Schulich School of Law grad hopes to make Dalhousie a more welcoming place for African Nova Scotians

Jalana Lewis is the university’s first director of African Nova Scotian community engagement

Schulich School of Law grad hopes to make Dalhousie a more welcoming place for African Nova Scotians
Jalana Lewis is Dalhousie’s first director of African Nova Scotian community engagement.

Jalana Lewis, Dalhousie’s first director of African Nova Scotian community engagement, admits that as a Schulich School of Law student (JD ’13), she had an insular view of the campus. She focussed mainly on where she needed to be most – the law school building, the library, and the cafeteria.

“My experience as a student at Dal was very specific, related to what I needed to do day to day, like many law school students,” she says. “But I did know that I didn’t get a chance to be taught by professors who looked like me. I didn’t see staff, especially those in management positions, who looked like me. And not many students who looked like me.”

However, in her new role, which she started in September, Lewis’ mandate will extend to the entire university, looking at how to reach out to the African Nova Scotian community to be part of the university, either as student, staff or faculty. She will also help build stronger relationships between the university alumni and the larger Black Nova Scotian community.

“That’s really important to me, and I hope that during my time here, I can make a difference.”

Lewis says that her own experience reflects some of the challenges and opportunities that Dalhousie must face on its path to reaching out to the African Nova Scotian community. When graduating from high school, she wasn’t quite sure if Dalhousie was the university for her, so it was not on her list of schools that she applied to.

But after being actively recruited several years later by the university through its Indigenous, Black sand Mi’kmaq Initiative, Lewis joined the Schulich School of Law in 2010.  And while she may not have seen as many of the staff, faculty or students from the African Nova Scotian community represented during her time, the experience was positive. She even served as valedictorian in her 2013 graduating class at Schulich. Now Lewis wants others like her to have a similar experience, even improved upon by having more African Nova Scotians as faculty, students, and staff.

After graduating from law school, Lewis followed a varied career in social justice policy work, combined with community activism. She worked in human rights law and acted as a non-practising lawyer collaborating with various NGOs, universities, and government offices. Legal policy, archival research, and project management kept her busy since she graduated from Schulich Law.

In 2016 she managed the municipal campaign of Lindell Smith, who became Halifax’s first African Nova Scotian city councillor in 18 years. Lewis also oversaw a project funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario that sought to increase access to justice for BIPOC applicants in the province participating in the administrative tribunal process.

She also worked with the African Nova Scotian Youth Employment Lab, which focused on disproportionate unemployment rates among young Black people in the province. She notes that if young African Nova Scotians are employed at lower rates than their white counterparts, those systemic trends may exist within university settings.

Lewis also worked for Dalhousie, looking into the history of racial discrimination against African Nova Scotians, as lead researcher for the Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race.

In that role, she travelled to Ottawa, the UK and Nova Scotia to catalogue historical documents that show how attitudes and policies of colonial leaders such as Lord Dalhousie helped cement anti-black attitudes that to this day affect the African Nova Scotian community.

African Nova Scotians are a distinct people, and their history dates to the early 1600s and includes the Black Loyalists (1780s), the Jamaican Maroons (1796) and the Black Refugees (1813–1816). Today, there are approximately 22,000 African Nova Scotians living in the province. They represent 2.4 per cent of the total Nova Scotia population and 37.3 per cent of the racially visible population in Nova Scotia.

Lewis acknowledges that her job at Dalhousie over the next three years is to build on the work begun three decades ago, when the university’s then-president, Howard Clarke, commissioned Breaking Barriers: Report of the Task Force on Access for Black and Native People. The report focused on the concerns of Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq people in Nova Scotia. It was released the same year as the Royal Commission's report on the Wrongful Prosecution of Donald Marshall Jr.

Both documents helped lay the foundation for access, equity and inclusion at Dalhousie, and lead to creating a Human Rights & Equity Services team led by Theresa Rajack-Talley, vice-provost of equity and inclusion.

Along with that of Cathy Martin in a similar role dealing with Indigenous recruitment and engagement, Lewis's appointment builds on that foundation.

She says that when the job was posted before Covid-19 forced a lockdown, she was intrigued by the opportunity. She also knew many people involved in the university’s African Nova Scotian strategy and immediately felt it was more than a “check the box” exercise. She felt there was a real commitment at the university to working on ways to make African Nova Scotians feel more welcome.

After applying, Lewis didn’t hear anything about the position for months, and with the pandemic causing so much stress, Lewis wondered if it would even be filled. In the summer, however, she heard back and interviewed for the job while she was in quarantine so she could be able to visit her grandmother for her 99th birthday on July 1.  By August, she had the job.

Now that she has settled in, Lewis says there is a lot she wants to get done, but she knows there is a learning curve, and she will spend time learning about how the university’s systems work when it comes to areas such as HR, recruitment and retention policies. “I’m really curious to learn more about what happens when someone from my community applies for a job, how that looks like and what can be improved.”

However, Lewis says she wants to make sure she understands the university's processes before making suggestions about attracting African Nova Scotians to Dalhousie. “I think if I actually understand how processes work within the university, I’ll have a better time and figuring out how they can work to better attract African Nova Scotians, and make suggestions. I don’t just want to jump right in and make assumptions.”

Lewis says that at the end of her three-year term, she hopes that she can build on the foundations laid and breathe new life into the strategy.

“I like the idea that I can focus those three years on piloting, collaborating, testing things out, and at the end of that we can figure out how to make the strategy tighter, how to make the role of the director of African Nova Scotian Community Engagement even better.

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