Better late than never? TMU signs onto national agreement to combat anti-Black racism

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By Edward Djan

Content Warning: This story includes mentions of lynching and references to sexual assault 

As Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) signs onto a national agreement aimed at reducing anti-Black racism and improving diversity in post-secondary schools across Canada, Black students say the school needed to make those commitments sooner.

TMU announced earlier this month that President Mohamed Lachemi signed onto the Scarborough Charter in October. The Scarborough Charter is a document that outlines a national standard for addressing anti-Black racism and Black inclusion on the university campuses that sign onto it.

Over 20 post-secondary institutions across Canada first signed the charter back in 2021. TMU was not part of the inaugural group.

Nicole Agyenim Boateng, the co-director of outreach at the Black Collective at TMU, said she believes if the university wanted to at least agree on the actions in the charter sooner, they could have—seeing as they fought for other endeavours. 

“I think that’s an excuse. The school has been fighting for a law school, they fought for a medical school—and they got a medical school—even though it is hard to do those things,” Boateng said. 

The school said in an email to The Eyeopener that it did not sign on to the agreement back in 2021 under the leadership of the former vice-president equity, diversity and community inclusion, Denise O’Neil Green. Instead, TMU decided to hold consultations before signing on. 

“We don’t want institutions that are not ready and committed to just sign up for the sake of that”

According to the university, the consultation found that the school should sign onto the charter alongside their Presidential Implementation Committee to Confront Anti-Black Racism (PICCABR) Action Plan 2022-2023. The PICCABR was formed to address the recommendations made in the university’s Anti-Black Racism Campus Climate Review Report, released in 2020. The report is meant to show the experience of the Black community on campus. 

The school said waiting to sign the Charter until the Action Plan was completed would ensure it would be “demonstrating a tangible commitment to the principles of the Charter and providing an accountability framework to track, monitor and report on progress.”

The school has yet to release the Action Plan but added in their email that it “will be released soon along with a community update highlighting the implementation progress of the recommendations and achievements to date.”

Chair of the inter-institutional advisory committee for the Scarborough Charter, Wisdom Tettey, who is also the principal at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said he’d rather TMU take its time to sign onto the charter than rush through the process and not make meaningful change. 

“We don’t want institutions that are not ready and committed to just sign up for the sake of that. We want them to do the heavy lifting of demonstrating that this is something that they are committed to.”

“It’s important that we have diversity around senior tables”

The Charter was created after several post-secondary schools took part in a cross-country forum called National Dialogues and Action in October 2020.

The goal of the forum was to implement concrete ways for anti-Black racism and Black inclusion to be addressed at post-secondary schools across Canada. The Scarborough Charter was a result of the forum.

It requires actions by post-secondary schools in areas of governance, research, teaching and learning and community engagement. One of the actions of the Scarborough Charter is that post-secondary schools would provide anti-Black racism training to everyone on campus.

Boateng believes if faculty had anti-Black racism training, it would make classrooms more inclusive learning environments for Black students. One experience she recalled was being in an American history class when her professor included graphic images of lynchings without including a trigger warning.

“I found that to be very traumatic being a Black student and I have to read that material in order to progress in the class,” said Boateng. She said she reached out to her professor and told them the content was not okay to add. “We can’t be seeing these graphic images of ancestors and Black people dying.”

Boateng said the professor did say they were working on adding trigger warnings but she’s still surprised that she had to explain to a faculty member how to make their class more sensitive to Black students.

“It’s shocking that you’d have to tell someone in the first place that you shouldn’t include lynchings in your lesson plan. We know what they are, you can describe them, you don’t have to include the photos.”

In response to The Eye’s request for comment regarding this alleged incident, the school said they were not aware of it. They pointed to their Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy and added that students who have concerns can reach out to the Office of Student Care and Human Rights Services. 

“When you don’t live it, when you haven’t had that experience, it’s a different kind of orientation that you bring to these issues”

Other actions in the Scarborough Charter include closing the wage discrimination gap and rethinking the role of campus security that takes into account the safety of Black people.

These two points are especially important to Boateng. While she empathizes with concerns students— especially those who are not Black—have about recent safety incidents on campus, she said if TMU genuinely wants to take steps toward making campus more inclusive for Black students, enforcement forces such as security should not exist.

“I recognize what recently happened in Kerr Hall, that people were signing that petition and they wanted campus safety, they wanted more police officers, they wanted the special constables back. I understand that is the reality,” said Boateng. 

 “As a woman, I get that. But as a Black woman, I understand that I’m doubly oppressed by those systems that are sought out to protect other women.”

The Scarborough Charter also emphasizes the collection of race-based data that tracks Black representation in post-secondary schools for students, faculty, staff and researchers.

According to the Canadian Arab Institute, out of the 76 universities in their 2019 policy brief, 63 universities could not provide race-based data.

“It’s so much easier when there’s somebody guiding you and being a mentor”

Hellen Waigumo Gateri, an assistant professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton and a 1999 alumna from TMU’s social work program, said it’s important to have race-based data not just for representation purposes on campus but to ensure Black people are in positions of power in academia. 

“Are [Black community members] being hired as support staff or are we being hired as assistant professors or associate professors?” Gateri said. “How many racialized people in academia do we have in management positions? Because that doesn’t get reported.”

According to a data visualization on TMU’s website, Black people in 2020 only represented seven per cent of the student population and only made up six per cent of the employee population. 

Joshua Sealy-Harrington, an assistant professor at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law, said post-secondary schools shouldn’t only be hiring more Black faculty but also ensuring a diversity of thought.

“If you have an increase in Black or Indigenous faculty at a particular institution but with [a] very similar kind of pedagogy, politics or scholarship to faculty who are already there, I’d say one of the key objectives tethered to representation is not actually being fulfilled,” said Sealy-Harrington.

“I think both greater representation—different groups—but also the politics that emerge from the struggle participated in by those groups are very important.”

Tettey also said while he believes the motives of his colleagues are well-intentioned, it’s important to have Black leaders like himself at decision tables because their lived experiences can help shape more equitable policies. 

“It’s important that we have diversity around senior tables. I don’t think a lot of higher-ed leaders are necessarily antithetical to what we’re pushing here [with the Scarborough Charter]. But when you don’t live it, when you haven’t had that experience, it’s a different kind of orientation that you bring to these issues.”

Another one of the actions in the Scarborough Charter is for post-secondary schools to create pathways for Black students that provide better access to post-secondary education.

“When you don’t see people who look like you, it’s very hard for Black students to approach other students”

Abdul Farah, a third-year nursing student, said he has felt welcomed studying at TMU as a Black student. Farah immigrated from Somalia and said a barrier he faced was the lack of support whenever he needed help with his school work.

“My parents did not speak English. I did not have anybody to help me out with homework. That was a very big barrier that I faced.” Farah said his friends who grew up here and had parents who spoke the language did not face the same struggles. 

Farah believes if TMU did outreach programs as early as in middle school that target Black students from a young age to offer support with their school work, it could potentially increase the number of students from the community attending not only TMU but post-secondary schools across the country as well.

“When I help my nephew with homework, for example, it reminds me that I did not have anybody to help me. It’s so much easier when there’s somebody guiding you and being a mentor. It’s so much better,” said Farah.

“By the time you get to high school, it’s already kind’ve too late,” he said. Farah said outreach programs that begin at a much earlier age can help support Black students in staying up-to-date on school and progressing with a curriculum. 

Gateri warned that in schools and programs where Black students do not see themselves represented, it’s harder for them to continue their education. 

“When you don’t see people who look like you, it’s very, very, very, very hard for Black students to approach other students and to start forming those study groups,” she said.

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