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A love letter to Black students: part 3

It was an honour and absolute privilege to share space with four colleagues that exude Black excellence. Patricia Codner, Tracey Grose, Toni Lauzon, and Joyce Erogun agreed to share some of their lived experiences and words of wisdom with us. This conversation reflected diverse experiences. It showed that Blackness is not a monolith, and that unity is found through acknowledging our similarities and our differences. All of which should be celebrated.

This blog post is the third in a series of four posts developed from the conversation

Meet our colleagues

Patricia holding a sign - Be bold, be courageous, and know that you matter

Patricia Codner

My name is Patricia Codner, and I’m currently at School Mental Health Ontario as the parent and caregiver engagement and literacy consultant on secondment* from the Halton Catholic District School Board as the chief social worker. I am a Black woman, a daughter. I’m a mother, a wife, an auntie, a friend, and a colleague.

Joyce holding a sign - Black is diverse be you

Joyce Erogun

My name is Joyce Erogun. I’m a consultant at School Mental Health Ontario, in the role of student and parent/caregiver engagement team lead. My pronouns are she/her. I’m a Nigerian first-generation Canadian woman. I’m an older sister, a friend, and a partner.

Toni holding a sign - Black students matter

Toni Lauzon

Toni Lauzon. Pronouns are she/her. Self-identify as Afro-Indigenous, or Black and Mi’kmaw to be specific. I am an equity and identity-affirming mental health consultant and implementation coach here at School Mental Health Ontario on secondment* from Greater Essex District School Board.

Tracey holding a sign - Black student, I see you. You are enough.

Tracey Grose

My name is Tracey Grose, and I’m a school social worker for over 20 years in Whitby, Ontario. I am a cisgender female, with pronouns she/her. I’m of Jamaican ancestry and I’m the culturally responsive practices lead and an implementation co-coach here at School Mental Health Ontario, on secondment* from the Durham District School Board.

*Secondment means that the person is temporarily working for School Mental Health Ontario while still being considered an employee of their school board. It’s similar to an exchange program in school.

What can schools/boards do to commemorate Black excellence in their school communities?

Patricia: I love this one because I put myself back in the school building, back in my board for many, many years, trying to get this integrated into regular practice. Schools have been designed to educate. That’s what they’re there to do. Therefore, they can also dismantle the historical, incorrect teachings, and allow new learning about the truth, honouring and making space for Black students to be seen and heard – a valued perspective included, with all opportunities, so they can achieve excellence. And I will always repeat, seen heard, valued, respected, and included because those are the tenants that are often missing which is impacting Black students today.

Schools intentionally must make space for Black students, their parents and caregivers to feel welcome and create an environment that fosters a sense of belonging for Black students. Furthermore, demonstrating that they are valuable to the school community. School buildings must display images of all types of students demonstrating that there all seen, valued, and appreciated, especially our Black students.

Schools must foster strong parent and caregiver engagement with an open-door policy that can be open to alternative ways of how to engage. Schools tend to have a Eurocentric way of how to engage. We need to broaden it with diverse perspectives for parents and caregivers. Recognizing one size does not fit all. Differences must be celebrated and highlighted. The success of all students in their unique talents, particularly Black students.

Announcements daily reflecting the makeup of the school community with opportunities for students to learn about other cultures, ethnicities, and races in a positive manner, and school staff, being able to talk about Black people outside of Black History Month with ease. I don’t want to see the anxiety that comes from them tripping over what they say when speaking about Black students, or discomfort in using the word Black. It appears that the discomfort is because Black conjures negativity in their brain. We need to change that narrative.

At the beginning of the school year, educators can acknowledge and honour Black students’ humanity in the classroom. In addition, schools can be deliberate in providing all necessary supports needed for Black students. Recognizing that systemic racism continues to harm students educationally, socially, economically, behaviorally, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Schools can intentionally ensure that Black students are given opportunities as needed to support their individual academic needs to ensure that they’re not pushed out of school or discouraged to leave. I feel that school has a huge responsibility, the space, time and longevity from kindergarten to 12, to be able to help our students to grow and develop into the beautiful children they are and ensure their Blackness is appreciated and valued.

Toni : I actually took a different approach to this question. I had to read it a couple of times, and I was like “commemorate”, do I really know what that means? Then I’m thinking like, you know, there’s lots to be said about your Dr. Martin Luther Kings, your Ruby Bridges, your Rosa Parks, your Harriet Tubmans… you know all of them, all American, though. There’s a lot of commemoration that happens during Black History Month for very influential Black folks but oftentimes we hear so many of the same names. I wonder why that happens and my hypothesis would be that, because it’s the same kind of people in charge of the commemoration of Black history and you Google Black heroes and you get the same 10 to 15 names. I think we need to move towards centring Black voices, Black perspectives, and Black students in this discussion and that happens by engaging and amplifying Black students, families, and communities that we work with. You cannot start with commemoration if you’re not in relationship with them – with those voices at the table leading the way. Otherwise, we continue on the same narrative of highlighting the same, Black heroes, or Black people from history, during this month.

But there’s an opportunity to do things differently, to be in relationship with Black students, families, and communities and understand your Black students, your families and communities and start your celebrations there.

Separate, but alongside. There’s so much Black brilliance already within your schools I don’t need to tell you where to start. The voices and the people are there for you to be in relationship with to get to the answer to that question is kind of how I see it.

Joyce: I’m just gonna piggyback on what you shared Toni because I do have some ideas. But then, at the end of my notes, I was thinking that I could offer a list, but ultimately, like Black students who read this, I would ask how do you want to be honoured?

How do you want your experiences to be honoured and shown? And just like an encouragement to take a seat at that table. Make the table. And tell people how you want to be seen, because my ideas come from me, and even as, like the four of us come together, we all come with all of our unique experiences, and that will look different in different schools, with different students and there’s something special about that. There’s beauty in that. So, take a seat at the table was something that came to mind when I was thinking about that.

Black students… how do you want to be honoured?

And then the things that I was thinking about, is for school is to show Black people in a variety of ways, to talk about Black Canadians, the legacy of Black Canadian communities, to lean in. If this is new to a school, if this is new to a staff member, understand that you’ll likely be taking a learning stance. And that’s okay, be comfortable with the uncomfortable that might come. And then also this idea of being allies, and I don’t mean to overuse that term. But thinking about some of the conversations and the tools that we’ve been developing about like if you see something, say something; not letting harm go on without consequences – without conversations, we’ll validate the wrong experience, and in this case, marginalized and racialized students like Black students are usually the ones who aren’t being validated in the harmful experiences that they’re having.

I remember when we had a consultation a while back with back students – around 30-something students who came to have a conversation with us – and one student just said, “have uncomfortable conversations with white people” and like that has to happen with the staff, that has to happen with students. Non-Black people need to be involved in this learning and to be called into conversation, and when there is harm that’s being caused, to find ways to acknowledge those experiences as well. So, calling those things out is important.

Oh, and that it happens year-round. Speaking of conversations to commemorate Black excellence – it has to be beyond a single conversation, a single month or a single week.

Tracey: Wow well, what else can be said? Such great comments from my colleagues ahead.

When I answer the question, what can school boards do to commemorate Black excellence in school communities, I think give students space to celebrate their identity. Similar to Joyce, saying, you know, we should hear from them.

I think it’s about helping students affirm their identity. There are all these national boundaries, right? Even when I was in high school it was like the Trini’s against the Jamaicans, against the small Island people, Aruba, St. Vincent, and I’m like whoa! That was like divide and conquer like we were all people from the African continent. So maybe even, you know, helping people to break down those national competitions and really come under the one umbrella.

You’re already enough, and so just be.

There’s sort of an exhaustion that comes from celebrating Black excellence, and it could be colonial in some way in terms of the lawyer, the doctor, the professional, the scientist. And I think, of a social media post by The Nap Ministry, which is like, you’re already enough. You’re already quite excellent. And the whole page and philosophy is just be. Find peace within. Because, as we go through all that, you know, thinking and stressing about being excellent, it comes with sort of that, you’re not good enough that there’s something about your identity that’s not good at nothing.

So, you know what? I’m already quite excellent so that that’s affirming who you are. You’re already enough, and so just be.

Thank you for reading through part three of this four part series. Check out the next post where we ask Patricia, Tracey, Toni, and Joyce “Why is it important that schools acknowledge anti-Black racism, the enslavement of Africans, Black joy, and Black excellence?”

This conversation was facilitated by Elo Igor and Alina Medeiros.