In September 2017, I stepped out onto the sidewalk of my first year residence hall unsure of what was to come. My parents and I had just driven about 7 hours from Ottawa to move me into Perth Hall Residence at Western University and to say I was nervous is quite the understatement.
As I walked through the doors, I was immediately on a secret search, glancing through the hallways for other Black students I could become friends with. As I registered at the front desk, made my way to room 113, and met my roommates, it seemed less and less likely that this would be the case. Being one of very few Black people in my residence, I quickly became friends with the only other Black person on my floor, a guy from Brampton whose room was right across mine. His humor reminded me of my brother and, in a way, reminded me of home. Attending a predominantly white institution presents challenges for Black students. We don’t always feel like we belong and often deal with overt and covert racism while rarely, or never, talking about it. Seeing him across the hallway everyday provided me with solace and made me feel a little bit more comfortable.
The next day, orientation week started and all first year students headed to University College Hill for opening ceremonies. During this time, the student union executive team walks onto the stage to introduce themselves to the first year students. As I sat eagerly on the hill, the executives came on and, to my surprise, the president was… Black? “No way,” I thought. I couldn’t prevent the little smile that spread across my face as I watched him speak. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it made me feel like maybe I do belong here.
Orientation week came and went and, before I knew it, I was in my final year of university. As I thought about what to do next after graduation, a part of me wanted to run for a student union executive position. I was extremely passionate about government advocacy but didn’t know if I was ready to embark on this journey. I thought back to being a first-year, moving away from home and living in an unfamiliar environment. What gave me comfort in this new space were the Black student leaders – they inspired me and made me feel comfortable in an environment that felt the complete opposite. This is the importance of Black representation in student leadership: in a world where we are often made to feel othered, our presence alone can instill hope in future generations that we belong and have a right to be in spaces from which we have historically been excluded. This is what motivated me, not only to run and win the position of Vice President of External Affairs, but to eventually become OUSA’s first Black woman president.
So, why did I share this story? The importance of having racialized folks within positions of leadership can never be understated. In 2019, the Rogers School of Management conducted a study on the implications of women and racialized folk within leadership positions. They found that diversity within senior management has the capacity to transform organizational leadership, which can contribute to influencing broader social understandings of who can and cannot be a leader. They mention that the presence of racialized minority leaders at the executive level also has the ability to inspire others. However, this shift must be corroborated by well-planned strategies, outreach, accountability measures, and much more.
In my time as a student union executive, I have seen this to be extremely true. As the only Black person in my office, I have sometimes felt isolated and misunderstood. However, I’ve come to see that my presence is needed. Although it has been difficult at times, this experience has allowed me to learn about major gaps that persist within these spaces and what needs to be changed. So, with that said, here are three things that I’ve learned from my time in student politics that I feel are important for racialized, and specifically Black, students to know.
First, having Black and racialized folks within these roles contributes to a cultural shift. My experiences in student politics is rooted in a predominantly white school where it is not uncommon to be the only Black person in a room. Furthermore, when racialized folks are not in spaces like this, it is easy for workplaces to adopt inherently racist or prejudicial practices that may go unnoticed. For example, in 2016, a restaurant in Toronto sent a Black waitress home because of their inherently discriminatory hair policy in which they expected waitresses to wear their hair down. However, because of this Black waitresses’ hair texture, her hair simply could not lay flat into the style that they demanded. This is often an example that I reflect upon when it comes to ways in which barriers can be built to prevent the inclusion and participation of Black folks. Discriminatory practices will continue to persist unless racialized folk, and allies, are in those spaces to call out what may go unnoticed.
Secondly, my ability to draw from my lived and learned experience in my work has allowed for different perspectives to be brought to the table. I first want to be clear that it is not the responsibility of Black people, Indigenous people, or any person of color to take on issues of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). It is not our responsibility to inform others on these topics, nor is it a “must” for us to advocate for such issues as a result of our identity. Nonetheless, what I have found is that my very presence within my current roles has allowed me to vocalize an intersectional lens and analysis in discussions that would otherwise lack this voice. I am often one of few, and at times the only, Black person within a meeting and this can lead to critical knowledge gaps. The Rogers School of Management states that “dominant cultures within organizations have the ability to contribute to the creation of systemic barriers that may impact the upward advancement of talented racialized people and women” (The Diversity Institute, “Diversity Leads,” 13). This links back to my first point regarding discriminatory practices. Without a diversity of voices, the dominant voice, which has historically been white, will continue to dominate, often leaving out important intersectional considerations.
Lastly, I strongly believe that my presence in this role has been able to inspire future student leaders. When I was first deciding to run for my role, I struggled a lot as I was given great advice from women who had held the role previously, but didn’t get the chance to speak to any Black women and hear about their unique experiences due to their intersecting identities. To my surprise, I realized I wasn’t able to speak to any Black women because as far as I could see, there were no Black women who held this role before me. Through this job, I’ve been able to discuss with other racialized students, speak on a number of panels, write about my experiences, and much more. For me, this side of my job has been just as important as my day to day work. If I was able to impact just one student to realize their ability and potential, then I did my job right.
All in all, being in student government has not been easy. It’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs. However, when I look back I would do it all over again because of what it means to have someone that looks like me in this space. So, for all the students that are Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour who may be reading this and considering running for a student leadership role, do it! Your presence is needed within all levels of student politics. You are more than qualified and more than able to take on this work. This is your chance to collectively use your diverse voices to ignite change and continue a cycle of inspiration that will motivate other Black and racialized students to get involved, and pave the way for a cultural shift.