When she worked on Bay Street in Toronto, she always went above and beyond what was asked of her. Now, she’s taking a look at the psychological implications of doing extra labour as Black people, and in particular, Black women. Karlyn has released a new study on Psychological and Cultural Safety in the Workplace from the perspective of Black female employees.
Growing up in Saint Lucia, Karlyn did her homework by candlelight. When there wasn’t enough kerosene or her family ran out of candles, she would have to do her homework in the morning before getting water from the river for her family and finally walking to the bus.
She says this was her introduction to organizational and operational skills. As a youth, she took over the children’s programming in her local church and was given the freedom to express her creativity while also fostering skills that would be pivotal in her career. Karlyn shares that in the Caribbean the main job opportunities lie in government roles, the tourism industry or banking. Karlyn felt banking was the safest option.
“I was working at the bank as a teller and got to be head teller when I was chosen to open up a new branch in Rodney Bay, which was a very touristy area. When we moved to paperless banking, the head office in Toronto sent all these manuals and training and guides, and I'm going through it and I'm thinking, ‘who the heck do these work for?’ Because it doesn't represent the Saint Lucian customer journey at all. It didn't represent the culture or how people do banking in the Caribbean. It was totally different from the Caribbean experience, and I think that was my first experience with cultural inequity where organizations expect you to just take on what you’ve received and just implement it. So I rewrote the entire manual. I created my own training program. I've never gone to school for training. I just used the skills that I've gotten from my parents, church, life and school. The entire process sparked my hunger for innovation and creativity. We had celebrations every week as we literally saw the bank grow. I didn't know it yet, but I think that was when my “intrapreneur” startup and entrepreneur mindset was activated.”
Karlyn worked her way from bank teller to personal banking officer giving out loans. When she realized most branch managers on the islands didn’t leave their jobs until retirement, she applied to the Canadian visa program which led her to obtain a visa for Permanent Residence in Canada. It was a journey she felt equipped for based on her previous experience as a teller, Personal Banking Officer and being chosen to open a new branch, working in what she calls “a start-up” like way.
But once Karlyn got here she was met with colourism from other Caribbean women in her workplace, while facing sexism, racism, and microaggressions from white colleagues, instead of the validation she was hoping to receive based on her lengthy resume.
After connecting with others at her workplace, she realized she wasn’t the only one facing a host of these ‘isms’. Karlyn started lunch and learn sessions, as a way to address the “elephant” in the room. Word of the sessions spread quickly and there was high demand. She began educating herself by immersing in research and optimizing the data she was getting from peers through those lunch-and-learn sessions.
The Success System was born out of years of collecting and analyzing this data. The Success System is a 360 self-leadership philosophy that includes curated ancestral wisdom systems, frameworks, transformational tools and worksheets.
And after 11 years working in banking on Bay Street, ignoring microaggressions, and being passed over for promotions, that entrepreneurial spirit kicked into high gear.
Karlyn’s company, KDPM Consulting now offers C-suite equity-focused leadership training, which is grounded in ancestral systems knowledge. It includes a full education program with a coaching certification so that leaders can pass on knowledge of human equity to their direct staff and the wider organization.
“It's the hardest thing for us to change as humans. And collective behaviour change is dependent on individual behaviour change. This is why this whole work begins with self-leadership. If the leaders implementing the change are still operating from a Eurocentric racial frame, it means that they may be upholding or perpetuating the status quo. They will bring in new policies, absolutely. But for example, they may bring in representation without cultural equity and psychological safety, a very harmful status-quo leadership practice. And representation without cultural equity tells me that, for example, if you're bringing one Black person or a person of colour into the C-Suite, what is the culture they’re walking into? First, let’s explore the culture. Culture is a collection of the norms, behaviours, ways of being, and norms of individuals. And culture is dependent on power. If you bring one person of colour into an institution that is built on inequity and racial capitalism, she's not going to have enough power. She's not going to have the freedom to practice her/their culture from her ancestral lens. She's not even encouraged to pursue her cultural identity because a lot of the training and the coaching is going to come from white executive coaches.”
It’s a big oversight Karlyn continues to see: insufficient leadership training due to the narrow white racial lens that most education systems are taught from. Karlyn encourages leaders who feel uncomfortable or fearful to continue on that path. “If you're stepping away from your comfort zone, your brain will take you through this emotional journey of shame and fear because our identity is also rooted a little bit in ego. And ego depends on the structure of knowing as a sense of safety. ‘I know what I know. This is who I am and I'm a leader and I know everything, and this is what I was taught.' But great leaders actually don't know everything. This is why they depend on the people they hire to give them insight into things that they don't know. They will make the decision eventually, but you get your decision from an informed place. So this is where employees get to express themselves fully, but this is also what it means to build a culture.”
It was recognizing this gap in equity-focused leadership training and seeing the need for a different kind of culture building that inspired Karlyn to fund the creation of the research paper Psychological and Cultural Safety in the Workplace: A Workplace Wellness Study.
Karlyn’s goal for this study is to help “inform the structural policies or changes needed when it comes to workplace wellbeing strategies. Also, it better informs leadership outcomes and behaviours.”
“We know implementing a new policy does not equate to behavioural change the next day. You need to operationalize that policy. What does that look like in leadership behaviours? The report really looks at that leadership and management outcomes, but it also speaks to a lot of the experiences Black professionals go through.”
Karlyn adds that the report gives deeper insight into the experience of Black women in the workplace, and what that lack of workplace safety feels like. The report will help leaders understand what to do on a structural level to affirm and confirm the Black female experience in the workplace.
Karlyn funded the project herself to ensure that the study was done in an equitable way to serve the Black women being polled. Through the process, Karlyn says she hated “being an active participant in asking Black folks to rehash their racial trauma” but took solace in knowing she was working toward being part of the solution. She felt that some of the psychological safety data she had found or researched in the past were not intersectional enough. Karlyn partnered with a mostly Black team at York University, polled Black women and even continued to have dialogue with those polled outside of the surveys created.
She feels that this kind of work is required to build spaces that include Black people being in power and leadership that will reignite momentum around Black Lives Matter movements, and give Black people more safe spaces and communities that allow us to fully flourish.
“It's for us now to strengthen our ecosystem of ancestral leadership. When I think about the collective responsibility I start thinking about my village mindset which to me is the innovation mindset. If you're innovating, you're thinking about the people who are part of your village. So for me, that means I'm looking at my position in terms of who I'm at the table with and who I'm bringing. For me, there's an education that needs to happen. Still, it's an opportunity for us to come together, build those systems, un-learn the white racial frame, learn how to create a community of eco-system practice and think in a village mindset.”
Karlyn does acknowledge that the consistent work around ancestral systems is also challenging because of the nature of challenging the norms in a white supremacist and colonized system.
“Ancestors left behind a whole wisdom and knowledge system. Our job is to express that, whether it's through purpose expression, fashion, whether it's through language, poetry, music, or art. Culture is healing. We're all activists in some way. If you're showing up fully in your Blackness or whatever you identify as, that is power.
It’s also so important for my number one love language to celebrate Black women's lives. I need to be an affirmation of ‘you belong here’. My presence should always be welcoming to Black women because we are not affirmed in so many spaces and in so many ways. If I can be an expression of love to another Black woman, I honour that privilege. That's why my presence is important. Our presence matter. Whether it's yellin', “Yessssssss dresses” I see you or you and me wearing our bright colours, prints or my braids or whatever I define as an expression of my cultural identity - show up. Show up for you, so that it gets easier to show up for community. You are our ancestors, (human and non-human) eyes.”