Students as Diversity Workers, By Nana Koomson

Do We Let the Club Go?

It was approaching the middle of May, and I had yet to find someone to replace me as the president of the Afro Dance and Culture Club (ADC). In a panic, I called Amy hoping she would pick up her phone. As a recent graduate student who was taking summer classes in addition to a summer job, Amy was one of the hardest people to reach. Luckily, on that May day, she picked up her phone after a few rings. Without letting her get a word in, I rushed to tell her the predicament I was in.

The Afro Dance and Culture Club was Amy’s and my baby. We had started the club in the summer of our second year at the University of Toronto, after Amy had revealed her desire for a space within the University where she could express herself through Afro Dance, and feel a sense of belonging. Sharing her sentiment, we worked together to create a space within the University where Black students could come together in their shared experiences and engage in various aspects of Black culture. In the two years since the creation of the club, Amy and I had built a community within the University we were both extremely proud of.

Thus, in the summer of 2021, when I realized that no students had applied to be president or vice president of the club, I became anxious. Without a president or a vice president, I had to grapple with the idea of letting the club go. Just the thought that there may no longer be an ADC, did not sit right with me. This is because Amy and I had put a lot of work into the club and fostered many valuable connections. Moreover, I felt disappointed in myself for not doing more during my time as president. I began to think that if I performed better as president, the club would not be in the predicament it was in.

After explaining the positionality of the club to Amy, I knew she was feeling the same kaleidoscope of emotions plaguing me in the way she reacted and responded to my words. In usual Amy fashion, she asked that we explore our options before making a final decision. We began to go over who we could approach to take over the club. Do we set up another election? Would people still apply during the summer? 

Eventually, Amy paused in the middle of our conversation. She expressed to me that she had an idea. “Why don’t we both become co-interim presidents for half the year until we find someone”? This was something I had yet to consider. Amy was not only extremely busy, but she had already graduated from the University and was set to move to the U.S in August. Moreover, I knew how busy I was going to be in the upcoming school year. I not only had to focus on my last year at the University, but I had 2 part time jobs that demanded my attention. Nonetheless, I did not want to let the Afro Dance and Culture Club go, and immediately said yes. Amy and I had built something, and I wanted to see it prosper regardless of how much stress it would cost me. 

In this ethnography, I draw on some of Sara Ahmed’s ideas in her 2014 book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, to explore how students perform diversity work within the University. By reflecting back on my experience in the summer of 2021, I began to think of what Ahmed called diversity champions. Diversity champions are individuals who have a genuine commitment to diversity (Ahmed, 2014, 131). In fighting to keep the Afro Dance and Culture Club alive despite the inconveniences and hardships it would cost us, Amy and I solidified our positions as diversity champions. However, we were both still undergraduate and graduate students. Through the use of participant observations within 3 sites and 4 key informant interviews with Black student leaders, I seek to determine how students imagine themselves as diversity champions within the University. I also seek to understand how the University supports the work that students do as diversity champions. I focus on Black student clubs and leaders to direct the scope of my research. 

In the course of participant observation and key informant interviews, it became apparent that there was a conundrum. Most student leaders imagined themselves to be diversity workers, but they did not believe the University recognized the work they did. Again, they did not believe the University was adequately performing diversity work. The conundrum comes when one examines a few administratively led student groups. Not only do they involve the voices and experiences of Black students in their diversity work, but they hold themselves accountable to goals informed by these experiences. Thus, why did students still think there was no work being done? It seems as though it is a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” situation.  

Creating Spaces for Black Students

Like many student leaders within the University of Toronto, it was hard to get into contact with Elizabeth. I had been trying to interview her for months. Coupled with school, her job at a University Library, and her position as the president of Vic BLVCK, she was an extremely busy person. To solve this problem, we decided that I would give her a phone call after her shift at the Library.

Vic BLVCK is a Black student network that is part of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. The club aims to connect Black students at the University through various events and activities. It also works to connect students to resources provided by the college, including scholarships, grants, and bursaries.

Elizabeth decided to be president of Vic BLVCK because she greatly benefited from the club in the previous school year. She not only attended many of their events, but through the club, she was able to build connections with other Black students at Victoria college. While I could not see her facial expressions, Elizabeth spoke with a lot of passion and energy when she explained to me that as president of the club, she was able to connect to both incoming and current Black students at the University of Toronto in a college where there were not many Black people. This was important to her because it was something she was missing until she herself discovered Vic BLVCK. Elizabeth also explained that in Victoria college, not many students knew about the resources that were offered by the college. As a student leader, she had the opportunity to share the valuable knowledge she had about such resources.

Pausing to stop and think about all the work she had put into the club, Elizabeth expressed that “I am making a difference. I am educating Black students on Black issues, teaching others, and celebrating Black history”. The passion, excitement, and energy in her voice as she recounted the work she did as a diversity champion, was a testament to the love she had for her diversity work. She placed a lot of value on her club, and being a part of it, was a source of pride.

Similar to Amy and me, Elizabeth envisioned herself as a diversity champion because she was able to create spaces within the University where Black students could thrive. As a student, she too had experienced what it was like without a space to belong. In her book, Sara Ahmed(2014) explains that she was one of two faculty of color at a Race Equity Team within her University (4). This fact replicated some of the problems that needed to be addressed because it spoke to the lack of diversity and inclusion of faculty of color within her institution. Moreover, as she explains, ‘whiteness’ tends to be visible to those who do not inhabit it (3). This is because for those who do not inhabit it, White spaces are an assertion that they are not part of the norm.

Diversity is illustrated as a diversion from what is normal. Thus, in the case of Elizabeth, Amy, and I, creating a Black space within what was a typically “white space”, was exemplary of diversity work. Similar to Ahmed, the fact that we created or fostered these spaces because we could not find Black connections, was an indication that our diversity work was essential. Ultimately, students imagined themselves as Diversity champions because they created much-needed spaces that diverted from the norm as informed from their own experiences of not belonging.

No One Really Credits Us

Doing diversity work is hard work. Coupled with being a student, it can be extremely frustrating. For many of the students I came across during my work, this frustration was compounded by their perceived lack of support from the University. 

As it had been difficult to find time to talk, I interviewed Aisha while she was at work.

Aisha was a fourth year undergraduate student who worked as a front desk secretary for InnisCollege Residence within the University of Toronto. She also worked as a part time cashier at a Foot Locker. Despite her many responsibilities, she found time to be the vice-president of the Black Student Association (BSA) at the University.

Meeting her at the Innis College Residence, Aisha quickly ushered me into a small back office directly behind the front desk. Here, I would be out of the sight of various residents who were coming in and out of the building. Sitting in the only chair behind a large black marbled counter in a lobby that overlooked one of the entrances of the residence building, Aisha closed her notebooks and swiveled towards the back office to finally greet me. This was an odd time and place to be meeting with someone. Firstly, it was 10:30pm on a Sunday night, and the lobby was surprisingly busy. Some of the residents stopped to greet Aisha while she spoke to me, interrupting our conversation. Moreover, Aisha paused several times to glance at the double monitors in the middle of the counter that showed various common areas within the residence. Regardless of the inconvenient time and place, Aisha was all too happy to speak to me about some of the amazing work she did as vice-president of the Black Student Association.

The Black Student Association at the University of Toronto is a student-led group made up of Black student leaders who aim to bring Black students together. They hold several events including picnics, study sessions, and high school conferences where they can interact with incoming Black students. 

Despite the love she had for her work as a student leader, Aisha explained that she faced many challenges. As she glanced back at the monitors again and pushed aside her notebook where she was working on a class assignment a few minutes before, she described how difficult it was to manage her time. Balancing between work, school, and her diversity work was an incredibly hard task. With quite a bit of frustration and incredulity, Aisha further expressed that more challenges arise when a racially motivated event or phenomenon occurred at the University. 

People expect a lot from us but sometimes we don’t want to speak for people when we don’t know if they want to be spoken for. Things happen all over the  University such as the vandalization of the Woodsworth building with racial slurs. Nobody knows about it except us and unless we speak about it, nobody will know about it.

The more Aisha spoke about the expectations placed upon her and other student leaders of the BSA, the angrier she became. This anger only seemed to worsen when she spoke about the support she received from the University for her diversity work.

We are recognized as a U of T association, and we receive grants sometimes but that’s it. No one really credits us for the diversity work that we do. I have been on the BSA for two years now and I have never heard a simple ‘This group is doing well’”!

According to Sara Ahmed (2014), working on diversity and equity entails accepting an uneven distribution of commitment rather than a fantasy that everyone can share responsibility (137). For Aisha, Elizabeth, Amy, and me, this unequal distribution was apparent in our commitment to part time jobs within the University, our commitment to our education, and a commitment to our diversity work. We were pulled in so many different directions while it felt as though the University did nothing. For Aisha, this was further exemplified by how much more work the BSA had to put into anti-racist efforts within the University. The feeling of doing all the work, coupled with the difficulties of balancing, and managing time, led to anger and frustration when student leaders began to grapple with the idea that despite the work they do and the sacrifices they make, the University did not seem to support, recognize, or appreciate their diversity work.

Ahmed (2014) describes frustration as a means through which diversity workers experience institutionality (51). As she explains, the institutionalization of a phenomenon is for that phenomenon to become routine or ordinary, so much so that it becomes part of the background for individuals who are part of the institution (21). To experience institutionality is to experience the routine nature of an institutionalized phenomenon. Student leaders experienced institutionality in the need to balance their jobs within the institution, their education within the institution, and their diversity work within the institution. Moreover, Aisha’s frustration with the University was driven by 2 years of not having her work supported or credited by the institution- something she did not see changing anytime soon. As one student leader said to me, “what will recognition from the University even look like”?

I  Don’t Feel Like I am Doing Enough

Student leader accounts of frustration presented itself as a source of puzzlement and mystery. After having difficulties balancing all their responsibilities, managing their time, and feeling as though their work was unrecognized, why do students continue to do diversity work? Why do they put so much pressure on themselves to continue their diversity work when they are faced with so many challenges? Why do they not simply back out when given a chance? This puzzlement further presented itself when Elizabeth expressed to me that “I don’t feel like I am doing enough. I feel like I should be doing more with the position I am in”. Her somber words also took me back to my feelings of disappointment in the summer of 2021. I felt as though I should have done more as president of the Afro Dance and Culture Club. Finally, I began to reflect on a particularly tense ADC meeting.

Since May of 2021, Amy and I had been serving as co-interim presidents. At the end of October, it was time for us to try once more to find a replacement. While we had advertised the position on our social media sites, we were met with disappointment when once again, no one applied for the president and vice-president positions. With the realities of school, work, and other student leader activities, without replacements, Amy and I would have to dissolve the club once and for all. In a similar manner to what had happened in the summer, we went back and forth on the phone on what our options were. We were on the phone for about 30 minutes, when I suggested that we ask Lillian and Angela.

Lillian was the Artistic Director of ADC while Angela was the cultural awareness ambassador. Lillian was a fourth-year undergraduate student who had been a part of ADC since its inception. She taught dance classes and choreographed some of the performances ADC usually held for Benefit concerts. On the other hand, Angela was a third-year undergraduate student who held ADC’s cultural awareness discussions. In many of her events, Black students came together to discuss Black issues. Amy and I decided to speak to Lilian and Angela about our predicament because they were easily two of the most dedicated members of ADC. Thus, we invited them to a zoom call. 

Taking Responsibility

Seeing the faces of Lillian and Angela join Amy and I on the zoom app immediately called several nervous butterflies to my stomach. They came in saying hello and asking polite questions about how our day had been. While I answered their questions, I was extremely anxious. The entire fate of the club depended on what they would decide after the meeting.

I could only imagine what Lillian and Angela believed the meeting was about. Amy and I had given them no foreground at all as to what we would be discussing. As the artistic and cultural awareness ambassadors, they could have easily believed that the meeting was about their specific positions. Glancing at the little box on my screen with Amy’s face, I began the meeting after a long drawn out conversation about how each and every one of our weeks had gone.

I began by explaining to both Lillian and Angela the predicament the club was in. I went on to talk about why Amy and I could not continue being the co-interim presidents, and the outcome of the third election we held for the vice-president and president  positions. In asking them if they would consider being president or vice president of the club, I made sure to inform them that Amy and I were still available to help. I didn’t want to overwhelm them in case they said no. 

After a few minutes of speaking to both Angela and Lillian, I stopped to ask them for their thoughts. It was Amy’s and my expectation that after the zoom call, they would both take a few days to think about our proposal. However, Angela and Lillian both agreed that we could not simply abandon the club. They both decided right at that meeting to be co-presidents for the rest of the year.

Like Angela and Lillian, almost every student leader I interviewed took responsibility for diversity work within the University. They saw themselves responsible for the sustainability of Black spaces, and how it influenced Black student life. Sara Ahmed (2014) explains that unless responsibility is given to someone, it is both diffused and refused within the University (136). Student leaders did not want this to occur.

Without Lillian or Angela taking responsibility for ADC, it would cease to exist within the University. Moreover, without Elizabeth or Aisha, where would BSA or Vic BLVCK be? If the BSA did not speak out about anti-Black matters within the University or speak for Black students, who would? Students felt as though they had to take responsibility because it would simply be refused within the institution. For most of us, we knew what it was like not to have a Black space within what Aisha once described as the “White space” of the University. Thus, there was a potent fear that without taking responsibility, the spaces and connections we had fostered not only for ourselves, but for other students, will cease to exist. In all, despite the frustration students had toward the University, they took responsibility for diversity work because they experienced its value.

The Black Student Experience Working Group

The question of why students continued to do diversity work despite their frustrations within the University further puzzled me when I reflected back on my experience at the Black Student Experience (BSE) group within Innis College.

The Black student experience group is an administratively led working group within the University of Toronto that seeks to increase the diversity of Black students within Innis College. Both undergraduate and graduate Black students come together to speak to administrators about their experiences and challenges as Black students in the University. The group was created by the principal of Innis College- Principal Johnson- who recruited Black students, including myself, into the group by directly emailing us.

Like most meetings and events I had attended during the pandemic, the first BSE meeting in the month of September was held on Microsoft Teams. While I kept my camera and microphone off as I joined the group, the gallery view presented on my computer screen displayed the faces of some of the faculty and administrators within Innis College. They were engaging in lively conversation as some students began to filter in. By the time the meeting was set to begin, there were approximately 9 people in attendance with 5 administrative and faculty members, and 4 graduate and undergraduate students. The administrative members included Principal Johnson, and the Dean of Students at Innis College. 

The meeting began with the appointed secretary- another administrative member- greeting each of us and informing us of the agenda. Promptly after the introduction, Principal Johnson began to inform the group that Innis college had set up a new Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Group (EDIA). Due to this new diversity group, the students in attendance were asked if the BSE should continue its activities- albeit at a reduced capacity- or if it should be dissolved. In response, each member recounted how important a group such as the BSE was within the University, and Principal Johnson himself expressed how valuable he believed the group was.

Proceeding from the discussions about the new EDIA group, Principal Johnson began to describe a working document that the college had created. The Dean of Students shared a link to the document into the chat function available on Microsoft teams. Clicking the link, I was immediately transported to a different tab on my computer, with a long Microsoft word document. As the word document was set on “view only”, I could only scroll through the document without making any edits.

Principal Johnson and the Dean of students began to take turns reading through the document. Sitting through the meeting, I could tell that this was something they were proud of. The document outlined several recommendations that were expressed by Black students since the creation of the working group in 2020. Under each recommendation, there was a recounting of what the college had already done and what still needed to be accomplished. In describing the progress the college had made, Principal Johnson somberly explained that “There are areas where the document shows concerted efforts. However, progress is determined by whether there is a sustained effort to implement these recommendations”.

This document was important for two reasons. Firstly, it was created based on the ideas and experiences of Black students who were part of the BSE. In many ways, it was our document because it was filled with changes that we wanted to see. However, while this was the case, the process of reading a non-editable document to the group contradicted the efforts of administrators to amplify the voices of Black students within the College. Due to our limited access to the document, it no longer felt as though the document belonged to us. We did not write it, and we could not edit it. Secondly, the disjuncture between who had access to the document, and who the document belonged to, led to an awareness that the meeting was a performance. In short, the administrators were illustrating to Black students that they had done something about our concerns, and the meeting was for Black students to recognize and acknowledge that something had been done.

The Conundrum

Despite the performance of the Black Student Experience working group meeting, the administrators and staff seemed to have made a real commitment to increasing the diversity of Black students within Innis college. The BSE was a committee where the administrators and staff held themselves accountable, recognized, and supported the various views and experiences of Black students within the University of Toronto. This was apparent in their constant inquiries of the opinions and concerns of Black students, and Principal Johnson’s assertion that a sustained effort is needed for the diversity and inclusion of Black students to be realized. Thus, I was puzzled as to why students still felt as though the University did nothing. Why did they feel unsupported?

This was even more puzzling when I analyzed Ahmed’s description of institutional will. According to Ahmed, institutional will is needed to transform a situation so that what is habitually produced would no longer be produced (Ahmed, 2014, 128). From the document presented by the BSE and their constant checking in with Black students, it was apparent that they had institutional will. 

The Fire Will Die Down

The question of why Black student leaders still felt unheard and unsupported when groups such as the BSE existed led me to another phone call with Amy. In her last year as an undergraduate student, Amy was recruited into the BSE by Principal Johnson. Not wanting to disappoint someone who had been an integral part to her University career, she easily agreed to join the BSE. 

According to Amy, the work the BSE did was incredibly important. The involvement of the institution when it comes to improving the experience of Black students within Innis College and the University of Toronto at large, meant real changes could occur. However, Amy was nervous that the group was simply a phase. As she explained vehemently, it arose during the Black Lives Matter movements, where there was a surge of anti-racist groups. Unfortunately, many of these groups fizzled out. There were already very few institutional groups that performed this type of diversity work. Thus, Amy asked, “What if the fire dies down”?

When groups such as the BSE rise up, students have a real fear that they will dissolve- that they will die down. Amy’s worries were not unfounded. Not only were there very few groups like the BSE, but the first point of discussion of the BSE was a matter of its dissolvement.

Moreover, as previously explained, the BSE’s meeting appeared to be a performance where the diversity work of administrators could be recognized by the Black students present. This further bred distrust because it took away from the amplification of Black voices. 

Student distrust of the University’s groups persist regardless of the scholarships created, or the progress plans that are made. This is contradictory because as the BSE illustrated, there was institutional will to make real change. In fact, the question of dissolvement only arose in response to the creation of a bigger group that would continue the work of the BSE. Unfortunately, this was not enough to earn the trust of student diversity champions. They still continued to feel unsupported and unheard.

Conclusion

Students believed they were diversity champions when they were creating spaces for Black students within a University they perceived as a predominantly ‘White space’. Again, despite the many challenges they experienced and the sacrifices they made as part of their diversity work, students felt as though the University did not recognize or support the work they did. This led to immense frustrations, especially since some students believed that much of the anti-racist work within the University was placed on their shoulders. The first puzzle came when it was discovered that despite frustrations and feelings of anger, students still pursued diversity work even when there was space for them to back out. Moreover, they felt they could do more. 

The second puzzle presented itself when groups such as the BSE were discovered to have institutional will when it comes to increasing the diversity of Black students within the University. They not only held themselves accountable, but they took the time to listen to the experiences of Black students to determine how to best support them. Despite their work, students still did not trust them. This resulted in a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” conundrum. Efforts to increase diversity were met with mistrust on several levels. Not only did students experience the diversity work of the institution as insincere, there was a real fear that the work was short term- that the fire would die down. However, administrators could not simply sit back and do nothing. Doing so would continue to propagate an institution that is experienced as a white space. Such spaces create room for institutional racism, and the exclusion of people of color.  All in all, the University as an institution must determine how to best relate to students so that they are supported, and their work is recognized. There needs to be more Black Student Experience groups led by administrators. The involvement of administrators will mean real changes can occur. They not only have the funding, but they have connections to major players within the University. To conclude, the institution must start the process of building the trust of students. 

References

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press, 2014.