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A leader, who studied leadership: Black student group founder reflects on OISE as Fall Convocation arrives

November 11, 2020

By Perry King

In her first year of graduate studies at OISE, Entisar Yusuf formed the U of T Black Graduate Students Assocaition — a nascent student group that gives space and support to graduate students of colour, and engages with issues and experiences facing the Black community at U of T.

The fall of 2018 was a period of true awakening for Entisar Yusuf – as a Black woman, student and community member.

Yusuf, who is a part of the cohort who will be honoured at U of T’s fall convocation this November, arrived at OISE in 2018 looking to interact and engage with other Black students after finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario and spending years teaching primary students abroad.

Finishing with a Master of Education in educational leadership and policy, Yusuf has gifted the university with the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA) – a nascent student group that gives space and support to graduate students of colour, and engages with issues and experiences facing the Black community at U of T.

During that fall, Yusuf initially set out to find colleagues that looked like her. She engaged with the U of T Black Students Association (BSA) and lauded their connectivity with undergraduates. But, there was something missing for students who were a little older – even though there are many Black graduate students on campus, and many based at OISE.

“I thought of it from the graduate experience and as an OISE student,” said Yusuf, who learned about the different lived experiences on campus – including stories of incidents of anti-Black racism. “I felt a little disconnected, a little isolated. And even though I saw Black people on campus, there was no communication or connectivity – even simple smiles. I didn't know what was happening.”

She was surprised. There was no way anyone should feel isolated in the middle of a large city. After floating an unsuccessful idea to form a graduate branch within the BSA, she sought interest in a graduate student-focused group.

There, she did the leg work. “I decided to take it upon myself to just put up posters around campus. And so, I looked up all the graduate programs on campus, and I found out there are 19 graduate and professional schools at U of T. I did my best to put up flyers in all the buildings in the downtown area.”

That process of mounting posters resulted in 12 interested emails on the first day. “That pushed me. I saw that there was a need, even if it was just 12 people,” she said.

She kept going, installing posters more broadly and evening reaching out to graduate student groups to seek interest. There was plenty of it. Many of the students were, mostly, the only Black people  in their programs, cohorts or classes and  were feeling isolated; both socially and intellectually.

“The isolation may feel heightened as an international student, because you most likely have no one in Toronto; no friends or family outside of campus,” said Yusuf. “I was very happy to fill the void.”

After seeking group recognition from U of T Student Life, Yusuf called for an inaugural meeting to call for executive committee elections. It was a crescendo moment – about 80 students attended, all passionate about getting together. And they awarded Yusuf for her effort, electing her the first president.

In the 2019-2020 school year, the BGSA housed seven executives and 192 members across the three U of T campuses. Programming for all students on and off campus, the BGSA organized panels discussing various issues including representation in politics and STEM. Off campus, they worked with the Toronto Black Film Festival, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Yusuf and BGSA’s efforts to create community on campus, and propel it forward, did not go unnoticed.

“She takes initiative, and tirelessly works to create positive change in her communities,” said Iman Togone, who met Yusuf as equity committee chair for the OISE Graduate Student Association.

“The leadership Entisar shows is not small. Through her work she has created an executive team that have provided panels on important topics such as Black mental health as well as workshops hosted by Black professors for students to connect with.”

Before all this, Yusuf never fully thought of herself as a “leader.” She hadn’t participated in student life in this way at Western and hadn’t sought attention like this before. But, the purpose of the BGSA and its work kept her going.   

“It taught me I could be a leader in what I think is a small way,” she said, “but I am making a difference as long as it's benefiting others and that following is there.”

And as someone who studied leadership at OISE, the experience enhanced her academic work.

“Leadership was a large component of what I was learning about and it was fascinating,” she said. “It was fascinating to read about different ways of leadership, and the BGSA gave me some sort of context as to what to apply my learning to. My academic and social stances were kind of intermingled, if that makes any sense.”

The truth is that Yusuf poured herself into everything she did at OISE. In addition to working with the OISE graduate students’ association, she served on the Master of Teaching Racial Inclusion Committee (MTRIC), which works to create a more racially inclusive experience for Master of Teaching students, increasing the proportion of students in the program from historically under-represented communities (with a focus on Black and Indigenous students), and developing the conditions under which the program is known as a leader in racial equity within teacher education in Canada in terms of curriculum, outcomes, impact, and reputation.

MTRIC faculty lead Arlo Kempf, Assistant Professor in the department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, sings Yusuf’s praises. “She was a really important part of the MTRIC committee, who worked as both an individual, and as a student leader and representative, to contribute to the development of the report, the activities of the committee and the overall process of understanding and advocacy around racial inclusion in the Master of Teaching program,” he said.

“She is amazing.”

Togone, a Master of Arts student in OISE’s Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education (LHAE), saw Yusuf put her all into being a leader and connector for others.

“I have been very impressed by Entisar’s continued commitment to providing leadership in equity, diversity, and inclusion,” she says.

Dr. Ann Lopez, an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream at OISE and Yusuf’s graduate supervisor, thought that her commitment to learning, equity, social justice and challenging anti-Black racism in education is what made Entisar stand out as a student.

“I wish Entisar well in whatever path she chooses for the future,” Lopez says, “and I encourage her to keep on with her advocacy and activism in the fight for justice.”

And she will. Yusuf may not know where she will end up post-convocation, but she is not attached to any single organization – she is attached to a calling.

“I believe my purpose is to support students to achieve the best possible education. My purpose is to remove barriers for students, specifically Black students, so they can achieve their education and life goals,” she says.

“This will allow students to follow their chosen career path and build safer communities.”

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