As Manager Community Partnership Development with Humber College, and before that as a faculty, social worker and community organizer, Sabra Desai has touched the lives of many. Sabra has influenced many on a personal level as well as by promoting human rights, inclusion and institutional change around her. For example, her organizing work with several other women in the late 1970s led to the establishment of the first shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence in the Region of Peel in 1981 and then to anti-racism and multi-cultural education policies at a school board level. While the timing of this interview coincides with the announcement of her retirement, her legacy will live on within Humber College and through the CET.
We wanted to acknowledge and honour Sabra’s lifelong commitment to human rights, social justice, access and education, and also share some of her thoughts.
Sabra, thank you for accepting to share with us today. Could you please tell us about your background, and what led you to a career dedicated to access and education?
I would have to go back to the very beginning, to South Africa, growing up as a child from a modest background during Apartheid when it was still legal and institutionalized. My mother impressed upon me that education is an important means by which one can get out of poverty and a powerful tool for tackling ignorance, racism and sexism. She also believed that through education one could promote social justice and dignity for all.
Eventually, I immigrated to Canada, where I had to go back to high school and, against the best advice of my guidance counsellor who told me that I was “aiming too high”, I applied to the transition program for mature students offered at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto. I was accepted, graduated, and went on to complete an Honours BA while working full time and then pursued 2 other graduate programs at the same university.
How did your studies connect to your career objectives?
I remember writing about themes such as social inequality; questioned the value of multi-culturalism and examined the concept of family from an intercultural perspective to trouble the notion of a singular notion of family dynamics based on class, ethnicity, race, etc. My interests steered me towards the field of social work for my graduate studies, which led to my first job as a Family Service Worker combined with Community Work for the Children’s Aid Society. Then I moved to worked as a Community Worker at the Etobicoke Board of Education working mainly with immigrant and refugee families and promoting anti-racism education. I would later teach social work at the college and university levels from an integrated anti-racism and anti-sexism framework examining the intersection of (dis) abilities, age, class, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and how these impacted one’s life chances. This is now commonly referred to as an anti-oppression framework. At Humber College I was able to lay the groundwork and foundation for both the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Diversity and by simultaneously working with my Metis colleague and the Indigenous Elder at the college to secure external funding. This led to the establishment of Aboriginal Resource Centre. In my current role, with the support of President Chris Whitaker and Geraldine Babcock, my idea to involve Humber faculty and students in community based projects led to the creation of the Humber College Community Partnership Fund. All these initiatives were to help promote and enhance access, retention and success of racialized as well as Indigenous students. I feel privileged to be an educator. It gave me an opportunity to combine my personal and professional interests in social justice, which also meant honouring my parents who taught me “we are each other’s keepers.” This is why creating a space for change and collective action is so important.
The CET certainly aims to be such a space for change and you have always been one of the CET’s most passionate champions. How would you describe the role played by the CET?
I actually remember when the initial concept of a CET was pitched by then Humber College President John Davies. I had just moved into my role as Manager of Community Partnerships Development and my department, along with the founders, helped draft the initial proposal and mandate for the CET. Since then, I have seen the CET grow and expand in scope, membership and impact.
I believe the CET creates a unique space to mobilize knowledge and creativity across a large and diverse community of practice. As a member of this community, I have been able to tap into a great pool of skills, knowledge and experience to help me in my work. It has given me the opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, a repository of best practices geared towards enhancing the equitable access to postsecondary education (PSE).
Could you give us concrete examples of the benefits of this community of practice?
Absolutely. Beyond the networking opportunities it gives CET members, the CET also fosters partnerships and institutional change. I personally used my CET connections to make numerous cross-referrals and call upon my CET colleagues to help with publicizing access and pre-apprenticeship programs.
The CET meetings help put a face to the name, and create the type of personal connection that makes cross-referral much more effective. It makes us better at what we do for the youth we are trying to help, and I am sure like me, my CET colleagues have received many calls from parents thanking us for the impact such cross-referrals have had on the lives of their children.
The CET also made it possible for my counterparts at George Brown and Seneca and me to call upon Antony Bertin to share with us his first-hand experience about designing, developing and implementing HYPE at Centennial College. Through this exchange about how to create a transitional program that meets the needs of young adults not yet ready for a College education led to us going back to our respective colleges and stimulating more interest in either the enhancement or creation such access programs. Moreover, this kind of sharing of best practices and challenges to creating new programs helped us generate ideas for expanding the repertoire of access programs as well as mitigating barriers. For example, this led to the creation of a new access program specifically in the field of media and information technology at Humber College.
To conclude, what opportunities do you see for the CET in the future?
I think the CET should continue to act as a catalyst for change and promote for the creation of new pathways to PSE for individuals facing challenges, including students with special needs.
The CET is also in a privileged position to lead innovative research work on complex issues related to access to PSE, and act as a platform to engage key players into discussions. I had the chance to work with CET members Rona, Yvette, Eric and you on the committee overseeing the research funded by the Laidlaw Foundation to explore what happens when the eligibility requirements of financial assistance programs, such as OSAP and OW, intersect and how the situation created by this intersection may act as a disincentive to pursuing a postsecondary education for some. I believe this research work on the unintended consequences of well-intentioned financial and social programs, particularly with regards to access to post-secondary education for individuals will help identify mitigating strategies and lead to meaningful change.
Last, but not least, the CET can act as a strong voice for access to PSE and help relay information and knowledge - about programs, financial assistance, research or events - in the community, to the public, funders as well as policy makers. The CET is an alternative to working in individual institutional silos. The CET offers us a space for the cross fertilization of best practices, for collaboration and a platform for change to deliver on the mandate of access to post-secondary education.
Thank you for sharing Sabra. May you enjoy a well-deserved retirement.
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