Getting to know Lakehead’s new Director of Human Rights and Equity, Dreeni Geer.
By: Leah Ching, News Editor
From Uganda to Sweden, Dreeni Geer’s work has taken her across the globe. With eighteen years of experience working with issues such as equality and human rights activism, she has chosen to take up the position of Lakehead University’s first ever Director of Human Rights and Equity.
Geer’s move to Northern Ontario comes after garnering extensive experience in the human rights field. In Uganda, she worked as War Child Canada’s Country Director, providing strategic leadership and building programs for conflict-affected communities. She has also worked in Sweden with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, and with Ontario’s Human Rights Commission as Executive Advisor to the Chief Commissioner. Her work has taken her to Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Congo, South Sudan, and Afghanistan.
With an extensive list of qualifications and experience both within Canada and internationally, Dreeni Geer now has an office set up on the fifth floor of the ATAC building and is ready to collaborate with others in order to tackle the work at hand. Having been in office for less than two weeks and enthusiastic to enlighten students about her new role, Geer took the time to sit down with The Argus for an interview.
Q: I understand that you’re familiar with Thunder Bay, having visited as a child. What is it like moving here as an adult, after living and working in such a diverse array of countries?
A: Well, I’ve been very privileged to have the opportunity to travel and work for communities around the world and in Canada. But now for me, I’m really interested in making roots and staying put. I like having a place that’s familiar. The smallness and beauty of Thunder Bay makes me feel like I can really make it home here. I must say, people here are really friendly and that’s been so nice for me. Even though I don’t know anyone yet, I feel really welcome and comfortable here.
Q: What can you tell me about the new position, and about your role within Lakehead?
A: The role is being refined but what has been agreed is to really have a focused approach to the human rights issues at this university.
Lakehead’s been doing human rights work in various capacities in different departments, so I think the notion is to now focus it all in one department that collaborates with others, and to have a much more human rights-based approach to sexual violence, to discrimination, and to harassment. And of course, educating on what it means to accommodate, promote diversity, and look at issues through a human rights lens – and managing complaints that have a human rights focus. So, I think that’s really what I’m tasked with spearheading.
I really want to build this department with everyone on board. I want to consult and make sure that everyone feels like they have a stake in the success of this office, and that I’m actually serving the needs that are here.
Q: Has taking on this role been intimidating?
A: It’s not intimidating for me in the sense that I really do feel like I’m the right person for this position, and that I have the support of everyone that I’m working with and talking to, whether it be admin, faculty, students… Everyone has been so on board, and it’s great to be in a position where everyone is enthusiastic. I’ve been in that position [of] the “human rights person” that nobody wants – in sectors where nobody wants to think about these issues. So, it’s so much nicer being in a place where people are like, “Finally, we’ve been lobbying for this kind of position.” So right now, it’s about managing expectations and creating timelines. If we carve out a vision, how do we get there? And knowing that – it might take some time.
Q: Have you encountered any challenges that are unique to Lakehead being a university in the North?
A: Meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Indigenous students is going to be a new and challenging area. We know in terms of marginalized and racialized communities that Indigenous communities have almost triple the burden of discrimination, and so when we look at that in this context, it will be a particularly challenging issue.
I was happy to read that Lakehead demands that students take instruction in Indigenous Studies; I thought that was an amazing step forward. If I look at the governance, the Indigenous councils, the Elders that are part of governance, I think that the groundwork is here to be able to rise to those challenges and accommodate accordingly.
For other groups there will be different challenges. When you have a small population, equity-seeking communities have small numbers and are more spread out. All of these communities that have historically – and currently – faced marginalization, whether it be trans groups, women’s groups, racialized groups… being able to reach them and get them to participate will be a bit more challenging. In other centers, you’ve got numbers, and that strength in numbers, so not everyone has to take on the burden of fighting that fight; they know that their brothers and sisters will be part of that. In smaller communities like this, we almost need people to come out. And the burden is there on people who represent these groups to do the work, which is not always fair, but sometimes that’s the reality. Of course, we also need allies to these groups to share that burden, which ultimately will make campus life better for everyone.
Q: What do you want students to know about you and your role?
A: I have an open door policy. I am looking to collaborate in building this department. Down the road, I’m even looking at having student advocates. I’ve seen this role work well in other universities, and I’m hoping to do something like that. I’m happy to meet students on their turf – if they’d like to invite me to anything, I’m happy to attend. I’d just really like to hear from students what’s most comfortable for them. Even if it’s just inviting me to the cafeteria to sit and talk. Let me know what’s great here at Lakehead and also what’s been challenging. I don’t know anyone here yet. My schedule is open, and I’m ready to talk to students. I know working with administrators can be daunting, but the whole point of human rights is to create spaces and policies that are welcoming and inclusive to everyone. I’m really behind that in both the work I’m doing, and how I will manage this office.