Progress report: McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism 

Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies), and Terri Givens, the Provost’s Academic Lead and Advisor on the Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism, discuss the strides made during the plan’s first year, and what’s ahead. 

In September 2020, Principal Suzanne Fortier shared McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism (AP-ABR) with the McGill community. The sweeping five-year plan outlines the University’s commitment to implementing concrete measures aimed at enhancing equity and inclusiveness for Black students, faculty, and staff.  

Using McGill’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Strategic Plan as a framework, the Action Plan focuses on addressing anti-Black racism in five critical areas: student experience; research and knowledge; outreach; workforce; and physical space – as well as a commitment to investigating the University’s historic connections to the transatlantic slave trade, setting targets for Black students, faculty, and staff: and institutionalizing anti-racism efforts and resources.  

Last fall, the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) published the first annual report on the AP-ABR.  

We check in with Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies), and Terri Givens, Professor of Political Science and the Provost’s Academic Lead and Advisor on the AP-ABR, about the progress that has been made in the first year, and what’s ahead.  

What specific strides has the University taken in the first year of the AP-ABR?   

Angela Campbell: There’s been a multi-pronged effort. There are three main strands: support, education, and response.   

For support, we committed to the appointment of at least one Wellness Advisor or Counsellor in Student Services with expertise in connection with the psychological impacts of racism, including systemic and anti-Black racism. The Local Wellness Advisor for BIPOC students was appointed in January 2021 to that role, and since then, she has provided services thus far to over 120 students, including to some who reported experiences of discrimination, anti-Blackness, and exclusion in their programs or departments.  

Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies)

Antoine-Samuel Maufette Alavo, our Black Student Affairs Liaison, joined the Office of the Provost in January 2021, and has worked closely with the Faculties to establish a range of internship opportunities; he’s ended up placing many students with different organizations, including in the disciplines of neuroscience, biology, and the humanities.  

Antoine has also partnered with CaPS, the Career and Placement Services office, to support Black students who are going through CaPS to look for different employment opportunities.  

Also, Professor Terri Givens, as the Provost’s Academic Lead and Advisor on the Action Plan, is working with McGill’s Varsity Athletics staff to lead workshops with a view to building a stronger, more inclusive climate for all our student athletes, notably those who might experience racism or other forms of social oppression.  

For education, there are two main things. There is an online module that’s being built right to address systemic racism and how to confront it. The module will be modeled on the It Takes All of Us sexual violence learning program. It will aim to broaden and deepen our collective understanding of what systemic racism is, and how it can impact the experiences of racialized members of our communities. The new module will be completed in the coming year.  

The second major education element consists of ongoing in-person facilitated training sessions by Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) and the Equity Team. We are aiming to reach the leadership through the deans who are very onboard, and then through the chairs and directors.   

In terms of response, we want to ensure that we have policies in place so that when instances of discrimination occur, they are duly investigated and addressed. We just revised our Policy on Discrimination and Harassment last year and put in place a very robust mechanism and set of resources with respect to investigating those claims.  

Can you talk more about the ABR Working Group? Who sits on it, and what is its mandate?  

Terri Givens: The working group meets every three weeks, and since most of the members of the working group only started in the last six months or so, we’re in the process of developing a project management system, so we can be checking on a regular basis, where we’re at with different components of the plan.  

We also eventually want to develop an online dashboard that will be available to the public, but we’re still in the process of developing that in a way that makes sense because we are a big group.  I expect by spring we will have a clear picture of how we’re going to start tracking the different components of the Plan in a public way.   

How have students been engaged in the first year of the AP-ABR?  

Terri Givens,  Professor of Political Science and the Provost’s Academic Lead and Advisor on the AP-ABR

Terri Givens: We have a lot of work being done on at the student level right now. Antoine-Samuel Maufette Alavo, the Black Student Affairs Liaison, is our main point person on that front, and he’s working very closely with the different student groups to develop programming. For example, he’s working with them on Black History Month, and the work we’re doing with Athletics is very much focused on not just the coaching staff, but also the students. So, there are a lot of different initiatives that are going on, including work that’s being done in Student Services.   

Angela Campbell: During the past year, members of the Provost’s team have met regularly with the leadership of the MASS (McGill African Students Society) and BSN (Black Students Network) to make sure that we get their feedback and we can share developments.   

The Student Services team also led and facilitated spaces last year called Being Black at McGill, and that has really been helpful for developing a specific plan within Student Services to serve the needs of Black students. So again, we’re really focused on not just having a plan, but serious commitment to implementation.   

Can you talk about what’s being done to address microaggressions?  

Angela Campbell: We have spent a lot of time listening and learning, particularly to students who are on the receiving end of microaggressions. In terms of holding people accountable, it’s about getting people to the point where they understand what a microaggression is, why it is so difficult for people to go through these experiences on our campuses, and how it can cause students and members of faculty and staff to feel like they don’t belong; it can impact their wellness and their capacity for success. A person who’s not racialized will often not understand why they’re so harmful or painful. Our first effort right now is on getting people to the point of understanding, so that the behaviour can change.  

In terms of what we do when microaggressions occur, our interventions focus on awareness raising and on support. We focus on helping people understand the impacts of microaggressions and how not to repeat them. We also focus on the person who has been hurt, to help them feel supported and to remind them that they belong here, they belong at McGill.  

Do you have any evidence of the impact or influence of a module like It Takes All of Us on students’ perspectives, and how will we know that it will actually influence critical thinking and encourage discourse about ABR?  

Angela Campbell: I have had lots of questions put to me about It Takes All of Us, specifically from campuses that are interested in doing something similar. I would say, I am a skeptic in regard to learning modules by themselves. Such modules cannot do the work of achieving equity. I want to be perfectly transparent about that. So, the modules’ value is in signaling to the community that this issue matters.  

The content is helpful to a point, but you don’t learn to be anti-racist in 40 minutes. This is a lifelong undertaking that you we must be willing to engage through iterative practice that is not linear. It’s about living and learning with humility and perseverance. That’s our understanding. That’s our commitment.   

Terri Givens: The reason I developed my radical empathy approach is because this is such difficult deep work, and it takes time. And I would say the other thing is, we’re trying to change this culture in terms of developing a culture that is welcoming to Black students, faculty and staff so, you have to take a broad approach to make sure that you’re approaching it from different levels and from different perspectives.  

 The statue of James McGill was removed over the summer. The EDI office has stated that a final decision on what to do with it would be made before the end of the Bicentennial year in March. Is there an update?   

Angela Campbell: I don’t have any updates on that, where the ultimate landing place of the sculpture of James McGill will be.  

No matter what, I do think it’s important that a stronger understanding of the institution’s history and connections to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, and the funding from which post-secondary institutions, all institutions, founded during the 19th century were created. At the time that McGill was established, much of the capital was intimately tied to a colonial economy. And that is a story that needs to be told and understood, not only for the sake of understanding that history, but also to achieve an understanding of today’s realities and social inequities, and how to address these.   

Terri Givens: The working group is going to be working on the History project this year. It is already up and running, to a certain extent, but we’re also looking more broadly at connecting with not only Black McGill, but Black Montreal and Black Quebec.   

The AR-ABR has a goal of growing McGill’s Black faculty to 85 Black tenure-track or tenured professors, or 5 per cent, by 2032, with an interim goal of 40 by 2025. What progress has been made?  

Angela Campbell: As of September 2020, there were 14 tenure-track and tenured professors at the University who self-identified as Black in McGill’s employment equity survey. This represents 0.8% of our tenure-track and tenured academic staff.  

A strategic hiring initiative was launched in 2020-2021 that issued 18 licenses across Faculties to enhance the representation of Black faculty and to recruit faculty with research and teaching expertise relevant to Black experiences, histories, communities. In the past year, 15 new Black faculty joined the McGill professoriate.  

Terri Givens: This is one of the areas where I’m hoping to surpass our goal. Basically, you should look at that number as a baseline and if we go beyond that I will be more than thrilled. Over time, as we develop things like Black studies on campus, my goal is for McGill to become a beacon for people who are interested in the study of the African diaspora, Black studies, all these different components, you know not just Black Canada, but more broadly looking at the African diaspora. Basically, the more Black faculty join McGill, even more will be excited and interested in coming to McGill.   

One goal of the EDI plan is to make the learning experience more inclusive. What success has Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) had in implementing this goal thus far?  

Angela Campbell: Charlene Lewis-Sutherland, who’s been here at McGill a long time, particularly leading some of the anti-oppressive workshops in the residences, has taken on a position at TLS doing a great amount of this work, training instructors about how to build inclusive pedagogies and curricula. Her work has been important and powerful.  

We also led an ad hoc working group last year that led to a decision to formalize a committee that will look at the issue of bias in student evaluations of teaching.   

What’s the focus for year two of the AP-ABR?  

Angela Campbell: Aside from sustaining the effort already initiated in the first year, we anticipate that year two will see a range of highlights, including the completion and submission of the African and Black Studies Working Group (ABSWG)’s report, implementing that report’s recommendations, launching the online module on systemic racism , the establishment of a research team to carry out an expanded McGill history project on our university’s connections to the transatlantic slave trade, and opening a dedicated campus space for Black students, among other things.  

In the year ahead, the team leading work under the Action Plan will engage through multiple platforms to solicit feedback and ideas about areas where more work, or more effective work, is needed to advance the Action Plan’s objectives, in both letter and spirit.   

Any final thoughts?  

Terri Givens: I’m very happy to be here at McGill. I’ve been here since last July, and I had a fantastic experience teaching my course last fall on Comparative Immigration Politics. It’s been very interesting for the students to learn the comparative perspective on immigration. This term, I’ll be teaching my class on Transnational Black Race Issues. So as this shows, one of the things that bringing in Black faculty does is, of course, bring in a new perspective on various areas. I’ve been working in my field of political science more broadly, to increase our understanding of how race has been dealt with, even within our own profession over the history of the profession, so that’s going to be something we’ll be discussing in my class next term.  

Angela Campbell: I’ll just say I’m so happy Terri’s here. It’s an exciting moment for McGill. We are already starting to see concrete outcomes, and I think that McGill is ready, willing, and able to take up the challenge of doing the work needed to sustain the change necessary to advance the Action Plan. It’s heavy lifting, so it’s not something that can just be accomplished by one workshop or any other one-off. This has to be an ongoing commitment to practice.