A group of young Black students want to see changes made in their classroom, but that can be a daunting undertaking when their classmates, teachers and administrators are all predominantly not Black.
Black Youth Empowerment (BYE) is holding its second workshop in BC, including Victoria, that allows Black youth to lead a discussion with those who educate them about how they are taught.
The workshop invites teachers, soon-to-be educators, school district staff, teachers assistants, student counsellors and all other professions who deal in teaching the adults of tomorrow how to navigate educating Black youth.
What and who are BYE
BYE is a group of Black students in Greater Victoria who gather to talk about issues they deal within their classrooms and lives to help each other deal with racism, microaggressions, the burdens that come with being the only Black student in a classroom and how to make meaningful change in their schools and classrooms.
Their first workshop in May of 2022 had 81 attendees from 15 schools across SD61, SD62, SD63 and SD64 from the Vancouver Island Region as well as educators from Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, Langley and even one from Salmon Arm.
BYE is now aiming to make this a bi-annual workshop in an effort to help get real, tangible anti-racism education implemented for the Black youth of today and tomorrow so they can have an easier time in school.
Victoria Buzz spoke with one of the co-founders of BYE and a Black youth who is a 16-year-old student and member of the group to share the experience of Black students attending school now and what types of issues they must deal with day-to-day they’d like to see changed.
The student’s identity will remain anonymous due to possible repercussions on their academic future.
“There are so many teachers who are in the wrong space right now and could really use a group of people to wake something up in them,” the student told Victoria Buzz.
Dr. Lisa Gunderson, co-founder of BYE, echoed the student’s sentiment and shared what she has witnessed in her own lived experiences and now through her teenage son’s perspective as he navigates high school and deals with similar issues she dealt with when she was a youth.
“It’s continuous, that’s the thing that we’ve noticed,” said Dr. Gunderson. “Our youth span different grades and they all have stories [of incidents of racism].”
“We have some of our youth who have incidents in middle school that they still carry with them — what’s sad to me is that I’m 53 and the stories that they’re telling are the ones that I had.”
Some of the things that both the student, their peers and Dr. Gunderson have dealt with in their own experiences in school have been non-Black teachers using the ‘n-word,’ or asking permission to use it, people touching their afro-textured hair without permission, being singled out whenever Black culture comes up and having the burden of upholding Black History Month put entirely onto their shoulders.
On January 23rd, the BC government announced the launch of their new Anti-Racism Action Plan, but since then little has been done by local school districts.
BYE has taken matters into their own hands to make sure that Black experiences and stories aren’t forgotten about.
“I’ve had zero education on Black slavery, like ever,” said the student. “I was talking to other kids in my class and the teacher was like, ‘yeah, that doesn’t exist, we don’t teach that.’”
“History classes are meant to be when you’re in conversation with someone, you know the major events that have taken place — slavery is a big event that took place and if you’re a Canadian student talking to someone, and someone brings that up and you don’t know what it is, that’s quite embarrassing.”
Dr. Gunderson brought up that so much of the content shared with students is entirely dependent on the teacher and what they bring to the table, and it should not be that way.
The student said they do not notice or see much effort in terms of educators bringing anti-racism content or resources to students that are specifically about Black anti-racism.
“Maybe there’s certain teachers who bring certain things in, ones who really care about it,” the student explained.
“The teaching around Indigenous studies is super important and it’s also new, it hasn’t been around for very long, but it feels like there’s this idea that racism towards Black people doesn’t exist in Canada — that racism in Canada is toward Indigenous people and racism in America is towards Black people.”
“There’s still education to be done around both, we don’t need to just pick one or the other.”
BYE’s workshop exists to share with these educators how they can find resources on Black issues and how to teach Black history not only during Black History Month, but year round.
“People always feel like they have to focus on [Black history], as opposed to when you’re teaching math, maybe talk about a Black mathematician,” said Dr. Gunderson. “It doesn’t have to be the lesson there, it’s interweaving us throughout all the different spaces.”
Black-inclusive resources available
There are BC resources available for teachers to learn about anti-Black-racism; however, in many cases educators don’t know they exist.
Some of those resources include: Advocacy on Anti-Black Racism, which is meant for school boards across the province to use as a tool; Black History Month lesson plans which can be taught to several age-ranges of students; and several Black Lives Matter based activities to engage students in conversations about anti-Black-racism which are intended for middle school and high school kids as well as adults.
One of the major issues that Dr. Gunderson highlighted, is that teachers simply don’t have the time to commit to learning these things for themselves, let alone implementing resources into their classrooms.
“The teachers, where do they find the time,” asked Dr. Gunderson. “That’s where you get this inconsistency.”
“They’re supposed to do their job and then on top of that, learn all this stuff but there’s no one for them to call, to reach out to, to learn about this stuff.”
“The Ministry [of Education and Child Care] puts this stuff out there and says, ‘hey, it’s out there,’ and then doesn’t give any support for teachers to actually engage with it on a regular basis and be able to strategize with each other.”
“That’s, to me, hugely problematic.”
What can school districts do better?
Although they were uncertain of where the issues begin and end or who can be the catalyst for change, the student explained what they and their peers would like to see changed going forward in classrooms across BC.
“I think just talking about [Black] history more,” said the student. “Destigmatizng being Black would be really helpful because it’s something we can’t even really talk about.”
“Talking about Indigenous issues made it a lot more open and it’s something people know more about and it’s creating a more anti-racist generation.”
They would like to see the weaving in of Black rights, Black history, racism in Canada and racism in America taught in a general sense, not only in February, and when it comes to Black History Month they would like to not have all the pressure of teaching their classrooms about their own Black experience.
“During things like Black History Month, actually taking the initiative to be like, ‘this is something our school is doing — this isn’t something we’re going to put on the backs of each of the three Black students in the school — we’re going to make this a thing and we’re going to support these three,’ or however many students,” said the student.
“Creating lesson plans that include more diversity and don’t single out the Black students in the class.”
“When teacher do touch on the topic, it’s because they have to and not because they care about the subject, so it doesn’t come with as much power or passion.”
In addition to these actions school districts could take, the student and Dr. GUnderson would like to see more accountability on behalf of the teachers and students for when an act of racism occurs.
The student added that it would be “life-changing” to see people of colour in teaching roles and counsellor roles in their schools administration.
The second BYE workshop is set to take place on February 17th and has over 80 registered already.