Selam & Lena

Selam Debs: Black History Month and Inclusive Workspaces

Author: Lena Thibeh

Black History Month is finally upon us. For many of us BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), this is a time for intentional celebration of our history and culture, but also a time of reflection and conversation on how we navigate the world around us. 

At Lunaria, we are committed to having reflective conversations around race, identity, culture, and helping the human resource professionals we support to facilitate these conversations. When reflecting on who can help us with this goal, I instantly thought of my friend and fellow advocate, Selam Debs. 

Selam is the founder and CEO of Juici Yoga, an inclusive yoga studio in St. Jacob’s, Ontario and a Lululemon Ambassador. Selam’s voice on BIPOC issues, and the advancement of both men and women of color in the workplace has been impactful to so many. She also co-runs WOKE women’s and men’s events with business partner Carla Beharry that provide safe space for people to be authentic, honest and connect on their individual lived experiences as BIPOC people. 

I sat down with Selam to chat about Black History Month. We chatted about how to empower employers and HR teams to create more inclusive spaces for BIPOC folks and what the future of safe spaces in work culture looks like.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I am Selam Debs, the owner of Juici Yoga in Waterloo, a black woman and Ethiopian Canadian.  I was born in Amman, Jordan, and came to Canada when I was two years old. I grew up in the Toronto, Scarborough and Regent Park area. 

My journey moved towards yoga, meditation and mindfulness probably when I had my son. I was about 22 or so, and becoming a mother led me on a journey of exploring meditation. I started teaching yoga and then purchased the Juici Yoga studio. I created Juici Yoga because I felt like there needed to be a safe space that included people of all different body shapes, races, ethnicities and abilities. I wanted people to have a visceral experience at Juici Yoga and I think that’s what we’ve created for people.

How would you describe the visceral experience at Juici Yoga?

It’s like when you bite into a peach, and that experience of how juicy it is how, how tasty it is. It’s kind of messy, right? Juice falls over your clothes, but it’s worth it because of the enjoyment that you receive from it. I think yoga, meditation and the type of teaching that I offer is this place of coming as you are, perfect and imperfect. Juici is messy and it is about being able to know yourself, and connect with yourself amongst all the mess. I love it.

There is an image of you when you walk into Lululemon in Waterloo. I remember being filled with so much emotion when I first saw it, I was so proud of you and was also deeply moved. How has that experience been like for you? 

Yeah, that was a big deal for me. In one of our first conversations before ambassadorship I said, I can only stand behind a company that values diversity, inclusivity and that values conversations around anti racism.

I didn’t know that conversation and me being so authentic and honest at the beginning, would lead to Lululemon asking me to be an ambassador, and putting that photo up in the Waterloo store. It’s been an incredible journey with them – they’re great people.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month was always a really big part of my life. Growing up, I was active in every Black History Month event in high school.  We used to create huge productions that had, music performances, spoken word, dance, culture and lots of laughter. I was a singer, dancer, writer and a poet. All the people of color throughout the whole community would get together and we would put on these amazing events at high schools and universities.

Black History Month became a time for me to connect with my community. It also was a time to really celebrate and experience representation.

What are some ways you think employers within and outside of the black community can participate in Black History Month?

I think the best way that employers and companies can get involved with Black History Month is by doing their own research, investing in their own learning.

It’s essential that people who do not identify as BIPOC do a little bit more to better understand their BIPOC community members. Allies can learn about what’s happening in the community, so they can be more informed when they do enter BIPOC spaces. This will help groups of people feel safe and understood.

Another aspect is building authentic relationships. I think it’s essential for people outside of black communities to ask: how can I connect to BIPOC people in the community? How can I better support them? How can I build authentic relationships and ensure people don’t feel tokenized? 

Many HR leaders are focused on hitting KPI’s, but the evidence shows that this doesn’t always translate into truly happy and inclusive workplaces. What do you think people can do to move beyond a KPI mentality?

They need to have a critical mindset and be willing to go above and beyond, not just for the HR team, but their employees and their customers which results in a ripple effect for the community around you. That’s how we create leaders.

We need to do the work; be it workshops or simply, helping people learn about anti racism work and how BIPOC people are impacted the workplace, one of these ways can be learning about your implicit biases.

Another thing HR folks can do to build authentic relationships is work on creating safe spaces where employees can share their experiences, and adding mentorship for people of diverse backgrounds. Support people by being willing to repair relationships, be open to telling people, “hey, I’m not going to be perfect. I know I’m going to make mistakes, I hope you recognize that I’m trying to have honest conversations so we can repair and grow”. There’s an understanding that we’re not going to walk around difficult conversations. We’re going to be real, honest and walk with each other.

If you could give one piece of advice to employers trying to improve diversity and inclusion, what would it be?

My advice would be that it is a lifelong journey. It is not an event. Learning about racism, inclusivity and diversity will be ongoing. It’s basically conscious development. People do self development, but this is conscious development. Becoming more conscious in the world is broadening your lens, seeing people and understanding them, then understanding yourself better. It’s in the way you order coffee, the way you pick up your laundry, the way that you communicate with people. I think this is how you start to understand harder conversations in a different way, it’s where the change actually happens.

Want to learn more from Selam?

On Social: selamdebs

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/selamdebs/

Link her website: https://juiciyoga.com/

Email her: selamdebs@hotmail.com

Selam is offering a 6 week  Inclusivity and Diversity Course. The course focus is racial structures, implicit bias and unravelling them so we can build better communities. Selam is also co-running the WOKE Women’s event that she runs with Carla Beharry. Selam & Carla will launch the WOKE Men’s event on February 28th. 

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