SUDBURY -- Talking about racism is nothing new for three students at Laurentian University in Sudbury.

Two years ago, they formed a group called ULU -- pronounced 'oo-loo' -- to create a community for people of colour in the Nickel City to share their experiences and support allyship education.

ULU stands for Ultuntu, Lunginsa and Usawa and is derived from three languages spoken in Africa. In English, they mean humanity, justice and equity and are the focus of the group's work.

Hediyeh Karimian, Kadre Gray and Litha Ncanisa are founding members who met through Laurentian's basketball program.  

After sharing experiences they have had with racism in Sudbury-- and knowing there were likely more students that were going through the same things -- the trio created the group to make support more accessible.

Because their experiences with inequality in the community vary from being in the classroom to going to the mall, they realized that a lot of education and discussion needs to take place in the city and school.

Before the pandemic, members made presentations to local schools Lo-Ellen Park Secondary and Lockerby Composite School bringing up the discussion of race.

"What does it mean to be white?" said Gray. "What does it mean to be Black? What are the differences? And having a discussion around that."

He says the youth have a lot of questions and many haven't ever had conversations around race, so what begins awkward becomes more comfortable when they open up and are willing to be vulnerable.

Ncanisa says the presentations are often more of an open dialogue, introducing concepts and finding out what the students know about them, rather than lecturing the students.

"Sometimes people don't even realize what they are saying or how they're acting is racist -- it's just what they've known, right?" said Karimian. "And the more that we can dialogue about it, then we can all not be so afraid of that word either. We don't have to be afraid of the word racism."

She says when the word is brought up in their workshops, the room often goes awkwardly silent, with people thinking "I'm not racist."

ULU has partnered with several organizations, such as Public Health Sudbury & Districts, Greater Sudbury Police Service, and Rainbow District School Board, to promote understanding and cultural sensitivity.

Through its work with public health, a project called The WOKE Age: Youth-driven Racial Equity Action in Sudbury has received $200,000 funding from the federal government's Community Support, Multiculturalism, and Anti-Racism Initiatives Program. As well, ULU has received funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

"We all have our own biases and things that form our thought processes," said Karimian. "And so it's just about talking about them and breaking those down so that we can be one human race. And that is why the word 'humanity,' uluntu, means so much to us because we're just trying to have people understand us and we're trying to learn about people so that we can all be neighbours. And I think that is what is important."

In addition to the peer-to-peer mentorship program, ULU also holds two virtual sessions each week via Zoom.

The goal is to create a network and gather people who are interested in joining the conversations about race. Anyone interested is welcome to get involved.

"The conversation of race shouldn't be uncomfortable," said Ncanisa. "We have to tackle the uncomfortable to make it comfortable."

Ncanisa says the focus of their work is on the human aspect and gave an example by sharing a story from his home country of South Africa about an anthropologist doing a study there.

The researcher conducted a social experiment with a basket of fruit and a group of children. He put the prize under a tree and said whoever got there first could have the fruit. Instead of racing individually to win the basket, the group of students joined hands and ran together to the fruit so that everyone got to share.

When asked why one of the students said: "I cannot be happy when someone else is sad."

"The beauty about Sudbury is that it's a small enough community that you could make big change in a city like this," said Karimian.

To learn more about upcoming virtual discussion check ULU's Instagram account here

The next topic is intersectionality on Wednesday, June 17 at 3:15 p.m. ET.