By: Sara Mustafa
I remember my first week on campus. I was one of a handful of Black students in every one of my classes. I had only been able to attend a few welcome week events and I had opted to live off-campus in my first year—two things I kind of regret, as by the first week of school I had looked around and everyone had their circle already, and I was all alone.
I remember walking through my school’s club festival on one of the breaks between my classes, where hundreds of clubs from my school came out to tell all the students what they were all about. I don’t know a better way to word this, but I was looking around to see if there were any Black-centered clubs; somewhere where I could have a community of people that look like me, and lo and behold, I spotted my people in dashikis and speakers blasting loud music.
I made a bee-line straight to them. I remember feeling so so excited. I signed their mailing sheet, and that very next week I attended their first event: a general meeting. It was the first time since I started school where I found myself in a room full of Black people, from all different backgrounds. I had known then that I have found my community.
A year later, I became the treasurer of my school’s African students association, and the year following that one, I went on to become its president. We put on poetry shows and organized round-panel discussions where we’d explore nuanced topics that concern our African heritage and identity. Imagine a room full of African and Pan-African students opening up about their experiences that range from their identity and struggles with belonging, to our experiences navigating a Eurocentric world. Many tears would be shed in that room. It was cathartic.
We organized protests and calls to action on various injustices that our local and wider communities have faced. We organized Black History Month events where we were able to celebrate and be unapologetically ourselves. In spite of the fact that, so often, our institutions do nothing for us, during those times we did it for our own communities. We put on large scale plays that would attract over 400 attendees annually from all over Ontario. We were even able to raise over $5,000 for organizations that serve our communities in our city; and of course, we threw legendary parties.
Events were my favourite part. We’d go from walking the halls rarely spotting a Black person, to suddenly being in a room filled with Black people from all different programs, backgrounds, age groups, etc. It’s an energy that I can’t explain, and I know everyone around me would be feeling that energy as well. You’d feel safe. You’d feel understood. You’d drop that weight that you were always carrying and just let out a sigh of relief. You’d leave feeling recharged and ready to face the struggle of feeling like you have to work twice as hard as your white peers to prove yourself in an institution that’s designed for you to fail. Thanks to TRAD, I continue to have the absolute privilege of working with a group of people to make spaces like that possible and to provide our community and ourselves with that.
Looking back on my time in university, I am extremely grateful and glad that I was able to belong to a community that I could unapologetically be myself in. So much of what I am today I owe to the ASA. So often we’d face difficulties accessing funding for our initiatives, support from our university, and even backlash and microaggressions for being unapologetically Black.
The Black Lives Matter movement has solidified, not that there was ever a doubt, that this experience is universal amongst Black students and ASA’s across North American universities. This needs to change, there is so much that needs to be done. My peers and I were able to take ownership of our own undergraduate experience—or at least a small portion of it. We got to put our feet down and make our voices heard in institutions adamant about stifling us. We were able to leave university empowered and hungry to do more and make a difference for our communities in whichever path we choose to pursue.
If you are a university student, I encourage you to join your school’s ASA, and if your school doesn’t have one, then start one! To the ASA executives, you are leaders within your community. I know that the work you do can sometimes feel thankless and draining. I know that it can sometimes feel like you are set up for failure, but I encourage you to keep going. because your work is valuable.
Do it for your community. Do it for yourself. Do it for those who paved the way for you to be where you are today, and for those who you’re paving the way for who are coming after you. At the very least, do it for the first-year girl who came to university with no friends and no sense of belonging and left feeling more empowered than ever with lifelong friends and priceless experiences.
To the African, Black, Ghanaian, Somali, Nigerian, Habesha, Afro-Caribbean student associations, thank you for all you do to build communities on your campuses.
We are with you.