Conversation and Connection: The impact of the Black, Indigenous and Racialized Staff Employee Resource Group

Four people wearing matching purple sweatshirts that read 'BIRS.'

(From left to right) Vice-Chairs of the Black, Indigenous and Racialized Staff Employee Resource Group (BIRS ERG) Sashaina Singh and Faith Ogunkoya, BIRS Inaugural Chair Sophia Holness and BIRS Vice-Chair Katelyn Knott. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University).

For Sophia Holness, a recent gathering with dozens of McMaster staff — complete with African food, the music of steelpan aficionado Luckystickz and impromptu dancing — was so much more than a fun get together with colleagues.

“It was one of those moments I never thought possible,” says the longtime McMaster staff member and inaugural chair of the Black, Indigenous and Racialized Staff (BIRS) Employee Resource Group.

“When I first started here at McMaster, I had hoped for a group of individuals who I could engage with, who understood what it meant to be a racialized person in this type of organization.”

Fast forward 17 years and Holness now helps lead BIRS, a network supporting the well-being, development and advancement of McMaster staff members who identify as Black, Indigenous and racialized. The group recently hosted a social gathering as part of Black History Celebrations at McMaster — using the opportunity to connect in-person while also reaching out to new members.

Eight people - four seated and four standing around a table - pose for a photo.
Members of the BIRS employee resource group gather for a social event in McMaster’s CIBC Hall. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University).

BIRS, which was established in April 2021 out of a working group within the President’s Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community (PACBIC), also works to amplify the voices and needs of these staff members at an institutional level.

BIRS provides support to their members through personal development sessions, access to leadership training and hallway chats — biweekly informal gatherings where members can engage in conversations on a wide range of topics. The growing group has recently added another group for male-identifying members who want to connect.

Those hallway chats are a safe space for members to raise concerns and get connected with support and resources, says Holness.  “They provide a way for members to maneuver around issues and concerns, or experiences that only you as a racialized person would understand.”

The establishment of BIRS is an example of McMaster’s commitment to its mandate for institution-wide diversity, equity and inclusion, says Holness. And it’s an initiative she hopes continues to grow.

“We want to improve our staff members’ lives and help them with the opportunities to grow their career in whatever shape or form they need to,” says Holness. “There’s a place for all of us here at McMaster.”

Members of BIRS share how the group has been a source of support for them:

Nicole Agyei-Odame, Recruitment and Academic Advisor (International)

A headshot of Nicole Agyei-Odame encased in a maroon circleHaving a group like BIRS has been really important to me, especially as a young person at McMaster because it’s helped to connect the gaps that I faced as a staff member. It’s an opportunity to connect with people who have been here longer than me, who can provide different resources and opportunities for me to excel in my role, and just to be vulnerable. Sometimes it’s not easy to have these conversations with people in your office, so to be connected with people who look like you or have been through different life experiences really makes it a comfortable opportunity to have conversations.

Manish Katakam, Business Systems Analyst I, University Technology Services (UTS)

A headshot of Manish Katakam encased in a maroon circle

When I joined BIRS, I was pretty new to the university. I’ve gotten to connect with various great and experienced colleagues, I’ve been able to build my community and I’ve been able to build my connections. BIRS has profoundly impacted my way of thinking, and I’m very happy to be able to contribute to some of their initiatives.

Dennis Tian, Computer Systems Manager, Registrar’s Office

A headshot of Dennis Tian encased in a maroon circleI consider this a group of friends at work. You can talk to people with similar backgrounds and experience, get advice and support and encouragement. It’s inspiring each time you talk to members. The hallway chats are my favorite event. It’s great to talk to colleagues and members of the group and we have great discussions every time we meet. There are also various sessions organized by the group for career development and personal growth.

Nancy Pandit, Business Systems Analyst (II), Registrar’s Office

A headshot of Nancy Pandit encased in a maroon circleThe hallway chats are awesome because they give the opportunity to have conversations and share your views — they’re a safe platform. The monthly meetings are informative and empowering as well. We have had great guest speakers come in and talk about how to have high-stake conversations. I always feel energized after the hallway chats and monthly meetings. BIRS has helped me build confidence, speak up, share my views, and also listen to others’ perspectives. It has given me a sense of belonging.

If you are interested in joining the BIRS employee resource group, please email 

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