Ottawa school board needs to fully engage black community

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Kt Ann/Flickr

“We are so proud of how your group has advocated for your community.” This comment, made by an Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) superintendent, was directed at me after I had given a presentation on the need for race-based data to support anti-racism initiatives in the school board.

A coalition of black community members had begun interventions at the OCDSB over a year ago to push for direct engagement on equity issues. The official’s comment was made in reference to the board’s response to our demands. However, I couldn’t help but interpret it as a figurative pat on the head.

It is not what we are looking for.

I became involved in school board issues last year, when my son was added to the long list of black youth suspended from Ottawa schools. He was suspended for challenging an administrator over what he believed to be racial profiling. As I sought community support to deal with the suspension, I was struck by the fact that almost every black family I encountered had similar experiences. It became clear that this was a systemic problem and that we needed hard data to support our stories.

Just a few months later, the Ontario government issued a directive that all provincially regulated institutions collect disaggregated race-based data to better understand what happens when racialized citizens interface with those institutions.

With that in mind, the coalition was formed to insist that school boards start collecting the data immediately, and that black communities be present through every step of the process. Through our efforts, we were able to force the issue onto the agenda of the school board.

But there has not been a legitimate invitation to us to be at the table as the school board moves forward on design and implementation of a process. We are effectively being told that this is not our place.

After the end of formalized enslavement of black people in Canada in 1834, human bondage was replaced by Jim Crow laws to keep the races separate. The “N” word was replaced by “Negro,” a word not so directly associated with the whips and chains of those earlier years of Canada’s nationhood, but the rules along class and race lines were clear. The term Negro effectively robs us of our connection to our original language, cultural and geographic origins. The term defines us only by our skin colour. For a long time, the term, along with the other societal drivers of the state, framed the status of black people as second-class citizens. We had no real voice in the institutions that impacted our daily lives.

Speed forward to 2016 where, under the backdrop of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, came a UN review of the state of blacks in Canada. The working group outlined 42 recommendations to address anti-black racism across federal, provincial and municipal governments and public institutions. The education systems across the country were called out for practices that adversely targeted black children and disenfranchised their families. This reality we share with our Indigenous sistren and brethren. The OCDSB was one of those school boards interviewed by the UN working group.

For decades, black communities in Ottawa have been saying that the elementary and secondary school systems in this city disproportionately target black children. Black kids are being suspended or expelled for minor offenses or streamed into lower level programs that deny them access to university courses and the higher paying, more fulfilling careers that flow from them. All the while, we were told by board officials “Don’t worry, we know what’s best for your children. We will institute diversity and inclusion training and workshops.”

That, obviously, has not worked so well for us.

Even after the OCDSB adopted, to much fanfare, a proclamation in support of the International Decade for People of African Descent that explicitly speaks to the board’s commitment to engage black communities, we remain sidelined. What we were told by the superintendent after my presentation that evening was that the OCDSB will inform us after their consultant has developed the methodology that will be used to conduct the work.

Although the “N” word has never been verbally directed at us, we continue to hear the refrain.

That we continue to be excluded from this critical work remains unacceptable and reminds us of how we have been treated historically. 

Given the systemic failure of school boards over the decades to address our legitimate concerns, we have very little trust that, if left solely to themselves, the right questions, approaches and methodologies will be used to give us a true picture of what is happening to our children in their schools. This is not just an equity and inclusion issue. This is, at its core, a human rights issue.

After shaking off the vestiges of slavery and later racial segregation that earlier generations had to endure when they came to Ontario, our communities are now comprised of academics and professionals, such as human rights lawyers and performance measurement practitioners to name a few. Our community possesses all the skills the OCDSB needs to contribute to the collection of disaggregated race-based data.

new director of education has been selected to lead the OCDSB in the new year. She is from the black community in Durham, where they grappled with and came to understand how to engage our people as key stakeholders in the success of schooling for our children. We welcome this development. However, will this incoming professional be shackled by a data-collection process that the OCDSB put in place prior to her arrival? Will the process and methodology meet the needs and expectations of Ottawa’s black communities? Will the black communities buy in? Or are we going to be forced to collect our own disaggregated data? What does true parent and community engagement actually look like?

Despite how black folk, as citizens and taxpayers, continue to be treated by the school board, our place is at the table with these people charting a collaborative course for the betterment of all our children.

Richard Sharpe is a community activist adn co-founder of the 613/819 Black Hub. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

Photo: Kt Ann/Flickr

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