By Kristy Koehler, September 18 2020—
Now that she’s into her second term as an elected Faculty of Science representative, Manpreet Sahota is focused on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives.
Building on the work she started during her time on the 77th Students’ Legislative Council, Sahota now has a seat at the Dimensions Committee — a national pilot project involving 17 post-secondary institutions.
The goal of Dimensions is to foster transformational change within the Canadian research community. The committee is an executive-level one, with representatives from both the University of Calgary and City of Calgary staff.
“We work on policies, procedures and hiring practices and identify systemic issues in our own university structure and the way we do things,” said Sahota. “Recently we also had discussions about the university’s lacklustre Black Lives Matter statement and how we can move forward to meaningfully address the disproportionate impact of system racism in our own institutions.”
Sahota says she’s very fortune to have a seat on the committee and says it’s been a great learning experience to work alongside faculty leadership and university leadership to see how they address issues from the top down.
“It’s a safe space to have those tough conversations about where we’re at currently as an institution and how we want to move forward to be a more equitable campus community,” she said.
In addition, Sahota also sits on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee in the Faculty of Science — one of the only faculties with an Associate Dean devoted to EDI.
“In this committee, so far we’ve had a focus on the Indigenous student experience on campus, but it really is another safe space for us to have conversations about EDI at a faculty level,” said Sahota.
Not only does she sit on committees, making her best attempts to amplify the student voice, she uses her platform with the SU to host events related to diversity and inclusion. In January, she hosted a Diversity Days event. It was a storytelling event, centred around privilege, and she worked closely with a Masters’ student who has early-onset Parkinsons and was able to offer a unique perspective on ableism.
It’s these unique perspectives that Sahota seeks out from students, aiming to make the voices of underrepresented students on campus heard loud and clear. Sahota draws on her own unique experiences as well.
“I’m a first-generation student so I have an interesting perspective of my own in dealing with intergenerational trauma and dealing with alcoholism in my family as I was growing up,” she said, describing the event as an experience where she and her co-host were quite vulnerable. It needed to be that way though, she noted, to encourage audience participation and to have attendees feel comfortable in sharing their own stories.
She hopes to host another event soon — either virtually or in-person, depending on what circumstances allow. She’d like to focus it again on privilege.
“It’s such a timeless concept that has impacted students in many disproportionate ways,” she said.
Sahota says her approach to EDI initiatives on campus integrates her committee work and her position as an SU faculty representative. While on the 77th SLC, she helped to pass the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advocacy Policy and is excited to help bring it to life this year.
“From that policy we’re going to have an EDI task force — I’m wanting to get more science students involved in this task force by engaging with them through online platforms and D2L,” she said. “EDI policies are a community based process — we need everyone from everywhere to contribute to the conversation in order to have a real sense of what equity looks like.”
As for what equity means to her, Sahota says it’s an important question.
“I think an equitable and inclusive campus, to me, is a place where every student can say ‘I can succeed.’ I know that’s a really simple way to put it, but success — especially in a university setting — can sometimes be hindered in disproportionate ways by the privileges people may or may not have. Every student should feel that they have what they need to succeed and move forward and who they are and what group they come from won’t hinder that.”
Sahota says her work doesn’t just stop at attending meetings and she says there’s many more diverse groups on campus that she’s excited to meet with.
While she’s a Faculty of Science representative, Sahota is working towards a minor in Women’s Studies, a program she says has helped her to understand the unique perspective of underrepresented groups. She’s met with the SU Q Centre but knows there’s more work to be done in engaging with the LGBTQ+ community.
“I don’t think [my work] stops at meeting a group once or twice. I want to consistently engaging with them to get their ideas about what’s going on in the world,” she said.
As a science student, Sahota says she’s proud of her faculty for their commitment to EDI.
“I’ve never felt like my faculty leaders have ever made a decision on behalf of the students without consulting with students,” she said, crediting part of that with having EDI be the focus of one of the faculty’s associate deans. “Other faculties, even if they don’t have an associate dean of EDI position, can take inspiration from the Faculty of Science in making sure that EDI is never an afterthought.”
If there’s one thing the university can work on from an EDI perspective, Sahota says it’s no secret that the leadership and administration lack diversity, an issue that was brought up at Dimensions Committee.
“It’s not about tokenism,” she said. “When you have a more diverse team you have a more effective team and there’s research to back up that claim. Diversifying our administration and leadership at all levels will help us become a more inclusive community, when students see members that look like them it’s inspiring and they know they can succeed as well.
“When you have predominantly white males as keynote speakers or in leadership positions, I feel like it tells students that’s what success looks like. It can be discouraging as a person of colour to never see a scientist or leader that looks like you.”
Sahota says she’s proud of the university for acknowledging its own lack of diversity and for bringing Dr. Malinda Smith, vice-provost EDI, onto campus and into the conversation.
“I have faith that they will continue to work on this and diversify their administration,” said Sahota. “Malinda Smith has an incredible amount of experience and I’m so excited to see what she’ll bring to the table to make sure our administration is as strong as it can be.”
Sahota encourages students with unique perspectives or stories they’d like to share to get in touch with her, adding that outreach to students is a key element in making a more inclusive campus.
“I’m excited for EDI to become a core value in the university and within the SU and getting students involved and learning their ideas about how to build a more equitable and diverse campus is quite exciting,” she said.