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A space for Black students to thrive: planning begins for establishment of SFU’s first Black Student Centre

November 24, 2021
The development of SFU's first Black Student Centre is being guided by the voices and perspectives of Black students, including members of SFU Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry (SOCA). From left to right: Linda Kanyamunya, internal relations officer, SOCA; Sophonie Priebe, vice-president, SOCA; Balqees Jama, president, SOCA.

Sophonie Priebe remembers feeling lost and alone during her first year at SFU, wondering if there was a place on campus for Black students to connect with each other and access support.

“I didn’t see any people that looked like me anywhere,” she says. “And I thought, where is a space for me to go where I can talk and feel safe and heard? What is the university doing to create awareness about different spaces for students who are not white?”

These are important questions—questions that have been asked by Black students and student groups for years. And now, Priebe is helping set the groundwork for a new student centre at SFU that will begin to answer them.

In 2021, SFU committed to the creation of a long-term, permanent support service for Black students. The Black Student Centre will uphold the principles of promoting Black flourishing and fostering inclusive excellence, as outlined in the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Higher Education.

Although the project is in its very early stages—a steering committee is still in the process of being formed—work is underway to ensure that the entire process is guided by the voices and perspectives of Black students.

Priebe is one of those students, as is Balqees Jama; both are third-year students and executive members of SFU Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry (SOCA). And both say that the establishment of this centre is a huge step forward for the university.

“I’m newer to SFU, but my time with SOCA has taught me how much fighting we’ve had to do just to have the same opportunities and basic resources as white and non-marginalized students,” says Priebe. “We want the university to acknowledge this labour, be accountable and create spaces for us to have equal opportunities and feel supported.”

“SOCA was established in 1994—we’ve been around a long time doing all sorts of advocacy and events,” says Jama. “And one of the things we’ve been saying, alongside groups like the African Students’ Association, is that Black students need a long-term support service on campus. SOCA is playing that practical support role right now, but having a dedicated centre will take the burden off students and let SFU do that work on a larger scale.”

From conversations to action

Currently, SFU is aiming to establish the centre by 2022/2023, with several deliverables targeted for completion next year. These deliverables include hiring staff and establishing dedicated supports for Black students, such as mentoring and cultural programming, as well as mental health, academic and career supports.

“Over the past year I’ve had many conversations with our community about building a more equitable and inclusive campus, and one of the things I’ve heard clearly is that conversations aren’t enough—we need to take action,” says SFU President Joy Johnson.

“Our commitment to creating a Black Student Centre is just one step on this journey, and I look forward to continued work with Black students and student groups as we collaborate to remove systemic barriers and ensure that they feel a sense of belonging at SFU.”

While the services and functions of the centre have yet to be formally determined, Jama and Priebe have big dreams for what it will eventually become.

“I picture the centre as a joyful, inclusive place where we can learn, a safe space to celebrate our full identities and love ourselves,” says Priebe. “And I hope that in the future, there are spaces all around the university for Black students, faculty and staff to feel seen and heard. I want Black people to come here knowing that their voices and knowledge will be recognized and appreciated.”

“I want the centre to be a place where Black students can access practical support that is culturally adequate and racially sensitive, and a place that connects Black students with resources, mentorship and a larger community at SFU,” adds Jama. “To put it simply, the centre will be a space for Black students to thrive.”