SPPG Goes to Harvard: An Inaugural Student-Driven Collaboration at the 14th Annual Black Policy Conference

By Anna-Kay Russell and Terhas Ghebretecle

It all started with a Google search.

After noting the lack of representation and discussions of policy issues affecting Black Canadians in the program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, second-year MPP students Anna-Kay Russell and Terhas Ghebretecle decided to take matters into their own hands. With a bit of research, they came across the annual Black Policy Conference organized by students at the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. As members of the Gender, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (GDPP), Russell and Ghebretecle reached out to the Harvard students planning the conference and together organized the first-ever Canadian and international panel included at the 14th annual Black Policy Conference, held from April 13 to 15, 2018 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We talked about ways of increasing representation of the Black community in our program and didn’t really know where to start,” says Russell. “Eventually I found this conference online and thought, ‘why not collaborate?’ So, we sent them an email and it took off from there.”

SPPG students Anna-Kay Russell (third from right) and Terhas Ghebretecle (fifth from right) with the HKS Black Policy Conference organizing team, along with special guests Representative Cedric Richmond and Symone Sanders at the 14th annual Black Policy Conference at Harvard University.

The Black Policy Conference is the leading forum to address policy issues affecting Black communities and is the longest-running graduate student-led conference in the history of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). The conference provides an opportunity for the world’s greatest minds and practitioners to come together with the hope and intent of finding sustainable solutions for issues facing Black communities. This year’s conference theme was Beyond the Blueprint: Triumph Through Practice & Policy.

Russell and Ghebretecle, along with first-year SPPG students Sharnelle Morgan and Kaidie Williams, teamed up with the UofT Black Students’ Association to organize the Canadian panel, entitled The Myth of Multiculturalism: Policy Issues Affecting Black Canadians. Their panel featured three speakers from the University of Toronto as well as two from the broader Toronto community: PhD candidate in criminology, Julius Haag; Professor Lance McCready of OISE; Professor Arjumand Siddiqi of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health; community activist Akio Maroon; and renowned lawyer Anthony Morgan. Great discussions came out from the panel on topics such as disparities in education for Black youth and police brutality. A Canadian HKS student in attendance expressed her gratitude and excitement to be part of a dialogue that hits closer to home.

Canadian panelists in discussion for “The Myth of Multiculturalism: Policy Issues Affecting Black Canadians” panel at the 14th annual Black Policy Conference at Harvard University.

In addition to organizing a Canadian panel, the SPPG conference organizers worked with the school administration to provide the opportunity for 11 students from SPPG to attend the conference, with support from the Clark Fund. Together with members of the Black Students’ Association, the group formed a delegation of 16 students from the University of Toronto. These delegates had the opportunity to participate in the entire conference, sitting in on discussions ranging from cannabis legalization to algorithmic bias and innovations in health equity. “Being in the midst of great people who ‘look like me’ and are making significant strides in society has been nothing short of amazing,” wrote SPPG delegate and first-year MPP student, Eunice Kays, in a reflection about the experience. “It has been a breath of fresh air.”

“At the conference, I was aware that I, as a white Canadian who grew up in an upper-middle class family, don’t share the lived experiences of the Black attendees or presenters, or the other attendees who are people of colour,” wrote SPPG delegate and second-year MPP student Sasha Gronsdahl. “Yet the conference was an important opportunity to reflect on how I can contribute to the movement for racial justice.”

First-year MPP student and SPPG delegate Jean-Paul St. Rose described how this experience expanded his view on the issues affecting Black communities and what we as policy-makers and analysts can do to combat these challenges. “From algorithmic justice, to diplomacy and housing, Black policy does not simply have to be applied to the typical narratives we hear,” he wrote. “Issues of structural and systemic discrimination extend beyond the spheres of criminal justice.”

So, What’s Next?

As the largest and most international conference that students at SPPG have attended to date, the Black Policy Conference provided a brilliant opportunity for delegates to learn and grow. Following the conference, organizers have been in discussion about next steps to continue raising the profile of Black policy issues at SPPG and beyond.

“We hope to continue this journey of discovery and dialogue in our effort to better understand the complexities of Black policy issues in North America,” says Kaidie Williams. Williams, a newly-appointed GDPP Director, will be co-organizing next year’s conference with fellow MPP student Sharnelle Morgan. “We are enabling Black excellence and redefining ‘Blackness’ to change the status quo. The Black Policy Conference offers an amazing platform to do so in the policy realm and we hope to continue providing that learning opportunity for students for years to come.”

From a Google search to Harvard, even big ideas come in small packages. And with hard work and passion, the student leadership at SPPG continues to prove its strength.

SPPG delegates, members of the UofT Black Students’Association, and panelists for “The Myth of Multiculturalism: Policy Issues Affecting Black Canadians” panel at the 14th annual Black Policy Conference at Harvard University.

Anna-Kay Russell is a graduating MPP student. She holds a bilingual international Bachelor of Arts (iBA) degree in Environmental Studies from Glendon College, York University. Her interests include environmental policy, justice and equity, several of which she has explored professionally working for departments such as Natural Resources Canada and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations & Reconciliation. An advocate for diversity, her hobbies include travelling, learning new languages and trying new recipes. She hopes to continue exploring these passions and more, working for the city in its environment and equity initiatives.

Terhas Ghebretecle is a Master of Public Policy candidate and the outgoing Director for the Gender, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative. Terhas completed her undergraduate degree in Public Affairs and Policy Management at Carleton University. Among her many passions, her current areas of interest include strengthening  civic engagement, public sector innovation as well as labour and immigration policy.