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Scarborough Charter event explores how Canada’s colleges and universities can support Black flourishing

Canadian universities and colleges that signed the historic Scarborough Charter are looking at ways to support Black flourishing across Canada.

“The opportunity to flourish, thrive and to be successful is very much tied into the success of our institutions,” he says Wisdom Tettey, chair of the Scarborough Charter’s steering committee and vice-president and principal at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “If we want to be really healthy, including places, people have to be able to achieve their fullest potential.”

It’s been six months since about 50 universities and colleges across Canada signed the Scarborough Charter, a series of commitments to fight anti-Black racism and further Black flourishing in higher education. Signing schools become part of the charter’s Inter-Institutional Forum, which recently met for its first event. The event included a symposium, titled “Community Making and Black Flourishing Through the Scarborough Charter,” and was co-hosted by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU). Panels were open to the public in-person at UBC and via livestream, offering chances to ask questions and hear the personal stories Tettey says make the charter “come alive.”

“The fundamental goal was to make sure people could see the relevance of the charter in their everyday life,” Tettey says. “A core part of the charter is continuing to have this work be informed, shaped and co-created by communities.”

In one of the event’s four panels, undergraduate and graduate UBC and SFU students shared their experiences navigating university and discussed ways to create a new system of supports for Black students. Another panel had activists speak on ways academic institutes can connect with Black communities.

Panellists speak on stage at UBC during the Scarborough Charter’s first symposium (photo courtesy of UBC)

Panellists highlighted white supremacy in higher education as a major obstacle to Black flourishing. Several mentioned that these institutions are historically built to cater to white people, and that Black people must often fight to have schools acknowledge the systemic barriers they face. Many noted it’s not just about having Black representation throughout institutions, it’s about hearing and meaningfully engaging with Black people’s experiences.

Panellists also shared their personal experiences with racism and exclusion in higher education, stressing how much equity work is left to be done. Tettey says these stories don’t challenge the charter’s success – they’re an integral part of its journey.

“Member institutions have made progress over the last couple years in the direction of the charter’s goals, but there are still gaps. There are still experiences that we need to be reminded of,” he says.

“As we share our collective successes and the progress that we’re making, it’s important to subject those to critical review by the folks that we claim we’re doing this for, because they are our best peer reviewers.”

Panel answers questions on field schools, Quebec and challenges

Tettey was a panelist for a talk on why a charter should be used for Black representation and inclusion. The time was dedicated to answering virtually submitted questions from the audience, beginning with one person who asked whether the charter would be used to establish field schools with universities and colleges in Africa. Tettey clarified the document is meant to guide and support institutions, not to replace them.

The charter does include a commitment to encourage programs in Black and Black Canadian studies, and to promote curriculum that includes Black expertise and knowledges. But the charter doesn’t dictate how to achieve those commitments; it establishes them as goals while the Inter-Institutional Forum offers members mutual help in reaching them.

Wisdom Tettey, vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough, speaks during a panel discussion about why a charter is needed for Black representation and inclusion (photo courtesy of UBC).

“There’s a mechanism that allows us to come together, but the Scarborough Charter is not where the responsibility lies. It lies with our individual institutions. It lies with the individual colleagues who fashion curriculum replied,” Tettey. “But we are providing a network that allows you to work with others across the country to enable these opportunities at scale.”

Another question focused on how the charter would engage more universities in Quebec. Tettey said that effort is ongoing, adding that the approach is the same for institutions across Canada: work diligently and collaboratively to bring them into the fold.

He said every institution has its own character and autonomy that should be respected – and he noted that schools need to show commitment before signing. An institution must have truly accepted it needs to take steps toward equity to be ready for the work of the charter, he said.

“The work needs to be sustained and if you don’t build a strong commitment at the institutional level, this will fizzle,” Tettey told the crowd.

He also stressed that the charter itself doesn’t do any of this work – people do.

“The charter is us. The charter cannot do this on its own. It requires individuals within institutions to make this happen,” he said. “All of us as individuals sitting where we are. We need to do this work.”

A final question asked what the biggest challenge in developing the charter was, and what the biggest challenge in implementing it will be. Tettey said the work was not and will never be easy, but the greatest challenge of the charter is also one of its most heartening strengths: bringing people together.

“I think everybody left the inaugural meeting of the Scarborough Charter Inter-institutional Forum and the symposium feeling really buoyed about what we can do together,” he said.

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