Rhema Ferguson believes fear creates barriers. Fear is one of the factors that informs discrimination she explains. It’s the basis for prejudice and inequity. Fear she thinks is also what prevents you from becoming your whole self.
Rhema Ferguson is not afraid.
So there she was, in the middle of the country, surrounded by seas of wheat, but what Ferguson really wanted was to be near the ocean. So she made a plan to leave Saskatchewan where she had a job and head back to Nova Scotia where she didn’t. The move was a couple of years in the making, but it happened, bringing her to Halifax in the middle of the pandemic. Luckily for Ferguson, she was able to continue working for the University of Saskatchewan, remotely.
It seemed like, for the short term at least, a great solution.
“Then a friend of mine heard about the job at King’s as Equity Officer and she said—’Oh this would be perfect for you!’ So when I looked at the posting I went—Yes! This is exactly what I want to do!”
Ferguson applied, got the job and started work in early July.
“It was the cherry on top of this really great cake,” she says, beaming.
(Her name, by the way is pronounced “Ray-ma. Like a ray of sunshine!” Fitting.)
The job of Equity Officer is a relatively new position at King’s. It’s one of many initiatives the university has undertaken in recent years to increase equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Others include new faculty hires from under represented groups, the Scholarly Inquiry on King’s and Slavery, and the development of new courses such as Reporting in Mi’kma’ki in the School of Journalism.
Ferguson is excited to be part of the process and knows there is still much to do.
“I am here as a resource to make sure that EDI is entrenched in everything we do, for whatever practices are started and whatever decisions are being made. I will be there to make sure that there is a voice for EDI.”
That will mean for instance advising faculty and administration and working with the Equity and Accessibility Committees. She will also receive and document complaints of discrimination. A peek at the job description shows her primary focus is to help create “a more positive, diverse and welcoming campus climate for all.”
“One of the things I want to do at King’s is create spaces for people that allow them to bring their whole selves to King’s. People should feel comfortable being their complete selves wherever they go. But unfortunately that is not the case for a lot of places. With the help of faculty and the administration and the students, I want to create an environment that allows people to be who they are.”
Ferguson grew up in the Bahamas. At 17 she opted to study in Canada. She went to Acadia University for the Environmental and Sustainability Program. She says it was a bit of a shock, that first week in Wolfville.
“It was a new place, my first time away on my own and not seeing myself reflected back to me. Bahamas is diverse but it is 80% Black. I grew up in an Afro-centric way with the same kinds of faces around me.”
Being in the minority was an interesting lesson for Ferguson.
“There’s a lot of times when you do feel ‘othered’. There are times when you are nervous and scared. You have to learn how to live in a place that is different from your home and culture.”
After graduating Ferguson went back to the Bahamas for a few months. Then she got a job doing what she found she loved—working with university students on campus. It was at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“I was a part of a group that opened queer housing within residence. It’s a safe space for people who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+ where they can live with other members of their community.”
It was after six years helping students fit in at the U of S that Ferguson headed east.
“I will have to learn quickly where King’s is in the EDI world. Once I get that I want to do a lot of proactive work, especially in the area of Indigenization. Saskatchewan has a large Indigenous population and I learned a lot while I was there. Here you don’t see as much. I want to make sure the BIPOC community has safe spaces. But I want to make sure that other marginalized groups are not left behind. If you do lift one group up, you need to do so for the others to have a level playing field. But I don’t have a precise game plan yet. I have work to do.”
One of her goals though is to work with President Lahey. He had prepared a report for the King’s Board of Governors [PDF] last year on where the University was on EDI and what areas needed attention.
Ferguson says she wants to work with the President to create a solid strategic plan for King’s to increase equity, diversity and inclusion. It will lead to, she believes, a more diverse and welcoming climate for all.
“My ideal campus would be an incubator for personal growth. Students need a place where they are comfortable enough to learn. People, who come here, come here for growth. So we need to have a safe environment, a place where you can explore all different aspects of who you are. And you need to be able to fail. Sometimes the road to right is wrong. This is their time to discover and grow into what they want to become and to become the citizens we hope they will be once they leave the little nest of King’s. “