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 COVID-19 Office

The Human Rights Work Continues

One positive change that could emerge from the COVID-19 global pandemic is the change in how  we do our work.  People working at home have been exposed to a whole new reality. To work, it is not necessary to be sitting in front of a computer 24/7.  Flexibility in work schedules is allowing people to schedule their days to attend to physical and mental health, as well as get the work done. 

On the common deck of my condo in Kits, my neighbour has run a power cord from the hall and set up the laptop screen to increase visibility of the screen.  He asks if I’m okay with his choice of music.  He is studying to be a pilot.  Sometimes I find him on the deck working as a personal trainer with one of his clients.  He has taught me that to explore angles on the laptop screen and shade it with a shirt to create a visor in order to increase screen visibility.  When I tilt back my reclining chair back, I can see the screen as well as the ocean and the mountains.

Down at Jericho Beach, I watch as the young women beside me tentatively step into the ocean and quickly decide it is just too chilly today.  The phone rings, and one of the young women shifts gears.  She effectively negotiates her business call and makes the commitment to draw up a proposal and have it to her client tomorrow.  As she chats, her friend takes out her computer and gets some work done.  There are no hurt feelings or resentment for not giving her friend her undivided attention.  The social contract allows and expects these disruptions.

I frequently give my son a hard time for not giving his father and I his undivided attention when he comes for dinner or for a bike ride.  And yet, at the same time I’m incredibly proud at how well he is doing with his business.  Clients around the world are paying the bills, manufacturing product or ready to work collaboratively.  Communication cannot be limited to a 9-5 context if you are being responsive to needs.  The phone rings or the text comes through and my son  seamlessly slides into business mode, negotiates the call and rejoins us.  

My cousin has an office job.  Working at home started when COVID-19 hit Vancouver in Spring.  It has just been extended until January.  She has adjusted to the reality that some days includes far more work that other.  She always meets the expectations of what needs to be done in a day.  For the employer, no work space, office furniture, phones, supplies or daily cleaning are required.   The employer has got to have noted the obvious benefits of reduced costs. 

In British Columbia, schools were closed after Spring Break to everyone but principals, vice principals, operating engineers and trades people.  I went into my office first thing in the morning, stood at my desk for hours on end, absorbing all of the new information possible, attending online meetings, planning and problem solving.  I turned my head to pick up the phone and left my office to attend to very specific tasks.  The intense stress exacerbated the muscle strain.  Two things happened to change things up for me.  Nearly all meetings were online so there was less need to dress in my regular work attire.  We were also given direction to leave the school by 3:30 pm to allow the deep cleaning of the school.  This allowed me to ride my bike to school and get some exercise, and some perspective as I rode home along the seawall.  Some phone calls I navigated en-route, and people got use to some huffing and puffing when I reached hills.  Sometimes I just stopped to focus on the situation.  I also stopped to do video-tweets for the students at my school.  It was a refreshing and much needed break.  I was still available for work.

Initially I thought perhaps Millennials were just better at pivoting during this new  reality than Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers.  And yet Alex Neve,  Canadian Human Rights Activist and Secretary General of Amnesty International, popped up on Facebook with his office set-up in the forest.  It seems to be that people with their own businesses or more job autonomy have been the blade runners in defining these new realities.   Granted some jobs lend themselves to more flexibility.  When schools opened on a voluntary and part time basis in British Columbia in June, educators certainly needed to be onsite more frequently.  However in July when I was facilitating a course for BCPVPA, I transitioned to a work space in my dining room.   Now I have expanded my options.  The side deck or front deck in the shade with the birds, or the common deck with the mountains, ocean and sunshine are working just fine.  This could be the upside of COVID-19 