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First ECI Faculty Chair helps drive change for Ryerson

By Dayo Kefentse

As OVPECI’s first ECI Faculty Chair, Art Blake has the opportunity to set a precedent on how this role will help infuse inclusion at Ryerson. In this seven question feature we ask him why he sees this role as a bridge, why he finds documentaries like Studio 54 so fascinating, and how being a queer trans man adds to his insight into what’s happening with EDI in Canadian universities.

Left: Dr. Art Blake, Associate Prof and ECI Faculty Chair. Middle: Jennifer Grass, Asst. Vice President, University Relations. Right: Phyllis Mckenna, Vice President Equity and Campaigns, Continuing Education Students' Association of Ryerson.

1. You are OVPECI’s first ECI Faculty Chair. What does your position entail?

I’ve been at Ryerson since 2007 as a faculty member in the Department of History. My area of teaching and research is U.S. urban and cultural history.  The role of ECI Faculty Chair was created by Denise O’Neil Green, Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion. It’s a pilot leadership position designed to bring a faculty perspective to the work of the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI). It’s also designed as a bridge between OVPECI and the academic side of the university, and intended to enhance communication and practice about Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).  In the role I am a resource to help my faculty colleagues at Ryerson conduct hiring practices in ways that start from an inclusive foundation We aim to recruit and retain faculty who bring excellence to our campus through their ways of knowing, teaching and serving.

 

2. How does your background and research connect with your role and work as ECI Faculty Chair?

I identify as a queer transman, an immigrant, a birth parent, and as a settler on Indigenous land. I was born, grew up and went to university in the UK. I worked and went to grad school in the US and moved to Canada to work at the University of Toronto after I got my PhD in 2000. I transitioned from female to male in 2011 after I got tenure here at Ryerson. So over time I’ve had to become resilient to navigate all those roles and changes. Sexism, homophobia and transphobia are issues I’ve faced and continue to deal with. But my privileges of whiteness, and coming from a middle-class educated background have given me a hand up to achieve many things.   All those experiences and positions of advantage and disadvantage shape my capacity to see and try to resolve structural barriers to inclusion and equity.

My role as ECI Faculty Chair feels like an extension of my research.  As an urban cultural historian I’ve immersed myself in histories of race, gender, class, sexuality, and in particular cities as sites for the power struggles of diverse populations. Universities are similar spaces -- sites for those same struggles. At a university, like in a city, you usually have a small number of people similar to each other making decisions for a very large number of more diverse people. That imbalance gets reproduced over time, making it hard for diverse voices to get heard, for change to happen -- that’s why an office like OVPECI is so important.

3. Do you view hiring as part of a “creative” process?

Recruitment and hiring centred on EDI is a wonderfully complex, multidimensional puzzle! It demands great creativity from all of us to make it go well -- for every applicant that reads our ads, for the members of the search committee, for their colleagues, for students and the university community. If you centre EDI in all aspects and stages of the process you immediately increase the creativity of the process through the challenging conversations required. You can't just proceed "as usual". If equity, diversity and inclusion really are core values for all of us at Ryerson, not just statements on a poster or website, then every time we get the chance to build our community through hiring we engage in an act of creation--we must look anew at who we are, what we have, what we need, and how we can create the right conditions to attract people who can enhance our shared environment.


4. What are some of the issues that Canadian universities are contending with when it comes to EDI in a higher learning context?

The major issue is understanding that inclusion and equity are systemic interconnected issues -- you cannot "solve" either of them through one approach, such as hiring "diverse" bodies. At OVPECI our view is that vital systemic changes will only happen through coordinated policies linking faculty hiring, curriculum review, pedagogical practice, student recruitment and mentoring, research practices, and workplace behaviours.

Among the questions the OVPECI grapples with, and that my position as ECI Faculty Chair addresses, are:

  • How will Canadian universities hire more diverse faculty members in the years ahead if PhD cohorts at Ryerson and elsewhere in Canada lack diversity?
  • In the push to hire Indigenous faculty members how will Chairs and Deans create the daily circumstances in which those faculty members can succeed in an institution structurally dependent on Eurocentric colonial systems?
  • How can Ryerson develop a diverse and inclusive curriculum and teach an increasingly diverse student population unless faculty members in all departments see EDI as relevant to their pedagogy?

We are making progress in finding answers.  As reported in OVPECI’s latest Employee Diversity Self-ID report , we have researched, gathered and interpreted demographic data about our staff, faculty and students, and we use that information and the ever growing body of knowledge about barriers in the academy, to develop targeted strategies to remove barriers and make Ryerson more equitable and inclusive for all.


5. Since you’ve joined OVPECI, much of your work as ECI Faculty Chair has been with Canada Research Chair search committees. Why is this an important part of your role?

Over the past year, the Canada Research Chair Program (CRCP) introduced new EDI requirements for the recruitment and ongoing support of Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) at all universities. Each university in receipt of CRC positions had to submit an EDI plan to the CRCP offices in Ottawa. The plans were all reviewed, revisions made as required, and then posted on each university's website. OVPECI developed Ryerson’s Canada Research Chair Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and we currently have a rating of “strong”. That rating is based on ambitious goals. To achieve those goals and continue to show leadership in EDI, in my new role I support CRC search committees in their efforts to reach a more diverse applicant pool, write job position ads that assist in that outreach, connect to "key influencers" who are best positioned to amplify our ads to diverse applicants, and then I provide any further support requested throughout the selection and interview process.  Every search has to be addressed in relation to each department’s unique needs. It is both challenging and exciting to work with colleagues across the university to support our efforts to meet these new and needed EDI standards.


6. As a faculty member passionately committed to EDI, what are you hoping to inspire in your colleagues?

Within Ryerson I want to reach other faculty members to let them know how they can serve as EDI leaders. At OVPECI we believe that making Ryerson a more equitable and inclusive place for us all to work, and building a more diverse faculty reflective of our city and of our student body is a responsibility we all share. There are so many things individual faculty members can do to make a difference. This new leadership position fits with Ryerson's commitment to both innovation and EDI.

Beyond Ryerson I think OVPECI’s launch of this new position is an experiment to share with other universities. Our Canadian higher ed community is geographically widespread but not so big that we cannot easily connect and share findings of this innovative work. Anecdotally we hear from faculty and Human Resources staff from other universities that they are watching initiatives such as the ECI Faculty Chair closely as an example of providing national leadership in this area.


7. What does Ryerson gain from this new leadership position --the ECI Faculty Chair?

This role allows Ryerson to develop a new leadership position for faculty members committed to EDI. I enjoy being another heart, mind, and pair of hands primarily focused on using the principles of EDI to improve our institution. One of Vice-President, Denise O’Neil Green’s goals is to have EDI Chairs in every Faculty, liaising with their colleagues, with senior staff in the OVPECI, with Deans, the Ryerson Faculty Association, and our grad and undergrad student leaders. I believe that thinking and acting creatively about equity, diversity and inclusion in our governance, institutional priorities, teaching and research maintains our relevance as a university for all Canadians and newcomers.

About:

Name: Art Blake

Position: ECI Faculty Chair; Assoc Prof, Dept of History

Currently reading: Transcription, British author Kate Atkinson’s recently published 6th novel about a young woman’s involvement with the secret service during WW2 in London. Next book: Streets of Darkness by A. A. Dhand--a contemporary murder mystery set in Bradford, Yorkshire featuring Detective Inspector Harry Virdee.

Recently watched: "Studio 54" documentary film by Matt Tyrnauer (2018) Loved the film’s intersecting histories of NYC, urban nightlife, friendship, and queer creativity. I’d use it in my HST 712 “The American City,” HST 658 “Sex in the City” and HIS 105 “Inventing Popular Culture” classes for sure. I watch documentaries because I love seeing and hearing different ways of telling non-fiction stories.  

Currently listening to: Jake Shears’s eponymous new album ; podcasts “Nancy”, “Pod Save the People”, and re-listening to Justin Elizabeth’s Sayre’s “Sparkle and Circulate.”

Twitter: @ArtMBlake

Fun fact: When I renamed myself as part of my gender transition, I chose my middle name as an homage to the late great Will Munro, queer Canadian artist and community maker, whose fabulous queerly-inclusive monthly party Vazaleen I adored from 2000 until it ended 2006.