I grew up the grandson of farmers. I loved the land, the animals, my friends and family. I learned to care about those less fortunate from my family and to treat everyone well and with care. The first time I experienced being “poor” and marginalized was in Catholic school which was mostly for the privileged. When I was 13 one of the teachers told me, they should round up all the Muslims and shoot them. He thought that was funny.
I managed to persevere. I made great friends and had a bunch of different experiences.
As I grew up, I remained anchored in the community. I am forever grateful to those who helped to mould me. I am the product of them — primarily Black and Brown women who often saw way more in me than I did in myself. And because of that they pushed me hard. Their expectations for me were high, higher than my own expectations for myself. I remember wanting to take my name off the Vice Principal because I loved being in the classroom. I expressed that to one of my mentors, Sharon Moss, at the time, she looked at me and told me to “ just do it!”
At each step of my career, I saw the wrongs, the barriers and the obstacles. I knew them well, in part, because I lived through many of them. But because people saw possibilities for me, I also saw those possibilities. Which is why I kept returning to multiple communities that I was grounded in- Black, Indigenous, racialized, 2SLGBT+, Muslim, those struggling with poverty and more marginalized communities. At each step of “moving up”, I kept being told that as I moved up, I had to make a choice of where I wanted to be. That if I wanted to make a difference for the community and be in boardrooms; I had to stop being publicly in the community. I needed to stop marching; organizing and speaking.
I dared to do it differently. I chose to lead AND be anchored in community.
At times, it was really hard.
I cannot count how many times I was told that by speaking up and staying grounded in community justice work that I would lose any opportunities to move up. That, it would be dangerous from a career perspective to be vocal about inequities, racial injustice, Truth and Reconciliation and pushing for Inclusive Design in education.
The truth is, I experienced some of that too. And that doesnt account for my many experiences of discrimination/racism.
It was hard at times being accused by some of only being in it for myself, to not doing enough, of pushing too hard, being the angry Black man, playing the race card, the guy with the chip on his shoulder, to dealing with the direct harm of those who deliberately tried to stop me because I spoke with and for community.
SO many times it felt impossible.
What some people have never understood about me is that I care much less about titles than I do about impact and DOING the work. Just as I was ready to walk away from all of it, the universe and Creator had another plan for me. The opportunity to lead a district that is committed to centering students presented itself. From being that marginalized kid, who knew I’d have the opportunity to now lead a school district.
People don’t see the scars. Scars heal. If we do our self-healing work, we become stronger and better people. Especially since I kept learning to be and insisting on being my full self; integrating all the parts of me as I remained grounded in communities that are marginalized and doing my best to serve ALL.
So my reflection is this – it can be done but it won’t be easy. There will be people who will be there to help and be a circle of support- hold them tightly. There will also be detractors and people who will try to tear you down. Without excusing poor behaviour, they also present us with the opportunities to work on our egos and do our own healing work. When we do that, we can show up to the world with love and when we do that, we can fly. And trust me, if I can do it, you can too – I am no more or less special than anyone else.
We are our ancestors wildest dreams; so here’s to being the best ancestors we can be right now for all we serve!
So here I go, as I head toward the first day of school – with the title Director of Education, in the heart of Canada’s “Silicon valley” serving approximately 64 000 students in 122 schools. Co-leading alongside an awesome and inspiring team.
I sincerely believe that in Waterloo Region District School Board – we will transform public education.
Anyone who knows my track record, knows that I don’t say this lightly!
(photo credit- 2nd picture Ross Howey)