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Q&A with Ekua Quansah, CIFAR’s Head, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion

We caught up with Ekua to discuss her vision for the role and this exciting time of global reckoning. 

You come to CIFAR with over 10 years of experience in the strategic development & implementation of EDI initiatives in a range of organizational landscapes, from retail to a regulatory body to a variety of post-secondary institutions. What learnings from these roles do you see carrying into your work at CIFAR?

At the centre of EDI is people–whether you are doing this work in retail, in the legal profession, in post-secondary institutions or in a research organization like CIFAR. If there is one thing that I have learned during my career in EDI–and it may seem obvious–it’s that true, sustainable change is an incremental process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and at each stage it is important to pause and be intentional about how you proceed. 

While ultimately this work involves reducing or ideally removing systemic barriers for equity-deserving communities, change also has to happen at the individual level, with the very people who have played a part in creating oppressive systems and in consultation with the people who are most impacted. 

In April 2020, CIFAR’s Board of Directors approved our first Action Plan on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which you will now lead. Is there a first item on your to-do list?

There is a long to-do list, but the first item, other than taking time to understand the culture at CIFAR, is the collection of self-identification data from the CIFAR community. It’s helpful to have baseline data on the current demographic makeup of our board, staff and researchers. We have signed on to the Canadian government’s 50-30 Challenge, which calls for gender parity and 30 per cent representation of other under-represented groups at the board and leadership levels, so it would be great to know where we stand currently. 

I’d also like to gather data to assess feelings of inclusion from our staff, to start, so I can get a better sense of what inclusion initiatives we should prioritize in our workplace. In the long term, I hope that we will be able to expand the inclusion questions to the broader CIFAR community. Overall, the collection of data will be helpful for tracking change over time and evaluating our EDI initiatives. 

How do you see CIFAR helping to lead the global scientific community towards more equitable, diverse and inclusive practices? 

CIFAR is uniquely positioned to move the dial on EDI in that some forms of diversity are already embedded in its mission. CIFAR’s focus is global. It’s interdisciplinary. CIFAR’s successful research programs already demonstrate the value of bringing together people with different backgrounds and perspectives.

CIFAR’s EDI Action Plan is a comprehensive strategy that will only serve to enhance CIFAR’s work. I encourage everyone to look at it, read it, absorb it. We have also endorsed Canada’s Dimensions Charter. When there are barriers to access and the full participation in research of any of the brilliant minds in this world, we all lose.

I should also mention that I have joined CIFAR at an exciting time! We are just about to launch the Global Call for Ideas. This is a perfect opportunity to thread equity, diversity and inclusion considerations at all stages of the process, with the goal of increasing the diversity of our research community and promoting inclusive practices in research teams. 

The past year has seen a large increase in global awareness of the need to advance the inclusion of underrepresented groups, with major events and debates on equity taking place as the backdrop of the pandemic continues. Do you think this is a coincidence?

No, I don’t think this is a coincidence. Conversations have definitely shifted about equity, diversity and inclusion in the past year. Of course, the horrific murder of George Floyd was an inflection point. The world has awakened to the immeasurable impact that anti-Black racism has on Black communities and that discrimination has on equity-deserving communities in general. We have seen a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes linked to the pandemic. At the same time, we have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racialized communities.

Many institutions have renewed and strengthened their commitments to advancing EDI. My only hope is that this work continues. I know that CIFAR is ready to do the work. My role exists to ensure that we live our commitments and I’m looking forward to working with the CIFAR community to create long-term change.

In September 2021 Ekua will add the role of Changemaker-in-Residence to her portfolio, a position she will take up at Massey College, University of Toronto, alongside her leadership role at CIFAR.

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