Category Archives: Kingston

Being Who You Are, Inside and Out

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This month, contributor Erin LeBlanc, Director, Strategic Program Development & Accreditation at the Smith School of Business and Queen’s alumnae, discusses themes of identity, authentic self, and belonging. Ms. Leblanc is an advocate for LGBTQ+ people with a focus on education, awareness, and building community for transgender people.

If I can’t be me, who am I supposed to be?

This is a question that I hear time and time again in conversations with transgender people. And with June just around the corner and communities preparing to host Pride celebrations, I am reminded of these conversations. Some people may be perplexed by this statement in that they don’t understand why there is such a great deal of stress for those who suffer from Gender Dysphoria.

They don’t understand why there is any issue with someone being transgender.

Good for them. They get it. They are enlightened.

However, if you don’t suffer with gender dysphoria, it is hard to appreciate what it is like.

People in the LGBTQ+, in particular the Transgender community, are, for the most part, terrified of how they will be treated if and when they come out. Because society isn’t as welcoming as some people think, or hope. There is still a great lack of understanding and compassion out there. There are numerous examples of transgender people losing their jobs, being evicted from their accommodations, and being disowned from their families. Essentially, they are disenfranchised from society.

And for what? All they want to do is live their lives. Do their jobs. Contribute to the community. But society stills feels threatened by transgender people.

Why?

Usually, it is from a lack of understanding about what it means to be transgender, to suffer from Gender Dysphoria. With some education, they start to be more accepting and can, in many instances, become allies. But many people out there in society still harbor resentment and a sense of confusion, or even disdain, for transpeople.

They refuse to be exposed to any type of information about what it means. How many times have I heard people refer to being transgender as a lifestyle choice.

A choice?

Seriously?

Ask anyone in the community. The last thing I would ever wish upon anyone is to have gender dysphoria. It is something you are born with. There is no choice. Gender is separate from the sex you are assigned at birth based upon a physical attribute. Gender is who you are in your heart and soul and mind. And that too is assigned at birth.

Who would choose to not be congruent in your inner and outer being?

To look in the mirror every single day and not recognize who is looking back at you. To suffer from the depression and anxiety attacks that accompany the dysphoria. To be out of control of your life. To simply be a passenger on the bus that is your life, with no real control over where the bus is taking you. That is frightening and at times debilitating.

A choice?

Not even close.

Think of it this way. You have a can with a label on it that reads “Peas” along with a picture etc. But inside the can, it is actually peaches. On the inside, it is peaches, but to the outside world it is peas. Nowhere near close to being congruent. We can’t change the peaches to peas. Not going to happen. That’s what they are, on the inside. Peaches.

But we can change the label.

That’s on the outside and that can be changed. So, we change the label. We have congruency. Now, people see a can of peaches and guess what. That is what it really is on the inside. All transpeople want is to have the outside match who they are on the inside. To present in the gender they were born with. For some this means surgeries. In some instances, numerous surgeries. For others, it means simply having their external presentation in the clothes they wear, and the way the cut or style their hair etc. match their gender. This provides them with a sense of congruency and hence peace with who they really are.

We are fortunate to live in a country that offers protections by federal and provincial legislation. For many employers, there are official company policies regarding the protection of transgender people from discrimination and humiliation.

And that’s great.

But the work is not done. We can’t take our foot off the gas. There is still a lot that has to be done. Policies are great. But without the processes in place to back them up and implement them, they mean nothing.

Organizations have to look at all the processes they have when hiring, promoting and training their staff to ensure there is understanding and awareness of these policies. More importantly, how it impacts their jobs so they know what to do when a transgender person is asking for assistance or simply wishing to purchase their goods and services. This means front line staff must be trained on what it means to be part of a positive space. To accept all people as equal, to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their gender, race, religion, nationality etc.

Look, all the community wants is to live their lives, do their jobs and contribute to the community.

To live, love and laugh, just like everyone else.

 

That shouldn’t be that hard to accept. It’s not too much to ask.

 

Welcoming and Belonging: A Kanien’kehá:ka Model of Inclusion

In our last blog post for 2017, we hear from Kanonhsyonne (Janice Hill), Director of Indigenous Initiatives at Queen’s University. In this piece, the themes of connection, community and welcome are explored.

In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Equity Office, and in recognition of the need for all members of the Queen’s community to engage in the work of building a more inclusive campus environment, I have chosen to explore the idea of welcoming and inclusion from an Indigenous perspective.

In my work, everything I do is informed by my culture. It is an essential part of me, my life, and the way I see and live in the world. In Kanien’kehá:ka teachings around the Great Law of Peace, we are told that at the beginning of the formation of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations/Iroquois Confederacy), the Peacemaker took as a symbol the great white pine that has four white roots extending to the four cardinal directions, which we refer to as the Tree of Peace. He articulated two important concepts with the planting of the Tree of Peace. First, that all weapons of war would be buried beneath the tree so that no one in the Iroquois Confederacy would war against each other again. With the formation of the Law and the establishment of our clan system, we all became family. Secondly, he indicated that anyone who chose to follow the roots to the source of the tree could find shelter there. In our understanding, this means anyone could find welcome, safety, and belonging. This is our model of inclusion.

A further model of inclusion from my culture is the practice of extending the rafters. Traditional Haudenosaunee communities lived in longhouses, which were large communal dwellings that housed a number of families under one roof. As our families grew, and newcomers joined our communities, we simply extended the rafters of the longhouse to make room. This practice is about building new relationships and fostering a spirit of welcome within our communities. Just like the teachings of the Peacemaker, we believe that all people have a place of belonging.

Haudenosaunee people are collectivists, meaning we make decisions based on the good of the community as opposed to the individual. In our societies, decision-making is about considering the impact seven generations into the future and acknowledging seven generations into the past. This practice inherently makes room for different perspectives, reinforces a sense of responsibility to your community, and enhances your awareness of your connection to those around you.

Building new relationships, enhancing connections to community, and helping to foster a welcoming environment where Indigenous students, faculty, and staff can feel a sense of belonging are important priorities for the newly established Office of Indigenous Initiatives, but it is work that requires engagement from all of us—to learn, to empathize, and to understand. Working in collaboration with every facet of the university community, we will strive for good and right relationships, not only with the Indigenous community but with all people who find their way here.

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.