Opening Remarks

Wisdom Tettey
Wisdom Tettey, Vice-President, University of Toronto and Principal, University of Toronto Scarborough

It is a great honour to join the over 3,000 colleagues and partners registered for these historic dialogues on anti-Black racism and Black inclusion, which is the first in the National Dialogues and Action for Inclusive Higher Education and Communities series. I want to add my voice to President Gertler’s in offering a warm welcome to everyone.

Before I go any further, I would like to extend my gratitude to all of you whose participation has made today a reality. Thank you to our partner institutions from coast to coast to coast. Close to 60 institutions have answered the call and many more are represented by individual colleagues. Thank you to our inter-institutional advisory committee, our panelists, our U of T planning committee, and the very dedicated and tenacious group of colleagues here at the University of Toronto Scarborough who have steered us very diligently to this moment.

We have come together to facilitate a national conversation and to develop concrete actions for change in higher education and in our communities. We will focus on sharing experiences and ideas, and exploring and learning best practices that lead to verifiable change that resolutely rejects anti-Black racism and drives meaningful Black inclusion within individual universities and colleges, the higher education sector and our communities.

That journey starts with the humility to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism, the inadequacy of what we have done so far, and a willingness to aspire to a better version of ourselves as institutions and as a sector. This process of acknowledgment may indeed be uncomfortable, but that discomfort pales in comparison to the routinization of exclusion, marginalization, devaluation and denigration that is the wont of some to promote and the reality for Black, racialized and Indigenous communities to live.

Changing the status quo requires us to critically engage with and to challenge the structural normativity of certain forms of privilege and marginalization and to embrace how discomfort can be empowering when it is channeled towards the promotion of justice and removal of the venom of anti-Black racism.

To get the work done, we have to demonstrate the courage of our convictions regarding equity, diversity and inclusion; move beyond platitudes to attitudes and actions anchored in a conscience of equity; commit to following through; and build a culture that secures the principles and commitments that we know, or ought to know, to be right.

A good way to approach the task before us is to see one another as “equity deserving,” and to move away from the language of “equity seeking.” As I have noted elsewhere, that language may have had a well-intentioned provenance, but it inadvertently perpetuates a perception of underrepresented and marginalized groups as interlopers asking for special favours or concessions. Those on the margins of our community deserve equity as a right. They should not be given the burden of seeking it and they should not be made to feel that they get it as a privilege through the generosity of those who have the power to give it, and hence the power to take it back.

A rights-based, “equity-deserving” framework comes with the expectation of obligatory reckoning on everyone’s part, particularly the powerful and the privileged, to ensure that access to rights is not differentially calibrated based on race. This is not an option or a choice to be exercised; it is an obligation that we must deliver on.

As critically minded, knowledge-creating institutions and learning organizations, we should lead the way by retiring that language of “equity seeking” and adopting the more empowering, inclusive language represented by the term “equity deserving.” This enables our compatriots to take their rightful place as bona fide members of the academy in substance and in fact, not as transactional props or symbols that are only captured as institutional collateral.

Black inclusion does not diminish us; it does not take away from any of us. It enriches us. We have gathered here because we believe that we can transcend what we are today by working together with integrity and honesty, with an eye on concrete actions to forge a better “we”; and we can only be a better “we” through the oneness of purpose and of humanity — not through divisiveness, denigration, inequity and the devaluation of some; not through exclusion in our daily routines, structures and standard operating procedures; not by waiting for the next major manifestation of these inequities to elicit another iteration of outrage – whether genuine, contrived or disingenuous.

If we cede to preconceived narrow-minded measures of excellence that devalue Black experiences, perspectives and knowledges, we constrain our ability to avail ourselves of the benefits and impact of their contributions. These dialogues present us with an opportunity to inch closer to our aspirations to be that mature democracy where the humanity of each and all determines our place as bona fide equity-deserving people, not the colour of our skin.

We are made better by an openness to learning; by a capacity to be empathetic and understanding; by the power of acknowledging injustices and working towards addressing them; by the fulfilment that comes with lifting one another up; and by recognizing that unlearning those things that diminish our common humanity can be the best catalyst for personal growth and the enrichment of communities.

It is important that we listen to those who live the reality of everyday manifestations of individual and structural inequality, inequity and racism. That is why we are anchoring the deliberations in intersecting Black voices and centring these voices as the take-off point in all the concurrent dialogues. Expressions of the subaltern voice articulating inequities and discrimination should not be muffled through such coded phrases as “cancel culture” or “identity politics,” which are terms deliberately infused with negative connotations aimed at disempowering and eroding credibility.

The conversations will be difficult, but we can chart a path together towards what is just and fair, and enriching for all. This work is going to be hard; it will demand a lot from and of us. It will test us; it will stretch our resolve, but we are among the most prepared and the best positioned to surmount the challenges, to lead, and to address the debilitating portents of exclusion, anti-Black racism and discrimination.

We have a unique opportunity, as supporters and beneficiaries of higher education in Canada, to deliver on one of the most important manifestations of a truly mature and innovative democracy – an inclusive community that treats all its members as equity deserving. The burden of the status quo is exceedingly heavy on our Black colleagues and communities, but it is not theirs alone to bear or to lift. All of us have to be partners in this effort, genuinely and tirelessly doing our collective and individual parts to deliver on the promise of a fair, conscientious and just society, and on the promise of a higher education sector where no one is unwelcome because of their race; or is devalued, or made to feel like a pariah or an afterthought; or is constantly compelled to struggle in order to be included, to be reflected, to simply belong. That is how we harness the rich benefits of inclusive excellence.

That journey has to start now, in earnest, with a sense of urgency. Incremental, piecemeal, half-hearted, reactive and episodic nudges of the conscience are a luxury we cannot afford. There is justifiable cynicism among those who support this initiative, as well as those who don’t. The former’s cynicism stems from historical antecedents where talk has not translated into sustained and rooted action, where ephemerally tantalizing tokenism has held sway. The second group’s cynicism is goaded on by the belief that the status quo, which exclusively or largely benefits them, is inviolable because society does not have the temerity to do what is right by all.

We need to earn the confidence of the first group through our actions and, by so doing, make it abundantly clear that we are unwilling to continue on a path that makes us poorer because we are holding on to myopic, anachronistic and moribund appeals to the lowest versions of ourselves, where we think we can only thrive when others are denigrated and/or denied opportunity, or that the worth of someone is defined by their structurally constrained circumstances.

As educators, we should not squander this opportunity for concrete action; otherwise, we would irreparably erode the goodwill that members of our community have demonstrated by their participation in these dialogues. We would be letting ourselves and future generations down.

As we work together to co-create the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education, we need to keep in mind the fact that a charter is only as good as our ability to deliver on its principles, actions and accountabilities. So let’s proceed with executing them as vigorously and as genuinely as we can, within the specific contexts of our institutions and across the sector. It will be a guide to set us on the path to success. With each action undertaken in the spirit of the charter, we firmly anchor our gains while nourishing the next set of necessary steps, thereby ensuring that outcomes are sustained and enduring.

We have to be informed by what is feasible, but what we define as feasible should not be constrained by what is convenient and easy. We have to do what is necessary to get us closer to the promise of our ideals and values. Let it be an exemplar of what is right and what we can accomplish together when we commit to inclusive excellence that is built in substantive terms on the fundamental principle that all members of our community are equity deserving.

Many of us are beneficiaries of past struggles, advocacy and sacrifices by Black people for equity, equality and justice, which have resulted in many rights and liberties that seem commonplace today. Our work over the next two days stands to take its place as another of these efforts that start with Black people’s struggle for equity but redound to the benefit of all.

I wish all of us productive, collegial and respectful deliberations. Thank you all for answering the call and for committing to an outcome that we can all be proud of as individuals and institutions, and as a sector.

National Dialogues Co-Convenor Wisdom Tettey,
Vice-President, University of Toronto and Principal, University of Toronto Scarborough


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