Yolande James: the importance of “feeling seen” and why DEI solutions are a must

Yolande James is a memorable member of the Canadian community. As someone who got involved in politics early on, she made it her life’s mission to make a difference and create impact not only on her close community, but also on the whole country.

Now working as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for broadcaster Radio-Canada, she is committed to helping individuals and organizations become more inclusive, and adopt strategies that will enable all Canadians to feel seen.

Growing up as a young woman, what did you think you’d be doing later in life from a career standpoint?

I’m a trained lawyer, and I was in politics for 10 years. Now I’m an executive at a media company. It’s funny how the outside factors are determining factors to how you see yourself. I was a talker, always been a talker – the moment there was language, French, English, I was talking. And from the time that I was – I want to say around five years old – I always wanted to defend my point.

If you refused me something, you had to justify it, and I would always come back. Some would call that perseverance, but I grew up in a West Indian family, and it’s “the child just listens to this and that”. That’s what had others think, “God, she’s going to be a lawyer”. And more than that, they said I should be a judge because I was always in conflicts resolution of some kind, and always wanted to hear both sides or mostly defend my point.

At that time, who was an inspiration for you? And did you have any women role models that were that ideal or a source of inspiration?

I didn’t have a lot of young women lawyers around me. Certainly, no young, black, women lawyers that I knew of in my environment, not even in my family.

But I would say in terms of inspiration, there were two people. One was my mother because. Both my parents are feminists, but my mother was always like, “You are gonna do it”. The sky is the limit and if there’s a will, there’s a way, and there’s nothing that you can’t do.

And it was not just affirmations that she stuck on the window. She exemplified that in her. She’s retired now, but she was a teacher for years. So that generosity of doing it and volunteering and taking us with her everywhere… for me, that was a role model and the example of not only what was possible, but what was expected.

And then the other person was a real person, but I’ve obviously never met: Harriet Tubman. A friend of my father came with a portrait of Harriet Tubman, and he gave it to me. And at age seven, he explained to me who she was and what she did in history, freeing slavery with courage and freeing slaves with courage and determination when she got everything against her.

In moments when I thought I had it hard, I would wake up in the morning and the portrait was just there. I’m like, “Girl, you don’t know what hard is”. And I would just literally look up like, “I got it. I could do this”. That’s what I call a role model, for sure.

Tell me about the first chapter of your professional career because many will remember you from the world of politics. But what led you there?

Really, and again, I never saw myself in those shoes. And I say so not because I did not think that that was possible for me. I grew up with parents who were like, “Everything’s possible”. “You have to see it to believe it” kind of thing. And I didn’t see that as a place of active change.

Like anything in life, when you’re curious, and you have passion about something, you take action. It brings you to where I think you’re supposed to be. Just being active in the community, because I had the privilege of representing the community that I grew up in. And when there was a referendum… I’ll always bring this back because it wasn’t just a referendum on the future of the country in 1995.

It was also a period in my life when I turned 18. The referendum was at the end of October, and I turned 18 on the 21st. I’m ageing myself, but on the 21st of November. So by less than a month, I had lost the opportunity to speak my voice. To use my voice, though I did use it, but to participate in what was a really important moment in our history.

So it was a lesson there for me, and I was getting involved in rallies and volunteers, and I was just active. I cared, and I saw what it meant. How could people not vote? I wish I could do that. I couldn’t at that moment.

So it was a catalyst to what came, because after that I said, “Well, the referendum’s over, but there’s still needs in the community”. Whether it’s healthcare, community, or education, that’s how I started to stay involved and understand people’s needs. Something that I had to do was just have conversations and be hired in a member’s office.

Once you have a little training, one of the first things that you learn to do is answer the phone. Right? And some people might be like, “Oh geez, I don’t wanna do that”. I loved it! Because you’re in communication with people.

It was hard, but it also just kept me in contact with what people were living, what were their experiences and how could I take that in, understand it and try to see how there were solutions to this big thing we call government. And so that’s how I would say it always takes a little spark and that flame started burning.

But there was never a moment where I was like, “I’m gonna run for office”. When the opportunity was presented to me, I was like, “Wait, hold on a second. I know what this is really like. I know how hard it is having watched, and I don’t know if that’s something that I wanna do”.

And at the conversation, I had with the Premier at the time, what convinced me was that, in life, if you want to have an impact, and you have this opportunity to make an impact, are you going to turn that down? And he was speaking to me when I didn’t necessarily know, and he says, “I know that you have the talent to do it”.

I was like, “You’re not in that seat for nothing. I walked in there. Alright, I’ll do it”.

How do you apply your leadership differently now that you work as a media executive?

I’m, I hope to say, a little wiser with a little bit more experience. Obviously not in a partisan arena anymore, but the common thread to me is public service. And it is working in a Crown Corporation, working for Radio-Canada is, to me, a public service. Because the ultimate shareholder is the people or the public broadcaster. And especially in a role of equity, diversity, and inclusion. I just have an innate understanding of what it means to want to show up and be seen as your full self. And everybody deserves to do that.

So it’s a huge motivator every day to work towards that. Just banking on opportunities that I’ve had and paying it forward, but also understanding that I think that we’re just better when we do that as an organization, as a country, and we’re doing that. So that to me is the common thread.

What’s your definition of gender equity?

For me is really about being able to show up, be seen, be heard, and participate as your full self. And making sure that the systems in place are in such a way that that is possible for all.

What do you think contributes to this mass exit of women from the workplace? Is it something that you’ve witnessed? Is it something that you’re familiar with? And what do you think makes them so dissatisfied with their experience at work?

I’m in media, right? So in media, the industry can be particularly difficult on women in executive roles. And can be particularly difficult when you think about even in broadcasting, “You’re too young”, “You’re too old”, “You’re too this”, or “You’re too that”.

Even just having had that experience of the times that I was on air that people… Whether they thought it was positive or negative to me that’s not the issue, but never felt any way about commenting on my physical appearance. So all of those things, again, to what I was saying earlier, make it more challenging for us to show up as our full selves.

It’s been my experience. You have the degrees, you have the experience, but you have to come into the room, and you have to justify your reason for even being there.

And you don’t have the luxury of forgetting the file or forgetting the number or not doing that. When your male counterpart does have that percent, that is, I don’t care how resilient you think you are, but those are not things that want you to make you stay in a place and make it a work environment where you feel like you can, again, contribute to yourself.

I had the privilege of being in the first gender parody government in Quebec, where it was 50-50 females. So I have experience of one that was and one that wasn’t. It’s completely different. I think it was the best government because, just completely different in terms of the types of discussions, in terms of what came forward, in terms of how we spoke to each other.

And innovation, and creativity. You read that empirical data, but when you live it… I don’t care what gender you are when you live it, and you live the benefit from it for all, you can not be convinced. To go back to your question, I think that when all those things are not in place, it makes it difficult. And I will just add one thing. A big, big thing I think that we have to be very conscious of is the culture. Culture, culture, culture. And women are just not having it. We’re just not having it anymore. We’re not going to. You know your value, you know your worth. Life is short, the pandemic and everything taught us all of that, right?

You’re not going to tolerate or put up with, as we shouldn’t, things we have in the past.

What’s a good place to start their DEI programs? Who needs to be part of the efforts? Who needs to lead the efforts? What kind of objectives should be set up? And also what kind of governance should be implemented to make sure the program is indeed a success?

As an organization and as a leader of an organization, if you’re thinking about, or let’s be quite honest, feel pressured to put a DEI plan or team in place ask yourself and your organization before you hire anybody, “Why are we doing this?” And have the guts, the courage and the humility to answer that question frankly, which is not an easy thing because if you don’t, it will come back to bite you in the bleep anyway.

Why, as an organization, is this important for us to do? If your answer is “Well, people are demanding it”, you might want to go back to the drawing board and dig a little further.

It’s a journey. It’s a long journey. There are adjustments, there’s progress, and you’re constantly learning. So I don’t know if I believe a hundred percent that there’s this moment that you’re ready, but there’s a certain amount o questions, as I was saying, that you should be asking yourself before you start doing things.

And what the point I was trying to get to was that there can be situations, like George Floyd’s, that can open your eyes to certain things that were already injustices. That was already existing, but that as an organization has forced you to see it. Now you can’t unsee it.

That’s good, but that’s just a starting point that can’t be the reason. I say that because your reason and the mission and the mandate are what’s going to motivate you and push you to do the right things, and sometimes those are the really hard things to do. So that’s the first question.

And once you are clear as to what is the why, then it’s easier for you to first make sure that you have the right people to help you. And I say help you because it’s not an answer to think that you’re going to transfer the responsibility, whether it is to a DEI team or human resources, to “take care of it”. It is someone that is going to help you integrate a DEI lens throughout your whole organization. Otherwise, you will find yourself in a ticking box exercise. So in terms of a governance point of view to the last part of your question, that’s what I feel is super important to do.

It’s not just about setting objectives, targets and reaching them. How are you making sure that in those objectives and targets, you have an all-encompassing integration of the systems and way of working into it? It’s not easy. How are you as an organization making sure that you are going to communicate?

And by communicate, I don’t mean only talking about what went well. That’s how you build trust with your teams, by also communicating when we just haven’t been at the level that we should be at the objective that we gave ourselves.

How are factors such as race and age amplifying the existing gender bias, and how can companies implementing DEI practices take into account these additional factors when working on their programs?

First, it’s recognizing them. And that might be an easy thing to say, but as we’ve seen in many places, it’s not that easy thing to think.

I have to say that, unfortunately, there have been moments, especially early on in my career, where I have consistently heard women say, in leadership roles for advocacy, things like, “We’ll take care of women, and we’ll look at the racial equity issue after”. Which to me was unbelievable.

And then people will say things like “universal”, but what they mean is one group. To me, understanding means that including me or someone else is not excluding you. When are we going to learn that? I feel at some point every group goes through that.

And learning in terms of inclusion… For me, there has to be recognition. I can speak of lived experience. As a black woman, my experience is different from that of a white woman. A woman living with a disability has a different experience and that needs to be recognized in how we include it. Even as a community, I will go out there and put that, I wish I could see more solidarity.

We would be even stronger. We would help each other. But fundamentally, and I see this in my work all the time, it does come down to not understanding the other person’s experience, but giving people the chance to understand it and saying, “Including me, does not exclude you”.

What is your definition of leadership? In general, what is leadership for you?

For me, leadership is empathy, and we just need that. It’s empathy, it’s generosity, it’s vulnerability. It’s courage and it’s humility.

I’m going to walk out there, and I’m going to do the best that I can, even though I do not know all the answers. And I am learning this every day, just like you are. And I’m going to show you that. Mm-hmm.

The humility to say that… I was just saying that to a team member this morning. “You know what? I messed that up. I should not have, at that moment, said that in that way”. That to me is what leadership is because If you cannot expect others to have a conduct that you are not ready to have, you are not prepared to exemplify it every day.

The Brand is Female Podcast, hosted by Eva Hartling, shares stories of women entrepreneurs, leaders and changemakers pushing boundaries in their industries. Every week, our guests share their businesses and life experiences to help and inspire other women.



We promise, we won’t spam you.

Yolande James: the importance of “feeling seen” and why DEI solutions are a must