Equity in Action

Racism and anti-racism has been more part of the educational conversation this year, than at any time during my time as an educator. Early on in my career, I joined Amnesty International. Participation in community groups, and Amnesty events and actions were the source of much of my learning about white privilege and the inequity of basic human rights throughout the world. I championed Human Rights Day on Dec. 10th and taught students and community members about the International Declaration of Rights and Freedoms. As a teacher in Coquitlam, I became the chair of the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association Multicultural and Anti-Racism Committee. I coordinated the CODE (Canadian Organization for Development in Education) Project Love in the district. Students wrote letters and packaged school supplies to send off to students in countries needing this support for young learners. My foundational belief was that teaching and learning about other cultures and human rights was to key to ending racism. Well, looking around today, it is fairly evident that learning about other cultures does not equate to valuing or respecting people with other ways of being.

Multiculturalism was supposed to represent a different paradigm than the “American melting pot”.  Yet, in both Canada and the United States, racism has continued to play out.  An openness to learning about other cultures can create the conditions for equity for all people despite perceived differences, but it is not a guarantee it will.  COVID has created the circumstances for all of us to come face to face with the magnitude of the problem.  Limitations on our activities ensured that many of us were riveted to the tv to witness the horror of the end of George Floyd’s life.  The words “I can’t breathe” make the racism in mainstream society palpable. 

COVID or perhaps the post Trump era has also created circumstances where the worst version of too many people have emerged.  These people are emboldened to say and act in ways that would not have been tolerated in recent history.  Overt acts of racism are reported regularly, and hate proliferates social media.  However, there is a will of people not previously involved in social justice issues to ask questions and go after finding answers.  Books, online courses, and discussion groups have popped up – all focussing on race and anti-racism.  Institutions are becoming more aware of the need for them to be involved in a solution. 

My learning journey continues but I have heard all of the advice provided throughout these different contexts to be quiet and listen, to share my ideas, to be pro-active, to check my white privilege, to own my responsibility for the problem, identify my biases, to do more, to follow the lead of people of colour, to find affinity with those who look like me…  I believe that every piece of advice provided comes with quest to make our world a more just and equitable place.  Yet, like any other scenario, there is no magic answer to create the ills of the world.  To be a part of the solution to racism and create a more equitable world, commit to taking action.  This is not a passive process.  We will need build capacity in ourselves, our colleagues, our neighbours, if our institutions are to move forward with much needed change.

The past year, I have made the following things part of my learning journey.

  1. Continue to celebrate other cultures and ways of life with families through Children’s Literature.  Explore differences and common experiences that make us human.

I believe that we have moved beyond the need for a shelf of “Multicultural Books” in every school library.  Children need to see themselves represented throughout our library collections and inquiry studies.  Educators need professional development and recommendations to support book buying that help children in understanding that they do not walk alone.  There are others with similar lives and experiences, and experience interesting opportunities.

As president of the BCLCILA – British Columbia Literacy Council of the International Literacy Association / ReadingBC @BCLiteracyCoun1 , I spearheaded a project to create a booklist of titles to support children in their social emotional learning, which includes seeing themselves represented in text.  Many of those tests, I read on my Ms. Froese Reads You Tube channel to create community in my school.

“By valuing their culture and identity, we give students the power to see themselves in their learning.”

                                                                                                            Chaunte Garrett

2. Engage widely in reading and writing about issues of race, anti-racism, and equity in order to be exposed to the pertinent issues, vocabulary, and understanding of issues of race, anti-racism, and equity. 

There is no one book to read to inform understanding or action.  Read widely to formulate your own ideas.  I have enough titles now that I am able to lend out to support others in their learning.  I Included the titles on Goodreads to open conversations and sharing with my online reading community.

Writing about your reading supports connections between all of the material you are reading.  Blogging helps me to further clarify my thinking. 

3.  Participate in professional development and discussion groups focusing on issues of race, anti-racism, and equity.  Look for techniques and tools to reduce bias and measures to determine more equitable outcomes for students.

Notice what it feels like when you are listened to, when your ideas are valued, and when you feel like you belong in the conversation.

Notice what it feels like when you hear information that you do not believe to be true, when someone makes assumptions about you, or when you feel silenced or dismissed. 

4. Find your own affinity group to engage in conversation to keep learning and fine tuning your ideas. 

Do not let anyone make decisions for you about where you belong.  Find someone or some people who you trust to have conversations about sensitive issues or ask questions.

5. Reach out to include people with different experiences or ideas to participate in conversations.

I submitted a proposal to the Human Rights Internet ( @HRI ) with a small group of social justice advocates in fall.  The purpose was to produce a documentary to facilitate conversations between people wanting to make their groups, workplace or organizations more welcoming and diverse.  We wanted to pose questions and include the perspectives of a diverse range of people in Vancouver, British Columbia with different experiences, ethnicities, and perspectives.  It seemed so much more straightforward when we started, but what a learning experience.   Formulating questions to tease out responses without directing answers took months!

The documentary will be a project over a longer period of time.  However, the open-ended questions that we have refined and the voices of people we are interviewing are fascinating.  The plan has evolved to release the unedited “voices” on You Tube each week and open up the participation in the project.  This way we are not tailoring the message to an agenda but allowing the voices to peak for themselves.

6.  Keep your eyes and mind open as to how you can support other people in their learning journey or join them to support yours.  The learning evolves as we evolve.

“We can’t teach what we don’t know, and we can’t lead where we won’t go.”

Malcolm X        

The Moral Imperative

Contemplation

The notion of a moral imperative to guide action is not a new concept. For German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), human understanding of pure reason was the basis for a moral code defining subsequent action. Long before that, holy books from world religions were proposing a course of action focussed on the moral integrity of leaders who sacrificed for the betterment of others. Yet, the story of those consumed by greed and the quest for power is equally pervasive. John Dashwood’s promise to his dying father to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is quickly replaced by greed acceptable according to English law of the time. Mr. Potter in the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” released in 1946, demonstrates a more intense avarice and quest for power. Charles Dickens sent us all clear message on who we should be in his 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. Theodore “Dr. Seuss, Giesel gave us a reminder in the 1957 publication of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Ron Howard and Jim Carrey hammered the message home in the film version released in 2000. We know better but we’re not doing better.

Over the past week, we have watched in awe as political leaders have demonstrated a popular culture apparently bereft of morals and ethics. We sat riveted to the news and witnessed example after example of people spouting the rhetoric of a moral purpose who in fact were clinging to the relics of power and privilege. It brought me right back to the 1989 when I was riveted to the television watching Chinese tanks driving over pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Every social justice bone in my body believed that we were at a turning point. The Amnesty International quest to shine a light and expose injustice was playing out. We, as a collective society, would no longer be able to turn away and feign unawareness. Now people would be ready to start the work of creating a just society with a foundation of respect for human rights. I realized this was not the case when China did not even lose most favoured trading status with the United States. We are at another important point in our history. We are witnessing people ignoring COVID-19 rules designed to stop the spread of a global pandemic, perpetuating privilege, undermining the democratic process, ignoring legal obligations and fair process, and turning away from promises to family and friends. Are we looking at the fall of an empire, a failed experiment in democracy, or the possibility of reaching out to grasp the moral imperative required to create a socially just world?

I was privileged to be teaching in a Grade 6 classroom the day after U.S Congress was stormed and desecrated.  For the first hour of the day, the questions and perceptions of 11-year-old students directed the learning.  These kids wanted to talk about politics, democracy, communism, racism, anti-racism, slavery, the Civil War in the United States, Hitler’s legacy of neo-Nazis, Black Lives Matter, environmental practices, the oil and gas industry, the differences between the perception of guns in Canada and the United States, and the impact of Trump’s words.  Lots of big ideas.  When an idea began to resonate, a hand shot into the air or tentatively went up.  These kids represented what we need on a global scale.  A willingness to think.  A willingness to consider possibilities.  A willingness to think in terms of fairness and social justice.  For the kids in this room, there was no question that logical consequences are in order for poor choices.

A moral code has already been defined. Ethical requirements are articulated. Social justice has been defined and written down. The issue is how we as individuals live our lives that acknowledges a moral imperative. Individuals in leadership positions should be held to a higher standard. Trump has provided the most recent example of the power of words by a person in a leadership position to disenfranchise, to disrespect, to undermine, and to invoke violence and lawlessness of those with power, privilege and entitlement. However, it is not just people in leadership positions who are required to hold themselves to account.

As individuals, we need be hold ourselves to account for our behaviour and how we live or disregard our own moral code. I used to equate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs with the development of morals and ethics. My assumption was that self-actualization required moral and ethical development. It required attention only after basic requirements for food, safety, love and belonging, and esteem were in place. Now I think that the metaphor of weaving better describes our moral and ethical development. The warp threads are the foundational components of who we are, and the weft threads are the experiences. It is a particularly apt metaphor for me because I use to love to weave. I just wasn’t that good at it. I would pull the weft thread tighter and tighter. The result was a piece of weaving that got narrower and narrower until someone intervened to help me loosen the threads and allow the warp threads to assume their parallel structure. The quality of the fabric was a reflection of those stationary threads and the constantly moving thread. There are many examples of people who begin their lives with a strong sense of integrity that is eroded over time.

For those of you who spend a lot of time with children, you will have noticed the quest for fairness and logical consequences for poor choices. As a principal who spends a lot of time outside on the playground with kids, there is little reticence of even the youngest students to let me know who is not playing fair, who I need to talk to, who I need time-out, or whose parents I need to phone. In conversations with students about poor choices they have made, invariably the harshest consequences come from the students. The question “How do you think that made … feel?” frequently prompts tears. Empathy is alive and well on our elementary playgrounds. As is a willingness to accept responsibility for choices.

The ability to empathize seems to dissolve into the atmosphere along with curiosity as students move through the system.  For some of us, we may be our own best whipping posts, or have reflective practices built into our lives that keep us honest.  For others, there is a quest to step away from assuming responsibility for our own poor choices.  This seems to be most common when a polarized stance is adopted.  Us and them.  An unwillingness or inability to consider another stance or position or feelings. 

To keep ourselves open to learning, we need to value pluralism and the importance of diverse voices and perspectives. It is possible to have a strong identity with commonalities and still maintain different culture or values or beliefs. As a Canadian, I am lucky to live with people from many different places, spaces, and experiences. However, that privilege brings with it a responsibility to listen and learn from the experiences of other Canadians and question a system where some voices are amplified, and others are silenced. My study of history, political science, and my father taught me to articulate my ideas loud and proud. Time, my friends and family taught me that some of my earlier conclusions and strongly articulated ideas were just wrong. It happens. Ideas change if minds are open. If you are ever wondering if you are straying from your moral compass and acting with integrity, and don’t have someone who will tell you, find a kid in elementary school. They will have no difficulty putting you back on track. If we expect moral integrity from others, we need to live it ourselves.