The Catalyst Anti-Racism Newsletter - Issue 7

Thursday, November 18, 2021

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Welcome back to our seventh issue of The Catalyst Anti-racism newsletter.

Each month, we have a different President’s Anti-racism Taskforce (PART) working group co-chair introduce the newsletter. We hope this will give you a deeper understanding of the dedicated people behind our work. 

This month, our message comes from Colleen Phillips-Davis, co-chair of the Educational Environment and the Development of Learners working group.

In this issue:

Message from the Chair

Colleen Phillips-Davis
Colleen Phillips-Davis, Co-chair of the Educational Environment and the Development of Learners working group (EEDL)

November is a month with significant milestones for the Black community at the University of Waterloo. The recent announcement that the University will be signing on to the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education represents a major step towards addressing systemic anti-Black racism.

Another achievement is the announcement that starting fall 2022, Waterloo will be offering two Black Studies Diploma programs. I feel extremely honoured to be a member of the Black Faculty Collective, which, led by Professor Vershawn ‘dr. vay’ Young,  helped to develop these programs. Similarly, the cluster-hire initiative to appoint 10 Black tenure-track, and or tenured professors will undoubtedly assist with increasing Black representation at UWaterloo.

Let me also take this opportunity to say congratulations to Professor Christopher Taylor, equity strategist and anti-racism advisor, who was recently appointed as associate vice-president of the newly formed Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-racism. 

While it is good that the University is taking steps to address anti-Black racism, much more needs to be done. Addressing systemic racism calls for transformational change driven by cross-campus action-based solutions.

As PART prepares to hand over anti-racism recommendations to the president, I hope that we continue to hold institutions and systems accountable for structures that perpetuate racial disparities so that all racialized groups feel they belong and can be successful and safe.

The EEDL working group was mandated to enhance the educational environment and the development of learners. I look forward to the implementation of recommendations aimed at embedding equity, diversity, and inclusion into the curriculum, teaching, and research, and increasing pathways and access to post-secondary studies.

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Anti-racism across campus

dr vay
Black Studies and Anti-racism diplomas launch in 2022

by Victoria Lumax (Originally published in the Daily Bulletin on Tuesday, November 16, 2021)

With the University of Waterloo’s formal commitment to anti-racism efforts through the launch of the President’s Anti-Racism Taskforce (PART), various PART working groups were developed to bring forward recommendations on key issues, while PART implementation teams were organized to move immediately to implement specific actions. 

Importantly, a Black Studies implementation team was formed by the Dean of Arts in 2020. Including professors Vershawn Young, Kathy Hogarth, and Christopher Taylor, the team’s mandate was to explore the creation of programming in Black Studies. This week, the first of the new Black Studies plans received final approval at Senate.

Beginning in fall 2022, “Black Studies” and “Fundamentals of Anti-Racist Communication” will be offered as diplomas open to degree students from all faculties, as well as non-degree and post-degree students.

As a founding member of  Waterloo’s Black Faculty Collective, a group of Black scholars working both within and outside the institution to end anti-Black racisms, Professor Young (based in Communication Arts and English, and who goes by dr. vay) has taken a leadership role in the work to create of the Black Studies diplomas and future programming.

“The Black Studies Implementation team, assembled by Dean Sheila Ager, has been working hard to prepare for the programs’ launch,” says dr. vay. “We have consulted diverse groups of curriculum advisors, course developers, institutional supports, departmental members and community leaders to guide the design of Black Studies at Waterloo — an academic offering that will help Canada and beyond make progress toward a more equitable and liberated future.”

The University plans to introduce a major in Black Studies (open to Bachelor of Arts students) and a minor (open to all students in the University) by 2025. In the meantime, Black Studies faculty will be recruited, and community partnerships will be developed. 

Read the entire article here

Canadian universities work together to increase diversity in engineering and technology

Tizazu Mekonnen
(Originally Published on Waterloo News on Monday, November 15, 2021)

Since its inception earlier this year, the Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology (IBET) PhD project, which aims to support and build a network for Indigenous and Black graduate students, has named 16 doctoral fellows and 24 mentors.

The original partnership included the engineering and math faculties at the University of Waterloo, and the engineering faculties at McMaster University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and Western University. Joining the project are the University of Alberta, the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, McGill University, Ryerson University, the University of Windsor, and the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University.

IBET Momentum Fellowship recipients receive $30,000 per annum for four years as they pursue doctoral degrees and specialized engineering, design, and technology research. Along with funding, the IBET PhD Project provides a network of peer support with industry and academia mentors who have gone through the rigorous doctoral process.

James LeMoine, an IBET PhD student at McMaster University, is Anishinaabe from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and part of the Migizi (Eagle) Clan. He completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at McMaster and is currently researching electro-hydrodynamics, a method of improving heat transfer, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint.

“Going through my studies, I felt like the lone one out,” said LeMoine. “Of my Indigenous friends, few went into academia and those who did, did not choose STEM paths. It really felt isolating, so seeing an award that aims to encourage more Indigenous people to follow the path really means a lot.”

IBET PhD student D’Andre Wilson-Ihejirika was born in Nassau, Bahamas and moved to Canada in 2006 to pursue an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at McGill University. She completed a master’s at the Centre for Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto.

“During both my undergraduate and master’s degree programs, I did not have a single professor who looked like me, and I have only met a handful of engineering professors anywhere who identify as Indigenous or Black,” said Wilson-Ihejirika. “I have never met a Black woman who is a professor of engineering in Canada.”

Wilson-Ihejirika worked in the oil and gas industry before pivoting to professional education as the director of programming and employment partnerships at Elevate, an organization dedicated to uniting innovators. After focusing there on connecting members of underrepresented groups to careers in technology and innovation through micro-courses, she is now pursuing a PhD in engineering education at the University of Toronto.

“The IBET PhD Project is important because young Indigenous and Black high school students need to see themselves reflected in their teachers,” said  Tizazu Mekonnen, the IBET PhD Project director and a Waterloo chemical engineering professor.  “Greater diversity in our academic leaders will encourage more students to pursue careers in STEM and ensure that the engineering and computer science fields better represent Canadian society.”

IBET Momentum Fellowships are a central part of the new IBET PhD Project, which aims to change the academic landscape within the next five to 10 years by increasing the number of Indigenous and Black engineering professors teaching and doing research in universities across Canada.

The project will also create a pipeline of graduates who will increase diversity in Canadian technology industries as they enter the workforce with degrees from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.

Interested Canadian students can apply directly to partner universities as part of the overall application process for doctoral programs. Interested potential mentors can apply directly through the IBET PhD Project website.

Read more stories of the IBET Momentum Fellowships.

Student feature 

Veronica Sila Nhio-son
Meet Veronica Sila Nhio-son, WUSA representative on the Health and Mental Health working group

Veronica Sila Nhio-son is the associate vice-president of Equity at the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA). As the primary support for equity-related projects, some of her duties include conducting research for advocacy projects to produce actionable evidence-based recommendations and reports. She is also responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with equity stakeholders, which often requires initiating discussions with WUSA members, the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Anti-racism, and others.

As a member of the President's Anti-racism Taskforce’s Health and Mental Health working group, Veronica Sila Nhio-son ensures that the challenges and concerns of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized groups at WUSA are given prominence when recommendations are being developed.

“This work has the power to advance anti-racism efforts at UWaterloo by leveling the playing field for racialized students who are statistically more likely to suffer from mental health challenges due to a myriad of factors and stressors outside of their control,” she explained. Social inclusion issues, limited economic resources, discrimination, and violence are just some of the social determinants of health that are barriers to students accessing resources, services, and support. 

The WUSA Equity AVP has numerous suggestions for making it easier for students to access health and mental health services, supports, and resources, including greater flexibility for campus appointments, events, and/or opportunities outside of scheduled class times since many members of racialized groups work extensive hours while going to school full-time. With the success of asynchronous class options and events held remotely, Nhio-son hopes that UWaterloo will continue to offer these options to assist students who otherwise would have been at a disadvantage.

“I’ve really taken to this issue due to my own experience working over 30 hours weekly, while studying a full course load,” she said. "It’s important to consider that racialized individuals disproportionately come from lower-income backgrounds and may face the difficult choice between working an additional shift or using that time to take advantage of resources that could support achieving optimal mental health.”

“From students with prior work commitments to those with other challenges, I'm also a member of the Committee on Accessibility and Disability and this topic has really been on our radar, she added."

While Nhio-son applauds the University for the many steps the institution has taken to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion, more work needs to be done to address racism.

“I am eager to work with the institution to implement recommendations for future anti-racism actions,” she said.

Department feature 

Members of the SAARI Steering Committee (from left) Pam Charbonneau (she/her) Director Student Success Office; Jennifer Gillies (she/her) Associate Director, AccessAbility Services ; Jazz Fitzgerald (they/she), Student Equity Specialist; Sacha Geer (she/her), Manager International Mobility and Intercultural Learning
Student Success Office and AccessAbility Services Anti-racism Initiatives (SAARI)

With heightened global solidarity around anti-racism, several academic support units have pledged to take proactive measures to confront racism and discrimination and support inclusivity. The Student Success Office (SSO) and AccessAbility Services (AAS) Anti-racism Initiative (SAARI) was created with the vision of ensuring that their work is meaningfully anti-racist and that Black, Indigenous, and other racialized students and staff are actively engaged as integral contributors to the units, fully supported, and able to thrive. 

Sacha Geer, manager, International Mobility and Intercultural Learning (SSO) is a member of SAARI’s steering committee. Geer, who holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology with a focus on issues related to historical and contemporary structural racism, brings in-depth subject matter expertise to the work. Jazz Fitzgerald, student equity specialist in the SSO, is also a member of SAARI’s steering committee and brings significant experience and expertise within equity spaces, including anti-racism. Senior leadership teams from both units round out the steering committee.

To achieve its goals, SAARI has thus far formed two working groups: Baseline Education and Onboarding, which will identify and make recommendations that will cultivate an anti-racist culture change, and Strategic Plan Review, which will work with managers to integrate anti-racism goals into strategy and planning  

“We envision this work as the first step toward a culture change,” Geer said. “The SSO and AAS’s ethic has always been to meet students and our teams where they are and to give them the tools and education necessary to grow. In this way, we are better positioned to ensure that the work we do is informed by anti-racist principles and actions.”

Pam Charbonneau, director, Student Success Office, added “As a white leader, I am humbled by the expertise that exists within our staff and students. As a leadership team we are beginning to understand the possibilities that exist when we consider the work we do differently. Our first guiding principle for this initiative is to centre and celebrate voices of Black, Indigenous and racialized people. We understand that the success of this work depends on recognizing and acting on their experiences, contributions, expertise, and leadership. Transformational change is our goal, but this is not possible unless we foster trusting relationships with racialized people.”

SAARI has plans to form four additional working groups, namely: Human Resources and Hiring Best Practices, Equity-deserving Data Collection, Student/Staff Consultation Practices, and Program Review and Audit. Because both the SSO and AAS are student-facing, Geer and Fitzgerald see enormous potential to positively affect the experience of all students at the University through these anti-racism initiatives. 

“As we look toward the formation of future working groups addressing programming and services for students, as well as hiring and HR best practices, we know that the education we prioritized will lead to programming that will be better designed for the success of all students,” Fitzgerald said.

SAARI acknowledges that alignment is critical, and the group is committed to engaging and working collaboratively with others actively involved in anti-racism efforts across campus. 

“We are heartened by the considerable time, care, and focus that the President's Anti-racism Taskforce and others engaged in this work have invested. As we strive to uphold the UWaterloo value of 'we all belong,' we encourage others to commit to their own processes of learning and unlearning,” Geer concluded. 

Please visit SAARI to learn more about ongoing anti-racism efforts.

Black Faculty Collective (BFC)

Clive Forrester
The Black Faculty Collective (BFC), a group of faculty, staff, and graduate students at the University of Waterloo, was formed following global protests of the George Floyd murder in 2020. These protests prompted many Institutions to commit to taking urgent actions to address racism in all its forms. The BFC sought to create a space for members of the University community with Black ancestry to share their experiences at the institution and ultimately make critical changes to confront systemic racism.

The organization has been a driving force for dismantling systemic racism at the University. Early initiatives of the BFC included identifying specific hiring practices and procedures, student recruitment strategies, and other systemic issues that perpetuate disparities, and that needed to be addressed urgently. The University has since implemented measures to address these concerns with the creation of an Equity working group to support equitable hiring practices and hiring a Black Student Recruitment specialist and a Black counsellor. Members of the BFC also worked with the University to develop two Black Studies diploma programs to be offered in the 2022-23 academic year.

“When we work and study in an environment where members of a minority group feel welcomed to fully participate, everyone benefits, not just members of that minority group,” said Clive Forrester, coordinator of the BFC. “Indeed, if racialized faculty, staff, and students feel that the environment at UWaterloo is not conducive to achieving their full potential, then the entire community suffers.”

Forrester is also supportive of the Cluster Hire initiative to appoint 10 Black tenure-track and tenured professors, who will contribute to nurturing a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusivity at Waterloo.

“Each member of this community stands to benefit from having a professor, colleague, or classmate who feel they belong at this institution, and that their racial/ethnic identities and worldviews are fully embraced by the UWaterloo,” he added.

While Forrester applauds the anti-racism actions taken by the University thus far, he acknowledges that the radical, transformational change needed to address systemic racism is complex work, that requires high-level strategic planning. He recognizes that some issues may be easier to address than others. He looks forward to seeing the execution of recommendations that PART and the other anti-racism working groups across campus have been working tirelessly to develop.

“We need to get to that point where no member of the University community feels the need to second guess whether they belong on the basis of their race,” he explained. “Ultimately, this requires a cultural change, but starts with incremental steps, such as increased representation, culturally relevant courses and safe spaces where racialized community members can interact and engage in conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Research spotlight

Black Professors and Students at UWaterloo
A brief history of Black experience at Waterloo, 1960s -1990s

by Jonathan Zi En Chan (Originally published on UWaterloo Home Page)

Early this year in a conversation about marking Black History Month at University of Waterloo, History professor Christopher Taylor raised the question about Black history at the University. “I know work has been done on Waterloo region’s Black history,” Taylor said, “but what about specifically at the University? Who was the first Black prof? Who were the first students? What are the achievements by Black folks on campus? What about protest and resistance?”

The conversation also prompted Taylor to stress that any month is the right month to learn from and reflect on Black history. “I'm a firm believer that Blackness doesn't end on February 28/29, and these stories should be year-round.”

Taylor has just been appointed Associate Vice President, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism for the University, and is a founding member of Waterloo’s Black Faculty Collective. Within the Department of History, he works with research assistant, Jonathan Zi En Chan.

Knowing that researching and documenting Black history at Waterloo could be a big project and should not be rushed, Taylor asked Chan to begin the work. Their intention was to research the presence of Black students, faculty, and courses at Waterloo, and disseminate the findings, once ready, in The Sankofa Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, a new open-source journal founded by Taylor.  In the meantime — because any time is the right time to talk about Black history —they are sharing highlights from the research to date.

Chan, who is a PhD candidate in History, found that Black students and several notable Black faculty members were at the University of Waterloo since the early 1960s. “The campus was often filled with the students’ vibrant activity and advocacy,” he says, “while the faculty members pioneered the first courses on African and Black studies.” At that time, he adds, most Black students came to the university as international students from African countries. Chan writes:

Read the entire article here

New AI brings the power of natural language processing to African languages

Originally published by Media Relations on Waterloo News on Tuesday, November 9, 2021

African languages have received little attention from computer scientists, so few natural language processing capabilities have been available to large swaths of the continent. The new language model, developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, begins to fill that gap by enabling computers to analyze text in African languages for many useful tasks.

The new neural network model, which the researchers have dubbed AfriBERTa, uses deep-learning techniques to achieve state-of-the-art results for low-resource languages.

The neural language model works specifically with 11 African languages, such as Amharic, Hausa, and Swahili, spoken collectively by more than 400 million people. It achieves output quality comparable to the best existing models despite learning from just one gigabyte of text, while other models require thousands of times more data.

“Pretrained language models have transformed the way computers process and analyze textual data for tasks ranging from machine translation to question answering,” said Kelechi Ogueji, a master’s student in computer science at Waterloo. “Sadly, African languages have received little attention from the research community.”

“One of the challenges is that neural networks are bewilderingly text- and computer-intensive to build. And unlike English, which has enormous quantities of available text, most of the 7,000 or so languages spoken worldwide can be characterized as low-resource, in that there is a lack of data available to feed data-hungry neural networks.”

Most of these models work using a technique known as pretraining. To accomplish this, the researcher presented the model with text where some of the words had been covered up or masked. The model then had to guess the masked words. By repeating this process, many billions of times, the model learns the statistical associations between words, which mimics human knowledge of language.

“Being able to pre-train models that are just as accurate for certain downstream tasks but using vastly smaller amounts of data has many advantages,” said Jimmy Lin, the Cheriton Chair in Computer Science and Ogueji’s advisor. “Needing less data to train the language model means that less computation is required, and consequently lower carbon emissions associated with operating massive data centres. Smaller datasets also make data curation more practical, which is one approach to reduce the biases present in the models.”

“This work takes a small but important step to bringing natural language processing capabilities to more than 1.3 billion people on the African continent.”

Assisting Ogueji and Lin in this research is Yuxin Zhu, who recently completed an undergraduate degree in computer science at Waterloo. Together, they present their research paper, Small data? No problem! Exploring the viability of pretrained multilingual language models for low-resource languages, at the Multilingual Representation Learning Workshop at the 2021 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing.

Working group update 

Angeline Ram
From Angeline Ram, co-chair of the Code of Conduct and Safety working group

The Code of Conduct and Safety working group is developing recommendations for training for campus safety and security staff in anti-racism and de-escalation tactics. The working group conducted an environmental scan of university and college campuses across Canada and the United States to review training programs offered to campus safety and security.

To identify recommendations of best practices related to current events associated with systemic bias within the police services, the working group also reviewed the 2021 Missing and Missed Report of The Independent Civilian Review into Missing Person's Investigations, prepared by the Honorable Gloria J. Epstein, an independent reviewer. This report is relevant because it informs how identified biases in Toronto's Police Services can be addressed. Recommendations include establishing relationships between the police and equity deserving groups.

The environmental scan also revealed high incidents of death among racialized people suffering from mental illness during interactions with police, thus bringing to light the need for increased mental health awareness training.

The working group recommends four overarching thematic categories for training:

  • Internal Reflection: training those positions campus police members to internally examine their own beliefs, basic assumptions, and practices as they relate to antiracism and interaction with diverse peoples.
  • Systemic and Institutional Influence: training that exposes underlying power constructs that influence policing and society at large. This training allows campus safety and security to critically evaluate the effects of systemic bias within its organization and on the communities it serves.
  • Community Engagement and Building: training that considers and helps understand the communities served and protected by police services, particularly equity deserving communities.  By building trust, campus police may be able to better serve members of these communities.
  • De-escalation Training and Crisis Prevention: training that considers a holistic approach to managing complex situations (e.g., life-threatening crises). It provides tools and techniques to properly manage and de-escalate complex situations, including those that require a consideration of mental health.

To support these themes, the working group also recommends that the training be designed in a workshop style that includes participation and facilitators from the campus community or other equity supporting agencies. It is recommended that anti-racism trainings must be continuous to effectively respond to staff changes. Hopefully, these trainings will help campus safety and security meet its mission to provide a safe and secure environment in which to work, study and live.

Bulletin board

Avenue: The Black Undergraduate Law Internship Program

Avenue is a collaborative effort between Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion (LLD) and the Law Firm Diversity and Inclusion Network (LFDIN) to implement a paid internship program focused on Black undergraduate students who may be interested in a legal career.

Avenue is designed to provide Black undergraduate students with real-world legal industry experience and an opportunity to build their resumes and create a professional network.

What will program participants gain from an internship through Avenue?

  • 12-week paid internship at either a law firm or a company’s legal team
  • Work experience designed to develop business acumen and an understanding of the practice of law
  • Leadership development during the internship and networking opportunities
  • Mentorship with a senior-level mentor within the law firm or company where the intern is placed
  • Financial support through a grant (up to $3,000 CAD) to cover the cost of an LSAT preparation course or law school admission fees

Applications are due in late November 2021 for internships in summer 2022. Visit the Avenue website to learn about the program and how to apply: