Legally Brown: Natasha Prasaud on Fulfilling Generational Dreams and Making Room for Self-Actualization
Written by Felicia Gopi
Sunday September 3, 2023
Natasha Prasaud is a Canadian Lawyer-turned-Director of Associate Programs, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (Stikeman Elliott LLP) who was born to Guyanese parents that migrated to Toronto after leaving Guyana citing political conflict.
Before Natasha got her start in the legal world she was a young 3 year old who attended school in Barbados up until age 7, when she moved back to Canada, settling in Markham, Ontario. Natasha’s parents were young professionals who went to high school here in Canada and always instilled the importance of education and attaining a professional-grade job in their children. Her father spent some time working for Caricom in Barbados before moving back to Canada where he worked for the Ontario Government and where her mom works as the Superintendent for the Toronto School Board.
Natasha’s story is one that takes us through the stages of her coming to new realisations as it relates to heritage, surprising experiences as a brown girl working in elite corporate circles and driving changes in uncomfortable situations.
She was drawn towards pursuing law in-part because of her parents’ desire for her to do so, but also because she felt compelled to honour both her grandfather and father who shared the same dream. Unfortunately, she admits they weren’t able to afford to pursue careers as lawyers in Guyana and so she says “I wanted to also do it for them.”
Growing up in Markham, Natasha describes a mostly “utopian” experience, one where she was surrounded by folks of different ethnicities and where she was a part of a large Indo-Caribbean community. This didn’t make her immune to comments on her race, ones that made her question the way she acted as a brown person.
Natasha says she was a voracious reader and was always taught by her parents to speak professionally, something they found important given their own paths since migrating to Canada. With that advice in mind and a love for reading, she found that the way she spoke was often up for criticism among her peers who questioned her for speaking like a white person. “Just because I’m speaking properly, shouldnt mean that I’m acting like a white person” she rightly persists. Unfortunately she explains that because she grew up in a middle class home she often faced resentment from folks who made her feel like she thought she was better than them. That feeling was magnified at school because she spent her early years attending school in Barbados which put her ahead of the Canadian curriculum when she returned.
Of course, many children of immigrant families know that it can be a challenge to have educational achievements and career qualifications recognized here in North America. It’s something Natasha is very aware of citing that she’s seen and heard many stories of professionals and students alike being denied opportunities because of this two-tier system. She even opened up to me about her late-grandfather who she says was “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and had to come here and do manual labour.” She goes on to explain that the problem is ever-so prevalent and points to a broken system that desperately needs repairing to do better by newcomers.
“You still hear these stories of doctors coming and they’re driving cabs. I feel like that is such a failure of our system…especially for doctors and nurses, we have such a need for that.”
Natasha has had an evolving career that has brought her to a point where she can action a lot of the change she wants to see in the professional sphere. Her desire for change has been motivated by a variety of external factors, but there is no doubt that her own experiences pursuing law have had a lasting effect on her. After she completed her undergraduate degree in polyscience at McMaster University, Natasha successfully completed the LSATs and continued to pursue law school. When she began studying at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, she was quickly ripped away from the utopian high-school experience she once enjoyed back in Markham. She was certainly a minority there and she felt like she was constantly having to define and defend her identity to her peers. “It was a lot of educating people for me.”
Probably the most relatable tale is one where she tells a friend that she is Guyanese and he, a white male, has the audacity to challenge her the next day, accusing her of lying to him about being South American because he had confused Ghana with Guyana.
She told me that within her circle she felt boxed into an Indian identity saying “I’d go to the Indian restaurant, and they’d go, ‘What do you recommend?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, I like butter chicken as much as the rest of you.’” Her lighthearted demeanour might make it easy to assume that these experiences were no big deal but, to me, it was obvious the continued misunderstanding of her identity was frustrating and ate away at her sense of self while she was away from home, one where she felt complete acceptance.
Once law school was completed Natasha began climbing the corporate ladder and unfortunately, the microaggressions seemed to be part of the deal. Her career has been incredible, just take a look at her LinkedIn profile and you’ll see success laid out in front of you. What amazes me is hearing her speak about some of the challenges she faced all the while excelling in her field.
Natasha was educated and ready to face the workforce but she still felt unprepared for the different experiences that came with associating with more white-dominated professional circles in Canada. She found herself feeling out of place at fancy dinners or when conversations of cottaging would come up. She recalls listening to a colleague tell her about his plans to go to the cottage for the Civic Long Weekend in August, when the question was posed to her she replied with excitement, “It’s Caribana weekend!” To her dismay, he replied, “Ugh you like being in the city during that weekend?”
Natasha describes the onslaught of microaggressive commentary feels a lot like “death by a thousand cuts.” She seemed to find herself battling these types of comments with a smile or by keeping her head down, that deference was something she learned from her parents who felt it was the best way for them to protect themselves and achieve the success they desired to support their family.
“I think when you sort of come here with parents that are immigrants, they try their best for you” While she is surrounded by generational success, made easy by nepotism, client connections and elitism, she notes that “Our parents’ success should be looked at with even more esteem, because we were all doing [this] for the first time and now we will be in a better position to help others going forward.” Like many of our own, she says her parents were strict but assures me that everything they did enabled her to be where she is now.
As the Director of Associate Programs with a focus on Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Natasha is responsible for prioritising the diversity of the firm’s talent. She explains her worries to me that some folks will continue to question why she makes a concerted effort to bring on diverse students as associates at their firm as she recalls an uncomfortable incident she was faced with during law school.
After being selected for a scholarship at the Schulich School of Law (Nova Scotia) another student somehow felt it was okay to ask Natasha if she thought she got her job and scholarship because she was brown. “I don't even think I responded, I think that I left my body,” she remembers. She tells me that she’s been coming up with responses ever since this happened over 14 years ago and concludes that now, she would just ask, “What do you mean by that?” A classy move that puts the pressure back onto the person asking.
At her current firm she explains that prioritising diversity does not at all mean that these students do not have the merit. With affirmative action being such a timely topic it’s necessary to clarify that these students are incredibly talented. She says that as a minority in her industry she relates to these students saying “You just wanna prove yourself, and you dont wanna be viewed as any different.”
“And isn't it wonderful that it’s more diverse? And if we're taking an extra eye and looking at Indigenous and LGBTQ and Black [students], I see nothing wrong with it.”
What’s sad about those who are not supportive of affirmative action or diversity mandates in the workplace is they attempt to disqualify marginalised communities for just being given a chance. In fact, these types of strategies give well-deserved opportunities to qualified employees and students who otherwise, due to systemic failures, would not have had the chance to excel. The alternative is to continue the tradition of accepting the white mediocrity that nepotism and generational whiteness has perpetuated.
I applaud Natasha for her bravery, courage and the emotional toll it takes to work in DEI in a corporate setting. It’s the work we need but sometimes, it can be incredibly taxing and the lines between business and person often become blurred. She says she never expected to shift her career into a diversity space but it was hard to work in a corporate environment and not do it. The tragic passing of George Floyd in 2020, followed by the uprising of the Black Lives Matter Movement sparked something in her, “It was 2020, it was the year of George Floyd, and I was like I need to do something more than what I was doing…I couldn’t sit idle anymore.”
When it comes to generating feedback or encouraging other racialized individuals to partake in diversity initiatives, she comes up on the emotional labour issue often. “People who are racialized either, they want to do the work or they don’t feel like they should have to take on the extra emotional labour.” On top of becoming just good lawyers, she explains that racialized new hires have an extra burden compared to their white counterparts.
Through her work, Natasha tackles privilege, microaggressions and fights for representation. She says, just having other Caribbean lawyers in her office has made her feel a sense of community, and she will continue to recruit diverse students so that everyone at her firm experiences that sense of belonging. “I feel like this is the best use of me going to law school.”
As we come to a close, Natasha shares with me that at the first law firm that she ever articled at, she was actually not asked to come back. “It was the first time in my life, I’d say that I failed, but it was the best thing that had ever happened to me because it made me actually think about - mindfully - what I wanted to do.” Now she is proud to know that, “If my kids ever decide to go to law school or work at a law firm they will actually see themselves reflected.”
About the Author
Felicia is the editor in chief of Story, a newsletter by the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association. She also works in digital marketing with a background in beauty and fashion. She began volunteering with the Indo-Caribbean Association to contribute directly to her community and to learn from other like-minded individuals.
For more information visit feliciagopi.ca