Just a few months ago, Black History and Futures Month at Queen’s, as elsewhere, was devoted to honouring the history and contributions of Black Canadians and their communities. The new Black Studies program, which is profiled in this issue of the Alumni Review, played a key role in these events, as indeed it will in the ongoing transformation of our university as we work to realize the commitments Queen’s made in November 2021 when it signed the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education.
While it is justifiable cause for pride that Queen’s was one of the earliest signatories to the Charter, that the university participated in the national conference out of which it came, and that members of our community continue to contribute to the Canada-wide dialogue which it initiated, the real test of our institution lies ahead. The Charter is unique in being addressed specifically and exclusively to the higher education sector, and in its profound understanding of the systemic and structural aspects of universities and colleges in which racism can manifest itself. If we are to be true to our commitment in signing, we will have to reflect upon, and where necessary change, those structures, policies, and processes which seem on the surface neutral, traditional, universal, and therefore beyond questioning.
The Charter focuses on four principles – “Black Flourishing, Inclusive Excellence, Mutuality, and Accountability” – and pursues them in governance, research, teaching and learning, and community engagement. All the principles are essential if institutions are to make progress in fostering Black inclusion, but “mutuality” is especially worth reflecting upon if our university is to succeed in its commitment in the Strategic Framework to serve “an inclusive, diverse, and sustainable society.”
“Mutuality” still seems a slightly foreign concept in universities like ours, where an ethos of individualism continues to hold sway, where competition remains the fuel of achievement, and where action on climate and global sustainability has risen dramatically partly because universities are increasingly ranked on that basis. This is the paradoxical situation in which the universities of the developed world today find themselves: in competition to serve the greater good.
If we understand mutuality as it is defined in the Charter – including a recognition that “universities and colleges are embedded in communities locally, as well as nationally, regionally, and internationally” and that they should have an “interactive” relationship with those communities – it becomes obvious that the historical self-referentiality and self-sufficiency of the western academy must give way. To put this differently: the path forward for institutions like ours requires modesty and a greater willingness to be educated and shaped by the world beyond our confines.
In addressing ourselves to issues of anti-Black racism we must become active partners with the Black community both within and without the university. And the same ethic of interactive, reciprocal engagement must prevail in all our work, as the opportunities opened up by co-creation with the world we seek to serve will offer our greatest hope for the future.
Originally published in the Queen's Alumni Review Magazine.