In this Inclusive Growth conversation I caught up with Nick Davis, the Director of Engagement and Inclusion at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Nick shared both his experiences of embedding diversity in the organisation’s DNA and the impact of racial discrimination in his life.
Nick Davis is the Director of Engagement and Inclusion at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I met Nick quite a few years ago when I was working at the BBC as a Diversity and Inclusion Manager. On a visit to Toronto to see my family, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try and connect with people who worked in the CBC. Nick is one of the people I met on that trip and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Nick started by telling me about his professional background and what his role focuses on at the CBC. ‘I’ve been a journalist for 33 years, starting as a TV host in the 1980s. I then became a radio host, before joining the CBC 10 years after I started broadcasting. I started out as a national reporter. It was a great experience – I got to go to a couple of Olympics which was a cool experience. After we got back from the Olympics in 2000 they downsized sports. They asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “I want to be the person who decides what gets on the radio. There’s nobody who looks like me, as a black man, who I thought made those decisions.” We had some diversity in our reporter ranks, but there were very few people who looked like me who were in a position of authority. I set my sights very early in my career at CBC to be a producer. I wanted to be a senior producer of a programme and be the person who made the decisions about what got on the radio. So I went about doing that and started as an associate producer in radio, then became a producer, and then became a senior producer of the local morning show in Toronto. We took that show from not doing very well, to being number one in the market within a short period of time.
Reflecting audience diversity
The only thing we did differently, was that we changed the mandate of the show. When I started working on the programme, the United Nations declared that Toronto was one of the most multicultural cities in the world. I had a new boss that came in to work with us, and she asked me what’s my favourite part of the show and I said, “Well, I actually don’t listen to the show.” She said, “What do you mean, you don’t listen to this show?” I said, “‘Because it’s not a very good show. It doesn’t include me in it.” She couldn’t believe that as one of the associate producers on the show, I didn’t tune in. She asked, “Well, what do you listen to?” So I told her, “I listen to community radio, I listen to a reggae show I like on Mondays and I listen to a hip hop show on another day and I listen to this really cool talk show I like on the weekends.” She said, “Well, what is it that you like about those programmes?” I said, “Well, I hear myself in them. I hear people like me. It’s amazing that we live in the most multicultural city in the world, according to the United Nations, but when I turn on our morning show on CBC, it doesn’t sound like it.” She said, “Well, what would need to happen to do that?” I said, “Well, we need to be very deliberate and intentional about that and look and sound like the city we serve.” So she gave me the reins, said, “Here, go ahead and do it.” I had no idea how to do that at the time. I had some thoughts and ideas, so we went on this journey that took around two or three years. Our new mandate was to look and sound like the city we served. Since our city was a very diverse city, we just started to make sure that when you turned on that radio every morning to listen it reflected that. It became the number one programme in the city of Toronto and so many years later it still holds on to those values. That was the beginning of that inclusion and diversity work at CBC in a very purposeful, intentional way. The programme stayed in my portfolio even though I left that show in 2010 and I went into programme development. I took those same values into my new role working with radio shows and TV shows and then on the digital side, right across the country. Values that asked, “How are we reflecting Canada back onto itself in our programme content?” That was the perspective I came at the work from. When the position of Director of Engagement and Inclusion came up, they thought I was the perfect person for the job and they hustled me into that chair. I’ve been in that chair for over a year and a half now and I am enjoying it.’
Removing systemic barriers
I asked Nick what he thinks are some of the easier systemic barriers that organisations can start removing? ‘If you want to be focused on the lowest hanging fruit, those are in our hiring practices. That, to me, is easy to do. It takes this thing called political will. If you’re hiring, think in terms of the hiring practice that considers what are we missing in our company? What can add value to us? We’re beyond the point of making the business case for diversity. There are enough studies in this world that have shown that companies that are diverse and have a wide range of opinions and different types of people from all different perspectives make a better company. So why are we consciously hiring the same people all the time? Usually, we are hiring someone who looks like us. Those are easy fixes. Just change your frame. It is so hard to get people to make that change because they often see it as a threat to their own existence.’ It’s interesting how looking at it from a decision maker’s perspective, those that have the power should be the ones that are prepared to challenge the status quo? ‘You have to challenge the status quo if you’re in power. But if you are in power and you are part of the status quo, and you’re benefiting from being part of that and you want to continue to benefit from being part of the status quo? I’m not part of it. Even when I’m in a leadership position I have never felt like I was part of the status quo, so I have no trouble just going against it because me being there is already the opposite of the status quo. Trust me, it just takes one person, one ally, one person who sees you, who believes in you, and then you’ve got to do the work. Your work speaks for itself in the end. When people look at you and think, “This person doesn’t fit in here.” I hate language like that. It’s code words for, “I want to get someone who looks like me, or who shares my values.” I argue all the time, I’ve been doing this for years at CBC that, because a lot of people say, “Well, you’re going to dumb down our journalism.” I ask why they’ve made that connection?” My reply is that it’s about improving our journalism.’ We have hiring boards in Canada. Before I even join any hiring board now, I have my own criteria. I want to be involved in setting the weighting criteria, the questions we’re asking and the selection process of who will be interviewed. If I won’t be involved in those things, don’t ask me to be on your board. I’m not making it so someone can say, “Oh, we had a black guy on the board, and we still picked this one.” Not happening, I’m not going to be that guy. One person was a bit frustrated because I would ask them questions like, “Okay, so what are you missing, what are you missing in your department?” The reply was, “Well, we want to hire this person because they’re going fit right in. They already know what we’re doing. They understand our programme.” I’m saying, “Okay. But you have three people like that already, so let’s try that question again. What are you missing? I’m not asking you what you have.” And then the person was saying, “Well, if we bring in this other person then we’ll have to hold their hand and train them for a while.” I say, “Okay, you’ll hire an experienced reporter, I assume, right? It’s not like there’s a lack of experienced reporters who are from equity-seeking groups. There’s a lot of them. So my question is what perspectives are your team missing? If you’re worried about onboarding somebody, well, rethink your onboarding process. I thought that we’re looking for someone who’s going to add value to us. What will add value is something we don’t have, not something we already have.” I have to get people to think about it that way and in the end, they did. But it took some convincing. I had to change the lens of how the process was being seen. No matter who you hire, you have to hold their hand at some point. They’ve got to learn how we work at CBC. It’s not likely any new person will just run in there and the next thing you know they’re working. So let’s find something that we need, not something we already have.’
Scaling up transformation
Listening to Nick’s example, I reflected for that transformation to happen, there was a one-on-one interaction with him. I asked him how this individual approach can be scaled up to create the right structure so human behaviour follows? ‘One of the things that I’m responsible for right now, is helping to change the culture at CBC. Part of that is about how we deal with anti-Black and anti-indigenous discrimination by addressing the systemic and structural barriers. First, I have to think about the people who are harmed by these processes and systems and ask how we’re supporting those people? Really how are we giving that support? Sometimes it can be seen as people who are complaining or whining, but they’re actually harmed. It’s been years and years of harm that have accumulated and they feel it intrinsically. We can’t just fire everybody, so how do we help those managers and people in decision-making positions get there? We’ve made unconscious bias training mandatory for all managers. Anyone who is in a more senior management position, they have to do two levels of unconscious bias training, and one’s around cultural fluency. The other thing we’re trying to do is to get people to understand what oppression is, how people are oppressed and learn people’s histories. We have a thing called reporting in indigenous communities, and that’s for all reporters across the country. We have come up with a checklist for all the senior producers and editors around how we cover stories and serve diverse communities. These are company-wide initiatives. We’re hoping to change perspectives through these as educational opportunities.
We are also doing some work to help change structures and get people from equity-seeking groups in leadership positions. We’ve created a couple of programmes that we’re developing: the developing emerging leaders programme and the DEL programme, specifically for people from these groups. We’ve put 48 people through these in the last few years and we’re into our fourth cohort right now. There’s a pool of people who’ve had leadership training, who come from equity-seeking groups, people with disabilities, people who are indigenous. We can’t say we don’t have the people now. They’re here and we’ve made an arrangement with talent acquisition that whenever any type of leadership job comes open, they go down this list first. That’s happening right now at CBC, and it’s borne fruit for us in a meaningful way. We’re also taking a look at our journalistic standards and practices, or the JSP, which is like the Bible at CBC. The BBC has a similar document. We’ve found that people have been using that document to silence people for a long time. So right now we’re putting every single policy at CBC through the lens of inclusion. That process will help. It’s going to take a little while because we’ve got to get through a lot of policies and get approval from the different governance boards. That will help to dismantle some of those structural barriers. When you get people in leadership positions, who look like the audiences they serve, they make our audiences feel like they’re included and make the people who work there feel like they’re included. That’s what we’re trying to do, and those are big things. These are big projects, national in scope, and we know they’re having an impact because we’ve seen the numbers. Some of the work we did around gender equity, many, many moons ago, and gender equity is something that we’ve generally solved at CBC at all levels. We’ve still got to solve it in the technical space and now we’re trying to solve the issue for people with disabilities, people of colour, and people from indigenous communities. Those are bigger challenges, and we’re hoping to get there. I like Nick’s approach to this, trying to get into the DNA of the organisation. Before we wrapped up our conversation, I was also interested in hearing his thoughts on what inclusive growth is all about. I always hear that CBC is so diverse which is true but we don’t have enough inclusion. Inclusive growth to me is where people not only come to a company and feel valued, and they feel respected, and they feel like they’re being heard, but it’s also that they feel whatever path they want to take, that there’s a path to get there. So if I want to be a senior producer or a director or if I want to be the Vice President of CBC, there’s a path there that includes me. Inclusive growth is when we’ve taken away all those barriers so that people can do what they need to do. Not everybody wants to be the Vice President of CBC, I definitely don’t want to be that ever, but I do know if I want to be, I should know there is a path to get there.