C/O Esra Rakab

McMaster University completes its review of systemic racism in the Athletics Department. 

This past July, McMaster University announced they would be conducting an external review of Black athletes’ experiences following accusations of systemic anti-Black racism in the Athletics Department brought forward by several Mac alumni. 

The review predominantly looked at the individual experiences of Black student-athletes, institutional gaps limiting their student experiences and suggesting improvements to address these gaps while also mitigating any discriminatory issues on an intersectional spectrum.

The review was led by Ivan Joseph, vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University and former athletics director at Ryerson University. A task force composed of five members — one faculty, two staff and two students — assisted Joseph with regards to the interviews and producing observations and recommendations based on the data. 

The data would consist of interviews with current and former Black student-athletes, non-Black student-athletes, Black coaches/staff and non-Black coaches/staff. Upon successful completion of the interviews, the final report of the review was sent to Sean van Koughnett, associate vice-president and dean of students at McMaster University. 

On Oct. 27, McMaster announced that the review was completed by Joseph, with the assistance of the task force.

“I view this process as an exercise in understanding. Together, our job is to use this as an opportunity for learning, for expanding the way we think and for seeing more clearly, more deeply, more broadly,” stated Joseph to McMaster Daily News.

“I view this process as an exercise in understanding. Together, our job is to use this as an opportunity for learning, for expanding the way we think and for seeing more clearly, more deeply, more broadly,” stated Joseph to McMaster Daily News.

The report outlined various experiences faced by these athletes, the process of the review, the persistent culture of anti-Black bias in the department and the lack of accountability by authority, by both athletics staff and university faculty/staff. 

While discussing the impact on the student-athletes, Joseph stated in the review, “[t]hey believe that ‘nothing was done’ or it was ‘swept under the rug’ to ‘avoid drawing attention to it.’” 

“They believe that ‘nothing was done’ or it was ‘swept under the rug’ to ‘avoid drawing attention to it,’” stated Joseph in the review.

During an interview, an anonymous staff member from the department told Joseph and the task force, “[d]iversity training within the Department is non-existent. We don’t spend any time on it.” Per the recommendations of the task force, implementing an anti-racism policy statement with specific attention to anti-Black racism will help “create a culture of accountability” within the department.

“Diversity training within the Department is non-existent. We don’t spend any time on it,” said an anonymous staff member.

The review concluded that this report is made public with its recommendations. Ideally, such news would further entice the university to conduct more reviews and other universities’ athletics department to follow likewise.

“This issue is not something unique to McMaster. Our opportunity with this action plan is to be a leader in this area,” said van Koughnett. 

“This issue is not something unique to McMaster. Our opportunity with this action plan is to be a leader in this area,” said van Koughnett. 

The main recommendations include increased Black-identifying representation among coaches, counsellors, leaders; produce a safe, encouraging environment for accountability; establish a scholarship program for Black student-athletes, create a new advocacy role to allow for a third-party group to act on behalf of such athletes; and implement a consistent support and training program in partnership with the values of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Upon receiving the report, van Koughnett worked alongside Arig al Shaibah, associate vice-president of the Equity and Inclusion Office at McMaster, to help produce a five-point action plan, based on the aforementioned recommendations stated in the review. This plan would be implemented by a newly hired role, Senior Advisor of Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism, where they will be working closely with the Athletics Department, the office of Student Affairs and EIO.

“We are establishing a couple staff positions: a Black student services advisor which will handle a variety of issues, such as academics and careers. They will also refer to them with other resources and help advocate for them. Another new role is a Senior Advisor in the EIO, who will be engaged with Black student populations and student populations in general and have the authority to reach out to higher senior figures in the university,” said van Koughnett. 

“We are establishing a couple staff positions: a Black student services advisor which will handle a variety of issues, such as academics and careers. They will also refer to them with other resources and help advocate for them. Another new role is a Senior Advisor in the EIO, who will be engaged with Black student populations and student populations in general and have the authority to reach out to higher senior figures in the university,” said van Koughnett. 

With regards to increased representation, hiring members will now include an Employment Equity Facilitator and other racialized community members; paid internships in the department will also be emphasized for up to three recent Black graduates. A Black Student-Athlete Council will now be formed, alongside the formation of a Black student services and 10 new Athletics Financial Aid awards for Black-student athletes.

Black student-athletes will also have the opportunity to receive support from Black faculty members and a non-profit organization, Onyx, to provide career development opportunities for Black students. 

Lastly, policies such as the Code of Student Rights will be updated to reflect these experiences and address it immediately. Van Koughnett is also working with al Shaibah to create comprehensive education training by fall 2021 for athletics and recreation coaches, staff and student-athletes to give them the capabilities and understanding to discuss anti-Black racism. 

As the news of the review and action plan came out, Kwasi Adu-Poku, who interviewed with us earlier this year, shared his thoughts on the review. Adu-Poku is currently a member of the McMaster men’s basketball team.

“Just looking through the review and I participated in it, it was a lot to go through and I’m just talking about reading it. But not even the length, but processing a lot of these experiences that not just I experienced. I just had to sit back and think of all the things that have been going on for a while. But with regards to the action plan, it’s a really good step to create a better future, but more things need to be done. It’s not a one-step process. It’s a good thing student-athletes to have their voices heard but I know even just regular students would love to have their voices heard,” said Adu-Poku.

“Just looking through the review and I participated in it, it was a lot to go through and I’m just talking about reading it. But not even the length, but processing a lot of these experiences that not just I experienced. I just had to sit back and think of all the things that have been going on for a while. But with regards to the action plan, it’s a really good step to create a better future, but more things need to be done. It’s not a one-step process. It’s a good thing student-athletes to have their voices heard but I know even just regular students would love to have their voices heard,” said Adu-Poku.

Adu-Poku explained that with this action plan, he hopes that the needs of Black students are accounted for outside of the athletics population. He believes that with the creation of the Black Student-Athlete Council, it will be something that carries a greater impact in the future. 

“I hope its function is something more internalized than tokenized,” said Adu-Poku.

“I hope its function is something more internalized than tokenized,” said Adu-Poku.

After speaking with fellow Black-student athletes, Adu-Poku explained a shared sense of sadness resonated between them.

“I don’t even know the word to put on it. In a sense, it’s a form of grief. At the end of the day, it was overwhelming. As much as we have been accustomed to these experiences, but seeing it on paper, it just brought so much more weight to it. Despite action being taken, we need to make sure this is not a short term thing and make sure our kids are not dealing with this when they enroll in university. We want to make sure it’s a better world for them,” said Adu-Poku.

“I don’t even know the word to put on it. In a sense, it’s a form of grief. At the end of the day, it was overwhelming. As much as we have been accustomed to these experiences, but seeing it on paper, it just brought so much more weight to it. Despite action being taken, we need to make sure this is not a short term thing and make sure our kids are not dealing with this when they enroll in university. We want to make sure it’s a better world for them,” said Adu-Poku.

During Adu-Poku’s tenure as a Welcome Week representative for 2020, he was part of a Black student panel for incoming first years, the first of his entire undergraduate journey of five years. The panel shared their experiences with the students but also provided them with the comfort, support and resources they need. Adu-Poku also explained that relationships with various members of the Black community at McMaster have been fostered in virtual check-in spaces. 

There have also been two meetings headed by van Koughnett and al Shaibah to allow more Black students to express their opinions of the review. 

“We have an ongoing conversation with the African Caribbean faculty associate and their focus is on the students. They are interested in supporting them through creating a mentorship program . . . We are having sessions for Black student-athletes. It doesn’t replace face to face, but we are doing best virtually,” said van Koughnett.

“We have an ongoing conversation with the African Caribbean faculty associate and their focus is on the students. They are interested in supporting them through creating a mentorship program . . . We are having sessions for Black student-athletes. It doesn’t replace face to face, but we are doing best virtually,” said van Koughnett.

With regard to accountability, there still may be fear by students from reaching out to a formal complaint process. 

“Even when I reflect on certain experiences that I disclosed, I wouldn’t have had that window if it wasn’t for this review. At the end of the day, a lot of these reporting processes are uncomfortable because you’re confronting an issue, but fear that you might be outed stepping forward with this. Just ways that ensure confidentiality and security as students take this uncomfortable step,” said Adu-Poku.

Ultimately, while the action plan is comprehensive and has detailed tangible steps to address systemic racism in the department, this is still an ongoing process in establishing an inclusive environment.

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