If you ask Kushan Azadah, an MA student in Social Justice and Equity Studies (SJES), what drew him to the Racialized and Indigenous Student Experience (RISE) Summit, his answer is simple: “Everything it stood for.”
“As a racialized student, I am surrounded in a sea of whiteness, white students, white professors, white curriculum, white scholarship,” Azadah explains. “When I heard of the possibility of attending a summit where I would be surrounded by other students who understood my experiences on a visceral level, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Azadah was one of four graduate students who participated in the RISE Summit, hosted by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) last month in Toronto. Some 200 students from across Canada were also in attendance.
The RISE Summit offered panels, workshops and discussion forums on a broad range of issues, such as stereotypes, identities, activism, solidarity and healing, to provide opportunities for participants to seek out the conversations that meant the most to them.
A panel on environmental racism was especially meaningful to Firoz Alam, another MA SJES student.
“My home country, Bangladesh, is a country of 160 million people equal in size to the state of Iowa. The capital city, Dhaka, accommodates 144,000 people in a single square kilometre,” says Alam. “By 2020, Bangladesh will have 30 million climate refugees. Every single day, 50 children drown due to rising water levels caused by global warming. It wrecks my heart.”
Shannon Kitchings, also of the MA SJES, was deeply moved by the daily grand entrance of the National Aboriginal Caucus, led by two indigenous elders.
“In addition to being profoundly moving, it reminded me that there have been people facing racism in Canada for centuries. This is not a new phenomenon. In solidarity, we may find peace.”
Ha Min Kim, a student in the MA in Critical Sociology, found that participating in the Black Lives Matter protest in Nathan Phillips Square left a strong impression.
“This was definitely a memorable event because through the protest, we were able to practice what we learned about allieship. I held a sign that read ‘coexistence through coresistance,’ one of the key lessons I took from the summit.”
The SJES program committee supported students’ participation at the RISE Summit because it seemed like an important, though small, move in the direction of making student life more racially inclusive and just, says Mary-Beth Raddon, the SJES Graduate Program Director.
“The Summit seemed like a rare opportunity for racialized and indigenous students to collectively foster well-being and, at the same time, explore ways to challenge the racism and colonialism they encounter in the classroom, in the curriculum and generally on campus,” she says
“ I hope we can continue to facilitate this kind of gathering and then listen to students’ agendas for change.”
Graduate programs, faculty members, the CFS and the Graduate Student Association (GSA) all pulled together to ensure that all four students could attend the summit. Carissa Taylor, the SJES representative on the GSA, canvassed at Brock to collect money to cover registration fees, and the CFS funded the difference.
For the students, the summit tied in with both their academic and personal journeys.
“In SJES we explore theoretical potentials for justice. This conference was focussed on practical ways to engage in action for justice. I could easily identify practical applications for the theories we have been studying,” says Kitchings.
Kim says it was eyeopening.
“I witnessed and realized the power of solidarity, which I could have not learned to the same extent by merely being in a classroom,” Kim says.
She adds that she was able to connect a lot of social issues that she’s learned about by hearing stories and building friendships with people who experience the struggles on a day-to-day basis.
“Combatting racism, sexism, transphobia, among others is an issue not only for the people who suffer most from it,” Azadah points out. “Racism is not only an issue for racialized peoples. We need to recognize our privileges and complicities, and to embrace our shame instead of running away from it or replacing shame with blame towards the people we harm. Embracing our complicity creates the space where allies can be born and real change can happen.”