York Region school board unveils anti-Black racism strategy to be rolled out over 5 years
But parents say timeline too long and strategy lacks real apology and accountability
The York Region District School Board has unveiled what it calls its "dismantling anti-Black racism strategy," a plan board officials say will take five years to implement.
"The strategy was developed in response to continued evidence of anti-Black racism in schools," the board said in a news release Monday night.
"The systemic nature of anti-Black racism requires that school boards act proactively to support greater access to education and opportunities for all students and to challenge the marginalization of Black students, staff and families," the statement reads.
Board officials say the strategy is meant to achieve "safe, equitable and inclusive learning environments where all students, including Black students can achieve to their full potential."
But parents say that timeline is too long and they fear that the strategy, or action plan, will be used as a shield to block progress. They say they are also concerned that the strategy does nothing new to address racist actions that have led to lawsuits the board is contesting around discrimination.
"The five-year plan is problematic for me," said Charline Grant, a mother of three children and a member of the community group Parents of Black Children. Despite her group being included in the consultation process, Grant says they felt ignored and weren't satisfied with the outcome.
If parents raise concerns, Grant said, the board could simply say that it has a strategy and delay addressing those concerns.
Grant said the strategy, unveiled at a virtual event that attracted about 1,300 registrants, is well written and the community provided much feedback. But she said it lacks accountability, a sincere apology with a commitment to make amends, acknowledgement of the trauma caused by board employees, and strong wording to hold perpetrators accountable.
It doesn't deal with the current cases, situations and climate, she said, adding the strategy came about because mothers fought for their children.
Grant experienced anti-Black racism herself when a York Region School Board trustee was overheard calling her the n-word. The trustee, Nancy Elgie, resigned after months of public pressure. In 2017, following a human rights complaint, Grant received an apology from the board, which also agreed to establish a human rights office to collect equity-related data and conduct mandatory anti-racism training, among other commitments.
"The board doesn't do anything just because they want to. It's part of institutional and systemic racism. It's not the board waking up one morning and saying: 'You know what? We need to do this because it's the right thing to do.' It's because of tireless work from women like myself."
At the event, board chair Cynthia Cordova said the strategy is based on the board's policy of equity and inclusivity and will act as a guide for the board as it works to address anti-Black racism in its schools.
'Goal of the strategy is to achieve racial equity,' chair says
"We know that anti-Black racism exists and is affecting our learning and working environments. Black students and staff do not feel their learning and working environments are as equitable or inclusive as they should be," Cordova said in a taped address.
"The main goal of the strategy is to achieve racial equity in our schools for Black students and staff," she said.
"It will be used to inform our future decision-making, address past inequities and systemic bias, raise awareness of issues and challenges, improve York Region District School Board services and increase opportunities for dialogue and engagement among staff, students, families and community," she added.
"Our dismantling anti-Black racism strategy is a living document. This means that we will review, update and adjust as needed to respond to the latest data and feedback ... Achieving our goal will take time. The full implementation of our strategy is anticipated to take place over a five-year timeframe."
According to the board's news release, the timeframe is 2020 to 2025.
Strategy has 7 priority areas
The strategy has seven priority areas that come with actions, 11 foundational principles and is contained online in a graphic and two documents.
The seven priority areas are:
- Commitment to bold leadership.
- Increase the racial literacy of all staff.
- Creating affirming leadership and working environments.
- Improving academic outcomes and well-being for black students.
- Creating a culturally relevant and Black-affirming curriculum.
- Improving the ways in which Black parents and communities are able to engage with schools and the school board.
- Hiring and supporting Black staff.
Louise Sirisko, the board's education director, said at the event that the board's senior leadership team met with Black community leaders nearly two years ago and formed an anti-Black racism steering committee made up of community leaders, students and parents. After that, board staff continued to meet monthly with the steering committee and learned about the "hurt and harm" of systemic racism.
She apologized for the anti-Black racist incidents in YRDSB's schools.
"During these meetings, members of the Anti-Black Racism Steering Committee shared experiences of anti-Black racism in our schools and workplaces against students, staff and families," she wrote in a letter as part of the strategy.
"Through these conversations, they also shared their wisdom and underscored the need for YRDSB to address incidents of anti-Black racism head on."
'A strategy runs the risk of being only words'
The strategy arose out of those meetings. But Sirisko added in the letter: "A strategy runs the risk of being only words on paper."
She said, however, that the board is committed to acting on the strategy.
Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, reminded the board in a keynote speech at the event that the strategy is not "something to hide behind."
Schools are places where Black children experience "degradation, harm and psychological violence" and are sites of policing and surveillance, Maynard said. Black children and youth have been streamed in schools, mistreated by teachers, "bullied without intervention," and disciplined and expelled at higher rates than white children, she said.
"Black childhood has never been protected in Canada," she said.
Shernett Martin, executive director of ANCHOR, African Canadian National Coalition Against Hate, Oppression and Racism, said the group was consulted for months on the strategy, which she said is a start, but the group was let down by the outcome.
"It feels like it's just a blanket way to check off a box and say that this is done, without really the meat and the work really following through," Martin said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.