Retirees' Association

Retirees Association of Queen's

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RAQ AGM Guest Speaker

Stephanie Simpson’s Talk:   “Are Things Getting Better? Reflections on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Queen’s.”


 Stephanie Simpson, Queen's University Advisor on Equity

Stephanie Simpson, Queen's University Advisor on Equity

I am the University Advisor on Equity.

This is a mantra I still find myself repeating in the few spare moments I have these days since taking this new position. It’s been three months now and I should probably just get on with it, I know.  But I find myself repeating the words in part because I can’t believe my good luck – how tremendously fortunate I am to have found work in an area that I am deeply passionate about; to be compensated for service to my community and the chance to grow intellectually and spiritually in my field of interest.  It’s a dream job and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with an outstanding Human Rights and Equity Office team.

I repeat the obvious, that I am the University Advisor on Equity, to remind myself also of the great responsibility I have to the communities I serve.  That I am privileged now to sit at tables and be part of conversations that are not open to everyone.  That it is my job to ensure that people who have been marginalized are heard and, when I am the only one able to do so, to speak with both authority and humility on behalf of those who will themselves not have the opportunity to speak.

Lastly, I repeat the obvious because my path towards this field was not obvious.  Seeing myself as the University Advisor on Equity is like looking at myself through the other side of a mirror.  It’s a little weird. This is me but a different me.  A me that 30 years ago I didn’t know was possible.  Thirty years ago, on the other side of the mirror, I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University.  I had grown up in Mississauga and had come here with intentions of training to be a high school teacher.  I was an English/History medial.  I had made it into the very competitive Concurrent Education program. I was doing fine academically. And, by and large, I was miserable.  It would be hard for me to put my finger on exactly why.  To say that it was because I had experienced overt incidents of racism at Queen’s and in Kingston was part of the story. However, it couldn’t have been the whole story as this was not the first time in my life that I had experienced such things (yes, racism happens in Toronto).  No, I think that what most deeply affected me was a profound sense of isolation as one of very few racialized and black students to attend the school, as well as the sense and the observation that my experiences and the experiences of people from communities like mine did not matter here.  And that, in fact, at a place like Queen’s the very presence of people like myself was vulnerable to attack.

To put things into context, my arrival at Queen’s followed an unprecedented wave of unrest re: human rights, equity and inclusion.  Some of you may remember the tumultuous late 80s and 90s.  Highly publicized incidents of racialized professors being harassed by students, people of African and Indigenous ancestry being mocked, physical and verbal attacks on members of the LGBTQ community, misogynistic and pro-rape signs in residences windows, and let’s not forget the overt presence of white supremacist groups in the community and on campus itself.

On the surface, equity-seeking community members are greater in numbers than they ever have been, and because of this alone we are starting to see more diversity of thought and activity on the campus.  Has the experience of being here changed?  I’m not sure.

These are examples of situations that made it to the media.  They certainly are not inclusive of all of the everyday ways in which people are pushed to the side and told that they don’t belong – Indigenous students denied services because their international knowledge is irrelevant here; departments where women professionals and scholars never seemed quite able to meet the bar for recruitment or promotion. I could go on.

To our credit, Queen’s was one of very few universities at the time to tackle the issue of inequality at post-secondary institutions head on.  The early 90s for example saw the creation of a Principal’s task force on race and race relations and the release of a report with a comprehensive set of recommendations on how to address racism in all areas of the university.  Because of that report, released in 1991, my graduating class was the first generation of students to have the services of a Human Rights Office (the office I now lead) on Queen’s campus.

This was a new era on campus.  Change was in the air.  There was hard work ahead to be done, but something was getting done. The beginnings of a “rights culture” in Canada, which had been reinvigorated by the coming into force of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was making its way, in a substantive manner, to university campuses. People became increasingly aware of their responsibilities and the fact that we all had a role to play in making things better. And things did get better.    The language of equity and human rights was being used.  There were offices to which people could confidentially bring their complaints.  New courses addressing equity were being taught.  Employment equity became a key priority for the university and newly unionized faculty. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the University’s concerns with respect to equity and human rights. Others wiser than myself had warned that it wouldn’t be.  Approximately ten years later, another important moment in the institution’s history with respect to equity. Several racialized and Indigenous faculty resign from the University citing a hostile working climate.  And another report was written.

RAQ was extremely fortunate to have Stephanie Simpson, University Advisor on Equity at Queen’s, as our Guest Speaker at the AGM in April.  Ms Simpson’s candid and though-provoking talk, and the ensuing discussion, provided a stark picture and honest assessment of the current state of equity, diversity and inclusion at Queen’s, and the many challenges still ahead for the university.  With Ms Simpson’s permission, we have reproduced her talk here.

A few years later, post 9-11, Muslim students and faculty are targeted in a series of hateful incidents including vandalism (evidence of arson) in their office and prayer space.  Another set of campus-wide consultations took place. And another report was written.  Not long afterwards, a faculty member was pushed off the sidewalk by students and subjected to racial taunts.   And another set of campus-wide consultations take place.  And another report was written.  Very recently, Queen’s students held an off-campus party at which their fellow students saw their ethnicities stereotyped and trivialized.   And to this our racialized and Indigenous students said “No more reports”.  Something needs to happen now.  Racism cannot wait.  Inequity at Queen’s for historically underrepresented and marginalized group must be a priority.  And the University listened.          
I am pleased to say that tremendous efforts are presently being made to ensure that history does not repeat itself and that there are no more reports responding to incidents of hate, systemic discrimination, and an unwelcoming climate at Queen’s.  As you may know, last year the Principal struck a Principal’s Implementation Committee on Racism, Diversity and Inclusion (PICRDI) which focused exclusively on the actions needed to ensure that the recommendations of past reports were finally implemented.

It’s a job that rests with all of us —  Making urgent and real the fundamental aim of every equity and human rights system in the world: that everyone in the community be able to participate fully.  That everyone experience a sense of belonging.

As a result of the PICRDI’s work, “inclusion” is now formally part of the Deputy Provost’s role on campus and responsibility for institutional change with respect to equity issues now rests in that portfolio.  The senior administration has earmarked $3 million to fund equity initiatives over the next 3 years.  Like the faculty recruitment process, all staff hiring at Queen’s must now involve equity and implicit bias awareness training for committee members.  All academic units are now responsible for setting equity goals within their units through the use of our award winning Diversity and Equity Assessment and Planning (DEAP) Tool.  There are new bursaries and awards available for equity-seeking students.  These are just a few examples of the wonderful new things that are happening.

 So when people ask me what it’s like to do this work, to be the University Advisor on Equity, I can say, truly, that in my more than 30 years on this campus, there has never been a better time for equity and inclusion at Queen’s than right now. And, again, I feel very fortunate to be part of this time.  We have always had a remarkably active and engaged student body as well as staff and faculty members who have pushed for change.  The difference now is that we also have an engaged senior leadership that is setting the tone, modelling change, properly resourcing the changes that need to be made, and applying an equity lens to all university operations.  Equity, human rights, and reconciliation for Indigenous peoples are no longer expected to be accomplished once the “real work of the university” is done.  Equity IS part of our core mission.  And that is a huge shift in our institutional mentality that was not present a decade ago.

Yet, when asked if things are getting better... that’s a different question, isn’t it?  It is too broad a question.  Yes, as I’ve just outlined things are obviously better from a systems perspective.  But I believe the answer to the question can only come from equity-seeking communities themselves.

On the surface, equity-seeking community members are greater in numbers than they ever have been, and because of this alone we are starting to see more diversity of thought and activity on the campus.  Has the experience of being here changed?  I’m not sure.

Recently I was speaking on a panel and there met a student who was in the concurrent education program. I was anxious to hear about what it was like to be a racialized student at Queen’s today.  She told our audience that her four years here had been a long and difficult road.  That she was the only one. She spoke of lack of support. Racism she experienced in her practicum school.  How much she was looking forward to leaving Queen’s.

It gave me goosebumps.  It saddened and frustrated me.  It felt as though I was listening to my own story.  30 years later, looking at her, I was looking at me on the other side of the mirror, wondering when things would change and knowing that this was my job.  It’s a job that rests with all of us.  Making urgent and real the fundamental aim of every equity and human rights system in the world: that everyone in the community be able to participate fully.  That everyone experience a sense of belonging.                             

Stephanie Simpson, University Advisor on Equity