By: Steve Sevor, Chef de Mission for Team Ontario
As we continue to learn and focus on Black history on the heels of Black History Month, continuing our education all throughout the year, it is especially important for me to reflect on the significance of diversity in leadership from my own personal position within the Canada Games movement.
Having the opportunity to be involved in the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games is very dear to my heart.
As a graduate of Brock University, I’m excited to return to the region of the province that was so instrumental in sparking my career in the sport sector. These Games will give me another valuable opportunity to give back to sport in a meaningful way. They will also be my seventh Canada Games in which I have been able to contribute to the development of Team Ontario athletes and coaches.
While all of these experiences are important, 2022 is even more significant, because I am the first Black Chef de Mission for Team Ontario since the inception of the Canada Games in 1967. It has been an honour for me to be selected as Chef for these Games and it has led me on a path of reflection about how I got to this position, and how diversity in sport leadership is crucial.
Over this past year, I have really felt there has been an awakening throughout society to become more aware of the issues facing many Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC).
This CBC article on the lack of diversity within Canadian leadership positions in sport really resonated with me. So much so that I connected with my fellow Canada Games Chef de Missions from other provinces and territories to discuss my views on this, in the context of the Canada Games environment. I was candid and frank about my experiences and I asked for a call to action.
The response from my colleagues was amazing. They were heartfelt, sincere and reflective. Some acknowledged the opportunities that may not have been provided in their own spheres and pledged to review and change mechanisms that encouraged more diversity. Some others appreciated the fact that they never had to focus on this issue but now understand the importance of diversity. My colleagues are good people and are open to having these necessary conversations.
I see the need to have the same conversations in my professional life. As a sport administrator, I see the need to improve diversity within leadership positions.
In my early days, I worked as an athletic coordinator for a school board. The experience of working with over 80 schools allowed me to develop the basic elements of organization and communication that are crucial to the role of a sports administrator. It served as a great opportunity, but I found that the leaders were not reflective of the diverse student population that existed.
I also spent the next decade working as a leader at a provincial multi-sport organization. Working with dedicated and passionate educators really taught me the value of school sport. I can rank this as my most enjoyable job to date and I was fortunate to work with truly great people on a yearly basis. It was a great situation, however, did those great leaders fully represent the diverse composition of the province? No, not to the extent that they should.
The later and most lengthy part of my career has been spent as a public servant, first in provincial government and now in municipal government. Currently, I am the Manager of Sport responsible for a workgroup of close to 150 people. The city has a population of over half a million and an extended management team of over 600 people, yet there are only a handful of people in management positions that look like me. Is it because there are no qualified BIPOC candidates to fill those positions? Is it because those in positions of power are not taking the time to build their bench? Or is the level of support not there? While circumstances and people differ, one can safely assume long-standing perspectives need to change.
I’ve worked extremely hard to be where I am today, and despite my successes, I still face racism. I’ve heard many times, “Wow, you’re pretty articulate, I wasn't expecting that”, or, “You have a Master’s Degree??” said in a tone of shock and disbelief. Even at the golf courses I manage, having patrons who glance past me, looking to speak to the manager, not believing I am the person they are seeking.
As a Black man you grow up learning about who you are in the context of history. Hundreds of my ancestors were taken away from their families and suffered inhumane atrocities. I’ve always approached things in my life with this in mind — that nothing I go through in my present-day life could ever compare to what my ancestors went through.
That’s why I don’t complain about things in my life. That’s why I approach things with calmness. It’s because I understand that others have gone through way more than I could ever imagine and I have no right to complain about my life. That doesn’t mean, however, we should not expect better from people, from our society…from ourselves.
I was fortunate to have been mentored in leadership roles. Longtime Chef de Mission, Blair McIntosh and other leaders of Team Ontario took the time to understand who I was and what I wanted. They actively and thoughtfully put me in development roles and gave me the tools and resources to succeed.
I love the words I once heard in an interview from a former basketball player turned coach in the Ottawa area. He spoke about the impact of good coaches, saying “they helped me open a lot of doors, and the ones they couldn’t, they gave me the tools to kick it down”.
While I strive to provide support and create a talented and diverse team, I realize it is not a quick item that can simply be checked off in a box. I am proud and excited about the mission staff we have assembled. Could the members reflect more diversity? Yes, especially for a province the size of Ontario. But my current and future efforts to build a more diverse mission staff really relies upon:
● Education about the Canada Games and similar sport properties;
● A commitment from the broader sport community to make volunteers aware of the valuable experiences that mission staff receive; and
● The creation of opportunities in which BIPOC individuals can gain real life examples to develop their skills.
As a leadership team we have made a commitment to seek out and mentor the next generation of leaders. We are committed to ensuring the next generation of mission staff are diverse in colour and gender, reflecting what we see daily in society. It’s through the honest conversations that we have as a staff, respecting our differences and embracing our similarities, growing from our trials and experiences, and always striving to be tolerant in our views that will make us stronger for years to come. We want to leave Team Ontario in a better position than we found it and ensuring that our leaders reflect our society is one task that we are committed to.
I am Black, my wife is white, and we have two lovely bi-ethnic children who are keenly observing what this world has to offer and what they can in turn offer the world. My girls are 12 and 14, and are old enough to recognize injustices when they see them. We have interesting and deep conversations about their goals and the lived experiences of myself and my wife. Luckily, my teenage daughters still want to listen to me, but would I have listened to myself back then? If I were able to give some advice to my younger self, what would that be?
1) Look for champions that will be able to elevate you and appreciate your worth. There are people that are there to support you. You don’t have to wait for people to select you, do your research and approach those individuals that can relate to your situation and goals.
2) Don’t think that just because it hasn’t yet been done, it will never be done. Find a way to persevere through your challenges. Turn those challenges into life lessons that will help define you for the future.
3) Don’t ever be afraid to speak up and have those uncomfortable conversations. The discussions I recently had with my close friends have really expanded our mutual understanding of what needs to change. I have found that through conversation there is a greater level of admiration, recognition of abilities, and more genuine interaction.
4) If you get the chance, support others in a manner that you were supported.
What it comes down to is, in a world where we look for role models and influencers, it is much more difficult (not impossible) for BIPOC individuals to model their actions or achievements if they cannot see themselves or connect with their leaders. You can’t be, what you can’t see.
For me, as a Black leader, I too need to do more to nurture opportunities for others. I realize that in my position, having a platform to speak about my experiences and to ultimately encourage change is just as important as convincing others to change. I am not a household name in sport, I do not have any name recognition, but I know there are others like me who aspire to follow a similar path. There are others like me that have tried in their own ways to change the narrative they find themselves associated with. There are others like me that no longer accept the status quo and are willing to take steps to create solutions. As an organization, can you say that you are doing enough to provide awareness, and are you creating genuine desire for BIPOC staff and volunteers to earn leadership positions?
I may not be there yet, but I am trying to create more awareness and opportunities now that I am in a position to do so. I want others to view my time as Chef de Mission as a turning point. I want them to be left with the thought, I can be, what I can see.