Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Professors honoured for mentoring, enhancing diversity work

[Beverley Mullings and Leela Viswanathan]
Beverley Mullings and Leela Viswanathan were both recently recognized by the American Association of Geographers. Dr. Mullings received the Susan Hardwick Excellence in Mentoring Award and Dr. Viswanathan received the Enhancing Diversity Award. (University Communications)

Leela Viswanathan and Beverley Mullings both credit their upbringing and their experiences as visible minorities with their drive to become outstanding professors determined to make the world a better place.

“When I teach I make it a point that students hear multiple voices through readings, guests, and my own presence. As a representative of my discipline [planning] I am determined to build diversity into the teaching,” says Dr. Viswanathan, who, along with Dr. Mullings, was recently recognized by the American Association of Geographers.

The pair are both professors in the Queen’s Department of Geography and Planning. Dr. Viswanathan received the association’s Enhancing Diversity Award for her pioneering efforts toward encouraging a more diverse discipline over the course of several years, while Dr. Mullings received the Susan Hardwick Excellence in Mentoring Award for demonstrating extraordinary leadership in guiding the academic growth of her students and junior colleagues.

Dr. Viswanathan’s career and her commitment to ethnic diversity was informed by her early experiences as a girl of South Asian descent growing up in Montreal. She still holds up a picture to her undergraduate students of her 5-year-old-self. “I am the only ‘brown’ little girl in the picture,” she says. Her youthful experience has profoundly shaped her attitude and her desire to understand and educate people about ethnic diversity and all the complexities that comes with that.

“I try to understand places from the standpoint of people who live there, as opposed to only a theoretical or academic position,” she says.

With a research focus on Indigenous decolonization efforts of urban First Nations communities and promoting activism needed to support these aims, Dr. Viswanathan is forging new directions in the planning profession. For example, she brought together a team of colleagues, graduate students, and partner members of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation and Walpole Island First Nation to advocate for change to the 2014 Ontario Provincial Policy Statement (PPS).  “This was a successful effort that led to reinforcing the rights of Aboriginal people to be included at all stages of the planning process under section 35 of Canada’s Constitution,” she explains.

Dr. Viswanathan brings an intense level of dedication to her students, and beyond in the wider community. She is a stalwart supporter and advocate for accessibility rights on campus and has supported students in need of an advocate. She is also co-editor with Scott Morgensen, Associate Professor (Gender Studies, Cultural Studies), of the Journal of Critical Race Inquiry, a journal that advances Canadian and international scholarship on race and racialization.

Belonging, mental health, and mentoring

As a young girl growing up in the Caribbean, Dr. Mullings enjoyed a sense of belonging within her community. Unfortunately, she lost that sense when she moved to the U.K.

“It was a profoundly alienating experience. There were no people of colour. I had no role models,” she says.

“A lot of your success in the academy is how you work your way through. How to navigate a world that was not built for women and minorities.”
                                                                                                                     – Beverley Mullings

“I got a student job at a place that focuses on issues of race and had a manager who really made me feel part of a community. That’s where I learned that I have to reach out and help others.”

While a young academic in Syracuse, she was mentored by mid-career feminists who encouraged her. “I realized I must do the same, to always inquire and help students and junior academics about their well-being. My job is to teach them the lay of the land in the world of academics.”

Dr. Mullings is a champion for mental health issues, always reaching out to her colleagues and students in a compassionate way. At recent forums, she has been shedding light on the issue of mental illness and lack of care that often goes unremarked and unreported in the academy. A colleague who nominated her for the recent award noted that Dr. Mullings’ activism serves as a testament to her commitment to mentoring and support in the academy, where the stresses of work can manifest in serious mental and physical illnesses.

In her various roles, as teacher, researcher, advocate for her geography profession, and community activist, Dr. Mullings is a trailblazer, building networks of solidarity by focusing on the voices of students and faculty who might find themselves on the outside looking in, because of their sexuality, race, or social status.

“A lot of your success in the academy is how you work your way through. How to navigate a world that was not built for women and minorities,” she says

At Queen’s, both Dr. Viswanathan and Dr. Mullings now find themselves in a position of being the older and wiser members of the faculty. With that distinction comes a certain amount of confidence and determination to continue on their journeys to make the world a better place.

“It’s easy to lose hope, to feel disillusioned,” says Dr. Viswanathan. “But we cannot afford not to be hopeful. Diversity will continue and policies and practices need to change. Despite the disillusionment, we must always find our way back to hope, together.”