Creating Space: There is More to Welcoming a Speaker
From Truth and Reconciliation Day to Black History Month, many organizations bring speakers to educate their staff. However, have they stopped to ask themselves, is my space ready to bring someone in?
I want to highlight an upcoming holiday that an organization would bring a speaker into their space, National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day. This day is a newly adopted national holiday in Canada, first recognized on September 30, 2021, and observed annually as a time of remembrance to Indigenous folks impacted by residential schools, including the families, missing children, survivors and the legacy left behind by the era.
An organization would bring in a representative, in this case, an Indigenous person or someone knowledgeable about Truth and Reconciliation Day, to discuss their experiences with individuals who do not always know how to interact with indigeneity.
The primary benefits of bringing keynote speakers to organizations include raising awareness about a particular marginalized group to employees and opportunities for organizations to collaborate and partner with community groups. The impacts, mainly seen from the speaker's perspective and marginalized individuals in the workspace, are often less likely to be discussed when bringing someone in.
The Hand-Holding of Employees
When coming into an organization, speakers typically encounter a space where employees have varying levels of understanding of the topic. Challenges arise when employees aren't comfortable or knowledgeable in engaging with the speaker's material. The speaker may have to use a 'hand-holding' role to guide the employee step-by-step and break down the most straightforward concepts. Suppose an Indigenous person is coming to speak about Truth and Reconciliation Day, but the employees must have their hands held during the session. The speaker may lose time from their presentation explaining basic terms, be asked insensitive questions by employees who 'don't know any better,' or have an audience who disengages due to not being interested in the subject matter. These actions detract from the speaker's presentation and, overall, may lead to the speaker having a negative experience while sharing incredibly important information with the group.
Speakers reliving their Trauma
Speakers may be sharing perspectives from their personal lives or their communities. When coming from a marginalized individual, these presentations may lead to a speaker recounting their stories of trauma to a group of people. For a speaker coming into a room for Truth and Reconciliation Day, this can be especially burdensome when topics range from sexual violence to children, residential schools, death, and generational trauma. Recounting a story that involves personal or generational trauma on behalf of a people group can impact the speaker's mental health, and this is a high personal cost to pay to educate employees - especially if our organizations have not taken any steps to internally prepare the employees for such a session.
Effects on Marginalized Employees
Each organization has people from different religions, people groups, sexualities and identities that work in one space. When a speaker comes in who an employee shares a part of their identity with, the employee may become their organization's subject matter expert on the topic discussed. The employee may then be asked many personal or invasive questions from their colleagues. Although the employee is not required or responsible for commenting, they may still engage with their colleagues' inquiries not to be negatively impacted by the political landscape and dynamics within an organization. Considering speakers come to an organization discussing topics tied to identity, such as Truth and Reconciliation Day, Black History Month, Pride Month, etc., employees may be in a very compromising position.
Where Do We Go From Here
If you are an organization and want to bring a speaker to discuss a topic, consider the following questions when creating space:
Why are we bringing in someone to speak to our teams? Is this information and framework being clearly communicated with the teams and the speaker?
Are we able to financially compensate the speaker for their time?
Is our organizational culture a space where a speaker can feel comfortable sharing their story?
Do the employees in our organization have some basic knowledge and understanding to welcome the speaker into the organization? If not, what can we do internally to get people up to speed?
Does our organization have the resources in place to support marginalized employees before, during and after the speaker’s session?
In conclusion, marginalized perspectives are invaluable to enriching organizations and employees. Remember, it isn't only the responsibility of the speaker, but of the organization, to provide a space that allows for safety for both speakers and employees. When planning for the next speaker event, let’s ask ourselves, is our organization ready to welcome a speaker?
Let us know what your organization is doing to make learning moments something enjoyable that teams look forward to doing and speakers feel supported to provide?