University program to prioritize healing, wellness and support for Black and racialized community members

Pictured here in her Riverdale hair salon, wellness activator Allison Hill helped create a series of virtual workshops for U of T community members to address the impact of racism through restorative activities (photo by Johnny Guatto)

The University of Toronto is launching a new initiative focused on providing wellness, healing and support to students, staff, faculty and librarians to address the impacts of racism and anti-Black racism in their own lives or in the broader community.

Created by U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO), Restore @ U of T is a series of virtual workshops being offered in partnership with Toronto-based wellness activator Allison Hill of the Hill Studio.

The initiative, which comes on the heels of the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake in the United States and other high-profile incidents of police brutality and anti-Black racism, launches Oct. 1 and is open to students, staff, faculty and librarians on U of T’s three campuses.

Karima Hashmani

“The impact of trauma is felt by the U of T community,” says Karima Hashmani, U of T’s executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion.

“This space helps legitimize and affirm the experiences Black and racialized people face collectively. We are dedicated to creating culturally relevant spaces that take into account intersectional identities and provide community healing.”

Based in her Riverdale hair salon, Hill launched the Restore program in January as a year-long weekly wellness series for Black women. The series was designed to fuel hope, joy and community through yoga, meditation and counselling.

Now, Hill and her team of therapists, counsellors and trauma-informed yoga instructors have tailored a program for the U of T community. It will include sessions that prioritize registration for Black and racialized community members as well as other sessions for their allies.

“Our approach is to provide an additional space where, when one feels activated by anti-Black racism or is seeking information and understanding and how it impacts us, that there is a place that the information is readily available,” Hill says.

“It’s also a place where you can build a community and put down some of that stress.”

The program includes a session for BIPOC community members to recharge before exams as well as discussions on allyship. In February, the U of T program will close with a Black History Month celebration.

In addition to discussions, Hill says session participants will learn methods to decompress, breathing techniques, meditation and community building tools.

“We are really listening to what the participants are looking for, rather than just giving them what we think they need,” Hill says. “Right now, what we are hearing is that students and faculty need a space to decompress, to hear their ideas out loud and hear the ideas of people who are dealing with the same thing – and find a place for the community to build that strength.”

Following the worldwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, Hill and her team were invited by U of T to lead a session on the impact that repeated trauma and anti-Black racism have on mental and physical wellness.

More than 2,000 people were in attendance.

Jodie Glean

“What we are seeing is a catalyst due to the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black and racialized communities, as well as the most recent violence against Black bodies,” says Jodie Glean, director of ARCDO.

“It’s reinforced the urgency in creating spaces of wellness and restoration, coupled with the calls for education and ongoing action planning.”

Glean adds that ARCDO, with its many partners and stakeholders across campus, are working toward instituting real change.

“We hope that folks leave with learning that evolves into action,” she says. “By focusing on more programming initiatives, we hope that we are able to create spaces that will last.”

U of T is also one of approximately 40 post-secondary institutions to participate in a Canada-wide two-day conversation called National Dialogues and Actions for Inclusive Higher Education and Communities that launches on the same day – Oct. 1 – as the Restore @ U of T initiative.

The partners in the National Dialogues have committed to developing an action plan to address anti-Black racism and Black inclusion within post-secondary institutions.

“We are listening to our community and dedicated to creating systemic change,” Hashmani says.

“Part of that mission is developing spaces to be responsive to community needs, eliminating barriers to participation and designing culturally relevant spaces to build community.”

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