Our President Is Black

Susanne Nyaga is the first Black woman to hold Ryerson’s highest student office. Halfway into her tenure, the activist turned politician talks about what it’s been like in the president’s chair.

Susanne Nyaga sits in front of the Egerton Ryerson statue at Ryerson University. Nov. 22, 2017. (Photo by Natasha Hermann)

***

A modest corner office on the third floor of Ryerson’s student centre is home to the school’s student union president. Just outside the door, the entire floor has been littered with equity slogans and event paraphernalia— an ode to the woman it houses.

Her name is Susanne Nyaga. She sits confidently, but greets me with the warmth of an old friend. Although typically donning a long braided look, today her hair is curly— a reimagining of the sort of thing we’d see from Chaka Khan in the ‘80s. It’s a fittingly unapologetic expression of her identity.

Nyaga is the first of her kind to hold Ryerson’s highest student office. She’s a black woman, an immigrant, and an unabashed social justice activist — she also makes no qualms about reminding you if you happen to forget.

She speaks in paragraphs — a sort of middle ground between political-speak and a more traditional activist vernacular, where “marginalized folks” are front and centre for nearly every conversation regarding her time as president.

Susanne Nyaga in front of Ryerson’s Gould Street Egerton Ryerson statue. (Photo by Natasha Hermann)

She is an anomalous character in Ryerson’s political history as well, an outsider to the system. Some may describe her as an activist playing president — an actor who has managed to make her way behind enemy lines with hopes of flipping Ryerson’s political structure on its head.

Which, if you ask her, is at least half right.

Nyaga is refreshingly open about her progressive convictions. Among them is her hope to change the name of the university, to remove Egerton Ryerson’s likeness from the university, her vehement support of Black Lives Matter Toronto, and desire for free university education.

She is Ryerson’s rebel with a cause — a number of them.

Nyaga emigrated from Kenya as a six-year-old, eventually settling in Hamilton, ON. She describes a typical diaspora experience: seeing her first snowfall, watching her parents undertake menial jobs, and suffering a desperate struggle to grapple with her own identity.

In Kenya, Nyaga was never made to think about her blackness, because everyone was black. Hate, bigotry and conflict were typically due to sectarianism and rivalrous tribal disagreement, not because of the colour of your skin. For her, Hamilton gave new life to the word “racism.”

“Me and my sister were playing in the park with a new family on our street, we were about seven-to-eight. The dad of the kids we were playing with starts screaming at his kids, saying ‘Why are you playing with black kids? All black children have guns,’” Nyaga says. “That was the first time we were like, ‘wow, racism is real.’ ”

For Nyaga, childhood in Hamilton meant attending schools where she was the only racialized student in the room. In a larger sense, it’s an analogy of her time in the Ontario city.

Ostracized for her then thick Kenyan accent, or the traditional food she would bring during school lunch hours, she’d grown used to becoming the “other.”

Nyaga wanted a change, and decided to make the move to Ryerson in 2013 after thinking to herself, “It’s in central, downtown Toronto, I’m going to apply for residence, it’s probably going to be a whole bunch of dope racialized folks.” Instead, she quickly realized she was the only black person on her floor, and one of only a few in the entire 14-floor Pitman Hall residence.

She says student groups helped give her the sense of community that she was longing for.

“They saved me,” Nyaga says.

Susanne Nyaga sits in front of the RAC, one of Ryerson University’s athletic centre in the Quad. Nov. 22, 2017. (Photo by Natasha Hermann)

In the years since then, Nyaga has chaired and co-chaired a number of student groups on campus in an effort to give back.

When asked about what inspired her to take on her role as RSU president, Nyaga softens into her chair and looks up at the ceiling.

“I thought, if I don’t step in, who will?” she says in a hushed tone.

One thing is clear: Nyaga wasn’t happy with the RSU.

She gives the specific example of the RSU’s vice-president of equity position, saying, “If you don’t understand equity, and you don’t understand how to be an ally, you should never take that role. You’re doing more harm than good. And the past two years, that position was not filled by somebody that was doing work.”

She uses the RSU’s slashing of both RyeACCESS and the Racialised Students’ Collective as examples of the way past decisions by the union have overlooked marginalized communities.

Despite identifying these issues, and creating a clear vision for change at Ryerson, Nyaga didn’t think she had much of a shot at winning the election.

She decided to give it a go anyway, recruiting a Justice League of characters from around campus to run on her slate, Elevate. She reached out to students around campus she thought were doing progressive work — or as she calls them, “leaders in social justice.”

“There have always been woke students here, it was just about finding them,” Nyaga says. “We’d figure everything else out after.”

When asked about election night, she recalls the wait for results to roll in. Her eyes are back on the ceiling, fixed. An involuntary smile is immediately wiped from the corner of her lips, as she talks about coming to terms with the fact that, although successful that night, much of her slate was not.

As the winners were announced, Camryn Harlick’s name was one of the first. When they won, Nyaga was convinced the rest of the slate would follow suit. But, one by one, she watched as every other member came up short. President was named last, and when her name was announced as winner, she describes her reaction thus, “I was like, ‘oh shit’ …I was a little shook.”

As her tenure as president finally got underway, Nyaga found that “the Canada 150 thing” was the beginning of a lot of her issues with the student union. Nyaga and vice-president of equity (Harlick) thought Canada’s history of anti-Indigenous racism should be a featured part of the university’s so-called celebration .  People disagreed.

“There was no communication at all, and (there were) dynamics people weren’t willing to understand. Nobody made an effort to speak to the first Indigenous member of the RSU (Harlick), and instead they went to the media — we were attacked in the media.”

Nyaga also mentions her very real intentions to remove Ryerson’s current namesake from the university’s legacy — starting with the name, and the stately Egerton Ryerson statue that looms over students on Gould Street.

Our eyes are now locked. Nyaga takes a deep breath and says, “these are all just ideas, but in a perfect world, we’d like to change Ryerson’s name, and take down that Egerton Ryerson statue. Ryerson students deserve more than that.”

As we speak, she perks up when asked about name suggestions. Among the names she has heard, Jack Layton University stands out, “I loved that one. I think Jack was an amazing person.” Other candidates are Central Toronto University, or for the school to be named after an Indigenous leader.

Ryerson University is known, somewhat informally, as an oasis of creative liberal ideals. And for this, since becoming president, Nyaga has faced criticisms of bias —  particularly from conservative students on campus. And it’s a fact she’s very aware of.

“Complete objectivity is impossible. We are very biased, but biased towards students on campus — all of them.”

Susanne Nyaga sits in front of a white board in the George Vari Engineering Building at Ryerson University. Nov. 22, 2017. (Photo by Natasha Hermann)

There’s a pause in our conversation as I asked about a panel discussion on free speech that was cancelled on campus earlier this year, and the keynote speaker, Jordan Peterson. Nyaga recoils at the mention of the controversial University of Toronto psychology professor. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about him.

Although not a product of the community, Peterson has become a favourite of the far right. He’s also known to doxx campus activists  —  a practice of publicly broadcasting identifying information of people you take issue with. With a fan base that extends to 256,000 on Twitter and 513,000 on YouTube, doxxing enemies—for Peterson—is feeding red meat to a rabid group ready to pounce on whoever is pointed to.

Most recently, Peterson doxxed two student activists in the wake of Ryerson’s cancelled free speech event, which lead to throes of violent harassment for the students in question. He’s also known best for his adamant refusal of the use of gender-neutral pronouns, and he has become a central figure in nearly every conversation on free-speech in Canada.

Standing up, Nyaga says “he should be fired  —  U of T are losing out on students because people just don’t feel safe anymore.”

As far-right ideas make their way further into the mainstream, they’ve made their way to Ryerson as well. For Nyaga, finding a common ground can be a difficult task.

“Far-right, cis, white men are crying about how everyone is a snowflake, now that we’ve come to the table. But the reality is, when you hear them begging for the ‘good old days,’  those days never involved people like me.”

Nyaga looks to challenge the contemporary conservative understanding of free speech as well. To her, it’s a tool to empower voices that have been historically marginalized, not for people at the top of the power structure to perpetuate hate.

“Freedom of speech isn’t hate speech, and it doesn’t mean freedom of consequences either,” she says.  

When asked if Ryerson has the intention of silencing campus voices, she makes clear that the university has made these decisions independently of the RSU. But moving forward, she says “we have equity policies, and anything that doesn’t follow our policies will get shut down. It’s very simple…We will shut it down.”

Susanne Nyaga at Ryerson’s George Vari Engineering and Computing centre.  (Photo by Natasha Hermann)

Over the course of my more than one-hour conversation with Nyaga, the parallels between her and a bright-eyed, first-term Barack Obama are clear. For one, she’s Kenyan, and the first of her kind to hold her office at Ryerson. She has also entered politics at Ryerson as a complete outsider to the system, and she has been slighted because of it.

“People are not happy that I’m sitting here, and they’ve created barriers for me to do the most basic things,” she says. “There is an intentional effort, whether by executives or by the board, to exclude, rework and alienate the responsibilities as president, because I’m the one sitting as president.”

Politics at Ryerson is a fraternal sport — once you’re in, you’re in. Well, Nyaga was never “in,” and she never wanted to be. She never desired a career in politics, and still doesn’t. She has also made it very clear that although grateful, she doesn’t look at her position now as a launching board for what’s coming next.

Her work as president is a cousin to the grassroots work she’d grown used to as an activist. It has also crystallized her understanding of the political process, and given her an eye behind the curtain, helping her understand the step-by-step processes of politics in a new and more intimate way.

When asked about her legacy, Nyaga seems almost indifferent — by this point she’s comfortable, shoulders back, eyes up, and her right leg relaxed over her left. She says she hasn’t figured out who she’d like her successor to be, but that they need to share in a real desire for people-oriented politics, and for change.

She admits though, the thought of someone being elected and undoing all she’s done this year is a scary one.

“I want someone that doesn’t want to use the RSU to exploit it for its financial resources for themselves and their friends.”

She adds that she wishes she had someone like her when she was in her first year, someone she could’ve looked up to. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Nyaga is a child of the diaspora, and a beacon of hope for many on campus. The daughter of the African horn has made it around the world — more than 15 hours from where she was born. And in a single generation, she’s made it further than most.

In her burns a revolutionary spirit for change, one she has chosen to articulate through the politics of her presidency . As our conversation comes to a close, she takes deep a breath, smiles and says: “I will never let a political role silence me. I’m not a politician, I’m an activist.”

And whether you agree, you’d better believe —  she means every word.

 

One Comment

  1. great article. well done.

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