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Ratna Omidvar visits our Region of Waterloo Immigrant Civic Participation - Dialogue on Diversity

by Rick Baker
On Apr 4, 2012

Ratna Omidvar was the Key Note Speaker at our Region's March 22nd Dialogue on Diversity event.


Ratna Omidvar


Ratna is the president of Maytree Foundation, a private foundation that promotes equity and prosperity. Ratna described her organization, "We are not a complaint-driven organization. We recognize problems and focus on solutions."

To provide context for her audience, Ratna briefly described her background: she was born in India and attended university in Germany; she married an Iranian and lived in Iran; and 30 years ago she moved with her family to Canada.

So, Ratna spoke from personal experience when she said "Immigrants have to decode the unwritten rules". People who come to Canada have few problems learning the written rules such as speed limits and instructions on signs. Challenges exist in the many unwritten rules. As examples, newcomers to Canada must learn:

  • You may be curious but some topics are just off limits: by watching how Canadians react, newcomers can learn which topics are safe for discussion and which aren't
  • Politeness, while very important, shouldn't be mistaken for interest
  • Democracy belongs to all, but it belongs most to those who participate in it
Ratna talked straight-up about the Waterloo Region. She enjoys regular visits to our community, including trips to St Jacobs. While she was pleased with our effort to discuss diversity, we still have more work to do when it comes to Immigrant Civic Participation. To have our institutes reflect the diversity of our region we need to see more visible minorities in leadership roles in politics and on governance boards.
However, Ratna was optimistic about the potential for the Waterloo Region. She recommended we follow the formula of the three Is to give legs to aspiration and make reality of hopes and dreams: Intentions, Investments, and Instruments. She then focused on some examples of "Instruments", or some ideas for action.
Ratna shared five good ideas with us:
  1. New language for new times: use words like Inclusion and Inclusive [rather than words like participation]
  2. Work with local institutions where impact can be magnified: they will take your plan from concept to reality
  3. Measure, count, report out: What gets measured gets done; for example, count the number and percentage of visible minorities on civic boards
  4. Don't let perfection stand in the way of goodtake the freedom to experiment with your ideas
  5. Beg, borrow, & steal good ideas: many communities throughout the world are taking action to embrace and help newcomers


Thank you for your very-well-presented thoughts and images, Ratna!



Throughout Ratna's presentation I kept thinking how broadly her advice applies. It applies to people in general; it applies to people at work...people doing business. While there are many, I will provide one specific example: Immigrants have to decode the unwritten rules. That applies to all people and we see evidence of that throughout workplaces. There is a widespread need to express and clarify personal values and personal rules. If we do not make these things clear then other people can only guess what we are thinking and feeling. We can make it easier on other people. For the sake of better communication and more-prosperous business, we ought to make it easier on other people.


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