Making colour visible Feds to create a service to support racialized students

Graphic by Ju Hyun Kim

Late 2017, Vice reached out to a student at the University of Waterloo who was asked by the institution to prove that visible minorities existed on campus. Fiqir Worku, a Black Association for Student Expression (BASE) executive was on a mission to gain support from the school to start a program for racialized students.

On Mar. 21 she got that support at the Feds General Meeting where the motion was passed. BASE has been working with Feds President Antonio Brieva to pass this proposal and to continue future work in order to shape the program. When Worku first attempted to reach out to the school’s equity office back in 2016 the response was less than supportive. They prompted her to collect data on UW’s more than 35,000 students by herself in order to prove that there was truly a need for this service instead of listening to student concerns, like she expected. In a census released by Statistics Canada in 2016, 26.4 per cent of the city of Waterloo’s population identified themselves as a visible minority. This doesn’t account for some of the university’s students who completed the census in the area of their parent’s permanent residence.

The reason for a lot of fuss on campus at the moment was the proposal for a Feds fee increase of $0.20 per student that would be specifically designated for racialized students on campus. The motion needed to pass at the Feds General Meeting in order to proceed. The Feds student council approved the creation of an equity student-run service. When asked about the service Brieva prefaced his description, “I just want to make it very clear that this service is open to all students. Any student can join as a volunteer or access it.” The service is to meet the needs of visible minorities, but people of colour are the primary focus. Brieva says that it wouldn’t be out of place for Feds to host a service like this, “it’s consistent of what we’ve done in the past as an organization and meeting the needs of marginalized students whether it be the GLOW Centre, Women’s Centre, or the Food Bank which targets food insecurity mainly serviced by those with lower social economic status.”

Feds student council hopes to use the program for more than just a place for students who feel racialized to seek support. Brieva described the program as having objective pillars, “education, advocacy, peer-to-peer support mentorship, training for staff, as well as events community outreach.”

Feds has been collaborating with BASE for input on the program. On campus, BASE’s goal is to engage all students in an open dialogue in terms of what it is to be black, they have community events and bridge the gap between Caribbean and African students. When speaking to BASE, they also reiterated that the proposed program is for all students who need it. As for being racialized, it comes in different forms but BASE explained, “Being racialized is being singled out, that you are excluded, that you receive acts of violence or xenophobia and racism because you’re viewed differently. You have a different outlook on life because you are seen as other so often. Your lens and the way you view everything, the way you live your life even the smallest habits, are different.”

The team of Feds and BASE argue that there’s a gap when it comes to meeting the needs of racialized students, there are others, however, that disagree.

A petition has been circulating in opposition of the fee raise. It’s not uncommon for these things to come about when it comes to fee raises. Brieva acknowledges this saying that, “I’ve seen the petition and I’ve seen the Facebook page about it and I actually met with one of the folks that started this Vote No campaign. I really wanted to give him a chance to express any concerns he may have. I expect that when we ask students to increase a fee, regardless of the issue, I expect there to be some critical questions. I went into the conversation with an open mind and to try and hear some of his concerns and we had a really productive dialogue.”

Productive dialogue or not, the protestors came to voice their side at the Feds General Meeting. The two heads of the Vote No campaign, Cosmin Dzsurdzsa and Marcus Abramovitch, cite reasons such as, “All students shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden that will only benefit a specific identity groups,” and, “Feds provides no evidence for supposed concerns raised last term for students with racialized lived experiences on campus,” At the time of publishing the petition had garnered 100 signatures.

There are no concrete numbers provided by the university or any of its subsidiaries to mathematically confirm the number of non-white students, the number of hate crimes committed on campus or to the university’s students and patrons, there are also no numbers to back up who would want this service. These numbers just aren’t possible to achieve.

Brieva explained that, “There’s a data gap when it comes to demographic data on campus. Solving that is one of the goals of the future program under the advocacy pillar. We want to track formal and informal instances of racism but to also have more demographics and self-identifying data in order to track the certain success of marginalized student programs on campus through their time here at UW.”

In response to the argument that there is no evidence of racialized experiences he goes on to say, “in the tri-city area, Cambridge, Waterloo, and Kitchener has the highest rate of race related hate crimes in the country, according to a recent study. So a lot of the times we think, oh the campus is so inclusive, you know, we have these principles we try to abide by but when you recruit from a broader society and your campus operates within a certain community, you can’t look at it in isolation.”

When it comes to hate crimes, Assistant Professor of the sociology department Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme studied the statistics and found results that Muslims are the most disliked ethnic group in Canada. Her research combined big data from multiple government surveys and by looking for indicators of feelings towards certain races and cultural groups, but Muslim Canadians specificially. She found that 37 per cent of Canadians across the country had more negative feelings towards Muslims than any other marginalized group. The statistics varied by region.

What can be learned from her study, Wilkins-Laflamme  explained, is that, “Younger people have more positive feelings towards Muslims, the same goes for those who are a part of the university life or who have gotten a university degree at some point.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that those in and around university life aren’t racist or prone to Islamophobia. She also examined the experiences that Muslim people have had and found that, “one in five Muslim Canadians across the whole country reported that they have experienced Islamophobia in their lives, within the last five years.”

Wilkins-Laflamme said the statistics are lower in Ontario and a bit higher in Atlantic Canada. She reiterated, when asked about racialization on campus that it would be impossible to say what was going on exactly without getting on the ground and actually talking to people about their experiences and collecting data, “Did the instance have a big impact or a small impact on their lives? Each lived experience is going to be different for every person. There’s no real way to quantify that.” However Wilkins-Laflamme emphasized that, “Any instance of discrimination is one too many.”

Applying her field work to campus and the potential program for racialized students, Wilkins-Laflamme advised that, “Just doing one thing is probably not going to be enough. Attitudes don’t change overnight. There’s an importance on the social environment, creating these more negative stereotypes towards specific groups, and how that impacts people growing up in those specific contexts. People become unaware of them and it can become problematic. There’s always something to be done.”

April 4 Correction:

Antonio Brieva was quoted saying, “In the tri-city area, Cambridge, Waterloo, and Kitchener has the highest rate of race related crimes in the country, according to a recent study.” Imprint would like to clarify that the tri-city area ranks third out of 34 census metropolitan areas for the highest reported rate of race-related hate crimes in Canada, according to a Stats Canada study completed in 2017.