‘Believe us when we bring stuff up’: Black scholars, students discuss Black flourishing at UBC-SFU symposium on Scarborough Charter

Black scholars and students from across Canada met at UBC Robson Square on Saturday to discuss creating community and space for Black people at post-secondary institutions.

The Community Making and Black Flourishing Through the Scarborough Charter symposium — which UBC and SFU cohosted — closed out the universities’ two-day Inter-Institutional Forum of the Scarborough National Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education.

The event was also live streamed.

The Scarborough Charter was developed by the University of Toronto Scarborough to address anti-Black racism on campus and foster inclusion, equality and societal transformation. UBC President Santa Ono signed the Charter on behalf of the university in November 2021.

Saturday’s event featured welcoming remarks from Ono and SFU President Joy Johnson and four panels featuring Black scholars, students, university administrators and activists.

Throughout the panels, speakers discussed how post-secondary institutions were built on white supremacy and how this creates an obstacle to achieving Black flourishing.

During the second panel — "Negotiating for Black flourishing within academic institutions" — Dr. June Francis, special advisor to the president on anti-racism and director of the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement at SFU, said that Black people have had to negotiate around systematic barriers to be included at post-secondary institutions.

“We’re there not because they invited us in through the door. But we crawled in through any hole because that’s who we are,” she said.

“The Black body on campus is the one that doesn’t belong,” said Dr. Handel Kashope Wright, senior advisor to the president on anti-racism and director of the Centre of Culture, Identity and Education at UBC, in the same panel.

In a different panel on fostering a supportive environment for Black students, moderator and SFU PhD student Adjua Akinwumi echoed Francis’ comments, noting that post-secondary institutions are built on a hierarchy that caters to whiteness.

Joann Anokwuru, a PhD student at UBC, said the white supremacy on university campuses impacts her and other Black students’ learning.

“The reason all of us are here is to get an education. But you can’t get an education when we’re dealing with white supremacy, when we’re dealing with how we have to start telling people how I am Nigerian, I am Black, how I am supposed to speak,” she said.

Another overarching theme from the event was the importance of listening and allyship.

Wright and UBC Okanagan student Binta Sesay both said that university support for Black students was lacklustre and surface level — which Sesay noted leaves students advocating for change exhausted.

SFU student Balqees Jama added that action at SFU only comes when there is Black trauma and white guilt.

To address these issues, Sesay suggested that BIPOC individuals create a new system of support.

“Why are we trying to join the table? It’s time for us not just as Black individuals, but as BIPOC individuals to start building our own tables. Start building our own systems because this system is not meant for us,” she said.

Tiara Cash, a graduate student at SFU, said it is important for Black students to have accomplices on campus — which she differentiated from an ally as “someone in the system to dismantle it with us.”

Jama provided a more direct solution to universities: “Believe us when we bring stuff up.”