Make a difference with two Black Studies diplomas

NASA scientist Katherine Johnson sits at her desk

Katherine Johnson At NASA Langley Research Center
HAMPTON, VA — 1962: NASA space scientist, and mathematician Katherine Johnson poses for a portrait at her desk with an adding machine and a 'Celestial Training device' at NASA Langley Research Center in 1962 in Hampton, Virginia. (Photo by NASA/Getty Images)

You’ve heard of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, but how about Henry T. Sampson? Doesn’t ring a bell? Here’s a hint: he helped pioneer the technology used in today’s cell phones and ushered in an exciting new era of worldwide mobile communication. Oh, and he was the first Black student in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering too.

But Sampson isn’t the only Black visionary who has been denied household name status. Dr. Vershawn Young, the director of Black Studies at University of Waterloo, can list off multiple others, geniuses who have pushed the boundaries of technological innovation and improved lives around the world. Think Daniel Hale Williams, the doctor who performed the first successful open heart surgery, or brilliant Black mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, who helped NASA win the Space Race. Only recently have they received the honours they rightly deserved.

“Most people don’t know these things. So that’s when we ask the question, ‘What have been Black people’s contributions to technology, medicine, culture and life?’ They’re vast and very deep,” says Young, who goes by dr. vay. “I have a whole file with these names in it.”

Two new diplomas

In the fall of 2022, Waterloo launched two new diplomas, “Black Studies” and “Fundamentals of Anti-Racist Communication.” The former requires the successful completion of a minimum of 2.5 academic course units (five courses), while the latter requires 2 course units (four courses).

Students earning their Diploma in Black Studies will gain an in-depth understanding of why Black Studies are needed and more about Black culture, life, literature, and society. They’ll also breathe life into their course material by going on field trips centred on film, comics, anime, art exhibits, performing arts, popular cultural events, and literary readings. Look out for classes like Black Performance Studies that examines poetry, TV shows, music, and podcasts, or Black Queer Studies that looks at historical and contemporary issues for the Black LGBTQ+ community.

Meanwhile, students getting a Diploma in Fundamentals of Anti-Racist Communication will dig deep into how racism impacting various groups affects language, behaviour, institutions, conversations, and policies — but also how to combat racism and communicate with sensitivity in everyday life. There’s the Writing Anti-Racism class where students write, workshop, revise, and publish their own anti-racist commitments. Then there’s Taking B(l)ack History where students re-envision the world by asking questions like, “What would the world have been like if Africa had colonized Europe?” Or “What if the “Other” was white?” And why do these types of questions about power dynamics make people uncomfortable, anyway?

While offered through the Faculty of Arts, the diplomas are open to anyone — from degree students in every faculty who want to add a diploma to their studies to graduates, professionals, and even non-students from the community.

“It’s like getting a diploma in French or Spanish. This diploma, it’s about Black people, language, culture, life and society,” explains dr. vay, particularly of the Black Studies diploma. “To me it just goes without saying, but it’s for everyone. We wouldn’t think of a university program in Italian being only for Italians.”

The big questions

The courses answer some of today’s most pressing questions too, says dr. vay.

“Is it ever appropriate to use the ‘N’ word? Is it ever appropriate in any context? That’s a real question — not just a throw-away debate in the public. The answer has a theoretical and academic-researched understanding,” he says, before tossing out a few other queries:  What does white supremacy really mean? How many kinds of racism are there? Can we be proactive anti-racists even if we’re not activists?

To launch the diplomas, dr. vay and a team of other scholars originally created a survey to find out what students and others in the community wanted to learn. It soon became apparent they were looking for a more practical understanding of racism, how to combat it, and learn skills to become more anti-racist in the real world.

“Listen, these skills are important to be able to move skillfully, carefully, thoughtfully and quickly into a post-George Floyd world,” says dr. vay, noting that elementary, high school, and even university students haven’t been taught how to communicate effectively across racial lines and avoid perpetuating racism in their interactions with other people. Everyone is left to fumble along on their own, making harmful mistakes along the way.

“I mean, so many people say, ‘I didn’t know or it wasn’t my intent (to be racist).’ But it’s still important for us to know the consequences of racisms even when it’s not our intention,” he says.

Better communication

The diplomas have both been structured so they could be earned in roughly one year, with some careful planning. For upper-year students, the timing is perfect as they start their careers. Particularly after earning a Fundamentals of Anti-Racist Communication diploma, new grads can confidently enter the workforce not only knowing how to communicate effectively with their colleagues and clients in interracial settings, but will be able to recognize inadvertent racism in their workplaces and find strategies to bring attention to it and stop it.

Want skills to help communicate with people in your personal life? You’ll get them too.

Ultimately, the diplomas will help shine a light on the sizable impact Black people in North America have had on innovation and culture — and celebrate those contributions.

“For as much as we see Black people in film, television and in the music industry, we’ve not focused on a really rich understanding of Black people in the U.S. and Canada and their cross influence on Canadian society,” says dr. vay. “That is extremely important. That is going to make a very big difference.”


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