Category Archives: Reflection

My safety: Rethinking safe spaces through intentional community building

Hands together

In our January blog, Mofi Badmos, Diversity and Inclusivity Coordinator at the Smith School of Business, talks about the importance of community and how creating spaces for BIPoC individuals is key to fostering belonging

We finish our third book club meeting discussing Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, with so much awe and gratitude that I say to my friend and book club member “wow, I can’t believe we continue to make this happen”. I am stunned at how five Black women, in four different countries, across different time zones come together, in community, to discuss books and themes all connected through our different but shared experiences as Black women navigating society.

Our lazily named Best Book Club was intentional on the membership being Black and non-Black racialized women from African countries reading books by other Black and non-Black racialized African authors. There is something to be said about community, and being with others who have shared experiences is comforting, healing, and rejuvenating.

Community is central to my life and wellbeing. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria surrounded by family, friends and members of my community. I always had people and this cemented the feelings and benefits of having a network around. Moving to Kingston in 2016 for work exposed me to the many challenges of making friends and creating community in adulthood, especially in a space lacking in representation of Black people and the ability gather, effortlessly. There are significant comforts and unsaid ways of being that come with being in spaces with other Black and brown folks that I have to let go of in my day-to-day life. In many instances, I have not felt like myself and I continue to yearn for, crave, and create those communities where I can just be.

This drew me to ponder the many ways in which members of marginalized groups create and maintain community, in-person and online. It is important to have a discussion around the need of spaces and communities that are centered around marginalized groups and especially dispel the notion that the creation of these spaces is sexist, racist, and exclusionary for members of the dominant culture(s).

 

Rethinking safe spaces 

Safe Space, a term that is used often at the start of events, workshops, and sessions is a call to action to ensure that everyone in that space feels safe, is not exposed to harm, and, hopefully, is protected if safety is not met. The concept of safe spaces is contested because, among other reasons, how can organizers really ensure safety. The uncertainty around guaranteeing a safe space can be attributed to the systems of oppression that exist within those spaces. A way to work towards what can be a safe space for members of marginalized groups is controlling for the representation of the systems of oppression in that space, among other things.

 

Wine and Whine was a feminist, women-only party organized in Lagos, Nigeria in 2019 to create a space where women could have fun and party without the fears of harassment and violence. Some conversations around this questioned if “exclusionary” spaces are necessary when the focus should be on creating space where all can exist. Yes, that would be the goal but that is not the reality for women and other folks, as we exist in society.

To have this conversation is to understand that anti-Black racism, racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of oppression are deeply systemic and are not just results of interpersonal issues. Consider the fact that spaces reflecting the dominant culture (whiteness, heteronormativity, patriarchy, able-bodied) have existed, continue to exist, and are tainted with superiority, privilege, erasure and inaccessibility.  Any space created in contrast to this is not reflecting the current power structures but rather subverting them. To have this conversation is also to understand that the aim of intentional community building is to create safe spaces for Black and brown folks to share experiences and discuss forms of systemic oppression without the lurking presence of those systems.

 

Creating your space

I think about this frequently and especially in my work as the Diversity and Inclusivity coordinator at the Smith School of Business. I continue to think about how I can create space for equity-seeking students without further othering1 them. I see and can relate with the challenges that come from being in a white dominated space, wanting to connect with other Black and brown folks but not wanting that to be your only identity. The strength and validation that comes from intentionally creating your space is worth more than the illusion that fitting in can offer. Black and racialized people continue to be told that we have to limit ourselves in order to succeed, but a key part that is missing is that community is our fuel and as Black and brown folks, our coming together continues to be the fear of the dominant society. So tap into that as much as you can and like.

Intentional community building inspired the co-founding of Black Luck Collective, a community meet-up group aimed at bringing together new and seasoned Black Kingstonians to uncover our dependable and visible community through social, educational, and professional occasions. I felt the need to create this group, as I felt disconnected from my community living in Kingston and working in white dominated spaces. The limitation in self-expression, code switching, racism and micoaggressions, highlighted the importance of creating a space that does not include those things and where we can share shared experiences with understanding.

I implore readers not to lean to the initial reaction of wondering what-of-members-of-the-dominant-culture that this is excluding but think what is this doing for members of this community and how are they benefitting from this. Community gathering has always existed, but in spaces where people find themselves excluded or marginalized there is much relevance in creating space. As a member of a dominant culture that wants to attend a gathering as a way of support, I implore you to think about this and think about how much space you occupy in the way of infringing on true self-expression and comfort that these spaces bring. Reflect on your privilege and positionality as it can inform better ways you can show support and ally-ship.

I hope members of the Queen’s community; especially the students I work with will see the relevance of intentionally creating space and community for Black, Brown and other People Of Colour to be able to exist truthfully and hopefully in safety. In the great words of Audre Lorde “Without community, there is no liberation”

 

1Othering: a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.  (powell, j. a., & Menendian, S. (2018, August 29). The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging. Retrieved January 16, 2020, from http://www.otheringandbelonging.org/the-problem-of-othering/)

We See the World as We Are

The Bubble Map Exercise

In this blog, our contributor Kevin Collins, the Student Development Coordinator at Queen’s, writes about the importance of understanding our own identities in order to learn how to navigate differences respectfully

This year’s blog theme is unlearning and relearning. My career has given me the opportunity to try my hand at these things. It’s a process that I feel fortunate to have regular opportunities to engage in.

My background is in international and comparative education. Through living and teaching overseas, I’ve been able to see how different educational systems work based on cultural context. As a teacher in South Korea and Sweden, I felt that I was learning about how different educational systems work. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was viewing things through my own lens based on my culture and identity. When I saw students in Korea attending school on Saturdays, or students in Sweden calling teachers by their first names, I disagreed with these practices because I was used to the schooling model that I grew up with. I didn’t seek to fully understand educational practices from the perspective of the people who were a part of the systems in which I was a visitor. I’ve since been able to reframe my experiences with the knowledge that who I am and my prior lived experiences shape the way that I see the world.

There’s an activity that I often do with students to help frame and personalize this idea: The Bubble Map. I first used the activity when I worked on the Intercultural Learning Program at U of T. In front of the group, I write my name in the centre of a piece of chart paper and then draw circles around it and write in some of the cultural affinity groups that I belong to. Cultural affinity groups include age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, places you’ve lived, hobbies and interests. I introduce myself to the group and talk about how the cultural affinity groups that I belong to have values, attitudes, norms and practices associated with them. As a gay man who enjoys the outdoors and loves dogs, I really like to go on hikes with my dog and my boyfriend. Someone who is a cat lover, or who prefers city life, might not feel the same way.

I also talk with the group about how the affinity groups that we belong to, or the pieces of our identities, intersect. We can’t say that experiences are the same for everyone in a certain group, because not everyone belongs to the same set of groups. Additionally, some groups we choose to be a part of, and others we are born into. Some parts of who we are are visible, and other parts we can choose to share or not share. There’s a great deal more that could be discussed here related to power and privilege, but the Bubble Map is a nice intro into culture and identity.

After I introduce myself, I ask the students to create their own maps. I let them know that they can include as much or as little as they are comfortable with. They then introduce themselves to each other. The conversations that I hear are amazing:

  • Someone with one parent and another with four parents talking about what family life was like growing up
  • A Kingstonian sharing how Toronto feels too busy with a person from Shanghai who thinks that Toronto is fairly quiet and small compared to what they are used to
  • A piano player and a sailor comparing and contrasting the values, beliefs, norms and practices associated with their hobbies

How does all of this relate to unlearning and relearning? I think that we often make assumptions about things based on who we are and our lived experiences. By examining how culture and identity impact our perceptions it allows us to think reflexively. Additionally, by opening ourselves up to hear from others who are different from us, we can better understand them and the way that they see the world. Doing so can change our thinking, making us more empathetic. Learning how to navigate differences respectfully is key in fostering a more inclusive campus.

Learning, Unlearning and Relearning

Mirror photo

In the first blog of the year, Lauren Winkler, a Kanien’keha:ka student at Queen’s, talks about her journey relearning to love herself in the different roles of her life: daughter, sister, niece, grandchild, and friend

 

“Education is what got us here, education is what will get us out.” – Senator Murray Sinclair

When I think of university, or post-secondary education, or life for that matter, one word comes to mind: opportunity. Coming to Queen’s I was excited about the opportunity to live on my own, to make new friends, to find myself (because at the time I thought that was something that would just happen… I only wish), and to learn. Sure enough, I have thrived living in my independence, made lifelong friends, and gained a better sense of who I am. What I did not anticipate were the challenges to my own way of thinking that would come from my professors and peers, the different perspectives and life experiences that would be shared with me, and how strengthening my values would shift how I learned and perceived the world. Before university, I always saw learning as linear, but I now understand it to be a lifelong process in which I will learn, unlearn, and relearn. I believe that the more you learn, the better equipped you are to practice empathy, engage in meaningful discussion, and be a catalyst for change.

It was during my undergraduate degree that I first heard the term “unlearning” and it was not until this past summer that I truly understood the concept of “relearning.”

Usually when I tell my story, it heavily focuses on my identity as an Indigenous student. Today, however, I want to embrace my vulnerability and share a different narrative. I want to tell you about how I am relearning to love myself. To love myself as a daughter, sister, niece, grandchild, and friend. To love myself as a woman, as a Mohawk woman, a student, as a law student. To love myself as an advocate for Indigenous peoples, as a student to my culture, as a member of the Onkwehon:we community. To do this, I have had to unlearn toxic pressures and expectations that I put on myself, unlearn my view of vulnerability as being negative, and unlearn stigmas attached to mental health and mental illness. In the past year, I have learned that eating disorders are not solely a result of body image, I have learned that healing is not linear, and I have learned that sharing my own story helps others to validate their own. Struggling with depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, I have had to relearn patience with myself, relearn to validate my thoughts and feelings, and relearn loving myself for who I am.

You will have noticed that at the beginning of this post I included a quote by Senator Murray Sinclair. Where his quote is referring to the residential school system and the power that education has in the process of reconciliation, I think that his message on education can be applied to any situation. I truly believe that we all have so much to learn from one another and that we would all be in a better place if we genuinely listened to and engaged with one another. If we unlearned narratives that we have been taught about one another. If we relearn how to connect with one another to work towards a larger purpose. To me, that is the power of learning, unlearning, and relearning – they are processes that I will be humbly engaging in my whole life and the thought excites me.

The future of gender will change Queen’s for the benefit of everyone

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In this post, Dr. Lee Airton, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, talks about how future students will drive change on our campuses, as they will expect the availability of gender and sexual diversity content and supports

 

The Queen’s community will change a great deal in the coming decades, in part due to changes in how gender (and sexuality) are lived. In ten years alone, Queen’s will have welcomed and graduated several cohorts of students who have grown up with the highest degree of familiarity with gender and sexual diversity – both individuals and cultural phenomena – that has ever been seen among the general population. Attitudinal studies have shown that knowing a queer or transgender person has a causal relationship with expressing less homophobic or transphobic attitudes, so we can expect a student body with far more exposure and lay-person expertise. For my faculty members as well as Teaching Assistants, Term Adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Fellows, this student body will expect gender and sexual diversity content in their courses. In fact, course content will struggle to keep pace with the sheer volume of everyday lay-person and internet-sourced knowledge that students bring with them into the classroom, such that instructors who do not update their teaching materials or invite students to actively contribute their lay or experiential knowledge will struggle mightily. I also predict that any remaining gender binary-based traditions that automatically divide men and women will become optional. An example is the tradition of only women students being offered a bouquet to hold by the professional photographer taking their graduation photo; soon, every student will be asked whether they would like to participate, regardless of how they are expressing gender. Students themselves will drive these changes, not just for themselves as individuals, but because social norms will have shifted to the point that this is just not done anymore.

In addition to students arriving on campus with more knowledge of gender and sexual diversity, Queen’s can also expect an increasing number of students who are openly somewhere on the transgender spectrum, whether men, women, or nonbinary people. Driving factors behind this increase include K-12 schools vastly increasing the resources and supports in this area, and more and more transgender-spectrum children and youth being affirmed in their communities, families and schools. This means that fewer transgender-spectrum youth will be homeless or will have to leave school in order to keep themselves safe. Given how family and other supports contribute to post-secondary attendance and success, we will see a boom, particularly in transgender student enrollment. These will be empowered, supported and self-advocating transgender students with parents behind them who feel confident showing up and making the kind of demands on the university administration and bureaucracy that most generations of transgender people just could not expect from our parents, sometimes because of estrangement and sometimes because of a lack of knowledge of us and our needs, but this is changing. The rise of singular they/them – using the traditional ‘they are’ to refer to a single known person – will also continue, and will quicken. By 2030, everyone who teaches courses at Queen’s or whose position includes direct contact with students will have worked with at least one but more likely 3-5 students who have they/them pronouns.

The inevitability of these changes is quite striking, but there is still work to be done to get ready on both of our campuses, east and west. Through the wonderful work of the Trans Policy Group, Queen’s has field-leading policies on gender-neutral washroom inclusion in new builds and renovations, but this has not been consistently followed. One glaring example, to my mind, is the Agnes Etherington Art Centre; despite being one of the landmark renovations on campus and constantly in use for university-related and external functions, the Agnes does not have a public, accessible, gender-neutral washroom. I have been to a half-dozen events there in the past two years and seen different approaches to rectifying this ongoing problem, including not at all. Another example is our student information management system, SOLUS, which offers a preferred name field for students to use if they choose, but preferred names are not included on instructor-generated attendance lists, rendering this well-intentioned change quite impractical.

These are just two areas that require comprehensive exploration and updating, building on the tremendous amount of work by people who have preceded me in our community, many of whom are still here making their mark. As the tide of increasing gender diversity – including but not limited to transgender-spectrum people – continues to arrive on campus and highlight what needs to take place, I am confident we will continue to rise to the challenge.

Justice Is Not Some of Our Work but All of Our Work

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For our April piece, Curtis Carmichael, Queen’s alumnus and a respected community leader, talks about the need to move the conversation forward, from equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) towards an anti-oppression and anti-racism framework, in order to create meaningful change

 

I was raised in a lower income community in Scarborough. In these neighborhoods, underfunded by the government, we noticed that poverty was by design – structural. Schools in Toronto, like many across Canada, treated children differently based on their race and income. They funneled Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and lower income students into courses below their ability and disproportionally suspended and expelled these students.

In 2011, while studying at Queens, I noticed why students from communities like mine were underrepresented in universities but overrepresented in colleges. This was by design. Students from these communities were capable of excelling academically. The problems lay within the systemic barriers that limited their choices and access to opportunities. As a teacher and former Queen’s employee, I recognize that educational institutions often have a similar approach to diversity: to increase it without providing institutional supports to sustain it. Representation does matter; however, this alone is not enough.

Encouraging and promoting diversity does not do justice to diverse communities if systems are not put in place for them to thrive. To move forward for meaningful systemic change, Queen’s needs to move beyond Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). EDI has become popular and trendy in western discourses but it is not able to identify and remove the systemic barriers that were historically designed to exclude and further marginalize BIPOC communities. Specifically, we must move from EDI towards an anti-oppression and anti-racism framework. This will better inform the direction of the university as it establishes the institutional supports needed for staff and students at all levels. By using these frameworks, the barriers and processes that continue to perpetuate marginalization can be identified and removed.

Queen’s University has made strides forward; however, much is still required to establish the support for staff and students from underrepresented communities. Anti-oppression & anti-racism training must be provided with institutional support and accountability in order to drive meaningful systemic change. These frameworks need to inform all of our work, not some of our work. The first step toward change is to name the ongoing oppression, colonization and marginalization for what it is. We must name and understand systemic white supremacy, a system based on economic exploitation and structural exclusion of BIPOC by limiting their access to opportunities and resources. In short, Canada has racism so deeply embedded in our systems that we need as many people at the local and national level to disrupt our system to make changes. We need to uplift one another and each find our role in this fight for justice. We must choose to disrupt our system and make changes or we will perpetuate it by keeping silent.

“The system is not broken. It was built this way.” – Desmond Cole

Breaking Boundaries Through the Arts: The Power of Poetry

Can’t see the video? Click Here.

This month, Nirosha Balukamar -fourth-year undergraduate student at Queen’s- writes a powerful piece on how the art of the spoken word can be used to create connections and understandings. Nirosha sees poetry as a tool to educate, empower and engage others in the conversation by raising awareness and fostering environments for constructive dialogue.

 

My voice is my strength and my strength lies in my voice.

If you know me, you’ll know that one of my favourite phrases is “let’s decolonize education.” I am a huge believer in embracing the untraditional and unconventional ways of learning, of challenging the systems in place and trying to reimagine the way in which we communicate and educate. I am a spoken word artist and I use my art as a platform to advocate and empower others. I use my art to connect and empathize, to create understanding and bridge barriers, to overcome boundaries and differences. You see for me, the arts are a means to foster intergenerational dialogue. I truly believe that when I perform, I am able to reach individuals in ways that our traditional systems cannot.

It is important to understand that these mediums hold value. We live in an education system that tries to confine us and produce identical beings. We are taught how to learn, we are constricted on what is seen as valid. These Western and Eurocentric models continue to reinforce negative power dynamics. We limit ourselves and the conversations we have by ensuring people follow a certain status quo. We silence creativity and self-expression, we fear the unknown. My advocacy for the arts as a valid form of communication lies with the importance of accepting untraditional ways of learning and engaging.

For me, it’s more than just reimagining the way in which we communicate, but it’s about reinventing these methods- understanding that storytelling, poetry and music are indigenous forms of knowledge and communication. It’s about honouring how my ancestors across the Caribbean and South Asia, engaged and celebrated the arts throughout history- from the plantations to the scriptures. To understand that wisdom and knowledge come in different forms, is the point in which we can begin to decolonize our minds.

One of the most powerful moments for me was when I was working for the United Nations this summer. I had the opportunity to perform at the UN Reception and I was incredibly nervous because this was the most high-profile audience I had ever performed to. My poetry is usually shared amongst youth for advocacy and empowerment purposes. I wasn’t sure how my spoken word would be received in a venue filled with professionals that wrote reports and conducted research- I wasn’t sure how far my creativity would reach. It was this performance that made me realize that my art could one day translate into my career. After my performance, I was approached by an individual who had experienced domestic abuse and expressed how much my words had resonated with her; how she had felt like I had written it for her and her story. I then had another individual- completely different story, from a completely different country, approach me to tell me that he had to walk away for a moment because it was as if I was speaking specifically to him and some of his struggles with recovering from alcoholism. At that moment, I realized the power of poetry. How one set of words were able to connect and bring reflection to two complete strangers. I realized that in allowing this to be a form of communication, we can not only reach a wider audience but we can invoke emotions, creating spaces to foster dialogue.

When we talk about wanting to make effective change, I saw the challenges for myself this summer within the UN and governmental bodies. The laws may appear to be perfect, but if they are not respected, implemented or justified, then there is no actual change to take place. The truth is, that a lot of the issues lie within societal attitudes and behaviours. Systems have been created to keep certain groups marginalized and we continue to maintain these, whether or not our policies are discriminatory. Changes in laws, conducting research and producing reports, won’t change attitudes. But reimagining how we communicate and how we can use it as a tool to create connections and understandings, could be the key that we need to helping bridge these gaps in humanity. To make people feel, to want to care and listen- to create change, we need to communicate.

You can experience one of Nirosha’s poems here: To the Person on the Other Side of the Mirror: What Do You See? – Nirosha Balakumar.