To Begin — It’s a ‘We’ Thing
“Racism is relational.”
This is the astoundingly pervasive phrase that Jennisha Wilson, Senior Manager of Anti-Racism Response at University of Waterloo, repeatedly uses during our conversation about progress made in the fight against racism over the previous year.
Before delving deeper into the discussion of the progress made by York in its fight against racism, as well as the abundant wisdom that Wilson has to offer in my conversation with her, I would like to issue a reminder of sorts, as to why our battle against racism is so important: Racism is not to be taken lightly, for it has taken lives.
As we honour this Black History Month, we must remember that Dr. Martin Luther King did not sacrifice himself to save Black Americans from America’s sins — he was viciously killed while in pursuit of greater circumstances for himself and his people.
The same applies to George Floyd: He did not sacrifice himself to offer the world a revelation as to the insidious nature of America’s policing — he was viciously killed while in pursuit of greater circumstances for himself and his family. He had just taken on a new job and was in the process of turning his life around to better provide for his daughter, whom he so greatly loved.
The same applies to Breonna Taylor: She did not give her life for our enlightenment — she was viciously killed while in pursuit of greater circumstances for herself and her patients. She was a nurse who had recently taken on longer hours and shifts to aid in the fight against COVID-19 and was killed while in her own home trying to catch rest for her next shift.
I put it to you that Black History Month should not be the designated time only for a celebration of Black people — Black excellence is something to be celebrated all year round. Neither is it appropriate that in this month we only glamorize our efforts to make a change. Instead, we should consider it a time for honest reflection and transparency, to see that our university incorporates the very same systems that perpetuate the oppression of Black individuals all around the world, and this is something that it is actively working to address.
But when addressing these issues, what should be counted as true progress?
True Progress — A Definition
It is crucial that Black, Indigenous, and racialized individuals be at the forefront of the conversation around racism, seeing as oppression is their story, and no one can speak to what progress is better than those who are most affected by it.
Wilson identifies as a Black woman, stating that she was born and raised by two parents who are immigrants to Canada from Jamaica, continuing to say, “My dad is Black, and my mom is Indian, and I think it’s really important to contextualize where I’m coming from as a settler — a racialized settler to Turtle Island — to understand what progress would look like in this particular context.”
In reflecting on the progress made by our own university in terms of enforcing racial inclusivity, it is imperative that we define what true progress is within this context.
When asked about what she considered to be true progress, Wilson states that “racial inclusivity and progress would essentially be summed up when individuals can be their true authentic selves in spaces, feel heard, have really good health and outcomes for their communities, and when conversations around racial justice are not situated around the basic needs that people need to survive in life.
“If we’re having conversations around basic human rights — which are things that we need to survive — we can’t even get to the place of having conversations around how we thrive, how we build, how we transform spaces in a way that allow our communities to really flourish,” Wilson continues.
York’s Efforts — A Rundown
In keeping with the collective strive that has been made by general society to correct its ways in dealing with race, York has made a concerted effort in the past year to improve circumstances for students, teachers, and staff alike.
As detailed in a joint statement made by President Lenton and Vice President of Equity, People and Culture, Sheila Cote-Meek, York’s plans to achieve a racially inclusive environment include, but are not limited to “hiring a minimum of 12 new Black faculty members by 2023, creating a new physical space to facilitate meetings among Black faculty, staff and students, increasing funding for scholarships, bursaries and other forms of financial aid in support of Black students, and establishing a new, culturally safe tool for complaints about racial discrimination and harassment, available in English and French.”
These plans were made in March 2021 during what was considered a wildly successful virtual town hall. In keeping with what Vice-Provost of Students Lucy Fromowitz outlined in a summer 2020 statement wherein she implored the York community to “listen closely before we act.” This town hall was held after consultations with over 200 Black community members.
In the same statement, it is outlined the goals that York has already achieved in this plan, including the following: “Twelve new Black faculty members have been welcomed to the university, with one additional Black faculty member confirmed for 2022, $150,000 has been committed to support Black scholars in 2021-22, and consultation has begun on the formation of a funding program for Black scholars, with the goal to launch by early 2022.”
The statement added that as part of a $2.25-million commitment over the next three years to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion through community engagement and research activities, “$50,000 per year has been committed to Black community engagement projects and $250,000 per year to Black research and knowledge mobilization projects, beginning in 2022.”
“The Department of Community Safety has taken steps to undertake a review of services and to explore alternative community safety models,” the statement also said, adding that the The Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion will continue to offer its Anti-Racism Training to community members.
So, Did YU Do It…Right?
The list of changes that have already been made within our university sounds, to be frank, impressive.
The very fact that the town hall was held with the consideration of the opinions of 200 Black folks from our university is a sign that York is paying more attention to Black voices, which is keeping with the notion that Black, Indigenous, and racialized individuals must be the ones at the forefront of this conversation.
The hiring of 12 new faculty members means more skilled and talented Black folks getting a stable income — this is money that more than likely gets funneled back into Black families and communities.
The establishment of the Black Excellence at York University (BE YU) mentorship program is also a definite plus as it serves as a safe space for incoming Black students to learn and grow from older students who know what it’s like to be in their shoes. This is most definitely worthy of celebration, isn’t it?
And let’s not forget the funding of projects within Black communities, as well as the lending of further support to Black scholars — these are all wins, are they not?
While these changes sound — and are — impressive, they cannot fundamentally resolve any issues regarding racism because they are what Wilson defines as “add-ons.” In responding to a question about the changes being made within the City of Toronto, Wilson articulates that “the work that they’re doing there is really important and impactful; it has an impact for the community. But when I think about what’s truly needed to address racism, it requires a transformation of the entire system, not just add-ons.”
She further proposes that “the reality is that to address the fundamental issues of racism that we’re experiencing, it requires an entire overhaul and transformation of culture and policies, procedures and how we operate.”
Moving forward, structural changes need to be made, or else the ‘progress’ made will not last.
In an announcement made in September 2020 by York’s AMPD sector titled ‘AMPD’s Commitment to Equity,’ it is detailed that the AMPD department intends to enforce “Diversity in Faculty Hiring, Increasing BIPOC Student Support, Ongoing Anti-Oppression, Anti-Racism Training,” and more. These changes are all well-intentioned, but to what extent have these changes been implemented effectively by the department, and to what extent are these changes even effective to begin with?
A Black AMPD student — who wishes to remain anonymous — gave a detailed response as to what their experience has been at York and within the AMPD department, going as far as to explain how York could make more meaningful improvements.
The student says that while they can’t speak for all of AMPD, they have felt safe on campus with some of the initiatives made at York in the past years. “For example, the changes made in course materials provide a better-rounded education that is more inclusive of BIPOC theatre history in North America,” they say.
“But I still think that we have quite a long way to go in terms of decolonizing the curriculum. Combatting racism has to go outside of the curriculum and into the daily lives of students, and part of that is having BIPOC instructors in our learning spaces. Students need to be able to see what their lives could potentially look like, specifically in the production area. I’ve noticed that when first-year BIPOC students are making their choice to stream, more go into acting conservatory or devised theatre, and rarely do they go into production.”
The student adds that they believe an important part of these choices have to do with the lack of instructors that look like them and that they can relate to.
“You see a lot of Black actors and performers in the media, but never really see any who work in the background as production managers or sound designers or video editors. And I think it would be beneficial to have more BIPOC instructors in the space to show them that doing production work is a viable career,” they conclude.
This student’s response echoes the previous motion that structural changes need to be made.
Further evidence of this is the act of vandalism on York’s Keele Campus in January, in which “deliberate damage was caused to Skennen’kó:wa Gamig,” as stated in a York wide email sent out by Lenton. The fact that we are still dealing with racially motivated acts of vandalism on our campus is a clear sign that we still have a long way to go.
We Must Embrace Proactive Strategies
We have added on new initiatives, bursaries, and racialized faculty. We acknowledge that we are visitors on this land and that change needs to be made. We have been responding to the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.
But responsive strategies can only take us so far.
There are no two ways about the fact that we have indeed taken steps forward, as a university organization, and as a community. But the only way we can truly make lasting progress from here on out is to embrace proactive strategies.
When addressing the basis of her position as Senior Manager of Anti-Racism Response, Wilson notes that the existence of her job serves as a starting place.
“The problem with creating these roles is that they often become glamorized. They often become seen as ‘this is the solution to all our issues’ when I — as one person doing an anti-racism response — can never be the solution. The entire institution needs to change culture and radically shift in the way that it thinks and functions.
“I think that there is value and purpose in these roles needing to exist right now because racism is real; it is hurtful,” adds Wilson. “It is impacting Black people, Indigenous people, and racialized people on a daily basis. However, it’s not the end-all-be-all. So, when someone says, ‘our solution to the problem is to create this role to respond to racism’ that tells me that clearly there is not enough understanding of what needs to happen in order for there to be true transformation to implement anti-racism work and to do that work fully.”
The most proactive thing our university can do is look inward and change its structure so that it truly embraces and enforces the elevation of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students, staff, and professors.
We as individuals must also embrace the proactive strategy of honest reflection, as it inevitably leads to honest and lasting change. By establishing a lasting change within ourselves and our communities, we can better engage with one another, whether we are the oppressors or the oppressed. This engagement results in the cultivating of meaningful relationships with each other — and isn’t this truly the answer to winning this fight?
Racism truly is relational, so, hand-in-hand, let’s continue to push forward for better together here at York.
A special thanks to Jennisha Wilson for entertaining my questions and lending her time, as well as to the student who willingly contributed their voice to this article. From one York community member to another, I wish you a reflective Black History Month.