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Meet the sqilxw women who are decolonizing the workplace

With babies on their hips and microphones at their lips, sqilxw women Elaine Alec and Jessie Hemphill recently celebrated a financial milestone for their community planning company, which they launched with Christopher Derickson in 2016
Healing as sqilxw people has been key to Alderhill’s success say co-founders Jessie Hemphill, Christopher Derickson and Elaine Alec.

With babies on their hips and microphones at their lips, sqilxw women Elaine Alec and Jessie Hemphill recently celebrated a financial milestone for their community planning company, which they launched with Christopher Derickson in 2016. 

In November, they broke out the karaoke machine and hit the dance floor at the Alderhill company retreat, celebrating both its five-year anniversary and the financial milestone. According to the founders, their journey and achievements have required self-reflection, healing, and faith in one another.

“We were mothers … [with] newborns … and we were able to build a $2-million company,” says Alec, a syilx and Secwepemc author and facilitator based in Tk’emlups (Kamloops, B.C.) 

The virtual satellite company works with governments, businesses and First Nations communities to support organizational development, providing everything from trauma-informed facilitation to comprehensive community plans, to workshops on reconciliation and decolonization. Both Alec and Hemphill attribute much of their success to working with Indigenous principles. 

“All of the stuff that we’re usually frowned upon for doing in a professional setting” — like breastfeeding during a Zoom meeting, was just part of their process, Alec says, and they weren’t about to apologize for it. 

“[It] was like, ‘No, this is what we’re going to do. This is our company. We’re going to do this because we’re Indigenous women, and we’re mothers with babies. That’s a part of everything that we do and who we are.’” 

Alec says Alderhill Planning was spoken into existence over a cup of coffee between the three founding partners with a vision to “create something that was different … [the] complete opposite of what consulting companies were doing in our communities.”

“We were getting sick and tired of seeing people coming in and just doing this work off of templates … and not really engaging [the] community and not understanding our ways of knowing and being.”

Instead of taking a “colonial, streamlined, linear approach to planning,” they envisioned a planning firm rooted in community values and interests, says Alec. 

‘We built our company on trust and faith in each other’

Building a company as sqilxw people meant navigating a lot of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, says Alec. 

She recalls worrying “No one’s going to take us seriously” and “We’re kids compared to … these other big boys.” 

Co-founder and business partner Hemphill echoes similar sentiments.

“When I was in my 20s working for my community, I had a lot of imposter syndrome about being a leader in Indigenous spaces and [being] very white-passing,” recalls Hemphill, “I had the feeling of ‘Who am I to claim space … or to claim this voice?’”

Hemphill says her great-grandfather had to “lean away from their Indigeneity as a survival mechanism” to keep their family safe from residential “schools.” 

“My family’s been making sacrifices for generations to keep us safe, so that I could be here to take up space,” she says.

Alec says Derickson, their co-founding partner, helped them work through their imposter syndrome.

“Chris was constantly stepping up and telling us … ‘Your time, your energy is so worth it and equal to [that of] all of these other white guys that are out there doing this,’” she says. 

While Derickson had to step away from the day-to-day operations after becoming Chief of Westbank First Nation, Alec and Hemphill say he remains an integral support.

“We built our company on trust and faith in each other,” says Alec. 

Taking a decolonial approach

Taking a decolonial approach with their clients and within their own team was a priority for all three founders. Among their employees and their clients, Alec says it’s clear that colonization has had an impact on self-worth. 

“I see people and I see their light, and I see their gifts, and it breaks my heart when I see their doubt in themselves,” says Alec. “All these lies that have been told to keep us in line, so that we’re not shining bright, so that we’re not being who we were meant to be.”

“It’s not just Indigenous folks that suffer under colonization,” says Hemphill. The “typically corporate” and “Western ways of working are so harmful,” she says, and they have a negative impact on settlers as well. 

“At the individual level, it degrades people’s health, physical health, emotional intelligence,  connection to spirit and ceremony … We see the destruction of the family units. 

“At the community level…[a] degradation of those connections between community and business when it’s all about the money.

“At the land level, we see the harm done to the land and living systems under business models that prioritize profit and resource extraction … Sometimes the resources are people and time and energy, sometimes it’s trees, and sometimes it’s oil.

“So I think the alternative is essential for us to continue to live on this planet.”

Hemphill shares that it was important to the team to have participatory decision making and a non-hierarchical structure. 

“We stick to our values, and [ensure] that it feels like a really safe, nurturing place to work. And also that the work we do is creating a better world for Indigenous folks.”

This means holding space for healing, she says. 

“We give space for people to take care of themselves and find health and well-being. And then they’re able to spend time with family and reconnect with their family units. And that feeds into them.

“Then at the level of the land, we’re just continuously ourselves reconnecting and spending time [on the land],” she says.

The company follows a four day work week, with employees doing four to five hours of focused work per day, while still being paid full-time. Team members are also encouraged to be honest about their day-to-day health needs, and given the freedom to seek creative outlets, says Alec.

“We can build a company with love … [where team members] can come in and say, ‘I’m having mental health issues,’ where they can say, ‘I’m going to leave to go swimming or skiing,’ and nobody’s sitting here rolling their eyes or getting mad at them.

“We have to trust each other as we move through this … and move out of that colonial mindset of having to know [the] ‘why’ for everything,” says Alec.

‘We are just as deserving to be recognized’

Five years after founding their company and realizing their dream, Alec and Hemphill are full of gratitude.

“All the things that I hoped for have come true, in terms of feeling well supported [and] things moving in a really good direction,” says Hemphill.

“I’m here because of the choices of those generations before me,” she says. “I didn’t get here on my own.”

Alec says celebrating is also an important part of the work — especially for Indigenous women.

“When I first started getting involved in business, I was mentored by old, white conservative men … I lived in that space of patriarchy and that … hardcore way of doing business, and I was sick, like, physically and mentally and emotionally sick,” she says. 

“But one of the things I learned about from them is … to step out of that comfort zone, talk about yourself, share and celebrate those successes … They claim that space and they talk about themselves and say, ‘We deserve to be here.’

“We need to be claiming space, too, because we are just as deserving to be recognized. And in a space … [where] these people told us we didn’t belong.

“When we’re able to do that for ourselves, we inspire people from our same circumstances to know that they can do the same.”

Cultural Protocol: According to some n̓syilxčn̓ language keepers, there are no capitalizations in the spellings of any n̓syilxčn̓ words. In an egalitarian society, capitalization insinuates there is something that holds more importance over another, and that does not fall in line with syilx ethics.

sqilxw [skay-loo-kw]: People of the land

Kelsie Kilawna, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse