News | Mental health panel adresses power structures

Participants create sculpture representing McGill hierarchy

On October 3, a panel on mental health was hosted by the Social Equity & Diversity Education Office (SEDE) and McGill Counselling Services. The panel featured four speakers: Helen Ogundeji, The Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Equity Commissioner, Marianne Chivi, a graduate of masters in counselling psychology at McGill, Florise Boyard, a couples and family psychotherapist, and Jessica Bleuer, a lecturer in drama therapy. Panelists discussed mental health, oppression, and power structures, followed by a group activity on power structures. The discussion was moderated by Malek Yalaoui, a community projects manager at the SEDE.

Support group for racialized and ethnic minority students

The event launched a new Support Group for Racialized and Ethnic Minority Students; the support group aimed to create a facilitated space for racialized and marginalized students, as well as provide a non-judgemental environment where students can reflect on their identities and share their experience on campus. The theme of conversation in the group’s weekly meeting would be based on the needs of the group present that week. Students who identify as Black, as Indigenous, as people of Colour, or members of a racialized minority may access the group through McGill Counselling website.

“I think [the support group] is a very important safe space for students where they can come to talk about their experiences […] of microaggressions, […] feeling invisible, […] feeling denied, or feeling frustrated, […] whether it is from faculty, or their experience of the institution as a whole, or from classmates. It’s not about a fight or rebellion, it is about taking the time to stop and talk about how it has affected people and relations with each other. […] I can attest to the power of being witnessed, of being heard, of being able to understand and identify the oppression coming from outside. This can be very empowering versus internalizing it, and feeling very distraught inside.” said Boyard.

“It’s not about a fight or rebellion, it is about taking the time to stop and talk about how it has affected people and relations with each other. […] I can attest to the power of being witnessed, of being heard, of being able to understand and identify the oppression coming from outside. This can be very empowering versus internalizing it, and feeling very distraught inside.”

Boyard told The Daily that the support group is “part of an ongoing process” to address mental health for marginalized and racialized students at McGill saying that, “[the support group] addresses the issues related to the system and the structure that we have right now, which is meant to protect the privileged. […] I think up until now, there hasn’t be a space in this institution where they have a chance to do that.”

Power structure activity

After the panel discussion, the facilitators led a power structure activity where participants created a sculpture with objects in the room. The structure depicted a situation where one object had more “power” than others; one chair was placed above a table with five chairs on the floor surrounding one water bottle. Participants then reflected on which object had the most power and construed a definition of power based on the structure. One participant named the sculpture “Power Struggles”, as it represents a hierarchy with “no competition that contains “the power in structure.”

Delali Egyima, a psychology student in her third year at McGill commented on the parallels between “Power Struggles” and the McGill power structure. “I found the power structure to be very telling of […] the structure we all see of marginalized people and the different ways in which we are marginalized. […] With the McGill structure, there are some power structures that we can’t see and we aren’t told about such as the SSMU [Judiciary] board.”

While participants were encouraged to reflect on power structures, they were also directed to move the objects in such a way that represents the changes that would make the McGill community more inclusive. The participants placed all six chairs in a circle surrounding the water bottle, with the table flattened on the floor. The first set of changes were described as “equality”, “reform”, and “reparation” by the audience.

“I found the power structure to be very telling of […] the structure we all see of marginalized people and the different ways in which we are marginalized. […] With the McGill structure, there are some power structures that we can’t see and we aren’t told about such as the SSMU [Judiciary] board.”

Yasmin Beydoun, a student in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill, spoke about the importance of improving inclusivity at McGill, “I think [reforms on the sculpture] symbolize progress but also resilience […] I think it’s a start but I also acknowledge a lot of the work is on these […] Black Indigenous racialized folks, also folks who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled communities. […] We’re still the ones doing the work. It is being pushed forward by us, for us.”

“I think [reforms on the sculpture] symbolize progress but also resilience […] I think it’s a start but I also acknowledge a lot of the work is on these […] Black Indigenous racialized folks, also folks who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled communities. […] We’re still the ones doing the work. It is being pushed forward by us, for us.”

She also relayed the importance of acknowledging how more support for students is needed, “The system is still not doing all that it can to support and to further our mental health and wellbeing in general.”

“Systems are everywhere whether or not they are apparent to us or whether they are implicit. We live in a society that is structured, so […] McGill is a structure within itself, and these […] oppressive layers do exist, and in different ways […] To be able to have this space where we can visually dissect a power structure was […] powerful to see.”

Thrival over survival

The final sculpture was a circle shaped system with the chairs turned every other way, and the water bottle placed in the middle. The table was removed from the sculpture. Participants described the last sculpture as “community”, “peace” and “reconciliation”. One noted that the word “safety” comes to mind.

Shanice Yarde, the equity educational advisor at the SEDE told The Daily, “Through my work as an equity advisor, I see creating spaces for students of color, […] for racialized communities, […] as part of the work […] to not only speak their truth but to be validated, affirmed, and to feel that this is a place where […] they can be well in, and thrive.”

Yarde described “thinking about thrival beyond surviving” as a key part of a “cultural shift at McGill”.

“I think a lot of people are just fighting to survive at McGill,” continued Yarde. “I am interested in what the shifts should be in order to thrive, and to be well and happy. […] I think about Alice Walker quote, ‘the most common way people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any.’ […] An activity such as this, in a space such as this, affirms that we do have power even if it feels like we don’t […] The specific power activity […] was an opportunity to move a chair, to move a table, and to […] make the shift. […] This day is one piece of that.. [….] It means to recognize the power, to use it in ways that will enable our thrival.”

An earlier version of this article failed to mention that a fourth speaker, Helen Ogundeji had participated in the panel. The Daily regrets the error.


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