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Moving the Needle - a Conversation with Melba Da Silva about her Inclusion and Diversity Journey

Over the last couple of years on PumpTalk, it's been a great privilege for me to speak with a number of people across the Petro-Canada family who have shared their stories, particularly around inclusion and diversity: Chris Forward who speaks about the importance of 2SLGBTQ+ people being able to bring their authentic selves to work, Melissa Tacan who encourages us to be "heart in" around Truth and Reconciliation, and Andrea Decore who reminds us that diversity in the workplace is an economic issue, not just a social one.

As a result of these interviews, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to be an ally - as an 2SLGBTQ+ person, I have a bit of perspective on what good allyship looks like, but as a white person, I know that I have a long way to go in supporting colleagues who are Black and Persons of Colour. So, in not-so-coincidental timing with Black History Month, I connected with Melba Da Silva. Melba is a 20-year employee of Petro-Canada in Downstream Operations plus she is a founding member of Mosaic at Suncor (proud parent of Petro-Canada); Mosaic is a network of Black employees, advocates and allies that is empowered, informed and positioned to positively influence Suncor’s people & cultural journey.

Melba Da Silva

I spoke with Melba about her perspective on diversity, being Black at work and how colleagues can be supportive and true allies.

PT: Thanks for talking with me, Melba! I’d like to start by chatting about Black History Month. Admittedly, I was a little hesitant to do this interview because I didn't want to just be "checking a box".

MD: Let me ask you a question: since we started talking (Editor’s Note: we’ve had three meetings to discuss this article), have you spoken with other people about the issues we’ve been discussing? If yes, then this is not just a check box. Being an ally is repetitive behaviour; it’s all about persistence.

Just by having our conversations we’ve moved the needle on inclusion, diversity and understanding. A small move, but a move nonetheless. I work in agile development and I think about I&D in those terms: make a small change, assess and, if it works, repeat.

PT: What's been your experience of being Black in Canada?

MD: I never really thought of myself as different until I experienced some discrimination because I’m Black and a woman. An example… when you have great leaders (at work), you tend to pick up on their qualities, try to emulate what has made them successful. I learned, however, that I couldn’t emulate a white male leader’s qualities because I would be labeled as aggressive. I felt like I didn’t have a voice.

Being Black, I have to be aware that everyone has their own unconscious biases that they bring to interactions with me. It’s extra work I have to do to be successful.

But what really highlights the problem of systemic racism in Canada is seeing how my son is treated. Every time he drives my car, he is stopped by the police. Once, he was riding the TTC (the subway system in Toronto) and exited the station through the wrong door; he was aggressively confronted by TTC security. If he puts on a hoodie, he’s considered dangerous. And this has nothing to do with his character. A white colleague once said to me that we don’t have racism here in Canada. I reminded him how differently our sons are treated if the police stop them. It gave him a moment of pause.

A very timely example of systemic racism in Canada – the truck convoy protest against vaccine mandates. They are allowed to build forts, bring propane to the sites where they are protesting. If that were a Black Lives Matter protest, none of that would have been allowed and they would have been shut down with force immediately. (Editors note: Since this story was written, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time ever, which ended the convoy protest after three weeks in Ottawa.)

PT: Do you have any recommendations for people who want to strengthen their allyship? Resources, attitudes, etc.?

MD: Allyship is not just talking about things, but actually doing things. That can be a range of things. First, we all need to have more uncomfortable conversations. And we have to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. We have to unlearn and relearn some of our basic attitudes about Black people.

Corporate leaders, in particular, have a responsibility. We need advocacy in the boardroom, particularly when making hiring and promotion decisions. Note your language when describing someone – are they truly aggressive or simply assertive and you label them as such because they are Black? True allyship is when one leader calls out another on their own biases.

In terms of education, do your own homework. There are so many books, movies, stories on YouTube. And remember, you can learn about Black excellence and Black history outside the month of February. A colleague mentioned to me recently that she watched Women of the Movement. I have a lot of respect for someone who does that on their own, to enhance their understanding of Black history.

If there is something you don’t know, then ask. It’s okay to ask, to acknowledge that you don’t know or understand a Black person’s experience. It’s important to approach sensitive topics with humility. And be willing to apologize if you’ve made a mistake. In a meeting, I once made a comment about being “at the bottom of the totem pole.” After the meeting someone pointed out to me how racist that idiom is. I apologized to the group immediately. This is hard work. And we all have the opportunity to learn from each other.

PT: What has your work in the Inclusion and Diversity space taught you?

MD: I have never felt so fulfilled until I came into the I&D space. It’s taught me the power of connection and how people can be so much more productive and reach limits beyond their imagination. I’ve learned about the importance of finding those connections; when people learn they have shared interests, there is a moment of excitement, a moment of belonging.

For example, I once worked with a young new grad of Asian descent. She told me about a time she went into an upscale store and wanted to buy an expensive handbag. The store staff treated her poorly and she felt like she was being discriminated against, that they thought she couldn’t afford the handbag because she is Asian. We tried to have a conversation about discrimination, but we weren’t really connecting.

So, I flipped the script. There is a root vegetable called cassava that my family cooks. She’d mentioned that her mom cooks yucca, which is the same vegetable, just a different name. When I told her this, she opened up about her mom and the different recipes she used to make. And that was the conversation we bonded over, not necessarily the one about discrimination.

That’s really the secret to the success of inclusion and diversity – it lets people form bonds over common interests. Yes, bonding over struggles are the deepest connections, but for someone who hasn’t experienced those struggles, bonding over common interests works as well.

Sharing these common interests among people who don’t have the same life-experiences is what will help break through systemic racism. For example, in a group of leaders making hiring decisions, someone might say “Let’s hire Johnny.” When asked why, he might say “Because he reminds me of me when I was young.” This is another example of systemic racism; someone who looks like me doesn’t have a chance because there isn’t anyone at the table who can say the same thing. People tend to hire people that look like them. This is one of the barriers we have to try to break through – and one of the benefits of having an employee network like Mosaic at Suncor.

PT: You've been involved in establishing the Mosaic Network at Suncor. What's that been like? What's surprised you about the experience?

MD: Mosaic is a body of people who are there to uplift each other, to drive change, to mentor and sponsor each other. It includes people who can guide us through our corporate careers. It’s important to work with people who look like you and work with people who share your same pain and struggles. This has been very uplifting. It's like family - you may not always agree but you're working toward the same goal.

Being a part of Mosaic has created opportunities for unexpected conversations, perhaps most surprisingly about hair. As a Black woman, my hair is often a topic of conversation. Wearing my hair in its natural state has been deemed “unprofessional” at times, not considered “acceptable” in the workplace. I also regularly experience the microaggressions of people wanting to touch my hair. I talked about this at a Mosaic meeting and made a couple of unexpected connections. First, colleagues with mixed race children talked about their challenges. And then an older white colleague told me about his child who dyed his hair blue; learning about the importance of my hair to me, to my identity, helped him understand how to relate to his child.

Having a network that supports you and your career as well as your culture is a beautiful thing. It brings me so much joy when I log into a meeting and I see so many Black and brown faces on the screen, to see so many talented and accomplished Black people working together. All the degrees held and languages spoken by this group of people. We truly have Black excellence working at Suncor.

~|~

Melba, thank you so much for sharing your experiences along with your insights about how to make connections to foster understanding and how we can be strong allies. I have found our conversations powerful and humbling, and a good reminder that, as a white person, I have benefited from systemic racism.

As part of my personal education, I try to make sure that the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching include content by Black creators. One of my recent favourite reads was You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism written by Amber Ruffin (an American comedy writer and TV host) and her sister Lacey Lamar. Her book documents modern day racism and microaggressions against Black people with both humour and disbelief. It was a real eye-opener to me and helped me strengthen my own resolve to be a good ally.

Are there resources you recommend or stories you’d like to share? Leave a comment below.

~ Kate T.

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