Leading anti-racism at Waterloo

Jennisha Wilson applies intersectional and trauma-informed lenses to support anti-racism work across campus

By Tracelyn Cornelius University Relations

Many universities struggle with dismantling systemic racism and bias in their policies, practices and culture.  In response to this challenge, the University of Waterloo created an anti-racism unit - the first-of-its-kind academic support unit. Under the leadership of Jennisha Wilson, director of anti-racism within the Equity, Inclusion and Anti-racism Office (EDI-RO), the unit identifies and addresses systemic racism in the University’s policies, procedures and practices.

"It’s about looking at our systems - the ways in which we do work at the University, and looking at our policies and procedures to really analyze the history of how those practices and policies came to be in order to better the University campus," she says.

Much of the work of the anti-racism unit supports specific recommendations included in the President Anti-racism Taskforce , developed to advance the critical mission of engaging the University community in addressing systemic racism across its campuses. 

"We are supporting, guiding and providing subject matter expertise to folks who are responsible for executing the work," Wilson says. "It’s like having a team of folks to help coach you and guide you through the work in a meaningful and thoughtful way, but allowing individuals to have ownership over this work because it is within their department or within the purview of their job. It’s a progressive and sustainable way of doing this work."

Dismantling racism often causes discomfort for many individuals. The anti-racism director recommends approaching such situations thoughtfully to ensure that individuals do not feel so vulnerable that they are inclined to withdraw from the work.

She explains that engaging in anti-racism requires a great deal of vulnerability, as it entails engaging in self-reflection about one’s own identity and how it relates to those who are most affected by racism. It also involves a process of learning about anti-racism and taking action to put that knowledge into practice.

Wilson assumed the role in August 2022 after previously serving as the senior manager of Anti-racism Response. She leads a team of experts working towards ensuring that the University’s programs and initiatives are inclusive and equitable for all, by grounding the work in an intersectional and trauma-informed lens. This approach acknowledges that racism can cause significant emotional and psychological harm to individuals and communities and seeks to address the root causes of this trauma.

Anti-racism Response is another crucial service provided by the unit to understand the experiences of individuals who have been impacted by racism and provide support that is sensitive to their needs. Wilson and her team understand that these individuals may have different emotional reactions and may require different types of support. Anti-racism response also includes guiding and supporting folks who have experienced racism on campus to find resolutions, support and restorative justice so that they can feel like they belong.

Wilson believes that small actions can be taken at an individual level that can result in a significant collective impact. She says if our institution is mindful of this process, it could lead to significant outcomes. Individuals may feel varying levels of commitment, but uncertainty about what actions to take can often be a barrier to progress.

According to Wilson, the University has the unique opportunity to build momentum and pivot toward creating a more equitable and just society. To effect change she recommends being thoughtful and intentional about how we engage with those who are most impacted by racism and ensuring that the changes we make are meaningful, effective and reflective of the needs of our institution and its community.