SFU-led projects

Slow but steady progress: an update on Black student supports at SFU

August 01, 2023
Photo courtesy of the SFU Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry. SFU students, faculty and staff celebrate Black graduates at the 2023 Black Brilliance Graduation Celebration.

August 1st is Emancipation Day. It is a day set aside to recognize Canada's history of slavery, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and discrimination. In 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to designate Emancipation Day, marking the abolishment of slavery across the British Empire on August 1, 1834. In honour of the day, we wanted to share an update on the work being done to support Black community members at SFU.

Walk into Room 1430 in SFU’s Student Union Building and you’ll be met with a flurry of activity.

This is the Black Student Support Centre, run by the Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry (SOCA)—a space on campus for Black students to access community-building events, mental health workshops, financial support and resources as they navigate their time at SFU.

But more importantly, says SOCA president Lauretta Umukoro, it’s also a space on campus where students can just be themselves.

“For many Black students who come to SFU, there’s a bit of culture shock where you’re trying to find your footing and don’t know where to start,” she says. “The Black Student Support Centre wants to be that starting point. It’s heartwarming to see this level of community and to give students a home away from home.”

While the team at SOCA has provided services for Black students since their founding in 1994, they have often done so without institutional support. The Black Student Support Centre, which is now supported through funding from the Simon Fraser Student Society and SFU, is one indication that things are starting to change.

In 2021, SFU committed to the creation of a long-term, permanent support service for Black students. That centre will carry out and extend the work currently being done by SOCA, upholding SFU’s commitments to redress anti-Black Racism and foster Black inclusion as outlined in the Scarborough Charter. And while planning for the permanent centre is still underway, a lot of work has been done over the past two years to ensure that the planning and construction process is guided by the voices and perspectives of Black students.

Nothing about us without us

In August 2021, a steering committee consisting of SFU students and faculty was established to help guide the consultation process for the Black Student Centre. In addition, several focus groups and town halls were held in 2022 for Black community members to contribute feedback.

“It was important that we reached as much of the community as possible,” says Osob Mohamed, an SFU alumnus who helped lead the consultation process. “The people who will benefit from the centre—who know what it’s like to be Black at SFU—also need to be the people who shape what it will eventually become.”

During the consultation period, students and community members had practical conversations about which specific supports might be most helpful for students, as well as bigger-picture conversations about design and architecture. Laya Behbahani, director of projects in the Office of the Vice-Provost and Vice-President, Students & International, co-organized workshops and town halls with Mohamed, working to ensure that sessions were as inclusive as possible and that community members felt safe to share their experiences.

“What inspired me about those conversations was the creative agency in those spaces,” says Behbahani. “It was exciting to ask students, what do you want? How would this best serve you?”

The information gathered during this time will inform all future planning work for the Black Student Centre. And, Mohamed notes, none of it happened in a vacuum.

“This is not a new conversation. Members of the Black community, and especially students, have been pushing and fighting for better supports for a long time,” she says. “Through the consultation process, I got to see how invested people are in the outcome of this project and how much of a difference it would make.

“To be honest, I wish I had something like this when I was at SFU, but the next best thing is seeing it come to life.”

Supporting Black students in the interim

In January, SFU hired Jennifer Kandjii to serve as the inaugural director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Student Services. Since then, she has been working hard to ensure that the Black Student Centre project keeps momentum—the community can expect a fulsome progress update in the months ahead—alongside looking for other ways to support Black students holistically.

“The Black Student Centre represents a commitment to advancing Black student wellbeing at SFU, and we are taking steps to making it a reality,” she says. “We have set aside resources and are currently working to ensure that our decisions are informed by Black student voices and their aspirations for the space. In the meantime, culturally relevant programming that fosters Black inclusion, celebrates Black excellence and advances Black student holistic wellbeing will continue.”

This programming includes additional funding for SOCA and the African Students’ Association, as well as the hiring of a full-time Black counsellor to ensure that Black students have access to culturally appropriate mental health services.

Another example is the Black Brilliance Graduation Celebration for Black graduates, hosted in 2022 for the first time by SOCA and the Black Caucus.

“This event came out of the Black Caucus’ desire to create a space where Black grads could feel seen and celebrated,” says Shauna-Kaye Brown, a graduate student in the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology and a member of the Black Caucus.

“And we made it happen! The planning group, led by June Francis, did all of the work ourselves with very few resources. It was a lot of effort, but it meant everything to be in a space where we could celebrate our collective success.”

This year, however, Kandjii was able to step in.

“We provided the framework and the vision for the event, and then Jennifer and staff across the university did the heavy lifting,” says Brown. “It made a world of difference to have this kind of institutional support. It meant that we could enjoy the event instead of having to be the fundraisers, event planners, caterers, entertainment and greeters at the door.”

This is exactly the kind of support that Kandjii is excited to continue providing for the community as she reflects on Emancipation Day.

“Emancipation Day serves as a critical touchpoint for reflecting on Canada's history of Black slavery and how its legacy, which includes entrenched institutional and systemic racism, affects Black communities,” she says. “As an institution committed to advancing the wellbeing of Black students, we are mindful of these historical precedents and their contemporary ramifications. Such awareness is important for developing a culture that cultivates Black thriving and remains responsive to the needs of Black students.”

The work goes on

As planning for the Black Student Centre moves forward, students, faculty and staff are eager to see more progress. They feel, and rightfully so, that change has been slow to come. But the increased momentum is encouraging, and being a part of the change has been transformative for members of SOCA and the Black Caucus alike.

“Sometimes I have to step back and think, wow, we’re really doing this,” says Umukoro. “Every single event, workshop or service we provide, every time I see people in our space, genuinely happy and benefiting from our efforts…I will never get used to that feeling.”

“Having this sort of community adds immense value to the student experience,” adds Brown. “And of course, there is so much to be done. There are pressing issues to address and commitments to be honoured. But it’s really encouraging to see the first steps unfolding in this way. I’ve enjoyed watching it all come to fruition.”