As Prof. Andrea Davis prepares for her role as academic convenor for Canada’s largest gathering of scholars this spring at York University, she reflects on Congress 2023’s theme, and how it informs the decisions we need to make as a society to ensure we can ‘live well together’ as the University Academic Plan calls on us to.
Davis says the theme ‘reckonings and re-imaginings’ asks us to consider the deep significance of the crossroads in which we now stand.
As we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are asked to contemplate, with a sense of urgency, the lessons learned from Truth and Reconciliation, Black Lives Matter, the evidence of Indigenous children buried at former residential schools, the death of George Floyd and more recently Tyre Nichols, mass protests in the streets for racial justice, and increasing calls for awareness about climate change and the state of the planet.
“We cannot simply pretend that our world has not been shaken – if not altered – in some fundamental way by the events of the last three years,” Davis says. “I don’t think York could host a Congress that didn’t attempt to address some of these questions.”
“Universities, their students and graduates, academics, writers and thinkers have a responsibility,” Davis argues, “to attend to these lessons, to decipher what they have taught us, and to offer our societies a language, a grammar, for thinking through and beyond the crises of our times.”
When up to 8,000 academics from 67 academic associations representing a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences gather in person at York for the first time since the pandemic, Davis invites attendees to not only reflect on the lessons we have learned, but also to begin the work of enacting the terms under which a radically different world might be created.
“What might it mean for us to commit to knowing and caring for each other across our differences,” Davis asks, “understanding that the world we want to live in tomorrow is dependent on the action we take together today?”
In fact, York’s academic plan includes a university-wide challenge to elevate the University’s contributions to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Serving as a blueprint for action, it is positioning the York community as an agent of positive change in a world facing a convergence of unprecedented trials from climate change, a global pandemic, poverty, systemic inequality and political polarization.
Student and faculty engagement in York’s UN SDG challenge has sparked discussion about the relationship between equity and sustainability.
Davis wonders if we can reimagine a new set of social relationships grounded in decoloniality, anti-racism, and justice, and what kinds of strategies to address climate change or advance the UN SDGs might be produced when we view these challenges through the lens of racial justice and Indigenous resurgence.
Davis says York is the right university to provide the platform for these pressing discussions.
“Social justice is at the core of what we say we do, at the core of what we say we care about. We’re a social justice university, and we’re also one of Canada’s most diverse universities. The time is right. The setting demands that we not only be involved but that we lead.”
“If, as York University says, we're going to right the future, it is now time for universities to be bold.”
In many ways it’s also fitting for Davis to be tasked with providing the vision for Congress 2023.
Born in Jamaica as a descendent of the formerly enslaved, she came to Canada in 1989 as a graduate student, only six years after Canada’s last racially segregated school closed, and still nearly two decades before the Indian Residential School system ended.
It was on York University’s campus – long before we were one of Canada’s most diverse universities – that Davis began a transition from being a student and young woman living in Jamaica to being a Black feminist in Canada.
“I remember the first time I was on campus, and just feeling like I was in a sea of white faces,” she recalls. “I had never been outside of my country before that first trip, so that was entirely new to me.”
She says, she became a visible minority for the first time and was “minoritized” at the same time as she became “hyper visible.”
“In my classes, for example, as the only Black woman, if there was a day I was not there, everybody knew, and every time I opened my mouth everybody stopped and listened carefully, so I couldn’t hide. My body made me hyper visible at the same time as my history made me invisible.”
Even though she had studied literary criticism at the University of the West Indies immersed in the works of Black writers, coming to Canada made the discourse of race real.
During this time, Davis began to appreciate the enormous power that knowledge holds, and the role universities play as gatekeepers of that knowledge.
“Universities have to decide what knowledge they will privilege, and equally as important, to what ends that knowledge will be used,” she says.
University students, Davis points out, have historically led the charge when it comes to transforming knowledge into positive change, citing several examples.
In 1968, students at San Francisco State College, led by the Black student union, went on strike for five months to demand the creation of Black studies and ethnic studies programs. During the same period, 400 students occupied a computer lab in protest of anti-Black racism at Montreal’s Sir George William University (now Concordia University). Thousands of South African students marched in 1976 to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools.
In 2016, at York University, Davis witnessed students demanding meetings with their Dean, and the University President and Provost, calling for more diverse curricula that reflected the interests of an increasingly diverse student body and the hiring of more Black faculty.
From these conversations began the development of a Black Canadian Studies Certificate that launched in 2018, deliberately situated in the Department of Humanities rather than the social sciences, Davis explains, seeking to centre the thoughts, ideas, theories, histories and expressive cultures of Black peoples in Canada, and Black knowledges as valuable in and of themselves, not merely as a tool for anti-racism or anti-bias training.
Davis points to the popularity of this certificate as underscoring the importance of this kind work in universities.
"We must provide spaces for studying and theorizing the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and geographic location, and how these intersect with power and affect the lives of marginalized peoples everywhere."
For Davis, this requires an acceptance that such theorizing is not just about participating in knowledge production, but also about transforming the core character of the academy and the societies in which we live.
She acknowledges that educational institutions in Canada have played a role in the violent histories of colonization and slavery, and that the humanities and social sciences have helped to entrench racist assumptions of Black and Indigenous people.
“Universities, therefore, have much to learn, and unlearn,” Davis says.
Davis says that, rather than existing in a privileged vacuum, universities are deeply informed by the historical, socio-cultural and political contexts that frame their existence. York’s main Keele Campus, for example, is located adjacent to the Jane-Finch community, one of Toronto’s most culturally and racially diverse neighbourhoods.
“York’s core values of excellence, sustainability and social justice must be informed by this socio-cultural context.”
York’s unique context has informed a great deal of Davis’ scholarship, research and leadership at the University, no more than recently when, following George Floyd’s 2020 killing by a police officer in Minneapolis, the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies appointed Davis special advisor on anti-Black racism strategies for York.
“I agreed to do it because it was really impossible to say no,” she says. “The moment demanded that I couldn’t stay on the sidelines and pretend this reckoning wasn’t happening. But from the beginning, I have been trying to intervene in these questions of anti-Black racism through the humanities.”
The same approach has shaped her vision for Congress 2023, a joint partnership between York and the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
“We’ve chosen strategically to centre the voices, experiences, histories and cultures of Indigenous and Black peoples,” Davis explains, “and to sit with those knowledges, and be guided by those knowledges, as we imagine new pathways towards a better future.”
Researchers and graduate students in disciplines including literature, history, theatre, film, education, music and sociology will present research and ideas through panels, keynote lectures, the Big Thinking series, career corner workshops, and York open programming – all intended to create positive change through the lens of Indigenous and Black histories, culture and knowledges.
Informed by York’s place in its community and society, Congress 2023 will also take the opportunity to invite into the University, and into these conversations, local community members, artists, activists, high school students, teachers, parents, families, university staff, alumni, retirees and friends.
“In the academy and the world, we tend to turn to Indigenous and Black people, their thought, their ideas only when we think they can teach us something — how can I learn from you to be a better person? How can I help to facilitate your inclusion in the project of world making as it currently exists?” says Davis. “But what might it mean,” she continues “to understand Indigenous and Black thought as indispensable to all the work of the humanities and social sciences?”
With an eye toward growing the understanding of the power of Black and Indigenous peoples’ voice, art and imagination, Davis looks forward to Congress 2023 where the hard work of shifting the goals of knowledge production toward a more just world will begin.
Andrea A. Davis is a Professor in the Department of Humanities and the Academic Convenor of the 2023 Congress of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. She teaches and supervises in literatures and cultures of the Black Americas and holds cross-appointments in the graduate programs in English; Interdisciplinary Studies; Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies; and Social and Political Thought. She is the author of Horizon, Sea, Sound: Caribbean and African Women's Cultural Critiques of Nation (Northwestern University Press, 2022).
Research Interests: Caribbean, African American and Black Canadian Literatures and Theatre, African Diaspora Studies , Black Cultural and Feminist Studies, Black and Indigenous Solidarities