Isalean Harris

Emerging Scholar  

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I first became interested in equity and diversity issues after spending four years as an undergraduate student and only ever encountering one Black female professor. 

I moved to Halifax in 2012 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. I fell in love with the city, I created lasting friendships and developed a strong connection to my university community through various student leadership roles. Upon graduation in 2016, I was encouraged to continue studies as a graduate student in the Women & Gender Studies program at Saint Mary’s University (SMU). 

I was familiar with employment equity, in fact, universities made their commitment to improving equity among women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities, explicitly clear on job postings publicized for faculty recruitment. Yet, in Atlantic Canada, the reality of underrepresentation among Black and other racialized women professors was a bit too obvious for me to ignore. I questioned the effectiveness of university employment equity policies; if employment equity was intended to remove systemic barriers for historically disadvantaged groups, then why wasn't I seeing more Black women professors? This question became the topic and focus of my graduate research and thesis. 

My investigation shed light on equity policy failures at two popular universities in Nova Scotia – Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University. By assessing the effectiveness of university employment equity policies I was able to expose gaps in representation among Black women faculty. Ultimately, my thesis helps to explain how systemic racism and sexism manifest through ineffective equity and diversity policies and practices.

In March 2019, after a successful thesis defense, I was contacted by a journalist who was writing a news article about my research findings and analyses. As a reporter with the local newspaper she curated news on education in the Maritimes; after learning about my research from a professor in her network, she asked to meet for an interview and photo. About two days after our meeting, I saw my face featured on the front page of the Halifax Metro – I (and my research) made front page news! It was surreal, but I felt proud. My scholarship garnered national attention, which only complemented the advocacy and scholarship already being done by established academics around equity, diversity and inclusion in Canadian academia. 

I am grateful for my mentors, friends and allies whose support enabled me to impact public discourse and influence university policy and programming decisions. The insights gained and lessons learned throughout the entire research process helped to shape my growth as a Black woman and emerging scholar. I am pleased that I was able to uplift the voices of Black women scholars, whose experiences of neglect and mistreatment in the professoriate resonate too well with other racialized women trying to carve out space for themselves and the communities of colour they represent. While I am grateful for the honour and accolades surrounding my scholarly achievements, I am inspired and humbled by the resilience and courage shown by many women of colour who work tirelessly to bring social justice into the education system.


What are you most proud of professionally? And who or why?

First, I am very proud of the opportunities I gained to influence and inform university policy and programming decisions. As a result of my research, I was invited to present and consult with the Dalhousie Senate Committee and with senior administrators, including the president and faculty deans of Saint Mary’s University.  On both occasions, I used my findings to offer recommendations on how to improve equity, diversity and inclusion among faculty; I was also pleased to learn more about each institution’s plans and the efforts in progress to address shortcomings in their policy and programming practices. These were positive professional experiences for me, they were a great kickstart to my career in policy analysis, research and development. 

Another proud and significant professional achievement for me was being awarded the 2018-19 Governor General's Academic gold medal. I am no stranger to excelling academically but receiving this esteemed honour was beyond my expectations. Receiving a gold medal for my research and scholarship really makes me feel like I won the academic Olympics (if that were ever a thing). I am extremely proud of this achievement since the recognition signifies the diligence and hard work that I've put into building myself as a scholar ever since I can remember. 

What was your greatest stage of growth? What made it a shift for you?

I would say that I am currently working through the greatest and my most challenging growth phase right now. I am focused on defining who I am, the things I want to accomplish and the kind of person I want to be. I spend more time being introspective, strengthening personal relationships and establishing better spiritual, mental, and physical self-care habits. While I acknowledge I have many strengths and accomplishments under my belt, I am learning to account for and improve upon my shortcomings. I try to step out of my comfort zone more and face challenges I would typically try to avoid. I choose to make this shift - searching inwards and pushing myself to become better - because I believe growth is a choice and to become better versions of ourselves requires stretching in ways that don't always feel natural or comfortable.

What’s your deepest learning from this past year? 

It always seems impossible until it is done – Nelson Mandela 

In the years I spent researching and writing my thesis, I became emotionally and psychologically worn down. I felt isolated, suffered through panic attacks, managed unexplainable anxiety, and I experienced obstacles that felt insurmountable at the time. In those moments, I felt defeated and uncertain of my ability to see the entire project through. However, thanks to family and friends who took care of me, uplifted my spirit and reminded me regularly of the importance of my research and scholarly advocacy, I was able to overcome episodes of self-doubt. Now, when I commit to accomplishing a goal, I try to shift my perception of the challenges by appreciating setbacks and failures as life lessons and essential opportunities for growth along the way. 

Who’s inspired you, directly or indirectly? How have they inspired you?

My thesis supervisor, Dr. Benita Bunjun, was a constant source of inspiration during my graduate program. I worked closely with her from the outset of my studies and I have been inspired by her courage to challenge the system and the institution in order to change the status quo for the better. She was a strong advocate for the recruitment and hiring of an Indigenous elder on campus because she recognised this was a resource needed (and desired) to better serve the marginalized Indigenous student population. She also leveraged the research we were doing together to influence the recruitment and hiring of a tenure-stream Black woman faculty member, who is now employed at SMU to provide expertise in Africana studies and Black history as an interdisciplinary Black feminist scholar. I continue to be amazed by how Benita sets out to get things done; she’s a real changemaker who grew to be an inspiring source of motivation for me. Through my own story and experiences, I wish to inspire others in similar ways. I hope other students become motivated to pursue academic research with an understanding that the knowledge they create is valuable and can be impactful enough to impact public discourse and influence institutional or systems change. 

What would you have done differently?

I would have practised better self-care. I’m still learning how to do this but as this past year has taught me, figuring out how to balance and sustain my own well-being – mental, emotional and physical – is a necessary defense and coping mechanism against life events and situations that can take their toll on you in multiple and unexpected ways. 

What are the principles you live by?

I live by faith in God, who I believe represents a power beyond what anyone can imagine. 

I live in love and practice treating all persons with dignity, respect and care. 

I maintain a firm belief that I have something positive to offer this world, and however I end up making my mark, I am sure it will all pay off in the end.


Analyst, Researcher, Writer, On life’s journey of becoming...