Anti-racism advisors: Paving the way for change

As special advisors on anti-racism, Nicole Kaniki and Bertha Garcia are laying the foundation for an interim advisory council on equity, diversity and inclusion at Western. (Photo and photo composite by Andrew Campbell, Western Communications)

As they work to embed equity, diversity and inclusion principles into institutional structure, Western’s first anti-racism advisors are asking the campus community to join them in their journey.

“We are committed to working with students, faculty, staff and alumni to ensure Western is a place where everyone feels like they belong and are treated fairly and equally,” said Nicole Kaniki, who along with Bertha Garcia has been laying the foundation for Western’s first advisory council on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). “But we cannot do it alone. We need the support of all members of the Western community.”

The eight- to 10-member interim advisory council, which will provide guidance to the university’s future associate vice-president of EDI, is expected to be in place by the end of the academic term. And that will be just the beginning.

The appointments of Garcia and Kaniki, announced in August, were among a series of next steps the university announced in June in response to the report and recommendations of the President’s Anti-Racism Working Group.

Immediately tasked with establishing the advisory council, Garcia and Kaniki have been meeting with department leaders across campus to start the selection process.

“Candidates must have expertise in institutional or organizational governance and EDI, and priority will be given to people with lived experience and those from underrepresented groups,” said Kaniki, EDI specialist at BrainsCAN, Western’s $66-million neuroscience research initiative.

Once established, the council will work with the advisors, and eventually the incoming associate vice-president. Together, they will provide strategic guidance to the university on collecting and publishing relevant data; setting metrics to measure progress; developing institutional policies, and student, staff and faculty recruitment.

Reviewing the mechanisms in place for reporting racist incidents has also been a priority for the advisors. They are taking a hard look at what needs to be done to ensure all members of the campus community notice and call out acts of racism, including microaggressions, said Garcia, professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

As a recruiter, Garcia has seen microaggressions – subtle acts of racial discrimination where race is seen as incidental – in feedback that focuses on a candidate’s accent or gender. “You hear things like ‘women speak too softly,’ or ‘your accent is distracting.’”

It is important for leaders to set the tone by calling out such microaggressions, Garcia said. “I say, ‘No, I do not want to see any feedback about accents. Accents have nothing to do with this person’s scholarship or their ability to teach.’”

Garcia and Kaniki are also strategizing on how best to coordinate and centralize a number of EDI and anti-racism training programs in various departments.

Expected to launch in mid-November, the first in a series of webinars will feature a discussion about the use of the N-word in the classroom led by Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, associate professor of history at Smith College in Massachusetts who specializes in 19th-century U.S. history and race.

While the strategic policy and planning work is ongoing, the very existence of the new anti-racism advisory roles has already signalled culture change, Kaniki said. Since she and Garcia were appointed in August, people are reaching out to share their experiences with racism.

“Quiet voices are finding safe spaces now,” said Garcia. “They are speaking up and together we are finding solutions.”

“These new roles have given people from underrepresented groups the opportunity to talk about racism they’ve experienced because we are naming it,” Kaniki said. “And these conversations are contributing to the work we do, ensuring we meet the needs of not only the university, but the individuals who work and study here.”

In the meantime, the advisors are calling for support.

“We need everyone to call out racism, to stand up against it, and to support Western’s mission of equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Kaniki.

“Anti-racism is the responsibility of every individual here.”

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To report racism on campus or receive support, students can connect with Student Support and Case Management at sscm@uwo.ca. Faculty and staff can reach Equity & Human Rights Services at equity@uwo.ca.