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A way forward – The ‘Great Undoing’

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I must confess that over the years I have been gravely disappointed with the White Moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not … the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension”

Martin Luther King Jr. 

Hi Everyone,

A great many people have begun the process of unhinging their previously held beliefs about race and privilege as the BLM global movement has gained momentum in recent weeks. If you’re one of these people, you have probably found it to be pretty unsettling work. I have recently pivoted back (since my grad school days) to devouring literature written by black men and women. I have been hearing them on social media, reposting their work and shedding a few tears at the injustice of this whole damn history and, as MLK Jr. puts it, “a grave disappointment with the white moderate,” of which I have admittedly been part of.

I have been thinking a lot about this concept of the ‘white moderate’ and about complacency. This is the work that I and others in my circles must do. I must interrupt my own complacency, push governments and young people to do the same, give up my affinity for order and instead examine that order, my place in it, and what I can do to help upend it.  I am running into the concept quite a bit in my reading; it is the problem and changing the ideologies (and ultimately, the actions) of this group will be a massive part of the solution (if a solution is even a thing). “The great undoing” I will call it. Part of the great undoing for people like myself, is to think about what it looks like in the circles we interact with; our work, our philanthropy choices, our friendship groups.

This week I have been thinking about systematic change in schools as a way forward to impart real, lasting action; a movement for a group that will eventually grow, blossom, evolve and become something that shifts the trajectory of how we talk about race and privilege around the world; schools are a pretty key place to do this. They are spaces where the next generation learns how to form opinions about the world, where they find their voice (hopefully) and where they can learn how to ally. So, how can we begin to approach the great undoing in our schools, then?

As always, I will preface, I am a white woman, born into privilege and I have accomplished many of my goals in life. Mostly, I was born into my accomplishments and I have received intentional luck throughout the years because of the colour of my skin. My grandparents did not attend residential schools, my ancestors were not slaves, I did not live in neighbourhoods that were redlined, and therefore, generations of my family have had the great comfort of not having to think about race as a barrier to their success or the safety of their bodies. Therefore, anything I share with you in this series of posts, is not my own thinking but the thinking of those who have had to think about their skin colour as a barrier to their success and safety. I am only the delivery person here and this movement is not so much interested in my fairly newfound rage, but rather, what I am going to DO with it as an ally. So, here are their thoughts on creating lasting change in our schools as educators.

Get comfortable with discomfort – perhaps for most of your life, if you are white, you have thought, “I am a good person who believes in what is right with respect to equality and racial violence,” and you are probably very honest in that. But we have been told that this is not enough, and that fact can be very uncomfortable because we know it to be true. Glennon Doyle, in her book Untamed, compared her ‘unbecoming’ to getting sober after addiction; “uncomfortable as the truth agitated my comfortable numbness.” Coming off an addiction to ignorance is hard, and this is what is meant when we hear that this really is hard work. It will break your heart; Ta-Neishi Coates letter to his teenage son about the realities of living in a black body in America will break your heart; it’s supposed to. So, settle into this discomfort as the start to your great undoing. School leaders (I hope) are currently doing the same.

Why is your school doing this? What drives you? Rachel Cargle is a brilliant writer, academic and educator. One of her posts recently stayed with me (well, they all do), but this one stung; “anti-racism work is not self-improvement work for white people.” This one stung for 2 reasons, I think; 1. perhaps a tinge of white fragility was at work on my part (undoing is a continuous process and isn’t perfect) and 2. because I know it is so something white people would do, as we tend to become obsessed with self-improvement, especially in the upper classes. All of my research has focused on self-improvement to the point of micro-managing one’s body, food and mind. It is not surprising to me in the least that we might take on this task through an education in self-improvement about race. From my research, though, I have learned that this self-improvement to educate oneself is a great entry point into the real work that actually creates change for people of colour; it helps you become the person you need to be to ally with the cause. You must become that person before you can really help and talk about this effectively, but it’s not the end game.

Insist on real change – To become a real change-making school, that school community must move beyond research and content sharing, though this is a good start. Long-lasting and impactful change occurs in the boardroom and in the classrooms. It must trickle down from the big decision-makers and then live in every department and it must be part of every lesson beyond Black History Month and the Black Lives Matter movement. Teachers must retell stories beyond the ethnocentric texts in which they are given by the government; they should invite people of colour to tell these stories as they actually occurred. We will watch our students have a hard time with those stories because they are supposed to as part of their great undoing.

These actions, while all significant, are only occurring within the walls of the school at this point. While this work is substantial and important to create allyship,  we are currently being reminded by the black community and activists that we must extend beyond the walls of our community to impose real change for those who have struggled.

Ally with those who are already doing the good work – As we all know, the BLM movement is not new; it has just come to the global forefront recently. So, of course there are well established and grassroots organizations that have been working tirelessly on the fight against systemic racism for years. Really, we are being summoned to join in this movement with those who have already been fighting. We are not really doing anything new, even if it feels new to us. This is how we can channel our newfound rage; through partnering with these organizations that have been doing the work. We can do this as part of our schools; we can raise money and awareness for these groups and we can support their initiatives and take them on in our own organizations and lives.We can invite individuals from these organization to speak to our students and then tell them how they can become involved. I have listed some of these organizations below, with an Ontario and wellbeing focus. This is really just a start in my research about creating real change and I will continue to share as I continue to learn.

So, I hope that as you begin to think about going back to work with your students in the fall (fingers crossed, in person) no matter your role, that you take these suggestions from those who have been fighting this fight for some time and use them to inform real, authentic change as a way to avoid complacency.

I also hope that you take some time to get outside, eat a Freezie with a kid and breathe in the summer air. We all need a bit of that right now, too.

L.

Black Lives Matter Toronto – https://blacklivesmatter.ca

Black Youth Helpline – https://blackyouth.ca//services/#how-to-access-our-services

Black Legal Action Centre – https://www.blacklegalactioncentre.ca/

Black Health Alliance – http://blackhealthalliance.ca/

Black Women in Motion – https://blackwomeninmotion.org/

 

 

 

“To Love & to Decolonize the Mind”

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” In order to decolonize our minds, we must begin to surrender participation in whatever sphere of coercive hierarchical domination we enjoy individual and group privilege.”

bell hooks

Yesterday our Head of School at Lakefield College shared a virtual talk with our community. She located her positionality as a white woman and spoke of the work to be done at our school with respect to the systematic racism and violence we have witnessed in the U.S. This is messy work but it is also mandatory work no matter the position in which you approach it. The day after this talk, we gathered in small groups with staff and students to talk about a path forward, though I am not sure ‘path’ is the right word; labyrinth maybe.

In these meetings, a young person asked me, “this is so hard to address; as a white privileged teenage girl, how do I really help? What if I try to do something, but I don’t know what they are going through?” I empathized with her and I was also proud of her for asking these impossible questions. It’s the start of a long journey to locate her positionality in a fight that is predominately rooted in her ancestor’s treatment of ‘other’. She will struggle with the realities of her colonizer background as she realizes she has a very big part to play in this fight; as she discovers the very subtle acts of racism surrounding her that have informed her thinking for most of her life; that she must now undo all of it. This is her work to be done, and it ain’t going to be easy, nothing worthwhile ever is. 

I suppose this blog post is a note for her and for all of our other young people grappling with these questions right now. I will speak to my struggle to locate myself in this fight and offer, in a small way, a suggestion to nudge forward as an outsider. Of course, this isn’t really my own work, but work borrowed from those who have gone before me to ally with the humans who we have oppressed for all of these years.  

Locating positionality: Locating positionality is the first step in the path towards joining this fight. I will offer my position here and hope that you feel you will be able to do the same.  I am a white, middle class, heterosexual female who was born and raised in rural Ontario. I am of Scottish descent, and my family came to Canada 5 generations ago to farm in the Keene area. For this reason, my ancestors are colonizers. They are colonizers of the Indigenous people and the land that they farmed.

Though neither of my parents attended university, I have spent much of my life in educational institutions as a student, a teacher, and a researcher. This time in higher education institutions gives me power. It affords me a language and voice that many do not possess and I am acutely aware that I must not take it for granted. I am also aware that I can use this position to give voice to those who are silenced by the structures of society. Anyone in a position such as this should use their voice to amplify those who have been silenced by centuries of colonization and oppression. Do it in whatever way feels most useful for the cause; for me, it was continuing on in school and offering a voice to marginalized youth through academia.

Educate yourself – it’s simple, yet also one of the most powerful tools to move forward as an ally in this fight. Read everything you can about the history of slavery and how that history has translated into the current climate of systemic racism today. Read about popular cultural perceptions of skin color. Read about what is included and what gets left out of the media we consume with respect to race. Devour literature written by black men and women that tell their stories of oppression.

Read those books and then go and talk to your circles about them. This cause is not interested in your ignorant comments about race; you must learn more about these struggles, not fully understanding what black people have been through and are going through, but knowing a bit more, and becoming an ally in the process. One student in our talks today suggested a credit course at our school solely focused on race; a wonderful suggestion.

Approach this fight with an ‘ethic of love’ – I borrow this beautiful term from feminist and race theorist, bell hooks. She has argued that we must truly care about the oppression and exploitation of others if we are to join in this movement. During the Civil Rights movement, societal consciousness regarding race shifted as people knew it, because it was, at its core, rooted in a love ethic (hooks, 1994). Martin Luther King embodied and lived the love ethic, often sharing in speeches that he had ‘decided to love’ because ‘if we are seeking the highest good, we find it through love.’ So, if we are to follow in these profound words of MLK, that hooks remind us of, we must move forward with an ethic of love as the anchor for all that we do; like a mission statement that we do not deviate from. Love for our fellow humans should guide us and be our ethical compass, we should have no ulterior motives.

Watching George Floyd die at the hands of someone who was meant to protect him was heartwrenching, jarring. It hurt our hearts, but we saw it. We saw it at a time when we were already fed up; fed up with the inequalities staring us in the face during this pandemic; in the face of numerous senseless slayings of black people at the hands of those who are meant to protect them. We are fed up, but we will move forward with love in our hearts for those who are suffering, and we will stand beside them as allies – educated, located, and ready to serve.

L.

 

A Letter to the Class of 2020

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To the Grads of 2020,

Well, it has been a month since I last felt an urge to write. Perhaps this is due to being busy with my ‘quarantine life’ or perhaps it’s because I have felt weighed down by the immense realities before us. We are entering into new, uncharted territory as we start to think about remerging into the world and this has felt daunting to me, if I’m going to be perfectly honest.

As I have been thinking about this reemergence, my focus always lands on our young people; our future. I need to begin this terrain of thought by speaking directly to them today because lately they have inspired me in ways that I am finding hard to put into words, but I will try. So, to the Class of 2020…

I have felt a fierce need to protect you throughout the first months of this pandemic, but there’s more:  As your teacher and counsellor, I have felt like it’s my duty to help calm you, reassure you, and tell you that it is all going to be okay, when I’m not quite sure what the future holds. I recently realized, however, that this support is actually a two-way-street. I get a sense that all of you want to protect us adults as well. You have gone out of your way, in fact, to make sure we know that we are contributing to your wellbeing throughout all of this, and I hope that we are. This is a bit mind-baffling to me; your ability to look outwards and worry about others during this unimaginable time.

I believe you have shown this support by remaining calm, composed and hopeful for your futures as we have grappled with how to support you. You have been gentle on us as we navigate that. Thank you. I often find myself an emotional heap by the end of the day, not because of the current state of the world, but because of the hope I feel about the future when I speak to you.

This time is about YOU: When I started crying in class the other day (re. emotional heap) in an act that you probably thought was a little corny but kinda nice, I actually felt a bit selfish. This time we find ourselves in isn’t about me and how I’m feeling about helping you; it’s about you and your future, and you have approached this task with a grace and grit that leaves me speechless.

As I watch you accept offers and get excited about what that means, I feel so hopeful for you and what the world has in store for you. Please never lose that vigour and drive that only a person with their whole life ahead of them can possess. We all need it; you are our future, and we need you trained and ready to do great things and navigate a complex world in your chosen fields.

The world will be normal again, and you will be stronger because of this: You are Generation ‘Z’; a generation that has come of age during the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Me Too’ movements; during a time when the world is facing real problems due to climate change and now a global pandemic. Coming of age in these moments has made you flexible and adaptable in ways my generation can’t understand. You embrace the acceptance of others; you believe that ‘love is love’; you are digital natives and you navigate your online worlds tactfully and with purpose. You are acutely aware of your position in the world, partly due to the fact that you have information at your fingertips and partly because you are open to and respect the opinions of other generations and your peers. You are a large demographic, outsized only by the baby boomers, and your voice is equally as large.

If I factor all of these points together, I can’t help but think of the amazing adults you are all going to become (or are already becoming), and how you are going to lead the world without fear. You will have the plight of those less fortunate heavy on your minds as you watch them struggle through this pandemic; as inequalities come into focus in ways we wish we didn’t have to see, but that we need to see to make better. Let that guide you ethically in all that you do.

So, to the class of 2020, please continue to be hopeful and fierce about securing your futures. Go to university and train up in your fields with all of your passion and energy. Know something about science if you are a social scientist, future engineers and doctors, take a philosophy course; artists and musicians, we need the joy and creativity you bring to the world now more than ever. You will all be working together in a complex but exciting future to solve the worlds problems while continuing to show the people that beauty and goodness is alive and well.

I think about you all every day and I can’t wait to celebrate the class of 2020 in a few short weeks; keep going hard with your studies, you are almost there! You got this and this is (still) YOUR year!

Dr. E 🙂

Observations & Lessons in Isolation – Week 4

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Hi Everyone,

I don’t know about you, but we have somewhat settled into the ebbs and flows and weirdness of staying (and working) at home. The weirdness will never disappear; we are social creatures who need to be around one another, but I am realizing there is a ‘new normal’ that exists for the time being. I have also been making a lot of observations and learning a lot of lessons in the discomfort of this time. I keep remembering that we are ‘healthy at home’ as opposed to ‘staying at home;’ it changes perspective completely and makes me think about those who do not have this luxury.

Here are some observations of my first month (or so) at home.

We are Living History: I have found a great deal of comfort in educating myself in these first few weeks. I have to admit, sometimes I go down into a dark hole and have to dig myself out for my mental health’s sake. But, I have found comfort in this education for the most part, and especially in reaching back into history to learn about how others coped with epidemics in the past; this situation is not new to us humans, though the combination of our modern lives with an epidemic is. Nonetheless, we can learn from the lessons of the past, even if those lessons are not the ones we want to hear.

The head of my school recently introduced me to a NY Times Op-Ed piece by David Brooks that traces the lack of public consciousness following the Spanish Flu of 1918, which is puzzling, as it killed many more Americans than World War I did. Brooks argues that perhaps this was because people didn’t treat each other so well during these times when they felt “trapped, waiting for events outside their control, unable to act, unable to decide.” And let’s not kid ourselves, this is where we are at currently; we really have little control. This thinking hits at the personal level; what people did or did not do in these challenging times. I’ll leave Brooks rather grim examples below for you to peruse.

This is the learning of history that is most poignant for me; at this level of the personal. Hearing people’s stories; Anne Frank in hiding, displaying human resilience and kindness in the face of impending gloom, men marching off to war, and the story of the life they left behind and the realities of the trenches; people’s personal connections to those in the World Trade Center, and I could go on and on. So, if we are living history, what will your story be? Will it be one of kindness, resilience, humility? I hope so, and I hope so for myself, too. I hope you document this time and share it with your loved ones in the future; it might be their survival guide one day. I have been giving my students the same advice, if only for it to be their ‘I walked through 10-foot snowbanks to get to school’ story when their kids say they are bored someday.

If you are a teacher, your students REALLY want to see you: I know many of you public school teachers are feeling anxious about a return to work and what that is going to look like. I just completed my first week back at it and after that first class, I was chatting with a colleague who hadn’t yet taught and was feeling nervous, as we all were. I told her, “you will be so overcome with emotion and joy to see them healthy and smiling, all your nerves will just go away,” and I think that was true for all of us at Lakefield College this week. On the other side of this is, of course, our students; all 16 of mine were sitting in the queue of our zoom meeting 5 minutes before the class started; better punctuality then in person! We had a laugh about that. My point is, they really wanted to be there, and to see each other and their teacher and talk about their futures because it’s comforting and connecting. It was so nice. Good luck to you all next week, your kids want to see you and hear from you and let this carry you through your nerves and confusion as you navigate these tricky educational waters we are in!

Gratitude: I will admit it; I am not a person who is full of gratitude. It is not one of my top strengths; not even close. I spend my time focused on accomplishing (maybe too much so), loving my people and perhaps not living in the moment enough. But during this time, gratitude has taken a center stage for me. Perhaps it’s the change in pace and my lack of control in how I move around the world currently, but I am feeling so grateful these days. I went out for a run this morning and was grateful for the spring air, that I could take my family outside in the yard, that we have food security and a roof over our heads. To pre-Covid me, I would think I sounded super corny and would have given myself a big ‘ol eye roll, but nope, not now. Things I definitely take for granted in my day to day life have come into clear focus these days. I hope that continues when this is all over, it has changed my life and perspective, in such a short time.

Finally….

We Don’t Need Stuff: I am one of those people who NEEDS my morning coffee from the bakery. But the things that we thought we needed aren’t as readily available to us anymore, and it’s changed the way we think a bit, as least it has amongst my group of friends. A recent talk with some mom friends about where to buy our kid’s pants online turned into one about sewing a nice patch onto blown-out knees. I have been enjoying a coffee at home in the morning and second-guessing online orders because I just don’t feel I need it. I have shifted my attention from consumption to simplicity; I feel like a little old lady puttering around in my garden, but I love it. My kids have stopped asking to go buy a toy after a couple of weeks of tough conversations and have taken to collecting snails and worms outside and biking around. I hope relishing in this simplicity stays with me (and us) after this is over.

Thanks for listening to my musing about this month in physical isolation, I would be interested your hear what you are learning in these wild times!

L.