Anti-Racism Action in Universities, by Genna Kalvaitis

October 30, 2020

[Reading List]

On March 25, 2020, in the streets of Minneapolis, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the police. Local protests erupted in Minneapolis in response to the taking of yet another Black life.  Within days, the wave of outrage and protest spread across the globe. The movement, led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization and countless others fighting for racial equality, justice, and dignity, gained massive global attention with protests spreading to over 40 countries.1

Within 24 hours of Mr. Floyd’s death, demonstrations were organized in a half-dozen U.S. cities, with protesters chanting the names of black people subjected to police brutality. The number of places doubled. Then tripled. It continued that way, with every sunrise and sunset bringing more anguish and cries for reform, until hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across more than 2,000 cities and towns, their chants echoing the rhythms of movements past.

As the movement intensified into a global reckoning of racial injustice, this prompted many institutions to respond to the outcry for genuine anti-racist accountability. Universities were among these institutions. An outpouring of declarations and statements regarding anti-Black racism was authored by directors and shared within their communities.

History of Racism in Academic and Architectural Institutions

The discussion surrounding anti-racism action in university institutions must be contextualized. It is essential to take a step back and fully understand the racist roots within these institutions and the current systemic racism present in these institutions. Harvard University opened its doors in 1636 and admitted its first Black student in 1847(women were not allowed to attend until 1920).James McGill, the founder of McGill University, was a slave owner and accrued wealth – that built the institution – through their exploitation.The list of colonial legacies in academic institutions can go on, but the problem is apparent; the foundations upon which these revered institutions stand were cast in a time rife with racism. The undercurrent of racism persists in these institutions. However, in starting reform, demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion can only move forward while critically analyzing the long-accepted practices and academic methods; racism must be dug out at the root.

The Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education complied by WAI Architecture Think Tank in October 2020 is one such critical analysis. It addresses barriers to education via anti-liberation paywalls and reimagines the structure of the architectural curriculum through a series of principles that subvert the status quo.

Radically inclusive and anti-racist architectures and cities won’t be possible until the process of thinking, dreaming, and designing the future is not just a gentlemanly sport for a privileged few in ivory towers funded with the profit from genocide, occupation, and settler-colonialism.6

It is through such a critical lens we must view McGill University’s action plan. While the global response to the BLM movement has been momentous and unprecedented, it is imperative to assess our actions and hold our institutions accountable for meaningful change.

McGill Universities Action Plan

McGill University was one of many university institutions to respond to the call for anti-racist action. Both the Director of the School of Architecture, Martin Bressani, and Office of the Provost responded with a statement of solidarity and an action plan, respectively. It is important to note that both responses followed direct calls to action from the Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty Caucus and the McGill Student Association.7 The three principal calls to action addressed are as follows:

  • The creation of a task force on transatlantic slavery and colonialism;
  • The setting of targets and timetables for recruiting Black faculty, students and staff, and accompanying support; and
  • The institutionalizing of equity and representation for Black persons across McGill University and in senior administration.8

The plan commits to a minimum of 15 million dollars over the next five years. For context, McGill University’s expenses were 928.7 million in 2019, meaning this is 0.3% of the annual budget.9

During the discussion of this topic in the Race | Space reading group at McGill University, participants discussed this plan’s accomplishments and missed opportunities. One concern addressed the sheer labour required to accomplish the many goals outlined in the plan (surveys to be conducted, modules developed, committees formed, training provided, etc.). While ambitious, the university needs to be realistic about how much effort this will require to accomplish. Fulfilling the outlined goals will have to, in stride, avoid overburdening current staff and personnel already committed to full-time anti-racist work. A common concern was the need for transparency and accountability. Target dates and ambitions are outlined in the action plan. There needs to be rigorous follow up to ensure targets are being met. For example, allocating funds, a contentious target, must be clearly outlined and tracked accordingly.

The action plan can begin decolonization at McGill University and integrate the anti-racist practice into every level of the institution. The protests following George Floyd’s murder made apathy inexcusable. The global uproar demanded response and action. The intensity and urgency felt throughout those weeks and months have simmered. Still, the declarations remain—anchors we can hold to and continue the labour of anti-racist work.

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Savannah Smith, Jiachuan Wu and Joe Murphy, “Map: George Floyd protests around the world,” NBC News, June 9, 2020.

Audra D. S. Burch, Weiyi Cai, Gabriel Gianordoli, Morrigan McCarthy and Jugal K. Patel, “How Black Lives Matter Reached Every Corner of America,” New York Times, June 13, 2020.

Ata D. Amponsah, Matthew Moore, and Janae Strickland, “Welcome to the Harvard Black Community,” The Harvard Crimson, September 11, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2017/9/11/welcome-black-harvard/#:~:text=The%20process%20of%20making%20Harvard,the%201847%2D48%20school%20year.

Colleen Walsh, “Hard-earned gains for women at Harvard,” The Harvard Gazette, April 26, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/04/hard-earned-gains-for-women-at-harvard/#:~:text=The%20Harvard%20Graduate%20School%20of,School%20for%20admittance%20in%201871.

Sepideh Afshar, “Erased by the administration: James McGill was a slave owner,” The McGill Tribune, February 18, 2020. [Online]. Available: http://www.mcgilltribune.com/opinion/erased-by-the-administration-james-mcgill-was-a-slave-owner-18022020/.

Cruz Garcia & Nathalie Frankowski, “A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education,” WAI Architecture Think Tank, October 20, 2020.

Dr. Kenneth Melville McGill Black Faculty and Staff Caucus, “McGill Plan for Addressing Anti-Black Racism,” August 1, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.blackfacultycaucus.mcgill.ca/statements.

Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), “McGill University Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism 2020-2025,” September 2020.

McGill University, “University Budget,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.mcgill.ca/budget/budget-book.

 

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