In conversation with Nana aba Duncan

In conversation with Nana aba Duncan


[♪♪♪] Hi, I’m Johanne Durocher and
I’m with Nana aba Duncan, host and producer of
Fresh Air on CBCRadio. Nana aba, hi. [Nana aba] Hi. [Johanne] Thank you so much
for sitting down for this conversation with me. I am very excited to speak with
you about Black History Month and I thought let’s
just get right into it. Can you tell me– you’re
host of an amazing radio show. It’s in mornings on CBC
Radio on the weekends. Can you tell me about a
typical day in your life? [Nana aba] Well I will do a
typical day when the show airs. So the show airs on
Saturday and Sunday morning. So on a Saturday at
around 3:50 my alarm goes off, and then I sneak out of bed and
creep downstairs hoping not to wake up the three year old and
the five year old and I get on my phone and I order an
Uber to come and get me. And then I get to work, and once
I get to work I have to get on the Internet to find out about
the weather for the day for all the different parts of Ontario. And then I get my script. I get my– well I have this
little– I have a plant. A rubber plant. And I get my cloth,
my kente cloth, that I take with me. It’s like a traditional
Ghanaian pattern, and then I lay it out on my
studio and I get ready and I start the show. [Johanne] So your role
as host and producer, I mean that’s it’s a
great job I think. Can you tell me how you broke
through the industry and into the– into the hot
seat behind the mic? [Nana aba] Well that one is a
long story in that– Like, I started with a degree in
psychology at U of T and then I got my Master’s in Journalism
at Western and– at Western University. After I left I got a $20,000
scholarship with the International Development
and Research Centre. It was one of their first
years where they had this International Journalism Award
and after I got that scholarship it was to work in a
developing country. And so I chose Ghana
which is where I was born. And so when I went there I went
to where I worked with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation for
about six months and then I met the then Country Director of
Journalists for Human Rights, which is based here in Toronto. And then I volunteered with them
for about– for six months and then they asked me
to to apply for their country director position. So then I was country director
in Ghana but it was also the time that my father passed away. So my father passes away, and
then I– like after I get this job, after I’m hired, and
while I’m so proud at the time to be working in
Ghana I’m also grieving. So I do the job for six months
and then I go home because I just I was grieving and I
was thinking about my mom. So I went to be with my mom
and then I ended up in PR and marketing for about five
years because I was just getting any job. I just I was with my mom but
I was just getting any job to support myself and
to be with my mom. And eventually I was asked to be
a guest on a show called Go on CBC Radio One. And that part was– it was
Contest Nana and I had to give out prizes. It was like a five minute on air
position but that required me to be here in the
building for not very long. It was like I was a small,
part time position but I didn’t leave. But I was here all day. I pitched different shows. I pitched Metro Morning. I pitched Big City Small World. I pitched these other places and
eventually some of my stories, some of my pieces got out,
and then someone at CBC Music, Anne McKeegan, was very gracious
in opening a door there when a position, like a
part time position, opened up. And it was at CBC Music that I
got a lot of experience in doing features and guest
hosting and all that. I have always wanted to work at
CBC Radio One so when there was an opportunity,I took it. I was told that there was a
chance that Fresh Air and I busted my butt, boy. And I tried to get that job. [Johanna] Wow, you got that job. [Nana aba] I did, I did. [Johanne] Wow
[Nana aba] Yeah. [Johanne] Good for you.
-[Nana aba] Thank you. [Johanne] And for you that must
be obviously a huge win. You’re very passionate
about storytelling. You bring yourself to work, you
bring your whole self to work. [Nana aba] I don’t know that I
bring my whole self to work. I don’t always feel
safe enough to do that. [Johanne] Okay. [Nana aba] That’s
something I’m working on. Thinking about Black History
Month and thinking of other people of colour. That’s the work that we have
to do here at CBC is we have to work to make it so that everyone
can feel like they can bring their whole self. I have not always felt like I
could talk about my background in a way that everyone
would feel comfortable, and I don’t know if that’s–
I don’t know whose fault that is, but I can say that I
just haven’t always felt that comfortable talking about it. And I think it’s because
sometimes when people do ask me about my background it’s–
it’s in a curious way. Sometimes it’s just
because they want to know, but then assumptions are made
about who I am and what I’m interested in and how I speak. And that can be
off-putting sometimes. So when you come to
a place like CBC, you want to do work well. So in order to do the work well,
you kind of do it how you’ve seen it done, right? And sometimes that means that
you’re not really invited to bring all of you. And that might be hard to hear
for some folks at CBC because I know that some people at CBC
and leaders of CBC they want, they do, they want you
to bring your whole self. But sometimes in our little pods
of producers and other people that you work with, you just
don’t always feel like you can. [Johanne] And I’m sure–
and you know I’m sure that sentiment is felt across a
variety of people. [Nana aba] Yeah and I know–
[Johanne] Not just at CBC. [Nana aba] And yeah sure. Not just at CBC, but we’re
here at CBC and that’s why I focus on that. As a person who is who
was working as the chair of Diversify, the employee resource
group for people of colour and for employees of colour, I know
that I’m not the only one who has felt this way and in some
ways it’s actually harder for people who are in smaller units
where where the unit may have I don’t know 20– I have no
idea if it’s a smaller unit, but you are just like the only
person of colour and that can be really hard. I’ve gotten phone calls from
people who are experiencing certain situations and don’t
really know how to handle them. And I think what they just need
at the very least is to feel heard and that’s what–
I try to offer that. I try to offer, you
know, just an ear. But sometimes I
don’t know what to do. Sometimes I don’t
know what to tell them. [Johanne] Well I mean I don’t
think you are supposed to have all the answers. I mean I certainly don’t. But you know I really value
having this conversation with you. [Nana aba] Thank you. [Johanne] And thank you. So then maybe you can help me
understand some context around Black History Month for
you and what that means. I’m just going to
leave it open for you. [Nana aba] Because I work as a
journalist, as a person who is part of an
institution that is meant to disseminate
information and to reflect the country, I see
a Black History Month as important. It is a time when we can focus
on stories about people who may be overlooked otherwise. The other day,
some some weeks ago, Tom Harrington tweeted out
something about a man named Ernie Tucker. And Ernie was believed to be the
first black journalist here at CBC. I didn’t know
anything about him. He works in Montreal or did
work in Montreal I believe. And I went back to find out
about Ernie Tucker and I found out some stories about him
and how he interviewed Louis Armstrong and how he was in the
newsroom when JFK was shot in 1963 and how everyone was
out of the newsroom for lunch. And so he quickly tried to put
something together and gave it to a newsreader to read and he
was reprimanded for having done that story. But then when CBC Radio was
praised for having been so quick to tell that story
he was promoted, which is great. It’s wonderful. But he was a man that
was part of our– experienced many firsts. You know being the only one in a
lot of rooms and and I believe part of the story was also that
he had gone to some area or he had gone to a CBC shop somewhere
north of here and was told that the job was no longer available
when he was meant to go for the job. So this is history
that I should know. This is history that I
think we should all know. Black History Month is
fraught for many of us who are professionals because we want
the information to be known about ourselves, about our
different collective histories. And at the same time, we don’t
always want to be telling some of the same stories. Does that make sense? [Johanne] Mm hmm. And there’s also a bit of a
running joke that is like Black History Month is the time where
a lot of black professionals get work. That’s where people are making
money because it’s the time where institutions,
or, you know, high schools that are calling
you to come and tell your story and that’s when
people are making money. So it’s really it’s
really interesting. You know there are there are
some people who are frustrated by that and there are others who
are like this is the time for us to tell our stories. And there are folks who I have
spoken spoken to on my show even in other shows where–
and in other places, where they’re saying, “You know
I feel weird about Black History “Month because I don’t want to
only be talking about this stuff “at this time, you know? “And and sometimes I just I
don’t– I don’t want to think “about black history. “I just want to live
my life, you know?” So Black History Month has–
it’s like it’s got a complicated meaning for me. It’s complicated. [Johanne] It is complicated and
I think it’s complicated for people who aren’t black as well. [Nana aba] How so? What do you mean? [Johanne] Well I mean I can
only speak for myself, but wanting to be an
ally, wanting to try to open opportunity for
others, you know, really championing diversity,
championing all the facets in which diversity comes. For me that’s really important. [Nana aba] I can
understand that. There’s a story I
want to tell you. There is a woman who called me
or who contacted me maybe about a week ago, and she was–
she is a high school teacher and this was on February 1st and
she said, “I wondered if you “could come and
speak to my school.” And I remember feeling a little
bit itchy about the request. And it was because, you’re
calling me on the 1st of February to be part of your
Black History Month thing. Like, why didn’t you
call me in October?! Why am I being asked now?! And so what it does is that it
just kind of makes you feel like man, people got to be
thinking about this. Do you know what I’m saying?
-[Johanne] Yeah. [Nana aba] Yeah so in that
moment though, in terms of being an ally, I know that she is
and wants to be an ally. So I called her and I said
“Unfortunately I’m not able to “do this event, but I
knew this would happen. “So in October I actually
compiled a list of people that I “could recommend others to, so
that they could help if they “want to and also,
quite frankly, “if this is a paid opportunity.” [Johanne] Mm hmm. [Nana aba] And I think she was
grateful. In the– in the in the phone
call I think she was like, “You know what. “I actually I get that. “I can see why that
would kind of be annoying. “So thank you for telling me
and I’ll see what I can do “next year”. So you know it is difficult
here at CBC in some ways because I want
there to be change. Just like I want– I know
that there are allies who want there to be change. It’s just that it can be really hard work for everyone involved and because this involves
my humanity and my being, it’s like you’re– it
can be emotionally draining. Because it’s like, you’re
trying to defend the fact that you should
be seen as human. That’s really weird. But I think it’s
really important work. When I think about the Northern
Star of where we could be as a company when we have the
space to do it emotionally, I think that we should do
the work to try and make the diversity happen in all
the ways that it can. [Johanne] And so to that
point can you tell me some of the things
that you’ve seen improve in your workplace? [Nana aba] I know that we had
the unconscious bias training so I know
that it’s happening. I know that people
are going through it. I can say I’ve seen more
young diverse people who are getting associate
producer type positions. I think that’s good. So what I’m seeing is that there
is– I think there is a will that exists. I believe that there is. I truly believe that there is a
will that exists but the change is slow. I’m aware that there are people
who are still feeling like there’s no change. I know that there are people who
feel that there is no change, or that there is little change. And I’m also aware that there
are some people that don’t really care for the change. They don’t care about it. They don’t– you know
they’re just working little. They don’t think it’s something
that we need to talk about that much. Someone once said to me that she
thought that she wasn’t getting jobs because CBC is
hiring more diverse people. You know? And when she said that
it just made me think, are you thinking that the people
that are being hired don’t have the talent to be hired? So this is a person who I respect. This is a person who I think
does a good job with what she does. But if she’s thinking that
and she’s saying that to me, what are other people thinking? I don’t know.
I don’t know. But what I do know is there’s a
there’s a book that I that I’ve read recently it’s called
Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. And she’s a researcher who spent
the past two decades studying courage and
vulnerability and shame. And she did this seven year
study on courage and leadership. And she says that, you know,
there’s a lot of talk about bringing your whole self to work
and how companies want to do it but that, for some
companies, it’s a slogan even, but that doing the work
behind that slogan is difficult. And I can understand why. Because in order to see in–
order to make this change that we wanted to make CBC a more
diverse place in all facets, even in its leadership. It means that we have to
recognize what hasn’t been done. And it means that we
have to be so self aware. We have to be so self aware. And that means being vulnerable
with yourself and with others to say that, “I have not
been thinking right. “And if I haven’t
been thinking right, “it means that maybe I
haven’t been doing right. “I haven’t been saying right.” You know what that means to
be able to be able to come outside of yourself, to make
that kind of admission at work is really big. And that doesn’t
mean to say that like, oh well you know it’s it’s
it’s hard so we shouldn’t do it. I’m just saying that like, I
understand the gravity of what it is we’re trying to change. It is a mindset. How does one change
a mindset, right? I’m shaking my head. I don’t know. I mean we… We have tried and we
do continue to try. I will always be on the side of
trying to change things here no matter what happens to me, no
matter how many people– what people have said to me. I will always believe that
change can happen and will happen. I know that it will happen. I don’t know how
long it will take. But I think it will happen. Years ago I was in a kitchenette
at work and I was with a friend a colleague and we were
talking, for some reason we were talking about my career. And he said, “Well you know they
like you because you’re– “It’s because you’re black
and because you’re a woman”. [Johanne] Wow. [Nana aba] Yeah,
this is my friend. He said this to me. He didn’t– he didn’t have
any thought about what he was saying so I’m saying that to
just illustrate this mindset. It’s not something
that everybody feels. But you know it’s there. We have a lot–
-[Johanne] We have a lot to do. [Nana aba] We have a lot to do. It’s not to say that
things aren’t being done. Going back to that vulnerability
piece when Heather Conway was here and we were talking about
the unconscious bias training. She admitted on a stage that she
has a bias for white people against people of colour. And do you know how vulnerable
that moment was for her to admit something like that? That’s big. Imagine if we were all able to
do something like that if we were all able to
say it and not– And not go to the place of
“I’m not racist” because sure a person can be not racist
but do racist things. I have made racist mistakes. I can say that and
it doesn’t mean that I can’t change. I have made mistakes
in this building. I have made mistakes. Against others racially. And what do I do? I admit it. I put it in my
mind to change it. And I continue. [Johanne] And so you keep
showing up for yourself and you mentioned to me earlier that you’ve got
two little ones also for your family, I’m sure, your
community, for the employee resource group that you lead. So you have a lot of people that
you’re showing up for in a lot of different ways.
-[Nana aba] Thank you. Your audience, your
colleagues, and the list, I’m sure, it goes on and on. So tell me how it is
Nana aba do it? [Nana aba] How do I do it? [Johanne] Like what’s sparking
you to just keep going? [Nana aba] Um…my husband. My husband is my number one fan. I was lucky enough to meet a
person who has always thought that I was going to be great. When I don’t think I’m
going to be great, he thinks I’m going to be great. So I was very– I’m very
blessed to have met someone like that. And on top of that I do surround
myself with women who also work in media who support
me all the time. Few years ago when I was on
mat-leave I started a podcast called The Media Girlfriends and I interviewed women who
work in the media and I did not know what I was doing. I mean to say that I did not
know that a small community would come out of that
experience and I didn’t know that I would end up gathering
a group of women who have essentially pledged to support
me and to support each other. That’s how I stay strong because
there have been moments and there are and there will be
moments where I’m either afraid or I don’t think I can do
something or I did something and I think it was bad, and I
call them in tears and they say, “Here’s what
you’re going to do. “You’re not gonna do that thing
again or you are going to stop “speaking about
yourself in that way. “I won’t allow it.” You know, that kind of thing.
-[Johanne] Good friends. [Nana aba] Really good
friends. And you know they they
remind me to think big. They remind me how big I can be. I’m so grateful for that. I’m so grateful
for my husband too. [Johanne] Well thank you. I really appreciate you sharing
that and and everything that you had to say. I think it’s– it’s really
important to keep this conversation going. I agree with you. Black History Month is
one of twelve months. And so, I look
forward to following conversation with you off the mic, online, inside the office,
and wherever I can find you. [Nana aba] Thank you.
[Johanne] Thank you so much. [♪♪♪]

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