New caucus provides ‘unified voice’ for Black students, faculty and staff

Amid tensions surrounding gaps in racial equity, a Black Caucus has been established on campus to give a voice to UBC’s Black population.

Conversation around UBC’s lack of inclusivity was stirred after an incident involving racial profiling at the annual Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in June 2019.

Shelby McPhee, a Black master’s student attending the conference, was wrongfully accused of stealing a laptop by two white attendees. Following an investigation by a human rights lawyer hired by Congress, the organizers banned the white participant from the conference for three years. The other individual was not a participant so they didn’t receive a penalty from Congress.

The incident acted as a springboard, leading Dr. Aftab Erfan of UBC Equity and Inclusion (EIO) to take on the project of uniting Black faculty, staff and students into an advocacy group. It is now called the Black Caucus.

The caucus is less than a year old, but it has held several meetings over the course of the summer and the fall involving discussions about the group’s goals and values.

On February 6 at UBC Robson Square, the caucus will host its first event: “Black Activism in Education and Community: exposing anti-Black racism in Vancouver with Shelby McPhee,” a talk about his case and how it’s reflective of a larger problem.

‘Lost in the mix’

Dr. Handel Kashope Wright, professor and director of UBC's Centre of Culture, Identity and Education, has been part of the group since its first meeting in late summer.

While Wright said he does not speak for the entire caucus as a whole, he explained that the group has outlined two overarching objectives: building a community among Black folks on campus and advocating for that community to the university.

“It’s … a space where Black folks can meet talk to each other about their lives, commiserate about issues they might be facing, speak about what their working relationships are all about, etc.,” said Wright.

“So it’s a way of creating community where people can talk with one another.”

Due to the small population of Black students on campus, Wright noted that their needs can get “lost in the mix” in inclusion initiatives. The Caucus is working to reverse this by highlighting and promoting Black life on campus through community outreach and increasing the number of Black people in leadership positions at the university.

As a Black Caucus member, a Black Student Union (BSU) member, Associate VP External for the AMS as well as an EIO Policy and Research Assistant, Will Shelling wears many hats at UBC. But he said he has experienced underrepresentation throughout his time as a student.

“I haven’t felt represented on campus for a variety of reasons, stretching from who my professors are in the faculty of political science and going all the way up to larger administration,” said Shelling.

But he was encouraged when VP Students Ainsley Carry was hired in May 2019.

“I definitely [felt] like, ‘Hey this a strong Black man at the table as an executive and also as someone leading this university especially on the student life side,’” said Shelling. “I think that’s super impactful to other folks like me because it just gives us another way to kind of break through that door and break that glass ceiling.”

First of its kind

Another founding caucus member, law assistant professor Sara Ghebremusse highlighted how no institutionalized group of its kind had ever existed prior to the establishment of the caucus. In fact, students have largely taken the lead in Black representation through forming groups like BSU or the Africa Awareness Initiative.

So far the caucus’s inclusion of individuals from all dimensions of university life — student, faculty, staff and administration — has worked to their advantage.

“[It] gives us a stronger and more unified voice,” she said.

But Ghebremusse explained that due to the lack of existing infrastructure before the caucus, Black staff and faculty have had to take on the unrecognized emotional labour of supporting Black students.

“Some of the work I do with the Black Law Students Association, for example, it might end up being a footnote in my tenure file when there has been so much work I have done to support the group since I started,” said Ghebremusse.

“… It would be great to have that type of equity work being recognized.”

Ultimately, Ghebremusse hopes the caucus’s work will lead to increased hiring of Black faculty and staff and more outreach to Black students.

“UBC is one of Canada’s top universities and the fact that there is such a low number of Black students — and it’s so evident — is atrocious,” she said.

For Shelling, it’s important that the principle of diversity becomes part of a year-round critical race discussion that isn’t only limited to Black History Month.

“My experiences as a Black man play into my life at every moment, so I think it’s important that we don’t just silo it into one month of the year when we can discuss these topics all across the calendar,” he said.

Will Shelling worked as a guest editor for The Ubyssey's Black History Month supplement.