Home Community News Members of TMU’s Black Community Want to Hold Space for Unfiltered Blackness

Members of TMU’s Black Community Want to Hold Space for Unfiltered Blackness

“We’ve never been comfortable, we’ve never fit in, we’ve never been part of ‘the thing’ we just had to go along with it because we never had an alternative.”

by Jaylanae Ashman
People talking at table.
People socializing at the Black Excellence Mixer at TMU (OTR/Jaylanae Ashman).

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Now in its fifth year, the Black Excellence Mixer event on Feb. 9 attracted approximately 100 students, faculty and staff who gathered to share experiences, enjoy a safe space and take a step towards creating a community.

Between 12-3 p.m., students, staff and faculty moved from table to table on the eighth floor of the Student Learning Centre, sharing jokes, advice and playing games, filling the room with chatter and boisterous laughter as they ate together, took in musical performances and networked. 

As the event went on, tables filled with staff, faculty and students as they ate, took in performances from The CHMST and Toussaint and engaged in activities prompting them to open up to one another as they shared stories of lived experience and offered one another advice.

“These events are for both staff, faculty and students,” said Cyesha Forde, manager of TMU’s Tri-Mentoring Program, a program for peer, career, and group mentoring and a facilitator of the event. “It’s about building the connective tissue between Black staff, Black faculty, Black students to understand that we don’t operate within silos, we are each other’s community.”

A survey carried out in 2021 by the Black Student Advisory Committee of the Presidential Implementation Committee to Confront Anti-Black Racism for the Review of Recommendations Report at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) produced responses from students who said that they experienced difficulty accessing equity groups or events for Black students. This led to a recommendation to fund more initiatives in support of Black students such as events, meetings and information sessions.

“There’s well-documented patterns of discrimination, ostracization and lack of belonging that can be experienced by particular groups,” said Joshua Sealy-Harrington. Sealy-Harrington, a law professor at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law and an expert in critical race theory, said that having affinity spaces on campus acts similarly to affirmative action as it seeks to counteract feelings of exclusion faced by students belonging to particular groups.

The Ontario Justice Education Network defines affirmative action as a “policy designed to increase the representation of groups that have suffered discrimination.” The practice seeks to acknowledge that “discrimination did occur in the past, and that corrective measures are now necessary to ensure equality of opportunity,” citing incidents of historical racism against Indigenous, Black, Chinese and Japanese people.

Black-only spaces may not be necessary in all universities, according to Sealy-Harrington, but should be implemented based on what students are asking for and “what Black people have experienced in that setting and whether or not they feel that is the most appropriate mechanism for increasing their sense of belonging.”

Sealy-Harrington said that the necessity of these spaces depends on whether or not students want them in place and find the spaces beneficial to their experiences.

“If you have an institution that has historically or presently marginalized students of a particular group … having specific programming related to those students in order to promote greater belonging for them isn’t racist,” Sealy-Harrington said. “It’s seeking to correct for or repair … structural conditions that make people feel discriminated against.”

Markicia Fletcher, a fourth-year student and co-president of the United Black Students Association (UBSA) said that when she first arrived at TMU, she did not feel at home, prompting her to bring the group back, alongside her co-president, Mary Kamau.

 “My goal and my mission is really to revamp this group so that all the Black students on campus don’t have to feel the way that I felt when I first came [to TMU],” said Fletcher. 

Fletcher said that when she first arrived at TMU, she felt out of place due to feeling underrepresented by the amount of Black students on campus. 

“I did an exchange semester in Germany and I came across a really great Black organization over there,” said Kamau. “When I came back, I was just like ‘I just want the Black student group at our school to reach those heights as well’.”

Both Kamau and Fletcher said that re-starting a group will be challenging, but they are driven by their goal to make Black students feel at home on campus and create a sense of community. “It’s such a good feeling that they found that in our group and they’re so excited to join and they’re so excited to hear what we have coming up,” said Kamau.

“Now that this is sanctioned from the top so to speak, people have suddenly had it come into their [the public] awareness that Black people have literally been using this as a strategy to survive since the beginning of integrated university campuses,” said Dr. Cheryl Thompson. Thompson is an assistant professor in the School of Performance and an expert in critical race theory.

Thompson said that while some might be confused at the sudden rise in Black collectives, Black students have been finding community with one another informally for many years.

Thompson said that the need for Black individuals to find community with one another on campus is led by “an absence of Black expression on campuses” and younger generations of university students realizing that they have options.

Respondents to the 2021 survey conducted for the Review of Recommendations Report also cited a lack of Black representation in faculty, student population and non-academic on campus spaces as an area of concern as they were factors in students’ feelings of isolation and discouragement.

“We exist on these campuses, but we essentially work within the framework provided for us,” Thompson said.

Kenya Murray, an employee at the Tri-Mentoring Program said that having Black spaces and student-facing initiatives on campus is important for Black students to see themselves represented.

The Tri-Mentoring Program offers peer-to-peer, group and career mentorship, offering career and group mentorship through the lens of various identities such as 2SLGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Latinx, Muslim women, students with disabilities and more 

“As Black students, it’s so important to have spaces that highlight who we are as a community, who we are as a culture in itself,” Murray said.

Murray said she feels that Black spaces allow students to be themselves without facing societal pressure to act in a socially acceptable way, to share stories of lived experiences and to help each other navigate hardships. “We’re able to just be ourselves, we’re able to speak the way that we want to speak […] and not focus on all the tragedies our community has had, as a whole,” she said “celebrating our wins.”

Forde said that she felt mobilized by a lack of “instances outside of official classroom interactions” for Black individuals to “sit down, break bread, network, maybe play a game and get to know one another.”

Sonnet Hines, a second-year student at TMU attended the Mixer the year prior and said that she values being able to get advice from and connect with other Black students and faculty members.

“I think a lot of the lessons that you learn at these kinds of events are really valuable,” said Hines. “It’s really nice to be around like-minded individuals and share stories with each other and come together to celebrate.”

Reporter On The Record winter 2024.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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