Group told they need to prove UW not doing enough for black students

The vice president of Black Association for Student Expression, a student group at the University of Waterloo, says when they went to the school's equity office, they were told they needed to prove the school wasn't doing enough for black students.

'We didn’t feel that we had to justify ourselves and our need'

Fiqir Worku, who is vice president of the Black Association for Student Expression at the University of Waterloo. She says the former director of the school's equity office told Worku and the association they would need to prove there was a need for more services to address the unique needs of black students on campus by providing statistics on all students. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Members of the Black Association for Student Expression at the University of Waterloo says they've been told by the school's equity office it's up to them to prove there's a need for more on-campus services for black students.

Fiqir Worku, who is vice president of the association, said she approached the school's former equity director to talk about how the university could address the unique needs of black students.

She said she was told that before that could happen, the association would need to assess the need on campus and they would have to get those statistics themselves. The school does not collect information on students' race or ethnic backgrounds, a school spokesperson said.

"That kind of discouraged and disappointed us," Worku told CBC K-W's The Morning Edition host Craig Norris on Monday.

"We didn't feel that we had to justify ourselves and our need."

$75 a semester to operate

Worku noted other schools support racialized student groups with funding and administrative support.

The Black Association for Student Expression receives just $75 each semester to operate – money Worku said they need to save to ensure the group has a future. It limits them in the kinds of events and outreach they can do, she said.

It also means they didn't have the resources to gather statistics of every student who attends University of Waterloo – more than 34,000.

"It wasn't a feasible task to ask a club that only gets $75 of reimbursable funding per semester to do that," she said.

But they did do other research, which included looking into media reports of carding in Waterloo region – the practice where police officers stop a person not for doing anything wrong, but for fitting a certain profile.

A report last year found of the 63,697 street checks done over a 10-year period between 2005 and 2015, 9.1 per cent were when officers stopped African-Canadian individuals.

The association also heard from students about their experiences with police, administration and the community, and Worku said she and her peers regularly hear how the racial tensions unfolding in the United States create a ripple effect here in Canada and on campus.

Worku said she also thought her group shouldn't be required to prove a need because the province has developed a Black Youth Action Plan and announced in October it is creating a new program to help students prepare for their careers.

Waterloo Regional Police data showed black individuals were the subject of street checks nine per cent of the time in a 10-year period. They only make up two per cent of Waterloo region's general population. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Concerns taken seriously

Worku said Wilfrid Laurier University held a "healing circle" for students who felt affected by racism.

Other schools support black students with counselling and outreach to help them through the issues they face that other students may not. UW hasn't done that yet, she said.

The school has created a new position – associate vice president of human rights, equity and inclusion – which has been filled by Diana Parry, university spokesperson Matthew Grant said.

"The University of Waterloo takes the well being of its students seriously, including concerns around racialization. That is why the university has undertaken a number of initiatives dedicated to cultural understanding and awareness," Grant said.

Worku said they do have a meeting planned with Parry, "sometime after Dec. 13," but the exact date for the meeting has not been set.

"We're hoping for Dec. 14," she said.

'I hope for more support'

Ideally what the association would like to see is more sensitivity training for faculty, staff and administration, better counselling services for black students and more representation, both in the courses taught at the school as well as in the faculty, Worku said.

"I hope for more support. I hope for more awareness on the issue," she said.

Grant said the school does ensure staff "providing core services to such as counselling to all students receive training in areas such as cultural awareness and gender identity. The university is always open to receiving any comments, concerns or suggestions that would assist us in our goal of providing the best level of service to our students."

Worku said she would like to see the university stand behind those words and have a real conversation about how race affects students.

"Ignoring race doesn't make it go away," she added.

"Recognizing that students of colour do walk on campus, do experience campus differently, is not necessarily a bad thing and so I feel like services placed to support those students would be great."