By Elaine Smith
“My definition of leadership is not one where people blindly follow you,” says Nombuso Dlamini, associate professor in the Faculty of Education and York University’s inaugural Jean Augustine Chair in Education in the New Urban Environment. “Leaders have responsibility. I see leadership as a cooperative, community-based position.”
Dlamini, whose research explores youth negotiations of identity in new urban environments, joined York from the University of Windsor in 2010 to assume the newly created position, which has since been renamed the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora. Although it was an academic appointment, there was a public engagement component and Dlamini wanted to create a yearly template for engagement activities during her five-year term (2010-15). Characteristically, she sought to collaborate with others, reaching out to Faculty of Education colleagues who were engaged in research about the urban environment, as well as other peers with similar interests.
The result? An informal think tank that included Professors Uzo Anucha, Sarah Barrett, Laura Wiseman and Mario Di Paolantonio of York University; Professor Njoki Wane of OISE/University of Toronto; and then-superintendent of schools and York alum Opiyo Oloya, who is currently an associate vice-president at Western University.
“I wanted colleagues who had an interest in looking at the experiences of people in the city: how they affirm, create, curate, co-curate and resist urban life,” Dlamini says. “I wanted to work with scholars who could help me define what this environment looks like and how to talk about it in an understandable, scholarly fashion.”
With their input, Dlamini created the Jean Augustine Chair Forum to honour the work of Augustine, a former member of parliament, a past York University board member and a strong champion of women’s rights, as well as Black identity.
Similar to the political life of Augustine, Dlamini says, “I wanted to ensure that women were respected, valued and revered in their community.”
The forum was held annually during the week of March 8, International Women’s Day, and it featured a keynote speaker and a week of student and faculty activities centred around issues of global gender parity.
“Since the Chair wasn’t fully funded then, my ‘think tank’ suggested that I apply for a grant to fund these activities and helped me brainstorm project topics in a tactical way,” says Dlamini. “They also suggested various community partners who were doing work promoting gender parity.” This resulted in the first Jean Augustine Chair-associated grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Engaging Girls Changing Communities. Augustine, herself, was the keynote speaker for the project’s launch.
Not only did the group meet to assist Dlamini in forging this JA Chair yearly agenda; they met regularly to exchange ideas about research and urban issues, including an annual retreat to write and critique each other’s work.
This collaboration had an unanticipated result: a published collection of the group’s individual essays co-edited by Dlamini and Swiss researcher Angela Stienen, Spatialized Injustice in the Contemporary City: Protesting as Public Pedagogy (Routledge 2022).
“When we met to set up actionable activities, we also talked about how our work could help curate urban lives and help educators better understand the experiences of their colleagues,” Dlamini says. “We invited our March 8 speaker to our annual retreats. The book contains essays about living in the city and about how the city is experienced, remembered, created and resisted.
“It’s about each author’s way of understanding the city and what about the city is enabling or becomes a barrier,” she says. “People produce and consume the city, but they also resist certain kinds of authority and ways of being.”
As it turns out, the book works as a text in her education research course because it illustrates numerous approaches to research.
Towards publication, in addition to the obvious focus on the descriptions of the urban environment, “I looked at the book’s other common threads, such as understanding urban life and the experiences of youth, and because I teach research, I began to see a pattern,” Dlamini says. “Each essay is framed more as a research paper, and it provides a template of different possibilities for educational research.
“Looking back now, I feel really honoured that my colleagues trusted me with their time, ideas and emotions and wanted to engage.”