C/O Black Student Success Centre
Officially open as of September 27, the BSSC offers resources, support and a sense of community to Black students at McMaster
On Sept. 27, the Black Student Success Centre officially opened at McMaster University with the goal of supporting Black students and fostering their success.
“Black students across Canadian universities sometimes feel isolated on campuses and are less likely to access student support services. The BSSC exists to connect Black students to the programs, people and resources that will nurture their academic and personal growth,” states the BSSC website.
The BSSC currently offers most of its services online, given that its physical space is under construction. However, it will eventually be housed on the main floor of the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning.
Faith Ogunkoya, manager of the BSSC, explained that the centre was created in response to discussions of racism at McMaster that occurred in 2020. Notably, a review of Black student athlete experiences was published last year, which called attention to anti-Black racism at McMaster. In response to this review, a five-point action plan was released with the creation of the BSSC as a part of the university’s plan to have targeted supports for Black students.
Although the review played a crucial role in the development of the BSSC, the centre’s emergence also builds on years of activism and advocacy work done by Black students, faculty, and staff.
Along with the review, Ogunkoya explained that students and alumni became increasingly vocal on social media about the racism they had experienced while at McMaster. These factors together prompted the university to create a safe space for Black students on campus.
Since the BSSC was created in response to students’ needs, Ogunkoya emphasized the centre’s commitment to representing students and meeting their needs. Thus, one of the centre’s main focuses is to provide general advising services to Black students and to connect them to other services on campus that they might need.
Along with providing individual advising, the BSSC has also partnered with the Student Wellness Centre. The BSSC’s partnership with SWC has allowed them to connect students with Black counsellors and run group sessions that promote good mental health for Black students.
The first of these sessions, called You Belong in the Room, explores feeling inadequate in the context of racism and belonging. Starting on Oct. 13, the session is projected to run for five weeks every Wednesday from 1:30 to 3 p.m.
Along with providing services and support to Black students, Ogunkoya explained that the BSSC also strives to educate other members of the university.
“We often feel like we've got two sides to our service, where it's working with Black students and getting them to where they need to be [and to the] services and programs that they need to access, but also that it needs to be culturally informed. So, we will also be providing training, providing some guidance and providing leadership to units and departments so that [McMaster] is an environment that makes Black students know that they belong,” said Ogunkoya.
Overall, Ogunkoya said the goal of the centre is to create a safe space and a strong sense of community for Black students at McMaster.
Ogunkoya noted that many Black students at McMaster are not surrounded by a lot of other Black students in their programs which can lead to feeling a lack of belonging.
“There’s something that follows you around sometimes when there’s only a few of you,” explained Ogunkoya.
According to Ogunkoya, this is what makes the existence of the BSSC so important.
“When you see yourself and you see representation, it can empower you; it can make you feel less alone,” said Ogunkoya.
The past few years have been transformative for society and the fight for social justice. Here’s hoping the development of this much-needed service both empowers Black students at McMaster and helps address the injustices faced by the Black community at large.
C/O Yoohyun Park
The newest safe space and friendly face for McMaster’s Black student-athletes
By: Acacia Lio, Staff Writer
In October 2020, a systematic review of the Black student-athlete experience within McMaster’s department of athletics was conducted due to reports of anti-Black racism from student-athlete alumni. A recommendation of this report was to increase representation among leadership. In addition to other beginning initiatives, the Black Student-Athlete Council was established to represent and advocate for McMaster’s Black student-athletes.
The mission of the council is as follows: to establish a safe learning environment for BIPoC student athletes, and students at McMaster University, to foster a culture of equity and inclusion at McMaster University, to educate others on anti-racism and allyship, and to establish a platform of outreach.
All student-athletes who identify as Black are automatically members of this council, but it is headed by a team of executive members, such as Internal and External Relations Director, Marissa Dillon.
“[We] attended a lot of [equity diversity and inclusion] discussions, giving our input as student-athletes as to how we feel the department could work better to promote more culture and inclusion [and] address the existence of anti-Black racism,” said Dillon.
Many of the executive members have a similar motivation for joining the council—helping to point the future of McMaster’s Black student-athletes in a positive direction. One member who was particularly passionate of this vision was External Relations Director, Brandon Bernard.
In addition, the executive members hope this council can become a safe space for Black student-athletes. Administrative Director, Enoch Penney-Laryea spoke to the motivation of the board members, stressing the importance of having a safe space.
“Part of the motivation for joining is just that we can make a difference and create a safe space where student-athletes could go if they’re having trouble with such things and have a group of people they can trust to help them navigate the spaces at McMaster,” commented Penney-Laryea.
Renelle Briggs, one of BSAC’s Marketing Directors, echoed the statement from Penney-Laryea, further stressing how critical a safe space is.
“One of the things I would love to see is [BSAC growing] into a safe space and community for people to come to. With everything on social media and with more awareness of this coming up, I think it’s good to have a space for people to come to where they can feel safe and know the people there are there to support them and help them,” said Briggs
Members of the BSACeach have personal goals they would like to achieve with their time on the council such as Penney-Laryea, who is striving to set a high standard for the future of the council.
“Because this is our first year I would like to establish a groundwork for documentation for what the club should look like. I think it’s a really good opportunity to set the standard high and to have concrete documentation that will last for years down the line,” explained Penney-Laryea.
Briggs also commented on the importance of the council’s future, explaining that she is proud to be a part of this team.
“I’m excited for all the leadership opportunities that have come up. I think that when I leave, when I graduate this year, it’s gonna be a great thing to look back on and something that I'm proud to have been a part of,” said Briggs
Additionally, BSAC has many initiatives planned for the year, including their launch event. This is something students can get excited for in the coming weeks.
“As of right now, the [event] that’s nearest would be our launch event. We’re hoping to do that some time mid-October. But we also have a plethora of other events that we have in the works,” said Bernard.
Some of the other upcoming events include alumni outreach and coordinating with different teams within the athletics department. In addition to these exciting events, BSAC should be something Mac students are on the lookout for in general this year as the much needed initiative establishes its roots and creates a more inclusive future.
C/O McMaster Hillel
When Jewish students need support, McMaster Hillel provides
By: Hannah Silverman, Contributor
McMaster Hillel, our campus’ only club for Jewish students, focuses on creating meaningful connections and experiences for Jewish students while they are studying at university. I believe that McMaster Hillel is extremely important in helping Jewish students feel welcomed and represented on campus. We provide invaluable resources to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike — creating a home away from home, providing Shabbat meals and holiday experiences, opportunities to engage with Jewish theology and learning and chances to connect with others with similar interests.
Without Hillel, myself and many other Jewish students would not have access to such opportunities that are critical to our wellbeing and identity. There are between 500-700 Jewish students at McMaster University and Hillel serves as a conduit for anything from fielding questions around finding kosher food in Hamilton, to providing holiday programming or to hanging out with newly made friends.
While many Jewish people share cultural and religious beliefs that unite us, there are a variety of individual opinions and Jewish practices that represent the diversity within our community. Hillel aims to meet the needs of as many Jewish students on campus as possible; as the current President of McMaster Hillel, I am committed to ensuring that all Jewish students feel safe, respected and valued at McMaster.
When asked about the way in which McMaster Hillel supports students, Gal Armon, a fourth-year student expressed the utter importance of the club in the experience of Jewish students.
“As many Jewish students will tell you, being Jewish is a different experience for everyone and we all require different things in order to feel connected. For me, it is keeping up with traditions such as weekly Shabbat dinners. Having a club on campus that supports me in my desire to keep up with tradition is not just important, it is essential for my own mental and spiritual well-being," explained Armon.
McMaster Hillel staff and students have collaborated with university partners and clubs, including the Equity and Inclusion Office, on various programs. We recently joined the newly formed Spiritual Care and Learning Community in hosting joint Interfaith weekly lunches. Additionally, in 2018, we were showcased on McMaster University’s website in recognition of being a welcoming and inclusive environment on campus.
The Jewish community at McMaster has existed on campus since at least the 1950s and it is imperative that there is a space on campus where those from our community can gather. Like many other cultural, ethnic and religious groups, there are times we need to lean on one another for support. Hillel provides the guidance and support that my peers and I rely on.
In 2019, it was reported that Jewish people account for the highest number of religious-based hate crimes in Canada and this number has continued to rise throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Jewish students often mention that they need designated spaces to help them process antisemitic experiences. This is what McMaster Hillel aims to achieve for Jewish students.
“To me, Hillel is a safe space on campus for students like myself to come together as a Jewish community and it acts as a support system,” explained Rachel Altman, a fourth-year student “I feel like Hillel is a way for me to connect to my Judaism and my Jewish peers while I’m on campus.”
Our community’s connection to Israel is varied and multi-faceted, though the vast majority of the Canadian Jewish community feels a strong connection to Israel. McMaster Hillel aims to give students the option to explore these connections while also being a place for education and conversations around a complicated geo-political conflict.
We are committed to holding space for all students who want to have conversations critically and respectfully with each other. Most importantly, I and the rest of McMaster Hillel pray for peace in the region so that all Israelis and Palestinians can live their lives without fear or war.
What I find most remarkable about the work our club does on campus is that it has not diminished in the wake of the last year and half, when a large majority of students were not located on campus.
Our Hillel Director, Judith Dworkin, wrote in a recent article about our virtual programming, shedding light on the creative ways we have approached building community.
“We are in the business of community so we need to think creatively about what it feels like to be a part of this community,” said Dworkin.
Like many other clubs, we found ways to adjust our programming and foster connections even from afar. Knowing that Jewish students were able to bring their authentic selves to Hillel, even in the midst of the past year, has been one of the things that staff and students alike are most proud of.
Having safe spaces around the university allow marginalized students to feel less alienated
Graphic by Esra Rakab
cw: mentions of racism, hateful political rhetoric, child sexual abuse
If you’re on any part of political YouTube where the titles appear to be “Feminists REKT!!! Compilation”, or “Man Speaks FACTS, DESTROYS Emotional Liberal,” then you have likely heard of how safe spaces, also known as closed spaces, are for “snowflakes.” Moreover, closed spaces are framed as being a “new type of segregation” enforced by the “radical left” on campuses.
The main contesters against these spaces appear to be predominantly white professors at post-secondary institutions and (mainly white) right-wing pundits who frame the concept of having spaces closed to only certain marginalized groups to be a step backwards. In turn, they argue that there would be outrage should the tables be turned and there were spaces closed to white people.
Well. Despite all the controversy surrounding the newly emerging safe spaces on campuses across North America, I honestly feel that the main motivations for why safe spaces were proposed as a solution in the first place go largely ignored.
Even in a university as accepting and as open to improving its measures towards inclusivity as McMaster University, there have been countless instances in my primarily white program where I’ve felt degraded and humiliated as a visible woman of colour.
This has mainly been in the form of tone policing, where if I express myself with the exact same emotion or words as another white classmate, I have constantly been told that I’m “too aggressive” and that I need to “calm down” by numerous students.
There have been instances where when I shared my status as a child sexual abuse survivor in confidence to explain how it only strengthened my convictions in feminism and as a result, I was labelled as being “too much,” and was pushed into isolation from the get-go.
With all of the hashtags, the “BLMs” and the “support small businesses” stickers plastered across the social media of the students who unknowingly engage in deeply damaging behaviour, I cannot help but lament with disappointment.
So many seemingly “non-discriminatory” people appear to be very disconnected when it comes to actually engage in the small actions within their day-to-day life that make 2SLGBTQIA+ students and Black, Indigenous and students of colour feel safe.
I was formally introduced to closed spaces at Mac while volunteering with the Women and Gender Equity Network, a survivor-centric organization dedicated towards empowering those experiencing gender-based violence and educating Mac on such issues. While I was initially confused as to why many of WGEN’s events were closed to different groups, I soon understood why.
Like myself, there are people out there who experience microaggressions and discrimination for an identity they cannot control. Just like me, they are emotionally exhausted at having to bite their tongues when a snarky comment is made about their existence in university, a historically white institution, or when they make white people around them uncomfortable when they don’t fit into a neat little box of how a model minority should act like.
Even if a remark here and there may not appear to be the end of the world, from my personal experience, these small, yet deeply painful moments build up until they’ve become a full-fledged trauma and they build up until you feel as though maybe you really don’t belong on a campus like Mac.
That is why we need closed spaces. Marginalized students who are at risk for identity-based discrimination need a space to simply talk about their experiences with other students who share these experiences. They need a space with other students who will understand each other without having to do a million, painstaking explanations to set the context.
Many universities are already notorious for not taking allegations of sexual assault, racism and any other forms of discrimination seriously. However, given that instances of discrimination frequently happen in a subtle, systemic form where the student has a lot at stake socially should they react at all, there is almost no way for students to deal with and talk about these very real issues.
Yes, the real world is not this nice, but offering safe spaces to students as a therapeutic tool to cope with these injustices is the least we deserve.
Loud music and low lighting are synonymous with the typical night out, but when it comes to educational brochures and resources on crisis intervention, they’re not often the first thing to expect at local venues.
Safer Gigs Hamilton is changing that.
Booths covered in pamphlets on topics ranging from bystander intervention techniques to zines about consent and resources on mental health have been popping up all over bars and artist run spaces in Hamilton.
The booths, which can easily be identified by their bright pink logo, are set up by Safer Gigs founders Jessie Goyette, a Leadership in Community Engagement student at McMaster University and Vince Soliveri, a local Hamilton musician and audio engineer.
“We started safer gigs after Vince Soliveri went on tour with his band Downstream at the time,” explained Goyette.
“He met the folks running a gig in Charlottetown, PEI, where they had some pamphlets on safer sex and whatnot. He admired the sense of community and inclusion, something we felt like our own city lacked.”
"We want people to know they are supported. We aren't in these spaces to preach or pretend we are professionals."
Leadership in Community Engagement
Since the summer, the Safer Gigs booth has been making rounds at Club Absinthe, Doors Pub, Supercrawl and Hammer City Records. Goyette and Soliveri have a lot of ground to cover, but they’re driven by the importance of increasing accessibility to resources to music lovers and festival goers.
“[W]e want people to have fun and be safe! We want people to know they are supported. We aren’t in these spaces to preach or pretend we are professionals. We just offer resources from all of the really smart organizations in the community that can help,” said Goyette.
Community programs and organizations, such as the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton Area), the Aids Network, Mental Health Rights Coalition and the Hamilton Public Library, have been very supportive of Safer Gigs’ mission. Their work has been met with positive responses and much needed dialogue.
“[I] enjoy folks coming up to us and being like ‘I saw online that you had pamphlets about [insert thing]. Can I have some to share with a friend?’” said Goyette.
The Safer Gigs team are quickly expanding and working behind the scenes to increase their programming.
They’ve recently launched a collection of non-profit crewnecks, that sold out in one night. Goyette embroiders them herself to keep production costs low and allow supporters to pay what they can.
“The costs of the sweaters are coming completely out of Vince and my pockets. This initially is a fundraiser for drug testing kits and fennel test strips. We were hoping to raise $100 for that,” explained Goyette.
“Once we meet that goal, any remaining money that comes in will actually go to SACHA, which has provided us infinite resources and inspiration,” explained Goyette.
Most of Safer Gigs’ resources are applicable to all genders, but they are also looking to create more diversity in their content and events they attend.
Safer Gigs also hopes to expand their services in the future by running workshops on how to create safe spaces and also creating kits filled with community resources that others can use to set up their own booths.
Hamilton is known for its art and music scene and Hamiltonians have the right to enjoy what they city has to offer, but things do happen.
Safer Gigs is an effort to reduce harm and trauma, and most importantly, educate others to prevent it.
There are many opportunities to get involved with Safer Gigs, including volunteering at booths or visiting them. Safer Gigs will be making an appearance at this Saturday’s Howling Moons event at the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts.
By: Emile Shen - WGEN Contributor
The annual occurrence of Black History Month in the United States and Canada is something that most of us have been aware of since elementary school. Not officially recognized in Canada until 2008, it still served as an important reminder of the contributions and legacy of Black Canadians.
In my memory, however, the root causes of oppression were never explained well enough when I was younger. The intolerance was displaced, and I did not understand the full history and effects of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. I did not understand the continued prevalence of racism and how it is still manifested everywhere in microaggressions, stereotypes and institutionalized racism.
Black History Month is over, but it is important to continue to strive against forms of racism still present in today’s society. The McMaster Womanists, a group established in 2014 by Kayonne Christy and Kermeisha Williams to address issues affecting women of colour, is one of the organizations that demonstrates how and why the fight continues, and the importance of safe spaces in these efforts.
The Womanists focus on grassroots activism and education at McMaster and in the broader Hamilton community. The demand for justice is vital, but strenuous and emotionally taxing in a currently divisive political climate. The safe space for Black women and other women of colour allows the McMaster Womanists to create an inclusive area for those affected by the issues, and regather their thoughts.
One commonly discussed criticism about safe spaces is its contention to the freedom of speech. After all, it is difficult to hear opposing ideas or opinions in such a place, and there seem to be fears of spaces turning into echo chambers.
This is a misconception of the purpose of safe spaces. This assumption is dangerous because they serve not to self-segregate or censor, but to provide a structured time and place to cope with the toxic effects of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.
Lilian Obeng, a secondyear Arts and Science student speaking on behalf of the group, explained, “closed spaces connect those who face the same struggles and allow oppressed people to share their experiences.”
There are experiences that folks who are not women of colour may sympathize with, but cannot fundamentally empathize with because they lack the lived experience. That is okay, but that is why safe or closed spaces exist – for similar individuals to lean on one another.
The heart of the McMaster Womanists, however, is not that of safe spaces. These help frame the courses of action for their public efforts. The Anti-Racism Action Initiative, hosted in late Nov. 2016, is a prime example of the community-based and intersectional nature of the McMaster Womanists’ work. It involved discussion on how racism is a problem in Hamilton with topics regarding housing inequality, carding, police brutality and anti-Indigenous attitudes.
Broad-based community solutions were discussed to address these concerns, and the common thread between different concerns was the necessity of education from holistic sensitivity training for more appropriate responses by police officers to the development of curriculum surrounding racism and hate crimes for the public education system.
The event was hosted in collaboration with the Presidents Advisory Community Alliance, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (McMaster), McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance, The Anti-Oppressive Committee of the School of Social Work and the NGen Youth Centre.
Despite the Womanists’ focus on the issues that racialized women face, Obeng reminds us that identity politics scarcely exists in a bubble.
“The positive, individual and easy to identify iterations of oppression prevent us from clearly addressing the massive, systemic nature of institutionalized oppression. It also blocks us from seeing how our unique struggles are intrinsically connected.”
It is this awareness that oppression never happens in isolation that will allow for more empathy, more meaningful collaboration and more freedom in the gloomy political climate that surrounds us.
After 26 years without a Women’s Centre, students at McMaster will soon be able to access a service designed to provide support and safe space for women-identified people on campus. This project, called the Women and Gender Equity Network, will be launching in mid-October.
“My vision for the network is to try to dismantle patriarchal culture both from the outside and the inside,” said WGEN Coordinator Shanthiya Baheerathan. “[The program will] support women to be able to go out and be comfortable in a male dominated field, or be comfortable despite the fact that there are these prevalent gender norms that are constantly making them think that they can’t do what they are able to do.”
In March 2014, the Student Representative Assembly and the MSU approved the WGEN as a pilot project for the 2014-2015 school year. The project, with a proposed budget of over $10,000, will provide advocacy to educate students on topics such as rape culture, and host workshops on topics such as women in engineering and technology.
The WGEN also looks to provide a safer space for trans* and women-identified persons, and support for survivors of sexual assault.
“Trans* people experience a lot of discrimination on campus. A lot of spaces are not trans* accessible,” said Baheerathan. “We want to make sure we are also providing support to people who experience trans* antagonism or even small micro-aggressions towards their person and their identity.”
Although the WGEN was originally proposed as a women’s centre, the pilot project will begin as a network with no permanent physical space on campus. Having a safer space for women on campus is essential to the WGEN project, and could come in the form of a permanent location or through temporary space called swing space.
“We are having some trouble finding private and accessible space on campus,” said Baheerathan. “We have to make sure people feel comfortable coming into the space […] it is sort of controversial, people are like ‘why do you need a women’s space on campus?’ It has been a difficult process to get here.”
The MSU is conducting a space allocation audit this November, which could lead to a more permanent space for the network.
“ [The space allocation audit is] a committee that looks at the spaces we offer our services through a critical lens to see what would be best or how it would be best served,” said Jacob Brodka, MSU Vice President, Administration. “The Women and Gender Equity Network, like our other services, will definitely be something we will be considering.”
For now, the MSU is working with WGEN to find temporary spaces to hold workshops and other events.
“This year the service is going to be offering programming, educational campaigns, offering spaces on campus where people can come connect,” said Brodka. “I'm looking forward to seeing what the service does.”
If the pilot project is successful, it could lead to the development of a women’s centre on campus in the future.
“The space for the WGEN would arguably look like much different than what you'd want for a full blown women's centre with full-time counselors. For the time being, what we are working on is an organizational approach”, said Brodka. “We’d hope that our organization acting and doing these things, offering these programs and running educational campaigns of that nature would spur conversations about the need for a larger centre and full time counselors. You can see the two definitely go hand in hand, but how that would play out, we will just have to wait and see.”