As Toronto Questions the Diversity of Its Boards, a Conference on Board Diversity
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As Toronto Questions the Diversity of Its Boards, a Conference on Board Diversity

An international conference on the value of diverse leadership coincides with news that Mayor Rob Ford's office interfered with City diversity policies.

Immigration and diversity advocate Henry Akanko (centre) participates at the Maytree Foundation's International Learning Exchange in Toronto. Photo by Marco Campana.

Sadiqa Reynolds’ boss, Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, sent her to Toronto this week to learn about ways of increasing the diversity of civic leadership in her city. As Louisville’s chief community builder, she came here to find out how a Toronto-based foundation has done just that, and also to take some lessons home to Kentucky’s most populous city.

Reynolds was one of about 30 participants in this week’s International Learning Exchange, an intimate gathering of civic and business leaders from 22 cities who wanted to find out how to emulate “DiverseCity onBoard,” a Maytree Foundation initiative that works to promote diversity on public and private boards of directors in the GTA.

The gathering, which ended Wednesday, happened while city council was preparing to debate a report from the City ombudsman that had some damning things to say about diversity on Toronto’s own municipal boards. This report, for those who may have missed it, revealed that Mayor Ford’s office did things that may have ended up preventing the City from following its own diversity policy while it recruited applicants for spots on the boards of City agencies.

Maytree has worked extensively with City officials to strengthen diversity outreach, and even gave the City a Diversity in Governance award, in 2007, for “commitment and innovation in creating inclusive boards.” In the last five years, the DiverseCity onBoard initiative has helped over 600 GTA residents from visible minority communities secure appointments on various public, private, and non-profit sector boards.

Hamlin Grange, President of DiversiPro Inc., a firm that specializes in diversity training and diversity management services, moderated some of the gathering’s early sessions. In an interview, he called the ombudsman’s report on civic appointments “troubling,” and suggested the mayor needs to lead efforts to increase diversity within City bodies. “It would be of tremendous value for the mayor to be part of this conversation,” Grange said. “The larger question is, will he want to be part of this conversation?”

Grange also suggested Ford may instead be appealing to “a constituency out there in the City that thinks that everything is okay, and asks, ‘why are we pushing this?’” He added: “If the City’s motto is ‘Diversity Our Strength,’ then we have to live that value.”

Maytree executive director Ratna Omidvar says the conference, a partnership between her organization, the BMW Foundation, and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), is a product of Maytree’s success in making Toronto’s institutions more reflective of the people they serve.

Omidvar, who on Friday became a member of the Order of Canada in Ottawa, echoed Grange’s thoughts on the significance of diversity in Toronto. She argued that the City’s diversity policies are critical, and need to be followed. “Beyond policies, I would hope that we have aspirations to be the most inclusive city in the world,” she said. “We’re not there yet, even with the policies. Without the policies, we’re going to slip backwards.” Omidvar hopes council will fully adopt the ombudsman’s recommendations for strengthening the appointments process.

Participants at the Learning Exchange heard about the “business case” for diverse leadership from local organizations like the YMCA of Greater Toronto, the Royal Bank of Canada, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), and Ryerson University. They also learned about programs that provide professional development and training opportunities to prospective board applicants.

Michaela Hertel of the Fundación Bertelsmann in Spain was a delegate at gathering. She said that diverse boards are rare in her home country. “Every voice in a system has to be heard,” she added. “We need innovation. We need new and fresh ideas.”