Inaugural winners of the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity plan to foster a positive, inclusive Black experience at Western University

Date published: 2023-10-10 09:00:00

It was supposed to be an exciting time for Ismahan Yusuf. In 2018, when she was accepted to Western University’s master’s program in sociology, her dream was to pursue the study of race. The reality was she felt alone.

“From the moment I stepped on campus, I realized there was a lack of racial representation in the sociology department,” Yusuf recalls. “There was a lack of understanding about race.”

Yusuf needed guidance, to find someone who she could relate to. A search led her to Western’s Department of Geography and Environment and Godwin Arku.

“I knew that when I would see him and sit down with him, I could speak with him about what was going on in my classes. I knew he’d understand,” says Yusuf.

Arku, professor and graduate chair in Western’s Department of Geography and Environment, has spent much of his career mentoring, training and supporting university students across various nationalities, ethnicities and religions in different faculties and departments at Western. He is a leader in London, Ontario’s Black community and works with various units at Western to promote diversity in enrolment and inclusion on campus.

“Right now, only about 4% of the student population at Western is Black. That’s something we need to change,” says Arku. “We think that if we can create a safe space for Black students and develop a way to engage the community, we will ultimately encourage more Black students to apply to Western.”

Arku has joined a coalition of Black researchers and administrators, including Yusuf, to launch Diversity Western: Enhancing the Black Experience. Diversity Western is one of three projects at Canadian institutions to receive the inaugural Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity. The award, funded through the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP), is a tri-agency initiative of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS) that is housed within SSHRC.

This important award recognizes the nearly two decades-long contributions that eight Canadian academics; Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce, Audrey Kobayashi, Shree Mulay, Susan Prentice, Michèle Ollivier and Wendy Robbins made to increase equity within the CRCP. “Diversity Western is a remarkable program, deserving of the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity, for its consistent and growing efforts in addressing race matters within Canadian universities. This award was designed to support transformative initiatives that challenge the status quo, such as this one, which will contribute to a more inclusive university experience for Black students, faculty and staff,” says Valérie Laflamme, associate vice-president of the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat.

The one-year $100,000 grant will allow the Western team to launch Diversity Western. The researchers plan to address anti-Black racism by asking questions such as: What does it feel like to be Black at Western? And what can be done to de-centre whiteness? The team will hold innovative Afrocentric speakers’ series, provide career counselling courses led by Black leaders and create a digital community hub designed to mentor and foster belonging in the Black community.

“We are looking forward to having one central place to build energy and excitement around celebrating what it means to be Black on this campus,” says Nassisse Solomon, coordinator of Western’s Global Health Systems Program and Diversity Western project team member.

“The projects receiving the inaugural Robbins-Ollivier Award all propose systemic change. It is an honour that the award committee recognized our long-term goals and saw that Diversity Western is in it for the long haul. Our project will impact Black futures,” says Solomon.

“What we want to do is start a national movement,” says Melanie Katsivo, adjunct professor and the equity, diversity and inclusion specialist in the Office of Equity, Diversity Inclusion and Decolonization at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. Katsivo, who has spent more than four decades heading up equity and human rights research projects in Kenya and Canada, says Diversity Western has the potential to tear down systemic barriers.

“We want to see a centre for Black futures that nurtures, fosters and stewards the Black experience on campus. We need to change the entire community in southwestern Ontario to make this an area where Black students want to go to university, where they feel welcome. We want everybody to see the perspectives that Black researchers bring to every aspect of life in Canada. We’re asking for integration, not segregation,” Katsivo adds.

Yusuf, who is completing her PhD in geography, has not only found her place at Western but is now leaving her mark.

“I see a future in academia,” she says. “I have aspirations of teaching and mentoring young students—a dream that all starts with projects like this one that are working towards creating change.”