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This is us...Yolande Davidson

This is us...Yolande Davidson

[Photo of Yolande Davidson at Queen's Park, Toronto]
Eric Forget

Yolande Davidson at Queen's Park, Toronto

Yolande Davidson, Artsci’03 (Political Studies)
Policy manager, Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, Toronto
Volunteer, UCARE

"Volunteerism is just a personal priority for me. At Queen’s, I was a member of the African and Caribbean Students’ Association starting in my first year, and I was on the executive from years two to four. I think when you have the potential to help – in some small or large way – make things around you a little bit better, if you have the resources and the time to do it – then volunteerism is a great way to make a difference, as well as to stay connected to your community and to other people.

“My priority is that Queen’s continues to be a centre of academic excellence but also a place where every student feels welcome and safe. One of the things that I said in my application to UCARE was that I had some great years at Queen’s but that didn’t mean there weren’t challenges or that unpleasant things didn’t happen. Even so, I still think fondly of the school and it would be my wish that every student leaves the campus feeling that way at the end of their time there, because the reality is that not all students do.

“People might assume that my unpleasant experiences came down to my interactions as a black woman, and obviously the Queen’s campus and the student population were very white. Those interpersonal moments were part of it, but I also had very specific institutional experiences that sometimes impacted me more than the demographic reality, if you can call it that.

"In one particularly impactful moment – I didn’t really have the awareness or the emotional maturity to articulate why this made me so uncomfortable – but I distinctly remember being in my first-year world history class as one of very few students of colour in this huge lecture hall. We spent a lot of the semester talking about different aspects of world history from different places. A lot of the discussion was focused on European history, and there was some focus on Asian and other histories. Then we got to a tiny segment on African history. The main conversation was about the connection of Africa to the rest of the world through the transatlantic slave trade. That made me really uncomfortable because I thought, ‘Well, there’s a lot more to my history, the history of African people, and the African diaspora than our proximity to somebody else’s oppression of us.’

"In that moment and for a long time afterwards, I felt intensely uncomfortable, but I didn’t know how to address that. As I went through my time at Queen’s and became more involved in student life, particularly around issues of diversity and equity, I came into myself. That coming of age is one of the reasons why I value my time there.”

We are talking about systems that oppress people
and we are all part of that.

“During my time [as a student], and I don’t know the numbers now, visibility was part of the barrier: people just didn’t know racialized students, in particular, were there, or didn’t expect to see us there. In the early days of my first year, people in my residence asked me, on more than one occasion, if I was lost or if I was visiting someone else. I think that the visibility issue impacted how people who belonged to a marginalized community or equity-seeking group were able to take up space on campus.

“Outside of that, one of the main barriers is a lack of willingness to acknowledge that just because we are talking about systemic marginalization and issues of racism and discrimination, it doesn’t mean that we are looking to attack any particular person. We are talking about systems that oppress people and we are all part of that. Sometimes people really have a problem separating the personal from the political and make what is an institutional issue a personal issue. Of course, racism is a personal issue too, definitely; there is interpersonal racism and that results in negative interactions. But there is also an institutional form, a systemic form, which is really what we need to be getting at so that when people experience discrimination – either at the institutional level or at the personal level – there are mechanisms in place to address it and to move the culture forward. A big part of the school’s journey towards being a more inclusive, safe space is to focus on culture change, and the internal as well as external perception of Queen’s."

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 3-2018]