Sparking Online Debate, With an Important Purpose

The Centre for Race and Culture helps lay down groundwork for ongoing anti-racism conversation

There are many organizations and individuals in Edmonton who, through their work and advocacy, have been talking about the need for more equity, diversity and inclusivity for years. But the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this spring put a spotlight on these conversations and the ongoing need for action and systemic change.

In light of what was happening, the Centre for Race and Culture (CFRAC) wanted to contribute to conversations about anti-racism, systemic racism and discrimination here in Edmonton, and organized an online panel centred on anti-Black racism in Canada.

Organizers Myriam Gerber, Rose-Eva Forgues-Jenkins and Mansoureh Modarres knew they had to do more than just offer a single webinar. Forgues-Jenkins, CFRAC’s Public Educator at the time, says that the panelists addressing anti-Black discrimination expressed the desire for their voices to not just be part of a one-off conversation about racism; they were keen to see anti-racism conversations continue.

“At CFRAC, we really wanted to extend the momentum behind the protests of the summer and not have it be a phase that people forgot about,” says Forgues-Jenkins.

Thanks to funding from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), CFRAC was able to launch an ongoing series of free, online, moderated round tables. The initiative, called Challenging Discrimination Through Community Conversations, launched in June and provides a platform for people to address experiences of discrimination and exclusion, and opportunities for the Edmonton community to learn and develop strategies for intervention and “ally-ship.”

Each conversation is centred on a theme to emphasize the lived experiences and realities of marginalized communities, and CFRAC invites the public to suggest topics they would like to see covered.

“The panels are supposed to be a community conversation and we want the topics to be generated for and by the community,” Forgues-Jenkins says. “Initially, topics were based on the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement,” explains Modarres, CFRAC’s education and research programs consultant.

“As the series continued, we tried to pinpoint issues of racism happening in our communities in Alberta. We are trying to bridge a gap for people who hear things in the media. We want to educate people and also help them understand how they can effect change in their own way, and collectively.”

By offering an educational tool with voices from marginalized communities, former ECF board member Gurvinder Bhatia thinks the initiative is helping fill a gap left by mainstream media.

“If mainstream media is covering issues of race and other societal issues with a single lens, that impacts the general population’s perceptions about these stories,” Bhatia says.

Bhatia developed and moderated the third webinar in the series, The Media and Racism, to provide anti-racism education to members and consumers of the media. Bhatia is both a member of the media and a frequent media guest, and personally experienced an incident of racism from a fellow guest while on a mainstream media show last year.

“The host handled the situation very poorly and, when the incident was brought to the attention of management, they refused to consider my suggestion that staff be provided with anti-racism training or even acknowledge that the incident had occurred,” Bhatia says. “In the case of the host, even when people are well-intentioned, unless they are equipped with learned knowledge, training and education with how to confront racism, the result is basically the same as doing nothing.”

Bhatia encourages media organizations to use the webinars as starting points for learning and reflection, but then to take action.

“Making change involves having representation of the populace at all levels of an organization,” he says. “It is important that stories are told through more than one lens, and in order to do that, you need a diverse team telling stories and making decisions.”

Forgues-Jenkins agrees that the webinars should be the first, but not only, step that the community takes towards listening, learning and ultimately acting.

“I encourage people to look into the work of the people who have appeared on the webinar,” she says. “These people have been doing a lot of work in the community to promote anti-racism. A lot of folks are looking to CFRAC’s other work, which is great. I also encourage people to look at the work of Africa Centre. If people are watching the webinars, I hope they see it as a jumping-off point and not a finite end to their knowledge, and are learning more about what’s happening in the community.”

“It is very important for us to continue the conversation and learn from each other throughout this process,” Modarres says. “I hope we can continue this interest in anti-racism activity, reach more people, and continue to see even more participants in our webinars. So far, the reception has been very positive.”