On June 22, Black graduates from the three University of Toronto campuses will have the option to participate in an event called “Black Graduation Celebration” at Hart House.

Believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, the event was planned by a group of students in conjunction with Black student groups across all three campuses. Organizers are anticipating around 200 attendees at the event, which is poised to celebrate the accomplishments of Black students. Akua Benjamin, an activist in Toronto and Professor at Ryerson University’s School of Social Work, and Huda Hassan, a PhD student at U of T’s Women and Gender Studies Institute, will be joining the celebration as keynote speakers.

The student organizers decided to host the Black graduation celebration at U of T after witnessing the success of similar events on campuses across the United States. They were also inspired by U of T’s own groups, such as the Black Liberation Collective.

“We started talking to more friends about it, floating the idea of making it happen,” Nasma Ahmed, one of the organizers of the event, told The Varsity. “[Co-organizer Jessica Kirk] and a couple of others were supportive and we ended up creating a small planning committee and sending a proposal to admins at different campuses.”

Ahmed noted that Black students often face systemic barriers that can hinder their success in the education system. As such, the celebration also aims to increase the visibility of Black students and the issues they face.

The organizers say they hope to build on the foundation that campus groups have started to build for Black students; Ahmed specifically referenced the Black Liberation Collective, which attempts to solve issues ranging from an insufficient amount of Black administrators to a lack of culturally appropriate mental health services for Black students.

Awards for excellence in research and community service, among others, will be distributed to exceptional Black graduates. Organizers were open to suggestions of awards to present; by inviting community feedback, Ahmed hopes to ensure that this event will continue for many years to come.

According to Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s Vice-President of Human Resources and Equity, the university has been aiming to ensure that there are strong pipelines available to Black students leading toward higher education.

“What I’ve heard from the community is that not all Black students have been encouraged to apply to university,” said Hannah-Moffat. “We know there is a lower proportion of Black students in the university than in the community.”

When asked about the various initiatives the university is pursuing to increase diversity, Althea Blackburn-Evans, the Director of Media Relations at U of T, referred to the Call for Nominations for Black Faculty Working Groups in November 2016 and the subsequent formation of these groups. The working groups are intended to advise on Black faculty recruitment and retention, Black student recruitment and success, and representation in curriculum and academic programming.

According to the event’s Facebook page, the free tickets for Black graduation celebration have been exhausted, though Ahmed posted a request that anyone without tickets email the organizers. The organizers are providing travel subsidies for students from all three campuses.

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