New program at Western University seeks to empower London's future Black leaders

CBC News

Isha Bhargava · CBC News · Posted: Nov 11, 2022

A significant goal for Western University student Olateju Obisesan is to bridge the gap between her city and its Black community by helping provide them with the support they need. 

It's an ambition that made her one of 20 members of Western's new Black Leadership University Experience (BLUE), which strives to provide Black students with work experience and networking opportunities within the London, Ont., community. 

"A program that's specifically for Black students shows us that we're special, and they recognize a lot of us that need certain opportunities in life, which we may not get otherwise," Obisesan said.

BLUE facilitates part-time employment at a variety of host organizations funded by the university. With each experience valued at $6,300 over the course of five months, students get to choose their challenges and work alongside a dedicated mentor.

Obisesan's mentor, Yvonne Asare-Bediako, believes the program benefits not only students but the entire London community as a whole.

"Being a former Western student myself and not having those supports or a mentor even to direct me in a way, I see this as an opportunity for the students to apply the lens they get on the field to the work they're doing in school," she said.

As a liaison with the City, Asare-Bediako's working on the Anti-Black racism plan, which Obisesan will assist with. The two will do community consultations to learn more about the Black experience and suggest recommendations on which supports would work best. 

A 'plethora of opportunities'

Currently in its first year, the program was meant to host 15 students, but the "overwhelmingly positive responses" led the office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) to increase that number to 20, said Jessica Ouko, the project's lead.

"The goal is for students to have meaningful experiences they can call their own and challenges that allow them to leave an impact on the organizations they work with," she said.

Obisesan says she's excited to do some field research, which she believes can offer some more insight into an individual's lived experiences rather than just theory and statistics.

"I'll work directly in the communities with people. I get to talk to them, see what they need, and how we can make it a real thing," she said. "I want to be involved in the process and in making real tangible plans." 

Asare-Bediako hopes that along with opening up a plethora of opportunities for Obisesan, it can also help her be the bridge between practice and theory while learning about governmental affairs.

"Sometimes in our community, we steer clear of politics and don't engage as much, and I think it's an opportunity to get to know what the city does as a corporation," she said. "As a student, you get a mentor who's going to invest in you based on what they've learned, so you're coming into a space where you can actually learn practical skills that benefit you to transition from academia into the community."

BLUE's progress will be evaluated from November to April, with the goal of expanding it to host more students in years to come, Ouko said.