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Building a network of social justice educators in Alberta

Building a network of social justice educators in Alberta

Dan Scratch is a high school teacher in Edmonton. He has over a decade of experience of incorporating concern for social justice and human rights into his teaching practice. Renee Vaugeois is the executive director of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. Scott Neigh interviews them about the RAD Educator Network, a new Alberta-based network of classroom teachers and other educators who are committed to social justice.

Bringing concern for social justice to the realm of education can mean a lot of different things. At the most obvious level, it can mean a shift in the content of what is talked about in the classroom – that is, talking directly about the kinds of issues and struggles that are so central to the world we live in but that are often erased from the conversations that take place in elementary and high schools. Beyond talking about issues and struggles with a focus on their impact 'out there,' however, social justice education means having hard conversations with students about the issues and struggles that shape their lives, both those through which they experience harm and those where they are complicit.

Social justice education also involves working to transform how classrooms work. For all that teaching today is usually less obviously yes-sir no-ma'am knuckle-rapping strict than it might have been fifty years ago, the standard model for how classrooms function remains authoritarian, with the teacher (albeit often within bounds set by administrators, curriculum designers, and bureaucrats) determining what happens and how. Social justice education envisions classrooms that are democratic and equitable, where the learners exert power over the space, over the content, and over the conversation.

And of course the impact that a social justice lens can bring to education is not only about individual classrooms but about the school system as a whole. Whether it's the lack of safety experienced by many queer and trans students, the disproportionate disciplinary targeting of Black and Indigenous students that so often leads to criminalization, or rape culture encoded in things like dress codes and teacher attitudes, the education system as a whole is a site for the same kinds of marginalizations that plague the rest of society. Social justice education means working to dismantle those barriers, and building the capacities of marginalized students and their communities to challenge the inequities that they face when it comes to schooling.

The RAD Educator Network got its start a few years ago after Scratch joined the board of the John Humphrey Centre -- an organization focused on using the framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to build a culture of peace and human rights, particularly via encouraging dialogue and education about how they apply in our local contexts. He was having a conversation with Vaugeois about the challenges that social justice-oriented educators face in many places, and certainly in Alberta, of isolation and a range of institutional barriers. They realized that for such teachers, having the opportunity to be in community with, learn from, and exchange support with other educators with similar values would be very helpful.

Vaugeois was also hearing, via other community-based work that the John Humphrey Centre was doing, about the experiences of, for instance, students from the Indigenous and Somali-Canadian communities in Edmonton and elsewhere in Alberta in the face of racist disciplinary practices, criminalization, and other forms of discrimination in schools. Students and parents in those communities were wanting to learn how to advocate for themselves, but had little opportunity to get to know how the system works.

After further conversation and many meetings, they decided to organize a three-day conference this past summer for educators with an interest in social justice. They brought together not just classroom teachers, but also other professionals in schools and people with educational roles in other settings in the community. About thirty people attended, including educators from the Indigenous and Somali communities. It was a participant-directed gathering that involved lots of discussion about social justice education and about the issues that students, families, and teachers were facing. And the founding of the RAD Educator Network was the result.

The goal of the network is to provide community for educators committed to social justice education. It is a space for social justice educators to talk about issues, to share strategies, and to support each other. They hope it will reduce the isolation that many of them feel in Alberta, and become a nucleus for supporting justice, equity, and democracy in individual classrooms and in the school system as a whole. They are planning to do regular meet-ups for members through the school year and to have another conference in the summer of 2019. As well, the John Humphrey Centre and members of the network will be working with parents in Indigenous and Somali communities in the province to build capacity around advocacy in the school system.

Image: Modified from an image from Pixabay.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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