York University community members discuss the importance of Black inclusion in the academy

In the spring of 2020, the brutal police killings of unarmed Black people, most notably the asphyxiation death of 46-year-old George Floyd, led to civil unrest and global condemnation. In the weeks that followed, businesses and non-profit organizations the world over, including universities and governments, were called upon by protestors, Black leaders, students and academics to address anti-Black racism and white supremacy.

Portrait of Sheila Cote-Meek, York University's inaugural VP Equity
Sheila Cote-Meek

York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton together with Sheila Cote-Meek, vice-president of equity, people and culture (EP&C), responded to the call for action. In messages to the community issued in the Spring of 2020, they committed to a series of actions to combat anti-Black racism, including increasing the number of Black scholars, enhancing financial support for Black students, refining the community safety model, unconscious bias training, and developing an equity strategy.

From June 2020 to January 2021, Lenton and Cote-Meek met with more than 200 Black members of York University’s communities to discuss their experiences with anti-Black racism and gather recommendations for change. In August, York Professors Carl E. James and Andrea Davis joined as advisors on the work. James, who is professor in the Faculty of Education and senior advisor on equity and representation to the University, is a national thought leader on anti-Black racism in schools. Davis, professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) and special advisor to the dean of LA&PS on an anti-Black racism strategy for the Faculty, is a leading academic in Black diasporic studies.

Carl James
Carl E. James

On Feb. 24, two documents were released to the University community for review and input. The documents, Addressing Anti-Black Racism: A Framework for Black Inclusion and Draft Action Plan on Black Inclusion distill the information gained from the months of consultations and reviews into a series of themes and actionable steps. Community members are encouraged to submit their feedback on the draft action plan. A University town hall with Lenton, Cote-Meek, James and Davis is planned for March 18 and the York community will have an opportunity to ask questions about the framework and action plan.

“The framework and action plan spell out what the University needs to do to see forward movement on dismantling anti-Black racism at the University,” says Cote-Meek. “The framework is a culmination of the consultations that we undertook with Black faculty and instructors, staff, students and alumni. It is organized into nine thematic areas that capture what came out of the consultations.”

Cote-Meek observes that themes articulated in the framework cover a range of areas that need to be addressed. “For example, addressing the underrepresentation of Black faculty members in Faculties, and Black staff in managerial roles is identified in the framework,” says Cote-Meek. “Another important area is ensuring that Black community members feel a sense of safety on campus.”

Andrea Davis
Andrea Davis

She notes that increasing funding for Black students, graduate students and doctoral fellows and hiring more Black scholars, areas articulated in the framework and action plan, are underway. There is more to be done and Cote-Meek acknowledges that both documents represent a starting point not the end of work. She is optimistic about progress because both the framework and action plan are underpinned by York University’s strong foundation in, and commitment to social justice. Success of the framework and action plan will take time, she says, and will be measured against the nine themes.

As the framework and action plan’s special advisors, James and Davis agree with Cote-Meek that measurement will be important in ensuring success of the anti-Black racism initiatives. Both are firm in their observation that the framework and action plan represent just the beginning of a long journey to rectify the grief caused by anti-Black racism and inequality. They point out that for the academy to grow and thrive, anti-Black racism and inequality must be addressed.

It is critically important that the academy address the long-standing racial disparities that undermine how it functions, asserts Davis. For too long, too few Black academics have been a part of the University and Black scholars, academics and staff are not reflected in the administrative ranks. It is important, she says, that students see themselves reflected in their instructors. “As a York University senator for the last five years and Chair of my department, one of the things I consistently pushed back against was a kind of easy assumption that because our student body is diverse, with a visible representation of Black and racialized students, that this means the University is not racist and we don’t need to do anything further,” says Davis. “Students are choosing us and therefore that means we are an ‘equitable place’.”

However, says Davis, the truth is that long entrenched anti-Black racism and inequality is a hallmark of academia. “What encourages me about the framework is the acknowledgement that structural, systemic racism, and anti-Black racism specifically, exists in universities, and it exists at York.”

The curriculum, adds James, “has not reflected the diversity of our students; and our teaching practices and activities within the departments and faculties have not been attentive enough to the concerns and needs of our students, and our Black faculty and staff.”

“In some ways,” says Davis, “this may be entirely rhetorical, but there is something especially important about having a contract in writing in the framework and action plan and being able to hold the University accountable to its own words and promises.”

The main question for James is not “why is this important,” but “why now?” He continues, “What brought us to this point? What have we not been doing all along? What do we need to start doing? Are we paying attention to what we might not have been doing and should have been doing? And in all the University does, we must be conscious not to use Black people as props or supporting cast members in conveying the message of diversity.”

For Davis, the death of George Floyd was a turning point. “It was the tragedy of the moment. I think that it took the public, humiliating and catastrophic depiction of Black pain and Black death to bring us to this point. It is history repeating history. As a University, we were continuing along and we did not pay attention to the everyday patterns of hurt, the painful experiences our students, faculty and staff face. It was that moment of horror that forced everyone to pay attention to the deficiencies in our relationships and our way of thinking.”

James asserts that it is important for the academy to be held to account for the longstanding culture of inequity. The eight minutes it took for George Floyd to die brought a reckoning to the world, says James, and to academia in particular because of the important role that universities play in advancing change.

“The death of George Floyd was not a singular event,” says James. “The change that needs to happen requires a commitment.” The framework he says, represents an important start in the hard work that lies ahead.

Both James and Davis say that it will take time and effort for the entire York University community to bring about the kind of cultural transformation laid out in the framework and progress will be difficult. “People may hear different ideas, including things they might not want to hear, but we must demonstrate a readiness and willingness to change,” says Davis.

“It is good to see the commitments on paper in the framework because I speak often about the cruelty of hope or the cruelty of optimism,” says James. “So, I am thinking here that these commitments would be cruel if they are not followed up with real action. The hiring of Black faculty is a signal of progress, and the recent announcement of the support program for Black postdocs means that there is some start to the promise. But without really putting in place these things our hopes will be destroyed.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor