The Impact Factor: Sharing a Black Past

Posted on Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

Written by Emily Farrell

Impact is at the core of the partnership between the Guelph Black Heritage Society (GBHS) and the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI). What started out as a targeted collaboration for an on-campus project spread like wildfire, initiating a web of activities and relationships that are sparking social change.

About GBHS and the Initiation of the Partnership

GBHS is a volunteer-run organization aiming to enhance Guelph’s awareness of the rich Black heritage that is present in the region. Members of the Guelph and Wellington area are largely unaware that the Black community has been in Guelph since the 1880s. GBHS operates out of Heritage Hall, formerly known as the British Methodist Episcopal Church, which was built by descendants of former fugitive slaves who arrived in the area via the Underground Railroad.

The partnership between GBHS and the University of Guelph stemmed from a clear alignment of GBHS’s goals with the needs of Black students on campus. A #BlackOnCampus rally in 2016 led to a needs assessment of Black students, and a call for campus-wide changes. CESI saw an opportunity to leverage university resources for the benefit of the greater Black community and the immediate campus community of racialized students. This unique collaboration between Denise Francis, President of GBHS, and CESI made academic knowledge available to the community and allowed community expertise to be brought into the classroom, strengthening the learning environment.  

The Black Past Reclaimed

GBHS’s largest obstacle in raising awareness of Guelph’s Black past in the greater community is the absence of a collection of artifacts and a lack of information resources. This gap was used to initiate a partnership with Dr. Jade Ferguson’s second-year Minoritized Literatures English class. As part of their coursework, Dr. Ferguson’s students conducted a research project tracing stories of Black history in Guelph and identifying locations of Black homes, businesses and institutions. Students presented their research in the form of an online blog, ‘The Black Past in Guelph: Remembered and Reclaimed’. Not only did this blog increase the relevance of the student’s learning experience, it also provides GBHS with a new resource to draw from to share tools and artifacts with the public.

Moving forward, the research gathered in the blog will also be used to inform a hands-on project in a Geography class. To really see the significance of history in how a community has developed, it helps to relate current geographical patterns to those in the past. The class will be working with a geographic information system to map previous Black settlement patterns and overlay these with current maps of Guelph, providing GBHS with a historic map to share widely with the community.

The types of products created through engaged learning partnerships are typically settled on at the beginning of the project by both academic and community parties. But sometimes, a final course output can lead to unexpected benefits to the community partner. Laila El Mugammar, a student in Dr. Ferguson’s class, created ‘The Cook Not (Even Mad)’ for her final project. She gathered racist and anti-Black illustrations and recipes from the archives of the Canadian Cookbook Collection, and responds to this content in a way that accounts for the everyday experiences of Black women. The resulting, reimagined cookbook will be sold at GBHS events to help fund the restoration of Heritage Hall as a community and cultural gathering space.

Expanding Partnership Reach

In addition to the engaged learning partnership with Dr. Ferguson’s undergraduate class, GBHS also worked with the University’s Student Life and the Guelph Black Student Association to organize a number of events. Significantly, they collaborated to bring Camille Turner’s interactive art installation, the Afronautic Research Lab, to campus. This installation encourages participants to interact with archives of anti-Black racism and slavery from Guelph and Canada under the watchful gaze of “Afronauts” who have arrived from the future.

An engaged learning partnership was also formed between GBHS and Dr. Saba Safdar’s Social Psychology class. Artist and core team member of Black Lives Matter, Syrus Marcus Ware, provided an engaging talk that brought to life the themes of the Critical Mass Exhibit – an art exhibit brought to campus by GBHS, Student Life and the Black Student’s Union – and put these in conversation with issues around racial discrimination and biases being discussed in the class. This lecture co-created a rich dialogue around racism and enabled students to engage with the artist’s lived experiences and the community knowledge coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement. It also created space for difficult conversations to occur and enhanced learning beyond the textbook, bringing learning to life.

Photo showing Syrus Ware, artist and activist, presenting in Saba Safdar's Social Psychology class. The picture shows Syrus, Saba, and a large screen with a picture of colourful art. Students are not visible on the image.

The Overall Impact

These projects emphasize how community engaged partnerships can expand networks and activities beyond the initial project goals, creating impact for everyone involved.

While most of GBHS’s events had typically attracted an older demographic, the organization’s enhanced presence and visibility on campus has led to a significant increase in the participation of younger groups. Since the initiation of the partnership, GBHS has also seen a higher attendance at their events from people outside of the immediate Guelph and Wellington community and has received over 300% more traction on their social media platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram.

In addition, GBHS reported having higher success rates in receiving grants due to their collaborations with CESI, Student Life and the Guelph Black Student Association, enabling them to expand their reach and programming.

Above all, this partnership benefits Black and racialized students in stimulating social change. Following-up on their successful partnership in the Fall, the Guelph Black Student Association and GBHS have since joined forces in co-planning events, and will continue to collaborate to enhance their impact both on campus and in the greater community.

Do You Want to Have an Impact?

Do you want to get involved, learn more about GBHS or learn about the rich Black heritage within the Guelph and Wellington community? Visit the GBHS website to become a volunteer, take a look at their upcoming events, or learn more about Guelph’s local history!

The partnership between CESI and GBHS is just one of many. Our community engaged learning program works to pair community organizations that could benefit from collaborative research with course instructors and students who want to contribute to real-life projects. Learn more about our work and contact us to discuss your partnership goals!  

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