Waking Up to Social Justice

LU Summer Conference Re-Cap

by Gurneet Dhami, Contributor


From the waking we rise, 

when we rise we gather, 

when we gather we share, 

when we share we connect,

& from these connections we advocate for change together! 

The lines above encompass my take away from a socially just May weekend up in the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Social Justice Summit, It's Not The Waking, It's The Rising was the first of its kind to be hosted at Lakehead University on May 25th and 26th, 2019 by the Social Justice Studies Program.

The multidisciplinary format invited submissions from graduate and undergraduate Social Justice students across Canada. The variety of speakers gathered from universities near and far. According to the Lakehead website, these included "Lakehead, Adler, McMaster, Memorial, Mount Saint Vincent, OISE (University of Toronto), Simon Fraser, St Francis Xavier, U of Calgary, U of Lethbridge, U of Prince Edward Island, U of Saskatchewan, and Western," touching on research topics in "health care, Indigenous experiences, racialized experiences, Canada's North, food insecurity, LGBTQ+ issues, gender issues, and art activism."

I first learned about this conference through my thesis advisor, Jennifer Brady, who is always sharing interdisciplinary opportunities with students at Mount Saint Vincent University. My research topic explores diversity in the profession of dietetics from a social justice perspective, which aims to explore cultural competence and racism in the world of food professionals. I took a leap of faith and sent in my abstract in hopes of sharing how I ground social justice in the field of dietetics, with an interdisciplinary crowd. 

Upon waiting, I heard the good news via email from student organizers Elyse Cottrell and Kristen Kowlessar, who had the tedious task of choosing from an array of speakers from about 30 abstracts. When chatting with them throughout the conference, they were surprised at the number of people that wanted to take part in the event and were willing to make the journey to Thunder Bay. Nevertheless, they took charge as hosts along with faculty support from Dr. Barbara Parker, Dr. Kristin Burnett, and Dr. Travis Hay. 

Grounding our social location was a theme that took us from the start to finish of the conference. We reflected on our social location by thinking of how we see the world based on factors like age, race, sex, gender, and privileges, to name a few. Our hosts opened with a land acknowledgement that looked beyond a statement as we share the space and let the conversations grounded in social justice respect our intentions throughout the weekend. 

We had an evening screening of Colonization Road, a story told by Ryan McMahon (@RMComedy), who also joined the conversation the next day as a keynote. His comedic flair and honest discussion about the realities faced by Indigenous people in Northern Ontario continues on Canadaland's “Thunder Bay” podcast. Our role in reconciliation may look different from one another, and it isn’t about feeling good, but rather feeling uncomfortable and sitting in the discomfort and providing solidarity to Indigenous communities as an ally. 

The Lakehead campus also welcomed the Meal Exchange team who led a Social Innovation Session through the support of Merryn Maynard, James Haga, & Susanne Nyaga. Food justice ties into the social justice theme of the event, as equitable access to food is a concern in rural and marginalized communities like Thunder Bay, which is an area of study by Dr. Barbara  Parker at LU. Furthermore, food champions like Sanjana Sharma and Mario Köppel continue to lead the Lakehead Meal Exchange Chapter (LUMXC) on campus. 

A keynote address by Susanne Nyaga, on the last day, wrapped up the conference with a dialogue around "Protecting Those in the Margins: Allyship and Solidarity in Practice." Susanne is a graduate of Ryerson University's Social Work program, where she also held the position of President of the Student Union and was the first Black woman to do so. The presentation highlighted the need to reflect on social location and privilege through the 'social identity wheel' exercise. My key takeaways from the keynote include: 

·  the need to self educate and not place the expectation on marginalized groups,

·  liberation cannot be achieved for one unless it’s liberation for all,

·  we need to take the privilege we hold into actionable change as opposed to sitting in guilt. 

As an interdisciplinary team of presenters that joined from near and far, I believe we all walked away with reassurance on the importance of rising to the occasion with our critical research and voices, as our paths are bound to cross again. Thank you Susannah Wolfe, Shilpa Narayan, Brittany Jakubiec, Kaitlyn Wong, Clayton McCann, Ashlynn Weisberg, Heran Zhao, Adam Whitney, Angie Lynch, Barbara Benwell, Mehdia Hassan, Cheyanne Thomas, Kevin Leatherdale, Yvonne DeBruyne, & Narpinder Rehallu for sharing your stories. 

When I asked Mehdia Hassan, a graduate from the Social Justice program, why she decided to attend the conference, she shared with me that the “interdisciplinary nature of the conference initially drew me to participate as a speaker. I liked how the conference connected student researchers with community members who were both passionate about advancing social justice in equally interesting, effective, but also different ways.” Mehdia also added that the discussions not only addressed various injustices in our communities, it also allowed us to see the potential as we look beyond the conference and into the future.



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Anishinaabeg Manidoominensikaanag display craft at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery