Category Archives: Inclusion

Seasons

In our November blog post we hear from PhD student, Kuukuwa Andam. In her piece, Kuukuwa uses the beautiful imagery of changing seasons to reflect on the changing perspectives and ideas in relation to equity, diversity and inclusion at Queen’s University.

When I moved from Africa to North America, I was fascinated by the different seasons of the year. Of course, back home in Ghana, I was well acquainted with the two seasons of the year- Harmattan and the Rainy Season. I had learnt to expect strong, dusty winds to blow South from the Sahara Desert bringing along with it chapped lips, an unbearable afternoon sun, and the chilly mornings that made every child unsuccessfully try to convince their mother to skip bath time before school. I knew, also, to expect the rainy season with its heavy tropical rains, abundance of fruits, greenery, and snails excitedly going somewhere very, very slowly.

But here I was, staring at snow falling magically out of my window, as perfect as it looked in the Hollywood movies I inhaled every Christmas as a child. Then came Spring and the blossoming flowers glistening with dew, followed by a sizzling hot Summer and finally, my favorite season of all, Autumn. I must have taken a million pictures of all the gold, orange, red and brown clad trees I saw on my way to school, every day.

Cultures around the world often view life itself as being composed of seasons. Officiating ministers at Canadian weddings frequently recite the words of the poet who penned Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a season….” Among my people, huge parties are thrown after burials- complete with mouth-watering dishes, palm wine and melodious drumming. Clad in black and red African cloth imprinted with native adinkra symbols, the bereaved dance away to songs that remind them not to be overtaken with grief because this too shall pass.

As both Queen’s University and the Queen’s Equity office celebrate their respective anniversaries, what season are we in? No doubt, we live in a time of great polarization. Television screens are replete with scenes of protests by historically disadvantaged groups and counter protests by persons who complain that they are being replaced by these vulnerable groups. Political observers decry the rise of the ‘alt-right’ while in other circles, simply declaring that someone is a ‘leftie’ is as big an insult as it gets.

More than a year ago, minority students across the world started conversations about the challenges they encounter at institutions of higher learning. On social media, they documented daily instances of micro-aggression that they experienced from their colleagues and professors. On campuses, they gathered to demand that their institutions tackle discrimination and remove statues of colonizers and slavers. Here at Queen’s, after some students organized a costume party described as ‘shockingly racist,’ a committee was set up to consider issues related to diversity and inclusion. Months after the committee submitted its final report, students of color embarked on a protest where they asked the university to take action to address racism.

How might Queen’s make a difference during this season of division and strife? What steps can Queen’s take so that students from diverse backgrounds feel at home- just as Robert Sutherland, British North America’s first black lawyer, did? At a time when Queen’s was battling indebtedness, Robert bequeathed the largest donation ever seen at that time, to Queen’s because it was the one place “he had always been treated as a gentleman.”

In ancient times, when a new season was approaching, people would watch eagerly for signs, so they could know which actions to take. They would study how the birds and other creatures acted, listen to winds, and map out the path taken by the sun. Perhaps, the first step Queen’s can take is to listen to students as they voice their concerns and detail ways that their university can be welcoming to all.

The Road Less Travelled

Our October blogger is Hazem Ahmed. In his piece, Hazem looks introspectively at his own life and the choices he has made over the course of the last 15 years. Discover, how Hazem believes taking the road less travelled, has made all the difference.

It might sound a cliché, but looking back to my past 15 years, I apparently have been taking the roads less travelled whether consciously or perhaps subconsciously! Starting back in 2002, when I decided to pursue my undergrad studies in Computer Science – not Electrical Engineering (like many of my high school peers) nor Medical Sciences (like my siblings).  I enjoyed studying Computer Science so much so I earned my B.Sc. with highest honors (ranked first in class). Not only that, but I was also offered a full-scholarship to purse my graduate studies at Queen’s University, School of Computing, but again I chose a less-travelled road with a specialization in Bioinformatics, which is the intersection between Computer Science and Medical Sciences.

Studying at Queen’s was a truly life-changing experience although my first year as an international student was a bit challenging. I needed some time to adapt to the new environment, culture, and long distance from my family back home in Egypt. However, when I started participating in extracurricular and social activities at Queen’s (e.g., Elected Student Rep at the University Senate) and the broader Kingston community (e.g., Member of the Organization Team of the Kingston Multicultural Arts Festival), the challenges turned into opportunities.  I received several awards at the departmental-level (featured in the PhD Handbook of the School of Computing), University-level (Dean’s Graduate Award), provincial-level (Ontario Graduate Scholarship), and prestigious national-level awards (NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship and Post-Doctoral Fellowship).  I would not have had similar opportunities, if I did not push the border of my comfort zone, if I did not travel to study at Queen’s, if I did not take a less-travelled road.

During my second year at Queen’s, I participated in a Work/Study program. There were several on-campus job openings available at that time in the University library, cafeteria, Information Technology Store (ITS) and one at the Equity Office. I know many students already work in the University library, cafeteria, ITS store, but I did not want to choose a common road. I applied to the Equity Office. At the Equity Office, I had a unique opportunity to learn more about the equity issues in the workplace and the hiring process. A 6-month web developer position led to over a 6-year programmer/analyst position. I was recommending and implementing IT solutions to transform many of the office’s processes; therefore, producing a significant impact in the office and the broader Queen’s community.  I would not have made a similar impact, had I worked at a library or ITS store.  I would not have left a footprint, had I picked a common road.

After completing my graduate studies in Bioinformatics, the most common road was obviously becoming a University professor. But once again I did not take the obvious road. I moved to industry – I am now a Data Scientist at General Electric Aviation.  Aviation is a data-intensive industry, where data science has the potential to offer impactful insights and revolutionize existing traditional ways used to address their multifaceted business challenges. I feel honored to be part of the digital journey of one of the world’s largest companies and work on the most demanding problems of the world’s biggest airlines.

A former student of a Bioinformatics course (that I once taught before moving to industry), recently approached me asking for a career advice and whether he should go with the mainstream or pursue a unique graduate program overseas. I told him undoubtedly travel and explore your far-reaching options, not the easiest ones. But then I told him this is not an “advice”; it is perhaps a biased opinion based on my own personal experience. You should take the road that you think is better for you, not what somebody’s else “thinks” is better for you. The point is NOT to take the less-travelled road just for the sake of being different; the point is to take the road that you can make a difference through.  At least this is what I have been doing. This is what have made much difference in my career path.

Together We Are Equity Office Blog – Year Three!

Another successful year for the Together We Are blog! Thank you to our bloggers and readers who gave so graciously of their time, creativity and passion. Without your energy and support the blog would not be possible.

2017-2018 marks a special year for the Queen’s University Equity Office, it is our 20th anniversary. In honour of this significant milestone, this year’s blog will look both backwards and forwards in time. Over the course of the next year you will hear from students, staff, faculty and alumni reflecting on the challenges and accomplishments of the last 20 years as well as discussions on how and where we can move forward.

Check out our contributors’ profile page for the full listing of 2017-2018 Together We Are bloggers.

Oh and don’t forget, YOU are part of this conversation as well. Together We Are all part of the Queen’s and broader Kingston community and therefore your comments and feedback are welcome.

Privilege and Defensiveness: Unlearning in Order to Learn

In our first blog piece for 2017-2018 we hear from Queen’s alum, Mike Young. In his piece, Mike passionately discusses privilege, anger and courageous compassion.

There are a great many hurdles that one is likely to encounter while doing social justice work. As a cis-man who does not identify within the Queer Community and is of Euro-settler descent, I’ve become increasingly focused on the questions surrounding privilege within the anti-oppressive space. In particular, I’ve found it both internally productive and professionally relevant to begin interrogating and unpacking the relationship that exists between privileged socio-political locations and a tendency towards defensiveness. A relationship, I believe, that is central to answering the question: “Where do we go from here?”

It seems we live in a world where people are consistently enraged with political and social institutions, each other, and even sometimes with themselves. Unfortunately, we also live in a place in time where these feelings of anger/sadness/frustration, often borne out of sickening real-life experiences, are incredibly valid. The human condition in 2017 appears tattered and bruised in many ways, and it calls us to look ourselves in the mirror and do what we can to be productive pieces of a collective puzzle.

I have had countless conversations with friends and family over the past several years about issues surrounding sexual/gender diversity, anti-racism, sexual violence, and mental health. Through these conversations I’ve had what I think are illuminating moments that speak to a trend in our social consciousness. This trend is built around the notion that many folks feel that they care about these issues, but are not interested in engaging with other folks who are angry at them for saying the wrong thing. By extension, words like “racist”, “misogynist”, and/or “bigot”, just to name a few, have become dialogue-enders for many. Of particular note, though, is that this trend also seems to be correlated to one other prominent and noticeable feature: the folks who most passionately talk in these terms are often folks of privilege.

What is privilege? It is quite literally the ways in which different parts of one’s identity might serve to insulate them from different systems of oppression and discrimination. It is not something that one should feel guilty about or apologize for, but it is unquestionably something that we should all take time to become aware of and more importantly, accountable to. Privilege, then, is not something one should feel bad for possessing, but it is something that we are called to use in positive ways and to leverage to make space for the amplification of different voices. We’re called to understand how much space privilege affords us in different ways, and to understand how we can use it for good.

What is anger? Anger is a tough one for a lot of folks. For me, its value was something that I long struggled to understand and come to terms with until I read Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”. The fact of the matter is that anger is unavoidable, valid, and productive. Unavoidable and valid in the sense that daily manifestations of systemic oppression will make folks angry over time, and that we ought not to police the tone with which people respond to oppression in lieu of seeking to dismantle oppressive systems; productive in that it has directly led to social and political change over generations, especially when public anger has forced public institutions to respond and prove that they hear the voices of their people.

I was unable to validate and empathize with anger because I was blinded in many ways by privilege. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what it was like to fight every single day, simply because of who I was, where I came from, who I loved, or to whom I did or did not pray. All it takes is a moment of active listening to hear the stories of folks for whom life is a constant struggle, and whose protest or activism is often deemed radical or “too emotional”, to understand how and why anger is so prevalent within anti-oppression activism. It might make you uncomfortable. In fact, it probably will, and that’s kind of the point. If we don’t become uncomfortable with the ways things are, these ways will remain indeterminately.

And this is where privilege and anger meet the final piece of the puzzle: defensiveness. A white person wears a Halloween costume that is meant to be lighthearted and celebratory that is called out as cultural appropriation and racist. A common response? “I’m not a racist and I don’t appreciate you throwing that word around”. And the dialogue ends. And this story is repeated and repeated, often in less direct ways (with people engaging with social issues online, for example), with anger being generated by oppressive forces and defensiveness becoming a defacto response. In my experience, the crux of the issue lies in the blindspots that privilege creates, which reactions of anger often illuminate. When someone doesn’t realize that their actions or words are racist but is called a racist by someone who experiences it, there is often an aggressive bout of cognitive dissonance that takes over. This happens organically and makes logical sense, but it’s a recurring script that we must take the time and effort required to interrupt.

The moment I realized that I was mobilizing this very script every time I ran into a response of anger was one of the most important moments in my growth as a person. As someone who has just recently started a new initiative that more-or-less commits the rest of my life to remain focused on anti-oppression in its many forms, I’ve become passionate about being part of a new script that can help facilitate multi-directional growth, compassion, and humanity:

  1. I’ve been called out. Someone is communicating to me that I’ve hurt them, and I didn’t mean to. I feel bad and uncomfortable.
  2. I realize that in the situation, the worst I have to worry about is having a label associated with me; I don’t have to worry about experiencing the violence of oppression itself (when I hold a privilege within that particular social location).
  3. I apologize, I validate, and I listen. If the person I’ve hurt decides to share with me what I can do differently next time, then I try and learn from it. If they don’t, I take it upon myself to read and reflect in order to see how I can be kinder and better next time.
  4. Repeat.

For a long time, the onus has been on folks who experience various systems of oppression to dismantle them. It’s time for folks of privilege to be courageous in their compassion and accountable in their activism, and to find new ways of working with one another to help progress these issues along. The tendency has to become critical reflection and growth rather than defensiveness and self-preservation.

I’ve come to understand this process as non-linear, as uncomfortable, and as extremely hard to do properly. I’ve made lots of mistakes and I get my guard up now and again. But I’ve taken the time to understand how and why anger bubbles to the surface, I have admitted that I often cannot truly understand how someone feels, I’ve committed to trying to figure out where I fit into the anger I’m experiencing, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of how my privilege makes all of the above even more complicated. In order to learn, grow, and become inclusive in our work, we have to commit to unlearning defensiveness. We need to create and learn a new set of social scripts, we need to rehearse them each and every day, and we need to recognize that every interaction is an opportunity to better ourselves and our communities that we need to start taking full advantage of.

It Takes a Native Student Association

In our final blog piece for the 2016-2017 year, we hear from Melanie Gray, a recent Queen’s graduate. In this piece, Melanie explores the concepts of belonging, connection and home through her experiences with that Queen’s Native Student Association.

I am incredibly honoured that I was approached to write a piece for the Together We Are blog about diversity and inclusion on campus. As a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) woman, I am aware of the adversity facing indigenous people in contemporary Canadian society – and Queen’s is not exempt from that. I would love to only explore the positive aspects of equity on campus as it existed during my time at Queens, but that celebration is not possible without acknowledging the hard work of the indigenous staff and students before me.

It has been a long road to finding equity on campus for not only indigenous students, but also those of other cultures, religions, and identities. While there are many positive things currently happening on campus that foster equity, diversity, and inclusion, it is important to acknowledge the passion that went into creating this present space. I would also like to note that there is still significant work to be done in this field.

In order to accurately discuss diversity and inclusion in the context of Queen’s, and because I was a member for four years, I would like to explore the development of the Queen’s Native Student Association and the work they have done to be recognized by the institution. I would also like to acknowledge that Queen’s University sits on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee land.

I was fortunate enough to become a member of the Queen’s Native Student Association during my first year at Queen’s. Over the course of my undergrad I had the honour of maintaining several roles in the association – everything from general member to president. Due to the resilience of the members before our time, the QNSA I joined had a lot of strength and opportunity when it came to engaging with the community outside our space at Four Directions. The members in the years before me had done so much work to give future generations of indigenous students – QNSA members or not – a voice on campus. The generation before my time at QNSA had a significant role in the instigation of the reorganization of the Aboriginal Education Council at Queen’s. They were politically active in representing not only their members but all indigenous students. Their work allowed me to enter an inclusive and welcoming space in tune with indigenous student’s needs. A space where I grew as a person, battled the worst occurrences of my life, and enjoyed the fondest memories of my undergrad.

You see, I entered Queen’s at the height of my anxiety diagnosis. I was struggling with social situations and was not comfortable with my body or mind. On top of my personal struggles, my mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma first semester. If it had not been for the support and traditional teachings I received from QNSA and the greater indigenous community I would not have graduated. It is as simple as that. Having a space where I could explore my indigeneity made a whole world of difference in my Queen’s experience. I found a community that helped me foster my identity and was (hopefully) able to have the ability to do so for others. I also want to give a shout out to the indigenous students who graduated before me for challenging the traditional cap and gown graduation expectation in favour of wearing traditional regalia to the ceremony. Due to the actions of these resilient and passionate students, I was able to collect my BAH diploma wearing my first ever set of regalia. Here’s to the past and future generations!

When to Stop Talking

In the April edition of our blog we hear from Jeff Brown, a former Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) for the Alma Mater Society (AMS). In this blog piece, Jeff explores the meaning of allyship. Using examples from his personal life and time with the AMS, Jeff demonstrates that sometimes being a good ally means listening rather than talking.

Being asked to contribute to this discussion is a tremendous honour. I’ve honestly been churning over in my mind what to offer to the blog for a few months now. Then I remembered, I’m white, I’m 5’11 (6Ft on a good day), and I’m a man…. People listen to me most of the time whether I have something really inspiring to say or if I just raise my voice or ask for the floor.

So with the above in mind, I’ll share the biggest lesson I learned at Queen’s working as the Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS: how to stop talking. Learning to stop talking is about using the privilege you have to magnify the hard work of others who have the lived experience to make the biggest impact.

I first learned to stop talking at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI). My Mom was admitted to TRI after a stroke that impacted her speech with Aphasia. It’s been over 15 years since my mom’s stroke and she’s thriving; I’m constantly driven by her grit and humour. My Mom and I were sitting in a windowless room waiting for a Doctor. My mom was raw from surgery, I was in my early teens and I was terrified. At the time my mom’s speech was very limited – knowing her habits and being similar people, I had a knack for helping translate for her. The Doctor walked in and started talking directly to my mom… asking her specific and important question with incredible patience and a palpable caring bedside manner. Trying to help, I tried to voice for my mom – I’d interrupt a bit – then the Doctor kindly but firmly asked me to stop talking……..I could have flipped a table in that moment. This is my mother and I’m trying to help her! I would later come to understand that the Doctor was really trying to help my mom, too. The Doctor gave my mom agency and time and the space to express herself even though it took longer and was the tougher road.

In 2007, I was chosen to serve as Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS. I was thrilled and I also knew… for sure… 100% …that I knew everything I needed to know about Diversity…. I grew up in midtown Toronto … after all I had tried falafel.

In 2003, a report came out that shocked many people at Queen’s but validated a lot of concerns that had been raised for years by racialized and Indigenous students and staff: The Henry report galvanized a lot of important conversations. Intelligent, organized, and driven women of colour and others from the Queen’s Coalition against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination easily saw through platitudes and demanded action.
If it wasn’t obvious enough before – I knew nothing, really, about racism. Between 2007-2008 amazing professors like Audrey Kobayashi and incredible staff, most notably Stephanie Simpson, gave me a lot of their time and were very patient. They both taught me to stop talking.

I learned that you can support important action without being the centre of attention. I’m proud of the strides the SIC made that year – we launched a mental health publication and made strides in other areas of Anti-Oppression but QCRED did the critical and hardest work around anti-racism: including unearthing important history around Alfred Pierce – and they were a group without paid staff or meaningful student government funding.

Working on Bay Street in Toronto, I’ve learned now when to start talking. There’s an important role allies can play. Sponsor and mentor people who are different from you for jobs. When your gay friends question the validity of Black Lives Matter’s approach to Pride or carding, bring up the Toronto Bathhouse Raids and remind your white friends of the demographics of incarceration rates- and why the numbers don’t make sense. Speak with your wallet and give money to organizations that deliver essential services that aren’t popular on election platforms. Be a role model, in as many little ways as you can. Learn how to stop talking and how to give the floor to people with something really important and inspiring to say.