Larissa is a published Indigenous and anti-racism researcher, award-winning ribbon skirt artist, restorative circle keeper, and proudly passes on Métis and Jamaican ancestry to her daughter, Zyra. She is the Founder of Future Ancestors Services, a youth-led professional services social enterprise that advances equity and climate justice through lenses of ancestral accountability and anti-racism. Larissa is a CohortX Climate Justice Fellow, Action Canada Fellow, and a 2019 Corporate Knight’s Top 30 Under 30 in Sustainability.
I founded Future Ancestors Services because… I spent six years seeking to understand the sector, its gaps, and the opportunities to ethically create something new. One thing I was taught in my undergraduate International Development Studies program, and later in working in the non-profit granting sector, was that non-profit and humanitarian sectors are driven by a capitalist understanding of competition. There is an over saturation of organizations doing relatively the same things, thus raising the competition amongst them for sparse grant and sponsor dollars. Work may be rushed, may be done inappropriately, and the impact may be inflated in recognition of this competition.
In being taught this, I was very conscious of not wanting to start something before I knew it addressed a need that wasn’t being addressed by another organization doing really good work. Furthermore, I wanted to find a way to contribute to a necessary shift of the influence competition has on how organizations and people working for social and environmental justice operate.
After being offered one too many contracts that were clearly not a fit for me (and were likely being offered simply because I was the only Indigenous or Black speaker a client could find), I made the conscious decision to build my former business, Larissa Crawford Speaks, into something more. Instead of competing against other diverse service providers, who too face disproportionate barriers and are working to achieve the same goals of climate justice and equity, I saw the opportunity to shift our approach and business model from the traditional understanding of competition. Yes, we have a small team to deliver services directly under Future Ancestors Services, and yes, one of our support services, the Future Ancestors Constellation, promotes and supports service deliverers that would be our expected competitors; but, by uplifting their voices and their services, I understand this as contributing to our shared goals of creating more spaces that are equitable and that contribute to climate justice in what is currently Canada and around the world. This is social innovation in the interest of the well-being of our future generations and Mother Earth.
I knew what kind of leader I wanted to be; I knew how I wanted to treat my team. I knew that I wanted Future Ancestors Services to be a space of employment where we could feel respected, honoured, and when we didn’t feel that way, to feel like we could say something about it and it would be acted upon.
The best thing I’ve done for my business so far is… not prioritizing Western business education, and trusting in the direction I receive from my cultural communities and self. While facing ageism, racism, sexism, and ableism in most of my previous employment experiences, I got through that time by always taking note of what I appreciated and did not appreciate about how I was managed, how our teams were structured, and how the organization operated. When I left my last job in November 2019, I knew what kind of leader I wanted to be; I knew how I wanted to treat my team. I knew that I wanted Future Ancestors Services to be a space of employment where we could feel respected, honoured, and when we didn’t feel that way, to feel like we could say something about it and it would be acted upon.
Some things we do differently stem directly from root causes that fostered undesirable workplace environments. For example, we prioritize a decolonized experience of time, where we are encouraged to set clear boundaries about our available time and capacity to meet aggressive deadlines. Like many of the ways we operate, I trusted in myself and my team to formulate a new way of doing business that we haven’t necessarily seen or experienced before. We carry wisdom through our lived experiences, and our business model is a direct result of our collective efforts to harness, act, and again, trust that wisdom.
My best advice to people starting out in business is… don’t do it alone. Group projects in school and work had me convinced I would never enjoy working in a team as much as I enjoy working independently. My first step to checking that assumption was to critically reflect on my deficit skills and personality traits, especially of ones that I could imagine being valuable and even necessary in starting a new business. The next step was looking in my network at people who are just as committed to me about the mandate I’m founding my business on; in my case, this was equity and climate justice. Finally, I sought to build relationships with my team members before approaching them to work with me, and after I did approach them I prioritized getting to know them as people. I am now working with the most phenomenal team I’ve ever had, a team that has become a support system, friend group, and a source of accountability.
We carry wisdom through our lived experiences, and our business model is a direct result of our collective efforts to harness, act, and again, trust, that wisdom.
My biggest setback was… being diagnosed with a chronic pain disability at 23 years old. My chronic pain definitely became my biggest barrier to my work, with a lack of understanding about and outright resistance to reasonable medical accommodations from my employers leading to working conditions that triggered hospitalizing pain flares and deteriorating physical health. But I also played a role in my deteriorating health… In November 2018, I delivered a Tedx Talk about being intentional about one’s impact and self-care regime. The irony of this was that I left at the staircase to the stage my cane, which I was using amid a pain flare that was brought on by my inability and outright resistance to honour my body’s need to rest. Up until my diagnosis of chronic pelvic inflammatory disease in August 2018, I was accustomed to an energy-intensive, jet-set schedule. My resentment to the perceived failure of my body only fueled my desire to prove that I could return to ‘normal.’
I overcame it by… Several hospitalizations, two surgeries, and months of recovery later, I find myself in a place of more peace and self-awareness. I put into practice what I preach with the recognition that I cannot be the best mother, daughter, sister, partner, and community member if I am not my best self, and that I too am worthy of the care and love I afford to those around me. With this understanding, I will continue to actively engage in the following practices while seeking new opportunities to grow this list. One of these practices includes land-based fitness; through therapy sessions and Elder hours I have come to understand that sharing land-based fitness activities with my family and friends is a significant determinant to my mental and physical health. I honour this need by regularly engaging in long-distance runs, walks, and hikes in the prairies and mountains, and in showing my gratitude through ceremony and meditation.
There are better realities for future generations, and we can play a role in shaping those realities.
I stay inspired by… the frontline activists and organizers advancing climate justice and ensuring that climate action is not separated from Indigenous sovereignty and racial justice. These people carry immense power in shaping the public, economic, political discourse and expectations, and they’re using this power to hold people, business, and states accountable to honouring people and Earth by any means necessary. While I participate in rallies and protests, I respect and actively support the labour of leading and organizing the frontline movement. They are required to be expert event planners, social service providers, and so much more, all while being unpaid in most instances. Witnessing and partaking in the fruits of their activism keeps me grounded in my own work, and in ensuring that my contributions to climate justice remain centered in land, community, and radical systemic change.
The future excites me because… I find a great sense of empowerment and hope in understanding history, specifically the history of the emergence of ‘race’ and racism as we know it. It is not a universal truth that humans have always organized along racial hierarchies of superiority and inferiority; ‘race’ was not evident in ancient English texts, and its emergence coincided with the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. In understanding the colonial and capitalist interests in rationalizing groups of people as ‘less than,’ and in realizing that it is not inherent or natural for humans to divide ourselves in the way we experience now, I find power in our collective agency to imagine realities beyond what we know today. There are better realities for future generations, and we can play a role in shaping those realities.
My next step is… building out the internal infrastructure of Future Ancestors Services to meet the surge in demand we’ve experienced in our first four months of operations. We are currently managing about 100 clients and have tens of thousands in our online community, and because our team is so committed and pretty great at what we do, from the outside I think it seems like we’re working with a lot more than we actually have! My next step is to seek out more human support, like an Executive Assistant, and the financial resources to ethically compensate these administrative roles. One of my most cherished mentors, Meredith Alder from Student Energy, knows my life well and the Executive Assistant comes as her number one recommended next step!