Perspective + voice
Social justice champion Dr. Késa Munroe-Anderson challenges us to listen, learn and be inclusive
By Fred Sgambati (’83)
For Acadia University Associate Professor Dr. Késa Munroe-Anderson (’99, ’00), the resolution of issues related to equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice depend on a simple equation: perspective plus voice equals representation. A powerful opponent of anti-Black racism and strong social justice champion, Munroe-Anderson embraces the value of lived and first voice experiences in the classroom, sharing her considerable personal and professional knowledge and encouraging students to do likewise in her Inclusive Education and Social Justice courses at Acadia. “We need to value first voice so that it’s integrated into our curriculum,” she says, “and bring lived experiences to spaces of knowledge and writing. Community participation is central for a spirited educational experience that is relational and liberating.” She cites the African concept of Kemet, which is connected to the Seba, or master teacher. As an educator, her goal is to open the door to the universe so her students can shine like stars. “Cultural context is very important,” she says, “and the need for representation is crucial. The space needs to have a multiplicity of voices and invite the knowledge of our students and their communities into the classroom. Ask the question, ‘Who is in your backyard?’ “I do not take it lightly to stand in front of a class,” she adds. “Those teachers are leaders, and the power is in their hands to shape lives. I’m here to help students understand who they are and what they represent. I use my voice, and want to look at myself in the mirror, look at my three children and have them be proud of me. I’ve had opportunities and mentors, and stand on the shoulders of many giants who have fought for change. How dare I not speak?”
Dr. Munroe-Anderson says, “I want to see myself, African Nova Scotians, Indigenous people, and racialized people being respected for the knowledge we have. We need to truly feel there is space for us.” And this, from Canadian politician, feminist, writer and educator Rosemary Brown, informs her work: “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.”
Perhaps the most fundamental of all her early mentors were her parents, Mizpah Munroe and Earnal Munroe. Munroe-Anderson grew up in Freeport, Grand Bahama in the Bahamas. Her mother taught for 49 years and during her early years, her father was a school principal, so Munroe-Anderson was familiar with and naturally understood the value of education. It was also a Christian home, and church activities very much shaped her culture and self-perception. She interacted with people to whom she could aspire and saw her own reflection in their faces. She was proud of that and it helped to develop her personal identity. The home, school, church and community environments were inspirational and nurturing, and when Munroe-Anderson left the Bahamas at the age of 18 to attend Acadia, she felt like she could do anything. The original post-secondary plan was to attend school in the United States, but Evelyn Pinder-Dames and her husband, Ron Dames (’82), an Acadia alumnus, encouraged her to consider Acadia. Uncle Ron would tell stories of wonderful, golden days on the Acadia campus and, to humour him if nothing else, Munroe-Anderson applied. The more he talked, however, the closer she looked because Uncle Ron was a trusted voice who had enjoyed many positive experiences in Wolfville. Munroe-Anderson came to campus in January 1995 and says that “God orchestrated my steps to be here.” She stayed in Cutten House all four years of her undergraduate degree and recalls arriving on an icy night, walking into the residence and seeing a student from Bermuda working the main desk. “She looked just like me,” Munroe-Anderson says. “She said ‘Welcome!’, we talked about church, and she invited me to come to church with her.” It was a pivotal moment. From there, she met students from other islands and places such as Uganda and Kenya. She joined the International Gospel Choir, served as its president, and found a faith community that became like family to her. They ate and hung out in McConnell Dining Hall, talking and chatting and supporting one another. “It was crucial to my success,” she says, “and gave me a feeling of inclusion.”
A defining moment that would inform her future occurred in Dr. Donna Smyth’s first-year English class. That’s where Munroe-Anderson encountered Fire on the Water, edited by Dr. George Elliott Clarke (’12 HON). The book included writing on the history of Africville and introduced Munroe-Anderson to African Nova Scotian history, teaching and Africville itself. She says, “I came alive and felt a connection to this place (Nova Scotia) like never before! I realized Black people had been here for hundreds of years, and I was super excited. It was a connection to my people I didn’t know I had, and it’s no coincidence that all of my work since can be linked to the African Nova Scotian community, fighting for equity, advocating for representation and social justice.” It was life-altering and she immediately felt part of something bigger. Discovering a curriculum that spoke to all students was a revelation, but Munroe-Anderson realized also that enslavement existed here in Nova Scotia and was connected to anti-Black racism that she herself experienced personally. However, the support of mentors like Dr. Lynn Aylward (’86) in Acadia’s School of Education and Dr. Susan Brigham at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax provided sustenance and encouragement. Aylward told her, ‘You’re better than what’s happening to you,” and Brigham, whom Munroe-Anderson has known for 16 years and who supervised her PhD thesis, nurtured and empowered her. In acknowledging Brigham in her thesis, Munroe-Anderson describes Brigham as “an othermother and a Seba in the academy to me. You have mentored me in more ways than you realize. I will always be grateful for the many doors you opened for me. If I am half the professor that you are, I will be outstanding!” Munroe-Anderson’s thesis also includes a poem she wrote entitled, ‘Dear Ugly Duckling’. Riffing on themes of metamorphosis and change, Munroe-Anderson says she wasn’t seeing herself and others reflected in her educational experiences. There are historical inequities, and the poem suggests how crucial it is for people of African descent to be reflected in every aspect of our being. We need to continually ask: what do the leaders and teachers look like? Who is missing, and why are they missing? “I’ve seen exclusion,” she says. “We need to be conscious of who has been left behind, and to have spaces, voices and lived experience at the table. They have so much to offer, and if they are not represented, it means someone believes they don’t exist, we don’t value their existence.”
No surprise, then, that Munroe-Anderson urges leaders at all levels to do better, and make it happen now. “There has to be a dialogue,” she says, “and I challenge our leadership at Acadia to seize this moment. Anti-racism means nothing without action, and I call on all of us to dialogue for equity, diversity, inclusion, and for critical social justice.” We must listen, learn, take responsibility, and act. Authenticity is important and, in mentoring her students, Munroe-Anderson strives to provide them with the tools they need to be changemakers and champions. “It’s about community engagement in our classrooms. Every teacher has an opportunity of privilege and power to effect change. As a university, we need to be proactive and engage; show that we care, that we desire and need to recruit students from our own backyard. It’s not up to racialized people to fit in. This work is about inequities being recognized and actioning change.” We all have work to do, Munroe-Anderson concludes. Now and in the future, and mentorship is a key component to raising our level of education and ensuring that all constituents are indeed heard. “I want to see myself, African Nova Scotians, Indigenous people, and racialized people being respected for the knowledge we have. We need to truly feel there is space for us.” Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it. It’s a critical observation and one that governs Késa Munroe-Anderson’s life and teachings, both in and out of the classroom.