Black Students Matter

This article, published in the Spring 2022 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.

The Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) at StFX promoted Black Students Matter: Fall Teaching Retreat as “a ground-breaking teaching retreat for all faculty to delve into the history of Black people in our province and the reality of Black Students at StFX University”. Over five days the historical seeds of systemic racism — colonialism, slavery, and segregation — and how the profound, lingering, ongoing, negative effects of this racism continue to impact the StFX community were delved into and discussed frankly.

The first three days of Black Students Matter were held August 25, 26 and 27, 2021. Days Four and Five took place November 9 and 10, 2021. Days One, Two, Three, and Four were held via Zoom. On the morning of Day Five, a presentation by Dr. Joy Mighty was delivered via Zoom to participants sitting together in the McKenna Centre. Following Dr. Mighty’s talk, attendees ate lunch together and participated in an engagement session facilitated by Dr. Wendy Mackey, Assistant Professor, StFX School of Education, on learnings and experiences from the five days of the retreat.

Building an equitable learning environment for our Black students at StFX

Dr. Angie Kolen, the TLC Coordinator, described an understanding that “we have a lot of things related to culturally relevant pedagogies that we need to become more aware of” as the impetus behind Black Students Matter. The participant feedback form circulated following the August portion of the Retreat noted that the purpose of Black Students Matter was “to support StFX faculty and teaching staff to deepen their understanding and building an equitable learning environment for our Black students at StFX”.

Black Students Matter was well attended. Over 150 attendees were present during Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ August 24 keynote address and approximately 100 people were present at Dr. Carl James’s talk the morning of November 9. 25 people were in the room during Dr. Mighty’s presentation and another 35 joined via Zoom. Between 75 and 100 participants attended each of the August sessions. In addition to faculty and teaching staff, librarians and administrators were also present.

Kolen described getting “buy-in from the people that should have the most important say” as the critical first step in making Black Students Matter a reality. Kolen organized an initial spring meeting with Black Faculty and Staff shortly after the conclusion of Mawita’yk Mawkina’masultimk: Come Together, Learn Together, the first multi-day teaching retreat at StFX organized by the TLC.

Kolen commended Dr. Mackey and Dr. Ornella Nzindukiyimana, Assistant Professor, StFX Department of Human Kinetics, for getting the retreat off the ground. “I followed their lead,” Kolen said. She focused on communications, arranging honorariums, and scheduling meetings, while Mackey and Nzindukiyimana, with input from Black colleagues, began developing the program. Nzindukiyimana stressed the importance of holding Black Students Matters prior to the beginning of the Fall Term. This allowed participating Faculty the chance to implement learnings from the retreat into practice.

When asked why she took a prominent role in structuring the retreat, Nzindukiyimana said that she didn’t set out to get involved, but she studied at a Canadian university and can identify with Black students’ struggles. For her part, Mackey said “nothing prompted” her to get involved: this is simply “work that I do”.

Tenacity, endurance, and resilience displayed by African Nova Scotians

Panel presentations situated StFX within the historical cultural context of Nova Scotia, and the history of African Nova Scotians. The morning of Day 3 explored the theme “The History of Black People in Nova Scotia”. A presentation by Cynthia Dorrington, Manager of the Black Loyalists Heritage Centre, titled “The Black Loyalists, and one by Craig Smith, Board Chair of the Black Cultural Society, titled “The African-Nova Scotia Experience” provided insight into the injustices, the betrayals, and the marginalization endured by African Nova Scotians as well as the tenacity, endurance, and resilience displayed by African Nova Scotians.

Ladson-Billings set the tone for the retreat by asking participants:

● Can students bring their whole selves to campus? Are we asking
students to acculturate or are we asking them to assimilate? Are
students being radically welcomed?
● What opportunities do students have to shape their own
● How do faculty help students understand the ‘big ideas’ [e.g.,
multiple perspectives, chronology] that define their courses?
● Do socio-political issues reside only OUTSIDE the classroom?
● Are you providing curriculum options to meet students’ needs?

As the retreat progressed, many spoke to the challenge Black students experience expressing their authentic selves in a system not designed for Black students. Black coaches at StFX led “The Black Athletic Scholars Panel – the reality of being a Black student-athlete” on the Afternoon of Day Two.

Tyrell Vernon, Head Coach X-Men Basketball, spoke to the reality of being a visible minority: “All eyes on you. Lots of pressure”. Gary Waterman, Head Coach X-Men Football, commended the Black student panellists who had spoken to their experience at StFX the afternoon of Day One. Waterman also brought attention to those whose voices were absent: “How many students didn’t stay and aren’t here to tell their stories?”.

Coaches highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on Black student-athletes. The cancellation of sport seasons, Waterman said, led to “heightened mental health challenges for Black student-athletes“. Dr. Denton Anthony, Associate Professor, StFX Department of Marketing and Enterprise Systems, and Assistant Coach, X-Men Basketball, described how Black student-athletes frequently “felt excluded”. Panellists noted various examples of exclusion:

● People crossing the street to avoid Black students.
● Black students asked to leave parties and other social events due to the group being over the gathering limit while white students kept filing in.
● Being told by instructors to sit apart from one another and to remove hats when seated in class. White students do not receive this treatment.

Ladson-Billings had touched upon the insensitivity of rules around hat-wearing during the keynote by mentioning that Jim Crow etiquette required Black men to remove their hats when being addressed by a white person.

Kolen, in an interview with The Beacon, emphasized that:

all they [Black students] asked for is to be treated like others and let us sit side by side in class. Sometimes I think it’s got to be bigger than that; it’s harder than that: it’s not. It’s not hard to look a Black student in the eye and care for them the same way that we do about a white student. It blows me away that there is that kind of animosity. And there is. I know of students that have been told: you two separate. When do we do that to white students? We don’t.

The question of Black students being free to be their authentic selves was raised prior to Black Students Matters. Then-student, now-Black Student Advisor, Tara Reddick made the point that StFX has “hardly any Black professors” during a February 2021 CBC Radio Interview and added “we don’t see ourselves reflected in the curriculum”. Reddick echoed this point later that month during a panel titled “Voices of our Students: The Reality of Being a Black Student at StFX”. She spoke of the personal significance and importance of “my first Black teacher” Dr. Ronald Charles and emphasized how being taught by a Black professor had enriched her StFX experience.

Faculty communicated their frustrations at the lack of Black representation among senior leadership. “There’s none of us above us,” said Mackey. Black people are missing from other key roles. Lee Anna Osei, then-Head Coach X-Women Basketball, noted that there was no Black Student Advisor at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year. Jasonique Moss, a fourth year Forensic Psychology major from The Bahamas spoke to The Beacon this spring concerning the lack of people of colour working at The Health and Counselling Centre. Moss, who served two terms as The U!’s Equity Officer, told The Beacon that the lack of staff able to relate to the Black experience makes therapy as traumatic as the experiences that make the Black student seek counselling.

Significance of language

The significance of language was highlighted as a barrier to having frank, meaningful conversations that need to take place. Ladson-Billings critiqued language that allies and activists use as they engage in anti-racist activity. Describing social justice as “justice lite”, Ladson-Billings said the term is a blanket people hide under rather than dealing with issues, emphasizing that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin needed justice not social justice. When leading cultural competency workshops, Mackey said that she had been instructed to make people feel comfortable. Just the opposite is demanded: the need to make people uncomfortable.

“What’s safe for you is not necessarily safe for me”

During a 2021 interview with The Beacon, Reddick made a similar point regarding the concept of safe spaces and the role that safe spaces play in maintaining the status quo. Reddick noted that the point is not necessarily about making people feel comfortable; they’re about disruption. “What’s safe for you is not necessarily safe for me,” said Reddick. There is a need to ensure that we are talking frankly and forcefully about what needs to be talked about, i.e., issues of inclusion and division.

Following the conclusion of Black Students Matter, The Beacon asked Dr. Kolen what the next steps might be. Kolen noted that it is important to reconsider the approach of asking Black people to retell and relieve traumatic incidents. Future retreats are expected to be more hands-on and focused on how the learnings from Black Students Matter can be put into motion.