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Work underway in Simcoe County schools to address anti-Black racism

'We’re scratching the surface and that’s fantastic because we weren’t really doing that before,' says Michèle Newton

From parent advocacy groups to educational sessions, art projects to new school board positions and hires, a lot has happened over the past few months to address anti-Black racism in Simcoe County schools.

Over the summer, Black Lives Matter protests took place across the world and in local municipalities such as Barrie, Collingwood, Innisfil, Bradford and Orillia. They were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police, but also worked to highlight a lack of diversity, inclusion and equity in schools, local institutions and society as a whole.

Moving stories were shared of racism experienced by many speakers; some stories included experiences as children enrolled in the local education system. To read stories shared at a Barrie protest, click here.

School board officials heard those stories, which reaffirmed for them the importance of doing work to make schools better for minority students.

“For me, it emphasized the need for... our shared responsibility in standing up against racism and moving forward with initiatives that help to address that,” said Daryl Halliday, superintendent of education for the Simcoe County District School Board, and whose portfolio includes equity, diversity and inclusion.

Since the protests, Halliday points to a variety of initiatives the public board has taken to address anti-Black racism in schools.

One example is a pilot project currently being undertaken by the public board to hire a graduation coach for Black students.

“It’s an intentional pilot with the goal of helping all of our students achieve credit, graduate and transition into their chosen pathway,” said Halliday. “What we believe is important is creating a caring and nurturing school environment by looking at the academic, social, emotional and cultural needs of our Black students by hoping to develop relationships.”

Halliday says the public board has not had a graduation coach previously, so they’re excited to proceed with the project and are confident it will have an impact.

Two secondary schools will take part in the pilot: Bradford District High School and Nantyr Shores Secondary School in Innisfil.

The board is in the process of interviewing candidates for the position.

Halliday also talked about a series of videos produced by the public board called Time Well Spent, where he interviews students, trustees, staff and experts in the field of diversity on issues of racism and inclusion. To access the videos, click here.

Halliday says the public board has partnerships with a variety of groups that work to support Black students, including Our Mosaic Lives, Making Change and the Black Youth Help Line.

Over the summer, he says all staff participated in training through the Ontario Human Rights Commission on racial discrimination.

Following up on that, senior school board staff will be participating in Anti-Black Racism Educational Sessions later in January, put on by local non-profit Making Change.

The sessions are available for organizations, non-profits and businesses and cover topics such as systemic racism, white privilege, the historical context of anti-Black racism, micro-aggressions and stereotypes.

“We have a number of clients we’ve been working with. It’s starting to boom,” said Michèle Newton, president and chair of Making Change. “The sessions are not about shaming or blaming. It’s about making a decision to change the direction you’re going in to eliminate some systemic racism.”

The sessions have been marketed through word of mouth only, and only non-profits and public organizations have participated in the sessions.

“So far, no corporations have come to us. I want to see more corporations also thinking about that,” said Newton. “Maybe that’s coming, hopefully.”

Making Change is also doing work within local schools to address diversity.

In February 2020, Making Change launched an art engagement project, with the goal of expanding to other schools.

Due to last year’s education strikes, the non-profit was only able to roll it out at Chris Hadfield Public School in Bradford before pressing pause on the project.

This year, there are about 25 schools who will be participating in the project virtually through to the end of May, with kids from junior kindergarten to Grade 3 taking part.

“We talk about inclusion, belonging and anti-Black racism. We use art, with a Black artist joining in, to help them change the narrative through art,” said Newton.

Educational sessions for students, also put on by Making Change, are also planned to be rolled out starting Jan. 18 in select schools.

More than a dozen schools in the public board will be participating initially with students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, with plans to expand the sessions to other schools should there be a demand and capacity to provide it.

“It’s a presentation that talks about anti-Black racism so teachers can become better allies, and talks a little bit about the history of Black people in our country,” said Newton. “It also (addresses), how do we move forward?”

Overall, Newton says she feels very positive about the progress being made in schools and beyond on the topic of racism.

“I feel inspired. On the flip side of it, I feel there’s still so much work to do. We’re scratching the surface and that’s fantastic because we weren’t really doing that before. That’s a huge step,” she said. “I see things changing more quickly now than they have been over the last 30 years.”

While there has been progress made, some local parents are rallying together to make sure the progress doesn’t stop.

Parent Natasha Shakespeare started the Facebook group Parents Against Racism-Simcoe County back in November as a way for local parents of Black or biracial children to share their experiences and come together to work toward grassroots change in schools.

The group boasts nearly 60 members and is still growing.

“I can’t sit silently anymore. Something just clicked,” said Shakespeare. “When speaking to the Black community that I know, we have a lot of the same experiences and concerns. Our children are having experiences. Nobody wants to have this fight, but the unfortunate reality is, we need to for change to happen.”

Shakespeare says there are a variety of issues Black students face in schools.

“When you hear about the use of the n-word, when you hear about streamlining – where students of colour are streamlined into the lowest level of academics – or when bullying happens, it’s the Black students who get in trouble. Those things happen here as well,” said Shakespeare. “We’re not in a bubble in Simcoe (County) where that doesn’t happen.”

She looked to other communities in the Greater Toronto Area and saw parent-led change happening at those boards.

“Those things are only happening because a community of parents have come together to be loud,” she said.

Shakespeare said that she has some of her own ideas to bring forward to the school board, but right now her focus is to get more parents to join the group, and then as a collective come up with a list of ideas.

“I don’t want to be a sole voice,” she said.

Shakespeare feels the group is necessary as one like it doesn’t yet exist at school boards locally to address issues specifically faced by Black students.

“At this point, I think it’s really needed because there are specific situations and circumstances that are particular to Black students that are different from other groups,” she said. “I’m not saying that’s intentional, but there just isn’t Black representation. It’s lacking.”

Looking forward, Shakespeare has hopes the group will be able to develop a positive relationship with the school board to address concerns, and that preliminary talks have already taken place.

“I want to work together to make change,” she said. “I want this to be something positive.”

The group is planning a first virtual meeting in February. For more information or to join up, the group can be found here or reached via email at parentsagainstracism.simcoe@gmail.com.

For more information on Making Change, click here.


Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 11 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering County of Simcoe matters, education and features
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