By Neale McDevitt
The seeds of Woo Jin Edward Lee’s commitment to social equality were sewn back in his childhood. The fruits of his dedication to that end, however, came recently when he was named one of four winners of the inaugural McGill Award for Equity & Community Building.
The Award recognizes the work of students, faculty and staff committed to advancing equity and diversity at McGill. Other winners included Sara Houshmand, a PhD student in the Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology, in the student category; and co-winners of the academic staff category, Melissa Park, a professor in the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy; and Charmaine Lyn, Director of the Office of Admissions, Equity and Diversity in the Faculty of Medicine.
The child of Korean immigrants, Lee remembers how hard his parents worked both to provide for himself and his sister and also as vibrant members of the Korean community. “They tirelessly volunteered at their church and provided essential social and economic support – whether it was advocating for families navigating complicated immigration policies, giving financial aid to other families – even when we were financially struggling – or providing emotional and social support to those around them,” said Lee, a Course Lecturer in the School of Social Work. “They did this while my mom worked full time (and a half) operating a convenience store, while my dad often worked two or three jobs. And they did this while facing ignorance and racism every day of their lives here.
“I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the kind of social justice work that my parents did in trying to uplift our family and the Korean community – but I know now and I can never thank them enough for instilling in me the sense that I always have to think about myself in relation to my family and community,” Lee continued. “They taught me to always fight for my rights, but at the same time live life with humility and dignity. When I look back at my life then and now, I realize that the strength that I have to be a social worker and to be someone who fights for equity and social justice, really comes from my parents.”
Impacting students lives in a positive way
Of the many hats Lee wears, one that he finds particularly fulfilling is his work as one of the coordinators for the Racialized Students Network (RSN). The main purpose of the RSN, an initiative Lee co-founded in 2010, is to build a support network for racialized (visible minority) students at McGill by fostering dialogue, skill-building and networking opportunities.
“These racialized students also include those who are living with disabilities and those who are LGBTQ,” said Lee. “[The goal is to promote] equity initiatives and address structural barriers, in order to support the retention rates of racialized students across programs … I believe we have made a concrete difference in the lives of racialized students.”
Another person having a positive impact on students from demographically diverse roots is Charmaine Lyn, Director of the Office of Admissions, Equity and Diversity in the Faculty of Medicine, who maintains that diversity is essential for the health of universities everywhere. Call it the changing face – or faces – of higher education.
“McGill is a public institution: publicly funded, and publicly purposed. We are accountable to the public and the public is plural,” said Lyn, a first-generation university attendee of Chinese-Jamaican descent. “A university – a place that is meant to cultivate leaders, thinkers, teachers and ideas – can only be enriched by the presence and active participation of more diverse voices – including those which have been historically under-represented in post-secondary education generally and at McGill in particular. Making the campus a more welcoming and inviting and culturally safe place for learners and teachers alike can happen only by meaningfully engaging with the public – the communities which we serve and to which we belong.”
To that end, Lyn’s career at McGill has seen her focus on outreach and community engagement – particularly relating to recruitment and admission of under-represented groups. In 2007, as Assistant Dean in the Faculty of Law, Lyn launched the Faculty’s High School Outreach Program, an initiative that works with high school and college students who might not otherwise consider studying law. Currently, she is responsible for the Health-Connex-Santé program in Medicine that sees medical students reaching out to elementary and secondary students – both within their communities and on campus for interactive, inter-professional and immersive experience.
“I think that the fact that these programs are happening in these two faculties has also helped to demonstrate to the communities with which we have engaged that the University as a whole is interested and keen to collaborate meaningfully and for the long-term. Within the University, I think it has been symbolically important as well for Medicine and Law to be seriously engaged in these efforts,” said Lyn.
“Of course, these professions are accountable to the public in a very direct and tangible way and that is probably the key factor in getting our outreach programs off the ground. That is, the objectives of widening participation in the professional programs of members of underrepresented populations are a matter of professional social accountability. It makes sense to people that doctors and lawyers should be skilled in carrying out their professional duties in a culturally safe manner. But I think the same could easily be said of a social worker, a high school math teacher, an architect, or a professor.”
Take a bow, mom
When Lyn accepted her Award for Equity and Community Building in the administrative and support staff category during a ceremony at the Faculty Club, she brought her two sons, two-year-old Aonghus and five-year-old Tenzin to the podium.
After receiving her award from Provost Anthony C. Masi, Lyn was starting to walk back to her seat when Tenzin whispered to her that she should take a bow. “So I did,” she said. “It was the highlight of the event for me.”
Perhaps all the winners should take a bow.
Editor’s note: Sara Houshmand, winner in the student category, and Melissa Park, co-winner in the academic staff category, were not available for comment.
For more information about McGill’s Award for Equity and Community Building, go here.