A group of parents and caregivers of African, Caribbean and Black identifying students in Waterloo region has launched a new council aimed at addressing systemic racism in local schools.
Black Parent Council K-W formed after it was publicly revealed last week that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) called the police on a four-year-old student last fall over disputed reports that the child was acting violently.
The incident sparked outrage from local advocates for Black families and allies, and also resulted in a Government of Ontario third-party review into how the school board handled the situation.
Racism in schools a generational issue, parents say
Lena Thibeh, one of the founders of the Black parent council, is an Afro-Palestinian woman whose second-grade child attends a French immersion school in the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB).
She says anti-Black racism and discrimination have existed within local school systems for generations, including when she was a student herself at the public school board.
“Our children are going through what we went through when we were kids in the school board. This is intergenerational trauma and systemic racism,” said Thibeh.
“So, enough is enough. … If they refuse to change, then we will make them change,” she said. “We will come together, and we will continuously advocate until our children’s voices are heard and until policies [and] practices are changed. And so there’s accountability.”
Thibeh said she and several other parents met regularly at the start of the 2021 school year to share concerns. But following the local incident involving the Catholic school board, that group went public to create the new council.
The parent council, which also welcomes families of Indigenous and racialized students, is so far made up of 20 people who will gather virtually for their first meeting Thursday evening.
Avoiding systemic change ‘unethical,’ parent says
Selam Debs, a local anti-racism educator and one of the founders of the Black parent council, said she was previously involved in a parent council at the public school her child attends, but her family’s experiences were dismissed.
“We finally had to come together and say that we need a space that centres our Black children and centres us as Black parents for advocacy, for community care and for a place for us to be able to heal and support each other and amplify our voices,” she said of the new group.
We need a space that centres our Black children and centres us as Black parents for advocacy, for community care and for a place for us to be able to heal and support each other and amplify our voices.– Selam Debs, member of Black parent council
Debs said the Black parent council aims to advocate for changes at local school boards, including more representation in school staff.
“Our children deserve to see teachers and educators and curriculum that represent their experiences. And that emotional and physical and mental well-being and safety comes when the school system actually addresses systemic racism and actually addresses anti-Black racism on all levels,” she said.
“To not address the full capacity of changes that really need to happen within the school system is unethical.”
Thibeh is also pushing for those changes, and also wants to see repercussions for staff accused of harmful and racist actions, and more social services in schools.
“We want to see both school boards go beyond preformative actions,” she said.
Catholic board denies systemic racism an issue
Earlier this week, Loretta Notten, the director of education for the Catholic school board, denied that the school board is grappling with issues of systemic racism.
“I would take umbrage to the allegation that there is systemic racism in our board,” said Notten after a meeting of the board of trustees Monday.
“It’s astonishing how archaic that thinking is, how ignorant that thinking is,” Thibeh said in response to the director’s comments.
“It is disrespectful,” said Debs.
“It completely minimizes the real-life experiences that we have had as Black parents who grew up in these school boards and the way in which we continuously observe the anti-Black racism that impacts our children.”
The Catholic school board did not respond to a request for comment about the new council in time for publication.
Public board committed to addressing systemic racism
Meanwhile, jeewan chanicka, the director of education at the public school board, acknowledged in an interview with CBC News earlier this week that systemic racism has been a long-standing issue that the school board has committed to address.
“We are acknowledging that racism and anti-Black racism, along with many other forms of oppression, are real things that exist that we need to get better as a system. You know, we’ve heard it time and time again through our consultations of parents and families,” he said.
“We can’t change everything in an instant. I wish we could. It is our commitment. It’s hard work but it’s the right work.”
On Thursday, the public school board launched a series of listening forums that allows administration to hear from parents and caregivers of marginalized children about concerns and work toward solutions.
The initiative aims to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, Islamophobia, as well as all forms of discrimination.