Black students call for change at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Law
'Without diverse perspectives, we can't give them unbiased views of equality'
A group of Black and bi-racial students is calling for change at the University of Calgary's faculty of law to include more people of colour in the classroom and offer anti-racism training.
Keshia Holloman-Dawson is the president of the Calgary chapter of the Black Law Students Association. The fourth-generation Calgarian is currently one of three Black and bi-racial students out of more than 350 students at the law school while three others have graduated this year.
"There seems to be a general lack of understanding [about racism] among students," says Holloman-Dawson, whose father is African-American and mother is white.
"As law students, we are the next lawyers and judges. We provide a certain service to people that gives them access to the law. Without diverse perspectives, we can't give them unbiased views of equality."
The second-year law student is presenting the group's calls to action to the faculty on Friday.
The move comes weeks after international protests against the killing of George Floyd, a Black American, by a white police officer in Minneapolis that raised the issue of systemic racism to the forefront around the world.
"We are using the momentum of this movement," says Holloman-Dawson. "We're using this small space of time where our voices are amplified to make tangible change."
Second-year student David Isilebo, from Nigeria, agrees the time is now to speak up.
"If they don't hear us now, they'll never hear us."
The group's calls to action include an increase in diversity among students through reforming the admissions process, financial support and mentorship. The group also wants to see diversity among faculty members.
"Seeing yourself in places of power matters," says third-year law student Bethlehem Tesfay. "We should have representation in all places where decisions are being made, not just as a token but in numbers where you can make a difference and feel comfortable speaking out loud without feeling like you're speaking for the whole Black community."
'I wasn't really Black until I moved here'
Tesfay moved to Calgary from Ethiopia when she was 16.
"I wasn't really Black until I moved here," she said.
"Growing up in Ethiopia, I saw myself everywhere in positions of power — doctors, teachers, just everywhere. ... But it was different when I came to law school and saw that I was the only Black student in my year and I thought about how long it would take for us to go into positions of power and how there would be only one of me in my year. And combine that with the effect of also being a woman."
The group is also calling for training on anti-racism and privilege for both students and staff. It's something Tesfay wants to see made mandatory.
"When you have optional courses or training, it's people already interested in doing the work who join these programs," she said. "So I think mandatory anti-racism training brings about a bigger impact."
If Tiana Knight had to give a grade on how Canadian law schools are doing when it comes to diversity, she says she'd give them a C-minus.
"There are a lot of schools that have made great strides and recognize the historical and systemic barriers that have hindered Black students from applying to law schools," said Knight, a third-year Windsor University law student and the national president of the Black Law Students' Association of Canada.
"But there are a lot of schools that don't recognize that there is an issue or don't care to make active steps to assist Black students in reaching law school."
Holloman-Dawson acknowledged that, unlike many law schools in the country, the University of Calgary has a more holistic admissions system where students aren't assessed solely on their grades or LSAT scores. It looks at the applicant's volunteer work and community involvement as well.
"But we don't have anything for Black students," she says.
The dean of law at the University of Calgary agrees that more needs to be done, adding that they've been working on it for a number of years.
"The students are right that we need to boost enrolment," said Ian Holloway. "We're hampered a bit because there are legal issues associated with requiring ethnic information but that's not to make an excuse. We can do more on this front."
But he said at least half of the graduate program enrolment have been made up of Black students for the past number of years. The school has also been running an LSAT prep course for people of diverse backgrounds.
Holloway said this issue has been important to him for a long time.
"I was the first law clerk hired by the late Julius Isaac, [the first Black Canadian to become Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Canada]," he says. "We became friends and remained friends until shortly before his death. In fact, after I became a dean, I took a trip to the West Indies … with him to talk about developing links between Canadian law schools and law schools in the Caribbean."
Isilebo is hopeful changes will be made, given the dean and faculty have already reached out to talk to the group.
"I give credit to the dean," said Isilebo. "He's been hearing us out. Although he hasn't done anything yet, he really wants to help."
"Even if the faculty is not as aggressive with change, we have a bunch of allies and partnerships that are willing to make this a reality," said Holloman-Dawson.
"If we could make a bit of a positive change and make it slightly easier for the next round of students then I think we've done important work and made the best of our time at law school."