Creating space in the workplace for Black co-op students

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Black co-op student meets with colleagues during virtual meeting

By: Krista Henry

While companies work to move the needle on their equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, inequality and systemic racism is a daily reality for Black youth like co-op students.

Corporate culture, discrimination, lack of Black social networks and mentorship opportunities are all factors felt by Black talent within Canada. According to Statistics Canada, in 2020 approximately 63% of Canada’s Black population reported experiencing discrimination five years prior to the beginning of the pandemic or during the pandemic. Black youth aged 15 to 34 are more likely to report discrimination compared to adults.

Black students need support that is culturally relevant, sensitive and reflective of their lived experience at school and in the workplace. According to Gillian Wells (she/her), counsellor for Black student support at the University of Waterloo, creating safe spaces for Black students is important.

“I use a trauma informed and an anti-oppressive lens to create safe spaces,” she says. “I have a unique understanding of the impact of racism and the resulting burden on the lives of Black students.”

Working with Black and racialized students for the last year at Waterloo, Wells has noticed several issues these students face. Outside of the norm such as family issues and transitioning to adulthood, Black students experience racist encounters, trauma because of racism, navigating spaces as often the only Black student in the workplace and stigma around mental health in the Black community.


Representation matters at work

Black and racialized people are under-represented and often non-existent on boards in eight major cities across Canada. Embracing cultural diversity in the workplace is an important first step for businesses that want to remain competitive. Especially on a global stage. This includes having diverse talent in the C-Suite and having diverse emerging talent like co-op students.

Yet mechanisms need to be in place to assist this talent to thrive. “Workplaces can support their Black co-op students by first ensuring that they have an EDI policy and practices and consistently adhering to these policies and practices,” says Wells. “Equally important is that employers need to make certain their workplace is a psychologically safe place to support the mental health and well-being of all employees including Black co-op students.”

For Eden Mekonen (she/her), career advisor at Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action, it is important that these students have their voices heard. Mekonen works with students to navigate many intersectionalities such as race, gender, sexual orientation and religion.

Employers need to ensure Black students feel seen, heard and valued. Give praise and credit where it’s due, as a lot of Black students’ work is often underappreciated. Employers need to confront and tackle the systemic inequalities in their workplaces and racial bias in hiring. Statistics Canada reports that the Black population experiences high rates of unemployment in Canada even with post-secondary education.”

According to Mekonen, employers need to dedicate their EDI work to reflect genuine care about the well-being of diverse populations and not as positive optics.


Provide support to Black students

When it comes to helping Black co-op students in the workplace, Wells and Mekonen offer their advice:

Gillian Wells headshot

Encourage them to talk

“For Black co-op students, should they find themselves struggling with a workplace issue, relationship with a supervisor/manager, tension with a co-worker, workload or just within themselves – talk. Reach out and talk with someone. This would include confiding in a friend, family member, co-op resource or formal counselling. When the idea of mental health is stigmatized, help seeking behaviour is significantly reduced.”

- Gillian Wells (she/her), counsellor for Black student support at the University of Waterloo

 

Eden Mekonen headshot

Safety is important

“Is the space I am providing safe for my students?
Are we saying things around students that make them feel uncomfortable, do we make students feel heard and listened to, can students bring their full self into
this space?"

- Eden Mekonen (she/her), career advisor at Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action

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