When Entisar Yusuf, who completed her undergraduate studies at Western University, arrived at U of T as a graduate student in the fall of 2018, she noticed a key difference between her two campus experiences: a lack of community, particularly as a Black student.
“At Western, I had good relations with the Black, African, and Caribbean associations. But when I came to U of T, I found some sort of disconnect,” she told The Varsity. “I wasn’t sure whether it was because of graduate studies, or if it was the school itself.”
On top of her personal feelings of isolation, she had also heard of public incidents of anti-Black racism on campus in recent years, including one at the Faculty of Applied Sciences & Engineering in 2017. This motivated her to try and find Black community on campus.
In her search, Yusuf found the Black Students’ Association, but realized that it is primarily geared toward undergraduate students. She wanted to find out if there was any interest for another space — for Black graduate students.
After an individual campaign of flyers and outreach emails, she discovered that there was indeed considerable interest. In November 2018, Yusuf set up the inaugural meeting where an election was held for the group’s executive.
By January 2019, the team was complete, and Yusuf, the group’s founder, became its first president. The Black Graduate Students’ Association (BGSA) was born.
The BGSA’s raison d’être
Yusuf, who is still the group’s president and now a second-year master’s student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), explained the BGSA’s purpose: “In graduate studies, in my experience, Black students feel very isolated,” she noted. “[The BGSA’s] really a support system.”
Currently, the BGSA has seven executives and 190 members across graduate programs and professional faculties. While most of the membership is concentrated on the St. George campus, it is also looking to expand its reach to UTSC and UTM.
When it comes to programming, the group is involved in a wide range of events. “I made clear to the team that we could engage in anything, on- or off-campus, that we think is relevant in order to support our students,” noted Yusuf.
On campus, the BGSA has worked with other student groups to host the “Women of Colour in Politics” and “Why Representation Matters in Canadian STEM Research” events last year. Off campus, they have been involved with the Toronto Black Film Festival, and more recently, Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
For Sara Turner, a master’s student at OISE and the vice-president of the BGSA, the group also operates as a promotional directory for other events on campus. “Different organizations will reach out to us in order to raise awareness about their events,” she told The Varsity.
“A lot of people who commute and go home after class are just not aware of some of the things that they can be doing on campus. So we raise awareness through our newsletters, in addition to connecting with people one-on-one.”
The diversity of Black graduate experiences
When asked to describe the Black graduate experience at a school like U of T, Turner emphasized its non-singularity. “I must say first and foremost that I cannot speak for everyone. The Black communities on campus neither at the undergraduate level nor the graduate level are homogenous,” she stressed.
“We are diverse and it is my hope that any genuine effort taken to reflect and record Black graduate experiences takes into account that there are many voices to be represented, included, and listened to.”
Turner chose to answer the question by reflecting on her conversations with fellow Black graduate students. They spoke about microaggressions, like people’s disbelief that they attend or work at U of T, which contribute to feelings of discomfort and exclusion; the desire for more classes that can educate people about anti-Black racism; the need for more resources for racialized students on campus; and the need for better representation of Black faculty and staff on campus.
One student also stressed to Turner that the university should act against anti-Black racism more meaningfully, rather than as a gesture during Black History Month. For the occasion, the BGSA was present in a conversation about collective futures with Black faculty at OISE on February 11, and will co-host two upcoming events: “Black Self-Care Fair” on February 25, and “Black Futures: Let’s Talk Careers in Tech” on February 26.
Centring Black mental health and wellness
When asked about her reasoning for joining the BGSA, Turner highlighted the importance of such social gatherings for Black graduate students.
“I got really excited about this idea of creating a warm space and community on campus. Because I know that graduate school can be very isolating, and certainly there isn’t that much [Black] representation altogether,” she told The Varsity. “I wanted to see other Black graduates and engage with them.”
Turner also reflected on how her desire to “empower Black graduate students toward positive mental wellness,” and her decision to join the BGSA, coincided with further developments of the mental health crisis at U of T last September.
Last November, the BGSA notably hosted a Black Mental Health Panel with Black professionals in the field. “It provided a forum for experts and community members to have a discussion,” reflected Yusuf. “This was fairly unique because we discussed issues and barriers that the Black population faces. And we’re also finding solutions… talking to professionals was a great resource for us.”
Given the importance of the topic, the BGSA is planning to host a second event on Black mental health in March.
“Being there for people, and providing a support network, is so important,” Turner noted. “I wanted to create events that would bring people together.”
On what still needs to be done, Yusuf stressed the need to put in the work beyond Black History Month: “As we embrace Black History Month as a time to reflect on our history, we need to be deliberate of the ongoing reflection and action to support our future.”