Opiyo Oloya leads Western’s equity work
Renowned social justice and human rights advocate named university’s first associate vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion
By Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87
Photo by Frank Neufeld
Opiyo Oloya – an award-winning school board administrator who came to Canada as a political refugee from Uganda – joined Western as its first associate vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion (AVP, EDI) on August 30, 2021.
An integral member of Western’s senior leadership team, Oloya will help lead, manage, direct and evaluate EDI values and initiatives at the university. He will work closely with diverse groups across campus to promote equity, anti-racism and accountability.
“I’m really happy to be joining the Western family and to use my skills and lived experience to bring people together as part of a really strong team working towards the common goal of EDI,” said Oloya, who holds a PhD in education and will report directly to president Alan Shepard.
“There is much good to build on at Western, and I’ve already found it to be a place where there are many people of goodwill, people with deep knowledge and expertise,” Oloya said.
With his advocacy for social justice and human rights education, and high level of engagement in the Toronto community and internationally, Oloya is well-qualified to advance EDI at Western, Shepard said.
“Dr. Oloya’s ability to build relationships among a wide range of stakeholders, and his track record of successfully leading complex change in the education system have earned him an outstanding reputation in his field,” Shepard said. “We’re truly delighted to welcome him here.”
Shepard added that Oloya’s role comes at a critical time, as Western focuses on social justice, sustainability, and combating structural inequities in society and in university education.
“People in the Western community and beyond have told us they’re eager for greater institutional attention to EDI, and the appointment of Dr. Oloya to this role is part of our ongoing commitment to action,” Shepard said.
Running towards education
Oloya has never taken education for granted.
Growing up in a small farming village in northern Uganda, he would rise before dawn each day to run the six-kilometre path to school – trotting past herds of antelope and troops of monkeys – pausing only to sidestep black mamba snakes, drink at a stream or pluck fruit from nearby trees.
“I’d arrive at school and snap a piece of stick from the bushes and we’d go and write in the sand, and that’s how we learned our alphabets in Luo and English. It was the most natural place anybody could grow without worrying about a lot of things,” he recalled.
But the political scenery was less idyllic as military officer Idi Amin seized power in 1971 and began a despotic eight-year rule.
After Amin was overthrown and exiled, Oloya and fellow student leaders at Makerere University in Kampala went village to village to promote democracy and human rights. Their activism attracted the new government’s ire, forcing student leaders to flee for their lives.
Oloya hid under the bed at a professor’s house, then cloistered in a convent before ultimately finding refuge in Kenya.
He made his way to the Canadian high commission in Nairobi. Sponsored by World University Service of Canada, Oloya began classes at Queen’s University the day after he arrived in Canada.
Student to educator
With degrees from Queen’s and then from the University of Ottawa, Oloya began his career as teacher, vice-principal, principal and superintendent with the York Catholic District School Board. He was subsequently appointed as the school board’s interim associate director.
In a school with some of the highest student absentee rates and lowest test scores, he often visited pupils’ homes to persuade their parents of the value of education.
In a board with some of the most diverse student populations, he championed equity and inclusion in hiring practices, and trained principals and teachers to view administrative and classroom decisions through that same equity lens.
“I saw my job – and still see my job – as leading people and uniting community.”
Author and advocate
After realizing a void in community events celebrating Black Canadians, Oloya was one of the founders and promoters of Toronto’s Afrofest, North America’s largest celebration of African music and culture. In 1991, Oloya approached the University of Toronto’s community radio station and founded a long-running African music and cultural show called Karibuni, which means “welcome” in Swahili.
He is an advisor on the African Union Mission to Somalia in efforts to restore peace to that country, and is the founder and former president of International Resources for Education of African Deaf and Blind Children, which provided scholarships for advanced teacher education and sponsorships for deaf and blind children to attend school.
Oloya authored Child to Soldier, an analysis of how children abducted in northern Uganda by warlord Joseph Kony became soldiers in Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
At York University, where he earned his PhD in 2010, Oloya was subsequently awarded an honorary doctorate of law (LLD honoris causa) for his social justice, international philanthropy and education work.
Bringing people together
As a leader in EDI, Oloya says it’s always been his priority to create a culture of being open to others.
“The best way forward, in my lived experience and knowledge, is to listen and see the common meeting place where we will achieve our goals together. It’s to respect and to build relationships.”
“I am also still a teacher at heart, and I’m glad I’ll also have the opportunity to work with students and listen to them.”
Western’s new EDI advisory council – formed to provide guidance on anti-racism, accessibility and EDI policies – will advise and support Oloya in his new role.
Oloya will lead the new EDI action network – a group of more than 60 representatives from academic and administrative units across campus – and various university governance bodies and task forces.
The creation of the AVP, EDI role is part of Western’s commitment in response to the final report of the Anti-Racism Working Group. In June 2021, the university announced an investment of $6 million to support new EDI initiatives, including $4 million to support the recruitment of Black and Indigenous faculty members.