Students strike to stand up against racism in York Catholic schools

·4 min read

The alumni-run group Students Speak Up YCDSB encouraged students to take a stand and strike this past Thursday in response to racism in the York Catholic District School Board.

Co-founders Abisola Asha, Esi Eshun and Malik Scott are all recent alumni of YCDSB schools and remember dealing with racism from students and teachers even years after it occured.

Scott remembers an instance as early as Grade 2. During pizza days, he recalls his teacher had an odd system for handing out the food. He would go alphabetically from A to P, Scott says, remembering it was his best friend whose last name started with ‘P.’ And then the teacher would flip and go from Z to S, so Scott, who was the only Black student in class, always got his slice of pizza last.

At first, Scott says, he thought this was just the teacher’s system. When the same thing happened when the teacher handed out Christmas candy without the class list, Scott said, “‘Of course the Black kid gets the candy last.’ It took me all the strength that I had to say this to my teacher,” he recalls. After back and forth with Scott’s mother, the teacher stopped serving him last, but Scott doesn’t recall anything else officially being done.

Now that they have been representing marginalized students through Students Speak Up YCDSB, Scott said, “I can only imagine the disrespect that’s still going on today, that they’re just ignoring.”

Experiences like Scott’s have been echoed by other students. Since summer, Students Speak Up YCDSB has collected anonymous stories from other students and alumni about racism in elementary and secondary school.

The stories ranged from white teachers saying the N-word and hair touching, to racial profiling in student council and a guidance counsellor not submitting a Black student’s transcripts for their post-secondary application, which co-founder Asha found heartbreaking.

“This is the story of so many other Black students and different racialized students within the board,” Asha said.

In light of a global reckoning on race, many Instagram accounts have cropped up this year allowing students from mostly post-secondary schools in the U.S. and Canada to share stories of discrimination on campus, such as Stolen by Smith and Silenced at Schulich, which were inspired by the Black at Harvard Law account.

Since founding its account, Students Speak Up YCDSB has made demands of the board, including collection of race-based data, a process for evaluating teachers, hiring more Black and racialized staff and mandatory anti-racism training.

Asha said the group had a one-hour meeting with the board a couple of months after starting the account but have not had a response to subsequent letters and emails, which fueled the decision to strike.

In a statement to the Star, the YCDSB said it is “prioritizing and focusing on the elimination of anti-Black racism, and all other inequities that exist in our system.” It noted its Human Rights, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion department established this February is a body to work on creating more equitable environments through nine focus areas, as well as a body through which students and families can have complaints addressed.

For the strike, Students Speak Up YCDSB drafted a letter template for students to use to explain to their teachers why they will be absent from class and the group has organized a virtual community forum and panel discussion featuring Charline Grant, a steering committee member on Parents of Black Children.

This year, Grant became Parents of Black Children’s first systems navigator for York Region school boards, a designated person to help parents and students navigate administrative hurdles when dealing with incidents of racism. Grant and other members of Parents of Black Children attended a meeting with the board with Asha, Eshun and Scott.

“The lack of accountability and the lack of transparency from the York (Catholic) board, and just the dismissal of these students is what’s driving this,” Grant said of the strike. “I’m hoping it will be impactful.”

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star