“It’s the first time in my five to ten years at UBC that I’ve walked into a room where other people look like me. It’s the first time as a racialized person that I’m not being asked for something,” attendees of the IBPOC Connections inaugural luncheon told Dr. Maryam Nabavi, a staff and faculty strategist with the UBC Equity & Inclusion Office. Dr. Nabavi has been leading and championing IBPOC Connections since the launch of the initiative in 2019.
IBPOC Connections builds community and seeks to increase representation and cultivate belonging among staff and faculty who self-identify as Indigenous, Black, and/or People of Colour (IBPOC). Through luncheons, speaker series, and book and coffee clubs, IBPOC staff and faculty are invited to come together and celebrate their multiple and intersecting identities as well as speak candidly about the challenges they face at UBC.
“It is the historical and perennial whiteness of UBC that makes our attempt at community and the assertion of our presence necessary,” said Professor and Senior Advisor to the President on Anti-racism and Inclusive Excellence, Dr. Handel Kashope Wright, at the inaugural luncheon. Professor Wright, chair of the Task Force on Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence, describes IBPOC Connections as a way “to collectively make space for ourselves at UBC and to make interventions which will enhance our very survival and work lives at the university.”
“IBPOC Connections isn’t about building something anew,” said Dr. Nabavi. “Partnership is the bedrock of how we do our work.” The goal of IBPOC Connections is two-fold: to build community and to leverage existing networks to push for systemic change.
Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, Senior Advisor to the President on Indigenous Affairs points out that “platforms like IBPOC Connections fill an important void to build community and amplify IBPOC voices in order to advance these objectives at the university.”
“If we can work together – with an understanding that although we bring unique perspectives and experiences, we do share collective goals, we can implement Indigenous human rights across the university and also break down other systemic barriers in order to make UBC a better and more just environment for all IBPOC individuals,” says Dr. Lightfoot, noting the connection to the Indigenous Strategic Plan and the efforts to reform policies and processes, reshape cultures and systems, and implement Indigenous human rights on our campuses.
To design the program at UBC, Dr. Nabavi and colleagues from the UBC Equity & Inclusion Office conducted an environmental scan of similar initiatives across North American universities and hosted consultations with 25 IBPOC faculty and staff. They also convened an advisory committee of staff and faculty engaged in work on advancing equity and inclusion at UBC Vancouver.
“There was real energy and enthusiasm behind it,” said Dr. Sara-Jane Finlay, associate vice-president for equity and inclusion. “IBPOC Connections gained momentum incredibly quickly with real commitment coming from Ombudsperson for Students Shirley Nakata and Associate Professor Henry Yu.” In the first year alone, IBPOC Connections has recorded some 600 points of engagement with IBPOC staff and faculty.
Building a Sense of Belonging and Connection
As one of twenty institutional priorities in UBC’s strategic plan, inclusive excellence holds that diversity and inclusion are integral to excellence. IBPOC Connections is one of many efforts under the Inclusion Action Plan which operationalizes UBC’s commitment to inclusion. If we think of UBC’s strategic plan and the Inclusion Action Plan as roadmaps to inclusive excellence, then IBPOC Connections is a vehicle to understanding and enacting what inclusion really looks like.
Scholars use the term affinity spaces to refer to spaces of learning where people are brought together by shared interests or experiences. Affinity spaces have been widely adopted in higher education though their success has not always been forthcoming at UBC.
“Efforts to create formal affinity spaces for racialized staff and faculty are not new at UBC, and the work we are doing is informed by past efforts. University-wide commitments to inclusion, culminating in the Inclusion Action Plan in addition to newly formed leadership roles, such as the advisor to the president on anti-racism and inclusive excellence, have signalled a readiness and commitment to supporting IBPOC faculty and staff,” said Dr. Nabavi.
The deadly attack on mosques in Canada and abroad along with incidents of systemic racism in health care and law enforcement further amplified the need for spaces of belonging.
“There is a certain understanding of your life circumstances that only someone from your country, your region gets, no one else,” said Valentina Ruiz-Leotaud, a communications officer with the Sea Around Us initiative. Supported through the IBPOC Connections seed funding initiative that seeks to enable community groups to gather, Ruiz-Leotaud hosted an eight-week Zumba class. “I was almost in disbelief that this program existed. I was able to reach out and get funding to organize an activity that was about meeting people and doing something that really connects Latin people.”
Ruiz-Leotaud also took part in IGNITE Book Club, a speaker series and a book club organized and led by the Senior Advisor to the Provost on Racialized Faculty, Dr. Minelle Mahtani. The book club allows for the exploration and discussion of memoirs written by renowned racialized authors, with the intent of opening up space and stimulating dialogue and discussion around race and leadership.
“It’s a matter of not feeling like the other. As an immigrant when you gather with your people, you feel at home,” said Ruiz-Leotaud. IGNITE Book Club invited IBPOC Connections to partner on several events, expanding the range of engagement opportunities for IBPOC faculty and staff.
Similarly, IBPOC Connections Coffee Club provides staff with $10 gift cards to go for coffee with an IBPOC colleague. Other community-building events included speaker and performance-based events on topics like self-care and the contributions of BC’s Black community to the arts.
Creating Pathways towards Leadership
IBPOC Connections seeks to enhance the experiences and outcomes of staff and faculty through capacity building, leadership development, recruitment and retention, and mentorship. For Professor Wright, IBPOC Connections is a “precursor to opportunities and initiatives for IBPOC faculty and staff to play an important role with respect to informing policies, processes, building a culture and creating opportunities to move toward a different experience than that of institutional betrayal.”
“Our sense of people’s experience has largely come from survey data, including from the 2019 Workplace Experiences Survey Pulse Report and the Employment Equity Report,” said Dr. Finlay. “The data tell us about barriers to advancement but what’s missing is the richness of their stories and lived experience.”
Dr. Nabavi points to a persistent lack of IBPOC staff in leadership roles, with data suggesting that IBPOC women are not advancing to leadership roles at the rate of their white counterparts. “It isn’t the case that they [IBPOC women] are not applying or aren’t qualified,” explained Dr. Nabavi. Racialized people represent 36.1 per cent of employees at UBC, a higher percentage than in the overall Canadian workforce (21.3 per cent) but lower than the in the Vancouver workforce (45.9 per cent).
To address this leadership gap, Dr. Nabavi and colleagues have developed a sponsorship model that outlines ways to support the retention and success of IBPOC women staff. Once the model is approved, a pilot initiative will match a staff member in a non-leadership role with a sponsor, two job categories above their position. The sponsor will provide coaching, mentorship, and opportunities to move into a different role.
“We are here in service to our students,” said Dr. Nabavi. “Initiatives such as the sponsorship pilot signal to IBPOC students that their identities are reflected in those who work at the university.”
Ruiz-Leotaud, a former UBC student herself, described her current workplace by saying, “I feel respected and valued for my abilities, not for where I come from or anything else.” Once IBPOC staff and faculty enter the university the focus must shift to their success, belonging, and career advancement. Affinity spaces are one such source of “inspiration and challenge,” said Dr. Finlay. “These spaces have the ability to be internal activists pushing the institution to do things differently.”
It won’t be easy. Dr. Nabavi likened this work to “constantly pushing a boulder up a hill. It means we have to create some discomfort and take risks.”