Human Rights Day: Get to Know UBC Okanagan’s Human Rights Advisor

For International Human Rights Day on December 10th, Libby Zeleke explains her role at UBC, reflects on the UN’s theme of equality and shares her favourite resources.

Can you talk a little bit about your role?

In my role, as a member of the Equity & Inclusion Office, I fulfill a dual mandate under the UBC Discrimination Policy and the UBC Sexual Misconduct and Sexualized Violence Policy.

I advise students, staff and faculty at the Okanagan campus who have human rights-related discrimination and harassment concerns. In responding to concerns, I often work with Administrative Heads of Unit to consult and informally resolve a range of issues. I also have a role in initiating formal complaints where appropriate and providing education and guidance on the interpretation and application of the Policy.

In my role as a Respondent Support Advisor, I work with campus partners to ensure members of the UBC community who are responding to complaints of sexual misconduct have information about their rights and responsibilities, the investigation process, procedural fairness along with available supports and resources.

What made you decide you wanted to do this kind of work?

For many years, I have been involved in scholarship, creative work and with community and social justice groups — all of which have demonstrated to me the ever-evolving and transformative potential of human rights.

In recent decades, this rich history has included unprecedented shifts in law and policy. For instance, I have directly participated in changes that led from a traditional, medical model of disability to one incorporating principles of accessibility and inclusion. I have also seen many changes in understanding individual rights through to more complex, systemic dimensions of discrimination and collective rights. These are only a few of the inspiring shifts that have come about because of individuals and communities — people who believed they were treated differently and advocated to eliminate unjust and persistent patterns of inequality.

I believe that at the heart of the work of human rights are individuals and groups who have rethought and re-envisioned social and cultural arrangements to make them more accessible and meaningful. I am grateful for the many contributions of these advocates and scholars who have dedicated their lives and careers to this work.

What has shaped your philosophy around human rights?

My work in human rights is very much informed by critical social justice and decolonization frameworks.

Universities are uniquely positioned to co-create transformative spaces for reimagining human rights and for engaging in institutional change and reflection. This includes the ongoing work of understanding the histories of discrimination and colonization and its continued impacts into the present.

It also means forging new ways for thinking about rights with communities that reflect our issues and aspirations.

Can you recommend some resources, such as books or films about human rights?

There are so many great resources that examine the complex histories of discrimination, racism and colonization. The previous Senior Advisor to the Provost on racialized faculty, Dr. Minell Mahtani, hosted the Ignite Book Club and invited some amazing authors to UBC — David Chariandry, author of I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter; Jenny Hiejun Wills who wrote Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related: A Memoir; and Desmond Cole, The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Some of the books I’m currently reading are written by UBC faculty: This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Five Little Indians by Michelle Good.

The Equity & Inclusion Office has a media library including webcasts and podcasts here. There are also many excellent films and documentaries available on-line. While this is of course, an incomplete list, some of the films in my current library include: Black Mother, Black Daughter; the Ninth FloorKanehsatake: 270 Years of ResistanceLong Time Comin’; and Forbidden Love.

What’s one thing you’d like students to know about their rights at UBCO?

All students at UBCO are encouraged to contact me directly if they have questions or concerns related to discrimination whether it’s an informal conversation or a formal complaint.

I appreciate that students may face many barriers when dealing with their concerns of harassment and discrimination. It may be difficult to know where to find support and what recourse is available. Students may feel alone and uncertain about whether their situation falls within UBC Discrimination Policy and process. It may not always be clear what constitutes discrimination or what steps students can take to address complaints.

Through informal consultation in a confidential and supportive environment, I work with students to respond to inquiries, clarify the Policy and discuss potential options to resolve and address their concerns. I also work to support and advise students who have formal complaints of sexual misconduct filed against them or who believe they may be a named party to a complaint.

Can you reflect a bit on what the UN International Human Rights Day’s theme of Equality means to you?

The 2021 UN Theme refers to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This theme is especially poignant given health and other disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing environmental disasters that continue to have profound impact on us all. Considering these events, and in preparation for “recovery”— the UN theme calls for a recommitment to a compassionate human-rights based response — one where power and resources are more equally shared and distributed, and where everyone has the right to safe and healthy environments. Amid growing inequity, oppression, and violence, it is even more critical that we work together to set a path grounded in equality that invites meaningful participation of those most impacted.