Over the past year, issues of systemic racism have come to the forefront of our collective societal consciousness. Last summer on June 11, 2020 — while people took to the streets in protest across North America — the York Federation of Students (YFS) and a collective of other student organizations throughout campus came together to present a letter of demands to the administration, hoping to create a safer and more equitable space for students and faculty alike.
Now, almost nine months have passed, and while discussions have been had by students, faculty and the administration, student leaders still feel as though little has been done to answer the calls they put out. Due to this seeming lack of progress, we decided to catch up with members of the YFS, York’s administration, and other student organizations that have been involved in this process to see where things have progressed — or if they haven’t progressed at all.
Firstly, here is a quick refresher on the list of demands that were sent to President Rhonda Lenton by student organizations back on June 11, 2020:
- Cops off Campus.
- Implementation of community-based alternatives to security and police forces in a campus safety plan, to be determined in collaboration with student leaders, the Department of Social Work, as well as staff and faculty who are familiar with abolitionist frameworks.
- The re-introduction of the Community Safety Council to advise and oversee the Community Safety department and Security Services.
- The recommendation of hiring six additional Black faculty members be accepted immediately.
- The implementation of mandatory anti-oppression training and mental health training for all staff and faculty.
- The collection of race-based data.
- The introduction of a separate reporting process for instances of racism and discrimination.
In addition to the letter sent out by undergraduate students, the York University Graduate Students Association (YUGSA) also sent a letter to administration addressing some of their concerns later in July. We caught up with their president, Fardosa Warsame, who had this to say.
“In a statement the YUGSA sent out, we said that our expectation was for the senior administration at York to consider implementing courses on anti-oppression for both graduate and undergraduate students. We demanded that the senior administration amplify the voices of Black academics through providing them with higher level positions. We made it very clear that simply releasing a statement of solidarity is not a resolution. Senior administration must invest in doing more for Black students, staff, faculty, and the broader community at York.”
YUGSA claims to have not seen any progress or response from the university. Kien Saningong Azinwi, president of the YFS, concurs and adds that they haven’t received indefinite answers to the demands.
Barbara Joy, chief spokesperson from York’s media relations team, says: “First, I’d like to confirm that the university has responded to the concerns outlined by the YFS and YUGSA in their correspondence, both through meetings that followed the public statements, and in multiple and ongoing messages to the entire York community, including here and here.”
However, Warsame refers to York’s senior administration meetings as “unproductive” and “resulting in re-traumatizing many students in the process.” Warsame believes that these meetings “happen so the university can save face.”
Echoing Warsame’s sentiments, Azinwi states: “The Lenton administration has continued to use non-actionable buzzwords in response to our demands and in every response document put forth by them. The York community has asked for action items and step-by-step processes that will bring significant changes, but all we have seen so far are performative statements and actions.”
“Words like ‘equity, diversity, and inclusion’ can be spewed as much as you want, but if you’re not following with action, it’s a buzzword.”
“In my perspective,” continues Warsame, “they do not care for Black students, Black faculty members, and Black staff. All York is doing is throwing up an empty promise of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’.”
In Excalibur’s follow up with Azinwi, she states, “Words like ‘equity, diversity, and inclusion’ can be spewed as much as you want, but if you’re not following with action, it’s a buzzword. In many spaces we have made it clear those words are buzzwords until action is seen.”
Bo Joseph, the president of the Glendon College Student’s Union, also shared Fardosa’s frustration with regards to the slow pace that York administration has had with acting on the demands that were made.
“The university has not moved quickly enough. There is still this sense that we can get around to these issues in time. When you ask, they say they are moving as fast as they can,” claims Joseph.
Azinwi believes that progress has taken so long because the recommendations made by YFS and other students are not reflected on paper, or practiced, until much later. “For example, in a meeting this week, and when we come back next month, we have to make those same recommendations again.”
“When the government took away it’s funding for Markham, the university moved quickly. Now that it is not about money or land or a shiny new campus, we can afford to take our time to talk about these things over months. Black people are dying. This cannot be how we react to this fact.”
Many of the student leaders involved have found the process so far to be fairly unproductive. When asked if they think York has done enough, Warsame expresses that simply hiring six Black faculty members is “the very bare minimum” especially “in an institution that has more than 100 programs with around 35 Black faculty members spread across two campuses.” In other words, it is both insufficient and “an absolute shame.”
In response to the matter of underrepresentation of Black faculty members, Joy stated that the university intends to improve representation by “moving forward with a commitment to hire 12 Black faculty members over the next two years.”
“The York University-York University Faculty Association (YUFA) Joint subcommittee on Employment Equity Initiatives (JSCEEI) issued a report which further highlighted the need to increase and broaden the representation of Black faculty members across the university,” Joy continues.
In a letter sent to the York community back in June, Lenton stated that, “York recognizes the deep pain and frustration that members of the Black community feel as we continue to witness and experience the consequences of systemic racism that have permeated society for too long.” Many would read this statement and think that the university is actively finding ways to combat anti-Black racism on campus.
In Excalibur’s follow up with administration, Joy adds, “Confronting and addressing systemic racism, including anti-Black racism, is a serious and pressing social and economic imperative. York has redoubled efforts to advance specific initiatives and strategies to directly address anti-Black racism.”
However, the administration remains under scrutiny by student community members.
Azinwi adds, “When we released the letter, we asked for those demands because the same professors in your classrooms are still using the N-word, your hiring practices are discriminatory, and your diversity is only reflected in the student body — not senior administration.”
In an article by Paul Fraumeni called “The social, political and moral crisis of anti-Black racism,” Sheila Cote-Meek, York’s vice president of equity, people and culture, speaks to the university’s role in the fight against anti-Black racism.
Cote-Meek stated: “York was built on values of social justice and equity. When an institution sets out core values like that, then they need to live by them. We need to hear more from Black faculty, students, and staff around anti-Black racism that exists on our campus — and we have a responsibility to respond.”
It is a positive to see the need for responsibility acknowledged by a member of administration. That being said, many would think it means nothing if there is no substance to those words — especially considering how the diversity York prides itself on is only reflected in the student body. When you look at administration, says Azinwi, that diversity isn’t there.
In the same article, Professor Andrea Davis says, “We pride ourselves on social justice at York, but we have to remember we’re not exempt from racism. Our leadership and our entire community need to realize that our role is not just to educate, but to reflect on what we can do better.”
The recurring question seems to be when. These words can have much more value if it were evident that the university were making some sort of change. A lot of time has passed, both from the rise of these issues to when the article was published in November, let alone from November to present day. The issue of anti-Black racism within York needs to become a top priority.
Joy further adds that part of the university’s effort to accomplish this is through scholarship and innovative programs, such as the Black Canadian Studies Certificate. “We are putting this responsibility at the centre of our teaching and research,” Joy adds.
“York’s Centre for Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion has remote services available and offers a variety of helpful tools for education and training, including: Understanding Racism: A Guide for Students Faculty and Staff as well as education and training sessions.”
However, some of the Centre’s workshops that are meant to tackle racism received criticism of their own, with students recognizing that discriminative individuals who should be attending those optional workshops are likely not attending.
“It wasn’t until there was global pressure to address these issues and make changes that the university decided they should start to make a change. Some change is better than none.”
As well, from our conversations with student leaders it seems that there has been a lack of urgency from administration, with student leaders involved not even feeling as though admin have taken the issue seriously.
“The progress for a lot of these things is solely dependent on the Black community and staff,” says Azinwi. “For the Black Canadian Studies Certificate, Andrea Davis is a queen — but a lot of students have left that program because it is underfunded. It is not representative of what it’s supposed to be. And for the internships, students can’t get them because of the lack of resources.”
Nakyta Folkes, VP of equity at YFS, claims that despite racialized students sharing their experiences of racism on campus for years, “it wasn’t until there was global pressure to address these issues and make changes that the university decided they should start to make a change. Some change is better than none.
“However, while our university’s administration takes their time in catching up and learning about how their institution perpetuates anti-Blackness, there are still students, staff, and faculty facing racism in real time and dealing with the impacts of that every day.”
With regard to the administration’s seriousness on the matter, Joseph explains, “I think there is an intention to take it seriously on their part, but we still need resolve. We need action.”
Now what does that action look like? Joy outlined new and existing initiatives that York has undertaken in order to highlight their efforts in “strengthening and advancing equity,” including:
- Developing an Anti-Black Racism (ABR) framework;
- Appointing and creating a VP of Equity, People and Culture in July 2019;
- Appointed a Senior Advisor, Equity and Representation, in the Division of Equity, People and Culture;
- Embedding “equity and inclusion” into the University’s 2020-25 Academic Plan;
- Extending Affirmative Action (AA) policies training to all academic hires since Fall 2017.
According to Azinwi, however, it took the university nine months to create the ABR framework based on students’ demands. “That shouldn’t be something you’re proud of because students asked you to do it, that should be in the very mandate of the university,” she states.
The second issue with the ABR framework is “you cannot water down the demands of students. A very clear example of what’s missing from the ABR framework is: from the get-go, students need to know that senior admin, staff, faculty, TAs can all be held accountable outside of the university.”
So what should that action really look like? The YFS recommends that administration listen to their demands for change, address racism on campus, and commit to implementing the necessary changes.
“If the university is getting upset or feeling unappreciated because we’re saying what we’re doing isn’t enough,” says Azinwi, “that should speak to who they are as an administration.
“For them to think the ABR framework would cancel the racism or anti-Blackness at York, or the racism that faculty face at the hands of the administration, then they are mistaken. Quote me on that!”
In addition, Warsame and Azinwi request administration to actually listen to Black students and faculty members. “Do not get defensive when we express our concerns. Listen to us when we are expressing our concerns,” adds Warsame. “Listen to us when we make suggestions. It is extremely problematic having no Black representation in spaces that are meant to establish policies addressing anti-Black racism.”
This seems to be the most important, yet underrated request from the community to the York administration — for them to not only listen, but to also understand why folks are feeling the way that they do. Empathy instead of defensiveness can go a long way, especially in a conversation as crucial as this one. Being defensive will only show folks that you are not ready to take the next steps required to make change.
“Students were consulted for the ABR framework, every step of the way,” says Azinwi. “But it comes down to listening in those spaces and in the meetings.”
“Where are the town halls? We have town halls about the budget, why not the continued wellbeing of Black students? Do we not rank highly enough?”
“If you’re willing to bring Black students to the table, you should be willing to listen to them. We shouldn’t have to make recommendations four or five times before it’s reflected on paper.”
The fact that after almost nine months the only consultations students are aware of have been behind completely closed virtual doors with only select student leaders invited to attend is something that has caused some concern.
Joseph asks, “Where are the town halls? We have town halls about the budget, why not the continued wellbeing of Black students? Do we not rank highly enough?”
Folkes adds that they would like to see more collaboration with BIPOC students, staff, and faculty in the process of addressing systemic changes. “We need to have our experiences guiding the structure of these practises, and we need to be compensated for that work. This is something that BIPOC students, staff, faculty, and organizations have been working towards in the development of the Anti-Black Racism Framework.”
To put it simply our student leadership doesn’t feel that enough has been done by our administration. Warsame warns against the effects of “creating a false reality that York is a multicultural institution that prides itself in celebrating acceptance.” This is problematic in an environment of higher learning because administration must “acknowledge that academia plays a huge role in the reproduction of white supremacy.”
Joy, on behalf of the university, acknowledges students’ sentiments on insufficiency and says, “We know it is not enough to simply condemn anti-Black racism. We acknowledge that to dismantle the deeply ingrained structures of power and privilege that allow anti-Black racism to thrive, we require a strong, accountable, and action-oriented way forward.”
To conclude, the YFS had this final statement to make:
“We want to remind everyone that we are not asking for too much. Any challenges that come with our demands are not personal reflections, but rather a reflection on the inflexible, racist, and anti-Black systems that uphold our post-secondary educational institutions.”
Azinwi adds that allyship and the administration’s work to tackle racism shouldn’t be done for the purposes of receiving congratulatory praise, but in fact, because it is the right thing to do.
“I am tired of white fragility,” she says.
With files from Marsha Joseph and Mahdis Habibinia.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include York University administration’s comments on the matters discussed as well as an updated follow up with current YFS President Kien Saningong Azinwi on her responses to the university’s administration.