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Petition from Black students at Dalla Lana calls out faculty for lack of action against anti-Black racism

Dean Brown acknowledges petition, recognizes “the need to do more”
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The Dalla Lana School of Public Health. JORDAN AHARONI/THE VARSITY
The Dalla Lana School of Public Health. JORDAN AHARONI/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of anti-Black racism, and it mentions anti-Indigenous racism. 

Black at DLSPH, a newly formed group who does advocacy work for Black students at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), sent a petition to the DLSPH’s Dean Adalsteinn Brown on June 2 with a series of demands to address anti-Black racism at the school.

The petition details a lack of transparency and accountability in the school’s equity and anti-racism efforts, which the group connects with a larger culture of disregard for Black students at the DLSPH. It provides a list of demands centering on transparency, accountability, and education. 

In an email to The Varsity, Dean Brown acknowledged the letter and expressed an interest in implementing the demands. The Public Health Students’ Association (PHSA) also acknowledged the letter through a statement on Facebook.

According to the petition creators, the letter garnered 614 signatures, which they said were mostly people outside of the DLSPH signing in solidarity rather than members of the DLSPH community. 

Events leading to the creation of the petition 

Lucina Rakotovao, a member of Black at DLSPH and a Master of Public Health student at the DLSPH, said in an interview with The Varsity, It started off from a very disappointing Black History — [or] Black Futures — Month in February, largely because we saw a lack of recognition for that month.” 

The petition says that throughout February, instead of creating its own events, the school only mentioned events held by the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO). The petition creators felt that the PHSA also did not adequately celebrate the month, as it only held one event with “minimal notice.” 

“A movie and reflection night cannot capture the breadth and depth of Black grief, Black life, Black health, and Black joy,” reads the petition. 

Identifying the neglect of Black History Month as part of a larger issue of anti-Black racism, the petition describes a culture of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiments in the school. “Lectures and tutorials are rife with explicit racism including the complete dismissal of valuable contributions of Indigenous communities to public health,” reads the petition. It points to microaggressions and macroaggressions from peers, instructors, and teaching assistants (TAs) as ways that the school “[neglects and diminishes] Black student perspectives.” 

Dean Brown has, in the past, released a statement committing to anti-racist action in response to a 2020 open letter. The open letter, which was addressed to Dean Brown, called for the school to denounce anti-Black racism and police violence as public health crises. 

However, in an interview with The Varsity, the petition creators said that these statements from the administration are often “reactive” and only come in response to calls for action from the community. 

“The DLSPH cannot be regarded as a leader and advocate in this area when it fails to embody principles and practices of critical allyship in resistance to racial and intersectional oppressions,” reads the petition. 

The petition also notes that past and ongoing anti-racist efforts at the school have lacked transparency and accountability, specifically pointing to details about the hiring of Akwatu Khenti as Senior Advisor, Equity and Inclusion in January 2021. The petition says that Khenti’s hiring is a “promising anti-racism initiative,” but it criticizes a lack of recurring updates on the group’s work and the fact that the initiative still relies on Black community members to carry out anti-racist work.

List of demands

The petition includes a list of ten demands split into three categories, namely internal accountability, Black student engagement and support, and curriculum development. 

In terms of internal accountability, the petition demands transparency on the work of the Diversity and Equity Committee as well as responses to student concerns. It also demands a list of anti-racism training resources be made available for staff, as well as mental health resources and support for students concerned about anti-Black racism in the faculty. 

The petition further demands that student groups — the PHSA in particular — make it mandatory for prospective executives of the group to commit to equity work and show their commitment to Black students by instituting mandatory “equity onboarding” for members. 

To increase Black student engagement and support, the petitioners demanded transparent actions and commitments from the DLSPH and associated student groups to address anti-Black racism and violence, with compensation for Black students who participate in the work. The petition also demands that the DLSPH and associated student groups plan events or opportunities throughout the year, in addition to celebration of Black Futures Month, that highlight Black students and experiences. 

In terms of curriculum development, the petition demands that the faculty integrate equity and anti-racism into all curricula offered at the school. 

Past student advocacy 

In 2018, the Black Public Health Students’ Collective (BPHSC) released a similar open letter calling for anti-racist action at DLSPH following an incident between two professors in the school. The BPHSC condemned the anti-Black racism that existed within a larger culture of anti-Blackness at DLSPH and U of T as a whole and listed eight demands for addressing the issue. Michael Escobar, who was the associate dean of faculty affairs at the time, expressed an intention to “seriously consider” the demands, but he did not fully commit to following through with them. 

While creating this petition, the members of Black at DLSPH met with alumni who helped draft the BPHSC open letter to get relevant advice and insights. 

Meeting with alumni and upper years, we all agreed that Dalla Lana has been using the cohorts… graduating as a way of not really implementing long-term and sustainable change,” said Bemnet Teferi, a Master of Public Health student at the DLSPH and member of Black at DLSPH. 

Response from the faculty and PHSA

In an email to The Varsity, Dean Brown responded to the petition, thanking the creators for “helping to make our School accountable in addressing anti-Black racism.” 

“The petition includes excellent ideas that I am committing to implementing, such as instituting a Black-led program of discussion about anti-Black racism as part of our School’s commemoration of Black History/Futures Month,” wrote Brown. 

“I understand that those who drafted and signed the petition are disappointed with the pace of progress toward our stated goals, and I take that feedback very seriously,” wrote Brown. 

He acknowledged that equity work in the school has been slow, but he pointed out a few of the initiatives that the DLSPH undertook this year, including the creation of the full-time position of director of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). He also mentioned the eight anti-racism workshops organized by the ARCDO and Toronto Initiative for Diversity and Excellence that ran from December 2020 to May 2021 which had 506 attendees, and a number of anti-racism training sessions for students and TAs created by the DLSPH and the PHSA. Brown committed to expanding these events and training sessions in the future. 

He also noted the working group run by Dr. Khenti, which, according to Brown, has been working on creating a course on Black mental health for the fall semester. 

This is only a start, and I recognize the need to do more,” wrote Dean Brown. 

The PHSA responded to the petition in a Facebook post on May 22, writing that the DLSPH and the PHSA “have contributed to student experiences of anti-Black racism.” They committed to improving equity for public health students at U of T and listed equity training for PHSA executives as the first step. They encouraged DLSPH community members to join these sessions, which the PHSA will advertise through its social media accounts.  

If you or someone you know has been affected by anti-Black racism, you can call:

U of T My Student Support Program at 844-451-9700.