Spinning Our Wheels or Making Progress: The Race to Equity in Education

The author, Debbie King, at the 2020 Walk Against Racism in Parkdale.
(Image credit: @itsonlykotsy. Website at: www.kotsy.ca)

Activism can feel like an uphill battle toward an elusive goal. Despite clear vision and strong resolve, the ongoing nature of the struggle for justice can lead us to wonder if we are, in fact, making progress or woefully spinning our wheels.

This has been my experience as a Black mother organizing among a community of Black women—as a  founding member of our school’s Black Student Success Committee (BSSC)—working tirelessly and without pay to provide programs and advocacy that enrich and support our children in the face of an oppressive public school system. In our school alone, a racist, threatening letter was sent to a then-vice-principal, naming Black teachers and parents. Then, one year later, a second racist letter was sent to the new Black female principal. At the high school down the road, a teacher came to school on Halloween in blackface. Our community addresses these blatant acts of anti-Black racism, as well as other endemic issues such as the underrepresentation of Black children in elite, academic, and specialized programs. While each day presents new challenges, the challenges presented are not new.

An article by Carol Allain in the September/October 1986 edition of Our Lives describes the author’s “encounter[s] with the education system” that left her “extremely suspicious of the education that we, as Black students, receive in Canadian school” (p. 4).

The parent-led programs and advocacy led by our BSSC are strikingly similar to other activist efforts, including the Black Education Project led by Marlene Green in the late sixties. The Black Education Project aimed to address inequalities faced by disadvantaged Black children in the education system in Toronto, running “educational programs, tutoring, and summer camps,” while calling for increased visibility and affirmation of the “history, culture, and contributions of Black people”. Green also co-wrote a critical report on race relations in the education system. Then, as now, disparities confirmed in research findings informed work to improve learning opportunities and outcomes for Black children. More than forty years later, the disparities Green fought against persist. Today, groups like our BSSC and Parents of Black Children seek to disrupt ongoing overrepresentation in special education programs and lower graduation rates among Black students, and other disparaging educational outcomes identified in the 2017 Towards Race Equity in Education report.

An image taken from Ella Cooper’s 2016 documentary short Where is Marlene Green?. (This was one of several films for the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project celebrating 50 years of black activism in Toronto.)

Longstanding concerns about the need for anti-Black racism training continue as well. Demands for mandatory anti-Black racism training made by BSSC at the 2021 Parkdale Against Racism rally mirror those made by the Black Women’s Collective in 1989 at the Rally Against Racism. The Rally Against Racism was one of a series of actions to address the murders of Black people at the hands of police as well as many more incidents of police harassment and brutality. The need for training and accountability among police and civil servants employed “to serve and protect” is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago—a need school boards and government have failed to meet, while the school-to-prison pipeline continues to thrive, threatening Black youth.

Are we really, in 2022, still having to justify our humanity, value, rights, and capabilities?

There’s a haunting scene in the 1991 documentary, Sisters in the Struggle. About twenty minutes into the film, the audio fades out in a moment of silence for Black lives lost to state violence. Grayscale images of grieving families fill the screen. In one, a mother’s head is bowed over a dark-skinned preteen girl who is burrowed in her bosom with clenched eyes, lips damming a flood of trauma (pictured below). The scene immediately brought to mind a recent article written by a fellow BSSC mother, distraught over the trauma that hate mail and blackface incidents at school have inflicted on her 14-year-old daughter.

An image (described above) from Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman’s Sisters in the Struggle (1991).

I understand that schools were not designed to support Black students but rather to disadvantage them and uphold a status quo that perpetuates white supremacist ideologies. I understand why the fight feels futile for Black mothers—the frustration, resentment, and exhaustion over the lack of change. I get it because I’m living it too.

In addition to my activism, I’m also a group fitness coach, and it’s this seemingly unrelated professional experience that prompted me to consider a reframing of my perspective on the push for racial equity.

My fitness studio recently upgraded its fitness bikes to a new type of stationary bike—the Concept 2 BikeErg with flywheel technology and an advanced monitor system. The flywheel matters, at least metaphorically, because it uses air resistance, which responds to and requires more effort from the rider than the old machines did. Long-time fitness-goers struggled at first with the extra effort that this new form of resistance demanded. In addition to adjustments to form and equipment, I coached riders to adjust focus by using the performance monitors to provide feedback and encouragement.

On the fitness bike, as in our struggle, there’s a constant effort required to move the wheels, as well as a feeling of going nowhere. At the same time, there are display metrics that provide feedback and point to progress.

In 2022, the Toronto District School Board is currently led by a highly accomplished Black female Director of Education and continues to develop its new Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement. Growing parent activism has also led to wins like provincial policy recommendations and a school name change that will replace the colonial namesake ‘Queen Victoria’ with a name that represents Indigenous or Black identity, at our school riddled with anti-Black racism. 

Black women have always been showing up for their children, calling out streaming practices, marching the streets, and more. Living with relentless and ever-changing resistance requires us to justify our worth day after day. It is exhausting emotional labour and a heavy burden to endure. But with each revolution, there are indicators of advancement. 

The metrics are sometimes encouraging markers of progress on a long-distance course. But with significant distance left to cover, they can, at other times, elicit little sense of satisfaction.  

Regardless of one’s take–encouraging gains or exertion in vain–Black women continue to power the revolution to bring racial equity to education. 

Debbie King is a community organizer, mother, and fitness coach working and living in Parkdale, Toronto. Find her on Instagram @supafitmama.

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