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Of service to her community

Usha George has lived the immigrant experience, but never really left that community behind, devoting much of her professional career to addressing the special needs of newcomers to Canada


After Usha George announced her intention to leave the University of Toronto’s faculty of social work, her inbox was flooded with e-mails, many of them from visible-minority students letting her know how much she had inspired them.

Dr. George quit U of T last summer to become dean of Ryerson University’s faculty of community services. While she had enjoyed U of T, she found the prospect of integrating research, teaching and practice in a variety of professional endeavours at Ryerson compelling. As the new dean, Dr. George heads a group of departments and programs that train students to work in many of the same social service agencies where she has devoted much of her professional life.

One of Canada’s authorities on immigrant and refugee issues, Dr. George has influenced government policies and programs, as well as contributed to scholarly literature in this area. Her admirers cite her ability to bridge the worlds of the classroom, the boardroom and the agencies that help immigrants, through her research, her practice in social work and her personal experience as an immigrant. Her message is that to break down stereotypes and understand individuals, it’s necessary to talk to people and interact with them. “We all have multiple identities,” she says.

Canada is a nation of newcomers and the progeny of newcomers, and most of us have ancestors who come from somewhere else. In the 2001 census, Canadians listed more than 200 ethnic groups in questions on ancestry. By 2017, visible minorities will represent more than 20 percent of the population.

Over the last decade, despite the fact that many newcomers have better education than their predecessors, recent data suggest the wage gap for visible minorities has increased and poverty levels have risen among immigrants. Increasingly, lags in foreign credential recognition, workplace discrimination and uneven language training also act as barriers to successful settlement here.

Dr. George was better off than most immigrants when she arrived in Toronto in 1991. She had financial resources, credentials from universities on three continents and impeccable English-language skills. She and her husband, Chandy George, a businessman who still runs the family’s rubber plantation in the south of India, came to Canada mainly “because of [our] children,” she says. “Almost all immigrants will tell you that.”

She grew up in a wealthy, plantation-owning family in Kerala, in the south of India. The family had servants to do everything – even brush her hair – and she never fixed a meal until well after her marriage. She was very close to her parents, and was on the road to fulfilling her father’s wish for her to study medicine, completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry. But when he died prematurely, she was devastated and could not walk into a lab after that. Her mother inspired her to keep at her education, saying “no one can take that away from you.”

So she did her first graduate degree in sociology, still a new field in India. Over the next 15 years, she and her husband worked in Ethiopia and Chicago, where she took a further graduate degree at Loyola University, and then, because of her husband’s job, to Nigeria, where she earned a doctorate from Ahmadu Bello University.

Once in Toronto, she knew that her postsecondary background did not include the kind of research prerequisites to land her an immediate position in academe. She began by volunteering for and researching the non-profit sector in the city. Then, and even later when she was a new faculty member, she would wake at 4 a.m. to cook, clean the house and complete her research projects. Colleagues where she worked advised her to cut down on the domestic front, and – Canadian-style – she encouraged her husband and then teenaged children, Kiran and Sharon, to pitch in.

Dr. George soon became the executive director of an agency in the South Asian community and, almost immediately, faced a financial crisis due to past mismanagement, recounts Virginia Trevurza, who worked as a program consultant in the settlement division of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, one of the agency’s funders. In her “beautiful, soft-spoken but direct” manner, says Ms. Trevurza, “she was instrumental in getting other board members to become more accountable” and turned around an agency that thrives today.

In 1993, Dr. George became a senior program director of the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, a policy and advocacy organization for low-income populations. A year later, she was hired as a professor at U of T. It was, she says, “a nice fit.” Wes Shera, who was dean of social work from 1995 to 2002 (now professor and dean emeritus), agrees. Establishing links with the community is “the nature of social work. The social work faculty is not just an academic unit.”

More complex was influencing the culture of the academy, including the mainly Euro-centric faculty, student body and curriculum of the social work faculty. A previous faculty member, Donald Meeks, had already laid the groundwork for change, launching what was to become the Anti-racism, Multiculturalism and Native Issues (or AMNI) Initiative, which focused on equity and social justice issues related to Toronto’s diverse ethnic communities. It aimed to recruit more students from minority backgrounds, develop a more diverse faculty, integrate multicultural material into existing courses and create a resource centre for partnerships with community groups.

“If you come in as a visible minority and see all white faces,” says Dr. Shera, “you may feel that your reality is not understood.” He supported the AMNI principle and, impressed by Dr. George’s “calmness and high integrity,” encouraged her to take a strong leadership role in it.

Not everybody bought in to the concept, particularly with regard to the curriculum, recalls Dr. George. But she argued that while faculty could teach mostly what they wanted, they also had to abide by the standards of the professional accreditation body, which mandates relevant topics such as race. “How can you work with [diverse] communities when you don’t know their issues [or the] specific barriers they face? It is not only the right thing but the just thing.” Today, the AMNI initiative (now known as the “diversity initiative”) is seen as a model for diversity within social work schools across the country, and much of its work carries on at the faculty’s storefront centre in Toronto.

Dr. George’s scholarship remains rooted in the practical. In one study of various immigrant groups, she and colleagues found that a majority of them didn’t seek help from various agencies because they were open only during regular business hours far from the newcomers’ workplaces. She recommended setting up pilot projects to send settlement workers into area schools, where immigrant parents regularly congregate when they drop off and pick up their children. This developed as a partnership of the Toronto District School Board, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and service organizations. The Settlement Workers in Schools program has now expanded into many other Ontario jurisdictions and there are plans to apply it nationally.

Another AMNI project that Dr. George led was for a federal program that matched established Canadians with newcomers. To better inform the Canadians about the backgrounds and needs of their immigrant guests, Dr. George and many academics, writers and designers developed more than 100 booklets of cultural profiles with photos, charts and even recipes, summarizing a country’s history, habits, education norms and spiritual and family life. These were so successful that requests for them still come from schools, police stations and courts serving multicultural populations across the country.

Dr. George became the faculty’s associate dean in 1999 and the Royal Bank Chair in Applied Social Work Research in 2003. Later that year she was also named U of T director of the Toronto Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS), a collaboration of Toronto’s three universities. When the position became available, there “was a short list of one – Usha George,” says Carl Amrhein, who was then dean of arts and science at U of T and a member of the CERIS governing board.

Dr. Amrhein, now vice-president, academic, at the University of Alberta, says Dr. George “did not rush to make quick decisions. She took time and listened. She worked carefully behind the scenes. … She had a network of contacts and could bring this group to the table with very good results.”

Dr. George’s activities have not gone unnoticed in her own ethnic community, where she still serves as a mentor and role model. “We are proud of her,” says Kazi Hoque, executive director of South Asian Family Support Services. “She is very important because she’s a woman from an ethnic minority … [dealing] with issues that people face in their daily lives.”

At Ryerson, one of Dr. George’s priorities is to increase her faculty’s profile in research and international partnerships. Most important is her goal of fostering greater interdisciplinarity among the various units in community services. “The mentality of us being in silos is over,” she asserts.

She points to the low-income neighbourhood just east of the university, one with its own high needs. She envisions students of nutrition offering advice to families, early childhood education students working in local schools, or social work teams helping troubled teenagers in the area. She has started meeting with local social-service providers to include them in the process. “It is so important,” says Dr. George, “that what we do doesn’t stay here in the Ivory Tower.”

Harriet Eisenkraft
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