Creating a more diverse, inclusive Dal

Kim Brooks and team lead new strategic initiative

- January 21, 2015

Committee members (left-to-right) Wanda Thomas Bernard, Quenta Adams and Kim Brooks meet. (Danny Abriel photos)
Committee members (left-to-right) Wanda Thomas Bernard, Quenta Adams and Kim Brooks meet. (Danny Abriel photos)

When Kim Brooks thinks about diversity and inclusiveness, her mind quickly leaps to the classroom — the space in which much of the university’s mission comes alive, and where a wide spectrum of voices and experiences can spark conversations that are rich, insightful and, at their best, inspiring.

“As a university, it’s our imperative to bring our very best to our understanding of and the creation of new knowledge,” says Prof. Brooks, dean of the Schulich School of Law. “And the way we do that is by facilitating as many voices as possible, bringing as many different experiences and types of expertise to the table as we can. And whenever we create an environment that doesn’t feature that diversity of voices, we’re always losing something.”

That thinking lies at the heart of Prof. Brooks’ latest task: helping lead Dalhousie’s new strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness.

Over the next several weeks, Prof. Brooks will be working together with a team of students, faculty and staff, soliciting input from across the Dal community. By the end of February the team, working in partnership with Senate, expects to come forward with a series of recommendations for concrete steps the university can take to make Dalhousie a more diverse, inclusive place in which to work and study.

Though it’s Prof. Brooks’ name at the top of the initiative’s project charter, she sees her role as more of a facilitator than anything else — “the person who sends the emails,” she says, with a bit of a laugh. Rather than an individual endeavour, or even a group effort, she sees the committee’s work as supporting and encouraging a conversation that, ultimately, belongs to everyone at the university.

“The challenge isn’t really mine; it’s ours,” she says, speaking to Dal as a whole. “Our role, as a small, committed group of people at the beginning of this process, is to try and kickstart as many conversations as we can. It’s about working with all aspects of the university community to see if we can get some momentum — and take advantage of existing momentum — in implementing the sort of changes that I think many of us have been enthusiastic about for some time, but which we really haven’t been able to make happen.”

Building on momentum

In speaking of “existing momentum,” Prof. Brooks is referring, in part, to the public and community reaction to the discovery of the DDS Class of 2015 Facebook group last month.

The strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness is not a direct response to the Dentistry situation: it was one the 25 priorities in Inspiration and Impact: Dalhousie Strategic Direction 2014-2018, approved last spring by the Board and Senate, and this fall it was identified as one of the 10 initial priorities to get underway. Still, there’s no question that the Facebook comments and the response to them from across the Dal community has infused a greater sense of urgency and relevance to the initiative’s work.

“I think you’re always driven by the particular moment and, certainly, the circumstances of the past month have created an accelerated and heightened awareness of the importance for this strategic initiative, and has clearly accelerated the pace at which we’ll be approaching our work,” explains Prof. Brooks.

“What’s encouraging about this moment is that you see grassroots enthusiasm for these issues,” she adds. “You see people across the university engaged in conversations about not only the specifics of the situation in Dentistry, but also the broader steps that we can take as a community to build a more inclusive and diverse Dalhousie. Part of our project is about ensuring those conversations have a sustained relevance across campus — that they have an opportunity to resonate further than their isolated corners of the university and lead to improvements that benefit our entire community.”

A diversity of perspectives

For the initiative’s first phase, a committee of students, faculty and staff will be working to gather insight, perspective and research from across the Dal community. The committee’s membership reflects its broader goals: a cross-section of individuals with a keen interest in issues of diversity and inclusion.

Learn more: See the full committee membership on the initiative's website

Some on the committee, like recent Order of Nova Scotia recipient and Social Work Professor Wanda Thomas Bernard, have been campus leaders on these issues for years. Others, like the Faculty of Medicine’s Greg Power, are newer to the Dal community but bring no less enthusiasm for the work ahead.

“I see education as being, fundamentally, an enabler for our communities,” says Power, who joined Dalhousie four years ago as director of IT for the medical school. “Sometimes, we take for granted or neglect the structures or barriers that may be affecting individuals who want to seek out that education, that get in the way of us having a more inclusive environment. It’s exciting, to me, to have the opportunity to hear and consider ideas for removing those barriers.”

“I believe that, as an institution of higher learning, we are morally bound to champion diversity and inclusion,” adds Quenta Adams, director of Advising and Access Services at Dal and also a member of the committee. “Given the make-up of our university community, I believe that we can be a leader in this area and that our identity becomes, and is widely recognized for, supporting diversity and inclusion.”
Two of the committee’s members are well-known student leaders: Jacqueline Skiptunis is vice-president academic and external of the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU), while Mahbubur Rahman is vice-president finance of the DSU and vice-president academic affairs of the Dalhousie Association of Graduate Students (DAGS).

“We have a community that’s not homogenous, one in which we need to provide people the space in which to live and learn, and where it’s fundamental that we respect and include one another,” says Skiptunis. “And where we have systemic issues, we have a responsibility to look at ourselves, to be self-critical and ask how we can make sure our community supports that diversity.”

“I come from Bangladesh, and I see people at Dalhousie from so many different backgrounds, countries and — even among Canadian students — individuals with very different experiences and perspectives,” says Rahman. “Dalhousie is a diverse community, and the challenge is to encourage this diverse group of people to work together and create a safe environment for everyone.”

Report expected by end of February

Though the cliché is that universities can be slow in their planning efforts, that criticism certainly can’t apply to the strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness: the committee expects to complete its initial report and recommendations by the end of February, little more than five weeks away.

Prof. Brooks says this timeline reflects both the urgency of the moment — and the committee’s desire to engage students, faculty and staff before paper and exam season arrives — but also that the committee expects to draw upon work that’s already underway or complete, whether at Dalhousie or at other universities.

“We need to gather the views and voices of our community, but we know we also have rich resources to draw on in terms of material already available,” explains Prof. Brooks, citing reports from other universities as well as Dal-led faculty research as examples. “So our hope is to move relatively quickly, to the point where we can say to the Dal community and to Senate, ‘Here are the kinds of steps we think the university should be taking through 2018,’ which is when this strategic initiative ends.”

To inform that process, phase one of the initiative has three components. First, the committee will be reaching out to various groups on campus who engage in work around diversity and inclusion on a regular basis. Second, individuals from the campus community can submit their suggestions or thoughts to the committee online — anonymously, if they so choose. Third, the team is building an online resource of publicly available material around diversity and inclusion, including reports by universities and other related groups and published work by Dal community members.

Once its initial report is delivered, “phase two” will see the committee set up working groups to take forward aspects of its recommendations, offering further opportunities for the Dal community to play a part in shaping a more diverse and inclusive campus.

That said, Prof. Brooks hopes individuals with great ideas don’t wait until her committee’s report to take action.

“In some ways, the best result for our committee is that the community responds to the call of creating a more diverse and inclusive Dalhousie by everyone taking steps in their own environments to make that difference,” she says. “Ideally, for us, by the time we get to producing our report in February we’d find that many of the things we think are good ideas are ones people have just started doing, and our work becomes about sharing and encouraging those initiatives.”

Learn more about the initiative: #DalForward website


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