Concordian Jamilah Dei-Sharpe is recognized for her role in creating the National Black Graduate Network
Black scholars have been demanding equitable space within academic institutions for decades — and the most recent wave of protests against anti-Black racism has brought a renewed focus to this ongoing struggle.
Jamilah Dei-Sharpe is a Concordia PhD candidate in sociology and a strong advocate for the voices of Black graduate students in Canada. The university recently acknowledged the importance of her activism through the Carolyn and Richard Renaud Teaching Assistantship Award.
The award is bestowed upon students like Dei-Sharpe, who are progressing pedagogy in impactful ways.
Dei-Sharpe’s doctoral research in social and cultural analysis focuses on critical race studies, gender, decoloniality and Black masculinity. She is also a co-founder of the Decolonial Perspectives and Practices Hub, a student representative for the Black Canadian Studies Association, a member of the Black Studies at Concordia Collective and a project coordinator for the newly formed National Black Graduate Network (NBGN).
‘Where are the Black students and professors?’
The NBGN is a nation-wide project aimed at connecting Black graduate students and students in Black studies across Canada. It is specifically dedicated to increasing the solidarity around the academic research, innovations and needs of Black graduate students, students of Black studies (including those who are non-Black), as well as Black students in law or medicine.
“In the Black Canadian Studies Association, we talked specifically about creating this national network for Black graduate students and students of Black studies because of this general ache and need across the country for solidarity,” Dei-Sharpe explains. “Where are the Black students? Where are the other students doing this work? Where are the mentors and Black professors? How do we connect with each other?”
These questions paired with lived experiences are what inspired Dei-Sharpe, project director Rosalind Hampton, as well as other contributors, coordinators and provincial representatives to bring the NBGN to life. According to Dei-Sharpe, there are a great number of Black student groups and student groups fighting racial injustice in Canadian universities, but they do not often get the chance to collaborate with each other.
“There’s a lack of communication, so, what ends up happening is that, at everyone’s respective universities, they’re all kind of feeling invisible, which is a problem,” Dei-Sharpe notes. “It becomes difficult to enhance and progress our research projects, to find opportunities for scholarships and to find job opportunities.”
Currently, the NBGN is successfully connecting a number of regions in Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia and Yukon. With approximately 150 confirmed members, the network is continuously growing. In addition to students, Dei-Sharpe says the network has also connected with about 100 Black faculty in Black studies, as well as various student groups.
“It’s very collaborative,” Dei-Sharpe adds. “It’s all about collective voices and collective knowledge. So, you’re really going to be seeing that in every aspect of the platform.”
As an online initiative, the NBGN will serve to generate solidarity among its members, but also provide a space for active research exchange throughout the country. Students will be able to not only see their research projects displayed there, but also have the opportunity to connect with people doing similar research.
“There are going to be forums where they can express the challenges that they’re facing and have like-minded people who feel the same way responding to them.”
Opportunities tailored to specific needs
Unlike a typical social networking platform like Facebook or Twitter, the NBGN is based principally on academic progress, knowledge sharing, mentorship and making connections that branch off into different research projects, workshops and active mobilization.
“We would like this platform to become self-sustaining and more of a precedent instead of just a unique initiative,” Dei-Sharpe says. “We want it to be a place that not only helps current graduate students, but that also offers support and mentorship to the younger generations of graduate students to come, to help propel young Black scholars and Black studies students through their fields and further in their academic careers.”
As a whole, the NBGN aims to promote an awareness and recognition of the Black graduate student experience; provide more opportunities for Black graduate students and students of Black studies to showcase their work and express their specific positionality, isolation and needs; and fight against racial stigma, racial constraints and other harmful symptoms of academic racism. Academic racism is a term used to describe the experiences faced by Black and other racialized academics, scholars and students at the hands of the academic institution.
“I think that there needs to be more opportunities for Black graduate students, and what I mean by that is opportunities that are tailored to our specific needs,” Dei-Sharpe says.
According to her, this especially includes opening more opportunities and providing more funding for Black graduate students and students of Black studies; increasing awareness and visibility of these students’ needs; hiring more Black faculty and holding space for Black graduate students to be heard.
“A lot of us feel like we’re not taken seriously very often,” Dei-Sharpe says. “We need for Black graduate students to actually be able to express how it feels to be the only Black person in a space and the pressures that that causes.”
Dei-Sharpe says the creation of the network stems from the personal experiences of all of those involved.
“In terms of representation, I’m one of the only visibly Black people in my program and it’s been this way for most of my academic career,” she says. “Usually, in my programs, I’ve seen maybe one or two visibly Black professors — if that — and that’s really hard.”
According to Dei-Sharpe, this lack of representation in the student body and faculty can lead to isolation, and it can even force students to change their research topics. With her own personal roots in Jamaica and West Africa, she says lack of representation in course material, such as Black and African history, is also a huge issue.
“I’ve never learned about my specific history in any of my course material,” Dei-Sharpe says. “I truly only learned about racism and racial Blackness in an academic setting in my third year of university. And then, as I started doing my graduate degree, I had to specialize in it by myself and look outside of my courses to find the material.”
She hopes that the NBGN will serve as a place where like-minded Canadian students from different positionalities can help share resources, but also help with that anxiety and isolation.
“How amazing would it be to have a place where you can ask, 'Does anyone else feel this way?’ And everyone is like, ‘Yes, we do!’” Dei-Sharpe says. “It really makes a big difference.”
She adds that network members are really excited to be doing this work. “We know it will be essential to combatting anti-Black racism in Canada.”
The National Black Graduate Network is set to launch in July. Interested parties can find more information on becoming a member by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org and following the network’s social media pages.