Victoria Barclay and Ken Chatoor — BIPOC student support professionals doing anti-racist work need support too

Substantial evidence shows that racism in Canada has worsened in recent years. In addition to alarming rises in hate crimes in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal, there has also been a particular rise in anti-Asian hate that is disproportionately affecting younger Asian Canadians. Recent events such as the discoveries of mass graves in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and the terrorist attack on Muslims in London, Ontario can deeply affect people’s mental health and well-being and can impact performance at work and school. Research also shows that racism can contribute to chronic stress and mental and physical trauma that is felt through generations of families and communities.

Racism pervades throughout Canada and Canadian postsecondary campuses. Students who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) carry an additional burden of racism throughout their educational experiences. Student support professionals work within institutions as academic advisors, program directors, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) professionals and in student life offices. These staff members can support BIPOC students as they traverse the sometimes turbulent postsecondary education (PSE) environment. While helping BIPOC students carry their burden, BIPOC student support professionals also navigate individual, systemic and structural racism and could also benefit from supports and resources similar to those that they provide to students.

The impact of doing anti-racist support work on BIPOC student support professionals was eloquently stated to us by a staff member from an Ontario PSE institution: “I’m a racialized woman working in this space. It’s intersectionality. People who are drawn to this type of work who are also underrepresented can carry an added burden of living through some of these experiences while trying to address it for others.” This comment points toward the significant mental and emotional burden that BIPOC staff may take on as part of their daily work.

With conversations about how to address racism at the forefront of our national dialogue, the need to support BIPOC professionals doing anti-racist work is increasingly urgent. Black students have witnessed other students use racist slurs in online Facebook groups and group chats and professors use them as a teaching device in class. Black students and faculty have experienced exclusive and toxic environments on their campuses. BIPOC students who choose to speak out against racism on campus require support from staff while they navigate lengthy institutional processes, and remain vulnerable to threats, hate messages and negative impacts to their education and career prospects. The BIPOC professionals who support students through these experiences do so while performing their job, managing their personal affairs and potentially navigating similar issues themselves. They require support.

So, what should we do about this?

Institutions need to provide formal resources and concrete action to support BIPOC student support professionals and the students they work with. Numerous Ontario institutions, such as the University of Waterloo, Fleming College and Humber College, have active task forces, working groups or similar entities to respond to racism at their institutions. In response to their anti-racism working group, Western University has recently announced investment in new EDI initiatives including the creation of an EDI advisory group for the faculty at Ivey Business School and an EDI office at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Some institutions are offering trainings; the University of Ottawa, for example, mandates racial biases training for senior administrators.

While the first step is acknowledging the challenges faced by BIPOC professionals as they work to support students in a difficult environment, there are many concrete ways that PSE institutions can lighten the load for their BIPOC colleagues.

  • Ensure that BIPOC student support professionals are active participants in institutional decision-making related to funding and program development.
  • Provide readily available, accessible and culturally responsive mental health services that suit the individual needs of BIPOC student support professionals.
  • Situate themselves as allies to BIPOC communities. Institutional leaders should facilitate and encourage members of their institutions to develop the required skills and knowledge to participate effectively in allyship. This will relieve BIPOC staff (as well as students and faculty) from the emotional labour and added responsibility required to educate others.

HEQCO also recommends and advocates that institutions commit to better data collection on race that is consistent and standardized across the province. The current state of race-based educational data in Ontario PSE is extremely poor. This recommendation is not just about data, it is about human rights, as the Ontario Human Rights Commission has repeatedly stated. Effective collection of this data will lead to evidence that BIPOC communities and allies can use to develop stronger policy solutions at institutions.

Race is not a jacket that you can remove when stepping into the role of student support professional. BIPOC student support professionals bear their own burdens of racism along with the burdens of those they support. PSE institutions must be prepared to help them carry this extra weight. They must fully commit to allyship, support BIPOC leadership and invest in accessible, culturally responsive mental and emotional services and resources for BIPOC student support professionals — and they must do it now.

Victoria Barclay was a 2020/21 HEQCO research intern; she is currently pursuing an MA in sociology at the University of British Columbia. Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher at HEQCO.

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