March 11, 2021

Ijeoma Oluo, author of 'So You Want to Talk About Race' to speak at UCalgary

Celebrated writer, speaker and internet yeller will give interactive online talk March 15 as part of the Graduate College's Inspirational Dialogues series
Author and speaker Ijeoma Oluo
Author and speaker Ijeoma Oluo. Samuel Engelking

The Graduate College is inviting the campus community to hear from celebrated writer, speaker, and self-described “internet yeller” Ijeoma Oluo on Monday, March 15.

Oluo is author of the #1 New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race and most recently, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Oluo’s work on race has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She was also named to the 2021 TIME 100 Next list. She will be the first international speaker to participate in the college’s Inspirational Dialogues series.

Oluo's most recent book is 'Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America'

Courtesy Ijeoma Oluo

Big dreams begin in book clubs

“We were surprised that Ijeoma was available,” says event co-organizer and biochemistry and molecular biology master’s student, Shiama Thiageswaran. “The head of the college, Dr. James Wasmuth, has always encouraged us to dream big and share ideas for events we’d like to organize. We knew that we had the support of the college when we were reaching out to her team, and that the biggest potential obstacle would be Ijeoma’s availability. I hope that she will be the first of many international speakers participating in the Inspirational Dialogues series.”

The idea to approach Oluo was sparked through reading So You Want to Talk About Race in the college’s equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) book club. The club is co-organized by Thiageswaran and her colleague Cindy Kalenga, a Leaders in Medicine student currently completing both MD and PhD degrees through the Cumming School of Medicine’s Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

“We moderate the EDI book club so that students from all racial backgrounds can have a safe space to explore ideas about race,” says Kalenga. “We researched books that would provide an entry point into this large and complex topic. Fortunately, Oluo’s book provides an accessible jumping-off point for thoughtful discourse on race and offers guidance through various topics including privilege, oppression and more.”

Thiageswaran concurs: “Oluo is extremely insightful, providing readers with historical context and statistics in her writing. But every chapter also included anecdotes about how the topics she has written about have come into play in her own life. Her personal stories were relatable to many in our book club, and the desire to ask her to delve further into how she has personally addressed these topics is a big reason why we wanted to ask her to speak.”

Leaders in Medicine student Cindy Kalenga

Leaders in Medicine student Cindy Kalenga.

Courtesy Cindy Kalenga

Talking about race in post-secondary education

Race and racism are complex topics, especially in large institutions where structural and systemic biases may exist without being overt. “There is definitely a shared responsibility to talk about racism. However, I’m unsure about how many people on campus realize this,” says Thiageswaran. “I think that while many people may want to share the responsibility and do anti-racist work, they can feel intimidated about having conversations about race. The fear of saying something racist or coming off as ignorant may hold a lot of people back. Creating safe spaces to have these conversations is so important.”

Kalenga echoes the sentiment. “As we hear the life experiences and perspectives of our peers, we recognize that we’re all approaching conversations on race from a different vantage point. Herein lies the challenge and the opportunity! Listening to others allows us to recognize patterns that we may have missed, highlighting that addressing racism is a collaborative experience.

“Far too often the burden of responsibility for addressing racism falls on minorities. As you can imagine, this is exhausting and unfair. This book has given me an opportunity to recognize that addressing racism requires a collaborative approach and I don’t have to face it alone. Building connections with like-minded people allows us to support each other in the fight against racism.”

MSc student Shiama Thiageswaran

MSc student Shiama Thiageswaran.

Courtesy Shiama Thiageswaran

Inspirational Dialogues series

The Inspirational Dialogues series invites thought leaders to speak with students, faculty and staff at the University of Calgary. The monthly talks are on a wide range of topics and include small group dialogues based on prompts developed by the college scholars organizing the events.

In January, the prompt for author and journalist Chris Turner’s talk was related to climate change,” says Thiageswaran. “Using Zoom is particularly helpful for this, as the audience can easily be split up into smaller groups using breakout rooms. If it were not for Zoom, many would not be able to attend.”

As head of college, Wasmuth is impressed with the initiative demonstrated by Kalenga, Thiageswaran and the other scholars. “I was delighted when Cindy and Shiama proposed to run a book club on Ijeoma's book. I suggested that they consider inviting Ijeoma to speak, and they've done brilliantly,” says Wasmuth. “I am excited to attend this event, it is a wonderful personal learning opportunity and one that I hope members of the university community will take advantage of.”

“At the graduate college, our core values are to connect, enrich and energize our communities,” says Wasmuth. “Our scholars are really living up to those values through initiatives like Inspirational Dialogues, which are of great value to the graduate student and university community on the whole.”

Since the series launched in September 2020, speakers have included:

  • Kathleen Petty (Executive Producer, CBC Calgary news)
  • Chris Turner (best-selling author on energy transition and culture)
  • Dr. Brenda Kenny, PhD (chair of Alberta Innovates)
  • Dr. Malinda Smith, PhD (VP, equity, diversity and inclusion for the University of Calgary
  • Dr. Jay Cross, PhD (professor, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada)

Register for Monday's Inspirational Dialogue with Ijeoma Oluo

This event takes place online on Monday, March 15 at 2 p.m. (MST). Registration is open to all UCalgary students, faculty and staff. Registration requires your email address.