DISRUPTION

 

What it means to disrupt the systems we find ourselves in.

by Sundeep Hans

 
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When I was younger, impending parent-teacher interviews would induce this gut-clenching anxiety in my little trouble maker self. Every year, without fail, each one of my teachers would tell my mom how I was sometimes “disruptive ” because I had “a lot of energy and passion.” The problem, they said, was that I wasn’t wielding it appropriately.

It always felt like it was something negative, that they were essentially saying that being full of too much energy and passion was something to be tempered down or fixed. Maybe it was because my mom would hear the word “disruptive” and ream me out when we got home, because she “raised me better than that.” Being disruptive was bad.

A young, “disruptive” Sundeep Hans •

A young, “disruptive” Sundeep Hans •

 

It wasn’t until I was much older and well into my senior year of high school that I realized that it was great advice and I began to maximize my energy and passion and wield both effectively. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I fully accepted that this effective wielding might never be deemed appropriate because it would always result in some disruption. I would unleash it every now and again and the results were always incredible, but if I’m being honest, they were also just a little bit scary.

Scary, because as a now not-so-young woman of colour with over 10 years of work experience in the public sector behind me, I have come to understand the true precariousness of my position. Organizations in the public sector are by virtue risk-averse, and despite consistent internal calls for innovation there is nobody rushing to put their necks on the line in support of the disruptors. Unless you’re in a position of power and privilege (read: old, white, and a man), agents of change must work strategically and painstakingly for little reward,because if we push too hard or too often, we’ll soon find ourselves pushed out.

The public sector, especially the healthcare sector, understands the importance of innovation for growth and to mitigate a future that isn’t as clear cut as it used to be and so it keeps looking to new technologies or processes to help foster this innovation. But, because funding isn’t infinite and the accountability is to the public in this sector, there is a general unwillingness to take risks from the leadership. That’s why we see the ‘same old same old’ and why there is frustration from those that push for new ways of doing the business. These prickly folks, the thorns in the proverbial sides of the leadership, are the disruptors.

For example, while having organizational leadership that supports equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) training and policies is important, this is only the starting point because these are often seen as ‘nice to have’ or as add-ons as opposed to being important values imbedded into the fabric of an organization. Any push for the mandating of robust training for diversity, equity and inclusion training for all staff to see real change was usually seen as too aggressive or too ‘head in the clouds,’ so I stopped pushing, but kept nudging occasionally.

 
 
To push for change is an act of disruption, and disruption isn’t appropriate.
 

What I’ve finally come to realize and fully accept is that the effective wielding of my energy and passion to bring about change will never be deemed appropriate. To push for change is an act of disruption, and disruption isn’t appropriate.

We work within post-colonial systems of power that have held strong and have been structured in ways that were not intended to include certain groups of people. When these groups (women, people of colour) enter these spaces, their presence alone disrupts the pre-established norms of said spaces. When people recognize the problematic aspects of these norms, the status quo, and actively (or sometimes passively) work to destruct these the foundations of these structures, they are in effect disruptors. When I say ‘disruptor,’ I mean someone who is working to change a structure of power. A disruptor is someone who is working to dismantle a system of oppression that is embedded within these systems of power—this means that both outsiders and insiders can be disruptors.

This is something Marilyn Verghis, Executive Director of Vision Brampton and a young woman of colour understands intrinsically. In late 2017 when news broke that some Brampton politicians had made racist and xenophobic comments she was as furious as I was. She wasn’t taking this nonsense from the highest tables of power in our city by tweeting side-eye emojis (which was the extent of my original plan). Instead, she formed a new advocacy organization made up of young women of colour (yours truly included) in Brampton to advance systemic change for equity and civic engagement across the city, which saw hundreds of young, first time voters come to the polls. There had not been, up until that point, a youth-led, equity-based organization in Brampton like there is in places like Toronto, and instead these spaces were often taken up by the often impenetrable ‘old guard’ of Brampton (primarily old, white men). Under Marilyn’s leadership, Vision Brampton had a literal seat at the largest Mayoral debate in the city prior to the municipal elections, and we didn’t shy away from asking the hard-hitting questions about equity issues impacting youth that are often missed in these situations—i.e. discriminatory language of used by council and carding versus community supports to reduce crime.

“Over the years I’ve been advocating for, organizing around and working toward equity. I think I’ve developed some valuable tools for balancing my own precariousness as a minority intersectional voice in privileged spaces with my deep commitment to transformative, disruptive social progress” she says.

“I think critical social justice space needs to contend with and appreciate that the world needs both types of disruptors: the type that can enter organizations that perhaps weren’t designed with the intention of diversity and create meaningful systemic change from within, as well as the disruptors that build the social pressure for progressive change from outside those spaces. I have found that systemic change happens in the most transformative ways when both types of disruptors work in concert with each other.”

Another truth, which took me surprisingly longer to figure out than many other women of colour I know is that sometimes you don’t actively choose to be a disruptor, you are one simply because of your identity.

This is something many people of colour know to be true. By occupying certain roles or positions within certain organizations or industries, or simply taking up space where someone like you never had before is an act of disruption in and of itself.

When I asked Mita Hans (yes relation, she’s my father’s distant cousin) about this she spoke about the inherent disruptor in all of us. “We are 70 percent water. Allowed to be by itself, water can be still and reflective, but throw in the slightest bit of resistance and see what happens. Fuck with me and I am a tidal wave!” She brings this energy to her work as a writer, artist, and activist. She is a key organizer for Seva Kitchen, which brings free meals to people experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto. She has been advocating for Indigenous First Nations, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities for over 30 years.  Her disruption, like many women of colour, is intersectional and two-fold because by virtue of her work she has disrupted the status quo within the mainstream and within her own Sikh community. Her choice of taking the ‘langar’ (open kitchen/free vegetarian meals concept from the Sikh gurdawara) into urban places directly to where people need it is disruptive of the mainstream practice of soup kitchens and homeless shelters, while her support of and mobilization for marginalized communities like the LGBTQ community, as a member of the Sikh community, which has been traditionally, socially conservative on these issues, was a departure from the unwritten rules of what causes were deemed appropriate for community support and a disruption in itself.

I am a disruptor because I am who I am and where I am in this time and space, and because I choose to be.
 

In the business world the overuse of the buzzwords ‘disruptive’ or ‘disruptor’ to convey a forward-thinking corporate mindset is rampant. They have been so overused that there are now articles about their overuse. Leigh Alexander made me laugh out loud in her piece for The Guardian. She wrote that “disruptive always used to be the word for the naughty child at the back of the class ruining it for everyone else. And really, that meaning has never changed. It describes the sort of serial entrepreneur who can ride from one start-up to the next without much fear for his future.”

Of course she is speaking about the mostly white, start-up entrepreneurs that were disrupting the old ways, but the first part of her description captures perfectly what it means to be labelled the disruptor even outside of those spaces. As a disruptor you are seen as that “naughty child” and your push for change (sometimes just by your mere presence) is “ruining it for everyone else.” The second part of jumping from one opportunity to the next “without much fear for his future” misses the mark for many disruptors because the fear for some  is too real. It’s interesting to look at whose act of disruption is deemed ‘acceptable’ and whose will always be too disruptive to be accepted.

 
 
 
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When I was growing up I thought being a disruptor meant just me choosing to be me. A personality trait, a virtue or a vice depending on who you asked. Brampton, where 75 percent of the population is an ethnic minority (40 percent Punjabi like me), a larger racialized population than other cities in Canada, literally a city where the minority is the majority. Spending my formative years growing up in Brampton surrounded by people who looked like me, where names like mine were the norm, where I didn’t have to explain why spinach was the bomb dot com (saag is life!) and why my dad wears a dastar (turban) has left me with the same sense of entitlement as an old white man, the same unshakeable belief that I belong here.

Change can’t happen without disrupting the status quo.
— Debbie Owasu-Akyeeah

This feeling is a privilege otherwise enjoyed by the majority, or what has been labelled the mainstream population where whiteness is centred and everyone else is effectively othered. I know how this feels. I understand this because I remember clearly the nonchalance with which I carried this entitlement, how I walked through the world in my early years. It felt so commonplace that I didn’t even think about it.

In the western context, whiteness is centred, and thus white people have historically been able to choose the identity of the ‘disruptor.’ When white (mostly, middle or upper-class) women pushed for the right to vote, whether in Canada (1916 through 1940, depending on the province), United Kingdom (1918) or the United States (1920), they were pushing for themselves. In Canada, for example, Indigenous women weren’t granted the right to vote until 1960! Those asterisks are important because they indicate that suffrage was not universal to all women in those countries. Never forget the asterisks!

I refused to watch the 2015 film Suffragette, about British women’s fight to vote when the actresses wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I’d Rather Be a Rebel Than A Slave.” Suffice it to say, seeing “privileged white women compare sexism to racism” didn’t go over too well with many given the OG suffragettes liked to compare their situation to that of slaves to make their point.

The more recent women’s rights marches of the past years have seen hundreds of thousands of women across the world, but primarily in North America, protest to send the message that “women’s rights are human rights.” The message was powerful, the turnout was unprecedented. I marched in Toronto and I saw it for myself. There was police presence at this protest, and a sea of mostly white women in ‘pink pussy’ hats disrupted peacefully because, as author Luvvie Ajayi said in a Facebook post, “they are allowed to.”

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It wasn’t until I moved away from Brampton for university in California that  I realized I was a “minority” and what this really meant. Coming back to Canada and working in Toronto I began to see the troubling rhetoric, fuelled by xenophobia and racism that is used internally and externally to push negative narratives about Brampton, to ridicule and mock its citizens. Working in the public and not-for-profit spaces I saw first hand the real-world impact of these dangerous narratives by way of disproportionate underfunding of our healthcare, education, and community spaces.

Remember, though...  I understand my privilege and power now – a family who loves me, an incredible education, a job, English speaking (the world is my oyster), Canadian passport – as well as the limitations of both – I’m a single, woman of colour living in Brampton, working in a precarious sector. But since I’ve had a taste of how the other side lives, those are feelings that I tap into to use in my own activism. I work well in organizations that, as Verghis says “weren’t designed with the intention of diversity and create meaningful systemic change from within.” I am a disruptor because I am who I am and where I am in this time and space, and because I choose to be.

Debbie Owasu-Akyeeah, a policy analyst and a self-described Black feminist relates to this as well. In her work and her activism, she looks back to push forward. “Disrupting and shaking things up is in my blood. My ancestors have been defending my homeland for years and fought hard for our independence by challenging oppression and speaking truth to power.  She also fully owns the disruptor label and wears it proudly. She tells me, “I pride myself in centring this in my activism. I will always do this. Change can’t happen without disrupting the status quo.”

Paige Fisher, Director of Advocacy and Outreach at Vision Brampton on the other hand says “I don’t think I originally made a conscious decision to become any form of a disruptor. The various intersections of my identity allow me to view the world through a particular lens. I’ve always been an opinionated person who is critical of the status quo, simply because I’ve observed the way our existing systems continuously fail and marginalize so many communities.”

She goes on to explain, much more eloquently than I have, the true risks disruptors that aren’t protected by certain privileges continue to face and why wearing that label can be dangerous.

“Voicing my dissatisfaction and putting forward a dissenting opinion has led others to label me a disrupter of sorts. This is a pretty frightening position considering the precariousness I face as a young Black woman and first generation Canadian. We already face barriers navigating the workforce and society at large, which I imagine are only exacerbated by gaining a reputation as an agitator. Still, I won’t be silent. I cannot be silent. I cannot disregard how incredibly privileged I am to have any form of a platform to share my opinions, to hold space for other marginalized folks and to access institutions others are systematically excluded from. For me there’s really no other course of action.”

 
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We stand on the shoulders of giants—people who have pushed, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, some of them recognizing their privilege and wielding it like shield for others. Oppressive systems of power that have held for eons have been challenged continuously for eons. Incremental change has happened, followed by more change, and then regression then progression and on and on to where we’re at right now.

The life of a conscious disruptor is not for the faint of heart. For Verghis, Hans, Owasu-Akyeeah, Fisher, and other women of colour, the risks are real. The rewards aren’t always forthcoming either, but to go forward anyway is an act of bravery.

 
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