From the President’s Desk: Honouring Black History Month 2021

President Flanagan launches Black History Month with an invitation to participate.

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Today marks the first day of Black History Month in Canada, an annual celebration of the history, contributions, and achievements of Black Canadians, and a recognition of the role they have played in building Canada’s culturally diverse and open society. At the U of A, Black History Month provides all of us an opportunity to honour outstanding Black alumni, scholars, and students, to learn more about our history, to acknowledge and remove historic barriers that continue, and to reflect upon how much work and learning is still to be done to build the diverse and inclusive community we so value at our university.

Across our campuses, faculty, students, and staff have come together to plan special events, share stories, and host lectures. Throughout February, we will feature stories of outstanding Black alumni across our digital spaces. As highlighted on the Black History Month online hub, cultural celebrations, such as the Afro-fusion dance tutorial organized by the University of Alberta Black Students’ Association and Black Medical Students’ Association will invite us to come together virtually and literally move together. Difficult — but necessary — conversations will be had thanks to events like those featuring guest speakers such as equity scholar Dr. Carl E. James (York University) and academic and author Dr. Cecil B. Foster. The U of A Library will open digital collections, inviting us to explore the prose and written histories of Black Canadians. There will also be film screenings, online cooking classes, among other events. To cap the month off, the Black Graduate Students’ Association will host their second annual interdisciplinary conference and I am honoured to be part of the opening event. My thanks to everyone for creating all of these opportunities for celebration and education throughout the month.

In the fall, I had the opportunity to meet with members of the U of A’s own Black Scholars’ Collective and the Black Students’ Collective. These were dedicated conversations about how the university can better support Black community members. They presented and challenged the university with a number of important calls to action to address anti-Black racism and advance the university’s commitment to inclusion. We all agreed that current and prospective students must see themselves reflected in the university community and be directly engaged in identifying and proposing solutions to systemic racism. As one of our alumni, Malcolm Azania, says, “if you can’t imagine it, you can’t make it.” We reaffirmed our shared commitment to working together to address the calls to action. Bringing greater attention to Black History Month as a university is an important part of that commitment.

We also discussed the importance of establishing the demographic census for students more quickly. This is a powerful initiative — one that will help provide us with more information about the composition of our existing community. These data will also allow us to identify key areas where we need to focus and target initiatives to support enhanced diversity and inclusion. Although still in the early stages, students, faculty, and staff have come together to develop a meaningful and locally relevant census instrument. We plan to complete this within the calendar year.

While as a community the U of A strives to counter systemic racism, the calls to action demonstrate that we still have much more work to do. All of us must continue to be actively engaged in the national — indeed international — conversation on the persistence of anti-Black racism. We need to listen, engage with, and learn from the experiences of our own Black alumni, scholars, and students. As a community, we must continually strive to be a place where equity and inclusivity thrive in thought and action. We are committed to developing an ambitious anti-racism strategy for our university. We all have the responsibility to challenge acts of racism and hate when we see it — and to be intentional in our own contributions to a more inclusive working and learning environment for all.

Although COVID-19 prevents us from coming together this year, I do hope you can join in our online celebrations of Black History Month.

Bill Flanagan

President and Vice-Chancellor

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Learn more about Black History Month 2021 events and more by visiting the U of A’s Black History Month webpage.U of A’s Black History Month webpage.