Do we actually WANT Systemic Change in Public Education?

Jeewan Chanicka, Director of Eduction for the Waterloo Region District School Board is photographed at the Waterloo Collegiate Institute on Monday, September 26, 2022. (Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail)

Four years ago George Floyd was tragically killed. Outcries for justice and pledges to do better were emphatic and overwhelming. Many who were silent for years, added their voices to the chorus around the world- we needed to do better.

Public education however, has never served all students, especially those marginalized populations. There’s over 50 years of research to prove that. There is also evidence that identity is far too often a predictor of outcome. This extends to not only Indigenous, Black and racialized students but also those from 2SLGBTQIA+ , neurodivergent, disabled communities and those students coming from poverty (herein referred to as IBRm).

There were public commitments to improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives as a matter of justice. There were public commitments to help improve the outcomes for Indigenous, Black, racialized and marginalized peoples.

Four years later, it’s astounding how the memory of George Floyd has dissipated as the attacks on DEI grow. Often hidden within Canadian politeness, today, more people are emboldened and openly share racist attitudes, often portraying “hate” as the legitimate “side” of a debate. We can no longer hide behind the belief that these attitudes only happen south of the border. If anything, what is happening today reinforces the belief that the lives of the marginalized are worth less to those who hold power.

IBRm leaders, and leaders who are daring to speak from within the collective experiences of their communities continue to face hyper scrutiny, vigilance, are being targeted and ultimately losing their jobs or are needing to “choose” to step away. Many women in the world of male dominated leadership have shared this reality for multiple decades.

It’s now been three years since I have had the honour and privilege to serve as the Director of Education for the Waterloo Region District School Board. Starting in a pandemic with a team of amazing leaders we went from that to managing a significant cyber incident. From the onset, the direction of trustees for me as their sole employee was straightforward. Apart from managing these crises, the mandate they gave me was to build a better education system to serve all students well. One in which the chances for ALL students to succeed were equal.

I had been so honest in my interview for Director about the work I intended to do if hired that I openly told my mentors, there was no way I would be hired. I felt that I was too honest about the work that needed to be done. I didn’t cut my hair, or try to show up as anyone other than who I was, as I had in the past. There was no code-switching in my interview by me.

Personally, I carry this title as a weighty mantle and one that many elders, ancestors and community leaders have worked lifetimes to try and do. For me to have the support of trustees to transform public education in the heart of Canada’s innovation hub, so that it can actually serve all students well was a dream come true!

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Four years ago, it appeared that people were much more open to the idea of racialised folks in leadership. Today across society, it seems that was more attached to the “idea” than actually having us there. Because to place us in roles without adding necessary supports to help navigate the backlash (because of reasons shared above and more), is to set leaders up for failure by design OR to make sure that for them to succeed in spite of the structures, they must continually over-extend themselves to try and make things work.

In public education, our colonial history often means that there is no institutional belief that IBRm leaders would care equally about White children as they do about Black and Brown children.

All the while IBRm communities have been historically forced to “hope and pray” that White leaders will make the bold moves necessary to ensure our children will be supported and successful. To be clear, that has not happened in education in any systemic way.

Results and milestones do not seem to reduce the resistance leaders of colour continue to face in roles like these. My own personal experience over the past 3 years is that from the onset, I have continually been targeted and harassed for my commitment to lead in a way that creates a more inclusive public education system.

More and more I’m told that because I am a “public figure”, I have to simply accept and endure the harassment and intimidation directed at me and that there’s nothing that can be done about it by lawyers or from the Ministry of Education, police, politicians and from other leaders.

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This attack on public education, is indeed a “war” being waged by some to keep public education the same. Any attempts to do anything differently and in a way that honours all children served by public education, will be met with resistance.

There are days that I wonder – how many of us are committed to making change that will create a public education system where all children are to be successful. As the noise and attacks grow and there’s no apparent way to support those working to change it – what happens next? It seems like many are willing to allow the very vocal racist and harmful attacks and noise of some to at the very best, keep public education the same or at it’s worst, dismantle public education altogether. Are we ready to trade in a public education system for a US styled one? To me this is what’s at stake.

As a system, the WRDSB is making gains – sure they are slow and yes there is much, much more for us to do – but for leaders of colour like myself, we are expected to endure the harm, repair the harm of colonial systems and increase the wins often without the support necessary to help us thrive.

Much time in this role is spent thinking about how to survive while navigating the harm of racism, encouraging people to change practice (which is hard at the best of times), facing extremely (rightfully) high expectations from marginalized communities desperately hoping this time it might be different and in a way that is both underfunded and under-supported  (this is the perfect recipe for disaster). Indigenous, Black and Brown leaders will often face the harshest critiques and a litany of ensuing double standards.  These double standards include harsher critiques for doing the same things their White counterparts are doing as well.

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