Staff and students of Carson Graham Secondary school bore witness to history being made on Monday morning, as the school came together to host its first assembly dedicated to Black History Month.
For over an hour, the assembly traversed the serious and the jovial, education and celebration, as it hosted speakers from various walks of life.
John Nweke of Vancouver’s Anti-Racism Coalition talked on race, racism, slavery and Black history. The school’s choir, led by choral director Frank Lee, came together for song. Afro-Indigenous, hip-hop DJ Orene Askew, or DJ O Show, showed students a documentary that delved into her own history and heritage, before hitting the decks, turning the school hall into a dance floor.
Chanel Stanley, Carson’s Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim (Squamish Language) and social justice teacher and organizer of the event, said she had been spurred on to put the assembly together after witnessing the education system’s lack of multicultural teachings.
“I think what it really came down to was a little bit of my own frustration with the complacency in recognizing the importance of representation and the Black people who are marginalized in our education systems and in our schools,” she said.
Stanley, who is also the teacher sponsor for the school’s Black Youth and Allies Network, said she hopes the assembly with only be the tip of the iceberg, and that soon the curriculum and resources available will be revamped to highlight the stories of all BIPOC communities, and that education, celebration and homage to Black history, leaders and innovators will occur all year round - not simply for the month of February.
Stanley credits Valerie Jacober, the school’s education assistant, as being a driving force behind Carson Graham’s journey to better representation.
Jacober works tirelessly to create the displays that sit in the school’s central hallway, adorned with notes of notable Black Canadian figures and newspaper clippings on Black history from here on the North Shore. Nearby glass display cases are home to exhibits that rotate on a month-by-month basis - when February is over, the displays here will remain.
“When I started working here 11 years ago, there was little in the way of Black History Month, no displays, and so I decided to start building my own movement,” she said.
“I was one of maybe three people of Afro-heritage in the school, and so it just started out with me talking in classrooms about my personal experience, and bringing in guest speakers from the community. Then I started writing announcements, giving a little snippet of Black history every day, and then that evolved into doing this display case.”
Jacober, who was born within the South of the United States, said the Canadian Black experience should be so embedded within the school curriculum that young children are as accustomed to the names of Viola Desmond, the first Black woman to appear on Canadian currency, Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first Black player, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first Black woman to publish a newspaper, as they are the likes of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.
Sanjeet Johal, principal of Seymour Heights Elementary, said educators are looking beyond the curriculum to create a multiracial and multicultural learning environment, whether that be the inclusion of more diverse dolls in kindergarten classes or the implementation of books and resources that reflect different cultures within the libraries.
“I’ve certainly seen an uptick of people wanting to celebrate other cultures and backgrounds,” he said, adding how he has witnessed an eagerness to learn among students just as much as he has a desire to educate among teachers.
With Black History Month at Seymour Heights, it is two Grade 7 students who are the ones leading the conversation. Mitike Steverding and Ima Ogden have been working alongside the founder of the Black History Matters Program, Giselle Clarke-Trenamen, to create displays for the school walls that highlight and celebrate Black Canadians, past and present.
Both Steverding and Ogden have led announcements that share information on Black Excellence Day and Black History Month, and both have also visited the classrooms of their fellow students, to share their own personal stories.
“Some of my classmates don’t really know where I’m from or my background, but I feel like if we taught them more about Black history as a whole then they would have a better understanding of our own individual stories,” said Steverding, who moved to Canada from Ethiopia when she was 10 months old.
Ogden, who moved to Canada from South Africa at two, said she would like to see the movement expand to encompass all minorities. Education, she said, should highlight important Canadians from Black, Asian or Indigenous backgrounds in equal measure.
Above all, there is an onus on teachers to better educate themselves and approach their own work through a more diverse lens.
It is a learning process, but most, locally at least, seem to be stepping up to the plate. Earlier this year Westview Elementary school partnered with Clarke-Trenamen, to create a workshop for staff that would teach them how to go about teaching Black History in a meaningful and genuine way.
“It was a powerful, powerful workshop, with incredible dialogues,” said Rick Chan, the school’s principal.
“She did this presentation and carried out this workshop and then we, as a staff, sat back and thought -'Well, what now? How do we carry this into our school?' We pulled all the relevant resources from the library, tapped into some of the programs and lessons teachers have done in the past, and really thought about what we could do to implement this further into our own teaching experience.”
Chan is a member of the North Vancouver School District’s Equity Leadership Team, a group formed in November dedicated to tackling racism and discrimination within schools.
He joins fellow principals, like Bridget O’Brien-Kopacek, vice-principal of Queen Mary Community Elementary, in working to raise awareness and create resources to improve the schooling experience for racialized students and staff, along with their families and communities.
The concept is still in its beginning stages and so the effects the group has on the local education system is still to be determined, but with the drive of its members to do better, said O’Brien-Kopacek, we can expect to see the tides change within the year.
Change that extends far beyond mere Black History Month events and Indigenous-focused public holidays.
“We really need to get away from ticking boxes, and feeling like this kind of education is an extra, when really the most important part of our work is creating a community that is a safe place for all of our students and staff,” she said. “Especially for the ones that for so long have been on the margins, or othered, or silenced.”
Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.