The Federal Speakers’ Forum creates a space for us to talk inclusion, lived experience

March 18, 2021

Have you ever been given a glimpse into someone else’s experiences? Maybe their stories resonated with you, and you realized you aren’t alone. Or perhaps their shared experiences allowed you to learn, giving you a better understanding of the impact of exclusion on someone. 

The Federal Speakers’ Forum (FSF) does just that – it provides an opportunity for people to come together to learn about the lived experiences of public servants who are included or excluded because of differences, such as the colour of their skin, gender identity, sexuality, or their disability. 

We wanted to find out more about the Forum, so we caught up with Vanessa Gaudreau and Ninar Younes from TBS to further understand the purpose of the FSF and the positive impact they’re hoping it will have on diversity and inclusion in the public service. 

So, what is the FSF?

“We know the data,” says Ninar, “But data isn’t enough if we want to open hearts and minds to mobilize change in culture. That is why lived experience is such an important factor in building empathy.” Through the Federal Speakers’ Forum, marginalized public servants are given a platform to share their lived experiences. Those listening are given a space to empathize and discover the supports available to them.  

Conversations and shared stories around discrimination have been avoided for too long, their subject matter has generally been considered too uncomfortable. But these stories need to be recognized. As Ninar says, “It’s important to raise awareness through this emotional connection - open the window for people to understand what it means to be marginalized. The Forum also provides an opportunity to support people who share those experiences. Someone in the audience may not be aware of ways in which they can find support or resources.” 

A platform for both employees and managers

We were curious as to what kind of impact this program could have and put the question to both Vanessa and Ninar.

“We want public servants to leave with key messages and actions that they can take back to their workplace to make that space more inclusive,” says Vanessa. In addition to these takeaways, Ninar added that this doesn’t just apply to employees, but managers as well. “Managers can share their experiences too, their struggles, or even their awakening to these issues, and share ways in which we can all make a difference.” 

While the FSF is a space to share lived experiences of public servants, Vanessa notes that, “It’s not restricted to those affected to conduct these talks. We all have the responsibility to have these conversations.”

A brave space

Fear is an emotion often present when it comes to sharing lived experiences and personal stories. Ninar points out that talking about race often elicits hesitation, “People are often afraid to use certain terms. They don’t want to offend anyone,” she says. She notes that we must reduce the fear around race and be okay with the possibility that we may sometimes initially get things wrong. But if our intention is to get it right – to start the conversation is the most important thing.

“This isn’t just a safe space, but a brave space,” says Vanessa. “A space where we equip event organizers with resources to share with their employees, so that when people come to a talk they don’t just come to listen, but instead immediately gain access to supporting tools and materials.” 

Ultimately, it isn’t just about one person coming in and sharing their story – it cannot end there. There is work that must take place before, and after, if we want to see some change. 

Varied needs and perspectives

After obtaining some background on the FSF, we dug a little deeper with Vanessa and Ninar to find out how exactly the program came about.

Federal Speakers’ Bureau on Mental Health was founded in 2016 as a way for public servants to discuss mental health, particularly their personal journeys. It’s no surprise that this was a highly successful initiative, delivering over 400 testimonials and directly reaching over 20,000 Government of Canada employees! 

The Centre on Diversity and Inclusion at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat is building on the Bureau’s success, recognizing that federal public servants have stories to tell of challenges around diversity and inclusion. Vanessa noted the importance of going behind these stories and recruiting speakers with different perspectives, including those that are regional, such as different realities on the same topics across Canada.

While consulting with employment equity seeking groups and marginalized employees, it became clear that talk isn’t enough, and the conversation can’t end with the speakers’ story. “They don’t want to just show up, talk about struggles, and then pack up and go,” continued Ninar. We need to ensure a more holistic approach to culture shift. For Vanessa, the question of how to create a safe space for both the speakers and the audience was a main priority. “We’ve really put a lot of emphasis on making sure we try to establish this safe space, and we’ve done so through disclaimers banning off-limit topics, providing resources and information prior, during, and after the event.”

How to find them

With the recent launch of the FSF, both Ninar and Vanessa are very excited about the inventory of speakers noting that “Every one of them brings something so special”. 

We encourage you to contact CDI@tbs-sct.gc.ca if you’re interested in either becoming an FSF speaker or hosting an event for your team.

Visit the FSF page on GCIntranet (internal link).

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