B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
“Until Trent is a safe space for students, we need safe spaces for BIPOC students,” says Moriah Hillyer. The BIPOC spaces on Trent’s campus, from right to left: the Freedom Lounge, the BIPOC Growing Collective, and the Cedar Room. Illustration by Irene Suvillaga.

The Anti-Racism Task Force: Performing or Performative?

Written by
Varun Biddanda
and
and
April 12, 2022
The Anti-Racism Task Force: Performing or Performative?
“Until Trent is a safe space for students, we need safe spaces for BIPOC students,” says Moriah Hillyer. The BIPOC spaces on Trent’s campus, from right to left: the Freedom Lounge, the BIPOC Growing Collective, and the Cedar Room. Illustration by Irene Suvillaga.

The murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 led to a worldwide paradigm shift. Increased awareness about the impact of racism, discrimination and policing on society led to organizational changes around the globe. Trent University and the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) were no exceptions – in October of 2020, after conducting an equity audit via an external consulting firm, they initiated the Anti-Racism Task Force (ARTF), an organization composed of staff and students alike, committed to supporting an environment of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Trent University.

Arthur has previously covered the initiation of the ARTF, recognizing the necessity of a student/faculty body made to identify and address EDI-related issues on campus.

Based on their work plan (accessible here), the ARTF was scheduled to carry out community engagement and data collection sessions over the course of 2021, after which they were supposed to release a final report containing their policy recommendations in October 2021. However, their report (accessible here) was not released until February of this year. After nearly a year and a half of deliberation, we’ve had few updates about the progress made by the group apart from this unceremoniously published report.

To get a clearer picture of what happened behind the scenes, we got in touch with Moriah Hillyer, who holds a position on the ARTF as the Trent University Native Association (TUNA) representative, to supply us with inside knowledge about her experience working with the ARTF and what we can expect from them in the future.

Moriah Hillyer is an Afro-Indigenous student who currently holds the position of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) Student Organizer in the TCSA. She was the first-year representative of TUNA in 2019, and then assumed the position of External Relations Coordinator in 2020. Then, she transferred over to the TCSA and initially began working with them as the Racialized Students Commissioner in the 2020-2021 school year. Her history with TUNA and her commitment to anti-racism eventually earned her a position on the ARTF, but it wasn’t long before she realized that her role in the ARTF wasn’t what she was expecting. In fact, Moriah’s problems with the ARTF began before she was even a part of it.

Initially, the ARTF member list contained student representatives from the TCSA, the TDSA (Trent Durham Student Association) and TISA (Trent International Student Association), but none from TUNA.

According to Moriah, the inclusion of a representative was considered redundant because their chairperson was Indigenous (Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the Director of the First Peoples House of Learning). When asked why, Moriah said “They thought that because they had an Indigenous chair, they didn’t really need Indigenous student voices on the committee, which is definitely not the case… we lobbied for about three to four months to get that position on the committee.” Moriah continued; 

Any time you go into university channels as a student, it can be very intimidating. Going into a situation with the perception that you’re not wanted, or that your voice is not valid enough to be expressed in that space… it can be even more overwhelming.

Soon, she began to realize what the ARTF was really about.

“In the beginning, I thought we were working on calls to action. But no, we were only working on recommendations. A lot of the recommendations are things that the university could do, but there’s no timeline on those things.” On its website, the ARTF makes it clear that it is a body that recommends action – it does not exist to address incidents of discrimination, or to act as a mouthpiece of the university. But Moriah observes that the report does not effectively communicate what its suggestions could entail for the future of the university.

The ARTF report makes many lofty suggestions with little information about the logistical aspects involved with implementation. Many sections are devoted to increasing the hiring of EDI professionals, increasing the representation of BIPOC faculty, and developing mandatory courses and training modules on anti-oppression. There are no timelines, no numbers, no deadlines, and no budgetary information, but many vague suggestions with almost no elaboration. Several lines are devoted to funding events and initiatives, but there are no mentions of how much funding is necessary, or when these initiatives will come into place. “There’s always that chance that this might just be a policy that sits in a cupboard for 20 years,” she says.

Some of her recommendations were left out, too. In particular, Moriah was surprised by the lack of acknowledgement for the necessity of permanent, established POC spaces in the final report. Moriah has always been an avid supporter of BIPOC-inclusive spaces - after all, the Freedom Lounge in the Student Centre is her brainchild. During her tenure with TUNA, she attended numerous ceremonies and events in the Giizhigaatig Cedar Room, an Indigenous learning space on the fourth floor of the Bata Library. She recalls many occasions where non-racialized students took issue when the room was used for its intended purpose. “The Cedar Room is a very ceremonial, sacred space... but a lot of times we would be hassled by non-Indigenous or white students who would refuse to get out of the space (during ceremonies), telling us that they were there first.” Moriah notes that similar incidents occurred when she opened the Freedom Lounge. “We’ve seen hate speech written on the whiteboards, we’ve had theft happen, we’ve had physical altercations happen… lots of awful things have happened that just reinstate the fact that until Trent is a safe space for students, we need safe spaces for BIPOC students.”

According to Moriah, faculty and staff tend to have a larger say in the actions of the ARTF. She says that the faculty that contributed the most were non-racialized people, which she took issue with.

“It felt like a conflict of interest having non-racialized individuals in this space to relay the concerns of students back to someone high up in the administration,” says Moriah.

The policy-making process was backed up by an extensive data collection campaign conducted over the course of 2021 to ensure that every decision made by the council was adequately informed. However, Moriah observed that it wasn’t enough. In her experience, members of the faculty didn’t seem to be prepared for their role in the council, often spending valuable time discussing rudimentary issues. “In one particular instance, we spent about 45 minutes debating the definition of the word ‘BIPOC’, because a white, non-racialized committee member didn’t understand the word. They held onto a definition of the word that was wrong and outdated.” To the understanding of this council member, the term “BIPOC” somehow excluded POC that were neither Black nor Indigenous. Moriah noted that microaggressions like these were common in her meetings with the task force. “I remember another member was messaging me privately and was like, ‘What are we actually doing?’”

Meetings were infrequent, often being scheduled at the convenience of faculty, not the student representatives. As a result, the majority of meetings only had about six racialized people out of a group of 15 to 16 attendants; 

Because these meetings were so all over the place, a lot of people didn’t show up. There were not a lot of meetings where we had full committee presence. So, when a lot of racialized people didn’t show up, it felt like an uneven balance. Why should non-racialized voices be overpowering when it comes to issues faced by racialized students, faculty, and staff?

With only one student representative allowed per group, Moriah feels that the ARTF does not accurately capture the diversity of Trent University’s student community. Her experiences show that no amount of data collection can fill in the gaps of knowledge exhibited by those on the council. 

When asked if she felt that faculty seemed overrepresented in the council, Moriah responded with a resounding yes; 

It was limited to one student per group, which I don’t believe is very fair, because we all come from different backgrounds. No matter if you’re from the same country, if you’re from the same ethnic group or religion, we all have completely different experiences. So I think those seats should have been allocated towards having more student voices… like, they could have had a smaller committee where regional groups could work with TI [Trent International] or TISA [Trent International Students’ Association], and then report back to the task force. But none of these connections were really made. 

Moriah theorizes that including feedback or collaborations with the numerous student-run regional groups under TISA (such as the South Asians Association at Trent (SAAT), Trent University Russian Speaking Association (TURSA), TUNA, Trent South East Asian Organization (TSEAO) and Trent African and Caribbean Student Union (TACSU)) could have helped improve community engagement, thus increasing the quantity and quality of data received from the campus surveys. A look at the demographics of survey respondents included in the report details that non-racialized individuals made up the majority of respondents. “Making a safer space for students would have allowed honesty and much more of a full picture.”

On the subject of safer spaces, Moriah decided to talk about what she felt was lacking in the consultation process – she believes that there should be a safe, open space where conversations can be facilitated. But she remembered a situation where this was evidently not the case.

During one of the online listening sessions, a member of Trent’s student staff came to talk about their experience facing racial discrimination from a faculty member who was on the Board of Governors. But since the sessions required members of the Board of Governors to attend, the faculty member who perpetrated the act was present, making the student visibly uncomfortable. 

There wasn’t a breakout room where students could talk specifically just about their issues. Why are we inviting upper admin and faculty, who could possibly be the perpetrators of these microaggressions and harassment, and asking students to feel comfortable enough to express themselves to us? It’s so strange.

Trent and the TCSA are not particularly well-known for their illustrious history of protecting their BIPOC students, having come under fire in recent years due to multiple controversial instances of perceived racism.

Thus, in spite of her experiences, Moriah continues to recognize the necessity of the ARTF;

It shouldn’t be our job to pay for hiring practices, or security, or counselling, when we (domestic students) are paying thousands and thousands of dollars, and international students are paying three times as much. It shouldn’t be this much of a hassle to get barrier-free education. Barrier-free education is something [Trent] preaches all the time, but that starts by acknowledging there are barriers!

As part of her continued membership in the ARTF, Moriah claims that she will lobby for an honorarium for the students involved in the task force. The committee worked through summer, reading week, exam periods and winter break, and Moriah believes it is only fair for them to receive some compensation for their labor. 

We reached out to Kevin Maina, the administrative support for the ARTF, but we did not receive a reply in time for the print deadline.

B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Written By
Sponsored
B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish

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