Heather Gray Lamm’s introduction to the Black Graduate Students’ Association came while she was sitting on the floor of the Butterdome at the University of Alberta.
Lamm, a new graduate student, was taking a moment amidst the chaos and crowd of orientation to figure out where she was supposed to be. “You’re easily invisible in such a space,” says Lamm. Two people approached her and invited her to a meeting of the BGSA.
“[That meeting] was the first time since my arrival [in Canada] that I was entering a room where everybody looked like me. That was huge,” says Lamm, a PhD student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies.
Later, when the meeting had finished and the students were lingering and chatting, she heard a Jamaican accent that mirrored her own – a welcome whisper of home in a still unfamiliar new place.
She’s close friends with that person to this day. Those moments of belonging drew Lamm to join the group.
“You feel a sense of community, a sense of camaraderie, a sense of belonging. You know that, if you’re having a challenge, there’s probably somebody in this group that you can speak with,” says Lamm, who eventually served on the executive team responsible for student welfare and membership.
“The BGSA was born out of a desire amongst many black graduate students to have a group they could identify with, a platform for building community,” adds Benjamin Denga, a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and the inaugural president of the association.
Like Lamm, graduate students come to the U of A from around the world. The association’s membership has a large percentage of international students, who have to navigate not just a new institution but a new country as well, says Zahro Hassan, who served as treasurer.
“There are students coming to Canada who may not have strong ties and a network, so we become their community, their family,” says Hassan, a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and assistant lecturer in the Faculty of Arts.
The community-building extends beyond the organization: the BGSA has been involved in several initiatives to ensure black and marginalized students across campus are represented and heard.
“The intention was to create a hub where people can meet, get to know each other, and then from there serve as something of an advocate or mouthpiece for students,” says Prof-Collins Ifeonu, former president of the BGSA and a PhD candidate in sociology.
Since the group’s inception in 2019, it has hosted an anti-racism lecture at Congress 2021, created a scholarship for black graduate students and run two conferences focused on equity, diversity and inclusion and the black student experience in academia. The BGSA also received three awards for advancing equity, diversity and inclusion at the U of A.
The group has made a big impact in a short time, Hassan says, but it hasn’t been easy.
“We’ve been able to be in many spaces, but we weren’t invited to these spaces. We had to sort of kick down the door. A lot of work went into getting a seat at the table,” says Hassan.
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The BGSA also created the Black Students’ Collective, which includes all black student groups on campus. The goal of the collective is to better represent the interests and concerns of all black students at the U of A and reflect the heterogeneity within the black student population.
“Sometimes what we find in academic spaces is that there is a temptation to recognize all black students as one, and not be able to recognize the diversity that comes within that,” says Lamm.
“There are situations where black, as powerful a category as it is, almost becomes monolithic, and there’s certain experiences that are lost,” adds Ifeonu.
The BGSA has earned the Graduate Student Group of the Year award for two years running. The group has expanded its reach beyond the U of A community, running conferences and lectures accessible online to a wider audience and launching a nationwide essay competition asking undergraduate students to outline strategies universities can adopt to advance racial justice.
A new executive team has been elected to lead the association for next year, and previous executive members are proud to have laid a solid foundation. The group received support from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research and the Graduate Students’ Association at its inception, explains Denga, as well as invaluable contributions from black professors and mentors. “I hope they all continue to support future generations of black students,” says Denga.
“BGSA has been able to get into spaces that hitherto groups like this have not gotten into, to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, the marginalized, on behalf of black people. I see that pattern and I think it’s something that will continue,” adds Denga.
“A lot of the policies that we critique or changes we want are going to benefit more than black students,” says Hassan. “It’s about creating a culture of inclusion and tolerance and respect for all people at the university and beyond.”
| By Adrianna MacPherson
Adrianna is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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