An interview with professor Awad Ibrahim on Black History Month, equity, and our ongoing journey of inclusion

Black History Month
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Black community
Awad Ibrahim, vice-provost for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusive Excellence at the University of Ottawa
Awad Ibrahim, vice-provost for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusive Excellence.
We met Professor Awad Ibrahim, vice-provost for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusive Excellence at the University of Ottawa, for a discussion around the significance of Black History Month, particularly within the Canadian context.

Professor Ibrahim sheds light on the historical roots of Blackness in Canada, emphasizing its continuous presence since 1604. The discussion extends to challenges in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). He also discusses the Black student experience and upcoming initiatives, including a roundtable dialogue on the role of Black History Month in education.

Why is it important to celebrate Black History Month?

To celebrate Black History Month, we must first situate it in Canadian history. Blackness in Canada is traced back to 1604; it existed before Canada was Canada. We need to debunk the idea of the presence of Blackness in Canada as a recent phenomenon.

It’s important to understand the presence of Blackness in a long term: that complicates the idea of Canada itself. By that I mean we need to understand Black history in a way that grounds Blackness in ‘Canadianess.’ We can use Black History Month as a moment to take in this information, to be aware that we are talking about a continuous presence. Black History Month is significant because it affords us the opportunity to pause and think of the ongoing joy and excellence as well as the history of Blackness in Canada. But it’s important that we not see blackness or Black History Month as an event. It’s not something such as an event to celebrate and then move on from. 

What does Black History Month mean for international Black students?

It is absolutely relevant for them, although they may not have a deep understanding of Blackness in Canada. They have their own understanding, in their own countries, with a different history and a different perspective. There are no Black people in Africa – there are Africans. There are no Black people in Jamaica. There are Jamaicans. That is to say Blackness is not their determining factor. Here, they come under an umbrella of Blackness and take in the knowledge of Black history in Canada. Black immigrants gain insight into the lengthy history and reality of Blackness in Canada. But they may not completely grasp the daily struggle. They enter a process of realizing what Blackness in Canada means; they enter the process of what I call ‘becoming Black.’

What changes do you foresee from working with faculties on equity, diversity, and inclusion?

In a recent meeting aimed at discussing challenges and best practices, it became evident that significant work is being done at the university regarding equity, diversity, and inclusivity. But it is being done in silos. One result from this meeting is that these vice-deans have become my consultative committee and are now my eyes and ears in different faculties. We are moving away from EDI workshops. Research shows that EDI workshops don’t work. It simply becomes a box that is checked. We want each faculty to form their own EDI program, based on the work they have done, where they are at now and where they need to be.

They are examining the work their faculty does, what they teach etc. through the lens of EDI, and they will form programs, not abstract discussions about EDI.

I am working closely with the vice-deans to help develop the programs or specific areas they want to address within their faculty, but I want to emphasize that it is not a top-down approach. It’s very much a bottom-up approach. It’s about developing a new way of thinking – a new series of questions about what people are already doing. It’s a consultation. A series of “courageous conversations.”

The main purpose is to start to ask the right questions. Then we can start to think about the right answers.

What are your thoughts on the Black student experience at uOttawa?

For me, the question is about how we ensure that we are offering the best overall experience not only to Black students, but all students beginning when they arrive and continuing until they graduate. This includes, culture, social, academic, and broad health experiences – because EDI seeps into all aspects of the student experience. I see my role in the comprehensive social sense. I want to help them feel they belong here. I have identified four key people to help me achieve this goal and they are my immediate advisory committee. The four areas are:  data (lead by Manon Desgroseilliers), health and wellness (TBD), all aspects related to professors (lead by me), and all aspects related to support staff (lead by Jean-Yves Hinse). Together, we will provide better support to our racialized communities.

Would you like to share any final thoughts on Black History Month?

When it comes to EDI and Black History Month, these should not be viewed as work or tasks to check off and then forget about and they should not be seen as the work of minorities for minorities. This is a project for the nation – a project we should cherish.