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A British Columbia poster campaign aimed at starting a conversation around racism within School District No. 74 (Gold Trail) schools has sparked more animated discussion than its initiators — Superintendent Teresa Downs and the District management team — ever imagined. When the posters went up in January 2018, nothing much happened, then in early March the whole issue exploded on social media and in the national press.

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Indigenous

Three anti-racism posters featuring the formal leaders of the District—Secretary Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet, District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain, and Superintendent Downs—went up in all SD74 schools. All three feature the speaker’s picture, with Minnabarriet’s poster reading “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism”, and Mountain’s reading “I have felt racism. Have you?”

The poster featuring Downs was the one that attracted by far the most attention. Downs—who is white—is featured beside the words “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Poster

The Downs poster proved to be a lightning-rod. One parent, Kansas Field Allen, whose son attends Grade 9 at Kumsheen Secondary School in Lytton, BC, took great exception to the “Got privilege?” campaign and particularly to the contentious poster. Allen, who is married to a First Nations man, has three children, all of whom carry First Nations status cards. Her prime objection to the campaign was that it ignored mixed race families like her own.  As someone who herself has faced racism and labelled a ‘white mama,’ she was upset to hear one student say he was ‘ashamed to be white’ and the way the whole episode affected her son. When she asked him about it, he fell silent an ‘bent his head down.”

The controversy swirled around the school district for over a week. Many commenters  applauded Downs and the administration for highlighting the often-hidden issue of white privilege, but many others sided with Field and charged that the statement smacked of  reverse racism. Hard questions were asked about whether it went too far or implied that Downs only got where she is because of her skin colour rather than her own efforts.

The “Got Privilege?” posters did not come out of nowhere.  With a sizable indigenous population, BC District 74 has embraced anti-racist education in a very pro-active fashion. The district management team is deeply committed to the cause and has sought to promote a discussion of colonization, discrimination, race, and privilege for more than five years. “Two years ago we interviewed secondary students, and they said they saw racism and prejudice in their schools and their communities,” Downs told a local news outlet. “We knew we needed to be addressing those issues.”

The poster campaign was actually inspired by a similar June to July 2017 venture in Saskatoon that featured giant billboards at the high-traffic bridge crossings. Sponsored by the City of Saskatoon, the campaign “I am the Bridge…to Ending Racism,” featured one billboard where a middle-aged white citizen was quoted as saying “I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”  Like the B.C. school poster, the billboard provoked quite a reaction, especially on CKOM AM 650, the all news talk station.  It sparked outrage, division, and a horrible rash of hand-made racist telephone pole posters.

Downs and her team considered the Saskatchewan initiative to be “very brave” and knew it might spark controversy. The posters were devised last fall, all the District principals were approached about them and were very supportive. The decision for the posters to feature Downs, Mountain, and Minnabarriet was a conscious one. “As the formal leaders of the District, we wanted to have a message and be a part of the conversation, not be seen as isolated from it. We wanted to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Since the public outcry, Downs has held her ground and expressed appreciation to those who supported the campaign through the turbulence. Given the emotions stirred by the controversy, she has resisted calls for a public meeting and worked to explain it all in  “one-to-one talks with people.” One group of students rallied to the District’s defense and appealed to their principal to resist calls for the posters to be taken down. “A discussion about race and privilege is difficult to have,” Downs says,” “but it’s important.”

 

Privilege

With controversy raging in B.C. in early March 2018, similar posters, headed “Check Your Privilege,appeared at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).  Branded with the UOIT crest, the Ontario posters promoted “a more just and inclusive world” and encouraged students to “check their privilege” using a list of privileges such as “Able-bodied,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” “Male, ” and White.”  After attracting social media criticism, the posters were taken down, but school administration offered up an explanation, claiming that they were not intended to shame people who fell into one of the identified privilege categories.

Racism is a serious public concern and anti-racist education deserves a place in today’s educational world. Having said that, the recent controversies do raise the critical question of how best to combat racism in and around schools. Why did the”white privilege” posters attract criticism, while the others relatively little adverse reaction?  How successful are such campaigns in initiating conversation? Can you see positive or negative long-term effects from such conversations?  

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The Director of Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Dr. John Malloy, is, once again, on the hot seat for attempting to limit school choice in public education.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy was quick to distance himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Whether it revealed his ‘hidden agenda’ is another matter altogether.

TDSBMalloyActionWhile Director Malloy ‘walked back’ from that particular TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force recommendation, it was abundantly clear that TDSB under Malloy is prepared to stand firm on implementing its own version of “enhancing equity” for all students. That’s also perfectly consistent with Malloy’s stance while serving as Director of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board from 2009 to 2014. As a chief superintendent, he’s well known for putting in motion “educational equity” projects that seek to limit school choice in public education and threaten the existence of specialized program schools.

Malloy is heavily invested in the TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and its core mission.  In his introductory video, explaining the TDSB initiative, he professes to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expresses concern that it is not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert goes further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Specialized programs and streaming of Grade 9 students stand in the way of that “commitment” and are the real targets of the TDSB Task Force.  “Our commitment stands,” Malloy declares in the video. “We want schools to be inclusive, engaging environments for each and every student. That means things must change. We also know that change is hard. It impacts us. We need to work together to make it happen.”

Malloy’s metal was tested in Hamilton and he barely survived the battle.  Pushing hard for school closures in 2013-14, he ran smack up against a public uprising when he went to war with a popular high school principal Paul Beattie and forced through the closure of Parkview School, Hamilton’s highly-acclaimed high school for special needs students.

After placating parents and students by promising to transfer Beattie with them to Mountain S.S., he reneged on that commitment and aroused a storm of student protest in September of 2014. Shortly after the October 2014 trustee election, Malloy was seconded to the Ministry of Education and left town. While Malloy was considering his options, former principal Beattie, now retired, surfaced as a senior advisor to a Citizen Forum organized to serve as a watchdog on the HWDSB.

Malloy’s TDSB initiative sprung out of TDSB research  over the past decade on the uneven academic performance of racial groups and a 2017 OISE study of the board’s specialized arts programs.  Conducted by OISE professor Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, the study found that three of the four TDSB arts program schools were populated primarily with students who were white and drawn disproportionately from the city’s more affluent districts. It also criticized the schools for offering a curriculum reflecting “a traditional Eurocentric view of the arts,” including orchestral music, ballet, studio painting, and sculpture.

The author of the OISE report, used to justify the TDSB Task Force’s mandate, was openly hostile to the arts-focused schools. “These are public schools, ” he told CBC News. ” The public is paying for these schools.” Based upon his survey findings, he added, they were “kind of like private schools within a public system.”  It’s statements like this that tend to breed suspicion about what’s really driving the TDSB agenda.

Students and parents at Toronto’s special program schools are fighting back, including many from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds.  “It really comes as a shock,” said Frank Hong, a student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. He’s in the TOPS program, which specializes in math, sciences, and language arts. “[These programs are] an essential part of the school community,” he told CBC News, ” and to take them away from communities and from potential future students is horrible.”  Threatening to cancel the programs caused “a lot of outrage” on social media, said Niam Pattni, a student in the MaCS program at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute.

The adverse public reaction, capped by a Toronto newspaper column by The Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee, prompted Malloy and his Task Force to pull back on outright advocacy and to explain that these were just “draft recommendations.” Most of the public response tended to echo Gee’s Don’t Kill Specialty Schools” plea and to point out that there were far better ways to close the achievement gap and to promote equality in the school system.

Few who are familiar with Toronto’s alternative and specialty schools, including those for special needs students, would swallow the argument that they are simply “citadels of white privilege.” The TDSB, for all its shortcomings, is still a leader in providing a tremendous array of school options for students and parents, demonstrating every day that there are a multitude of different ways to reach and engage students.

Tampering with what works in education is not the best way forward. Reading the fine print in the TDSB Task Force report, it all comes to a vote when the TDSB Board of Trustees meet on December 13, 2017.  We’ll all be watching.

What’s the real objective of Dr. John Malloy’s TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force? Who wins when school systems eliminate lighthouse programs and limit choice for students and parents?  Since when are “specialty schools” a high priority problem? Does a school system become stronger by lopping-off or trimming its centres of excellence? Who would really benefit if the Toronto DSB cut its special programs and ‘lowered all boats in the water’? 

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