"A Dalhousie in which everyone belongs": Diversity and inclusiveness initiative releases action report

- March 5, 2015

The "Belong" action report, broken into its six themes.
The "Belong" action report, broken into its six themes.

The action report from Dalhousie’s strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness is organized around six themes, makes 15 broad recommendations and outlines more than 60 activities for the university to undertake. But all of it, ultimately, circles back to the core idea of belonging, and the concept summed up in the sentence that leads its introduction:

“At Dalhousie we must accept responsibility for creating the conditions for everyone to flourish and to belong.”

The report, Belong: Supporting an Inclusive and Diverse University, has 12 authors listed: members of a committee of students, faculty and staff drawn from across the university. But its ideas and recommendations are the product of over 60 outreach meetings across all four campuses and Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick; hundreds of individual submissions; a review of recent task force reports from other Canadian universities; and many informal conversations within our community.

Read more: Full "Belong" report from the strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness [PDF]

“I feel like the report echoes the voices of everybody who spoke to, met with or contacted the committee,” says Maya Churbaji, research and operations coordinator in Human Resources and member of the committee. “It is a Dal report for the Dal community, and I hope the community will embrace it from all facets, and on all fronts.”

The report is the first part of the work under Charter 5.2 in the university's Strategic Direction, focused on "foster[ing] a collegial culture grounded in diversity and inclusiveness." Thus far, university leaders who’ve spent time with the report are responding positively to its recommendations. President Richard Florizone extended his thanks to the committee for its thoughtful work.

“Great universities are welcoming and inclusive places, strengthened in their diversity in all respects,” says Dr. Florizone. “We heard that theme strongly throughout 100 Days of Listening, which is why the university made this commitment to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusiveness in our Strategic Direction.

“With this report, this committee has provided us with an impressive set of recommendations for moving Dalhousie closer to our shared goal of a diverse and inclusive campus — one where everyone belongs. I hope I speak on behalf of everyone at Dal when I say we’re eager to get to work.”

President Florizone has already committed to personally leading several of the projects outlined in the report (as indicated in the project tracking “scorecard” at the end of the document). Among them is identifying an officer at the senior level responsible for coordinating the university’s ongoing engagement with issues of diversity and inclusion. The committee is asking that leads be identified for all projects and reported to Senate by October.

Dr. Florizone and Provost Carolyn Watters will also be joining the committee in requesting that Senate, the Board of Governors and senior administration review the university’s progress towards its recommendations each year.

“This strategic initiative is all about Dalhousie becoming a more respectful, more inclusive place to work and study,” adds Dr. Watters. “This report begins the work of the 5.2 initiative on diversity and inclusiveness and not only provides actions that can be taken immediately, but also provides a framework and insights for the longer term progress of that priority. I look forward to working with Senate, Faculties, students, faculty and staff across the university in making real progress.”

More on the report: A crucial conversation: Dal senior leaders discuss diversity and inclusiveness report

Examining the recommendations

The report’s actions are organized by theme — Understand, Learn, Reflect, Account, Support and Heal — not by unit or issue. Kim Brooks, dean of the Schulich School of Law and chair of the “phase one” committee, explains that this reflects the way diversity and inclusiveness are values that must be shared across the entire Dal community.

“Our report is unique to Dalhousie, and reflects what we heard from our community,” says Prof. Brooks (left, meeting with committee members Quenta Adams and Wanda Thomas Bernard). “Our recommendations focus not only on institutional mechanisms to support an inclusive and diverse university, but also on how each of us is responsible for supporting one another’s belonging.

“This can’t just be about changing a policy or two,” she adds, “though that work is also very important. It’s about how each of us needs to understand how we include and exclude, intentionally or unintentionally, members of our community, and how we can take steps to bridge and respect our differences.”

Under each of the action report’s 15 broad recommendations are specific activities for the university to undertake. For each activity, the committee identifies either a single unit that would be accountable for its implementation or, in many cases, an “accountability community” of offices or groups that should be involved. Each activity also has a suggested timeline: short (within a year), medium (within three years) or long term (within five years).

While some of the report’s recommendations will likely be relatively simple to take action on, others will require more consideration and dialogue before they can be implemented. As an example, Prof. Brooks points to recommendation 4B: “Design and implement a formal, mandatory program for all students at Dalhousie” focused on respect and inclusion. While many people the committee met with expressed enthusiasm for some sort of mandatory course for all students, others had reservations, and there were considerably different perspectives on what form or shape such a program should take.

“Even among those communities who work in issues of inclusion and diversity as part of their daily lives at Dalhousie, views often differed about how we should approach things, and that’s reflected in our recommendations,” says Prof. Brooks. “However, it was always in the vein of how we can support a Dalhousie in which everyone belongs.

“We can all share a common vision without necessarily sharing the same view about how we achieve it, and that’s what made our conversations valuable — and, we hope, that’s the spirit in which the Dal community responds to the report.”

Listening to the community

The committee’s 60-plus outreach meetings included many individuals and groups who have been doing diversity and inclusion work at the university for years. Speaking in more detail about those meetings, the committee’s members describe them as incredibly informative, deeply honest and, at times, quite emotional.

“The opportunity to meet, sometimes one-on-one and sometimes in small groups, with various organizations on campus that you might not have encountered otherwise, and be able to ask really direct questions and have them ask really direct questions of you, was extremely educational and sometimes truly moving,” says Samuel Mason, first-year Law student and member of the South House Board of Governors.

The committee heard many positive stories about diversity and inclusion work at the university, but also stories of struggle: disrespect, isolation, and devaluation that people in the Dal community feel every day.

“It reminded me how easy is it to forget the challenges that exist in our community for those who are on the margins, or feel powerless and lost in our bureaucracy,” says Katherine Frank, assistant vice-president of Human Resources. “Those of us who are in positions of power and influence need a wake-up call that reminds us that there is still more work to be done if we are truly trying to create a culture of inclusivity and respect and that we have a responsibility to lead the way.”

Brenda Beagan, associate professor in the School of Occupational Therapy, describes the meetings as “both heartening and disheartening.” As excited as she was by the collaborative style of the committee, and in how willing people were to share their perspective, the meetings also reinforced how issues like racism, sexism, hetereosexism, ableism and hierarchy cut across the university community.

“It was hard hearing from people — especially staff and faculty — who have been working on and dealing with those things day after day for years and decades, seeing very little positive change,” she says.

Next steps

In the coming weeks, members of the committee will be discussing the report in detail with Senate, the university executive, DSU council and those units or groups who they consulted with, among others. They also welcome feedback on the document via the web at dal.ca/belong.

The committee is willing to continue the conversation in their own corners of campus and to support dialogue with others at Dalhousie about the report and its recommendations.  Overall, though, the conclusion of “phase one” of the strategic initiative 5.2 on diversity and inclusiveness marks the transition of its work from that of a committee project to an initiative that involves the entire university.  

Procedurally, the report asks that each “accountability community” identify a lead and establish a timeline for each recommendation by October 2015. From there, the plan is for Senate, the Board and senior administration to require an update on all recommendations each year.

“I hope the Dal community talks about the report, debates it, grapples with it and ultimately feels accountable for seeing the recommendations through,” says Frank.

“I hope that people take the time to read it and offer feedback, and also appreciate the amount of work that has gone into it,” says Mason. “And I hope they realize that what has fueled this document is not really the recommendations of the committee, but the ideas and recommendations of all the people the committee has met with. Implementing these recommendations is kind of like implementing the desires of our community, in many respects.” 

Making a difference

Adding to the hopes of her committee members, Prof. Brooks hopes the spirit of inclusion reflected in how the report was produced carries through to its implementation.

“It’s really been an honour and a privilege to be part of this project,” says Prof. Brooks. “Everybody brought different things to the table, saw the issues from a different perspective, and was willing and open about having frank discussions with each other about what was important. That kind of structure and that level of engagement is exactly the kind of engagement, I think, that we’re urging the community more broadly to think through: how we can can benefit from insights of people across ages, disciplines, backgrounds, experiences.”

Those aren’t always easy conversations, though, which is perhaps why the report concludes with a note of concern and one of optimism. The note of concern highlights that true cultural change at Dal will require everyone to increase their competency base, while the note of optimism points out how many there are who are truly hungry and eager for change.  

Dr. Beagan admits her cynicism — institutions like universities, she feels, “have remarkable ways of making good things disappear, or co-opting them into nothingness”— but thinks this might be a moment when change could be possible. It will depend, she says, on how willing members of the university community are to start paying closer attention to how their own experiences connect with those of people unlike themselves.

“We can create policies and procedures that address some areas of concern, but those will ultimately have little effect if people don't understand the ways they can contribute to making Dal more welcoming, more inclusive,” she says. “It's as big as a review of pay equity for visible minority employees and those with disabilities… and it is as small as speaking up when we hear a racial slur, or working to change a form to be more gender inclusive, or attending a welcome event at the International Centre, or knowing the name of the custodians in our building.”

Churbaji, who feels a great sense of pride about being part of Dalhousie, wants to create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to feel the same way.  

“I hope that the community will see how important it is to have a sense of genuine belonging when you’re part of Dal,” she says. “I hope that when people look back at their experiences as part of this community, later in their lives, that it will be one of the good memories, something at which they can smile with contentment and fulfillment.”


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