Connections and Conversations: Finding community at U of T

Members of the Connections and Conversations group
Left to right: Heather Hines, Titi Oridota, Kaye Francis, Jeevan Kempson, Deborah Simon-Edwards, Sharon Grandison, Suzanne Macintyre, Liza Arnason, Kimberly Yeh, Archana Sridhar, Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, Amorell Saunders N’Daw (Photo by Rachel Halpern)

Connections and Conversations, an affinity group for racialized U of T staff and their supporters, hopes to spark tri-campus conversations about topics like racism and equity.

The new group recently hosted its inaugural gathering at the OISE library. The staff-driven initiative is supported by the Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO). Founding committee member Amorell Saunders N’Daw says there are many more events to come and encourages participation from racialized staff and their allies.

“We really want this to be a supportive and collegial network that’s open to the U of T community and helps each and every one of us flourish and thrive in this environment,” says Saunders N’Daw, director of governance at U of T Scarborough and assistant secretary of the Governing Council at U of T.

Creating a continuum of collaboration is an important part of the group's mandate. From guest speakers providing expertise in resume-building or career advancement, mentorship opportunities, or learning and upgrading skills, the group will work across the University to provide staff with resources, while also encouraging them to form alliances outside of the group and foster one another’s growth. 

Neil Chakraborty, resource planning and analysis officer at UTSC, says he looks forward to connecting with others, gaining insights and sharing knowledge about the challenges one has as racialized staff. “I’m also interested in research around diversity and minorities.”

The inaugural event facilitated dialogue around these topics, including a panel discussion, a networking session and a keynote address from Celina Caesar-Chavannes, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister of Canada, Member of Parliament for Whitby and a former member of the Governing Council of the University of Toronto.

“Why do we need a group like this? Because it’s 2016 and inequity still exists,” says Caesar-Chavannes. “Why aren’t the credentials enough? It’s time to make it awkward. People are dismissing the talent pool to maintain the status quo when we know that our diversity makes us better.”

Following the keynote, a panel addressed the theme of the inaugural gathering, "Beginning the Conversation” and included Professor Kelly Hannah-Moffat, incoming vice-president of human resources and equity; Archana Sridhar, assistant provost in the Office of the Vice-President and Provost; and Kim McLean, chief administrative officer at the Faculty of Arts & Science. The panelists provided their perspectives and insights about supporting and enabling racialized staff to thrive in the workplace.

The discussion resonated with many attendees, including Antonia Maughn, conference coordinator at U of T Mississauga.

“I found out about this event last minute and I am so glad that I did,” she says. “It actually covered a lot of things that I am too shy to talk about in my own department and when Celina [Caesar-Chavannes] broke the ice with her humour, experiences and what she does, I felt I could identify with that.”

Saunders N’Daw is thrilled to hear positive feedback from the community.  

"Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world and our student population is reflective of that,” N'Daw says. “But when you start to look at the top, much of the leadership and decision-making positions don’t accurately reflect this diversity.”

One of the issues the group would like to address is hiring practices.

“I know the University is committed to making this [anti-bias training] a reality and is already starting along that path,” says Angela Hildyard, vice-president of human resources and equity. “It’s also very important for racialized staff to have networking opportunities, be on committees and decision-making bodies, and know there’s a path for them to learn, grow and feel supported in their career ambitions.”

The group follows a tri-campus model, with local chapters at each campus and a steering committee member serves as a liaison for members of its local chapter. And while the focus is on racialized staff, Connections and Conversations encourages non-racialized allies who are supportive of the mandate to participate. Saunders N’Daw notes many times staff who aren’t racialized may be in more senior positions within the University and can act as a mentor or resource to support racialized staff.

“It’s important everyone joins the conversation around how we can make our work environments more inclusive,” she says.

For Maughn, the event left her with some important take-aways.

“I’ve learned some tools from the panel discussion and I think I’m going to take those back with me and work with them,” she says. “The event was refreshing, informative and I would recommend it to anyone—I never thought that it would be available to me in my 31 years that I’ve been here.”

To learn more information about Connections and Conversations, visit:


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