Everyday Bravery

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. She sent this letter on July 10, 2020 to Atkinson’s  extended community. You can subscribe to receive her occasional updates here.


It’s been three months since my last letter to you. These days and weeks have been consequential and unquestionably sobering.

Essential workers and their families continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19 for little more than our gratitude. It should be no surprise that these workers are mostly Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The global economy has been designed to extract, exploit and inflict a disproportionate amount of pain on these communities. Their precarity is the result of choices made by a privileged few over centuries, not just the misfortunes of a pandemic. Rage, anguish and resistance are direct consequences of our failure to dismantle the profoundly racist systems and structures that govern, police and dictate people’s lives.

The movement for decent work and a fair economy has grown out of this failure. It’s a movement made up of personal support workers, child care workers, migrant workers, food couriers and everyone who finds themselves juggling multiple jobs to get by on a low wage. It also includes labour activists, policy advocates and others who identify with its vision. At every opportunity, movement leaders lift up the principle of decency articulated by legal scholar Dr. Harry Arthurs: “No matter how limited a worker’s bargaining power, no one is offered, accepts or works under conditions that Canadians would not regard as ‘decent.’” They use their democratic and economic power in the service of a just and anti-racist society.

Given our mission to promote social and economic justice, Atkinson has invested in strengthening social movements for many years. Few philanthropists make this choice. Movements can’t make typical grant proposals. They can’t deliver predictable outcomes on a fixed schedule, only a rough scorecard of wins and losses that build over generations. They don’t have an address or a single spokesperson. Philanthropists can’t brand or own a movement, but we can join and do our part. It’s about entering into a relationship with the full knowledge that it will fundamentally challenge and change us in unpredictable ways.

A class of Harvard Kennedy School graduate students describes these complicated power dynamics well in their new podcast, Philanthropy and Social Movements. In our experience, these dynamics only start to change when philanthropists no longer deny or defend our role in the brutal legacy of systemic racism, and begin to hold ourselves accountable to its victims. This is not a one-time event for Atkinson. We know it has to become a daily discipline like exercise. The more we do it, the stronger we get. The more we’re able to prevent the inevitable snap back to older ways of relating and acting when under pressure. The more we build the kind of relationships that hold us to account and call us back to our shared purpose time and time again.

In recent weeks, I’ve been asked (and have asked myself) questions that can only be answered with action:

  • What is the biggest thing we can do with our power and then what more can we do?
  • What are we ready to risk, to put on the line, and to let go for justice?
  • What would social solidarity look like in Canada if we centred workers who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour?
  • As our former co-worker Aldeli Albán Reyna has asked: How can the movement for decent work and a fair economy centre Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty in its organizing, scheming, planning, and reimagining?
  • And as the late Grace Lee Boggs famously said, “what time is it in the clock of the world?”

Our next steps will be informed by these tough questions and research into the alignment of our mission and money. Atkinson board and staff members will then reflect on what constitutes “high impact” philanthropy during our October retreat — a conversation we started earlier this year and have adapted for these pandemic times.

As a team, we’re debriefing our experiences at the Racial Equity and Justice Philanthropy Funders Summit this summer. The virtual Summit was organized by The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples, the Vancouver Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia. It was an uncommonly brave space for Black and Indigenous leaders to speak their truth about settler philanthropy.

Since the Summit, I’ve been thinking a lot about the brave spaces beyond convenings and conversations. There we see what Black feminist writer, activist and educator Robin Maynard calls “the everyday bravery of Black survival and care.” We can also hear the truth-telling that Indigenous musician iskwē sees as “a combination of cathartic relief and extreme bravery.”

That’s what I see in the protests to defund the police and to claim the streets with the message that Black Lives Matter. It’s what I hear when I listen to journalist Sara Mojtehezadeh’s Hustled, a six-part podcast about food couriers and their fight to form a union. It’s what I feel when I see a province-wide solidarity caravan of vehicles organized to protect, defend and make visible the lives of migrant workers who are falling sick and dying from systemic abuses exacerbated by COVID-19.

I’m witnessing bravery in capital markets too. This guide, created in collaboration with Indigenous finance experts, is for Indigenous investors who want to align their policies and practices with their values and aspirations. It comes out of the Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative — a partnership of NATOA and the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE).

For the second year in a row, SHARE has helped Atkinson put a shareholder proposal regarding decent work practices at Tim Hortons to a vote at the Restaurant Brands International Annual General Meeting. 83 percent of the independent shareholders voted in favour of the proposal, 36 percent of the overall vote. The same proposal received 66 percent last year, close to 26 percent overall.

COVID-19 will continue to test our collective courage in the weeks ahead. That’s why we’ve awarded the 2020-2021 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy to one of the bravest and best prepared journalists we know: Stephanie Nolen. Stephanie will investigate the structural issues that created the conditions for this public health crisis and the public policy solutions required to address them.

Armine Yalnizyan, the fearless Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, continues to amplify workers’ concerns in the media and in public policy circles. You can hear her current take on Canada’s economic recovery here.

Please follow us in social media or check out our website for regular updates. Our latest posts and news from partners can be found there. I hope you’ll also drop me an e-mail to let me know how you are. It may be awhile before we run into each other or have the chance to meet up. In the meantime, I’ll stay in touch this way.

Thank you for your continued interest in and support for the Atkinson Foundation,


PS: Deena Ladd, the Executive Director of the Workers’ Action Centre, is the source of this photo taken on June 13th, 2020 during the Caravan for Justice. Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos were migrant workers who died from COVID-19 in June.