'Young, Gifted and Black': Dalhousie prof works to show Black students they're not alone

·3 min read
Eve Wedderburn, a Grade 8 Oxford School student in Halifax, does a science experiment while Sidney Idemudia, executive director of Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, looks on. The Imhotep academy was launched by Prof. Kevin Hewitt, who has now launched 'Young, Gifted and Black,' at Dalhousie to get more Black youth thinking about post-secondary education. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC - image credit)
Eve Wedderburn, a Grade 8 Oxford School student in Halifax, does a science experiment while Sidney Idemudia, executive director of Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, looks on. The Imhotep academy was launched by Prof. Kevin Hewitt, who has now launched 'Young, Gifted and Black,' at Dalhousie to get more Black youth thinking about post-secondary education. (Sherri Borden Colley/CBC - image credit)

A Black-led research project meant to get more Black youth interested in post-secondary education has joined forces with Dalhousie University to offer three summer programs for young Black people in grades 7 to 12.

"As a Black student in physics, I was always the only one — isolated," said Kevin Hewitt, a professor in Dalhousie's department of physics and atmospheric science and one of five project leads on the Securing Black Futures project.

Securing Black Futures is a collaboration of Black researchers at five Canadian universities. Over the next three years, each university will launch student support initiatives designed to help Black youth imagine themselves in post-secondary education. The researchers will also collect data about their experiences as secondary and undergraduate students.

Hewitt, who also co-founded Imhotep's Legacy Academy, a provincial STEM outreach program for African Canadian students, said he wants to show the students who participate in three physics-related programs at Dalhousie this summer that they're not alone and they belong in university.

"This work, and my work creating Imhotep's Legacy Academy, is to reduce that sense of isolation, to show the students role models, who look like them."

'We want to understand who these students are'

Annette Henry, another of the project leads, is a professor in the department of language and literacy at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and helped organize the first Securing Black Futures event, which took place in on UBC's campus. She and her team worked with five school boards in the area to bring a group of Black high school students together for monthly mentoring meetings, both in person and virtual, to experience university life firsthand and hear from successful Black students and professors.

She said they hope to not only inspire those who attend the events throughout the country but also learn more about Canada's Black youth as a demographic.

"We definitely want to understand what the students' challenges are," said Henry. "We also want to understand who these students are ... not all black students are the same," said Henry, who has written extensively about equity in academia.

Securing Black Futures launched in October of last year under the direction of Carl E. James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora at York University and is funded by a $1.2 million contribution made by RBC Foundation's "Future Launch" project.

Young, Gifted and Black

Dalhousie will launch its Securing Black Futures program in the next coming month, which they've dubbed the Young, Gifted and Black Future Physicists Project. Hewitt said the title is a play on blues singer Nina Simone's song, To be Young, Gifted and Black.

Hewitt says the project will involve three different events.

The first will be physics-related after-school classes in which students learn how to do things like building motors with household items.

The second will be the summer camp, which Hewitt says the department has called Future Universal Navigators — or FUN — summer camp. Students from across the province will attend a free overnight summer camp to work on physics-based science fair projects.

Finally, there will be an opportunity for attendees to visit Dalhousie's physics departments, to see what physicists do in the real world.

Hewitt says he was originally hoping to get 10 students onboard but received much more interest than expected and expanded the class size from 10 to 20, with 16 people already signed up.

Hewitt said he'd like to see these classes go towards some sort of high school or post-secondary credit.

He said there's a saying that goes "you cannot be what you cannot see," so he hopes that by allowing Black youth to see others who look like them in physics and STEM fields, they'll feel more inclined to pursue those studies.

"Our goal with … Young, Gifted and Black Future Physicists, is to impact their interest," he said. "Through these role models, [we can] create a ecosystem where they see other students exhibiting that interest, so they don't feel alone."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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