Boost anti-racist books in N.L. high schools, asks petition organizer

More anti-racist books should be included on the Newfoundland and Labrador high school curriculum, says a Memorial University student who has started an online petition to pressure the provincial government to do so.

Isabel Ojeda's petition, which she began in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that began in the United States and have now swept through several other countries including Canada, has more than 20,000 signatures.

"A question we have to ask is, why are we teaching racism through the lens of a white person instead of updating it to include anti-racist books or Black authors when there are hundreds and hundreds of resources out there?" Ojeda said.

Ojeda, who graduated from high school in 2018, said she read Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird and watched a documentary on Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

She says schools can do better than those examples that stem from the middle of the last century.

"It's not that either of those things are bad materials, To Kill a Mockingbird is obviously a classic, but I think that something we have to consider … is people have been learning that book for 40 years and it's being taught the same way it was 40 years ago," she said.

"The education system has sort of failed us as Newfoundlanders.… It didn't show us the way to actively be anti-racist."

Submitted by Isabel Ojeda
Submitted by Isabel Ojeda

Ojeda said she is aware an online petition does not follow the form and content requirements needed to go before the House of Assembly, but she wanted to get the issue on people's minds as COVID-19 made it hard to get a formal petition started.

After collaborating with the groups Black Lives Matter NL and the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador, she said, her next step is to start asking people to send emails and letters in support of a changed curriculum.

She is also contacting her former teachers to start making these changes in their own classrooms.

"Teachers have a lot more individual choice. Perhaps changing the list of books to be half Black authors and half anti-racist books, instead of overwhelming white, is a more realistic goal," she said.

In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said "the issue of present-day racism is not explicitly taught as part of the curriculum."

The statement said discussions "encouraging critical thinking about world events" such as the Black Lives Matter movement are "often" part of students' work, in both language arts and social studies classes.

However, the department said, "such discussions are encouraged and opportunities and input on how to strengthen the curriculum or do things better are always welcomed."

That can include a variety of work, such as covering concepts such as stereotypes and discrimination, or discussing texts or media that relate to racism.

Teacher's role

Including anti-racist material in classrooms is the teacher's responsibility, said Paul Banahene Adjei, an associate professor at Memorial University's school of social work.

"The conversation around race and race issues is not something that is limited only to parents, because the reason why our children go to school is to study. [Teachers] are the ones that are professionally trained to educate our children about issues that will be impacting their lives," he said.

Meg Roberts/CBC
Meg Roberts/CBC

Sometimes students have to unlearn what they already know, in order to take some of those racist thoughts and ideas away from the everyday conversation, Baahene Adjei said.

Being able to read about it in schools would be an effective way to do that, he said.

"One of the struggles of dealing with racism is to insist it is not there.… One of the important ways of nipping racism at its early stages is to ensure it becomes part of the school curriculum," he said.

Banahene Adjei said there are plenty of resources and materials available that could be incorporated into the classrooms.

Marie Isabelle Rochon/CBC
Marie Isabelle Rochon/CBC

This should be an easy decision for the provincial government to make, said Zainab Jerrett, one of several speakers at Saturday's Black Lives Matter rally in St. John's.

"The more you know about another person's culture the better," she said. "Let them learn about all cultures, positive images and struggles and what they have accomplished."

Standing in front of thousands of people outside Confederation Building on Saturday, Jerrett said it's time to come together as one to make Newfoundland and Labrador, the country and the world a better place.

"In Africa there is a proverb that says 'one tree cannot make a forest,' and that speaks volumes," she said.

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