Last Wednesday evening two important inspiring and necessary virtual conversations took place. Our Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) along with our Special Education Department hosted their Annual Parent Networking Evening. This year the evening featured Michael Jacques and his father Marcel. Michael, a talented young man with autism and an intellectual disability, authored the book “Can’t Read, Can’t Write, Here’s My Book”. As he shared in an interview, “A person with autism and an intellectual disability, where would I even start? How about Chapter 1!”. In writing his book Michael used speech-to-text technology demonstrating that anything is possible. His unique and highly visual book allowed him to share his story, one that reminds all of us to focus on those things we can do in life and not focus on what we cannot do. Marcel reminded us that God gave Michael many talents and strengths and that is what they have always focused on so he could reach his full God given potential.
That same evening, Nelson Canada hosted a webinar asking the question “What does the future of education look like for Black students in Canada?” The webinar featured experts in anti-racism and educational leaders sharing their diverse perspectives, experiences and ideas about the meaningful steps that can be taken in dismantling anti-Black systemic racism in Canadian schools. We were so very proud that George McAuley, Coordinator of Anti-Racism Education and secondary Math and Science, was invited to be one of the five panelists on this cross Canada conversation. I will share George’s reflections as well as those of another panelist Jacob Robinson, a 3rd year University of Waterloo student.
Jacob was asked to comment on the following: Many Black students do not feel like they belong in a school community. How would you advise educational leaders to create a sense of belonging for Black students so that they succeed?
Jacob shared how important it is to have more Black history covered in the curriculum. How necessary it is that we learn from the difficult Black history of the past to ensure that the mistakes made then are not repeated now. That we actively work to create a brighter future. As was so well stated, Black history is 365 and not just the month of February.
Jacob spoke to the need that as predominately White educators we pay attention to how we communicate and interact with Black students. That we avoid singling out a particular group of Black students, for example, who may be on their cell phones, when other students are doing the very same. He spoke to the importance of listening to the voices of Black students, asking them if they feel respected and represented in their school community and where they might feel displaced. As educators, he spoke to making sure all our students feel comfortable coming to school and when at school they feel noticed. Jacob further shared, we need to listen to Black students, to their desires and make sure we are pushing them to achieve their goals. The message to all our Black students needs to be, your voice and your story is important.
George was asked to respond to the question, “Why is it so difficult for some educators to come to the table and have honest conversations about racism? How have you opened the door to those who are hesitant to engage?”
George shared that all of us, educators and support staff, and everyone who works with young people, by having the conversation we send the message that this is important. Not having the conversation sends an even bolder message, that it is not that important, and it really does not matter. These are hard conversations, ones that are easier to ignore hoping they will go away. But we know they don’t go away, for what we resist will persist.
In response to the question George also addressed privilege and power. Privilege is not about money, it is not about how hard you have worked. If you walk into a room and your skin colour is telling a false narrative before you even open your mouth, that is having less privilege. In the context of anti-Black racism, when we speak about power and privilege, that is what we are taking about.
George continued, once the conversation has been had action is now required. Once you have seen it and once you have heard it, you cannot unhear or unsee it. You can no longer remain neutral in the conversation. Once you have listened to the conversation, now together we can move forward. As George summed up, honest conversations about racism is hard work because it is heart work.
“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in colour no matter what their colour.”