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Letters advocate for change in light of UCalgary and SU responses to Black Lives Matter

By Nikayla Goddard, June 22 2020—

In light of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement sweeping the world, many communities, organizations and groups have begun showing their support by releasing statements condemning acts of racism. An open letter to the University of Calgary has made it clear that while these statements are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to support Black lives. 

The open letter was penned by the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, a UCalgary Department of Psychology committee of both students and faculty members which strives to create a departmental community that promotes leadership from diverse populations. It also aims to equip all department members with the skills to respectfully engage with and support diverse populations in research, teaching, student success and community engagement. 

Lorena Solis, a member of the committee and an Industrial-Organizational Psychology PhD Student who studies diversity management, described that the committee began to develop the letter following the release of those written to the University of Ottawa School of Epidemiology and Public Health and to the University of Ottawa School of Psychology. Using their open letter as a template, the committee developed their letter over the course of a week, and spent another week gathering signatures. 

Solis described how more than just a few sentences in a statement are required to make an impact.

“These kinds of issues do require a more thorough, comprehensive and very delicate response,” she said. “I think we should all be engaging in these conversations. We should all strive to learn diversity, take on different perspectives when we’re trying to learn, challenging the status quo. 

UCalgary’s original Twitter statement stated that the university “denounces anti-Black racism and racism in all forms. We are committed to creating an environment where all are valued and included – on campus and in society as a whole. If you need support, please reach out. We stand with you in these difficult times.” 

The open letter details that beyond a statement, which “would not be complete without addressing police brutality against Black and Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC),” it is the university’s role to publish “clearly outlined actionable steps, and metrics by which to measure the progress of these steps” in a similar fashion to the university’s approach to ii’taa’poh’to’p, the Indigenous strategy. 

The letter outlines several actions that the university should be taking, including: 

  • Hiring and retaining more faculty and staff of colour. 
  • Re-evaluating the systemic barriers to the application process for students in order to recruit a more diverse body of students, such as through financial support that doesn’t inequitably disadvantage those with lower financial resources.
  • Taking necessary actions to ensure sufficient support, protection, and fair compensation to staff (including staff of colour) with limited institutional power. 
  • Creating and offering more courses, workshops and resources that deeply delve into structural racism and its consequences.
  • Including modules in the Continuing Education courses that describe and emphasize the impacts of systemic racism, colonization and microaggressions in schools and workplaces, and how these issues can directly impact the health and well-being of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour. 
  • Integrating anti-racist initiatives into the University’s research practices and compensatory structures (e.g., through the Eyes High strategy). 
  •  Examining and improving the institutional reward structures used to incentivize programs towards instruction and mentorship of underrepresented students, and addressing the constraints that limit instruction and mentorship practices (e.g., via the 2018-23 Academic Plan). 
  • And in response to UCalgary’s statement, clarifying the resources available to students who are impacted by racism and are in need of support, i.e., providing a comprehensive index of resources where students may reach out to if they are struggling. This includes campus mental health resources, physical health resources and academic/financial resources. 

“It’s backed up by research. It’s very thorough. It has actionable steps,” Solis said. “And I think the most amazing thing about this open letter is you’re starting to see a lot of universities all over the world also engage in these things. So that might also encourage them to also be part of this movement. And it was student-led for the most part […] I really think that without students, you don’t really have a university, right? Hopefully [the university] responds positively and they take these things into consideration and implement them because it’s our university that normalizes these types of behaviours through the research they produce, the curriculum that they teach and things like that. 

“It’s not going to be an easy change. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it might be slow. But, that’s better than staying stagnant.”

Solis explained that she felt included in the committee as an “outsider” from Brooklyn, New York.

“Because a lot of violence, especially systemic racism, it’s often amplified in the U.S., you kind of forget how racism evolves and develops in different countries,” she described. “And it might not be as highlighted, but it’s there. It was just so nice to say the way the committee responded and did something that made me feel included as an outsider. I hope that we can just keep on these conversations and that we can continue to take something from this.”

The Students’ Union also released a letter to students to show that they stand “steadfast against anti-Black racism in all its forms. Black Lives Matter, and we must continue to combat racism, hatred, and prejudice wherever we find it. It is important to use this moment to evaluate society and your own life. Ask how you can be a better person, and how you can work towards creating a better future. Students have been at the forefront of a plethora of social movements, and we are in an important position to be able to help fight for the changes that are so desperately needed.”

The letter goes on to say that “beyond public statements, it’s important to continue to fight for institutional change and action. In the coming months, we at the University of Calgary Students’ Union will be embarking on work involving equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Our Vice President Academic is launching an EDI bursary, our President is embarking on work involving dietary needs and food security, our Vice President External is coordinating anti-racism efforts with our provincial and national counterparts, and our Vice President Student Life and Vice President Operations and Finance are founding a consultative committee to advocate for EDI initiatives in the university community.”

In response to the SU’s letter to students, at the June 2 Student Legislative Council (SLC) meeting, gallery attendant Rayane Issa, asked why there was over a week of delay in posting the SU’s BLM statement. According to the meeting minutes, Issa added that “this delay is problematic because a lot of black and international students were looking for direction from the SU and University.”

President Frank Finley responded by apologizing for the delay as the SLC executives were working hard to draft the letter. He also expressed disappointment over the University’s vague statement and [how] a lot of organizations [are] not explicitly stating “Black Lives Matter”.

A gallery member asked why only three SLC executives attended the recent Black Lives Matter protest. They questioned why executives have not been making many social media posts to support the movement.

Vice-president academic Marley Abraha responded that Finley and Gillies were in the office and that she did not receive a response when she contacted the organizers through Facebook asking if they could make a public statement during the protest. Abraha also said she asked all SLC members to attend the protest. 

According to meeting minutes, vice-president student life Mohammad Ali “responded that even though only three executives attended the protest, there are a lot of things that are going on right now and they are trying to address them as fast as they can. Ali asked that the implication  not be made that advocacy actions are limited to posts on social media or attending a protest.

In response to the EDI Committee’s open letter, the University of Calgary released the following statement: 

“The University of Calgary does not condone racism in any form. As a university that promotes and values diversity, we strive to ensure that all students, staff and faculty are welcomed and can thrive on our campus. We know that we are not perfect, and acknowledge that we continue to address issues of racism. We received the petition and look forward to engaging with students, faculty and staff once we are back safely on campus. Our new Vice-Provost of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), Dr. Malinda Smith, will begin in August. Her key focus will include campus community engagement in a number of initiatives, including anti-racism to help ensure that our campus is an even safer space.”

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