Dori Tunstall is dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University.
Nina Simone once answered, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.” Freedom from fear is the ultimate goal of Black people around the world. It is enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet, there is the fear that you feel on the streets as a Black person. The fear that the failure to “tone down your Blackness” will get you killed by the police, or neglected by a doctor, or denied housing by a landlord.
And then there is the fear that you feel every day on the job as a Black person – the fear that if you bring your full Black selves into the workplace, not only will you be rejected, but you will be fired. It is an insidious fear that leads to greater economic inequality, precarious employment and the continuation of systemic racism.
Over the past few weeks, Black employees and business owners across Canada have described the fears that come with bringing Blackness into their workplaces. It has not been a conversation everyone wants to have. As the CBC personality and cultural commentator Amanda Parris recently wrote: “If history has taught us anything, it’s that Canadian institutions and companies do not welcome the truth when it comes to the realities of systemic racism. They often do one of two things in response: 1) they systematically shut down those who disrupt the status quo, or 2) they symbolically acquiesce, but make only surface-level changes.”
Fortunately, this has not been my experience at OCAD University, where I am the first Black, and Black female, dean of a faculty of design – not just at OCAD U, but anywhere. And rather than seeing this anomaly as an example of tokenism – or supertokenism, as the utility of my exceptional talents are designed to overcome the institutional aversion to my presence as a Black cis-gendered woman within systems of white supremacy – what is happening at OCAD University is a possible model for other institutions to mimic to ensure enough Black representation that people feel free to be Black.
OCAD University is achieving a critical mass of Black employees at effective levels to transform the institution. It’s not just talk, but action. Here’s how to do it: Like OCAD U, institutions need to think about hiring Black employees in “sets of three” and entrusting them with power at the top level, influence in the middle level and growth at the entry level.
My school recently announced a successful Black Cluster Hire of five full-time Black faculty in Design – its first in 144 years, which is both thrilling and shameful. This was achievable because OCAD U had established critical mass in the sets of three. At the entry level, Black students consistently advocated for faculty who represented their lived experiences so that they could grow. At the middle level, professors, such as Lillian Allen and Andrea Fatona, wielded great influence on the institution through their activism and scholarship. They also served on the hiring committees to influence decisions, including the one to hire me. It took 144 years because the institution needed someone at the top with power. Nearly four years ago, I was hired as a (Black) dean with the real power to determine and negotiate faculty budgets, write position descriptions, support Black community initiatives and redesign the qualifications standards to account for systemic exclusion.
Many big and small freedoms in being Black are possible because we have built critical mass by turning five full-time Black faculty into 10. This also adds to our complement of Black administrative staff, who are represented in the president’s and provost’s offices, within facilities, the library, IT and student services.
Another positive development was the Speak to Power student forums we held not long ago. Black students overcame their fears to share with the new president, Ana Serrano, and the leadership team at OCAD U all the ways in which the institution has failed them by not supporting their lived experiences of Blackness in their education.
What do I mean by “big and small freedoms in being Black?” Those freedoms manifest themselves in wearing our hair in locs or braids, dressing in Kente cloth or Trinidadian tricolours, bringing jollof or patties to a potluck, and openly saying Black lives matter and having colleagues agree.
Many institutions have declared the intent to hire more Black employees. These declarations are welcome, but intention is just the first step. Black employees must be hired in numbers – think in multiple sets of three – and entrusted with power, influence and growth. Companies and institutions that do this will only benefit. We perform miracles when free from the fear to be Black.
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