This International Women’s Day we’re proud to share a piece written by our Director of Partnerships and Co-Chair of our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility committee (IDEA), Raissa Espiritu. Raissa’s personal story highlights her experience growing up as a woman of colour in Canada; the societal barriers she has encountered and her struggle with identity. We are so grateful to Raissa for sharing her words with us, words which strengthen the drive for racial and gender equality across sectors.
I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and grew up in a small town called Dundas, a suburb of Hamilton, Ontario. My parents came to this country from the Philippines so that I could have a better life.
My parents were both well educated in the Philippines, but their degrees were not recognized in Canada. I remember them working as research assistants in a lab at Dalhousie University. Eventually, my dad was able to get his degree in Chemical Engineering and my mom was offered a role in an Oncology lab at McMaster University run by one of her former Dalhousie students. That’s when we moved to Ontario.
A true immigrant success story; my parents worked for the same organizations until they retired. I remember hearing quiet conversations in their shared dialect, spoken to hide things from my sister and me. They didn’t think I could understand when they talked about how they felt their education and skin colour prevented them from exceeding in their roles, or about how the cultural hierarchy at their workplaces fostered nepotism and hiring for likeness.
Three years ago I would have told you that there was nothing wrong with my upbringing. All my friends and the people I grew up with were white. I cannot recall how many non-white people I knew. My family was lower-middle class. At school, I was told I could be a leader, that I could be anything I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and be outspoken. There was nothing that could hold me back from living my dream. At home, there was different food, different rules, and high expectations of me – obey, don’t talk back, be lady-like, respect authority, work hard, and have good grades.
Three years ago, if you’d asked me whether my bicultural upbringing had an impact on the person I am today, I wouldn’t have had an answer. To me, it was just “normal.”
In August 2019, I started my Executive MBA at Ivey Business School. I felt that my accomplishments up to that point had no real meaning, and that, as a woman of colour, for me to succeed and thrive in this world, and become the leader I wanted to be (that I was told I could be), I had to go to business school. Business school held the promise of making me more outspoken, unleashing my inner leader, and, most of all, getting people to take me seriously.
At school, I forced myself to raise my hand in every class. It was hard and uncomfortable. I was worried about hostile reactions to what I would say, or even worse, being wrong. I was fighting against decades of my upbringing and lived experiences. I recall talking to a friend about how nervous I would get to put up my hand. How I always found it hard to get all of my thoughts organized before speaking, because I felt that my remarks needed to be perfect, that I had only one shot to prove myself.
I don’t know when things changed for me, maybe when I was forced inside due to Covid-19, with nothing to do but think about… everything. Or maybe it was after the death of George Floyd, as the Black Lives Matter movement pushed forward. I started to look at everything in my past in a new way, and found it wasn’t normal. I finally began to recognize the battle within me, and I didn’t like my past memories coming to the surface.
For the majority of my professional career, I’ve been a fundraiser. I raise funds from both ultra-high net worth individuals and corporations for the causes I’m passionate about. However, in Canada, #philanthropysowhite. For more than a decade, I’ve witnessed myself morph and change to fit into this culture. At times it has pushed me to depression. At other times, it has caused me to work harder to climb the proverbial ladder.
I recall working on a third-party fundraising event where my colleague, a black woman, and I, coordinated a tennis tournament in one of those big Toronto houses on the Bridle Path. We watched the guests play tennis all day to raise money for a cause while they drank cocktails, got massages, swam in the indoor and outdoor pools, and ate lavishly catered meals. This memory symbolizes inherent white privilege to me, juxtaposed against the two racialized women who had been picking up tennis balls all day, trying to earn a decent wage. We did so with obedient smiles.
Once I recognized this battle, I started to put up my hand in class more.
I started to stick up for myself more.
I leaned on, and supported, the other womxn in my class more.
I became more vocal about the social injustices that were happening around me.
I started to tell my stories and share my experiences more.
I cut through all that stuff I was raised on, and I stopped caring who was in the room.
And you know what happened?
My classmates validated and valued my leadership. They chose to be allies. I became Valedictorian of my class. Opportunities began presenting themselves, and, right now, I feel such an abundance. It only took my 40 years of life, a lot of grit and support, and I still don’t think I deserve it. It’s still hard to put up my hand.
This is a long story, with – right now, at least – a happy ending. I know there are people with similar stories who have not been given the opportunities I have, whose stories don’t end happily. Not everyone has choice, the ability to pursue higher education, or even the luxury of self-reflection. I know intersectionality and privilege come in many forms; this is my story.
What I want to convey is that, when you’re working or interacting with someone, a colleague, a classmate, a new acquaintance, take time to understand their context.
Recognize how another person shows up is different from how you show up. These differences signify the privilege. How will you use yours?
As a woman of colour I’m asking you to listen. Educate yourself without burdening us. Use your privilege to stand up for us and help lift us up. My hope is that you will empathize and validate our identities so we can spend more time being ourselves, and less time as the two-dimensional characters we have been playing to fit in.
What if this were all possible, and every racialized person felt supported, validated, valued? If we truly embraced cultural differences, equity, and diversity in our communities and at work, more of us would have the opportunity to use our skills and experiences to the fullest, to be unleashed, to be ourselves, to be truly outspoken and heard, to feel worthy, to be recognized, to put up our hand.
Raissa Espiritu is the Director of Partnerships and Co-Chair of the IDEA Committee at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Ontario. She makes the change she wants to see using her ambition and tenacity to solve the world’s biggest problems. She is a bridge-builder, changemaker, consultant, advisor, director and serial entrepreneur. She has a background in basic science research and an MBA from Ivey Business School. She has many interests and is currently focused on investing for good, femtech, and championing diversity & inclusion.