On the Importance of Equity

Equity. One word with so many meanings. To some, it refers to finances and to others, it refers to a systemic shift towards genuine inclusion. Academia, of all places, should be where such cultural phenomenon begins. The foundation of Western education has been shaped significantly by the philosophies of Ancient Greek thinkers like Plato, and his teacher, Socrates. Plato himself stated, “education is a means to achieve both individual and social justice”, and while today we can understand the complexities and problematic aspects of these thinkers’ ideologies, open education and diversity are some the core principles we have embraced.

Historically, our institutions have not always been such catalysts and today many of our institutions have shown that their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion can be performative. We have seen failures to condemn white supremacy and fascism, while students on our campuses have been assaulted and left to feel unsafe in a place that promised community. As Dr. Perry from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology put so eloquently, “initiatives intended to enhance campus diversity – in human and programmatic terms – have not been universally welcomed.”

Beyond our institutions, I have seen hesitation from student organizations and from the students within these organizations. Hesitation, validated by politeness, has placed student associations in a state of neutrality, rather than a place of power against hate. Student organizations represent their students with the goal of enhancing student life, but how can we fulfill our duties as representatives if we only represent a select portion of our students? A recent win for the McMaster Students Union was a shift of $200,000 in merit-based scholarships to needs-based bursaries. This initiative was an active commitment to equity by actually reducing a barrier.

Apart from financial disparities, our students face barriers that cannot be solved by a bursary. Marginalized students on our campuses are at increased risk of violence as campus hate crimes are on the rise across Canadian campuses. A 2011 study on Identity and Hate Crimes on Canadian Campuses highlights the rise of bias-motivated violence across Canada. Two studies have shown the high prevalence of hate crimes in “university towns,” especially in Kingston, London, and Guelph. It is quite intriguing that institutions of higher education, that prioritize the pursuit of knowledge and therefore the pursuit of justice, are tending toward intolerance through increasing rates of gendered, racial, ethnic, religious, sexuality, and ability-based harassment and violence.

These statistics are alarming and incredibly upsetting. I am a white woman with an invisible disability, among my other identities. I do not have to worry about my daily safety as much as my peers who identify within marginalized communities. As a white woman, any inaction on my part to condemn white supremacy is dangerous complacency. As an individual who is involved in post-secondary education advocacy, I try to incorporate principles of equity in my problem-solving. I know that I need to do better and I am constantly working to learn and improve. To truly make an impact, we all need to do better. I would like to challenge each of you to do better in your everyday lives and in your work to enhance post-secondary education.

How, though, can you do better? I am by no means an expert, but I have learned some handy tips along my journey. First, do your research! Many post-secondary organizations boast our research capabilities but fall short when discussing marginalized students and faculty. The internet has a wealth of knowledge in equity studies, women and gender studies, social justice, racial equity, and so much more. Students and faculty have shared their stories – take the time to read these before you walk up to the first marginalized student you see and ask them about their oppression. Second, listen to their experiences and recommendations. Reach out to your students but make sure that your outreach is accessible to all students, not just the students who hang around your union’s office. Be critical of the language you use, the space you take up and deny from others. Building open, diverse, and inclusive educational institutions take continuous action and commitment from us all.