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This episode is the first in our occasional series where leaders at Scotiabank interview experts on an issue that resonates with them. In this instalment, you'll hear a conversation about allyship hosted by Scotiabank’s Meigan Terry with academic, author and allyship expert Kenji Yoshino. They talk about the business case for allyship, give some concrete tips to be a better ally in the workplace and much more. 

Key moments this episode:
1:51 — The business case for allyship 
4:01 — How allyship ties into large scale culture change
6:24 — ‘Cancel culture’ vs ‘coaching culture’
11:20 — A useful tool for allyship in the workplace: the empathy triangle
19:38 — How to best respond to feedback when you are the one not being a good ally
20:32 — Kenji’s biggest ‘aha’ moment when it comes to being the ‘perfect’ ally
22:52 — How to have conversations about allyship with someone who is skeptical in your organization
23:42 — What is the 20/60/20 rule?
26:55 — Why all of us will be the beneficiary of allyship someday


Stephen Meurice: This week we’re bringing you the first episode in our occasional leadership series, where I hand the mic to leaders at Scotiabank to interview experts on an issue that resonates with them. And today that issue is allyship. That’s when someone leverages their advantage in support of others who don’t have those advantages. Hosting the conversation will be Meigan Terry. Meigan is the Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability, Social Impact and Communications Officer at Scotiabank. She’ll be speaking with Kenji Yoshino. He’s the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Kenji is also Scotiabank’s allyship advisor. He’s been a featured speaker in both of Scotiabank’s annual Allyship summits.  The summits are an opportunity for Scotiabank employees around the world to foster a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace and learn to be active allies year-round. Meigan and Kenji will talk about the business case for allyship. Give some concrete tips to be a better ally in the workplace. Explain why the concept seems to transcend cultures and contexts. And much more. 

I’m Stephen Meurice and this is Perspectives. 

Meigan Terry: Kenji, thank you so much for joining us today.

Kenji Yoshino: Thanks so much for having me. Meigan, it's such a joy to be with you here today. I hope our listeners know that we’ve worked together for many, many years and I consider you a forever ally. 

MT: Oh, thank you. And the feeling is absolutely mutual. Let's dive in. We know that promoting an inclusive culture is not only the right thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do. Research shows that diverse organizations are more successful at attracting and retaining talent, and also that diverse teams are much better at making higher-quality decisions and pursuing successful innovations. Can you talk to us a little bit about the business case for allyship and why it's increasingly important for organizations to demonstrate their commitment to allyship to their employees, their customers and their communities?

KY: I actually take the business case for diversity to be rock solid and so well-established that we don't need to rehearse it here. And then the question is, what is the business case for allyship? And in some ways, I feel like it's very connected, right? That you can't really secure the benefits of diversity without strong allyship. And I mean that in a couple of ways. So, one way to look at that is to look at it at the individual level, of when we interact with each other as individuals, how is it that allyship can lead to diversity and greater inclusion and belonging within organizations? And if you look at that case, then it really is what we in the law call the cheapest cost-avoider notion. Which is, who is best situated to deal with conflicts or issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. And as many researchers, including David Heckman and Stephanie Johnson, have shown, the cheapest cost-avoider is not the affected person themselves, that the person — say it's me — if I am, dealing with a diversity inclusion situation, then in fact the least credible person in terms of speaking up about that issue and the person who is going to take the biggest hit for speaking about that issue is me. Whereas if you come in and address the issue as my ally then that actually is much better for both me and for the ecosystem, because people are much more likely to listen to you, because you will not seem to be as self-interested, because you will not be seen as a complainer. You're speaking up actually altruistically on my behalf. And then also you will not, relatedly, take a penalty for engaging that behaviour. So, the business case for allyship is really about, in the first instance, about the cheapest cost-avoider, about who is going to take the least amount of cost and who is actually going to accrue the greatest amount of benefit in terms of advancing the ball on diversity and inclusion. So, if you believe in the business case for diversity and you believe what I just said, then you should believe in the business case for allyship.  

MT: Mmmm.

KY: One other thing that I would like to say now, moving to the community level about the business case for allyship, is that it's really important from the organizational level to understand that real culture change is not going to happen without allyship. So here I go to the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling, who talks about how large-scale social change cannot really happen in many instances without individual action. So I won't bore you with the details. But his big case study was, ‘Why is it that long after housing discrimination was rendered illegal, that housing in the United States remained very, very segregated?’ And his answer was because this wasn't a top-down decision to begin with, it was a series of infinite and infinitesimal decisions made by individual actors. And so, therefore, a top-down decision was not going to change that behaviour, and therefore it wasn't going to change the status quo. So what he said would make a difference is very small tweaks and preferences by, you know, the rank and file, by the general masses. So, what he is trying to point out is that very, very small changes in behaviour can make a world of difference. But those changes in behaviour have to be distributed across the population. In our parlance, we really have to be allies to everybody, and that's the only way we're going to get there. But one of the hopeful signs of our times is that we see a lot of allyship. Where women are not the only individuals who are going to the women's rights march in Washington, you know, male allies are stepping in to do that. White individuals in the United States and Canada and elsewhere are stepping into Black Lives Matter protests. I think the reason that we see the ice breaking up and real movement on these issues is that we see very small tweaks in our behaviours, but now distributed across very, very wide populations. And that's really what creates this change. And sometimes it's the only thing that will. 

MT: That is such a wonderful way of looking at it. And it's actually how we first met because we wanted to create allyship and something that all of our 90,000 Scotiabankers could participate in. Of course, there is tone from the top and leadership from the top. But what was wonderful about the Allyship Summit and we've had two now, is that it's something that all Scotiabankers can participate in and be part of that journey and part of that change. But one of the things you and I talked about at that event is a bit on cancel culture, that you would like to see a pause on cancel culture and why it may not be the most effective approach when people who are dealing with those who exhibit non-inclusive behaviour, it may not be the most effective approach for them to take. And I wonder if you could just share your thoughts on that. 

KY: So I think about cancel culture as an outgrowth of a kind of mob mentality where an individual who makes a mistake is punished in quite extreme ways, you know, often at the cost of their career or at least their reputation. So, I want to begin by saying that sometimes, cancelation may be appropriate if somebody is engaged in truly egregious behaviour. Then maybe this isn't cancel culture, maybe this is just, you know, consequence culture. But I actually think that that is a tiny, tiny fraction of cases and that the vast number of individuals that we encounter in our work as a centre here at NYU are people who are full of goodwill and the best of intentions and who, like all of us, stumble and make mistakes in these areas. And both the cancelation of them, but perhaps more importantly, the fear of getting cancelled does more harm than good. So that's really my brief against cancel culture, is that it actually stymies the very individuals who want to step in and be allies from offering their best selves and their most effective selves as allies. So, what we're trying to argue for is a shift from cancel culture to what we call coaching culture. And what coaching culture does is to sort of cabin the worst excesses of cancel culture. So first of all, I think that cancel culture is really overly punitive in all the ways that I've described, I think that's very intuitive to people that if they're worried about losing their jobs or ruining their reputations for one error that they make, you know, on social media or in a large group setting, then that's actually a very terrifying world to live in and it's not conducive to learning and growth. But another thing that worries me about cancel culture is the impracticality of it. It really is a very blunt tool which kind of takes a binary, you know, either you’re cancelled or you’re not approach. And if you're cancelled, that's kind of it. Whereas I think most of us, when we make mistakes don't want to be confronted with either we're totally forgiven, and nothing happens to us or we're completely cancelled and ostracized. What we want is something practical to allow us to grow past our mistakes. So this is what leads us to coaching culture, which is to say, we do want you to be accountable for your behaviour. But we think that you're going to be more accountable if we approach you in a less punitive and more practical way of saying, ‘Yes, we want to call you out or call you in on this behaviour that we think was not optimal. But we actually are not going to punish you. What we're going to do instead is give you some shame-free tools to grow past that mistake.’ I want to put a final button on this, Meigan, by saying I actually totally get where people who are advocates of cancel culture are coming from. You know, I think for a long time I was working through this myself because I think that the reason that we either engage in cancel culture ourselves or feel like we're going to remain silent when other people engage in it is because we worry that too much compassion here can let people off the hook. So that if I adopt this attitude of I'm going to subscribe to a coaching culture rather than a cancel culture, I worry that the upshot of that is going to be that very powerful bad actors are going to get away with things that they should actually be held accountable to. And even with regard to myself, I worry that if I'm too compassionate or forgiving of myself, I'm actually not going to hold myself accountable and live up to my own ideals. So, I understand that there is this dichotomy that we all experience between compassion and accountability and that leads us towards cancel culture. But what I want to underscore here is that I truly think that that is a false choice. And I believe the social science backs me up on this. And here I go to the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and my wonderful colleague at NYU, Dolly Chugh, who point out that, compassion and accountability seem to be horses running in opposite directions, but in fact, are most often horses running in the same direction. That individuals that can have compassion for themselves and others allow themselves to engage in the growth mindset that allows them to move past their own mistakes. So, a greater compassion is going to lead us to that accountability that we're seeking. 

MT: I think that's such an important concept for us all to consider. And if we're not canceling and we're going to act as allies, it's really important that we have the right tools to do so effectively and in a way that is considered and has positive intent as well. So, you have shared what you have designed as the empathy triangle, and it's a fantastic tool to intervene in these types of situations. Can you talk to us a little bit about that tool and how to use it when you're engaging and being a proactive and active ally?

KY: I’d love to. So, once we say, you know, we want to get us past cancel culture and towards coaching culture and coaching culture is practical and tools-based, then of course we’re on the hook to actually provide those tools. And so that's really what we're attempting to do with the empathy triangle.  

MT: Exactly.

KY: We were really fortunate to collaborate on this with Microsoft, for whom this is now a global mandatory D&I training for their people across the world. And I'm happy to report that it's travelled very well across different jurisdictions. So, the empathy triangle, if you just imagine a triangle, the triangle piece of it, is the idea that every allyship situation involves at least three parties. There is the ally, ‘I saw it.’ There is the affected person, ‘It happened to me.’ And then there's the source of non-inclusive behaviour, ‘I did it.’ And if you think about the empathy piece of the empathy triangle, that arises from the fact that this is a game of musical chairs, that we tend to want to think that we can sit in the ally seat the entire time. But in fact, you know, we're constantly cycling among the three positions of the ally, the affected person and the source of non-inclusive behaviour. So in one moment I might be the ally, and another moment, even in the same week, you know, I might be the affected person who is targeted by some non-inclusive behaviour and who's affected by that. And then at yet other times, as much as we hate to admit it, I am the source of non-inclusive behaviour. And it's really a question of whether but when I will be in each one of these positions. And so that means that we have to build this out in such a way that we have that compassion or that empathy for all points in the triangle. And this has to work for everybody. So what we've developed and, you know, it's hard to recreate the entire graphic on audio, but at least I hope I'll give you a taste of this, is that if you imagine that beside every point on this triangle, there's a series of three or four questions or prompts. Those prompts are meant to guide would-be allies to engage in wise and effective allyship by asking those questions first of themselves as allies, and then of their relationship to the affected person, and then finally of their relationship to the source of non-inclusive behaviour. So just to give you one question from each bucket. The first question in the questions that we want you to ask of yourself as an ally are, ‘Do I have the proper motivations?’ So, we all know, unfortunately, individuals engage in optical or performative allyship, who engage in what the social scientists call virtue signalling or cookie-seeking behaviour. So, virtue signalling is when I'm flexing in order to show everybody else what a great person I am. Cookie seeking is when I actually want something tangible from you, so a pat on the back or even a raise for being an inclusive manager. So, what we want you to do is to make sure that your motivations are intrinsic rather than extrinsic. To say, ‘I actually, as a member of the Scotiabank community, want to drive an inclusive culture. And so therefore I'm going to engage in this behaviour because I want to engage in it.’ And a great litmus test question there is a fairly intuitive one of saying, ‘If nobody saw me engaged in this act of allyship, would I still engage in it?’ If the answer to that is yes, and you're probably good to go.  

MT: So important. Let’s talk about the next point in the triangle.

KY: So, moving to the questions that we want you to ask of your relationship to the affected person. The first one is, does the affected person even want your help? And this is often a head scratcher, Meigan, as you know, because people often say, ‘I see a colleague suffering, I'm going to jump in and help them. I'm not going to wait for them to ask. Being a good ally means that I'm proactive in that way.’ And that, again, comes from a wonderful place in people's hearts, but can often blow up in people's faces and actually be ineffective as a form of allyship. So here we rely heavily on the work of psychologist Monica Schneider, who did some ground-breaking work with regard to so-called unsolicited or assumptive help, beginning in the 1990s. Her inaugural study on this was white teaching assistants, giving Black students unsolicited help on a word scramble. And those Black students emerged from that interaction with lower self-esteem and greater resentment towards the would-be ally than either the Black students who didn't receive the help or the white students who did. And this has been replicated in other contexts as well, there’s a fascinating study done in Israel, with Israeli teaching assistants and Arab students that had exactly the same results. But what these studies show us is that we need to be really careful about offering unsolicited help, because it can be perceived as a kind of saviourism, implicitly sending the message that we don't think that the affected person is going to be able to hack it on their own and that we need to go riding in to help them. So, what we ask people to do is to just take the compensatory pause, to ask the question of the affected person, you know, ‘I saw and noticed what just happened, may I be your ally here?’ And if they say yes, then you can work together to figure out what kind of help would be most effective for them. If they say no, they have still banked you as an ally. So you’ve still done incredibly important work because they can come back to you now a week, a month, a year, a decade later and say, I didn't need your help in that moment, but boy, do I need it now.  

MT: And let’s move on to the source of non-inclusive behaviour.

KY: Yes absolutely, so this again, is kind of an eyebrow raiser because people say, ‘Why on earth should I devote any of my resources, or energies, to the source that’s the bad actor in the situation?’ But as you know, we underscore the importance of this by saying someday you're going to be the source of non-inclusive behaviour, so therefore, we need to build this in such a way that it's going to work when you find yourself in that position as well. So that if you're stewing in your office and if you’re staring up at the ceiling in your bed at night, we want you to have that knock on the door or that text from a colleague or friend, saying, ‘That wasn't great.’ So, they don't need to sugarcoat, ‘But, I would really like to be your ally in this situation, can I assist here?' And so, the first prompt that we have there is, are you separating the behaviour from the person?  

MT: That is really important.

KY: Yeah, I think this is fairly intuitive, right? Don't come into my office after I've made a gaffe and say, ‘Kenji, you're a racist.’ Instead, just call in the person and say, ‘Kenji, I believe that you're really inclusive person, and that's why this conduct of yours or what you said surprised me.' And that is actually beautiful because it goes even beyond separate the status from the conduct and leave the status aside. It says, I'm actually not going to ignore the person in this, I'm going to affirm the person and then note that the conduct was inconsistent with the person you experience that individual to be. So, instead of saying, 'Kenji, I'm just going to go after your conduct and not talk about you as a person at all.’ If you can genuinely say that to me, Meigan, what will stimulate the greatest growth on my part is for you to sort of comfort me and give me the psychological safety of saying, ‘I experience you as an inclusive person.’ And then note the discrepancy between that and the behaviour. The psychologist, Scott Plous, says this is actually the most effective way to get someone to change their behaviour because you're actually priming their egalitarian self-conception and you're noting a discrepancy between that self-conception and the behaviour that I just engaged in. And we hate cognitively those discrepancies, and it will push me to actually resolve that discrepancy in favour of changing my behaviour. So, I hope that even that sort of takes us around the horn of the three points of the empathy triangle. And what we've really tried to do is to create a graphic that you can just stick above your desktop or put in a drawer. And it's not a panacea, but it will put guardrails around your attempts at allyship and hopefully maximize the effectiveness of your allyship behaviours. 

MT: I rely on the empathy triangle and I think through that lens regularly now and I think we've all experienced, if we're being honest with ourselves, moments where we've been the affected person, the ally and the source of non-inclusive behaviour. And I think one of the biggest and most exciting ways that we can, you know, embrace an allyship culture is really about thinking about how we do respond when someone approaches us and talks to us about perhaps a moment in time when we haven't demonstrated ourselves at our best, or maybe just completely with the most positive intent said or did something that was not appropriate. I’d just love for you to touch a little bit on how you can make sure you're set up for that feedback.

KY: Absolutely. I'm so glad we're talking about this, because I think this is the biggest mind shift that I had to engage in personally because, for a long time I felt like as a D&I professional, I really needed to make sure that my public-facing persona was one of expertise and equanimity and just projecting a sense of authority and calm. And the biggest ‘aha’ in this domain for me came from my colleague Dolly Chugh, who I've invoked a couple of times already in this conversation. So she came to guest speak at my leadership, diversity and inclusion seminar and she put up a slide that said, look at this terrible leader who engaged in all these non-inclusive behaviours. And she included things like this leader misgendered a trans colleague, this individual confused individuals of the same social identity with each other and called them by each other's names. This individual laughed at an inappropriate joke and I'm looking down this list, Meigan, thinking I’ve done every single one of these things, right. And so this is actually quite scary and challenging. And then the next slide was, and I should've seen this coming a mile away, given that I know Dolly, was, here’s who that leader was, it was me. And I found that to be so important and liberating. And that really inspired me to, first of all, just with her permission, completely steal that for all of my classes, because I think it's a wonderful way to begin by saying, ‘I'm not speaking to you from on high here, I'm on this journey too.’ And that allowed me to slowly pivot away from feeling like I really had to be all buttoned up and hit all of my marks and be perfect. And when we demand that of ourselves, it's really kind of impossible for us to sustain it, for us to create psychological safety around ourselves, because people sort of intuit that that's what we're trying to do. It seems unauthentic because nobody is that perfect and it also doesn't create the space for them to be imperfect. And so that for me was the ‘aha’ moment that allowed me to be more open about my mistakes and it allows me to be more open psychologically, to being called out on my own behaviour. And so when people do call me out on it, I actually feel like I've invited that, right? 

MT: Absolutely.

KY:  So, I think like you're just doing what I asked you to do and so it's not as threatening, it doesn't feel like somebody is in an adversarial position because I've asked them to collaborate with me in improving my own practice and my own character.

MT: You’re absolutely right. I've had wonderful and well-intentioned colleagues that make sure that I'm aware if I have said something or misstepped in a way, you feel like you're working together to learn together. So, any final thoughts on anyone who is sitting here listening to the podcast, and they want to have a conversation, they want to engage somebody, they want to ensure it's coming through with the right positive intent, but perhaps it's with an individual that may be known to be skeptical or not necessarily a big believer in D&I and inclusion as well. Do you have any advice for starting to engage in these important conversations?

KY: So, I think it's a terrific place to end, and I want to say something rather stern and something compassionate here. I think the stern piece of advice is to sort of discern different degrees of skepticism about diversity, equity and inclusion. Because we can actually distinguish, I think, the diehard opponent of diversity, equity and inclusion from the person who is kind of on the fence or hasn't thought about it deeply, has other priorities and so on and so forth. So I think that all change within organizations obeys some form of the 20/60/20 rule, diversity and inclusion is no exception to that because 20% of individuals are diehard proponents and advocates of diversity and inclusion, you know, champions in the organization. 60% are kind of in the movable middle. They're not thinking about it. It's not a priority. They're skeptical, right, in the kind of weak sense of that word. And then 20% is skeptical in the strong sense of the word of just being ideologically opposed to diversity and inclusion. And the stern thing that I want to point out is that once you realize that somebody is in the stuck 20 it's probably the best play to not engage with them. Because you're never going to persuade them. And I think too often we let people who are the most vocal in opposing D&I control all of our attention. Whereas, in fact, the people who would really benefit from our energies are that middle 60%. So even when you are talking to somebody in that stuck 20, just be mindful of the fact that the people that you may really be persuading, even as you talk to that person, are the people around that person who belong to the middle 60. So, the first stern point is to say, don't keep beating your head against a brick wall, like you are allowed to kind of withdraw your energies. And so I go back to being an ally to the source, having some boundaries around it. So, you don't need to be the ally to the source of non-inclusive behaviour when the conduct has been egregious, or the individual has no interest in changing their behaviour. But the vast, you know, super majority of organizations in our experience are not individuals who are in that stuck 20. When you talk about individuals who are skeptical about D&I, I mostly think of people in that middle 60%. So, then the question is how do we engage with those individuals? And in some ways the hard line that we take towards the stuck 20 we find in our own work here at my centre, it's kind of an enabling constraint, like it enables us to be better and kinder to the individuals in that middle 60% to say, ‘We are going to start from a place of compassion.’ Because if you drill down and ask people why they're skeptical, I think a couple of things arise. One is this notion of, ‘Oh, I think that this is a really punitive culture. I think that I'm going to get cancelled. This isn't good for me because it's going to lead to me being unfairly punished when I go in with the best of intentions and I use the wrong terminology, or I make some relatively minor error, which I acknowledge is an error, but I don't think should be career ending.’ And so that I think we've already addressed with this move from cancel culture to coaching culture, with an ethos going down one click to that tool itself of being an ally to the source of non-inclusive behaviour. I think that the other concern that people have is that they feel that this is going to benefit people who are not them. So, this is the white man in the organization who will sometimes be very honest with us and say, ‘I'm worried that I'm never going to get a promotion again. You know, I'm worried that I'm going to be disadvantaged by diversity, equity and inclusion. So, it's difficult for me to support something that seems like it is so directly opposed to my own advancement or flourishing.’ And so there, I want to sort of really underscore what we mean by allyship, because when you actually think about this musical chairs phenomenon, even that white man is going to be the affected person at some point in their life. And so, they are going to be the beneficiaries of allyship. At some point all of us lose forms of privilege. So, as I get older, I'm going to lose my age privilege, my status privilege, my health privilege. And I'm going to be really glad that I built a culture that's very rich in allyship. So, one thing that we love about the allyship framework is that we define allyship in a way that transcends D&I, in other words, we define an ally simply as an individual who uses their advantages on behalf of individuals who lack those same advantages. So, we as human beings look at this and say, ‘This is all of us, right? We all have some bucket of advantages and disadvantages.’ Even white men within an organization can have both advantages and disadvantages because that's part of the human condition. So, if you really say, ‘Where other individuals have advantages, they will be our allies and where you have advantages, you should be allies to others.’ That is a fully reciprocal arrangement where you're constantly going to be both the giver and the recipient of allyship. And I think that gets past this zero-sum fear that many individuals and currently dominant groups have about the diversity, equity and inclusion enterprise. Because I think for the most part, people really do want to do the right thing.  

MT: Absolutely. 

KY: It's just that they don't want to do it at the cost of their own flourishing. And I totally hear that and I don't think that D&I should be a project of only rewarding some groups and routinely or systematically punishing others. I think that this can be a much more joyful enterprise, where we're all actually having each other's back. And I will say, Meigan, maybe this is one place to land. This has been such a wonderful journey just at a personal level to take, because when we think about allyship, I really do think that this is a great hope of diversity, equity, inclusion, precisely because it sort of jumps up to our universal humanity. Allyship is something that people immediately can understand regardless of the cultural context through which they're approaching it or the cultural lens for which they're viewing it. So, I've had the privilege of talking to Major League Baseball and to the National Football League about this. I've had the privilege of talking to farmers in Iowa about it. I've had the privilege of talking to Black Theatre United, which is an equity activist group on Broadway. And everyone can find a different language and pathway into allyship. So, one of the things that makes me incredibly hopeful about this idea of allyship for diversity, equity and inclusion is that it really does seem, while being obviously very focused on equity deserving groups because that is a very significant form of disadvantage, so transcending it, grasping something about us that is universal and human. 

MT: It is just so wonderful to have you here. And I always enjoy our conversations and hearing your perspectives. And you know, as we always say, everyone can benefit from allyship, and everyone can be an ally. And to our listeners, do not forget to pick up a copy of Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity and Justice, which is Kenji's latest book, also coauthored by his colleague David Glasgow. And it's coming out on February 7th. It is an such an important and critical read. Really important for everyone who can to access that book. And again, over the past year, Scotiabankers have been very lucky to have access to Kenji as an allyship advisor to the Bank. And I know how important this work is and how it can drive real change. So, Kenji, thank you so much for joining us today.

KY: Thank you so much for having me, Meigan. 

SM: That was Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. As well as Scotiabank’s allyship advisor. He was in conversation with Meigan Terry, the Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability, Social Impact and Communications Officer at Scotiabank.