Jalana Lewis is thrilled to be Dal’s first director of African Nova Scotian community engagement, a role she began in September.
“I knew I would return home to Halifax permanently one day and I couldn’t be more excited to take on a role that involves building stronger connections between the province’s African Nova Scotian community and Dal,” says Lewis.
The inaugural role grew out of an early recommendation arising from the work of Dal’s African Nova Scotian Strategy Working Group and supported by its Advisory Council. Both are made up of leaders from the African Nova Scotian community working in various roles on campus and throughout the province.
As director, Lewis will play an institutional leadership role in the implementation of the African Nova Scotian Strategy on campus. She will support the access and success of African Nova Scotian students, staff and faculty at Dalhousie while helping to build stronger relationships between the university and community.
“On behalf of Dalhousie’s African Nova Scotian Strategy, we’re proud that our Working Group and Advisory Council are established, and we warmly welcome Jalana, who thinks critically, engages thoughtfully, and is deeply connected to her African Nova Scotian people, says Michelle Williams, Provost Fellow in the Schulich School of Law and Chair of Dal’s African Nova Scotian Strategy. “We look forward to collaborating with her to deepen understanding of African Nova Scotians as a distinct people as recognized in Dalhousie’s Proclamation of the UN Decade for People of African Descent.”
African Nova Scotians are a distinct people and their history dates to the early 1600s and includes the Black Loyalists (1780s), the Jamaican Maroons (1796) and the Black Refugees (1813–1816). Today, there are approximately 22,000 African Nova Scotians living in the province. They represent 2.4 per cent of the total Nova Scotia population and 37.3 per cent of the racially visible population in Nova Scotia.
A journey back to Dal
Lewis is a Dalhousie alum, but her path to the university was anything but direct.
“In high school, when it came time to choose universities to apply to, I wasn’t sure that Dalhousie was a place for me as a young African Nova Scotian woman and didn’t apply to the school.” Fast forward six years later and active recruitment efforts through Dal’s Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative led to her joining the Schulich School of Law in 2010.
“It is through resourced initiatives, dedicated faculty and staff that I came to feel I too belonged at one of Canada’s oldest universities,” she says. “My time on campus as a law student was full of eye-opening academic and extra-curricular experiences. I want to make sure that those same opportunities are afforded to more African Nova Scotians looking to pursue higher education in the province”
Lewis, who served as valedictorian in her 2013 graduating Schulich Law class, knew a career in social justice policy work, coupled with community activism, was the right path for her. After working in human rights law, she began a career as a non-practising lawyer collaborating with various NGOs, universities and government offices. Legal policy, archival research and project management — all of it grounded in community advocacy — has kept her busy since leaving Dal Law.
Lewis has spent much of her career working to help uplift voices of African Nova Scotians and BIPOC communities in Canada. In 2016 she managed the municipal campaign of Lindell Smith, who became Halifax’s first African Nova Scotian city councillor in 18 years. Lewis also oversaw a project funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario that sought to increase access to justice for BIPOC applicants in the province participating in administrative tribunal processes.
Now, she returns to Dal and joins Cathy Martin, Dal’s new director of Indigenous community engagement, and the Human Rights & Equity Services team led by Theresa Rajack-Talley, vice-provost of equity and inclusion.
Lennett J Anderson, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church and a community member on the Dalhousie African Nova Scotian Advisory Council, says he is ecstatic that Lewis is joining the team at Dalhousie.
“Her extensive experience in community relations, advocacy and inclusion will serve our people well as she seeks to address systemic barriers, promote a sense of belonging, and enhance academic opportunities for persons within our African Nova Scotian communities,” says Rev. Dr. Anderson. “The development of this strategy will surely prove beneficial for many who have historically been overlooked and excluded. This is a significant stride in the right direction.”
A foundation built on history
Three decades ago, Dalhousie University’s then-president, Howard Clarke, commissioned the innovative report entitled, Breaking Barriers: Report of the Task Force on Access for Black and Native People. The report focused on the concerns of Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaw people in Nova Scotia and was released in the same year as the report on the Royal Commission on the Wrongful Prosecution of Donald Marshall Jr.
Both documents helped lay the foundation for access, equity and inclusion at Dalhousie University. The African Nova Scotian Strategy incorporates and builds upon these two seminal reports.
Lewis had a hand in a more recent Dal report that offers further insight into the history of racial discrimination against African Nova Scotians: she was lead researcher for the Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race.
“In that role I travelled to archival institutions in the United Kingdom, Ottawa and also right here in Nova Scotia,” she explains. “During my research I found and cataloged historic documents that illustrate how perceptions and policies of colonial leaders, such as Lord Dalhousie, aided in the cementing of anti-Black attitudes and policies which continue to negatively impact the African Nova Scotian community”
Now, during her three-year term as director of African Nova Scotian community engagement, Lewis is set to work with the Dalhousie and African Nova Scotian communities to meaningfully consult, collaborate and implement new initiatives that help make the university a more welcoming place for African Nova Scotian students, staff and faculty.
“My recent work as Knowledge Lead with the African Nova Scotian Youth Employment Lab, which focused on disproportionate unemployment rates among young Black people in the province, underscored the importance of equitable access to institutions of higher learning for members of historically marginalized communities,” she says.
“If young African Nova Scotians are employed at lower rates than their white counterparts, we must also examine whether the same systemic trends exist within university settings. Similarly, representation of African Nova Scotians within staff and faculty positions on campus also needs to be considered. It’s so important for students to see themselves reflected throughout the university at all levels.”
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