Former and current students watching anti-Black racism plan at Windsor-Essex school board

Some say it hasn't been easy to be a Black student — or a Black teacher — at public schools in Windsor-Essex.

Being Black in Windsor-Essex schools can bring feelings of isolation, anxiety, community members say

Kaitlyn Ellsworth, left, and Leslie McCurdy are executive members of the Black Council of Windsor-Essex. They say they'll keep a close eye on the local school board's strategies to mitigate anti-Black racism in schools. (CBC)

Following an apology and promise from the school board to do better when it comes to anti-Black racism, some say it hasn't been easy to be a Black student — or a Black teacher — at public schools in Windsor-Essex.

The Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) acknowledged the problem, following the release of a third-party report that was critical of its actions to stop anti-Black racism. The board is also launching a five-year strategy to tackle the issue.

An education advocate in Windsor's Black community told CBC News she will be watching to make sure the public school board follows the strategy.

"Growing up in the public school board in elementary, I was called the N-word. My brothers were called the N-word," said Kaitlyn Ellsworth, vice-chair of the Black Council of Windsor-Essex.

"We were one of only a few Black students in the school, so for me, that included feelings of anxiousness, not wanting to enter the building, being somewhat prepared for something to happen and so hyper-vigilant to my surroundings."

As the only Black girl at her elementary school, Ellsworth said she felt isolated, and people regularly made comments about her skin tone and hair.

"It's not a unique experience for Black students growing up in elementary schools," she said.

Ellsworth went on to teach in the public system and work with racialized students to help them navigate systemic racism. She's also the Black student support co-ordinator at the University of Windsor.

WATCH | Here's what anti-Black racism can look and sound like: 

What's anti-Black racism? Take a listen.

1 month ago
Duration 1:13
Kaitlyn Ellsworth and Leslie McCurdy share instances of anti-Black racism at schools within Windsor's Public School Board.

She said the experiences she had as a child at school carried over into her work.

"I witnessed students being targeted because they're wearing durags, which is a very specific cultural head wear, ... told they wouldn't get a job," she said. "I witnessed students being punished at a different rate, targeted at a different rate.

"It's like a double-traumatic experience for a Black teacher who went through it but is also witnessing their students go through it."

Lladaneyah Gayle is a 15-year-old student in Grade 10 at General Amherst High School in Amherstburg. She is one of the founders of the Black Youth Empowerment Program.

"People talk about my hair because they think I'm from a third-world country ... things like that," said Gayle, who grew up in Jamaica before coming to Canada.

"I do realize now that I am Black — back in Jamaica it was more diverse ... but coming here I realized I was the only Black person in my class, so it definitely made a huge difference."

Strategy is a starting point

Both Gayle and Ellsworth said they'll be closely watching the board's five-year plan. The strategy, outlined in a 34-page report, contains more than 40 actions grouped under five strategic priorities. It includes more training for teachers, a stronger curriculum to foster understanding of anti-Black racism and the contributions of Black people, and the hiring of more Black staff.

"Honestly, I'm very glad they finally acknowledged this is a problem," Gayle said. "It does mean a lot that people recognize the struggles we've been through."

Gayle said she hopes people will choose to be allies to the Black community and students.

"I think realistically, when we talk about systemic racism, this is going to take a long time to dismantle," Ellsworth said. "This is hard work."

The strategy, she said, is a living and working document that is a good start at solving the problem.

Leslie McCurdy, chair of the Black Council of Windsor-Essex, was on the steering committee for the board's project. She spoke at a virtual meeting on Wednesday, when the board's strategy was presented.

Speaking to CBC News after the presentation, McCurdy said she was happy to be part of the board's next steps.

"I'm really, really, proud that we got to this point while my mother is still here because ... my mother was fighting this fight when I was a child, both my parents," she said.

The Greater Essex County District School Board has a five-year strategy to tackle anti-Black racism in schools. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"So I'm glad that she is able to see this dismantling anti-Black racism strategy launched by the board. And you know, we'll still need to see the commitment to this change. Some of the change will be really difficult. It's going to take real structural change. But mostly, I was proud we got to this point while my mother was still here to see it."

McCurdy said the council is part of many groups across the region working to unite on systemic anti-Black racism. 

The full background report and recommendations are available on the GECDSB website.

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.

Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)