Sparking a conversation: How a one‑off lecture became a series on racism in Nova Scotia and beyond

- October 16, 2015

If you’ve ever spent even a few minutes browsing the Dalhousie Events Calendar, you’ve got a sense of just how many public events and lectures happen all the time at the university: guest speakers, discussion panels, research presentations, open forums, conferences, you name it. While every event hopes to spark some sort of reaction — be it inspiration, thought, or action — not all events transform into something larger.

Wanda Thomas Bernard’s “Racism is Killing Us Softly” is an exception. The lecture, which took place last fall as part of the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies’ Distinguished Lecture Series, transitioned into a whole series of events in the winter term, all based on the enthusiasm of attendees and organizers alike.

And now the series is picking up again this fall, with five new lectures through this current academic year. The first takes place on Monday, October 19 in room 1108 of the Mona Campbell Building. Its title: “Racism is Killing us Softly: But We Are Still Fighting for Change.”

The lecture, which will focus on the experiences of black social workers in Canada, is also a launch for Still Fighting for Change, a new book that chronicles the stories of 20 social workers and members of the Association of Black Social Workers and their experiences to address the systemic barriers that impact their lives and the lives of those they serve. Dr. Bernard is the book’s editor.

Keeping the conversation going

The “Killing Me Softly” events have each focused on a different exploration of racism within Halifax, Nova Scotia and Canada. The original lecture with that title, held on November 18 last year, focused on Dr. Bernard’s own research on two fronts: an exploration of how racism and other forms of violence impacts African Canadian men, and a second exploring the impact of racism on the health of African Canadian women and families in rural Nova Scotia.

Dr. Bernard (left), an Order of Canada and Order of Nova Scotia recipient who recently received Dal’s first university-wide teaching award for diversity in education, has done more than her fair share of lectures in her career but says the reaction to the November 18 lecture was unique.

“After a two-hour talk that I had almost too much content for, people lingered and talked for another hour — typical lectures never happen like that,” she said. “And then someone said, ‘You had so much to offer, and we didn’t get it all. This could be a whole series.’”

Stories of resilience

Dr. Bernard and her partners in the School of Social Work, the Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and the Black Student Advising Centre hosted three additional lectures in the winter term, each of them combining insights from Dr. Bernard’s teaching and research together with contributions from students and members of the Dal and Halifax communities to shed light on the impacts of racism and stories of resilience.

Though timing was hampered by a couple of snow cancellations, the series was a huge success, and well received by the community. The March discussion, which focused on racism in employment, was led by the work of Dr. Bernard’s graduate students and their look at the case of Blair Cromwell, a former firefighter who was excluded from participating in the Nova Scotia Human Rights Tribunals case involving the Halifax Black Firefighters Association. Cromwell’s story had not been well-known before the students and Dr. Bernard began exploring it.

“I felt in general that it was such an important story and I felt honoured to be part of making that story go public,” says Masters of Social Work student Calandra Kandziora. “I felt it was something that was long overdue.”

And the final lecture last March featured Dr. Bernard’s undergraduate students, each presenting case studies on African Nova Scotian activists. Its subtitle — “…and still we rise” — represents a theme that carries through to this year’s series, says Dr. Bernard.

“It was about how people engage in a process where they both recognize and challenge racism. It’s not just happening ‘to’ us; it’s part of our day-to-day lives. And that’s what we need to explore.”

Accordingly, this year’s series focuses on a wide variety of topics related to the impacts of racism — everything from education to masculinity.

The full schedule of 2015-16 lectures is below. All sessions are 6-8 p.m.

Racism is Killing Us Softly: 2015-16 lectures

Monday, October 19
Racism is Killing us Softly: But We Are Still Fighting for Change
Mona Campbell Building Room 1108

Monday, November 16
Racism is Killing us Softly: An Exposition of Systemic Racism in Education
Dalhousie Student Union Building, Room 221

Monday, January 18
Racism is Killing us Softly: The System as a Weapon and a Shield
Dalhousie Student Union Building, Room 307

Thursday, February 4
Racism is Killing us Softly: Narratives of Young Black Men
Dalhousie Student Union Building, Room 303

Monday March 21
Racism is Killing us Softly: Combatting Anti-Black Racism in the United Nations International Decade of the People of African Descent
Dalhousie Student Union Building, Room 303

The series is a partnership between the School of Social Work, the Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and the Black Student Advising Centre.


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