Creating resilient communities that are better equipped to deal with the challenges of racism while also advancing inclusion will be a key focus of the first National Dialogues series.
Taking place today and tomorrow, the national forum will explore anti-Black racism and Black inclusion in Canadian higher education by bringing together more than 50 post-secondary institutions from across Canada.
“Resiliency, in this context, doesn’t mean individuals just soldiering on or bouncing back from adversity,” says Professor Wisdom Tettey, University of Toronto vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough.
“It’s a more holistic approach of building capacity to support inclusive communities where people can thrive by binding them together to better handle challenges, protect fundamental values and sustain the common good. Resiliency can be an asset built into our structures and systems, and if it is sustained and everyone follows through with their commitments, it can make institutions stronger and better able to challenge racism and to advance inclusion.”
Tettey adds that, in this context, resiliency is a core value of inclusive excellence and the essence of the African concept of ubuntu, which emphasizes our common humanity. He says a resilient community is one that engages and benefits all of its members by taking into account the entirety of opportunities and challenges it might face. That way, it can better adapt, transform and continue with its overall goals stronger than before.
“Resilient Black communities are not new,” says Barrington Walker, a professor of history and associate vice-president, equity, diversity and inclusion at Wilfred Laurier University.
He points to examples in Canadian history including Black Loyalists, Black refugees who escaped slavery during the War of 1812 and 19th century Black communities in Canada West, to name a few.
“Post-secondary institutions might begin to transform by engaging in these histories of resistance and better incorporating knowledge of them into their curricula,” he says.
Walker, who is a member of the National Dialogues advisory committee, says post-secondary institutions also play a key role in how knowledge generation about these historical communities – and the present-day role of these communities – is shaped.
Creating stronger post-secondary pathways for members of the Black community can help build on the tradition of resilience in Black communities, he says. He stresses that post-secondary institutions can also enhance mentoring and support programs by beginning in the K-12 years.
“It’s imperative that large urban institutions that are near significant Black communities should play an active role in building the resilience of these communities,” says Walker, adding that non-Black allies also have an important role to play.
“Allies who have access to space and seats at tables that have traditionally excluded Black people in the university community can promote more equitable and racially just institutions by having the courage to intervene.”
Professor Ananya Mukherjee Reed, provost and vice-president, academic and research at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, is also a member of the advisory committee. She says mentoring, support networks and programs can play a key role in creating resilient communities.
While many institutions have supports in place, she says they are often scattered and don’t offer the sense of cohesion needed to help foster greater resiliency.
“Offices and programs need to be fully integrated into the academic soul of an institution,” she says. “They can’t become bureaucratic functions encumbered by processes that create additional difficulty for Black students, faculty and staff to navigate.”
Mukherjee-Reed adds that, at the broadest level, post-secondary institutions need to make questions of justice, including racial justice, integral to their core activities and practices.
“Post-secondary institutions should be taking the lead on discussions about justice, not reacting to them. Institutions where justice is a visible and central concern will be more welcoming to Black students, staff and faculty, and their efforts to make change will feel less like an uphill task.”
Building resilient communities is also going to mean identifying and breaking down traditional barriers, says Professor Robert Summerby-Murray, president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and another member of the advisory committee.
“It’s not an easy process, but it’s a necessary one. If we want to overcome the embedded bias – much of which is unconscious – existing within our institutional structures, it’s going to take a lot of listening, soul-searching and courage to take action,” he says.
He says creating resilient communities will require entire communities to engage in the process, and it will have to be approached in an environment that is safe, welcoming and ethical.
“Institutions are slowly learning how to reconcile the problems of the past, and while the path forward won’t include quick fixes, and it may be fraught with new challenges, I also think by coming together for this national conversation we can start to take the concrete action we need.”