May 31, 2022

Class of 2022: Black Lives Matter movement inspires UCalgary grad to help reshape Faculty of Law opportunities

Keshia Holloman-Dawson leaves behind a legacy for future Black law students
Keshia Holloman-Dawson
Keshia Holloman-Dawson has worked to help improve diversity in Faculty of Law. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Student diversity has played big part in change and growth at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. Keshia Holloman-Dawson, who graduates this spring with Juris Doctor and Master of Public Policy degrees, as well as the Dean Wylie Social Responsibility Award, saw the need for improvement in engaging and recruiting Black, Indigenous and racialized students.

Holloman-Dawson co-wrote the UCalgary Black Law Students’ Association’s (BSLA) Calls to Action, which eventually led her to assist in the development and implementation of the new Black Student Admissions Process (BSAP). These calls to action also called for more financial support, diversifying curriculum and anti-racism training.

It was then no wonder that, in 2021, Holloman-Dawson won the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Award from the University of Calgary. She was also recipient of a 2020 Women of Inspiration award.

The UCalgary Faculty of Law now teaches 70 per cent of Black law students in Alberta. Furthermore, the incoming class for this fall has the largest number of Black students in the faculty's history. which is “a testament to the excellence of diversity,” says Holloman-Dawson, who also received a Bachelor of Arts (major in law and society) from UCalgary in 2020.

You are the president of the Calgary Chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association. What drove your pursuit for this position?

I started out as the vice-president of events in my first year. I was asked by one of the upper-year students to join the club. There were only six of us in the entire Faculty of Law, so it was easy for her to find us and ask us to join. That year, we went to the Black Students’ Association of Canada National Conference. It was there that I saw just how many Black law students there were in Canada, and it was nice to have a community there, but we didn’t have that big of a community at UCalgary. At the end of the year, I was asked to be president out of more of a need to ensure the club endured, but being as actively involved in all these EDI initiatives came from the summer of 2020, when three of the six Black students graduated, leaving only three of us [in the faculty]. With the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, we decided we wanted to ensure that something so negative and tragic could at least become a catalyst for change in our law school.

You have also initiated the Black Students Admissions Process. What was your driver for taking on this initiative?

The admissions process gives student applicants the opportunity to speak about barriers that they overcome, that might be different from the status quo, but it can also give them space to speak about their culture and how Black culture has influenced or inspired them to pursue law. For example, my personal experiences as a Black woman have showed me the value of different perspectives and the role intersectionality plays. You have a limited area to speak about how those experiences shaped who you are and so I decided to focus on how the strong women in my life influenced me growing up. Had I had the space to speak about my Black culture and heritage, I would have. We felt it was something important for students to be able to speak to, should they choose. Plus, we had done some research on other faculties — the University of Toronto had a process — and our faculty already had a holistic admissions process that considered statements of interest, as well as GPA and LSAT score, so it seemed like a really good fit for our faculty to expand and include this.

Your Calls to Action have been integral in addressing systemic racism and lack of diversity. Can you describe your approach to solving the problem you knew had to be solved?

I remember walking in on my first day of law school and only seeing one other Black person … you lack a sense of community where you feel safe enough to be your authentic self. When you are having those difficult discussions about the over-representation of Indigenous and Black people in the penal system, everyone kind of expects you to have an opinion. The way we wanted to change that is not by making it easier for Black students, so to speak, but by creating community; by gaining students’ trust enough to enter this institution that historically excluded them. This is precisely why we also had written a few other things into our Calls to Action that included scholarships and work opportunities for Black students and diversifying the faculty through the hiring process.

Your Calls to Action are a driving force for change out here in Western Canada. What impact do you think these changes will have not only locally, but also at an institutional or even the law profession?

I would hope that other faculties and universities draw inspiration from the collaborative spirit between BLSA and the faculty, and how amazing the results have been since the BSAP’s implementation. Also, not just the Black Students Admissions Process, but looking at the sheer number of scholarships available and the hybrid model for scholarships/mentorship/internship that we have taken. For instance, a few of the larger scholarships that we have now give incoming students a $10,000 scholarship for their first year, but then it’s attached to optional internship and plenty of different mentorship opportunities — using those models as a guiding principle. The admissions process also mimics group hiring practices. This could be a helpful model for different organizations. If you are going to diversify, you don’t want one person to come into an environment that’s possibly hostile, alone. At least, if they are coming in as a group, they have a little bit of a sense of community and have a little more impact when they voice concerns or solutions. Overall, my hope for the future is that this is a jumping-off point. If this is what a few students can kick-start, imagine what we can all do when we work together.

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