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Centring relationality at the IEN: Creating spaces to build good relations between Indigenous, Black-Indigenous, and Black people

February 16, 2021

By Perry King



When the Indigenous Education Network (IEN) was formed 30 years ago, it was an informal advocacy and support group composed of Indigenous community members. From the beginning, that group had deep and meaningful relationships with Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous people – community members, faculty, and staff at OISE.

As IEN marked its recent 30th anniversary, the collective is re-centering that dynamic, to reasserting a commitment to working with Black and Black-Indigenous students and colleagues, as they continue their work to engage in topics related to Indigenous education and research.

“We want to clarify and strengthen the IEN’s purpose,” says IEN’s faculty chair, Dr. Jeffrey Ansloos.

“The presence of Black, and Black-Indigenous students within the group has been regularly framed as allyship work. Our history reflects a more complex story” said Ansloos, an Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Indigenous Health in OISE’s department of Applied Psychology and Human Development. “For as long as there's been an Indigenous Education Network in the university, there have been Black and Black-Indigenous people in the network.

“We are part of a shared community which takes seriously the anti-Blackness and racial violence in the academy, and we are committed to mutual aid, care, and anti-colonialism.”  

“We want to intentionally presence these relational histories and continue the work of making the IEN a space that supports the thriving of Black, Black–Indigenous, and Indigenous students,” he adds. “The relationship of Indigenous peoples’ experiences of colonialism, and anti-colonial work for self-determinism are inextricably linked to Black people's liberation, freedom and flourishing.”

So, in the Spring of 2020, Ansloos reached out to Dr. rosalind hampton, an Assistant Professor in OISE’s department of Social Justice Education, to have a conversation about how IEN could present this history in a more explicit way.

“I think there’s a very limited understanding, sometimes, in the ways that people conceive of the work that we do as Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous people in relation to decolonization and sovereignty,” said hampton, author of the 2020 book Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University. “When these get treated in isolation of one another, that allows for them to be placed in competition with one another, which also centres a dominant kind of white settler colonial narrative.”

For hampton, being in good relation with IEN and practicing what this work entails, is “making the path by walking it,” she said.

Relations between Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous peoples is central to her research about racialized social relations in Canadian higher education and Black Studies at Canadian universities.

“One of the things that's really cool about working at OISE is that opportunity to work with students who are taking courses with me in Black Studies, and also taking courses with my Indigenous colleagues – that help for them to be in these worlds simultaneously, and thinking relationally already,” she said.

“So we’ve been thinking about the IEN’s recent 30th anniversary and the ways in which taking up this relationship in a more explicit way might help us focus on this relationality – and in building good relations and getting to know one another.”

“When I spoke to rosalind about it initially, I said, we can think about this as sort of experimental and playful – so less in terms of ‘We have some massive objective to achieve,’ but rather like, what’s possible,” added Ansloos. “What we've seen so far is some really beautiful things that we are doing that are connecting our community in more explicit ways to what's actually happening in the city of Toronto and elsewhere around the country.”

The changes are already clear and present. The IEN leadership team now includes Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous people in varying roles and seek a relational and consensus-based approach to decision making.

Programming has expanded, to encourage and explicitly invite Indigenous, Black-Indigenous, and Black students, faculty, staff, and community members to be more actively apart of the work.

Student supports have also been expanded. Julie Blair, the IEN coordinator, says one priority she wants to focus on is making spaces safer for Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous students.

Blair says that it is important for the IEN to be more intentional about the ways that they are welcoming Black and Black Indigenous people into their spaces. “For me, my values are the same, the ways I relate to students are the same, but I am continuing to learn what different students’ needs are. We are incorporating this learning into expanding our circle,” she says.

“Sometimes, people don't know if they’re welcome or who IEN events and supports are for. So, we're becoming clearer in our communications about who we're inviting in and how we're supporting students and community members.”

Blair and Lindsay DuPré, OISE’s Indigenous Education Liaison, are particularly concerned about translating care and relationship building to online spaces. They note that racial violence and systemic injustices have been exacerbated throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and so finding safe ways to convene conversations around critical issues intersecting with Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous peoples’ lives has become increasingly important.

“Racialized folks are being especially targeted on videoconferencing events,” says Blair. “A lot of my and Lindsay’s role as staff is behind the scenes, ensuring that harmful statements are addressed in the moment, and proactively discussing the ways we aim to create a community of care online. I really think that we need to focus on creating that safety, as we did in our physical space, now through our online presence.”

The potential for IEN’s impact and future directions, stemming from this relational work, is tremendous. For example, Kayla Webber, IEN’s student co-chair, envisions one day having a writing centre for Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous students.

In response, the IEN this year has taken steps to establish writing support programming for Black and Black-Indigenous students.

“I cannot stress how many times students have said to me, ‘Wow, you have a writing coach, I would love that.’ Some Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous students have left the institution due to the lack of supports and experiences with racism,” says Webber, a Ph.D. student in the department of Social Justice Education.

Webber, who herself is Black-Indigenous, has experienced both anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism as a student. “I think it’s extremely vital that Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous students have spaces, sacred spaces, that are safe and comfortable where we can co-create, write, and generate wonderful ideas—where we can dream and envision our relationships and futurities together,” she says.

The IEN welcomes OISE students, faculty, and staff to explore their programming and to join them in taking on this relationally focused anti-colonial work.


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