During February 2014, I attended Trent African Caribbean Student Union (TACSU)’s Great Debates. It was one of the best events I had been to all year. I got to witness passionate individuals tackle various issues surrounding race in thought-provoking discussion.
TACSU executives put a lot of time and planning into the event and I got to sit down with Director of Events Jessica Rogers to talk about the initiatives they undertook to raise awareness for visible minorities on campus. “We called it Black Heritage Month this year,” Rogers told Arthur. “We at TACSU felt these discussions are important to have as it allows several different people with different opinions a chance to talk about their experiences on campus. They all bring unique perspectives from what they experience on a day-to-day basis.”
Indeed, a diversity of opinions was present at the debates. Two teams took part, consisting of Christopher Worrell, Boykin Smith, Aisha Dominique and Michael Tucker. The panel of judges consisted of academics such as Lady Eaton College (LEC) Principal Michael Eamon and recent graduate Mbongeni Mtetwa. The arguments were not volatile or heated, but rather insightful and challenging, even to my own pre-conceived notions of the month and how it should be celebrated.
Have you heard the statement that Black History Month has more of an American tradition than in Canada?
Rogers said this was the very thing they wanted to challenge in opening up a dialogue through the debates. “There is a history of slavery in Canada and there is no denying that. Yes, the month can be focused on one particular group but we wanted to challenge that as well – it is a chance for us to look back at our past and see how we got here.”
By opening up this dialogue, the initiatives of TACSU and LEC hosting a variety of Black Heritage Month events encouraged education on the subject successfully, and with celebration unlike any other I had seen on campus.
It is so important to talk about race and this article is very much a reflection on the very first piece I ever wrote for Arthur- “Where Is Black History Month on Campus?” Last year, I felt minorities were not represented at all, and joined TCSA this year as the Anti-Racism Commissioner in order to counter that. Facing many challenges in my term, I have come to realize just how difficult it can be to talk about race.
It’s easy to dismiss the month as only a month to talk about or celebrate one community, but by opening up a dialogue the way these debates did, we begin to challenge that.
“Why are we celebrated on the amount of pigment in our skin?” Worrell asked that day. Through discussion that followed, there was a consensus that other marginalized groups should be included in the celebrations.
“To challenge race from various perspectives, we form an identity that can include all races. Even by challenging the month itself, we can begin to form an identity and concepts of Canadian Heritage,” Rogers said.
That is what TACSU has achieved this year, and I know that with an executive team that has succeeded immensely in this, our campus identity has begun to change as well.
I wanted to start a poster campaign this year representing important figures in history, and if others wanted to see their own heroes represented on campus, it would begin a celebration of figures from diverse backgrounds that inspire hope in us. Though I experienced challenges having them up in February, I am almost glad that it didn’t work out the way I had planned. At the debate, there was a discussion over this one month being designated to represent oppressed minorities, and perhaps by having the posters and this article outside that designated month, it can keep the conversation about race going.
There shouldn’t be just one month to celebrate one race, especially when it isn’t one represented in our daily education. I feel the success of Black Heritage Month in LEC was also very much indebted to Professor Eamon, a historian that took it upon himself to support and educate students unlike anyone else. It makes me proud of our College System, as it reminds us of what the Colleges’ original structure was intended for at Trent, and why we need academics in these positions.
My frustrations over the frivolous parties on campus may be apparent in my recent work, but that is because after the many years I have spent here, I’ve grown tired of the apathy I began to witness. To create change in broken systems, to watch various departments and College systems come under restructuring through neo-liberal corporatizing, the future of my school is very daunting. In light of this, I would like to give thanks to the executive team of TACSU: President Janet Dada, Jessica Rogers, Lucy Kawiche, Betty Wondimu and Ife Shabi for the strength and passion your hard work has inspired, and for some truly exciting and successful events.
If its one thing I’ve learned this year, is that if even someone tells you they would rather you not do something, speak up. That’s the first step – to talk about oppression, talk about race and discrimination that you see around you. I never remained silent about the things I saw on campus and I never will. It is through discourse that we will form and shape the identity of our diversity, and with the leaders who care about representing that diversity next year, I have faith Trent will continue to showcase how special we truly are.