Jeanne-Marie Rugira is a professor in the Department of Psychosociology and Social Work at the Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR). She is the director of the undergraduate programs in psychosociology. She is also a consultant and coach for organizations on issues of inclusiveness, racism and intersectional feminism.
This inspiring woman arrived in Quebec during the Rwandan civil war of the 1990s. She was forced to remain on Quebec soil as a refugee and subsequently embarked on a journey fraught with difficulties. Through her academic and field experiences, Jeanne-Marie navigates with disconcerting lucidity between these different obstacles. In this interview, she shares with us how the transformation towards more inclusive organizations is taking place through her work. Her voice has taught me many lessons of wisdom, and this brief interview is just a sampling of them. I hope that these words, which are invitations to social transformation in the struggle against racism, will teach you as much as it has taught me.
F : How did you begin your work as a consultant to organizations on diversity issues?
J.M : I would say that in 2016, when I became a Canadian citizen, I took back my voice as a citizen. Something opened up and it gave me permission to have a voice. I took back my feminist activism, I took back my anti-racist activism. That’s it, all of a sudden I was home. I had a say. I told myself that I owed it to my host country to work with others to continue building a more just society. [I became involved in my community, and since then I have been working with organizations with whom I share values and concerns, making services more accessible, more equitable and more inclusive, especially for historically marginalized populations. So this work is consistent with my values, with my history. And, also consistent with my singular perspective that adds a voice to those we are used to hearing.
F : You work in social justice organizations that are feminist, but they come to you for more inclusive practices. I imagine these are predominantly white organizations?
J.M : Yes.
F : So how do you make sure you implement these strategies? What are the best practices for working in this context?
J.M : The first thing I do is to work on the question of connection. The construction of relational capital and the recognition of our common humanity. We try to build the conditions to meet each other, to set a common target that transcends our differences and thus not let institutional habits prevent us from meeting each other. The second thing I work a lot on is the recognition of privilege and the responsibility that comes with that privilege […] I also give trainings on intersectionality, on unconscious bias. In these trainings, we each work on our biases. Not to never have them again, but to be certain that we do have them and therefore to pay attention to them. It’s not my job to tell them how to do it, but rather, it’s my job to make sure that their unconscious biases don’t become obstacles to inclusiveness. Finally, that these biases do not prevent them from accompanying people who are not like them.
F : What are the challenges to dialogue?
J.M : First, I work with talking circles, not debates, and I make sure that I don’t work from the debates. Also, I don’t want us to talk about ideas, but rather about experiences. Because with experiences, we can meet as human beings. [If we ask ourselves, for example, “when did I experience oppression?” whether you are white, black, deaf, LGBTQI+ you have experienced oppression. Let’s say you’re a white woman, but you’ve at least experienced oppression because of your gender, your class, your weight…whatever. So, I’d rather, rather than go into identities, opinions or ideologies, go back to the human experience and look at how my experience of oppression can help me understand you. Then, that in this, even if we don’t have the same skin color, or the same eyes, you become my sister in humanity. But, for that, you need time and also working methods.
F : Precisely, after the construction of the link, what are the working methods that you put in place?
J.M : After meeting each other, we can have a mission, a common vision. From the moment of the meeting, we say to each other, okay, how do I, X or Y, want to live in a non-oppressive organization? As a result, we make policies that come from these places where we don’t want to make others relive what we have suffered. There, we critically question our practices and our policies. But it is done little by little, we are between human beings, it is not done all at once. But, at the same time, it becomes much more interesting.
F : A final word to our readers as a psychosocial worker and consultant specialized in inclusion and diversity issues?
J.M : I would like to tell young women of the African diaspora to be interested in others, to stop essentializing ourselves by identifying ourselves mainly with the oppression we experience. Let’s take an interest in others, in Quebecers, in what they live. A Quebecer is not a Frenchman, a Frenchman is not a German and a German is not a Belgian. There is no such thing as a wall-to-wall white identity. It is only a social construct, variable and evolving, according to people, contexts, times, etc. And what life has taught me is that when I take an interest in others, they end up taking an interest in me […] You know, when I first came here, the first thing I realized was that I spoke French, but I didn’t understand Quebec humour. They didn’t make me laugh, even though I understood their language. So you know, I started to deconstruct their imagination. I started watching Quebec soaps, I read the sun, the duty. I watched the debates in the bedroom, I read Quebec novels […] I took that step of going towards them because I had no choice, because I couldn’t go to a ghetto. In the end, I was lucky to immigrate to the region. Because sometimes the comfort of our ghettos is what prevents us from understanding their codes. […] After understanding, you are free to take or not to take these codes. You can become you again and choose what you want and what you don’t want. But at least you understand the choices you make and you can explain them. We can influence the culture when we understand it, so that we don’t end up essentializing ourselves. I think this is important.
Fatima Terhini describes herself as an artivist primarily concerned with feminist, anti-racist and decolonial issues. Her degree in psychosociology and her experience in community work attest to her insatiable curiosity and love for humans, living beings and of course social issues. Her texts are above all influenced and imprinted by the stories told and lived by the incredible women who preceded her.