At the beginning of May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I found myself reaching out to the small business owners that make up our tenants, letting them know we were going to apply to the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) federal program which provided relief for small businesses experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19.
I thought about how I’d arrived at that decision after two months of confusion and fear sowed by widespread shutdowns, someone who had left her 20+ year career in the not-for-profit sector serving youth and their families, first around their mental health needs and then around their employment needs. I thought about the youth I had worked with at the Dufferin Mall Youth Services in 1995 who came into talk about the pressures they faced as they navigated an uncertain future often with limited social and financial support and filled with pressure to grow up fast. For the time it lasted, that service was a successful collaboration between different social service organizations that effectively helped youth when they needed it the most.
Looking back, I wondered about the work that so many of us had done to support youth in need and what it had amounted to, and how much the world had changed since that time. I thought about how much of the training and mentoring I had received focused on inspiring hope even when the problems youth grappled with seemed insurmountable and the consequences dire.
If you had told me back then that 20+ years later, I would find myself steeped in a situation that had even higher stakes, it’s not likely I would have believed it. Many of our small business owners faced the questions of how they were going to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families much less pay their rent. Almost two thirds of our tenants struggled to pay rent those first few months of the pandemic. And we not only heard their struggles, we understood them. We too are a small business and as we faced the same questions as a result of lost rent revenue, we also tried to plan how we could possibly meet our financial obligations while staying afloat. We, like many of our tenants, applied to government programs, took on fresh debt, laid off staff while terminating others, and creatively juggled our bills to make our dollars stretch.
As the great American singer and activist Lena Horne said,
“it’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
I knew our organization was being called on to fulfill a moral obligation
to share the burden of financial loss most of our tenants faced.
Many landlords didn’t see it like that; we did.
But the rollout of our commitment to applying to the CECRA program was a different story. It was fraught with tension, misunderstanding and bad feelings. The handful of thank-you’s we got from tenants were outnumbered by the complaints: our tone was bossy, our math was wrong, our terms kept shifting, and the biggest one of all, that we weren’t doing enough to help. And that doesn’t include the soured relationships we had with the tenants whose rent we reduced who didn’t participate in the CECRA program because they didn’t qualify. I began to wonder if there was truth to these criticisms. I asked myself how had we lost so much trust. I wondered how things got to this point when what I had wished was to pass it forward to everyone I could to create change at this time, in this place in a way that only we could do for not just our community of small business owners but for this generation and the next one.
How did I, how did we as an organization fail to inspire hope? We, like our tenants, had narrowed our focus to just the dollars as the only way to survive and in the process, we lost our sense of shared humanity. Whoever has the most dollars has the most power, isn’t that how it goes? We needed to change not only our focus, but our mindset. We need to change the way we view our role in the face of the two pandemics gripping our country, the first being the coronavirus and the second, systemic racism, which has been present since the very founding of our country. Because the cry for change came from more people than we’ve ever seen marching in our streets against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, police brutality and entrenched unjust economic inequality that has left us more polarized than ever.
It was impossible to ignore that now is the time for moral leadership, time to invoke values and meaning to live by, inspiration to act on and motivation to hold oneself accountable. I mean putting our shared humanity at the center of our value system, our sense of community, inclusion, fairness and service. Moral leadership is something we can all can strive for. It can be difficult to attain, but it’s worth the challenge for ourselves and those around us. Know our values, check our ego at the door, embrace others, be transformative and seek unity. Let us build a better world in this place in a way that only we can do for not just our community but for this generation and the next one. We need to activate our moral imagination and see a better future to rebuild our businesses, our communities, our country.
Family businesses whether big or small account for 49% of Canada’s private sector gross domestic product – and nearly 7 million jobs across the country – and make significant contributions to our communities beyond that. Every one of these businesses that scales back significantly or shutters during the pandemic is a loss.
As small business owners, we know how to live with risk and uncertainty. What we struggle with is that there is no one “right” answer. It’s possible that we weren’t doing enough to help our tenants while at the same time, we were doing as much as we could. Our potentially greatest contribution to our organizations is in embracing both those truths at the same time. To have a successful business in this environment, we need to manage the tension of holding onto conflicting truths when grappling with unsolvable problems. We tend to think that one end of the spectrum must win out over the other. We choose either to lead or to empower, to support or challenge. But often the most effective way forward is in honoring and embracing both at the same time. We need to manage the tension of leading while empowering, supporting while challenging, building structure while being flexible, being confident while being humble.
As Jacqueline Novogratz (the American entrepreneur and founder of Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund whose goal is to use entrepreneurial approaches to address global poverty) put it, “those who see the sole purpose of business as profit are not comfortable with that tension, nor are those who have no trust in business at all. But standing on either side negates the creative, generative potential of learning to use markets without being seduced by them.” Moral business leaders reject the idea of either/or. We can acknowledge some truth in what the other believes. And we gain trust by making principled decisions in service of other people, not ourselves.
And lastly, when we feel hopeless, that we are failing or despairing, we create. We sing, we dance, we paint, we draw. We garden. We cook and we bake. And we pray. There’s beauty to be found in our ordinary moments when we show up for each other, pay attention to each other, are kind to each other when we feel we have no compassion left to give. It’s in our darkest moments that we can find our deepest beauty. So let us meet this moment to help each other find our hard-won hope and move forward with collective wisdom.