaningful, commensurate employment for an immigrant, for example, you affect more than just the individual: employment “bolsters the family and bolsters the community, and that bolsters our society – municipally, provincially, nationally, globally.”

An ecosystem approach is also our best bet for facing rapid and unpredictable change. With future pandemics and the reality of climate change on the horizon, the sector needs to be ready. “Change is coming at us from all different directions,” Woo says. “All the unexpected, the black swans and the unicorns, all those animals we’ve named as being unusual things” she says, they’re on their way.

“What better way to play out all those different scenarios for all of us to plan,” Woo asks, “than to have a diverse set of views about what the future could be?”

As the late afternoon sun begins to fade in Toronto, the women seem reluctant to say goodbye. They compare last notes about why they do what they do, tied by something beyond all the fancy terminology surrounding these issues.

Both women know how it feels to be a stranger in a new place, or how it feels to be “othered” in the place you’ve chosen to live. You want to feel like you belong, they say, you want a place to call home. They know the people they serve share this most basic of human desires, and maybe that’s what all this boils down to – a desire to create a place everyone can call home.

“When you join a not-for-profit, and you’re given the privilege to lead it, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing,” Buahene says. “Every time I listen to Leslie, I can’t imagine it could get any more passionate.”

Connecting with each other, coming up with ideas and solutions together, generating energy together – this is how we stay afloat, Woo says. “It’s a sector that can drain you, even with all the passion of the universe.”

“This notion of co-creation, collaboration is not only about co-create and collaborate projects; it’s about relationships, and it’s about the strength you build together to lead. And I think that’s something that is incredibly valuable, why I’m so enjoying this time here.”


Weekly news & analysis

Staying current on the Canadian non-profit sector has never been easier

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.