Katya Stella Assoé sat down with Law Professor Ubaka Ogbogu to discuss mentorship, advocacy, and how to navigate law school.
Q. Please introduce yourself by telling us a little about your law school and career journey, research, and any fun facts.
I am a law professor at the University of Alberta. I started at the U of A Faculty of Law in 2011. I received my Masters in Law from that law school so I have been a part of that school since 2002, when I moved to Canada for graduate studies. I teach a variety of courses at the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. My primary expertise is in health law and science policy. I teach upper year courses in that area but I also teach first year torts. I used to be cross-appointed to the Faculty of Pharmacy but my cross-appointment ended last year, so I am now 100% in the law school where I teach courses on health and science policy. I will also, next year, be teaching public health law and policy.
I started my law school career in Nigeria, West Africa. That’s where I was born and that’s where I grew up. I went to the University of Benin in Benin City and then I did Nigerian law school to get a call to the bar. I practiced law for about three to four years in Nigeria and decided to move into academia, so I got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Nigeria. I then decided to do a Master’s degree in law and that brought me to Edmonton, Alberta. I finished my Masters and met my wife here in Edmonton and then went on to the University of Toronto, where I got a PhD. After that, we had a child in the process and there was a little stint I did in the United States before moving back to Alberta because I was hired back as a tenure track professor, and so my wife and I came back here with our little daughter. We now have two daughters and we've lived here ever since.
Fun facts about me: I have a mild obsession with fashion listicles. I read a lot of lists, like GQ and Esquire. I’m generally very interested in fashion. I like wristwatches. I collect mechanical wristwatches. I like spy novels and spy movies; I have a mild obsession with that as well. I write poetry and I like people. One of my favorite things to do is hang out with people - I’m very extroverted.
Q. Law schools across Canada often have very few or no Black professors. What do you think the biggest barriers to entry are for Black students seeking to pursue PhDs?
At my law school, there’s only one Black law professor and we’ve only ever had one full time tenured professor in the history of the law school and that’s me. Some law schools don’t even have any.
I think the biggest barrier for law students looking to move into an academic career is partly a lack of visibility of people in that role that they can model their career after. I would also suggest a lack of mentorship, but I think it’s also because law schools are not very good at setting out different career paths for law students. The minute you hit law school, there’s only one career path that is really presented to you in seriousness and that is law practice. So partly, it’s because you don’t see too many people to model yourself after in that role who are Black and it’s partly because law schools just do a very terrible job of presenting different career paths to students. When it comes to Black students, it becomes even worse: they don’t even do enough to help Black students to get into that main career path. Then [Black students] struggle with getting into firms and for them it becomes a matter of disappointment after disappointment and [they] don’t even start to think about alternate careers because the main one that is presented is not readily available.
I think it’s one of the biggest failings of law schools across Canada: they don’t do enough for Black students. If you look at law schools as they are right now, you won’t be encouraged as a Black person to even exist in them and even less work in them, they are not a very hospitable place for Black professionals. My journey through law school in Canada has been a struggle and a lot of perseverance and change in my personality to fit in the environment [was necessary] as opposed to having the environment embrace me as a person. It’s a tough place to be, [law school] is not a very hospitable place for Black people or for racialized persons in general.
Q. How can organizations like BLSA Canada reduce these barriers?
I don’t think it’s the task of Black organizations to correct these failings. I don’t think organizations like BLSA, which didn’t exist in my time, should have the task of correcting the very things that [we] face. I think that that should lay solely at the feet of those who actually run the system and who are responsible for the system’s problems. Be that as it may, I think one thing Black organizations can do is be a rallying ground for Black persons to gather and share [their] collective wisdom and pain and to serve as a starting point for a way of reaching to control the system and letting [people] know what Black people are saying and feeling within these institutions.
That to me is the primary thing, to just be there.
Q. How do you think mentorship assists Black law students to thrive and succeed?
As somebody that has assumed that role over my career, I know how important it is to Black students in general. It can be the difference between succeeding and failing. It can be the difference between having a good experience and a terrible experience. It makes a huge amount of difference. In my experience, it serves as a way of providing that sense of community and that sense of belonging that Black students often struggle with. It’s also a place to share some of those cultural touchstones. I enjoy when a Black student comes into my office, and we can talk about things [that we] intuitively understand as Black people. There’s also a part of the mentorship when you connect with a Black person who’s a mentor and you don’t need to say much about what it is you want to talk about before they understand.
I see my primary role at the Faculty of Law of the U of A, not as a law professor who just teaches and does research, but as someone who’s there to support my students in their learning journey, that’s how I see my role and I take that role very seriously. It’s something I truly believe is central to my role as a law professor.
Q. What advice do you have for students intimidated by the idea of reaching out to lawyers and professors?
If you’re struggling, a good starting point would be to just take that step and approach a Black law professor or just another Black professor at the university. We understand, as Black professors, that we just can’t exist in these spaces and not be mindful of those who are coming behind us and who represent for us a sense of community that is different from just belonging to this university. Many of us do understand what the mission is when it comes to Black students and I think approaching a Black professor and saying ‘how do I navigate these spaces?’ is a good starting point. It will be an anomaly for you to approach a Black professor and they dismiss you. All the Black professors that I know at the UofA are invested in the Black community within the community because we understand what is at stake
We exist in spaces where we have to be brave. We have to create opportunity where there is none, we have to create community where there is none. We have to create our success when all we see in front of us are barriers. Even when it doesn’t exist, you just have to take that step, you have to be braver than usual and that’s the story of underrepresentation and lack of inclusion.
Q. Last year, you shared the hate mail and voice messages you received as a result of questioning the government of Alberta's response to COVID-19. What advice do you have for law students who want to speak out on issues they care about but fear reprisal?
I understand the fear and I couldn’t honestly say that stepping forward won’t impact you negatively. Throughout my career, speaking up has actually impacted me in many ways: it has delayed my career, I've had the reprisal you talk about - so there are real consequences to doing it.
The one thing that has really helped me is an ability to pick my battles. There’s so much going on, there’s all kinds of things to fight on a daily basis that you can’t fight them all. It’s physically draining [and] it’s challenging for the other relationships that you have in your life. People ought to develop a good sense of what kind of issues cross the line for you and which you’re going to actually pursue. It helps make sure you don’t spread yourself too thin. You have to know which kind of issues really are worth responding to. For me [those] are usually issues that go beyond the personal, that will have an impact on my community as I see it, and [when] I feel like not speaking up will set us back in a very significant way. Once that happens, then it becomes important to make sure that you’re crafting a message that the members of the community will support. Even in institutions where you’re alone because you’re the only [racialized] person, there are people who will support you if the message resonates with them, and if they feel like what you’re saying is going to benefit the community.
For every person who says they don’t like what you’re doing, there’s going to be a lot more people who are going to support you.
What allowed me to be brave about [receiving hate mail] was the fact that I also got a lot of messages from other people saying, ‘we’re behind you’, ‘we support you’, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ and ‘don’t let the minority affect you and the mission’. But they won’t say that if they didn’t think the message, I was trying to spread was important. They wouldn’t say that if they didn’t think that the fight against the provincial government was the right kind of fight. Mainly, having a good sense of what your limitations are and knowing that it is good to not drain yourself completely by trying to whack everything that pops up, breaking up issues that will resonate with the community and that will have a huge impact, knowing fully well that there is an unseen community that will support you or that are behind you even as you struggle to navigate those barriers and navigate the reprisals. I always have that feeling that what is going to come to you will come to you, something my grandmother told me a long time ago.