A Seat at the Table: Equality in the Classroom
Originally published March 2021
By Colleen Elep and Chad Mills
“The road to hell,” as the old proverb goes, “is paved with good intentions.” This aphorism—suggesting that our good intentions mean nothing without any real action or change—is nowhere more apparent than in our public education system, especially when it comes to the issue of racism. We may believe we are creating inclusive, “multicultural” teaching environments, all while being completely unaware of the systemic racism that impacts our students’ sense of self-worth and belonging in society at large.
As Black and Southeast Asian teachers who both spent a significant part of our schooling in the Toronto area (Chad is Jamaican, Colleen is Filipino), we are all too familiar with the detrimental impact of a systemically racist curriculum that values white experiences and history above all others. While we made efforts to provide more equitable, culturally sensitive learning experiences for our students, we continued to overlook the fact that our Black students still lacked the same sense of cultural belonging we had also missed in our schooling.
Our own blind spot became clear in November of 2019, when we took a group of Black middle school students to an entrepreneurship conference for Black youth at Toronto’s City Hall. Black entrepreneurs, social influencers, and community leaders shared their expertise and experiences with a rapt audience. Nods of understanding followed narratives around discrimination and exclusion; cheers erupted during stories of triumph.
As our student-group sat down to a traditional Caribbean meal provided by a Black-owned catering company, they did something we had never seen before among Black students in our school. They smiled at each other, joined hands, and said a blessing over their food. In that moment, it occurred to us that—despite our well-intentioned attempts to celebrate Black history, cultural differences, and bring in the next important Black-themed curriculum resource—our Black students had never been in a place together where they felt safe, celebrated, and connected, where their lived experience and identities took centre stage.
Just a few months later, the Review of the Peel District School Board—a scathing indictment of past and ongoing racist practices in Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon schools—forced teachers like ourselves to scrutinize our practices. Even as teachers of colour, we realized we were not immune to our own biases; that we were also complicit in the kind of institutional racism that made Black-youth-focused events necessary for our students.
That moment of prayer and connection we witnessed was more than a single, exceptional event. It was evidence of how underserved our Black student community is; how the erasure of Black people from our Canadian curriculum made Black empowerment events seem radical and groundbreaking.
As the report rightfully documented, our Black students have been robbed of seeing themselves as leaders, as success stories, as anything more than the subjects of policing and victims of enslavement. Through the Peel review, parents, trustees, and educators were finally pushing back and demanding more from a system that simultaneously oppresses, patronizes, and “celebrates” Black students, all under a guise of inclusion and “colour blindness.”
In response to the report, schools organized virtual book clubs, conferences, and workshops all aimed at eradicating anti-black racism in schools. While the enthusiasm appears to be strong—as evidenced by the number of attendees at anti-racism events and the anti-racist tweets that seem to proliferate teacher Twitter feeds—what is sorely lacking is any concrete success criteria we can use to gauge the effectiveness of our actions. Critically reflecting on systemic racism is not enough: we must take action where it matters, and measure the success of those actions.
So what might high-impact, anti-racist change in schools actually look like? We believe it starts with critically evaluating those academic and extracurricular practices educators may have misconstrued as helpful. Rewarding Black students only with sports-based incentives is one practice we can stop—doing so perpetuates the myth that Black children have some preternatural athletic ability.
We might also take a second look at performative initiatives like Black History Month, which reinforces the idea that Black History and culture is a niche area of knowledge, that Black people exist outside of Canadian cultural norms. This is not to say that Black History Month celebrations haven’t served a critical role in education, but at this point in time educators need to start questioning and tweaking our long-standing practices to reflect our evolving understanding of race as it operates in our institutions.
One action that has worked in our school is the development of a collaborative partnership between our school community and the Black Youth School Success Initiative (BYSSI). The BYSSI is an organization funded by the Ontario Trillium Fund that has helped dozens of our Black students through mentorship, tutoring, after school, and virtual activities. For us, it’s been important to partner with a community agency like the BYSSI because it adds a layer of wraparound support for our students that we simply cannot provide as a school.
In the Peel region, schools have a disproportionate number of white educators in relation to the student community, and our Black students deserve advocates and adult role models they can identify with. Through the BYSSI, our Black students can receive academic and social support from community stakeholders with a vested interest in strengthening the Black community in Peel and the Toronto area.
Another way we have developed partnerships with the community is through events like career day. In our career days, we have intentionally sought Black professionals to speak about their challenges and successes in the workplace in a conference-style day for our students. It is intentionally not labeled as a “Black” or “BIPOC” career day, as we feel that it’s important to normalize the idea that Black people are lawyers, pilots, managers, entrepreneurs, and leaders. This is important for all of our students to see.
Of course, there is much more work to be done in terms of truly creating a learning environment that is anti-racist. We are starting to use our curriculum to explicitly teach and address racism: bringing an anti-oppressive lens to our social studies curricula, bringing in books with authentic Black perspectives, and actively addressing the topic of racism in our staff meetings.
However, resistance to change is strong, and for many educators it’s much easier to treat racism as a trend that can be ignored or solved by attending a workshop or book talk. What we need is accountability and success criteria over the short and long term. Without measurable results and a clear link between our efforts and the outcomes of our Black students, we can probably expect to see another dismaying report on racism in another few years.
The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions—many of public education’s strongest efforts to fight racial injustice have paradoxically led to reinforcing systemic racism instead of eradicating it. In addition to community partnerships and curricular changes, we also believe that we need to empower all the stakeholders involved—Black students, Black families, and the Black community at large. Not seeking input, failing to clarify responses, and, at times, lack of genuine respect and appreciation for the Black community, are actions that have led us to where we are today. Educators and politicians can no longer preach, plan, and persuade others on how to best address anti-Black racism and its historical and ongoing impact without the insight of Black people.
If we are serious about elevating the Black community, they must have a seat at the table and be allowed to contribute at all levels. Being invited to a nice dinner table is a nice gesture. Having input on what is being made, and how it’s being served, are good intentions actualized.
Colleen Elep is an ESL/ELD teacher in one of Canada’s most diverse and multilingual school boards with a passion for equity, media literacy, and culturally responsive pedagogy.
Chad Mills is an elementary school educator in Canada’s second largest school board. Through his educational training, teaching, and consulting work locally and provincially, Chad has specialized in working in schools and communities deemed “at risk.” He is currently in the process of self-publishing a series of books aimed at investigating socioeconomic barriers that adversely impact BIPOC groups.