One of the most important factors in true Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work is centring minority voices in order to help shape policies. Without learning from their cultures, experiences, and opinions, it’s again a case of the dominant systems in society dictating how minorities should think and behave, this time, however in the name of helping them. Many universities and colleges today are taking a holistic approach to DEI work, not only ensuring it permeates all of their systems and policies but that they are done with the help of people from the very minorities they’re aiming to serve.
GoodCourse spoke to Jonathan Robb, Vice President (VP) of Learner Experience at NorQuest College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, about working with diverse voices to respect and help create opportunities for them in a way that keeps them a part of the process.
My journey was unique. I started in healthcare after taking a co-op opportunity from the University of Alberta, which really launched my career. I spent ten years with the Ministry of Health in Alberta, then I jumped to a not-for-profit for a year, and then I worked in Capital Health when it deregionalized and became Alberta Health Services, becoming Alberta’s largest employer. My boss I was working with at the time became the CEO of NorQuest and offered me a job there and the rest is history. I look back on healthcare as a really good training ground for leadership and organizational change but I don’t really have any regrets that I transitioned to post-secondary education.
I’ll set the stage by explaining how diverse NorQuest is because we are quite different from a lot of other post-secondaries. We have over 100 countries within our walls. We are currently at 17,000 learners with almost 80 languages spoken. People often come here for the first time and say, “Wow, this is like working at the United Nations!” We have over 3,400 international learners and almost 1,700 Indigenous learners (First Peoples of Canada). And we have a lot of students who are immigrants to Canada. We rely on immigration to support our economy and a lot of immigrants use NorQuest as a pathway to immigration.
So this picture allows you to understand how important it is to create a psychologically safe environment for all learners to thrive in as well as to become the best, globalized citizens they can become within our walls. So we’ve done things like our indigenization strategy, which I spearheaded with a lot of Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers as well as staff and students. We have an anti-bullying and racism taskforce. We’ve hired a senior leader/director to lead a DEI group. We have physical spaces as well for any kind of spiritual undertakings people are involved in. Even our Indigenous ceremonial rooms and smudging allowed on campus can be important aspects of inclusion.
We have tons of events as well for LGBTQ+ students as well as a Pride Committee at the college. We often partner with our student association for many DEI initiatives such as marching in the Edmonton Pride Parade. For me, it’s a constant journey of evolution. There’s no end goal. Inclusion is a continuum.
Before my time serving Indigenous learners and employees, we had a former director who hired an external consultancy firm to create an indigenization strategy. Unfortunately, although the end product might have looked good, it didn’t have the buy-in internally or externally and mainly because of the way it was created. People weren’t brought along. And so one of the early things I learned was I’m really just there to be the facilitator, the person who breaks down barriers and advocates. It was very early days of my allyship in that space and coming to understand my role, and so it was really important to have talking circles about what people’s different visions for an indigenization strategy would be. That’s how Wahkôhtowin was born. It’s a Cree word that translates to “we are all related”. The pillars expressed in the strategy are tied to the seven sacred teachings. In designing the strategy, it was crucial to us that everyone could see themselves in it, whether they were a teacher or student, working in IT or the president. It’s very carefully crafted in that manner. It’s not just one area’s responsibility or accountability. It’s everybody’s.
And if that’s just starting with increasing awareness of our own history in this country, which our First Peoples referred to as “Turtle Island”, that’s an excellent jumping-off point. It’s our responsibility to learn this so we have a foundational starting point to understand how we’ve gotten where we are today in Canada and, more importantly, how we need to advance. Again, it’s a continuous progression. It’s taken over 100 years for this country to get into the mess we’re in with our First Peoples and it’ll take us a long time to get out of it. And we feel that post-secondaries have their role to play in lifting up and creating opportunities for Indigenous people and communities, and for reconciliation in general between First Peoples and non-Indigenous peoples.
I think where they engage the most is where they feel they are most passionate about. The top two areas of passion right now are both DEI initiatives. Firstly, anything related to BIPOC engagement. For example, we just had our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women March from the college to our town square. We saw a lot of student engagement and leadership there. NorQuest students were at the heart of that whole movement. The other hot topic is financial accessibility to post-secondary learning right now. Although in Canada post-secondary education is subsidized by provincial governments, it is by no means free, so there’s concern that it’s creating accessibility issues particularly for those not at the same starting point. Our students are very keyed into these issues.