news, Profiles

Making HERstory: The Photographers

The brainchild of Emily Mills, How She Hustles is a women’s network that’s been thriving for nearly 7 years. Their events are a celebration of sisterhood. Bringing together women of diverse backgrounds, How She Hustles encourages women to connect, and enjoy each other’s company.

In December, Ms. Mills announced that she was working on a project called HERstory in Black. Back then I didn’t know any of the details. I only knew it involved an act of faith that hadn’t yet been actualized. Since that time, her vision has been made plain: HERstory in Black is a digital photo series celebrating 150 Canadian Black women. It is now featured on CBC Toronto’s web site. Further more, this week, the women who participated in the shoot for this historic series will also be profiled via CBC Radio, and the CBC News Network. 

HERstory in Black is meaningful to me for many reasons. The first thing that comes to mind is representation. As Bee Quammie recently pointed out,  usually Black Canadians are taught about Black American role models. Meanwhile, our community’s trailblazers have always been right here at home. They deserve to be recognized.

Furthermore, it’s incredibly empowering to see people who look like you succeeding. Watching their progress can give you faith enough to believe that all of your dreams are possible. When I see so many Canadian Black women out there, at their best in diverse industries, I am overcome with joy!

So who are some of the people who helped turn this project into a reality?

Allow me to introduce you to two gifted photographers.

ebtinabag

Photo credit: Ebti Nabag

A graduate of Ryerson University’s graduate program in Documentary Media, Ebti Nabag is a visual artist who works with photography, video, and installation. Her work is motivated by stories from the average human. Nabag’s previous exhibits include Movement in Tradition: Tobe (2016), Vitiligo at the AGO (2015), Intersections (2014) featured at the Contact Photography Festival, and I Am Not My Hair (2012).

She hopes her documentations serve as bridges between people.

LeilahDhore

Photo credit: Leilah Dhoré

In 2013, Leilah Dhoré made her debut in a collaborative photo exhibition called ‘Exposed: Telling Our Stories Through Our Lens’. She is also the proud recipient of Gallery 44’s David Maltby Award. Leilah is currently majoring in Photography at OCAD University, with a minor in Art and Social Change. She continues to explore how her identity — and various layers of life experience — influence her creative mindset.

These young women shot all of HERstory in Black’s gorgeous photos. Recently I asked them about their involvement in this extraordinary project.

Tell me about your journey into the world of photography. What inspired you to get started?

Ebti: I always knew I was a creative person, I just didn’t know how to express myself creatively. I could draw but I wasn’t the best at it and it didn’t come as naturally for me as it did my classmates. It wasn’t until I took a year off after my bachelor’s degree that I picked up a camera and decided to really explore the art of taking photographs. That was about 7 years ago. A few years after that I decided to get a formal education in Documentary Media, film and photography. Documentary photography has been my main interest since then.

Leilah: I grew up with an artsy mom who encouraged me to explore various art forms. My creative childhood lead to being accepted into the Visual Arts program at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. I had to pursue my interest in photography outside of school through youth programs, which is how I discovered analog photography. The process of learning how to take analog photos and develop them in a darkroom furthered my appreciation for the medium and that’s where I found a passion for it. From there I decided to apply to OCAD University and I am now an undergraduate, third year Photography major.

What was it like to take these photos and capture 150 women for HERstory in Black?

Ebti: Insane! Looking around the room alone was extremely overwhelming. Some women I recognized from television, theatre, poetry shows, etc. Seeing women from all walks of life and hearing their stories after I captured their group photos was empowering.

Leilah: I really just wanted everyone to feel comfortable in front of the camera and to be happy with the way I captured them. I was a bit nervous at first, but I was so overjoyed to feel everyone’s energy. We were all excited to meet each other and be there together. Being in a room full of so many brilliant, beautiful, Black women is a really intense and powerful experience in and of itself. It was a really fulfilling experience to meet and document black women on so many different career paths, especially having grown up without seeing a lot of that kind of representation.

What do you hope people will see when they look at the images from this project?

Ebti: That we, Black women, are glorious. These photos are a documentation of our existence, our stories, our greatness, and I really believe they should be archived. Often times Black women are misrepresented or not represented at all, and this project puts all those misrepresentations to rest.

Leilah: I had always struggled to navigate the intersections of my blackness and womanhood and understand what my place is in a society that doesn’t appear to value black women. From celebrities like Beyoncé to millennials taking over the internet, black women have created our own platforms to express that we are realizing our own brilliance even if the world hasn’t. I believe this project is documenting just that. Aside from highlighting the diverse amazing things black women are accomplishing in Canada, I really hope people are able to recognize the shared power that brought us together and understand why this kind of project is so important.

I’m often blown away by the way a single photograph can tell a story.  What sort of stories did this experience reveal to you?

Ebti: Two things. One: there is no limit to what women can do when they unite. Two: I couldn’t help but think of how empowering, encouraging and reassuring hearing the stories of these women would have been for me at a young age, especially as a young Black woman growing up. That room really screamed “the sky is the limit”! Young Black women need to be exposed to these positive representations of Black women.

Leilah: The individual photos have a different storytelling purpose from the group photos for this photo series. I believe they capture the diversity amongst black women and function to show us who each woman is as an individual. The group photos show us what black sisterhood and community can look like and the amount of passion, love, and energy that goes into making a project like this happen collectively.

HERstory in Black is bound to influence and inspire other women. Tell me about someone who inspires you.

Ebti: My parents. My father grew up in academia. His work ethic, drive and achievements are things I look up to. My mother on the other hand has always been a housewife. Her welcoming heart, kind soul, and love for people easily brings tears to my eyes.

Leilah: It’s difficult for me to just name one individual. I have a particular appreciation for women who defy respectability and live as their authentic selves. There are women who spent their lives giving to their communities, and the ones who are passionate about dismantling the oppressive systems that were built to hold us back. I’ve also come to appreciate the women who aren’t the productive, educated, executives that we are told we should aspire to be. The ones who still give themselves fully and love themselves anyways because they don’t allow an inherently flawed society to define their worth. I see myself in these women’s struggles and successes; they remind me of the love and passion that drives my ambitions.

Suppose you met a young woman who wanted to go into photography. What advice would you give her?

Ebti: This is definitely biased advice, but it would be to document the stories of those who are unseen in the media, whose stories will never be told. I think telling those stories are what bridges humans together, and that’s what I try to do with my photographs.

Another bit of advice would be, differentiate yourself from the rest. Photography is so broad. Once you figure out what you like to photograph, go back and see if there is any pattern in your work and let that be what makes you stand out.

Leilah: There’s so much I could say. I think it’s important to know you don’t have to pursue a higher education to be any type of creative. Not everyone has the privilege of growing up with a family who supports their creative ambitions like I have, so I’ve always encouraged others to pursue what makes them happy. Even if you don’t think you have the means to pursue photography or that you face too many barriers, I honestly believe that if you put your intentions out there, doors will open and opportunities can come to you unexpectedly.

Many brilliant successful creatives even find ways to create opportunities for themselves. The internet is full of resources and learning materials, and Toronto has many free programs available to youth. Depending on the type of photography projects you want to produce you can access funding through grants.

Thank you again to Ebti Nabag, Leilah Dhoré, and of course, Emily Mills. Be sure to follow @howshehustles on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for more on HERstory in Black. Above all, be sure to stay tuned to the CBC this week for more programming on this incredible initiative.

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humor, I'm just sayin'.

Selfies suck.

True story: A week or so ago, after I’d done my hair, I decided to take a photo. I picked up my phone, and put the camera in selfie-mode.

The next thing you know, I was making a screwface at the thing, like, “What kind of [new-twist-on-old-swearword] is this?!?” My new ‘do–which was full and luscious IRL–looked like it was finna run off my head. My already-round face looked like a bowling ball.

When I tell you about the amount of prayer and contortions I have to subject myself to in order to look at least 50% like I do in person…? Taking a selfie is hit or miss, I swear. And it often involves more misses than hits. *chupse*

Men, this is why your GF takes 70 000 shots of herself ’til she finds the perfect one. Her camera keeps betraying her.

#imjoking #orami #sometimesilookdifferentinagoodway #butnotalways #selfiessuck #sorta

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education station

Sorry? Not sorry.

You know what?

deskhandsolueletu

I’m tired of people thinking that racism in the workplace isn’t actually a problem unless someone burns a cross on someone’s desk or yells, “Hey, nigger!”

Honestly. The signs of bigotry don’t have to be that obvious in order to be harmful.

When it comes to claims of racism and believability, writing about teaching has taught me a valuable lesson. The rumours are true: When you confront people with racism in an institution, some of them would rather be defensive than listen to what you have to say. It’s very easy for your words to be dismissed as a lie or exaggeration.

I discovered this after I shared some of my experiences in trying to break out beyond the boarders of substitute teaching, into the profession’s full-time fields.

Most of my feedback revealed a basic understanding that what I claimed was possible. However, some disagreed with me based purely on their privileged perspective.

Although I’m frustrated, I’m also not a fool. I don’t know how to make a stranger understand how problematic racism is in teaching. Especially when they’re not interested in grasping the possibility.

Racism is so pervasive within the profession that the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators commissioned a study on it. Participants were anonymous. Yet in “Voices of Ontario Black Educators” (published on May 29th, 2015) they shared their insights regarding diversity in the educational community.

Let’s take a look at a commonly understood truth. Regardless of background, many teachers know the profession is prone to having a cliquish culture. Teaching is a people-driven industry. In certain schools if you want to progress, you need to be perceived as a part of the “in” crowd. Those of us who are on the margins can find it hard to traverse that line. Or, as one individual stated, “[A school’s] networks tend to exclude Black and other educators of colour. Compounding the effect of being excluded from these networks is the limited ability of Black and other racialized educators to create their own networks with the same reach and impact.”

Some of us are hyper-aware of the consequences of being an outsider. As one study participant said, “…if you are not part of the social scene outside of the school, you are not going to be chosen, recommended, included in the ‘outside of school’ discussions when transfers, new staff lists, new school hirings are being discussed.”

During those “‘outside of school’ discussions” critical decisions are being made. When your success depends on your social connections, yet your connections do not exist, you can wind up feeling as though your career is doomed. And that feeling is not that far from reality.

What about those who are able to progress? Surely they do not have any reason to be concerned. Some would disagree. As an educator cited in the study explained: “When I became a VP there was a stalling of my career for a number of years. I had a hard time moving to principal. I had to go through twice. One superintendent openly stated that she did not believe the experience that I had stated. I asked for an explanation and was not given one. I found that I had to stay quiet or risk not being promoted.“

Fifty-one percent of the study’s participants noted that “personal biases about Blacks influence promotion decisions in this board”. We, Black teachers (and other teachers of colour) are aware of how our colleagues perceive us.The fact that we risk not being taken seriously because of those perceptions is demoralizing.

Limited representation in the classroom suggests to me that Black teachers are rarely given room to obtain permanent opportunities. If and when they manage to slip through the cracks, they’re denied the chance to be promoted. As indicated in the above quotes, they may find their careers stymied in other ways. For instance, consider the examples I mentioned in my previous essay: Being relegated to substitute-only status, or repeatedly made to work with hostile students. Some of said students may be intimidating or even dangerous, depending on the school itself. I know that I am not the only teacher who has experienced this. Whether people choose to believe it or not, students’ behaviour can affect a person’s ability to teach.

In the end, I know that my words can’t change people’s minds. They will either believe that what I’ve discussed is possible, or not. But when random members of an ethnic group collectively notice negative patterns concerning how they are regarded, that’s a problem.

Every teacher faces challenging circumstances. Yet I feel that my research, along with the feedback I received only managed to reinforce my main point. Even (some) white teachers notice a disparity between how they are treated versus their more-melaninated peers. I’m thankful for their candor. Those who insist that racism doesn’t exist in the teaching profession are in denial.

Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash.

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Books

Read it!: The Universe Has Your Back

I can’t begin to tell you how long I’ve wanted to review this book. I finished reading The Universe Has Your Back a long time ago.

The Universe Has Your Back - Cover

So what’s kept me from talking about it? Fear.  On one hand you have the fact that I’m spiritually liberal: Religiously speaking, I have a Christian background. I’m familiar with the faith. And I’m still what you would call “spiritual”. Yet I don’t believe Christianity has the only answers regarding God and humanity. Meanwhile a lot of my friends are still traditionally Christian. As I contemplated talking about Gabby Bernstein’s latest read, I could feel their judgement start before I even began.

But honestly? I’m too old to be afraid of what a bunch of humans think. My soul’s destiny isn’t tied to them.

Let’s get right into it. The Universe Has Your Back is fantastic. It’s the best book I’ve read about faith in a while. The content isn’t tied to any particular religion, but you can easily apply it to your spiritual path. It addresses God and faith from a general point of view.

In the book Gabrielle Bernstein addresses one of spirituality’s biggest questions: If God (or the Universe) is as loving as we claim He (it) is, why do we give doubt so much room in our lives? Better yet, how can we banish it?

The solution seems easy enough.We need to trust and truly believe that Jesus/God/the Universe is there for us. Period. But maintaining an unshakable faith can be challenging. Ms. Bernstein acknowledges this. Yet she also addresses the heart of the struggle, and the key to our success. We need to harness our ability to focus on one of the only things that matter in this life: Love.

Gabby also addresses the concept of surrender—an idea that people of all spiritual stripes wrestle with. In order to receive from the Universe, we have to be willing to release ourselves from our egos. They can be one hell of a motivator. They can also separate us from what God intended.

The Universe Has Your Back is chock full of contains meditation and reflection exercises. This is important since the road to spiritual trust isn’t simple. It’s always worthwhile, but it’s a truly humbling process. In order to succeed at it we need to dig in and do the work.

I’m far from spiritually perfect. I wrestle with the concepts in The Universe Has Your Back all the time. But I’m glad I came across this book. I need to give its concepts the attention they deserve.

Let the healing begin.

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Black like me, diversity, I'm just sayin'.

On “Black Friends”

Demetria just about covered it.

I read a bunch of comments about Adele on Grammy night that were ridiculous. I swear. My eyes rolled so hard, it’s a wonder they didn’t fall out of my head.

Then, I got introspective.

What do you hear when someone uses the words “Black friends”?

We live in an era where people are boldly, unapologetically racist. And I get it. The words “Black friends” have been used again and again (and AGAIN) by bigots when they’re straining to be polite. “No, Jay’s Blackness doesn’t bother me. I have PLENTY of Black friends…”

But this isn’t that.

Like it or not, the fact remains that folks have friends who are Black. People need to learn the difference between “Black friends” as condescending tokenism and its use as an accurate descriptor.

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self-care/self-aware

Stop running.

like-yourself

I remember the day when those words, directed at me, hung in the air. They had been said randomly. If anyone else had uttered them, I think I would have been angry. But the speaker knew me. Not as well as I think they should, but somehow, well enough.

“You don’t like yourself.”

After hearing that sentence, another person might have been mad. But I was curious.

How could this person be so sure? What were they seeing?

Sometime last year when I was thinking about authentic self care, I realized something. There are a ton of things that I can do in order to feel whole. But do I invest in them? How do I feel about honouring my most sacred gift: myself?

While wondering this, something else hit me. I’ve been meaning to delve into this topic for ages, but have only scratched the surface.

Why have I avoided talking about self-care?

Am I afraid to be still in my own skin? It’s hard for me not to think so. It’s even harder for me to admit that. But the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have one. So here I am.

I’ve been running away from myself for a long time. That needs to change. And slowly but surely, it will.

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losing my religion

Review: Hillsong – Let Hope Rise

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is billed as a “worship experience”. However, contrary to its press release, to me it didn’t feel like a part of a new genre. Let Hope Rise is, absolutely, a concert film, in the vein of Katy Perry’s Part of Me and Justin Beiber’s Never Say Never.  Scenes that offer viewers a taste of Hillsong’s story are interspersed with shots of the band in concert performing some of their most popular hits.

I agree with one of the performers who stated that “God created music…”. Over the years I’ve enjoyed all sorts of music—including some of Hillsong’s more popular tracks. And yet, as I watched the musical segments I was torn. On one hand, I wanted to be free to love a particular song. On the other, I was reminded of what I hate about worship band performances: The idolatry. In a house of worship, when the people are gathered to sing together, they should be able to hear each other. In my opinion the only time the focus should be on a performer is when she sings a solo. Otherwise, it’s not always easy to tell who’s being glorified—apart from the singers on stage.

I know this idea flies in the face of what one of what Joel (one of Hillsong’s leaders) said: “These songs are written for people to sing, not just to listen to.” And in fact, that is something that speaks to Hillsong’s success. Hate them or love them, Hillsong has hit songs. Their lyrics tap into a religious narrative that’s revered by people throughout the globe.

Let Hope Rise isn’t necessarily a bore. It includes a few spare moments that revealed the musicians’ personalities. I chuckled at a line from a bandmate during an early tour: “Canada. We’re almost in America.”

Yet throughout the film I cringed at the sight of screaming fans. I know that within Christendom there’s a celebrity culture. But ideally, so-called “Christian celebrities” aren’t here to promote themselves. It’s their Creator—who gave them their talent in the first place—that should matter the most.

This movie also managed to include a glimpse into something that even heathen stars face: Financial challenges.  Never assume that because someone has a hit album, he or she lives in the lap of luxury. Some of Hillsong’s members still live with their extended families.

If you come to this film looking for a thorough introduction to the Christian faith, be careful. Connecting with Jesus is not as easy as “[Finding] a local church!” This subject isn’t discussed in depth and the band’s advice shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I’m a firm believer in vetting a houses of worship before joining them.

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise offers them a look at the lives of one of the most popular worship bands in the world. Overall, I think viewers will enjoy it.

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education station

The Trouble with Teaching

Note: This is a piece on a sensitive aspect of my teaching career. Although currently I live in an area that’s predominantly monocultural, I’ve worked for a school board that has a very diverse population. It was at the top of my mind when I began writing.

Teacher at Chalkboard

It took time for me to fall for teaching, but once I did, I was committed. Sadly, though, the profession that I loved didn’t seem to love me back. I spent the majority of my career working as a substitute teacher. Slowly but surely I noticed a pattern related to those who worked long-term in various schools. Stories of nepotism were popular, but something else was going on.

I’ve seen the occasional article claiming that boards with diverse populations are making an effort to include more non-white teachers in their schools. But I am not a fool. Teaching isn’t a profession with a high turnover rate. It’s true that new teachers may give up when faced with challenging circumstances. However the majority of staff at any given school are established professionals. And from what I’ve seen of said professionals, most are white. My concern is that in spite of the occasional hire, diversity in the teaching profession remains primarily a discussion. Little action has actually occurred to provide diverse students with instructors who reflect their cultures.

I should have caught the hint that people might object to me being an educator after I first left teachers’ college. Back then I’d heard an odd rumour: A classmate had said I wasn’t “cut out” to be a teacher. At first, I naively thought she was right. Teaching isn’t for the faint of heart. The transition into the profession involves a disturbingly steep learning curve, and a life change arguably as drastic as the arrival of a child. Eventually, though, I wondered what my colleague had meant. What was it that made her suited to a teaching job over me?

This essay doesn’t show it, but I know that I tend to be more exuberant than your average citizen. For a moment I wondered if her doubts were related to my personality. However, let’s be realistic. Just because someone has a cheerful disposition, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be an awful educator. Over time, as I thought about my classmate’s statement, reality dawned on me: People of colour are streamed and steered out of professions all the time. And what of those who resist the tide? From architects to doctors, folks just can’t seem to envision Black people in positions that command respect. Should I really be that surprised that someone didn’t think I was equipped to share knowledge with others?

“But Claire,” you say,”You worked as a substitute teacher. That’s more than most people!” True. But let’s take a closer look at the types of “opportunities” I was given. During the rare occasions when I received assignments lasting longer than a day, I noticed a trend.

For example—I once worked for an entire term, full-time. Great, right?

Not so fast.

In a landscape where solid teaching jobs are as plentiful as literate internet trolls, that may sound good. But let me share a bit more about what I was up against. I had three classes. Each involved a different subject—English, World Religions, and Civics/Careers. Yet I was only qualified to teach one of them. Therefore, I didn’t know the other two subjects.

And again, I hear you. I know I was supposed to play catch up and properly prepare for my other two classes. But if you know what the pace of a full-time teaching job is like, you’ll understand me when I see your,”Claire, PREPARE!!” and offer up a big, fat, “WHEN?!?”

To top it all off, the students in the class involving my terra firma—English—were challenging. By that, I don’t mean that they had intellectual difficulties and I was ill-equipped to accommodate them. I have training in special education. When I say “challenging” I’m referring to their behaviour. My students were disrespectful and often downright hostile to me on a daily basis. In return, I was constantly stressed and terrified. I barely got any teaching done. Between my workload and my kids’ behaviour, I felt it was a wonder I made it through the semester.

Adding insult to injury, their behaviour left me second-guessing myself. You know those moments when someone’s so rude that you wonder if you dreamed it? That was me for several weeks, until one day it happened: I received confirmation that I wasn’t losing my mind. Back then I’d built a rapport with one of the non-teaching staff, a safety monitor whom I’ll call “Tony”. Tony told me flat-out that my English class contained “the worst” students in the school. Admittedly, it’s horrible to label students. But there needs to be room to be honest about young people’s conduct. Leaving and entering the room without permission isn’t kind. Incessant heckling isn’t kind. Snapping at both your teacher and your fellow students isn’t kind. I think it’s disturbing that administrators would deliberately put their rudest students in a single class and then assign them to a new teacher.

I wondered what the point of it all was. I used to wrack my brain to understand why I might have received this kind of assignment. Earlier this year I felt some relief when I learned about Through Our Eyes. It’s a report filled with insights from Black teachers in America, and it mentioned something that caught my eye.

Teachers have indicated that being labeled as the disciplinarian meant that their colleagues and administrators believed they could only teach the troublesome or lower performing students.

Looking back on my career, I wondered: Is that why I’d been hired? Had I been cast in the role of “disciplinarian”—a ball-buster who would whip tough students into shape? Considering this class wasn’t my only assignment featuring aggressive students, the thought had crossed my mind.

Somehow, here, I feel like I ought to justify myself by discussing my background. I already mentioned my sunny ways. Let me also share that thanks to my parents (one of whom was a teacher) I could read before I went to school. Once I started, I spent my elementary years in private institutions, and then attended one of my area’s academically-focused high-schools.

And reading that, I realize how spoiled I must sound. I can assure you that I wasn’t. My point was to help you understand that I don’t fit whatever stereotype I fear my colleagues and superiors may have expected. Rather, I’m someone who’s used to a certain amount of readin’, writin’ and–God help my math-phobic self–arithmetic.

Overall, when I went to school, the expectation was that students would behave.

To this day, I wonder if school administrators truly understand that Black teachers are qualified professionals, every bit as intellectually competent as their white counterparts.

So again, the question remained: Was I given antagonistic students on purpose? Were administrators patting themselves on the back for hiring me, a “token” Black teacher? And how wonderful was it for them, when they knowingly gave me such unkind kids?

It horrified me to consider the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been sabotaged. But eventually I learned that my experience wasn’t that far out of the ordinary. Earlier this year Bee Quammie wrote an article entitled Are Diverse Hosts…Set Up to Fail? . In it, she discussed something called the Glass Cliff phenomenon as it relates to the firing of certain Black media hosts. Ms. Quammie explains that the idea of the Glass Cliff

was developed by Dr. Michelle Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter, and looks at the idea that women and other minority groups are more likely to be appointed to high-profile positions with a higher risk of criticism and failure.

In my experience as a Black teacher, I found it hard not to believe that I was purposely given difficult assignments. Also, keep in mind that in a classroom, students’ behaviour and their academic level tend to go hand in hand. I once asked myself, “Do they [administrators] realize that I’m capable of supporting intellectual students?” I took Honours English when I was in school, and have the same degrees as everyone else who applies to be a teacher. Yet the fact that my students were both underperforming and badly-behaving spoke volumes to me. As a new teacher, the stress of the situation stung. Who would want to attempt to continue in a field that left them feeling raw and weary?

In hindsight I know the onus was on me to be able to help my students. However that would have been easier as a new teacher if I had access to my own resources. I remember a vice principal spoke to a colleague of mine on my behalf. This woman was in charge of coordinating the school’s educational assistants. My VP’s request was simple: Could I be assigned one? In reply, my coworker’s “No,” came so fast it nearly knocked me over.  I knew that personnel were limited. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if she got some sort of joy out of inconveniencing me.

How effective can a teacher be when she or he is constantly stressed? And what if the source of that stress is his or her students? That sort of circumstance can be tantamount to an abusive relationship.

Placing Black teachers with badly behaving teens and offering no support via administration or an EA sends a very negative message. It suggests we are incapable of supporting academic excellence. It also suggest that we deserve professional hardships. Meanwhile, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the days when I was trying to get hired, it was hard not to take my unemployment personally. Until I caught on, I thought something was wrong with me. Yet for teachers of colour there’s an added obstacle to entering the system. Over the years I’ve dealt with people (well-meaning) relatives and family friends who believed my lack of a job had something to do with my Blackness—specifically my hair texture. Surely “they” would hire me if only I wasn’t natural. (This is a sentiment that’s sent my way to this day.) If this seems too far-fetched to you as reasons for unemployment go, read on. Although it’s 2016, certain employers still believe that a woman wearing natural hair deserves to be discriminated against. For our southern neighbours who wear locs, the law is not on their side

Thankfully I don’t take objections to my hair seriously. To me it isn’t a problem. However, I believed another more obvious aspect of my identity was. Over and over again I couldn’t help but notice the demographic of the majority of those who worked in schools on a permanent basis: white women. Here, to clarify, I have no problem with Caucasian women being employed. But as a Black woman, it’s been hard not to recognize that I’m the polar opposite of my profession’s norm. In that sense, as I think about hiring trends, a part of me wonders if there’s a point in my being upset. When it comes to looking for someone to hire, it’s clear to me that I’m not on administrators’ radar.

As an industry, education hasn’t always been welcoming to new professionals. In writing this, I hope that school principals will begin to look at how teachers of colour are treated once hired—if they are hired at all. Whether we work temporarily or not, teachers of colour see who’s working permanently. Currently, the odds are stacked against us.

People who would make excellent educators are losing interest in their dream profession. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to want to find a space in a field where you’re not welcome. The past few months’ news has featured incidents of prejudice both in and outside of the classroom.   These, combined with the law suit against the York Region school board  haven’t come as a surprise to me.  Current staff ought to be trained to appreciate diversity. However beyond that, people of colour should be given fair consideration when the time comes to hire teachers for permanent positions. We have as much of a right to be at the front of a classroom as everyone else.

Photo Source

 

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blackinthe519-notitle
I'm just sayin'.

Black In The 519

blackinthe519-notitleI’ve lived in Small Town*, Ontario my whole life. Although certain things are happening now that make me feel hopeful, there are a few aspects of life here that get on my nerves. I’m one of the displaced: A person of colour who has struggled to make peace with life in a non-diverse part of Canada.

In the past, our town’s lack of diversity has driven me nuts.

Although certain changes are making things about living here more enjoyable, I can’t help but feel as though something’s missing.

Just the other day I was talking to someone who works here but lives out of town. They asked me what Small Town is like. “It’s quiet.” I cautioned. As I walked away, I wondered what I was thinking. Was “quiet” some sort of euphemism for “white”?

I’ll be honest. Ideally, I think a person should love where they live, but I’ve struggled. I realize that my lack of social interaction is my own fault. Yet in some ways, being here has been challenging.

ORIGINS

Once I was old enough to know where I was born, I figured it was a mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake. My parents immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean (Barbados and Trinidad) before I was born. They settled in the GTA and pursued their education. Eventually, my father got a job out of town. He was hired locally to work as an elementary school teacher.

Thus began Mom and Dad’s exodus from paradise. They settled in Small Town in the 70s. My mother and I have been here ever since. All along, it’s been hard not to notice the disconnect between us and our surroundings. Growing up, I used to wish my parents had fought harder to stay in Toronto.

SIGHTINGS

If I’ve made my town sound like a gigantic washroom with a Whites Only sign out front, I should apologize. That isn’t my intention. I remember one Black woman and her family used to live on a street near our house. They moved away several years ago.

Overall, my town’s lack of diversity is a major factor in the reason I’ve tried, repeatedly to make my escape. However my attempts have proven to be unsuccessful. The only place I can really imagine settling is Toronto, and that city is ex-PEN-sive with a capital E.

Meanwhile, since I fist graduated from university, I’ve begun to notice the occasional person of colour in town.

A few years ago I was taking music lessons. One day as I was leaving, Mrs. Music Teacher’s husband came home. When I saw him, I was stunned. Mr. Music Teacher was a Black man!

You know that moment when you’re shocked by someone but you don’t want to stare because that would be rude? Yeah. That’s what happened.

“How long have you been here?” He answered, and I’m ashamed to admit that I could barely believe him. If Mr. Music Teacher had, as he claimed, been here for years, why hadn’t I seen him before?

There’s a Latino family in my neighbourhood. A few days ago I saw a hijabi near downtown. Every time I see a person of colour in town, I feel a twinge of hope mixed with sorrow and curiosity.

Things started to really hit me though when I first saw a Black student at the grocery store about a year ago. She was with a friend. I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like for her here in town.

Was she like me—ever-conscious of the fact that she was an “only”—apart from her family, the only Black person around for miles? I couldn’t help but wonder if like me, she planned on leaving as soon as she was old enough to do so?

Well actually, that’s a lie.

I saw two other Black teenagers a few nights ago when I went to McDonalds. Once again, I wondered what their life was like. Have they been here for a while? Were they ever teased when they were younger, like I was?

THE MEETING

One reason I don’t like to venture out and about is that there’s a 50% chance that I’ll feel unwelcome. (Living here, I notice that either people don’t care less, or they seem to be genuinely bothered by diversity.)

A few years ago there was a public meeting on the county’s future. I moseyed over and sat towards the outer edge of the room. As usual, the speakers seemed concerned about preserving our county’s heritage. However that heritage has involved agriculture and manufacturing—industries that offer no options for those whose talents lie elsewhere.

At one point in the evening one speaker got up to speak about what he didn’t want to see unfolding in our town. Every now and then Toronto had been mentioned as a point of contrast. Comparisons to the city can be a sore point for a lot of people. We see its flaws spelled out in living colour on the evening news—poverty, crime, and carding. Yet something about the place keeps drawing people in. There’s a whole generation of Small Towners that don’t live here. I’d be willing to bet my life that the majority of them are in a larger city.

Why resent Toronto? What draws people to it? Diversity. Racial diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of thought, religion—you name it! In the city, opportunities to learn from a variety of human beings are endless. It’s inspiring to be in such a place.

I remember during the meeting, the townspeople were given the chance to speak. One of them was a middle-aged man. From what I can recall, he only seemed to have one intention—to complain about what he didn’t want Small Town to turn into. I cannot remember the details of what he said, however he spoke negatively of life in the city. I asked him to elaborate and specify exactly what it was about being in Toronto that was so offensive to his sensibilities. I was standing right behind him. When I asked him to clarify his points regarding the aspects of urban living that he didn’t like, his reaction didn’t go unnoticed. My request was met with silence.

I couldn’t help but wonder why. How hard would it have been to say that he didn’t like the crime or the crowds or the stench of overpriced real estate? Instead, he said nothing. That confirmed exactly what I’d feared about some of the people who live here. Whatever it was that offended this man about city living was likely something that wasn’t truly problematic, yet only got on certain folks’ nerves. Needless to say, my mind went straight to diversity. It’s the most obvious difference between life here and elsewhere.

In the week after this forum, I’ll never forget the way the press responded. A reporter from The Small Town Herald was there that night. He made it sound as though the man I’m referring to was genuinely concerned about condo developments over-saturating the town’s skyline. However, I was there. And as I said, his silence over a simple question spoke volumes.

My attendance at that meeting also made me self-conscious and want to assert myself. As one of very few people of colour, in town I almost think I should wear a t-shirt that says, ”I belong here!!”

In fact, while I was there, I wanted to stand up and launch into a soliloquy: “How long have I been here? Since there was a Calbeck’s and IGA!” These are both old grocery stores that were in town during the 70s and 80s, when I grew up. At that point, I would have gone on. “One of the ladies who retired from working at Sobeys has seen me shop with my mother since I was a child!” I might have looked strange, but it would have felt good to say something.

THE COMMERCIAL

Do you know those commercials by the Dairy Farmers of Canada featuring Canadian towns that share names with European cities? We have one. It’s been interesting watching it evolve. At first I was surprised and delighted…And even a bit confused.

It was obvious to me that it was produced by people who aren’t from the area. The first time I saw the advertisement and the announcer said, “This…Is Small Town…” I was stunned. It actually looked diverse. At one point there was a woman in it who had a gorgeous afro. Jokingly, I looked at my mom and said, ”Who in [this place] would have an afro, except for me?”

However, my surprise and delight was short-lived. The last several times I saw the commercial, I noticed something. It seemed as though all signs of diversity, aka actors of colour, have been edited out of existence. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. To me, although these changes were technically accurate, because Small Town isn’t exactly a melting pot…They were somehow wrong.

They also made me wonder about my family’s lack of a local footprint. If only a few people in town remember us, and they pass on over the next few decades, were we ever really here in the first place?

 

*The place where I live has a name. However I think my theme’s fairly universal.

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yourmindmatterswilliamstitt
self care

Your mind matters.

yourmindmatterswilliamstitt

This is Mental Illness Awareness Week (#MIAW2016). I can’t speak about how this week gained its notoriety. However, what I wanted to do is speak a bit about therapy. I’ve attended sessions before. Chances are, I may go again. There’s an awful stigma surrounding it that has to change. I’ve heard people make ignorant comments about it. I also know that others have loved ones who are downright abusive when they dare discuss their weaknesses. Either way, this subject resonates with me.

I want people to think: When you mock people who choose to go to therapy, you’re not demonstrating how resilient you are. You’re showing me that you don’t understand how human beings function. You’re demonstrating your insensitivity.

Just for the record: NO, a person doesn’t have to have a serious illness like schizophrenia to see a therapist. No, her decision to seek help doesn’t mean that she’s an idiot. Nothing is wrong with someone trying to find solutions to their problems by talking to somebody. People have the right to get help when they need it.

In sessions with a good therapist, there’s a sense of freedom. You should feel safe. Ideally you’ll be sharing your thoughts with someone who’s unbiased and willing to listen to your problems. In return, this person will offer you guidance. They won’t try to dictate solutions to your challenges, but help you recognize them. (I know that opinions on therapeutic outcomes vary, but these are mine.)

Let’s talk some more about reactions to mental health intervention. What would you say if a friend tells you she wants to go to counselling? If she decides to share her reasons, I hope you listen. Be open minded. A person who recognizes that they need this kind of help isn’t a fool. They’re vulnerable and brave.

On the other hand, what if someone close to you suggests that you’re the one who needs counselling? I know that you might be surprised at first. You might even be angry. But if this person truly cares about you, I hope that you won’t dismiss them or be judgemental. People who know us well can have an uncanny habit of noticing things that we may overlook. Perhaps your friends have seen changes in you. Maybe you haven’t been yourself in a while.

In the end, your mind matters.

It’s a part of you. It affects the way that you function every second of every day of your life. If you doubt what I’m saying, consider this well-worn analogy: Why is it so easy to seek medical attention if we break a bone? Meanwhile, if we feel a sadness or anger that doesn’t leave, some of us are told to do nothing, or think we’re supposed to just magically push it away.

Lastly, I think we should also pay attention to what I call behaviour blocks. (I don’t know what the proper term is.) I’ve seen situations where Person A’s attitude may affects the way he interacts with Person B. Person B may think Person A is being unreasonable. Maybe he is or isn’t. But please. Don’t be so committed to being right that you won’t listen to another person when they try to point out how they feel around you. Be open to intervention—especially if it will change your relationship for the better.

We are more than mere flesh and bone. Our thoughts really, truly have the power to hurt or heal ourselves–and others.    

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash.

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