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U of T’s Black research network gearing up for ‘the next level’

The BRN aims to make Black scholars feel supported as well as provide them with a community of peers who can help them navigate their research journey.

BY TAYO BERO | MAR 22 2022

A new research initiative at the University of Toronto is the latest effort to improve the Black experience at Canadian postsecondary institutions. Launched in October, the Black Research Network (BRN) aims to promote Black excellence and enhance the research capacity of Black scholars at the school.

Conceived as a direct result of the racial reckoning of 2020, the BRN is the brainchild of Black faculty and leaders at the institution, and aligns with the recommendations of both the University of Toronto Anti-Black Racism Task Force and the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education (both sets of recommendations were made in 2021).

The network represents “a big shift in terms of the university recognizing what’s been going on in the world … and really trying to talk about how we build toward a different today and a different future,” said Beth Coleman, an associate professor in the faculty of information at U of T and the BRN’s inaugural director.

Read more: Scarborough Charter signals national effort to deal with anti-Blackness on campus

It also offers an opportunity for the institution to reckon with its own history and culture of anti-Blackness, a reality that isn’t always acknowledged, said Alissa Trotz, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at U of T and a member of the BRN’s steering committee.

Dr. Trotz pointed out that according to one study from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Toronto District School Board, almost half of the Black students who entered U of T were not graduating, a clear indicator that they were falling through the institutional cracks. “That is not a success story,” she said. “We have issues, and we need to be able to deal with [them].”

How it works

Currently, the BRN is open to Black researchers, librarians and graduate students, and approaches its mandate via four pillars: research excellence; mentorship pathways; community, collaboration and partnerships; and funding and investment. These pillars encompass all of the network’s strategies for engaging with Black graduate students by organizing symposia and speaking events, mentorship programs, interdisciplinary collaboration, and by advocating for research funding for Black scholars.

“We’re not trying to map Black research excellence to any particular discipline or behaviour,” said Dr. Coleman. Instead, the purpose of the network is to make Black scholars feel supported and provide them with a community of peers who can help them navigate their research journey.

 “Part of the legacy of anti-Black racism means some people have, almost organically… their supports, their mentors who say, ‘go for this grant,’ or ‘let me review your paper in advance of submitting it,’” Dr. Coleman said. “And for other people, we need to actually scan the environment and make sure these things are in place to build towards success.”

 Since their start in October, the BRN has already launched a series of small-scale grants that are available to Black researchers at the university. The grants are worth roughly $5,000 to $10,000, which recipients can put toward anything that would help them do their work more effectively, such as by hiring a research assistant for a term, or covering the cost of travel and accommodation for conferences.

The BRN also recently initiated a series of networking events focused on topics ranging from wellness to money; they also held a roundtable where professors, postdoctoral, graduate students assembled to discuss the history of Black female teachers and pedagogy in Canada.

What’s next

Dr. Coleman said that although undergraduate students don’t traditionally undertake research, they too are hungry for the kind of support and community that the network is providing. So the BRN is working on what it can do to help serve this constituency. “We’re going to have to figure it out fast because they’re ready to go,” Dr. Coleman said. “They want in, they want to network.”

As for the future, Dr. Trotz hopes the BRN will be able to secure the kind of resources that make it clear the U of T does not see this as some kind of token initiative. “It has to be properly resourced, to be able to support the kind of excellent work that is done by and about Black folk, so that it can generate all kinds of exciting research collaborations [and] synergies across different parts of the university,” she said.

The network is also working toward opening physical office spaces on all three of the university’s campuses, which was part of the commitment from U of T when the BRN was formed. “It’s part of the clear endorsement from the university that this is an important initiative, but it’s also part of creating community and a space of easy, good relations,” Dr. Coleman said. “It’s nice to have multiple places where you show up, and you’re going to run into somebody you want to talk to, and you feel at home.”

After a busy first few months, the BRN team is planning to take a breath, as they come to the end of the traditional academic year. “We’re going to take this moment to share the assessment of the first year with our incredible steering committee and also our board of governance,” Dr. Coleman said. “Also, we’re spending this spring just laying out all the next level of things that will happen for the fall.”

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