Kayode Adeyemi is an Immigrant from Nigeria who currently lives in Calgary, Alberta and works as a Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator for Alberta Parks and Environment. In accordance to CPCIL’s Inclusion and Equity profile series, here’s what he shared with us on his experience as a Black Park Leader.
Tell me about your ethnic/cultural background? What was your early life like as BIPOC?
I am originally from Nigeria in West Africa. In 2015, I immigrated to Canada under the skilled labour program that is being called express entry right now. My background has always been in environmental management and occupational health and safety. That was what I did immediately after university in Nigeria, and I’ve spent roughly seven or eight years working with a multinational company in Nigeria, before I decided to check what is on the other side of the fence. It wasn’t necessarily looking for greener pastures so to speak, but I’m very adventurous by nature. Working within an organization that has a multicultural environment, thereby broadening my professional experience, seeing the world and learning new things about other people’s culture; those are the reasons behind moving to Canada and seeing things differently, from how I grew up in Nigeria.
What is your current career/position? How long have you been in this career?
I joined Alberta Environment and Parks in 2017 as an Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator. Within those three years, I was involved in different activities within parks operations. So I became a multi resource individual, dealt with projects that supported infrastructure development, I’ve supported Parks operational activities, apart from the fact that I still do my primary role, which is Occupational Health and Safety. I think through that multi-resource background or outlook it opened the doors for me to progress into an operation’s manager’s role, which I presently occupy for parks operations in the Northeast part of Alberta.
When did you decide that pursuing a career/hobby in parks or nature recreation was right for you?
So after my first degree in environmental management and toxicology, I did not directly practice in that capacity as an environmental scientist.. I however ventured into occupational health and safety, but there has always been that interchange of environmental management ideas or knowledge that I picked up, while studying environmental sciences. Some of those examples where there is that cross-functional opportunity from the environmental science background would include things that have to do with environmental pollution, occupational hygiene, air quality studies, and climate effects on built environments and construction projects. So there’s always been that background that has carried into what I do in occupational health and safety. When I had the opportunity to join Alberta Parks and started working across teams, seeing the environmental and conservation policies that were in place piqued my interest. I felt that I could utilize some of my environmental background skills to support parks operational activities most especially recreation and conservation programs management.
Those three years were very instrumental in making that decision. I could also remember growing up, I found that I was drawn to watching Nature and Discovery Channel documentaries, geography, or anything that has to do with natural sciences. I think those interests built the foundation for being driven towards protecting the environment and participating in activities that will keep the land use sustainable.
How do you feel when connecting with nature? When did you start? Is this an emotional/spiritual/etc experience?
Well some people say they have all those experiences, but I think for me, it’s basically just the natural feeling of it. I wouldn’t call it an out-of-body or spiritual experience, I think it’s more of the ambience and the decorum that nature provides for you. It’s refreshing. I grew up in a densely populated city back in Nigeria, and moving to Canada, one of the things that was a source of culture shock for me was the amount of nature that is planned into development, making it right there , on your doorstep. You have playgrounds and community Parks around you, and these facilities most times are located a couple of blocks away. That is something I did not easily come across or experience growing up in sprawling cities back home in Nigeria. You’d have to do a bit of traveling to get to amusement parks, zoos or game reserves and other wildlife sanctuaries. So the concept of being in nature or in parks so that you could get some mental health benefit was not necessarily there for the most part. It was later on in my life that I started to enjoy the ambience or the quietness when I go into the nature reserves.
What barriers and stigmas have you personally faced in your journey with the outdoors/Parks as a Black person?
In terms of barriers, I can’t necessarily pinpoint a particular event, but I think it has to do with background and exposure to the information that will drive you towards those opportunities of enjoying nature. I think that is missing for most Black Canadians. To put it simply, our community doesn’t usually do the same sort of things associated with camping outdoors, etc.. We might think about outdoors if we have an event and somebody is looking for space and doesn’t want to do it in a rental hall or a convention center, then we’d think about a playground or an open space instead. I think talking about utilizing Parks beyond that is not something that is promoted in such a way that will draw POC to actually assign five or four days in a year going camping. It’s funny, but POC representation in itself is not talked about on a larger scale.
Another one we can consider are the tourist or tourism programs. Some of the tourism programs are not directed to us because the assumption is that we may not participate in any of this. However, a lot of economic factors are also tied into why we don’t when compared with other groups. Our belief, as Black Canadians, is that when you have extra dollars to spend, you may not want to spend it on buying a camper unit. This may not be for all, but I can assure you most POC will consider their purse in the midst of competing economic needs. So, the economic aspect in itself is a serious barrier, apart from the marketing, promotion and the targeting of the Black demographic market. The third barrier relates to the concept of representation, which is important to us. When it comes to the population in the workplace, there is not much representation of Black folks at those tables, where important discussions and decisions are being made. When you don’t have that higher level of representation, there will not be many opportunities to even have diversity come into the workforce. In my own case, when somebody says I am one of the managers of parks operations, the expression of surprise on people’s faces sometimes speaks louder than what they say.
Has being a Black person affected your professional journey in Parks?
Being Black and the stereotypes, including passive aggressiveness that come with it. I think that is common for all Black Canadians, irrespective of their employment or what other people may think. I am very fortunate with the folks I work with. They are quite eager to learn my perspectives and are very supportive people. You know, some people do not or have not lived that experience, so they don’t understand some of those struggles POC talk about. However, I’m always careful to separate some of those events into two different situations or categories. The first category is just lack of knowledge towards the situations or experiences of others, such as BIPOC and the second is just everyday bias which most folks may engage in. Some of the issues could be an everyday thing and could come at you in different ways or forms. It’s in emails, in coffee rooms, water coolers, and discussions at meetings. These stereotypes can come at you in different ways or forms. So when you spend time then trying to educate people who are in the first category beyond ignorance, some will adjust quickly. With the other category of people, It’s oftentimes just who they are. They are really entrenched in their thoughts and perceptions, so it is challenging to change their mindsets, or convince them that you are not what they think. I have to ask sometimes that maybe what you have been presented in the media or through stereotypes is different from what you’re getting here with me.
What are some things that you have personally experienced that non-BIPOC would not know about?
Adjustment to life and the social nuances as a POC or immigrant, and the challenges that come with it comes to mind here. I’ve experienced times where people have come to me to say, “you know what? I think you’re just different from other Black Canadians” and I’m like, “No, I’m not different”. Of course Black people as individuals have different capacities. People have different skills, and different ideas and will often adjust to their environment over time, but you have to understand that I am still a Canadian. Just like here in Canada, I’ve been in similar diverse work environments working in a multinational company in Nigeria, where people from all over the world come in to work as expatriates and they become the minority. Those people had to adjust to our land, our climate, and learn to understand the nuances of our culture. Here in Canada, some folks have got to learn new languages, some have got to learn how to do things differently from what they were used to, but that doesn’t define them. That doesn’t have to be a stereotype of the community that well, they do not know how to do certain things as a whole. So for black Canadians, some of those stereotypes can take its toll.
Take the issues of accents, in my own case, it took somebody who was patient enough to listen to my so-called “difficult accent”, pay attention to what I’m saying, and was willing to look at my resume before giving me a job opportunity in the first place because I had been told “you need a Canadian experience”. So when we talk about needing a Canadian experience, what does that actually mean? If I don’t get the opportunity to get through the door, or be dismissed in such a manner, how will I ever get that Canadian work experience in the first place? Those are some of the things that non-BIPOC folks may not experience.
How do you feel towards the growing public interest in BIPOC experiences/representation in 2020? Is there anything that particularly frustrates or pleases you?
I think it’s a little too late, but we have the opportunity to continue with laying the foundations for more representation. I once drove through a community in the Northern part of Alberta, about two and a half hours from Edmonton, and I read a plaque on the highway there that said that there used to be a Black community that settled there in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, that community no longer exists today and you will see the same thing for other Black settlements across the Country. They eventually all fizzled out, people moved away, grandparents died, and there was nothing else in the last 50 or 60 years. I had to wonder what happened to these communities? Why is there no continuity or longevity compared to other non-BIPOC communities that have survived till now? Why don’t we know so much about them if they had been there so long ago? So when we are talking about representation, we’re talking about making a group of people in a workplace or in an organization a reflection of what the larger population is. It’s not something that we should just have to spend all our time talking about or trying to learn about now, it is something that should have been part of the discussion right from the start and involved making concrete plans to address those disservices that will foster continuity for minorities. It doesn’t have to be with people of color alone, even women are not represented to a certain percentage.
Has anything notable changed for inclusion of BIPOC during your career in parks?
There has been some effort to increase representation, for instance there is a ERG group in my place of work that is sponsored by most senior leadership. Now, people are doing more things that are deliberate and targeting POC to address the diversity issue in the workplace. Addressing the underlying problems that will foster a progressive environment is important. Where an environment is not conducive, some people just don’t have the temperament to adapt to aggressions, become a chameleon and wear different masks in order to just deal with it. It takes its toll mentally, physically, and emotionally and some BIPOC will just quit or change careers. Hence, they do not enjoy career progression. But after so many times where you’re forced out of a system or you quit, employers will look at your resume and wonder why you’re always leaving your jobs after 1 to 3 years. You can’t keep a regular career growth that way. So keeping tabs on all of those fundamental problems will go a long way in the deconstruction of the problems or barriers that keep POCs and other excluded groups from getting represented at every level. Addressing it will justify all the deliberate efforts that have been made so far.
How do you think Parks could encourage more diversity or make this a more safe and accessible place for people like yourself? What should they not do?
I think recognizing minority groups is one factor. Creating room for them, that’s a whole other factor and those actions need to be deliberate. Irrespective of what stigmas are there, when you create a space where excluded people feel welcome inside those parks, people will start to embrace those spaces. Those targets have to be directed towards what that community would enjoy when they come out there. I’m not saying you have to create things for everybody, but look at the demographics. What are the likely things that are going to drive them to come out and travel long distances to enjoy that environment there? We have to be specific in our programming, marketing, and the facilities we build. Target them with those things, and you will see the barriers continue to drop. When they see people who look like them working in or just enjoying that environment, it will make them feel encouraged to come back next time. Some of our folks will be like: “I don’t know anybody, I don’t see anybody that looks like me; therefore, I’m just gonna back up and call the trip to such unwelcome spaces a waste of my time”. So we have to really speak to that demographic if we are interested in bringing them into parks, but those thoughts and actions have to come from a place of sincerity.
Inclusion also has to come at every level. It doesn’t have to be only at the decision makers table alone, it has to be from every part of parks. I want to see representation in all fabrics of parks operations, and I cannot stress that enough. You cannot tell me that when hiring a new cohort for parks across all provinces every summer, that not one of the new employees are POC. So we need to drive that across the board from a research and policy perspective too and this is one of those opportunities where we need to spread out our net and look into different groups. Only when we get those folks involved in each aspect of parks operations, from the frontline staff, to maintenance, up to the decision making levels, then I will be convinced that we are sincere in our efforts to encourage diversity.
What would you say to young or inexperienced BIPOC Canadians who want to be involved in this or feel out of place where they are?
You have to have a good support structure. It’s going to take some time for people to change their mindsets and biases towards the stereotypes. Dealing with those things, you have to be able find a mentor, to talk to people with similar experiences and resource groups within your workplace. And maybe you’re lucky enough to find somebody who understands exactly what you’ve experienced, and they can guide you moving forwards as a mentor. Having that support system is important. It could be friends, it could be family, it could be coworkers, or even another mentor in that field who is not necessarily a person of colour, but someone who is willing to help. Those connections make a difference.
What are your next steps in your career/personal journey?
If somebody asked me where I’m going to be in the next five years, I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t really tell you. That being said, I can say that I’ve written goals down to say that within the next three years, I want to be able to move from supporting C-Suite level executives to be in a role where I am supported too as a C-Suite Executive. I also want to continue to impact operations and be able to positively influence some of the strategic decisions that we make. That is very important to me right now and I think that is more or less my next step, as far as growth is concerned.