Xavier University of Louisiana. Image source: HCBU Style

American HBCU’s and SFU: Learning How to Lead

September 01, 2019

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am originally American. Although I’ve lived in Canada since 2008 and became a proud citizen last year, I still maintain a life with friends and people I consider family in New Orleans. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a college orientation with my best friend as her daughter became a freshman at Xavier University of Louisiana, one of the premier HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in America.

HBCUs have been incredibly important since the end of slavery and were developed explicitly to create pathways for African-Americans to access the educational opportunities they had been barred from in both formal and informal ways. In this weekend’s orientation presentations to a primarily African-American audience (which also included Vietnamese-Americans, Caucasians, and others) the speakers consistently referred to the role of Xavier University as a protective space for Black thought and academia. They positioned the university as a space where students were supported to not only invest in themselves, but become leaders in society. The president of the university, Dr. Reynold Verret, was clear to identify the purpose of the Xavier education as a platform from which students in the sciences, humanities, business, and other fields could focus their energies on their fellow humans, communities, and the world more generally… especially in a world where those same students have faced generations of opposition and oppression.

Obviously, this is a powerful framing for what universities can and should do, and it makes me reflect on the meaning of our work at SFU. To me, the purpose of our Community Economic Development programs – especially in the context of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples – is to dismantle systems of opposition and oppression. Our goal is to articulate a worldview where social justice and human well-being are the greatest values, and build capacities in all of our students to realize that world in the communities they live in.

To that extent, I want our CED program (and SFU more generally) to reflect a Canadian version of the spaces that American HBCUs create. I think we can and should be a safe and accessible space where Indigenous students can realize their own dreams of both personal advancement, but also invest into structures and societies that they wish to see in the world. I think we have the opportunity to go beyond a numeric tokenism that simply “counts” Indigenous students as a measure of progress, and goes beyond only teaching trades for labor. SFU should empower Indigenous instructors, staff, and students to manifest their own spaces of intellectualism, practice, and creativity in a variety of fields.

As a non-Indigenous settler, my colleagues, non-Indigenous students, and I have a unique opportunity to support, learn from, and co-create new worlds with our Indigenous partners. The CED program provides a platform from which all of us – settlers, immigrants, and Indigenous peoples – can contribute to each other’s knowledge and capacities, and transform the communities that we live in. This is an exciting time. Although the society we live in still needs deep work for social and economic justice, the alignment between the values and resources for change is increasing exponentially. I hope SFU CED can be a small but valuable contributor to this cause.

Thank you to all of our friends who have been investing in this work all along. And for those of you who are new to us or this… reach out. We want you here.