DIVERSE co-presidents Charlie Swain (second from left) and Azy Behnam-Shabahang (right). Supplied photos.

WCVM students create club to increase diversity

Motivated by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, a group of students at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) have created a new college club.

By Katie Brickman-Young

WCVM DIVERSE (Diversity and Inclusivity in the Veterinary Environment: Respect, Solidarity, Empowerment) is working to shine a much-needed light on racism, exclusion and discrimination within the veterinary profession.

“The club started from an intense desire to make a difference in response to the events that unfolded in the summer of 2020,” says Asadeh (Azy) Behnam-Shabahang, co-president of WCVM DIVERSE. “The Black Lives Matter movement was a stark reminder that inequity across race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity is still very much systemically entrenched in our everyday lives.”

Behnam-Shabahang is of Persian descent. She was born and raised in Germany and immigrated  to Canada with her family when she was 11 years old. Her co-president is Charlene (Charlie) Swain who belongs to the NunatuKavut Nation (territory of Inuit who reside in central/southern Labrador).

Both are third-year veterinary students as well as mothers who want to create a safe space for BIPOC veterinary students and their allies while promoting and forging a path forward for future BIPOC vet students. Ultimately, WCVM DIVERSE aims to increase inclusivity for all regardless of race, gender identity, sex, age, religion, family status or disability.

“We wanted to create a club that celebrates the diversity that makes us all unique and to create a safe space to discuss relevant topics like anti-racism and anti-discrimination,” says Swain. “We also want to increase awareness for the under-represented groups for veterinary medicine and instil confidence in our members to become pro-active advocates of anti-racism and anti-discrimination.”

The club’s priorities are to serve as a source of information, support and network for BIPOC veterinary students. Another goal is to promote education on pro-active anti-racism and anti-discrimination through discussions, guest speakers and outreach initiatives.

“Everything that came to light with the BLM movement and the backlash of that movement — as well as the vilifying and xenophobic misinformation surrounding the pandemic — made visible minority groups simply not feel safe,” states Behnam-Shabahang.

“It was important for us to provide a space that allows BIPOC students and their allies to freely express these very valid fears, concerns and emotions.  ”

The student-organized club formed in the summer of 2020 and became official last fall. It has a full board and includes 40 members, along with two faculty advisors. Behnam-Shabahang initially reached out to some of her connections in Vancouver, B.C., and OVC DIVERSE, a group created at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). Through discussions, OVC DIVERSE shared their organization’s framework with Behnam-Shabahang so the WCVM group could follow in their colleagues’ footsteps.

Canada has no statistics recorded on diversity in the veterinary field. In the United States, Black Americans never make up more than three per cent of the profession. In October 2020, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) established a diversity and inclusion working group to identify high-priority steps for addressing this issue and ensuring diversity and inclusion in the Canadian veterinary profession.

Swain and Behnam-Shabahang believe there is a lack of diversity in veterinary medicine and hope groups like theirs will help change the profession. With the aid of their executive team and the student CVMA representative, talks on collecting data on diversity in veterinary medicine have begun.

“Although it is obvious [that] there is a lack of diversity, it is always good to back that up with statistics,” says Behnam-Shabahang. “It also gives us a starting point, and it’s important to know where we stand.”

By creating this group and connecting with other diversity college groups across Canada, Behnam-Shabahang says their goal is to provide the tools and language for future veterinarians to become “culturally competent stewards of anti-discrimination” — not just for themselves, but for their colleagues and their future clientele.

“Veterinarians are working in an increasingly diverse world, and we should be making a conscious effort to be creating a welcoming environment for clients and co-workers from a variety of backgrounds. I think if we increase diversity, we can improve access to veterinary care for many under-represented groups,” says Swain.

“Having a group like WCVM DIVERSE is important because we, as future veterinarians, are going to be working with people from a variety of races, ethnicities, sexual orientation and ability. Having this group allows students to interact with people of all different backgrounds and prepares them for that diverse workforce as they enter the professional world.”

WCVM DIVERSE will work collaboratively with other diversity, equity and inclusion groups across Canada, student representatives of the CVMA and clubs at the WCVM such as One-Welfare Veterinary Outreach (OVO) Initiative and WCVM Pride — other organizations that share similar goals.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WCVM DIVERSE hasn’t held any in-person events or meetings, but they do have plans when everyone is back on campus.

“We have mainly focused on getting the club off the ground, increasing membership and providing resources to help our members self-educate about diversity,” Swain says. “In the future, we would love to have events like workshops, a mentorship network with veterinarians and students, and fun activities like potlucks.”

The club is looking to collaborate with the WCVM administration to increase the student body's diversity, especially Indigenous seats.

“Our membership are mostly allies and given that WCVM represents an applicant pool from four provinces and the territories, there is a lack of BIPOC representation,” says Behnam-Shabahang. “We want to see an increase in Indigenous seats and that would be at the top of the list.”

Outreach initiatives are also a priority for WCVM DIVERSE.

“Representation matters. By reaching out into our communities, especially marginalized communities, we hope to inspire youth who otherwise may not have thought it feasible to go into veterinary medicine … either due to lack of exposure to the profession or even seeing someone who resembles them or their families in this line of work. Lack of representation in itself seeds discrimination, so we have to start at the source,” says Behnam-Shabahang.

She adds that DIVERSE is working toward involving pre-vet clubs in expanding networks and creating opportunities for their BIPOC student members since many BIPOC pre-vet students don’t have access to a generational network.

“Ideally, it would be great to go up to the northern Indigenous communities to give interested pre-veterinary students information on the WCVM and the admissions process,” adds Swain.

For more information, visit www.wcvmdiverse.ca.