Racial advocacy group brushed aside in UW’s anti-racism work

Students are represented on the taskforce, but student groups outside of it aren’t being engaged

The University of Waterloo has a framework for addressing anti-racism, but student groups outside of it are getting the cold shoulder. The President’s Anti-Racism Taskforce (PART) says it wasn’t their intent to leave student groups out, though it is hard to ignore the absence of RAISE (Racial Advocacy for Inclusion, Solidarity and Equity).

Coordinators Ayesha Masud, Hanan Thibeh and Zainab Ashraf said that after the university announced an action plan with eight commitments, RAISE was not invited to engage

“Since July or August, the university [administration] has not reached out to us,” Thibeh confirmed.

(Hanan Thibeh. Photo courtesy of RAISE)

The only meaningful interaction they’ve had was after a racist Zoom-bombing incident. University administration reached out to RAISE out of concern for their well-being, yet that has been the extent of their interaction.

Fiqir Worku founded RAISE in 2017. As the vice president of Waterloo’s Black Association for Student Expression, Worku requested racial demographics from the university to develop targeted services for racialized students. Not only did Waterloo not have that data, the university suggested Worku — an undergraduate student at the time — take on that work herself in between her own studies.

“It’s still expected that students will do all that work, and without Fiqir’s tweets getting popular and getting attention, RAISE wouldn’t have existed,” Thibeh said. “And the university has pushed back from day one.”

That wasn’t the only major blunder for the university when it came to addressing anti-racism. Last summer saw the student-led Equity4Who campaign, which RAISE also signed on to. That resulted in the ouster of the VP of the Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion (HREI) Office. Multiple students and staff said the VP had a long track record of diminishing and dismissing their issues — not a good look for a department whose role was to address them.

And even the university’s announcement of their anti-racism goals was not without criticism. UW President Feridun Hamdullahpur stated that these initiatives were informed by meetings with BIPOC members. However, groups like RAISE and Waterloo’s Indigenous Student Center (ISC) said they were surprised at the news. Both noted that they weren’t included in those discussions.

(Ayesha Masud. Photo courtesy of RAISE)

,Masud said that – as a student service – they would be cut out of the conversation with the university. If they had anything to say to RAISE, administrators would direct their communications through Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA), who oversees their work. WUSA wrote in an email that after a single meeting with Hamdullahpur last year, all further discussions were moved over to Dr. Charmaine Dean, who was the executive designate and PART coordinator.

Dean asked WUSA to appoint student representatives to the working groups. From WUSA’s perspective, the work appeared to be “going very slowly.”

“We have reached out multiple times to understand some of the end goals that the Taskforce has set in place to be accomplished. The information we got was quite vague,” WUSA representatives wrote.

WUSA said it was intending to bring RAISE into the fold, once it understood what PART was even expecting.

When Dean was informed of this during an interview, she was surprised. She said she assumed her discussions with WUSA were being relayed to RAISE. Upon telling her that wasn’t the case, Dean said she would rectify that in her next discussion with WUSA. It was never their intention to leave RAISE out.

“Let me see how I can help bridge that communication gap between their representatives,” she said.

Meanwhile, RAISE felt WUSA fell short of the university-wide advocacy they wanted to do. It just didn’t receive the funding or resources to do so. RAISE wasn’t getting the support or attention they needed to succeed. With PART as the university’s official effort, they found themselves secondary to it.

(Zainab Ashraf. Photo courtesy of RAISE)

“There’s this sheer lack of respect and dignity that is given to racialized students, not just RAISE, but also racialized students at large because it tells us that our voices don’t actually matter when it comes to decision-making,” Ashraf said.

Some students involved in the anti-racism working groups offered insights into the slow nature of the work:

“It has been slow work, but it’s mostly because we are determining what the goals of the group are, and making sure that the people who do not understand that there is in fact a problem,” one student wrote in an email.

Other students expressed their desire for working groups to do the job right rather than rush.

Arabella Hareem Abid, member of the Educational Environment & the Development of Learners Working Group, said that it takes time to do this kind of work.

“[We] need to represent our diverse campus community, ranging from students to employees; really just including everybody,” Abid said.

Abid confirmed her working group were close to finalizing some of their recommendations for UW. They were also planning on engaging student groups soon, including RAISE.

Angeline Ram, a member of the Code of Conduct and Safety Working Group, said the work at PART was collaborative.

“It’s very consultative, and it’s a reiterative process,” said Ram. “We’re taking the time necessary to identify how we can work together to actually enhance and further action, any of the initiatives that we’ve been given by the community.”

She did preface her statements as within her own working group and couldn’t comment on others, but felt she was being well-supported in her work for the first time in eight years.

“Although it may not look as though it’s a silver bullet, at this point we’re working together to do things right,” Ram said.

Meanwhile, UW’s Black Faculty Collective are optimistic about the work at PART as their expertise is being called on.

And the coordinator of the President’s Anti-Racism Taskforce provides an update on their progress.

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