Talking about systemic racism: Grad students lead conversations about change needed in academia

Posted on Friday, August 14, 2020

Portrait of Karine Coen-Sanchez

The recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked many conversations about systemic and institutional racism all over the world – including here at uOttawa. Karine Coen-Sanchez, a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Ottawa, is mobilizing with fellow students to keep the discussion going in our community.

As she points out, a fundamental first step in fighting racism is being able to recognize the privileges, biases and inequalities embedded in higher-education institutions, so that we can create spaces where every individual has an equal chance of realizing their full potential.

Coen-Sanchez spoke to the Gazette about how she and her fellow uOttawa grad students are fighting for change, starting with two student expert panels held in August that prioritized and elevated the voices of racialized learners.

What was the impetus for organizing these student-led expert panel discussions? 

I took the initiative to create this panel to offer a safe space for racialized students to talk about institutional racism, white supremacy and to share their experiences as Black/racialized graduate students. We want to generate awareness and openly discuss the racist structures embedded in various educational institutions and departments, and the effects it has on students' academic advancement. 

It's about taking back our voices, listening, and asking important questions. What are the academic and emotional effects of racist structures? How can change be effective? How can we overcome and address these injustices and create a balance?

Statements alone are not enough. It is imperative for us, individually and collectively, to work toward creating change. There is no one-time solution to end systemic racism. It requires ongoing effort that can only be achieved if everyone works together. Systematic racism requires a systemic approach, and panel discussions like this one is the first step to developing an action plan.

What kind of interest have you generated while promoting these panel discussions?

The first panel, The sociological talk – a student expert panel, held on August 10, was intended for fellow students in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, but it received such wide support that it garnered interest from students in other departments at the University of Ottawa and beyond.

The Canadian Sociology Association (CSA) got wind of the panel and were interested in doing the same to engage their audiences in an open discussion about systemic racism and white supremacy in higher education institutions. I am currently working with the CSA's Student Concerns Subcommittee, to convene another panel of racialized students in Canadian universities titled “Let's Talk Systemic Racism,” which takes place on August 17. 

What are you hoping will come out of these discussions?

The idea is to create a kind of movement at the University, to prompt change that will be reflective of the student population’s needs. Part of the solution requires modification in legacy structures and people’s willingness to confront their own implicit biases, no matter how difficult. That way, they can learn to think and act in ways that affirm and support our students, staff, faculty and community members who identify as Black or part of racialized groups.

We need more transparency in hiring processes, more representation and diversity at the front of the classroom, equal opportunities for racialized professors and emergence practices that can unfold an inclusive educational system – such as encouraging our professors to decolonize their curriculums, for example. Fundamentally, we need to develop institutional protocols for increasing anti-racism awareness, and a program structure that permits graduate students to progress in their research fields. 

The closed panel discussions for racialized students, by racialized students, is the first step in this process. We then want to bring all those lived experiences and data to the management teams of our various departments at the University and engage everyone, from all backgrounds, in discussions to come up with an action plan.  

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