The Black History 365 Committee and the Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office at U of T held a Black History symposium on February 6 titled Complexities of Blackness: Stories Told, Strategies Shared.
The keynote speaker was Aina-Nia Ayo’dele Grant, Director of Community Resources Section of the City of Toronto, who reflected on the progress of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit (CABR), of which Ayo’dele Grant was the manager. The unit is part of the five-year Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, which was implemented in 2018 and whose work primarily involves consultations with Toronto residents.
“I know for sure that the [Confronting] Anti-Black racism unit is making a difference,” said Ayo’dele Grant. She expressed that the unit is “contributing to culture change at the City of Toronto,” due to its involvement with many departments in the city’s government. Its May 2019 report showed that 28 per cent of the unit’s action plans had been underway or completed.
Some initiatives undertaken by the CABR include having over 9,000 people participate in learning sessions on anti-Black racism, and collaborating with the mayor to declare a Toronto Black Mental Health Day on March 2. Giving an overview of Black activism in Toronto, Ayo’dele Grant noted that Toronto has also recognized the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent, a resolution passed in 2013 which seeks to promote respect for the human rights and diverse cultures of people of African descent. These recognition efforts in Toronto were led by Black activists.
The event also included a discussion with three panelists moderated by Maydianne Andrade, a professor and the vice-dean faculty affairs and equity at UTSC.
Panelist Andrew Campbell, Adjunct Lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who completed his PhD at U of T, spoke about being a Black professor on campus.
“I [still feel] like an endangered species!” he joked, and mentioned that he is the first Black professor for too many of his students. During Campbell’s five years as a PhD student at U of T, he said that he only had one Black professor.
He also spoke about self-expression, saying that it is important to him to dress however he feels most comfortable: “I bring my whole self to school.” He added that he has learned to fight the urge to defend his qualifications and “keep unpacking and introducing yourself to be legitimate,” and instead be confident in himself.
Answering a question on navigating academic spaces while Black, Campbell answered, “Being on a campus like University of Toronto, you are constantly being measured. And I think what, for me, that navigation is, [is] to unpack that measuring and step away from that ruler.” Campbell also spoke about possible criticisms that events like the one he was participating in were only happening due to Black History Month.
He clarified that, regardless, “We have to do the Black History Month thing. It’s important.”
Campell highlighted one assignment he gives to students, where they must analyze equity statements of companies and universities. He said that these statements mean nothing while “we’re in the concept of checking the boxes,” meaning that diversity efforts in these institutions often mean having people employed from specific marginalized identities and then deciding that “we have done the work.”
Michael Junior Samakayi, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President Equity and a fourth-year student, commented on intersectionality and being the first deaf person to be on the UTSU’s Executive Committee.
He agreed with Campbell that representation at the university was lacking: “The university is a big place. And there are very few students that look like me, very few students that identify as deaf and Black.”
Mairi McKenna Edwards, Coordinator of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training for Student Life, was also on the panel, and spoke about her experiences being biracial. In her role at Student Life, Edwards said that “the most subversive thing [I do] here on campus… is I bring people together to have really tricky, honest conversations.”
Speaking about the drive for diversity in spaces like the university, Edwards commented, “What I’m mindful of is what the university is and is not doing to be worthy of our brilliance, possibility, and wonderfulness.”